Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Sweeping clean

 As we get very close to saying good-bye to 2014, let me just say that I'm not sad to see it go.  It has been a challenging year to say the least.  My husband was treated for throat/tonsil cancer and is still battling to recover from his treatments.  No sooner was he up and about when I fell and rolled my foot, an injury that put me on crutches and in a boot for most of the last two-and-a-half months.  Work was always a great escape, but I felt that I was never fully there from April on.

There were some great things about the year, too.  I was awarded the outstanding alumni award from the University of South Carolina from which I received my Master's in Library and Information Sciences.  One of the best things that has ever happened to me.  I am eternally grateful for that opportunity.  It was a gift from my mother and I try to use it wisely.  I am very lucky to be in a library that is beautiful, has an incredible staff, has an engaged board, and has impressive support from the community.  With the way things are currently, all I can say is life is good.

So, as we sweep 2014 out the door, let's do a bit of catching up.  First of all, I realized that I never announced the winner of this year's Maine Reader's Choice Award.  It was not a surprise at all that Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch walked away with the honors.  She certainly had a tremendous success with this novel and I loved it.  Let's just hope it's not another ten years before the appearance of her next book. 

Even before the voting was finished for the 2014 award we began working on the 2015 entries.  As chairman of the selection committee (a new twist for this year), it was an honor to work with four other fabulous readers.  We worked hard to acquire books, read a meaningful portion of each book, and select 25 to go on to the full committee.  Phew!  That was hard, but very pleasurable, work.  Check out the 2015 Long List and get reading.  I'm very proud of the books we've chosen.  There are a few sleepers there that should have made a few "best of 2014" lists.  My favorite read of the year?  While that's like asking me to pick my favorite child, I'm going to be bold and say the absolute best book that I read this year was.........The Free by Willy Vlautin.  It's an impressive novel that focuses on the rather sad lives of three people who just really can't seem to catch a break - or can they? Mix in a bit of science fiction, a few comments about our current world, and a bit of a chance of redemption and you'll find an entralling read that you just really don't want to end.  It doesn't seem to be too popular with the general readership, but a few of our committee members certainly have been impressed by it.  Could it be the proverbial dark horse?

The free by Willy Vlautin
Overall my reading didn't come close to matching last year's numbers, but I'm sure that will change for 2015.  I've got lots of award reading to do to help whittle the list down to the finalists.  There are a lot of great books on the counter that are calling me!

So, let's get ready to usher that New Year in!  What better way to celebrate than with the assistance of one of my favorite online feline friends.  Join Lil Bub and me in saying "Welcome 2015!"

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Finalists!!!!

This year the Maine Readers' Choice Award committee has picked four - yes, four! - finalists for the award.  I consider these finalists the best from our short list.  What stands out for me this year is how important a sense of place is for all the books...Ireland, New York, Las Vegas, and rural Colorado.  In each novel the setting contributes a great deal to the story.  The characters range from the very likable to the very sympathetic to the despicable.  That what makes reading such an adventure!

For those of you who choose to participate in this year's award you have a wonderful array of books.  They're books that can be read at the beach, at night, at lunch (although it will be hard to put them down to go back to work!), at a slow pace, or at a more frenetic pace so you can get to the end.  I also highly recommend two of them as audio books, as that's how I read them.  They're long, but the reader makes the adventure so enjoyable.

Transatlantic by Colum McCann takes you from Canada during the early days of airplanes to modern-day Northern Ireland where George Mitchell is negotiating the Good Friday Peace Accord.  Along the way Frederick Douglass, the African-American statesman, drops in for a visit.  As always, McCann weaves together (or in this case, think of a knitted multi-patterned Irish sweater) diverse tales.  This time the thread that binds is a letter sent on that early Transatlantic flight from Canada.  It's absolutely wonderful.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, her first novel in ten years, has captured a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.  It's a major work of more than 700 pages that tells the story of a young New York teen who loses his mother when the art museum they're visiting is the target of a terrorist bombing.  As young Theo Decker leaves the museum alone, he takes with him a very rare painting that then becomes the anchor of the novel.  Theo drifts from New York to Las Vegas and back to New York through the next ten or fifteen years.  He is lost and alone, despite surrounding himself with a number of characters that have strong emotional ties to him.  But, it's always the painting that takes some role in the story to move it along.  Lots of unlikeable and curious characters combine to give the book the twists and turns that make it so successful. This is one of the books that I listened to and the reader is excellent.

Kent Haruf's Benediction is a return to the small Colorado plains town of Holt, the setting for his Plainsong and Eventide novels.  Once again the book tells the tale of a close-knit community dealing with life, death, triumphs, and disappointments.  The focus is on the family of "Dad" Lewis, who is dying of cancer.  Woven into the story are a daughter who returns home to care for her father after a disappointing love affair, an estranged son, the dutiful wife, and some very interesting townsfolk - young and old.  As always, Haruf's writing style is simple, languid, and descriptive without going overboard.  You have characters to root for and others to wish away.  This is an extraordinary novel about very ordinary people, which makes it such a beautiful read.

I'm not sure if I would recommend reading or listening to Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni.
It's a magical tale of a Jewish golem and an Arab jinni who both arrive in New York City at the very end of the 19th Century.  Each has their own history and secrets that they must carry with them.  While their mythological origins - she of clay, he of fire - are direct opposites and reflect their characters so well, this is a really an immigrant story.  They both have their struggles  with adapting to their surroundings in their new worlds, despite the attachment to their respective ethnic neighborhoods.  For me, this is the novel where location plays the biggest role.  It provides such a rich background for the story.  Wecker's imagination is marvelous and her writing style brings that imagination to life.  I listened to the audio with George Guidall as the narrator.  He does a fine job with the characters' voices.  It's like having a wonderful bedtime story read to you each time you settle in to listen.
I could not have been happier with our finalist list.  It seems to me that 2013 brought forth an extraordinary number of excellent reads.  Our committee considered more than 130 books for the award.  The twenty members were divided into 5 teams.  Each team read just about 25 books.  From there each team recommended two for the short list.  I'm proud to say that TransAtlantic came from our team, The T-ettes, which included Sally Leahey and Renee DesRoberts, both of the McArthur Library in Biddeford, and Maine author/playwright Monica Wood.  With Monica's cat, Miss Minnie, by our side as our mascot, we had lively debates about which books to bring forward - all supplemented by chocolate, cheese, and wine.  Our other recommendation was Visitation Street - another novel where a major character is the setting.  This is a gritty read involving the mystery of a missing girl.  When you're done with the finalists, make sure you add that to your reading list.
As we wait for the public to start reading and sending in their votes, rest assured that we're already on the hunt for outstanding 2014 novels!

Friday, April 25, 2014

My Best of 2013 in the Year of the Unlikable Characters

It has been a great year for reading, fueled mostly by serving on the Maine Reader's Choice Award (MRCA)committee. A notable year for the number of books that I read.  A notable year for the number of books that featured despicable characters who made the books so likable.  Hats off to the authors who accomplished this feat. I feel sorry for those readers who don't appreciate great talent, giving books bad reviews because they didn't like the characters.

As I look back on my lengthy list, I realize that creating a "best of" list for this year isn't an easy task.  Memorable characters, memorable writing, memorable settings and more. So, here's my best effort - no particular order.

This is the book that deserves to be first on the list - Wiley Cash's debut novel, A Land More Kind than Home, which won the inaugural MRCA.  It's a masterfully written book that follows a young boy as he deals with the death of his mentally challenged brother, his mother's relationship with a less than respectable pastor, and the destruction of his family.  The story is told through three voices with perfect harmony.

Kevin Powers' Iraqi war novel, The Yellow Birds, is the book that I voted number one for the MRCA. Powers, a well known poet and war veteran, deals with the aftermath of one soldier's tour of duty in Iraq. Thrown together by the fate of their assignments, two young privates forge a deep friendship, which when destroyed by the war leaves an indelible loss, the inability to overcome the guilt of that loss, and the long-lasting effects of the soldiers' unfortunate circumstances.  The prose is of such a high quality that it brings the telling of a very tragic story to a high level of insight into the book's characters and sense of place.  Some reviewers have used "classic" in their reviews and, in this case, it is certainly appropriate.  The book opens with a line that is most memorable...."The war tried to kill us in the spring." 

Ah, this is the book that hands down wins the despicable characters.  Another MRCA book, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl tells the macabre story of a woman's disappearance and her husband's suspected responsibility for her disappearance.  A very well-crafted story that brings about strong reaction to the characters.  I mostly listened to the book and every night after my commute I'd come home and tell my husband, who had already read the book, how much I hated Nick.  He would get this wry smile on his face and just tell me to keep reading.  Then, I'd come home and say, "I hate Amy."  Again and again I was admonished to keep reading. The end of the book finally came and it offered no solution to the situation. Rottenness through and through. A great psychological thriller that will leave you fuming.

Speaking of despicable characters, here's another book populated with less-than-likable characters...very well-populated.  It's J. K. Rowling's Casual Vacancy.  I don't think there was a single character in the book that had any redeeming qualities - from the youngest to the oldest.  The novel features a small English town that is riled by some Internet hacking. The suspicions of who is doing the hacking grow as do the bad acts of the residents. From the youngest to the oldest the outcomes are sad.  The novel is very well written and it's unfortunate that so many find it unreadable because of the bad nature of its characters.