Winter gives us Northwoods natives another reason to stay inside and read for months on end, but I’ve got a good reason for you to leave the house and read more books – Brainerd Public Library’s Winter Reading Program: Book Club Edition! Sign up at the front desk and then keep track of the books you read to be entered into drawings for great prizes. Give us a review of your latest hit or miss to get even more chances to win. If you are in a book club in the Brainerd area, fill out a survey to let us know what your group is all about and what books you have loved to discuss, and if we pick your club to feature in our display window, you could win a basketful of goodies. Even better, one lucky book club will get to choose the next Book Club in a Bag for the library to purchase!
The library has some great new Book Club in a Bag kits: “Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson and “Catherine the Great” by Robert K. Massie. We also now offer Book Club in a Bag: Large Print kits, which also include a copy of the book in audio CD format. “The Flight of Gemma Hardy” by Margot Livesey is available as a large print kit. Available as both regular and large print kits are: “The Language of Flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka and “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett. The kits are supported by the Friends of the Brainerd Public Library, and the large print kits added in 2012 were funded by generous grants from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the Wells Fargo Foundation and the Minnesota Library Foundation.
Read on to see if any of these books will entice your group of book lovers: At first glance, Victoria, the narrator of “The Language of Flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, is difficult to relate to: A foster care child for nearly as long as she can remember, she’s withdrawn, angry and unable to connect with anyone, whether they mean well or not. Diffenbaugh lets us step inside her head and heart to feel the resignation of her isolated existence, yet her determination to survive. She finds meaning and comfort in the language of flowers of the Victorian era. Each flower or plant carries a message to the recipient of the bouquet. You may know that a red rose means “love,” but did you know that a yellow one signifies infidelity? Wisteria means “welcome,” while a zinnia says “I mourn your absence.”
At the opening of the novel, Victoria has just turned 18 without being adopted, which means that she has aged out of the foster care system and will now have to find a job, housing and build a life entirely on her own. She manages to impress the owner of a local floral shop, who gives Victoria a chance to prove herself. As we follow her struggles and triumphs, we also get revelations of Victoria’s past, in foster homes where there was abuse and neglect and others where her foster parents tried to welcome her, but were unable to handle a damaged and difficult child. There is no doubt that Diffenbaugh intended her book partly to be a critical examination of the foster care system in the United States, but ultimately this is a story about one young woman dealing with the transition from childhood to living as an adult in a difficult world.
There have been several popular novels that involve the Japanese-American internment during World War II (“Snow Falling on Cedars” and “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” come to mind), but Julie Otsuka’s “The Buddha in the Attic” begins the story earlier, just after World War I. Young Japanese women traveled together by boat to the United States to meet their new husbands, who they only knew by the (often deceptive) photographs that were sent.
Otsuka tells the stories of the women in plural voice, which emphasizes the commonalities and differences of their experiences (“When we first heard our names being called out across the water one of us would cover her eyes and turn away — I want to go home — but the rest of us would lower our heads and smooth down the skirts of our kimonos and walk down the gangplank and step out into the still warm day. This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.”) Some have children, and those that do find their sons and daughters rejecting their mother’s cultural heritage are in favor of being more “American.” Then comes the day of infamy in Pearl Harbor, and the women are sent, often with their children, to internment camps for the duration of the war. Otsuka’s unusual storytelling technique will work for some readers and not others, but remains a fascinating and unsettling portrait of America in a particular moment in time.
“The Flight of Gemma Hardy” is author Margot Livesey’s reimagining of the classic “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë. Gemma Hardy is born in Iceland, but after her father’s death leaves her an orphan at age 10, she is taken by her kindly uncle to the Orkney Islands off of Scotland in the 1950s. For those who loved the original, it is intriguing to see how Livesey interprets the major scenes from Jane’s life into Gemma’s time and situation, and for those who found “Jane Eyre” too daunting, the prose is lighter and more modern. Like Jane, Gemma becomes an au pair for the niece of a mysterious man of considerable wealth, and like Jane’s Mr. Rochester, this man has his own secrets to keep.
Two great nonfiction titles are now available as Book Club in a Bag kits: “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” by Erik Larson and “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” by Robert K. Massie.
Larson, author of the wonderful “The Devil in the White City,” weaves the terrifying true tale of the United States Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, who was appointed in 1933 in the midst of Hitler’s rise to power. He brings his wife and two daughters with him; the elder, Martha, finds that she loves Berlin society life, becomes involved with a Nazi officer and eventually falls in love with an official at the Soviet Embassy. Ambassador Dodd, on the other hand, finds himself in an impossible position: Living in the capital of a nation rapidly becoming more hostile to the one he represents. Larson holds the reader in exquisite suspense as the fate of each Dodd family member hangs in the balance.
The biography of Catherine the Great by eminent Russian history scholar Massie is an examination of the incredible power held by one woman during a time when most women had little or no say in politics or the military. It is often difficult to remember that these larger-than-life rulers were human, and experienced joy and suffering as we do, but Massie deftly shows us this side of Catherine, too.
For a shorter, but no less affecting read, check out Julian Barnes’s 2011 prize-winning novel “The Sense of an Ending.” Protagonist Tony Webster is a middle-aged divorcée with a solid career and good relationships with his ex-wife and adult daughter, but two characters from his past return (one of them from the dead, it seems) and turn his placid existence upside down.
Ann Patchett’s latest novel brings us right into the depths of the Amazon rainforest, teeming with creatures both beautiful and terrifying. In “State of Wonder,” Dr. Marina Singh is charged with going into the tangled trees to find her former mentor, who has gone missing while conducting research for a promising new drug. During her journey, Marina encounters foul beasts, including some classified as [filtered word] sapiens. Thrilling and atmospheric, this book will transport you to another hemisphere altogether.
We have a few fun events coming up that will tempt you to brave the cold and snow that is inevitable this time of year. Ross Sutter is a very popular performer who plays an impressive array of folk instruments, guitar, bodhran, button accordion, dulcimer and bones, but is best known for his singular baritone voice. He will entertain and inform us at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17 at the library.
On Jan. 19, the library will host the fantastic Los Alegres Bailadores dance group from the Twin Cities. At 11 a.m. they will lead a preschool dance workshop, teaching the fun of Mexican dance and movement as the kids learn basic dance steps and appreciate Mexican culture and music. The workshop is free but pre-registration is required; call the library at 829-5574 to sign up. At 12:30 p.m. they will have a public performance, free and open to all. A children’s dance group and adults group from the dance troupe will be featured in this performance that is designed to link younger generations with their Mexican culture and to educate audiences with their traditional music.
Brainerd history is inextricably tied to the railroad that has cut through the middle of town for 150 years. At 4:30 p.m. Jan. 31, Minnesota railroad expert and author Steve Glischinski will talk about his new book, “Minnesota Railroads: A Photographic History, 1940-2012,” and some of his railroad adventures! All three of these events are free and open to the public and are funded by the Kitchigami Regional Library through the state of Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment funds to preserve arts and cultural heritage.
LAUREL M. HALL is the adult services coordinator for Kitchigami Regional Library System.