Favorite Book Club Picks

The Tracy Public Library’s book club has not met since February, and I am really missing it! I have been a part of the book club since it started in 2013. That was before I started working at the library.

We’ve covered about 80 books throughout the years, and I’m sure there will be many more to come. This week, I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite book club picks.

Watership Down, Richard Adams

“Watership Down” was the first book our book club read, so it holds a special place in my heart. It’s a new classic, but other than its name, I had no idea what this book was about. Like many book club books, this book about rabbits who face the destruction of their home due to the invasion of humans is likely not one I would have picked up on my own. It’s a very compelling story, although some in our club were a bit overwhelmed by the amount of description.

Sutton, J.R. Moehringer

“Sutton” by J.R. Moehringer is based on a true story about America’s most successful bank robber, Willie Sutton. At a time when banks were unpopular, the public cheered on this unlikely hero over a three-decade bank-robbing career. In Moehringer’s fictionalized account of Sutton’s life, he explores the motivations that made the man into a myth.

Plainsong, Kent Haruf

I knew the minute I read this book that it would be a great book club selection. “Plainsong” is a quiet book, a character study of a small town in Colorado. Haruf captures small-town life, the relationships within it, and the landscape surrounding it perfectly. If you haven’t read anything by Haruf, I highly recommend giving him a try.

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather

I read Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!” in college, and revisited it along with our book club years later. Along the way, I somehow forgot just how beautiful this little book is. The main character is Alexandra Bergson, a strong-willed Swedish immigrant who inherits her family’s farm. A lot happens in this book, so don’t let its short length fool you. It’s perfect for book clubs who want to read a classic, but are looking for something that’s not too overwhelming.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is one of my favorite book club books, but I have a confession to make. I almost didn’t finish it. It’s written using dialect, meaning the author writes how the characters sound. I struggle with this a lot, for some reason, and sometimes it can make a book downright unreadable for me. Because this book was for book club, I had to finish whether I wanted to or not, so I found the audiobook version. It completely blew me away. It’s read by actress Ruby Dee, and she brings the story of free-spirit Janie Crawford alive.

The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls

Jeanette Walls’ memoir, “The Glass Castle,” is unforgettable. In it, the author recounts her nomadic childhood with parents who were anything but ordinary. The romance of this lifestyle faded for Walls and her siblings as they grew, and each began to plot his or her way out. It’s a story of unconditional love in an unconventional family.

All of these books provide plenty to discuss, which, to me, is the mark of a great book club book. I always say that it doesn’t matter if everyone likes the book or not. What matters is that we have something to talk about. These books are also great for reading on your own.

Happy reading!

~Val

Keeping it Real with Non-Fiction

We’re in week six of the Stay at Home order, and some days it still doesn’t quite seem real. Maybe that is why non-fiction is so appealing to me right now.

As I mentioned last week, “Educated,” by Tara Westover, helped break me out of the little reading slump I was in. After I finished that, I picked up a mystery/thriller, but it didn’t quite work for me. I finished the book, but then decided to turn back to non-fiction. I’m now reading “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II,” by Molly Guptill Manning.

Non-fiction teaches us and inspires us. In times of great uncertainty, it can be comforting to read about people who persevered in difficult times.

If you’re looking for a good non-fiction book, here are a few of my favorites:

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

“The Devil in the White City” is about two men, both of them intelligent, talented, and possessing great promise. One uses his talents as an architect to direct the building of the Chicago World’s Fair. The other builds a house of horrors, where he lures unsuspecting victims. Larson has a great talent for writing narrative non-fiction, and you really can’t go wrong in reading any of his books. “The Devil in the White City,” however, is my favorite.

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Huguette Clark was the daughter of copper industrialist W. A. Clark. She was raised in a 121-room mansion in New York City, and inherited millions. Yet when Clark died at age 104, she had lived in a simple hospital room for 20 years, despite being in good health and owning homes in New York, Connecticut, and California. “Empty Mansions” tells the story of this enigmatic woman, from her Gilded Age upbringing to the fight over her fortune following her death.

The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe

Books can bring us together, even at the worst of times. “The End of Your Life Book Club” is a beautiful book about how the author and his mother bonded over the books they read together as she underwent treatment for terminal cancer.

Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

“Into Thin Air” was the book that made me fall in love with non-fiction. Jon Krakauer, both a journalist and a mountaineer, went to Mount Everest in the spring of 1996 to write a story for “Outside” magazine. What should have been a story of triumph turned to one of tragedy when a deadly storm struck, resulting in the deaths of several climbers – including Krakauer’s guide for the expedition.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

If you’ve ever wondered what it would have been like to live in Paris during the 1920s alongside Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Exra Pound, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein, this book is your chance. In “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway recounts what life was like for himself and other expatriate authors who lived in Europe at that time. It’s funny, moving, and deeply personal.

Non-fiction can be a great way to escape your own life for a while by seeing what it was like to live in someone else’s shoes. Whether you decide to pick up one of these books, or find something else that’s just right for you, I hope you have a good reading week.

~Val

Reading Slump? You’re Not Alone

I think most readers have endured a reading slump at one point in their lives. There are many factors that can cause a reading slump – some good and some bad. For instance, I had a major reading slump after my daughter was born. It took me almost a year to enjoy reading again.

I read a lot of reading-related articles, and recently there have been many talking about how people are either getting a lot of reading done, or are experiencing a reading slump right now. I have been falling somewhere in-between, leaning toward the slump side.

I went into working from home thinking I was going to get a lot done. And, I actually have. At least most days. Unfortunately, I also thought I was going to have lots of time to read, while simultaneously being able to make sure my daughter gets her distance learning done, and trying to do a bunch of enriching activities on top of that.

Looking back, my expectations were pretty unreal. I chose a really long book to read, thinking it would be no problem to knock it out in a couple of weeks. Toward the middle of the month I started to get a little panicky because I had only gotten one book read, and it was an audiobook.

Then, I received a notification that “Educated” by Tara Westover, which I had put on hold while doing a tutorial for this blog, was available. I contemplated letting the next person in line have it, but then decided it might be just what I needed. It was.

Looking back, I realize that not only were my expectations of myself unrealistic, I was making a slump out of a molehill. I had chosen a book that it wasn’t likely I was going to finish in a month, much less a couple of weeks – and that’s under normal circumstances. Sometimes I just don’t get much reading done during the work week, and that’s without the pressure of distance learning on top of it. I set myself up for a reading slump, or at least what I perceived to be one.

If you find yourself in a reading slump right now, here are a few things I’ve learned. First of all, it’s okay. It’s a difficult time and there is a lot of uncertainty. If you can’t concentrate on reading, don’t worry about it. You will get back to it when the time is right. If watching TV or playing games or doing puzzles is what’s keeping you sane right now, there’s no shame in that.

Second, the cure to a reading slump is usually finding the right book. I know, that’s easier said than done. If you start something and it doesn’t grab you, let it go. You can always read it another time. Often, a short book is good for breaking out of a reading slump. Reading something you can get through quickly can help to build up your confidence again. Other times, a complete change may be what’s needed. I was having a hard time staying engaged with fiction, so I turned to non-fiction.

Third, don’t compare yourself to others. If someone else is reading 10 books a week right now, that’s great. That doesn’t mean you have to do the same. For some people, reading is working as an escape mechanism right now, and for others, it is not. Don’t feel bad if you fall into that latter category.

I’m not going to talk about setting aside time to read every day, or setting goals. If you’re struggling, that’s likely not what you need to hear right now. Just know that you’re not alone.

~Val

Libraries Have Big Impact

This week is National Library Week. I have been thinking about how important books and libraries have been to me throughout my life.

The first library that made an impact on me was our home library. I come from a family of readers, and we always had books around us. My parents read to me often when I was little, and I was an early reader. There wasn’t a lot on television – I think we got three channels, including PBS. There wasn’t much else to do for entertainment – especially in the winter – so it was “read or die,” as my dad once described it. I’ve found as an adult, especially in this time of social distancing, that being able to entertain oneself through simple enjoyments such as reading is a priceless skill.

The second library that made an impact on me was the public library. I grew up in a very small town. When I was little, our library was tiny and in the same building as city hall and the liquor store. There may not have been much there, but I don’t remember feeling that our choices were lacking. I discovered a lot of books there, from the Baby-Sitters Club to Stephen King. When I was in high school, a new library was built in the new community center constructed downtown. It was there that I signed up for my first library card (before that I just used my parents’). My library account shows that I got my first Plum Creek Library System card in 1995. I’m proud of that.

The third library that changed my life was my school library. Our elementary and high school buildings were connected. There were two libraries right next to one another in the newer part of the building – one for elementary and one for high school. Both are vivid in my memory. In high school, our librarian started recommending classics to me. She was the person who put “Great Expectations” in my hands and started what has been a lifetime love of the classics. I think my love of long books started there also. We had Accelerated Reader (yes, way back then), and we always had a competition to see who could get the most points. I liked to read longer books and get a lot of points all at once. I think the book I read with the highest number of points was “Gone With the Wind” (71 points).

All of these libraries have influenced me greatly, and helped send me down that path I’m on today. My life wouldn’t be what it is without my love of books and libraries.

Happy National Library Week!

~Val

One Book | One Minnesota

Something I have noticed over the past few weeks is how, in this time of social distancing, people are still finding activities and ideas that bring them together – not physically, but virtually. Thanks to a new program being offered in Minnesota, we all have a chance to become closer through reading and discussing a book.

This week, the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, in partnership with State Library Services, announced One Book | One Minnesota, a new online book club. Readers of all ages are invited to read “Because of Winn-Dixie,” by Minnesota author Kate DiCamillo, and come together for virtual discussions. All Minnesotans will be invited to participate in a statewide virtual discussion with the author in May.

“Because of Winn-Dixie” is available at Ebooks Minnesota, where the book will be available for multi-use downloads at no cost for eight weeks. It is also available in the Plum Creek Library System’s OverDrive collection (single use only).

“Because of Winn-Dixie” is an excellent choice for this program, because it can be enjoyed by the whole family! Adults can read it to their children, or members of the family can read independently and share their ideas. Include grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins…the possibilities are endless for a multi-generational experience.

Get started reading any time, and stay tuned for more information about discussion opportunities.

We may not be able to be together, but we can still read together!