Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Very different books for a winter's reading

It's been a cool week of reading for me, an entry into two worlds I had little experience with, and a rewarding venture once taken.
Pressed for time, and always somewhat eclectic in my reading choices, I've gone back and forth through several selections, and two of them merit mention here. The first I read for my own reasons, the second relates to an article I'm preparing for the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester.
The first, Lawrence Hill's "The Book of Negroes," was published in Great Britain and Canada during the early 2000s (first published in the U.S. as "Someone Knows my Name").Hill's story is astonishing--a classic I'd put on a favorites shelf alongside such greats as "Gone With the Wind" and "East of Eden."
Aminata Diallo's fictional account of being kidnapped from a tiny African town and transported into slavery in the United States, with her subsequent journey toward freedom, is riveting, and reveals much of the drive an enslaved people have to be free. The story differs considerably from much that I've read about slavery and the events befalling slaves here, in Nova Scotia, Great Britain and the African coast (all true, although fictionalized).
Aminata's stamina and refusal to submit are truly heroic and likely to leave a lasting imprint on the reader.
Hill did a lot of research to recreate the world Aminata encountered after her capture at the age of 11, focusing on the losses, mistreatment and battered hopes of both Africans and Americans born into slavery on plantations (or in northern states). By the time she reaches London, she has become a figurehead for the abolitionist movement.
Aminata is an amazingly personal narrator, a young woman who bears all sorts of punishments and grief as she pursues her single-minded goal: escape to freedom.
This is not a book to be missed, and book clubs will find much to debate. While it's a long read, it's very absorbing; you won't want it to end.

The second book relates to an article I'm preparing about cozy mysteries.
Cozies, for those who aren't familiar, are lighter fare, easy to read and absent the horror, graphic violence and dark viewpoint of thrillers and modern mysteries. They are meant as a break from the day, a relaxing read that entertains, puzzles and rewards the reader with something at the end: often, recipes or knitting patterns!
Barbara Ross's "Iced Under" is part of a series Ross has entitled the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her heroine in each is Julia Snowden, member of a family that has long operated a seafood restaurant at Busman's Harbor (think loosely of Boothbay Harbor, fictionalized).
Ross is skillful at constructing plots that don't give anything away and keep readers going. She is also good at creating characters we like. Fortunately for us, Julia is at the head of that line.
There's much of the flavor of Maine (and lobsters) to this mysteries series that will appeal to readers who are familiar with coastal New England, and love Maine's intricate coastline. But others will learn to love the state, too, through Ross's writing.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Field trips for book fans

On these beautiful winter days, when there is snow on the ground and cold in the air, there are few sources of entertainment or relief: bake, ski, shop or read. I'll take the latter, being fonder of soft lights and cozy nooks than I am of more calories, banged-up shins or binge shopping. Not to say they aren't all worthy pursuits. Quite fortunate that I do not have to go anywhere to work.
I don't know who out there shares my fondness for visiting book stores, near and far. I love the different set-ups inside stores and the pleasant collision of reading materials. Some have sofas and soft chairs, others offer tables and hard chairs. Some have coffee corners (which I love) and cookies. All have an unpredictable collection of literature. You just don't know what you'll find.
Out near Springdale, Utah—the town at the exit to Zion National Park—there's an odd little book joint called the Virgin Goods Book Store (and Community Post Office), where I found a nice collection of literary journals for about 50 cents each. I have to browse quickly, as there is much to do and my companions are always thinking about that, but I always find something good. It's likely that passing tourists on Route 9 stop to trade in their books for something new.
The beauty of these stops is not just in finding books, but in connecting with local people who can give you tips to restaurants, inns, nearby sites worth checking out.
Closer to home, there are quite a few spots for return visits—the Barrow Bookstore and the Concord Book Shop (open seven days), both in Concord, bring in local authors and offer signed first editions, books by regional authors and more; Bearly Read Books, Route 20 in Sudbury (closed Mondays), offers rare books as well, meeting space and collections of various genres that may interest your book club, ranging from classics and mysteries to fantasy, history and special interests.
Another seven-day store is the Book Bear in West Brookfield, which has used, rare and out-of-print books, buys and sells, priding itself on a diverse, ever-changing selection. It's on Route 9.
Booklovers' Gourmet in Webster (open Tuesday-Saturday) offers books, pastries and brews at 55 E. Main St., with cozy seating and occasional author visits/signings. A book group and a writers group meet here. Deb Horan aims to provide a literary home here for readers.
Taproot is another interesting place to find an unusual book. Rock collectors will enjoy browsing crystals of all kinds. Open seven days a week, it's a small, somewhat eclectic book and gift shop at 1200 W. Boylston St. (Route 12, near O'Connors), Worcester. Irene Evory and Richard Barca are the owners. Being community-minded, they will match customer donations to several charities: Abby's House, Worcester County Food Bank, the Heifer Project and the Jimmy Fund.
There's a new store in Marlborough as well, mentioned in the last column: Stax Discount Books, owned by Michael Joachim, is at 193A Boston Post Road (20 West), offering new, discounted books.
Tatnuck, on Lyman Street, Worcester, has added a large amount of gift items, but the coffee and sandwich cafe is a good one, and there are easy chairs in the back for wifi use or reading, with at least half the store dedicated to new books and magazines, often discounted. I still pop in regularly, finding goodies in both sides of the store.
I have not visited the Montague Bookmill in years, and I have it in mind to get there next time I'm in the territory. It's west on Route 2, just before Greenfield. Plan to allocate time for a visit to 440 Greenfield Road. Dubbed: "Books you don't need, in a place you can't find," the bookshop has rooms to explore in an old mill building along a hefty river. There's coffee too. It's an outing by itself, with a nearby arts center.
If you're out and about, the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough at 12 Depot Square is a must-visit. With frequent author visits, and new and used book sections, the bookstore is vital and active (toadstool.com). There's a second store in Keene, recently moved to Main and Emerald streets.
One thing I really like about bookstore visits is the assortment of nice people who work there. There's usually time for a book consult or just a casual bookish conversation—about the weather and such. Many provide space for wifi users to stop awhile and work or entertain themselves.
A number of independents have teamed up with large distributors like Amazon to speed their books to customers by mail, etc., and some operate solely online—but I'm not so interested in that; I like spending some quality time in a new place, soaking up the words and the spirits of the place.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Searching out collector books

What books do you collect, thinking maybe one day to discover their value or sell them at a high price? I know; I do too. Unless you really know your books, however, chances are you're wasting bookshelf space. You may make money on the genuine item, but most rare book dealers will tell you they're the exception, not the rule. I keep some books out of nostalgia—for instance, various editions of "A Christmas Carol"—and that's as good a reason as any. There's also a shelf of 19th and early 20th-century novels from my grandparents' house, probably with little value to anyone else. But I like them.
Some people, not so many these days though, like the look of old books around the house, and collect them for that reason. They're fun for others to browse, so if you have the room, go for it.  
Would-be collectors may search for the publication date of an old book when they come across a valuable-looking specimen in a thrift shop or bookstore. Maybe they buy it for a few dollars, thinking they've perhaps found a priceless edition of Dickens or Melville. Don't count on it. You can end up a hoarder that way. I suggest buying books that truly appeal to you as a reader, out of love, not greed.
A book's value depends greatly on its condition, content, scarcity and author. Is it a first edition? So much the better. There has to be customer demand for it, as well. And, remember: Not all valuable books are old. You really have to find out what's in demand. To familiarize yourself with what goes into a book's value, stop in at a rare book dealer, such as Brattle Book Shop in Boston. Ken Gloss presides over the store's collection of rare and unusual books. Gloss often speaks at libraries and clubs across the region—I saw him in Lancaster's Thayer Memorial Library last year—to better inform the public about what makes a book valuable. He also looks over the books his listeners bring in. Most aren't worth much, but once in awhile there's a good result. Similar antiquarian book stores are scattered about the region.
For a current listing of individual book dealers, check the Southern New England Antiquarian Booksellers, which maintains a listing of its members, many of whom are in this area and deal in special interests areas; often they operate out of their homes. Members of SNEAB hold an annual book sale is April 17 in Lexington.
Most libraries try to vet the books donated to them for resale, in the hope of not selling a rare book for $2. They may use online services, or set up a connection to a collector. But since there really aren't enough volunteers at most libraries to research book value, the good books sometimes go right through to the book sale piles—and your chance to pick up a winner.
Some booksellers maintain web sites to help you determine if your books are worth anything (abebooks.com is one such site).
Money, anyone?
I'm just weird enough to wish that I had the funds and time to visit bookstores all over the country. What fun that would be—were it not for writing groups, grandchildren and volunteer obligations. But here at home you can be a bookstore fan as well. I always find peace with a cup of coffee and a book. Here's a chance to win a gift card AND a $3,000 contribution to your favorite book store. Indie publisher www.landmark/sourcebooks.com is conducting a "recommend your bookstore sweepstakes." Frankly, it's easier to locate the sweepstakes by doing a Google search for sourcebooks. The contest closes on Friday, Feb. 19. Their site also offers an annual review of book choices for the year, which may interest clubs hoping to preview what's coming up.
In a similar vein, www.readinggroupchoices is offering a gift certificate for books to readers who nominate their favorite recent books. What the heck? Give it a try.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Gifting the Voracious Reader

Readers are often happy to receive a bookstore gift certificate, but if you'd like to choose the genuine item as a Hanukkah or Christmas gift, these are some newer possibilities.
Die-hard Harry Potter fans are probably alone in continuing to read everything J.K. Rowlings publishes (two e-books of short stories about Hogwarts and a hardcover "rehearsal script" for the first Potter play, all during 2016). But if your older fan read the first seven, then number eight may be the right gift. Titled "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," this play takes readers into the grown-up world of Harry Potter, father of three. I haven't read it, and don't know what to expect, but hey—it's out there, and shouldn't be ignored.
Readers with a social change interest may want to delve into a book I've mentioned before, "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a memoir from former Marine and Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance about his impoverished upbringing in Appalachia, outlining the struggles of a white, working class family. An engaging history, this memoir has humor, but also a deeply researched portrayal of what it's like to be a member of the disappearing "hillbilly" community.
Jodi Picoult has a facility for choosing hot news issues and turning them into fiction. She's right on track this year with "Small Great Things," the story of an African American woman who is rejected as a hospital nurse for their baby by a white supremacist couple. But that, of course, becomes complicated during a medical crisis, leading to troubles for the nurse's whole family. Picoult is a strong writer, a born storyteller, and a dedicated researcher. Get it for book club members and people with an interest in Picoult's writing.
Millions of readers love Jane Austen. The Austen Project asked six authors to write a new take on one of her famous novels: "Sense and Sensibility," "Northanger Abbey," Pride and Prejudice," "Emma, "Persusasion" and "Mansfield Park." They are being published as finished—number four, released this year, promises to be a very enjoyable read. "Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice" by Curtis Sittenfeld, centers around the famous Bennet family and Mr. Darcy, transformed into a modern era.
Along the same "project" vein, a series of fictional retellings of Shakespeare this year featured "Shylock is My Name" by Howard Jacobson. His  version of "The Merchant of Venice" includes Nazi football players, in a dramatic reflection on the grasping power of anti-Semitism. Vital for the times we're in.
On my would-be Christmas list is Colson Whitehead's "Underground Railroad." Whitehead was keynote speaker at this year's Boston Book Festival. For this book alone, he's won more than a dozen top awards—an impressive accomplishment. In the book, a young couple attempts to escape slavery aboard the Underground Railroad—this time a real, functioning transportation system. But it's far from a fantasy, as readers will discover. There's adventure and high tension, with richly drawn characters.
Epic series fans are likely to enjoy a newly released, photo-infused book, "The Making of Outlander—a good gift for fans of the series. Though the lush Diane Garabaldon series has a ways to go in production segments, all the books are available, starting with "Outlander."
Those who have loved either version of the series "Poldark" may enjoy Robin Ellis's "Making Poldark," a newly released, updated version of his memoir about the original 1970s series (Author Winston Graham hated the slutty Demelza portrayal in the first). Gifts of an entire series are always fantastic to receive, if a little pricey to provide.
Thriller fans may enjoy a book that mesmerized Sue Grafton: Sheri Lapena's "The Couple Next Door." With a dozen unexpected plot twists and taut writing, Lapena's mystery—surrounding a couple who leave their baby at home while attending a party next door—is called riveting. Writers like Harlan Coben, Lee Child and Lisa Gardner are recommending it.
Finally, for lovers of symphonic music, comes "Absolutely on Music," released in November. It's a special book of conversations between author Haruki Mirakami and his friend, former Boston Symphony conductor Seiji Ozawa. From recorded conversations, their discussions of music and writing cover everything between the adored classicists to more contemporary greats, like Bernstein and Glenn Gould. Look to this for insights into the broader world of music.

Trying Timesin Literature, before Trumpian Politics

OK. There are lightning rods up our spines this month, in the wake of an election no one expected to turn out as it did. Some fear the future at this point, while others are sanguine about the result. But questions about race, poverty, immigration and human rights have been raised, and this is a good time to seek perspective through the experiences of other people, other places and times. It's also a good practice to keep up with what current historians and experts say. But in the meantime, book groups may find much to consider in this list of books.
There have been equally trying times, terrifying experiences, and countless books reflect them. I can only refer here to a few—some of it fiction but mostly nonfiction books spanning the world. This is a good time to understand others' struggles, and no time at all to live in a vacuum:
— "A Fine Balance" is Rohinton Mistry's novel about a woman cast out of her brother's home for refusing to buckle to family and societal expectations, during a time that Indira Gandhi is ruthlessly cleansing India of its own "deplorables," the untouchables. An amazing glimpse into a world of rules and losses, and unfathomable courage. Fiction.
— "First They Killed My Father" is a heartbreaking story, told a few decades later by Houng Ung, separated from her family in Cambodia during 1975. In Pol Pot's ruthless Khmer Rouge slaughter, Ung, a child of five, searches without success for her brothers and sisters, only to be placed in a work camp. She persists, she lives. And in the end, she finds life and family again. Memoir.
—"Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" is a surprise. Alexandra Fuller is the daughter of a white family in Rhodesia during the Civil War. She combines the winsome details of a child's life against harrowing changes to the world she inhabits, as they cling to their African home amid the terror of war. Memoir.
—"Lakota Woman," Mary Crow Dog (aka Brave Bird) married Leonard Crow Dog, a leader in the American Indian Movement. She died young—58. She wrote of the cruelly impoverished life she led on a Sioux reservation, and of her education in a school which forbade Sioux language and force-taught Christianity. She continues her story into the time of the second Wounded Knee conflict, in an autobiography made into a profound documentary on PBS. Memoir.
—"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou, one of our times' most striking voices. Her words feel more pertinent this month: "We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated. That in fact it may be necessary to encounter defeats so we can know who we are what can we overcome, what makes us stumble and fall and somehow miraculously rise, and go on." Memoir, poem.
—"Love Medicine" by Louise Erdrich is the first of her many novels about contemporary Native American life, in all of its aspects—humor, loss and violence, family. It was, for me, an open-eyed look into the soul of the Native experience in America and an entry into the work of an amazing American writer. Novel.
— "Men We Reaped" by Jessamyn Ward ("Salvage the Bones") is a stark recollection of growing up in Mississippi and watching five young men she knew and loved as they encounter violence, drugs, hopelessness and, ultimately, death. Not the easiest subject, but certainly an important one, and beautifully written. Memoir.

Monday, November 14, 2016

American, through an immigrant's eyes: Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe, who participated in Clark University's Book and Author Dinner in April 2014, has released a memoir, "Never Look an American in the Eye: Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts and the Making of a Nigerian American." The title may give you an indication of Dr. Ndibe's wit—one of the traits that helps immigrants adjust to this country successfully.

Author of the novels "Foreign Gods, Inc." and "Arrows of Rain," he is co-editor of "Writers Writing on Conflicts, and Wars in Africa."

His latest work joins previous publications in receiving critical praise.
"Okey Ndibe brings a keen eye to his delightful and insightful new memoir. His vision is clearer than 20-20. A writer who can arrive in America, be falsely accused of bank robbery in just 10 days, and still manage to keep his sense of humor, is a man with a story to tell. He writes it beautifully," said Sally Denton, author of "The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World."

"Powerful insights into the trials, prospects, and triumphs of being an immigrant in America. In a style that is impressively skillful, Ndibe masterfully conveys the odysseys of his early life in Nigeria as well as his immigrant life in the US," wrote the publication Sahara Reporters.

A former professor at Brown University, Providence, and Trinity College, Hartford, Ndibe lives with his family in West Hartford. He co-founded the journal African Commentary with noted author Chinua Achebe ("Things Fall Apart"). He writes with insight and wit about early struggles in Nigeria and his life as an immigrant. In fact, his essay, "My African Eyes," won him widespread attention for its detailed recollection of his childhood within Biafra's war, from 1967 to 1970.

This memoir, published Oct. 11, tells of Ndibe's move from Nigeria to the United States. He recounts stories of his relationships with Achebe and other writers, compares Nigerian and American etiquette and politics, and takes an insightful look at American stereotypes about Africa (as well as the reverse).

Roy Blount Jr. onboard:

Road trip: The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford will host humorist-author Roy Blount Jr. at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 17, in the museum's Lincoln Financial Auditorium, West Hartford. Blount will read from his latest, "Save Room for Pie," a collection of poetry, songs, essays and "news" about food. Count on it being funny.
A panelist on NPR's lively "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me," Blount is well known to radio fans. But he's also well known in the literary world and even serves as a consultant to at least one prominent dictionary publisher. He's a wit and a word geek: he's lampooned the Pittsburgh Steelers and written about the Marx  Brothers' war satire. He's even written about our common English language in "Alphabet Juice" and "Alphabetter Juice."
Area book groups:
Local author Jim MacIntosh talks about his new thriller, "Witness the Trees," at the 6:30 p.m., Nov. 15, meeting of Leicester Library Book Club. The book concerns a murder among friends camping in the New Hampshire woods.
Members of the book club at Heywood Library, Gardner, have slated "I Am Malala" for their 4:30 p.m., Nov. 30 meeting.
On Tuesday, Nov. 29, members of the Bannister Book Group in Brookfield will meet at 7 p.m. to discuss Kathleen Grissom's "The Kitchen House," the story of an Irish child working alongside slaves on a tobacco plantation.
In North Brookfield, Haston Library Book Group meets at 7 p.m., Dec. 6, to discuss the November/December selection, "Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling).
Also on Nov 29, members of the Thayer Memorial Library Book Group will meet to discuss "After the Falls," a memoir by Catherine Gildener, at 6:30 p.m. in Lancaster.