What next? Books for Discussion @ Book Corner

Rows of book carts fully piled with books.
Central Branch BTS

By PIyali. C.

As our doors at Howard County Library closed at the beginning of the pandemic, we understood the need of the community to stay connected virtually despite the fact that we had to stay apart physically. Many of our library sponsored book discussion groups, along with other library classes, pivoted to meet online right away. Several of our community book clubs also started meeting and discussing books online. At the start of the pandemic when the library was closed, our community book club members made use of our eBooks or eAudiobooks through Overdrive, Cloudlibrary and Hoopla for their discussions. Now, they are able to pick up books in print through the contactless pickup service.

We are lucky to be part of a community who loves to read. However, there always comes a time when members of book clubs start looking for suggestions for their next titles to discuss.

Join us on October 16 at 11 am by registering for Book Corner: Books for Discussion 2021 where some of our Adult Instructors introduce the sure-to-be-in-demand HCLS Books for Discussion 2021 list, which suggests recent adult fiction and nonfiction titles that we all want to talk about. HCLS Instructors will promote some of their favorite new “discussables.” Participants will have the opportunity to share theirs as well in our most anticipated class for book clubs or even for your own personal reads.

See you in our Corner!

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Read While Isolated

The cover depicts an open pocket watch against a black cloth background with small, glowing astrological symbols.

by Piyali C.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I found it difficult to focus on books. It seemed like Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel, Station Eleven was playing out right in front of me. However, when physical distancing became a part of our daily routine, I took to reading so I could escape to other worlds created by authors. The books below are some of the ones that I truly enjoyed as I read them during isolation, borrowed from Howard County Library System.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): A fascinating story of nurse Julia Powers, who works in the maternity ward of a hospital in war- and flu-ravaged Dublin in 1918. She takes care of expectant mothers fallen ill with the raging Spanish flu. With the help of a rebel woman doctor and a young orphaned woman, Nurse Powers tends to the needs of the quarantined pregnant women in her care to the best of her ability under the circumstances.

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate: (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook) Told in the alternating voices of Hannie, a recently freed slave in 1875, and Benedetta Silva, a young new teacher in a tiny town in Louisiana in 1987, this story takes us through the Reconstruction era in America with Hannie, as she travels to Texas with two unwilling companions, Miss Lavinia and Juneau June, in the hope of finding her family members who were sold as slaves in different cities and towns. Benny Silva, while trying to engage her unwilling students in their own history, comes across the story of Hannie’s journey in the library of a run-down plantation house. The discovery of this quest brings forth a fascinating story of freed slaves trying desperately to reconnect with family members lost to slavery in 1870’s America.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai (available in print, eaudiobook): Drawn from the author’s own experiences of growing up in postwar Vietnam and from interviewing countless people who lived through the horrors of the Vietnam war, Ngyuen Phan Que Mai writes this amazing story of a family torn apart, not only by the war, but also by the subsequent division between north and south Vietnam. While the story talks about the unbelievable horror that wars inflict on human life, it also sings an ode to indomitable human resilience and a desperate mother’s inexplicable courage and determination to keep her children safe.

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): Valerie is a 48-year-old Black woman, a single mom to Xavier, and an ecology professor who nurtures a deep love for plants and trees. Brad Whitman is an entrepreneur who has risen up in wealth and power from humble beginnings. Brad builds a gorgeous house next to Valerie’s and moves in with his wife Julia, step daughter Juniper and daughter Lily. As a relationship starts to build between Valerie and Julia, an incident regarding Valerie’s favorite tree causes a rift between the two families, resulting in a law suit. But Xavier, Valerie’s 18-year-old son, and Juniper, Julia’s 17-year-old daughter, are also building a beautiful relationship. How much acceptance will an interracial relationship receive, not only from society but also from Brad Whitman? Told from the perspective of the neighbors of both Valerie and Brad, this story explores complicated race relations between Black and White, loss of innocence, coming of age, struggles of women, and much more. 

What did you read during isolation? Tell us in the comments.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

The sepia-toned book cover depicts a young Black woman seated in a wooden chair, wearing a plain sleeveless white cotton dress.

Review by Piyali C.

This has to be one of the most difficult books that I have read in a very long time. Difficult, powerful and absolutely brilliant. I had to take frequent breaks because of the inexplicable cruelty that is described in the book. However, I realized I was thinking about the story and the characters even during those breaks.

Lilith is born as a slave in the Montpelier plantation in Kingston, Jamaica in the eighteenth century. She is born with skin as dark as midnight, yet her eyes are a startling green. She is also born with an indomitable spirit which refuses to be tamed even within bondage. There is a group of women on the plantation, the Night Women, who are plotting a revolution. The head house slave, Homer, who is also the leader of the slave uprising, recognizes something dark within Lilith’s spirit. She raises Lilith with the hope that she will use that darkness towards the cause of the slave rebellion. Their dream is to recreate the villages of Africa that they were forced to abandon after the uprising. Lilith’s life, however, takes a slightly different turn than the rest of the slaves in Montpelier, and her decision to join the revolution is highly influenced by that turn of events. Where does Lilith’s loyalty lie? Will she harness the dark power within her to help free her people?

Marlon James poses a challenge to his readers to live the lives of both his Black and White characters in 18th century Jamaica; he dares them to stomach the inexplicable cruelty that was meted out to the slaves by the White overseers, plantation owners and ‘johnny jumpers,’ and then he invites them to put this all into the current context and analyze how much has really¬†changed in the world that we inhabit. The topic was harsh and this was not a pleasant read, but I am determined not to run away from hard topics that deal with race. This book, through a thoroughly captivating story, sheds a spotlight on the White mentality of objectifying and dehumanizing Black people so they could inflict the cruelest of torture on them, physically and mentally. This is a brutally honest look at the genesis of racism.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James is available from HCLS in print, audiobook on CD, and as an eaudiobook in Libby/Overdrive.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

The Library is for Everyone, Part 2

The picture depicts bunting in an alley festooned with flags from different countries, with a light fixture overhead.

By Piyali C.

Many fascinating works of immigrant literature highlight various aspects of the immigrant experience, including the anonymity and loneliness that I reflected on in Monday’s post about my own experience as an immigrant who eventually discovered a welcoming community at my local library. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: (Available in print, ebook, eaudio) – New arrivals from Kolkata, India, the Ganguli family tries to create their lives in America while they miss their home. The book explores the complicated relationship first-generation immigrants have with their birth country and the country of their ancestors.

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames: (Available in print) – Beautiful yet odd, Stella Fortuna has been pursued by death her entire life. But Stella is resilient and tough. Above all things, Stella desires freedom. However, when Stella’s family emigrates to America from their village in Italy on the cusp of WWII, Stella realizes her family will deny her what she desires most at any cost, her freedom.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok: (Available in print and ebook) – A beautiful story of Kimberly Chang, an immigrant from Hong Kong, who has to straddle two worlds, succeeding in America through hard work and fulfilling her duty to her family.

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande (also available in ebook and eaudiobook): Reyna Grande’s powerful memoir tells us about her childhood in a remote village in Mexico where her parents left her to make a living in United States, and her illegal trek across the two countries to be reunited with her parents at age 8.

When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago: In this memoir, the author describes her childhood days in Puerto Rico, which were filled with chaos, but also love and tenderness. From a very different environment in Puerto Rico, Santiago is brought to the bewildering and confusing world of New York. In her memoir, the author chronicles her journey of overcoming adversity in a new country and finding acceptance and success.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

The Library is for Everyone

The picture depicts a group of customers seated in a reading area in the library, studying materials from the collection.

By Piyali C.

The residents of Howard County are blessed to enjoy the diverse cultures and practices that people from countries around the world bring to our community. I was one such immigrant who moved to Howard County from India in 2004 with a 5 year old and a newborn. Every immigrant’s experience is different and unique, but I believe there is one common thread that binds us when we move to a different country: anonymity. Often, this includes loneliness. Leaving behind everything that is familiar, we transplant our lives to a new country for various reasons: job, a better (different) standard of living, education, and/or marriage. As we rebuild our lives in a new land, we embrace new cultures and traditions of our adopted country. Slowly, we build new relationships. Yet at the beginning, we are new, unknown.

My refuge in those uncertain days of transition was the Howard County Library. I was at the library so often and so regularly that the librarians knew me; they knew my name. It may not seem that special to many, yet to me, a new immigrant to the country, just that recognition was huge. As I stood in line to pick up my holds, the Customer Service Specialist brought my held materials without scanning my card. They greeted me by my name and asked me how I was. When I called to sign up my daughter for a class (yes, we had to call in those days), the Children’s Instructors started writing down my daughter’s name before I had to give it to them.

Within the library, I lost my anonymity. It meant a lot. I wonder today if the library worker who helped me, greeted me, took a few minutes to exchange pleasantries with me knew what a difference he or she was making to a newcomer in this country?

I work at the library now. I try my best to remember my feeling of loneliness when I first arrived. And I try to pass the kindness that I received from the librarians forward. I try to be present in the moment, I try to remember the customer’s name and even if I don’t, I always smile and say hello. I know, in my own little way, I am acknowledging a fellow human and who knows, maybe making a little difference in his/her day?

I have many stories to tell about my interactions with new immigrants at the library, but one stands out especially in my mind. A gentleman started frequenting the library a while back. He was from a different country and spoke almost no English. Language, however, did not deter us from having conversations. He managed to convey his needs through smiles, gestures, and pointing, and somehow I understood what he needed that I was able to provide – scissors, directions, printing. One day, he came to the desk, pointed to me, and said “friend.” Then he took a picture of a child from his wallet and showed it to me with a big smile. It was a photo of his child. I cherish that interaction.

Public library workers are not limited to providing information for research; they are also cornerstones of the community. They provide a safe place and create a meaningful impact, sometimes even without realizing it.

This blog post is my ode to librarians and every library worker. Since I am a lover of books as well as libraries, Part Two of my post will be published on Wednesday with a few of my favorite immigrant fiction and nonfiction books that you can borrow from Howard County Library System. Look for it then!

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

The Magic Words: Free SAT Practice Tests!

The picture depicts a student writing in a notebook while looking at an open laptop computer.

By Piyali C.

I heaved a sigh of relief as I parked my car. I think you will agree, finding parking in a high school parking lot on a Back to School Night is a sheer stroke of luck. I did a mental check as I walked towards the high school carrying my bag of library goodies. Did I have all that I needed? Howard County Library System’s tablecloth? Check. HCLS pens to give out as gifts? Check. Brochures with library information? Check. Little giveaways with the library logo? Check. I was ready. With a deep breath and a bright smile, I entered the high school. I was going to represent HCLS in one of our local high school’s Back to School Nights, to inform the community about how we supplement students’ academic pursuits by providing free databases for research. It’s a fond memory and one I hope to experience again soon.

I was ready! National History Day research? No problem: we have curated a whole set of databases for that endeavor. Having trouble finding primary sources? We can help. You need a last minute resource for the paper due next day? We can tell you where to find it. The magic lies in your library card and your PIN number. Once you have that, the world is your oyster. If you do not have a library card, never fear. You can sign up for a temporary card to access our databases right away. To create a temporary library card, click here.

As I set up the table and spread out library goodies along the hall of the high school, I was approached by a harried parent, “Can you tell me where Room 113 is?” After being asked directions to rooms three times in a row, I armed myself with a map of the school and, like a very efficient human GPS, directed people to their desired classrooms. After the initial chaos settled down, I turned the full force of my winning smile on an unsuspecting parent with her reluctant teen and told her I was from the library. Would she be interested in hearing about how her student can take practice SAT exams on library database for free? That was it! I had said the magic words, “practice SAT.” After that, I never looked back.

Parents swarmed around me as teens looked on, bored. I explained our databases for homework help – LearningExpress Library and Testing & Education Reference Center – with glee. Physical copies of SAT prep books fly off of the branch shelves. But with LearningExpress Library, you will never have to wait!

Even without being at school in person, I still want to tell you about all the amazing ways the library can help prepare teens for standardized testing. It is always a good idea to start at the beginning: How to find these magical databases. First, click on to our website: http://hclibrary.org/

On the top right hand corner you will find the option, “How do I…” Hover over it.

You will see some options, and the sixth one from the top will be “Get Homework Assistance.” Click on it.

If you scroll down through the databases, the fourth one is LearningExpress Library. You will need your library card and PIN number to access the database.

LearningExpress Library provides interactive online practice tests in a variety of academic and career-related areas. These include advanced placement tests, GED tests, college entrance exams (ACT and SAT), and job-related qualification tests in areas such as nursing, the military, real estate, and a variety of public safety fields.

Instructions on how to use LearningExpress Library can be found here.

Right under LearningExpress Library is Testing & Education Reference Center.

Testing & Education Reference Center offers practice question sets for grades 6-12 in math, science, reading, and writing, as well as practice AP exams and private school admissions tests for high school students. Prepare for college with test prep eBooks for the PSAT, SAT, and ACT, and use the scholarship and college search tools to help select a college. Study for and practice taking graduate school entrance exams, occupational exams, the TOEFL, and the U.S. Citizenship test. 

Instructions on how to use Testing & Education Reference Center can be found here

Now that I have written about my favorite databases for students, I invite you to explore them, familiarize yourselves, and take the tests. Get out your library card, type your PIN, and voilà, you are ready to take on those standardized tests because you have practiced hard on our free databases. Good luck! And remember, we are here to help you succeed every step of the way Рeven while practicing social distancing and online learning.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Let’s Talk Books!

I think most of my colleagues would agree that suggesting books to our customers is one of the best parts of our job. The benefit is two-fold. First, we recognize a fellow bibliophile when someone comes to the desk and asks, “Can you suggest a good book?” The person offers us an opportunity to talk about something that we love to talk about – books. Second, the customer, in turn, tells us about the books that they loved, and we reach for pen and paper to note the title and add to our ‘to read’ list. Many customers simply go to the Staff Picks shelf which the library staff keep filled with their favorite books and other materials. More often than not, our Staff Picks are cleaned out by our customers, giving us the opportunity to browse the stacks and find more treasures to fill our shelves.

When the library closed due to the pandemic, we quickly pivoted to virtual classes and online book clubs, yet we missed those customers who came to the library in search of a good read. They browsed our stacks, they asked us for suggestions, and they picked up books from our staff picks. We felt, they are, most likely, missing that personal touch as well.

To bridge the gap between librarians and the book lovers in the community, we came up with a solution which was only second best to meeting in person. Those of us who did reader’s advisory at the library and also gained from the knowledge of books from our community members came together to create a class called Staff Picks and Book Chat.

This is the plan we envisioned. A couple of HCLS staff members will briefly talk about a few books of their choice, then open the floor to the community members who register to attend the class to talk about the books that they loved. Everyone attending will get book suggestions from each other in the process. At this time of physical distancing, it is important we connect, albeit virtually, over something that we love, in this case, our collective love for books. We want to see you regularly, so we decided to hold the sessions every 2nd and 4th Friday of the month from 11 – 11:45 am.

If you would like to join us this Friday, July 10, register here.

The staff of Howard County Library System cannot wait to hear about all the books that you have read and loved.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Frankly in Love

The book cover is yellow with the title, Frankly in Love, and the author's name, David Yoon, set on a diagonal, in a stylized, gradated green font with a visual illusion of falling into the cover.

Review by Piyali C.

Frank Li is a senior in high school, growing up in Southern California. He is a first generation Korean American, trying to find his identity in this world. Is he considered Korean, even though he does not speak the language and has never visited that country? Is he fully American and does the world consider him so? He has grown up accompanying his immigrant parents to their monthly gatherings with other Korean families and hanging out with other first-generation Korean children, who, like Frank, are struggling to find where they belong. They call themselves Limbo. Some of the Korean children have embraced the country where they were born, while others retain the culture and language of the country from which their parents emigrated.  There is a big divide even between the first- generation Korean Americans. Frank is very aware of his parents’ blatant racism and knows he is doomed if he dates any girl outside his ethnicity. As luck would have it, he falls in love with Brit Means. Brit is beautiful, smart, kind – and she is white. Frank has to conspire with fellow Limbo, Joy Sung, who is in the same predicament. They decide to pretend-date each other to make their parents happy while continuing to see their respective partners of choice. But how long can this ruse last?

The protagonist of the book is an eighteen year old, and the book primarily explores his self identity and where he belongs,. However, I feel this book provides valuable insight, for adult readers along with teens, into the immigrant community in this country (or anywhere) where the immigrants struggle to find the balance between holding on to the culture of their birth country while trying to assimilate in their adopted country. The struggle becomes extremely poignant for first generation Americans, as is highlighted in this novel. 

David Yoon does a tremendous job of exploring the issues of race and identity in this novel while keeping the narrative light.  The voice of the narrator, a somewhat confused, sometimes lovelorn, and mostly empathetic senior in high school, is authentic. While we live Frank Li’s life vicariously and shudder at the blatantly racist comments that his parents utter, we also examine our own biases regarding race and racial identity. Told in a partly eloquent, partly colloquial voice, this book really satisfies the need for a light yet thought provoking read.

YA Fiction. Available through CloudLibrary and Libby.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.