Four Books for a Desert Island

If I’m ever really stranded on a desert island, the books I want to have with me must have titles like Raft Building for Dummies, 500 Ways to Cook Coconuts, Getting Along with Your Invisible Friends, and of course, How to Escape a Desert Island.

For that desert island visit with a small working sailboat, I want these four books instead.

image-of-invisible-cities-book-cover.jpgInvisible Cities by Italo Calvino

This book introduced me to Calvino, one of the great fabulists of the 20th Century.  Reading more like a prose poem than a novel with a plot, it is essentially a dialog in gestures and signs between Marco Polo and Genghis Khan as the explorer describes the empire of cities to its emperor.  Brief and beautiful. 

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

To me, this is one of the greatest love stories ever told.  Two men love the same woman, and when one dies, the other one steps up to take his rightful place.  But will she have him?
image-of-ulysses-book-cover.jpgUlysses by James Joyce

Joyce recreates 1904 Dublin in such detail I could reread this a hundred times and find new alleys and old friends each visit.


Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchonimage-of-mason-dixon-book.jpg

My favorite historical buddy novel.  Mason and Dixon create the line that divides north from south in the American colonies, meeting some of the stranger Founding Fathers, a Learned English Dog, a mechanical duck and the French chef who chases him… you get the idea.

How about you? What are your desert island books?

Book review: The Sound of Us by Sarah Willis

Sound of Us book coverIn The Sound of Us (by Sarah Willis), Alice Marlowe, an interpreter for the deaf, receives a phone call in the middle of the night that is clearly a wrong number. On the other end of the line is a six-year-old girl who is all alone and trying to reach her aunt. Alice knows she shouldn’t get involved, but she does anyway, and eventually she applies to be a foster parent for the little girl. It’s typical of Alice to insert herself in people’s lives this way, an inclination she struggles with in her daily work as an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. I really liked this novel for the way it looks at how we communicate and connect with people. The little girl, who is not deaf, learns to finger spell and also learns a few special signs that are both a self-comforting tool and a way to talk with Alice. I also like the way that the assumptions we make about people’s levels of responsibility or parenting skills are often short sighted, and how Alice’s world changes through her relationship with this little girl and the young mother who is struggling to get on her feet. The author also gives us a glimpse into deaf culture and ASL, which is a complete language with its own syntax that is quite different from spoken or written English. Another book I enjoyed is Between, Georgia, by Joshilyn Jackson, for the way the author wove ASL and deaf culture into the story.

Both of these books come to mind now that it’s March, which is officially Disability Awareness Month. Individuals’ disabilities aren’t the focus of either book, but the characters’ stories have an added layer. Sort of like life. I also really enjoyed these four suggestions (two fiction and two nonfiction) mentioned earlier this month, right here on Shelf Talk, when my colleague Anne talked about Disability Awareness Month.

Arthur C. Clarke’s best books

When I was in third grade, in the early 1970s, I encountered Arthur C. Clarke on a classroom book spinner.  I was intrigued by the cover and the title and promptly took the book home and devoured it, thus beginning a lifelong love of hard science fiction.  My tastes have broadened considerable since, but most of my teen years were spent reading Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein and others.  Clarke, who wrote more than 100 books and 1,000 short stories and essays,  died on March 18 at age 90 at his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka (see this excellent obituary from the Washington Post).  Here are my favorite four Arthur C. Clarke titles, with thanks to the late master.

image-of-2001-space-odyssey-book-cover.jpg2001: A Space Odyssey  His best-known work, and one of the best movies of the century, this story deals with humanity’s first encounter with an alien intelligence beyond our comprehension. 

Childhood’s End One of his first works, in which giant silver ships appear in Earth’s skies and take up the best and brightest humans for future evolution while eliminating the rest, with an ending that is positively Wagnerian.

image-of-fountains-of-paradise-book-cover.jpgThe Fountains of Paradise No aliens in this one! This story contemplates the construction of elevators from equatorial Earth to space – an idea which is under serious consideration among scientists today. It must be noted that Clarke was the first to imagine communications satellites orbiting the Earth, so the plausibility of the story makes it all the more fascinating.


 Rendezvous with Rama tells of humanity’s first encounter with alien life, in the form of a huge cylinder approaching Earth that poses more questions than answers.

Comedy from Canada

Slings & ArrowsAre you constantly annoyed by what’s on commercial television and find you have watched all the hot HBO series from beginning to end? Try Slings & Arrows, a three season comedy from Canada available on DVD. The story takes place behind the scenes of the fictional New Burbage Festival, a theatre troupe modeled loosely on the real life Stratford Festival, in Stratford Ontario. The Canadian actors and writers offer a subtly different voice from the US or British shows I’m used to and the episodes are chock full of behind the scenes back-biting and shenanigans delivered with pure Shakespearian flair.

The first season begins when the festival falls on difficult times with the untimely demise of its artistic director Oliver Welles. In a pinch they bring in the notorious Geoffrey Tennant, formerly an actor with the production, best remembered for his mental breakdown while on stage seven years earlier playing Hamlet. Tennant must cope with the notoriously difficult play, the foibles of his cast of actors, a sponsor run rampant AND the ghost of Oliver. No need to be Shakespeare literate to enjoy the production – the fine acting brings the playscript to life right before your eyes.

Book review: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

dreamers-of-the-day.jpgMary Doria Russell visits The Seattle Public Library this Thursday (March 20) to introduce her new book, Dreamers of the Day, to the delight of her many Seattle fans. Mary’s first book, The Sparrow, won the James Tiptree award in 1996 and the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1998, and still is in constant demand by book groups and library patrons who are discovering her talent for the first time. The sequel, Children of God, continues this literary philosophical science fiction story, though it has not received due acclaim. A Thread of Grace (2005) captured the hearts of readers with a masterfully conceived historical novel set in World War II Italy.

Lit lovers have come to expect great things from Russell’s creative mind, and Dreamers of the Day delivers. We loved Father Emilio in The Sparrow and Renzo in A Thread of Grace, and we cannot help but be enchanted by Agnes Shanklin in this fourth novel by the virtuoso of characterization and surprising plot nuance. The only surviving member of her family after the Great Influenza, Agnes shakes off grief in an uncharacteristic visit to Cleveland’s shopping district. Hair bobbed and stylishly attired, the shy and unattractive 40-year-old spinster ignores her ghostly “mumma’s” cautionary Continue reading “Book review: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell”