Sunday, December 4, 2016

Staff Review: The Painter by Peter Heller

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The Painter by Peter Heller, the second novel by the author of the highly acclaimed debut novel The Dog Stars, was the library's adult book discussion selection for November.

Heller is an experienced travel and adventure writer who tackled fiction for the first time four years ago. His years spent writing about the outdoors surely show in this beautifully written new novel: his evocations of the landscapes of New Mexico and Colorado shimmer.

The focus of the story is one artist's attempts to come to grips with his darker side, his sudden and seemingly unavoidable urges toward violence when sufficiently triggered. What renders renowned painter Jim Stegner sympathetic is that what sets him off would set us off too: lewd comments about his teenaged daughter, a man's cruelty to a terrified horse. Unfortunately, Jim's reactions to these offenses tend toward the lethal; if only he could content himself with a good punch.

The novel opens with Jim having served time for one such incident and then having fled New Mexico for Colorado, to heal and resume his painting. But as one might expect with such a volatile man, Jim's new tranquility is short-lived. A second incident quickly ensues.

The novel narrates the second episode and its aftermath, taking the reader on a suspenseful journey through police investigations, games of cat and mouse with vengeful men, and Jim's increasingly successful and lucrative art life. We also get romance and plenty of fly-fishing, Jim's outlet and obsession, each fishing scene beautifully described. Heller writes his villains well too.

The novel has an interior life as well: Heller describes his protagonist's frequent musings down memory lane, his many old and new relationships, and his nearly continuous, if not entirely plausible, grappling with his demons.

Where the book let me down (and at times made me mad) was in its depictions of its female characters, who are "fleshed out" rather too much: we're told over and over of their beauty, their body parts, their sex appeal, assets they wield like the men wield their fishing rods and guns. Heller's male characters are never objectified this way. One reviewer called this book "a novel for manly men" and "a well-landed punch on the side of rugged masculinity."  If you ask me, we've catered to that crowd long enough.  

~Ann, Adult Services

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Staff Review: The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper

For the Great Reading Challenge, I’ve chosen to read a book over 100 years old. I read James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers in part because I’ve had a worn dusty edition sitting on my coffee table for the past year, but also (and the reason it’s been taking up table space) because it is set during a time in American history I’ve wanted to better understand. Particularly I’ve been curious about who these settlers were, some of the events that happened in the country before they came, their aspirations, and their continuing effect on the modern world. Basically, I wanted a deeper understanding than the bits I remember from grade school.

The Pioneers is the first book in Cooper’s five stories about his character Leatherstocking. It has a common narrative style of the 19th century: richly detailed with descriptions of the setting and characters, and it strolls along at a leisurely pace. With the book being over 400 pages, it takes some time to get into the rhythm of plot and language. That being said, this style isn’t for everyone. I was a little skeptical when Cooper warned in the introduction that the book is a “descriptive tale” and that he wrote it solely for personal satisfaction. I figured it could go one of two ways: a directionless rambling with explanations of every type of tree he encountered and a long geological survey of the area; or, since it was inspired by personal passion, it might be a unique glimpse into that time period. I was happy to discover that my second speculation was closer. Although the descriptions at the beginnings of chapters (mostly in the first half of the book) can be quite long before any action happens, I feel they add depth to the story and help place the reader into that world.

The Pioneers is loosely based on Cooper’s own life: his father founded Cooperstown, New York, with the parallel in the story being the fictional town of Templeton, founded by Judge Marmaduke Temple (possibly bearing some resemblance to Cooper’s actual father). This character is treated with fairness – he believes in the justness and fairness of the law, but also believes the land is his because of the document given to him from his country. We find a constant conflict with Temple's beliefs in the character of Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking (the Davy Crockett-like hero of Cooper’s novels).

Even though much of the book is descriptive, Cooper introduces an engaging storyline and scenes of suspense.  The reader is introduced to threatening wild animals, hunting mishaps, wild fires, and blossoming romance. The descriptions and narrative serve the bigger part of pushing forward Cooper’s beliefs. The book is written with much reverence toward the Native Americans' lifestyle, but also pathos toward the settlers (well, some of the settlers). He’s highly critical of the settlers, but makes his characters very human and relatable. The character of Leatherstocking, who fought in the French and Indian War and adapted a loner lifestyle with a Native American friend, represents the wisdom that comes from knowing how to live off the land.  Judge Templeton is an intelligent person and understands the need to be conservative with the environment, but coming from a different background also believes in the fairness of the law invented by civilized men. Although presenting opposing philosophies, Cooper is fair with both these characters and paints them as some of the most reasonable in the book, although Leatherstocking is more clearly the hero. 

Some of the settlers represent what we might recognize as our least admirable qualities. Richard, Templeton’s cousin, amplifies this position in his boastfulness and lavish attitude toward the land and animals. His extravagance is displayed when he wheels in a cannon to shoot at pigeons. Not content with the settlers shooting down as many as they can get, he wants to prove that he can get it done in one “fell swoop of destruction.” Cooper’s environmentalist philosophy is displayed in many of the character interactions in the novel.  These early reflections of our impact on the environment remain especially powerful today.

For those ready to invest themselves in this book, The Pioneers acts as a meditation on our American way of life. Although history already took the course the settlers set in motion, these early insights into the minds of the pioneers help us to connect with a larger picture of what it means to be an American, forcing the reader to think critically about our relationship with the natural world. Besides the strong message, the action and drama set up with Cooper’s characters keep the story fun. All five stories starring Natty Bumppo can be checked out from the library under the title The Leatherstocking Tales, containing perhaps the most famous story The Last of the Mohicans.

~Ben, Adult Services

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Staff Review: Birdseye by Mark Kurlansky

I can't say that I loved reading a book about the man behind the frozen food industry. It wasn't at all my usual sort of book, but I'm very glad that I pushed beyond my comfort zone to read it.

I checked out Birdseye by Mark Kurlansky because I wanted to read a book for the microhistory category in the Great Reading Challenge. I don't read very much nonfiction of any sort and have never tried a microhistory, so this seemed like a great way to Challenge my Reading habits.

Kurlansky is known for his microhistories (nonfiction books that go in depth on one, relatively small, topic in history), and his books often focus on food-related topics (yum!). However, the most important factor in my choice of Birdseye was the fact that an eBook was available in OverDrive at ten p.m. and I could start reading right there on my couch.

Happily, this was not a strenuous read. Kurlansky didn't expect me to have any special knowledge or familiarity with the history or science behind the development of frozen foods. I learned some interesting facts and enjoyed some amusing anecdotes about Clarence "Bob" Birdseye's colorful life. This is exactly the sort of book that my 70-something father would love, and I can see the appeal. In fact, I'll probably track down a copy to give my father so that we can have a nice chat about frozen vegetables over the holidays.

Am I glad that I checked out this book? Yes! Am I now a devoted fan of microhistories? Not so much, but I'm definitely willing to check one out the next time I need a brain break from my usual Science Fiction and Romance!

~Sarah, Adult Services

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Staff Review: Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

One of the great things about working in a library is that you get to track the books that everyday readers -- not reviewers, prize panels, or critics -- genuinely love, titles like The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah or All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr or, recently, just about every title released by Frederik Backman. I always take note of these books, so I can recommend them to others but also so I can eventually get to them myself. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger is one such book.

Published in 2013, it's beautifully written, warm-hearted, poignant, and suspenseful. It's a standalone work by an author best known for his Cork O'Connor mystery series set up in northern Minnesota, a series that is also well-loved. Krueger is known for his evocative descriptions of landscapes and places and his incorporation of Native American characters and culture into his books, both features prominent in Ordinary Grace.

The novel relates the events of one hot summer in Minnesota in 1961. Kennedy is president and the mood of the country hopeful, but the sleepy town of New Bremen experiences a series of unfortunate -- no, make that tragic -- events.

We see these incidents unfold through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Frank Drum, son of the town's Methodist minister, whose family is a happy one despite the usual assortment of disappointments and challenges: Frank's mom, an aspiring singer, isn't thrilled to have landed in a backwater leading a church choir; Frank's spiritually gifted younger brother struggles with a stutter; Frank's brilliant older sister bears the scars of a surgically repaired hairlip; Frank's father conceals psychic scars from the second World War. All five family members are very well drawn and the large supporting cast of townspeople is rendered just as skillfully.   

Frank begins the summer a regular kid, pre-occupied with baseball and the usual early-teen boy things. Then, a series of three unrelated deaths occur that cause his world to crack open. These deaths set off a chain of further unfortunate events, perhaps to an extent that stretches the reader's credulity just a bit. I was willing to suspend my disbelief because Krueger writes so well, in such convincing detail, and with so much compassion. He keeps the reader turning pages too, to find out who did what to whom. But what he really examines through these plot detonations is the harsh truth that awful things do happen to good people, but those people can find the strength and courage -- and enough ordinary grace in this world -- to go on.

There's nothing saccharine about Krueger's cast or facile in the ways they cope in the aftermath. Krueger offers no easy answers. His people are flawed, they spend nights in the drunk tank, they make big mistakes, they can't always forgive. But they are caring and authentic and thoughtful. In the end there is something so life-affirming in the world Krueger creates. His book is exquisitely graceful.

~ Ann, Adult Services    

Friday, October 28, 2016

NaNoWriMo Coming Soon!

Hello, my literary friends. It's that time again - leaves, freshly fallen, cool night air, bonfires and snuggling under blankets to read on a cozy afternoon. In other words, it is almost November - which means time for frantically trying to meet your daily word count to finish writing an entire novel in 30 days. Right? Sound familiar?

In case you hadn't heard, November is officially National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. Once a year, a bunch (like thousands!) of wild-at-heart folks try to write an entire book in 30 days. It might seem crazy, it might not seem possible, but people do it every year. When you complete a novel of 50,000 words (or more) you become a winner. Awesome, right?

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get people writing daily, but with no editing, no second-guessing, just get the words out on paper. When you complete the NaNoWriMo challenge, you have written a novel. You get to say, officially, that you are a novelist - because, hey, you just wrote a book!

Some of us try this every year and don't make it very far (*cough *cough, self) But the real point here is - like so many other things in the world - at least we tried! Its a fun experiment. You never know where it will take you or what you'll end up with in 30 days. Carnegie-Stout is listed as an official "Come Write In" location. This means we are encouraging you to stop by and write your novel at the library! Also, three Sundays in November, the 6th, 13th and 20th, from 1-4 PM, we will have a room dedicated to participants. You can come and write and chat/commiserate with other folks.

For more information about NaNoWriMo, click here.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016