Friday, April 27, 2012

What are they reading in Philadelphia?

The Daily Beast posted an interesting slideshow comparing the best-selling books of 2011 in the 10 largest cities in the nation.  Of course, there are several books that appear across the board (The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, and George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series come to mind), but there are some interesting regional differences.  Click here to take a look:  maybe you'll discover that you have literary brethren far afield.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman

Written first as a diary after the war, this memoir of the Holocaust is distinguished by the author’s vivid description of the situation in Warsaw, Poland.  Since he was not writing for publication, Szpilman, then a well-known composer and musician, simply begins his story without preamble in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw in 1940, and then goes back to a year earlier, before Germany attacked Poland.  Germany bombed Warsaw mercilessly in September of 1939, and although Britain and France declared war on Germany, Warsaw and Poland fell within a few weeks.  

 Szpilman, in his late twenties, lived in Warsaw with his parents and two sisters and two brothers.  He captures for the reader the mistaken security that his family felt at first, with no real apprehension of what Nazi Germany intended for their race. They were most upset with their own leaders who evacuated when the Germans overcame the Polish Army.

At the same time, the restrictions against Jews eventually imposed by the Germans are bitterly resented.  The requirement for Jews to wear a special arm band for identification is something that Szpilman declares that they couldn’t have anticipated as happening to them, even in the worst scenario imaginable.  Then the Jews are forcibly relocated in a small part of the city and not allowed out - in the Jewish ghetto which the Germans called the “Jewish quarters”.  Szpilman relates how imprisoning it was to live, for two years, with some 400,000 people in an area about 1.3 square miles.  He found work playing piano at different cafes in the first months, since at first there were still wealthy Jews, some of whom made money in the black market.  They ate and drank while others starved or died of typhus, spread by the incessant vermin.   

German lies are mixed with devastating events. Germans sent the Polish police force, which they had recruited and trained in strong-arm tactics, to rout out and arrest many Jewish men. They were told they were going to work in Germany.  In the evening, after the men were taken, the curfew was officially relaxed, so that family members could bring blankets and food to them.  But the real destination for those arrested were the newly-built crematoriums in Treblinka, where they were the first to test those emporiums of death. 

Eventually Szpilman and his family are summoned to the train depot.  Waiting to embark, with his family all around him, Szpilman is pulled out of the queue and told to save himself.  Crying out to his family, trying to rejoin them through the wall of soldiers, he experiences a shock of fear and comprehension of what this exodus represents.  He runs away and is eventually recognized by a Jewish policeman, a relative, who shelters him.   Although Szpilman escaped the transport, he is not being followed and goes back to the ghetto and is assigned by the Jewish council to a work detail, demolishing part of the original Jewish ghetto (now much smaller).   The Jews are being periodically “weeded out”. His work detail is one day divided up into two groups, with the unfortunate ones being shot immediately.  

This and more details illuminate the fractured lives of those in Warsaw at the time.  Spzilman eventually flees the ghetto before its final liquidation and is hidden by friends.  He witnesses the Warsaw uprising which Germany defeated and as a punishment systematically emptied and razed Warsaw to the ground.  He describes how he survived through these events, constantly facing death, battling terror and depression, ending up living as a rat in a hole, flushed out by a German soldier who inexplicably gives him a helping hand.  

Spzilman died in 2000, at the age of 89.  In his last interviews he reiterates his sorrow, his regret – how in his old age, unease was his constant companion.  Saying, “I don’t know what to do with myself.”  I hope that his story will stay with us, as we mark the 70th anniversary of World War II – realizing how so many lives were undone - not only those who died, but also those who survived.   

Click here for our catalog listing.  The Pianist was made into a film in 2002, directed by Roman Polanski.  We have the CD soundtrack of the film - click here to see the listing.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pack a poem for Poem in Your Pocket Day

In honor of National Poetry Month, the American Academy of Poets has posted an exhibit on their website for folks who would like to celebrate "Poem in Your Pocket Day," which is tomorrow, April 26th.  The idea is that people should put a poem in their pocket and share it with others they meet throughout their day.  If you need help finding a poem, the American Academy of Poets website exhibit can help:  click here for an array of interesting little poems to take with you tomorrow.  Happy reading -- and sharing!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Who doesn't love a good ghost story? They bring us back to our childhood days of sleepovers and fireside tales. They unite us with the shivers and goosebumps that race down our skin, leaving us wondering and weary of those bumps in the night.

If you're looking to resurrect that feeling again, check out Susan Hill's The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story. The book first came out in 1983 and has since lived a healthy life, spawning a play and, most recently, a movie starring Daniel Radcliff of Harry Potter fame. It was the trailer to the movie that hooked my interest.

We've got it in both book form (FIC HILL) and audiobook (AD FIC HILL). With the book, you benefit from John Lawrence's stark, somber illustrations. With the audiobook, Ralph Cosham's narration lends a wonderfully moody atmosphere to the tale.

As someone who enjoys a good scare but doesn't want to be scared witless, The Woman in Black struck a good balance. It has the feel of a story from another time, not just because it's set in early 20th century Edwardian England, but because of the language Hill uses, which harkens back to the gothic novels of Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker.

Arthur Kipps narrates the tragic story:
I was then thirty-five and I had been a widower for the past twelve years. I had no taste at all for social life and, although in good general health, was prone to occasional nervous illnesses and conditions, as a result of the experiences I will come to relate. Truth to tell, I was growing old well before my time, a sombre, pale-complexioned man with a strained expression — a dull dog.
In the ensuing pages, we learn what, exactly, led to Kipps' premature aging: As a newly minted 23-year-old solicitor (that's what the British call their lawyers), Kipps is sent to the remote village of Crythin Gifford to attend to the legal affairs of one Mrs. Alice Drablow, recently deceased, of Eel Marsh House.

The unsuspecting Kipps likes the idea of an expedition and a rambling estate to explore. Well, the joke's on him. He soon finds himself growing increasingly uneasy and fearful as he sees and hears things that cannot be explained, beginning with the titular woman in black, whom he first spots at Mrs. Drablow's funeral. Eel Marsh House itself, cut off regularly from the roads by the tide, lends little sense of safety. In fact, when Kipps decides to stay at the house out of convenience, this just makes matters for him worse.

I'll leave you to uncover Mrs. Drablow's secrets but needless to say, Kipps' recounting has everything we've come to expect of ghost stories: creepy noises, moving objects, haunted houses and angry apparitions. In that sense, The Woman in Black covers little new ground. But if it's a traditional spooky story you're after, Hill's story should fit the bill quite nicely.

What's your favorite ghost story? Share your suggestions in the comments.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Attention, Christian fiction e-book readers...

Tyndale House Publishers is offering 3 free e-books each month to people who sign up for their monthly e-newsletter. The e-books can be read on your computer or your portable e-reader device. In order to sign up for the newsletter, you have to have a valid email address. Tyndale House, located in Illinois, publishes mainly Christian fiction and non-fiction. If you're interested, click on this link to sign up.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent

First published in November 2010, Heaven is for Real is now on its 61st week on the New York Times Best Seller List. As with many “faith” stories, reviews of the book are mixed. When Burpo’s son Colton was almost four, he had a near death experience in the hospital and later told his family that he had been in heaven for that time, with Jesus. He described some things that seemed to tally with Biblical accounts of heaven, and some things that the Bible does not mention, such as Jesus having a multi-colored horse. Todd Burpo, a minister, relates how matter-of-factly Colton surprised him and his wife with these pronouncements about what happened to him. Like other children that age, Colton is not trying to tell any story, he only shares details or convictions that seem to be triggered by what he’s watching or what is happening around him – whether it be a television show or a funeral at their church.

Some of the information that Colton shares is about events his parents say they did not tell him about, like the fact that he had a baby sister who had died before being born. He told them that she came up to him in heaven and kept hugging him. And he said that his father’s grandfather introduced himself to Colton while he was there. What was striking to his father was that none of the pictures he had of his grandfather were of him as a young man, but Colton knew who it was when Todd had an early picture sent to him. Perhaps Colton was guessing who this unidentified man was supposed to be. Some readers have suggested that since Colton’s dad Todd is a minister that Colton had absorbed many ideas of the things that he said happened to him. The story is told as though Colton just came out with these “revelations” bit by bit, and that his parents were careful not to react too strongly to his statements.

What we are left with is the impact of the impression his experience had on Colton. How he keeps telling everyone how much Jesus loves children (until his family almost says, okay, we GET it) and how concerned he is about whether a dying parishioner really does love Jesus or not. And what about the little girl in heaven who kept hugging him? About a year later, when Colton is being baby-sat, he starts crying and saying he misses his sister. Why does he think of her then? His mother has just had a baby, giving him a younger brother – maybe with his parents gone, he was lying there and remembered her and suddenly felt –really experienced – the distance between them. Many times children “know” something, but it takes a certain time and place for them to realize it.

Perhaps when Colton grows up, he’ll let us know that he kind of made the book up. But I tend to doubt it. Even though the family (and their church) has had a windfall from the book’s popularity, it’s hard to see the story as being man-made. It’s a slight, airy book, just wafting through your consciousness and not disturbing much of anything, unless you spend some time thinking about it. And that’s probably the secret of its success.

Click here for the catalog listing

Monday, April 9, 2012

Top Ten Most Challenged Library Books of 2011

To kick off National Library Week the American Library Association has issued their 2011 State of America's Libraries Report.  Included is a list of the top ten most challenged library books of the year. Read more about the challenges here. Here are the top ten books and the reasons they were challenged.

1)      ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
Offensive language; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
2)      The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa
Nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
3)      The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
Anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence
4)      My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler
Nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
5)      The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
6)      Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Nudity; offensive language; religious viewpoint
7)      Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit
8)      What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
Nudity; offensive language; sexually explicit
9)      Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar
Drugs; offensive language; sexually explicit
10)  To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Offensive language; racism

See any of your favorite books? Surprised by any books?  Let us know in the comments, and find out for yourself what the freedom to read is all about by checking out one of these books today.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

May you have a poetical April...

April is National Poetry Month, and the American Academy of Poets has some wonderfully fun suggestions for how you could celebrate. There is Poem in Your Pocket Day , you can subscribe to their Poem-a-Day newsletter to receive a daily poem in your email during the month of April, or you can celebrate by just tooling around on the Academy's website to find new and old poetry that you might like. Their website is extremely creative and fun -- be sure to take a look.

Another interesting poetry project out there is the Favorite Poem Project. This project, initiated by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, includes a video archive of Americans reading their favorite poems. You can watch some of the videos on the Favorite Poem website.

Even the SF crowd is getting into National Poetry Month. The folks at Tor Publishing (a science fiction-fantasy publisher) are sponsoring a sci-fi/fantasy poetry series this month. They're going to have contributions by some biggies like Jane Yolen & Catherynne M. Valente, with a new poem added each week. Check out their blog by clicking here. Happy reading -- and maybe you'll even get inspired to start writing.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

G.I.: The American Soldier in World War II by Lee Kennett

Lee Kennett, who died last year, was a history professor at Georgia and a noted historian. He wrote books about French and American military history, from the Revolutionary War to World War II. I read this book because we are in the seventieth anniversary years of World War II, a major event that appears to be passing from our view, as those people whose lives were impacted by the war are now aging significantly.

While this is a book of “straight” history, and not likely to be in the public eye as much as a historical novel, I found it immensely readable. Kennett describes how the United States had to quickly assemble an army after Pearl Harbor. Some early recruits had to share a gun for target practice and others were put to clearing swamps to build their training camps. But by the time the American soldier went marching into North Africa, Europe, and went flying into the Pacific, the quality and quantity of his outfitting and supplies were duly noted by both the Allied and Axis’ armies.

Kennett covers all the bases, from the first drafting of men through their induction, training and deployment. He does not try to defend times when the U.S. Army failed to meet its objectives. An example of this was how Italy, occupied by the U.S. after the war, became a breeding ground for profiteering and organized crime. In America, the local draft boards decided who were to be called up, and complaints didn't usually change their rulings. Kennett reports that the Hispanic and African-American men were given less exemptions than white recruits, probably a function of the more segregated society of that time.

U.S. Army soldiers in Europe had different experiences than those who were fighting the Japanese, and Kennett details for us the essential bleakness of those stationed in the Pacific. They had to fight in a jungle, facing an enemy that allegedly tortured and killed captured soldiers. Interestingly enough, Kennett tells us that documentation on the Japanese Army side also records their soldiers feeling alienated and spooked by the jungle, with its wild animals and pestilent diseases. Many soldiers in the Pacific were not felled by the enemy, but by disease.

Although the book reiterates how varied the G.I. soldier really was, Kennett still manages to make some solid generalizations about Americans in the Army that make a lot of sense. You can almost picture these young men (and women) being so friendly and open that children just flocked to them wherever they went, and how they got the reputation from the other Allies for not having much patience - always wanting to “get moving”. Another thing Kennett shows us, is that for all the hype and propaganda put out by our government, the American soldier didn’t have any enthusiasm for talking about patriotism. In his view, he was just “doing his job”. Kennett has left us with a pertinent portrait of Americans participating in World War II, one that we can use to remind ourselves of what the war meant for them and how they went out to meet it.

Click here for our catalog listing.

Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist Announced

This year's Arthur C. Clarke Award judges have recently announced the shortlist for this year's prize. The Arthur C. Clarke Award is given annually for an outstanding British science fiction novel. The contestants are:

Perhaps as interesting as perusing the list itself is the commentary that it has generated in the SF community. Christopher Priest (author of The prestige) published a viscerally cranky, but entertaining, critique of the judges' decision on his blog last week, and Catherynne M. Valente (an American and a fantasy writer, no less) published an equally engrossing response to Priest's critique on her blog. I find this stuff fascinating -- there is hand-wringing over the Current State of Literature, but we're in the SF blogosphere, so there are f-bombs and space jokes included in the rants.