The simplistic description of this book is that it tells the story of the burning of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, a disaster that destroyed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. But it is far more than that – The Library Book by Susan Orlean is about the joy of reading and learning, the magic and potential of libraries, the people that make sure libraries are open every day to everyone. It is a love letter to libraries everywhere.
The fire itself is fascinating. A perfect combination of fuel (the books) and oxygen (from the unique shelving system that allowed ample air circulation), the fire burned at up to 2000 degrees for seven hours. Most fires burn orange and red, but this fire achieved a chemical reaction known as a “stoichiometric condition” and burned clear, a phenomenon that most firemen never see and is usually only able to be produced under specific lab conditions.
The Library Book also delves into the history of the Los Angeles Public Library including its unique architecture, its growth which reflects Los Angeles itself growing from a raw, untamed outpost to a center of glamour and sophistication, and the colorful people it serves. I found that LAPL’s struggles are often universal to libraries everywhere – incorporating and embracing technology, serving diverse populations, maintaining a collection and, always, budget. Descriptions of many of their patrons and incidents rang very familiar with me, although I have to say I’ve never (and hope never to) run into a patron like the one on page 159!
Hopefully, if you’re reading the library blog, you’re a fan of libraries already and you’re predisposed to be interested in this book but I think anyone would find this book interesting. Orlean is a masterful storyteller, weaving multiple storylines together, sprinkled with fun ancedotes and real life observations. One of her main thesis is that libraries are the repository of memory and the keeper of time. Not just historical, but personal, that the experience of walking into a library and being able to check out a book holds a certain joy no matter the building. Her stories about her childhood library and visiting it with her mother are poignant and heartfelt prove this belief beautifully and elevate the book far beyond a dry accounting of events.
Read it. You’ll love it.
Have you ever looked at the cover of a book and knew that the story was going to hook you? That’s how I felt when I saw The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve. Swirling fire, a deep red cover, and a bold font all signaled to me that the content of this book was going to leave me wanting more. Shreve exceeded my expectations with this novel.
The Stars are Fire is a piece of historical domestic fiction that focuses around the Great Maine Fire of 1947. This real event is given a fictionalized twist as Shreve tells the story of Grace Holland’s attempts to survive and rebuild after her life falls into ruins around her. After a summer-long drought, fires began near Bar Harbor and started ravaging the coast of Maine. People were left wondering where to escape to and hoping that the closeness of the sea would spare them from the brunt of the fire.
Grace Holland lives with her husband Gene and their two small toddlers. Five months pregnant, Grace is left to protect her children on her own after Gene leaves her to go help fight the fires. Grace and her best friend, Rosie, race to the sea with their four children to try to survive the flames. Keeping their children alive is their only priority as Grace and Rosie watch in abject horror as their houses and the community that they have grown to love bursts into flames. Hunkered down in the sand by the ocean, Grace fights to keep her children alive, sacrificing her own body to do so.
In the morning, Grace finds herself and her children wonderfully alive, but their lives have irrevocably changed. They’re penniless, homeless, and without a father or husband. Gene never returned from fighting the fires and no one knows where he is. Facing an uncertain future, Grace is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers until she either finds Gene or her mother or gets a job to support herself. Grace has to make a new life for herself and her children, something that both frightens and excites her since her life with Gene was not the most loving or supportive. While she has suffered great losses, Grace is able to move forward, find new happiness, and discover all the things she was missing when she was living with Gene. Just when she is settled into a new normal, something out of the blue happens and Grace is forced to be braver than she ever was before.
I really enjoyed this book. It was the first Anita Shreve book that I read and the first book in a really long time that had me wishing it would have been longer. There were so many characters whose backstories I was yearning to know more of and the ending had me on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen. This book is set up so well that Shreve could easily spin it into a series. Here’s to hoping she does!
This is also available in the following formats:
The Arsonist by Sue Miller is my latest foray into audiobooks. Miller has weaved a suspenseful story full of family drama and community intrigue within a small New England town.
Frankie Rowley has returned to Pomeroy, New Hampshire, the small village and farmhouse where her family has always spent the summers. Frankie has worked in East Africa for the last 15 years, but came home after she realized that she has never really quite fit in over there. The adjustment back to the states is hard on Frankie, leaving her walking along a country road on her first night back. Waking up the next morning, Frankie discovers that a house up the road has been burnt to the ground. Fires keep popping up around the community, putting people on edge and dividing the town even further.
In addition to the community drama around the fires, Frankie’s mother Sylvia is becoming more concerned over her husband’s erratic behavior. He is forgetting more and more some days, while on others, he seems just fine. Frankie and her sister, Liz, are trying to help, but Liz has a family of her own to deal with now and is hoping Frankie will help relieve her stress. Frankie, herself, has fallen for Bud Jacobs, a Washington DC transplant to Pomeroy, who has taken over the town’s small newspaper. All of these relationships become even more entangled in a very small town under great stress due to all of the arson activity and the divide between the summer people and year-rounders.
The Arsonist is the second book that I’ve listened to where the author has been the narrator and the stories really benefit from the author’s telling. The author is able to truly tell how she wants the characters to talk and how she sees them interacting with each other. You also notice a distinct connection between the narrator and each character because the author cares more about and has a more vested interest in how the characters are being portrayed. Check this book out and let me know what you think!
This book is available in additional formats: