Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sunday Salon: Nonfiction November Week One

In the spirit of "better late than never," here is my first post for Nonfiction November. Week One is hosted by Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness,  

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown was an absolutely riveting read, definitely my favorite nonfiction.

What nonfiction books have you recommended the most?

I recommend The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson all the time. I read it so many years ago that many of the details are forgotten, but the main story, and the incredible writing have stuck with me. And last year I read Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped and just couldn't stop recommending it and talking about it and reading passages out loud to innocent passers by.

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven't read enough yet?

I love the graphic novel format, and there are so many books now that combine visual art or the graphic novel format and nonfiction writing (memoir, history, essay). I'm very interested in this form and would like to explore it.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

September and October were dominated by my work life--so much so that I didn't post a single review for more than a month. And I felt awful: overwhelmed, isolated, burdened by the demands of work. I want to reconnect with my reading life and the reading community. I hope to get around to people's posts and see what everyone is reading, and get some ideas for books to add to my list.

For this month (and probably into the end of the year) I will be reading some of the nonfiction titles that have been sitting on my TBR shelf. Here are a few on my list:

Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates
Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle
It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences by Janet Casagrande
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee

What are your favorite nonfiction books?

Monday, November 2, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

October was a good month for reading, but so packed with duties and deadlines that I never even had time to think about writing reviews and posts, or reading and commenting on other blogs. This makes me sad, because I feel as though my job is squeezing every ounce of energy out of me. That is not the way it's supposed to be!

My reading has been all over the place the last couple of weeks. I read Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes, then two books by Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase. At that point I was really tempted to keep reading every book Murakami ever wrote. I followed those two up with another Picoult, My Sister's Keeper. Picoult is a popular writer with my high school students, and I'm trying to keep up with them. Then I read some books about making "Zines" to get ideas for my creative writers.

Finally, I wrapped up October with a fantastic page-turner from Tana French, The Likeness, and a non-fiction book by Daniel James Brown, The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party.

Up next: a reread of Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece, Blood Meridian. It's beautiful and devastating at once. The kind of book that makes you want to collar complete strangers and read out loud to them.

It's Monday: What are you reading?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Review: The Indifferent Stars Above

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party
Daniel James Brown
paperback, 376 pages
William Morrow
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours

     I thought I knew something about the infamous Donner party, a group of pioneers trapped by weather and terrain as they tried to cross the Sierra Nevada, and driven by desperation to cannibalism.

     As it turns out, I knew nothing. Until I read The Indifferent Stars Above, Daniel James Brown's exhaustive account of the Donner party, I had only the most sketchy--and titillating--idea of what happened to this group of pioneers in 1846. Brown's book, (a "harrowing saga" as his subtitle states) tells the story of the tragedy of the Donner party partly by following one participant: Sarah Graves Fosdick, who was one of the fifteen courageous, starving emigrants who put on snowshoes in December 1846, and attempted to cross the Sierra Nevada to California. She and her companions, who included her father, Franklin Graves, and her husband Jay Fosdick, knew that this was possibly the only hope for the people left back at the camp, where families, including very young children, faced certain death unless help was sought.

     Brown begins his book with the start of the journey, when Sarah, her parents and siblings, and her new husband, join a stream of emigrants in covered wagons, heading West to make a new life for themselves. Until I read this book, I had no idea of the depth of hardships and obstacles faced by these pioneers. The characters in this saga spring to life as Brown describes each of the families, and the individual family members, in such vivid detail that they become like fictional characters. And Brown brings the time period to life in a way that makes his story completely gripping: reading The Indifferent Stars Above was like reading a psychological thriller and an intense historical novel combined into one irresistible page-turner. The Indifferent Stars Above is one of the best, most intense non-fiction books I've ever read, and probably the best book I've read this year.

     I loved the incredible amount of detail Brown brought to life, and the way he portrayed everyday life for the pioneers in the most unstinting, realistic way At the same time, Brown captures the heroism and hopefulness of these ordinary people--and sometimes the depths of their depravity and deceit. The author also writes lyrically and poetically of the beauty of the American West.

     Although some passages in this book were difficult to read, I really couldn't put this book down. Brown's writing is genuinely beautiful, and at times I felt like I was reading a Cormac McCarthy novel rather than a historical account of one of our country's best-known horrors.

     The Indifferent Stars Above is more than a story of cannibalism or a tragic journey. It is a story of survival, and ultimately it is a story of heroism, persistence, and human courage. What is most incredible about this story is that it is true, and that it happened to ordinary people. Brown is an immensely gifted writer, and his narrative occasionally stops to give the reader a larger historical context, or to provide a brief lesson on how human beings respond to stress. What makes this book so compelling and so readable is the way Brown manages to blend all this information in just the right way, while maintaining a narrative arc that moves inexorably toward both triumph and tragedy.

     I can't recommend The Indifferent Stars Above highly enough. Even if you read only one non-fiction book a year, this should be that book. And readers of historical fiction will find themselves right at home in the world of this very real, very true saga.

Monday, September 7, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's three weeks into the new school year, and I don't remember ever being quite so overwhelmed at the beginning of a school year. Personal e-mail, this blog, and everything except school, sleep, and reading have fallen by the wayside. This year brought more responsibilities, an unexpected extra teaching burden for the first week and a half of school, and a new (and impenetrable) evaluation system. 

The first thing I do with my students is cajole, persuade, coax, implore, and entice them to read. I always have a few dedicated readers in every class, and I've had some fantastic conversations about books with my students already.

Some of my reading lately has been inspired by interviews, reviews, and recommendations from my daughter and others. Right before school started I read the amazing and wonderful American Gods by Neil Gaiman. If you haven't read this book, I implore you to go out right now and get it. I almost didn't want to finish reading American Gods it was so magical. 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel exceeded all my expectations. I need to write a review (in all my spare time), but this is definitely one of the best books I've read this year.

Then I read The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Wow. This is speculative fiction at its very best. Set in a future of climate change and genetic engineering, The Windup Girl is compelling and completely immersive. I couldn't put it down.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult is absolutely stunning. I have so much to say about this book, but I'll have to save that for another post. One of my students was reading this novel, and I decided to read and discuss with her. Picoult has some die-hard fans in my students, and I had forgotten how good a writer she is.

I haven't decided what's next. Maybe Norwegian Wood? I've read a lot of really long books lately, and it's time for something shorter.

In the meantime, I've been dipping into some essay collections, among them The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading, edited by Michael Dorris and Emilie Buchwald. Sherman Alexie's essay "Superman and Me" is one of the best tributes to the power of reading that I've ever read, but this volume is filled with inspiring essays.

It's Monday! What are you reading?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Review: Crooked Heart

Crooked Heart
Lissa Evans
hardcover, 288 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Set in England during World War II, Crooked Heart is the story of the odd shapes that love sometimes take. I like the title of this book because it works on two levels--the main characters have hearts that are warped by lost, but they are also "crooked" another way. The story begins with Noel Bostock, a ten-year-old orphan, living with his godmother in London. The godmother, Mattie, is an aged iconoclast who was once a suffragette; she suffers from dementia, and as her disease progresses, Noel works arduously to cover for her. Noel himself is a bit of a misfit: intelligent, but unpopular at school. When children begin to be evacuated from London during the Blitz, Noel is determined not to go, but after Mattie's death he has no choice.

     Sent to the the countryside, Noel waits to be chosen by a family. But he's an unappealing child, and is finally taken in by Vee, a desperate single mother, only for the money provided by the government. But Vee and Noel turn out to have something in common, and they end up being a perfect team of con artists.

     I loved the characters in this book, and the way that Lissa Evans made me love the characters without a single speck of sentimentality. In the end I was completely in love with Crooked Heart and its crooked, flawed, lovable people.

     Evans quietly builds her narrative with unexpected detail and a delicious sense of irony. Vee is opportunistic and canny, and her reasons for taking Noel in are wholly selfish. But the reader begins to see how heroic and terribly flawed Vee is, and that makes her seem both real and admirable. She's tragically deluded about the character of her son, the product of an affair in which she was unceremoniously dumped. Vee has taken a lot of knocks in life, and she does what she has to to survive. Her ferocious survival instinct, and her continued capacity for love make her refreshingly complex. And Noel is just as complicated and in need of love and nurturing. They make an odd pair, but they do make a pair.

     Crooked Heart is a quirky book, and I don't think I've fully conveyed its charm; let me just say that Crooked Heart surprised me, and in all the right ways. I highly recommend this novel for people who enjoy beautiful writing, a unique take on a familiar historical period, and a total lack of sentimentality. Despite the lack of sentiment, Crooked Heart is an emotionally powerful novel.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Review: Orphan #8

Orphan # 8
Kim van Alkemade
paperback, 416 pages
William Morrow Paperbacks
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Kim van Alkemade's debut novel, Orphan #8, is an impressive achievement--and it's one of my favorite books so far in 2015.

     What makes this novel so perfect? First of all, Alkemade has written a beautifully textured historical novel, rooted in fact and a fascinating, somewhat obscure corner of history. She writes so convincingly about two distinct periods of history (the early 20th century and the early 1950's) that the reader just revels in the sensory detail. And she creates a richly imagined world, peopled with compelling characters.

     The novel begins in a tenement building on the Lower East Side of New York. Visha and Harry Rabinowitz are making ends meet by taking in boarders and living mostly on soup and boiled potatoes. Their two young children, Rachel and Sam, are suddenly and dramatically left alone in the world (a moment Alkemade handles masterfully). Rachel, who is only four years old, ends up in the Hebrew Infant Home, where she becomes part of a series of experiments conducted by Dr. Mildred Solomon, one of a very few female doctors working in that time period.

     The chapters set in the early part of the century (beginning in 1919) alternate with chapters set in 1954; Rachel has become a nurse in the Old Hebrews Home, in the hospice wing. Dr. Solomon, now dying of bone cancer, comes into Rachel's care. As the story unfolds, the reader begins to understand the nature of Dr. Solomon's experiments, and the cost of the experiments for Rachel. At the same time, Rachel herself grows to see how Dr. Solomon has profoundly affected her life and her health.

     Alkemade uses the alternating chapters to build tension, as the reader starts to put together the full story of Rachel's life. What I loved about Orphan # 8 was the moral and narrative complexity of the novel. Much of the book is firmly rooted in real historical events, and there is a section at the end of the book detailing the historical basis for the novel. The narrative takes the reader from New York to Colorado and back to New York again. The story of what happens to Rachel and her brother Sam seems almost unbelievable, but it is based on actual events and places, which adds to the sense of historical richness. I also loved the fact that Alkemade created a complex character in Rachel, a girl who has to make her way in the world without the support of parents or family. Along the way, Rachel discovers that she is deeply attracted to women, and her romantic relationships with women are depicted in a way that develops naturally out of the narrative. Orphan #8 is so nuanced, lyrical, and beautiful, and the novel manages to do so many things with grace and insight. It's really hard to believe that this is a first novel because it is so gorgeously written, fully imagined, and perfectly realized.

     Orphan #8 pretty much includes every element I love to find in a work of fiction. For those who love historical fiction, you are in for a treat. I would recommend Orphan #8 for readers of literary fiction, those looking for a nuanced presentation of lesbian characters, and readers of literary fiction.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Review: The Wonder of All Things

The Wonder of All Things
Jason Mott
paperback, 304 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     This is one of those books I know I'm going to be thinking about for a long time. Jason Mott's first novel, The Returned, was inspired by a dream, and was hugely successful. The Wonder of All Things explores territory that includes the spiritual realm, and asks big moral and philosophical questions. While The Returned asked what would happen if people began to suddenly return from the dead, The Wonder of All Things asks what happens when a young girl has the gift of healing.

     Ava is an ordinary thirteen-year-old girl living in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina. Her father is the town sheriff, and her mother, Heather is dead. Her father's second wife, Carmen, is pregnant. When the whole town of Stone Temple gathers for an air show, a plane crashes and Ava and her friend Wash are trapped beneath debris. It is then that the town, and the world, find out about Ava's gift. Captured on cell phone video is the dramatic moment when Ava heals her best friend; one moment Wash is bleeding from his side, and the next moment, after Ava lays her hands on the wound, he is completely healed.

     Jason Mott uses the premise of this story to explore deep questions of the nature of loss, love, and the responsibility we all have to others. There is nothing simple or simplistic about The Wonder of All Things; Ava's gift is real, but it doesn't come without a cost. And when the world finds out about Ava's gift, the little town of Stone Temple becomes part of a media circus, with desperate people, religious seekers, a television preacher, and masses of reporters all chasing after a rather frightened young girl.

     One of the techniques Mott uses in the novel is alternating chapters set in the present with flashback chapters that explore Ava's early childhood, and her close relationship with her mother, Heather. The flashback chapters are poetic and emotional, capturing the intense closeness of the mother daughter bond, and the deep sadness of Heather, who suffered from depression.

     The other relationship that reverberates throughout the novel is Ava's friendship with Wash, whom she met when they both were six years old. I loved the friendship between these two characters, especially when the book-nerdy Wash reads Moby Dick out loud to Ava.

     I imagine that The Wonder of All Things will be a book that sparks a lot of conversations; it is a perfect book club read, one that causes readers to consider the deeper implications of the questions raised by the book's events. All of the major characters have suffered some kind of loss, and many are struggling spiritually. The novel doesn't offer easy answers, but asks questions that the reader will reflect on long after closing the covers of this book. This is a riveting pager turner: highly recommended.

Jason Mott has an author web page for more information about his books: