Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review: The Devil in Silver

Author: Victor LaValle
Title: The Devil in Silver
Description: Pepper gets into a fight one night, defending the honor of a girl he sort of likes. Because their shift is almost over and they don’t want to do the paperwork, the cops dump him in a mental hospital for 72 hours of observation, rather than arresting him. When he tries to fight his way out, Pepper is drugged into insensibility and wakes up a month later. Complicating matters is the mysterious patient who has an entire hall to himself and may be feeding on the other patients.  
Review source: Netgalley
Plot: This book is billed as horror, and at first it comes across like a typical horror novel (what IS that thing?) Somewhere along the way, though, it shifts, and becomes a musing on the nature of normalcy, the utter impersonality of “the system,” and the process of self-realization.
Characters: There are some pretty interesting characters here; Pepper, of course, but also his (are they really) friends Dorry, Loochie, and Coffee, and the other residents of the mental ward. Even the hospital personnel  come across as more than stereotyped caricatures.
Writing style: The character study in this book struck me as more successful than the horror aspect.  I’m not sure exactly how horrified we are supposed to be by the Devil, but he never seemed all that scary. Much scarier was the completely believable explanation for Pepper—completely sane—being incarcerated in a mental hospital indefinitely.
Audience: I’m sort of stumped here. Horror readers might like it, but I’d push it at folks who read literary fiction.
Wrap-up: After the cheap horror effects of the first few chapters died down, the book drew me in more and more. I’ll give it a solid 4/5*

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: The Customer-Driven Academic Library

Author: Jeannette A. Woodward
Title: The Customer-Driven Academic Library
Description : Woodward’s contention is that as library tasks have become more specialized, the librarians have retreated more and more into their offices, leaving the library employees with less  training to do the crucial work of interacting with the customers.  
Writing style: Very readable, though the book isn’t about style but about ideas.
Audience: Academic librarians.
Major ideas: I’ve had this idea about university faculty as well. Although the naïve bystander might think that faculty are there to help students, I’ve learned that faculty are there to get tenure.  Woodward pushes this idea back on the library, and it’s a convincing argument. Although she doesn’t dwell on personality, I believe that most librarians are introverts, and are more comfortable not dealing with people as a major focus of their jobs. By indulging ourselves in this way, however, we run the risk of hastening the demise of the academic library; if the only workers anyone encounters are students, they will quickly begin to question why librarians are being paid to hide in the back rooms.
Wrap-up: This small book doesn’t contain all of the answers to the present library crisis, but it does present a persuasive argument that academic librarians need to spend more of their professional time interacting with students and faculty and less time indulging their penchant for the ivory tower. 4/5*

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: Parting the Waters

 Author: Taylor Branch
Title: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963
Description: An extremely detailed account of the rise to prominence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his allies and detractors.  
Writing style: I’d call it “dry.” Lots of conversations reported verbatim. I can’t imagine the years of research that must have gone into the writing of this book.
Audience: Those interested in modern American history and the Civil Rights movement.
Major ideas: I have to admit, I didn’t know much about the early history of the civil rights movement. What I learned that surprised me: there was significant infighting among those who sought to improve conditions for African-Americans in the South, some civil, some not-so-much; MLK was often conflicted about which path to take; Kennedy wasn’t much for civil rights; sometimes I am just so ashamed of how people can treat one another.
Wrap-up: This book was on the Entertainment Weekly list that I’m trying to read through or I would not have picked it up—I would not read this book on my own. It was 922 pages of extremely detailed text and took me 3-4 years to read. So, it wasn’t my favorite read of the year, but I’m certainly not sorry I took the time to learn about this aspect of our nation’s history. 3/5*

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Thrill of Victory

You’ve probably noticed that the Olympics wound up last night. This results in me missing a lot of my reading time, therefore finishing fewer books, therefore writing fewer reviews. Or maybe you haven’t noticed because you’ve been watching the Olympics, not reading blogs. In case you didn't get enough competition--or in case you don't care about the Olympics but want something fun to read--here's a list of books about competitions that I've enjoyed over the years.

Why the name "William Goldman" sounds familiar
John Feinstein specializes in following a sport for a whole season; I’ve enjoyed both A Good Walk Spoiled (about golf) and A Season on the Brink (about Bobby Knight at Indiana). Though they are both somewhat dated now, I’d recommend any book on sports that he writes.

I love William Goldman and would read just about anything he writes. He is the only person to have judged at Cannes and at Miss America  in the same year. Hype and Glory is the book he wrote as a result, giving behind-the-scenes dish on both competitions.

Word Freak is an insider’s look at the world of competitive Scrabble playing by Stefan Fatsis. He also has a couple of books on “real” sports like baseball (Wild and Outside) and football (A Few Seconds of Panic). 

Finally, my favorite book on competition was written by a personal friend, and I’m even in it! Don’t miss Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris (and look for his new book, coming out soon, on his adventures in micro-finance, The 1st International Bank of Bob, sure to be a fun read!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Book Review: Enchantment

Author: Thaisa Frank
Title: Enchantment
Description: Short stories. Depressing magic realism.
Review source: Publisher
Plot: There are dozens of stories in this book (50 or more?) so it is hard to identify an overarching theme. There are several stories, though, about being seen—people blending in to inanimate objects so they cannot be seen, or being forgotten as though they were never there. I would say that most of the stories are about broken connections between people.
Characters: Mostly from the women’s point of view. These stories are pretty short—many are just two or three pages—so not much time for character development, more like a snapshot.
Writing style: Dreamlike, detached… Many of the stories contain elements of the magical. I can’t remember that any of the stories had happy endings, so a sort of sadness pervades the book.
Audience: Literary fiction
Wrap-up: I read this book because I had read Frank’s earlier Heidegger’s Glasses. I’ll say upfront that I’m not much for short stories; I much prefer the extended narrative of the novel. Short stories become just dizzying to me, especially if I’m reading more than one at a sitting, as I did with this book. In addition, I just happen to be re-reading Olive Kitteridge now as well. So it was up against a Pulitzer winner. The difference between this book and Olive is that I get that feeling of sustained, connected narrative in Olive. There were some connected stories here, but the typography of the story titles made it difficult to figure out exactly how that worked. 2.5/5*

Sunday, August 5, 2012

My Favorite Christian Writers, Part 2

I know there are tons of Christian writers active now, but here are five of my favorites. Only two of them are primarily known for fiction (though Anne Lamott writes both fiction and nonfiction, it’s her nonfiction I’m especially fond of.)

Anne Lamott. I can’t say enough good things about Anne Lamott. She is like my brilliant and wise sister. She is always honest about herself and her feelings, which are usually the same feelings I have.  It’s hard for me to tell others why they should read her, because other people are not me and I don’t know if they would have this deep feeling of connection or not. Her best book: Traveling Mercies.

Lauren Winner is probably the Anne Lamott for people who are twenty years younger than me. She writes memoir and personal essay, and is open about her feelings and thoughts even when it makes her look not so good. She has less humor than Lamott, but writes more like a poet. To get started with Winner, try Girl Meets God.

Alan Jacobs is a professor at Wheaton College. His books range from scholarly (A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love) to popular (The Narnian). Whether he writes about reading, sin, C. S. Lewis, testimony, or some other subject, he is thoughtful, logical, and turns an elegant phrase.

Leif Enger’s masterpiece is Peace Like a River. The story of a boy pursuing his outlaw big brother along with his sister, who writes masterful rhymed couplets, and his father, who performs miracles.

Jan Karon may be the most popular author on this list. Her Mitford books and the Father Timothy books which followed create a world in which Christians act like Christians—near paradise! Lauren Winner gives Karon credit for moving her toward salvation. I usually laugh out loud at least once and wipe away at least one tear for every Karon book I read.

There are other well-known Christian authors who I greatly respect: Marilynne Robinson, Katherine Norris, Wendell Berry—but they don’t have my heart the way these few do. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Book Review: A Praying Life

Author: Paul Miller & David Powlison
Title: A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World
Description : It’s about prayer.  
Source: It was free on kindle. 
Writing style: Straightforward with lots of stories from the author’s family
Audience: Christians
Major ideas: Sometimes a book hits me at just the right time. I was praying, sure, and probably would never have picked this book up if it hadn’t been free. But it has actually prompted me to take some steps that I probably wouldn’t have taken on my own. 1) It convinced me that I need an accountability partner to make sure I follow through on what I intend to do and don’t just dismiss my missteps as “oops, it won’t happen again.” 2) It convicted me that instead of chewing my family out when I feel like they’ve fallen short of what I’d like them to do that I should pray—and mostly about my own attitude. 3) It reminded me that each of our lives is a narrative that God is writing. Prayer allows us to participate in that act of creation.
Wrap-up: If you want to be challenged in your prayer life, read this book. It will leave you with more than you came with. 4/5*

Friday, August 3, 2012

My Favorite Christian Writers, Part 1

You all know that I’m really interested in faith and literature, and that I love when authors can pull off that combination well, without coming off as sappy or clichéd. Everybody knows the famous Inkling authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and I’m a huge fan of theirs. Today I’d like to mention some of my favorite Christian authors who may not be quite as famous as these two.

Historical (i.e. they’re dead)
Charles Williams was another of the Inklings, probably the third best known. He is remembered today for his supernatural novels (War in Heaven is a good one to start with) and to a lesser extent, his Arthurian poetry. I wrote my Master’s thesis on his poetry, so that’s obviously my favorite of his works.

Madeleine L’Engle is best known for her Time trilogy; the first book, A Wrinkle in Time, won the Newbery medal. These three books aren’t all she wrote about Calvin, Meg, Charles Wallace, and their families, though; there are at least eight. Most of L’Engle’s books are for children or young adults, but she wrote for adults as well. Some of my favorites of her books are A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A Ring of Endless Light, and Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.  I was lucky enough to work in the Wheaton College Archives with their Madeleine L’Engle collection as an undergraduate; I came to love her as a person through her correspondence, even though I never met her.

Joe McClatchey
Walker Percy was a Southern writer who died in 1990. My favorite novel of his is The Second Coming. I was introduced to Percy by Dr. McClatchey at Wheaton, and after we read the book, I wrote to Percy and actually received a letter back from him. It’s probably worth something now, if I could find it!

Frederick Buechner isn’t dead that I know of, but he is another author I first read at Wheaton, so I’ll put him in this bunch to balance it out.  Buechner is another author I found through Dr. McClatchey. The Book of Bebb is my favorite of his works (actually it’s a tetralogy published in one volume). I never heard the Big Bopper again without thinking of this book.