Book Clubs, Freebies, and Spectacles | What We’re Reading

As Library Journal editors scurry to read all the nominees for the best books of 2013, other staffers in the School Library Journal/LJ offices don their specs; give Dave Eggers’s fiction a try; check out some starred books, vampire stories, and mysteries; and delve into their local book clubs’ fall picks.

Mahnaz Dar, Associate Editor, LJ
I’m still plowing through Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life (Ecco). Lennon’s still a teen (the band that would become the Beatles is known as the Quarrymen), but I did come across a fascinating excerpt about his feelings about his glasses. Growing up, Lennon hated wearing them, though briefly considered them fashionable after Buddy Holly entered the music scene:

Holly’s most radical departure from established rock-‘n’-roll style was an outsize pair of black horn-rimmed glasses. Coincidentally, this was a time when the new beatnik culture, simultaneously emanating from New York and Paris, and the first screen appearances by Anthony Perkins, had led many young men to cultivate just such an earnest, intellectual air. Holly’s glasses, allied to his neat appearance and polymathic talent, made him appear like some star student, sitting exams in each sphere of rock and passing every one with honors.

Sadly, though, Lennon’s aversion continued:

To be allowed to see him wearing them was a mark of intimacy, granted to almost no females and only a select circle of males. Among the latter was Paul’s brother Michael, a keen amateur photographer, whose lens sometimes caught the horn-rimmed John studying his guitar fretboard with a librarian’s earnestness. But by the time Mike clicked his shutter again, the horn-rims would have vanished.

Shelley M. Diaz, Associate Editor, SLJ
I just finished The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany (HarperPerennial), published in 2002, but as relevant today as ever. It’s about the residents of a once-lavish apartment building in Cairo, which has now fallen into disrepair and is occupied by people at all strata of Egyptian society. We follow the fates of six characters (from a womanizing middle-class engineer who laments the fall of the European-educated ruling class to the son of the doorkeeper who dreams of getting out of the slums through education) as they try to survive in post-revolution Egypt.
At times hard to follow because of my ignorance of Egyptian history, the novel and its multifaceted (but symbolic) characters did grow on me.
And I’m starting off the weekend with a treat: Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (Little, Brown), which turns the vampire genre on its head.

Francine Fialkoff, Library Consultant/Editor, LJ
My book group is reading The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout (Random), who also wrote Olive Kitteridge. It’s less grim than that book (which I loved) and a novel, rather than a collection of connected stories. The beginning has an annoying device—a mother and daughter from the same small Maine town as the Burgesses discuss the family obsessively, giving hints about their lives, and then the daughter, a writer, decides she will write their story. Once past that, however, the story gets real. It’s not a light book, as those who have read her previous work would expect. I can’t wait for the reaction of the folks in my book group.




Liz French, Associate Editor, LJ
While the LJ editors are deep in the jungle of best books reading, I am enjoying Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s latest “Department Q” novel, The Purity of Vengeance (Dutton), which I’m reviewing for LJ fiction editor Wilda Williams. I’ve only just started it, but so far it’s really good. The “hero,” police detective Carl Mørck, is a grump and a Luddite. He has a cantankerous relationship with his two assistants, Assad and Rose, and pretty much everybody—and everything. Here he is trying to send a text to his love interest Mona, a police psychiatrist:

He smiled, delved into his pocket for his mobile and stared despondently at the minuscule keys. If he sent Mona a text message it would take him ten minutes to write it, and if he called her he could wait just as long before she answered.
He sighed and began to text. The technology of mobile keypads was seemingly the work of Pygmies with macaroni for fingers, and the average northern European male who needed to operate such a contraption could only feel like a hippopotamus trying to play the flute.*

*translated by Martin Aitken

Barbara A.Genco, Manager, Special Projects, LJ
I have been part of a monthly, drop-in book group for several years. We’ve read Anglican oldies like C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. We enjoyed American classics by Melville, Twain, Cather. We’ve dipped into Southern writers like Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. This month we are reading Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif (Knopf). It is wild and immediate, engrossing, and sometimes very funny in wonderfully dark ways. Set in Karachi, Pakistan, the novel opens in the disintegrating “death hole” that is the chaotic Catholic Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments. Our heroine, Alice Bhatti, is being interviewed for a nurses’ aide position. Alice is a loser. She is a young, low caste, Roman Catholic woman with explosive anger issues. She must never disclose that she is newly released from the notorious Borstal Jail for Women and Children. Inexplicably, Alice, a truly unlikely spiritual vessel, also has the gift of healing.
The story opens with one the most funny and prophetic job interviews ever recorded:

Alice Bhatti first sits on the edge of her chair, feels dizzy, then fears the chair might slip from under her and she will end up sprawled on the floor with her legs splayed in the air. She moves back in the chair, the chair squeaks and she puts the file in her lap, then picks it up and clasps it to her chest. Then realizing that she is making a spectacle of herself, she puts it back in her lap and thrusts her hands under her thighs, to stop them from trembling…Her heart beats in her parched throat. A strange croak comes out of her mouth, a voice that surprises her, the voice of a baby frog complaining about being too small for this world…Later, people will say that they shouldn’t have given her this job—any job….

Guy Gonzalez, Director, Content Strategy & Audience Development, LJ
I’m reading The Circle by Dave Eggers (Knopf) and 170 pages in, it’s surprisingly…meh. While I share Eggers’s apparently deep skepticism about our social media and tech-obsessed culture and its potential dangers, he’s seemingly so blinded by it that he’s unable to write three-dimensional characters, severely weakening his story’s impact. It’s also not clear what he’s going for; satire, spoof, speculative fiction, suspense? He’s clumsily juggling elements of all four, but hasn’t nailed any of them yet, so the whole thing reads more like a Jimmy Fallon skit gone wrong than Jaron Lanier gone literary. And yet…there’s something oddly compelling about it that’s keeping me reading, though that might be more train wreck mode than anything else at this point. Especially disappointing since I loved Zeitoun and was looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about with Eggers’s fiction. (disclosure: I got a free copy of the book from the publisher.)

Rebecca Miller, Editor-in-Chief/LJS Director
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling (Riverhead) received a starred review in LJ in July and was given to me by a colleague at Penguin. This book offers atmospheric intensity and pressing foreboding that absorbs during the subway commute—reaching back with Antonio Yammara as he explores a budding friendship that is life altering. Here’s a brief passage from a scene in a billiard hall:

Outside those corridors, without a billiard cue in his hand, Laverde was unable to have a normal conversation, let alone a relationship. “Sometimes I think,” he told me the only time we talked somewhat seriously, “I’ve never looked anyone in the eye.” It was an exaggeration, but I’m not sure the man was exaggerating on purpose. After all, he wasn’t looking me in the eye when he said those words.
Now that so many years have passed, now that I remember with the benefit of an understanding I didn’t then have, I think of that conversation and it seems implausible that its importance didn’t hit me in the face. (And I tell myself at the same time that we’re terrible judges of the present moment, maybe because the present doesn’t actually exist: all is memory, this sentence that I just wrote is already a memory, this word is a memory that you, reader, just read.)….

Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email:, Twitter: @lizefrench