The not-reviewed book pile is getting a bit out of hand again so today is going to (hopefully) by a multi-post day.
First off is 'The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend' by Katarina Bivald, who sounds from her website just like a version of Sara from her book. I bought this as a little treat for myself in anticipation of my trip to hospital and it has been as thoroughly heartwarming as the review promised.
When she loses her job with the closure of the bookstore our young hero Sara arrives in Broken Wheel, Iowa to visit her long time pen-friend Amy, only to discover that Amy has died (not altogether unexpectedly to her friends and neighbours, but it is to Sara). Amy, it seems, was pretty much the hub of her local community and they all seem a little adrift without her, but they hold it together enough to insist that Sara stays on in her house and that they will all share in taking care of her. Rather overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers Sara decided upon a plan to repay them; she will share her love of reading with the residents of Broken Wheel. Unbeknownst to her, they also have a plan for her.
It is the story of a declining community that is bought back to life under the influence of a driving passion. They are all a little curious about this reading thing, but at the same time suspicious. The harsh realities of life in a place with very little hope makes most of them wary of delving into the unknown, and it takes quite a bit of coaxing by Sara. The tipping point comes with the previously unspoken 'rivalry' between Broken Wheel and the neighbouring town of Hope, a place they feel has contributed to sucking the life from their town. The desire to prove that they still have some life and some fight left in them culminates in a market and a party that draws the efforts of the townsfolk together.
I liked Sara because of her wonderfully eclectic reading taste, it was the only time she became unselfconscious when she was trying to persuade her new neighbours to read. One day she sits reading in the shop, oblivious to the growing crowd observing her through the window; her behaviour is seen as so peculiar that it arouses people's curiosity. She helped people see new aspects of themselves, not by being clever and telling people what they ought to read but simply by handing them books.
Things that annoyed me: you would not have a bar in a small community like that run by two gay men and not have it already be the hub of whatever gay community lived locally. John, the only black man in the story, and a lifelong close friend of Amy does not really feature in the story; I kept expecting his part in her life to be bought to the fore but it was utterly neglected. There is no a single other person in either Broken Wheel or Hope who is an avid reader and comes to the shop with enthusiasm, I find this impossible to believe. Now while I am frequently naive about stuff, human nature in particular, Sara's protective concern about 'unhappy endings' annoyed me, because books are real life, they are not some kind of rose garden of happy ever after. Here she is categorising the shelves in her shop:
"SMALL-TOWN LIFE felt like a given, when she thought about it. People wanted to read about themselves. The only problem was that the category involved a lot of sex, violence and weaponry too, but no categorisation system would be perfect.
She paused at Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Clearly small-town life, but also with such loathsome ending that she wondered whether it was morally defensible to sell them. Eventually, she put them out anyway, but used one of the pieces of cardboard to cut out a smaller sign which she stuck up next to them. 'Warning: unhappy ending!' she wrote.
If bookshop owners had taken the responsibility to hang warning signs, her life would have been much easier. Cigarette packets came with warnings, so why not tragic books? There was wording on bottles of beer warning you not to drink and drive, but not a single word about the consequences of reading books without tissues to hand."
Sorry, but if you only read books that make life easier you're doing it wrong. Having said that it helps me to occasionally read a book that shows people working together to make their lives better, because I like to believe it really happens.