january and february reading

I’ve been thinking lately about how I might become a better librarian in the next year. The first thing that popped into my mind–read more books. I know, I know, we’re about more than books. We have CDs! and movies (VHS and DVD!) and databases! and downloadable audiobooks! But seriously, the most frequent question I get at the library, even more frequent than “Where’s the bathroom?” is, “What’s a good book to read?”

So, in the interests of reading more books and, perhaps even more importantly, retaining something about them, I’ve decided to do updates about what I’ve read a little more frequently. It’s halfway through March and I’m just now getting to my January and February reading, but so it goes. Someday maybe I’ll write proper reviews of books like Rick and Maggie and Nonanon and Jessamyn, but for now I’m just trying to get them down with a few notes. Again, an L in front of a book means it’s one I’ve listened to; an R indicates a book I reread. A couple of the pithier notes and reviews below (at least I hope they’re pithy) come from the New Books Newsletter that I recently started for the library, which I am distributing by (gasp!) e-mail and which is also included as (are you sitting down?) part of the Friends of the Library’s new newsletter, which we pring on paper and send through the mail.


Archangel by Sharon Shinn–I used to love fantasy when I was young, but grown up fantasy books very rarely live up to my expectations. My mother told me to read this a long time ago, and a friend said I ought to read it recently, and on the plane home after Christmas I finally did. It’s still not the fantasy experience of my youth, but the notion of a society in which people sing (well), all the time, is a pleasant one, and if you like the kind of romance in which people who hate each other finally fall in love, you should give this a try, even if the fantasy/science fiction angle isn’t something you’d go for normally.

Sick Puppy by Carl Hiassen–I read Team Rodent right after I graduated from college (a great short nonfiction book about how Disney has destroyed central Florida), but I’d never read any of his fiction. I picked this one up based on a review in Jenna’s zine. Her review noted that the main character was “like Eric but with a trust fund and less anger management,” which sounded up the alley of some people I know, too. Good fun.

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin–I picked this up because Dirty Librarian (who writes the best short reviews I’ve ever read) liked it and it was on the shelf at the library. It’s kind of your basic YA disaster novel in which there are kids living with an abusive mother, but it’s somewhat novel in that it’s written as a letter by the oldest kid to the youngest. It’s a fast read, and I think I saw it listed somewhere as a good one for reluctant readers, which it might well be.

The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne–Even if you love your family, a holiday spent in close proximity to them can be intense. In this novel, two sisters, their families, and their father, from whom they have long been estranged, reunite for Thanksgiving and all kinds of old secrets come out.

L Empire Falls by Ricahrd Russo–I keep hoping for another one of Richard Russo’s books to be as funny as Straight Man. None of them quite are, but they’re all still good. This one starts slowly, but by the end I had to bring the tapes in from the car (where I do most of my audiobook listening) so I could go on with the story. If you’ve read Nobody’s Fool, this is like that (small dying upstate New York/New England town, motley cast of characters, funny but not always laugh-out-loud funny) but richer.

R Coyotes and Towndogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement by Susan Zakin–Some people read thrillers. I read books about activists. This is one of them. And now I live in Wyoming, where some of this takes place.

Alabama Moon by Watt Key–Give this to the kids who like My Side of the Mountain and Hatchet. It’s a darker story, dealing with a father who’s a survivalist-type and what happens to his son after he dies, but it’s full of details on living in the wilderness and making your own food and shelter and so on. And the Alabama setting is fascinating–I think we tend to forget that there are areas of wilderness east of the 100th meridian.

The Ninemile Wolves by Rick Bass–Have I mentioned that I love Rick Bass? Hint: if you come to Wyoming, do not mention wolves–although you can get this book at our library. It was written in 1991, before the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, when that was still jsut a pipedream, but the fights are still being fought, and several people whose names I read in the paper every week or so are characters in this book.

I also reread much of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, which was our book discussion book for January. So far as I could tell, everyone loved it. The problem with reading funny books for book discussions is that the discussion tends to go like this: “Oh, remember the part where ___ happened?” “Oh, that was so funny!” “Oh, and the part where ___!” “Oh, that just made me laugh and laugh!”

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood–Ten semi-autobiographical stories that read like a slightly disjointed novel. Here’s Atwood’s official and rather peculiar website, and an older but still interesting interview from January magazine.

Him Her Him Again the End of Him by Patricia Marx–You can now read an excerpt online at WorldCat.org! I myself was drawn in by the opening:

I was in high school when I read The Bell Jar and thought it was about a lucky girl who wins a contest and gets to go to Europe. But what about Sylvia Plath’s trying to drown herself? After she strings herself up and before she swallows pills? To tell you the truth, I don’t think I looked at that part.

The narrator of this book by former Saturday Night Live/current New Yorker writer Marx, is answering questions at the marginally bloggish site himherhimagain.com.

Miniatures by Norah Labiner–If you do not care for passages like this

Lord grant me the cloak of disguise that Athena loaned to Odysseus so that I may meander through the ruins taking stock of chattel and charnel before the spell breaks and my all-encompassing swath of darkness is transformed into black wool. Lord grant me but a secure hour, a sand-bagged story, a nimble pen, a wandering eye, a leper’s lassitude, a loner’s intemperence, a fetishist’s foot, a poet’s prudence, a pen pal’s prurience, a playmate’s provocation, a pornographer’s persistance. Grant me a sensitive syntax, weak-roped gallows, safe Southern passage, and a face impossible to remember.

–you will probably not like this book, which involves a young American who goes to Europe to avert various catastrophes at home and ends up working for a couple of expatriate American writers and discovering letters and long-lost secrets and so on. The male half of the couple was once married to a woman whose life bears a remarkable similarity to that of Sylvia Plath, but the story goes all over the place from there.

R Road Song by Natalie Kusz–our February book discussion book. Kusz’s mother and father and their children, who were all quite small, left California in 1969 to move to Alaska, where they made a life for themselves despite varied and numerous hardships. Most people liked this book, and we had an interesting discussion about why people feel sympathy toward Kusz’s family, which went unprepared into the wilderness, and rather less sympathetic toward Chris McCandless, from Into the Wild, who did likewise.

L The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton–I saw the TV movie of this several years ago and have been meaning to read the book ever since. Angela Jayne Rogers does a fine job with the narration. If you like the young women from poor backgrounds overcome obstacles but not in a Horatio Algerish way, you’ll probably like this book too.