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Friday, May 28, 2010

Literary Fiction

Literary fiction sometimes gets a bad rap. It conjures up images of elite readers with The New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books spread across their laps. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. But a lot of literary fiction crosses over to the bestseller lists and a more general audience.

While definitions of literary fiction are fairly subjective, in general, the genre emphasizes writing style and the psychological depth of charaters. Plot sometimes is not as important. More mainstream commerical fiction, such as mysteries, sci-fi or romance tend to focus on plot and narrative.

Of course there are those that argue that literary fiction can be defined as “the books that teachers assign.” But, I would respond that “serious” fiction can be enjoyable and accessible. The books below demonstrate that:

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain: The Dancing Zebra

Not all is bright and sunny in The Art of Racing in the Rain, our All Fairfax Reads selection. “That which you manifest is before you,” becomes a mantra for the dog Enzo and his owner, Denny, as they maneuver through life. But a dancing zebra comes to symbolize the one obstacle that can derail them – fear.

Early in The Art of Racing in the Rain, Enzo is abandoned in his home for several days when Denny’s wife becomes too ill to care for him. About 40 hours into his ordeal – after little food -- he finds himself in Zoe’s room among her stuffed animals and begins to hallucinate.

“. . . and I heard a sound coming from the bedroom. When I investigated I saw something terrible and frightening. One of her stuffed animal toys was moving around on its own. It was the zebra. …”

Enzo believes he watches the zebra attack Zoe’s other toys and then pull the stuffing out of itself. But, when Denny returns home, he blames Enzo for the wreckage. And so for Enzo, the aggressive stuffed toy becomes that tickle of fear that can rear its ugly head at any time.

“Somewhere, the zebra is dancing” Enzo reminds himself whenever doubts begin to overwhelm him.

NEXT: George Clooney’s Eyes

Friday, May 21, 2010

Mysteries: Last Thoughts

We’ve covered a lot in our survey of mystery subgenres: legal thrillers, the police procedural, amateur sleuth, medical and historical mysteries, but we may have just tapped the surface.

For example there are culinary mysteries, such as Diane Mott Davidson’s recent Fatally Flaky and Sweet Revenge or State of the Onion and Eggsecutive Orders by Julie Hyzy.

Or mysteries in the noir style, which includes classics like Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon or James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. More recently, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo falls into this category, which features cynical male private detectives in gritty settings.

There are mysteries that feature a female sleuth, such as those of Janet Evanovich, Sara Paretsky, Lisa Scottoline, Marcia Muller, and many, many more.

We could go on and on. From the time Scheherazade narrated the first mystery, “The Tale of the Murdered Young Woman” in One Thousand and One Nights to the present, readers (and listeners) have enjoyed the pleasure of discovering “whodunit” in a million ways.

Image "Scheherazade: Weaving the First Mystery Tale" is in public domain.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain: Driving in the Rain

This is the third in our series of posts on the All Fairfax Reads selection, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Fairfax County residents are encouraged to read and discuss the novel between now and September. Stein will appear at 5 p.m. on Sunday, September 19 on the Fairfax campus of George Mason University as part of Fall for the Book.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is told from the viewpoint of a dog – Enzo – who is trying to decipher his owner, Denny’s life. A race car driver, Denny shares with Enzo lessons learned on the track.

“ ‘Very gently. Like there are eggshells on your pedals,’” Denny always says. ‘And you don’t want to break them. That’s how you race in the rain.’” (p. 13)

But, this is only one skill for navigating bad weather.

“Balance, anticipation, patience. These are all vital. Peripheral vision. Seeing things you’ve never seen before. Kinesthetic sensation, driving by the seat of the pants. … This is what Denny says. He says racing is doing. It is being part of a moment and being aware of nothing else but that moment.” (p. 13-14)

As the novel unfolds and both Enzo and Denny grapple with life’s uncertainties, living in the moment becomes a mantra: “That which you manifest is before you.”

NEXT WEEK: The Dancing Zebra

Friday, May 14, 2010

Mysteries Continued: Historical Whodunits

Last Friday, I briefly reviewed the world of medical mysteries. This week it is the historical mystery. No matter what era interests you: ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, Victorian England or World War II, you can find a writer that has set crimes and a sleuth to solve them in times past.

Here are a few recommendations from Jan McClintock, blogger for We Need More Shelves :

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis (ancient Rome)

Face Down in the Marrow-Bone Pie by Kathy Lynn Emerson (Elizabethan England)

Blind Justice by Bruce Alexander (Georgian England)

Faded Coat of Blue by Own Parry (U.S. Civil War)

The Strange Files of Fremont Jones by Dianne Day (1900s San Francisco)

This is just a sampling. A great place to look for historical mystery recommendations is the library's Web site. Click on Good Reading, Web Sites for Readers, Mysteries and then Historical Mysteries.

- Pat

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain: Enzo’s Dilemma

Last week the library announced the launch of this season’s All Fairfax Reads with the selection of The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Everyone is invited to read and discuss the book with friends, relatives and neighbors between now and September.

Sara Gruen, the author of another book discussion favorite Water for Elephants, may have described Stein’s novel best: “ The Art of Racing in the Rain has everything: love, tragedy, redemption, danger, and – most especially – the canine narrator Enzo. The old soul of a dog has much to teach us about being
human. . . .”

Enzo’s dilemma intrigues us from the opening page:

“Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. . . . I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences.” (The Art of Racing in the Rain, p. 1)

A good novel lays out its themes in its opening page – and in this case – the opening sentence. In Stein’s novel, the art of living is diminished for canines – and for humans – when we lose our voices.

NEXT WEEK: Driving in the Rain

Friday, May 07, 2010

Mysteries, Continued: Medical Mysteries

Robin Cook and Tess Gerritsen are perhaps the best known of the mystery/thriller writers who set their novels in a medical setting. Cook has written more than 20 novels with titles such as Coma, Outbreak and Toxin. Some of Gerritsen’s medical thrillers include Harvest, Life Support and The Bone Garden.

If you like such medical puzzlers, here are a few lesser-known books you may wish to try:

The First Horseman by John Case

Do No Harm by Gregg Hurwitz

The Mystery of Breathing by Perri Klass

The Devil’s Cure by Kenneth Oppel

The Patient by Michael Palmer

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

All Fairfax Reads: The Art of Racing in the Rain

All Fairfax Reads, a one community/one book project, launches its seventh season in 2010 with The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. All residents of Fairfax County are invited to read and discuss the novel between now and September.

Stein’s 2008 novel – his third work of fiction – made the New York Times bestseller list. It is the tale of Enzo, an aging canine philosopher, who hopes to be reincarnated as a human. He learns, after watching a National Geographic Special that Mongolians believe their dogs return as people after their deaths. He would like the same fate. To prepare for his new human soul, Enzo carefully studies his master Denny, a race car driver, to learn the art of navigating life’s ordeals. The novel is both heart-wrenching and funny as Enzo tries to decipher the complexities of the human psyche.

Stein will appear at 5 p.m. on September 19 on the Fairfax campus of George Mason University as part of the annual Fall for the Book. For more on the book, author, as well as a discussion guide, visit our Web site. More All Fairfax Reads events will be posted as they are finalized.

Join relatives, friends and neighbors and enjoy The Art of Racing in the Rain!