readers advisory

Fiction That Changed Our Lives

One of the fun things about being a librarian is getting juicy readers advisory questions, so when Rockridge librarian Emily Weak was asked by a young woman, "What fiction have you read that changed your life?” she instantly sprang into action, sending the query around the library system.  We nerded out about it for a while, giving it all the weight deserved by a question regarding the transformation of one’s very life. Emily compiled a list of nearly 100 titles. That ought to prepare our young friend for the rest of her life, no? Here is a mere sampling, with a focus on less current titles:

 

Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund

 A rich epic, drawn from the classic Moby Dick, chronicles the life of Una Spenser, wife of the immortal Captain Ahab, from her Kentucky childhood, through her adventures disguised as a whaling ship cabin boy, to her various marriages.           

 

 

The amazing adventures of Kavelier and Clay by Michael Chabon

 In 1939 New York City, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Hitler's Prague, joins forces with his Brooklyn-born cousin, Sammy Clay, to create comic-book superheroes inspired by their own fantasies, fears, and dreams.

 

 

Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

Tired of being labeled white trash, Ruth Anne Boatwright--a South Carolina bastard who is attached to the indomitable women in her mother's family--longs to escape from her hometown, and especially from Daddy Glen and his meanspirited jealousy.

 

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Somewhere in South America terrorists seize hostages at an embassy party, and an unlikely assortment of people is thrown together, including American opera star Roxanne Coss, and Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese CEO and her biggest fan.

 

Blindness by Jose Saramago

In a provocative parable of loss, disorientation, and weakness, a city is hit by an epidemic of "white blindness" whose victims are confined to a vacant mental hospital, while a single eyewitness to the nightmare guides seven oddly assorted strangers through the barren urban landscape.

                                                                                                                                               

The good earth by Pearl S. Buck

A graphic view of China during the reign of the last emperor as it tells the story of an honest Chinese peasant and his wife as they struggle with the sweeping changes of the twentieth century.

 

 

The house on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

For Esperanza, a young girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago, life is an endless landscape of concrete and run-down tenements, and she tries to rise above the hopelessness. Told in a series of vignettes.

 

 

I know this much is true by Wally Lamb

Dominick Birdsey, a forty-year-old housepainter living in Three Rivers, Connecticut, finds his subdued life greatly disturbed when his identical twin brother Thomas, a paranoid schizophrenic, commits a shocking act of self-mutilation.

 

 

If Beale Street could talk by James Baldwin

A love story in the face of injustice set in Harlem in the early 1970s. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. 

 

 

Interpreter of maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

A collection of short fiction that blends elements of Indian traditions with the complexities of American culture in such tales as "A Temporary Matter," in which a young Indian-American couple confronts their grief over the loss of a child, while their Boston neighborhood copes with a nightly blackout.

                                                                                                                                       

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

In nineteenth-century England, all is going well for rich, reclusive Mr Norell, who has regained some of the power of England's magicians from the past, until a rival magician, Jonathan Strange, appears and becomes Mr Norrell's pupil.

                                                                                                                                               

                                                                                                                                            The name of the rose by Umberto Eco

In 1327, finding his sensitive mission at an Italian abbey further complicated by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William of Baskerville turns detective.

 

 

                                                                                                                                          The once and future king by T.H. White

Describes King Arthur's life from his childhood to the coronation, creation of the Round Table, and search for the Holy Grail.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

                                                                                                                                       Prodigal summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Wildlife biologist Deanna is caught off guard by an intrusive young hunter, while bookish city wife Lusa finds herself facing a difficult identity choice, and elderly neighbors find attraction at the height of a long-standing feud.

 

 

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Macon Dead, Jr., called "Milkman," the son of the wealthiest African American in town, moves from childhood into early manhood, searching, among the disparate, mysterious members of his family, for his life and reality.

 

 

Wild sheep chase by Haruki Murakami 

Blending elements of myth and mystery, this literary thriller features a cast of bizarre characters, including a sheep with a mysterious star on its back, caught up in a Nietzschean quest for power. 

                                                                                                                                             

Now your turn: Share some fiction that changed your life.                                                                                               

Most Popular Books of 2015

 

 Following are the ten books published in 2015 also most often checked out at the Oakland Public Library in 2015:

  1. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Featured in 10 Great Reasons to Read Fiction in January 2015)- On the train, alcoholic and depressed Rachel passes daily by the house that she used to share with her ex-husband, spying on him with his new wife and their child, and on their neighbors: a couple that she idealizes, fantasizing about their happy life together. When the woman in this couple shows up in the tabloids as missing, Rachel delves into the investigation.
  2. Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee (Featured in 10 Great Reasons to Read Fiction in July 2015 and Watchman, Related Reading)- This long buried and controversial sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird features many of the characters some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.
  3. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Featured in 10 Great Reasons to Read Fiction in May 2015)- Atkinson skillfully jumps back and forth in time, portraying Teddy as a World War II pilot, husband, father, teacher and grandfather.
  4. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Featured in 10 Great Reasons to Read Fiction in February 2015)- Red and Abby Whitshank are the septuagenarian heads of a Baltimore clan which includes four squabbling adult offspring who must come to grips with the physical and mental challenges their parents face as they age. 
  5. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Featured in Oakland Public Library's 2015 Holiday Gift Guide)- The acclaimed essayist examines the meaning of race in our country and looks back on his personal history in a letter addressed to his teenage son. Winner of the 2015 National Book Award for nonfiction.
  6. Dead wake: the last crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson- A chronicle of the sinking of the Lusitania discusses the factors that led to the tragedy and the contributions of such figures as Woodrow Wilson, bookseller Charles Lauriat, and architect Theodate Pope Riddle.
  7. Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (Featured in 10 Great Reasons to Read Fiction in February 2015)- Bombshell Barbara Parker has no interest in being Miss Blackpool 1964—she wants to be a TV comedienne like her idol, Lucille Ball. She heads to London, changes her name to Sophie Straw and lands her own comedy TV show, gaining a circle of colleagues and friends in the process.
  8. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (Featured in 10 Great Reasons to Read Fiction in February 2015)- Reunited when the elder's husband is sent to fight in World War II, French sisters Vianne and Isabelle find their bond as well as their respective beliefs tested by a world that changes in horrific ways.
  9. Falling in love: a Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon- Attending a performance by an opera star he saved in Death at La Fenice, Brunetti learns that the singer is being stalked by an obsessed fan who subsequently attacks a fellow performer.
  10. A dangerous place: a Maisie Dobbs novel by Jacqueline Winspear- Arriving in turbulent 1937 Gibraltar in the aftermath of a tragedy, Maisie Dobbs raises the British Secret Service's suspicions through her involvement in the murder of a Sephardic Jewish photographer.

Next are the ten eBooks published in 2015 also most often checked out on Overdrive at the Oakland Public Library in 2015:

  1. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins*
  2. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson*
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Featured in 10 Great Reasons to Read Fiction in March 2015)- Among ogres and dragons in medieval rural England, an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, live in a village where everyone seems to have trouble remembering anything. In this fog of forgetting, Axl and Beatrice wonder about a son they think they had—when did he leave? And why? They set off on a quest to find answers.
  4. Make Me: Jack Reacher Series by Lee Child- Hoping to make a brief stop in the small but suspicious town of Mother's Rest, Jack Reacher learns about 200 shocking deaths and meets a woman waiting for a private investigator who has gone missing.
  5. In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume (Featured in 10 Great Reasons to Read Fiction in June 2015)- Beloved author Blume bases her newest novel on three real-life plane crashes that occurred near Newark Airport during the winter of 1951-52. The three crashes have a profound impact on 15-year-old Miri, her family and friends.
  6. Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee*
  7. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler*
  8. Funny Girl by Nick Hornby*
  9. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (Featured in 10 Great Reasons to Read Fiction in May 2015)- The moon suddenly and mysteriously explodes, triggering an exodus from the earth in which seven women must repopulate the human race. In his latest science fiction epic, Stephenson traces the fate of humanity over the next 5000 years.
  10. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah*

*See annotation above

The Girl on the Train topped both lists by a mile. I myself listened to it on eAudio and was unable to unplug for days. Also on both lists were A God in Ruins, Go Set a Watchman, A Spool of Blue Thread, Funny Girl, and The Nightingale. Did you read any of OPL's most popular books in 2015? If so, we'd love to read your thoughts about them in the comments. 

Hey, That Harry Potter Lady Can Write

   

I imagine that JK Rowling began her new Cormoran Strike mystery series under the pen name of Robert Galbraith so that readers wouldn’t make assumptions or judge it alongside her ubiquitous children’s fantasy series. I can only speculate that her publisher then leaked the author’s true identity to boost the modest initial sales of the first title in the series, The cuckoo’s calling, which begins with an investigation into the suspicious suicide of a supermodel. I never would have picked it up without the name recognition and curiosity about whether Rowling could pass muster in a different genre for an adult audience. Make no mistake; this is no children’s series. It is sometimes off color and gruesomely detailed, though still cozy, meant for fans of traditional mysteries with tightly woven plotlines that are methodically unraveled by the sharpest of minds. Still, here it is, my crude comparison between the two series (can’t help it; have to).

Rowling is gifted at baiting readers along with plot twists and cliffhangers. As each of the first two Cormoran Strike books progressed, I became obsessed with them. By the time I was reading The silkworm, which goes into the seedier side of the writing and publishing world, something Rowling no doubt knows plenty about, I was juggling an eAudio copy, an eBook copy, and a physical copy so that I could get back to the heart-pounding roller coaster ride at every possible moment. I remember feeling this compelled while reading the Harry Potter series years ago, long before I had any kids of my own. I believe that the reason the phenomenally popular children's series did almost as well with adults as it did with kids and teens is that the Harry Potter series is essentially an expertly-crafted mystery, albeit one with an overarching puzzle that runs through all seven books. I found it to be thrilling and often surprising, in spite of the formulaic good vs. evil devices seemingly obligatory in children’s fantasy literature. I should note for those new to the Cormoran Strike series that it has no supernatural elements whatsoever. Strike follows physical clues, relying on hard science and deft observations to solve crimes. However, like Potter, he is an oft misunderstood, damaged hero: one-legged, hulking, cranky, and crass, yet deeply ethical and ultimately lovable.

A disappointing similarity between the two series is that Strike's female partner, Robin, like Hermione before her, is relegated to a peripheral role. I don’t know if Rowling has chosen to place her brilliant female characters, as well as her own feminine identity (She elected to go with J.K. rather than her first name, Joanne, for the Harry Potter series and then chose a masculine pen name for the Cormoran Strike series.) on the sidelines in order to widen her audience. Rowling is the most commercially successful writer of all time, so she does seem to know what she’s doing in that department. She has already revealed her intention to write many more Cormoran Strike books. As the series progresses, I hope to watch Strike’s promising, wide-eyed student, with whom he shares a deep mutual admiration, develop into a hard-boiled PI in her own right and even get top billing one of these days. Maybe we’ll see more of Robin in Career of evil, which begins with a severed leg being delivered to her, and sends the duo into Strike's own past looking for suspects. It comes out in October. Get on the Hold queue (behind me!) to find out.