Archive for March, 2007

You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

The “Novel Ideas” book group meets at the Jarrettsville branch of HCPL at 10:30 AM on the fourth Monday of each month. Recently they selected a title that strikes me as being an innovative choice and a difficult book to discuss. They chose You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett, a debut short story collection that explores different aspects of depression and mental illness.

As Claire Dederer, a reviewer at says, “Adam Haslett drags into the light subjects often left in the cellar.” Most of the stories are told from the viewpoint of the mentally ill, though one is told by the doctor in the case. Others are stories are about closeted homosexuals: boys who are coming to terms with their identity and men who never have.

Despite the sensational topics, Haslett writes quietly, plainly and with truth and sensitivity about the people in his stories. As Ms. Dederer said, “this is a beautifully written collection that’s as heartfelt as it is intelligent.”

Members of the Novel Ideas group, and anyone else who has read the book, do please add your comments to this posting. Below are some questions that might bear discussion, or contribute your own insights to the dialog.

Did you find a book of short stories difficult to discuss? Did you find that the collection had any themes that made it hang together?

What did you think of the beauty of the writing?

In The Good Doctor, Haslett writes of Frank, a young MD, “The fact was he still felt like a sponge, absorbing the pain of the people he listened to.” In your opinion, is the reader of these stories likely to be able to cope with all the pain of all the people?

The next meeting of the Novel Ideas will be at 10:30 AM on Monday, April 23, 2007. They will discuss When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. For information call (410) 692-7887.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan wins Texas Book Award

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Timothy Egan, a reporter for the New York Times, has won the fourth
biennial Texas Christian University Texas Book Award for The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. The $5,000 award is sponsored by the Friends of the TCU Library and TCU Press.

The book has also won other awards:

The 2006 National Book Award for nonfiction
The Oklahoma Book Award
The Western Heritage(Wrangler)Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

The Worst Hard Time would be a good book to read following The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin. A few days ago I posted a description of The Children’s Blizzard, which was read recently by one of HCPL’s book groups.

In The Worst Hard Time, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Timothy Egan follows, in a similar scheme to Laskin, a few pioneering families and an overwhelming disaster that overtook them, this time during the period of the Dust Bowl. In this book the disasters the families lived through, both economic and ecological, were man-made. Egan writes how eight years of drought on the windy plains, which had been ploughed up for wheat, led to an endless series of dust storms or “black blizzards.” “Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains.” As Egan shows, the plains were not suited to arable farming and with the drought all the topsoil was blown into the air. Like Laskin, Egan spends a while describing the hardy Americans and immigrants who settled the area, desperate in the Depression for a piece of land and lured there by the false claims of promoters. Egan interviewed actual survivors of those hard times, and the book is filled with tales of courage and suffering. As well as stories of privation, there are horrific accounts of the effects of the black blizzard, such as the “dust pneumonia” which killed both young and old. Publishers Weekly said, “With characters who seem to have sprung from a novel by Sinclair Lewis or Steinbeck, and Egan’s powerful writing, this account will long remain in readers’ minds.”

BlogaBook Points of Discussion

Publishers Weekly compares The Worst Hard Time to the novels of Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis. What do you think?

What remains most in your mind when you have finished this book?

Another Website for Book Lovers

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007


A friend just told me about Librarything, a site that lets you catalog your own library, organize it how you wish, and share it with others. The beauty of it is that it uses the “recommendations” of others to sort for book lovers the right book for them out of the multitude of titles available. It doesn’t make these decisions based on newness, press coverage or bestseller status: it’s value is that it is based on merit and personal recommendation.

Click on the link to check the site out. If you decide to use it, you will need to register, and if you list your library there is a charge.


The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin

In January the Books By the Bay book group met in the Havre de Grace branch of Harford County Public Library and discussed The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin.

On January 12 1888 a blizard struck the Great Plains region, killing about 500 people, 100 of whom were schoolchildren, who were totally unprepared and unprotected from what happened. The children’s parents were the brave immigrants who had recently settled the area. They are portrayed as totally naïve about the land they had settled, and so ignorant of what the local weather could do that on an unseasonably warm day many allowed their children to attend school without coats, hats and mittens. During the day the temperature dropped rapidly, and a blizzard ensued that many remembered as the worst that the area had ever seen.

The story has two main threads. The first is the story of five immigrant families and what happened to them in the storm. The families are put into the context of the great push into the upper Great Plains, especially by immigrants from Norway, Germany and Russia. Laskin goes into considerable detail of the immigrant experience, the hardships they faced, what made them leave home in the first place.

The second main thread is the story of the inner workings of the US Army Signal Corps, which was then in charge of weather forecasting. There is considerable detail about the formation of severe storms and the science of meteorolgy at the time.

When the storm hit, many children were trapped at school. Laskin relates the differing and sometimes heroic actions of the teachers. There are stories of heroism and also of senseless tragedy.

BlogaBook Discussion Points

Chapters about the settlers are alternated with chapters about the fledgling weather service. One reviewer felt that, “Laskin is at his best when he relates the heartbreaking stories of the storm’s victims; the chapters on weather history interrupt the book’s flow.” Would you agree with this?

Another reviewer found the book to be, “somewhat information-heavy.” Would you agree, or do you think with the reviewer that the possible drawback of the density of the detail is balanced by the empathy we feel for the children? How do you think Laskin provokes this empathy in the reader?

More reviewers found the story to be, “gripping,” “spellbinding,” “well-told, “adroit,” “sensitive,” and “horrific.” Was this true for you, or did you get bogged down in all the separate threads and the historical detail?

Click on “comments” to post your own comment. You may be anonymous. Comments may be edited for things like bad language, but generally your comments stand as you post them.

Books By the Bay meet on the third Friday of the month at 11:30 AM. For details contact 410-638-3151.

Free Online Book Clubs

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

If you like to talk books, there are a number of new venues online where you can participate in a book club without leaving your computer. In my last blog I suggested a few websites where book group leaders and members might go to get suggestions for titles for future discussions. The sites I am suggesting this time go beyond recommending good books and providing discussion guides and author interviews to allowing members to post their own comments and be part of an ongoing book discussion.

Booklist Online Book Club is a partnership between Booklist and the Downers Grove Public Library in Downers Grove, Illinois. Every month they add new book discussions moderated by Downers Grove staff. They post a short critique of each book and one or two comments or questions to spur discussion. Then members or guests can go online and add their comments or view what other people have said.

Bookspace at Hennepin County Library has a book clubs blog. Registration is required, but it is free. A new feature of Bookspace allows readers to add their own booklists to the website. Book clubs can view what other clubs have been reading. Readers can also post their own comments on the blog.

Barnes and Noble has introduced a new service: free online book clubs. This is intended as an online community of writers, literary experts, and readers. There are over 25 discussions happening right now, including conversations with authors, expert-led book groups, writing advice, discussions on topics such as Mystery, History, Romance, and more.

And finally, there is Harford County Public Library! BlogaBook is your very own opportunity to find out what book groups in your community are reading and thinking. Your editor and your book group leaders will be posting critiques of books just read by HCPL book groups, plus discussion questions, and sometimes comments on how the discussions went and what participants felt.

Join Blogabook with your comments and enrich the dialog! All you have to do is click on “post a comment” and then type in the box, then “publish your comment.” You can be anonymous if you wish. Though the comments may be edited for things such as bad language, generally your opinion will stand as you write it. We welcome a chance to talk with you about books!


Finding Good Books For Your Book Club

Monday, March 12th, 2007

Sometimes it can be a bit of a daunting task finding good books for your book club. Not every book will spark a lively and meaningful discussion, no matter how good it is of its kind, so looking at what is popular and in the news at the moment is not always a good strategy. Sometimes it’s just hard to think of where else to start looking for suggestions. The more voracious readers in your club may have lots of suggestions, but they have already read the books and want to try something new. Other club members may have joined for a bit more guidance in their reading, and they are stumped. Most successful book clubs prefer to choose their books by consensus rather than be directed by a leader; so where do you start?

Now that book clubs and reading groups are all the rage, it’s actually easy to find lots of guidance, particularly online. In fact, it might almost be said that book groups are now faced with a fresh problem of choice: which book discussion group site to go to first for help! Reading group and reading tips, reading guides, invite the author, newsletters, etc

Penguin Group (USA) Click on “Special Interest” and then on “Reading Guides”

Reading Group Center The Reading Group Source Vintage Books – Anchor Books ”Vintage and Anchor Books invite you to discover today’s best selections for reading groups and access useful resources to facilitate your group discussion here at the Reading Group Center.

Reading Group Choices: Selections for Lively Book Discussions Reading Group Choices is an opinionated guide of great books to read and discuss that have been published by independent presses as well as major publishers is part of The Book Report Network and is the first website built especially for reading groups, providing them with all they need to make their book club experience better than ever. Features include reviews, over 1400 reading group guides, a newsletter, and book group interviews.

The Modern Library: Reading Group Guides Modern Library’s Reading Guides are starting points for book discussions led by readers. Modern Library is an imprint of Random House.

Now that you have a range of resources to help you find the perfect book that will spark discussion in your group, spend some time surfing the sites and all the tempting reviews, author interviews, and discussion guides. I guarantee that you will have almost as much fun as reading the books! You will find lots of books to pick from, and almost certainly you will enrich your appreciation of what you read and discuss.

Look out for my next blog, when I will be recommending some actual online book clubs that you can join. You can make comments, or alternatively just visit and see lots of examples of people commenting on their own reading.