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Strange But True Stories

Spent a great day yesterday listening to entertaining panels of authors, publishing reps, and Library Journal editor Heather McCormack at the Massachusetts Library Association’s annual conference. In a session about stories that are “strange but true” from HarperCollins, two authors with Massachusetts connections dropped tantalizing details about their new and upcoming books.

Lost in Shangri-La by BU professor Mitchell Zuckoff sounds like the more exciting, about a daring mission to rescue three survivors of a plane crash. The plane carrying a group of military personnel and WACs out on a recreational flight goes down in a nearly inaccessible jungle valley in what was then Dutch New Guinea during World War II. Nicknamed and known as Shangri-La by American army personnel stationed there, the valley is home to native tribal peoples who have never been in contact with the outside world, and are rumored to be cannibals. If you weren’t at the library conference yesterday, the author’s interview on NPR was aired this morning and you can catch it on the NPR Web site. This sounds like a great one to recommend to readers who like history to read like fiction.

More personal and still intriguing, the other “strange but true” story, Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way, is by Molly Birnbaum who grew up in the Boston area and now lives in Cambridge, Mass. Having fallen in love with cooking in college, she is preparing to enter the Culinary Institute when she is hit by a car while out for a run. Among other serious injuries, her skull is badly fractured in the accident, which causes her to lose her sense of smell — a devastating loss for anyone, but, for this young woman, it shatters her dream of becoming a chef. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way will be released in June.

It was very moving to listen to Molly Birnbaum tell about her accident and long period of recovery. You can find out more about her and how she researched the science of smell for this book (and get recipes!) on My Madeleine, a blog about food, scent, and her experience with both. This sounds like it will be great for the cooking memoir fans and well as readers who like a touching personal story with some neuroscience thrown in.

Pulitzer Prize Winners for 2011

The Pulitzer Prize winners for 2011 have been announced. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, one of the best books from 2010 that I’ve read. Finalists for the Fiction award were The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee and The Privileges by Jonathan Dee (reviewed on this blog here.)

What book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year? I couldn’t remember, but it was Tinkers by Paul Harding, which is still being requested at the library. Peruse the complete list of fiction winners and finalists since 1948 here, and the list of winners from 1917-1947 here. The prize is awarded for excellence in American letters. Congratulations to the winners!

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks wasn’t as good as I thought it would be when I started it, so I can’t give it a rave review, but I enjoyed it. Librarians come off pretty well in it, too, which is nice.
People of the Book is historical fiction lite — historical chapters alternating with contemporary chapters about an Australian book restorer, Hanna, preparing an historical and religious relic, an ancient illuminated Jewish text, for display in a Bosnian museum.
The germ of the story came from the true story of how an actual centuries-old text the Sarajevo Haggadah, was restored after a Bosnian Muslim librarian saved it from shelling in the 1990s. The author imagines the history of the book and how it was preserved through different periods of war, bloodshed, and violence against Jews, and, finally, how the book came to be in the first place — a 14th-century Jewish text with colored illuminations such as would normally be found in Catholic manuscripts is extremely rare.
People of the Book is a good book group book, in that there is plenty of material for discussion, but it isn’t too subtly or ambiguously presented.

Read The Boston Globe review of People of the Book.
Read The New York Times review of People of the Book.

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