An Embarrassment of Riches is a blog about the best the library has to offer. From audio books to movies, from novels to zines, library staff and guest bloggers will tell you about their latest library discoveries. Read. Watch. Listen. Chat.
The True Meaning of Smekday came out in 2007, so this spring's sequel, Smek for President, was an unexpected joy. I read both books with my 11-year-old son, who still lets me read out loud to him, although at this point, I'm afraid that every book is going to be the last. If you've already read the first book, then you'll want to read the second one, which is almost as good as the first. If you haven't yet read The True Meaning of Smekday, here are some reasons that you should give this kid's book with crossover appeal a try:
1) The main character is named "Gratuity"-- her mom liked the sound of it-- but is nicknamed "Tip". This kind of offbeat cleverness runs through both books.
2) Tip is a strong, smart, resourceful girl, AND a girl who just happens to be biracial, in a book that's not about race at all, really.
3) There's an alien from the planet Boov whose name on Earth is inexplicably J-Lo, even though he has nothing to do with Jennifer Lopez-- and he is extraordinarily funny. Seriously. Several times while reading these books, my son and I laughed until we couldn't breathe and our faces were wet with tears.
4) Wildly inventive comics are scattered throughout the book like little treats waiting to be discovered.
5) J-Lo and Tip team up to save the world in an insanely goofy and original way.
6)This story has at its heart a deep and beautiful friendship. It doesn't matter that Tip is human and J-Lo is an alien. They're true to each other.
7) Both books are wonderful read-alouds for an adult and a child to experience together. Honestly, even if you read it to yourself, you're going to want to read parts of it aloud to anyone who happens to be in the room.
I suppose I should mention that there’s a movie based on the first book which was also released this spring. I’m afraid to see it because I can’t believe it’ll be as good as the book, but let me know if I’m wrong, okay? And in the meantime, here’s a list I made of absolutely wonderful read-alouds for a parent to read with children who are perfectly capable of reading to themselves-- but they’ll still allow you the pleasure of reading to them.
There is so much good teen fiction that I have quite a time (and only moderate interest in) actually getting to the grown-up stuff. Here are two stories I recently discovered and enjoyed.
Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe by Yumi Sakugawa: Sakugawa takes you on a beautiful intergalactic journey where you deal with little and big things like petty annoyances, self-hatred, and anger. Surprisingly calming.
When I was approaching 30, I left a job in Seattle and moved to Portland to become a woodworker. I spent the last of my cashed out 401k on a table saw, hung my hand tools neatly on pegboard and slowly and with great discipline became a master carpenter. Not true. I spent about a month dressed in overalls, creating little more than sawdust before stopping to admire my tools with a self-congratulatory glass(es) of wine. And then I panicked and signed on with a temp agency to do mind-numbing office work.
Nina MacLaughlin carried out what I only fantasized about. After spending much of her 20s working as a journalist in Boston she realized that somewhere along the line, the work that had once inspired her, had grown oppressive. Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter is her memoir of what happened when she quit her desk job and traded in her cubicle and computer for a hammer, a tile saw and a 50lb bag of grout.
Picking up Hammer Head, I felt an immediate kinship and let’s face it- envy for MacLaughlin. We share an enormous satisfaction in mastering a new tool and an appreciation for the unique history and warmth that radiates off of a freshly-sanded plank of wood. But by the end, it was her boss Mary that I fell in love with. It was Mary’s Craigslist ad: Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply, that started MacLaughlin’s journey. Not much of a talker, Mary offered only the simplest instruction and encouragement (“Be smarter than the tools”), but abundant patience and quiet humor. McLaughlin's inspiring memoir is as much about her own leap of faith towards meaningful work, as it is a love letter to her straight shooting and unflappable mentor.
Oh why weren’t you in Portland in 2001, Mary?
Check out this list for more memoirs that will inspire you to follow your bliss.
Do you love urban fantasy? I do. I love that the stories are set in the real world with an action paced plots and supernatural beings. I connect better with a story if it’s set in our modern world. And if there is humourous dialogue-you’ve got me. I become a devoted fan!
Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles series is at times so funny I can laugh for a full five minutes about a scene. The stories are pageturners with a mix of supernatural beings that are Nordic, Celtic, Native American, Roman or Greek gods. There are vampires, witches, and werewolves thrown in too.
The Iron Druid is Atticus Sullivan who lives in Tempe Arizona with his Irish Wolfhound, Oberon when we first meet him in book one Hounded. The fact that the story is set in Tempe Arizona makes me giggle. Because then it is a nod to sunny noir.
The humor I love best in the series is in the discussions between Oberon and Atticus. There’s comic relief and diversion when Oberon and Atticus discuss snacks like sausage when they are worried about an upcoming battle. If you like your supernatural action story with a side of humor then you might love Iron Druid Chronicles series. I do.
Food is a lovely thing. Cooking and eating a meal can be one of the more pleasurable things in life, but if you're not sharing it with someone, it can feel like too much to bother. Though we are totally worth it, sometimes corners are cut and the end result can be a sad and pathetic excuse for a meal. Enter some hilarious accounts of What We Eat When We Eat Alone and other tomes like Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. These are full of often innovative recipes that occasionally work and frequently don't.
Did you know there are cookbooks just for one? My personal favorite is by Judith Jones. The Pleasures of Cooking for One will have you rediscovering the joys of cooking, without the drudgery of having to consume what you just made for the whole of next week's lunches and dinners.
Cookbooks are inspiring. At first...
They are tomorrow’s mouth watering meal, a party spread that blows your guests away, and the leftovers you can't wait to dive into. However, good intentions pave a nice road and where it leads does not often end in dinner. Too often, grand culinary aspirations are set aside when the everyday interrupts best laid plans. Soon, tempting recipes morph into overdue fines and dinner is created from a sad game of refrigerator potpourri roullette. Sound familiar?
Enter Pati Jinich and her Mexican Table. With easy recipes, accessible ingredients, and lighter takes on classic dishes, she has written a Mexican cookbook for the aspiring Diana Kennedy in all of us(until we have the time to tackle the decades of her genius). Repeatedly I’ve ventured back to Pati’s world for chicken a la trash(trust me, it’s a complete misnomer), black bean and plantain empanadas, simple salsas, and , green rice. They’re quick, easy for a weeknight, and delicious.
The Slants is the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band. Our signature “Chinatown Dance Rock” has been featured by NPR, Conan O'Brien, HBO, and Time Magazine. We've performed at anime/comic conventions and schools; we've even performed inside a Multnomah County Library.
The band doesn’t shy away from our bold portrayal of Asian culture nor our love for geek culture and the arts: the “Misery” music video features footage from the steampunk martial arts Tai Chi epic; “You Make Me Alive” offers an ode to cosplay culture; and “Adopted” was a collaboration with high-flying aerial arts group, AWOL Dance Collective.
In honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, here is a list of our band-approved Asian and Asian American works:
China Dolls by Lisa See
Set in the late 1930’s, China Dolls follows the lives of several Chinese American women who face the harsh reality of living as Asian American entertainers in a Chinatown. It’s stirring, exciting, and informative.
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8 Lee
It's no secret that The Slants loves food, especially Asian food. Not only do we regularly publish food guides and have active Yelp accounts, but we also film our culinary adventures while on tour as well. Lee’s book is a perfect example of the band’s quest for the very best food around the world while combining humor, history, and personal stories.
For the last several years, The Slants have been collaborating with the Tai Chi martial arts trilogy by releasing several music videos alongside the films. The films feature a hilarious comic book feel while combining steampunk accessories, the Chen style of the martial art t'ai chi ch'uan, and an all-star cast including Tony Leung, Angelbaby, and Shu Qi.
No-No Boy by John Okada
Considered one of the most important Asian American novels, No-No Boy tells the story of a Japanese American in the Pacific Northwest after the internment camps. It’s the very first Japanese American novel ever written and gives a deep, inside look at the meaning of identity.
Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang
This is the memoir that provided the inspiration behind the well-loved television series. Packed with even more personal stories, the book is darker and dives more deeply into issues of assimilation, drugs, 90’s hip-hop culture, and food. Though Huang himself is often surrounded in controversy for his statements, there’s no doubt that his memoir provides a refreshing, important, and honest look at Asian American identity.
Other books that band members enjoy while on the road:
Ken Shima (lead vocals):
The Odyssey by Homer
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
The Lord Of The Rings by JRR Tolkien
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling
Tyler Chen (drums):
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman
The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band by Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, Mick Mars, Nikki Sixx, and Neil Strauss
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
Simon “Young” Tam (bass):
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Hi-Fidelity by Nick Hornby
The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker by Eric Liu
American Born Chinese by Gene Leun Yang
Scott Pilgrim (Vol1-6) by Bryan Lee O’Malley
For more great recommendations, customized to your tastes, try My Librarian.
I first met my husband, Neil, when we were both working about a hundred hours a week in a fish cannery in southeastern Alaska. When the salmon slowed down and we had some free time, we loved to explore the island’s beautiful scenery. I was always desperate for sun, but he liked to linger in the dark, damp parts of the forest-- looking for mushrooms. I thought this was completely weird at the time, but I’ve since been converted and we’ve found lots of mushrooms together. I love to eat them, but I also love how I experience nature more deeply, and perhaps in the way that human beings are meant to experience nature, when I'm intent on finding something out in the wild. The forest floor leaps into detail you don’t ordinarily see unless you’re looking for just the kind of moss and pine needles that chanterelles seem to prefer.
Morel season is happening on Mount Hood right now, people! Please be safe-- some mushrooms are deadly. It’s best to start with an experienced mushroom-hunter. But if you’re ready to do some research of your own, check out this list of books recommended by my husband. Neil has thoroughly investigated the library’s collection, so I thought I’d share the fruits of his research with you.
My mom is getting up there in years and my siblings and I are learning first hand that there are lots of issues to deal with when you have an aging parent. As a welcome respite from all of the seriousness of trying to help my mom live out her years as best as possible, I’ve read Roz Chast’s wrenchingly honest and painfully funny graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant several times lately. But the book that is really helping me grapple with the issues of an aging parent is Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande.
Gawande, a surgeon, writer and public health researcher, explores how we make choices as we come near the end of our lives. He looks at the history, how our culture transitioned from caring for aged family members at home to putting them into nursing homes and assisted senior housing (and who knew that the first independent senior community was in Portland?). Gawande questions how modern medicine, which has been so successful in prolonging life, can also cause more suffering at the end of one's life. Wouldn’t it be better to help the elderly live out their lives in as comfortable and positive way as possible?
Or as Roz Chast says, "I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly "done," there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure-oriented. Perhaps opium, or heroin. So you became addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors for the extremely aged. Big art picture books and music. Extreme palliative care, for when you've had it with everything else: the x-rays, the MRIs, the boring food, and the pills that don't do anything at all. Would that be so bad?"
That’s the end of life I want for my mom and everyone else when they get old and reading Being Mortal is helping me figure out how to help my mom get exactly that as she lives out her life.
"Art can cease being a report about sensations and become a direct organization of more advanced sensations. The point is to produce ourselves rather than things that enslave us."
- Guy Debord, from "Theses on Cultural Revolution"
Art has always served a precarious role when it comes to a radical and transformative politics. Too often, even the most apparently revolutionary art ends up recuperated as market or museum-piece. MIT Press' elegant 2009 collection Utopias assembles an historically broad (though almost exclusively western) swath of manifestoes, interventions and proscriptions toward utopian and revolutionary transformation. Editor Richard Noble's introduction situates the power of these texts in their lurch toward a revolutionary horizon (that which is yet to come). And while the collection is certainly an excellent introduction to many essential and revelatory broadsides and critiques, Noble can't help but find himself stuck in this ultimately unsatisfactory impasse, resulting in toothless assertions like "[the] utopian impulse is implicit in all art-making, at least in so far as one thinks that art addresses itself to the basic project of making the world better."
Nonetheless, the book itself is a formidable archive (ahem) of revolutionary texts (with the occasional negative dystopic warning - like snippets of Orwell's 1984). Kicking off with an excerpt from Thomas More's Utopia and closing with a 2008 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Adam Phillips, Utopias provides all kinds of known and unknown pleasures. However, the collection - like Noble's introduction - reproduces the same cul-de-sac the bulk of the excerpts rail against. At the end of the day, Utopias is another attractive museum catalog, producing weak whispers and disavowed reminders of something far more scandalous, unattractive and untameable.
As supplement and tonic, I'll close with a sentence from an excellent piece on Occupy and art from 2012, co-written by Jaleh Mansoor, Daniel Marcus and Daniel Spaulding:
"Art’s usefulness in these times is a matter less of its prefiguring a coming order, or even negating the present one, than of its openness to the materiality of our social existence and the means of providing for it."
Of course, much of how and when this works is up to us.
When my sons were in grade school I used to buy special birthday cake candles. The kind that immediately re-light after they’ve been blown out. I got a bigger kick out of them than the kids! I still love the uncertainty of these candles. Will they relight or won’t they? All my life candles blown out stay that way - but not these candles. They come back on.
I love the surprise, the appearance of somehow defying the laws of nature.
I look for that kind of surprise in books too. Those rare books that surprise me with their unpredictability, their innovative writing style or ideas. A book that leaves me breathless.
On the outside I get up, go to work, cook dinner, make conversation - but on the inside the ideas of that book have lit up my mind and just when I think I have let go of one idea, whoosh - another pops up burning brighter than the first.
The book jacket, two shades of gloomy gray, and the blurb on the inside cover about a Swedish military officer who is hired to sound out the depths of the ocean bottom around the Swedish archipelagos, was dreary and uninteresting. But one day I was so starved for something different to read, I opened to the first page.
Whoosh... it opens with a woman escaping from an insane asylum on a dark rain-swept night, remembering as if in a dream that once she had a husband: Swedish Naval officer Lars Tobiasson-Svartmann, a man whose compartmentalized emotions threaten to drown him…Whoosh - he sleeps with his sounding equipment like a security blanket to calm his anxieties...Whoosh…physically, he sounds the depths of the ocean but emotionally he is sounding himself...Whoosh...he finds a solitary woman living on one of the archipelagos and Whoosh…..400 pages later I come to the surface, like a fish, gasping for air.
If you live for unexpected, the amazement of realizing that you are about to be lit up with unforeseen wonder, read Depths by Henning Makell. Whoosh…
For many of us, the most imposing barrier to joining the growing ranks of space tourists has been cost. When Dennis Tito made his eight-day flight back in 2001, you could get in on a ride for around $20 million. That was the going rate for about the first six years before the price inevitably began to skyrocket to its current rate of roughly $40 million. But you know what’s been holding me back? The lack of coffee. Well, not just any coffee -- I’m talking espresso. How do you get a truly great cup of espresso while you’re circling the globe in a weightlessness condition?
Well, after reading Wednesday’s New York Times, I learned that that great hurdle has now been cleared. Samantha Cristoforetti, who also happens to be the first Italian woman to travel in space, just became the first person to successfully brew and enjoy an authentic Italian-style espresso in space.
Two developments made this feat possible: The 44-pound ISSpresso machine and the microgravity coffee cup. The fact that the machine weighs 44 pounds really isn’t a problem in space and the cup allows astronauts and space tourists to enjoy their drink pretty much as they would back on Earth.
So what’s holding me back now? Well … I’m still saving for that ticket and hoping that increased ridership will bring down the cost!
I always thought that bird watching would be boring until I actually did it! I can't recall exactly how many birds I saw on my first official try, but I do remember being impressed by the beauty and variety of shorebirds on view in winter down around Tillamook Bay. I was so completely charmed by the sweet little buffleheads as they bobbed around that I almost forgot the freezing temperatures! Then there was the visit in and around the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in spring where I was blown away by the beautiful American White Pelicans and got a close-up look at a rough-legged hawk making a meal of a duck. On another visit to the same area, I got a rare and long look at some juvenile golden eagles as they were snacking on something.
My latest avian adventure happened last spring in Britain when I went to the Farne Islands and was dive-bombed by an Arctic tern! Fortunately, I had a hat on and had been warned that this might happen. I wish I had started my bird-watching ventures when I was a lot younger. if I actually kept a life list, it certainly would have been more complete had I started observing birds when I was five. Fortunately for today's youth, there are lots of fun, fact-filled books to help get them excited about birds. Check out this list for some ideas!
I attribute the beginnings of my Anglophilia to two bears: Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington. When I was a child, I loved Milne's stories and poems about Pooh and his Hundred Acre Wood friends, my mother's nickname for me was Roo, and we called snacks "smackerels". I knew that Winnie was based on a teddy bear owned by A.A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, but until recently, I didn’t know that the stuffed bear got his name from a real live one! The “real” bear, Winnie (short for Winnipeg), was purchased at a Canadian train station by a veterinary surgeon serving in WWI. The seller had shot the cub’s mother (not realizing she had a baby) and now didn’t know what to do with the young bear. Fortunately, Harry Colebourn came to the cub’s rescue and thus began Winnie’s adventure. You can read all about Winnie in a lovely new children’s book entitled Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh. The watercolor illustrations are charming and evoke the era, and the endpapers have photos of Winnie, Harry, Milne and Christopher Robin (with his teddy bear).
For other true stories about children’s literature, check out this list.
Sometimes I get tired of the boys’ club that is our pop culture. I think “Give me some women’s voices.” You certainly won’t find women’s voices on Portland radio, so I have to start spinning my own musical choices. And find the books for women's voices. And I’ve been lucky lately.
I found the Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys. I was transported to 1970s London where punk rock was just taking hold and young Viv was just learning to hold a guitar, and her own on the stage. I was floored by the two prominent men in her life: her father and her husband, who sneered and put down her music career. Viv triumphs though! This is a memoir about creativity, aging and empowerment. I found her determination inspiring.
Then I heard that Kim Gordon had a memoir coming out. I got goosebumps. I was more of a pop music lover or local music lover most of my life. My favorite bands in the 80s and 90s were local bands but that’s another story. But I knew of Kim Gordon at that time. She was a beacon of hope for women in rock. Yes, there were others. But hearing that she sang about Karen Carpenter in the song “Tunic” sealed the deal for me. Reading her memoir really fleshes out the story how she began with visual arts and dance in California. Her musical career with Sonic Youth starts in New York City with her relationship with Thurston Moore. This is a wonderful memoir about reinventing oneself, and finding truth and creativity.
Both women portray the healing power and strength of music and creativity.Their storytelling skills really drew me in as a reader. The musical settings and characters were very interesting for a music fan. Perhaps you will find their memoirs as inspiring as I did.
The last few weeks here in Portland have been heavenly! Nights so cold and clear that the star-scattered sky seems close enough to touch. Days washed with sunshine and the goodwill of people who can’t wait until summer. But I know this is an illusion. Summer isn’t here yet and soon we will be back to the rain and overcast skies that Oregonians know and love.
So what will do I then? Maybe a book, movie or music will bring some of that warmth and goodwill back to my soul. First on my list is a good mystery. Nothing cheers me up like a puzzle well solved. Or a detective who, despite personal problems, can’t stop until justice is done. Dr. Siuri is one such detective. His story takes place in Laos during the time of the Vietnam War. Although 70 years old and hoping to retire into obscurity, Dr. Siri is appointed by the Laotian Government as their head (and only) forensic doctor. In Coroners Lunch, first book in the series by Colin Cotterill, Dr. Siri knows nothing about forensics, but luckily with his two talented and resourceful assistants, Mr. Geung, (a mentally challenged man the government wanted to fire for incompetency) and a young nurse Dtiu ( who is considered too plain and overweight to nurse in the hospital), he is able to solve political crimes without causing an international disaster.
Along with a good mystery and a steaming cup of golden hot tea, I am sure to be listening to the Moody Blues- the mellow spirit of their music belies the introspective lyrics of songs that can still make me ponder the meaning of life.
From Days of Future Past :"Cold-hearted orb, that rules the night, removes the colors from our sight, red is grey and yellow white, but WE decide which is right and which IS an illusion".
From A Question of Balance: "Why do we never get an answer, when we're knocking at the door with a thousand million questions about hate and death and war?"
If black clouds and pouring rain put me in the the mood for for a movie, I might pick the Secret Garden -I love the version that features Maggie Smith as the bitter Mrs. Medlock, Linda Ronstadt's airy song Winter Light and a beautiful sleeping garden just waiting for the innocence and stubborness of Mary, Dickon and Colin to wake it up. The beauty of the ending that shows them dancing on the sunlit meadow always restores my faith in life again.
It's almost enough to make me hope I will wake up tomorrow to clouds and the sound of rain falling.