Howe Library’s Blog on Topics of the Day
3/24/23 | 3/1/23 | 1/26/23 | 12/29/22 | 12/20/22 | 12/8/22 | 11/18/22 | 11/1/22 | 10/7/22 | 10/6/22 | 5/20/22
March 24th 2023
Now Is Not the Time to Panic
Kevin Wilson is a staff favorite here at Howe Library and his new novel did not disappoint in the least.
His stories are kind of hard to pin down. They are quirky yet earnest. They are funny but also compassionate. And there’s always a darkness he is exploring alongside and within the oddball characters he creates. It’s a unique mix that makes Kevin Wilson’s novels incredibly charming, but never cozy. It’s a safe space with an edge!
For example: In The Family Fang, the story is centered on two children, now adults, who were raised by their eccentric performance artist parents. In Perfect Little Worlds a pregnant teen meets a billionaire doctor who invites her to join an attempted utopian community. In Nothing to See Here a former friend from college asks the story’s protagonist to be a nanny to her two children… that spontaneously catch on fire. So, you get the idea here. Weird little stories set in weird little corners of our world.
In Now Is Not the Time to Panic, there’s less of the quirk and more of the edginess and compassion. It’s a coming-of-age tale about two socially outcast teens. The two create some unique art that they disseminate around their town anonymously. It began as something that felt like a secret mission, something intimate they could share, and became something that gave their lives some meaning during a vapid summer in their hollowed-out coal-belt town. But not long after, folks begin to speculate wildly about the art. Who made it? What does it mean? Is it criminal? A cult? The whole town becomes enwrapped in something akin to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Rumors swirl. Things get out of hand. People get hurt, and worse.
At the heart of this story are two teenagers trying to make sense of who they are, who they are going to be in life, and the power of love and art.
Go check out all of Kevin Wilson’s novels, short story collections, audiobooks, and more!
March 1st 2023
Poetry. Most of us probably had a poor introduction to the form. In high school you likely schlepped through a dissection of The Wasteland trying to figure out “what it all means.” Or maybe someone forced you to squeeze every last life lesson from Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Jeez Louise! Why did we never get to enjoy poetry for what it was? Being deprived of the joy of it, many of us have been turned off by the form itself, imagining it too sophisticated or too pretentious (unfortunately, sometimes this is true). I am here to announce that, as someone who has themselves been turned off by the form in the past, there is joy in it that can be effortless and unacademic.
Here are a few poets that I think you might enjoy. Just read and take from them what you will. No need to ruminate for too long on their deeper meanings, but, if you’d like to do that as well, go right ahead. That’s the beauty of poetry, you can take as long as you’d like, no rush. Read it slowly. Read it even slower. Read it again. Whatever you want. Here are a few good places to start.
James Crews – is a Vermont poet and teacher whose own poems focus on nature, spirituality, and gratitude in everyday life. He’s edited several poetry collections with themes that commonly occur in his own works. His latest is The Path to Kindness: Poems of Connection and Joy. In it are poems from contemporary authors whose poems are a source of inspiration for the human spirit. Wonderful poems from this collection are Naomi Shihab Nye’s Kindness and Crews’ own Self-Compassion. James Crews also has books of poetry of his own including my favorite, Bluebird.
Alex Dimitrov – is a New York poet whose work is grounded in an appreciation for our world and an eye toward the wonder of it. He balances this positive disposition by being unashamedly himself, warts and all. His proclamations of love feel almost radical, flags planted in planted in the sand, announcing his love of life. He writes two endless poems on Twitter, Love and Loneliness, that are written in real time. My favorite poem from his latest collection Love and Other Poems is The Years.
Ada Limón – Ada is the current poet laureate of the United States and has been one of my favorite poets for years now. Her poems center on nature, human relationships, and the pain and joy of existing in our world. Her poems are often autobiographical and a theme, running through most of her work, is that we belong in this world, in this thing, this… whatever it is, and that we have a place in it. You can pick up any book by Ada Limón and you will not be disappointed. Her latest is The Hurting Kind.
January 26th 2023
Our Favorite Nonfiction & Poetry of 2022!
Here’s our favorite nonfiction and poetry reads of 2022. Click on the the book covers for links to our catalog.
Check out our eBooks and eAudiobooks here.
December 29th 2022
Our Favorite Fiction of 2022!
We sure did a lot of reading in 2022. This is the list of our favorite fiction books we read this year. Stay tuned for more best of lists soon: children’s, nonfiction, and poetry!
Check out our eBooks and eAudiobooks here.
December 20th 2022
Sometimes I like to read seasonally, maybe especially in winter. When there’s snow outside and snow falling in my book, I feel that much more immersed in the season. Here are a few snowy reads if you want to go all in for winter.
Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, by Gary Paulsen
I can’t even begin to imagine wanting to experience the kind of discomfort and danger Gary Paulsen describes in this book about racing across Alaska with his dogs. Frostbite, dog fights, hallucinations—no thanks! But sometimes it’s fun to read about someone else’s crazy idea of a good time. And if it’s not your favorite thing to get into a cold car these winter mornings, maybe you’ll feel that much better reading about what it’s like to emerge from a sleeping bag and start your chores (outside of course) when it’s fifty below. Amid the near-death experiences, some charmed moments: like when a chickadee perches for half a day on the hood of Paulsen’s parka.
The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann
Sometimes in winter you want a long book. Something substantial waiting patiently on your bedside table. Something you can live alongside for a while. The Magic Mountain is an especially good candidate in winter because it’s got what has to be one of the most terrifying blizzard scenes in all literature. It’s also a good novel for reading at a leisurely pace, all the better for witnessing the slow transformation of the main character, who goes to visit his cousin at a Swiss sanitorium for tubercular patients and ends up staying there himself for seven years. Time warps at the sanitorium, and the lines between sanity and madness, and health and illness waver. Nothing about any of this sounds funny, yet somehow this is a most amusing book. I laughed out loud twice.
The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
“In the clearness of this Himalayan air, mountains draw near, and in such splendor, tears come quietly to my eyes and cool on my sunburned cheeks … My head has cleared in these weeks free of intrusions—mail, telephones, people and their needs—and I respond to things spontaneously, without defensive or self-conscious screens.” Peter Matthiessen wrote this in October 1973—how much more do our heads need clearing of intrusions now. Reading this book, and following Matthiessen’s gaze as he treks across Nepal with a biologist friend who studies Himalayan blue sheep, clears my head a little. Matthiessen’s gaze takes in so very much, and when it isn’t trained on his path through the mountains, on every variety of wind and effect of the sun, it’s trained inward. A student of Zen Buddhism, he goes along with his friend in search of the elusive, rarely seen snow leopard that hunts the blue sheep, and also in search of enlightenment. Spoiler alert: There’s plenty of snow in this book but maybe no snow leopard. And maybe it’s better that way.
December 8th 2022
Ode to Ann
I am an unabashed Ann Patchett fangirl, particularly for her nonfiction. What I love most about her memoirs: she is so open about her life’s experiences. This is particularly valuable for (ahem) aspiring writers like myself, but I think it’s also just a trait of good writing. Who wants to read something where you can tell the writer’s holding back? Isn’t it better when they just go there? Again, I’m biased! But I think this truth-telling adds so much wisdom and poignancy to the work.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
My favorite essay in this collection is “The Getaway Car,” in which Ann tells of how she transformed herself from a waitress at TGI Fridays into one of the country’s most successful novelists. Other essay topics: dogs; marriage; divorce; starting a bookstore; and making ends meet as a creative person before she became a household name. I have read this collection several times, twice via audiobook.
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett
This memoir is about Ann’s close friendship with the late poet Lucy Grealy, who she attended both Sarah Lawrence and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with. Grealy is well-known for her memoir, Autobiography of a Face, in which she wrote about losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer and undergoing years of chemotherapy, radiation and reconstructive surgeries. Consequently, Grealy has a fascinating (and often heartbreaking) perspective on the subject of beauty.
These Precious Days by Ann Patchett
In her latest essay collection, These Precious Days, Ann tackles writing, shopping, holidays, furniture, and she gushes about one of my other favorite writers, children’s author Kate DiCamillo. Each essay is steeped in themes of mortality, especially the title essay, “These Precious Days,” about Ann’s intense friendship with Tom Hanks’s assistant. I know people who steer clear of these kinds of books because they feel too real. But in this collection, Ann has made it clear she’s accepted the fact that her own days are limited, and, for whatever reason, I find it oddly comforting and reassuring.
November 18th 2022
A Small Story of Big Courage
Claire Keegan’s short story Small Things Like These was published last year to much acclaim. It won the Orwell Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. When you read about Bill Furlong, his humble life, and his small act that took a great deal of courage, you’ll understand why it garnered such praise.
Taking place in Ireland during the 1980s, the story has the feeling of being set one hundred years before. The Ireland that Keegan presents is small, insulated, and quite traditional. The only reminders of the 20th century setting are in brief mention of pop culture or fashion, jarring moments of fast-forward clashing modernity with an antiquated moral order.
The story’s protagonist is a working-class family man who is loyal, hardworking, and keeps his head down. One morning he is making a fuel delivery and discovers something disturbing, though he is not exactly sure what he’s seen. When he tries to investigate further and ask questions, he is met with pushback from the town’s institutions, his peers, and most interestingly, his family. When Bill decides to act, he puts his reputation and his family at risk, because what he’s uncovering will not only horrify others, but it will expose the complicity of the entire town, that out of their own self interest they turned a blind eye to injustice and abuse.
Despite sadness of the topic, the courage Bill Furlong takes on provides for a deeply uplifting story. It’s an impressive feat that Keegan accomplishes so much in so few pages. Small Things Like These is short, spare, and well worthy of its acclaim.
November 1st 2022
If you’re looking for something playful these days, something that doesn’t bring more darkness to an already foreboding time we seem to live in, then you might want to pick up Unlikely Animals. Despite its lively tone, I would not call this a cozy read: drugs, missing persons, mental illness, etc. It’s has a kind of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink thing going on.
Set in the fictionalized Upper Valley town (that’s us, we live there!) of Everton, this novel is meandering, but one that eventually finds the path home.
Emma Starling has dropped out of med school and moved back to her hometown to reset. She has to deal with a lot. She hasn’t told her parents she’s dropped out of school. Her bitter, formerly drug addicted brother still lives at home, constantly criticizing his perceived perfect sister. Her mother is herself a perfectionist. Her father has a medical condition that causes him to have illusionary visions. His behavior leads to some truly calamitous situations around town that Emma must clean up. She needs a job and somehow ends up as a long-term substitute teacher to a class that has lost a classmate and a teacher to an illegal drug dealing trial. Oh, yeah, and the who thing is narrated by the ghosts in the local graveyard. So, there’s a lot going on here.
The thing that is looming over Emma as she’s moved back home is that her estranged, former best friend from high school is missing, vanished, presumed dead by some, or a runaway by others. Her father is obsessed with finding her friend, which leads to some eyebrow raising situations.
The entire novel takes place in the shadow of the real-life Corbin Park, which is a 19th-century game park set up by old money tycoons that survives to this day. It’s an odd and secretive place, with elk, wild boars, bears, and no one but it’s few members who are allowed in.
This novel is a little hard to describe because there are so many different parts moving about. But rather than seeming complicated, Annie Hartnett writes of a rich and lively town with eccentric characters whose personalities are as idiosyncratic as their interpersonal relationships are.
Unlikely Animals is a little bit of everything, a small-town and character driven novel, a funny story, a bit of a mystery, and a latter-day bildungsroman. It’s about friendship, and family, and how easily they can become frayed or torn apart and what it takes to mend them. For Emma it’s also the realization that our relationships to those we love are much more complicated than we often understand.
Click here for downloadable versions.
October 7th 2022
Why is this book on the shelf?
The other day I was looking at our shelf of new books and was astonished to see Trust by Hernan Diaz sitting there un-checked-out. I could not believe it. I had just read the book a few months ago and was so impressed by it that I thought: right here, one of the best books of the year. Folks are going to be fighting each other to get their hands on it. Instead, there it was, staring back at me, just being a book not being read. But let me explain.
The book is set in the early decades of the 20th century. Its main character is a robber baron type financier. Think Andrew Carnegie or J. P. Morgan types. The story alone is interesting, but Hernan Diaz also structures the novel in a way that is completely new to me. You begin by reading a novel titled Bonds. Yes, you are already reading a novel, but it’s a novel within the novel, a work of fiction set in the historical fiction world of Trust. You with me? The next section of the book is the unfinished memoirs of Andrew Bevel, the person who was fictionalized in Bonds, a book he is unhappy with as it paints him and his wife in an unflattering light. After that we get the story from the perspective of his secretary, many decades after his death. And finally, we get the long-lost journals of Andrew Bevel’s wife, Mildred.
What is brilliant about this book is the layering, the way in which the story is revealed, not through successive plot points, but through different perspectives. It’s a story of money and power and who gets to tell the story of a person, of who gets to write the history books. Though it is set one hundred years ago it is an oddly relevant book. Real power today is the ability to shape the perception of reality as Andrew Bevel did with immense success.
Good news though, folks. As I was finishing this post, Trust was gone, off the shelf and in someone’s hands. I was the able to sleep easily knowing that someone was reading Trust and being exhilarated by the gradual truths that are revealed layer by layer.
October 6th 2022
Reading about Ukraine
The Howe has a number of books that relate to Ukraine, whether nonfiction on the country’s history and current events, or literature by Ukrainian authors or set in Ukraine. We are grieved that war has put the spotlight on Ukraine, but we are grateful there are so many books to help us get to know this fascinating country.
New additions to our collection include these contemporary novels:
DEATH AND THE PENGUIN, by Andrey Kurkov, in which an obituary writer and the penguin he’s adopted from the Kyiv zoo navigate a post-Soviet landscape vulnerable to mafia harassment.
THE ORPHANAGE, by Serhiy Zhadan, which follows a Ukrainian teacher through the war zones of the Donbas to reach his nephew.
Kalani Pickhart’s I WILL DIE IN A FOREIGN LAND, which mixes fiction, documentary, and folktale to put the reader at the center of the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, and also manages to be a love story.
A new anthology, WORDS FOR WAR, gives us poems by Ukrainian poets from the years following 2014. The editors write in their preface, “As we try to understand the scope of the tragedy … poets shift our attention to the domain of the Self that survives, and the cost of its survival.”
Our nonfiction titles by area experts include:
THE GATES OF EUROPE: A HISTORY OF UKRAINE by historian Serhii Plokhy;
BLOODLANDS: EUROPE BETWEEN HITLER AND STALIN by historian Timothy Snyder;
RED FAMINE: STALIN’S WAR ON UKRAINE by journalist and historian Anne Applebaum;
and MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL by journalist Adam Higginbotham.
I also recommend the work of essayist and oral historian Svetlana Alexievich (including SECONDHAND TIME: THE LAST OF THE SOVIETS and VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL). Her books provide an immersive experience that lets you hear the voices of a broad spectrum of people in Ukraine and across the former Soviet Union.
Very Cold People
I’m not sure why I picked up Very Cold People in the first place. I must have read good reviews in print but that’s rarely enough to pick anything up (a lot of books get good reviews, ya know.). But something made me drawn to it and when I finally opened the first page I was completely sucked in, enwrapped in its tone and unsentimental style.
Very Cold People is a strange novel. It’s not necessarily a series of events, or plot points, but short paragraphs, almost vignettes, descriptions of small scenes peppered with perfectly detailed moments. The language can be spare, but the author can afford to be. She is deft at choosing the exact right napkins at a funeral or the uncomfortable stare from a strange relative. These are objects and feelings that already exist in your mind, and she chooses the right ones as if she’s plucking items off a supermarket shelf.
For much of the novel it’s as if nothing is happening, that it’s just a description of a young girl’s life in a 1970s/1980s New England town. But unbeknownst to you each detail is being slowly applied to our protagonist Ruthie, her family, and the town, forming something fuller.
Reading this novel felt like standing too close to a painting and then backing up. As each brushstroke is added a story emerges of people hiding secrets, suffering alone, erecting facades and harming others, never quiet coming to terms with their own trauma.
By the end of the novel, you understand that many details thought to be insignificant were in fact part of a greater story, part of a person hidden to everyone else. Manguso widens the lens, zooms out, and stories spiral backwards through the book revealing lives yearning for love but having it withheld in every needed moment.
So, yeah, I’ll admit, it’s not exactly a happy novel but there’s strength and hope there too, even if it doesn’t show up until much later.