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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Staff Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers centers on a recent college graduate (presumably in the near future) named Mae, who is lucky enough to land a job working for a company called The Circle. It is a company that bears many similarities to the Silicon Valley corporations we know: a cutting-edge innovator of all the latest in practically everything, headed by a trio of genius personalities. The story follows not only Mae's work life, but also her relationships with her parents and friends, her love life, and her personal thoughts and desires. She feels extremely privileged to be working at The Circle and is determined to shine in its glamorous and fast-paced environment. She is not a particularly remarkable character, but is relatable and sympathetic, and her situation is intriguing enough to want to follow. Early on in the story, I found myself rooting for Mae in her new job, cringing at her mistakes and cheering when she recovered gracefully and received small promotions and praise.

As I read, I often got the feeling that the culture in The Circle is different than the American culture I know, in subtle ways I couldn't quite put my finger on. The culture of Mae's family and other characters living outside The Circle does indeed seem mundane, exactly like the one we live in, with nothing different or exciting. Within The Circle, however, the degree to which everyone reveres information, feedback and social media etiquette, while inspiring at first, becomes disconcerting and frustrating. I was annoyed by and dismissive of characters who blindly value "smiles" (akin to liking something on Facebook) from strangers and extreme transparency. These characters became harder to dismiss, however, as it became more difficult for me to identify why they made me uncomfortable. Mae assimilates faster and faster to her new culture, but I struggled more with each page to answer questions Mae does not seem to stop and ask.

Before reading The Circle, I had heard mixed reviews of it. A few said it is profound with ominous overtones, but many others found it to be mundane, even boring. After finishing the book, I somehow felt that both of these opinions ring true. While the characters were often maddening and lack complexity, the questions raised in The Circle are pointed, relevant and sometimes disturbing questions that I am unable to stop thinking about.

~Rachel, Technical Services

Friday, April 10, 2015

Staff Review: Welcome to Utopia: notes from a small town by Karen Valby

My reading tastes include many genres, and I move amongst them as the spirit moves me. While I do enjoy non-fiction (especially about chefs or cooking), I sometimes find it much “heavier” to read than fiction. It often takes me longer to get through a non-fiction book.Sometimes, though, I will stumble across a narrative non-fiction title - non-fiction that reads just like fiction. These books are fun finds because they combine the topics of non-fiction with the easy reading of fiction. Welcome to Utopia is one such book that falls into this category.

Beginning in 2006, Karen Valby, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly, found Utopia, Texas for an article about popular culture deserts. Utopia is a small town (population 241) an hour away from the closest city and barely touched by the influence of pop culture. She was so intrigued by the town that after completing the article she returned to learn more about four specific residents. Their stories are this book.

The featured Utopians are different ages, races, and genders and, most intriguingly, have different feelings about life in Utopia. Anyone who has ever complained their hometown had nothing to do will think twice after learning about this place! Thanks to Valby’s writing style it is easy to get pulled into the four stories told in alternating chapters. One forgets that it is non-fiction and that these people and their lives and their town are all real. 

~Emily, Adult Services

Friday, April 3, 2015

Staff Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

As soon as I started this book I knew I was going to care about these characters. I was drawn into their story immediately, and while it left me with many questions, I enjoyed the ride.

Journeys are an integral part of this story.  Etta, Otto and Russell have known each other since their teens.  While they each have their own journey, they intersect in many ways.  Otto and Russell grow up like brothers, Etta and Otto get married after mainly getting to know each other through letters while Otto is away at war, and Russell buys the farm next to theirs and spends 50 years quietly in love with Etta. The story jumps back and forth between the beginning of these relationships and the present so most of the in between years are left blank.  You are given small insights into the lives of the main characters but so much is left up to the reader's imagination.

The book opens with Otto reading a note from 83 year old Etta telling him that she is off to visit the ocean--she has never seen the water and feels compelled to make this sojourn on her own.  She tells Otto she will return if she can remember.  From that point on you never know for sure what Etta's reality is.  Otto and Russell each cope in their own way with Etta's leaving and this is where I started having questions. Why does Otto decide not to look for Etta and instead spend his sleepless nights creating a papier-m�ch� menagerie and what does it represent? Why is Russell always waiting for deer--is his waiting representative of something else? Russell does track Etta down, but gives up on bringing her home and goes instead to the north to study deer and caribou.  Does he feel like Etta has released him in some way?

The story actually develops a sort of dreamy quality as Etta travels over thousands of miles on foot and runs into a talking coyote named James who joins her as a kind of spirit guide and protector. As her dementia increases and she slips in and out of reality Etta comes to depend on James to remind her of who she is.  By the end of the story the writing changes into very short passages of just a paragraph or a couple of sentences per page rotating between each character. At times it seems like Etta and Otto have merged into each others dreams and minds until they almost become one.

When all was said and done I thought to myself, "What the heck?"  I liked it so much, but felt like I needed to talk to someone else who had read it.  In stepped my sister and we had a quick book discussion and came to the conclusion that the author wanted the book to be ambiguous and open to interpretation. Together we were able to answer some of our questions. I think this would be a great book club book, but if you are a reader who wants things tied up in a nice package and with a clear ending, then Etta and Otto and Russell and James might not be your cup of tea.

~Michelle, Circulation

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Staff Review: The Girl on the Train & Finding Jake

I've read two really great books lately, so I've decided to share about both of them for your to be read lists.  The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, published in January, and Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon, published in February, are full of suspense and will keep you guessing until the very end.  Both stories keep moving back and forth, either between characters or time periods, to give the reader multiple perspectives and give glimpses of the complete story.  They also provide shock and awe with a wide variety of emotions.  Prepare to spend a long amount of uninterrupted time for reading because neither book will not leave your hands until the end.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has three main characters whose stories are all connected.  The main character, Rachel, tells most of the story. Her life is on a rapid downward spiral and she wants to find her purpose in the world.  She still commutes daily on the train to a job she no longer has just to pretend that she can still function in the world.  On one of the stops, she starts to see the same people day after day.  I’m sure we've all done it – see the same people through work or just passing by, or maybe it’s just a onetime thing, but we imagine these different people and give a life to them to forget about our own for a brief moment.  Rachel starts to do this and creates this elaborate back story for the perfect couple she observes.  Next the story introduces Anna and Megan.  They begin to tell us about their own lives and about their local neighborhood.  Soon they all realize how they fit into each others' lives and who can be trusted.

To make this story even better, there is disappearance of a local woman and everyone becomes a suspect.  People turn against each other in order to prove their own innocence.  I am reminded that “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.”*  This seems all fine and dandy, but these three women get more than just love.  There’s a missing person, drunken blackouts, liars, cheaters, and strangers laced throughout their lives and the goal is to just figure out what happened on a Saturday night.

Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon tells the exact story described in the title.  Jake is missing and his father is desperately trying to find him.  This suspenseful book is a bit darker and more disturbing because it’s centered on something that happens in our society more often than we want.  There has been a school shooting with multiple fatalities and Jake goes from “Missing” to “Suspect and Accomplice.”  People draw their own conclusions based on reports that Jake has become responsible for this tragedy, therefore his own family is to blame because he’s not part of “the popular crowd” and hangs out with just a few close friends.

Jake’s father looks back on his life as a stay-at-home dad trying to raise two kids while his wife climbs the corporate ladder at her law firm.  He recalls events that have formed Jake’s life and if he became the person that his dad thinks he is, or if he became the person that the rest of the world believes he is.  All of these thoughts are weighing down the family and the news and media outlets are bombarding them with questions instead of focusing on the main goal.  Again, we all just want to love and be loved in return.  Yet sometimes love just isn't enough to get the answers to the most important question of all - Where is Jake?

Both of these novels provide confusion with plot twists and anticipation for what will happen next.  They also give a unique perspective on family dynamics because of the differences in the two stories.  Sometimes not everything comes out the way we want it to, but we just have to keep living (and reading) to see whatever happens next.

*eden abhez, by way of “Moulin Rouge”

~Andrea, Circulation

Monday, March 9, 2015

Staff Review: Shinju by Laura Joh Rowland

I’m a big fan of historical fiction, the more medieval the better, and I’ve always been a little intrigued by Japanese culture, so I was thrilled to find Shinju, by Laura Joh Rowland. It’s the first of a series, so if you like it, there are lots more to read. It's worth noting that early books in this series, including Shinju, are only available as eBooks.

The novels are murder mysteries set in feudal Japan when the samurai are the noble class, and the first one starts us off in 1689. This world is governed by Bushido, the ancient warrior code of conduct, which is known for being very harsh. It might seem hard to imagine a character you could relate to from this severe culture, but the author manages to pull it off with the honorable samurai Sano Ichiro.

Sano is a great sword fighter, an educated scholar, and an honest man who guards the rights of the unfortunate. And he’s good-looking too. He’s got it all, but there’s a catch – these traits don’t get you very far in his world (except the sword-fighting). Sano may be very likable and reasonable (to the reader), but his integrity tends to get him into trouble. Obedience to one’s superiors is critical in Bushido, and very often Sano’s personal code of honor, the pursuit of truth and justice, is at odds with his superiors’ orders. Shinju begins with an apparent double suicide that Sano is ordered to investigate as a police commander. Anyone else in his position would probably close the case right away, but something about it doesn't sit right with him, and he must find out the truth, even at great cost to himself.

I’ve learned a lot about Japanese culture and history reading this series, and it doesn't seem strange or distant. The main character is a samurai born and bred into Bushido, but still enough like us that I felt like I could understand him. This is a great series that will draw you into a whole different world.

~Laura, Circulation

Monday, March 2, 2015

Staff Review: Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales

There are many sports I find enjoyable. The TV is always on during the Olympics; all my years in marching band and pep band created a love of football and basketball; watching some college sports live (Clarke men’s volleyball!) is fun. However, in many cases I would rather read or watch a movie about certain sports than see the actual event either live or on TV. For example I have always been fascinated by the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, but really do not like watching a baseball game. Give me a summary in a book or a movie with a game montage and I’m a happy camper.

Perhaps that is why I was drawn to Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. It is an oral history of the rise of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. The detailed story of the network from conception to its current standing as a worldwide source of sports on TV, in print and online is told by the people who lived it. Many sports are touched on in relation to how they came to be shown on ESPN such as football and basketball (both pro and college), baseball, hockey, soccer, NASCAR, the X games, and the Olympics. Of course there is much discussion of “behind the scenes” at the network providing a peek into contract negotiations with both individuals and companies as well as descriptions of the ESPN culture in Bristol, Connecticut.

An oral history is the perfect format for a story like this because it is presented only via direct quotes. There is some explanatory text but the story is told directly from the mouths of the speakers themselves. This format provides both sides of an argument – and there are many – or all aspects of a scandal – there are a few of those, too – without giving the authors editorial opinion. Note that because the title or description of each person speaking is only listed the first time they appear in the book, it can be challenging to keep everyone straight at the beginning.

Other oral histories include Live From New York about the development and rise of Saturday Night Live also by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller and The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts by Tom Farley and Colby Tanner.

 ~Emily, Adult Services

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