Dear Diary: Great Novels Written in Journal Format

Dear Diary…

There’s something very raw and intimate about reading a novel that is written in diary format. Somehow, the writing seems more authentic, genuine and reflective. While not an easy writing style to accomplish, there are several authors who really shine with this format. Following are a few favorites. Check out this list for more.

One Thousand White Women

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd

by Jim Fergus
May Dodd and her fearlessness will linger with you long after you turn the last page. This is a powerful reminder of the courage and spirit of pioneer women. This September, 19 years after the original publication of One Thousand White Women, Fergus’ long-awaited sequel, The Vengeance of Mothers, will be published.

I Capture the Castle

by Dodie Smith
Though probably more well-known for her children’s classic, The 101 Dalmatians, Smith’s coming-of-age tale set in England is absolutely captivating. Cassandra lives with her eccentric family in a decaying castle in the 1930s while her famous father attempts to get past his writer’s block.

Left in the Wind: The Roanoke Journal of Emme Merrimoth

by Ed Gray
Emme Merrimoth was an actual member of the Roanoke Colony. The author has created a historical tale of what may have happened to this colony that arrived in the New World in 1587 and vanished without a trace three years later.

So Far Away

by Meg Mitchell Moore
Thirteen-year-old Natalie Gallagher is trying to find refuge in a world where she is either neglected by divorced parents or cyberbullied by her childhood best friend. She discovers a diary written by Bridget O’Connell, who lived almost a century earlier, and seeks help from a library archivist, Kathleen Lynch, to decipher the script. The stories of these three characters intertwine throughout the novel to illustrate the importance of having others to help us through life’s challenges.

The Sarah Agnes Prine Novels: These Is My Words, Sarah’s Quilt & The Star Garden

by Nancy E. Turner
These fictionalized diaries detail real-life exploits of the author’s great-grandmother in frontier Arizona at the end of the last century. A great look at a memorable pioneer woman and a story of enduring love found despite frontier hardships.

The Walk Series: The Walk (#1), Miles to Go (#2), The Road to Grace (#3), A Step of Faith (#4) & Walking on Water (#5)

by Richard Paul Evans
Alan Christoffersen sets off on an extraordinary cross-country journey after the sudden loss of his wife, his home, and his advertising business. These novels, told in first person with diary entries spread throughout, illustrate the process of going from grief to hope to healing.

 

 

Drawing the Story – The Graphic Memoir

I’m a fan of graphic novels, and I read them regularly — the connection between a good story and good art is a big draw for me (pun intended). That connection between art and story exists with both fiction and nonfiction narratives and it makes for a unique experience when an artist has her or his own story to tell. I’ve been reading a number of graphic memoirs lately and thought it might be an opportunity to share this interesting subgenre.

Two Classics

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale

by Art Spiegelman
First published as a serial in the comic magazine Raw starting in 1980, and later in two bound volumes in 1986 and 1991 (Maus II), Maus tells the story of the author’s father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, as well as the relationship between father and son as these stories are shared. The memoir is a stirring reminder of a dark time and an acknowledgment of both the sacrifice and feelings of guilt of the survivors and families living with the past. Groundbreaking (although slow to be accepted) in telling a serious story in a drawn format, as characters are drawn with animal heads and tails — with Jews as mice and Nazis as cats — Maus was the winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis is a graphic autobiography, telling the story of the author as she lived in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The story is told in simple black and white drawings from the perspective of a young teen (age 10-14) who is watching this massive political and religious change and is affected by the events and by the relationships and influence of the friends and family around her. Followed by Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, which tells of her escape and eventual return to Iran as a young adult, these graphic memoirs give a unique perspective into how adolescents view turbulent and monumental changes around them.

Some I’ve Recently Read or Enjoyed in the Past

Tomboy

by Liz Prince
Liz Prince draws comic strips, usually short paneled stories revolving around her current life, and she draws in what is often referred to as “sketchbook style.” In 2015, while in her 30s, she decided to write a memoir about growing up with “gender nonconformity,” so drawing her story was a natural fit. As a child, Prince wanted to be a boy — she dressed, played and did “boy things” and had no interest in the “girly things” that society told her she should be interested in. Tomboy shares her experiences growing up, from preschool through high school, and the bullying, awkwardness and loneliness that she sometimes experienced by not fitting gender norms. Prince’s casual drawing style and humor lighten the mood of the book’s subject, and her story demonstrates how staying true to yourself pays off in the end. A good book for teens and adults.

Stitches: A Memoir

by David Small
The art and story in Stitches are unlike most of the other graphic memoirs in this list. The drawings tell the story for much of the book, often with few or no words or narration. The illustrations are monotone — white, black and gray with a watercolor feel — providing a dreamlike, unnatural feel for parts of the book. The memoir is the author and illustrator’s story of growing up in a dysfunctional family in the 1950s. Split into chapters based on events at different ages, Stitches tells of a sickly child who loses his voice and how his reaction and recovery allow him to find it again through his art.

Hyperbole and a Half

by Allie Brosh
A book composed of entries from Brosh’s blog of the same name, Hyperbole and a Half walks a line between humorous stories and some serious self-examination. Brosh’s strange drawing style (especially of herself) may not be for everyone, but it’s how she feels and sees things. Her funny stories about her dogs, a maniacal goose, and childhood memories of hot sauce eating contests and cake obsession are similar in style to that of David Sedaris — she makes those rather humorous stories of her life funnier than they probably were, thus the title of the book. Brosh balances those lighter stories with stories of her depression, doubts and self-reflection, which pair well with the strangeness of her art.

My Friend Dahmer

by Derf Backderf
What if you grew up friends with a person who became one of the most notorious serial killers in history? Cartoonist “Derf” Backderf went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer and shares a unique backstory perspective of the outcast who became a monster. Backderf’s drawing style is cartoonish, sort of in an R. Crumb fashion, but it suits the ’70’s era when the story unfolds. And the story does a good job of asking and answering questions relating to how Dahmer changed from a lonely kid from a broken family into an adolescent alcoholic with a growing interest in the morbid that eventually turned into the unanswerable. The memoir has been made into a film, which will be released this fall.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

by Roz Chast
New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast tells the story of aging parents in her first memoir, documenting their lives and relationships through her style of quirky illustrations and sometimes humorous observations of not-so-funny situations. With bright illustrations and dark humor that balance the sad reality of decline, illness and death lurking around the corner, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a funny, yet heartbreaking lesson about love, family and loss.

New This Year

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

by Thi Bui
Many of the memoirs I’m sharing are mainly about the lives of the authors, but Thi Bui’s debut graphic novel is more of a drawn version of a family’s oral history. Bui arrived as a refugee from Vietnam in the late ’70s with her family, and her memoir contains a series of family stories as told by her father and mother. As she notes in the preface, Bui had to learn to draw comics in order to create this book, but the drawings don’t look like those of a novice — they aren’t overly detailed but the feel of the illustrations (expressive and muted in color) fit the story of revolution, war and displacement that drove her family apart and drew them back together again.

Imagine Wanting Only This

by Kristen Radtke
The favorite uncle of a young woman dies from a hereditary heart ailment and as a comfort mechanism the young woman sets off on a journey around the world to explore the impermanence of buildings and cities. The young woman is Kristen Radtke and she shares her story, which is filled with self-doubt, fear of commitment, and wanderlust, as she travels the world searching for man-made structures that are abandoned and dying. From the remains of a church in Gary, Indiana, which holds a tragic secret, to the Philippines, Italy and Iceland, she searches for answers as to why buildings and people die. Radtke’s art reminds me of rotoscoping, a visual effect with a lack of detail and shading used in films like A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. In the case of Imagine Wanting Only This, the artistic style seems to work — the lack of detail adds an underlying sadness to her story.

And One for the Kids

El Deafo

by Cece Bell
Written by the author and illustrator of children’s picture books, Cece Bell’s memoir tells of her childhood as she grows up with hearing difficulties. It’s a book aimed squarely at kids, but it provides great insight for adults who know or work with deaf children to understand their point of view. The illustrations are bright and whimsical (using bunnies instead of people), which lightens the mood of the anxiety and loneliness of a child who is different from those around her. Winner of the Newbery Prize Honor award, El Deafo stresses understanding and friendship while sharing the difficulty of being a deaf child.

Looking for More?

All the books in this list have different styles of storytelling and art. Some are funny, others sad, some a mixture of both, but they all show the willingness of the authors to tell their stories in the best way they know how — through their art.

Looking for more graphic memoirs? Here’s a great list of 100 must-read Graphic Memoirs from Bookriot.com. They may not all be available in the Douglas County Libraries collection, but you can request a title or ask a staff member and we’ll work to get a copy for you!

Summer Lovin’?

In the depths of winter, we often dream of summer — the magical season of constant sun, exotic destinations, ambitious home projects, and escape from the grind of daily life. We welcome summer with great fanfare and anticipation, seduced by our convictions that it’s the perfect season.

Initially, the allure is a passionate need to embrace all that summer offers. It is that unique moment when everything is fresh and exciting, and the only thing you want is to spend time together. It is you and summer against the world — the possibilities seem endless.

Until…

Eventually, those charming, entertaining quirks mutate into unamusing flaws. Summer’s need for adoration, its volatility, and its intensity can become overwhelming. Do you endure what has become imperfect for the memory of past attraction? Or do you sever the connection?

Maybe you just take a welcome break.

Try rebounding indoors with a refreshing drink or pint of ice cream and one of these television series.

Better Call Saul

It’s the prequel to Breaking Bad, but it stands very well on its own. The series traces attorney Jimmy McGill’s evolution to the morally corrupt Saul Goodman.

The Expanse

Great sci-fi TV! This thriller, set in the future after mankind has colonized the solar system, follows a hardened detective and a rogue ship’s captain in a race across the solar system to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Feel like a good laugh? Try this hit comedy series from the mind of Tina Fey. It follows Kimmy, newly rescued after 15 years in a doomsday cult, as she rebuilds her life in New York City armed with only a fifth-grade education and the belief that anything is possible.

Want more? Try one of these other binge-worthy series.

Author Louise Penny: It’s Personal

You may have heard that Douglas County Libraries is hosting an evening with Louise Penny at the Lone Tree Arts Center (7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 5) in partnership with Tattered Cover Book Store. If you haven’t heard, buy your ticket now — there are only a few left!

Normally, I get these author event notices and think, “That’s cool. We have fun events.” When this one arrived in my inbox, though, I got teary-eyed. Let me tell you why. Note: If you have sensitivities to mildly sad stories, you may want to grab some tissues.

In April 2014, my siblings and I found out our mom had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. After we got over the shock, each of us kids came up with things to do to support our ailing mom. My brother bought her lots of cancer-fighting foods and did all the heavy lifting around the house. My youngest sister visited almost daily and did the housekeeping. And my middle sister decided we would all shave our heads when mom started chemo so she wouldn’t be the only bald one in the family.

Me? I buddy-read Louise Penny’s books with mom.

Me, Mom & Louise Penny

Actually, it wasn’t quite buddy reading. Mom had been reading Penny’s books for a while. She loved them and had been trying to get me to read them so we could have book chats, but I don’t normally go in for those kinds of stories (Penny insists they’re not cozy mysteries so I won’t call them that). But now that mom was sick, I relented and started with the first book in the Three Pines/Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries, Still Life.

I thought it was OK.

Mom, however, was so excited that I’d read it! She gushed about her favorite character, the crabby old poet Ruth Zardo. She informed me that Ruth gets a duck at some point in the series and that’s the part she really wanted me to get to because Ruth and that duck were her favorites.

 Since I’m such a dutiful and diligent daughter (i.e., because I’m a librarian and these books are super easy for me to get my hands on), I kept on reading and by the time I reached the fourth book, A Rule Against Murder, I was enjoying the stories far more than I’d expected.

Personal bragging right about A Rule Against Murder: Mine is the most popular review on Goodreads. I’ve copied an excerpt from that review because it explains how this project went:

So, here’s a stupid conversation I had with my mom last week while we were sitting in the waiting room between doctors’ appointments.
Me: “Oh, hey, I’m listening to the next Louise Penny book.”
Mom (perks up): “Which one?”
Me: “It’s either the fourth or the fifth. It’s the one that takes place in the lodge out in the wilderness and there are snotty rich people there while Gamache and his wife, Rene Marie, are celebrating their anniversary.”
Her: “…?”
Me [SPOILER!]: “The daughter is killed by the statue of her father? The rich family had all come together to remember the dad by putting a statue of him in the garden of this lodge? There’s a big storm and, afterward, the gardener finds the girl squished under the knocked-over statue?”
Her: “I don’t think I’ve read that one.”
Me (putting it down to chemo amnesia): “Oh, I’m sure you have. Like I said, it’s the fourth or the fifth one. Ruth Zardo’s duck hasn’t even begun to feature prominently. It was only born in the last book and Three Pines hasn’t even shown up in this book. I don’t know what else happens yet, I’m not that far in so I can’t tell you anything else, but I’m sure you’ve read it.”
We look at Jim. He shakes his head and shrugs.
Mom: “Well…I haven’t read these in order. I probably never read this one.”
Me: “WHAT? You’ve been making me read these so we could talk about them, but you haven’t even been going in order?”
Her: “I just wanted you to read about the duck. The old lady and the duck are my favorite part.”
*sigh*

Alright, well, I am reading these in order and the overall story, it is growing on me.

The mystery in this particular installment was actually kind of weak. I’d give it two stars. I’d come up with a far twistier Who/Why/How and was disappointed in the actual results.

But who cares?
I’m not reading these for the crime-solving element. I’m reading these for a duck, because my mom told me to, and I’ve become fond of Chief Inspector Gamache and his wife and the village of Three Pines.


I want to say that our reading time together fixed everything and she beat stage 4 lung cancer, that she is currently out puttering around in the garden. That didn’t happen. She died in July 2016. Don’t worry, it was a good death; she went with the rain, surrounded by family — and a rainbow appeared afterward.

I also wish I would have read these faster so we could have discussed that infernal duck, but she lost interest in books shortly after I finished the fifth book, The Brutal Telling, so I stopped reading them myself.

However, after she died, I started back up, maybe as a way to stay close to her. Appropriately, the sixth book is called Bury Your Dead. I thought it would do me in, but it didn’t; it was actually comforting to return to the small town and its denizens and to a mystery that would be solved tidily.

A Special Gift

I want to thank Louise Penny for giving me all that, for providing common ground for me and my mother, for giving me a warm hearth, as it were, to which I could retreat after everything was over. Obviously, I should go and listen to her talk on September 5, but I worry that I’ll just sit in the back and cry, which may not be the best representation of Douglas County Libraries. And, really, what author wants a crier in the audience?

Nevertheless, I hope you’ll go. And if you haven’t read her books, give them a try, even if they’re not really your cuppa. There’s a chance you’ll fall in love with the characters like I did and they can become a comfort to you in trying times.

’80’s Music

I’ve become one of those parents who criticizes their kids’ musical tastes with the refrain, “This isn’t music!” or “Music was so much better back in the …” And while I’m not using the Beatles or Beach Boys as examples (though I could), I am thinking about the music of the ’80s, music that immediately takes me back to another time and place. And it seems those musicians are now looking back as well, because a number of them have recently released memoirs that provide a behind-the-scenes look at this wonderful time. Just leafing through the books to check out the pictures of some of these groups is good for a giggle.

If you lived through the 1980s, here are some books, music and movies to help you reminisce. And if you’re too young to have memories of this time, the books below will help you understand why this decade was so awesome … at least musically.

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution

by Craig Marks
Remember when MTV was just music videos? Read about the beginnings of the music television channel and how it changed music forever.

Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists & Songs That Defined the 1980s

by Lori Majewski
An entertaining oral history celebrating New Wave music. The book includes interviews with all of the major New Wave artists of the period plus wonderful photos.

Chapter & Verse: New Order, Joy Division & Me

by Bernard Sumner
Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and New Order writes about what it was like to be in these pivotal bands.

The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music & Technology

by Thomas Dolby
She Blinded Me With Science? Hyperactive? Read about the man behind this music and how he used “cutting edge” technology to create a new sound. Remember modems that you placed phone receivers into? Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?

Set the Boy Free: The Autobiography

by Johnny Marr
While Morrissey provided the voice and image of The Smiths, Marr provided the musical hooks. Read about his life before, during and after this amazing band.

 

Tenacious Characters: Great Fantasy Picks (& One Dystopian) for Teens & Adults

When I have a young adult request for fantasy reads, I have a few go-to picks that I have always loved and love to recommend. All feature a quietly determined main character who is fixated on pursuing his or her quest. There’s no flashiness, no drama, just tenacity and cleverness — and when cleverness fails, resolve. The writing is beautifully descriptive and full of imagery, without being overly flowery or dense. These books all rank among those that consistently receive positive feedback.

Sabriel

by Garth Nix

Sabriel has grown up attending boarding school — in a nonmagical land. Across the wall is the Old Kingdom, where she comes from and where her father, known as the Abhorsen, tends to the souls of the dead, ushering them into the various levels of the underworld.

When her father goes missing, Sabriel sets out to find him. Her journey takes her across the wall into the Old Kingdom, and in and out of the land of the dead.

Not only is the story beautifully written and Sabriel a pragmatic and surprisingly competent main character (no “klutz turns into warrior princess” story here), but the peripheral characters are just as enjoyable as Sabriel.

The Wee Free Men

by Terry Pratchett
Another border crossing story. The witches of Discworld have the magic that anyone with a Granny has already experienced: a loving heart, brutal common sense, and ruthless pragmatism. Tiffany is young, but when she takes out an evil fairy using her brother as bait and a cast iron skillet to win the fight, she marks herself clearly destined to be a witch. When her brother is stolen into Fairyland, Tiffany must team up with the Nac Mac Feegal to find him. The Wee Free Men are small blue men who love their ale and a good brawl, and they are the terror of livestock everywhere. They’re a perfect, rambunctious counterpoint to Tiffany’s level-headed, pragmatic personality.

Ship Breaker

by Paolo Bacigalupi

Global warming has taken its toll and the oceans have risen. Nailer and his father live on the beach working to retrieve salvage from wrecked tankers to survive. Nailer wants out, and a wrecked clipper ship full of expensive salvage seems like his ticket to freedom. But there’s a girl trapped inside and he has to make a decision between a good life and saving someone who will surely die.

There is a survival scene early in this book that hooked me, then the main character won my heart. He is heroic, and yet sometimes vindictively petty, and clever, and ungracious, and wonderfully tenacious. He illustrates that some choices don’t come easy, and real human beings have to deal with the consequences and make their peace.

The Hero & the Crown

by Robin McKinley

Aerin is not your classic princess. Introverted and single-minded, gawky and determined, she spends her time outside reading in the fields with a retired warhorse. Seeking a purpose in life, she sets out to fight dragons. Dragons of Aerin’s day are small, squatty, awkward pests, but still dangerous and challenging, and fighting dragons is not “women’s work.”

The great dragons of old are long extinct. Or perhaps, not quite …

I love that this character’s approach to achieving her goal is deliberate and methodical. She experiments, she fails, she reflects, she learns, she tries again … and again … and again. She is a wonderful reminder that when we set out to accomplish something, we are often surprised by what we find inside ourselves.

Other Go-To Picks 

Embracing Life: Women Who Published After 40

In a culture that often disregards older people with life experience, it is sometimes easy to feel that creative potential is higher when you’re younger. All of these female authors have dispelled that myth by publishing first novels after the age of 40. They prove that you do not need to succumb to cultural expectations of aging. Their tenacity and spirit confirm that the creative spark within continues to be a vibrant force as we age.

Following are some favorites from such authors, plus a few more in this book list.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor is orderly, kind and lonely. She works as a finance clerk during the week and goes home every Friday night, heats up a pizza, drinks some wine, and does not talk to another person until Monday. Eleanor may be socially awkward, but her singular observations about people and life are hilarious and steer her toward a hopeful future.

Honeyman’s debut is a heartfelt, funny look into the life of a seemingly ordinary anti-heroine who goes on an emotionally courageous journey.

Gail Honeyman spent two years writing Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine while working full-time at Glasgow University. She started working on the novel as she found herself on the brink of turning 40. The beginning of the book won the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2014, and the completed novel created a fierce bidding war, ultimately earning Honeyman a seven-figure advance.

The Given World

by Marian Palaia

In The Given World, main character Riley does not travel a straight line in her journey from 1960’s Minnesota to San Francisco in the ’70s, and then to post-war Vietnam in search of her MIA brother.

To quote Palaia, Riley’s coming-of-age story ends up being “something that looks something like redemption might look after it has been buried in a pile of refuse under a pile of rocks for a very long time.”

Read this compelling interview with Marian Palaia.

Anything Is Possible

by Elizabeth Strout
This new novel by Strout is similar in structure to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge in that it is a collection of short stories about interconnecting inhabitants in the small town of Amgash, Illinois. Amgash is where Lucy Barton was born, and she is the protagonist from Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. Strout published her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle (1999), in her early 40s.

Calling Invisible Women

by Jeanne Ray

There comes a certain age a woman reaches when she begins to feel invisible — to both her family and society. Clover wakes up one morning to find that she is actually invisible. Eventually, she finds a support group of like-bodied women. They discover that they can effect change in meaningful ways, whether or not they are seen and noticed by others. Calling Invisible Women is a surreal, humorous and thought-provoking story.

Jeanne Ray published her first novel, Julie and Romeo Get Lucky (1998), at age 60, after a 40-year career in nursing. Check out this interview with her about her writing life.

Books Nominated for Lesser-Known Awards

No doubt you’re familiar with, or have at least heard of, the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music. You probably even know about the Man Booker Prize. Those are the big literary awards, and you’ll often find some overlap between their shortlists. You’ll also often find that your friends have some of those finalists on their end tables and Kindles. But what if you want to read books that get nominated for lesser-known awards?

We can help with that.

The following literary awards will be presented this month. Let’s take a look at six books that are shortlisted for recognition, shall we?

American Library Association’s Carnegie Medal

 


Swing Time 

by Zadie Smith

2017 Finalist — Fiction

This novel swings back and forth between race (from the protagonist’s black activist mother and working-class white father, to the white mega-star building a school for girls in rural Africa); privilege and luck; wealth and poverty; Africa, London and New York; friendship and animosity; strong women and weak ones; the importance of education; and many other themes.

A limited-in-personality narrator begins her story the day after being fired from her job. She gets a message from a bitter childhood friend and begins to reminisce on her life, nonlinearly remembering the moments that brought her to her current situation. As she admits from the outset, “I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people … I had never had any light of my own. I had experienced myself as a type of shadow.”

The total impact of the story is lessened by using this particular type of narrator, but at the same time, her passivity and her desire to absolve herself from everything that has happened around or to her allow the reader to understand the narrative beyond the veil intentionally created by this unreliable protagonist.


The Firebrand & the First Lady: Portrait of Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, & the Struggle for Social Justice

2017 Finalist — Nonfiction

While Eleanor Roosevelt is no stranger in American history books, civil rights activist and teacher Pauli Murray is far less well-known. It may surprise some to find that Roosevelt, old enough to be Murray’s mother, came to know, then admire and form a tight friendship with the young, educated, but poor black woman. Murray initiated the relationship with an angry letter to FDR, sending a copy to the first lady in hopes the president would have a better chance of seeing her missive. From there, the two started a politely contentious correspondence that gave each woman insight into one another, themselves, and the country in which they both lived.

Author Patricia Bell-Scott says she first intended to merely publish the letters between these two women but realized there was more to the story than just their correspondence. Thus, the chapters are a mix of historical background and explanations of the culture and societal norms of the time as well as the letters, building a complex path from anger and dissatisfaction from one party and hesitation and placation from the other to a place of mutual admiration and respect.

Recommended for readers who enjoy epistolary biographies about American history, the civil rights era, and/or women in history.

BAILEYS Women’s Prize for Fiction

As in this BAILEYS, because Irish cream and books go hand in hand in the U.K.

Baileys Irish Cream

 


Do Not Say We Have Nothing

2017 Finalist

A Canadian novel, complex in its look at student refugees fleeing the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as well as the earlier Chinese cultural revolution, wrapped in an overall theme of music and the question of freedom. Is there such a thing?

This is not a light novel, nor is it quickly read or easy to forget. It takes some effort to follow and parse. There is a lot of explanation throughout of Chinese language(s), music, even mathematics. It’s not told in a linear fashion but, instead, jumps back and forth from a mother and her daughter and their not-quite-kin houseguest at the end of the 1980s to 1960’s China under Chairman Mao’s regime, and then forward to the current day as the last recipient of these stories is trying to tie up loose ends and solidify what she’s learned.

This book is long and it wanders, which may be off-putting to some readers. The writing is strong, but it will be frustrating to those who desire brevity. However, if you’re interested in learning more about China during and after the Great Leap Forward, as well as the impact Chinese communism has had on the generations since, this is your book.

The Sport of Kings

2017 Finalist

This is being hailed as the next Great American Novel and it might be just that. Or it might be problematic in its look at racism, misogyny and elitism in the American South. This is the only book in this post written by a white person.

It opens with James Henry Forge, the antithesis of Atticus Finch, his son, Henry, and their shared ancestry dating back to the opening of the Northwest Territory, when their forefather and his slave traversed the Cumberland Gap and laid claim to the land that has been Forge property ever since. While some parcels have been sold off over the years, the main house and the surrounding acreage have made a good living for the family of privileged white gentleman farmers until Henry and his obsession with thoroughbreds change the landscape, literally and figuratively. His daughter, Henrietta, is expected to continue her father’s dream of breeding the country’s finest horse, but their enterprise is compromised after Henrietta hires a black ex-convict whose skills with the Forge stock are unparalleled.

The writing is gorgeous, though intentionally pretentious. It’s a long-winded, meandering tale that will appeal to some and irritate others, and it is full of humanity’s more vile aspects. I suspect this will garner both praise and criticism in equal measure.

The Lammys

 


Will Do Magic for Small Change

2017 Finalist – Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror

This is more magical realism/urban fantasy than sci-fi, fantasy or horror, incorporating both African and American folklore and legends. It begins with Cinnamon Jones at her older half-brother’s funeral. She’s black, she’s poor, she’s friendless and awkward. She and her mother do not get along and all she has left in the world is “The Chronicles of the Wanderer,” a journal her late brother bequeathed to her.

The story is told through both Cinnamon’s life in Philadelphia in the 1980s and via chapters of “The Chronicles of the Wanderer,” a diary of sorts penned by an alien who came to Earth in 1893 to collect stories and found him/herself in Dahomey during its fall. The alien is taken in and named Taiwo by an ahosi, a warrior wife of the soon-to-be deposed king. The two stories weave together as “The Chronicles” help Cinnamon navigate the most tumultuous years of her life.

Of the six books listed here, this was my least favorite. While I enjoyed the overall tale quite well, the writing style was an obstacle to my reading experience, leaving me frustrated and annoyed. Regardless, it’s an innovative look at family and friendship, art and magic, past and future, and love and faith — and it makes for a fine summer read.

Another Brooklyn

2017 Finalist – Lesbian Fiction

A short novel but not necessarily a quick read, this story follows an unreliable narrator as she turns from the present to face her past, recalling her girlhood in rural Tennessee through her teenage years in Brooklyn. It’s a coming-of-age tale that touches on before and after, dreams and reality, race and class, the meaning of friendship, and the accuracy of memory.

Fleeing grief in the 1970s, August and her father and brother move from their Sweetgrove land in Tennessee to a Brooklyn neighborhood, not far from where the father grew up. The siblings are told to stay indoors during their father’s workdays, a prison sentence after being raised on open land. However, there’s life outside their apartment window and they both eventually win their freedom. August navigates her new world, slowly becoming a teenager, learning her body, flirting with sexuality, and understanding that there’s power in numbers and danger in solitude. She and her friends wear razor blades in their knee socks and plan to grow their nails though they are never able to stop biting them. Summers are hot, the girls know all the top-40 songs, and they believe education will get them to where they want to be. Then, suddenly, they’re women, no longer friends, and only one has followed the path she set for herself. As the narrator remembers her past, she wonders if things would have turned out differently had the girls been raised on jazz, a music that would have reflected their lives and emotions.

Woodson is best known for her young adult novels. While this does follow a group of teenagers closely through much of the story, it’s not aimed at a young adult audience. It exposes some ugly truths about a girl’s coming of age, about a family’s ability to cope with pain, and about how far we’ll go to forget what we don’t want to remember, all framed in lively, gorgeous prose. I highly recommend listening to this one.

 

You might have noticed many of these books contain similar themes. Maybe that’s the nature of contemporary literature or maybe I have a superpower that allows me to choose random books that tie together really well. I enjoyed reading these simultaneously and consecutively because I was allowed the pleasure of comparing and contrasting character experiences, especially the coming-of-age stories, as well as how past affects present and how written stories can influence generations to come. However, if you feel you’d be bored reading the same themes over and over, there are plenty more shortlisted titles from which to choose. Douglas County Libraries doesn’t have all the finalists in all the award categories, but these are available for your reading pleasure.

Let’s kick off summer with award-potential literature!

Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories From the Medical World

A couple of weeks ago I came across an article about poisonous plants and their role in medicine. Not only was the article interesting on its own, but it started me on a kick of medical reading. No, no, I don’t mean dusty old anatomy books or the latest diet craze how-to’s. I’m talking about true medical stories that offer intriguing and unusual insights into both the human body and the medical industry — the stuff that reads like fiction because it just doesn’t seem possible or probable.

Check out these five true tales and see if you agree.

Stiff

by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is the queen of investigative science writing. As her narratives expand, she goes from neophyte to knowledgeable and takes her readers along for the ride.

In Stiff, we learn about what actually happens to bodies that have been donated to medical pursuits. Sometimes disturbing, sometimes uplifting, I found the balance of the macabre and the optimistic pretty reasonable. However, I have to admit that I put it down a couple of times to take breaks from the darker bits.

Roach covers a variety of modern practices, such as forensic research and surgical techniques. She also addresses the history of the cadaver in medicine, which is interspersed throughout the book to offer background on how important the human form has been in developing quality medical care.

Patient H.M.

by Luke Dittrich

In Patient H.M., the author uses the story of Henry Molaison to contemplate medical ethics and take a serious look at the impact on the individual that often follows medical breakthroughs.

Molaison suffered from epileptic seizures, and in 1953, the author’s grandfather performed an experimental surgery to try to stop them. In removing several sections of brain tissue, the surgeon was successful in reducing the impact of the seizures, but it also caused Molaison to permanently lose his short-term memory. Subsequent studies of Molaison, who passed away in 2008, led scientists to a much better understanding of how human memory works. But the question remains: at what cost to the individual?

 

 

Dreamland

by Sam Quinones

Although this book came out in 2015, it’s back on people’s radars — I think because opiate addiction has been in the news a lot lately. And I think it’s an important read to not only help us consider the role of opiates in modern America, but also to consider how we got to this spot.

Like several on this list, Dreamland offers a look at history, as well as the current era. Unlike the other titles, though, it is rather sweeping in scope; the book delves not only into the medical industry, but also into organized crime, domestic life, economics and politics.

Reading this book will leave you feeling more knowledgeable about an important topic that affects people in our community on a daily basis. Plus, it’s insightful and highly readable. While I can’t say that Dreamland is an enjoyable book, per se, I can say that I know and understand more than I did before.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

Whether or not you’ve already read it, you’ve likely heard about the adaptation of this book into a mini-series on HBO — that’s how much drama is involved in this true tale.

In the early 1950s, Henrietta Lacks’ doctor removed cells from a tumor in her body and gave them to research scientists in the same facility without her knowledge. The cells, unlike any the researchers had worked with before, did not die. Able to be grown, frozen and divided without killing the cells, Ms. Lacks’ unethically gathered tissue became the most widely used human cells in medical research.

Author Rebecca Skloot writes about her journey to discover the background of these important cells. And, as she investigated, the greater issues of medical morality, social divides, and family crisis also came into view. This complex read gives form to the story of a woman who unknowingly saved many lives, as well as her family who helped uncover the tale.

 

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

by Susannah Cahalan

One day, Susannah Cahalan is going about her business as a reporter working in the heart of New York; the next, she is waking up in the hospital with no memory of the past month. Diagnosed with a myriad of different, and sometimes contradictory, medical issues, Cahalan was identified as having everything from bipolar disorder to Alzheimer’s disease. The author shares her own story, which is as much a mystery as a medical tale, narrating her own attempt to piece together what happened in her missing month.

So many medical stories are written from the outside-in that it was nice to find one written by the person who lived through the whole thing. Cahalan is a good writer who doesn’t shy away from sharing her tough story. While this memoir might inspire some readers toward paranoia (I know I had my moments), it’s also a story about coming out on the other side and getting your life back together.

On Being Different

I want to encourage some interactive “vandalism,” something I typically wouldn’t do as a library professional. But, please, hear me out. It’s for the sake of good mental health.

Jenny Lawson is one of my favorite people. Her popular online persona, The Bloggess, has overflowed the internet, spawning two humor-laden memoirs and a third book that is a little different: It’s both a coloring book of pictures she drew on a book tour — because it gave “my hands something to do so they don’t destroy me” — and short essays and affirmations, written simultaneously to herself and to everyone during a particularly heavy depression. It’s called You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds, and it’s really a form of therapy created by a person who knows therapy because she’s been there. Like, probably this week. Twice.You are here

Since the release of You Are Here, Jenny has been re-tweeting pictures taken by her fans of pages they’ve colored. One picture tweeted by @dustmote_, a member of #thebloggesstribe, is of a note she’d written in a library copy of the book.

speckled light (@dustmote_) _ Twitter

(Photo courtesy of Sarah Ohme, aka @dustmote_, used with permission)

Lovely penmanship, right? But it’s that message, the acknowledgement that the next person holding the book may feel fragile, may feel like an outsider, may feel overwhelmed and lonely, but even so, that person is not alone. There are others in that same space, unseen, perhaps, but there nonetheless. That’s important. That message inspired me.

In some Douglas County Libraries copies of this book, there are stickers inside the front covers that ask you to not write in the books. In other copies, there are messages asking you to join the celebration that is You Are Here. Those are the interactive copies. I invite you to help those books undergo a journey. Color in them, share your stories, help each other through tough times, offer encouragement and support. Look at what others have done and gain inspiration or, at the very least, the knowledge that you’re here, we’re here, and you’re not alone. That is, after all, the intent.

Let’s make these books into living documents, each one unique. They will become a representation of Douglas County, and we’ll archive the copies once they’re out of circulation so they can continue to help, guide and inspire the next generation.

May Is Mental Health Awareness Month

If you’d like to re-create what Jenny did, whether it be for your own mental health or just the fun of it, we have useful resources! Check these out.

 

Drawing in Black & White
by Deborah Velasquez

Whether or not you’re an artist, this will give you tips and tricks for being comfortable drawing monochromatic pictures.

The Great Zentangle Book
by Beate Winkler

You know those doodles that turn into neat patterns? Have you always wondered how to make them, or find yourself creating geometric landscapes while on the phone? Get more out of your doodling by learning to zentangle!

 

Becoming a Great Essayist/Writing Great Essays
An online course on essay-writing

The cover art shown here is what Great Courses uses for its online course and DVD course, only the titles are slightly different. Don’t worry about it. You get all the same information from the online class as you do from the DVDs.

 

Check out these other items of interest, as well.

 

Additional Resources

If you need something beyond the items Douglas County Libraries offers, these resources can provide additional help.

Remember: You are here, but you are not alone.