Librarian reveals slightly offbeat favorite books
As a librarian, my own taste in books is slightly odd. I'm always searching for a story that's a little different, a bit off, something left of center. However, when doing 'reader's advisory', a library term for helping people find a good book, my picks for people are almost always received with enthusiasm. So, my taste must not be too odd.
This month, I thought I'd share some of these 'offbeat' favorites with you. If you decide to read some of these and like them, please be sure to stop by the Sellwood-Moreland Branch Library and let me know.
By the way, if you enjoy reading and discussing books, please come and join in your nearest branch library's 'Pageturners' book group. In Sellwood, we meet the third Tuesday evening of each month from 6:30-7:30 pm. The books we read and talk about are generously provided by the Friends of the Library.
Here are my Offbeat Favorites of the moment:
'The Radleys' by Matt Haig (fiction): Even if you're not a big fan of vampire novels, this one is so charmingly well-written you are sure to enjoy its snide humor and genuine family warmth. Two upper-middle-class English parents try to hide the family's vampire nature from their teenage son and daughter, until their daughter's sudden act of violence reveals the truth. And you thought your teenagers were difficult …
'Townie: A Memoir' by Andres Dubus III (nonfiction): After his parents divorced, the author and his three siblings grew up - with their exhausted, hardworking mother - in a tough Massachusetts mill town, surrounded by drugs, violence, and crime. Meanwhile, their father, an eminent author, taught on a nearby college campus, seemingly oblivious to the starkly different world his children lived in. Andres III, in order to survive, learned to use his fists, and learned so well he scared himself with own brutality. He was on the road to either getting himself killed or killing someone else, until he began to write. The author of 'The House of Sand and Fog' is a beautiful writer, using terse and gripping language to express his hurt, rage, love, and longing.
'The Invisible Wall: A Love Story that Broke Barriers' by Harry Bernstein (nonfiction): At the age of 93, Harry Bernstein became a first-time author. He recalls his childhood in a poor, religiously divided English town before and during WWI. Jews and Christians were strictly segregated, as Harry relates the Romeo and Juliet tale of his older sister's forbidden love for the Christian boy across the street. Although the author waited a lifetime (literally) to tell this story, his memories are as fresh as the moment.
'The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time' by Mark Haddon (fiction): Christopher is a mathematically-gifted, autistic 15-year-old boy, who takes it upon himself to investigate the murder of a neighbor's dog, and unwittingly discovers the reason for his mother's flight from the family home. Told with a great deal of humor, this heart-wrenching novel is a compelling page-turner.
'Assassination Vacation' by Sarah Vowell (nonfiction): I love all her books, and especially enjoy listening to her on TV (notably on The Daily Show) and in person. She is so quirky (she has a Betty Boop voice), so smart, and so funny. As part of her research for this book (about locations immortalized by assassinations), she dragged along her twin sister and her six-year-old smart-aleck nephew (visualize Sarah Vowell as a six-year-old boy), so be prepared for some laugh-out-loud commentary. No travel book, and certainly no history class, was ever this illuminating or this entertaining. Warning: This book presents a choking hazard if read while eating popcorn!
'Bel Canto' by Ann Patchett (fiction): Terrorists and hostages! This 2001 novel gives us an insider's look at the psychology of both, as the author takes us to the home of a South American country's Vice President, who is attempting to broker valuable trade agreements. A crowd of rich, international guests have been invited to hear opera's most talented star, the beautiful Roxanne - only to become hostages when a ragtag group of revolutionaries invade the Vice President's house. Chaos, community, death, and even love ensue.
'Kindred' by Octavia E. Butler (fiction): Dana is a modern day young black woman who is, without warning, abruptly transported through time. Snatched away in the middle of her 26th birthday celebration with her husband, she finds herself smack in the middle of the antebellum South. The son of a white plantation owner is drowning and somehow Dana has been summoned to save him. She is pulled back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters of this plantation, and each time her stays are longer and more dangerous - to the point that it's uncertain whether she can ever return to the present. This is the most heart-pounding look at slavery since 'Roots'.
'Just Kids' Patti Smith (nonfiction): In this memoir, singer-songwriter Patti Smith shares the stories of her young life in NYC, with soon-to-be famous photographer/artist Robert Maplethorpe. There are nights at Max's Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, and her day jobs at bookstores to support herself and Robert. It was all about hunger, desire, ambition, love, and, of course, art.
'Water for Elephants' by Sara Gruen (fiction): Based partially on real circus stories, this novel takes place during the height of the Great Depression. Jacob is about to graduate from veterinary school when his parents are killed in a car accident, leaving him alone and penniless. He hops a train which turns out to be a traveling circus. Hired for his veterinary skills, Jacob joins the circus and falls in love with its two stars, the beautiful Marlena and the enormous elephant Rosie. However, Marlena is married - to a threatening psychopath - and Rosie is too depressed to perform her tricks. Warning: You will never think about elephants the same way again.
'The Story of Ferdinand' by Leaf Munro (picture book): First published in 1938 (!), this children's picture book has been a personal favorite of mine for decades, and still stands as a great anti-war book. Ferdinand the bull isn't interested in bull fighting. He likes to sit and smell the flowers. However, when he is stung by a bee, his snorting and stomping convinces everyone around him that he is the finest of fighting bulls. Uh oh.
'Horton Hatches the Egg' by Dr. Seuss (picture book): This story can still make me cry. Asked to do a favor for 'that good-for-nothing' bird Mayzie, Horton the elephant gives her a break from sitting on her egg. However, when Mayzie is having too much fun to return to her egg-sitting duties, Horton is laughed at by everyone in the jungle for remaining faithful to his promise 'one hundred per cent'. It's such a great moral tale, with such an upbeat, life-affirming ending. Sigh.