Thursday, January 14, 2021

Book 267: The Library Book



"I was transfixed. It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries—and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up—not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever."

Dates read: October 6-10, 2018

Rating: 7/10

I don't remember the first time I went to the library. I'm sure I went quite often as a small child, but my first memories are of the Hamburg Township Library when I was probably about 8ish. There was a small market nearby to the original location, the one that was there for most of my childhood, and my mom would often drop me off to find a book while she took my sister and picked up some extra things for the week. As I got older, we'd spend more time at the library in Brighton, a neighboring bigger town with fancier facilities and wider selection. When my mom was mad at me for mouthing off, I'd be punished by being excluded from the next trip there. I can still conjure up in my mind the exact way the young readers section looked at Hamburg, the way the floors creaked. I remember how the nonfiction section smelled at Brighton, the older books with their distinctive aroma.

Like millions of people all over the world, I have a fond, deep attachment to libraries. Author and journalist Susan Orlean is one of those people who grew up loving the library, but found herself not visiting it as much as an adult. But then she had a kid, started visiting her local branch in Los Angeles, and found out for the first time about a major fire there in the 80s that burned hundreds of thousands of books...assumed to be arson, but never actually solved. This inspired her to write The Library Book, which explores not just that fire and the recovery afterwards, but also the history of the Los Angeles Public Library in general and the changing role of it (and other libraries) as the greater world has become a different place.

As you might be able to tell from that description, there's not one particularly strong focus for the book. The closest thing to a through-line is a true-crime-esque accounting of the investigation of the fire, and the primary suspect, a failed actor named Harry Peak. But along the way, Orlean touches on the history of libraries, especially the one in Los Angeles, highlighting several of the more interesting directors it has had along the way. While the image of a library in the popular consciousness tends to be of a somewhat stuffy institution, Orlean talks to librarians on the ground to get a more nuanced view, particularly about the role they play in coordinating community and social programming for their users, from children, to new Americans learning English, to the homeless. And she also includes input from the library staff that were there at the time of the fire, the way it impacted them, and how they and the library itself got back to normal.

Orlean's genuine appreciation and love for reading, books, and libraries shines through the text, making an instant connection with the reader. It's impossible to not happily recall your own wonder at the library the first time you went in and realized that all these books are just here, for anyone to take with them and read. And while it might not work for everyone, I found Orlean's subject-hopping to be kept any one portion from bogging down or getting boring. Her descriptions of how the Los Angeles Public Library came to be designed and built made me want to visit it, to see it for myself, and reflect on the ways that public good buildings like libraries have seen their value, in the eyes of the public, decline over the years. Older libraries were often constructed as grand, their mission seen as important and necessary. Nowadays, it's about how to keep costs down, aiming for sturdy functionality over inspiration.

The way Orlean unwinds her story may prove irritating to a reader who prefers a strictly linear narrative. And after spending quite a bit of time going down a path which makes you think she's relatively convinced of Peak's guilt for setting the library ablaze, she refuses to draw that conclusion, leaving it ambiguous in a way that could be frustrating for someone who really wants closure. But her storytelling skills are top-notch, and if you're willing to follow her, you'll be rewarded by a genuinely compelling work of non-fiction. While I'll admit it didn't have the little something extra that would have pushed it to "great" in my mind, it was very good and I happily and highly recommend it to everyone, especially those who love to read. 

One year ago, I was reading: Sin in the Second City

Two years ago, I was reading: Say Nothing

Three years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Four years ago, I was reading: The Wars of the Roses

Five years ago, I was reading: The Woman Who Would Be King

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Resolutions for 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! It being the new year and all, this week we're talking about resolutions. I've decided to split mine up into five each, personal and bookish both!


Have a successful fifth session: February will mark the beginning of the fifth session I've spent working in government affairs, and though it will be a challenging one because of the pandemic, I'm ready to do my best!

Visit my new nephew: This will have to be after session at some point, which means I likely won't get to meet him until after he's six months old! I'm glad we've been able to facetime regularly with my sister so I've gotten to see him but I really want to meet the little guy in person!

Take vacations when it's safe: I made a trip to Michigan in the fall for my sister's baby shower, but that was the only time I've left Reno since last March. When it's safe to travel again, we are definitely going to spend more time out of town than we'd been doing!

Keep working out regularly: This is something I sometimes have a hard time with during sessions because of the scheduling difficulties that inevitably arise, but working out on a regular basis has been something that's been really important to me during the pandemic, both for my mental health and my physical health, so I want to keep it up as much as I can!

Watch more movies: I'm a former Blockbuster clerk, I used to watch so many movies! As I've focused more and more on books, though, I am now lucky to get to more than a dozen per year. I love movies, and I really want to focus on seeing more of them this year!


Read 75 books: I know, my actual goal is always 50. But I've got a lot of books to get through, and I've been able to get to at leas 75 for the past five years now, so here's hoping I can get there this year too.

Read fewer white men: I have passionately loved books written by white men, but I have also read quite a lot of them over the years. There are so many books in the world written by people who aren't white men, so I'm going to try to read more of them.

Buy fewer books: I own enough books. I own MORE than enough books. I don't need more (but I really, really want them!).

Get more involved with bookish social media: I've made this resolution before, but I really do want to be more engaged with the book community on social media, but my actual job requires so much social media engagement that it's difficult to find the time. I'm going to work on this more this year!

Talk about books with other people more: I'm in one book club (which has been meeting on Zoom these days, which is honestly not ideal), but I have plenty of friends not in that book club who like to read and I want to talk about books with them more often because talking about books makes me happy!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Book 266: The Fly Trap


"People sometimes call me for help in investigating the possibilities. I am a biologist, after all. Their projects are often said to have an environmental dimension—the infallible key to getting grants—so I’m considered a good person to talk to. When we were new out here, I used to say that I was a writer, but all the women on the island felt so sorry for my wife that I started insisting I was a biologist instead. What else could I do? And if you’re a biologist on an island widely known for its rich biosphere, you have to put up with a lot of phone calls from morons. They always seem to assume that I’m a moron myself."

Dates read: October 3-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

For my dad, it's lizards. For my mom, hearts. For me, my book stockpiling has reached critical mass. Most of us collect something. And the rest of you can Marie Kondo your lives as many times as you like, you'll never convince me that the reason so many of us have so much stuff isn't that there's a primal human urge to gather. For most of us, it's just a side habit. But depending on your line of work, it can literally be your actual job!

If I had to come up with an insect that people collect, I'd get to butterflies, and maybe moths and dragonflies, before running out of ideas. Those are the good ones, right? But Fredrik Sjoberg catches and studies nothing so glamorous. Rather, near his home on a tiny Swedish island, he collects hoverflies. In case you, like me, have no idea what those are, they're large flies that look like bees. In The Fly Trap, he ruminates on a life devoted to an obscure bug, as well as the story of the man, Rene Malaise, who invented the fly trap with which he does most of his work.

Like me when this was announced as a selection for my book club, you might be extremely skeptical about the idea of a book about a guy who collects flies. I was very sure it would be either weird or boring or both. Surprise! It's delightful! Funny and smart! It feels like having a conversation with the slightly odd but very charming person sitting next to you on an airplane...there's a circuitousness to the narrative, with Sjoberg starting on one subject but getting sidetracked into another, but it's carried off with humor and verve. The way the narrative thread keeps looping also ensures that the pace is lively and it doesn't get bogged down anywhere.

There's also, as you realize when you get to the end, surprisingly little about Sjoberg himself. There's a remove to it that feels Scandinavian, very pleasant but ultimately very firmly impersonal. There's a lot about the nature of being a collector, pleasure of focusing your attention on one little small facet of the world and working inside that little niche, the thrills of finding something rare in your chosen field, the loneliness that can come from essentially solitary pursuits. It's thought-provoking in its own way, not in the heavy way that the term is usually used. This is a lightweight little snack of a book, enjoyable but not especially memorable in any way, and I would recommend it. Hey, at least now I know what a hoverfly is!

One year ago, I was reading: Queen of Scots

Two years ago, I was reading: The Winter of the Witch

Three years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Four years ago, I was reading: American Heiress

Five years ago, I was reading: Mr. Splitfoot

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases for the First Half of 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, it's my biannual least-favorite topic: upcoming releases I'm looking forward to! I always have a hard time with these, I really prefer to wait for reviews to start coming in before I decide what I'm really amped for. But here are ten that look good coming out before the end of June (all of which I am fortunate enough to have gotten digital advance copies of)! And I did not realize it until I was almost finished writing the post, but all of these are by female authors!

The Wife Upstairs: Rachel Hawkins has been a favorite Twitter follow of mine for a while, but I've never read one of her books before! I love a twist on a familiar story, so I'm super interested in her take on Jane Eyre!

All Girls: This promises to blend three of my favorite sub-genres...closed scholastic environment, coming-of-age, and female friendship.

Forget Me Not: I loved Oliva's debut The Last One so much I was automatically on-board for her next work! That it's about the life of a little girl raised in isolation who escapes into the wider world and then has to continue to deal with the fallout of her upbringing is even better.

The Babysitter: One of the things I find fascinating about serial killers is that they aren't just, like, out doing bad things all the time. Most of them have something resembling a normal life with people who would find it hard to believe their friend would do wrong. Some would even leave their children with them, and this is the true story of a girl coming to terms with the fact that her beloved childhood babysitter killed people.

The Rebel Nun: Historical fiction based on the true story of a nun in the Middle Ages who led a group of sisters in a rebellion against ecclesiastical authority? Yes please!

There's No Such Thing As An Easy Job: This story of a young woman looking for the least taxing job she can find seems like a brand of weird I can get behind.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev: This seems Daisy Jones-esque in that it's a story about a musical act that broke up, but it has the added layer of complexity of dealing with issues of race in the 1970s, which seems like it'll make for a compelling read!

A Special Place For Women: I have found the dialogue about the exclusive female-only coworking/collective franchise The Wing to be really interesting, so the idea of a book that mines the idea of a place like that having an actively nefarious side seems right up my alley.

Madam: I am always looking for books to scratch my The Secret History itch, and this one, about a boarding school in Scotland harboring dark secrets, would seem to be right in that kind of dark academia wheelhouse.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch: Another Middle-Ages-set historical fiction, this one about a small town beset with fear, a woman accused of witchcraft and the scientist son who tries to defend her.