Our August staff picks focus on a few of our favorite reads (and a little music) from over the summer. We’re so glad it isn’t over yet.
Savor this book. Garvey’s Choice, by Nikki Grimes, is a novel in verse, using five-line tanka poems, that will inspire you to find your passion. Disappointment, despair, friendship, hope, books and music. What more could you ask from a sweet little book to cherish this summer? For me this book was a stand out in a summer full of wonderful reads. Enjoy!
The Town that Got Out of Town by Robert Priest
Where would the city of Boston—the buildings, the churches, the library, the bridges—go on vacation? Like so many others…the city of Boston decides to head up to Maine to visit the city of Portland in this beautifully illustrated book from Robert Priest. The buildings of Boston visit companionably with the buildings of Portland—from the Longfellow House to the library—all smiling and swapping art and books. A fun New England children’s classic.
Emily L’s Pick
Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez
I was glad there was a “graphic novel” category on this year’s Adult Summer Reading list. I have two school-aged children, and while I often take home graphic novels from PPL for them to try, I had never read one myself. I asked my youngest what she was reading, and she handed me Nightlights. This was one of my favorite books of the summer, and since both my children also read it, we had an impromptu discussion group one morning in the car. The central character is Sandy, a young girl who captures light at night and transforms it into wonderful drawings (which are not always appreciated by the nuns at her convent school). Sandy is excited to meet a new classmate who loves her pictures, but when this classmate appears at night – in different form and literally hungry for drawings – Sandy will need to be just as creative with a plan as she is on paper. The author is from Colombia, and the illustrations and the way they helped build the story gave this book the feeling of magical realism that I love from the works of García Márquez. This book is definitely on my “read again” list.
My favorite summer read was the Rainbow Boys trilogy by Alex Sanchez. The first two books, Rainbow Boys and Rainbow High, chronicle the senior year of three high school students: Jason, a football player who is terrified of people finding out he is gay, Kyle, a brilliant student who has been in love with Jason for years, and Nelson, an openly gay student who is often targeted by bullies. The books follow their ups and down as they navigate love, dating, homophobia, college applications, prom dates, and many other high school adventures. In the final book, Rainbow Road, they take a road trip across the country after graduation, meet many other LGBT people along the way, and arrive at their final destination, a new high school for LGBT students where Jason is giving a keynote address. I loved the characters in this book, each one unique and seeming so real. I highly recommend reading this trilogy for your final days of summer, especially the audiobook versions, which can be downloaded from Hoopla. They’ll be a great addition to your next road trip!
Some older books, like 1984 by George Orwell, have recently received new attention. I’d like to add another old book to the list: Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. This is a beautiful story about a 12-year old boy in a small town somewhere in America. Each chapter is like a story in itself, but they all are connected. This book is filled with stories touching most aspects of life. It’s about taking a stand and following your inner compass, without being overly sweet. The characters are people you would like to meet. And there are some wonderful insights to what really matters in life.
The book is an easy read, full of comfort and wisdom, and it takes you back to summers past.
My favorite read this summer was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid:
“We are all migrants through time.”
Urgent, beautiful, and incredibly topical, I consider Exit West required reading, as the novel depicts the world we are or will soon be living in. This is a literary and economical text that can leave you devastated by suffering and hate, but rays of hope filter through via the many manifestations of love and the trembling strength of the human spirit.
Elnathan Jonathan’s debut novel, Born on a Tuesday, is set in northeast Nigeria’s Borno and Sokoto state and follows the life of Dantala from 2012-2014. Dantala begins the story as a member of a group of homeless youths in the city of Madaiguri, but is quickly forced to flee the area during election-related violence. He finds his way to a mosque in the city of Sokoto, where he is taken in by a Sheik whose prominence and political ambitions grow alongside the responsibilities given to Dantala over the following year and a half. When one of the Sheik’s older students (who also happens to be the older brother of Dantala’s best friend) starts a breakaway faction intent on waging a war against the Nigerian government, Dantala’s previously calm and routine-filled life is thrown into turmoil.
Dantala’s first-person perception of the activity he experiences around him propels the story forward, and his growth as an individual is revealed as his thought processes and interactions evolve throughout the book. This novel is also noteworthy in its ability to shed light on life in an area of the world depicted mostly as a place of conflict. Though there are instances of violence, the story is mostly developed through the growth of friendship and love between characters, as well as the examination of the complexity of family dynamics. This diversity of experience is reason enough to pick up Born on a Tuesday.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Reminding me of Lonesome Dove, Jiles’ recent novel is a western that transcends the genre. It’s moving historical fiction set in 1870 Texas, with strong writing and memorable characters: pick up this National Book Award finalist today.
As part of the PPL Adult Summer Reading program I read Rachel Kushner’s first novel, Telex from Cuba. I read it while vacationing on a lake here in Maine and absolutely devoured it. It has many story lines, but it primarily tells the story of the American expatriates who ran the giant Cuban sugar operation for United Fruit Company during the 1950’s. The story is told from the viewpoints of two adolescent children in two different American families living there. You are transported back to a different world, where the brutality of the sugar cane plantations and the insensitivity of the expatriate Americans toward other cultures is truly shocking. At the same time, Fidel Castro is leading an impassioned fight for freedom and the Americans are blind to their approaching demise. Kushner’s ability to take you into this world and let you feel it and smell it, as well as conveying moments of great beauty and subtlety, is absolutely delicious.
A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass
This is the best book I’ve read in a while, so I’m recommending it to anyone who will listen. The Julia Glass of Three Junes is back! The world of children’s writer/illustrator Mort Lear and his lifelong assistant Tommy (Tomasina) is as colorful as the vivid cover. This one has everything: writing so good you may not even notice it; captivating 3D characters you can love and hate, but probably won’t ignore; and a compelling plot without a single murder. I was sorry to see it end, but happy to pass it on to the next lucky reader.
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is my pick for one of my (many!) favorite reads this summer. Throughout my life, Antigone of antiquity has been a beloved character in numerous retellings of her story: she’s a wildfire in a nest of conformity, confronting tyranny, exposing hypocrisy, resolutely willing to stake her life on an act of civil disobedience spurred by love and mourning. I don’t see why we would ever stop telling and re-telling her story. My favorite explorations of Antigone (and all the questions one grieving dissenter might spark) have been Jean Anouilh’s play Antigone (produced in occupied Paris in 1942), Ali Smith’s children’s book The Story of Antigone, and Anne Carson’s translation Antigonik illustrated by Bianca Stone. Shamsie joins them with her own new and compelling retelling, partly set in modern-day London, where Antigone becomes Aneeka, and her twin brother Parvaiz is an enemy of the state…
Variously described as gothic rock, ethereal wave, neoclassical, art rock, and darkwave, Dead Can Dance’s self-titled 1984 debut might seem like an odd choice for the easy, breezy days of summer. And it’s true, it would probably sound out of place if played during the volleyball match at a beach reunion. But if at least part of your summer has involved zoning out in front of a fan, appreciating nighttime for the cool it brings, and wishing you could make your home feel a little more like a cave, then I suggest drawing the blinds for an hour while you listen to Dead Can Dance. Also recommended if you are looking for music to accompany the thought “no one can tell that I’m actually a witch” while walking down Congress Street.
Eileen M’s Picks
I know I am not the only voracious re-reader out there. There’s a whole pile of us who know what we want and which books will supply it. When we are feeling quivery or unsure or off kilter, we just want to sit down with old companions, maybe find something new about them to appreciate. My summer has been like that: a few new books, but mostly I reached for my stalwarts, knowing that I could coast, reserving my readerly energies for attending to some new revelations about characters, plots, and authors with whom I already had a relationship. After all, I wasn’t the same person I was when I last cracked them; maybe they had grown along with me.
I chain-read reliable one-offs, as well as familiar series recklessly read out of order. I devoured the dated daffiness of Angela Thirkell’s long parade of British fiction, comfortably quirky Richard Russo novels and Kate Atkinson’s richly populated Jackson Brodie detective stories.
And the winner of my personal “Favorite Book I Read this Summer” award is… well, to be honest, it is none of those aforementioned books or authors, although I regret not one millisecond spent in reunions with these favorites. All of my dabbling with second, third, fourth readings was part of a rebalancing of my inner seesaw, because my seasonal affective disorderly self had delayed reading my winning entry until the days were long and sunny, even though the urge to read it was born in the dark days of winter.
That’s where Stephen Jenkinson’s nonfiction work Die Wise: a Manifesto for Sanity and Soul comes in. I borrowed it via MaineCat, hoping to sate my curiosity and consciously begin to look at life’s flip-side reality as my own dotage comes a-knockin’.
Die Wise is about death in a culture that doesn’t know much about honoring it. The book is thick and can feel intimidating. It is dense and important. It is poetic, written with care and beauty. Anecdotal, philosophical, practical, mystical, illuminating and opinionated, it is eye-opening and soul-nurturing. I cannot recommend it highly enough. But it was hard going. It got under my skin. Its weight stayed with me long after I put it down. I read it too intently, for too long. It was hard to shake off. It was amazing.
And when I was stunned into foolishness, couldn’t quite regain my bearings, there they were…if not Favorite Book I Read This Summer candidates, then absolutely Lifetime Achievement honorees. They are the books that make it safe for me to step into territory that jolts me well beyond my usual scope. Giving the hard stuff a go was possible because I knew that these well-thumbed bound buddies were waiting to sit with me while I decompressed. I gave them quite a workout and they didn’t fail. Russo’s Sully and company made me laugh and cry, again; Thirkell’s upper crust nonsense allowed me to melt into another time and place, again; Atkinson’s miscreants and troubled souls wound their way through unlikely coincidence, again.
All for me, one more time.
As always, thanks for reading.
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.
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
The YA books Teen Library staff members are most excited about reading this summer are:
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
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
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!
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!
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!
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
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!
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.