Adult fiction

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Women Authors for Women’s History Month

Women Authors for Women’s History Month

by Rhonna Hargett, Associate Director of Learning and Information Services

Women have been sharing their stories for centuries. They have often been disrespected or pushed into the background, but from Sappho to Phyllis Wheatley, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Zora Neale Hurston, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan, women have written down their perspectives of the world. Manhattan Public Library is celebrating women authors for Women’s History Month in March. The female authors of the past have paved the way for the current rich selection of fantastic books by women.

Sleeping Beauty is one of the more troubling of the classic fairy tales when viewed through the lens of modern values, but in “A Spindle Splintered,” author Alix E. Harrow manages to reform it into a story of women’s strength. Due to a rare illness, Zinnia Gray has known her entire life that it is unlikely she will reach the age of 22. Her illness drew her to the story of Sleeping Beauty from a young age, so her best friend Charm creates a themed party based on the tale for Zinnia’s 21st (and likely last) birthday, even set in a tower, with a spindle at the ready. But the magic of the party becomes all too real when Zinnia pricks her finger on the spindle, finds herself spinning through time and space, and encounters other “Sleeping Beauties” living their own stories. “A Spindle Splintered” is an engaging tale full of adventure, reflection, renewed hope, and strong women.

Some women’s stories have been written in thread. In the nonfiction narrative “All That She Carried,” author Tiya Miles shares the story of a sack that was found at a flea market. It was embroidered with the story of an enslaved mother named Rose, packing up this sack with a few necessities for her beloved daughter Ashley, who was soon to be sold to another household. In 1921, it was embroidered by Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth, “It held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her ‘It be filled with my Love always.’” Miles, a Harvard history professor, carefully weaves together the researched history of the item with the representational power that it carries. She tells how strongly the sack affects visitors in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where it now resides. People have been brought to tears by this evidence of the cruelty of American slavery that also clearly demonstrates a mother’s hope for her daughter. Although the book is full of researched details, Miles’ engaging writing style draws one in and brings life to two women who lived over a century ago. “All That She Carried,” like Ashley’s sack, tells a brutal story combined with hope for a better future.

Isabel Allende captured the attention of readers throughout the world in 1982 with her book of magical realism, “The House of the Spirits.” She has since published 26 books, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, making her one of the most read Spanish-language authors in the world. Her books cover many different subjects, but her stories often give us a view of the lives of women and how they affect and are affected by the world around them.  Her book “A Long Petal of the Sea” is about the Dalmaus, a Spanish family living in the midst of civil war. We follow Victor, an Army doctor, and Roser, his brother’s pregnant young widow as they flee over the mountainous French border and finally to Chile. They arrive to a country and a family that neither one of them wanted, but they are survivors and eventually find a new version of home. In “A Long Petal of the Sea,” Allende once again demonstrates her trademark ability to show the small moments of beauty that exist in even the most difficult of circumstances.

Manhattan Public Library’s celebration of female authors is part of our ReadMHK program. Go to www.mhklibrary.org to find lists of recommended books and our podcast, and join us for a book discussion focused on women authors on the evening of Thursday, March 17th.

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Helping Others

Helping Others

by Rhonna Hargett, Associate Director of Learning and Information Services

cover of "What are you going through" by Sigrid Nunez. A grey cat sits on the arm of a navy couch on a blue background. The title words are blue, then orange, sky blue, yellow.Through the difficulties of the recent years, the shining stars of our society have been the helpers. Our healthcare workers and first responders have gone above and beyond to keep us safe in a world that sometimes feels chaotic. The January theme for the Manhattan Public Library reading program ReadMHK is “Helping and Mentoring Others.” In my experience, an important role we can all play is to help each other through rough times by just being present and providing community. I’ve found a few books that help us to explore what that can look like.

In the sweet and humorous book “Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman, a group of people at an open house for an apartment are accidentally taken hostage by a failed bank robber. Ro and Julia are about to have a baby and need a bigger place. Roger and Anna-Lena are spending their retirement avoiding conflict by flipping one apartment after another. Estelle is looking for a place for her granddaughter to live. Zara has been obsessed with apartment shopping for years. They end up trapped in the apartment together, with a relentlessly positive real estate agent, an unsuccessful bank robber, and an unexpected character locked in the bathroom. The story goes back and forth between the events taking place in the apartment and the investigation carried out by a frustrated father and son police team. What could be a terrifying situation ends up unexpectedly touching all of their lives in positive ways because they are forced to help each other as they have never done before. We know the main plot from the very beginning, but Backman is an expert at peeling back the layers of underlying stories until we learn the heart of the matter for each character.

What Are You Going Through” by National Book Award winning author Sigrid Nunez is the narration of a series of encounters that the main character experiences while moving through the world. She shares about her interaction with the host of her guest lodgings, her ex-husband, the grouchy neighbor she visits, and especially her friend from her youth. She listens to their struggles and triumphs, quietly allowing them to process their thoughts while we get to read her inward observations. The book is introspective and thoughtful, with observations on the meaning of life and death, but also has moments of humor. Nunez’s avoidance of named characters adds to a feel that this is a story of the human condition, that these encounters could have happened to anyone, anywhere. Throughout the book, her presence and listening ear provide support to those around her, even though she isn’t always sure whether she’s made the right choices.

In “The Music of Bees” by Eileen Garvin, rural Oregon beekeeper Alice Holtzman suffers from panic attacks after the sudden death of her husband. During an attack, she barely avoids running over Jake Stevenson, a young adult who was confined to a wheelchair after a stunt gone wrong during his senior year. During their encounter, Alice discovers Jake’s difficult home situation and invites him to live in her bunkhouse. Soon after, Alice offers some carpentry work and a home to Harry Stokes. Through their care for the bees and one another, the unlikely group creates a family and finds a way to start healing the wounds they each carry.

ReadMHK is a 9-month community-wide reading program during which we can make community connections through similar reading experiences.  To find more ways to participate in ReadMHK, including our podcast in which we interview Manhattan community members, themed book lists, and upcoming book discussions, go to our website at www.MHKlibrary.org.

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The Collective: One of the Year’s Best Thrillers

The Collective: One of the Year’s Best Thrillers By Alison Gaylin

Reviewed by Marcia Allen, Collection Services Librarian, Manhattan Public Library

Camille Gardener lost control of her life five years ago.  Heartbroken over the death of her 15-year-old daughter who attended a fraternity party, drank too much, was raped, and wound up freezing to death beyond the fraternity lawn, Camille has just made a terrible decision.  Mixing medications with alcohol, she feels it is a reasonable decision for her to attend the alleged rapist’s award ceremony for exemplary service.  Of course, this goes badly.  She loudly accuses him of murder, and Camille is quickly arrested for the disruption.  She is allowed a phone call that she places to her dear friend Luke, and she is released the next day.

The connection between Camille and Luke is a sad one.  When it became clear that Camille’s daughter would not survive her ordeal, Camille and her then-husband Matt decided to donate their daughter’s organs.  Luke is the recipient of the young victim’s heart.

A business card handed to Camille at the ceremony features one word on it: Niobe.  Camille researches the name and learns that Niobe was a figure of Greek mythology, a mother of twelve whose children were murdered when her bragging about them enraged the other Greek deities.  A follow-up email informs Camille of a group of mothers whose children’s murderers have not been punished.  Feeling that this might be a helpful support group, Camille reaches out to other grieving mothers via the dark web and learns that they are all involved in the business of untraceable justice, successfully torturing and murdering unpunished offenders.  Thus, begins a thriller that is unlike any other in recent publishing.  Following in the steps of our damaged protagonist, we are drawn into her involvement in this group and cringe when she performs tasks that become increasingly more daring and more productive.

What gives this book its special appeal?  It’s really a combination of several factors, all working together to create a believable and horrific tale of grief and its aftermath.  Camille, for example, is a character for whom we feel great empathy.  The man responsible for her daughter’s death was vindicated, and Camille was treated as a pariah for being so outraged and outspoken.  Though it has been five years since her daughter died, Camille has made no progress toward any sense of peace or acceptance, nor has she found any kind of helpful therapy.  Her role as grieving mother is a clear reminder to any parent of the awful pain inflicted when a child dies.

Another compelling aspect of the book is the depth to which Camille allows herself to be sucked into the actions of the Niobe group.  She finds herself doing things that she would never have considered had she not lost her daughter.  Her initial horror at what she has done quickly becomes an acceptance that she justifies because of her loss.  She does not seem to realize that once she is involved, there is no turning back.

The intricate plot is equally captivating.  Camille quickly learns that this group has been in operation for a few years, so its steps to retribution are convoluted and planned slowly over time to evade discovery.  We learn of Camille’s realizations just as she does, and there is something to be admired in the planning.

All in all, this is one heck of a story that begs to be read by those who enjoy thrillers.  You will find that “The Collective” does not disappoint.   Like me, you will probably rush to see what else author Gaylin has written, and you will not be surprised to learn that she earned an Edgar Award for one of her other thrillers, “If I Die Tonight.”

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