Monday night’s Book Chat was an immensely enjoyable hour and a half. Five of us (one librarian, four library users) talked about our favorite books in many genres, giving and receiving suggestions. Our conversation is summarized below; click on a book’s title to see the book in the library catalog.
Next month’s Book Chat is Wednesday, February 11, from 3-4pm in the Robbins Library Conference Room; the theme is “love.”
Death of an Expert Witness, P.D. James is “perfectly plotted, each character is believable”; see also Death Comes to Pemberley (Pride & Prejudice tie-in!) and Children of Men (made into a movie) by the same author. Speaking of books made into movies, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was a suspenseful thriller successfully adapted to the screen. The double unreliable narrator situation creates many unexpected twists and turns. (Note: not a good first date movie.) For a lighter mystery series, try Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, featuring fiery, feisty 11-year-old protagonist Flavia de Luce, amateur scientist with a special interest in poison (and an amateur detective as well) in 1950s England. A couple decades later, also in England, Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories is a psychologically gripping mystery: private detective Jackson Brodie investigates two apparently unrelated cases that turn out to be connected. (Atkinson’s a genre-hopper; see also Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Life After Life.)
Terry Pratchett’s long-running Discworld series came highly recommended for its creativity, humor, and social commentary (The Color of Magic is the first, Raising Steam the 40th and most recent). Stephen King’s The Cell features an attack through cell phones; it’s got a compelling main character and, at about 350 pages, is one of King’s more reasonable-length novels.
Ahab’s Wife – “everyone knows Ahab” – had a lot of time to herself – what was she up to? This novel by Sena Jeter Naslund borrows from Melville’s Moby-Dick world to imagine another part of the story. Another novel that borrows from an established fictional world – in this case, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women – is March by Geraldine Brooks, which features the absent father, Captain March, off fighting the Civil War. March won the Pulitzer Prize, and speaking of prize winners, Halldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955; try Independent People, but don’t feel bad if you don’t finish it. While we’re in Iceland, though, you might like Hannah Kent’s novel Burial Rites, based on a real murder trial from 1829; the audiobook version, read by Rebecca Lowman, is marvelous. Hopping from Iceland to Denmark (and from historical fiction back to suspense/mystery), Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg comes highly praised.
Disasters (natural and otherwise) at Sea
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger was un-put-down-able, the true tale of a fishing boat that disappeared in a storm in October 1991; this is nonfiction that reads like a novel (it has also been made into a movie). Speaking of maritime disasters, Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson delves once again into that fascinating wreck; the author includes primary source documents like letters that survivors sent from the rescue ship, the Carpathia. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan is another tale of survivors, this time examining the moral dilemmas that arise when passengers share a lifeboat with limited resources and no certainty of rescue. And when the ocean breaks the levees? Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink examines in close detail Hurricane Katrina’s effect on a New Orleans hospital.
Thought Experiments (Nonfiction and more sci-fi/fantasy)
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman takes readers on a tour of the world without humans: what would happen if we all disappeared? (Hint: stone houses would hold up well; bridges would be the first structures to crumble.) Novelists are also drawn to what-if scenarios; see John Barnes’ Daybreak series, starting with Directive 51. Another example, The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, imagines a world overrun with “hungries” after a species-jumping parasite wreaks havoc on most of the world’s population. For a zombie novel from the zombie’s point of view, try Breathers by S.G. Browne; Browne’s other novels, Fated and Lucky Bastard, also take unique perspectives. For more tongue-in-cheek fantasy/sci-fi, see Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job for a satirical look at the vampire genre, set in San Francisco, or Simon Rich’s What in God’s Name, in which the fate of humanity rests in the hands of a single lowly angel. Or, for a more realistic and paranoia-inducing vision of the future, try Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (and sequel, Homeland, not to be confused with the TV show), in which a terrorist attack brings a privacy-destroying crackdown from the Department of Homeland Security.
Memoir and Biography
Ruth Reichl has written several memoirs, but Garlic and Sapphires, about her time as a restaurant critic for the New York Times, might be her best: she details all the disguises she used and the personas she invented, as well as behind-the-scenes gossip from the newspaper. Another favorite memoir/history/Pulitzer Prize winner is former publisher of the Washington Post Katherine Graham’s Personal History. Recommended to those in the helping professions as “one of the most important books I have ever read,” I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes is Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer’s story of how she learned to communicate despite cerebral palsy; it’s a profound story and one that reminds readers not to make assumptions about other people.
For a wonderfully rich novel about a girl with CP – and a boy with OCD – try Cammie McGovern’s Say What You Will, one of the standout YA novels of last year. For a sci-fi take on “locked-in syndrome,” pick up John Scalzi’s Lock In. For a personal/journalistic take on the culture clash between Eastern and Western treatment of epilepsy, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman is a must-read.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald is delightfully clever; Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has the solution to every child’s problem, from picky eaters to non-bathers, and there’s a moral to every story.
Betty Bunny by Michael B. Kaplan, illustrated by Stephane Jorisch: Betty Bunny is “fresh.”
Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser: Nancy is fancy, from her glittery accessories to her vocabulary.
The BFG by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake: the Big Friendly Giant goes around at night blowing sweet dreams into children’s heads.
All-time favorite (your “desert island” book)
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is “wonderful, fun, and serious,” providing as much enjoyment on the tenth read as the first.
→ See also Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James and Longbourn by Jo Baker
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is an epic love story between artist Clare and librarian Henry, who is a time traveler; they never know when he will disappear, where he’ll go, or when he’ll be back.
→ See also Me Before You by Jojo Moyes and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman has romance, suspense, and a dash of magical realism.
“If everything around me were to be taken away and diminished, the last thing I’d want to have taken away from me is reading…I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have reading.”
-A book chat participant
We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (Joan Didion)