The Most Dangerous Place On Earth

As someone who devours non-fiction, biography, and memoir, I was surprised to have finished this work of fiction in just shy of two days. To be fair, the book is a quick read (even for self-professed slower readers such as myself).  The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the debut novel of Lindsey Lee Johnson with impeccable prose and superb character development.  I could even see the book being turned into a film. In a nutshell, the book is broken into  time periods: Eighth Grade, Junior Year, and Senior Year. Within those general time periods, each chapter is further subdivided with titles such as: The Note, The Lovers, The Striver, The Artist,  The Dime, The Ride, The Dancer, The Pretty Boy, and The Sleeping Lady.  Each chapter spotlights each of the core characters whose lives revolve around a tragic incident involving Tristan Bloch, an awkward but brave outcast with an overbearing mother. Over the course of four years, we follow each protagonist as s/he navigates the tough terrain of junior high and high school, further complicated  by  parents, teachers, and digital culture. In many cases, each of these young people–although living in million-dollar beach homes–is forced to establish his or her individuality and navigate adolescence while also living in the shadows of abuse, neglect, and addiction at the hands of the grown ups who are supposed to protect and guide them. As is the case with many young people, these characters can sense when things are awry at home and school; but they lack the agency to be able to articulate those experiences, sometimes in a healthy way. Always looming in this novel is what lies unspoken–what is between the lines.

At the center of this story is Molly Nicholl, a newbie teacher and transplant from central California who is hired on in the English Department at Valley High in the affluent city of Mill Valley in Northern California, roughly a 6-hour drive from Los Angeles. As Molly begins to feel out the culture at Valley High, she finds herself at odds with the other seasoned faculty who are  burnt-out on their jobs, presumably after many years teaching. As Molly reconfigures her classroom into two concentric circles (note, also, the circular themes throughout the novel) so as not to carry on her predecessor’s tradition of an authoritarian, old-school classroom, she endures pushback from teachers who believe she is crossing the line with regard to her relationship with the students. After a car crash and the exploitation of a female student on social media, Molly is questioned about the inappropriate nature of her commenting on her student’s social media threads–even though her comments stemmed from genuine concern about the well-being of her students . Early on in the book, Molly is eager to dig deeper into the lives of her students–to see them not merely as students but also as human beings who have complex lives and much promise.  Molly once asks “Isn’t it our job as teachers to help our students?” She was quickly put in her place when her co-worker says: “No, your job is to teach.” But what does it mean “to teach”? What does teaching–truly teaching–entail?

I think my teacher and parent friends would enjoy this book, especially because it sheds light on a number of questions–namely: What is the role of the teacher? How can teachers truly effect change and the lives of their students if they are forced to keep students at arm’s length? Can teachers truly be effective if they relate to their students on only the most basic, superficial levels? Is it the role of teachers to dig beneath the surface to enable students to identify and pursue their interests? Are teachers supposed to protect and help their students? How can parents and teachers be better aligned for the benefit of the student?  Must there always be such a deep and wide chasm between young people and adults–one in which “adultness” itself is often dishonest, distrustful, and cynical? I have to say that by the end of the book–and yes, it’s just the idealist in me–I feel like Molly compromised too many of her ideals in an effort to play it safe. I mean, on one hand, I can certainly see why she would opt to play it safe, given the events leading up to her transition from newbie mover-and-shaker to cautious, jaded professional.  In one particular scene, Molly receives an essay from Callista who has accepted and processed, through the therapeutic act of writing, her role in the tragedy of Tristan Bloch. This was the moment that Molly had been waiting for the past three years: to play an encouraging and inspiring role in helping  students reconcile their places in the world and hopefully help them tap into their potential. I mean, here was Callista sharing a deeply painful experience with her teacher and in a sense, looking for encouragement and validation. But Molly, perhaps afraid to assume a role other than “superior” or “teacher” misses the opportunity entirely. Instead, she writes Callista a typical response that an English teacher–not a mentor–would write. However, the implications of Callista’s writing–how she knew the fine details of the path Tristan took to the bridge–were curious, troubling. Again, the power of the unspoken demands attention.

This books asks far more questions than it answers; so if you’re ok with ambiguity, you’ll love this book. I’m still wondering about these characters–what becomes of them, if they ever get to realize their true potential. Reading this book also forced me to look back on my own experiences in junior high and high school, which, like most young people, was a mixed bag of good, bad, and ugly. When I was young, I did not have vast social networks at my fingertips and cyber bullying wasn’t yet a thing. So much happens to young people online–entire worlds exist out of the reach of unwitting adults. While I tended to despise the parental and authoritarian figures in this book, I was nonetheless sickened by how these students treated each other. But unfortunately, I also got the sense that Emma, Damon, Callista, Ryan, Elisabeth, Nick, and others were just on their own, abandoned even. I certainly found fault with the parents: what is the role of the parent in providing guidance and support to their children? How can effective parenting provide a more equitable, just world? In essence, how can effective parenting be the anti-thesis to bullying, suicide, sexism, and abuse? How should parents be meaningfully involved in the lives of their children without being overbearing and suffocating? These are just some of many, many questions I have after finishing this fantastic debut by Lindsey Lee Johnson, which has drawn some comparisons to Thirteen Reasons Why.

Now Departing for – China

Welcome to the next month in our Online Reading Challenge! This month we are headed for China, a country that, for many of us, remains mysterious and unknown with a long, complex history and multiple cultures. A great book can crack open that door of mystery in the best possible way.

China as a subject offers a large number of intriguing and interesting books. Achee Min’s The Last Empress follows the last days of the Ch’ing Dynasty as overseen by Tzu Hsi. Maligned in the Western press as a ruthless, power-mad assassin, Min offers a different view of a powerful woman that did everything for her country and her family.

Under Heaven by Gabriel Kay is set in a imaginary kingdom in ancient China during the T’ang Dynasty. To honor the death of his father, Shen Tai spends two years burying the dead at a battle site on the kingdom’s border. When he receives a gift of 250 coveted horses, he realizes he is in terrible danger and seeks an audience with the Emperor. Detailed, nuanced, completely engrossing, this is a massive novel that you can easily (and happily) get lost in.

Lisa See has written many novels of China and of the Chinese immigrant experience in America. Set in 19th century China when women had little value except to produce male children, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of a “laotong” (an arranged friendship of two young girls that is meant to last a lifetime) between Lily and her laotong, the beautiful Snow Flower. A misunderstanding between them has far reaching consequences. This is a fascinating peek into a secretive and hidden world but a warning – the part when the girls undergo foot binding is not for the squeamish (I still shudder when I think about it)

For an examination of the push and pull of between new and old that Chinese immigrants to America feel, you can’t do better than Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. The younger generation is eager to embrace the modern world but the past and the old country, as remembered by their parents, continues to shape and influence them. Four Chinese women who immigrated to America in 1949 are drawn together to share stories and play mah-jong. Through the years we follow their triumphs and losses and those of their American-born daughters.

There are lots more choices out there. Watch for our displays at each building for more suggestions. And then let us know what you’ll be reading this month!

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain had been sitting in my wish list in RiverShare OverDrive for a few months before I decided to give it a listen. The plot grabbed my interest, but every time I scrolled through my list to find a new book, I never picked it because the cover wasn’t appealing. Well, I finally decided to read it when I discovered that our Info Café Blog’s Online Reading Challenge had Kenya listed as the country for May. Circling the Sun takes place in Kenya! It was a win-win. Now that I’ve finished it though, I wish I had started reading this book a lot sooner.

Circling the Sun tells the story of Beryl Markham, a real-life record-setting aviator who lived a life of adventure full of strife and unconventional desires. She was born in England and then brought to Kenya by her parents because her father wanted to farm, despite the fact that he had no experience doing so. Her mother left her and her father in Kenya when Beryl was very young to move back to England. As a result, Beryl was raised in a very unconventional way by her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who worked on her father’s estate and lived close by. Growing up without what the English considered to be a ‘traditional’ female role model, Beryl because a bold young woman who was not afraid to share her opinions, to try new things, and who understood the balance of nature, something that her father passed down to her.

Once Beryl reached a certain age, her father decided that she needed to have a more traditional life and thus threw the cozy life Beryl is familiar with into utter chaos. Her relationships began to dissolve and she was left floundering and confused about what exactly she was supposed to do with her life. Taking the skills she learned from her father as a horse trainer, she decided to become the first woman horse trainer in Kenya, which of course proved to be a very tricky process. Her decision to become a horse trainer led her more deeply into the European Expat community in Africa where she met and became entangled in a messy love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixon, who was the author of the classic memoir Out of Africa. Their tangled relationship and Beryl’s continuous desire to try more, to do more, and to be able to fend for herself leads her to journey all over the world and to meet many remarkable people.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book, but I did find myself confused sometimes about who different characters were referring to. I know this was probably because I listened to the book and missed seeing the names in print, but I still was able to figure it out at the end. I also highly encourage you to listen to/read the epilogue where the author gives readers a glimpse into the real life of Beryl Markham and what happened to her, her friends, and family after the book ended.

The author also mentioned the book West with the Night that Beryl Markham actually wrote! She praised it highly and Ernest Hemingway even reviewed it with his quote directly on the cover. This book is on my to-be-read list and I can’t wait to read more about Beryl’s life from her own point of view.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Now Departing for: Kenya

Welcome to the May edition of the Online Reading Challenge! This month we’re headed for Kenya!

When I think of Kenya (a country I’ve never visited) I think of large expanses of open savannah grasslands, wide skies and lots of wildlife. I’m afraid I know very little of the people who live there or much about it’s history – but that’s what this year’s Reading Challenge is all about, isn’t it? Exploring new places!

You have a variety of titles to choose from. Try The Constant Gardener by John LeCarre, about the dark side of capitalism and the long-reaching effects of corruption and political intrigue (and it’s also a movie) Suzanne Arruda has written mysteries set in 1920s Kenya including The Leopard’s Prey and Treasure of the Golden Cheetah.  Love, Life and Elephants: an African Love Story is a memoir by Daphne Sheldrick about her lifelong work with the elephants and wildlife of Kenya. Circling the Sun by Paula McLain follows the remarkable story of an independent woman, Beryl Markam (author of West with the Night)

For movies you can’t beat Out of Africa, an adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s time spent in Africa trying to establish a plantation. Starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, it is both sweeping and intimate and incredibly beautiful. Or search out The Flame Trees of Thika, a gorgeous, heartbreaking story of an English girl growing up in Kenya and starring Hayley Mills.

Unfortunately, the number of books and movies that we have available that are set in Kenya is pretty slim, and the majority of them view the country through the eyes of white settlers. Because of this, I think it’s fine to read a book set in another African country this month if you’d prefer (remember, no Library Police!) It is a disservice and rude to imply that all of Africa is the same when in fact it is made up of a diverse range of nations and cultures with unique (often ancient) histories.  But if you’re having difficulty finding a book set in Kenya that interests you, feel free to explore a different African country.

I am planning to read A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicolas Drayson. It’s fiction, not an actual bird guide and reviews describe it as “charming” in the same vein as Alexander McCall Smith’s books. “Charming” is always a good idea.

What about you – what are you going to read this month?

 

New York Times Best Books of 2016

Are you looking for something to read? Stuck in a rut and looking for something new? The New York Times recently released their 10 Best Books of 2016. Perhaps you will find a new author or a new genre that you love. Have you read all ten of The New York Times best books? Would you recommend any of the books on this list?  Let us know in the comments!

FICTION

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Winner of the 2016 National Book Award. Cora is a young slave living at a cotton plantation in Georgia. She is an outcast among her fellow slaves. A new slave arrives, named Caesar, and he tells Cora about the Underground Railroad. They decide to risk it all and take the terrifying journey North. After killing a white boy that tried to capture them, Cora and Caesar are being hunted.  “The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.” – from the Hardcover Edition.

 

 

small-bombsThe Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Finalist for the National Book Award. Mansoor Ahmed witnesses two of his friends die in a marketplace explosion from a “small bomb”. He becomes involved with a charismatic young activist whose ideas are always changing.

 

 

 

north-waterThe North Water by Ian McGuire

A nineteenth century whaling ship, The Volunteer,  is in the Artic Ocean. Aboard is a killer and a violent confrontation awaits those on board. This book will appeal to those that like thrillers.

 

 

 

vegeterian-kangThe Vegetarian by Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith.

Yeong-hye has been having violent nightmares and has decided to stop eating meat. This small seeming act has disrupted her marriage. Now her husband, brother-in-law and sister fight to reassert their control over Yeong-hye. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.

 

 

 

war-and-turpentine

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans. Translated by David McKay.

A grandson finds his grandfather’s notebooks that he left behind when he died in 1981.  The grandfather, Urbain Martien, was an artist, soldier and survivor of World War I. A vivid telling of life that was desired versus the life of a soldier that Martien was forced to become.

 

 

 

 

NONFICTION

existentialist-cafeAt the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

Paris, 1933. Three contemporaries meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse– and ignite a movement, creating an entirely new philosophical approach inspired by themes of radical freedom, authentic being, and political activism: Existentialism.

 

 

 

dark-moneyDark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer

“Jane Mayer spent five years conducting hundreds of interviews-including with several sources within the network-and scoured public records, private papers, and court proceedings in reporting this book. In a taut and utterly convincing narrative, she traces the byzantine trail of the billions of dollars spent by the network and provides vivid portraits of the colorful figures behind the new American oligarchy.” -From the Hardcover Edition

 

 

 

evictedEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Desmond writes of eight families in the poorest areas of Milwaukee. Once evictions were rare but they are becoming more commonplace since families are spending more than half their income on rent. This book does not just describe the problems that cause poverty but offers ideas and solutions.

 

 

 

in-the-darkroomIn the Darkroom by Susan Faludi

The author sets out to find someone that she scarely knew. Her father. Memories of him were of a violent man but Faludi wanted to confront him and find her own identity. What she found was a woman living in Hungary that had a gender reassignment surgery. Her father’s new identity forces Faludi to cross the borders of historical, political, sexual and religious lines. Faludi seeks the answer to the question, do we choose our identity?

 

 

 

returnThe Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar

Hisham Matar travels to Libya, his native country, in pursuit of his father, Jaballah Matar.  Jaballah was a former diplomat and a military man that was kidnapped from the streets of Cairo. The prison that he was held in is now empty, but his son, Hisham, hopes to find him.

The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith

the-way-i-used-to-beThe Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith is a deeply moving, traumatic examination of one young woman’s struggle to overcome the aftermath of a rape. Eden, a 14-year old teenage girl, is raped by Kevin, her older brother’s best friend and college roommate. Her family is asleep down the hall while he crawls into her bed. Eden is the typical band geek, good girl who lives in fear of Kevin as he tells her that he will kill her and that no one will believe her if she talks. She is paralyzed with fear and doesn’t know what to do except try to live her life like normal, an idea that quickly fails as she becomes a new person overnight.

This book follows Eden through all four years of high school, highlighting her relationships with friends and family as she keeps this dark secret under wraps. School becomes increasingly more difficult for Eden as she turns to lies, booze, sex, and parties to smother her emotions. Kevin’s younger sister, Amanda, who Eden used to be friends with, turns against her and begins spreading vicious rumors about her around school. Eden’s best friend, Mara, knows nothing about what happened to her and the two move through high school experiencing some typical high school activities: dying their hair, first crushes, getting piercings, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes for the first time, going to parties, doing drugs, and getting their drivers’ licenses. All the while, distance begins to grow between the two. Eden also finds herself separated from her other friends and her family. She has buried who she used to be, buried her emotions, and buried her secret deep inside.

As Eden grows older, readers are able to dissect the way her rape has affected her personality and her relationships. The way Eden treats herself changes drastically from her freshman year to her senior year of high school, as evidenced through her inner monologue throughout the book. How she believes others to see her changes throughout the book as well. The long-term view of the effect this trauma has on Eden allows readers to gain a better understanding of the guilt, hatred, and complex emotions survivors face in the aftermath of rape and sexual assault. The Way I Used to Be is not an easy book to read as watching Eden disintegrate is painful, but the truth and emotions revealed are so vivid and true-to-life that this book becomes a necessary read to understand the emotions survivors experience on a day-to-day basis.  Eden carries a double burden – the weight of carrying her secret and the violation of rape. She shows strength, power, survival, disappointment, pain, heartbreak, and massive loss throughout this book, leaving readers to grow attached to her well-being and her journey through a troubled adolescent made even more difficult by rape. The Way I Used to Be takes readers on an emotional rollercoaster as Eden struggles to find her way back to herself in the aftermath of her rape.

Don’t You Cry by Mary Kubica

don't you cryDon’t You Cry is a psychological mysterious thriller. It falls along the same lines as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but I found the twists that happened in this book to be less predictable, at least to me. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

Don’t You Cry by Mary Kubica is a twisting tale of deception, obsession, strangers, friends, and missing people. Quinn Collins is a young woman living in downtown Chicago with her roommate, Esther Vaughan. Everything seems to be going perfectly fine in Quinn’s life until she wakes up one morning and discovered that Esther has disappeared from their apartment without a trace. reporting Esther as missing only results in Quinn being told that Esther will probably come back in 48-72 hours and she should just wait. Quinn decides to take matters into her own hands and goes through Esther’s room looking for any clues. What she finds there leads Quinn to question who Esther really is and where she has disappeared to.

Alex Gallo is an eighteen-year-old boy working at a coffee shop an hour outside Chicago. Alex lives in this small lake town with his alcoholic father across from an old abandoned house that everyone thinks is haunted. One day, a mysterious woman walks into the coffee shop and Alex finds himself drawn to her. Alex is quickly pulled into Pearl’s spell, feeding and clothing her even though he knows nothing about her. Alex gets closer and closer to Pearl and realizes that he actually knows almost nothing about the town that he lives in.

While Quinn searches for Esther and Alex tries to learn more about Pearl, there are other factors simmering in the background of the book that demand the readers attention. This book is told in alternating voices, a fact that I enjoyed since I listened to this book through OverDrive and was able to dive into the characters more. Mary Kubica does a fabulous job of weaving a missing person story with family drama, mysterious pasts, old ghost stories, and alternate life stories. The tension slowly lives under the surface of this book until the end when the narrative explodes. Highly recommended.


This book is also available in the following formats:

LGTBQ Literature

rainbow
“Every Book” by Aspen May

In the past, LGTBQ voices were relegated to the fringes of society – invisible, ignored and often met with violence. In 1976, Jonathan Ned Katz endeavored to collect the stories and documents from 1566 to his present time.  Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A was, at the time, a radical publication, unearthing documents that had not seen the light of day in centuries.  It also gave voice to the rising gay right movement during the 1960-70s.

While the political and social culture of the U.S. has changed dramatically since 1976, it can still be difficult for LGBTQ authors, filmmakers or artists to join the mainstream, and those seeking LGBTQ works often times find themselves frustrated. The growth of the Internet has made access easier, but LGTBQ voices are still considered underrepresented in the mainstream.

The American Library Association created the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT) in an effort to make finding LGTBQ  information and literature easier and to advocate for greater visibility in libraries across the U.S.. GLBTRT also established the annual Stonewall Book Award for books of exceptional merit relating to the LGBTQ community. And, of course, many blogs and websites have been created to collect and distribute LGTBQ books, films, music and art.

Below are a handful of websites where you can find reviews and news about LGBTQ media. If you’d like to see what DPL and the surrounding RiverShare libraries have, click over to this LibGuide : http://libguides.davenportlibrary.com/LGBTQ

Award Lists:

ALA’s Rainbow Book List for 2015

Stonewall Book Awards

GLAAD Media Awards

Green Carnation Prize (UK)

Reviews

Over the Rainbow Books – Monthly bibliographies of notable LGBTQ books

GLBT Reviews – Book and media reviews from ALA’s Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Round Table

Band of Thebes (on hiatus)

Lambda Literary

I’m Here, I’m Queer, What the Hell do I Read?

Children’s Book Council’s Diversity Committee’s “Great Diversity Blog”

Abe Books – Celebrating Pride in Literature

Flavorwire’s 50 Essential Works of LGBT Fiction

Huffington Post LGBT Literature (keyword news feed)
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Sources:

Mitchell, Mark. Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Print.

LGBT Literature: Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.” Daily Kos. Kos Media, LLC, 25 Feb. 2014. Web. 6 June 2015.

War of the Wives

war of the wivesA phone call wakes you up in the middle of the night: “This is Detective Inspector Bowles from the Metropolitan police, Mrs. Busfield. We’re outside your house. Can you please let us in?” You scramble out of bed in shock, your first thoughts running to your two grown children and the one sleeping down the hall. Are they okay? You open the front door to find two policemen telling you your husband of twenty-eight years has been found dead, floating in a river. Not possible. He’s supposed to be in Dubai on business. You are in denial.

Fast forward to the funeral. As you walk to the crematorium flanked by your children, everyone stares. Standing outside, you hear wailing coming from the parking lot and see a grown woman on her knees keening. As she staggers to the door, you’re infuriated that she dare intrude on your grief. She reaches the vicar standing on the steps, grips his arms, and demands to know what happened to your husband and wants to know who organized the funeral without telling her. He politely tries to disengage, while asking who the woman is. She grips his arm and says, “I’m his wife.” You are shocked. She can’t be.

Two women. One husband. Deception, betrayal, and death. If this description has caught your interest, check out Tamar Cohen’s War of the Wives for more information about Selina, Lottie, their families, and the dead patriarch of the family, Simon Busfield. Just remember: Not everything is as it seems.

Dictatorship of the Dress by Jessica Topper

dictatorship of the dressWhen I was growing up, I always had a secret hope that I would meet my significant other on a plane and we would magically fall in love, travel to an exotic location, and live happily ever after. When I reached high school, I realized that my plane-phobic self would actually have to get WILLINGLY on a plane(and not freak out) to do this… My child self was crushed. I would have to continue to look for those fairy tales in books.

Just last week, I stumbled upon a fiction romance novel called Dictatorship of the Dress by Jessica Topper that allowed me to live out my childhood fantasy of travel love. In this novel, Topper weaves together the lives of Laney Hudson, the dress bearer for her mother’s wedding, and Noah Ridgewood, a software designer on his way to his bachelor party. Laney is sick of hauling her mother’s dress around, as her mother seems to care only if the dress actually makes it to the wedding, not her daughter. As she carries the giant dress bag through the airport, she is constantly mistaken for the bride, a mistake Laney uses to her advantage so she can be bumped up to first class. Here she is seated next to Noah, who the flight crew mistakenly thinks is her husband-to-be. Enter in horrible winter weather, missed flights, Laney’s lost love, and an overbearing fiancé, Laney and Noah soon find themselves grounded in the last available honeymoon suite. The two must wrestle with events in their past that are holding them back from catching this new love connection.