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Wednesday, September 02, 2015

A Very Strange Library

A rule-abiding schoolboy steps into the city library, asks for books about tax collecting during the Ottoman Empire and becomes trapped in a bizarre underground world with a sheep-man and a voiceless girl. Things are not always what they seem in Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s works of magical realism. As the protagonist of The Strange Library puts it: “Our worlds are all jumbled together…sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t.”

The schoolboy and his unfortunate companions are imprisoned by an evil librarian who plans to suck out the boy’s brains after he has absorbed the knowledge of the chosen books. You see, libraries can’t really survive on their tiny budgets simply by lending out books. There’s a side business in brain-sucking. At least the food is good – the sheep-man makes fresh donuts every day, and the ethereal girl serves gourmet meals. But if the rules are broken, possible punishments include being thrown into a jar with 10,000 hairy caterpillars for three days. Worried about his mother and his pet sparrow, the boy plots his escape.

Several of Murakami’s magical realism novels include libraries and librarians as settings and characters. The library in Murakami’s fiction often serves as a gateway to a parallel reality. Kafka on the Shore is another novel by the author with a library and librarian as part of the theme.

The Strange Library is a short piece written early in Murakami’s career but only recently published in English. Described as a fairy tale for adults, the book is hauntingly enriched with custom art and design by Chip Kidd.

Other authors famous for magical realism, a genre in which magical elements occur in an otherwise realistic world, include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Salman Rushdie. Ask your local (non-evil) librarians for other suggestions - we promise we'll leave your brain intact.

-Suzanne Summers LaPierre, Kings Park Library

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Gritty Side of 19th Century England

gen·teel : \jen-ˈtēl\ : of or relating to people who have high social status; pretending or trying to have the qualities and manners of people who have high social status ; having a quietly appealing or polite quality
In my book, there’s no better way to leave behind modern life’s troubles than escaping to the genteel society of Jane Austen’s England. But even the most devout Austen fans know, in our hearts, that life then was not all tea and crumpets. Among the gentry class, women had few choices outside of marriage. Meanwhile, only the long hours and hard toil of domestic servants made the leisurely life of the upper classes possible. Life for the urban poor was not exactly a picnic in Hyde Park either. The collapse of traditional rural manufacturing during the industrial revolution led to an unprecedented influx of people into England’s cities. Low wages, scarce jobs, slum housing, alcoholism, prostitution and disease marked life for the poor in areas such as London’s East side.

Historical fiction dealing with the less fortunate of this era can make for grim reading at times. It may not be genteel, but it gives a fuller sense of the times than can be gained from Regency romances. So, take a dip into the grittier side of 19th century England. Because sometimes it’s good to remember how much better we really do have it after all.

Visit life below stairs at Elizabeth Bennett’s home from Pride and Prejudice in Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Sarah, an orphaned housemaid, dreams of a life beyond laundry and chores. She soon finds her head turned in two directions by a troubled veteran of the Napoleonic wars and Mr. Bingley’s more urbane footman.

In A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London's Flower Sellers, author Hazel Gaynor slowly reveals the fate of two orphaned Irish sisters, tragically separated while struggling to earn a living selling posies in London’s Convent Gardens. A young woman in 1912 finds one of the sister’s notebooks and sets out to uncover the mystery of their fate.

Sarah Waters, author of last year’s lauded novel The Paying Guests, tells the story of a young orphan raised by a family of thieves in her earlier work Fingersmith. Multiple layers of secrets and deceit are revealed when Sue becomes embroiled in her family’s plot to rob an heiress of her fortune.

Slammerkin is based on the true story of Mary Saunders, a serving girl who murdered her mistress in 1763. Emma Donague, author of the bestseller Room, depicts Mary as a young girl tricked into prostitution at an early age by the lure of a single red ribbon. She struggles to become a seamstress, yearning for freedom from drudgery while still desiring the finer things of life.

Ruth Downes, deemed too unattractive to work in her mother’s Bristol brothel, finds a new life as a bare-knuckle boxer in The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman. A twist in her career brings her into contact with reclusive yet genteel Charlotte Sinclair. Charlotte, scarred by smallpox, fears the outside world, yet longs to escape her debauched brother’s control.

-Rebecca Wolff, CE Regional Library

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Black Dove, White Raven: Powerful Writing, Compelling History

Wow. Once again Elizabeth Wein illuminates history I knew nothing about in her young adult book Black Dove, White Raven. In some ways, this novel combines themes from her two series, The Mark of Solomon and Young Pilots. We’re back in Aksum (Ethiopia), but this is not ancient Aksum. Instead, it’s the 20th century shortly before World War II when Italy invaded Ethiopia. (Did you know about that? I sure didn’t.)

At the start of the book, Black Dove and White Raven are the airshow names for the mothers of Emilia Menotti and Teodros Dupré. Black Dove is Teo’s mother, Delia Dupré, and White Raven is Em’s momma, Rhoda Menotti. They met in France after World War I and traveled around performing at airshows together in 1930's America doing aerobatics and wing-walking. They dream of moving to Ethiopia, where Teo’s father was from, where people won’t be shocked by a black woman and a white woman living and working together.

But then there’s an accident and Delia is killed. The family still makes it to Ethiopia, where Rhoda teaches them to fly. Teo and Em work on becoming the new Black Dove and White Raven. They grow up in Ethiopia, coming of age as Italy invades Ethiopia in 1936.

This book is filled with historical details I knew nothing about, but mostly it’s the compelling story of two children with strong family ties living in another culture. They’re learning to find their place in the world and dealing with all manner of people while coming of age in wartime, a war involving the use of mustard gas against spearmen and the need to protect ancient treasures, including the Ark of the Covenant.

As always, Elizabeth Wein’s writing is powerful and evocative. I’ll admit this is slower, atmospheric reading most of the way through, but these are distinctive characters you will remember long after you finish.

-Sondra Eklund, City of Fairfax Regional Library