Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

I had never before read a Sherlock Holmes novel. I, of course, knew who Sherlock Holmes was. I had a mental image of him before ever opening one of Arthur Conan Doyle's books. But I felt that I was really missing out on something, making my classic an easy choice. I wish I could say I had a brilliant reason for choosing to read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes over one of Conan Doyle's other novels, but the truth is it was one of the few novels available at my library on the day I was there. However, I felt that it was a pretty good first read of this series.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is actually a collection of short stories, although the stories do refer to one another from time to time. It's a great pick to suggest to a reader who may not be sure that they want to read a classic. A reader can just read a story or two from this collection. Each story is around twenty pages making them a good length for a reluctant reader.

I also feel that this would make a good first classic read because this book if filled with so much. There's suspense, horror, humor and mystery. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is very much character driven. It was the characterization of Holmes that really made this book appealing to me. The best thing that I can compare Sherlock Holmes to is the TV series House. Like House, Holmes is a brilliant man who can often figure out things no one else can. He has a loyal friend, Dr. Watson, who reminds me of House's friend Dr Wilson. Holmes uses drugs, much like House has drug problems. Although, at least in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes' drug use is not mentioned very much. Both House and Holmes are arrogant and well aware of their brilliance. However, their characters are likeable despite their arrogance. Both characters make sarcastic comments which are fairly humorous at times. Much like watching different episodes of House, there is a mystery that holds each story together, and the ending of the short stories of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are somewhat known. The reader knows that Holmes will surely solve the case. It is following Holmes as he comes to the solution that is fun and exciting.

The only down side of this particular Holmes book was that while each chapter had a mystery, I'm not sure that a die-hard mystery fan would really enjoy the tales. It is hard to develop a full mystery with twists and unexpected results, as Agatha Christie does so well, in twenty pages or so. I'm interested to read a full-length Holmes novel to see if the mystery is developed a bit more fully. Overall, I enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to others.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Quality vs. Demand

What's more important? Which should the library be more concerned about? The quality of its materials or the demand of the masses? It's not an either/or. Both are important.

Libraries are not going to bring people in if they are focused solely on quality. Not everyone wants to read the classics. This would result in a feeling towards reading that many students feel in the classroom. Forcing students to read Melville, Shakespeare or Faulkner is not going to get many interested in reading. If the choices in the library for adults are along the same lines, then their views of reading will never change. Reading is important for reading's sake alone. Being able to engage the mind through reading is important. As Ross mentions in her article "Finding Without Seeking," even readers who read "fluff" are engaging their minds and learning. They are relating to characters or seeing a different view of the world. Just because they are not getting this reaction through classics does not diminish the effect that that reading experience had on them. Isn't opening peoples' minds to different view points, even if they're fairly minor, good for society as a whole? Isn't helping people engage their minds a public good? If libraries can reach people by listening to the demand, then there is nothing wrong with that.

On the flip side, however, there is something to be said for quality. Many classics have become a part of our shared knowledge, our culture. It's for the public good for a library to help in maintaining that. One of the students in another class is an elementary teacher. She had mentioned that she had asked her class to name some fairy tales. The only tale that anyone in her class could name was Shrek. They couldn't come up with Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood. That's incredibly sad to me. These fairy tales are shared knowledge in our society. If the next generation does not know them, what does that say about our society? About our culture? To me this is a prime example of the importance of the quality in the library. These stories may not appeal to patrons on their first few trips into the library, but as readers' advisors, we can eventually show readers quality materials that we think they'll enjoy. Use the demand to bring them in, so we can introduce them to the quality.

So, yes, I believe quality and demand are both important for a library. The trick is to find the balance. This can be difficult when there is limited space. But I believe it's important for a librarian to remember the importance of both sides of this argument because they are both quite valid.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Anansi Boys

Neil Gaiman has to be one of my new favorite authors. I was introduced to Gaiman as an undergrad with his Sandman graphic novels. I then read my first novel by him last semester in my Materials for Youth course, The Graveyard Book. Anansi Boys was my first Gaiman novel written for adults. I was not disappointed.

Anansi Boys follows Charles "Fat Charlie" Nancy, the son of the god Anansi. Anansi is the trickster spider-god of many tales. And there are several Anansi stories throughout the book.

In the beginning of the novel we learn that Fat Charlie is living and working in London and is engaged to an optimistic girl named Rosie. Fat Charlie, as is evident by his nickname, did not have it easy growing up. His father teased him and played tricks on him. For example, his father got Fat Charlie to dress up as President Taft on Presidents' Day, telling him that all the kids dressed up as their favorite president on that day. That's just the sort of childhood Fat Charlie had until he and his mother moved away from Fat Charlie's childhood home in Florida and moved to London. Fat Charlie's mother dies peacefully several years later and Fat Charlie's father came to say good-bye to her. We learn that they really did love one another.

Fat Charlie worked hard and was under-appreciated, but overall was doing okay for himself. He loved Rosie and was pretty happy with his lot in life. Until he learns that his father died. Fat Charlie then has to fly to Florida for his father's funeral. He hadn't been back to his childhood home since he and his mother left many years earlier. He remembers some of the houses and recognizes the old lady who lived near them, Mrs. Higgler. Mrs. Higgler surprises Fat Charlie by telling him that he has a brother. Fat Charlie thinks this is crazy. "It's true," Mrs. Higgler tells him. "Just tell a spider you want to see your brother, and he will come."

Fat Charlie figures Mrs. Higgler is now old and senile and doesn't pay her much mind. He returns home to London and Rosie. However, he has a thought lurking in the back of his mind that maybe he did have a brother at one point. Fat Charlie figures there's no harm in trying, and he picks up a spider and asks it to bring his brother to him.

The next day a man shows up at Fat Charlie's door. He says his name is Spider and that he's Fat Charlie's brother. Spider seems to be the opposite of Charlie. He's better looking and more charasmatic. He's able to talk his way out of things and can talk people and things into doing what he wants them to do. He's just like Fat Charlie's father. He's the brother who got the God part from their father. Once these brothers meet, madness occurs. Free-wheeling Spider finds that he likes living with Charlie. He likes pretending he is Charlie, and since he can make people think what he wants them to think, he can pretend to be Charlie pretty easily. Spider gets Charlie in trouble at work, he falls in love with Rosie and he adds a hot-tub to Fat Charlie's apartment. Eventually Fat Charlie has had enough with Spider and returns to Florida to talk with Mrs. Higgler and a few other women about ways to get rid of him. This forces Charlie to discover more about his father, his brother and the other gods, and maybe a little about himself too.

Anansi Boys is a pretty quick read filled with humor. The majority of the story is pretty light-hearted, while the final third is a bit darker. There are a few scenes of fairly graphic violence and some swearing throughout. As Gaiman is British, there is some British slang that not all readers may enjoy. (There isn't anymore slang than what readers of Harry Potter have already been introduced to.) This is certainly a fantasy, but it is set in a realistic place for the most part, which is the type of fantasy that I tend to enjoy. More of a mild fantasy, I guess. Overall, this is a fun read that I would highly recommend.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Big Stone Gap

Adriana Trigiani's Big Stone Gap was a title that I had heard about several years ago and never got around to reading. Then when I saw her suggested as a Gentle Read in my Reader's Advisory textbook, I decided now was the time to try it out.

Trigiani's Big Stone Gap, the first in a series, describes a small town in the mountains of Virginia during the 1970s. She emphasizes the beauty of the mountain surroundings and the eccentricities of the townsfolk. There's the flirtatious librarian who drives the bookmobile, the chain-smoking, wrestling-obsessed pharmacy assistant, the Baptist priest who uses poisonous snakes during his sermon, the lawyer who conducts meetings with a loud radio playing so his wife, his assistant and town gossip, does not eavesdrop on his conversations. These are just a few of the people who make up the town of Big Stone Gap.

Our heroine, 35-year-old Ave Maria Mulligan, is the town pharmacist and the town spinster. She's unique in this small mining town in that she's Italian. In the beginning of this novel we learn that Ave Maria had already lost her father, Mr. Mulligan who was raised in Big Stone Gap, several years back. Ave Maria explains that Mr. Mulligan was a tough man whom she did not get along with very well. We also learn early on that Ave Maria has also lost her mother. Her mother, we learn, died just a few months before the start of the novel. This death was hard on Ave Maria as she and her mother, who was born and raised in Italy, were very close.

As the novel progresses, Ave Maria discovers that her mother had kept some secrets from her. Most importantly, that Ave Maria had family in Italy. Ave Maria's life gets thrown for a loop as she works to discover where she comes from and who she is. Along the way, she is faced with challenges of identity, love and sacrifice.

While she does push the boundaries of a Gentle Read, Trigiani's novel is that of a simpler time. She does well in developing the small town feel. The reader really gets a sense of what this town is like and who these people are. Trigiani does mention sex, though not explicitly, and does use minimal soft curses. Overall though, this is a pleasant, feel-good book. I wouldn't say that I fell in love with this book though. Honestly, I did not feel as though I was ever fully absorbed by it. I think this was because I felt that Ave Maria's character could have been developed a little more fully. There were times when I almost felt that our heroine was overshadowed by the town itself. The town and the townsfolk were really what made this novel for me though.