8 books on my shelf

Posted by Patricia Kuhn - 12 December, 2016

By Patricia Kuhn, Dean of Student Research and Library Resources

Reading’s my favorite!

ElfWith a nod to Elf, I am grateful that I can spend my holiday break engaging in my favorite thing. Being a librarian comes with the assumption that one is well read. I have no excuse for NOT reading. It’s professional development. This year I read (and listened) to many titles. Some were serious works, well reviewed and of the academic sort. Some were classics – I’d forgotten the details. A few were just plain fun – a slightly guilty get-away from serious thought.

The following is a list of those books that stuck with me for a while. Some made me eager for the next installment. Some made me wish the story hadn’t ended. Some I needed to ponder a whole lot longer than the pages allowed. Maybe something on the list will resonate with you and make you crave a day or two of uninterrupted me-time to indulge in some reading.

The Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

red sparrowThe very first spy novel I ever read was The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré. I had run out of teen books and started secretly raiding my dad’s library. I was quickly hooked on le Carré and went on to devour Ludlum and Forsyth. Matthews reminds me of that generation of spy story-tellers. The return of strained relations with Russia has helped his cause, allowing for a classic tale of the Cold War. Author Jason Matthews worked in the CIA for 30 years and his inside knowledge of the agency is evident in his writing. So convincing was his tale, that I sometimes felt guilty for knowing so much about the inner workings of the CIA. I had a strange urge to employ surveillance techniques on my teenagers just for fun. I didn’t.

Although The Red Sparrow was written in 2013, it’s timely still. The follow-up is titled Palace of Treason and doesn’t disappoint as a sequel. A third and final in this series is expected in May of 2017 and I can’t wait.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

symThe Sympathizer is a book I would never had picked up had it not been for the Randolph Book Club. Despite my trepidation, I was hooked early. It’s another spy story – but not in a traditional sense. The narrator had such a unique story to tell and told it in a way I found both fascinating and a bit unnerving. At times I had to look away – but I always went back. The symbolism was subtle. Vietnam, which played a large character role in the book was described in lush and loving terms. The contrast between Vietnam and Southern California was stark and jarring.

The story of The Sympathizer stuck with me for weeks. I really thought about the ending. I was glad for the chance to discuss the book with colleagues and eager to hear their interpretation of the story. It’s that kind of book. It’s good to read one of those every now and then.

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

bruceTo me, reading Born to Run was like eating candy. The short chapters made it easy to justify reading just one more before turning out the light. I loved the book. But then again, I love Bruce Springsteen. I know EXACTLY where I was when I first heard Born to Run on the tinny school bus radio. By the third time I heard it Bruce was accompanied by a chorus of elementary school students who had no idea what a “hemi-powered drone” was – but it sounded really cool – and dangerous. In my memories Michigan’s own Bob Seger emerged at the same time and became a mid-western Bruce Springsteen making the music of the mid-seventies even more exciting.

I see the story as a bit of Rorschach test – your personal experiences might color the story a bit. The parts of the story I liked best were the most personal tidbits Bruce shares.  His relationship with his father. His battle with depression. His issues with control. The relationships with the women in his life. I didn’t always like Bruce during the book.

Like his infamous never-ending concerts – some descriptions of his music go on – and on. Clearly he handcuffed his editor during the publishing process. But during those protracted parts I searched the music online and watched him perform. This story works best in three dimensions.

I carried the book into a lively local establishment recently (okay – a bar) and was stopped by two different people asking me if I would recommend the book. That never happens when I’m carrying Dante around. Bruce Springsteen is an American icon – people want to own a little piece of him – indeed they feel entitled. I think the book helps us understand how that happened.

Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo

nobodyI missed the boat when Richard Russo became famous. Until recently, I knew nothing about him. But when looking for a new book to listen to on the treadmill, Audible kindly suggested Russo’s Nobody’s Fool and I’m so glad they did. Much like Seinfeld, it’s about nothing. But the story is so charming you don’t actually care. Set in a small, upstate New York town, the book’s characters’ muddle through their everyday lives while we watch.  As sanctioned town voyeurs, we really begin to care what happens.

The hero of Nobody’s Fool is not exactly lovable. Under any other circumstances, I’d both dislike and distrust him. Nevertheless, from the time he stepped onto the page, I had to know what happened to him and how his tragically flawed life would play out.

Author Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2002 for his 2001 novel Empire Falls. I’ve since read that as well and it’s a toss-up as to which book I like more.  Russo’s voice is so genuine and familiar. The stories are inexplicably compelling and honest without the story telling artifice some authors employ to mimic candor. I can’t imagine not liking this book.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr

carrI avoided reading The Alienist for many years because the cover looked weird. And I thought it was about magic. Luckily, it was recommended to me by someone who knew I loved mysteries and hated magic and I read it despite the cover.

The story of author Caleb Carr’s family is in itself a great mystery. His father was a member of the New York Beat generation and ran with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He was also accused of murder. One gets the feeling these life experiences did not lend themselves to developing good parenting skills and this leaked out in the younger Carr’s story The Alienist.

In this tale, a string of murders have broken out in the poorest, seediest part of immigrant New York City. It’s up to our narrator, who is a newspaper reporter; his psychologist friend who is employing all sorts of newfangled ideas; and, surprise!, Teddy Roosevelt, to solve the crime. The book explores the roots of violent criminal behavior and childhood trauma. It’s dark and a little gruesome, but spellbinding. Perhaps Carr parades a few too many famous characters through his novel for my liking. I forgive him for the excess because the story was excellent.

I studied history in college and I like it when stories are historically accurate and when the details provided actually enhance the story. Carr is detailed, accurate and obsessed with historical content. His research is extensive and thankfully, he is able to weave it all together into an engaging novel.

Britt-Marie was Here by Fredrik Backman

brittFredrick Backman writes quirky stories. I’m not sure that is the literary term, but that’s what they are. They are quirky and fun to read, except when they touch a nerve. And they all seem to touch one nerve or another.  Backman wrote A Man Called Ove, which was just made into a movie. I’ve read that, too, but preferred Britt-Marie was Here simply because I read it first. The characters that populate Backman’s landscape are odd, and flawed, and very human. He touches on themes of autism, loneliness, and just plain crankiness. The stories are a bit deeper than one first presumes. The cover art over-simplifies the message.

The character of Britt-Marie is immensely irritating and perhaps a little unstable. We are not really sure why this is – her socially awkward approach is just accepted as a given. While there is some back story, no attempt to “correct” our image of the character is attempted. She is who she is and we will learn to navigate the world through her eyes. That’s why I like Backman’s stories. Instead of forcing the characters to change who they are, we simply ease into their world and suddenly we are all very comfortable together. I like Backman’s world. Some of his characters wander into other books and it seems very natural that they should all know one another. Britt-Marie comes of age in this story and you can’t help but root for her throughout.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

evilI regularly read both Adult and YA fiction, so I had no preconceived ideas when I read J. K. Rowling’s first foray into adult fiction, The Causal Vacancy.  Unfortunately, I hated it. I couldn’t even finish it. Therefore, I was very pessimistic about her next foray under the pen name of Robert Galbraith. Galbraith’s series of hard core mysteries (of the police procedural type) starring Cormoran Strike, a Gulf War veteran turned detective, is really good. Career of Evil is the third in the series and I devoured it in one sitting the day it came out. Strike shares the stage with Robin Ellacott, his assistant/partner. Their relationship grows through the novels (predictably, there is some romantic tension), but doesn’t turn stale or distract from the depth of the cases they take on. The London they inhabit is quite different from the London I have visited. It’s a tad dodgy, as Robin might say.

In Strike, Galbraith has developed a multi-faceted character who has access to both the upper strata of society as well as the criminal underbelly without sounding a false note. Strike’s backstory is believable and has conveniently provided Galbraith with loads of novel material. Read the books in order, starting with The Cuckoo’s Calling, for best results and prepare to binge read over the break.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

inventionThe Invention of Wings is the fictionalized account of Hetty, a young slave girl in Charleston, South Carolina and her relationship with the real-life Sarah Grimké, the daughter of Hetty’s owner. As the girls grow up together, it is clear that neither is destined to live ordinary lives. Both women come to know that the institution of slavery, as well as the uneven role that women are allowed to play in this society, is inherently wrong.

Sarah Grimké, together with her sister, Angelina, were the first American females to advocate for both the abolition movement and women’s rights. In the hands of Sue Monk Kidd, it is entirely believable that the loving bond that grows between Hetty and Sarah helped shape their destinies. Hetty fights the quite real bonds of imprisonment and slave labor, while Sarah struggles against the expectations of women in southern society. Both women are keenly intelligent and dream of finding their voices in a world that has left them out of the narrative. Such a heady topic could easily have been mishandled by an ordinary author, but Sue Monk Kidd is not an ordinary author. Without preaching, she lets the story unfold, allowing us to watch the brutal violence of the system of slavery. She allows us to feel Sarah’s great disappointments without a sugar coating. The result is a beautiful story about hope and freedom.

Have a book to recommend? Please leave a comment. Happy reading!

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Topics: books, holiday reading, library, reading, People


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