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ShareReads

Aug 10 2012

Sharereads: Fiction and Nonfiction

by Joseph M

ShareReads intro

I’m a voracious reader, and working in the library, I come across interesting books on a regular basis. That being the case, I often find myself reading multiple books at a time. What I’m reading at any given moment depends on the occasion and my mood, and can run the gamut of content and format types. Generally, I find it easier to juggle more than one book at a time when I’m switching primarily between a work of fiction and a work of nonfiction. Earlier this summer, I found myself in just such a situation, dividing my reading time between two great books, which I’m going to talk more about below.

First, the fiction. The novel is called Hunter’s Run, and I found it noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is a collaborative effort between three authors: George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, and Daniel Abraham. All are notable writers on their own. George R. R. Martin is, among other things, the author of the bestselling Song of Ice and Fire series of books, on which the popular HBO series Game of Thrones is based. Gardner Dozois was the longtime editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine and has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for his work as a writer and editor of short fiction. Daniel Abraham is a prolific voice in American science fiction, and no stranger to successful collaborations, having penned the lauded epic Leviathan Wakes (unfortunately not yet available at DCPL) with author Ty Franck under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey.

There are many different ways for authors to collaborate on books, and in this case the story took shape over the course of several decades, passing back and forth between the authors and appearing in a number of different variations before publication in its present form in 2007. You can click here for a more detailed summary of the process. In addition to Hunter’s Run, Abraham and Dozois have separately collaborated with Martin on other projects.

But the writing process which created it isn’t the only fascinating thing about Hunter’s Run. It’s a science fiction novel, but with elements reminiscent of Western and Adventure/Exploration genres of literature. In many ways, it could be classified as a Space Western. The sense of a wild frontier is established with a description of the setting: a mostly-unexplored alien planet, settled by human colonists within living memory, and much of the action takes place in the wilderness away from the human communities. A majority of the characters and place names have a Latin American or Caribbean flavor, which also adds to the “Western” feel of the book.

Another aspect of the novel worth mentioning is the main character, Diego Rivera. Diego could definitely be classified as an antihero (and we’ve written about antihero protagonists before on ShareReads) at the start of the story, but he undergoes a fascinating internal transformation as the plot unfolds, providing an interesting counterpoint to his travels in the external world and allowing the authors to explore complex themes of memory, identity, communication, and the ways we are shaped by our experiences.

In addition to all of that, Hunter’s Run is also quite an exciting book, and does not lack for action and suspense; I certainly had trouble putting it down once I got started.

Now I’d like to talk a bit about What I Eat: Around The World In 80 Diets by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, the excellent nonfiction work I enjoyed concurrently with the novel discussed above. Peter and Faith are a husband and wife team who have traveled the world and documented the lives of people they met through photography and essays. In previous works such as Material World and Hungry Planet, they arrange “family portraits” based on the theme of the work; all the household possessions of the family were piled together for the portraits in Material World, while in Hungry Planet the families were pictured with a week’s-worth of food. In What I Eat, the authors alter the concept, focusing on the food intake of individuals over the course of a single average day, and using meticulous research to determine a caloric count. In all, 80 individuals were profiled in the book, and are ranked from first to last in order of calories consumed. The result is fascinating, informative, and poignant. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone. For a “taste” of what the book has to offer, you can visit the official website. Or, you can just check it out from your local library!

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Aug 3 2012

ShareReads: A Nonfictional Summer

by ShareReads

Nothing fires my imagination quite as much as a brilliant work of nonfiction. I tend to be drawn to creative, informative and, many times, fairly serious nonfiction, works that offer a glimpse into the lives of others and, in many cases, the opportunity to understand ourselves better. With summertime winding down (I know, I know—it’s going by fast isn’t it?) why not delve into a great book about someone you’ve never met, a country you’ve always wanted to visit or a time in history that you’ve always been fascinated by?

In considering which books to discuss in this post there is one book that tops the list: a fascinating and thoroughly engaging book called India Becoming: A Portrait of Life In Modern India by Akash Kapur. Kapur, an Indian living in America since he was 16, returns to the country of his birth to explore the opportunities and challenges of 21st century India. His journey takes him far and wide—from bustling vibrant cities like Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai to small towns and villages Tindivanam and Molasur—across the nation. Along the way Kapur introduces us to folks of all walks of Indian life including young Hari, a call center worker excited about the prospects of the new global economy,Veena, a 30-something careerwoman trying to strike a balance between her professional ambitions and her desire for family life and Sathy, a rural zamindar whose wealth and status is diminishing in the wake of New India’s shifting economy. Kapur is an incredible writer but also an exceptional listener, allowing the truths of his characters (for lack of a better word) to come forth, offering a compelling glimpse into New Millenium India.

Another intriguing and challenging nonfiction work that I have read a few times is Poor People by William T. Vollmann. The title, and indeed the subject matter, strikes an initially uninviting chord but I highly recommend this book. Poor People shines a light onto the lives of people from around the world subsisting in various states of poverty. The crux of this book lies within the author’s question to all of his interviewees: “Why are you poor?” The answers to this question range from simple (“Because I don’t have a job”) to philosophical (“I think I am rich,” says Wan, a young, emaciated beggar-girl in Bangkok) to fatalistic (“Money just goes where it goes”). Vollmann’s work is insightful in his discussion of the nature of poverty. His writing is vivid, expressive  and journalistic in his presentation of his subjects’  lives. Vollmann makes no pretense of owning the solution to the blight of poverty but perhaps this book and others like it brings its readers a step closer to understanding our fellow man.

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Jul 27 2012

ShareReads: My Very Zombie Summer

by ShareReads

ShareReads intro

This was my very ambitious summer. Between summer school, work and other obligations, I was determined to read a few books for pleasure. I requested several books and even started a few but nothing would hold my attention. My only source of pleasure reading was article reviews and textbooks for class. Though my head was filling with knowledge, I still needed some form of escapism in the few precious moments of down time I had.

So when a friend suggested that I read Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry, I hopped on the Library’s catalog and requested the book. I mean, a book with zombies, conspiracy theories and secret agencies that protected the world, who could ask for anything more? I started reading it, but alas, life happened and there the book sat for weeks, waiting for me to continue my journey through its pages whenever I had a break in my schoolwork.

Then one day, I read a DCPLive blog post about a 5K obstacle course with zombies that included a list of a few good books to read. Imagine my excitement as I perused the list of the post-apocalyptic fiction. I mean, who doesn’t love a good zombie story right? So, I requested a copy of Rot and Ruin, Jonathan Maberry’s YA zombie fiction and could not put it down.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Rot and Ruin is about Benny Imura, a young teen who is about to turn sixteen, and is faced with finding a job or losing half of his food rations. He tries out for everything, wanting any job but a zombie hunter like his older brother Tom. His career choice will set off a chain of events that will forever change his life.

I was truly engaged with the story and amazed by the care that Maberry took with such a subject. It went beyond the simple see-zombie-run-from-zombie formula and grabbed the reader. Before I knew it, 464 pages passed me by and I do not want the story to end. Thankfully, there is a sequel, Dust and Decay, that just as enjoyable as the first book.

After reading both books, I think I will give Mr. Maberry’s Joe Ledger series another try now that I have a break from school and a taste for a zombie thriller.

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Jul 23 2012

ShareReads: How Books Learn

by ShareReads

So with all the extra activities of summer time, I enjoy my magazines even more because they offer succinct, timely windows on things of interest. One of my favorite magazines is The Atlantic which is the oldest, continuously published magazine in the United States. Now we have a choice of reading it in print or electronic form. That is, in fact, the topic of Alan Jacobs’ article “How Books Learn”. He extended my knowledge of a new movement I was only vaguely aware of: object-oriented ontology or OOO. As he wrote, “The key question of OOO is summed up in the subtitle of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology: What It’s Like to Be a Thing.”

Citing a recent OOO book, How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand, he goes on to discuss how books are things in an often more personal way than buildings. Yet both change over time and with varying use. He notes the difference between the physical book as the format holding an idea or narrative and the concept of that idea or narrative that exists and gets re-formated and even translated, so to speak, over time and in different cultures that have other related events or ideas in play. The extended example he outlines for the reader is the Iliad which he traces from song, through transcription, to being copied by scribes, eventually printed and now available electronically.

It is a very short article but one I value because he helped me understand that “electronic reading is simply another stage in the education of books, and maybe not one of the more eventful ones”. I love that because it may finally help my aging eyes (and concept of reading) find peace with what feel like big changes to me. My age peers wax eloquent on the wonders of e-readers that allow us to change font size and background color. I think some of my resistance has been related to fear-of-losing-the-text.

Now that I consider the possibility that what seems a big change is only one step in a long process that has preserved (and changed, I know) many of the classics I still enjoy reading, I am ready to go back to my magazine reading online.

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Jul 13 2012

ShareReads: Summer Reading Times Two

by Patricia D

ShareReads intro

My summer reading has taken a two-pronged approach.  Not only am I reading for myself (some cookbooks, Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody books, Arabella by Georgette Heyer, The President’s Club: Inside the Worlds Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and My Life in France by Julia Child ) but I am reading with Junior.  We’ve worked our way through The Mouse and the MotorcycleThe Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and a huge stack of picture books.  Favorites out of that pile have been Mr. Pusskins, who can give Rotten Ralph a run for his money in the horrible department, the Pete the Cat books with wonderful illustrations by James Dean and favorite since toddler-hood Lyle the Crocodile.  Most importantly though, Junior has been reading to me, taking full advantage of any reader we can lay our hands on, as well as every bus, street sign and inappropriate billboard we pass.

Reading has been a hard-won skill for her and the only way I know to keep that skill sharp and improve on it is constant practice, something that is harder to achieve during the summer.   She has latched on to one reader in particular that was a hand-me-down from her cousin.  In all honesty, I am not enjoying repeated readings of the adventures of Stan, Dan and Lee at the pool.  Yes, there are plenty of wonderful readers out there but she prefers Stan and his ilk over Mr. & Mrs. Green, Mr. Putter and Tabby  and  Little Bear.  While I still make some selections for her, she is now insisting on her own choices when she is doing the reading.  I know she reads better when it’s something she wants to read, and that repetition in reading builds both comfort and confidence.  So, I listen while she reads the same books (there are others also not to my literary tastes) over and over.  This is what is called, in the world of parenting, a sacrifice. Yes, the book is meh but the payoffs?  The sound of my child’s voice as she works her way through a book with only 64 words and the obvious thrill she gets from conquering something that looked impossible last winter.  I imagine it will be pretty easy to forget the not so exciting books she loves this summer, but I will cherish the moments she’s cuddled next to me, frowning over how to sound out the word “aw,” while the miracle of learning to read becomes ordinary.

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Jul 6 2012

ShareReads: Altered Carbon

by Jesse M

Every year, I read a lot of books. Most of them are good, some of them are great, and occasionally a book is of such exceptional quality that I recommend it to people who don’t usually read that genre, and gift it for birthdays and holidays because I am so confident the recipient will enjoy it. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan is one of those books.

Altered Carbon is a novel which straddles the boundary between the Cyberpunk sub-genre of science fiction and the Hardboiled sub-genre of crime fiction. It features one of most compelling anti-heroes in modern literature, Takeshi Kovacs, a former interstellar special forces soldier turned mercenary/criminal who finds himself drafted into the role of private detective by a very wealthy and powerful patron who is in a position to make him an employment offer he cannot refuse. Complicating matters is that Kovacs is a stranger to 25th-century Earth (his consciousness was digitally “needlecast” from his home planet of Harlan’s World to Earth, the only method of faster-than-light interstellar travel available to humanity) and the body he is “re-sleeved” in, that of former policeman Elias Ryker, had complex relationships of his own that Kovacs must navigate in order to succeed in and survive his new assignment.

Altered Carbon is graphic and unflinching in its depictions of sex and violence, but nicely balances these scenes with more contemplative passages that add depth and flavor to the characters and setting. The quality and complexity of the work earned the novel the Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel in 2003. Film rights for the book and its sequels have also been optioned and Laeta Kalogridis, who penned Shutter Island and executive produced Avatar, will adapt the novel along with David Goodman.

Fans of Morgan’s work can find more at the library, including the two sequels featuring Takeshi Kovacs, Broken Angels and Woken Furies. Readers interested in pursuing more novels in the Cyberpunk or Hardboiled genres should check out William Gibson’s Neuromancer (the first book in his seminal Sprawl Trilogy) and The Raymond Chandler omnibus respectively; both Gibson and Chandler are considered among the premier writers of their genres.

While Altered Carbon has a lot to recommend it, for me the key element was the character of Takeshi Kovacs. His story and personality were so powerful and gripping I was unable to put Altered Carbon or its sequels down. Who are some of your favorite “anti-heroes” in literature, and what makes them so compelling?

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Jun 29 2012

ShareReads: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

by ShareReads

ShareReads intro

I am not normally drawn to realistic murder mysteries. I prefer my murders nice and tidy, light on details, heavy on wit and atmosphere. If the crime took place a century ago and on another continent, then so much the better. Every once in a while, however, a more realistic mystery is recommended to me over and over again. It shows up on “Best of …” lists and I feel compelled to see what all the fuss is about. That is how I discovered Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin.

Set in the small town of Chabot, Mississippi, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is the story of two men, one black and one white. They shared a brief but meaningful friendship when they were teenagers. This friendship ends, however, when a girl disappears and one of them is suspected of the crime. Twenty five years later, the men become reacquainted when another young girl disappears. While working to solve this new mystery, they discover secrets from their past that will either drive them apart or bring them together again.

This book was thoroughly enjoyable for a number of reasons. The characters were colorful and wonderfully flawed. The mysteries, past and present, unfolded slowly. And the mood of the location pervaded every scene. What I appreciated most about Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, however, was the beautifully subtle way in which the author dealt with relationships between races, between family members and between friends. In this book, as in life, things are rarely black or white. Usually, the most important things lie somewhere in between.

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Jun 22 2012

ShareReads: Alice’s Piano

by Ken M

I just finished Alice’s Piano, a biography of the concert pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer, who is now the oldest living Holocaust survivor. Her remarkable story is one of determination, triumph and optimism.  This is one of two recently acquired titles about Ms. Herz-Sommer.

Alice was one of twins, and part of a musical family. All the sisters in her family learned to play the piano, and her brother was a violinist. After evening meals, the family often made music together, and word of these musicales spread throughout her town. She received fine musical training at the German Musical Academy in Prague, headed by Alexander von Zemlinsky (a prize pupil of Johannes Brahms, and later the friend and brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg). Alice made her debut playing the Chopin E-minor concerto with the Czech Philharmonic, and gave many concerts, including radio broadcasts; she was also highly regarded as a teacher.

After the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, she was sent to Theresienstadt, along with her husband, Leopold, and their very young son, Stephan. Her talents were already well known upon her arrival, both to guards and prisoners alike. She was expected to continue to practice and give concerts in the camp; while she did, she strove to give her young son as normal a life as possible.  She made a project of mastering all the Chopin etudes, gradually performing them in groups, and then as a whole concert made up of both books. She gave weekly concerts from her copious repertoire, and brought temporary solace and even joy to all those who heard her.

After the war, Alice taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory.  Stephan took the Hebrew name, Raphael, and took up the cello, becoming a fine artist and teacher himself, and living and working in Great Britain. Alice followed him there years later.

Though it might seem like it, I really haven’t told you everything about Alice and her family. She’s a wise and optimistic person, who cares as much for people as she does for music. She’s still with us, beloved by friends in at least eight countries. I hope you can make time in the near future for her inspiring life story.

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Jun 15 2012

ShareReads: The Art of Tearing Up

by Jimmy L

ShareReads intro

Admit it, we’ve all cried at the movies. Many have cried at the end of a book. And some may have even cried at the cancellation of their favorite TV show (OK, so I’m stretching the category a bit here). But how many of us have cried in front of a painting in a museum? That is the subject of a book I recently borrowed from the library purely because I found its unconventional subject matter intriguing. It’s called Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings by James Elkins. Elkins claims that we have lost touch with our emotional reaction to paintings, and whereas previous generations had a highly emotional relationship with art, the past 100 years of art history have been the driest in terms of tear-duct/facial interaction.

One of the things I loved about this book is that it is a non-academic humanist look at art history by an academic. Elkins wrestles with the idea of art criticism caught between intellectual distance and emotional investment, and wonders if the two approaches had to be mutually exclusive. Are they not both valid? Time and again he runs into the problem where other academics and art historians simply wouldn’t talk to him. And many of them who did talk to him wanted to remain anonymous so as not to ruin their credibility. He constantly heard the following reaction, slightly paraphrased by me: “Crying (and other more base human reactions) are not a proper way of interacting with art. In fact, the phenomenon doesn’t even deserve to be studied.”

"Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun" by Van Gogh

But study it he does. Being an academic, Elkins has loved paintings for all sorts of reasons, but has never cried in front of one himself. So the phenomenon is not foreign to him, but at the same time he is too knowledgeable in art history for a painting to catch him unaware in that welling-up-weepy way. So he decides to ask other (normal-ler) people: “What paintings (if any) have you cried in front of, and why (or why not)?”

I won’t go into them here, but it turns out there are many reasons, and some of them are enlightening while others not so much. Though not perfect by any means, I really enjoyed this book because of its unconventional treatment of its subject. Another book comes to my mind when speaking of books that think outside the box, Freakonomics (though I could write a whole blog post on why I disliked that book). To this end, I will pose a question: “What books have you read that treat a subject in a completely new or unconventional way?” Alternately, you may also answer Elkin’s question: “What paintings (if any) have you cried in front of, and why (or why not)?”

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Jun 8 2012

ShareReads: The Maya

by ShareReads

Long before other world cultures conceived the use of zero, the Maya of Mexico and Central America were using zero to calculate and indicate dates in their books and on their monuments. They could calculate dates millions of years in the past and far into the future. The current epoch in the Maya calendar began in 3114 B.C. and ends in December of this year. The Maya built large cities with towering temples; to this day, the tallest building in Belize is a Maya pyramid at the ruins of Caracol. When the artist Frederick Catherwood first tried to draw a picture of a Maya carving at Copan, around 1840, he had difficulty wrapping his mind around what he was seeing because the art was so alien to his way of thinking.

I’ve been interested in Maya history and culture since I read Time among the Maya by Ronald Wright. That book tells of Wright’s travels in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala during the early 1980’s. I found the book fascinating, if a bit over my head. When I read it I had never traveled to the area where the Maya live, I was not familiar with the names of the ancient cities Wright described and I had no clue about Maya culture, past or present. Since reading that book I have visited areas in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Mexico where Maya live and have enjoyed almost every minute of my travels there.

I just read Michael D. Coe’s The Maya and wish I had done so years ago. Coe is a noted anthropologist and first published The Maya in 1966, but he has revised it every few years since then. While it could be used as a textbook, The Maya is written in a straightforward style that is easy to follow. I finally feel I am starting to understand the development of the Maya civilization and how the seats of political power shifted over the centuries. This book also has information on modern Maya culture and tips on visiting the area, though the focus is on the past. Other books on Maya history are A Forest of Kings, The House of the Governor, The Blood of Kings, and Maya Art and Architecture.

If the ruins of Maya cities interest you,An Archaeological Guide to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, by Joyce Kelly, is a great book to read. Kelly also wrote An Archaeological Guide to Northern Central America, which covers sites in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Thinking of visiting the Maya region? The Library has a number of travel guides, including Cancún and Cozumel, The Rough Guide to the Yucatán, Honduras and the Bay Islands, Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatán, and Lonely Planet/Mexico. These guides and others are good even if you have no interest in ruins; they tell you how to get around, suggest places to stay, and recommend restaurants. Restaurants in Yucatán often feature Maya cuisine, and these guides will let you know ones that are worth trying. The Maya culture covers a large area, from the Pacific coast to northern Yucatán, so there is something for almost every traveler to be found there.

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