Welcome to my blog. I am Miriam Downey, the Cyberlibrarian. I am a retired librarian and a lifelong reader. I read and review books in four major genres: fiction, non-fiction, memoir and spiritual. My goal is to relate what I read to my life experience. I read books culled from reviews in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Bookmarks, and The New Yorker. I also accept books from authors and publicists. I am having a great time.
Hope you will join me on the journey.
by Gina Welch
New York, Metropolitan Books, 2010
333 pages Religion
Unlike Gina Welch, I consider myself a Christian. But like her, I have had my doubts and questions about evangelical Christianity. How can they be so certain in a world of uncertainty? So, I read her book In the Land of Believers with great interest.
For two years, Gina Welch posed as a new Christian as she attended Truman Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg Virginia, Jerry Falwell’s church. She was there when the congregation moved into larger facilities and she was there when Jerry Falwell died. For two years, she attended Sunday services, participated in a singles ministry called EPIC, learned about evangelism in an evening class, and went on a mission trip to Alaska—a mission trip to save Alaskan souls.
She first thought that her sojourn would be as an anthropologist, trying to understand a culture she didn’t understand. She said that it was a while before she realized that there was “meaning behind the music and minds behind the slogans.” Welch felt that because she had very little understanding of Christianity, she would have to immerse herself in this new culture, and she would have to be saved and baptized in order to have some credibility in her new community. As the weeks became months, she gained friends and a new appreciation for religion, particularly religious music. She found that she loved to sing gospel songs at the top of her voice. The services made her feel good—she called it Feeling X, a feeling of "connection without comprehension."
As in most congregations, there are a myriad of personalities with varying levels of education and religious commitment. Welch discusses the people she meets, the services she attends, and the peculiarity of the religion she experiences. Most of it is done without sarcasm or condescension. What she discovers over and over is that there is true sincerity, generosity, and piety among the believers at the Thomas Road church. One of the things I found most interesting was that she developed true affection for Rev. Jerry Falwell and his message. While critics would scorn his grandstanding and fundraising, she saw the purity of his intent and the truth of his calling.
What she didn’t expect to find was people with whom she could identify, people for whom she would develop genuine affection—particularly a woman she calls “Alice” and the pastor to the singles group, “Ray.” The friendships are cemented in the mission trip the group takes to Alaska, where they endeavor to bring 100 people to Jesus. When she preached the words of salvation to the people of Alaska, she felt hypocritical, but she began to understand “how the structure of religion could correct personal chaos. Did it matter that the message was a placebo if the curative properties were real?” In this way, she was able to tap down her feelings of guilt and betrayal that were starting to overwhelm her. In the words of the reviewer in the LA Times: “That, in the end, provides the queasy fascination and suspense of this Judas kiss of a book: not Welch's unsurprising discoveries about evangelicals (it turns out they're human, even lovable) but the awareness that eventually someone -- she or one of the people she's fooled -- will unmask her, and heartbreak will follow.”
I am enough of a believer to feel uncomfortable about the deception, particularly her baptism at the Truman Road church. But I am realistic enough to know that I have participated in communion when I was feeling less that godly, and I have said words and prayed prayers that I didn’t quite believe. I appreciated her insight into evangelism, when she notes: “I finally understood what it felt like to believe you knew something that had the power to improve the lives of others. You felt compelled to share it.” In the Land of Believers is a clear-eyed look at evangelical Christianity through the eyes of a young, but intelligent, non-believer. I felt her sincerity even as I was feeling critical of her methods. I am not sure that an older person could have carried it off without exposing themselves or their life experiences. I would have tired of the whole thing much earlier than Welch did.
I worked for a while with two young evangelical women, naïve and idealistic. They believed that they were working with a bunch of sinners who needed to be redeemed. One day, a co-worker came into my office with a face full of incredulity: “They’re down on their knees in there, praying for us! They don’t need to be praying for us—they need to be praying that they can get all this backlogged work done!” I had to go into their office, thank them for their prayers, assure them that we knew that they cared about us, but that I wasn’t sure that this was the appropriate time or place for a prayer meeting. I didn’t want to dampen their enthusiasm, but really…!
I would draw your attention to two other books—Jesus Freak by Sara Miles, which discusses a whole different type of Christian evangelism and True When Whispered by Paul Escamilla which preaches a more mystical, quieter faith. I would also suggest that you read The Year of Living Biblically, in which A J. Jacobs tries to follow biblical mandates for an entire year.
This is a quote in today's Shelf Awareness newsletter.
"I have been discussing libraries as places and in the current struggle to preserve public libraries not enough stress has been laid on the library as a place not just a facility. To a child living in high flats, say, where space is at a premium and peace and quiet not always easy to find, a library is a haven. But, saying that, a library needs to be handy and local; it shouldn't require an expedition. Municipal authorities of all parties point to splendid new and scheduled central libraries as if this discharges them of their obligations. It doesn't. For a child a library needs to be round the corner. And if we lose local libraries it is children who will suffer. Of the libraries I have mentioned the most important for me was that first one, the dark and unprepossessing Armley Junior Library. I had just learned to read. I needed books. Add computers to that requirement maybe but a child from a poor family is today in exactly the same boat." --Alan Bennett
Yesterday, my daughter and infant granddaughter spent some time in the beautiful children's room of the Kalamazoo Public Library. We noticed that they have story times for all ages, even children as young as Adela (3 months). Adela and I read books while her mother looked for the books she needed to teach her parenting classes. It was a lovely experience, and Adela will be going to the infant story time next week.
It reminded me of my first library experiences at the Carnegie Library in Little Falls, Minnesota. I remember vividly walking up those marble steps and into a wonderland. My favorite books were Flicka, Ricka and Dicka, Snip, Snapp and Snurr and others in those series by Maj Lindman. Oh, how I loved that library. One of the big events of my childhood was when I was old enough to walk myself to the library, open those huge doors, find my own books, and present my own card to the librarian. A love affair began.
We moved to Duluth Minnesota when I was in the sixth grade, and I was able to have the same experience in another Carnegie Library, an even larger and more imposing edifice. There I was able to access what is currently called "Young Adult" fiction, and if I was very clever, I could sneak some adult fiction past the librarian. At that time I was into Vicki Barr, Cherry Ames, and other "career" books. I remember looking at the last page of the book, and if there was a boy's name on the last page, I knew that it was a romance and therefore readable on a summer afternoon. The Carnegie building in Duluth still exists on the hill overlooking the harbor, even though it no longer serves as a library.
Thanks to the money of Andrew Carnegie, children all over America were able to have the same experiences that I had. Between 1899-1917, Andrew Carnegie's money helped build over 2500 libraries in the United States--65 in Minnesota--two of which were so influential in my childhood.
Public libraries are one of the great treasures of the United States and whatever form they will take in the future, it is my fervent prayer that they will continue to be there for children, young and old.
Skin Kadash is in love with Ruby Jane Whittaker. He is a retired Portland OR police officer; she is an enigmatic owner of a chain of coffee shops. And she has disappeared and apparently doesn’t want to be found. This is the premise of County Line by Bill Cameron, the third in a series of books featuring Skin Kalish and Ruby Jane Whittaker.
Publisher’s Weekly calls County Line “noir” fiction, and I suppose it is, although it doesn’t have the sexual overtones that one has come to expect from such novels. What it does have is a protagonist who is as much a victim as he is a hard-boiled detective. Actually, he is a bit of a bumbler.
County Line is divided into three sections. The first section sets up the action; Skin returns to Portland following a convalescence from a shooting. Ruby Jane has disappeared. He engages her former lover, Pete to travel with him to the Midwest to try to find her. They have to contend with a couple of dead bodies before they even get to Ruby Jane, and when they finally find her, she quickly disappears again.
In a rather abrupt shift, part two of the book takes place some twenty years previously and tells us about the circumstances of Ruby Jane’s life as a teenager; circumstances which most likely led her back to her roots as an adult. I found this the most engaging section of the book, because it gives us our only real glimpse into the character of the mysterious Ruby—up to this point, we really know nothing about her. Life is neither easy nor fair for Ruby in her teenage years; she is only comfortable when she is playing basketball or running down country roads away from a horrid home life. I was particularly fond of the compassionate teacher who guided her through turbulent times.
We return to Skin and Pete in Part 3 when their search takes them to the San Juan Islands in Washington State and the climax of the book. Everything moves very quickly until the ending, and there are quite a few surprises in store for the reader.
Skin is an interesting character; frankly, he is pretty ordinary and very human. One reviewer says: “Rather than operating as a carefully objective investigator, he is caught up is his own emotional attachments. Kadash is not one of these machine-like master minds that populate so many of the popular thrillers of the day."
The teenage Ruby Jane is the star of this novel. She is feisty and creative in the ways in which she tries to solve rather unsolvable problems. Since the author gives us few clues as to the character of the adult Ruby Jane, we have to be satisfied with what we know of her as a teenager. I probably would have been happier reading about her teenage years if I had known her better as an adult. Perhaps if I had read the previous books by Cameron in which she is a character, Day One and Chasing Smoke, I would have a better understanding of her.
There are some unanswered questions in this thriller and some places where things just don’t ring true. On the whole, however, County Line is engrossing and fun to read from start to satisfying conclusion. Cameron has a knack for weaving a plot together in ways that keep the reader guessing.
Bill Cameron places his characters in settings he knows well; the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest, and Ruby Jane’s home and school are in the community where he grew up. As a Midwesterner, I was able to envision the country roads Ruby ran down. Cameron makes the setting very vivid.
One interesting sidelight is that there are several QR codes embedded in the book that a person with a smart phone can scan. These QR codes contain photos, interviews, and a deleted scene. A novel device in a novel—no one I knew had the application that could read them, however. There’s more information about how to use these QR codes on Cameron’s website.
I received County Line from the publicist. I can recommend it to my readers who like noir, crime, and thrillers. Start with the first book in the series for the best impact.
Where do I begin to reflect on the ingenious book, The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill? Ah—by its inspiration. McGill lives on the north coast of Northern Ireland, near the Cromore House, the inspiration for the novel. In 1892, a 4-year-old girl was found asphyxiated in the wardrobe of the house, and her mother was found guilty of her death and served a short term in prison where she gave birth to another daughter.
With these basic facts, McGill weaves a story that is as evocative of Northern Ireland as it is of the tragedy that transpired there. The narration alternates between the words of Maddie, who had been a housemaid in the house, and the diaries from prison of the mother, Harriet. When Maddie decides she must tell someone her version of what happened, it is the late 1960s, and she is in her mid-90s. She relates the tale to Harriet’s granddaughter Anna and her husband Conor. As one reviewer mentions, “The interplay of the voices of two exceptionally different personalities is perhaps the book's major achievement.”
Maddie’s point of view comes from her background as a child of rural Ireland. Taken into the household as a young teenager, she is in effect raised by the household’s staff. Compassionate and impressionable, her eyes take it all in, but the decisions she makes during those fateful days are those of a young girl. She remains in the employ of Anna’s mother until she returns to Cromore House as an old woman; the house has been converted to a retirement home. It is with the wisdom of old age that she is able to confront the circumstances of the death of Charlotte.
Harriet comes from an upper class Scottish family, marries Edward and moves to Ireland, and within 12 years has given birth to several sons and one daughter. Overwhelmed by parenting, she finds solace in riding horses and collecting butterflies, which she kills and mounts on shelves in a butterfly cabinet. She is free of restraints when she rides her horses and she is very much in control when she collects her butterflies. She says, “The end result is magnificent: I wish the catching of them could be more dignified.”
The history of Ireland in the late 1800s, the revolutionary changes of the 1960s, and the customs, legends, and characteristics of life by the sea are woven into the fabric of the novel. Everyone is close to the land, and McGill knows enough Irish lore to have her characters evoke the spirit of the setting as well as its physical characteristics. At one point Maddie says of Irish stories, “That’s what we do: tell made-up stories to fend off the night, to put off telling the truth.”
At the same time that we are imbued with the spirit of the place, we are led to feel compassion for the family and the staff, caught as they are in their circumstances. And surprisingly, we even feel compassion for Harriet as we begin to understand what brought her to the place where she felt she must shut Charlotte in the cabinet for soiling her clothes. She feels there is no way to deal with her many children except through punishment; they are just so naughty. "How are they ever to learn the effects of their thoughtlessness," she writes, "if not by punishment?"
I recently met up with an acquaintance that I hadn’t seen for many years. As mothers are wont to do, we caught up on the whereabouts of our offspring. My friend is one of the most rigid women I have ever known, and her childrearing was harsh and unyielding. Only one of her four daughters lives anywhere near her, and she hasn’t seen that daughter or her grandchild for several years. They are completely estranged because “she knows I don’t approve of her lifestyle.” It was an incredibly sad moment for me because I knew that daughter to be a lovely girl who grew up struggling to comply with arbitrary and debilitating rules. All the time I was reading about Harriet in The Butterfly Cabinet, I was remembering my friend and the pain she must live with every day. They are very similar women.
The theme of The Butterfly Cabinet comes in one of Harriet’s diary entries: “Death is so very straightforward when compared with the complexities of living.” Scattered throughout the book are bits of wisdom that helps us understand motivation even as it inspires us with the creativity of the author. As I read the book, I could imagine McGill pondering the events of 1892 every time she walked on the shoreline, gazing up at that home. What really went on there?
The Butterfly Cabinet came to me as part of a blog tour from The Free Press. Many other people have written about the book as part of the tour. I can highly recommend it.
Just what we need for August—a quirky, funny spy caper novel. James Whorton, Jr. has delivered this in a book named for its 14-year-old heroine, Angela Sloan. The novel takes place in 1972, a quirky time in American history, for sure.
Schoolgirl Angela realizes something is up when her father, a retired CIA agent, tells her that they have to go on the lam following the Watergate burglaries. Ray has been educating Angela about espionage, code names, and covers, and ultimately he leaves her on her own with a Plymouth Scamp, a fake ID, and a stack of $100 bills. Angela wises up fast and becomes less of a ninth grader and more of a spy as the summer wears on. Through no fault of her own she ends up with a Chinese Communist girl named Betty in her car and together they negotiate diner food, fleebag motels, road maps, and CIA agents. Betty is as much of a unique character as Angela is, and together they make a great pair, in the style of Thelma and Louise, only younger.
As the road trip wears on, the plot wears out a little bit, but not before some of the questions about Ray and Angela and Betty get answered. Betty and Angela meet up with a CIA agent and a band of hippies all of whom help to bring the book to a teetering halt. Whorton throws in an acid trip as well as an aborted bombing of CIA headquarters for good measure in case we have forgotten the era.
The best part of Angela Sloan is the deadpan style in which Whorton writes. There is a total suspension of disbelief because the heroine seems so credible. Although there are few laugh-out-loud moments, I had a constant smile on my face. I couldn’t help but love Angela and her go-for-it attitude. Would that I had had so much spunk when I was 14!
The book jacket says, this “is a priceless coming-of-age story about stealing diner food and salvaging lost identities.” Last month, I read the brilliant coming-of-age novel, Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell. All the way through the book Angela Sloan, I wished that Whorton had the marvelous writing style of Bonnie Jo Campbell and that Campbell’s heroine, Margo, had Angela’s ability to “just get out of there!” What a pair Angela and Margo would have made.
James Whorton Jr. is the author of two other books, Frankland and Approximately Heaven. He is a professor in the State University of New York system.
James Whorton Jr. website: http://www.jameswhortonjr.com/
The book has just been released. I was sent a copy by the publisher and am participating in a blog tour today. Although I usually quote reviewers in my blog, the book is so new that reviews are few and far between.
Here is my review for Once Upon a River: http://mimi-cyberlibrarian.blogspot.com/2011/07/once-upon-river.html
Everyone knows someone who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time playing video games. I have several video gamers within my own family. Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan have written a fascinating study on video games and their place in the lives of youth and adults. Glued to Games discusses the phenomenon of video games, the life skills that are manifested by their usage, how games are overused, and a practical roadmap to games. The book discusses why specific features and content connect with the psychological needs of players, and exactly how games build value and enthusiasm.
Rigby and Ryan, both PhDs, have come to Glued to Games from their interest in what motivates gameplay at a fundamental level, and not with the strident tone of those who would focus on the dangers of video games. For the parent (or in my case, the grandparent), the whole tenor of the book leads to different conclusions than might be met with another type of book.
I respect the approach of the authors. They suggest that video games satisfy three basic needs: the need for competence, the need for autonomy, and the need for relatedness. They say: “Competence refers to our innate desire to grow our abilities and gain mastery of new situations and challenges. Even watching infants at the earliest stages of development, we can clearly see the innate energy for competence at work as the child learns to master movement, language, and problem solving. Autonomy needs reflect our innate desire to take actions out of personal volition, and not because we are “controlled” by circumstances or by others. Experiencing a sense of choice and opportunity in our lives, and acting in ways that truly reflect our wishes, result in a satisfaction of this intrinsic autonomy need. Relatedness refers to our need to have meaningful connections to others. As with competence and autonomy, we see time and again that people seek out quality relationships simply for the intrinsic reward that comes from having a mutually supportive connection with others."
Games can give us “a rich field of opportunities to pursue, activities to undertake and challenges to conquer.” I really enjoyed thinking about how when the job is lousy and the stress levels are too high, video games are one way to find value. An hour or two spent with a video game can relax a tired mind and rejuvenate a worn-down psyche. The authors do suggest, however, that when people spend so much time with video games that their other life activities are curtailed, perhaps the gamer is not getting their needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness met in other areas of their lives. “This perspective allows for an approach that begins by addressing the core issue of basic need satisfaction, rather than simply criticizing, attacking or shaming too much game play.”
In the last chapter, the authors offer strategies for spouses and parents to help the gamer find balance in their gaming lives. This is a valuable book because it offers aha moments for game players, parents, and significant others. It puts an entirely different spin on the whole phenomenon.
I interviewed a grandchild and a son-in-law. Here is what they shared about their own video gaming.
Interview with my grandson, Lachlan, age 12
Lockie tells me his favorite video game is Call of Duty: Black Ops, and there is a fair amount of blood, because “Well, Grandma, it is a war game.” But he understands that the blood doesn’t really mean anything except that he is having success with the game. This would go along with what Rigby and Ryan indicate in the chapter on violence. Very few gamers act on the violence they experience in the game. Lockie says that he truly understands that this violence is an online experience that doesn’t translate to the real world.
Lockie says he particularly likes that he can be an expert at a game, but he also likes to play with his friends. His neighbor, Jack, is his favorite gaming partner, and they like to work cooperatively to complete the game. He does say that he has occasionally played against an online competitor, but he doesn’t think it is too much fun, because the interaction is too sporadic.
He says that he is too busy playing outside in the summer to play video games too much—maybe five hours a week, but in the winter he often plays two hours a day. One of his failings, he says, is that he gets too focused on the game and can’t stop and his parents have to make him get off the game. I know Lockie to be a fairly obsessive child, and he thinks that his ability to focus intently helps him to be really good at video games. But, he asserts that he doesn’t “clog up his brain” thinking about the game when he is off line.
What! Another gamer?
My son-in-law Garth is a fairly intent gamer, both video games and role-playing games. He’s not playing nearly as much now that his baby daughter has come, but he has played fairly obsessively in the past. He says that playing a video game is like reading a book. He has a hard time putting a book down, and in the same way, he has a hard time quitting a game before he has completed it. For Garth, the plot is everything. He says that if the story line of a game isn’t good, he will never get engrossed in the game and takes it back to the rental store.
I would think that my son-in-law and my grandson are fairly typical of most video game players. I’ve given Lachlan’s mother a copy of Glued to Games, which ought to ease her mind a great deal.
The following is an interview with Scott Rigby that was sent to me by the publicist, who also gave me online access to a copy of the book.
Q & A with Scott Rigby, Ph.D
Co-author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound
Q. You say that "fun," at least when it is defined as mindless entertainment is not really what hooks people into video games and that what really underlies their appeal is their ability to satisfy basic human needs. You call this the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS) model. Can you explain?
When one gazes at the lovely face of author, Jennifer Hillier, on the back flap of the book, Creep, it is hard to believe that such perverse characters could come from her pen. But indeed, this first-time author has delivered a memorable thriller with enough plot twists to keep even avid readers of thrillers happy.
The plot hinges around a psychology professor named Sheila, her graduate assistant Ethan, and her fiancé Morris. Sheila is having an affair with Ethan, but she has issues that extend beyond the affair. She is a recovering sex addict, a condition she has hidden from her fiancé. This however, is not her biggest problem. Ethan, with his murderous psychoses, is her biggest problem. The plot is fast paced and lurid, and at the conclusion has one more, rather unexpected twist. In an interview with Hillier, she suggests: “I've always been fascinated by worst-case scenarios. What if you cheated on your boyfriend? That's bad, obviously. But what if you cheated on your boyfriend with Hannibal Lecter? That's about as bad - and scary - as it gets.” This, of course, is the main premise of Creep.
Other reviewers relate the plot to Radiohead’s song, Creep, with its lyrics:
I don't care if it hurts
I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul
I want you to notice when I'm not around
You're so fucking special
I wish I was special
But I'm a creep
I'm a weirdo
What the hell I'm doing here?
I don't belong here
Of course, I have a huge learning curve when it comes to all things pop culture, so I had to find a video of Radiohead singing on You Tube. I was surprised that the lyrics were ugly but the music was kind of melodic and easy to listen to. Go figure!
One reviewer mentions that Creep “delivers on its main good, which is for the reader to gulp the book down in a sitting, maybe two.” That is most definitely true, and as you read quickly, you read through some of the plot devices that upon closer inspection are a bit opportune.
The characters are not pleasant people to know. It is hard to understand how Sheila, with her obvious problems, could have gotten as far in her career as she has. Morris, the fiancé, is a bit too nice. He certainly comes across as the “good guy” and may be too naïve and trusting for Sheila. I wondered how Morris and Sheila got this far along in their relationship—the wedding is scheduled for the next week—for there to be such a lack of understanding between the two. Ethan’s motivation is convenient and the reason behind his endless supply of money defies logic. He reminded me of the character Martin Vangerwho lives on the island in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larson, the one with the killing room in his basement. (By the way, I am a big fan of the Steig Larson books. I have a link to my reviews at the end of this blog posting.) Ethan seems way too young to have what he has and to have accomplished what he has accomplished (if accomplished is the appropriate term.) That being said, the whole plot does hang together and the action keeps the reader engaged.
I am not a huge fan of thrillers, but sometimes just sitting down for a few hours of pure escapism is just what I need. For that reason, I really enjoyed Creep. I received it from the publisher and participated in a blog tour to publicize the book.