I am particularly interested in books in the following categories:
- Historical fiction
- Foodie lit or foodie memoir
- Historical mystery or forensic-based mystery
- Extremely well-written YA genre fiction (no vampire romance or dystopia, please!)
If I request a specific title, I will do my best to review it in a timely manner. I will review books outside of the above criteria at my discretion.
Thank you so much for keeping me Surrounded By Books
There’s something so satisfying about a book grabbing my attention, luring me in to its world and its characters, taking me wholly out of my head for a while. I also love the satisfaction of turning the last page, having gobbled the book all up. Yes, it can be bittersweet to leave the world and characters behind, but the feeling of having completed the book balances it out. I think tracking my book finishing as a mode of consumption, using things like Dewey’s Readathon or even the yearly list on GoodReads, with or without a charity element, contribute to the mindset of a finished book as an accomplishment.
That warm, fuzzy finished-book feeling has been in short supply of late. I’m fairly sure that I had the thought last semester, wistfully, about making a giant dent in my TBR pile upon graduation. Cue the (only slightly hysterical) laughter.
I have bookmarks in about three different books right now. One of which is the ever-present Sherlock Holmes anthology, which is really just beyond my mental range right now. I keep picking mysteries, science fiction, even the usually reliable YA up, paging through a few sentences, and wandering off. It’s frustrating, because I very much want the sweet, soothing power of lingering over a good book. And… not even short stories are doing it for me at the moment. I just don’t have the cerebral juice to tackle my TBR pile. (My Netflix queue of silly crime drama, on the other hand…)
Probably I shouldn’t be surprised. I landed myself an astonishingly awesome project (more on that later, she said mysteriously) right at the end of January, and as I dig deeper into it, I very much have the feeling of still being in school. Especially with the deadline looming. Whee!
But, since I’m not technically in school, it took a while to dawn on me. I’m still reading about libraries and learning and writing like a student… so I should keep reading my genre fiction like one. Bring on the YA fantasy. Bring on the small wholesome towns that seem unstuck in time. Bring on the mysteries that zoom along with more verve than violence. And for now, shelve the rest.
And pass the coffee, this former student has some writing to finish.
One of these days/weeks/months/years… I will read Gotham. Really, I will.
Today’s Booking Through Thursday is a good one:
Do you prefer to read collections that are all of works by the same author? Or collections by different writers? Consistency or variety?
Good question. For me, the type or overarching theme of the collection and what I’m in the mood to read are going to be more of the deciding factors in what anthology or literary magazine I decide to pick up, rather than the authorship of the collection. If I’m in the mood for spooky short stories, I’ll pick up an anthology by Neil Gaiman, for example. And I’ll probably be equally happy reading Fragile Things (all Gaiman stories) or Unnatural Creatures, an anthology he recently edited. Same is true when I’m in the mood for essays: It will usually be about the thematic topic, whether one author or many. I need to seek out more collections of foodie memoir/essay, because my appetite for them (yes, yes I did) is basically insatiable. I can’t possibly have read all of what’s out there. For science fiction and fantasy, I know I enjoy both multi-author collections and single author collections of stories. I have a couple of short story collections by Connie Willis that I really like, though I don’t consider her a good idea to read all at one sitting because her screwball whimsy gets a little similar after one or two stories in a row.
I always feel like I should read, and ideally like The Best American anthologies of whatever topic. I think various well-meaning people have given me The Best American Poetry and I tend to find the poetry alienating and no fun. Prickly and depressing. The fiction too. I don’t like the way the New Yorker does fiction either. A lot of people drinking wine and talking about people and writers like them and affairs and hating each other in beautiful apartments.
I haven’t decided where poetry fits in this categorization. I hadn’t thought of a book by just one poet, like, say Billy Collins, in the same mindset as a collection of stories or essays. but I guess it is a collection, and sometimes an entire collection, selected from various works over the course of the poet’s life, to mark how their craft has transformed and evolved. Whether I read a collection of poems by one author, or an anthology of different poets, I’m going to dip in and out and browse out of sequence. Any anthology is more going to be something that I read in a browsing mode, rather than reading sequentially. That’s why reading poetry on the Kindle really bugs me. Lack of ability to browse. There’s also the fact that the formatting and line breaks seem to get weird, inevitably and the formatting gets all strange.
But not all anthologies of multiple authors or poets are created equal. I’m definitely not a fan of the Best American anthologies in any form. My very favorite anthology series is Poetry 180, edited by Billy Collins. Any time I browse through the pages, I find a poet I already know and like, such as Ted Kooser, Carol Ann Duffy, Stephen Dobyns, or Thomas Lux, or make a new discovery to pursue, like Naomi Shihab Nye, or Charles Simic. Not altogether sure what I’m reacting to when I like those anthologies and like others less so. The sensibility of the poetry that unifies both Billy Collins’s own, concrete language, warmth in the writing style? Who knows? I wish there were more anthologies in the 180 series. In the hopes of finding a similar collection, I picked up Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times, but I think my sense of his personality has fed what I think about his poetry choices. It’s all very Lake Woebegone, where the hoary, homey, vaguely plaid wool upholstery and doilies go, hearing Keillor’s voice in my head as I read. The poetry winds up feeling fusty and not so modern. I strongly suspect I’m selling it short, and should revisit Keillor’s picks.
All of this leads me to daydream: what would I put in a collection, if I were editing? I’m ashamed to admit, I’m probably not widely read enough to do it justice.
This is the second installment of book recommendations from my friend Russ. Part 1 can be found here.
Thanks again, Russ!
The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins. Sometimes embedded, sometimes one his own, sometimes sleeping under a dusty coat rack in the blown-out remains of the Lower Manhattan Century 21 on the night of September 11th, Filkins has been covering conflict and the Middle East forever in the New York Times. Largely a collection of essays about his time covering the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, it also jumps back to his time covering them before most Americans could find them on a map. His then-and-now perspective, coupled with spending much of his time among civilians make the book an important record of how war affects those adjacent to it more than the combatants. Anyone who reads and loves Junger’s War (which can be over-simplified to “War is risky, but it’s the ultimate male-bonding exercise!”) should follow it immediately with The Forever War as a reminder that someone has to clean up when the shooting is over.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson. Teeters, rum-soaked and acid-addled, on the line between literary non-fiction/memoir and fiction. With names changed to protect the inspiring identities, two characters resembling Rolling Stone journalist Hunter Thompson and respected Chicano advocate and lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta spend a couple of weekends in Las Vegas. Thompson is supposed to be on assignment and Acosta is trying to get a break from the strife engulfing the Chicano movement in LA, but both use the trip as an excuse to get twisted on any vile substance they get their hands on. Ether binges at the Circus Circus, acid trips in a Mint Hotel bathtub, smoking hash in the back row of a Debbie Reynolds stage show, all while bemoaning the loss of the energy that fueled the 60s counterculture, and the conservatism on the horizon as Nixon’s star rises in the early 70s. The stoner kids will find it on their own, so recommend it to kids who are sick of what’s getting assigned in English class.
Bringing Down The House, by Ben Mezrich. Nonfiction … or maybe not so much. Mezrich gets approached by an MIT grad named Kevin at a party. Aware of his own reputation as a writer, Mezrich is really tired of people telling him, “I’ve got an interesting story for you,” and expects Kevin to do the same. He does, then drops a neatly-wrapped stack of hundred-dollar-bills on the counter. It is half Kevin’s story of going from a bored nerd at MIT to flying to Vegas every weekend with fake IDs, staying in lavish suites and raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars at the blackjack tables. The other half is Kevin teaching Mezrich how to count cards and sneak large amounts of legal but undeclared cash through airport security. Several figures given pseudonyms in the book, including Kevin himself, have come forward to allege events were composited, mis-ordered, or entirely fabricated, so the veracity of the book is at best open to debate (more details here). Still a damn good read, recommend it to smart teens with a healthy sense of mischief. (Note from Elizabeth: I agree! This book is great fun!)
Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, by Bryan Burrough. A detailed history of Depression Era gangsters and the growth they spurred in the FBI. John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, the Barker Gang, Bonnie & Clyde. Their bank robberies, car chases, and kidnappings are exploited by J. Edgar Hoover to turn himself into America’s top lawman and the FBI into America’s Police Force. Painfully well-researched and written like an epic novel, Burrough leaves nothing out and puts more information in the footnotes alone than some text books put in all their pages. The pinnacle of crime writing, recommend it to anyone who likes gangster movies and/or history.
Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese. It’s narrated by one of a set of twin brothers who grow up as the adopted children of two Indian doctors living and working at a small hospital in Ethiopia in the 1950s. The twins complicated birth killed their mother and drove away their grief-stricken father, the hospital’s only surgeon. Their childhood is marked by tragedy and increasingly chaotic politics, until the narrator is forced to flee Ethiopia’s dictatorial government. He attends medical school abroad, becoming a surgeon himself and is reunited with his estranged father by chance. Written with poetic beauty, the book touches on forgiveness, coming-of-age, family and cultural histories, and Verghese’s philosophy on how to be a good doctor. Recommend it to anyone who might considering a career in medicine or loves deeply human stories. I was turned on to it by a friend who just finished med school and wants to move to Cambodia.
Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. New York in the 1970s, turbulent and busy and strange. Everything stops for a minute when residents see a man tight-rope walking between the newly-built Twin Towers. Inspired by but fictionalized distinctly from Phillipe Petite’s real-life tight-rope walk, McCann weaves together the stories of several New Yorkers who see the walk, and the various meanings they take away from it. One of the most beautifully-written books I’ve ever read, he manages to write across multiple characters in the first-person with unique, believable voices for a moving and human narrative. Recommend it to anyone who likes Cutting For Stone. I wrote a nice note in my copy and gave it to Dr. Cambodia.
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett. Snarky ex-private detective and snarky socialite wife insist they’re not trying to solve the disappearance of an acquaintance. No one believes them, so they start investigating because what the hell. The jokes hold up 80 years later and Nick and Nora’s banter still feels fresh. I recommend it to anyone who likes good detective stories and wise-assery. Good introduction to Hammett for people who like Chandler, but without the stuffy morality that weighs down Chandler.
Invisible Monsters, Fight Club, and Survivor, all by Chuck Palahniuk. I debated whether or not to include these, and ended up deciding the more the merrier. Invisible Monsters is about a model who tries to rip herself away from the self-destructive narcissism of the fashion world. Fight Club is about guy who feels neutered by the modern world and finds empowerment by organizing the eponymous club. Survivor is the story of the last remaining member of a suicide cult who becomes a self-help guru. But then they’re also Chuck Palahniuk books, so everything flies out of control in the most spectacularly insane ways possible. Later books of his use the same extreme story-telling, but suffer from less interesting themes or pseudo-philosophizing. They are, however, never dull or uninteresting. Books for the disaffected teen in your library, looking for something to fill the void left by finishing Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.
Russ Voss is a New York/New Jersey-based photographer and printer who loves fencing, movies, and all things creative. He should be a more voracious reader than he is, but he’s working on it.
The following is Part 1 of a guest post from my friend Russ Voss, sharing a selection of the books he recommends the most often. It will continue tomorrow in Part 2. Thanks, Russ!
One of the great joys of the library is finding wonderful things you never knew existed instead of just being reassured that the classics are classics for a reason.
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. Simon shadows detectives from Baltimore’s homicide unit for one year. He chronicles the murders they work, the interdepartmental politics they suffer, and the diseased sense of humor that keeps them sane. Immensely perceptive, the book gets deep in the minds of the cops, showing their attitudes and approach to investigations, all using their own grandiose, self-aware, wise-ass language. Good for the kind of people who leave Law & Order, CSI, or NCIS on in the background. Also good for fans of The Wire, but they’re probably smart enough to find it on their own. Anyone who loves Richard Belzer’s omnipresent Detective Munch will enjoy his real-life inspiration, Detective Sergeant Jay Landsman.
Dispatches, by Michael Herr. Herr’s memoirs of his time as a correspondent covering the Vietnam War. From the not-quite-deep-enough bunkers of Khe Sanh to press conferences where smiling PR guys insisted that the bunkers were just fine for our boys, and they’ll be home by Christmas, too! The insanity and brutality of war one journalist witnessed with a haze of hash and opium smoke. Recommend it to anyone who likes Tim O’Brien or rents Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now regularly. Herr’s world-weary, erudite-stoner, stream-of-consciousness narration is the backbone of Apocalypse Now, and a number of stories from Dispatches made it into Full Metal Jacket.
The Martian, by Andy Weir. Mark Watney is screwed: Six days into the third manned mission to Mars, a dust-storm scrubbed the mission and hit him with a radio antenna as he made for the escape vehicle. The rest of the crew thinks he’s dead, the radio is out, and his supplies won’t last till the next Mars mission could pick him up… if news of his death doesn’t end the Mars mission program entirely. Presented as his diary of his time on Mars, Wantey tries to keep the base functioning, signal to Earth, survive and stay sane. Watney is acutely aware of how dire his situation is, but refuses to give up, and snarks his way through every problem. It’s also nearly flawless in its presentation of inter-planetary travel and NASA gear. Almost everything described in the book is possible with current technology and Weir has a gift for describing complex gadgets, systems, and problems in a way that anyone can understand. Careful with recommending this one to the anyone below high-school level. It’s accessible to a smart middle-schooler, but there’s a lot of profanity.
Big Trouble by Dave Barry. The story of a suitcase nuke stolen by a couple of idiots who don’t realize they stole a suitcase nuke. And activated it. Barry jumps between the perspective of several main characters whose stories end up becoming intertwined by personal relationships and proximity to the bomb. It’s a comedic thriller with a tremendous sense of place. Barry had been a reporter for the Miami Herald for years by the time he wrote this, and reveled in the truly bizarre stories that only seem to happen in South Florida. Barry infuses the whole book with the region’s gleeful weirdness. Heavily inspired my sense of humor. Recommend it to anyone who takes out a lot of Carl Hiaasen books and begins to notice they all have suspiciously similar characters and plots.
More books tomorrow in Part 2.
Katherine Tegan Books, 400 pages
(got an advance review copy from the Book Expo)
I can see definite comparisons to Freaky Friday in this solid middle grade novel. Ellie and Jack are both having a rough time in middle school. She has Mean Girl evil frenemies. He has a dad who pushes military levels of hard discipline on him and his brothers playing hockey. As the terrible day they’re each having lands them in the nurse’s office… they get a chance at some perspective. By switching bodies, somehow. And so Ellie-in-Jack suddenly has brothers and a shouting, militaristic Dad making her run miles and do push ups before breakfast… and Jack-in-Ellie’s perspective on dealing with the Mean Girl clique is refreshing.
I think a lot of the publicity and cover copy that focuses on the hockey and the slumber parties to play up the gender comedy of Ellie and Jack’s switched lives honestly sells the character development short. The chapters alternate between her head and his, to really see them articulate their own experiences as observers in each other’s lives. And the emotions seem real, and told in a balanced, smart way.
Zac and Mia
(review copy from the Book Expo)
I imagine this book is going to get compared to The Fault in Our Stars, because the two central characters have cancer. And because their banter and their quirks fly in the face of the maudlin story that a “cancer book” about “cancer kids” could tell.
I liked the side details of the farm where Zac lives- with the alpacas and the incursions of baby kangaroos, and his sister Bec.
I’m definitely not the book’s target audience, being some [redacted] amount of years older than Zac and Mia. And some of their narration and their choices made me cringe in a remembering-being-a-teenager way. Which just tells me the author got it right.
What is it about the appeal of cancer in YA? The Teen With Cancer has come a long way since I was reading Lurlene McDaniel in my own teenage years. The dialogue has certainly improved. I have a deep and abiding hatred of hospitals, and even I succumb to a teen-with-cancer book.
I Kill The Mockingbird
Roaring Book Press
A really fun little middle grade novel about three best friends, hashtags and a bookstore. Over the course of the summer, Lucy, Elena and Michael make a pact to draw more attention to the book To Kill a Mockingbird, to honor the memory of a beloved English teacher. They launch a goofy project combining Twitter hashtags and altogether clever uses of social media, with a stunt that’s sort of a prank, sort of a demonstration, sort of a crime but not really? I liked that the kids were quirky and very much themselves without it feeling forced. It’s a tiny, fast read of a novel, especially for someone older than the target audience. Although they got a lot done, with the friendship dynamics, and even some parent dynamics for Lucy, I was left feeling like the details of character had been rushed. (There was something about Elena alluded to from her past that left me feeling perplexed and kind of voyeuristically nosy for wanting to have it explained.)