First ImpressionsFirst Impressions by Charlie Lovett is subtitled “a novel of old books, unexpected love, and Jane Austen.” It’s a quick read, quickly alternating between the present day and 1796 when Jane Austen herself is in the midst of writing early drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice (or is she?) There’s some doubt as to whether she or a good friend and fellow author mentored her or whether he actually wrote Pride and Prejudice.

Lovett does a good job of organically integrating historical information about Austen and her books. It doesn’t feel like you’re being fed lessons from high school English, but as if you are really beginning to know Jane and what motivated her to write the stories that she did.

In between chapters about Jane Austen are those that focus on Sophie Collingwood. Her family owns a large estate, as well as an important library of books that contain important clues to the first editions of Pride and Prejudice.  A recent graduate of Oxford and an expert in antiquarian books thanks to her uncle Bertram. Sophie becomes involved in literary intrigue, in which she and others try to untangle the early works of Austen, and those of her friend, Reverend Richard Mansfield.

Suspense builds as Sophie, some shadowy rivals, and two suitors try to solve the mystery. Lovett does a good job of laying the groundwork, so the ending is unexpected yet grounded in the information the reader has been given. For example, subsequent generations of the Mansfield’s and Austen’s publisher are revealed to be active participants in the contemporary mystery.

Guest CottageThe Guest Cottage by Nancy Thayer is a great companion to Enchanted August (see blog post of July 15th). Not only are both set in idyllic New England islands, both novels  are self-limiting in that the cottage rental is for the month of August. (Is this a east coast thing? It seems very exotic to this midwesterner).

The knowledge that this a short-term co-habitation allows for a pleasantly predictable dramatic arc (meet-cute, attraction, development of romance and friendship, sadness of the looming end of summer).

The characters in both books are suffering from unsatisfactory or dysfunctional family situations, and are looking for healing, as well as escape, however brief. They find all this, as well as transformation and joy.

This is the first Nancy Thayer book I’ve read, and I’m happy to find that she has many more in her backlist. She actually lives in Nantucket so her writing has the ring of authority.

What is therapeutic is the satisfaction she obviously takes in the quotidian tasks of cooking, grocery shopping,  cleaning up, and so on. Life on the island also consists of going to the beach, sailing, visiting quaint shops and getting ice cream. One could do a lot worse than spending time in these fictional worlds.

Modern FarmerYou may notice a new magazine at the Fairmount branch. Modern Farmer is a quarterly hipster/agriculture magazine . It’s a fascinating combination of actual horticultural information but with a  small-is-better vibe. There is no pretense that they are the voice of big ag. “We’re making fun of ourselves, in a way, because we don’t know anything about farming,” said former editor-in-chief Ann Marie Gardner.

The sophisticated design aesthetic is  an interesting contrast to the stories about goats, cows and pigs.  Recent stories feature news about a bird flu vaccine, as well as Brad Pitt. Some of the most inspiring articles are about young men and women trying and succeeding in diverse ventures – such as a husband-wife team of alpaca farmers in New York, a woman raising quail in California, and three young people growing papayas, coconut and other fruits and vegetables in Bali.

The magazine, founded in 2013, is struggling. It actually suspended operations earlier this year, then promised a summer issue. We hope that they can overcome their financial difficulties. It fills a unique niche, with  a point-of-view not seen in mainstream magazine publishing.

Johnny HellerMarley and meHorrible Harry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local audiobook aficionados got an opportunity to hear a master narrator at work and to quiz him about his craft. Johnny Heller, award-winning narrator, actor and stand-up comic visited Bettendorf Public Library July 15th to read aloud and take questions from the audience.  A resident of Manhattan, he seemed genuinely interested in learning more about Iowa in general, and the Quad Cities specifically.

Heller is an interesting combination of  the highbrow (trained as a Shakespearean actor) and the low to middle brow (he delights in adolescent humor, which serves him well when narrating juvenile books). He read from several of his books (Marley and Me and  Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys).

He gave several insights into the process. Most fascinating was how he chooses someone (an actor or actress perhaps) to pair with a character, so he can instantly call up that persona. When asked how narrators can seamlessly and quickly move between male and female characters, he says, ideally, he’s in a zone where he doesn’t consciously have to make those decisions. He doesn’t try to do “female” voices. it’s more about their character. He softens his voice for females but doesn’t go several octaves higher.

Other tidbits, he gets paid by the hour – the finished hour of product, not what he puts into it, so as an experienced  narrator, he’s more efficient and the ratio of time spent and actual output is more equal.

His favorite part of the job, though, is to foster the love of books and reading. Mixing with the crowd before and after, Heller clearly enjoys the extensive traveling involved in the job, and doing whatever he can to promote the appreciation of story, in whatever format it may be.

 

 

 

Burning RoomThe audiobook of Michael Connelly’s latest (hopefully, not the last) Harry Bosch novel is brilliantly narrated by Titus Welliver. The Burning Room is enjoyable on multiple levels. First, there’s the evolving relationship between Harry and an assigned protegee, Detective Lucia Soto, as well as Harry’s internal monologues about the careerists in charge of the LAPD and the incredible talents of Welliver and, probably least of all, the actual plot.

Bosch grows into an ever more fascinating character; professional in that he cares first and foremost about solving cases, rather than the political implications of each and every action. He skewers the bureaucratic bluster in the guise of the bumptious Lieutenant Samuels, Bosch’s nemesis. As they investigate two entwined cold cases, Harry imparts his survival skills and hard-won knowledge to Lucy Soto, a smart and hard-working disciple. Will she carry the torch in future Connelly books?

There’s a fine balance in audiobooks when it comes to altering the reader’s voice between characters; they should be distinct enough that the listener can follow a conversation, but not so in-your-face that you’re brought out of the story. Welliver’s  gift is his ability to create, with consistent and subtle intonation, a conversation’s back and forth action. So much more efficient than “he said” and “Harry replied,” and “she shouted.”

His narrating work can be heard in several Robert B. Parker novels, while his acting can be seen in The Town, Gone Baby Gone, Twisted and Transformers. Age of Distinction. I’m sure acting is not easy, but reading aloud in such an intelligent and enjoyable manner must be even harder.

 

NYTimesBookReviewMore often than not, the Sunday New York Times Book Review contains a passage that you wish you’d written, or that you’d like to save somewhere to inspire yourself about the importance of books, reading and libraries.

For example, this was part of a July 5th interview with Anthony Doerr. By the Book is a recurring feature in which writers are quizzed about their reading life. Here’s an excerpt:

“Have you ever gotten in trouble for reading a book?

Gosh, I’m not sure. Last year I bought an Eliot Weinberger essay collection to my son’s lacrosse practice and took a wayward ball to the shin because I was sitting too close to the field. I did read “The Sheltering Sky” when I was 11 or 12 years old. (“Mom, what’s hashish?) But I don’t think I got in trouble for it.  On the contrary, I was incredibly blessed because neither my mother nor the local librarians ever said ‘This is outside your age range, Tony.  You can’t handle this.’  They trusted us to make our own paths through books  and that’s very, very empowering.”

From Anthony Doerr: By the Book, New York Times, p. 8, July 5, 2015.

Or sometimes, it hits a little close to home. To quote Judd Apatow:

“My buying-to-actually reading ratio is 387 to 1. …I have actually convinced myself that buying books is the same as reading…”

This is in answer to the question: “Whom do you consider the best writers – novelists, essayists, critics, journalists, poets – working today?,” he says, “I am the last person you should ask because I don’t read that much.”

From Judd Apatow: By the Book, New York Times, p. 7, June 14, 2015

I intend to browse through back issues at the Main library, and look for Carl Hiaasen, Neil Gaiman, Anne Lamott, Alain de Botton, Marilynne Robinson, and Michael Connelly, among others (you can also browse the archives online to see a list of featured authors).  These are folks that I’m guessing are going to be both witty and not so very full of themselves.

So, how would you answer the By the Book questionnaire?

Enchanted AugustI was well into Enchanted August  before the (admittedly obvious) similarities to Enchanted April impinged upon my consciousness. In both,  several people who’d not be friends in normal circumstances find themselves sharing a vacation home in an idyllic vacation spot. They become better versions of themselves, more generous, open-hearted and kind. Marriages are improved, and friendships fostered.

Brenda Bowen’s novel is modeled on The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnin. Published in 1922, it was made into a film in 1992, starring Miranda Richardson and Michael Kitchen.

In Bowen’s novel, Lottie and Rose happen upon an advertisement for a  cottage (in fact, a huge, Victorian house) on Little Lost Island in Maine. They are both at low points in their lives, stressed out about their children, husbands and life in New York City. Like Enchanted April, the desire and the plan take root during a pouring rain. All the better to contrast with the buoyantly sunny skies of Maine and Italy. Caroline Dester (a movie star in Enchanted August and Lady Caroline in Enchanted April) are struggling with the demands of fame and privilege.

The four occupants (the joyously optimistic Lottie, the quieter poet Rose,  beautiful Caroline and eccentric, grieving Beverly) meld into a family of sorts, even as it expands and embraces extended family members.  Maine itself is a character – ever-changing but always exhilarating, working its magic on all who spend time there. The very remoteness of the island (no cell phone service) changes how they go about their days and how they interact with each other and those off the island. There is a charmingly retro vibe to the story and the setting.

If you can’t physically get away this summer, dip into this virtual vacation between two covers, and you’ll feel as refreshed and restored as if you’d actually left your house.

 

Little Beach Street Bakery Written by Jenny Colgan, Little Beach Street Bakery, is surprisingly enjoyable. The  writing style and character development are better than you expect based on cover art and blurb, even though there’s  a bit of a formula feel.

Though Polly’s life has veered wildly off course, there isn’t really  sense of dread.  There’s a comforting feeling that it’s  probably going to work out for her, even as things go from bad to worse. The theme of reinvention is always enticing; readers get to imagine what would happen if they lost everything, but got to start over in a new place, with new people and a new job.

Set in Cornwall, England, Polly and her boyfriend opened a graphic design company not long before  computer programs allowed users to do their own design and printing. Their business failure exposed the cracks in the couple’s relationship and they eventually broke up, leaving Polly without a home or a job.

After a dispiriting apartment search, she ends up in a town that is cut off from the rest of England at high tide, living in a dirty and dilapidated building. The upsides are the ocean views, companionship of a local fisherman and a mysterious American, as well as an adopted baby puffin. The downsides are the lack of jobs, and a cranky landlady who, as the local baker,  is threatened by Polly’s skill in bread making.

Adding to the richness of the novel are secondary characters such as Reuben, an obnoxious philanthropist, Kerensa, Polly’s best friend, through whose eyes Polly is able to appreciate the advantages of her new life, and, of course, Neil, the puffin. The fishing village setting and the evolving friendships and romances make for a lovely break from the stresses of fast-paced, mainland life.

Subtitled “How Six Novels taught me love, friendship, and the things that really matter,” A Jane Austen Education is partly the story of how William Deresiewicz, now a well-regarded Austen scholar, evolved from being dismissive, to being a true fan.

There are chapters devoted to Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. It’s a close textual study of the best kind, not overly academic and pedantic. He explains why Austen has endured. Not because of the quaint period film adaptations, but because form and style drive Austen’s message.

Long passages in Emma are devoted to trivial matters and gossip. Austen skewers the mundane conversation of characters like Miss Bates, and the cruelty of Emma. She forces readers to confront in themselves  easy and cavalier meanness.

Entwined in the literary criticism, is memoir.  Deresiewicz movingly relates how the novels changed his life for the better. Austen’s message of compassion and kindness improved his relationships.

This all sounds like it would be a tough and boring slog, but it’s actually very accessible – especially for English lit (and Austen) geeks. If you didn’t know what the big deal was before, this is an enlightening read. If you were already a devotee, you’ll enjoy it even more.

 

Accidental TouristIf you’re waiting for the new Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread, why not dip into the Tyler archive? Old friends like the charmingly odd Leary family are the center of The Accidental Tourist.

Macon, the travel writer who hates to leave home, moves in with his siblings when he breaks his leg. Macon, along with Rose, Charles and Porter resume their comfortable routines, including a card game so intricate only the three brothers and sister can master it.

Written in 1985, the absence of cell phones and answering machines allow Macon to leave his marital home and go off the grid. The Learys often ignore the ringing landline, so those looking for Macon are forced to show up at the door.

Air travel prior to 9/11 is also charmingly free of TSA regulations. Macon writes a series of books for the business traveler, and the chief goal is to replicate one’s home environment. His desire for order and quiet set him up for a collision with Muriel, who is a dog trainer, among other things.  She’s Macon’s equal in eccentricity – but on the other end of the spectrum. She’s outgoing and confessional, with considerably fewer boundaries than the Learys.

Though the tone is sometimes comic, there’s an undertone of sadness and complexity. In the recent past, Macon’s son was killed in a shoot-out at a fast food restaurant. Muriel has had to struggle all her adult life to patch together a life for herself and her young son.

Tyler’s gift is to create fascinating characters and then let them bounce off each other in unpredictable ways.