Macho Classics, Mean Wit, and Maria Semple | What We’re Reading

This week, Library Journal and School Library Journal staff are reading some devasting children’s literature, particularly savory romance, smart and serious discussions of education reform, a popular page-turner, and classics that disappoint or challenge in various ways. Dig in! It’s a hearty offering.

Mahnaz Dar, Associate Editor, LJ

This week, I’m rereading an old favorite, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (Vintage). There’s so much great prose in this one, but here’s one of my favorite passages, in which Humbert Humbert bemoans his stepdaughter’s consumer-minded spirit.

If a roadside sign said: VISIT OUR GIFT SHOP—we had to visit it, had to buy its Indian curios, dolls, copper jewelry, cactus candy. The words “novelties and souvenirs” simply entranced her by their trochaic lilt. If some cafe sign proclaimed Icecold Drinks, she was automatically stirred, although all drinks everywhere were ice-cold. She it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster. And she attempted—unsuccessfully—to patronize only those restaurants where the holy spirit of Huncan Dines had descended upon the cute paper napkins and cottage-cheese-crested salads.

In a change of format, I’m also reading a Special Collector’s Edition of Rolling Stone magazine devoted to the Rolling Stones. In addition to interviews from the magazine’s archives and tons of great photos from over the years, it also highlights their 100 best songs (“Gimme Shelter” comes in at number one!).

Shelley Diaz, Associate Editor, SLJ

I’m on a middle-grade-novel fix right now. I’ve finished Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy (Walden Pond: HarperCollins.Sept.) and Holly Sloan Goldberg’s Counting by Sevens (Dial. Aug.) this week. Both are stellar titles and feature the kind of protagonists that are not usually seen in children’s literature. The main character in the fantastical The Real Boy is an orphaned boy who shares many of the same qualities as a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The narrator in Counting is also an orphan and most likely autistic with obsessive compulsive disorder tendencies as well.

But the most important thing that these novels have in common is that they turn the definition of family on its head. The protagonists are thrust into impossible situations that could break any person, let alone a child, but they each fashion a new world with the broken pieces, empowered by the love of the people that surround them and help them through.

Bette-Lee Fox, Managing Editor, LJ

I must sound like a broken record, but I continue to find great satisfaction in reading historical romances. This week I have begun Eileen Dreyer’s Once a Rake (Grand Central. Oct.), the latest title in her “Drakes Rakes” series about British operatives during and immediately following the Napoleonic War with France. Though reading all the books is a joy, this one seems easier to follow, perhaps because it is set outside of London proper and of this intriguing information-gathering effort’s headquarter (though I am only a third of the way into the book; anything can happen). A former trauma nurse, Dreyer has also written medical thrillers and paranormals, but this series is so thoroughly engaging, so emotionally taut, that it’s difficult to wait patiently for each new adventure. Her fans will be ravenous for this one.


Guy Gonzalez, Director, Content Strategy & Audience Development, LJ & SLJ

Between the warm weather and various gaming distractions, I haven’t picked up a book in weeks, but I finally pulled Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children (Bloomsbury) off of my teetering to-read pile and dove right in. Thanks to my love of New Orleans, it was recommended to me by two separate LJ colleagues after we published a positive review of it. Focused on the incredible challenges facing NOLA’s beleaguered school system (arguably the only reason I haven’t relocated yet!), Carr’s prologue immediately hooked me, wherein she notes, “Unlike most literature about New Orleans, this book focuses on what makes the city ordinary rather than extraordinary.” Too often, NOLA’s unique culture is exoticized, making what happens there easier to dismiss as exceptional, but as it has become Ground Zero for well-intentioned but ill-conceived “experiments” in education reform, emphasizing its ordinariness (how it’s actually “perversely American”) is critical for understanding what’s truly at stake.

Stephanie Klose, Media Editor, LJ

Fool that I am, I avoided Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Back Bay: Little, Brown) for a long time, since the plot synopsis (woman runs away from her life and responsibilities, daughter misses her and sets out to find her) sounded—frankly—both melodramatic and boring. I imagined rhapsodic passages about the pleasures of, say, drinking a latte without having to stop and wipe someone’s nose or the freedom to chart her own course through a museum on a rainy afternoon. But people kept recommending it to me, including one friend who said that Bernadette and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs were the two best books she’s read in the last year, and I finally picked up a copy this weekend. It is a delight, full of sly wit and genuinely compelling characters, one of the more genuinely fun reading experiences I’ve had recently. Bernadette herself is complicated and difficult and endearingly prickly. Her past and her feelings about her present, as well as how other people see her, are gradually revealed through emails, letters, memos, doctors’ and police reports, interspersed with commentary from Bee, Bernadette’s 15-year-old daughter. The format allows for a variety of points of view, some decidedly more reliable than others. And not a rhapsodic word to be found.

Molly McArdle, Assistant Book Review Editor, LJ

I just picked up Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (Vintage) again. I tried to start it after finishing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s truly stunning novel, Americanah, on a car ride back from Rehobeth beach, but after Adichie’s smart, keenly felt book, ol’ Cormac literally put me to sleep. I had gotten six pages in when I read, “What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them,” rolled my eyes, and then promptly closed them. Such a macho white dude sentence! I didn’t have the patience for it at the time, but now rereading it, instead of feeling a gut “ugh,” I am more aligned toward a sympathetic “oh.” These characters are so profoundly trapped by their masculinity, and (right now) I am reading the book as a tragedy of American manhood. All these silent, ruined men! The language is pretty gorgeous too, I’m not going to lie.

Rebecca Miller, Editorial Director, LJ and SLJ

I tapped LJ’s galley shelves for planning support for the upcoming Director’s Summit, and found Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works by Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King, and Kevin Bennett (Columbia Univ. Sept.). With my kids, I am on a Kevin Henkes trip: enjoying the exploits of Penny in Penny and Her Marble and savoring The Year of Billy Miller (both Greenwillow).

Meredith Schwartz, Senior Editor, News and Features, LJ

I am reading The Fran Lebowitz Reader (Vintage). I can see that it is meant to be in the tradition of Dorothy Parker, but it lacks Parker’s saving grace of turning her trenchant wit on herself. There’s a resemblance to the work of Cynthia Heimel, whom I adore, in genre (humor), setting (New York), period (1970s and 1980s) and characters (the vaguely artsy). But unlike Heimel or Parker, Lebowitz’s targets—so far—fail the “punch up, not down” test: gays, Jews, feminists, the young, stupid, or poor. She doesn’t fail to get off the occasional good line, but the context leaves me too annoyed to enjoy it.

Molly McArdle About Molly McArdle

Molly McArdle (, @mollitudo on Twitter) is Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review. She also manages the Library Journal tumblr.