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Archive for the ‘Author obituary’ Category

seamus-heaneyIt is always a sad day when a favorite writer dies. This morning, came the news that Irish poet and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney died at the age of 74. We have written about Heaney here at BFGB before, about his masterful translation of Beowulf and his delightful collection Human Chain. I do not think I can describe Heaney’s work better than to repeat what I wrote about Human Chain:

[Heaney] writes thoughtful, thought-provoking, poems that display a love of language and life. Since the 1960s, Heaney has used his poems to explore the natural world, farming and farmwork, the violence that shattered his native Ireland, the intersections of the Irish and English languages, and above all his own place in the world.

Knowing that there will not be a new work from such a wonderful writer makes the day seem dreary and sad. But at least there is a powerful and extensive set of work to go back to. Here is one of my favorite poems from Heaney’s collection Opened Ground.

The Skylight

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

Here are some of Heaney’s books in the WRL collection

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How many readers of science fiction or fantasy can attribute their interest in these genres to Ray Bradbury? I am certainly among that group, and I mourn Bradbury’s passing as much for the loss of a writer so influential to my reading ecology as for the loss of new works that he might have written.

I had just read Bradbury’s essay “Take Me Home” in the June 4 & 11, 2012 issue of the New Yorker when I heard about his death on June 5th at the age of 91. As always, Bradbury’s essay was clear, concise, and poignant. The magazine was the NewYorker’s science fiction issue, and Bradbury was thinking back to his early interest in space and in science fiction writing. It is a short piece, but in it he captures the excitement of first coming across a book or story that speaks to your condition as well as moving easily and seamlessly from the personal to the universal. These are the strengths of all of Bradbury’s writing.

He was equally at home writing fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction, and adept at both novels and short stories. In all of these genres and styles, it is the characters that continually come back to my mind. Whether they are young or old, good or bad, Bradbury’s characters are searchers for the joy in life. Sometimes they are seeking  futilely and often the are looking in the wrong place, but they are usually striving for some happiness or some understanding of their place in the community and in the universe.

Bradbury clearly understood human nature in its mixture of light and dark, of good and evil. His novels and short stories often have a sense of the uncanny or eerie about them, and there is frequently a palpable feeling of loss. Characters grow up, make decisions that take them in unexpected directions, and come to realize that the offer of happiness or your supposed heart’s desire comes with a steep price. I will return again and again to Something Wicked This Way Comes, to short stories like “The Illustrated Man” and “The Fire Balloons,” and Fahrenheit 451, for the lovely prose, the memorable characters, and the sense of hope that they offer.

Check the catalog for Ray Bradbury’s writings

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Pinhoe EggI have decided to take a risk and recommend one of my favorite books ever. It has a satisfying story, strong characters who are learning about themselves, magic and magical creatures, a magnificent horse, evil elderly relatives, a castle, and children who are better people than the adults around them. How could any book need more? In fact, my enduring ambition is to live in Chrestomanci Castle (they do have a librarian; it says so in the book!).

The Pinhoe Egg is shelved in the children’s section and is certainly enjoyed by children, but it is also a marvelous book for adults to relish. If you guiltily enjoyed the early Harry Potter books for their humor, magic, and “Englishness” you will probably love The Pinhoe Egg and the rest of the Chrestomanci Series.

Marianne Pinhoe lives in a quiet English country village. The school holidays are starting and she is looking forward to having free time and working on her story about romantic Princess Irene. Unfortunately for Marianne, her family has other plans. Marianne is to run errands for her ailing grandmother, Gamma, while her older brother Joe is to go to work as a boot boy at nearby Chrestomanci Castle and report back what he learns (to spy, in other words!). On Marianne’s very first morning at Gamma’s house things start to fall apart as the old woman is visited by members of the Farley family from the next village and Marianne’s Gamma appears to go mad. The entire, overwhelming, extended family gather round to look after the old woman and decide that they need to clear out her house to sell. The attics are forgotten, and one day in search of Gamma’s constantly straying cat, Nutcase, Marianne discovers a strange spherical object covered with strong “don’t notice” spells. Thinking that it is useless, Marianne gives it to Eric Chant (or Cat) from the Castle, unknowingly betraying her family’s Sacred Trust. What is the spherical object? Could it be an egg? And what is the Sacred Trust and has Marianne done a bad thing in breaking it, as her father says, or a good thing as the people at the Castle claim?

(Note that the object is clearly described as round and mauve with speckles, and not gold and hen’s-egg shaped as it is shown on this cover.)

This book can be enjoyed on its own, but readers of Diana Wynne Jone’s other Chrestomanci books will recognize plenty of characters. I enjoy series like this which include the same characters, but are told each time from a different person’s perspective. We get to see how our favorite characters are seen by other people in other situations–sort of like seeing your teacher in their tatty track pants in the supermarket during the weekend.

Although I have read The Pinhoe Egg several times, I have just listened to it on CD during my commute. Diana Wynne Jone’s wry humor and Gerard Doyle’s engaging narration have seen me looking like a fool and laughing out loud (those familiar with I-64 know that smiles are not necessarily easy to come by on this stretch of Hampton Roads).

Sadly, Diana Wynne Jones died on March 26, 2011 after a literary career spanning four decades. Her first children’s book, Witch’s Business, was published in 1973 and her last children’s book, Earwig and the Witch, was published this year. She won numerous awards including the Carnegie Medal. As Neil Gaiman said in his online journal about her “She was the funniest, wisest, fiercest, sharpest person I’ve known, a witchy and wonderful woman, intensely practical, filled with opinions, who wrote the best books about magic, who wrote the finest and most perceptive letters…” He adds, “… there was only one Diana Wynne Jones, and the world was a finer one for having her in it.”

Check the WRL Catalog for The Pinhoe Egg

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It is always hard when a treasured author dies. The news puts an immediate and definite halt to the pleasure knowing that at some point you will have a new book to read by that person. I find it particularly sad when the deceased is an author I have only recently discovered. There is a feeling that you have lost a new found friend. This is they way I felt hearing of the death of crime novelist Reginald Hill on 1/12/12. I only came across Hill in the past few years, but was immediately drawn in to his rich, thoughtful, and at times funny, novels featuring Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe of the North Yorkshire police force. Our review of Hill’s A Killing Kindness discusses the appeal of the Dalziel/Pascoe novels, and anyone who enjoys character-driven crime fiction should try them out. Hill also wrote a series of novels featuring Joe Sixsmith, a black private eye in a north England city. Hill had an eye for description and an ear for dialog, and he used those tools to great effect. He also had a great affection for his characters and conveys that in a powerful way to the reader. You come away from Hill’s novel not just having enjoyed a good story but having spent time with people who are important to you. I will miss my time with these characters, and look forward to the occasional re-reading.

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The world lost a powerful and compelling voice on Thursday, January 20, 2011 with the death of Reynolds Price. Price was 77. Equally at home writing novels, poetry, essays, memoirs, and biblical exegesis, Price drew the reader into whatever story he was telling.

I first came to Price’s work after hearing him as a commentator on National Public Radio. His radio essays were so thoughtful that it would have been unthinkable not to seek out his other writing. Price is sometimes classified as a writer of Southern fiction, and much of his work is indeed grounded in the red clay of Piedmont North Carolina. His writing often explored connections, between individuals, between generations, and between the past and the present. But he was not a regional writer, whatever that really means. Rather, Price spoke to the awe-full power of love to both heal and to break. He examined the lives of his characters with an unflinching compassion that never excused their faults, but never excluded the possibility of redemption.

It is difficult to say where one should start reading if you have never read any of Price’s work. Perhaps with the novels of strong women and their lives — Kate Vaiden or Roxanna Slade. Equally powerful is Price’s writing about his own physical challenges, a spinal cancer in 1985 that took his ability to walk. The story is in A Whole New Life. Maybe one of Price’s books on religion, where he explores the concepts of belief and faith — A Serious Way of Wondering. Or try the collected essays from his stint at NPR, those pieces that first drew Price to my attention, Feasting the Heart. The only thing missing here will be the resonant sound of Price’s voice reading the stories.

It probably does not matter where you start. The important thing is to take up one of Reynolds Price’s books and read it and to mourn the passing of this wonderful storyteller whose voice has been taken from us.

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It has been a bad start to 2010 for fiction fans, and, sadly, we now need to add Dick Francis to the list of voices lost to us. Francis’ crime stories were a blend of thriller and traditional mystery, drawing on the best of both types of crime fiction. There was always a puzzle to solve in the midst of what could be some very intense action.

What drew many readers to Francis was his deep understanding of the world of horses. Whether it was thoroughbred meets or steeplechases or equestrian competitions, all of Francis’ fiction was set in a frame of jockeys, trainers, owners, and fans of horse racing. This was a world that Francis not only knew well, but also had a great affection for. Francis gave equal time to both professional horsemen (and occasionally women) and to amateurs. He was equally at home with losing jockeys and washed up trainers as with those in the winner’s circle. Francis’  background as a champion steeplechase rider gave him an authoritative voice when writing about the equine world.

Unlike many crime writers, Francis rarely wrote more than a single book about a particular character; there are only a couple of recurring characters in his stories. But his assortment of heroes all share some traits. They are avid horsemen, quick thinkers, and champions of the truth. It seems that these are traits they share with their creator, whose death at the age of 89 leaves a large hole in the world of crime fiction.

Here are a few good starting titles if you have never read Francis.

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The last 10 days have seen the loss of three great figures in American letters – J.D. Salinger, Howard Zinn, and Robert B. Parker.  (Correction: news of Louis Auchincloss’ death came through as I was writing this.)  Each added, in his own way, to a portrait of the American sensibility.

Robert B. Parker is perhaps best known for his Spenser series.  Across nearly forty titles, Parker developed the character of the wisecracking private eye with his love of good food and good drink and of everything Boston.  His ongoing relationship with  Harvard psychologist Susan Silverman provided an element of stability in a world marked by shades of gray and frequent violence, but it was always plain that he wouldn’t be domesticated.

Spenser lives by a personal code that allows him to cross legal boundaries in search of justice – but not too deeply into the alien territory of the criminal mind.  He has a link to that world through the character Hawk, who serves as a kind of  guide and protector to Spenser.  His contacts in law enforcement also come in handy, and are often used to introduce the reader to a legal view of his cases.  But Spenser isn’t strictly a private eye.  He also reads and quotes poetry, and uses the lyrics to songs to give his thoughts focus.

Spenser wasn’t Parker’s sole creation – small town police chief Jesse Stone, Western lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, and female PI Sunny Randall offered Parker opportunities to explore other settings and other issues that challenged his main characters.  Stone, Randall, and Spenser all make guest appearances in each others’ books (though, like Hitchcock in his films, you may only find them in the background).  All share that same sense of honor, the same reluctance to initiate violence, and the capacity to unleash mayhem on those who cross the line.

Robert B. Parker may not be part of the literary canon, like J.D. Salinger; he may not have been a gloves-off provocateur like Howard Zinn.  But his stories did capture the American ideal of the loner seeking justice, and he wrote with flair and skill.  Those qualities alone should keep his books alive for many years.

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Today we mourn the passing of an icon. On Wednesday the 91-year-old J. D. Salinger died in the New Hampshire home where he had lived in seclusion for more than fifty years.

Salinger published very few works in his lifetime; he abhorred fame and celebrity; he wrote his most famous work a lifetime ago, in 1951. Yet he has had a tremendous effect on American literature in general and on young adult literature in particular. With his novel The Catcher in the Rye (and to a lesser extent, with his short stories) Salinger influenced several generations of readers and writers, elevating the public’s expectations of what a book could and should be.

The Catcher in the Rye was one of those rare books that spoke profoundly to readers— not just a few readers, but many readers, male and female, again and again, since it was first published in 1951. Though it was not the first modern English-language novel to feature uncensored sex, language, and violence, it was the first to really do it right. The frank story and prose  were accessible and engaging for the ordinary person (unlike, for instance, James Joyce’s Ulysses), but underneath the popular props of sex-’n-swearing was a literary work of depth, passion, and pathos.  It has been a permanent feature of high school English classes for decades, both as a curriculum text and as a perennial target of indignant parents who want it banned. If I am interpreting this correctly, it is the second-most-frequently-banned classic book in American schools and libraries.

The swearing in The Catcher in the Rye seems a little tame these days, and even the protagonist’s sexual encounters are chaste compared to the average contemporary young adult novel. But though parts of the book are dated, Holden Caulfield himself still resonates. Readers, especially male readers, all seem to identify with Holden (sort of how all readers, especially female readers, identify with Hermione Granger). We all see our own unique experiences in Holden’s angst and suffering, and we all imagine that we share Holden’s intellect when he muses about life and love and ducks in a pond.

J.D. Salinger showed the world that the best way to reach teen audiences was to speak their language—replete with swearing, slang, and casual dialogue—and to discuss things that mattered to them:  sex, relationships, the purpose of life. American literature is richer because of him, and young adult literature in particular is more meaningful, more accessible, more enjoyable. If you haven’t read him before, I invite you to start with The Catcher in the Rye, or perhaps with something shorter; his short stories are not as well known, but they’re superb. And if you loved Holden Caulfield, let me point you toward another coming-of-age book that satisfies in many of the same ways, Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone.

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keltonSome folks argue that the Western story as a separate genre is dead, or at least dying, and will before too long be just a subgenre of Historical Fiction. With the passing of Elmer Kelton last Saturday, that prediction is sadly one step closer to becoming true. Kelton was a writer of Western stories that blended the best of the tradition with an understanding of contemporary issues in the western U.S. Born and raised in Texas, Kelton served as an editor and writer for various farming and ranching publications for over 40 years. His experiences here were reflected in the concerns of his fiction writing — the changing nature of farming in the southwest, the struggles of small ranchers against organized agribusiness, the oftentimes challenging nature of being dependent on the weather to make a living, and the concerns of average people trying to live good lives.

Even in his more traditional Western stories, set in the post-Civil War period and featuring cowboys, Native Americans, lawmen and rustlers, trains, and buffalo and cattle and horses, Kelton’s focus on character and setting more than action sets him apart. His characters are people about whom the reader comes to care deeply. They are good people, often caught up in events beyond their control, and who clearly understand the changes that time is bringing to their world. There is a consistently elegiac tone to Kelton’s work, one that for me most clearly comes through in my two favorite novels — The Day the Cowboys Quit, about a work stoppage in the 1880s, and The Time it Never Rained, about a drought in west Texas in the 1950s.

Elmer Kelton told stories of the American West in a fascinating and compelling voice, and this voice is one that will be missed. Look for some of Kelton’s books next time you are in the library.

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E_LynnHarrisIn many ways, E. Lynn Harris was the breakout writer who moved African-American fiction from the “literature” shelves to the popular collection.  He took on topics like homosexuality, class, and family secrets, finding the universality in those themes even as he expressed the conflict they bring to African-Americans.

He also placed his characters in a settings that were not always visible to mainstream white society – the successful, educated black men and women rarely seen in major media.  And within that culture, he highlighted the difficulty of being black and gay, part of a minority that no one  – black or white – acknowledged or accepted.  Over the course of his career he was able to write more about his gay characters’ success and happiness in their lives.

Harris was also at the forefront of the business model that has dominated black publishing for two decades – the self-published author who handsold his books before finding a mainstream publisher.  Capitalizing on the drive that made him successful in college and his daytime career selling computers for IBM, he sold his first novel, Invisible Life, out of the trunk of his car.  By  visiting community centers like beauty salons and book clubs to talk directly with his potential readers, he was able to build a loyal audience that wanted to hear about the brands and dramas that drove his characters.  That direct connection and understanding of the emotional experiences of his readers scored him repeated trips to the New York Times bestsellers list.  It also showed other African-American writers of all genres that they could tell their stories – and showed publishers that there is an audience for those stories.

Check the WRL Catalogue for E. Lynn Harris’ books.

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Farewell, John Updike

updikeI firmly believe that we respond to books based on the times in our lives when we encounter them.  A book that you don’t get in high school suddenly triggers an “a-ha” moment in your late twenties.  Or a book you loved in your late twenties leaves you cold when you reread it on your (gulp) fortieth birthday.  I’m sorry to say that I never encountered one of John Updike’s novels when I was prepared to understand or appreciate the story he gave me.

I’m not sure why I picked up The Centaur – probably because I loved Greek mythology when I was in my early teens – but it didn’t really engage me.  I was even younger than the teenaged Peter Caldwell, and had little sympathy for the mild contempt with which he treated his father.  I know why I tried The Witches of Eastwick, but somehow the titillating sex all the reviewers wrote about wasn’t so titillating, and hey, how was I supposed to relate to a bunch of artsy middle-aged witches?   Rabbit, Run drifted around my college English department, but we were living on the other side of the sexual and cultural revolution that Updike was seeing on the horizon in 1960.  Harry Angstrom’s story played itself out in at least a dozen of my neighbors’ homes, with variations Updike probably couldn’t have gotten in print at the end of the Eisenhower era.  It was a long way from there to The Terrorist, which kept me awake and reading intently well into the night (incidentally, I think Updike redeemed The Centaur’s George Caldwell and closed the loop when he made guidance counselor Jack Levy the unlikely hero), but I wanted more than Updike’s deliberately open ending gave.

Remember, these are all my problems, not Updike’s.

A couple of weeks ago, in one of those situations where you find yourself sitting around with nothing to read but a stack of old magazines, I picked up a New Yorker and read a little column about an older man who loses his treasured hat while pruning the bushes in his high desert home.  The search leads to a random encounter with two strangers, and for an ordinary few minutes a Roto-Rooter man, an elderly retiree, and the writer share an unlikely intersection.  The hat is found, it’s importance and meaning explained, and each individual continues on his way.  The genius of the piece wasn’t in the setup, it wasn’t in the awkward and indeterminate ending, and it definitely wasn’t stitched together with a homily on strangers being friends you haven’t met yet.  The genius lay in the accumulation of details – the slope of a hill, the feel of the scratching branches, the reticence of a man who is pressed for information he fears might sound like gloating.

When I looked at the byline, I finally got it.  In what is probably his last column for The New Yorker, John Updike taught me what I’d been missing all this time.  And now that I know what to look for, I’ll have to hope that my life and his writing will cross paths again.  Next time, I hope I’ll be better prepared.

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mortimer3Mystery readers the world over should raise a glass Château Thames Embankment tonight in memory of John Mortimer, creator of the inestimable barrister, Rumpole of the Bailey. Ostensibly crime novels, Mortimer’s tales went far beyond the basics of solving a mystery. They offered a peek into the lives of a fascinating and delightful cast of characters, including Soapy Sam Ballard, head of Rumpole’s law chambers, fellow barristers Claude Erskine-Brown and Liz Probert, and Rumpole’s formidable wife Hilda, “She who must be obeyed.”

Equally memorable are the people whom Rumpole represented at the bar. From petty criminals to ostensible terrorist to school children, Rumpole drew his clients from the poor and the often defenseless. His success as a defender of the poor and the criminal classes results from his willingness to listen and to believe in the possibility of, if not redemption, at least occasional innocence.

Rumpole is a man of large appetites. He loves food, wine, cigars, and above all people. He refuses to follow conventional thinking and in particular refuses to place people into the easily defined boxes that others might wish them to be in. As a former barrister at the Old Bailey, Mortimer understood the workings of the courts, and put this knowledge to good use in his novels and stories. The stories are filled with wit, humor, and eloquence. Although he leaves us Rumpole, John Mortimer will be missed.

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donald_westlakeThe new year in the literary world starts off with the sad news of the death of Donald Westlake. One of crime fiction’s most prolific writers, Westlake produced nearly 100 crime novels under his own name and three pseudonyms, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, and John B. Allan. He also wrote occasional science fiction as  Curt Clark, and wrote  under the pseudonyms Timothy Culver, J. Morgan Cunningham, Alan Marshall, and Edwin West. Unlike most crime fiction, Westlake’s novels most commonly were written through the eyes of the criminal. He excelled at creating sympathetic characters who were on the wrong side of the law, operating with their own code of what is right and wrong. Westlake  is best known as the creator of two memorable criminals, the bumbling thief John Dortmunder and the colder, hard-edged master criminal, Parker.

The Dortmunder series are classic crime caper stories, featuring a sometimes hapless con-man and thief who finds himself in situations where his expectations and ambitions often exceed his abilities. Part of the pleasure in these books is following the process of setting up the crime — casing the scene, putting together the gang, arranging the details — and then watching as Dortmunder’s best laid plans go awry.  The series starts with The Hot Rock, which finds Dortmunder and the gang in pursuit of a priceless emerald that keeps eluding their grasp. Watch Your Back!, a later title in the series is also a classic, as Dortmunder and the boys plan a burglary and at the same time have to save their favorite watering hole/meeting place from the mob.

Westlake’s Parker books are much darker, more violent, and lack the light humor of the Dortmunder titles. Parker is a skilled, if violent, thief who does not hesitate to kill when necessary.  He’s not the easiest character to make appealing to readers, but Westlake succeeds. Again, Westlake shows the crime through the eyes of the criminal, so the planning and execution are at the center of the story. Although he is a bad man, Parker is not without a code of ethics, and this is what keeps him from becoming a complete monster. These are fast-paced stories, propelled by violence, car chases, gun play, and occasional dark humor. The series begins with The Hunter, which is a good place to start to follow Parker’s career.

Westlake will be missed for his humor, his twisting and complicated plots, and above all for his characters, people living on the borders between legal and illegal, trying to make their way as best they can in a dangerous and chaotic world.

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big-mcMichael Crichton was good at what he did. He could plunge readers into unfamiliar territory, give them enough details to be comfortable, then spin an entertaining story. He also had the facility of releasing his books seemingly in sync with news headlines, even if he’d been researching and writing for a couple of years ahead of those breaking stories. He introduced readers to issues surrounding cloning, nanotechnology, blood diamonds, and international economic theory without breaking the storytelling rhythm he honed over the course of more than thirty years, incorporating his topics into compelling thrillers. His heroes were often ordinary people caught in situations beyond their understanding but whose survival compelled them to think quickly and creatively.

Crichton crossed many boundaries in his life and work – as a medical student at Harvard, he wrote novels under a pseudonym, even winning an Edgar Award for A Case of Need. He earned a doctorate in anthropology and lectured at Cambridge, but was equally at home in Hollywood, writing and directing movies. In addition to his novels, he wrote nonfiction and autobiography. He won an Oscar, an Emmy (for the long-running television show ER, which he created), and a Razzie (for the ‘Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 Million’ – Twister).

Two of his early books stand out to me. The Great Train Robbery tells the story of the charming con man Edward Pierce and his daring plan to steal a fortune in gold from a fast-moving train. Basing the story on real events, Crichton explores the history and sociology of Victorian England even as he sets up the heist. The second, Eaters of the Dead, is famous (at least among library science students at UNC-Chapel Hill), as one of the worst cataloguing mistakes ever made. A mercifully anonymous cataloguer at the Library of Congress got the book, examined the introduction, initial chapters and footnotes, and concluded that the work (subtitled The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan) was a scholarly examination of Norse culture as observed by a traveling Persian. In fact, it is a retelling of the Beowulf legend, with a unique identity for the creature Grendel. Crichton’s habit of using fictional documentation to create verisimilitude succeeded far beyond his expectations. (I spent more time actually reading the book than tracking down the history of the error – and enjoyed it far more.)

In a time when publishers’ demands for more work often sees popular writers farming their names out to produce 3 or 4 shoddy books a year, Crichton seems to have taken his time, immersed himself in his topic, and created tightly-plotted stories to entertain his readers. What more could you ask for?

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Radio host, agitator, and oral historian Studs Terkel died today at the age of 96.  He had a good long life, and used it to do much that illuminated the world around him.  Best of all, he put a microphone in front of ordinary people and gently pulled from them the extraordinary stories each of them have in their lives.  Books like The Good War, Hard Times, and Working placed, without commentary, people from the heights of government and business to the depths of poverty and despair alongside each other and let them cast light on each others’ lives.  The testimonies he compiled are the history, sociology, economics, and psychology of The American Century told in voices as varied and unique as the individual experiences that shaped them.

Of all his books, Working had the greatest impact on me. After reading it I knew that I wanted to have purpose in my career, and to see those around me with the same clarity Studs brought to his interviews.  It is no exaggeration to say that he is one of the reasons I became a librarian, and I told him so when I encountered him at the American Library Association Annual Conference in his hometown, Chicago.  Working was also part of one of the best learning experiences I had during my time at UNC-Chapel Hill.  In his collection development class, Dr. David Carr gave out copies of some of the individual interviews and asked us to think about the information each person might need – why would they come to the library, what the library might mean to them, and what they expected from it.  It was a simple yet powerful lesson in treating each transaction and each patron with dignity and all the skill I have to offer.

Studs Terkel was an unabashed liberal who loved the United States and challenged its policies right up to the end.  He was one of the plaintiffs in a 2006 lawsuit against AT&T to stop Americans’ phone records from being given to the National Security Administration without warrants or probable cause.  He supported unions, opposed McCarthy (and was blacklisted for his stand), and took his positions with joy and optimism, once saying, “I never met a petition or picket line I didn’t like.”  In his AP obituary, his longtime editor, Andre Schiffrin said that Studs “had been in bad shape in recent weeks and he really felt that his life had come to an end. But he was as engaged as ever. He was a big fan of (Democratic presidential candidate Barack) Obama and he said one of the things that kept him going was that he wanted to see the results of the election.”

Here’s to you, Studs.  Thanks.

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I spent some portion of my twenties traveling in the American Southwest, and came to love the broad vistas, the muted sage-greens of the vegetation, the craggy mountains, and the star-filled night skies. New Mexico is one of the few places I ever considered as a possible alternative to living in Virginia (Virginia won out). There are a number of writers whose prose, fiction and nonfiction, captures the things that I love about the Southwest. One of them was crime fiction writer Tony Hillerman. Hillerman died Sunday, October 26, 2008, at the age of 83.

Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series follows the lives and work of two Navajo Tribal Police officers, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. While the mysteries are always interesting, many readers find themselves coming back to Hillerman’s novels to enjoy the development of his characters. The eighteen book series begins with The Blessing Way. Here, and in the next two titles in the series, Hillerman focuses the action on Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, whose reputation for investigation and attention to detail is legendary on the force. In the fourth book in the series, Hillerman introduced a younger policeman, Jim Chee, as a foil to Leaphorn. Chee is also a fine investigator, but, unlike Leaphorn, he has a strong affection for and connection to the traditional Navajo culture and religion. One of the delights in the series is to see how the relationship between the two main characters, uneasy at first, develops as they each come to respect the other’s way of working and living.

Hillerman brought a deep affection for and a strong knowledge of the Southwest to his stories. His prose captures the play of light and the quickly changing weather of the region. You can read these novels for their puzzling mystery, for their strong sense of place, for their insights into Native American life and traditions, or for their wonderful characters. Whatever your reasons, though, Tony Hillerman is a crime writer not to miss.

Check the WRL catalog for The Blessing Way

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is probably the best-known work of Russian author, activist, and exile Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. I can’t say ‘best loved’ because his stark depiction of life in a Soviet gulag is revelatory and deeply unsettling. And yet Ivan Denisovich himself represents a daily triumph over those who would imprison the bodies and murder the souls of ordinary people.

Solzhenitsyn had first-hand knowledge of his subject matter. For eight years he labored in a gulag, convicted of mocking Stalin and criticizing his management of the war. When he was released, he began writing Denisovich, which was published in 1957. Within the Soviet Union (probably because Khruschev was trying to disparage Stalin himself), Denisovich was allowed to be published, and Solzhenitsyn was honored for his writing. His novels The First Circle and Cancer Ward, published in 1968, offered another view of Stalinism, elevating the protagonists beyond Ivan Denisovich’s level to a technical class better able to analyze their predicaments. That same year, during Brezhnev’s reaction to an easing of relations with the west, he was accused of anti-Soviet activity and was forced out of the public eye.

In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but was not allowed to leave the country for the ceremony. Still under suspicion by the authorities after The Gulag Archipelago was published in 1974, he was exiled from Russia. He moved to the US to live in Vermont, but made himself unpopular with his pointed, occasionally vitriolic critiques of Western spirituality, values, and economics. When the Soviet Union broke up, he returned to Moscow, but was equally unpopular there for his views, which tended to look back towards the glory of a Greater Russia.

More than most artists, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn seemed to be a man without a country – suspected by Soviet authorities but popular with the Russian people, suspected by the American people but a valuable propaganda figure for the American authorities, revered for his role as a spokesman against totalitarianism, but mistrusted by the wave of reformers that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He embodied the ideal of the artist using his craft to make political statements, but the mixed consequences must have frustrated him deeply. I hope he has found peace – and a home – at last.

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Beautiful Swimmers coverA couple of memories from my childhood: going to the shore of the Chesapeake at Virginia Beach and seeing crabbers breaking yellow egg casings from the backs of the females’ backs, tossing the eggs back in the water and throwing the crabs into water boiling over an open fire. (Even at 10 years old, I thought to myself, ‘isn’t killing the egg-bearing female kind of dumb?’) Then, accompanying my best friend on his 12-foot boat, armed with string, chicken necks, and nets. Playing a neck along the bottom of the inlets near our home, feeling the tug of a crab and ever so slowly lifting it from the water. Watching the brilliant blue rise through the murky water, seeing it tenaciously clutch the meat, and easing it into the boat only to have the great beast attack and pinch me until my hand bled.

William W. Warner wrote Beautiful Swimmers about the time I was spending my summer days leaning over gunwales or piers looking for blue crabs. He created a detailed and vivid examination of the blue crab’s lifecycle and temperament, writing so clearly that he won the Pulitzer Prize for the book. After assessing the crab’s place in the water, he turned to the people and places that relied on the blue crab for their livelihood. The hardworking watermen of the Chesapeake, the now-abandoned canning plants, the town that gave money to the watermen (then took it back in bawdy entertainment) are all faithfully recorded in this evocative book.

Even at that time, though, Beautiful Swimmers (the title coming from the crab’s Latin name Callinectes sapidus, which actually means ‘beautiful tasty swimmer’) had an elegiac quality to it. Crab harvests were steadily declining, watermen and their families were moving away to find jobs with steady pay, and the now-famous Tangier Island was already capitalizing on its seafaring history to attract tourists. Warner gave an even-handed account of the species’ decline, citing government failures, chemical runoff from agriculture and development, and the working methods of the watermen themselves as probable reasons for the dropping harvests.

Warner could have been reading recent headlines: Bay habitats making too-slow recoveries, Maryland and Virginia’s governors announcing immediate reduction of female blue crab harvests, watermen frantically lobbying for their way of living, legislators complaining but allocating no money to address the problems. The water quality of the Chesapeake Bay is declining even as development along its shores skyrockets. Industry, agriculture, and construction successfully obtain regulatory exemptions, and individual citizens pollute by accident or intention.

Those signs point to Warner’s book becoming the historic record of an extinct species and a lost way of life. Fortunately, it is a beautiful portrait, and future readers will thank him if that indeed becomes the case. One can only hope that current readers will be moved enough by his writing to take action at the local, state, and federal level and save this incredible species.

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