Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.

After that lengthy synopsis, I’m not sure what else there is to say, other than to talk about my experience reading this book.

The short version is — I loved it.

Susan Orlean is a brilliant writer, new to me, although I’ve been hearing about The Orchid Thief for years and always meant to get to it (and after finishing The Library Book, finally bought myself a copy). The story here is fascinating and multi-layered. The framing device of the book is the 1986 Los Angeles library fire, which is devastating and horrifying to read about, as the author takes us practically minute by minute through the fire’s path and shows us the awful damage done during those terrible hours.

Interspersed with the story of the fire is a history of the role of libraries in society, focusing mainly (but not exclusively) on the history of the library in Los Angeles, showing the library as a reflection of the society it serves, its challenges and its triumphs. We see how public libraries have evolved over time, and how those who work in libraries are devoted both to serving the public and to keeping public libraries vital and vibrant, even as society and technology constantly change and provide fresh challenges to the concept of what a library actually is.

We also meet amazing people, past and present, who played a part in the Los Angeles library, from head librarians to architects to security guards. It’s amazing to see the incredible talent and intelligence and humor of the people who helped build the library system and who continue to keep it relevant and important.

The story of Harry Peak is the most puzzling piece of the book — an unsuccessful actor who was suspected of the arson, but whose constantly shifting stories and alibis made any sort of case against him questionable at best. He’s an odd person, and so much is uncertain — but it’s interesting to see how his strange life intersected with such a major civic disaster.

Susan Orlean’s writing is gorgeous. Like the best non-fiction, it flows and captivates, and I never for a moment felt bored or like I was reading a dusty, dry history book.

On visiting a boarded-up, abandoned branch library:

This building made the permanence of libraries feel forsaken. This was a shrine to being forgotten; to memories sprinkled like salt; ideas vaporized as if they never had been formed; stories evaporated as if they had no substance and no weight keeping them bound to the earth and to each of us, and most of all, to the yet-unfolded future.

Other memorable (or just entertaining) lines and passages:

In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries.

In the year leading up to Prohibition, when the ban on alcohol seemed inevitable, every book about how to make liquor at home was checked out, and most were never returned.

[Althea] Warren was probably the most avid reader who ever ran the library. She believed librarians’ single greatest responsibility was to read voraciously. Perhaps she advocated this in order to be sure librarians knew their books, but for Warren, this directive was based in emotion and philosophy: She wanted librarians to simply adore the act of reading for its own sake, and perhaps, as a collateral benefit, they could inspire their patrons to read with a similarly insatiable appetite. As she said in a speech to a library association in 1935, librarians should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.”

The library is a whispering post. 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.

The Library Book is simply a delicious read, perfect for anyone who appreciates finely detailed research, expressive writing, and a passion for books and libraries. I loved this book, and can’t wait to give copies to a whole bunch of book-obsessed friends.

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The details:

Title: The Library Book
Author: Susan Orlean
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 317 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Source: Gift (yay!)

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Shelf Control #139: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
Published: 1966
Length: 343 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy about 5 years ago at a used book store in Anchorage, Alaska (of all places!)

Why I want to read it:

In Cold Blood is one of those modern classics that seemingly everyone reads eventually. I never had it assigned for school, and just never got around to picking up a copy until recently. It seems like a big oversight in my reading life never to have taken the time to read In Cold Blood, and I’m planning to make this a priority in the coming year.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

From New Yorker staff writer David Grann, #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Lost City of Z, a twisting, haunting true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. The book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward Native Americans that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly riveting, but also emotionally devastating.

It seems we’ll never run out of shameful chapters from America’s past. In Killers of the Flower Moon, writer David Grann explores the “Reign of Terror” waged against the Osage tribe in Oklahoma during the 1920s. The murder epidemic itself is horrifying, and so too are the years that came before in Osage history. For starters, when the Osage were forced off of their previously held land, they ended up settling in a rocky area of Oklahoma clearly unsuited for farming, feeling that it would be a stable home since the land was worthless and wouldn’t be taken over by white men. The irony, of course, is that under the land were undiscovered oil deposits that would soon turn the Osage into millionaires.

The members of the Osage tribe were allotted “headrights” — basically, a share of the oil and mineral ownership — and these headrights could not be sold, only passed on through family members. At the same time, the government considered the Native Americans incapable of managing their own affairs, and adult Osage who were deemed incompetent (and most were) were required to have white guardians to manage their money.

As we see in Killers of the Flower Moon, there was a lot to be gained by finding ways to either manipulate the Osage through shady business dealings and corrupt guardianships, or more directly, by murder. Mollie Burkhart is the initial focus of the book, and we see as her entire family is wiped out, one at a time, through violent murder or insidious poisonings. Between the crimes themselves and the bungling and corruption of the investigation, Mollie and her tribe lived in terror and with a very real threat hanging over their heads.

Part I of the book explores the crimes, and Part II traces the involvement of the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI), as well as the early stages of the Bureau’s investigative approach and its evolution under J. Edgar Hoover. We see the lawmen tasked with investigating the murders, and follow them all the way through to the eventual arrests and convictions of the men involved. In Part III, the author describes his research and what he uncovered in historical archives, through which he finally unearthed evidence that helped some descendants of the victims find a sense of resolution.

The subject matter of Killers of the Flower Moon is fascinating and very, very disturbing. However, I did find myself losing interest at various points, especially in Part II, as the sections about the Bureau and its processes just didn’t grab me as much as the parts focusing on the Osage tribe members and their experiences. I also wished that I’d felt a more personal connection to some of the people involved. While we learn what happened to Mollie and her family, Mollie herself often seems unknowable. Granted, this is history, not a dramatization, but I still wish there was some way to get more of a glimpse beneath the individuals’ surfaces.

I recognize too that my lack of interest or focus in certain parts of the story may say more about me as a reader than about the actual book itself. I can be easily distracted when reading non-fiction, and I might not have always been in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate what I was reading.

That said, I do feel that Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful and compelling book. It’s astonishing to me that the history of the Osage in Oklahoma isn’t better known, and I’m sure that this book will change that. (I understand that a film version is planned, and will be a Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio venture — something to look forward to!)

Even people (like me) who tend not to read a lot of non-fiction will find themselves absorbed by the story once they pick up Killers of the Flower Moon. Highly recommended.

For more on the movie, go here.
To read the New York Times review of the book, go here.

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The details:

Title: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Author: David Grann
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: April 18, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/true crime
Source: Library

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Audiobook Review: Girl Waits With Gun

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A novel based on the forgotten true story of one of the nation’s first female deputy sheriffs.

Constance Kopp doesn’t quite fit the mold. She towers over most men, has no interest in marriage or domestic affairs, and has been isolated from the world since a family secret sent her and her sisters into hiding fifteen years ago. One day a belligerent and powerful silk factory owner runs down their buggy, and a dispute over damages turns into a war of bricks, bullets, and threats as he unleashes his gang on their family farm. When the sheriff enlists her help in convicting the men, Constance is forced to confront her past and defend her family — and she does it in a way that few women of 1914 would have dared.  

 

Guys, Girl Waits With Gun may be the most enjoyable audiobook I’ve listened to all year! Fantastic story and characters, and narration that really pulls you into the mood of the story.

But stepping back a moment…

Author Amy Stewart has written several highly successful non-fiction books (with absolutely aweseome titles), including Wicked Plants and The Drunken Botanist. Girl Waits With Gun is her first novel, and is the first in what’s projected to be a series about the historical figures at the heart of the novel.

The Kopp sisters were real people who lived in New Jersey in the early part of the 20th century. After an unfortunate run-in with a powerful, corrupt factory owner, the sisters were threatened and terrorized for months on end. Led by oldest sister Constance, the Kopp sisters sought help from the local sheriff, and persisted in seeing that their tormentor would be brought to justice, no matter the risk to themselves.

The novel fleshes out these historical women and brings them to life, so that we really get to know the personalities and inner workings of the three sisters. Narrated by Constance, we see events through her eyes, and come to understand their small family, the state of politics, unions, and factory owners at the time, and the limitations placed on women by the traditions and societal expectations of the time.

Source: Amy Stewart's website

Source: Amy Stewart’s website

The three sisters are sharply developed, so that we get to know their personalities, their quirks, and their unique voices — both in terms of how they’re written in the story, and how the narrator portrays them. The text and the narration play up Fleurette’s girlish naivete, Norma’s brusque no-nonsense approach to life at large, and Contance’s bravery and wisdom. I loved the character of Sheriff Heath as well, who comes across as a good, honest man dedicated to justice and decency, who’s willing to buck the system in order to see that the innocent are protected. (And I love the fact that it’s Sheriff Heath who gives the sisters their revolvers and makes sure they know how to use them.)

The author makes the historical setting feel real and vibrant, giving us the tastes and smells of factory towns and farms, the sense of busy streets crammed with horse-drawn wagons and sleek automobiles, and the hidden underbelly of society, where the factory workers live in company-owned boarding houses and work in abusive, unhealthy conditions.

The writing here is fast-paced, often funny, and always sharp, catching the nuances of the relationships and the characters, and capturing the colloquialisms and social niceties of the times. Even as the tension and threats mount, there are little moments of humor to keep things moving along.

I really, truly enjoyed listening to Girl Waits With Gun, and I plan to start book #2, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, a bit later this month. I love the Kopp sisters, and can’t wait to see what’s next for them.

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The details:

Title: Girl Waits With Gun
Author: Amy Stewart
Narrator: Christina Moore
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: September 1, 2015
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 54 minutes
Printed book length: 408 pages
Genre: Detective story/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; Audible download purchased

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