General, Reading

On Book Clubs & Reading

I used to be a huge fan of book clubs, and loved running them when I was a practicing librarian. Over the years, my reading habits had become much more solitary and personal, where I’d read exactly what I wanted and that, my friends, is dangerous reading.

I found my reading so limited, generic, and easy that it wasn’t interesting anymore. I was reading in one lane and it was not only unchallenging but also insulating me from things happening around me. I know many people were in emotional overload and cocooned themselves after the Annus Horribilus of 2020. That’s where I was when 2021 began.

At the beginning of 2021, I decided to change my reading habits to include more challenging and unusual books. That continued through 2022, and was boosted considerably when I joined the Fantastic Strangelings Book Club, run by author and bookstore owner Jenny Lawson. You might know Lawson as The Bloggess or through her bestselling books like Furiously Happy. She also owns and operates the Nowhere Bookshop in San Antonio TX.

The Strangelings Book Club is entirely virtual and you can choose when and how to participate. Lawson selects and sends out one book a month, then will usually post her thoughts on social media, which results in lots of commentary and discussion from other Strangelings. Lawson’s selections are unusual and diverse; reading them has been uplifting, uncomfortable, and irresistible. Here are the selections I read in 2022 – all of them are recommended!

There are many other ways I could have connected to these books, but the Strangelings Book Club worked for me. I found the selection eclectic, thoughtful, very emotionally evocative, and a little bit strange. I learned about countries and cultures I knew nothing about and read genres I’d avoided. What I also rediscovered is that there are threads of living that are the same no matter who you are and where you live. Family relationships – parent and child, siblings, extended family, spouses and partners – are the common threads that bind us all together.

If you’re looking for a book club experience in 2023 and you live in the Rochester NY region, there are plenty of opportunities through the Monroe County Library System. There are also book discussions and plenty of author readings offered in Rochester’s indie bookshops. You should make a point to check out two of my favorites: Akimbo Books at 318b East Avenue in downtown Rochester, and Hipocampo Childrens Books at 638 South Avenue.

If you’re looking for something virtual, the Strangelings club is great, but there is a monthly fee for the book. I do also recommend the Litsy app, where you’ll find lots of virtual book clubs, challenges, and other fun reading activities.

Whatever process you use to select your next book to read, make a point to dip your toes in uncharted waters. Learn about other people and cultures and traditions. Revel in the glorious diversity of stories out there. And make sure to get and use a library card!

Books About Books, Makes You Think, Reading

A Saint in Swindon by Alice Jolly


When a stranger arrives in town, with a bulging blue bag and a whiff of adventure, the neighborhood takes notice. When he asks for his meals to be sent to his room and peace and quiet for reading, curiosity turns to obsession. Each day he stays there, locked in his room, demanding books: Plath, Kafka, Orwell, Lawrence, Fitzgerald, James, Bronte (the eldest), Dickens, Dumas, Kesey – on and on, the stranger never leaving his room. Who exactly is he? What is he reading? And will it be able to save us from the terrible state of the world?

Written by award-winning author Alice Jolly, and based on an idea by the book lovers of Swindon town, this funny and, ultimately, dystopian tale, reminds us of the importance of literature in an increasingly dark world.

I don’t really know what to say about this odd little book except that it can’t be characterized. Is it dystopian? Is it chick lit? Is it speculative fiction? Is it satire? Is allegorical?

I think it’s ALL of the above and more.

The concept is intriguing. Some guy shows up at a B&B, retreats to his room and reads for days on end. The B&B hostess and her nosy friends feel they must read what the guest reads, so they discover classics like Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad. But, they cannot shake the idea that the guest is more than he appears and that his reading is somehow subversive. Eventually, their obsession with him destroys their society.

In the end, I was left thinking if it is possible to disrupt the natural order of things through reading. Throughout history, when a civilization is threatened or conquered, the first thing to go are the books, so yeah, I think it’s reasonable to say that reading can be subversive.  This would be a magnificent selection for book clubs, who could spend hours debating the meaning behind A Saint in Swindon.

Publication Date: April 15, 2020
Published By: Fairlight Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Books About Books, Fairytales, Fantasy, Magical, Reading

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

cover165880-mediumFrom the Publisher: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues–a bee, a key, and a sword–that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth.

What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians–it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose–in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

This is a tough one for me. I confess, I did not love this book. I *liked* it well enough, but found the structure disconcerting. I sometimes struggle with focusing on books that alternate stories with each chapter, which is why this did not fully resonate with me. I kept wanting to read the Zachary Ezra Rawlins narrative and got annoyed that it kept being interrupted by the alternating fairytale chapters. Yes, it all comes together in the end, but the format kept me disconnected and made the narrative drag. It didn’t help that I was reading this in e-format. If I’d hard a print copy, I would have totally skipped around the chapters to satisfy my curiosity.

At the same time, this is a book filled with gorgeous language and description, the fairyland of my childhood dreams where one can get lost for centuries among all the stories in the world. Could there be a better place? I think not. I did enjoy the DungeonMaster/RPG approach to telling Zachary’s story, which at times made me feel as those I was inside the story, and I really enjoyed the characters.

I am 100% certain that fans of The Night Circus will eat this up. Morgenstern’s writing gets ALL the adjectives – lovely, luminous, lyrical, etc. and I predict this will appear on all the “Best of 2019” lists.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019
Published By: Doubleday
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy


What the Neighbors Read Last Year

Social media has been awash the last couple weeks with “Top Ten Reads of 2018” or lists of all the books people read last year. That made me wonder what the people of Monroe County borrowed, read, and watched in 2018. My curiosity was satisfied by three eclectic lists. Here they are, the Top Ten Books, DVDs, and E-books Borrowed from Monroe County Libraries in 2018!

Ten Most Borrowed Print Books


The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn
The Rooster Bar by John Grisham
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
The Fallen by David Baldacci
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly
The Midnight Line by Lee Child
The President is Missing by James Patterson & Bill Clinton
Fifty Fifty by James Patterson

Ten Most Borrowed DVDs

Wonder Woman
Black Panther
Despicable Me 3
The Shape of Water
Hidden Figures
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Spider-Man Homecoming

Ten Most Borrowed E-Books

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
Camino Island by John Grisham
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Midnight Line by Lee Child
Origin by Dan Brown
The Rooster Bar by John Grisham
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Please note: this content was separated from any personally identifiable information on the borrowers before it was shared with me, in my capacity as Director of the Monroe County Library System.


2019 Reading Challenge – READO!

For several years, staff in the Monroe County Library System have participated in a year-long reading challenge. This year, we’re using a version of BINGO called READO. The concept is the same – make a line vertically, horizontally, or diagonally or get the 4 corners – and win a prize.

We are in the process of creating a number of READO boards, and thought we’d share them here. While only MCLS staff are eligible for monthly drawings, some of you might enjoy playing along. Here are the first three boards: Reading Experiences, World Literature, and Science Fiction & Fantasy Authors.

READO World Lit

READO experiences




Watch this blog for more boards throughout January.



Americans Are Reading Less

0595C70A-75E1-4F76-A2F2-5D1643404AB3This article in the New Yorker came through my news feed this morning. Apparently according to the U.S. Department of Labor, fewer than 20% of Americans read. That number is surprisingly low, in my opinion. So can we say 1 in 5 people is a reader? I suppose I’m disqualified from that type of comparison considering I work in a library and am surrounded by readers, but let’s consider my family.

I have 6 living siblings ranging in age from 72 to 54. Out of those 7, four of us are readers (me, Betsy, Mary & Margaret). So, 4 out of 7 is much higher than 20%. This is obviously not a scientific examination of data, but does make me question the results shared in the article.

Another piece of interesting information shared by the author is that, while fewer Americans are reading, the ones who do read are reading slightly more.

What would be interesting is a follow up to this article that looks at *what* people read. I recently conducted some job interviews, and one of the questions asked was “What are you reading?” More than one person shared that they don’t read books much, but they are voracious readers of news and online content. To me, that qualifies as reading. I have to wonder how the Department of Labor phrased their question(s) about reading? Did they ask if people had read a book, or if they read for pleasure? If it was the former, I can understand the 20% (maybe); if it was the latter, I’m calling BS on these results.

What do you say, readers?


Great American Read, Reading

The Great American Read…Or Not

EAC32B51-3A10-4BFE-8B22-C370ED286BC5A couple weeks ago, I posted here about the just-released list of 100 books that comprise “The Great American Read,” a new series on PBS that will examine the books that supposedly define America.

Since that list came out, there has been considerable buzz online and in real life about what’s included. The discussions I’ve heard personally have included:

  • “Fifty Shades of Grey?” You have GOT to be kidding! (I’ve heard this one consistently from all my reader friends.)
  • There aren’t enough women.
  • There aren’t enough People of Color.
  • There are too many kids books.
  • There aren’t enough kids books.
  • “I thought this was just American authors!”
  • There isn’t enough diversity – “America is the original Melting Pot, right?”
  • “These are all the books you’re supposed to read in school but instead get by with Spark Notes.”
  • “I lost all respect for this list when I saw the Left-Behind series included.”

While the list isn’t perfect by any means, I think it has already started what PBS hoped for – intense discussion about books and stories, about how reading has changed our lives. And that’s a good thing.

People are thinking deeply about this from all perspectives – how they love or hate some of the titles included, what books they’d recommend instead of the ones on the list, which authors deserve a second look, and so on.

I’ve seen some good alternate lists pop up in my news feeds that have served to plump up my TBR (To Be Read) list. For example, this one shared by Tate DeCaro today – Twenty-One Books You Don’t Have to Read contains some really fascinating suggestions to the books “everyone has read.”

You might not be impressed with The Great American Read list, and that’s just fine. It means you have an opinion about books and reading and you’re talking about it. And that is never a bad thing!


Creating a Culture of Reading In Rochester

img_0427Recently, local reporter Erica Bryant wrote about a “reading crisis” in Rochester, expressing outrage and alarm over the apparent lack of reading skills among Rochester residents. Bryant proposed creating a “gigantic youth literacy initiative” as a gift in honor of Frederick Douglass’ 200th birthday coming up in 2018.

Speaking as the Director of the Rochester Public Library and Monroe County Library System, and as a member of Mayor Lovely Warren’s Senior Management Team, I will argue that our reading crisis will be solved not by a huge “initiative” or another “blue ribbon panel” but by small, community based actions such as those put in place by the City and by community members over the last few years which demonstrate and promote a culture of reading.

It will be solved by average citizens modeling reading behavior to children and low-literate adults.

It will be solved by creating more and more opportunities to get books into people’s hands and homes, and by helping those who are learning to master the act of reading discover the beauty and power of the written word.

The City of Rochester and the Rochester Public Library have implemented many small-scale reading programs and projects in the last few years. Some of those include the library’s popular Raising a Reader program which focuses on reading as a family activity. Partnering with ABC Headstart classrooms and daycares, Raising a Reader provides new books to participating families every week over the course of several months. Staff works with the parents to help them understand the importance of reading with their children every day, and that the act of reading together as a family can be very intimate and special, both for the child and the parent.

41038A34-AEF9-4E59-9EFC-C8BF5107701ARaising a Reader has been successful in introducing young children to reading for pleasure, but it has also opened doors for parents who are ready and eager to improve their reading skills. As reading becomes important to the parent, it also becomes important to the child.

Recently, Raising a Reader families reported that their children more frequently asked to look at and read books at home, that they had more books in their homes, and that the average length of time the children and parents read together increased by more than 50% since last year.

Mayor Warren and her staff understand the importance of having books in the home, and have rolled out several programs and projects that help get books into the hands of community members, especially children.

Storytime with Style has distributed more than 2,000 books through twelve barbershops and beauty salons in the City. These books are placed on special shelves for people – adults and children – to read while waiting for a haircut, and then take home when they’re finished. The stylists, by having the books in their salons, demonstrate the value and importance of reading to children and adults alike. They make reading part of the community culture.


Mayor Warren has also created an online community which encourages reading in the home. Rochester Families Read is a Facebook group where information about reading and education is shared with more than 300 group members. Reading recommendations, information about educational events and activities, and inspirational messages about reading are frequently shared in this group, which is open to anyone.

Distribution of books to children, teens, and adults has become an important part of the library’s outreach efforts. You will often find one of the library’s Books By Bike stations at area farmers markets and community events, giving books away. Our riders regularly report they are constantly flagged down on their way between stops by people who are anxious to get a book.

In addition, you will find shelves of free books in many locations throughout the City, maintained by community volunteers and by library staff. Since 2015, the library distributed more than 2 million free books through nearly 200 locations in the City, including WIC sites, Family Court waiting rooms, corner stores, and laundromats.

The most frequently requested books? The Bible and cookbooks.

Through a partnership with Monroe County, the library has placed Americorps volunteers in DHS offices to engage families in literacy activities while they wait, and to introduce them to the library system. Families can apply for library cards in DHS offices, and are welcomed to their local library once they receive their library card in the mail.

Other community led efforts to distribute books can be found in the dozens of Little Free Libraries located throughout the City. Some were built and distributed by City staff, but many were provided through a grassroots, citizen-led group called The Snowball Effect, which raised over $9,000 and distributed 20 pre-built little libraries several years ago. These libraries are maintained by their “stewards,” usually a homeowner or community member. They operate on the “take a book, leave a book” principle and are free to access. By installing a Little Free Library in your neighborhood, you’re telling the world that you are a Reader and that reading matters.

Perhaps the most impactful method of book distribution is the Books and Bears program begun by the Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services and the Rochester Police Department. With supplies collected entirely through private donations, this program provides RPD officers with teddy bears and a books to give to children who are caught up in a traumatic experience. The bear and the book provide a small amount of comfort in a difficult situation, creating an experience for the child that equates books with something good.

Many community partners like Literacy Volunteers of Rochester provide programs for low-literate adults throughout the region. Adult literacy is critical to solving big issues such as unemployment, poverty, and crime. Bob Mahar, Director of Literacy Volunteers, recently shared these statistics:

  • 43% of adults with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty
  • 50% of the chronically unemployed are functionally illiterate
  • 76% of adults on public assistance are low literate  or unable to read more than simple text
  • Public assistance recipients with the lowest literacy skills stay on assistance the longest
  • Parents who can’t read are likely to have children who can’t read well
  • 75% of prisoners fall into the lowest two levels of literacy
  • 85% of juvenile offenders have reading problems

Clearly, low literacy affects ones ability to learn, work, and prosper, underscoring the critical need to address literacy first. Literacy Volunteers is always looking for volunteers to help deliver their services. Give them a call at 473-3030!

The number of children, teens, and adults who use our libraries every day are one indicator that we are making some progress in solving the “reading crisis” Bryant wrote about, but it is not enough.

Every person in our City who can read should embrace that skill and share it with others.

  • Model reading behavior by carrying a book with you and pulling it out while you wait in line.
  • If you’re a digital reader, comment to those around you that you just can’t wait to find out what happens next as you open your e-reading app on your phone.
  • Make a habit of talking about what you’re reading.
  • Add a line to your email signature about what you’re currently reading.
  • If you tweet, use #Recommendsday and #RocReads to recommend a book to your followers every Wednesday.
  • Become a Literacy Volunteer and teach someone to read.
  • Use your local libraries and encourage everyone you know to use them!

Solving this crisis is up to us. Read early. Read often. Read everywhere.


Books About Books, Reading

I’d Rather Be Reading by Guinevere de la Mare

12E9413C-CB5C-4D22-BE60-5E1584801C69Here’s an unusual factoid about Readers: not only do we love to read, we love to read about reading. There’s all sorts of books about books and reading, but Guinevere de la Mare has produced one of the loveliest little books-about-books I’ve seen in quite some time. She alternates a luscious variety of images – drawn, painted, collaged, photographed – with three heartfelt and earnest essays by Maura Kelly, Gretchen Rubin, and Ann Patchett. The images and essays blend into one delightful little book (and it is small enough to slip into a pocket or purse).

Maura Kelly writes about her “Slow Books Manifesto” in which she posits that we should all turn to literature, to books that take some time to read and will become our companions for weeks at a time. Books we savor and think about when we’re not reading. Books that we remember and books that change our way of thinking. I like it….

Ann Patchett writes a short essay explaining how she answered when asked to name her 25 favorite books. She gave it a lot of thought, and produced an eclectic list ranging from Jane Austen to John le Carre to Alice Munro to John Updike. After giving us her list, she went on to answer questions similar to those I pose in the Reader Profiles I feature in this blog. All in all, an intriguing insight into one of our most prolific and successful contemporary authors.

Gretchen Rubin writes about how she tries to organize her time so she can read more. She gives advice such as “Quit Books” – don’t force yourself to finish a book you’re not enjoying, There are too many other things to read out there! Other tips include watch recorded TV, skim, keep a big stack of books to be read, plan time to read more difficult books, and always have something to read.

The art here is engaging and lovely, and includes a colored rendering of a shelf of books that looks very much like it came from the Ideal Bookshelf, one of my favorite bookish artists. There are memes here, along with simple drawings of books, detailed renderings of books and readers, and some nice photography.

This would make a sweet gift for the Reader (with a capital R) in your life. It’s a quick read, but could become a book your favorite Reader goes back to again and again. Highly recommended.

Publisher: Chronicle Books
Publication Date: August 15, 2017