For People Who Love Books

The Library Book     Susan Orlean     (2018) 


Susan Orlean has been a staff writer for the New Yorker for decades, so she knows how to write a punchy piece about a disaster like the catastrophic 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library. But this time, instead of boiling her investigations down to 5000 words, she has expanded them into a book-length exploration of the Los Angeles Public Library and of libraries in general. With each chapter of The Library Book she traipses off in a different direction—the biographies of early librarians in LA, her own love of books, and even the burning of books as a tool of oppression in Nazi Germany.  

Threading through it all is Orlean’s search for answers to why the LA Public Library burned in 1986, with the incineration of 400,000 books and serious damage to 700,000 more. Orlean keeps coming back to arson suspect Harry Peak, and she interviews Peak’s family, friends, and associates as she tries to figure out what really happened. Orlean’s weaving of the story is mesmerizing. You come away knowing a lot more about the creation of books and libraries, without even realizing that you’ve been taught.  

Her insights into the value of public libraries, backed by many examples, are priceless. Here are a few:  

  • “The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.” (67)

  • “In times of trouble libraries are sanctuaries. They become town squares and community centers—even blood-draw locations.” (76)

  • “Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.” (103) 

My home-town source for reading material, the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL), is a gem of a system. Since I can’t afford to buy books, all the reviews on this Cedar Park Book Blog are based on my borrowings from AADL, which has an aggressive acquisitions program as well as exceptional staff at all levels. The visionary Library Director, Josie Parker, has shepherded the AADL into the digital age while retaining all the qualities of a traditional library. I applaud the Ann Arbor District Library as I recommend Susan Orlean’s book, which is an encomium for all libraries.  

For you writers out there, I offer one more quotation: 

“You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage—the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.” (309-310)

Gentle Swedish Novels

Although the international taste for Nordic Noir is strong, not all the books coming out of Sweden are dark thrillers. The novels reviewed below may not suit you if your taste runs to authors Stieg Larsson (with sleuths Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander) and Henning Mankell (with detective Kurt Wallander). I harbor a fascination with Scandinavian culture, so I embrace a wide range of titles from the land of Volvos, fjords, aurora borealis, and IKEA. Here are two gentle offerings from the Swedes.  

Review #1

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend     Katarina Bivald     (2016)

Translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies

A stranger comes to town:  it’s an ancient and oft-used storyline, maybe because it has built-in plot development potential. The stranger learns the ways of the town. The town learns the ways of the stranger. The author can add to this mix some conflict, some romance, or some comical misunderstanding. Debut novelist Katarina Bivald takes advantage of all the plot possibilities in The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend.


Sara Lindqvist arrives in Broken Wheel, Iowa, one August day in 2011 to visit her pen pal, Amy Harris. Sara and Amy have in common that they’re voracious readers.  Over a couple of years, Sara has gotten Amy to read Swedish bestsellers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Amy has introduced Sara to American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird.  Sara, who’s in her late 20s, has never traveled outside her native Sweden, but when she gets laid off from her job as a bookstore clerk, she decides to use her savings to take an extended trip to Iowa. Sara’s fluent in English, but she’s not prepared for small-town America still in the grips of a major recession. Not to mention that she arrives on the very day of the elderly Amy’s funeral.

The residents of Broken Wheel include all the stock characters. A gay couple owns the saloon, and an unemployed schoolteacher is the local busybody. A semi-reformed alcoholic with a sad family history serves as Sara’s chauffeur. The loud-mouthed, overweight proprietor of the diner keeps Sara fed. Amy’s handsome nephew Tom becomes Sara’s love interest.

Sara has a talent for finding just the right book, from Amy’s extensive collection, for each resident of Broken Wheel. As the Iowans embrace their European waif, the story plays out with the involvement of befuddled US immigration officials. The premise of Bivald’s novel has become more far-fetched since the 2016 American election, when anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States elected Trump, who is especially popular in Iowa. Bivald not only romanticizes rural America but also hits on many clichés.

Still, I don’t want to disparage this book. Bivald’s character Sara has wide-ranging literary tastes. She adores Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels, but she also knows her Jane Austen backward and forward. She’d just as soon pick up a book by Goethe or Annie Proulx as one by Fannie Flagg. I’m more of a book snob than Sara—I draw the line at The Bridges of Madison County. But Sara’s encounter with the Americans of Broken Wheel cheered my heart for a while.

Review #2

A Man Called Ove     Fredrik Backman (2014)

Translated from Swedish by Henning Koch

Good luck with finding a definitive pronunciation for “Ove.” I pronounce it something like “oo-vuh,” but I don’t speak Swedish.

No matter how the name sounds in your head, Ove is a Swedish curmudgeon in late middle age, and he’s not an endearing one. We meet him making his rounds as self-appointed, and unwelcome, policing agent for his neighborhood. He’s also figuring out how to commit suicide, which is perhaps a nod to that Nordic Noir tradition. The other characters in this novel are pretty much stereotypes: the saintly wife, the vivacious neighbor, the unfeeling government official, the malicious cat.


Over the course of the novel, we gradually get Ove’s life story, and we come to be more sympathetic to him. The ending is not exactly happily-ever-after, but there’s satisfying plot resolution for a number of the characters.

A Man Called Ove and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend are not "literary fiction," true. However, they present optimism in the face of difficult circumstances, which many readers may welcome in this troubled world. There’s also in each novel a refreshing societal acceptance of cultural outsiders. I think that both books have some affinity with the work of that prolific Scot Alexander McCall Smith. I read McCall Smith’s books in one sitting, and I always arise feeling a bit better about life.