The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

“Books and ideas are like blood; they need to circulate, and they keep us alive.”

One of my absolute favorite genres to read is historical fiction, but this particular book hits the jackpot because it is also about libraries and the amazing people who work in them! Just published in February, The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles, weaves together two primary narratives spanning across time and place to create a beautiful and haunting story about the strength of friendship, family, and libraries in the face of betrayal, loss, and war.

This story begins in 1939 France with the narrative of Odile Souchet, a fresh graduate of library school who interviews for a librarianship position at the American Library in Paris (ALP). She quickly finds herself at home in the stacks and among several new friends, including fellow librarians, devoted library subscribers, a volunteer who quickly becomes her best friend, and a police officer who becomes her beloved beau. Before long, however, Odile loses a part of herself as her twin brother, Remy, goes off to war and everything she loves, including the library, is endangered.

The second central narrative takes place in 1980s Montana through the eyes of a young teenager named Lily. After the death of her mother and her father’s eventual remarriage, Lily finds herself both lost and trapped in a small rural town she desperately wishes to escape. She eventually finds a sense of liberation in the friendship she develops with her elderly neighbor, who teaches her French, shares her love of literature and books, and essentially becomes a second mother during some of her darkest moments. Before long, Lily becomes curious about her neighbor’s past, as all she (and the rest of the town) knows is her status as a widowed war bride who left her entire life behind in Paris to come to Montana with her husband after the war. Despite the difference in age and background, these two characters have more in common than meets the eye and share a kinship of love and understanding that truly stands the test of time.

Overall, this novel is a heart-wrenching and tragic, albeit beautiful, story filled with memorable characters who are tested by unimaginable hardships. I reveled in the development of several characters, especially since I felt I was able to connect with their complex and flawed personas. While you learn the fate of many of these individuals, I definitely found myself wanting more information on others! I also really enjoyed Charles’s writing style – in addition to writing beautifully, it is obvious how much research she did in the creation of this book by the way she is able to truly whisk you away to another time and place as you read.

While I definitely loved the fictional aspects of this novel, I was delighted to learn that several librarians in the story, along with their remarkable and heroic actions, were based on real individuals. Despite the dangers and risks war posed to both the people and resources of the library, the ALP stayed open to subscribers, maintained a service in which they delivered around 100,000 books to soldiers fighting overseas, and risked their own lives to deliver books to Jewish subscribers who had been barred from entering the library. Charles first learned about this incredible history upon becoming the programs manager at the ALP and, feeling wholly inspired, decided to delve deeper into the history by writing this book. The result? An ode to the truly incredible and impactful roles libraries will always have in our society.

All in all, I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who loves libraries and books, remarkable character development, and experiencing the strength and resiliency of the human race, especially through relationships formed with others.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis has written another masterful piece of historical fiction: The Lions of Fifth Avenue. What hooked me about this novel is that the New York Public Library plays a major part in each characters’ story. Told through the view points of New York in 1913/1914 and New York in 1993, Davis has managed to create a historical novel that weaves together two generations centered around similar themes: book thefts in the New York Public Library.

In 1913 New York, Laura Lyons seems to have the perfect life. Her husband has just been appointed the superintendent of the New York Public Library which means that her family now lives in the library. Tucked in an apartment hidden within the library, Laura, her husband, and their two children make their life together. While Laura should be happy with what she has, she wants more. Confident and sure of what she wants, Laura applies to the Columbia Journalism School and soon finds her respectable life blown apart. Her studies take her all across the city where she meets people she never would have met before.

She is introduced to the Heterodoxy Club, a radical group of all women who have found a safe space to share their opinions that society frowns upon: suffrage, women’s rights, birth control, among others. The beauty of the Heterodoxy Club is that it is a completely safe space for women to share their thoughts as they are not allowed to tell what is happening to people outside the group. The more Laura attends the Heterodoxy Club, the more she starts to question her life. She wants more than just being a wife and mother. Right as she seems to be getting what she wants, issues surface. Valuable books are stolen from the library. Her family is under scrutiny and their home is threatened, forcing Laura to figure out her priorities or she could lose it all.

Flash forward 80 years to 1993. Sadie Donovan works as a curator at the New York Public Library. Her grandmother is Laura Lyons, the famous essayist. That is an uncomfortable topic for Sadie to talk about given her job as curator. Life is going pretty well until books, notes, and rare manuscripts for the exhibit that Sadie is working on start disappearing from the Berg Collection. This famous collection has limited staff that run it, so the culprits have to be someone she knows. As the investigation ramps up, Sadie works with a private security expert to find the missing items and whoever is stealing. Sadie learns some uncomfortable secrets about her family the more she digs; things that could destroy her current life but that could also solve mysteries from the past.

This book is also available in the following formats:

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The concepts of multiple lives and alternate universes make up the bulk of Matt Haig’s newest book, The Midnight Library. Given the current state of the world, I found the concept of an alternate universe to be refreshing even though I’m still not certain if that is something that I would want. Haig does an excellent job of discussing the morality of switching universes versus keeping your root life, a philosophical conundrum that most people do not think about on a daily basis.

Nora Seed wants to die. That is how this novel begins. Nothing in her life is going her way. She has lost her job, her pet, her best friend, and her brother. Her existing relationships are on the verge of disaster and Nora is struggling to find the will to live. She doesn’t see the point in living anymore and decides to kill herself.

Then she wakes up. Instead of ending up in an afterlife, Nora finds herself in a middle ground: a library. In fact, she is in the Midnight Library. Walking inside, Nora discovers that the library is full to the brim with books and the dutiful librarian in charge is the librarian from her early school days, Mrs. Elm. Confused and unsure what to do next. Nora turns to Mrs. Elm for help. Mrs. Elm explains to Nora that in fact this library is where people go when they are stuck between life and death. The library appears to people in many different ways, but the contents stay the same: every book that Nora sees is a different version of her own life, including her original life aka her root life. The millions of decisions that Nora choose during her life, and the subsequent decisions she said no to, all live within this library. Most importantly, Nora has the ability to choose to live any life that she wants to now, with restrictions and strings attached of course.

Overwhelmed with this knowledge, Nora has no idea where to begin. She is wracked with regret about what happened, and didn’t happen, in her root life. Mrs. Elm suggests she learn more about her regrets, sending Nora down a journey of self-discovery through a multitude of parallel universes that all have the power to change Nora’s perspective of her root life. As Nora tries on life and life, she slowly realizes that she’s never truly happy in any of these alternate lives either. This causes her to panic and wonder if she will be stuck in the Midnight Library forever. Nora must decide what she truly wants out of life and try to overcome the crushing regret that threatens to destroy her. As Nora goes on this journey, Mrs. Elm is right by her side, guiding her to what she truly desires even if Nora has no idea what that is.

If you’re looking for an escape, I recommend this book. If you’re looking to read about life struggles, alternate histories, parallel universes, or if you just want to pick up book about someone who is struggling to find their way like most of us are, this book is for you. It turned out in a way that I wasn’t expecting and I can’t wait to talk about it with you.

This book is also available in the following formats:

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

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.

 

This Beautiful Fantastic

A librarian with a garden – how could I possibly resist? And there’s no need to resist – This Beautiful Fantastic is a charming, modern fairy tale about friendship and trust and finding beauty in the ordinary.

Bella Brown is a shy, reclusive librarian (disappointingly, a bit of a stereotype, although Bella is young and does not wear her hair in a bun!) whose dream is to become a children’s book author. Lacking the confidence to show her work to anyone, let alone a publisher, she stays hidden in the shadows, avoiding her neighbors and other people, following a careful routine of work and home.

One day her landlord appears and tells her that she will be evicted in 30 days if she does not revive the badly neglected garden at her house (in British-speak, “garden” is what American’s would call a “yard” and in a city is usually quite small with lots of plants and a small grass lawn). Understandably, Bella is upset since she knows nothing about gardening and her first attempts are disastrous. Her grumpy neighbor watches in horror, makes unhelpful, scathing remarks and then, after Bella confronts him, agrees to help her (turns out he’s an expert horticulturist and had turned her in in the first place)

What follows is the blossoming of an epic friendship (yes! I went there! Bad pun!!), the meeting of two opposites that understand loneliness and isolation and tentatively learn to accept the other, blemishes and all and in the process, learn to let other people in as well.

This is a typical British comedy with eccentric characters, dry humor and quirky settings. The library that Bella works at is endlessly fascinating – and weird. I don’t know a lot about public libraries in England, but this library is obsessed with quiet (another stereotype!), is stocked only with very old books and has crazy hours. Also, Bella has apparently memorized the exact location of every single volume!

Bella is played by Jessica Brown Findlay who you might remember as Sybil in Downtown Abbey and the grumpy neighbor is expertly played by Tom Wilkinson; they are joined a cast of familiar British character actors. A delight for all.

 

We Read Banned Books

Banned Books Week 2016 continues more  than 30 years of celebrating  – and protecting – the freedom to read. This freedom to choose what we read from the fullest array of possibilities is firmly rooted in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the amendment that guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Even as we enjoy a seemingly limitless and expanding amount of information, there is always a danger in someone else selecting what is available and to whom. Would-be censors from all quarters and political persuasions threaten our right to choose for ourselves.

The year’s Banned Book Week is focusing on the diversity of authors and ideas that have prompted a disproportionate share of challenges. ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom estimates that more than half of all banned books are by authors of color or ones that represent groups of viewpoints outside the mainstream. When we speak up to protect the right to read, we not only defend our individual right to free expression, we demonstrate tolerance and respect for opposing points of view. When we take action to preserve our freedoms, we become participants in the ongoing evolution of our democratic society.

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What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Library Geek Edition

Believe it or not, I don’t usually seek out libraries while I’m on vacation. I’m a big fan of libraries, of course, but when I’m visiting a new place I’m usually preoccupied with non-Iowa sites, like skyscrapers and world famous museums and mountain vistas. However, I was lucky enough to be in New York City earlier this month and my friends and I made it a point to stop in at the New York Public Library; it was a visit that was both fun and inspiring.

At the main entrance you’re greeted by the library’s famous lions, named Patience and Fortitude, and the grand facade of the beautiful Beaux-Arts building which opened in 1911. The building is very museum-like, with it’s marble columns and sweeping staircases, murals painted on the ceilings, fine art decorating the reading rooms, glittering chandeliers and ornate windows. It is also very library-like, with it’s bustling crowds (it was very busy), rows and rows of reference books and public computers, busy families in the Children’s Center and hushed silence in the research rooms. It is obviously a much-used, much-loved building.

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We were lucky enough to be visiting while a special exhibit was on display, “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.” Beautifully curated, the exhibit was a walk down memory lane for the child in anyone – an Alice with a neck (made from books) that slowly expanded, then retracted, a charming re-enactment of the web Charlotte made to save Wilbur as well as recordings of E.B. White reading passages from his famous book, a cut-out of the Wild Thing to climb on, a life-size room from Goodnight Moon, the original Winnie-the-Pooh and friends (who are usually on display in the Children’s Center), an umbrella donated by P.L. Travers just like the one Mary Poppins carried, an original watercolor by Eric Carle and many more treasures.

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Another fun attraction was the NYPL Photo Booth in the soaring main lobby. Anyone can answer a few simple questions, then have your picture taken to commemorate your visit. The photo is later emailed to you and are also on view on the NYPL Facebook page and Flickr account. It’s a wonderful blend of old and new, something libraries all over the world practice every day.

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Eleventh Stack

This blog is written by the staff of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (the 11th stack refers to the top floor of their library). The posts are quirky and thought-provoking. I love this one, Hot Makes Angry, in which the author likens himself to the Incredible Hulk. During the current heat wave, his emotions were on edge, so he delved into the IH graphic novels (bit of trivia: the original Hulk was gray, not green).

A recent post, Batman. Dark Knight Looming, notes that, last summer, Pittsburgh was the site for some of the filming for Dark Knight Rises.

The staff biographies are as fun to read as the blog posts. If they are anything to go by, this is a fun and diverse library to work at. For example, Holly’s hobby is “thrifting,” (I need to find out what this is), Leigh Ann “practices mad science,” Bonnie likes “gluing and taping things,” Maria, who would “love to meet other Michigan transplants so that she can talk about Michigan without seeming weird (such as using her hand as a map)” and one I’m on board with: Tara, who is into “making soup and napping.”

 

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

guest post from Georgann

Libraries and fairy-tale magic! What a combination! A sort of a cross between The Librarian movies and mish-mash of fairy tales, The Grimm Legacy has a flavor all of its own which left me hoping for more!

Elizabeth, our reminiscent-of-Cinderella heroine, is lonely at her new school. She does a kind deed for a stranger and is noticed by her social studies teacher. He recommends her for a job at the New York Circulating Material Repository. What is the New York Circulating Material Library, you may ask? Elizabeth had to ask too. This particular library checks out all sorts of unusual objects, from clarinets to coronets, from chess sets to tea sets, and from doublets to fondue pots. And, the New York Circulating Material Library has some very special collections, including the Grimm Collection, which, believe it or not, contains actual magical items featured in a wide variety of tales! And the magic really works!

As it turns out, Elizabeth’s new job is full of adventure and unusual experiences. Plus, she makes new friends and finds a place for herself. I enjoyed this book from start to finish. The characters were likable. The fantasy was fun and intriguing. There were some exciting moments and some mystery.

I wonder just what all might be available in our Special Collections. Hmmm……

National Library Week

April 10-16 is National Library Week!  What a perfect time to check out some materials featuring libraries and/or librarians.

Here are a few of my favorites, and even though technically the main characters aren’t librarians, they definitely do spend a lot of time in libraries.  First off is The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason.  When they wrote this, they were fresh out of college, so their descriptions of academic life at Princeton really hit the nail on the head.  Also, the book’s plot reminded me of The Da Vinci Code, as the two main characters are close to solving the mysteries of an ancient Renaissance text that has confused scholars for centuries.  It’s fast-paced and there’s lots of code-breaking going on.

Another favorite is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.  This is a lengthy Draculian tome, so it’s catalogued in the Horror section.  The book begins with a young woman exploring her father’s library when she discovers an ancient book with letters all addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.”  Generations of researchers have risked their lives and their reputations trying to learn the truth about Vlad the Impaler, and to uncover this source of darkness and rid the world of it powers.  Now this young woman must decide whether to take up her father’s quest; her journey takes her from  Ivy League libraries to archives in Istanbul and Eastern Europe.  I don’t usually read Horror, but I couldn’t put it down.

Just think about it.  Celebrate National Library Week! And find the answers to your quest at your Davenport Public Library!