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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.

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.

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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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2012 brought us the movie “Cloud Atlas,” based on the book of the same name. I don’t know much about it, but I was sent this link, to make me laugh: http://www.theawl.com/2012/11/ways-in-which-the-movie-cloud-atlas-has-changed-my-life

cloud-atlas-low_smallIt inspired me to then read Callanan’s The Cloud Atlas, which my library had (had it been out, I probably would have forgotten about it). I also wanted to read it to spite Cloud Atlas some. I just don’t have any interest in the book or the movie. I think its articlelessness is kind of pretentious, and maybe, just maybe, it seems a little daunting.

This one, The, is set in Alaska during WWII and years later, and goes back and forth, the past being related as a confessional. During WWII, the Japanese had started sending hot air balloon bombs overseas, to land and explode on American soil. This is a story about a man in the bomb squad who had to chase these balloons, and deal with a superior who was being chased by personal demons, and to learn to listen to a local shaman, whose beliefs were chasing his own. And there’s a woman they’re all chasing, in different ways.

Reading the Amazon reviews, you can see all the people who ordered the book thinking it was the one the movie was based on, only to find out it wasn’t… and it still got lots of positive reviews. It’s a really well-written story, interesting and haunting. There was one anecdote the shaman related about a man and wife whose child died and was cremated before they could mourn her according to their beliefs. The shaman helped the parents feel their child in the falling rain, and helped them say goodbye. This passage was simply told, and very moving.

It’s a work of historical fiction, but ultimately a story about the various relationships that get us through our lives, and how each one can teach us about ourselves, if only we let them.

I was looking back at the posts I’ve written over the past year, and came across one from almost exactly a year ago, written after Irene came through the area. THIS year brought Hurricane Sandy, and with her came much destruction to some areas.

For me, it meant being evacuated from the marshy area I live in (luckily, no house damage) and a loss of power for four days. In that time, I had a chance to test out my new iPhone 5 and a borrowed first-generation iPad. My i5 was really reliable in terms of connection and, ooh, the battery life! I was able to charge it in a short car drive, and then it’d last until the next day! That’s a far cry from my old HTC Evo. In between checking CL&P outage maps on my iPhone and playing with my daughter (no school for 5 days!!), I was also able to get some reading done… all on the iPad.

Just before the storm, I checked out a book from my library’s eBook download pageTimeline by Michael Crichton. I am a big Michael Crichton fan (Andromeda Strain is one of my all-time favorites). I charged the iPad up and kept it charged until Monday, when we lost power. From then until Thursday, the iPad retained enough of a charge for me to finish the entire book over the course of those powerless days.

Downloading ebooks and audiobooks to iPads and iPhones is really simple – browsing onscreen for books is a bit tricky, but if you know what you’re looking for and find it, checking out/downloading is a breeze.

I also recently read the whole of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie on my smartphone. The reward of downloading a book the moment I think of having it is huge – it’s a heady power we can enjoy at our fingertips!

I thought perhaps this long biography (625 pages!) would be too much for a phone. My plan was to start it on the phone, then find a print copy to do my ‘real reading.’ But …  the phone is so much lighter than the book.

I was able to turn out the lights, and read the book on my phone in bed, set for white text on a black background, and with little taps of my finger, turn the page as I read. It was so simple and so convenient, and actually really enjoyable.

Format aside, this book was SOO good. Catherine the Great was a really interesting person who led a remarkable life. How she came to power and how she led reads in this book like a well-researched, well-written soap opera.

Despite all the digital reading I’m doing lately, I still love my paper books, and just finished a 545 page historical novel about Marie Antoinette (Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund). It’s another long book (despite her short life), but it must be – it covers the time from when Marie Antoinette was preparing to marry Louis XVI, and goes right up to her unfortunate end. This book is engaging and seems as well-researched as a work of fiction can be.

The novel’s voice of Marie feels real when compared with the actual letters she wrote (the letters, to her mother, are a regular feature of the novel). It could easily have been a frivolous novel, to match the lightweight charm of the subject, but takes Marie and her concerns seriously. The time in which Marie lived was amazing. The world revolted, discovered, changed, all while Marie Antoinette was growing into a woman. This fascinating story is told through her eyes, with clarity and sympathy.

However you’re into getting your reading done – online or digital device or in print, go for it. The library has stepped up to give you more of what you want, when you want it.

And we librarians can help you with the downloading ebooks and audiobooks to your reading device – be it an Apple device, an Kindle, a Nook, or even your computer. We’ve created handouts with simple step-by-step directions for a variety of devices. They’re accessible online or at the library, and we’re happy to help too. You can call us with questions or if you’re stuck on any of the steps. If you don’t have a device of your own, we lend Kindles and Nooks that are preloaded with book titles. You can play around with it, read a book, see how you like the feel, etc. Enjoy!

I was paging through an arts & entertainment magazine when I came across a mention that Amy Adams was set to star in the movie adaptation of a book called Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. It’s a murder-mystery-thriller, with some family drama mixed in. Coverage of the movie-to-be is all over the place – could be a good one. Reading about the movie made me curious about the book. My library had a copy on the shelf, so I grabbed it. Once I started reading, it was really hard to put down. It’s a story about people – a poor family who is struggling to keep a farm. They’re loving but flawed. It’s a reminder that no matter who we are, no matter how good we try to be, we’re human and we make mistakes, we are petty and insecure and jealous creatures.

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

But that’s also part of what makes us so sympathetic, so relate-able to each other, so cherishable. Maybe it’s easier to love a person who’s flawed because we all are. Don’t we really just want to love ourselves? Maybe the compassion we can show for each other stems from the compassion we hope others will show us.

Or something like that.

The book throws in some murder and mayhem on top of the family drama – it’s horrific, but not gratuitous. I’m not usually a crime-murder-thriller reader – but once in a while, you just need a good creep-out. This definitely did it.

The story follows, Libby Day, whose mother and two sisters were murdered when she was young. She escaped, but hasn’t really gone anywhere beyond that day. Twenty-five years later, and she can’t get her life together to, well, save her life.

A murder-mystery hobbyist group finds her, wanting to hire her to talk about her experiences – she had testified that it was her brother who committed the murders, sending him to jail for life. Since then, everyone who has examined the case is convinced he didn’t do it. Libby agrees to talk to the group, needing the money they’ve promised, and her whole world starts to tilt – she ends up running for her life a second time.

The book is a quick read, it pulls you along for a bit of a wild ride – getting more so as it progresses to the end. It wraps up kind of unbelievably, but not enough to ruin the story.

This was a nice little break in between stories of Paris – before this book, I read The Paris Wife… and coming up is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Sometimes you just gotta mix it up… C’est la vie.