Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

Monday, December 18

Free thought

In The Invisible Hour by Alice Hoffman, Ivy Jacob grows up in Boston, beautiful and wild, spoiled yet neglected. An unintended pregnancy prompts her to rebel against her parents' plan to send her away and put the child up for adoption. Instead, Ivy runs away with an acquaintance to a farming commune in rural Western Massachusetts, where she gives birth to a daughter, Mia, and marries the cult leader, Joel. The cult separates mother and daughter and Ivy’s life becomes small, hard and contained. Members of the secretive Community keep close watch on one another to prevent escapes or infractions. “Ivy had begun to think that life was made up of a series of accidents and drastic errors. The unexpected became the expected, you made the right turn or the wrong turn and all of it added up to the path you were on. Happiness was there and then gone, impossible to hold on to.” 

The commune educates the children just enough to follow Joel's directions and produce goods sold in the nearby town. Joel forbids contact with the outside world, whether chatting with strangers or reading books. While selling goods at a community farmstand, Mia discovers the library and begins removing books, including a first edition of The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne

Of course, cult leaders resent and fear free thought. Ivy warns her daughter to be careful, while the librarian pities anyone living in a place that outlaws reading, musing “In a place where books were banned there could be no personal freedom, no hope, and no dreams for the future.” The librarian’s philosophy: “Turn someone into a reader and you turn the world around.” And reading enthralls Mia. “Take one risk and you’ll soon take more. It’s an addiction, or it’s bravery, it’s foolishness or it’s desperation.”

After her mother’s death, Mia understands she has lost her only ally in the world. Ivy had long warned the girl to avoid picking a fight with Joel due to his unwillingness to back down. Mia tries to fade into the background, recalling a line from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “We have the receipt of fern-seed, we walk invisible.” Invisibility was the only way to control her life and resist the Community’s rules: “Her life was in her own hands, to do with as she pleased, the one thing that belonged to her, the only thing she could claim for herself.” 

She considers running away, the night before Joel plans to brand her as punishment. “Sometimes walking away is the bravest thing you can do.” The librarian assists, delivering Mia to a close friend who lives in Concord, where Mia attends school and thrives, even as Joel continues to follow and threaten her.

The second half the book takes a strange and surreal turn as Mia travels into the past for an encounter with Nathanial Hawthorne. The writer is handsome, philosophical and ambitious, coddled by his two sisters yet he also anxious about failure, injustice, and his struggle to write. Nathanial and Mia first meet in the forest and he wonders if she she is dream, perhaps even a ghost, a witch or an angel. “In his writings, women were often principal characters, independent, with minds of their own, often truer to their emotions and to the natural world than the men around them.” 

Mia carries her copy of The Scarlet Letter, a book that Nathanial has yet to write, and she becomes both lover and muse for the author.  Mia is forthright about her journey while recognizing the danger of becoming too close, thinking “how one person could save another’s life or ruin it without meaning to. She had already said too much….” Mia returns from the past, suggesting that an unmarried Hawthorne writes his famous novel soon afterward. Such details do not mesh with Hawthorne's biography, considering that Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter in 1850. As a scholar, Mia describes a loving, supportive relationship between Hawthorne and his wife, Sophie, yet the woman does not enter Hoffman's plot. The actual couple married in 1842 after a long courtship. Oddly enough, Hawthorne spent time on a farm run by the Transcendentalists, where he met Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He took a political job soon after marrying and, after being fired in1849, only then did he have time to write The Scarlet Letter. 

The transition between modern and 19th century settings is rough and not just because the historical issues. The ending is abrupt, rushed and confusing much like the end of a strange dream. An inscription in the first-edition cherished by Mia reinforces this notion: “To Mia, If it was a dream, it was ours alone and you were mine.” Readers are justified in wondering if everything about Mia’s life is a figment of her imagination, that she is free only because of the books she had read.

Monday, November 20


"What book have you read that makes you feel as if you've been on a the journey that the narrator has taken?" Julie Lawson Timmer asked on Reddit.

A good question for finding good books. My own personal favorite is Bound for the Promised Land by Richard Marius, a story of a young man who leaves his home in Georgia for San Francisco in the 1850s, in search of his father who left for the Gold Rush, and the many characters he meets along the way.

And I'm grateful that a commenter mentioned Fear of Beauty. It's an honor to be included with the likes of The Count of Monte Christo, Heart of Darkness and The Goldfinch.

Saturday, August 15


I was once a huge fan of mystery novels. My admiration for suspense, intriguing characters, surprising puzzles and thrilling plots led me to center my writing on the genre.

But lately, the genre has been less satisfying. The number of books has exploded - and BJ Gallagher has written about these trends for Huffington Post - and this goes for mysteries, too.

But the quality of books may be in decline. Perhaps I've become jaded, impatient, and I finish only about two out of every three books I read anymore.

The reasons are many. Blurbs and jacket descriptions do not deliver on their promises. Publishers encourage authors to churn out one or more books per year. Some series rely on tired formulas. Authors invest more in publicity than editing, proofreading, storytelling, or research. Publishers, reviewers, fans herd in pursuing big names. Authors no longer allow series to each their natural conclusion, and heirs to a story line hire writers to keep the story going.

The Statistical Abstract of the United States reports that a total of 11,022 books were published in 1950, and fewer than 2000 were fiction. By 1965, the number jumped to more than 20,000 of which 1,615 were new fiction. For 2013, print books by traditional publisher totaled more than 304,000 and the total of non-print books was estimated at more than 1.1 million. The 2014 Bowker release adds, "In traditional publishing, Fiction and Juvenile genres continue to dominate the market."

Reviewers cannot read all books, and bookstores cannot stock all books. Globalization combined with word of mouth ensures that most readers can herd around the same dozen or so book each year.

And even those favorites can disappoint.

Still, readers persist in discovering and new writers and bringing their stories to the public's attention, including The Martian and Still Alice.

Photo of Yale Law Library, courtesy of Nick Allen and Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, February 23

Places to go...

Books are wonderful companions for travelers, helping transport us to another land in person or spirit. Setting can be a key feature for some books, often performing as a character. Fiction and nonfiction can prepare readers for other cultures, adding special meaning to journeys that test our assumptions as readers: "writing images particular spaces onto the printed page, but just as writers invent places, readers are at the very least partners in the process of producing textual places," writes John Thieme in "Reading Places: The Geography of Literature," an essay that compares how R.K. Narayan and Amitav Ghosh handle cultural geography.

Amazon, Goodreads and other sites offer many lists on settings, but a map or table is really handy. Several websites focus on setting, connecting readers and writers with books set in all over the globe:

Few novels posted are set in
Afghanistan - or East Lansing 
Novels: On Location is the easiest and quickest site for posting location. Users can search by location or by novel. Those who want to add a book can zoom in on an location, add a pin, and type in the name of the novel. The site pinpoints most novels automatically with a thumbnail of the cover and description, allowing immediate purchase from Amazon or iBooks. It took less than 5 minutes to place Fear of Beauty on top of Afghanistan and explain how the setting of Laashekoh is a fictional village in northern Helmand. There is also a Reader Notes section, to add descriptions or quotes from the book. Results are posted immediately. 
The setting for both novels is a fictional and remote village. So I typed in "northern Helmand" as the location for both. Fear of Beauty is shown north of the capital in another province and Allure of Deceit is south of the Helmand provincial capital. Because the village is fictional, I can understood the tool's confusion.

Still, I agree with this self-assessment from the site's creators in the integration notes: "the Web's best way to find novels by setting. If you write a blog on literature, travel or, education, enhance the interactive experience for your readers by integrating Novels: On Location." Note of caution: Authors or readers may unintentionally inflate pin results by posting one book with more than one setting in multiple locations.

BooksSetIn relies on search engine methods and tabular results, with input provided by readers. This format accounts for both place and time. In searching for Helmand Province, one book emerges: Torn by David Massey, while a search for "Afghanistan" yields many more results. Again, it took less than 5 minutes to list the title, author, ISBN, and description for Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit. The site is inviting for travelers and readers both - and asks: "Taking a trip? Interested in another part of the world? Want to learn about another culture?" 

The tool easily permits multiple locations and also highlights a few places and books on its front page. Not much has been written about the site, but Facebook suggests it began in Pennsylvania.

Book Drum, from London, is the most thorough, elegant and yet complicated of the sites, inviting authors and other registered users to submit detailed profiles on authors and settings as well as background and new explorations of specific quotes. A map is promised but did not show up on this user's multiple  tries with browsers IE and Chrome (a message points out that Google has disabled its map tool for the application). Starting the profile is easy, logging on with Facebook, but some features such as adding coordinates or saving the page numbers for quotes do not run as smoothly. Books are not posted until all six sections are started. The site's self-assessment: "Book Drum is the perfect companion to the books we love, bringing them to life with immersive pictures, videos, maps and music." 

These websites are especially useful for countries and cities that are less common as literary settings. Cities like New York and London on these sites are teeming with books.

That doesn't mean the smallest villages of the world are not teeming with stories. 

Most authors and readers have not caught on to these sites just yet, and an avalanche of interest could arrive any day. 

Sunday, August 18

Women readers

Women led 58 percent of book spending in 2012, reports Bowker as reported by GalleyCat. Bowker also points out that ebook sales continue to take a larger share of the market, 44 percent in 2012: "The growth of ebooks varies widely among the different publishing categories with their deepest penetration focused in fiction, particularly in the mystery/detective, romance, and science fiction categories, where ebooks accounted for more than 20 percent of 2012 spending."

Sisters in Crime monitors reviews for authors' gender: "Coverage of women writers’ mysteries still lags in traditional newspapers, where fewer mysteries are reviewed, but is stronger in traditional pre-publication review sources and in born-digital book review blogs and websites, which publish three to four times as many reviews as the newspapers monitored."

Women do relish reading - but many will discontinue subscribing to and reading newspapers and magazines if they perceive coverage is imbalanced and unfair.

Woman With a Book, portrait by Istv├ín Nagy; photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Tuesday, January 15


In Fear of Beauty, the ability to read just one book transforms an Afghan woman's life. She is determined to read the Koran after the death of her son: "I became determined to learn to read the Koran on my own and keep a record of my thoughts. Not that anyone in Laashekoh cared about what I had to say. This project was for me alone.... I wanted to preserve the fondest memories of all my children..."

Reading simultaneously thrills and comforts her, even though she must work in secret. She contrasts her interpretations of the religious text with those of her husband and is amazed at discovering differences. And she wonders if reading the words of other books can lend the same power.

Yes, one book can transform a life - and that's why I love the idea "Because of a book" in the blog Write for a Reader from Shelly B. Conroe. In 2009, She asked me to write about a book that had changed my life and that was difficult because so many books have expanded my heart and spirit and curiosity. But I described a delivery of books shortly after my mother's death when I was eight year old - her last order from a discount book club. Inside was a cookbook, the complete works of Shakespeare and Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar.  The cookbook and Marjorie Morningstar still sit on my shelves, and about the latter, I wrote:

"The book examines the contradictions confronting women in the 1950s, as suggested in the Salon essay by Alana Newhouse, 'Marjorie Morningstar: The conservative novel that liberal feminists love.'  For me, as a child, the book’s message was clear: We lose a part of ourselves when we part with our dreams. And writing is one of the more effective ways to savor our dreams and memories."

All our reading and writing and daily routines have strange, beautiful connections.

Photo D Olsen

Thursday, December 22


Books allow strangers and those who are already very close to discover deeper connections. The inscriptions provide clues into the feelings behind these connections.