Online Reading Challenge – December Wrap-Up

Hello Readers!

How did your December Challenge reading go? Did you find something that might have opened your eyes to the issue of mental illness and the stigma around it? Did you see yourself or someone you know with some of the same mental health battles?

I read the main title this month, Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson.  This is a seriously funny memoir of Lawson’s continuing battle with depression and anxiety. She has chosen to embrace  the flawed as well as the beautiful parts of life, unabashedly insisting on being “furiously happy” whenever possible.

This outlook on life has led to some crazy (and frankly, puzzling) situations, like a trip to Australia where she insists on dressing in a koala costume while holding a koala  (she didn’t actually get to hold a koala but she did wear her costume when visiting koalas at a wildlife refuge), or keeping a taxidermized racoon with a bizarre expression (see picture on the front of the book) with her whenever possible (she actually has two taxidermized racoons).

While many of these stories are odd, they are undoubtedly funny and Lawson’s joyful embracing of whatever happens is infectious. There is a serious side to the funny too – Lawson is perfectly aware that each day is a struggle and that her anxiety and depression, while managed, are never far away.

That wraps up the 2022 Online Reading Challenge. I hope you were able to find some excellent, thoughtful books this year with the help of the Challenge! The 2023 Challenge begins in just a few days on January 2nd. Watch the blog for an introduction to our first location.

 

Coming Soon! Online Reading Challenge 2023!

Hello Challenge Readers (and anyone who’d like to join!)

The Online Reading Challenge for this year is close to wrapping up, but never fear – the Challenge will continue in 2023!

For anyone who doesn’t know (or remember!) the Online Reading Challenge is run through the Info Cafe blog. Each month we read books centered around a theme. Each year is a little different, but the unchanging main principle of this book club is: No Pressure! There is no sign-up,  no meetings to attend (although you’re welcome to add any comments to the blog posts),  no shame in not finishing a book, or skipping a month (or two). You can read one of the suggested titles or something different or none at all! Read at your own pace, read what interests you, try something out of your usual reading zone or stick with what you like best. In other words, create a personalized book club with a bit of encouragement from the Reading Challenge!

The theme for 2023 is Location! Location! Location!

Have you ever read a book where the location of the story is almost a character itself? That it is so integral to the book that it couldn’t possibly be set in any other place? Think of the high desert American Southwest of the Tony Hillerman mysteries, or the wild and windswept moors of Wuthering Heights. Location adds ambiance but also greatly impacts the people and the story itself.

We’ll transport ourselves (via armchair!) to places around the world, in the past and in the future. As always, we’ll have an introductory blog post at the beginning of the month, and a wrap-up at the end. The journey begins January 2nd!

Online Reading Challenge – November

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

Welcome to the next installment of the Online Reading Challenge. This month our Book Flight looks at modern Native Americans and some of the many challenges they face.

This month’s main titles is There There by Tommy Orange. Here is a story of several people, each of whom has private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honour his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil Red Feather, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Alternate titles include: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. Based on the extraordinary life of Erdrich’s grandfather who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity and unfolds with the elegant prose, sly humor, and depth of feeling.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. Using council records, autobiographies, and firsthand descriptions, Brown allows the great chiefs and warriors of the Dakota, Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes to tell us in their own words of the battles, massacres, and broken treaties that finally left them demoralized and defeated. A unique and disturbing narrative told with force and clarity, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee changed forever our vision of how the West was really won.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger. Minnesota, 1932. The Lincoln School is a pitiless place where hundreds of Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to an orphan named Odie O’Banion, a lively boy whose exploits earn him the superintendent’s wrath. Forced to flee, he and his brother Albert, their best friend Mose, and a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own. Over the course of one unforgettable summer, these four orphans will journey into the unknown and cross paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds.

Look for these and many more titles available at displays at each of our three buildings.

Online Reading Challenge – October Wrap-Up

Hello Readers!

How did your reading challenge go this month? Did you read something amazing that dealt with weather and/or climate change? Let us know in the comments!

This month’s main title was Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. This thought-provoking, complex novel explores not just the effects of climate change, but also the pervasive poverty of Appalachia and of a young woman trapped in a broken marriage.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. As she hikes up a mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, she encounters a
shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire.

She can only understand it as a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders, and the media. The bewildering emergency draws rural farmers into unexpected acquaintance with urbane journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a striking biologist with his own stake in the outcome.

As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town, and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.

Weather is a constant in our lives however much we think we can outsmart it. No amount of technological advances, or shaping the land to our whims will defeat the weather. We’ve seen this very recently with Hurricanes Fiona and Ian, with the massive wildfires in the west and the drought in the southwest. And we’ve experienced here in the Midwest with tornadoes and derechos.

What did your weather or climate-change related book show you this month? What did people do to prepare for extreme weather or were they caught unawares? How did the characters survive or perish? What were some of the long-lasting effects of a terrible storm or prolonged weather event have on individuals, families, communities and even history?

Be sure to share your thoughts about this month’s Book Flight in the comments below!

Online Reading Challenge – September Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Challenge Readers!

How did your September Challenge go – did you find anything to recommend that fits in this month’s theme of alternate history or viewing history from a different perspective? Let us know in the comments!

Our main title this month was My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, a rollicking good time of twisting history. I thought this was such a fun book – an intriguing (if unlikely) alternative to King Edward VI’s death at a young age in 1553.

If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy then you need to take a pass, but if you delight in witty, clever dialogue and descriptions, are willing to let go of cold, hard, boring facts and are able to accept a bit of magical realism well then, you’re in for a treat.

In history, Lady Jane Grey was the great granddaughter of Henry VII. When her cousin, King Edward VI became ill, he named Jane as his successor instead of his half-sister Mary. Edward choose Jane because she was Protestant and would continue the reformations he and his father, Henry VIII had instituted while Mary was Catholic and wanted to return the country to Catholicism by any means (thus the “Bloody Mary” nickname). And indeed, at Edward’s death, Jane (reluctantly) became Queen. She only lasted nine days though as Mary was able to raise an army and the Privy Council abandoned Jane. At first Jane’s life was spared but later Mary had her executed, fearing continuing support for her. And thus ends a brief reign (and life, she was only 15 or 16 when she died).

My Lady Jane suggests a far different ending for our heroine – and Edward VI. There are many twists and turns, but the story follows the basic facts of Jane’s life only with a far different result (happily!). While this happy ending is pure wishful thinking, the clever combination of fact and maybe make it a fun exercise in contemplating an alternate history.

How did you feel about your alternate history book? Did it open your eyes to a different perspective? Did it contribute to a fuller, more complex, more nuanced view of a historical fact? What if your book was about an individual who gets a chance to take their life on a different path with different choices? Were those choices – which the protagonist often thinks of as better/more glamorous/more fun than their current situation – worth changing for? Or did their current life seem not-so-bad after all?

Be sure to share your observations on this month’s Book Flight in the comments below!

 

Online Reading Challenge – August Wrap-Up

Hello Readers,

How did your reading go this month? Did you find something amazing?

Our main title this month was The Library Book by Susan Orlean and while, as expected, it had a lot to do about libraries and books, it is so much more than that. There is a lot about the history of Los Angeles, which in many ways is the history of the western United States. It is filled with interesting characters, from crazy directors to “unique” patrons (the reference librarian that tells about helping a person who later turned out to be the infamous Night Strangler was rather chilling). And of course, there is a lot about the fire that nearly destroyed the LA Main library in 1984. I was especially fascinated by the descriptions of fire science and firefighting and how the structure of the building plus the huge amount of fuel (books!) that was present.

The best part though is Orlean describing how the community came together to save what they could from the fire and how much it meant to people of many different backgrounds. Realizing that the library was on fire, citizens spontaneously formed lines to carry books out, bucket-brigade-style, trying to save as much as they could.

“It was as if, in this urgent moment, the people of Los Angeles formed a living library. They created, for that short time, a system to protect and pass along shared knowledge, to save what we know for each other, which is what libraries do every day.”

The idea that libraries act as community centers, “of the rare role libraries play, to be a government entity, a place of knowledge, that is nonjudgmental, inclusive, and fundamentally kind” is the message that runs throughout this book. Well written, filled with fascinating stories, this book is highly recommended.

What did you read this month? Did you find that books and reading draw people together, either immediately or across time? Was reading a positive influence, or can it also cause division? How do books (and stories) keep history and memories alive?

Be sure to share your observations on this month’s Book Flight in the comments below!

Online Reading Challenge – July Wrap-Up

Hello fellow Reading Fans!

How did your reading go for the July Online Reading Challenge? Not surprisingly, July was a pretty tough month. Reading about the Holocaust – even about people who survived the nightmare – is emotionally exhausting. As horrible as it is though, it’s important that we remember. We cannot become complacent and ever believe that “it can’t happen here” or think that mankind is not capable of mass cruelty.

I read the main title this month, We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter. This book, set in the very center of the horrors of World War II, there is optimism and hope and pure, gritty endurance. As difficult as it is to read about what happened, there is a thread of belief to hang onto – it’s right there in the title.

Sol and Nechuma Kurc and their five adult children live in Radom, Poland located just south of Warsaw. The Kurc’s are affluent and hard-working, respected in the community, well-educated and sophisticated. None of this matters when Germany invades Poland in 1939. The Kurcs’ watch with disbelief as more and more restrictions are placed on Jews, then persecution and outright cruelty. The family begins to separate as the siblings and their spouses leave to join the Polish Army or seek better conditions in Lodz or are trapped beyond the Polish border. They are desperate to keep in contact, but as the war descends on them. it becomes impossible. Flung as far as Siberia, Tel Aviv and Rio de Janeiro family members face starvation, imprisonment, fierce battles and betrayal but never stop searching for each other.

Based on the true story of the experience of the author’s grandfather, this book is a page-turner as the family struggles to survive by courage, smarts and sheer dumb luck – whatever it takes to make it one more day. Highly recommended.

What did you learn from the book you read this month? Would you have had the strength to keep living under such horrible conditions? What did the importance of family hold for the characters? What about people who may have helped the Germans – usually under threat of death – were they collaborators, or were they doing whatever they could to survive? How can we fight such blatant racism and mass genocide today – has humankind learned from the past?

Be sure to share your observations on this month’s Book Flight in the comments below!

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

For many years, this was my go-to title when someone asked me for a book recommendation. When it was published in 1987 not everyone had heard about it (this was long before celebrity book clubs and relentless social media attention). Recommending books can be tricky. Reading preferences, mood, previous mis-conceptions – all can affect how a person will feel about a book. And just because you thought a book was the best ever written, doesn’t mean someone else will feel the same. But this book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, never failed me. Not once. Everyone loved it.

And why not? It has a little bit of everything – family and friendship, an epic love story, a murder mystery, some grief and heartbreak and lots of joy. Also – food. Lots of great food.

Moving between two time periods – the 1930s and the 1980s – this book centers on a small town in Alabama and the Whistle Stop Cafe. In the 1930s the cafe serves excellent Southern-style home cooking, especially fried green tomatoes. It’s also the center of town activities, gossip and news. The people that frequent the cafe form a bond that supports one another through terrible tragedies and protect their own. Flash forward to the late 1980s where we meet Evelyn who is struggling with mid-life depression. Through her friendship with elderly Mrs Threadgoode and her stories about the Whistle Stop Cafe and the people around it, Evelyn begins to see her way through her own tragedies.

After the movie came out in 1991, the book became less of a sure-fire winning book recommendation. Many thought that if they’d seen the movie they didn’t need to read the book. But, as is usually the case, the book is much better than the movie with more background, more stories and a deeper understanding of the characters and their motives. So once again, I wholeheartedly recommend reading Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe – you’ll love it.

If you are taking part in the Online Reading Challenge this year, this book is a perfect choice for our June theme of food and friendship.

Online Reading Challenge – June

Hello Fellow Readers!

Welcome to the June Reading Challenge Book Flight! This month our theme is food and fellowship. Yum!

Our main title is Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. This is a graphic novel and it’s an amazing one. If you have any hesitancy about reading a graphic novel, or have never read one, this is a great one to start with, with charming illustrations and a great story.

Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe– many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy’s original inventions

Other titles in this month’s Book Flight are:

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Rayan Stradal. When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine–and a dashing sommelier–he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter–starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flag. Folksy and fresh, endearing and affecting, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a now-classic novel about two women: Evelyn, who’s in the sad slump of middle age, and gray-headed Mrs. Threadgoode, who’s telling her life story. Her tale includes two more women—the irrepressibly daredevilish tomboy Idgie and her friend Ruth—who back in the thirties ran a little place in Whistle Stop, Alabama, offering good coffee, southern barbecue, and all kinds of love and laughter—even an occasional murder. And as the past unfolds, the present will never be quite the same again.

Also available in large print, and as in ebook on Libby.

Master Butcher’s Singing Club by Louise Erdrich. Having survived World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend, killed in action. With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher’s precious knife set, Fidelis sets out for America. In Argus, North Dakota, he builds a business, a home for his family—which includes Eva and four sons—and a singing club consisting of the best voices in town. When the Old World meets the New—in the person of Delphine Watzka—the great adventure of Fidelis’s life begins. Delphine meets Eva and is enchanted. She meets Fidelis, and the ground trembles. These momentous encounters will determine the course of Delphine’s life, and the trajectory of this brilliant novel.

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan. A World War II-set story of four women on the home front competing for a spot hosting a BBC wartime cookery program and a chance to better their lives. Two years into World War II, Britain is feeling her losses; the Nazis have won battles, the Blitz has destroyed cities, and U-boats have cut off the supply of food. In an effort to help housewives with food rationing, a BBC radio program called The Kitchen Front is putting on a cooking contest–and the grand prize is a job as the program’s first-ever female co-host. For four very different women, winning the contest presents a crucial chance to change their lives. But with so much at stake, will the contest that aims to bring the community together serve only to break it apart?

Also available in large print and as an ebook on Libby.

These titles and others related to the theme will be on display at each of our locations!

Online Reading Challenge – May Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Challengers!

How did your reading go in May? Did you read any of the books from our Book Flight, or did you find something else to read for this month’s theme of racial justice, advocacy and civil rights?

I read the main title, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I had braced myself for lots of dry, stuffy legalese but instead found a lively, beautifully written, completely engaging book filled with compassion and heartbreak and hope. Stevenson is a master at weaving together multiple stories, presenting each with a clear voice. I quickly found that it was a book that I couldn’t put down.

Bryan Stevenson is fresh out of law school when he heads to Alabama to create the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned and women and children trapped in the labyrinth rules and laws of the criminal justice system.

Early on Stevenson takes on the case of Walter McMillian, a young black man who was convicted of killing a white woman, a murder he did not commit but for which he’s been sentenced to die. In the months and years that Stevenson works on McMillian’s case he comes up against not only racial prejudice but also conspiracy, political corruption and legal challenges. Despite this, Stevenson never gives up. He visits  McMillian and other men on Death Row, most of whom have been tossed aside and forgotten by society. He goes to the homes of their families to offer comfort and advice. He works relentlessly to find answers and to correct mistakes not just for McMillian, but for dozens of other cases as well.  Slowly the Equal Justice Initiative grows and makes inroads against a broken system.

While the many stories of injustice are horrible, it’s the fact that these stories happened not just a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, but that many injustices continue to this day is chilling. That someone like Bryan Stevenson (and many others), continue to fight and educate on these injustices does give me hope.

How did you feel after reading a book from this month’s “Book Flight”? Did you feel anger or frustration? Did you learn anything about what has happened in our recent past, and what continues to happen in our criminal justice system? Did it give you a better understanding of why people may fear the police rather than trust them?

Be sure to share your thoughts on this month’s Book Flight in the comments below.