Posts Tagged Colum McCann

The Serendipity of Selecting Books, or How Do You Pick a Book to Read?

In the February 22 “By the Book” section of the New York Times Book Review Alice Hoffman gave this answer to the question: What book are you most eagerly anticipating this year? A novel I know nothing about that I happen to stumble upon, as I did once upon a time searching through my mother’s bookcase. That’s still the best reading experience: falling in love with a book I meet by accident.


I used to go along the library shelf and pick books by title, color, something else about the spine that caught my eye This method introduced me to authors I never would have found otherwise. I would read a piece of the flap or the first sentence or two to see if I potentially would like the book, but for the most part, those books were a surprise. I’ve never been one of those people who has to finish a book I start, so I wasn’t in danger of investing  time in something I didn’t like.

For a few years, I worked in the children’s department of our public library. As the head librarian valued my knowledge of YA books and respected my ideas, it was a great job. Until she resigned. The new head of the department was a nightmare and I soon left, too. I avoided the library and started buying books. Suddenly I was pickier. Now I would be wasting money if I didn’t finish a book.

Although I may have still done some shelf-selecting, I tended to read authors I knew I liked or tried books from reviews. The reviews proved less than satisfactory; I might have been okay with these selections if I was getting them from the library, but when I shelled out dollars and used space on my dwindling bookshelves, I became more critical and often never finished a volume.

For a number of years, I belonged to a book club which provided me with books and titles I never would have read without the suggestion of the group. Not all of these were great (The Celestine Prophecy) and some of them weren’t worth reading (Bridges of Madison County.) Overall, though, I was introduced to new titles and authors, until the group disbanded when more people wanted to discuss work and vacations than the content of the books.

During this past summer, I attended a writing retreat on Long Island. One of the instructors read a piece from a Colum McCann novel. It was beautiful. I wanted to read that book, not one of his recent ones, but I didn’t remember the title. Old Firehouse Books, my local independent bookstore, carried only TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin. Although my nemesis had finally been let go, and the library was a safe place again, I was out of the habit of going there.

One day in the fall we were at The Tattered Cover on Broadway in Denver. Truth be told, I prefer the LoDo location, but that day it was easier to access the main branch. I scanned the new titles but nothing looked like a sure thing, something I wanted to sink a large chunk of an afternoon’s salary into. As we were leaving, I remembered my desire to read Colum McCann. Like many bookstores, The Tattered Cover has added used books to its shelves, making its name more accurate. I found McCann on the shelf and pulled a book off, paid for it, and later that night started reading. It was lyrical, but it wasn’t what I expected. Many pages in, I turned back to the cover. Somehow I’d pulled The Mother of All Sorrows off the shelf, a book by Richard McCann, not Colum. Serendipity and a surprise book. Probably not something I would have picked to read on my own and an author I hadn’d heard of.

I’d made another serendipitous selection related to that trip to New York. Even though I’d brought a book with me to read on the plane, I like to browse airport bookstores. A friend had suggested In the Night Circus as a reading selection for my trip, but even though it was on the shelf, the pull of the unknown made me select another title, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, a German bestseller. I hadn’t read a book in translation in awhile, the title sounded somewhat intriguing, and the first sentence or two worked, so I bought that instead. I don’t believe I know anyone else who has read this story full of magical realism set in a another culture.

Cognate questions: How do you find books? Have your ever found a book by accident?

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Is a Unique Setting Necessary to the Goodness of a Novel?

Maybe there are two kinds of posts, those that are opinion and those that require research. The second could also include opinion, of course. After reading a comment by Saytchyn (see comment to previous post) that didn’t actually make it into the comments section for some reason, I decided to write separately about my thoughts on the ten characteristics of a First Class Novel.

What she said was that what met the criteria was subjective, and of course it is, but it also seems as if at least a few of the categories might have more objective measures. For one, transporting us to “unlikely cultures or times” seems as it can be objectively determined, although I’m not clear on the qualifier, “unlikely.” The reader should know if a book is set in a culture, country, or time in which they have never participated. Yes, few of us alive have been to a time prior to 1914. Does that give all historical fiction a point in the 1st class category? The book that Saytchyn mentions, The Bone Key by Sarah Monette, is set in England. If the reader has never traveled to London, does this qualify it as an “unlikely culture”? What if you have visited? What about an English reader living in London? Are they likely to think less of the book if they are familiar with the setting?

Here is the list of the first ten adult fiction books I have listed on Goodreads. Not sure why they are in the particular order they are, maybe by date I rated them? I’ll give a quick assessment of whether or not they meet the culture/country/times criteria.

1. Dancer (Colum McCann)–set in Russia and the world of dance   YES

2. Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)–New Orleans of the 1960s. Setting marginally meets the criteria but possibly the characters make it an “unlikely” culture.   Yes

3. Let The Right One In (John Ajvide Lindqvist)–Sweden world of vampires. YES

4. Mother of Sorrows (Richard McCann)–suburban Eastern US, 1950s or 60s.This would seem like a no for anyone over 40.  No.

5. Chang and Eng (Darin Strauss)–mid-1800 world of Siamese Twins in the US. YES

6. Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)–contemporary and mid-1900 England.  A very little bit, but how different in England from the US?  not really

7. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (Peter Hodges) mid 20th century mid-American small town.  No, at least if you’re over 25.

8. A Dangerous Woman Mary McGarry Morris –20th century small town.  No, again, if you are over 25.

9. Nobody’s Fool  and Straight Man Richard Russo–upstate New York, small town, 2oth century and college town in the Eastern Us.  No.

10. A Patchwork Planet (Anne Tyler)–20th century Baltimore. Again, not really.

What does this short analysis say? That I like books with a change in culture/time/country, but it isn’t  necessary for me to think a book first class. I know from that sampling that my love of Sense of an Ending was driven by the beautiful writing. The last five were related to the characters. Overall, for me, although a unique, interesting, or foreign setting adds to my assessment of a book, it’s not strictly necessary for me to call a book First Class.

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