Six Degrees From a Typewriter

A popular game suggests that all things in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other. Who would have thought that this applies to a vintage typewriter?

This tale begins when a staff member offered a vintage typewriter for display at the Main Library. Shortly thereafter I displayed the typewriter in the lobby near Borrower’s Services on an equally old oak desk the library had kicking around. Immediately our customers began to try out the vintage machine and the click-clack of the keys could be heard in the library.

This is not a new idea. The book “Notes From a Public Typewriter” edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti is a collection of a series of notes left on a vintage typewriter set up in a book store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The book combines essays with favourite notes (like “I ended up alone on my birthday but being here makes it easy to forget that. Thank you.”) as a nod to community.

At WPL we too began to experience our own unplanned community-building exercise. Jokes, words of advice, famous quotes and reminiscences were typed up, slowly or quickly, on the old machine at the Main, revealing the heart of our community here in Waterloo.

The heartwarming:

“Dear whoever reads this. You matter.”
“You are loved. You are accepted.”
“Love yourself.”
“Books are good for you and books love you too”

Gentle advice:

“Learn something new every day.”

Salutations:

“Hello person who is reading this.”
“Whoever you are? Have a good day.”

Memories:

“My dad had a typewriter like this in his office in Buffalo.”
“This is the typewriter that I learned on in 1950 when I could do 40 words a minute.”

Kids:

“Give me ccccoooookkkiieeeessss.”
“I wish I could use one of these for school. It’s cooler than Google docs.”
“This is old school. How did anyone ever type like this?”

Generations mingled:

“This is an ancient keyboard.”
“It’s not that old. I used to have one!!!”

Suddenly, I began to see images of typewriters everywhere I looked including on the cover of Tom Hank’s collection of short stories “Uncommon Type”. Each of Hanks’ stories features a typewriter almost like it was a character in the story. My favourite “Christmas Eve 1953” tells the story of a World War II vet who has achieved the American dream but is still haunted by flashbacks to Christmas 1944.

Hanks himself is an avid collector of typewriters which he talks about in the documentary “California Typewriter”. The documentary examines the extinction of the beloved typewriter and the movement to keep these “ancient” machines clicking away.

WPL customers really enjoy the sound from yesterday. Customers noting “The sound of the keys clacking is nice.”

In the popular feature film, “You’ve Got Mail“, a cherished neighbourhood bookstore (owned by Meg Ryan’s character) is being pushed out by a big book store chain (owned by Tom Hanks’ character). Another character in the movie collects vintage electric typewriters, rhapsodizing about the hum of the machine and the sound of the keys. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t keep the girl – but he does hang onto the vintage typewriters! The viewer can judge who got the better deal.

If all this typewriter talk has made you want to learn more about the trusty machine, check out the book “The Typewriter Revolution” by Richard Polt. It includes a chapter on care and repair which I may need when unsticking keys and adjusting the ribbon every morning. Curious customers have a habit of fiddling with buttons and adjusting levers and, as one typist freely admitted, “Help! My finger is stuck between the keys!”.

Finally, I seem to be right back where I started – the typewriter. You see, I have my own typewriter story. When I started at WPL almost 30 years ago one of my jobs was to type catalogue cards on just such a machine. I think a WPL customer summed it up best when they so wisely clacked out in short staccato strokes “Remember who you are. Remember who you were”.

— Maureen S.

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The Girl They Left Behind

I’m an avid reader who reads many different genres but historical fiction is the one genre that I regularly gravitate towards. When you read a lot of one genre, you sometimes feel like you’ve read it all. The Girl They Left Behind by Roxanne Veletzos brings something new to this very popular genre with an engaging, informative and heart-felt story based on her mother’s early life during WWII and later during the Soviet occupation of Romania.

During the horrors of the 1941 Pogrom in Bucharest, Veletzos’ grandparents made the difficult choice to leave their three-year-old daughter, Natalia, on the steps of a building hoping to give her a chance to survive. Sent to an orphanage, she was quickly adopted by a wealthy couple who were devoted to her and gave her life of privilege.

Veletzos follows her mother’s early life and also provides vivid descriptions of Bucharest during WWII and afterwards when the Soviets took control, a time when life for many Romanians continued to be fraught with uncertainty and danger – especially those who didn’t support the Communist regime. She includes the lesser known history of Romania during these times and blends her personal family history into a riveting, fictional read. This is a captivating, sometimes heart-wrenching story about family bonds, resilience and hope.

I highly recommend The Girl They Left Behind to fans of historical fiction who enjoy getting a different perspective in the popular WWII historical fiction genre and especially for those of us who think they’ve ‘read it all’. Veletzos may just surprise you.

— Laurie P.

The Library Book

Susan Orleans The Library Book is not always an easy read. The chapters where she details the 1986 Los Angeles Central Public Library fire feel so real you almost have to take a break from reading them for an hour or two. When she shares the experiences of the library staff who worked there at that time of the fire and tells of how they experienced something very like PTSD from seeing their workplace burn, it seems as if you were right there with them while they stand on the street and watch it happen.

gettyimages-50689565One of my favourite moments in The Library Book is when she interviews a senior librarian (he started working there in 1979 and still works there today), Glen Creason, about the moment when the books are finally delivered back into the building after the rebuilding and he says “when the library reopened, we were so happy to see our books again!” It seems like those books are his coworkers as much as the people he walks in with every morning or eats lunch beside in the gorgeous gardens surrounding the library. It took over seven years for their library to be refurbished and more than 400,000 books were destroyed and 700,000 were damaged. The cost of the fire was astronomical but, to the people who worked there, Orleans found that the emotional cost stays with them. Many can walk through the stacks and point to books that ‘survived’ the fire.

Everything I had read about this book told me that it was exactly the kind of book I would love – part love letter to libraries (I also love libraries), part mystery, a whole lot of history and a little bit of a personal story of the author – but it was also about a library fire so I was hesitant about reading it. A library fire? Maybe I would have to skip this one. It seemed a little too close to home for me. I took one look at the stunning cover that author Susan Orlean helped to design (the publishers did not choose to include a dust jacket) with a bright red background, beautiful gold lettering and a single flame in the centre with a terrific design on the spine and wonderful end papers. This is a woman who knows her books, I was thinking as I first picked up my hold on the book, so I bravely jumped in.

I was rewarded for my courage. In researching the terrifying fire the author weaves a powerful story of how the community worked together to rebuild their library and she tries to unravel what really happened. Each chapter begins with three or four citations for books that relate to the topic she is going to cover in that chapter and then she dives right in. Some of those chapters were so fascinating I feel like I couldn’t tease out a single fact to quote here because everything was worth remembering or mentioning. I haven’t stopped talking about this book since I began reading it. The research that she must have done into individual things like fire suppression, the psychology of arsonists or the investigation into the fire was extensive which isn’t surprising from a staff writer at The New Yorker. I’d say that I’d love to meet her but I don’t want her to waste her time talking to me – she should be busy researching and writing.

Some chapters are dedicated to the history of the Los Angeles Public Library system but others are about libraries and the world of librarianship. Susan Orlean wanted to write this book because she was thinking about her own relationship with libraries and how her mother let her roam about their local library when she was young. She tells the story that her mother would take her there weekly and then let her travel to the library alone when she was old enough. She felt that her library visits were “dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived because in the library I could have anything I wanted.” This author is a superfan of the library and she interviews many others who are equally passionate throughout her book. She spends time with members of the library’s staff – sometimes an entire day – and I can’t say that those were my favourite chapters because I thought the whole book was an absolute delight, but when she joins the reference staff for a morning and writes about the variety of questions they receive I did feel a shiver of familiarity. I was actually laughing on the couch as I read about the call from a person who was writing a script (the book is set in Los Angeles) and called in to ask how someone would say “the necktie is in the bathtub” in Swedish. I’ve never had exactly the same question during any of my shifts on the desk but I have experienced something very similar. This is part of what makes library work so much fun – the endless variety.

Variety is the right word to describe the history of that particular library in downtown Los Angeles. I was astonished to read about the incredible people who were hired to be the chief librarians of the Los Angeles Public Library from 1873 on. I mean, Lin-Manuel Miranda could find enough in here to create his next musical, it’s really that much fun. One of the chief librarians, a man named Charles Fletcher Lummis, hired a blacksmith to create a branding iron so that he could mark books that he thought were inappropriate because they included content that featured ‘pseudoscience’. Imagine how that would go over in 2018 and the world of social media. It’s worth reading this book just to learn more about Charles Fletcher Lummis but he isn’t the only fascinating character in the library’s history. There was also a period in their history known as ‘The Great Library War’ when their board of directors decided to fire a beloved, qualified librarian – Mary Jones – in favour of a male candidate saying that she didn’t need the job because she wasn’t required to support a family. Can you believe it? The debate became quite heated and there were protests by library patrons as well as staff with support from Susan B Anthony! You can read more about it on their library’s blog. It’s absolutely fascinating.

Susan Orlean doesn’t confine herself to the history of the library in this book. She delves into every possible nook and cranny of the current library world by interviewing their front-line staff, fundraisers, their CEO, staff from smaller branches, even the staff who pack the endless number of books that are transferred from their central branch to the outlying locations (there are seventy-two) and their professional security guards. By the time she reaches the end of her book Susan Orlean has done more than told the story of a catastrophic library fire, she has made a contribution to the long list of ‘must-read’ books that bibliophiles will be talking about for years. I never miss books about libraries or bookstores and this one was outstanding from beginning to end – and, on the final page, there is an image of a date due slip with Ray Bradbury’s name, the author’s mother’s name, her own name and her son’s name – so the book is almost perfect, really. Her final chapter summarizes her feelings about writing the book and her relationship with libraries as she shares that she wanted to write the book “to tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels marvelous and exceptional.” You really have to read this book. The Library Book.

— Penny M.

The Book of Books

Did you watch the PBS series The Great American Read? It was wonderful. It was a booklover’s delight from beginning to end. The network began promoting it about 6 months before it aired so there was lots of time to get excited about it.

I know that library customers and staff enjoyed the series because I have been a part of some spirited conversations about it. Some of the people I follow online were so passionate about the books that they wished were included that their posts got quite heated. We watched some of it ‘live’ at our house and watched some if it taped but the good news is that all of the episodes are available online and the series’ creators have published a fabulous illustrated book as a companion that we have been flipping through with happiness at our house.

The Book of Books has a page or two dedicated to each of the novels that were featured in the PBS series. Within the entry for each book they include a summary of the book, some text dedicated to the author and interesting tidbits about the publishing history or how the book might have influenced other writing. It’s a meaty little coffee table book with great bonuses like a section of read-alikes and summaries of trends in the reading world. This is a book written for fans of books and authors with each page including something fascinating. On one page they included a photograph of a letter opener that was specially made for Charles Dickens (his book, Great Expectations, was #29 on the final list) out of the paw of his favourite cat “Bob”.

dogThey kicked off the series in May 2018 with a 2-hour special that began in the Library of Congress with host Meredith Vieira encouraging everyone to vote and share their feelings about their favourite books online, perhaps start a book club, maybe even read all 100 books (although she eventually admitted to Diana Gabaldon that she hadn’t read her fabulous series until she started working on this PBS show). I had a lot of fun following the voting and competition online throughout the summer. I loved seeing the shameless things bibliophiles would do to get people to vote for their book. The image above is a plea from someone to request that everyone vote for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (this book was recently defended by a last-minute stand-in at Waterloo Reads : the battle of the books, coincidentally).

The process for The Great American Read began with a national survey of about seven thousand people that narrowed the book choices down to the 100 that PBS used as their final list. The kick-off special featured people like Sarah Jessica Parker, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Chelsea Clinton, John Green, and Venus Williams sharing their own favourite books and encouraging people to read their book (or any book really) on the list. George R. R. Martin’s pitch for The Great Gatsby almost made me cry. I think that the next time we have a student in the library who isn’t pleased to have been assigned that F. Scott Fitzgerald classic I’ll call up this video and have them watch Martin speak about how the language in the novel has always moved him.

askfmlThis contest and the show they produced put libraries and literacy front and centre and it really felt wonderful to hear people – young and old – say that libraries meant so much to them. I remember loving my little library branch in Hamilton so much and still think that it was the best thing ever that I was never reprimanded for checking out a favourite book more than once. The freedom of the library shelves is such a perfect thing. The Freeport Memorial Library in Freeport, NY created the coolest social media campaign that I’ve seen in a long time with one of their library staffers taking photographs of coworkers, library visitors, and authors in poses that were inspired by their favourite books, adding quotes from the book, and then manipulating them. You really have to check out these inspirational moments on their twitter feed at @ASKFML They are amazing – this is one that they did for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Although the program was called The Great American Read, the final list of 100 books had only fifty-one books set in the U.S.A. and only sixty-four of the authors were American. Flipping through the gorgeous book that they created is a lovely trip through literature – for kids, adults and teens. You will start thinking about other books you might have wanted to include, you might consider re-reading favourites or picking one up that you haven’t read yet. I think that you will end up with a list – keep your pencil and paper handy.

The team at PBS did not limit their choices to literary classics. They included popular authors like Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook was voted #51), Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code made it to #33), and Stephenie Meyer’s Twlight series came in at respectable #73 beating out James Patterson who only made it to #81 for the Alex Cross series (although I’m quite sure he isn’t worried about his popularity). They have details about the original voting process and how the 100 books were determined on the website but we talked about the final list at our house often and I think they did a pretty good job of including a diverse section of books, authors and genres. I was disappointed to note that Madeleine L’Engle was not included in their choices but I think everyone has a pet author that likely didn’t make the cut and, in her introduction, the author notes that some of her favourites were missing from the final list as well. Culling a list to one hundred must have been painful for that team.

The final episode of the show had Meredith Viera and nominated authors, librarians, celebrities and readers on stage talking about the five semi-finalists and counting down from 100 the list of books that had been featured in the previous shows with a little bit of extra time spent on the ‘big five’. I cheered aloud when I learned that there is a convention for fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, was thrilled to hear that actor Wil Wheaton feels his wife fills the role of Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings in his life and felt that inviting a Harry Potter superfan onto the stage to talk about the series was spot on – fans have always been loyal to J.K. Rowling and the voting showed this.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird received special attention as they were able to invite the cast and playwright for the Broadway adaptation to discuss the themes of the book and how they are using them to inform their performances. The final book in the top five was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which had an accompanying video filled with people holding copies of the novel, some dressed in period costume, and one enthusiastic fan wearing a shirt that read “I ❤ Mr. Darcy”.  I’m going to look into getting one for myself, to wear here at the library, on casual day.

So, which book took away the big prize? I don’t mind typing it here in this post (spoiler alert!) because it was on so many websites the next day that it was impossible to miss – you can go to their website for the final reveal, if you like – but I’m pretty sure that many of you will have a strong guess of which of those top five would make it to number one. The book with the most votes was Harper Lee’s classic novel from 1960. It led the voting from the first day they opened the polls and never dropped below first place. It was a clear winner in the eyes of people who were participating in the PBS contest and is always a favourite book here at WPL.

I don’t know if I could choose. I always find it very difficult to choose one favourite book. We receive boxes and boxes of new ones here at the library each week and I find something wonderful in those shipments almost every week. I have several that I return to almost every year – some by John Irving (his interview in the PBS series was fabulous!). I have re-read The Stand (#24) more times than I can count and Charlotte’s Web (#7) never fails to cheer me, especially when I hear the recorded book in E.B. White’s own voice.

I think the most enjoyable part of this series was learning how books and libraries impacted individual people. Hearing Margaret Atwood read aloud from Anne of Green Gables (#11) and knowing that she was having difficulty with the emotion behind the words that she was saying as she quoted Marilla felt so special. Only a television show about books could bring this kind of magic alive. I encourage you to pick up this wonderful book, go online and click on a few inspiring snippets of video from PBS, and start a conversation about a book that meant something to you – if you need someone to talk to about that book we’ll be here, at the library.

— Penny M.

The fascination with Marilyn Monroe

What’s with the ongoing fascination with Marilyn Monroe? How do you explain the enduring fame of an actress who died one hot August night 56 years ago? This new book provides some answers to those questions.

I really didn’t know much about Marilyn Monroe when I picked up this book and have never seen any of her movies. But what highs and lows in one short life! Such tragedy and heartbreak on the one hand and dizzying success and acclaim on the other.  

The reader gets a good overview of the life of Norma Jeane Baker (her birth name), from her unbearably sad childhood, to her first tentative steps as a model and actress, and then success and fame beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Favourite fact in this book about MM: When she was already a famous movie star, she left Hollywood to go to New York to study acting. She was determined to improve her craft and to earn respect for her acting ability. Gotta respect her for that. 

I found it heartbreaking to read of MM’s decline. What a lost, troubled soul. She was desperately unsure of herself and her acting ability, drinking too much, downing sleeping pills every night, showing up late for work–or not at all. On top of all that, she feared growing old when so much of her fame and most of her self worth was based on her looks and sex appeal. Even if you didn’t already know the ending, at a certain point her self-destruction just seems inevitable.

There was one thing I didn’t like about this book. It focuses a lot on her last days and particularly her very last one. I found that rather ghoulish, not terribly interesting and also don’t believe her last days defined her as a person.

MM died August 5, 1962 at the age of 36 from a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol, whether suicide or accident is not known for sure.

WPL also has a TON of other books on Marilyn Monroe, as well as some of her movies.

-Penny D.

That’s Epic!

When a friend heard I was planning to go to Hawaii, she gushed, “Oh, you have to read James Michener’s book! It will give you such perspective on the history and culture!”

I had already known that James Michener’s Hawaii was long (I had shelved his books early in my library career) but when I discovered how long (937 pages!!), I dug in my heels. I’m an avid reader and often have several books on the go at once, but almost a thousand pages? And in such small print? No way.

I resisted. I even avoided my friend for a while, or at least avoided sharing my reluctance. Finally, I checked out the book and began the first section, which dealt with the geological forces that created the Hawaiian Islands millions of years ago. Written in 1959 with that overly descriptive John Steinbeck style, blah, blah, blah. I guess it’s okay if you like that sort of thing. I do not.

But following that we get into the story of the Polynesian people who set forth to find a new land. The reasons, the dangers, the omens and superstitions. My friend was right; it gets fascinating!

The Polynesians settle, they follow their ancient traditions, they impact the land. Eventually they are followed by missionaries from America who have heard about the heathen people and are moved to leave friends and families and all that they know to bring Christianity to the pagan shores. Though their intentions may be good, some of their attitudes and methods are questionable. Some positive changes are wrought, but there’s also hostility and suspicion.

The Chinese are brought in as labourers for the sugar plantations. The Japanese then come to work the pineapple fields. The Second World War arises and Pearl Harbour is struck. With each new section, Michener introduces the reader to new characters, contexts, historical realities and outcomes. It really is a wonderful initiation for anyone who would visit these isles.

It took me a while to get through (about two months of intermittent reading, actually), but apart from the first section, it was time well spent. In a way, I almost don’t need to go now – I feel like I know Hawaii and it’s not like the trip is cheap.

Ah, who am I kidding? Michener only informed me up to the 1950s. I need to find out what happened next and experience the spirit of aloha for myself!

Other work I read set in Hawaii

The Aloha Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini
Jack London in Paradise by Paul Malmont
Roughing It by Mark Twain (confession: I only read the Hawaiian sections)

Movies and Television Shows I Watched

The Descendants
From Here to Eternity (years ago)
Hawaii Five-0 (if you want to be looking over your shoulder all the time)
Soul Surfer

And if you like epic novels, I highly recommend The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (a former One Book, One Community selection) with settings in Africa, the United States and Canada.

— Susan B.

The Romanov Empress

If you like historical fiction, The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner is a great read! Narrated by Maria Feodorovna, the mother of the last Tsar of Russia, it follows her life from her idyllic childhood as a Danish Princess through to her role as Dowager Empress of Russia during the Bolshevik revolution.

Minnie, as she is known by friends and family, is betrothed to Nicholas Romanov, the heir to the throne of Tsar Alexander Romanov II. Falling terminally ill unexpectedly, Nicky begs Minnie, upon his death, to marry his brother Alexander III. At the age of 19, Minnie feels that she has no option but to accede to her late fiancee’s request and marries the new heir apparent, a bullish and brooding man, quite unlike his gentle and refined brother. With time though, Minnie, now officially Maria Feodorovna, develops a deep love and respect for this besotted man and bears him six children.

Covering the time period from 1862 to 1918, the story illustrates the dynastic entitlement that accompanies those born of royal blood. We are witness to the opulence and extravagance of the wildly wealthy while at the same time observing the tremendous pressure borne by those fettered by the traditions and behavioural mandates of the Royal family.

As we watch the lives of the Romanovs unfold over the years, we are also witness to the fomenting of rebellion within Russia. While the Royals live lives of extraordinary excess, extreme poverty for many Russians affords them a life of hopelessness and hunger. Dissent runs rampant in the country with many assassination threats and attempts on the Tsar’s life. After one group, the Nihilists, are eventually hung or banished, their cause is picked up by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. We all know the story does not end well for Maria’s son, Tsar Nicholas and his family. Facing utter contempt from his citizenry, in part due to the reliance the Royals have put on a ‘sorcerer’, Grigori Rasputin, the Romanovs are without support from the masses and the country rings out with calls of death to the Tsar.

0425286169This novel was well-researched and gives the reader plenty of opportunity to observe the excesses and trials of the Russian monarchy. It also gives additional information on the fate of the surviving Romanovs after their escape from Russia. There are two family trees in the front of the book, one for the Royal Family of Denmark and one for the Imperial Romanovs of Russia.

I would strongly suggest that readers avail themselves of these familial road maps as the interweaving of the families makes it hard to keep straight who the characters are and from which bloodline they descend.

— Nancy C.

Me? Read “Fantasy”?

I will begin this post by saying that fantasy isn’t a genre that I normally read. But I picked up Furyborn, the first book in the Empirium Trilogy by Claire Legrand on the basis of a recommendation from someone… not sure who that someone is anymore. I finished the book although I do have to admit to skimming over some parts because there just seemed to be no end of killing and maiming. Having said that, I think there is a great story underlying all of the blood and gore.

Two Queens, raised in very different circumstances, will rise to save their Kingdoms, albeit a thousand years apart. The Blood Queen and The Sun Queen, who possess the magic of the seven elements, are the fabilized saviours of the empire and only they possess the power to fight back against the Undying Empire.

Opening scene is a prologue…Rielle Dardenne, the Blood Queen, is in labour and at the birth of her daughter, she is attacked by the evil marque Corien who is trying to kill her and the child. Rielle hands the child to a young boy, a good marque, and begs him to take the child to safety in the territory of Borsvall.

The remainder of the story alternates between the young lives of Rielle and a bounty hunter by the name of Eliana Ferracora. Both of these young girls learn at a very early age that they have extraordinary powers… powers that have to be hidden in order for them to survive. But as they both mature, it becomes clear that there is a destiny for them to fulfill and their fight for survival means showing the world who they really are.

The book is classified as Teen Fiction but I don’t think this precludes adult lovers of fantasy fiction from enjoying this read. It has all of the elements that keep a reader of this genre engaged… suspense, action, mysticism, sexuality, violence. The question is, will I read Book 2? I certainly am curious about what the future holds for the protagonists but am not sure that I can bear much more of the slay or be slayed mentality. Call me a wuss but I tend to like people to generally fear significantly less agony in the books I read.

— Nancy C.

Circe : Is It A “Must Read”?

You know how friends get together and participate in those fantasy sports leagues by choosing their favourite players in a particular sport, each person putting in a wager, tracking the statistics throughout a season, and then determining the winner at the end based on who amassed the greatest number of points? I’ve known people to do this for hockey, baseball, and basketball. Even for a period of time the TV show The League was very popular at our house with six Chicago high school friends who ran an incredibly competitive – and completely absurd – fantasy football league.

It’s fun. I get it. I can see how the thrill of trash talking about your favourite sports and players is a blast but it has always left me feeling cold. I watch sports, have played on a few adult rec teams, and certainly drive my kids to arenas and fields all year long but participating in one of these fantasy leagues has just never held any thrill for me.

Until recently when I was thinking that it could be possible to set something similar up for a publishing season. A group of friends could choose 5-10 authors who are publishing books that season and see how their books do in a set period of time with the markers for success being agreed upon ahead of time (as we wouldn’t be able to use the typical scoring stats available through runs, points scored or touchdowns). We could say that a starred review in Publishers Weekly or Kirkus was worth one point and a front page review in the New York Times Book Review with a colour illustration would be worth two points. If the author was interviewed on a major television network they would get three points and if they got a radio interview it would be two and on from there. The wager would be, of course, each person putting a gift certificate from Words Worth Books into the pot. At the end of the season we would tally up how well authors did and the first place winner would get all of the gift certificates. I think it would be so much fun to predict how well a book would do and take a risk on a debut author. Don’t you think?

51eaZ1mO9ML._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_I was musing over this because I recently read a book that I had refused to read – stubbornly – because every reviewer said that I had to read it. It was a ‘must read’ on every possible list. Madeleine Miller’s Circe was lauded by Kirkus, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly with starred reviews and glowing words of praise. NPR, Esquire, Cosmopolitan (!), The Boston Globe, The Millions and Book Riot all said it was on their list of books that you had to read for this year and The Guardian said it was “…unmissable culture for 2018.” I felt that every time I heard or read another thing about this witch’s tale I was more unlikely to read it. I felt like a toddler being led to steamed vegetables. No can do.

And then I heard an interview with author Madeline Miller where she read aloud from her book and shared a moment from the character’s first days as a new mother. She is walking with her infant and says that her son doesn’t like the sun, doesn’t like the wind, is unhappy on his back, is unhappy when placed on his stomach and doesn’t even cease to cry when she carries him but at least when he cries she has the consolation that he is still alive. I’m just remembering the bare bones of the words she used to share these feelings but it was so moving that it took me back to those early days when you have your first child and you hover outside the door after the baby is asleep – relieved that they are asleep but terrified that the silence means that they might have stopped breathing instead. I knew that this Madeleine Miller was someone I wanted to get to know through her writing.

Circe’s story is one you might have heard before as she is the daughter of the Greek sun-god Helios who grows into the powerful witch who can turn passing sailors into pigs. A useful skill. The author has given us a chance to meet Circe as a young girl who is unloved by her parents, shunned by everyone in the golden court and banished to live alone on an island where she starts to develop her skills with herbs and witchcraft. Her determined spirit and uncompromising nature make her a character to love and when she starts to finds her footing on the island you are completely won over. Through the book Circe meets Daedallus, the Minotaur, Athena, Medea, Odysseus, Zeus, turns so many men into pigs, performs an emergency C-section, casts spells, welcomes thieves and worse into her home, finds love and has her own beautiful son.

Sure, it’s a lot to fit into a lifetime, even for a goddess like Circe, but the moments in the book that seemed most beautiful were the ones where she seemed like someone we all know right now. In 2018. A powerful, thoughtful woman who is struggling to do what is right. At the end of the novel it really did seem like she would fit in with other wonderful female characters I’d read lately – as if she were from An American Marriage or That Kind of Mother. Her friends and lovers were just as real and present for me. All of those reviewers were right this time. I’m adding my voice to their chorus. This is the book that you have to read.

So, I’m just letting you know that in the fantasy authors league that I’m thinking of running, Madeleine Miller will be my first draft pick.

— Penny M.