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Summer Staff Picks: New Fiction!

posted: , by Elizabeth Hartsig
tags: Library Collections | Recommended Reads | Adults | Teens | Kids & Families | Seniors | Art & Culture

What’s hot in new fiction at the library this summer? We’re happy to share a few favorites for you to stow away in your beach bag or backpack to read in the warm light of the sun this July and August.

Youth Services

Carrie’s Pick

Anywhere Farm by Phyllis Root is a celebration of farming, food, innovation, diversity, and fun: all in a sweet little picture book. With upbeat lyrical language and a realistic portrayal of urban community, young and old alike will be inspired to plant a little garden.

Be it in a plot, a pot, or a shoe, growing a garden is something we all can do, together!

New YA Fiction

Kelley’s Picks

The YA books Teen Library staff members are most excited about reading this summer are:

Harper’s Pick

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

I went into this book thinking it would be just a fun fluffy romance, and it has that, but there is so much more depth to it than I was expecting. It is amazing to see historical fiction that is accurate, interesting, and also written in a way that makes it relevant to modern readers. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is socially aware without being heavy handed, and takes on issues of race, sexuality, gender, and ability with subtle aplomb. Lee also clearly knows 18th century Europe and is good at talking about it – her historical notes at the end are actually interesting to read!

More LGBTQ historical fiction like this please!

New on DVD

Nate’s Pick

Ixcanul is a Guatemalan film set in in a remote Mayan village located at the base of a volcano. The primary language spoken in the film is Kaqchikel, an indigenous tongue still widely used and taught throughout central Guatemala. The film follows a three-person family of coffee harvesters: a mother, father and teenaged daughter. As the parents attempt to arrange a marriage for their daughter, she herself is dreaming of running away to America.

As the story unfolds, director Jayro Bustamante is able to grapple with a number of poignant issues currently facing Guatemala, including climate change and racism. The lead actresses, María Telón and María Mercedes Telón, both of whom had little acting experience prior to their involvement in Ixcanul, provide resounding performances as a mother-daughter pair. Though I have never been, I believe cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga has done a commendable job of capturing the beauty of Guatemala. Even though the storyline progresses slowly at times, Ixcanul satisfies through its completeness, making for an immersive viewing experience.

New Adult Fiction

Kerry’s Pick

Lisa Ko’s debut novel The Leavers is the story of a young man’s struggle to discover who he is and where he belongs after his family is ripped apart. Eleven-year-old Deming Guo’s life is turned upside-down after his mother, a Chinese immigrant, disappears without a trace. Deming is sent into the foster care system and adopted by an upper-class white family who rename him Daniel. He struggles to fit in his new surroundings and to meet the high expectations of his adoptive parents. Over the years he grows depressed and eventually flunks out of college after developing an gambling addiction. One day he receives an email from an old friend who has information about what happened to his mother. At first he ignores it, afraid of the pain it will bring, but eventually he decides to meet with his friend. He begins a journey to find his mother, and along the way begins finding himself. The Leavers is a beautiful coming of age story that is not to be missed!

Sarah’s Pick

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

While reading 1997’s Man Booker Prize winner The God of Small Things almost 20 years ago, I was instantly captivated by Arundhati Roy’s lush, gorgeous prose and mysterious tale of misunderstanding and pain. I had discovered an author who understood language, structure, and the craft of writing so beautifully and I yearned for more. Twenty years later, Arundhati Roy has finally delivered more with her second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. This story of love, politics, and suffering is set across the Indian subcontinent and filled with the odd and the unforgettable. The author weaves lives together in the clever, beautiful, and hauntingly painful way that captivated me 20 years ago. This was my most anticipated book of 2017 and it has not disappointed!

Brandie’s Pick

I know I have raved about him before but I must do it again because a) Bill Roorbach is a wonderful writer and b) I l loved his latest collection of short stories, The Girl of the Lake, which was published this June. I don’t naturally gravitate towards short stories, so when I find a collection I like, I can’t help but recommend them to everyone I come into contact with. Each of these ten stories deals with the complicated beauty of relationships, and each is filled with hope and honesty.

My favorite story in the collection is The Fall. I love the way Roorbach delves into romantic relationships in such a brutal way, but also I read it right before I hiked Katahdin. It freaked me out, for sure, but it also gave me a lot to think about on my 8.5 hour hike. And weeks after finishing it, I am still thinking about it. That, to me, is the mark of a truly successful story. Get on the hold list now!

Elizabeth’s Picks

I’m still midway through Neal Stephenson’s and Nicole Galland’s rollicking entertainment, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  This fantasy/sci-fi mash-up is based on a premise any grown-up Harry Potter fan will flock to: magic is real! Witches too! Except magic died out in 1850 or so…but why? And how to get magic back? With time-traveling, quantum physics, rare books, and lively discussions of Schrödinger’s Cat. Although totally gratuitous in the wink-wink-nudge-nudge humor department, this behemoth means well and is appropriately warmhearted for a suspenseful summer read, and so it casts its charm.

Bonus recommendation: Dina Nayeri’s memorable Refuge tells the story of an Iranian-American woman, Niloo, who is living in Amsterdam, helping Iranian refugees, and who has only been able to reunite four times in her adult life with her Hafiz-reciting, charismatic, left-behind father Bahman. From the author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea.

For other new fiction arrivals (from debut novelists to thrillers to great Maine authors to beach reads) try this booklist. I loved Weike Wang’s Chemistry and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and I’m really looking forward to Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Zinzi Clemmon’s What We Lose, Paul Yoon’s The Mountain, and Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire.

New Fiction on Audiobook

Sarah’s Pick

Lincoln in the Bardo, full ensemble cast audiobook
by George Saunders

Critics and readers alike have not stopped talking about Lincoln in the Bardo since its release this past February. In his first full-length novel, author George Saunders tells the story of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie through a combination of dozens of characters providing narrative and real letters and memoirs from 1862. The story takes place over the course of one night in a place (the Bardo) that resembles purgatory. It is a truly unique examination of life explored through the dead. But even more remarkable than the book is the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo. The 166-person full cast includes the likes of Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Miranda July, Bill Hader, Megan Mullally, Lena Dunham, Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Ben Stiller…and so many more. The combination of a marvelous story told through expertly cast characters makes for a real treat. Perfect for a summer road trip!


A Brief Foray Into African Literature: Burundi

posted: , by Sarah Skawinski
tags: Library Collections | Recommended Reads | Adults | Art & Culture

Nate, a Reference Staff member, continues his exploration of contemporary African Literature on the blog with a look at Burundi and a review of author Roland Rugero’s recent novel “Baho!”

Burundi, a nation of approximately 11,000,000 people, is nestled in the highlands of east Africa; the country became independent from Belgium in 1962. Nigel Watt has explored an overall history in his volume Burundi, while Robert Kruger and Kathleen Tobin have documented specific periods of time during Burundi’s more recent past. Kruger and Tobin illuminate how ethnic and politically inspired violence in Burundi often came to mirror events in neighboring Rwanda.  Though the populations were and remain similar in their makeups, roughly 85% Hutu and 14% Tutsi, unlike in Rwanda, Tutsis in Burundi maintained prominent roles in the military and police forces through the late 1990s. Whereas post-independence violence in Rwanda was often perpetrated by Hutus against Tutsis, the opposite proved true in Burundi.  This mirroring perhaps played out most vividly following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when a mass migration of Hutu flowed from Rwanda into surrounding countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.  In Burundi these refugees often became victims of retaliatory acts of violence by the military and police forces.

Currently, Burundi finds itself mired in violence and governmental repression. As part of the peace process, constitutional reforms were enacted in the late 1990s which established gender and ethnic quotas in the parliament, military, and police forces in order to create more representational systems as well to discourage future unrest.  Though initially praised by diplomats such as Robert Kruger, following these reforms Burundi has been ruled by a single individual, Pierre Nkrunziza, who has been broadly criticized for seeking a third presidential term on the basis of a constitutional loophole and for his increasing repression of critical voices.  Fearing this violence and repression, many Burundians including human rights activists and writers like poet Ketty Nivyabandi, have left the country, seeking asylum in Belgium, France, Canada, and here in Portland, ME.

Author Roland Rugero is a 31-year old Burundian writer and journalist. Rugero grew up in a book-loving family, and he’s dedicated to fostering the growth of the Burundian literary scene. He’s worked as a journalist in Burundi since 2008—writing articles, for example, about innovative bicycling programs that are using people-power to generate electricity in Burundian homes—and cofounded a writing workshop that meets weekly in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. Rugero’s fiction explores, among other things, conflict in Burundian society today. His second novel ‘Baho!’ was recently translated by Christopher Schaefer.

Baho! examines an instance of communal justice carried out against a mute village teenager, Nyamuragi. The above interaction begins at an area of riverbank in Hariho, the village that serves as the setting for ‘Baho!’.  Approaching the riverbank, Nyamuragi finds himself alongside a young female villager, Kigeme, to whom he attempts to indicate that he desperately needs an appropriate place to relieve himself.  Although his gestures were intended to communicate simply his wish for directions they are understood by Kigeme to demonstrate far more ominous desires.  As word spreads through Hariho, which has been plagued by a recent rash of sexual assaults, the interaction in question and following accusation prove difficult for Nyamuragi to refute or negotiate due to both his inability to speak and a rising collective anger within the community towards perpetrators of sexual violence.

As the acts that constitute the timeline of Baho! occur in no more than thirty minutes, Rugero uses much of the novel to share the background stories of Nyamuragi and Kigeme, as well as the stories of members of the mob of Hariho villagers that has formed around Nyamuragi. By exploring their unique circumstances and reasons for joining in the interrogation Rugero individualizes members of the mob, thereby adding a certain amount of nuance to a group phenomena often characterized by its lack of humanity and its inability to reason.  Though Rugero mentions ethnicity explicitly only once, the use of the mob functions as a stand-in for much of the ethnic violence experienced by Burundians throughout the second half of the 20th century.  Rugero’s use of vocabulary in explaining the mob’s actions further illustrates the connection to such past instances,

“They had to punish the vermin, because law is weaker than crime, because it allows a killer to live. The deed comes back on the man.  Eliminate the impure man and you protect yourself from evil.  Crystal-clear, the message goes down smoothly with this crowd, overheated with anger and thirsty for rain.”

The Othering of Nyamuragi, by casting him as impure and unworthy of any form of justice, speaks to the ways in which Hutu and Tutsi propagandists described each other during times of violence. In Rwanda the Tutsi were referred to as ‘inyenzi,’ or cockroaches, during the genocide of 1994.  To remove the humanity from a person or group of people is to remove a certain amount of empathy from the situation, to forgive one’s own transgressions as being insignificant due to who they were directed against.  In this situation Nyamuragi is nothing more than a mute, potential-rapist, and the crowd reserves no sympathy for him.

But Rugero does not allow for this simple understanding of the situation. We as the reader are allowed to know more, to peel away the layers of Nyamuragi, to learn his history, and to us he becomes much more than the impure vermin.  We are provided Nyamuragi’s backstory: we learn of his expulsion from primary school on account of his muteness, of his learning to read and write on his own, of his fondness for sheep and shepherding, and his insatiable appetite.  We are also told of the death of his parents, though the brevity of this revelation seems to hint at death being a common occurrence within the village of Hariho.  All of this affects the way we perceive Nyamuragi and serves as a contrast to the perception held by the mob in pursuit of him. The tragedy seeps in.

“Nyamuragi was born alone. He had never had a conversation.  Nor a discussion.  Nor a debate.  He had been born mute; speech was etched into him.  He drew nourishment from it as a matter of course.  Awkwardly.  Alone.  In isolation.  He knew no friend, and he had no family to count on.”

‘Baho!’ the imperative form of the verb “to live” in Kirundi, finds footholds throughout the characters and events that make up the book, which is full of references to Burundians’ struggles to survive. Be it through the relaying of folktales or explaining the secret agenda of one of the mob’s leaders, Rugero peppers his story with instances of life and death that add complexity to the apparent reasons for characters’ involvement in the story’s main action.  This includes an old one-eyed woman, introduced at the beginning of the book, who recounts the story of a father and his daughter’s marriage, the apparent moral of which hints at the importance of perserverance and level-headed decision making even in the face of dire circumstances.  A leading member of the justice-seeking mob’s significance is revealed when Rugero shares his story: acts he’s witnessed and participated in have left him changed, and cause him to act in a very deliberate way during the events of Baho!

Roland Rugero’s Baho! is simple and confined.  At times it reads like a play, with pauses in action filled by narration from different characters.  Yet this simplicity hints at histories and emotions grander in scope, as if both the collective sorrow and immense capacity for life held within the Burundian citizenry find release through the actions of Nyamuragi and the Hariho mob.  Rugero’s novel is well worth a read and will satisfy readers of all different types.


Montgomery’s View: Balderdash!

posted: , by Mary Peverada
tags: Montgomery's View | Recommended Reads | Kids & Families

BALDERDASH!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books

written by Michelle Markel

illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

published by Chronicle Books

John Newbery was the pioneer of children’s books and this picture book biography revels in the birth of these books. The reader is told on page one that if they lived in 1726 there were books about adventure and travel and shipwrecks and pirates and monsters – but all of them were for adults.  Once John Newbery became a printer and a publisher, he saw a niche and aimed to fill it.  He felt that “Reading should be a treat for children” (as a philosopher had said.) Children should be offered more to read than moralistic, preachy tales and religious texts.

Businessman that he was, John Newbery created A LITTLE PRETTY POCKET-BOOK (and offered it for sale with a ball or a pincushion – a merchandising deal.)  These creations were illustrated and not as dry as the books forced upon children.  Thus began, in a very small way the creation of children’s literature.

But hopefully the reader will not be confused by the fact that these were not the children’s books of today – they were the first toe in the water.  By today’s standards they are dry and preachy – but by 1726 standards they were a treat.  Also, the reader might get the wrong impression from the illustrations – everyone was not literate nor could they all afford to purchase books.  Quibbles aside – this is a fine celebration of John Newbery and the small revolution he started.

The American Library Association established an annual award to honor “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” in 1922 and named it after John Newbery.  Next month, at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Chicago the 2017 Newbery Award will be presented to Kelly Regan Barnhill for THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON.  

There are brief notes and a bibiography at the end.

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