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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Northwest Fiction

It seems appropriate to move from the desert settings of Southwest fiction to the damp, tall forests of the Pacific Northwest or the peaks, plains and valleys of Montana and Idaho. Settled in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th, this area has a more recent literary tradition than the East Coast. Among well-known novels set in this part of the U.S. are Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars.

Oregon’s Multnomah County Library has compiled a North by Northwest reading list that offers fiction written after 1960 by authors who live, or have lived in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska and who write about those regions.

Here are a few you might want to sample:

Mountain Time by Ivan Doig

Mommies Behaving Badly by Roz Bailey

The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fiction of Place – The Southwest

Since I recently wrote about regional fiction of the South and New England, it seems appropriate to extend the topic. Over the years, I’ve made numerous trips to the Albuquerque and Santa Fe area in New Mexico. For a Connecticut Yankee like me, it was eye-opening. In addition to a clear, azure sky and red, red rock that stretches for miles, its culture and history have little in common with the East Coast. In the Southwest, three peoples – the Spanish, Mexicans and Native Americans – merged to create a place like no other in the U.S.

Fiction of the regional reflects this unique identity, and as with the South and New England there are some classics. Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, Edward Abbey’s The Monkey-Wrench Gang and the mysteries of Tony Hillerman come to mind.

Here’s a few more, you may want to try:

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

Redeye by Clyde Edgerton

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New England Fiction

Since my last post dealt with the pleasures of Southern writing, it seems appropriate to move north to another region – New England. As with the South, there are classics. Moby Dick by Herman Melville and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott come to mind. Also Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. They are near the top of The Boston Globe’s The 100 Essential New England Books.

Twentieth century fiction set in New England includes Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever (although I prefer his short stories) and Couples by John Updike.

Others on the list, while less familiar, are worth trying. They include:

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Little Children by Tom Perrotta

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Requiem, Mass. by John Dufresne

Friday, August 20, 2010

Southern Fiction

Having lived in Virginia for more than two decades, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I was born above the Mason-Dixon Line and grew up across the river in Maryland. Still – I’ve grown to appreciate Southern sensibilities – especially the region’s literature. Lists of great books of Southern fiction always include certain classics like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, the novels by William Faulkner and stories of Flannery O’Connor.

A newer generation of Southern writers includes Fannie Flagg, Pat Conroy, Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, among many others. About a year ago, another Southern writer, Elizabeth Spencer, published her list of best books of southern fiction in the Wall Street Journal. Among them were:

On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy

A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Sample and enjoy some of the South’s best!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Time to Laugh

Thurber House has announced the finalists for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. The winner will be announced October 4 at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City where humorist James Thurber once lived. Among the contenders owned by the library are:

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Mennonite in a Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

Past winners include:

Lamentations of the Father by Ian Frazier

I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle

My Lucky Star by Joe Keenan

If you need a good laugh as the summer winds down, try any of the above.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Books Into Film

With the opening today of Eat, Pray, Love, another bestseller has become a movie. In fact, according to at least five more August movie releases are based on books. They are:

Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen

Twelve by Nick McDonell

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

The Nurse Matilda series by Christianna Brand (“Nancy McPhee Returns”)

Make sure you check out the book as well the film, and enjoy the waning days of summer.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

When a Book Disappoints: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

It’s been an international bestseller for several years, so when my library staff book discussion group decided to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I opened its pages with great anticipation. I had to put it down some 50 pages later – although I did read the last chapter to see if I had missed something.

Perhaps I’m not cosmopolitan enough or don’t understand the European obsession with “the intellectual” and class distinctions, but this novel by French author Muriel Burberry just couldn’t capture my attention. It is told in alternating chapters by Renee, a concierge in an upscale apartment building who feels she has to hide her intellectual interests from its occupants, and Paloma, a 12-year-old resident of the building who feels her life is meaningless. Both have great disdain for the class-conscious people in the building.

I agree with Caryn James, who reviewed The Elegance of the Hedgehog for the New York Times ("Thinking on the Sly," Sept. 5, 2008):

“Especially in the early chapters, Barberry, a professor of philosophy, seems too clever for her own good . . . Her brief chapters, more essays than fiction, so carefully build in explanations for the literary and philosophical references that she seems to be assessing what a mass audience needs. In just a few pages, RenĂ©e offers a mini-treatise on phenomenology.”

Actually, it was after the explanation of phenomenology that I felt I had to quit the book.

Renee and Paloma are interesting characters – both must hide aspects of themselves to survive – but that bond was not enough to sustain my interest. I understand the book improved when a third character Mr. Ozu moves into the building, but it was taking me too long to get to that point.

For it to be a bestseller, others must have found Burberry’s characters more engaging. Her first book Une Gourmandise was also popular, but isn’t available in English translation until next year.

Alas, that is the peril of being a book lover. Sometimes a novel disappoints.

Pat, Fairfax County Public Library

Friday, August 06, 2010

Horror Fiction – Part II

Several weeks back, we listed some of the winners of the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Awards. The association’s website also has a fascinating essay, "What is Horror Fiction?". The essay quotes Douglas Winter, author of the anthology, Prime Evil, "Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion."

If the only requirement for horror is that it elicits emotions of fear or dread, then books such as Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones could be classified in this (non) genre according to the essay’s author.

The essay laments the marketing niche invented by Stephen King in the 1980s, which tended to foster imitation rather than evolution, but sees a broader definition of horror fiction as it evolves in the 21st century with topics such as nanotechnology gone amok, etc.

“Just as our fears and terrors change with time, so too will the definition of horror, not just from age to age but from person to person,” the essay concludes.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

More on The Art of Racing in the Rain

Back in May and June we posted some thoughts on the library’s All Fairfax Reads selection, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Now that some of you may have read the novel, we’re curious what you think.

Here’s what some reviewers said:

The Art of Racing in the Rain is getting all kinds of buzz, and it deserves every accolade. Readers will be moved by this warm hug of a story (and may find themselves looking searchingly into the eyes of their own canine companions). Enzo is a charming and witty narrator. His tale, while hilarious at times, is quite often heartbreaking, but it is ultimately uplifting and heartwarming. And I found the ending to be oh so very satisfying.” --

“Stein’s Enzo is the perfect narrator, wickedly observant of the world around him, even if limited in his ability to interact with humans. Oh how he yearns for a proper tongue and vocal chords so he can string a sentence together. And opposable thumbs!” – The Seattle Times, May 9, 2008.

“Enzo ultimately teaches Denny and the reader that persistence and joie de vivre will see them through to the checkered flag. Stein creates a patient, wise and doggish narrator that is more than just fluff and collar.” – Library Journal, May 2008