Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Blogging in Libraries

My usual readers (if there is such a thing) will excuse this change of pace for my usual reading-log-type-style, and indulge me as I post a paper recently written for one of my Library and Information Science courses this semester. To those visiting my blog for the purpose of reading this article, please feel free to comment and look around!

-Stephanie Maxwell

Blogging in Libraries
Like many aspects of life, libraries can always count on things to be constantly changing, and often the mark of a successful library is the ways in which they handle, manage, and react to a constantly changing environment. Although this applies to many aspects of the library, the evolution of technology is certainly one of the most crucial and defining challenges that libraries have to work with and respond to. Libraries have gone through many changes when it comes to technology over the years—automation, self-check-out services, website adoption, online catalogs, and adopting habits to the now ubiquitous nature of the internet being some examples. In today’s internet- and technology-driven society, the question of Web 2.0 is one that many libraries of all types are grappling with—how can libraries use Web 2.0 technology to better reach and inform their users, improve the services the library provides, and remain relevant in today’s society? The ways that people interact with and receive their information is changing and the ways that libraries are interacting with their users is changing as well. Alton Chua and Dion Goh introduce their study on Web 2.0 applications in libraries by saying, "To move in tandem with the rapidly expanding universe of digital information resources, libraries all over the world are striving to offer high-quality online experiences on their websites. Meanwhile, a number of libraries, particularly those in the United States, are shifting their perceptions of users from mere information consumers to producers and architects of information" (203).
One such Web 2.0 tool that is being utilized to offer a new kind of library experience is blogging. New blogs pop up every day, but do these blogs have staying power? Are they effective for the purpose, mission, and users of the library? What are the positive and negative consequences of beginning and maintaining a blog? Although blogging may seem like a very straightforward task for a library, there are several issues to be considered and weighed before implementing a blog and libraries must consider these issues before beginning one.
First, it may be helpful to define “blog” in order to fully understand the concept. One of the simplest and most concise definitions of a blog can be found in Lu and Lee’s article, “Demographic Differences and the Antecedents of Blog Stickiness.” They define a blog as: “websites with articles and commentaries displayed chronologically” (Lu and Lee 21). This is a very basic definition of a blog and while it captures the format properties of a blog, Amanda Etches-Johnson, author of the article “The Library Blog: Serving Users and Staying Relevant,” writes, “Much like the rest of the Internet, a weblog is in fact different things to different people, and that is what makes defining it so problematic” (32). The blog as “thing” has a very simple and solid definition, but what a blog is or means aesthetically and contextually to a specific institution or user can vary greatly by blog. For libraries in particular, it is important to first address their definition and idea of a blog before actually implementing one. There are different types of blogs that libraries around the world have instituted, and David Lee King and Stephanie Willen Brown give examples of what libraries can do with blogs: “communicate with your patrons, start conversations about various topics, promote new books, videos, or what’s new at the library, deliver an internal staff newsletter, offer subject guide current awareness, reach customers where they are” (36). Defining the purpose of the blog seems to be the first step in the creation of a successful blog—having purpose can drive the postings and the motivation for maintaining the blog.
Because of the seemingly constant inundation of Web 2.0 applications and features in daily life, it may seem as though every library should already have a blog. Etches-Johnson even says,
"Librarians were surfing even before surfing became a metaphor for trolling the Internet, and blogs provide the perfect format to present that material…. It is not surprising then that creating, maintaining, and reading weblogs feels like a natural extension of what librarians have been doing for most of their professional lives. For most librarians who maintain weblogs on a regular basis, publishing content to their blogs is part of an established personal ritual of keeping current by reading through library literature, listserv subscriptions, newsletters, zines, and other blogs. Sharing that content rises out of the collegiality that is such a defining principle of the library profession" (34). This is certainly true—for centuries, librarians have been “filtering” information for users, letting them know what is good information and alerting them to reliable resources while also promoting their collections. In this light, it seems that the question would be, “Why not have a blog?” In fact, in their study on Web 2.0 trends in libraries, King and Brown claim that libraries have to blog and use other Web 2.0 tools because, “…these tools are relevant to the next generation, and if libraries are not using Web 2.0, they will lose those patrons as they are already using these tools with eBay, Amazon, and even within newspaper websites” (39). If a library does not have a blog, does that make it irrelevant in today’s society? I do not think that this is necessarily true, but rather, believe that all libraries should at least consider blogging, but must weigh the implications of doing so.
There seems to be a general consensus in the library community on the most positive aspect of blogging, and this is best summed up by Etches-Johnson when she writes, “Apart from offering fresh library content on a regular basis, weblogs provide all the necessary tools to turn a library website into a collaborative network that encourages, and indeed thrives on, community participation and interaction, two of the cornerstones of the library as a community institution” (37). A library blog can provide a place in the “cyber-world” where people can seek out and form communities based on their interests as well as provide a place where users can interact in their own library experience, informing it based on their own proclivities. Also, King and Brown recognize the importance of the interaction between the librarian and the user that a blog can better foster when they stress the importance of a blog’s ability to support commenting options (34). Often, the librarian in the library can seem removed from the user— at the library, they are behind a desk and computer and they may be seen in a very professional and often harsh light, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but for some users may make them unapproachable. The introduction of a blog, however, has potential to break that barrier between user and librarian, allowing a librarian to possibly share their own personal experiences and interests with users and allow those users to respond to and converse with librarians. In this vein, another positive consequence of a blog is the exposure of the collection. No matter the type, size, or location of the library, a blog can be used to showcase the collection, alerting the community to new acquisitions, unique materials, and resources provided by the library. The blog can be used as a method of constantly making current and possible users aware of old and new resources, encouraging the community to use the library and what it has to offer.
Although the positive impact of having a blog seem extremely obvious initially, starting and maintaining a blog is not necessarily a simple task, and there are certainly risks that come along with it. In her book Effective Blogging for Libraries, Connie Crosby addresses the positive and negative impacts of library blogs, giving this advice early on: "Just because everyone else is doing it does not mean you should. A blog is just one tool in your larger toolbox of communication tactics. Think about your target audience, which community or communities you want to reach, and whether a blog is the suitable vehicle to reach them. Look at your organizational mandate and strategy, and determine if a blog correctly aligns with them" (3). A blog can really work well for some libraries and not for others, and the nature of the community and users needs to be taken into account when considering a blog. Crosby is confident enough in the power of blogs to write a book about how libraries can best adopt blogs, but also considers the risks of beginning a blog. Crosby sent out surveys to 88 libraries which had blogs and reports, "Risks identified include balancing the amount of time spent on the blog with the value (or reward) received in return; and getting others to support the blog project initially, including management, IT departments, Webmasters, and other staff members in the library of the library’s parent organization" (8-9). The time and energy that is expended in order to maintain a blog is often a full- or part-time job in itself and can be stressful and seem thankless, thus it is imperative for the library to have a strong plan and organizer for the blog, making sure that there are policies as to how often it is updated, what will be posted, who is responsible for posting, and other matters concerning the blog.
No matter if the purpose of a library’s blog is to interact with users, showcase their collection, humanize their staff, or generally expose the library’s offerings, the content of the blog needs to be determined and adhered to in order for it to be effective. In their study on what they call “blog stickiness,” (which Lu and Lee define as, “the time spent in the blog and retention to the blog” (22)) Lu and Lee found that the content quality, more than any other factor is what determines a blog’s “stickiness:” "…content quality is the only determinant of blog retention. The ability to forward articles via email and giving the number of readers who are willing to recommend this blog can facilitate the impact of social influence on first visit duration, but not retention. The user will revisit a blog only if the first visit attracts them to stay for a while and the content quality is good" (32). The quality of the content is a direct determinant of the impact of the blog, and should thus be given serious consideration in planning for a blog. The main risks of beginning and maintaining a blog are time and support, but King and Brown have suggested that these issues can be reconciled by simply changing the way we look at libraries: "David recommended a change of focus; instead of thinking about the time needed to keep up, one should have a willingness to change focus to make learning new technologies a priority. He encouraged audience members to think of it as ‘this is an important part of my job’…"(40).
Earlier, I discussed the notion that the ways people access and want to receive information is changing, and as such, the library needs to change with it to remain relevant and useful for the community it serves, and this idea feeds into a library’s consideration of beginning a blog—if the community would benefit and utilize a blog, then time should be made to accommodate that need.
In order to better understand what it takes to institute and maintain a blog, I discussed the matter with Elizabeth Periale, the designer for the Smithsonian Libraries Blog. The Smithsonian Libraries Blog (http://www.smithsonianlibraries.si.edu) was launched in December 2007 as an experiment in outreach. Periale says, “The Libraries just wanted to try out a blog and see how it would go. It was pretty unstructured at the start. Just a few of the staff were involved and would post something when an event or conference or item of interest came up” (Periale). Although originally relatively unstructured at first, Periale volunteered to manage the blog in February 2009 which is when the blog began having daily postings. Very simply laid out, the blog features generally one post a day provided by the librarians at the different branches of the Smithsonian Library system from whom Periale solicits posts: "I send out a call for articles, with some suggested topics and the entire library staff (~100) is free to volunteer. Sometimes I do a special request to one of our branch libraries if I am looking for something relevant (American History do a post on D-Day, e.g.) I schedule the posts week by week or in advance as necessary. We try not to post more than once a day, but if we do, that's OK, too. I also have the blog feeding into the Libraries' Twitter and Facebook accounts. We're trying to reach out more and more" (Periale). The blog features articles written about resources, books, and unique items found in the Smithsonian Libraries, often showcasing videos and photos to support the articles. By seeking out various staff from different branches, Periale is able to create a community from separate libraries with separate interests which is held together through their common goal of outreach and education for their users and potential users. Periale herself often contributes to the writing of the blog while also synthesizing the articles, editing them, and posting them. When asked if she has come up against any resistance to the blog, she says, "There's no real resistance. I don't pressure anyone to post. Cajole, maybe ... The only 'resistance' is that people are already doing so many things that they don't think they can add blogging to the list. Sometimes they realize they can, sometimes they pass. More and more of our staff seem to post each month" (Periale). Not only does the blog invite the public to participate in the Smithsonian Institution community, but has the potential to create a stronger community within the staff as well.
Although comments do not seem to proliferate on the blog, Periale seems pleased with the level of readership that the blog garners: "Our readership grows monthly. When I took this on we only had a spotty readership. Now we get about 400 hits a day, directly to the blog. We also are read on Twitter and Facebook, so it's hard to know how large our audience is exactly, but our Twitter followers have climbed since February 2009 when we started posting daily from 79 to over 2500, so we're definitely getting more visible. We get some comments and questions, but mostly our posts are retweeted on Twitter or "liked" on Facebook" (Periale). Here, Periale brings up another method of outreach using blogs which is to link it to social media websites and RSS feeds, allowing users to share and “like” articles posted on the blog, giving readers the opportunity to view the blog in the way they prefer and to widen the readership by sharing what they find on the blog. Although it seems that the blog did not have a definite goal or structure in the beginning, it soon came under the direction of Periale who has commandeered the blog to a solid readership and has enabled the library’s collection to be noticed by and accessible to people who may not have had that opportunity without the blog, accomplishing the basic goals of a successful library blog.
Adopting a blog can be an extremely fruitful and positive endeavor for a library—it opens the line of communication between librarians and users, can inform users about activities and new happenings at the library, showcase the library’s collection, and generally institute the library as an active member of the blogosphere and community. Although the benefits of introducing a blog into a library’s current workload can have wonderful benefits, there are also risks to be taken into consideration such as time and staff support. Without a solid plan for the maintenance and content of the blog, these issues of time and staff support can easily cause the blog to fail. A library should only begin a blog if they have the time, staff, and enthusiasm to support it in the long-term. When Elizabeth Periale was asked if she saw any downsides to the Smithsonian Libraries Blog, she says, "I can't see any downsides. The benefits are that we get the Smithsonian Libraries out in the blogosphere every day. Our collections are much more accessible. Through Twitter we have connected with other museums and libraries and people in a very easy, relaxed way - it's much more easy to read our latest blog post by following us on Twitter than it is even to access it through our website - fewer clicks. Personally, for me, it's been fun to discover new things about the Libraries' collections, both by myself for the articles I write, and through the articles written by my colleagues" (Periale). The Smithsonian Libraries Blog is a perfect example of how a library blog can become successful, and this statement encompasses the benefits of a blog—constant reminders to users of the library’s presence, connections with other institutions and prospective users, new discoveries for users and for staff, and a general feeling of educating about and exposing people to the library and its collection.

Chua, Alton Y.K., and Dion H. Goh. “A Study of Web 2.0 Applications in Library Websites.”
Library & Information Science Research 32 (2010): 203-211.
Crosby, Connie. Effective Blogging for Libraries. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2010.
Etches-Johnson, Amanda. “The Library Blog: Serving Users and Staying Relevant.” Last One
Out Turn Off the Lights. Ed. Susan E. Cleyle and Louise M. McGillis. Lanham, MD:
The Scarecrow Press, 2005. 31-44.
King, David Lee, and Stephanie Willen Brown. “Emerging Trends, 2.0, and Libraries.” The
Serials Librarian 56.1 (2009): 32-43.
Lu, Hsi-Peng, and Ming-Ren Lee. “Demographic Differences and the Antecedents of Blog
Stickiness.” Online Information Review 34.1 (2010): 21-38.
Periale, Elizabeth. Personal interview. 2 Nov. 2010.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Won't You Be My Neighbor...

"I met Patti because later, I, myself, came to feel isolated among those
same neighbors. I met Patti because at some point it seemed
both absurd and wasteful to be living unconnected to
the people all around me."

Recently, I read Peter Lovenheim's book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time and had a chance to reflect on my own neighborhood experiences.

Some of my earliest memories involve the neighborhood where I grew up. From the time I can remember until my freshman year of high school, my family lived in a 3-bedroom house in a suburb of Cleveland. Our street was relatively quiet because my brother and two sisters were some of the only kids on the street and most of our neighbors were older people. We played roller hockey in the street, freeze tag across the lawns that flanked our own, and staged shows in our front yard--our neighborhood was our world. There was never a time when we did not know all of our neighbors--they were always invited to the parties my parents threw (and even if they did not come, they were at least informed of the party and warned about the noise), we were often sent to one house or another for sugar or milk, and we always knew that we could never get away with anything crazy because there were always neighbors watching out for us. We moved from that house when I was a freshman in high school (with four kids, one full bathroom, and three bedrooms, we needed more space) and I was completely devastated, but not necessarily because we would be leaving the house itself (I then shared a bedroom with my two younger sisters and would be getting my own room at the new house), but because we would have to leave our street. Throughout the years of living there, my family had cultivated friendships and relationships with our neighbors that meant a lot to me--one of our next door neighbors was to become my Confirmation sponsor--and that street held a lot of memories for my family. Looking back, it was the perfect set-up for growing up and it really taught my siblings and I how to be good neighbors ourselves, and in moving, I think that I was the saddest to lose the sense of community that we had garnered there.

Although I was really sad to leave my childhood home, there was certainly nothing to worry about when it came to a neighborhood feeling. We moved closer to Lake Erie, about a mile from the old house, where the streets surrounding us make up Utopia Beach Club, a park, pool, and clubhouse that sit at the end of our street to which people pay yearly membership fees. The beach club is comprised of six streets of homes and is a big part of life there. UBC hosts activities all year round from spaghetti dinners, to Sunday morning breakfasts, to celebrations for Memorial Day and Labor Day, to a "welcome back to summer" Family Day complete with games and dancing. Through events such as these and the general welcoming nature of the neighborhood, there is a certain unique community that has blossomed there--everyone knows everyone (which has its pros and its cons) and to my own amazement, people are astounded by the neighborhood. I have often brought home friends to parties and events at UBC and usually they make some kind of statement about how they never knew their neighbors growing up. Because of my own wonderful experiences in my neighborhoods growing up, I never realized that most people do not have the support system of a friendly neighborhood.

A few months ago, I came across Peter Lovenheim's book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. The premise of the book stems from Lovenheim's own neighborhood in a suburb of Rochester, New York where, in 2000, a man committed murder-suicide, killing his wife then himself while his two children were int he house. This family lived several houses down from Lovenheim, and in hearing about the tragedy, he realized that he had never said more than two words to anyone of that household, further realizing that he did not know or speak to any of his neighbors. This realization led Lovenheim to attempt to initiate contact with his neighbors one a time, getting to know them, then (for the purposes of research and his book) often spending the night at their houses, getting an intimate glimpse of their true lives. The neighborhood is relatively affluent and is home to physicians, business owners, and other well-paid professionals, but no one knew each other, and Lovenheim found through his interviews that people would rather get in their car and drive to the store for sugar rather than ask their neighbors for some. Lovenheim begins his "getting to know the neighborhood" study with an older man who is a retired physician and widower, following him around on a normal day, talking with him, and spending the night at his home. Over the next couple of years, Lovenheim visits several neighbors, one of whom is terminally ill, and begins to cultivate a community out of these people who live so close to one another.

The journey that Lovenheim takes is really amazing, but also one that evokes a sense of sadness in me. I cannot imagine living in a place where I was not able to run to my neighbor's house for a cup of sugar (or more often as it happened in my own case, to share a new book or have a drink), and it makes me sad that there are people who don't know their neighbors. In my opinion, growing up in a strong supportive neighborhood was the best situation for my family. Currently, my parents live next-door to my own best friend's family, and there is rarely a day that goes by that our parents don't talk. When baseball season starts, you would be hard-pressed to find a Friday night where my dad is not sitting out on our front patio with a beer in his hand, listening to the Tribe game with a circle of neighbors who drop by to stop for a drink, to listen the game, or just some friendly conversation. The people in UBC don't all necessarily get along all the time--just because they all live in the same place does not make them any different from anyone else--but knowing that there are people around who look out for you and are on your side is a wonderful thing and that is what Lovenheim tries to establish in his own neighborhood, and to a certain degree, it works. The woman he meets who was terminally ill becomes friends with the widower and they are able to help each other in different ways--the woman provides a companionship and purpose for the man, and the man is able to drive the woman and do odd jobs for her. And that's really what neighborliness is about--being able to look out for others while knowing that others are looking out for you. Knowing the people around you and caring to know them creates a community of all of us, dragging us from the isolation of our own bubbles and making us responsible for the well-being of that community.

Peter Lovenheim's book is a very easy and interesting read, one that makes me wish even more that I knew my neighbors in my current neighborhood. In a world where people don't sit out on their front porches anymore and no one knows their neighbors, his book shines a light on the small ways that we can make the world a better place, one where we share responsibility in looking out for others and helping people out when we can.

Keep Reading,

PS. I'm so bad at updating this... but don't worry... I will have a post about my year in reading! Those are always my favorite posts! :)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

If You Don't Want to Close Your Eyes and Listen to "Rhapsody in Blue" After This, You're Insane

"It's delightful, it's delicious, it's delovely..."
-Cole Porter

You don't have to know me all that well to know of my love of musical theater. I mean, let's get serious--seeing Wicked twelve times makes me a little bit of a nut, but a happy nut. If you know me even better than that, you know that I love to become engrossed in something until I find another thing to obsess over. Combine these two things, and you pretty much have me in a nutshell. A few weeks ago, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! was on television, and of course, I had to watch it. Watching that led me to revisit my Rodgers and Hammerstein music, movies, and general knowledge, but also left me wishing for more, so I went to my library's online catalog in hopes of discovering a biography or some other non-fiction book about this pair who basically ruled my childhood. By chance, in some serendipitous twist (which is why I love libraries) I happened across a book called The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty by Wilfrid Sheed, which I immediately requested and subsequently sprinted to the library to get when it arrived. This seemed like just the book I was looking for--in weeks prior, I'd been re-reading Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events while I was taking summer classes (they're easy to set down and pick up when you have little time for fun reading) and was looking for a non-fiction fix. (Fiction is my first love, of course, but the librarian and general hoarder of useless, fun knowledge in me calls for a little non-fiction too.)

Well, The House That George Built certainly fit the bill. It is a fun, astonishing, and often distraction-laden (in a good way) read. This book claims to be a "history of the Golden Age of American popular music" and, to my mind, fulfills its goals. Sheed seems to be the perfect guy for the job too--he has met many of the composers and lyricists who he talks about in great detail, adding personal reflections along the way. He starts out the book at the beginning of the beginning of "American" music with Irving Berlin (who never learned how to play the piano properly, but has written some of the most important and memorable songs in American history) and moves to George Gershwin, who established American music and acted as a kind of "Chairman of the Board" (sorry, Frank) by setting up composers with lyricists and generally helping out his contemporaries while always seeming to best them. Sheed moves on to talk about Harold Arlen ("Over the Rainbow"), Duke Ellington ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore"), Cole Porter (Anything Goes, Kiss Me Kate), Richard Rodgers (duh!), Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), and many others and of all of their continuation of the legacy of Gershwin. Sheed reminds you of songs that you love, of which you probably never thought "Wow, who wrote that?!" He does a great job of giving character to each composer and lyricist, linking them with those songs that they're famous (or not so famous) for, and he doesn't hide their flaws, but shows how those flaws are part of the greatness of what they produced.

Almost every other page found me throwing the book down, running to my laptop and typing in names in my iTunes or searching for songs on youtube--it was too much fun, and now I've spent too much money downloading things to beef up my own collection. It's all made me want to simply lie on the floor with my eyes closed and listen to these wonderful songs like I used to when I would discover a new show or song when I was a girl.

But I think the best thing abouot The House That Gershwin Built is in the fact that it doesn't read like a history book, even thought that's really what it is. Sheed even gives us a caveat: "Anyway, this book is no technical study. A life of Keats or Robert Frost doesn't depend on metrics. This is also a book about a time and place, America 1900-1950, in between the horse and buggy and the jet plane, and the men who wrote music that would still sound good on "Jupiter and Mars," and wherever we decide to fly next." And he's not lying. Through the eyes and ears of these composers, Sheed is able to give us a glimpse of what life was like between 1900-1950 in America. Of course, this view isn't comprehensive, but the overview is wonderful. In a time when we take advantage of the fact that we have so many things at the snap of our fingers (or really, the touch of a screen), it's lovely to read about a time when you had to learn to play the piano so you could read the sheet music to play the new songs you loved and how important that music was to the general feeling of life. Not only this, but it's also thought-provoking to realize that those people in the 1920s were not so different from us--they craved entertainment (both quality and escapist) and these composers gave it to them through melody and witty lyrics, while also using that entertainment to change the way their audiences listened. Unfortunately, our idea of entertainment has strayed far away from quality (see: Jersey Shore, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Eminem, etc.), but we still have this wonderful "old" treasure-trove of songs that will hopefully never die. And, if you think about it, the best soundtracks for movies or bride and groom first dances at weddings or songs you close your eyes to are standards, right? And Broadway always loves a good revival (see: South Pacific in 2008, or Come Fly With Me which is all Frank Sinatra music (who sang so many of the songs Sheed talks about) and is done a la Movin' Out). I mean, who doesn't know "I Got Rhythm" by the Gershwins, or "The Lady is a Tramp" by Rodgers and Hart, or "You're the Top" by Cole Porter? Well, I won't say "shame on you" if you don't, but I certainly will pity you and beg you to read The House That Gershwin Built. Sheed's jazzy, personal, and engrossing writing and stories make you feel like you're on the inside of a wonderful inside joke (and it made me wish I played the piano).

I hope that I haven't made it sound like you need to possess my own level of fanaticism about this era and its music in order to enjoy this book, because I don't think that you do. Like I said before, this isn't a book just about the music, but about the life and times of the era that produced some of the greatest American music ever written, and it gives a great background to beginning or furthering a love of all kinds of music. However, if you're like me and know every word to every Rodgers and Hammerstein shows (even the one you might not like so much coughCarouselcough) and smile when you hear "De-Lovely" or wish you could write words like "The way you wear your hat/the way you sip your tea/the memory of all that/no, no they can't take that away from me," then this is most certainly the book for you. If you are looking for a non-fiction fix that won't feel like required reading, pick up The House That Gershwin Built.

Keep reading (and singing!)

PS--Another fabulous non-fiction of a different ilk is The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (which you may recognize as being the book that the movie Adaptation was VERY loosely based on). It's a really insightful, fun look into the lives of "orchid people" and especially John Laroche--a dirty, scummy, alarming, passionate, and real man who you can't help but love. I love Orlean (and read her blog at The New Yorker every day) and really enjoyed The Orchid Thief!

PPS--I've made it an end-of-summer goal to put all of my handwritten lists of books I've read (can you believe I've been making those lists for 10 years now!?) in an Excel spreadsheet... and I'm hoping to blog about that experience, because it's been great fun!

Monday, June 28, 2010

What Happens When You're Spending Your Time Reading Like a Maniac

"No shame in saying that I felt a loneliness drifting through me. Funny how it waws, everyone perched with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, the trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final."
Let the Great World Spin

I'm finding that sometimes, life gets in the way of even the most well-intentioned plans like keeping a blog, for instance. I haven't updated here since APRIL?! How have I become so detached from something that I was so excited about?! But never fear, dear Reader--for, although my blog-writing goals have fallen to a dusty way-side, my reading habits have grown and developed. In fact, I have been simply devouring books to the point where I wonder where I find time to do much else (and those around me worry about my well-being). I can blame one word on my recent obsessive reading--SUMMER. When I was still in school (okay... I'm still "in school," but I'm talking about real school here) the idea of summer meant way more free time than I knew what to do with, which usually meant that I ended up longing for school and filled my days splitting my energies between swimming, beating up my brother, sucking down gallons of fruit punch Kool Aid, and getting lost in book worlds. Even though I am not in real school anymore--meaning that those summers are supposed to be out of reach to me now--I refuse to give up my insanely long "to read this summer" lists and hours-long reading-fests.

Suck on that adult-world. You can't keep me down!

So, to kick off the summer (a little late), I thought I'd give you an idea of the things I have been reading! So... since Little Bee, the most notable books I've read have been:

The Swan Theives by Elizabeth Kostova--This is Kostova's newest book (and she's coming to the National Book Festival! Yay!), and although I think I had higher expectations for it, I still liked it. The book follows a psychologist who has a patient who recently tried to take a swipe at a painting in the National Gallery of Art (how fitting!! I was a little disappointed to find out that the painting doesn't exist...) and although the man won't talk about why he tried to ruin the painting, the psychologist soon becomes entangled in an ages-old mystery and, soon, in his patient's life. It's a fun mystery-type book--well written, although some of the story lines are a little hard to believe, but that's fiction for you! This book made me want to learn more about painting and art, and happy to be working at the National Gallery, even though I don't see art, really--at least I'm close!

The Last Station by Jay Parini--This was recently adapted into a movie (for which Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren were both nominated) and well worth the read! I don't know anything about Leo Tolstoy, so I really cannot attest to the historical accuracy of this historical fiction piece, but after I finished the book, I looked some things up, and it seems pretty true to life! The story is told from several perspectives of the people who surround Leo Tolstoy in his final weeks of life, the most notable of which are his wife (whom every hates), his daughter, his servant, and his "manager," but you never hear from Tolstoy himself. It's an interesting story about what seemed to be a very troubled, though revered life.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann--If you pick up none of these other books, please do yourself a favor and choose this one to read. I loved this book. Let the Great World Spin won the National Book award for 2009, and rightly so. This story follows several characters around a central event which is the real-life occurance of a man who strung a tightrope between the Twin Towers and walked it in 1974. The characters are vivid and beautifully written and include a judge, his wife who cannot get over her son's death in Vietnam and meets with a support group for it, a monk who is having trouble with his faith, a prostitute, a young boy with a penchant for graffiti, and the tightrope walker himself. This book is wonderfully written and real, and really speaks to a post-9/11 world well. The ways that all of the stories line up (or don't) is brilliant and reveals the connectivity of us all under an umbrella of tragedy, hope, and spectacle. Seriously. Read this book.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Scaffer and Annie Burrows--Let me be frank--I put off reading this book because it was one of those ones that EVERYONE was talking about, and I'm typically not pulled in by the popularity of a book. But, I was at the library one day and spotted it and figured I'd give it a shot. I'm so glad I did. This epistolary novel (which is so awesome because it's so hard to find a good one and they're my favorite kind!) is comprised of letters written right after World War 2 between a woman writer in London and a group of people in Guernsey (an island in the Channel) who formed a book club in response to German occupation. The letters become more detailed and they all begin to grow a bond. This is a fun, touching, and easy read that is definitely suited for the beach!

The Girls from Ames by Jeffrey Zaslow--If you are female, this should be on the top of your to-read list. Zaslow was the man who helped Randy Pausch put The Last Lecture on paper, and he does an excellent job with this book. This non-fiction read tells the story of a group of friends from Ames, Iowa who have been friends since grade school. There are 11 in all (although one did pass away in their early twenties) and they still get together to this day even though they are spread all around the country. Many of the girls have had tragedy, although one more so than others, and it is an amazing thing to see how these women come together even after so many years. Zaslow does a great job of interspersing information about female friendships throughout the story and it really made me think about my own friendships and how much I cherish them. This is non-fiction, but reads like fiction.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon--When my book club voted on this book, I rolled my eyes, but read it anyway since I had missed the last meeting. Oh. My. God. Even though it is almost 500 pages, I finished it in four days because I simply could not put it down. I am not someone who really likes mysteries or suspense stories, but Zafon knows how to tell a good story. The story is about a boy whose father owns a used-book store. One day he is given the chance to pick one book from the "Cemetary of Books" and he chooses The Shadow of the Wind by an obscure author whom he had never heard of and soon learns that all of the books the author has written have been burned by an anonymous man. The boy soon learns everything he can about the author and becomes involved in a tangled reality of death, disguises, burning books, love, and post-Spanish civil war politics. So awesome. It's really a great read, and I can't wait to talk about it at book club this week! Also, note that this was originally written in Spanish and has been translated... the prose is fantastic.

That's about all the time I have to write about, but here's what else I've read since my last update, and I'd be happy to discuss any of them with you and give you my opinions!

Alice Have I Been by Melanie Benjamin
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (yes, again)
The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha (based on the blog 1000awesomethings.com which is pure gold)
Dancing for Degas by Kathryn Wagner
Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
His Excellency George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis
I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass (I'm reading her first book right now and loving it so far! She's coming to the National Book Festival too!)
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (good God, do I love Faulkner!)
The Red Tent by Anita Diament (better than I thought it would be.. I really liked it actually!)
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (yes, this is a children's book.. but Paterson is coming to the National Book Festival and she's the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.. I couldn't resist! Jacob Have I Loved, here I come!)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (yes, again. But I went to see Hamlet while there was a production at the Folger, and it made me want to read it again!)
Push by Sapphire (whooo... gird your loins before you read this one)
The Possibility of Everything by Hope Edelman (what happens when imaginary friends get out of hand..)
The Bad Beginning and The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket (I found myself missing Snicket's wit.. so I had to do it! :) )

So, on a sort of side note, I've been considering taking on the challenge to read all of the past National Book Award for Fiction winners.. which is about 60 books. But I've read about 7 of them already, and I think I'd spread it out over a few years. Thoughts?

Keep Reading (and sharing what you're reading!!)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Chris Cleave's "Little Bee"

"I could not stop talking because now I had started my story, it
wanted to be finished. We cannot choose where to start and stop.
Our stories are the tellers of us."
Chris Cleave
Little Bee

If you know me, you probably know my love for all things related to Africa. In college, I originally had no intention of making Africana Studies one of my majors, but I fell in love with the subject and haven't looked back since. There is just something about Africa that grips me. So it should come as no surprise that when I saw Chris Cleave's Little Bee in the bookstore, I had to have it. And although it took me about a month to finally get it from the library, when I did, I absolutely devoured it. here's the synopsis without giving too much away--a young girl from Nigeria (who has christened herself "Little Bee") is on the run from a group of rebels because she witnessed them killing many people in her village. She ends up in England in a detention center and is mistakenly released with no papers to prove her citizenship either way. The only contact in England that she has is a British couple she met while they were vacationing in Nigeria. The circumstances under which they met are extraordinary and life-altering and guide the story. There were several times where I found myself with my mouth wide open and my hand to my chest in shock. Even though I know full well that things like this happen every day, the way Chris Cleave tells the story makes it more real. Both Little Bee and Sarah, the British woman that Little Bee meets on the beach, are able to tell their sides of the story through alternating chapters. Cleave makes you care about the characters so much, even though Sarah seems a little high maintenance and sometimes I just wanted to slap her.

There were two things that I really appreciated about the book and I think that they were the reasons that I felt so moved by it. Little Bee's story is obviously the more devastating as you can imagine, and throughout her telling it (which she does somewhat reluctantly), she talks about how she would have to change the telling of the story if she were telling it to the girls in Nigeria. Little Bee has prided herself on perfecting "the Queen's English" and thus tells the story that way even though she feels that there is something lost in the language that could be captured better in her native tongue. But I think that this is an important aspect of the story--Little Bee is breaking through the barrier of language and of culture to tell the story to the people she wants to understand--who she needs to understand. And I think that there is a certain beautiful nakedness in that and a certain sadness too--through this conscious action of almost translating her story, Little Bee acknowledges that the people that she knows are reading her story are reading it from a completely different perspective than the people form her homeland. She opens her story wishing she could be a British pound because it has power and influence that she will never have as a Nigerian woman. It is powerful in making the reader understand the unnecessary divide that exists between the developing world and our world--while there may be differences in culture, there are not differences in how we bleed and how we feel and how we want to better ourselves. The relationship between Little Bee and Sarah solidifies and strengthens this notion and becomes something to be pondered.

The other thing that kept me enraptured was in the fact that it made me think. Not in just a "whodunit" kind of way, but in a "what would I do" kind of way. There are a lot of moral issues that arise in the book, and I don't want to give anything away, but it's something that makes you think about yourself as a person and as a citizen of the world and what our responsibility is in that world.

This is a wonderful book with some beautiful language, but is not necessarily a "light read" in that it's not happy go lucky all the time. I would highly recommend Little Bee if you need something to start out your spring/summer reading fix. This may be a good pick for those of you who liked The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, or Fortunate Son by Walter Mosely.

If you've read this already, tell me what you thought--and if you decide to read it, I'd like to hear what you think!

On a side note, yay for 12 followers! :)

Next on the pile: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Keep reading,

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Importance of Re-Reading

"We need to learn not simply to read books but to allow ourselves to be read by them"
-Mark Edmundson
Why Read?

I find that I like to revisit the past and I really have a thing for nostalgia (if you’re an ADPi, think “Remember Whens”). This extends to a lot of aspects of my life, but especially when it comes to books. I put a lot of stock in re-reading and there are quite a few books that show up on my lists more than once. There are probably people out there who don’t understand why anyone would want to read something in which they already know the plot and ending, but those people don’t understand the point of reading. Reading and learning are the things that help us grow and better understand ourselves as individuals and in relation to the wider world. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: when we read, there is something, however small, that changes the person we were before the reading. Thus, it is in re-reading that we can re-discover that person—the core of ourselves—and better understand who we were, who we are, and who we want to become. Think about the first time you ever read The Catcher in the Rye and how you felt about Holden’s “phonies” and that wonderful image that inspired Salinger’s title. Or the light across the lake in The Great Gatsby. Or Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror!” in Heart of Darkness. When you read these, you were probably 16 (if you’ve read them at all). Think about how differently you looked at the world when you were a teenager—and that makes all the difference in re-reading.

In just this past week, I have been inundated with a strong sense of the nostalgia that sometimes takes a stranglehold on my life. Due to my inability to make it to the library for new books, I started re-reading the Harry Potter series (and having just finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, am feeling re-devastated due to the events in the last half of the book) and I went to Richmond, VA to see Wicked for the 10th time (and proud of it!) so I thought it might be fun to write about books that I’ve enjoyed re-reading, books I want to re-read, and recommend books that you may have not read since high school, but might want to pick up again. So here goes in no order:

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Esther Greenwood is not your average teenager in Plath’s only novel. Rather, she sees through the materialism that grabs her fellow teenage girls, and wants more, but unfortunately the world doesn’t want to give her more. The devastation of this causes her to attempt suicide (like Plath) which lands her in a mental institution. A beautiful but heartbreaking story of growing up and finding yourself, it is a wonderful re-read, and a necessary read if you haven’t read it before! I read this when I was 15, thinking I was cool, but when I re-read it when I was 21, I found just how little I knew when I was 15.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner: I love Faulkner. I don’t know why, but I just get him. This is a hard one to get through because it’s not linear and part of it is told by a boy who is mentally handicapped, but it is a work of genius. The plot (when you can find one) follows the Compson family—boys obsessed with their sister Caddy (in different ways), the upholding of family honor, and what family means. I would recommend reading this with someone else so that you can discuss it--I read it with a class in college, and learned so much from the discussions!
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum—Well, if you know me at all, you know my love for Oz. When I was in 8th grade, I discovered the wonderful world that Baum created, and was delighted to find that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was only the first of 13 Oz books originally penned by Baum (there are more, but they are done by different authors). My love affair with Oz began with the movie (as I feel is how most people are aware of the book now) and was only broadened by the books which are written for children, but are smart and stimulating enough for adults. I re-read this during my junior year of college when I got back from studying abroad, and it helped get me through the semester with its magic and my memories of days spent in Oz.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: I thought I would hate this book. All I knew about it was that it was about a pedophile who kidnaps a young girl and takes her as his lover. Sounds creepy, right? Okay.. yes… some of the descriptions made me want to look away, but Lolita is about more than Humbert Humbert’s love for “nymphets,” it is a story of America, obsession, and words. The language is beautiful (I was often compelled to read out loud) and it is amazing how you view Humbert and Lolita in the beginning and how it may (or may not) change in the end. A true American novel, it is one that you should definitely read at some point.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac: I feel like I’ve mentioned Kerouac in every blog entry I’ve had, but that’s only because he is amazing. Originally written on a long scroll in a typewriter, Kerouac’s most famous novel is one that is often seen as rebellious and “hippie,” but reading between the lines shows a softer side to Kerouac’s madness. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty take five road trips across the country, looking for something they can’t quite put a name to. Written in a kind of laid-back way, many think that Kerouac was nothing but a drug addict or alcoholic, but this work captures the American spirit of the 1950s and 1960s. I love re-reading this, because I find something new every time, and this is one of those books that makes me look at the world in a different way and it always inspires me to take a road trip.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: I had to read this in high school, but seeing as many of you reading this are probably older than I am, I’m sure you didn’t read it in high school or college. O’Brien’s story of Vietnam is a truly amazing act of storytelling. Told through stories of himself and the men in his platoon in Vietnam, you get a sense of war, love, death, greed, and life in this beautifully written book. His characters are so human and so real that it truly makes me cry every time I pick it up. O’Brien really was in Vietnam, and while this isn’t a memoir, it certainly feels that way. O’Brien came to speak at Wittenberg my freshman year (and autographed my book!) and then I saw him again at the National Book Festival in September, and he is a wonderful speaker and amazing writer.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: I have only read this once, but it is one I'm looking at re-reading soon. The Road is the story of a man and his son and their survival after the apocalypse and their encounters with the others who have survived. I loved this book because of the relationship of the father and son and their desperate will to survive. This will forces them to go south for the winter and the book chronicles their journey.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: I love Charles Dickens. Maybe it’s because I associate it with my time in England, because the professor who I read him with was brilliant, or because he is a straight-up genius, but nonetheless, I love him, and Oliver Twist is my favorite of his. I have a thing for books about kids who are different, and Oliver certainly fits the bill. The rousing tale of life in 19th century England amongst the lowest people in society was one that Dickens wrote in attempts to raise awareness of the mistreatment of orphans.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: When I first read this, I didn’t really get it. That may have been because I considered it a “boy” book, with its adventures and male protagonist, but upon re-reading, I found out how much I loved Huck Finn and his attitude. Personally, Huck Finn taught me to question society and to look for adventure in life and his brave pre-road road trip helped to inspire such authors as Jack Kerouac.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Yes. We have all read this. But if the only time you read it was in high school, please pick it up again. We all know what it’s about, and it’s no wonder that everyone has read it because it is an honest look at American racism, southern life, growing up, and understanding responsibility.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey: Nurse Ratched?! Talk about one of the most awesome characters in American fiction! Kesey’s novel about a ward in a mental institution in the 1960s is a direct protest against authority, American repression, and consumerism, I always find new ways of loving the characters and understanding them. If all you’ve seen is the movie, read the book. Kesey himself HATES the movie.

Obviously, it is never a good idea to constantly re-read, because then we would have nothing new, but there are certain books I try to read every three years or so. Are there books that you re-read again and again? Do you agree with me about re-reading? Have you found that your opinion of a book has completely changed in re-reading? Share with me... I'd love to hear about it!

After I finish Harry Potter, I've got Little Bee and Alice Have I Been on the nightstand, and I'm very excited about it! I've also been thinking of what I want to tackle this summer, and I think Leaves of Grass in its entirety might be my project! :)

Keep (re)reading,

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Because why wouldn't you want to read a book about Woodstock?

"What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!"
-Wavy Gravy

I feel like my life goes in cycles in which I obsess over things for as long as the ride lasts (take Lost for example. If you have talked to me in the past 2 months, you know about my Lost obsession. It's taken over my life.) and I feel like my reading habits are absolutely subject to this. When I was a kid, I LOVED series books--particularly Sweet Valley Twins and Babysitters Club--and my mom always tried to steer me away from them and make me branch out (probably so as not to become one of those girls who you see today who "reads" but only Twilight). There is nothing wrong with series books because they do have the wonderful potential to open your eyes to something else that you might enjoy. Series tend to be so engrossing and fulfilling that a person is probably more likely to understand why they like the series as opposed to trying to express why they like a certain book.

While this may be interesting, it's actually strayed a bit from the purpose of this post (shocking, I know). Recently, I've been in a non-fiction phase which is pretty rare for me, honestly. I don't know if I miss taking classes where reading non-fiction is required (like my Africana classes) or if I'm just becoming more and more aware of what I don't know, but more non-fiction books are catching my eye. The first book that I read this year was The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt by Hannelore Brenner. The book documents the lives of the girls who lived in Room 28 in this internment camp near Prague during Hitler's reign. Brenner focuses on a few girls using journal entries and interviews to get a sense of the hope, despair, and humanity that emanated from the women who were forced to act as a family toward each other in a time of utter tragedy. Brenner does a wonderful job of helping the reader understand the purpose of Theresienstadt (which was basically a cover--the Nazi's treated the Jews in this camp "well" so they could show them off to the world and prove that there was nothing wrong with Hitler's reign. In fact, they allowed the Jews in Theresienstadt to put on shows and go to school, thus helping the false image of "good treatment" be perpetuated.) However, as a reader who attaches to character more than plot, I found myself disappointed in Brenner's use of the women themselves--the organization of the book did not allow for me to remember vividly more than one girl. Although what she lacks in specific characterization, she makes up for in helping us to understand the humanity of the Holocaust--she does not paint these women as perfect or above greed or guile. Although they were in a terrible situation, these girls were still girls who did not always get along or like each other--so many different kinds of people were thrown together and it would be impossible to expect them all to get along. For me, the telling of this story was so that I felt more for the people in Theresienstadt because they were people not some idealized people. They were amazing and resilient, but they were still people. The women who were not sent to the death camps and survived the diseased conditions of the camp get together to this day (most of them now in their late 80's) and the fact that their story gets told is amazing and really opened my eyes to a different side of the Holocaust that does not always get pulled out. In reading The Girls of Room 28 I learned a lot about the Holocaust that I did not know, and to further my knowledge, when I finished the book, I visited the Holocaust Museum in DC and it really came to life more then. Which is to say, if you have not been to the Holocaust Museum, you should pay a visit. Put it on your bucket-list. It is one of the best museums I've ever been to, and every time I've been has really been a powerful visit.

After a book whose subject matter was a little depressing, I wanted to switch to something a little more light-hearted, and stumbled upon a new memoir about Woodstock written by Michael Lang called The Road to Woodstock. Lang was the man behind the organizing of the infamous 1969 music festival and uses interviews, photographs, and his own memory to recapture the planning and implementation of Woodstock. Although I have always been completely fascinated by Woodstock, I knew little about it besides the music, and there was so much more behind it than just the music. The way that Lang describes it (as many others have), makes Woodstock out to be a turning point for American culture and society as well as a completely religious experience. Lang relates his troubles with finding a place to actually have Woodstock, the weather and building issues, and some anecdotes about some of the performers including Janis Joplin and Sly and the Family Stone. Right after reading the book, I downloaded the Greatest Hits albums of The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival and just played them on a loop for days because the ways that Lang describes the festival made you wish you had been there. Yes, of course, there were drugs and all that, but Woodstock seems to have been about a lot more than just that--it was about coming together to just be and appreciate music and feel part of something. I think the fact that 400,000 people trekked to Yasgur's farm to hear music and camp in the mud says something about the state of mind of the young people of America in 1969, and Lang gets into this aspect a lot in the book. It is definitely a great read both to increase your knowledge level, but also to get a cool perspective on what Woodstock really was.

I've got some other non-fiction books lined up, but I'm not sure what I'm reading next... too many choices!

As always, feel free to comment, become a follower, or ask questions! :)

I hope that your reading adventures are taking you fun places!

PS... To end on the subject of series reading, if you haven't read Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, do it. I know that they are for kids, but they are hilarious on an adult level and pretty smart! And since they are kid's books, they don't take long! It's always a good thing to read a children's book every once in a while! :)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Top 10--Because I Love Lists...

For most people, the end of a year is usually a time to look back at where we were, where we are and where we're going. Oftentimes, our contemplations on a year compels us to make resolutions--vows to change what we saw in the past that we didn't like in ourselves. It's a very human quality, but one that I usually don't invest much energy in for a few reasons: 1) The fact that it's a "new year" doesn't ever really make me want to change something about myself. If I'm going to make a resolution, it's because I want to, not because there is a good starting point at January 1. 2) I try to look at myself and where I was/am/will be more often than just once a year so that I can try to better understand myself. 3) A year is too long, and with my terrible memory of things, it's hard for me to just randomly look back.

But, there is one thing that I do every year that replaces the resolution-making and the hoopla of looking back randomly at my year. Since the year 2000, I have kept handwritten lists of everything I've read (both for school and for fun) from January 1 to December 31, and every year, I look it over, tally up the number of books, fold it into it's well-worn creases and rubber band it in with the past years' lists. It's no secret that I believe that reading tells a lot about a person and that it helps to change us, even in the smallest ways, and so looking at a year's list helps be to better understand where I was and where I'm going. We choose the things that we read because it may be something that interests us or because we think it has something to teach us, and so looking at what we have read in a year can show us how we have grown or changed and it can help us to remember periods of our lives. I'm sure that not everyone makes this kind of correlation, but I can usually remember where I was when I was reading a book, too.

So, in looking at my list, I have compiled a "Top 10" list of things that I have read this year. This is not a list that is exclusively for things published in 2009, but comes from the list of things that I got around to reading this year... some as far back as 1920. Also, know that this list contains personal favorites of mine--that doesn't mean that they are necessarily high-brow quality, but rather that I enjoyed reading them and would recommend them to others. This kind of list is part of the reason that I started this blog in the first place--I love making lists, and I love books, so I guess it only goes to fit, huh? So here it is!

Stephanie's Top 10 Books of 2009:

1) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski: This should come as no surprise to you if you and I have talked about books at all this year. This is not only the best book I've read all year but the best I've read in probably 5 years. The story is about a boy born mute who lives on a farm with his parents who raise dogs who through training gain a kind of human-list intelligence. The boy has to overcome his own disability and deal with family issues such as the death of his father and the replacement of his father with his uncle. Most of you know that I hate dogs and generally anything to do with them, so I was wary about this book. But honestly, it is beautiful. Not only is the prose wonderful and oftentimes breathtaking, but the story and plot itself is riveting (and actually mimics Hamlet a little if you catch it). It amazes me that this is Wroblewski's first novel, and I cannot wait to see what else he writes. It's a bit longer (something like 500 pages) but I could not put it down and finished it quickly. (Also, just some trivia, I heard that Oprah is making a movie out of this soon...and I feel like Tom Hanks is in on it too, so that could be interesting).

2) The Help by Kathryn Stockett: Again, this should be no surprise. This is a story about the 1960s in Mississippi that centers around 3 characters--2 black maids and a privaleged white girl who wants to write about their lives. The book is separated into chapters by each character's point of view, and through them, you learn about black life in the deep south at the time of the Civil Rights struggle for equality. The black women are hired to raise these white babies and then when the babies are older, they are supposed to scorn these women. The story is not just about civil rights but also about family, memory, and community. There are also characters that you love to hate, and it is quite well written. Another book that is longer, but will be one that you stay up at night to finish.

3)The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen: This is a pleasant and unexpected surprise to the list, but a great one. One of my roommates got this book for me for my birthday in December, and it ended up being the last book that I read in 2009. I tend to love books that are about kids who are different, and T.S. is certainly different. He is a 12 year old genius cartographer from no-where Montana whose work is sent to the Smithsonian for a fellowship without him knowing (and the Smithsonian doesn't know that T.S. is only 12). When he finds out that he got the fellowship, he "hobos" on a train from Montana to DC and his journey is really fascinating. Not only is the plot good, but the format of the book is really what makes it worth it--the novel is supplemented with maps and drawings on each page which help tell the story and get into T.S.'s head. I thought that these maps would be too distracting, but they are so well done that they truly add to the book. The only thing that I didn't like was the ending--I thought that Larsen could have developed it more, but it is only his first novel, and I think that the rest of the book made up for it.

4) Hold Love Strong by Matthew Aaron Goodman: This was the first book that I read after I graduated in May, and because of that, I knew I was going to have a good summer of reading. Hold Love Strong follows a boy names Abraham who is born to a teenaged, impoverished mother in the projects of New York. Abraham can see what is wrong with his life but because of the vicious cycle of poverty and the existence of the projects finds little hope in getting out. His story is really tragic, but can definitely make you appreciate your own life and get a new perspective on hope and possibility. It really does break your heart because his hopes are so often dashed, so if you read it be prepared--it's not really a heartwarmer.

5) My Life in France by Julia Child: I know that it's kind of cliche that I read this book this year--but I really enjoyed Julie and Julia and frankly just wanted to know more about this fascinating woman. This book chronicles Julia's love affair with France and all things French. You really get a sense of who Julia Child was through her own words and her life is just so full and rich that reading this book is like licking the frosting off of a spoon. It's very accessible and she really shows herself as a human rather than the epic figure that she is made out to be. For a nice, smooth read that really makes you want to go to France (or anywhere, really) and eat and just enjoy life, this is a good pick. (Also see my post on this book for more info).

6) Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela: This has been on my to-read list for a really long time, and with the movie Invictus coming out, I thought that this winter was the perfect time to read it (well, that and I was missing reading stuff about Africa) and it certainly was. Nelson Mandela is truly an amazing human being who went through 30 years of wrongful imprisonment on Robben Island for standing up for what he believed is right. What I really loved about Mandela was that he understands what he did right, but he also understands his shortcomings, making his life story accessible and triumphant. The nice thing about this is that you don’t have to know a whole lot about the struggle against apartheid in South Africa to understand it, although if you do, it does make it more meaningful I think. This is another long book that did take me a while, but it was worth it for a true story about pride, truth, and overcoming adversity.

7) Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving: I went to see John Irving speak at the National Book Festival, and he said that he writes the last sentence of his novels before the first one. I think this is a really cool idea, and it made me want to read more of him for some reason. I read The World According to Garp a while ago, and I liked it, but I read Twisted River and loved it. I feel like some Irving novels are a little too dense, but not so in this case. The story follows a father and son on the run from a sheriff after the son accidentally kills someone. The relationship between the father and son and the best friend of the father is complicated and beautiful and Irving does a great job of trying to capture family dynamics, endurance, and the harm of secrets. I will say that you should read this book when you have the time to sit and read so that everything can really sink in.

8)The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff: I know practically nothing about the Mormons or Brigham Young, so I don’t know how historically accurate this book is, but I think that Ebershoff did his research. The book tells two stories of polygamy—the first is about Brigham Young’s actual nineteenth wife Ann Eliza Young and the son of a woman who is in a polygamous marriage the husband of which is found dead. This book fulfills a lot of things that people look for in books—suspense, mystery, history, and intrigue. The story is really interesting in how the stories of Ann Eliza and the young man intertwine and resolve in the end. The stories kept me reading and wanting to know more not only about the characters but about the true history behind Brigham Young and Mormon life in Utah.

9)The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd: I know I’m about 4 years behind everyone on this, but I loved this book. If you don’t know, the story is about a girl who accidentally shot her mother when she was just a baby and has had to grow up with that knowledge and with her father who obviously resents her for it. She runs away to find out about her mother and finds a group of women who take her in and help her to better understand herself and the world around her. The story chronicles the tragedy, hope, beauty, and sorrow that comes with growing up and trying to understand the world.

10) On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Why Kerouac Matters by John Leland: So, this is kind of cheating, but it’s my list, my rules. I read On the Road for my class on the Beat Generation this past year and loved it just as much if not more than the first time I read it. The jazzy, crazy, beautiful story of the ultimate road trip can be looked at in so many ways, but reading Why Kerouac Matters really puts it in perspective. Leland delves into specific scenes and themes in On the Road and pulls out Kerouac’s brilliance that might allude you if you don’t have a chance to read it for a class or discuss it with others. I loved this book and even if you aren’t an English major and enjoy literary criticism, Leland is able to put what could be difficult into laymans terms.

Do you agree? Disagree? Want to tell me the best book you read this year? Make sure to comment

Here’s a list of everything that I’ve read this year in chronological order. Feel free to ask me about any of the things I’ve read! Honorable mentions go to the starred ones!
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Home by Marilynne Robinson
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
*King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
Minor Characters by Joyce Glassman
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathon Safran Foer
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
*Once Again to Zelda by Marlene Wagman-Geller
Surviving in Biafra by Alfred ObioraUzokwe
Respectability and Resistance by David Goodhew
How to Live by Henry Alford
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
Gone With the Twilight by Don Mattera
*The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
Blame Me on History by Bloke Modisane
Machete Season by Jean Hatzfeld
Darfur Diaries by Jen Marlowe
Why Kerouac Matters by John Leland
A Little Bit Wicked by Kristin Chenoweth
Hold Love Strong by Matthew Aaron Goodman
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
My Judy Garland Life by Susie Boyt
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Africa by Richard Dowden
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson
Light in August by William Faulkner
*Julie and Julia by Julie Powell
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
*Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safran Foer
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks
The Four Corners of the Sky by Michael Malone
The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell
*Other People’s Love Letters ed. by Bill Shapiro
*Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
A Country Called Home by Kim Barnes
That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
*Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
What Else But Home by Michael Rosen
My Life in France by Julia Child
Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
*Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
*Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Wishin’ and Hopin’ by Wally Lamb
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

I hope that this post finds you enjoying your new year, reading wonderful books, and adhering to your resolutions!

Happy Reading,