July 15, 2019

Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

 
Susan Orlean re-opens the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history, and delivers a dazzling homage to a beloved institution – our libraries. On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. Raging through the stacks, the fire reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. It was the largest library fire in the history of the United States: it destroyed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more, and shut the library down for seven years. The mystery remains: did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story. With her signature wit, insight, compassion and talent for deep research, she investigates the legendary Los Angeles Public Library fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives, and reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books and are needed now more than ever.

If you are undecided about reading this book, please note that the title is The Library Book not The Los Angeles Library Fire. In skimming through customer reviews, there appear to be many readers incensed that there wasn't a more lengthy exploration of the Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986.  

Here is what the book is about in one sentence: Susan Orleans celebrates the invaluable treasure of the public library through the lens of the devastating 1986 Los Angeles Public Library Fire.  

It is not a conventional true crime book; although she does delve as deep as she can into the person charged with burning down the library, out-of-work actor (of course) Harry Peak. He is, by all accounts, a fascinating but ultimately pitiful figure. But this book is more about the Los Angeles Public Library itself, its colorful history and lively librarians.  Oh, yes, if you think librarians are dull, Orlean will prove you wrong. The Library's past is as fiery as the fire that almost burned it down to the ground. 

These stories are riveting but what I loved best and touched me more are all the ways the Library (and thus all libraries) have always been a beacon of knowledge and inclusivity - how it is truly a place that reflect of our humanity.  Not is just symbolic, poetic ways.  But in real, tangible actions.  If you've stepped foot in a public library lately, you might have noticed all the social services that intersect within its walls.  Not just a place that houses books, but a thriving community hub.  I knew all this from my own public library but the Los Angeles Public Library is on another level, quite frankly. 

If you're interested in this book it's probably because you love libraries.  The Library Book will only enforce and increase that love.  

“A book feels like a thing alive in this moment, and also alive on a continuum, from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press – a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it, and continues on, time after time after time.  Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality.  The poet Milton called this quality in books “the potency of life.”

July 8, 2019

Book Review: What You Did by Claire McGowan

It was supposed to be the perfect reunion: six university friends together again after twenty years. Host Ali finally has the life she always wanted, a career she can be proud of and a wonderful family with her college boyfriend, now husband. But that night her best friend makes an accusation so shocking that nothing will ever be the same again.

When Karen staggers in from the garden, bleeding and traumatised, she claims that she has been assaulted—by Ali’s husband, Mike. Ali must make a split-second decision: who should she believe? Her horrified husband, or her best friend? With Mike offering a very different version of events, Ali knows one of them is lying—but which? And why?

When the ensuing chaos forces her to re-examine the golden era the group shared at university, Ali realises there are darker memories too. Memories that have lain dormant for decades. Memories someone would kill to protect.

At several points in this novel, I would inwardly exclaim, "Can things get any worse for Karen?" only to get a "yes" by next chapter's end.  Events spin in a shocking downward spiral and Karen's bucolic, seeming perfect life ends up shattered.  But as things got worse with each twist and revelation, my curiosity only increased. How will all of this turn out?  

I was hooked, plain and simple. I quickly became attached to poor Karen, who got sideswiped time and time again by every cruel twist of fate. Not to say that she was a saint herself as some of her questionable and significant choices show.  

Not to give too much away, but husbands and boyfriends come out looking very badly in this novel, as do women whose lives have revolved around men.  Three female types are somewhat explored: the promiscuous, the virginal and the ambitious. All three suffer relationship-related misfortunes in different ways.  Yet in the end, female friendship is the saving grace.  There is a positive male character but interestingly, he is drawn to be rather weak and not having much agency, as though a figuratively emasculated male is the only kind of safe man to trust.  

July 1, 2019

Book Review: Confessions of an Unlikely Runner by Dana Ayers


Witty, observant, and full of cringe-worthy confessions and heartwarming encouragement, Confessions celebrates both running and life. Part Bridget Jones, part Forrest Gump, Dana Ayers chronicles her awkward mishaps and adventures in transitioning from childhood bookworm to accidental accomplished athlete. Over the last ten years, Ayers has completed a vast array of races. She runs them all while admittedly not getting much faster, much thinner, or much more disciplined—though she has managed to be on national television, split open her pants, and get electrocuted. Ayers intersperses her hilarious yet relatable struggles with insights about how and why she keeps running. A self-proclaimed ambassador of slow runners, Ayers has completed dozens of endurance challenges, including Tough Mudder, the Ragnar Relay, Muddy Buddy, Warrior Dash, Run Amuck, the Army Ten-Miler, the Country Music Marathon, and many more mud runs, obstacles courses, and races. Her race descriptions will entertain seasoned runners and non-runners alike. Woven into the chaos of her running adventures is compassionate reassurance for anyone who feels like they aren’t fast enough, athletic enough, or strong enough to finish a tough race. 

Though told with humor, Confessions’ stories share an underlying theme of Ayers’ serious reverence for the sport of running and the running community. Ayers describes experiences such as participating in a 1,000-mile relay for Boston Marathon bombing victims, and being overcome by emotion while observing wounded veterans struggling to finish a race. Her stories prove how life-enriching it can be to physically fight for something and to cheer on others who are doing the same. For anyone who has considered trying a marathon, an obstacle race, or simply taking up running for the first time, Ayers is your ambassador. If she can do it, you can too.

"Unlikely Runner" is exactly who I am and this book speaks to my experiences in running. Maybe not the vomiting, electrocution or torn pants parts (not yet anyway).  But the impostor syndrome I feel most times.  Despite her rather impressive accomplishments, Dana describes to a "t" how I feel as well: apologetic and reluctant to call herself "a runner." In her first chapter she called herself an unathletic book nerd growing up and immediately I felt a kinship with her - That's me! I exclaimed in my head.  I suspect that a lot of us who consider ourselves unlikely runners will love this book, as we have found our patron saint.  She pokes fun of herself and her many misadventures so that not only did I laugh throughout the book, but also became even more enthusiastic about this passion of mine.  Interspersed between anecdotes are her "pro tips" such as:

"Running offers the opportunity to prove ourselves.  We aren't just going to an event to observe, we're making our bodies obey us and accomplish something."

"Another motivator I have for running comes from answering a classic question that I'm sure everyone asks when they're considering doing anything important in life, like choosing to become a surgeon or deciding to run for President - "What kind of outfits can I wear?"

As well as encouraging observations:

"An I will run. Because, even with all the doubts and struggles, I am a runner.  And that is what we runners do.  We run. Occasionally we wear tutus and get electrocuted, but mostly we run."

Confessions is a fabulous, feel-good book, one that I suspect I will reread every time I feel a little motivation to at least complete, if not conquer, another race.