I’ve been on a historical fiction kick lately. I recently read Fever by Mary Beth Keane and Mary Coin by Marisa Silver, both new books (released in March of this year). Both books were highly enjoyable – fairly quick reads, but interesting looks at the times in which they are set.

Fever by Mary Beth Keane

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Typhoid Mary was a cook, and passes the sickness along in her cooking. When she’s confronted by doctors who tell her she must stop cooking for people, she just can’t stay away. Cooking for others is what she does best; it’s who she is. What do you do when the one thing that makes you complete can potentially kill someone else? Who are you if you can’t do what you are seemingly born to do?  

Fever is the story of Typhoid Mary. I read about it in the New York Times book review, and it sounded interesting. I’d heard of Typhoid Mary, but didn’t know much else, other than she was someone who got a lot of people sick. The book relies on the facts we know about her life, then imagines the rest, filling in details and conversations and motivations, in a pretty convincing story. The book is not just a portrait of a woman who can’t understand why she’s being picked on by doctors, it’s about self-delusion, denial and taking responsibility for your own actions.

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Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

Recognize the picture on the book cover? It’s an iconic image of depression-era America, taken by Dorothea Lange, of a migrant worker and her children in the mid-1930s.

Marisa Silver has created a wonderfully powerful story surrounding this image – from the present day descendant of the owner of the farm this woman worked, to the woman who took the photograph, to the migrant worker, Mary Coin.

Silver has imagined their lives, both separately – each character fully drawn in its own right – and intertwined – she connects the stories cleverly.

I also read about this book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. I have a B&W postcard with this picture printed on it, from a collection of iconic images of America. I put them all up on a wall in an apartment I used to have – it was a cool wall o’ images; it made me happy whenever I looked it at. So, when I saw this picture was used on a book jacket, despite its being in color, I felt that I just HAD to read it. I didn’t necessarily like the cover image, or the font the title was in…

Actually, for both of these books, I wouldn’t have picked them up because of the cover art – it just doesn’t appeal to me. If it weren’t for reading about them in the Book Review, I wouldn’t have been interested in them. Luckily for me, I did read the reviews and was intrigued enough to give them each a chance. I’m glad I did – I really enjoyed both of these novels, for their characters and the stories woven around them.

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Last week was a big week for libraries in Connecticut. We had our “Snapshot Day” last Tuesday – a day where libraries across CT get to share a day in the life of their library. We collected our regular usage stats (how many items checked in & out; how many reference questions asked, etc), as well as comments and pictures, all to show you and others a typical day at the Blackstone Library!

You can see some great pictures of people using the library as well as some wonderful comments from our members in the slideshow below!

Last week was also National Library Week – a chance to celebrate libraries and showcase all we have to offer. The theme for this year was Communities Matter @ Your Library. And Branford, you matter to us!

The public library is a reflection of the community it’s a part of. And we are you – a perfect combination of historic elegance and new technologies. We do our best to provide excellence to you – in our collection, in our service, & in our programming – but we don’t do it in a vacuum. We’re listening to you, Branford, and want to hear what you have to say. You matter to us, we couldn’t do what we do without you. So, thank you Branford, & we hope to see you real soon!

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Amor fati is a notion that comes up again and again in Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Life After Life. It’s the idea of loving one’s fate, of learning who one is, knowing yourself, and embracing your self, your destiny, for better or worse. The entire novel, really, is about that very idea, and it’s exemplified through the tales told in each chapter.

When I first heard Kate Atkinson had a new book, I  was excited, had to read it!  … But then I read on Goodreads what it was about, and the description of it sounded like something I wouldn’t like at all:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways.

Oh. That sounds awful.

But I got the book anyway, from the library (placed a hold and it came in really quickly for me – love the LION libraries!), and jumped in. The thing about Kate Atkinson is, her story-telling capabilities are so fully developed, her words are so full of life and her almost tactile phrasings clamber off the page. Her words are delicious, her characters are people I feel like I know or want to know. So, despite my doubts about that description, I truly enjoyed the book. I feel more grounded and appreciative of the people in my life, the choices I’ve made, the good and bad – it all serves to make me, me.

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I first read Kate Atkinson right after my daughter was born. I’d sit and rock and read, and the little babe would sleep in my arms. They were peaceful, lovely moments, and Kate Atkinson’s book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was a perfect accompaniment to them.

The first line in the book is “I exist!” Reading that as I gazed down at my newborn forged such a strong feeling of friendly co-conspiracy with the author, I felt like I had a wise, all-knowing-but-full-of-faults friend sitting with me. Atkinson did not fail me in any of her subsequent books, and with this latest one, she underscores her understanding of and love for humans, with all their strengths and all their weaknesses.

Alas, poor Hamlet… I thought I knew him, Horatio. But I guess I didn’t. It seems Hamlet is actually about 45 years old, balding, and likes red sneakers.

Disappointingly, the real Paul Giamatti did NOT have a wine store flyer popping out of his head.

Disappointingly, the real Paul Giamatti did NOT have a wine store sign coming out of his head.

I got the chance to see Paul Giamatti play Hamlet at the Yale Rep Theater this week. He was really good at being the young/not-so-young prince. He gave the character of Hamlet life, and made me remember how many phrases Shakespeare’s play has contributed to our culture:

‘the quick and the dead’

‘infinite jest’

‘to thine own self be true’

‘the lady doth protest too much’

‘sweets to the sweet’

There’s so much more – basically, the entire play will be familiar to you, even if you’ve never heard/read/seen it. It’s a long play – this one stayed faithful to the text, and ran about 3 1/2 hours.

It dragged in some parts (any time Paul Giamatti or the enjoyable Polonius wasn’t onstage). Unfortunately, while Giamatti became Hamlet and gave him richness and depth, the rest of the cast seemed to rush through their lines, almost just saying something until it was time for Giamatti to speak again.

It was definitely worth watching – the play alone is soo good, and Giamatti was a wonderful Hamlet. I do wish the King and Queen had taken more time with their lines, given them a more natural pace, with more natural speech. They have important things to say, but it was hard to be drawn in when they were speaking – I believed Giamatti was Hamlet. Not so much with the King and Queen.

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My favorite Shakespeare play is “Romeo & Juliet.” I was once asked what book I’d give to an alien newly arrived on Earth – something that would tell them about the human race. I took a minute to think, and my answer was: Romeo & Juliet. And I still think that’s true – it has love, hate, confusion, fighting, embracing, pettiness, and honesty. It’s sad and funny and happy and bitter. I actually recommended it to a friend’s 12-year-old daughter this week, and the girl is loving it, apparently. My work here is done.

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A recent book called “How Shakespeare Changed Everything” by Stephen Marche is a really good read, and it talks about all the things – terms, concepts, ideas – Shakespeare’s play have given our culture. It’s an easy, enjoyable read, and really interesting. He invented the name Jessica! Read more about this book here, then check it out! You’ll be glad you did.

Author Neil Gaiman is working on a project that completely does away with the idea of a writer holed up in a room somewhere, working out the latest plot twist or character flaw. He has partnered with Blackberry to make this collaborative art/story collection called “A Calendar of Tales.”

Instead of creating stories on his own, Gaiman reached out to his fans for inspiration. He tweeted questions (presumably on his Blackberry) to his fans, asking about things that they remember about a particular month, or the weirdest thing that ever happened to them in a different month. He did this for each of the twelve months, and chose a reply for each month — he then wrote a very short story based on that reply. For example, the October one went like this:

Inspiration for the October Tale

@neilhimself asked:
“What mythical creature would you like to meet in October? (& why?)”

@elainelowe replied:
“A djinn. Not to make a wish. But for the very best advice on how to be happy w/ what you already have.”

Gaiman then wrote this very brief story about a woman who meets a genie. The genie tries to grant her three wishes, but she just says, “I’m good.” The genie doesn’t get it, but eventually he learns that the woman wants nothing other than what she has, and he sticks around to be with her. It’s simple, and nice, and has a touch of the magical.

The other eleven stories are good, too. They’re really short, but he packs a lot into each sentence.

This is all pretty cool so far… BUT…

The partnership takes another step further. They invited readers and artists to also submit videos/illustrations for the stories. They’ll then make a final showcase of the stories and their images. What a cool collaborative concept. I hope more people do more things like this.

Read the stories & see the illustrations here — it’s free and worth the time: http://keepmoving.blackberry.com/desktop/en/us/ambassador/neil-gaiman.html

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I recently wrote about a book I read called The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan, which was a war story set in Alaska, featuring some possible otherworldliness. Years ago, I read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, about a young man who vanished into the wilds of Alaska. During my weekend reading, I came up on this article about a brutal race in an Alaska town, where one man, way behind everyone else, just disappeared from the race track in the mountain.

This same weekend, I had started reading The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. It’s set in Alaska in the 1920s. The thing all these stories have in common is this underlying idea that Alaska itself is not just a wild place of nature – it is beautiful but hostile, almost alive, almost supernatural.

Each of these tales reminds the reader that there is this very large area of land out there that we have not yet tamed. And though almost cautionary, they are a bit of a love story to that wildness. There is a celebration of how precious life and living is, despite, or in spite of, this land around that is constantly trying to trip you up, to take you back into itself.

The Snow Child is a Ivey’s first novel (here is a more in-depth review from the Washington Post), and it’s beautifully written. It’s a fairy tale for grownups, based on a Russian folk tale about a couple who builds a snowchild , who then comes to life. The Russian tale ends various sad ways, and Ivey’s Snow Child is no different.

It’s sad and haunting, but like life, the sadnesses are tempered by the joys – of discovering and rediscovering love, hugging children, listening to laughter, cooking for friends, realizing you can survive so much sadness… Though infused with a touch of magic, the story is about very real, very human, feelings and experiences. And the way Ivey writes about those experiences, the way she strings words together to form these descriptive, beautiful sentences, she draws you in and makes you glad to enter her world a while, even if you’re a little (or a lot) teary when you leave it.

I have managed to get some reading done in between watching episodes of a particular TV show I was hooked on… here are the books I’ve been looking at lately:

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hidden america

Hidden America by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Ms. Laskas is a journalist and author – she’s written six other books, was a regular columnist at the Washington Post, a feature writer for GQ, and a contributing editor at Esquire. She’s been around for a while, but I’d never heard of her. She first came to my attention when a certain JM sent me a link to an article she’d written about Air Traffic Controllers, going ‘behind the scenes’ and writing about their world, their lives. It turns out, that essay was collected into this book. Hidden America is all about people who you don’t really think about, but whose jobs are an essential part of making our daily lives not just better, but basically liveable.

She spends time with American coal miners, blueberry pickers, oil drillers, long-haul truck drivers, garbage dump workers, and more. It’s a fascinating account of lives and industries you interact with, depend on, need… without knowing, without thinking about. Definitely worth checking out!

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inpersuasionnation

After reading a NY Times review about George Saunders, I decided to check out some of his works. In the article, he speaks lovingly of Raymond Carver, whose short stories I am a huge fan of. I got a copy of his In Persuasion Nation and read about half of it. He’s a good writer, and combines science fiction-ish ideas with human absurdity in interesting ways…  but much of it is disturbing. He likes to show people how messed up they are by picking and picking at an idea, and then digging his fingers into it.

The story I finally put the book down at was about a TV family – in this story, the characters know they are characters in a TV show, but that’s all they are – they are not actors, they ARE the characters – they disappear into a gray fog when they’re written out of the script. And this show’s ratings are bad, so their lives (and physical layout of the backyard) are changing to try and suit the pleasures of the audience. It’s a strange tale, and I think it’s meant to push your buttons, to make you uncomfortable and force you to take a good, harsh look at your own life. I appreciate that, but only in small chunks. I’ll return the book, and will probably pick it up in the future, or one of his others… maybe. He’s one to take a little bit at a time.

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otherkingdoms

Other Kingdoms by Richard Matheson. I saw the movie, “I Am Legend,” really liked it and so read the book. It was… different from the movie. Enough so that I didn’t even compare the two – I was able to enjoy them both separately, equally. So when his latest novel, Other Kingdoms, came out in 2011, I was intrigued – I checked it out, but never got around to reading it. I saw it on the shelves the other day, checked it out again, and this time opened it up… I read the thing in one day. I was drawn into its world, I suspended disbelief (it’s about faeries. And a witch.). It’s a fairy tale for grownups. It’s really good, when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing. It’s told from the point of view of an old man telling his life story, a short time that he spent in WWI and then ended up in a village in England that was next to a woods that were filled with faeries. The introduction is from this made-up character, and there’s a bibliography that I think is made-up. I like that complete absorption into a different world. The Princess Bride, the  book, is like that. It jumps into this made-up world, adding layer upon layer, to really get you into the story. If you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, I’d definitely recommend this book. And if you like The Princess Bride, book or movie, this news story and related comments are for you.

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dreamlandA while back, I read Dreamland: adventures in the strange science of sleep, by David K. Randall. (wrote about it in a Tumblr post – was/am trying out that blogging site, too) Sleep for me is a huge thing – I never feel like I get enough of it. I feel like my daughter doesn’t get enough of it. And yet, I know it’s SOO important. This book gets into how and why it’s SOO important and but really how we know so little about what goes on while we’re sleeping. It’s a quick read, but highly informative and entertaining.

Ever had trouble sleeping? Wonder why it’s so important and what happens if you don’t get enough of it? What happens to people who commit crimes while sleepwalking? This book examines these questions and many others. It’s not a textbook on sleep disorders; it’s a personal adventure into the wide world of sleep science.  Highly recommended!

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This is definitely a mixed bag of books I’ve gone through… what have you been reading lately?

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