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Book of the Day: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

“Without her girls, all she had was this breathlessness. Terrible as it was—and it was, it was—it was all she had left to mother.” 

This is the loss upon which Julia Phillips’ breathtaking debut novel Disappearing Earth pivots: two young sisters on Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula go missing, and while rumors of a kidnapping swirl, their mother Marina faces a desolate horizon without her beloved daughters. The story that follows could become a thrilling rush through the investigation, but instead, Phillips takes the ensuing year month by month, each chapter a glimpse into the life of a different woman in the orbit of the tragedy. Marina herself does not appear until ten months in, though her daughters are a thread throughout each story as a news headline, a haunting in the back of the women’s minds, a cautionary tale, the fixation of someone convinced she witnessed their abduction. 

The women’s stories focus on the personal, but both the physical terrain of the peninsula and some of the stories’ underlying concerns have strong social and political implications. Phillips is attentive to the tensions between the white Russians and darker-skinned natives and the intergenerational conflict born of the older residents’ memory of a time when the peninsula was a closed military zone and protected from perceived external threats. The structural racism is made manifest in the experience of Alla Innokentevna, an indigenous woman whose own daughter’s disappearance received nothing of the media frenzy brought about by the that of the white Russian girls at the book’s open. There is an additional layer of misogyny throughout—men’s impulses and decisions falling like a shadow across the women’s paths. 

Phillips herself is from Brooklyn, NY and traveled to Kamchatka to live for two years. To write a novel so beautifully and profoundly connected to its landscape—to the people, to the culture, to the earth—is a testament not only to the power of a writer’s craft but also to the power of the human mind and body to be fully present and aware of the world.  During her time in Kamchatka, the author conversed with the people, engaging with them in order to understand their perspectives. In the resultant work, she does not try to lay claim to a people or a culture, but rather mines their experiences for elements of the universal. With these larger frameworks in place, Phillips fills them with particularities—the minutiae, sometimes odd, that comprise a life as lived.  

By the end of the book, so many lives have passed through that it’s almost possible to forget a character who appears early on, like the composed Valentina Nikolaevna, a mother whose brief doctor’s visit suddenly finds her vulnerable on the operating table. But this is the magic of Phillips’ prose: just the mention of Valentina’s name toward the end of the novel brings back a flood of details, small moments—a surge that surrounds the shores Kamchatka and defines the land. 

In one chapter, a nurse becomes widowed for the second time in an almost rhythmic disorientation that seeps into the narrative. She returns home to a space populated by evidence of her husband’s life: “On the bedside table, there was his book. His glass of water—she picked that up and drank it. She put the empty glass on his side of the blanket, and the book there, too. They made little dents in the wool.” Disappearing Earth has a sweeping feel, but it these little dents in the wool, the impact of small details, that hold the novel together and define its topography. 

Written by Nora Curry

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Milkman

Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize and 2019 National Book Critics Award for Fiction, Anna Burns’ Milkman follows the story of an eighteen-year old unnamed narrator, exploring what her life is like in a community living under oppression and divided by conflict.

Even though Anna Burns did not specify where and when the novel is set, one could easily surmise that it took place in Northern Ireland in 1970s during the height of The Troubles. In fact, Burns’ novel is devoid of any specific details or proper nouns. The eighteen-year old unnamed narrator is referred to as “Middle Sister”; her younger sisters are “wee sisters”; her potential lover is “maybe-boyfriend”; communities and countries are known as community “over the border” or country “over the water”. By choosing not to give any names or specifics, Burns depicts a fractured community stripped of their identity. The political conflict and tension force people to put each other into categories— “us” against “them”—which then leads to the depersonalization of violence. Any digression from what is considered “normal” is an act of rebellion. For instance, when Middle Sister takes the habit of reading while walking, the community placed her under the category of “beyond-the-pales”.

Bombings and shootings are considered mundane by the community where Middle Sister lives. Everyone sees and hears about these kinds of horrendous acts that they become part of the daily gossip, desensitizing people to them. Even though Milkmanis an exaggeration of a besieged and conflicted community, one could easily compare it to current times. Reminiscent of the today’s social climate specifically dealing with sexism and violence towards women, Milkman deftly examines how these acts—regardless of physical contact or not—psychologically and physically affects a woman.

In the book, Middle Sister becomes the target of stalking and sexual harassment by a paramilitary potentate known as “Milkman” who took an interest in her. As Middle Sister contemplates while being stalked at and harassed by Milkman, “At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment.” As the novel progresses, Milkman relentlessly pursued Middle Sister—as she observes—to the point of feeling that she has been “thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man.”

Milkman’s triumph lies in the voice of its narrator, Middle Sister. It is fresh, original, witty, funny, and satirical without losing the seriousness and urgency that the story is trying to convey. The narration is dense with long sentences that takes a bit of settling into; but, don’t let this dissuade you into reading it. Once you’ve gotten used to it, you will find that the book is incredibly absorbing and engaging.

At its core, Anna Burns’ Milkman is about the importance of freedom and one’s personal identity—how easily both can be stripped off by a person or an outside force inciting fear. In a society rife with violence and separated by political conflict, survival means being aware and not losing sight of one’s humanity, even if it means being one of “beyond-the-pales”. Milkman deserves all the acclaim it received.

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Spinning Silver

Set in Lithvas, a fictional country in Eastern Europe, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver follows the story of a moneylender’s daughter as she strives to survive in medieval England. Living in abject poverty, Miryem decides to take over her father’s failing money-lending business. She is quite successful at it that soon she attracts the attention of the Staryk king (the king of winter), who wants Miryem to turn his silver into gold.

Spinning Silver is ambitious in both its writing style and its themes. Novik heightens the plot of the classic German folktale, Rumpelstiltskin, by playing with fairytale tropes—romance, fantasy, curses, magic, monsters—and deconstructing them by writing a more involved and complex story. Novik’s narrative skillfully weaves reality and fantasy, forging a path where one can easily identify with the novel. Readers will recognize each characters as they chart their own fate and overcome obstacles such as abusive relationships, persecution, social prejudices, and poverty. Spinning Silver employs multiple point of views, and Novik manages to give each of the characters an original voice.

At its core, the novel emphasizes the strength, intellect, and tenacity of women facing insurmountable adversities. Three of the main voices in the book are women—Miryem (the main character), Wanda (daughter of a farmworker who ends up working for Miryem), and Irina (the tsarina, who married a tsar, Minartius, with a demon trapped inside him). The common thread among the heroines are their struggle with social restrictions and expectations based on race, class, and gender. Remarkably, Novik lets the heroines be strong, bright, and beautiful as well as be vulnerable, devious, and as equally monstrous as the villains.

Interestingly, Novik compels her readers to empathize with both the heroines and the villains by portraying the latter as people (or creatures), who, like the heroines, are merely trying to survive.

Novik’s Spinning Silver is a fantasy novel full of nuanced ideas that highlight our complexities. Novik might have set her novel in an imaginary world and peppered it with fantastical elements, but it deftly reflects our own.

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Book of the Day: Station Eleven

In Station Eleven, author Emily St. John Mandel creates a convincing vision of humans struggling to survive after the collapse of modern life. The narrative moves back and forth between two eras, the pre-pandemic world of the 21st Century and the broken aftermath, twenty years later. 

Arthur is a successful actor playing King Lear in Toronto. He dies on stage from heart failure just as a deadly flu begins to decimate the world. His former wife, Miranda, is the creator of a self-published graphic novel called Station Eleven. In the future, copies of this sci-fi comic survive, becoming a private touchstone for various characters.   

When the Georgia Flu hits, Kirsten is a child actor performing at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. By Year Twenty, flu survivors and their children have formed isolated settlements. As an adult, Kristin travels the post-apocalypse Great Lakes region with a caravan of performers whose credo, taken from Star Trek: Voyager, is that “survival is insufficient.” 

When Kristin and her theatre troupe encounter a messianic leader named The Prophet, the author reveals the curious links between her characters that lead to a satisfying, yet open, conclusion. I would enjoy reading a sequel to this novel—many of the characters have stayed with me through the years.

Winner of the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2015 Toronto Book Award, Station Eleven was also nominated for the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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Travel the World with Walker: A Boat Passage from Japan

If it’s possible to encapsulate a story within one sentence, Julie Otsuka’s 2011 novel The Buddha in the Attic rises to the challenge. The short volume borders on prose poetry as a collective voice tells the experience of Japanese mail order brides coming to America in the early 20th century. Strung together with the pronoun “we,” every sentence seems to hold a tale unto itself and melds the individual experiences of boat passage, first meetings with husbands, work life, letters home, and child-rearing in California into a shared journey of suffering.

The success of Otsuka’s narrative lies in her ability to weave each collective sentence as a filament into such a strong web that when she breaks her pattern, the moment is decisive and impossible to ignore. Once the young Japanese women have begun to settle into their homes and have children, the “we” describes the experience of laying them in ditches in the fields as they work, of losing them often to illness, and ultimately of losing them to the English language and an American identity. But while the children are introduced and grow up as “them,” there is a distinct moment when they become individual: when their mothers allow them to dream in a way that they have themselves been denied: “One swore she would one day marry a preacher… One wanted to become a star. And even though we saw the darkness coming we said nothing and let them dream on.” To let their children blaze ahead singularly seems like the ultimate sacrifice until Otsuka admits the entrance of history’s sweeping tide, as the Japanese families are sent to internment camps and effectively erased from memory.

The Buddha in the Attic is preceded by Otsuka’s debut, When the Emperor Was Divine, which in a way picks up where her later novel ends, telling the story of a Japanese American family’s experience in the internment camps during World War II. While both novels are embedded in history, the voices contained within resonate with our present moment—the task of being “othered” in America that so many now face. Otsuka’s innovative style captures the erasure of identity that occurs through the dominant culture’s denial of marginalized groups, while in the same stroke managing to remind us that a collective narrator feels foreign precisely because whether we are Japanese or American, we do act, speak, and feel in a profoundly personal way.

If Otsuka’s experimental novel motivates you to further explore literature related to Japan, or you seek a different book to fit the bill, our collection offers a variety of authors and narrators to take you on a Travel the World with Walker trip to Japan. Try your hand at the whimsical and nostalgic journey of a man and his beloved cat in Hiro Arikawa’s recent Travelling Cat Chronicles or one of the many works in Haruki Murakami’s often surrealistic oeuvre. For those interested in a directly historical approach, John Hersey’s 1946 Hiroshima, originally published in The New Yorker and shortly thereafter in book form, blends journalism with the riveting sensory and emotional experiences of six survivors of the atomic bomb. As The Buddha in the Attic implies, there are a wide variety of voices within every culture and nation.

Written by Nora Curry

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Book of the Day: Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Do the seasons have minds of their own? When winter unleashes snow, does it contemplate the transience of its most transformative action? Or are such complexities merely the imposition of the human mind as it observes the landscape’s seasonal changes? In Winter, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, best known for his multipart autobiographical My Struggle epic, deftly walks the thin line between poetic detail and tedious miscellany as he traces the months of December to February through snowdrifts and the secrets of manholes.

In sixty short essays, Knausgaard frames contemplations on a myriad of phenomena within letters to his unborn daughter. He begins the letter in his preceding volume, Autumn, the first of a seasonal quartet that takes us through her birth and into the early stages of life. Knausgaard uses language itself to rise to the ultimate tasks of parenting: guiding a child to know and understand the world and recognizing the very soul of one’s child as “small, soft, good and faithful.”

The ruminations focus generally on physical concepts, covering a spectrum that includes personal acquaintances, otters, chairs, and ears but extend sometimes to the less tangible: winter sounds, habits, and “the social realm.” While Knausgaard allows the dark and unpleasant a space in his work, his fleeting essays serve primarily as a symphony of thoughtful attention. He tells his daughter, “It’s strange that there is a first time to see a face, a tree, a lamp, pyjamas a shoe. In my life that almost never happens anymore.” But through Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer, Knausagaard imbues his surroundings with the sense that it is possible to live for forty-six years and still view the world through the lens of fascination. To have a father who is so attentive to the intricacies of the world as to find it worthwhile to uncover the quirks and profundities of q-tips, who can approach life as a quiet celebration of noticing : this is the ultimate gift for a newborn child.

If Knausgaard seems at times to place a grating amount of value on his own thoughts, Winter ultimately serves as a recognition of smallness in the face of enormous love, the act of writing the collection perhaps mirrored best by Knausgaard’s fumbling attempt to apologize for upsetting his older daughter by wordlessly making good on a promise to hang a string of paper lanterns in her bedroom that “will hang above her bed like a garland.” Knausgaard’s four books hang like a garland for his newest born, the reverent observations of a man and father who recognizes his own futility but, as we all do, forges ahead through the seasons.

Volumes from Knausgaard’s seasonal quartet can be found among the biographies, now housed in our newly re-opened historic wing.

Written by Nora Curry

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Youth Services

The Disappearing Spoon

For all who enjoyed Sam Kean’s 2010 The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Rivalry, Adventure, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements you will be pleased to learn a Young Readers Edition is now available. For the budding scientist, historian, or even someone who is having a difficult time understanding the table ( illustrations and side comments help clarify some aspects of the Periodic Table), you will want to recommend this book to them. The book introduces the scientists who discovered and organized the table and the elements themselves, but also includes stories (often humorously told) of how the elements have helped shaped human history, finance, mythology, war, the arts and medicine.

Speaking of elements, DK has issued a 2018 edition of “Elements,” which delves even deeper into the properties and histories of the elements of the periodic table and their discoverers. In DK fashion, the book is richly illustrated and uses text that is very accessible to young readers.


If you’re interested in learning more about the periodic table of elements, you might like these…

The Periodic Table by Simon Basher and Adrian Dingle

The Periodic Table introduces budding chemists to the world of the elements as it’s never been seen before. Designed to resemble popular networking Web sites, the pages of this book feature “homepages” for each of the chemical elements — complete with witty and informative profiles written by the elements themselves, plus a personally chosen picture.

The Elements by Eyewitness

The elements in the periodic table are the ingredients that make up our world. Explore elements such as carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, and learn why they are essential to our survival. See how precious gold protects astronauts in space, and why the metal mercury can be both a solid and a liquid. Find out about man-made elements, which the smartest chemists are busy figuring out how to use. Learn about scores of other elements, including silver, the alkaline earth metals, the nitrogen elements, and the noble gases, such as helium and krypton.

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In-Depth Book Review: Manhunt

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer tells the story of the murder of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent search for those involved in his death.

The characters and plot in Manhunt are quickly revealed. The central characters around which the entire story revolves—Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth—are introduced within the first four pages. They are quickly established as having diametrically opposed outlooks on America’s future—Lincoln embraces one of hope and reconciliation while Booth seeks a chance to avenge the South’s defeat. By the end of the book’s Prologue, Booth has vowed that Lincoln will never live to deliver another speech.

Manhunt moves along at a brisk pace because, at its core, it is a “race against time” story. There are two competing stories present in Manhunt, one is Booth’s race to escape his Union pursuers; the other is the U.S. governments race to capture those who conspired to assassinate President Lincoln. The book’s pace is not slowed by the fact that there is more description than dialogue. Swanson’s use of language creates a “you are there” feeling and inserts the reader directly into the story. While Manhunt is written in a very detailed manner, it is not densely written. Swanson makes effective use of original sources—letters, manuscripts, affidavits, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books, and memoirs.

The story is very conventional and has a straight-line plot—the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators. Save for the book’s final chapter, prologue, and epilogue, all of the action in the story occurs between April 14th and April 26th 1865. The primary characters in the story—Booth, his fellow conspirators, and the Union Army pursuers, are constantly reacting to events around them. This helps the story move forward at a quick pace. Despite knowing the ultimate outcome of the story—the capture of all of Lincoln’s assassination conspirators, Swanson creates a compelling storyline in which the reader is kept on the edge of their seat wondering if Booth is ultimately going to be able to escape.

Each of the characters in Manhunt is vividly written and fully drawn, albeit in a dispassionate manner. Their thoughts and actions are presented in rich, lifelike detail. Both Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth are depicted as immensely talented, yet tragic figures whose lives intersected one fateful night at Ford’s Theatre. Both inspired tremendous feelings of love and hate as well as fierce loyalty and dedication. Each was surrounded by people that idolized them and who would go to great lengths to support and defend them. The secondary characters in Manhunt are made up of these very loyalists—individuals dedicated to either finding Lincoln’s killer or dedicated to helping Booth escape the Union dragnet. Each character is presented with all their complexities and contradictions fully intact. Because of this, it is easy for the reader to identify with the characters feelings and emotions. It allows the reader to stand in their shoes.

Manhunt reads like a well-crafted suspense novel. The suspense gradually builds over the course of the book. The reader is constantly kept on edge about whether or not Booth and his fellow conspirators will ever be caught. Manhunt is also filled with the type of lush historical detail that makes the reader feel like they are back in 1865. While Manhunt tells the story of Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent search for his killer, the tone is never bleak or overly dark. Rather, Manhunt is written in the type of compelling manner that leads readers to want to continue turning page after page in order to see what is going to happen next. Manhunt is both colorful and complex in tone, which makes it a very enjoyable read.

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One Hundred Years of Solitude

Set in the fictional town of Macondo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude chronicles the lives of five generations of the Buendia family. The novel beautifully blends reality with the surreal, filling the town of Macondo with wonder, magic, unnatural catastrophes, civil unrest, and unforgettable characters. The proclivities of the Buendia family range from leading quixotic expeditions around the world to organizing revolutions to frolicking all day and all night.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is as bizarre as it is relatable. Within the Buendia family, there exists a warm familial bond which one can always relate to and appreciate. Themes of love, camaraderie, and loneliness are each poignantly conveyed through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ beautiful use of language. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez observes, “there is always something left to love,” and One Hundred Years of Solitude is testament to that truth.

It is impossible to describe One Hundred Years of Solitude without making it seem like a complicated story. It is not. The narrative is ethereal with a simple elegance that is accessible. One Hundred Years of Solitude is much like its prose: memorable and beautiful.


READ-ALIKES

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Strout does not disappoint with her newest work. Her brilliant collection takes up where her novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, leaves off. The chapters read like short stories with Lucy Barton as the thread that runs between them. The characters populate Amgash, Illinois and their stories are woven together carefully and wonderfully. No one captures the inner workings of small town characters better than Strout. Written to be read and enjoyed many times, I highly recommend for readers of fine literary fiction. — Mary Vernau for LibraryReads.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

A story of how the past affects the present, and of deeply entrenched racism, Sing Unburied Sing describes the life of a biracial boy, his addicted, grieving black mother, and his incarcerated white father. A road trip to Dad’s prison kick-starts the novel, which offers deeply affecting characters, a strong sense of place (rural Mississippi), and a touch of magical realism in appearances by the dead. — Description by Shauna Griffin.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Li-Yan and her family, devote their lives to farming tea. Like her mother, Li-Yan is being groomed to become a midwife in her Chinese village. She yearns for more and is allowed to pursue her schooling. The arrival of outsiders seeking the Pu’er tea of Yunnan brings the modern world into this isolated village. When Li-Yan finds herself alone and pregnant, she leaves her child, wrapped with a tea cake, at an orphanage. Her daughter is adopted by a couple from California, but she is drawn to the study of tea. A sweeping historical novel that juxtaposes ancient China with its modern incarnation. — Catherine Coyne for LibraryReads.

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Algeria is Beautiful Like America

A young French woman decides to travel alone to Algeria in search of her family roots and to visit the former home of her mother and grandmother. It is the beginning of an enlightening and disturbing exposure to reality.

Olivia had never really studied the Algerian fight for independence from France, so she began reading and talking to all of her relatives who had lived there. They were “black foot”, French colonists who settled in the mountainous Aures region and opposed independence and disliked Arabs intensely. They supported the O.A.S. (secret army organization) that used terrorism, murder, and any means necessary to stop the independence movement.

The FLN (National Liberation Front) was made up of Arab and North African nationalist groups whose resistance led to the Algerian War. While she didn’t know it at first, her somewhat gruff guide was a member of the FLN and was not pleased about taking her into still hostile territory. There is an odd turn of events at the end.

I found this book fascinating for the history, and for the reminder that the truth in political situations is often elusive because of bigotry, self-interest, economics, or power seeking. Like many non-fiction graphic novels, this was highly informative in a very engaging and easy to absorb format.


If you’re interested in Algeria is Beautiful Like America, you might like these graphic novels….

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

Threads: From the Refugee Crisis by Kate Evans

In the French port town of Calais, famous for its historic lace industry, a city within a city arose. This new town, known as the Jungle, was home to thousands of refugees, mainly from the Middle East and Africa, all hoping, somehow, to get to the UK. Into this squalid shantytown of shipping containers and tents, full of rats and trash and devoid of toilets and safety, the artist Kate Evans brought a sketchbook and an open mind.

Accompanying the story of Kate’s time spent among the refugees—the insights acquired and the lives recounted—is the harsh counterpoint of prejudice and scapegoating arising from the political right. Threads addresses one of the most pressing issues of modern times to make a compelling case, through intimate evidence, for the compassionate treatment of refugees and the free movement of peoples.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.

At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.

**Descriptions taken from publisher description**