Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
|I’ve loved Jeanette Winterson’s work for a long time now.
I love the breadth and depth of it. She’s able to write more experimentally,
Written on the Body, in a more classic narrative style, like in
The Passion, and she’s even written science fiction with
Stone Gods. I find her language creative and gorgeous and powerful, and her explorations of human experience moving.
Reading her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, it’s amazing to me that she survived her childhood, let alone went on to produce such smart, loving work. I had some sense of how difficult her childhood was because I read her 1985 autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which won her the Whitbread Prize for a First Novel. She shares more in this memoir about how abusive her childhood was, and it really was. The title is what her mother said when Jeanette came out at 16, explaining to her mother that the girl that she was in love with made her happy. Her mother made her choose between living as a heterosexual or leaving home. Jeanette left home.
Winterson ended up living out of her car and going to university, and eventually got herself a scholarship to Oxford. She has written something like 18 works of fiction and short stories. She says on her website: “The books are the best of me. When people ask me why I write I tell them it's what I'm for. It really is as simple as that.” Two things are most powerful for me about her story: one, the power of books and the library in her life, and two, the ability that she and other people have to not just forgive people who’ve treated them badly, but to become generous people themselves. About books she says, among other amazing things in this memoir:
“Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.
I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed – that was my reality, the facts of my life; but on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.”
I think that this memoir is particularly special for fans of Winterson, but is a great read for pretty much anyone with a beating heart. It’d be difficult not to be interested in and moved by her story and her writing of it.
Recommended January 2013
The Cunning Little Vixen
|The Cunning Little Vixen was originally written
in 1920 in Czechoslovakia by Rudolf Tesnohlídek as a newspaper serial.
In 1923, Leoš Janácek composed an opera (which until the 1970s was
also known in English as Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears)
based on the story. The source text by Tesnohlídek was “discovered”
surprisingly late; finally translated into English and published in
1985, Tesnohlídek's tale is accompanied by the stunningly sweet illustrations
that Maurice Sendak had done for the New York City Opera's 1981 production
of Janácek's piece. This is a story for older children and adults.
It’s a very earthy fairy tale that mainly tells the story of the antagonistic
relationship between a young, female fox named Vixen Sharp Ears and
the forester, Bartos. Bartos captures Sharp Ears early one morning
and presents her as a gift to his wife, in order to avoid her wrath
for the latest of many nights that he has spent drinking with friends
in the village pub. The forester and his son treat Sharp Ears horribly,
and she finally escapes. She comes back later for revenge and robs
the henhouse, and later the pantry. The forester ensnares her in a
brutal trap, and again she finds a way to flee… There are interesting
side stories along the way involving the characters of this small
village, and nice reflections on nature and time and love. I think
this would be best read aloud this winter – in front of a fire if
you can arrange that!
Recommended November 2012
The Sterile Cuckoo
|I found a copy of the movie The Sterile Cuckoo
at a thrift store recently and decided to buy it. I hadn’t heard of
it, but saw that it starred a very young Liza Minnelli (the movie
is from 1969) and was intrigued. I enjoyed the movie — even, or especially,
in its darkness and awkwardness — enough to want to read the book.
I completely agree with "Anonymous" from the DataLounge (where
you can "get your fix of gay gossip, news and pointless bitchery"),
who feels that "the movie, compared to the book, was very unfair to
Pookie." In the movie from 1969, Pookie’s mother dies right after
she is born, leaving her emotionally fragile and desperate for attention,
while at the same time completely hostile and untrusting of others.
Pookie’s mother doesn't die in the 1965 novel, and the decline of
Jerry and Pookie’s love affair is slower, and due to preferences or
issues that both of them have. I find both stories interesting as
two very different ones. I’d recommend checking out both and not expecting,
as I think is generally good advice, the movie to reflect the novel.
Recommended September 2012
What is Stephen Harper Reading?
|In 2007, Canada paid tribute to the previous 50 years
of Canadian Arts with a reception and acknowledgement in Parliament
of a select group of 50 Canadian artists who had achieved something
significant in each of those 50 years. Yann Martel, winner of the
Man Booker Prize for his novel The
Life of Pi, was one of the artists in this group. 27 of 306 invitees
showed up for the reception. The acknowledgment ceremony in Parliament
was sandwiched between everyday parliamentary business, and took less
than five minutes. Martel said that he didn’t think that Canadian
Prime Minister Stephen Harper even looked up. Harper describes Canadian
arts funding as “bare bones”. He sees the lack of ability to be still
and reflect as both a result and a cause of this lack of commitment.
He decides to take action, and since the Prime Minister has a huge
impact on arts funding and policy, he chooses to focus on him: "For
as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send
him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known
to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied
by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every
new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might
get from the Prime Minister, on this website [http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca]."
Martel didn’t get one response from Harper in the four years that
he sent him 101 books. The book What is Stephen Harper Reading?
contains the letters that Martel wrote to go along with the first
55 books that he sent Harper. His letters contain some of the most
interesting book reviews I’ve read, and they contain what may be some
of the most powerful words I’ve read about the significance of books
and of reading. Here are some: "Any book – trash to classic –
makes us live the life of another person, injects us with the wisdom
and folly of their years. When we’ve read the last page of a book,
we know more, either in the form of raw knowledge – the name of a
gun, perhaps – or in the form of greater understanding. The worth
of these vicarious lives is not to be underestimated. There’s nothing
sadder – or sometimes more dangerous – than the person who has lived
only his or her single, narrow life, unenlightened by the experience,
real or invented, of others." Or this, about Zora Neale Hurston’s
Eyes Were Watching God: "Some voices are barely heard. They
are left to speak among themselves, worlds within worlds. Then someone
listens, gives them artistic expression, and now the loss is lesser,
because those voices have become eternal." The book list itself
is a great one I think, mainly because of its breadth and depth. All
books are under 200 pages so as not to overwhelm the busy Harper.
There are a number of Canadian authors represented, but the author
list is international. There are fiction, non-fiction and poetry books
as well as a few graphic novels and children’s books. I am definitely
going to buy a copy of this book to keep with my other reference books,
and would love to participate in some form of a What is Stephen
Harper Reading? book club with others. I feel very grateful for
this book and for the way that it has moved and inspired me.
Recommended July 2012
|Giovanni’s Room is James Baldwin’s second novel
(the first being Go
Tell it On the Mountain). When Baldwin showed his publisher
the finished manuscript, he was told to throw it in the trash. I’m
so grateful that he didn’t. This is a very powerful novel which moved
me and made me think, the two things that I want from my reading.
On a more superficial level, this is the story of an American man,
David, who lives in Paris in the 1950s and comes to struggle intensely
with his sexuality and his choices in terms of his romantic relationships.
David’s American girlfriend has gone to Spain and they are both trying
to decide if they should get married when he meets Giovanni, a young
Italian bartender. David and Giovanni become involved and spend the
next few months living together in Giovanni’s room. A Black author
not just hinting at but truly depicting a homosexual experience in
the 1950s is interesting enough, but the intelligent and gorgeous
use of language, as well as the serious wrangling with what I consider
very relevant and important questions about morality (Is moral behavior
simply adherence to social norms? What is loyalty? What does real
love look like?), make this novel truly great.
Recommended June 2012
Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money
|Dolly Freed wrote this book as an 18-year-old in 1978.
At the time, her parents had divorced and she was homesteading and
homeschooling with her dad in the country outside of Philadelphia.
It was reprinted in 2010 by Tin House Books out of Portland, Oregon,
publisher of another progressive homemaking book entitled A
Householder's Guide To the Universe: A Calendar of Basics For the
Home and Beyond by Harriet Fasenfest. Possum Living
is chock-full of interesting information about living the self-sufficient
life, including some fascinating but gross instructions such as those
on skinning a rabbit. This is not a lightweight skimming-over of the
now-fashionable topic; this is real, useful information shared by
someone who actually did live this way and for a substantial period
of time. I particularly like the drawing of their wood stove, constructed
from a 55-gallon drum. Though I do find the book to be really informative,
what I like best is the sassy way that this 18-year-old delivers the
information. Her writing is bright and funny, and her political opinions
are definitely food for thought or at minimum not boring to read about.
Freed ‘s suggested responses to people who take issue with people
who lead an anti-consumerist lifestyle: “I am too being useful! You
can always use me as a bad example!” or “While I’m not contributing
to economic growth, a dubious good, I’m also not contributing to pollution,
a definite evil.”
Recommended May 2012
|Sjowall, Maj and Per Wahloo
The Martin Beck Series
|Swedish poet Maj Sjöwall and partner Per Wahlöö wrote
a series of ten mysteries between 1965 and 1975 that have come to
be known as the Martin Beck mystery series. Beck is the detective
protagonist around which the series centers. I have never read a book
labeled as a mystery, but had an inkling that the Martin Beck series
would be less formulaic than I imagine traditional mysteries to be.
The story lines are gripping, and the series grew more interesting
as the authors delved further into the social and political context
in which the various crimes took place and as they developed the main
characters. Though the authors take socially critical stands on capitalism,
social welfare, the Swedish police force and more, a somewhat creepy
focus on women’s bodies in every book in the series can be read as
a manifestation of sexism. The translations of the earliest book or
two were not good, but the next seven or eight read very well. I enjoyed
this series so much that I plan to read more Scandinavian mysteries,
but also German, Austrian and Icelandic mysteries. We have a number
of these authors in our collection including, among many others, Henning
Nesbø, and Arnaldur
Recommended April 2012
Biophile #2, Biophile #3, Biophile A Pocket Guide to Evolution: A Biophile Special
|At University of Iowa Libraries, Kelly McElroy is the
Undergraduate Services Librarian as well as a zine librarian. She
also writes a wonderful science zine entitled Biophile. Biophile
#2 is all about the scientific method. This wonderfully accessible
yet smart zine is handwritten and illustrated with clip art and drawings.
McElroy very clearly explains the major components of the scientific
method: observation, question, hypothesis, test/revise, and theory.
She also makes an important point when she cautions scientists about
bias, citing the example of Samuel George Morton’s racist cranial
size research. Biophile #3 is an interesting look at an interesting
animal, the eel. With a resource list at the end, this is an entertaining
and informative zine. A Pocket Guide to Evolution: A Biophile
Special is a lovely handwritten and drawn mini-zine. My favorite
part is the Common Misconceptions section. In “It’s Survival of the
Fittest!” McElroy writes, “Remember! Fitness = reproductive success.
This doesn’t mean the Arnold Schwarzeneggers will rule the world."
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's zine collection is located on the
Recommended October 2011
|Lynda Barry’s Cruddy is a novel illustrated with
one black ink murky-feeling drawing per chapter. The tone of the novel
is also dark and somewhat muddled, or rather the situation of the
girl protagonist is dark and muddled. She, however, remains amazingly
clear about what is happening around her, which includes extreme physically
and emotionally abusive treatment by her parents, and she's clear
about what she wants to do about it. This makes a terribly sad story
bearable for the reader. The girl’s name is Roberta Rohbeson, though
her father, who wants a son, calls her Clyde. Cruddy is Roberta’s
suicide note in which she describes how her father basically holds
her hostage on a trip he takes to track down some money. Along the
way many strange and violent things happen, but Roberta survives only
to end up being abandoned along with her younger sister by her hideous
mother. Barry is really funny at times, the way she is both funny
and dark in her Ernie Pook's Comeek and Marlys/Freddie graphic novels,
which are of course more illustration-heavy. Cruddy could
be both triggering and deeply affirming for young adults and adult
readers who have suffered abuse at some point in their lives. It's
an absolutely touching and captivating read.
Recommended August 2011
|Oates, Joyce Carol
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang
|Oates knows the situations and characters that she creates
so deeply that the words ring absolutely true. I am captivated, I
care about the people in the work, and I don’t stumble over any words
because they’re so fitting. The title is straightforward and accurate:
Maddy, the narrator, was one of the members of a girl gang called
Foxfire in the early 50s, who as an adult has deep regrets and needs
to come clean. The girls are led by Legs, a powerful young feminist
with a deep commitment to social justice. They have exhilarating success
with creative tactics, to punish sexually abusive men, for example,
and people who mistreat animals, and they create a supportive refuge
for themselves in their own household. Their friendships are beautifully
deep. This all makes it very painful when things go south. I’m not
sure what Oates intended with the ending. Nonetheless, I didn’t end
up deciding that the girls’ resistance was justly punished. I’m grateful
that Oates' writing is not so simplistic.
Recommended April 2011
|Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy tells the tale of a 19-year-old
woman who leaves the West Indies to come to New York City and work
as an au pair for an affluent young couple with four children. Lucy
has very powerful feelings of love and hate for her mother. As she
leaves home she struggels to explore and develop separately from those
conflicting feelings. Kincaid uses wonderful, powerful language to
express Lucy’s experience, exploring how colonialism and class issues
show up on a personal and interpersonal level, primarily in interactions
between Lucy and the well-meaning but privileged mother and wife Mariah.
I find the novel full of truth as Lucy experiences it. Both Lucy and
the novel are smart, honest, and interesting.
Recommended March 2011
The Girl Who Played With Fire
|The Girl Who Played With Fire is probably the
most relaxing kind of read I could find. I started the first novel
in the series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but didn’t
finish it because I left the book on the bus and then saw the Swedish
movie. It wasn’t hard to re-connect with the story line in the second
book. The writing isn’t particularly impactful or innovative, and
I wonder if the translation has something to do with the somewhat
flat and awkward prose. The content of the book, though interesting,
is not very challenging or deep. It’s a thriller set in Sweden about
a strong female protagonist who is a sexual abuse survivor, brilliant
researcher and hacker, and various intrigues she gets involved in.
The novel has a clearly feminist point of view, is critical of the
media, against dominance culture, and depicts gay and lesbian relationships
in a respectful way. It held my attention without too much effort,
like an easy knitting project can do—lovely.
Recommended January 2011
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
|Carson McCullers is one of the most tender writers. I’ve
read The Ballad of the Sad Café, The Member of the Wedding,
and now her first work, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. All
of these pieces are full of moving compassion for her fellow human
beings. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter includes a large cast
of characters who live in a small Southern town in the 1940s, so her
empathy ranges wide. Main characters include a young girl, Mick Kelly,
who is driven by a love of music, and Mr. Singer, a deaf mute onto
whom many of the town’s residents project their longing. Through her
exquisite language, McCullers helps us understand how people long
for each other and for very individual dreams. Because her characters
often end up alone in their longing, the title of this novel is apt.
Despite the pain of poverty, racism, and variations on loneliness,
this is not a depressing book. McCullers’ love and respect for her
characters make their struggles bearable.
Recommended December 2010
The Member of the Wedding
|I love Carson McCullers. I’ve read her Ballad of the
Sad Café and found the writing beautiful and the story captivating.
The same holds true for The Member of the Wedding, the story
of Frankie and her strange and heartbreaking twelfth summer. Frankie’s
brother is getting married in another town and leaving the country
to serve in the military. Frankie feels lonely and jealous and hatches
various plans to deal with this situation. McCullers brilliantly captures
adolescent confusion and desire and the pain that they can cause.
She also touches on race issues, as one of the main characters is
the African-American maid and nanny in Frankie’s 1940s Southern household.
This is gorgeous writing.
Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston
|Charis Wilson and Edward Weston were a couple from 1934
to 1945. They lived together most of that time, and worked together
the entire time. Wilson details their photography projects (he photographer,
she model and writer), as well as the dynamics of their relationship.
It's interesting how gender plays out in this relatively progressive
relationship during a time when gender roles were often traditionally-defined.
For example, the couple shared housework completely, but equal artistic
ownership of collaborations was not always seamlessly achieved.
Recommended March 2010
|Baca, Jimmy Santiago
A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet
| I talk to strangers more than most people. Nonetheless,
the fact that this book made me say things like “This book is killing
me!” to strangers on the bus means something. Poet and teacher Jimmy
Santiago Baca was born in 1952 in New Mexico to a Chicana mother and
an Apache Indian father. He was abandoned by his parents and later
placed in an orphanage, then sent to a juvenile detention center after
running away from that orphanage. At age 21 he was sentenced to six
years in a maximum-security prison in Florence, Arizona, on drug charges.
A Place to Stand is a powerful example of how cultural identity
can ground one, as well as how literacy and the written word can give
one a strong sense of voice. Baca’s account makes clear that in the
U.S. prison system as it exists today, emotional survival and intellectual
and spiritual growth is extremely improbable. He regains the sense
of belonging he lost as a person of color (e.g. 90% of the inmates
are Chicano) by taking ownership of his peoples’ stories and through
telling his own. This is one of the most powerful books I’ve read
in a very long time.
Recommended January 2010
Brainscan 21: Irreconcilable Differences
Adult Zine Collection
|It can be an extremely difficult process to admit one's partner is abusive. The author writes a detailed description of her experience with emotional abuse. Wrekk shares in great detail how she came to define abuse for herself. This zine is highly recommended for anyone grappling with similar issues. And...|
Prescription for Change: Community Response to Substance Use
Adult Zine Collection
|Prescription for Change is an incredibly insightful
and helpful look at substance use and abuse. Includes critique of
12 step programs and straight-edge moralism; overview of the idea
of harm reduction and its applications, not just to chemical addiction
but to other acts; and suggestions for community efforts to reduce
judgment and isolation of conventionally-defined addicts and raise
awareness of abusive behavior by anyone moving at any point on the
addiction spectrum. Finally, it's a call to stay connected and safe
as a community. A powerful zine.
Recommended August 2009
Parable of the Talents
|Parable of the Talents is the second in a two-part
series of novels by Octavia Butler. She published Parable of the
Sower in 1993 (see March Staff Picks), and Parable of the
Talents five years later. Parable of the Sower focuses
on teenager Lauren Olamina, who is trying to survive life in dystopian
California in the 2020s, while founding the religion she created called
Earthseed. Parable of the Talents begins in this religious
community and chronicles Lauren and her fellow community members’
brutal encounters with Christian Fundamentalists who have taken over
the country and federal government in the 2030s. Unlike Talents,
Sower gets repetitive in the second half. Nonetheless, like
Sower it offers important commentary on current issues by
vividly portraying the consequences of environmental destruction and
the violence that can stem from religious dogmatism.
Recommended May 2009
Parable of the Sower
|Parable of the Sower, published in 1993, is the
first in a two-part series of sci-fi novels by Octavia Butler. The
story focuses on teenager Lauren Olamina who lives in dystopian California
in the 2020s. Society has broken down so severely – economically,
socially, environmentally – that people either live in walled-in communities
trying to defend themselves, or live on the outside in extremely desperate
conditions including drugs, crime, prostitution, new forms of slavery
and more. The walls come tumbling down and Lauren, at 18, ends up
on the perilous road trying to survive. Lauren is a sort of spiritual
prophet. For years she has secretly transcribed verses of a religion
she calls Earthseed. On the road she recruits devotees to fulfill
Earthseed’s destiny of life on another planet. What makes this book
worth reading is a captivating story that’s also a powerful commentary
on very important issues of our time including race, gender, the environment,
religion, community. It reminds me of the way Star Trek episodes could
be such good commentary.
Recommended March 2009
Learning to Drive
| Yikes this book is interesting. A lovely patron told
me how much she likes Katha Pollit and made me want to give this book
a try. Among other things, Katha Pollitt is a thinker, writer, feminist,
mother, wife and poet. She’s probably most well-known for her pieces
in a column called “Subject to Debate” in The Nation. In this collection
of essays, Pollitt writes about the personal, the political, and the
intersections between the two, touching on very relevant topics like
communism, women and aging, motherhood, pornography and web stalking.
She expresses herself so clearly and with so much feeling that I felt
that I was gaining some good insight into the topics while also being
moved and having fun. These essays reminded me of a warmer, happier
Joan Didion. I’m taking out her Virginity or Death next.
Recommended October 2008
| Didion, Joan
The White Album
| Joan Didion’s White Album is not unlike the
Beatles’ White Album in a number of ways. Some of the similarities
are obvious. Both objects are white (the first edition of Didion’s
book is white, anyway). The album was originally released in 1968;
some of Didion’s pieces in her book were written in 1968. A less obvious
and more interesting similarity is that Didion wrote about the 1969
Manson Family murders and Charles Manson was supposedly obsessed with
the Beatles’ White Album (the misspelt song title “Healter
Skelter” was written in blood at one of the Manson Family murder sites).
Paranoia runs through both works, evident in the song “Happiness is
a Warm Gun” or in Didion’s account of her struggles with mental illness
and irrational fears. They both critique at least some of those in
power, in “Piggies” and “In Hollywood”, as well as social movements.
Didion’s White Album is harder to swallow, though, since
it definitely does not contain any love songs. It’s worth a read,
nonetheless, as a smart account of those years. I suggest reading
it while listening to the Beatles' White Album for a dose
of hope and emotion as counterbalance.
Recommended May 2008
| Eggers, Dave ed.
Best American Non-Required Reading Series
| I was sooo excited to discover this series, and also
sort of ticked off that no one had told me about it before. But since
I’m an unusually and extremely nice person, I will let you in on it.
This series is awesome. It’s awesome because each volume has such
a wide variety of things to read. It has short stories in it, and
non-fiction pieces, and each volume also has a graphic novel excerpt.
There’s a great excerpt from Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons
in the 2003 volume. Lynda Barry is so funny and touching. The fiction
is so varied that it never bores. Also from the 2003 volume is a piece
by Jonathan Safran Foer called “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart
Disease." In it, he uses a symbol like a square or maybe three periods,
to represent a way that his family does or doesn’t communicate. Some
silences are peaceful, some silences are heavy and angry. Some questions
are really commands. His symbols beautifully illustrate the many things
that happen in conversations that are wordless, how big our desire
to connect with each other is, and how painful our bumbling attempts
at it are. Other writers include David Sedaris, Sherman Alexie, Chuck
Klosterman, J.T. Leroy, and Michelle Tea. The series starts in 2002
and a 2007 volume was just published. It’s part of the larger Best
American series, and according to Houghton Mifflin, it’s now the most
popular of the series. So get to it!
Recommended March 2008