What's Good for the Michigander: UCI Librarian Catherine Palmer on Bender, Trollope & Egan Not-so-Much

Praise the spells and bless the charms, I find April in my arms. It's official National Poetry Month and this, week National Library Week. Good times! I'm reading my OC Weekly editor's new book, an unlikely and yet terrific tribute to tacos by the Studs Terkel of food, Mr. Gustavo "Ask a Mexican" Arellano: Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered AmericaNice to see a comment from Bonnie Jo Campbell herself (!) after last week's recommendation by hipster librarian Brian the W. This week I'm sharing more recommendations from my favorite civil servants, local OC librarians I've queried about what they're reading. Weirdly, as last week's featured librarian, Catherine Palmer (Education & Outreach Head Librarian at UCI ) also hails from Michigan.



, then on to school in

Ann Arbor

. She belongs to a local book group, going strong since 1994. Cathy tells me they read literary fiction, some nonfiction, but pick at least one classic to read together each year.  Here, then, from her group's 2011-2012 reading list are books she recommends (or not!).

Catherine Palmer at work
Catherine Palmer at work

"My favorite book was The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by UCI MFA grad Aimee Bender. I loved this novel because it evoked the process by which a family loses an adult child in a personal, idiosyncratic, and yet universal way. We meet the heroine and narrator of the story as a child of six when she discovers that she can taste the emotions of those who prepare the food she eats and, because of this unique ability, realizes that her mother is having an affair. We also follow her relationship with her distant and troubled older brother who, even more, I think, than the stresses in the parents'  marriage, comes to represent how we lose, but still manage to hang on to those we love. This is a theme with great depth of meaning for me, having suffered the loss of my own beloved son four years ago when he was 27. I loved the way the narrator was able to "hold on to" her brother after he disappeared entirely from earthly existence.

Another book that I really enjoyed was The Warden by Anthony Trollope. This was my first exposure to Trollope, who wrote contemporaneously with Dickens, and was even more prolific. Trollope, who had a successful career as a high-level bureaucrat in the UK Postal Service from age 19 till shortly before his death at 67, managed to write 47 novels, most of which were over 500 pages. The Warden was his first commercially successful novel, and, unlike many that followed, is only about 250 pages long. It tells the story of Mr. Septimus Harding, the warden of the title, who comes to feel that the remuneration he receives for acting as warden to a group of elderly indigent men is being paid to him improperly. The novel details his decision to give up his position, despite the resistance that others have to this action. The setting is the fictional Diocese of Barchester, a location Trollope describes as "not unlike" many others in England. Ultimately, it is the story of how a good man struggles to follow what he believes is right, despite his knowledge that his actions will have undeserved consequences for others. Trollope is like Dickens in his ability to create vivid major and minor characters who linger in memory long after the last page is read, but his is a much softer and subtler characterization. Where Dickens paints with bright colors and bold strokes, Trollope uses a muted palette and a soft eye for details to create his world, one that Jane Austen would recognize and inhabit comfortably in an instant.

"The final book I'll mention in detail is one I didn't like much: Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. Although this national bestseller was a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, I felt that it was more of an exercise in technical expertise than an effort to bring the reader into intimate contact with living, breathing characters. Others have written about the fact that each chapter is written from a different character's perspective using a different style, and that one chapter is even (drum roll, please?) written as a PowerPoint presentation! Yet without a compelling reason to care about any of the self-absorbed, narcissistic, amoral, and generally unlikable characters, the experimentation with style is  merely that, an experiment that does little engage the general reader. 

"In passing, from this year's reading, I would recommend

A Perfect Spy


John LeCarre;


Just Kids


Patti Smith

's memoir of her early relationship with

Robert Mapplethorpe


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal


Christopher Moore


Carter Beats the Devil


Glen David Gold

(another UCI MFA graduate) and

State of Wonder


Ann Patchett


Thanks, Cathy.  And say hello from me to your most excellent book group. Mr. Bib imagines running in to fellow bibliophiles at Literary Orange next weekend or the LA Times Festival of Books the following. Come by the Santa Monica College/Santa Monica Review booth for a free copy of the magazine and meet our incredible staff (me!).  Now, back to reading about tacos.  Maybe with lemon cake for dessert, and a trollop of whip cream on top.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender, Anchor, 304 pp., $15.00
The Warden, Anthony Trollope, Oxford, 336 pp., $8.50
A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan,
Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Gustavo Arellano, Scribner, 320 pp., $25.00

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio, on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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