Fiction

Problems with People

This is Guterson’s first story collection in nearly twenty years. Ignore the bland title for these stories set in his native Northwest and in foreign countries including Germany, South Africa, and Nepal are muscular, well-written, and anchored with a deep sense of place.  An air of melancholy and of possible tragedy hangs over a few of them, especially two of my favorites, “Pilanesberg” and “Krassavitseh.”

In “Pilanesberg” a brother visits his sister in Africa to go wildlife viewing, but you soon discover that the sister has cancer and her favorite thing to do is “sleep.” They share a wonderful experience viewing big mammals: elephants, tigers, etc. but the trip is marred by the fact that they animals are fenced in, and the couple find themselves at dusk locked in as well.  Next follows a humorous and ludicrous conversation with the gatekeeper who says he cannot let them out.

The Book of Unknown Americans

With immigration a hot button issue both politically and in the news, it was interesting to read Cristina Henriquez’s second novel The Book of Unknown Americans. It tells the stories of various immigrants (from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries) who have all landed in Delaware.

The book opens with a family’s arrival at night from the border. A paid driver has brought Arturo, Alma, and their daughter Maribel to this immigrant enclave outside of Dover.  They are legal immigrants given papers to work on a mushroom farm.  Or at least Arturo will work there. They have come primarily to get special schooling for 15 year old Maribel who fell off a ladder at her father’s construction site in Mexico and has brain damage.

The story of this family is the heartwood of the novel. But woven in are life stories of other immigrants including a boxer, who came to the states to win matches but became instead a landlord, and an actress who worked hard to make it in New York City, but came to Delaware and formed her own theatre. 

This beautiful books gives you a feel of how hard it is to start life over in a new place, not understanding the language or culture.  It also explores issues of guilt and secrecy, and how they affect even the strongest of marriages.

All the Light We Cannot See

A blind French girl. A brilliant German boy.  A locksmith who works at a world-class museum. A French resistance worker who doubles as a housewife. An agoraphobic great uncle who has not left home since the close of the last war, WW1.  A Nazi army gem expert who prowls after a world-class jewel that he believes will cure his advanced cancer.

These are the main characters that people this fascinating WWII novel.  Tying them all together are radio signals and a blue diamond worth millions.

The novel alternates (mostly) between the points of view of Marie-Laure, a blind girl and Werner, an orphan who teaches himself advanced radio skills. Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six.  Just after the German occupation,  she and her locksmith father flee Paris, but soon after the Germans take and imprison her father.

A myth surrounds the blue diamond itself.  Marie-Laure learned about the diamond early in her life. The myth says that anyone who carries it will have bad luck befall them. Unfortunately, the museum director entrusts the locksmith with this diamond as the Germans enter Paris. He also ordered two other duplicates created to confuse anyone trying to track the diamond. None of the three employees trusted with the diamond know who has the real one.

Booksplus Discussion, Sunday June 1: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

In the first hundred pages of this novel, Ursula Todd, its heroine, lives and dies at least six times. Once she dies in childbirth, another time she falls off her own roof, having chased a sibling’s favorite toy, and a third time she dies of influenza. This alternative history novel, although innovative in form, is rich in storytelling particularly about life at the beginning of the last century and during World Wars I and II. Ursula’s intelligent and perceptive take upon the world makes captivating reading. 

New York Times reviewer, Janet Maslin, called Life after Life "a big book that defies logic, chronology and even history in ways that underscore its author's fully untethered imagination."

Publishers Weekly described the book this way, “through Ursula’s many lives and the accretion of what T.S. Eliot called visions and revisions, she’s found an inventive way to make both the war’s toll and the pull of alternate history, of darkness avoided or diminished, fresh.

Atkinson is not afraid to take risks including using Adolph Hitler as a walk-on character in this book—in fact he’s responsible for one of Ursula’s many deaths.

Please join us for a book talk about this intriguing book this Sunday, June 1st at 2pm. All are welcome. We will meet in Room 2B. For more information about this and future Booksplus programs, please follow the link.

Children's Book Week, Then and Now

2014Children'sBookWeek_thenTo celebrate Children’s Book Week this year, we’re reflecting on some of the favorite books we read as kids. We may not remember all the details of stories read decades ago, but there are images, passages, and feelings that have stuck with us through the years. Interesting to note that many of the titles we chose as our favorite childhood reads, are books that were first published before we were born. So who turned us on to these memorable stories? A parent? A teacher? A librarian? Do you find any of your childhood favorites among the ones we feature here?

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My Side of the Mountain initially interested me because I always loved nature and animals. While reading it, I remember feeling empowered and inspired to imagine that I, just a child, could live in the wilderness on my own. – Kathy

Harriet in Harriet the Spy seemed real to me - not as chirpily cheerful or melodramatically tragic as many other child characters in books I was reading. She didn't always say or do the right thing, and she was nosy and selfish - but she mostly redeemed herself in the end. I could relate to her imperfections! – Ellen

I loved the Little House series because of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s descriptions of pioneer life and the warmth of her family. My grandparents lived on a rustic farm with cows, pigs, chickens, and a protective border collie named Shep. The Little House books kept me connected to my grandparents on that farm, even though I lived in a city far away. - Mary

As a young girl who loved animals, but especially horses, Black Beauty became one of my all-time favorite books. A fictional autobiographical memoir told from the point of view of a horse, the story describes Black Beauty's difficulties and experiences with humans, who often failed to recognize the unconditional love and loyalty that he was so willing to share. This book gave me a sense of responsibility, respect and compassion for all living creatures. I found it sad, hopeful, and in the end, comforting. – Janet

Ballet Shoes was an oasis for me as a young ballet student. Each of the young protagonists (Pauline, Petrova, and Posy) were able to follow their passions, with the support of a collection of knowledgeable and caring adults who understood the importance of having Big Dreams. The urban London setting was thrilling - and the European characters inhabiting the book made me eager to reach out and explore the world. I can’t help but think this book planted the seed for all the wonderful experiences I’ve had in life, thus far. I’ve travelled overseas, performed professionally in the theater, and now support the Big Dreams of my own children (which currently include being superhero millionaires who do charity work)! – Christina

As a child, I loved camping with my family and spending time by the water. The idea of suddenly finding myself alone on an island was both thrilling and terrifying. I admired Karana’s courage and tenacity and wondered if I could have managed to survive on my own as she had. Island of the Blue Dolphins also gives a personal perspective on living in and out of sync with the ebb and flow of nature. As an adult, I have experienced several island camping adventures, satisfying my desire to enjoy time by the water. But I was content that I did not have to hunt any further than my backpack to find my own food. – Lisa

Watership Down is a mixture of the best elements from The Wind in the Willows and The Odyssey. Since reading it at age 11, I haven't been able to look at hedges, meadows or overgrown alleyways without wondering what sort of tiny, cosmic dramas are unfolding beyond our vision. Truly inspiring. (Because of Watership Down, I got a cool looking rabbit on my arm as my first tattoo when I was 21.) – Josh

I read Little Women several times between the ages of 9 -11 . Growing up with lots of cousins, most of whom were female, I found it easy to identify with Jo March and her family. Plus, the story has some sadness, romance and drama! This book made me an avid reader. – Pat.

I think the idea of private spaces with little adult interference, like the ones in The Secret Garden or The Boxcar Children, is super appealing to kids. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house in the country with lots of land and tree cover perfect for creating little hideouts. So the idea of discovering and cultivating a secret garden was both relatable and compelling to me. – Aubrey

A Tale for the Time Being

This cross-cultural gem of a novel tells the story of two women: one, Nao, a young Japanese schoolgirl; the other, Ruth, a middle-aged writer who lives in a rainforest town near Vancouver, Canada. Their lives intersect when Nao’s Hello Kitty lunchbox lands as jetsam on the beach of the tiny town. Inside are letters, a WW II kamikaze wristwatch and most precious, Nao’s diary, wrapped in layers and layers of plastic bags, so it is entirely legible.

The story is told in alternating voices. One belongs to the trendy, irrepressible, somewhat risqué and thoroughly jaded Nao who is bullied in school and mocked as an immigrant from America (she spent most of her childhood in California). The other belongs to Ruth who incidentally has the same first name as the author. Ruth has moved to Canada from another island town, New York City, because her husband loved the peacefulness of life in rural Canada and had major health issues. Also, Ruth brought her aged mother there to die.

Ruth is fascinated by the diary. Because she is suffering from writer’s block on her new novel, she totally immerses herself in the diary and in trying to track down Nao. Did Nao’s diary begin its journey in the destruction and flooding caused by the great Japanese tsunami of March 2011?

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