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The Man Within My Head

ISBN: 
9780307267610

The spirit of Graham Greene whispers through these pages. Pico Iyer is my favorite contemporary travel writer. The Man Within My Head differs from most of his books because he delves more into his own past than usual in this volume, detailing many connections he sees between his own life and that of Greene: they lived near each other in Oxford but never met, and each suffered a major house fire. They also traveled to many of the same places including Viet Nam.

Especially involving are the sections about Pico's childhood. He lived first in Britain, his father having come to England from India as a Rhodes Scholar. He was an only child and some of his earliest memories are stacking magazines with articles by his father. The little Pico loved to arrange them and stare at his Dad's pictures. When he was in grade school both of his famous parents were invited to California to be part of a think tank promoting ways to end violence. Pico tried to be an American student, to wait in the hills for the school bus with his plastic lunchbox, but he soon realized that education in the states did not challenge him. He asked his parents to send him back to England to attend boarding school. Read more »

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

SwamplandiaThe Pulitzer Prizes were awarded this week with the announcement that there will not be a fiction winner for 2012.  This isn't the first time that there was no prize, but the announcement still comes as sort of a shock.  Three finalists had already been announced, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace. 

While Sig Gissler, an administrator for the Pulitzer Prize awards says "it is not a statement about fiction in general -- just a statement about the process", Ann Patchett disagrees.  Patchett who is an author, reader and book store owner wrote an op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the lack of award.  She argues that there were actually many deserving books this year and the excitement created for both readers and sellers of books is something that is desirable and necessary.  Read more »

Good Pop Psych Reads

ISBN: 
9780374275631

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow is still a bestseller and heavily in-demand at the library, after receiving lots of publicity late last year. This exploration of intuitive vs. deliberate thinking makes fascinating points about what motivates decisions both personal and business-related. It's top notch popular psychology, a genre I really love for the way it forces you to examine actions and thoughts that seem simply natural or logical. Here are a few other great examples.

  • Another newish title that's making a splash is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. The subtitle pretty much sums it up. It explores the differences between introverts and extroverts and makes the case for the values of introversion, which are often ignored in a society that holds extroversion to be the ideal.
  • Malcolm Gladwell is a giant in this area. One of his great books is Blink, which, like Kahneman's, uncovers what's really going on in our heads when we make decisions, illuminating everything from how prejudice works to why marriages fail.
  • Oliver Saks, a neurologist, also has several great books. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, for example, demonstrates how complex the brain is by showing how weirdly things can go wrong. It's more neuroscience than psychology, perhaps, but seeing how knocking out one little area can cause hallucinations or destroy one very limited function, is fascinating.
  • Steven Pinker recently wrote a book (The Better Angels of Our Nature) proposing that humans are becoming less violent, but I really like his 2003 book The Blank Slate. It touches on the emerging field of evolutionary psychology, arguing that people aren't born with completely plastic minds, but that we all have certain (possibly very powerful) innate tendencies and capabilities.
  • In The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson teaches us how to spot a psychopath, and finds that, far from being universally confined to mental hospitals, they are all among us--especially, it seems, in the world of business.
  • The Believing Brain takes a critical look at how belief--not just religious, but in general--is formed and reinforced. Michael Shermer argues that it is natural, but that we need to temper such instincts to see the world clearly.
  • Snoop has a fun (and kind of unsettling premise): the things we surround ourselves with and the way we arrange them speak volumes about who we are. Our personalities leak through in what seem like insignificant places.

For more similar books, here's a nice Goodreads list, and a LibraryThing one.

A Partial History of Lost Causes

ISBN: 
9781400069774

There aren't many good novels about chess. A Partial History of Lost Causes is a fabulously good one.  In Jennifer Dubois's debut novel, two chess players from different countries alternate telling their stories until their paths cross in Russia in 2006. 

The first, Aleksandr Bezetov, a child prodigy, moves to St. Petersburg to attend an elite chess school while he is still a teenager. Exceedingly naïve and innocent, he's assigned to a boarding house where prostitutes and a crazy assortment of other Russians live. 

On his first day, while attending a celebration honoring Stalin's memory, he meets two young dissidents who invite him to their gathering spot, Café Saigon. Soon Aleksandr is drawn into a world of samizdat and far-left causes. Read more »

Tinkers by Paul Harding

TinkersWhen Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize, I put it on my to-read list where it lingered for two years.  I had a hard time summoning enthusiasm after reading the description every time I went looking for a book.  A few months ago, I deleted it off my to-read list acknowledging that I would probably never read it.  
Last week I thought I would give it another shot and now I wonder why I waited so long. Paul Harding's first novel sucked me in right from the hallucinatory beginning and I didn't want it to end.  The banalities are such: George is dying and reflective on his life, family and career.  The narrative alternates to a time when George is very young and focuses on his father, a man who ends up being unfairly defined by his grand mal seizures.  In between these paragraphs, there are excerpts from the fictional book called The Reasonable Horologist and other shorter paragraphs that seem nonsensical at first, but end up working at the end.  Time and memories are the main theme and this book has a rural New England setting. Read more »

Split by Avasthi

SplitSome of the best fiction books take a situation of which you have very little first-hand knowledge and through sympathetic characters and solid storytelling create some sort of understanding of what living that life would be like.  Swati Avasthi's first Young Adult novel about domestic violence and abuse, Split, is a great example. Avasthi is able to allow the reader to care about the main character and his struggles with both the violence of his father and the legacy he is hoping to avoid.

Teenage Jace leaves his parents' house with almost nothing after a particularly brutal fight with his father.  He sets off from Chicago with his camera and the New Mexico address of his older brother who disappeared several years earlier.  Jace's brother Christian is less than thrilled to see him with a bruised face despite having come from and escaped the same back ground.  Their transition is rocky and a lesser book would have trivialized this time. Instead their difficulties felt genuine.

Read more »

We Almost Disappear

ISBN: 
9781556593314

April is National Poetry Month. All across this great land, people are celebrating in schools, libraries, galleries, parks, etc. For that reason and also because discovering new poets is just fun, I will be showcasing some new poetry titles this month.

In  We Almost Disappear, David Bottoms writes about the South, childhood, camping and fishing, and aging. Nature features predominately in these poems.  There are also many poems about his childhood, including some lovely ones about his grandparents, his sense of personal history handed down through generations. I found the poems to be calming, beautiful, and full of a deep humanity.  Emotive and rich, they share Read more »

The World of Downton Abbey

ISBN: 
9781608833894

My husband, who seldom brings books home from the library, surprised me recently with this one.  I laughed and said, "I'm not that desperate" but after dinner I found myself browsing through the pictures. But soon I was drawn into the writing.  If you're a Downton Abbey fan, you'll love this book and if not, you'll probably at least sample the series after reading it.

The World of Downton Abbey is a social history of the times--Edwardian England to shortly after World War 1.  In eight essays, Fellowes describes life then.  She also gives an idea of how many people worked in service in those years--more than in farming or mining.  Families would rejoice when a child got hired by a wealthy landowner, especially one as highly regarded as an earl. Not only would the person have a secure job, but the family would no longer have to provide housing, clothing or food as they would have needed to if the person worked as a clerk.

This book is full of interesting facts about working in service at the beginning of the last century. There was a network of downstairs folk who spread news of job openings from place to place and also kept a black-list of rich people who mistreated their help.

Also, covered are corsets--just know you are very lucky to be spared the agony of wearing one. Even Daisy the kitchen maid had to don this straitjacket under her uniform. A woman in those days could not take hers off by Read more »

Bruiser by Neal Shusterman

Book jacket for BruiserWhen I picked up Shusterman's Bruiser, I expected to read a book about an angry kid who taunts and punches away his insecurities. While this book does deal with bullies, Brewster, the character of the title, is almost the opposite of a bully and a bit magical to boot. A hulking and shabbily dressed 16-year-old, Brewster is an outsider who people vote to be the Most Likely to Go to Jail, and generally treat as if he's not there. Which suits him fine, even if he's never stepped on an ant, because he takes on the physical and emotional pain of anyone he gets close to. Read more »

New Tech High School Great American Author Project

New Tech High School logoIn the fall of 2011, Monroe County Public Library asked the students of Rachel Bahr's English and American Studies classes at New Tech High School to consider the "Great American Author." We were interested in getting teens' opinions about what criteria an author has to meet to be included on this rather arbitrary list, whether some authors considered great Americans have aged ungracefully or are no longer relevant, and who should be considered "great" that is not already.

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