All branches of Marin County Free Library will be closed on Monday, July 4 for Independence Day.

Neshama's Choices for 1st week in February

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This installment: colonialism gone awry; a CD about the worst you can imagine; a fascinating memoir about weight-loss and self-image; another memoir of paradox—a librarian with Tourette’s; poetry/myth that crashes through the genres; and a southern picaresque novel.



   Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura


Warning: this is a really grim book without any redemption to speak of.  So why did I read it, and why I want you to know about it? Because it plunged me into a powerful milieu and laid it out vividly.  There’s a large farm in an unnamed colonial country with a tyrannical old man, a miserable middle-aged son, and then a woman.  There are cattle and some crops, including a fish farm created in the middle of the river, but their primary revenue is from tourists who come for sport fishing. But it’s the beginning of a downward spiral—fewer visitors, threats of rebellion, and a volcano.  Carine, brought in to be the son’s fiancée, takes up with the randy old father. The rebels come, the mountain explodes—you get the picture. Kitamura wrote about fighting in her first book, Longshot, and here’s her unsentimental toughness applied to a dreadful aspect of recent history, very well depicted. So I read it for the experience and in part for the relief of finding out what happened and then closing the book.  (Yes, this is a recommendation, but only if you have appetites like mine—dark, dark, dark.)


   Wave by Sonali Deraniyagla


On CDs, this civilized light British-accented voice tells a tale of unbelievable horror.  Sonali was vacationing with her husband and two children in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck.  They got a short distance inland, but then the flood ripped her family away and somehow she was left relatively unscathed physically but utterly gutted in every other aspect. For a time, friends monitored her constantly to keep her from trying to join the rest of her family (as it were). Sonali traces each year, from utter numb withdrawal to gradual emergence, with some very dark episodes along the way. I’ve painted a very bleak picture here, but found it rewarding listening because it’s beautifully written and a testament to power of the human spirit. She had a wonderful family and here we glimpse their cozy, funny, luminous lives together—a fitting memorial.


   Stranger Here by Jen Larsen


Subtitled: how weight-loss surgery transformed my body and messed with my head. I learned about this book on KWMR (my local radio station) when the author was interviewed by the programmer who has a show right before mine.  I liked the sound of her voice and asked to borrow the book. It really grabbed me (I read it from 4-6 am the next morning) and couldn’t stop talking about it.  Why? Because it poses a conundrum, a “solution,” and surprising consequences. Jen, from a hefty family, was miserable at 300+ lbs.  She worked in a library, had a sweet sad sack boyfriend and a bunch of supportive friends.  Out of desperation, she went for this radical procedure that essentially keeps her from eating normally for the rest of her life.  The pounds came off, but along with them a radical reframing of how she’d lived her life so far   Not exactly a Cinderella story, but an exploration of essence versus societal pressures. Larsen’s gutsy, candid, and funny.


   The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne


Subtitled: a memoir of Tourette’s, faith, strength, and the power of family. Two of my favorite subjects (disability and my profession) wrangled with two personal resistances (the Mormon church and organized religion in general) but I was won over by Hanagarne’s honesty, candor, and vitality. He had it rough as a large kid who ticced and twitched growing up, but his parents were the model of healthy support. He took 10 years to get through college (hard to sit still and concentrate) but finally found a wonderful wife and a good place to work. His search for remedies was epic, with weight lifting proving to be a surprising source of relief. At the end, when he admits he just can’t take the Mormon Church any more, I felt like cheering.


   Red Doc by Anne Carson


What an intriguing writer!  This is catalogued as poetry but crashes through the genre, both accessible and mysterious (sometimes at the same time). It’s a story of sorts, combined with myth, written in a long thin column on the page. Proust sneaks in; so does Elvis. Action, and there’s lots of it, starts in a clinic and ends up with a volcanic explosion.  There’s a damaged veteran, Sad (his name); a prophet, 4NO; Hermes in a silver tuxedo—just a sampling of the wild and wonderful characters.  Sometimes I read without even pretending to understand a book as a whole but to have a fabulous experience with whatever comes through and that’s what I did with Red Doc. Highly recommended for the adventurous reader who’s willing to be baffled and charmed in turn.


   Heart of Palm by Laura Lee Smith


Southern picaresque. Near St. Augustine, FL, is the benighted town of Utina, home of the Bravo family—a funky yet attractive lot. Dean Bravo snags Arla, “perfect” and well brought up but yearning for adventure.  Instead she loses half a foot in a stupid accident (another Bravo specialty) and ends up in a crumbling waterfront house with 4 children. (Dean decamped.) They keep themselves barely afloat with a restaurant.  A developer has his eye on the property—might his offer be salvation? Twists and turns, wonderful character development and local color galore.


Back next Monday.




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Posted by: Neshama

Neshama works at the Fairfax Library.

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