An Embarrassment of Riches

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.

AdCasebook bookjacketults so often think the world belongs to them. They are the do-ers and the deciders. What does that limited perspective look like from a kid's point of view? Two recent books in very different formats ask the question,  'what does it look like when the adults around you - the ones you rely on for stability and guidance - lose it?'

In Casebook, Miles is increasingly alarmed by his mother's erratic behavior after she and his father break up. Rather than just leaving the adults to do what it is adults do, he launches a surveillance campaign. He and his best friend Hector go from eavesdropping, to monitoring email, to setting up an elaborate phone tapping system, all so Miles can determine what his mom is thinking, how the new man in her life, Eli, will affect him and his twin sisters, and where Eli goes when he is not with them. As Miles and Hector begin to grow more suspicious of Eli's motives they pool their money to hire a private investigator - one of the sole adults who treats their concerns seriously.

In the graphic novel This One Summer, Rose and Windy are the best of summer cottage friends. This year, Rose has a crush on the clerk at the town's corner store, so the two girls create a ritual of visiting frequently for gummy bears and horror movies, all the while surreptitiously observing the dramas and relationships of the town's teenagers. All is not well at Rose's cabin either; her mother seems depressed and removed from the excitement of life at the cottage while Rose's dad tries his best to enjoy and encourage Rose's sense of wonder. As Rose and Windy move around the edges of an incomprehensible adult world, they cling to the games and activities that remind them of a world unsullied by adult complications. Dreamy line drawings evoke the joy and enthusiasm of childhood and the mystery of the encroaching adult world.

If you enjoy stories set in that precarious limbo between childhood and adulthood, these might be just what you're looking for.

 

The era of flipping channels may be coming to an end, and with it goes a certain variety of serendipitous discovery — the late night movie that haunts your imagination, the La Lupe performance that blows your mind.

Picture of Elaine MayMy first encounter with Elaine May was a stumbled-upon PBS special about her years performing comedy with Mike Nichols. Surprising, smart, subversive stuff (some skits available on YouTube). It gave me a hankering to seek out her work as a director. 

Of those May-directed works the library’s collection, my favorite is A New Leaf. May both directs and plays the, er, love interest of Walter Matthau. Matthau is a once rich schmo who has lived beyond his means and is broke. In his mind, the only solution is to find a wealthy woman to marry him. Enter May's character, Henrietta Lowell, an heiress and a shy guileless klutz of an amatuer botanist. Since this is May, you seriously wonder if their relationship is a romcom or a build up to a horrible crime. Rumor has it that in the original cut multiple bodies pile up.
 
There was a wonderful interview called "Who’s Afraid Of Nichols & May?" posted by Vanity Fair in January 2013. It is a very fun read, with May still delivering her utterly original comedy. 
 
And should you be interested in stumbling upon more movies made by the 50%, check out my list Flickering females.
 
 
 

Photo of curated clutter: plastic dinosaur, drawing, vintage cameraI admire minimalists. I really do. I totally get the peace of mind that comes with clean surfaces and simple outlines. I love natural linen, wood and neutral shades with bare hints of color. It’s just that I can’t maintain it for long.

I gravitate towards clashing patchwork patterns and ric rac. I see an amateur oil painting being discarded, and I have to rescue it. At the beach, I fill my pockets with interesting bits of wood and rock and when my father passed away, I claimed his collection of antlers to remember him by.Photo of corner clutter: oil painting, pillows, anters, books

Rather than see all of this stuff as clutter, I’ve been finding inspiration in my collections. A messy stack of books becomes an art installation when towered high on a vintage toddler chair. Tiny plastic goats balanced on the ledges of picture frames, add whimsy to a room, and in my opinion, antlers look good stacked or hung just about anywhere.

Maybe you’re a collector of objects yourself. Maybe like me, you’ve been trying to suppress your love of found, thrifted and handmade objects for the sake of living simply. Maybe you don’t have to. Check out my list for books that will inspire you to clear out your attic and display the things that bring you joy.  After all, it’s not clutter if it’s curated.

speaker buttons

Do you enjoy turning your speakers up to 11, like Nigel in Spinal Tap? Or do you find yourself craving silence in our often noisy world? How about little bit of both, like me? 

Before coming to Portland, I lived in a little house in the middle of the big woods. No neighbors. Quiet all the time, except for the occasional train, animals, birds, and frogs. Now living in the city, I enjoy a cacophany of sounds every day. You know them, the buses, the trains, the cars, the people. It's been a huge transition, as I now have to seek out the quiet that I used to take for granted, but I find it has become one of my favorite hobbies. Of course, travel outside the city limits, and one can find any number of places in which to soak in the silence:  the Columbia River Gorge is a favorite of mine. Peaceful Places, Portland is a wonderful book that will guide you to the most serene places in the city. So many opportunities exist to find solitude and quiet, and I think it is good for the mind, body, and soul to enjoy them when we can. 

Summer is a busy time for everyone. But sometimes we need to put the busy aside and just BE. This has been your friendly reminder to enjoy the silence. Check out the list of books below for some inspiration on ways to find peace and quiet in a loud world.

Now, for those who are interested...

Fiction with a sprinkling of magic. Will you love Sarah Addison Allen's The Girl Who Chased the Moon as much as I did?

Have you ever picked up a book and become so intrigued by the subject matter, it sparked a reading frenzy? Of course you have. That, my friends, is a book binge and it happens when you least expect it. You’ll be innocently reading along when you hit on a certain character or place or time and boom! Book binge. I myself have had many. Perhaps you are familiar with my proclivity for Paris in the 1920s, or my simple living obsession, but did you know I fostered a Sylvia Plath binge for at least a year and a half and had a brief fling with the Bloomsbury bunch as well?

I like to think book binges are good for us, edifying in some way. Like Picasso needed his blue period, we need our book binges.

Here and here are a few of my more memorable ones.

 

good luck cover

 

Three things you should know about Bartholomew Neil:

-His mother just died

-He’s not very good at being alone

-Coping with the above requires Richard Gere

 

“History isn't about dates and places and wars. It's about the people who fill the spaces between them.” ― Jodi Picoult, The Storyteller 
 
I happily Marathon book jacketread non-fiction books about the Oregon Trail, but otherwise I like to absorb most of my history lessons via fiction. Fiction gives you setting, context, details and a snapshot of 'a day in the life'. It makes history into what Jodi says: a human story. And thanTemplar book jacketk goodness there are quite a lot of writers and artists bringing these stories to life as graphic novels!
 
Marathon by Boaz Yakin shows the life of Eucles, the Athenian messenger who ran from Sparta to Athens and prevented the fall of Greece to the Persian empire. The art is a good match for the gruelling story. Templar by Jordan Mechner is based on the apocalyptic end of an entire knightly order when the king of France arrested 15,000 of these crusaders. Pretty dark, but also has a bit of a 'heist movie' feel to it. Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang are brother and sister works that show opposite sides of China's 1898 Boxer Rebellion. It is a dangerous time for Chinese Christians, and seeing how Yang gets us to empathize with opposing characters is a neat trick. 
 
You like? We have lots more.

The Book Thief jacketThere’s a theory I subscribe to that no matter what our chronological age might be, we all feel a different age inside. As in, our bodies grow, we mature in different ways, but mentally, we all feel stuck at some earlier age. For instance, I am mentally a 17-year-old girl who doesn't quite fit in anywhere yet.

I was thinking about this recently after reading an article in Slate Magazine entitled, Against YA by Ruth Graham. The gist of her essay is that teen fiction is written for teens and adults “should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”

There are several things I’d like to say to Ms. Graham. Here goes. . .

First of all, it’s sometimes a marketing/publishing decision as to what gets published as a young adult book. Take The Book Thief. Please, please take it. It's a brilliant bookFangirl bookjacket that should be read by everyone! In Australia where Markus Zusak hales from, you’ll find it in the adult section. But here in the U.S., it sits in the young adult section because his previous book was put out as teen fiction in the U.S. Arbitrary? Indeed.

And then I think back to my growing-up years. Once I reached a certain age, definitely when I was still in middle school and high school, I started reading “adult” books. These were books with younger protagonists that certainly were appealing to teens but they also were well-written novels that adults enjoy. Books like My Name is Asher Lev and To Kill a Mockingbird. The chances are that if these books were published today, they would be cataloged as “young adult” fiction and think how many adults would miss out on them?!

That brings me to today and my reading tastes. Sometimes I read young adult books and I enjoy them because I can totally remember what it was like to be that teen (Fangirl, I’m talking to you). I relate to the characters because I’m still a 17-year-old misfit inside. Other times, I enjoy a teen book because it tells a really good story (A Brief History of Montmaray fits the bill).

I hereby proclaim, I am not embarrassed to read young adult literature and you shouldn't be either! Here are a few more titles that you too can be proud to read.

Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway, is due to be published on July 29th. It’s funny, sweet, surprising and SUPER.

The fictional island of Mancreau is scheduled for UTTER DESTRUCTION. A chemical company has been stuffing its waste products into the empty spaces in the rocks. When magma bubbles into this waste brand new forms of life are created, not intelligent, but perhaps malevolent. The United Nations designates the island as the first official ‘International Sacrifice Zone’ to prevent contamination.

Representing authority in this EXPLOSIVE situation is Lester Ferris, a comically reserved British bobby-type. The only chink in his armor is his paternal love for a brilliant, comic book-loving boy who only gives his name as ‘Robin.’

Before long, the boy is looking to Lester to be a hero, and hence TIGERMAN IS BORN!

For more superheroes in prose, check out my list Cape not pictured.

Even though I haven’t left the Pacific Northwest recently, I’ve spent a good deal of the past few months with my head in Africa.

I’ve always been interested in life in other countries and the immigrant experience, but like most Americans, my knowledge of African countries is narrow at best. However, since reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I've gotten hooked on African writers. Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Book jacket: We Need New Names by NoViolet BulawayoWe Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo is one of those books that crosses over into poetry. I relished every word in this joyous and harsh story of a girl named Darling who grows up playing games like 'hunting Bin Laden' with her friends in Zimbabwe until moving with her aunt to ‘Destroyedmichygan' (Detroit Michigan). This is a truly modern immigrant story and the sharp contrast between Darling's African childhood and her teenage years in Michigan is startling. Then there are the character names...Bastard, Godknows, Mother of Bones, and who could forget the Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro?

Book jacket: Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela

Set in 1950's Sudan, Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela will break your heart, heal it, and then break it again. But it's the good kind of heartbreak, offset by great beauty. Nur, the son and heir of a prominent family suffers a tragic and debilitating accident. With their future uncertain, the family is caught between the traditional values of Nur's Sudanese mother and the modern leanings of his father's young Egyptian second wife, mirroring the social changes in Sudan itself.

Book jacket: Aya by Marguerite AbouetMarguerite Abouet's Aya is the first in a graphic novel series that takes you to Abidjan, the capital city of the Ivory Coast, as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl, Aya. Set in the prosperous 1970s, the level-headed Aya and her boy crazed friends do what teenagers everywhere do; sneak out to discos and argue with their parents. This is a fantastically fun series that both teenagers and adults will relate to, while also relishing the differences of another culture. Turn to the back pages for bonus extras such as the peanut sauce recipe made famous by Aya's mom and instructions on how to 'roll your tassaba' like Aya's friend Bintou.

You can join my African reading adventure with other titles on this list. Got some favorite titles of your own? I'd love to hear about them. I've got many more countries yet to visit and Nigeria can be so hard to leave.

How I love a good Western -- no, make that a small-w western -- one that rides right down the middle of the road. I'm not into books that stumble too far into Louis L'Amour territory or ones that lean towards romance. All I need is an underdog with a cause and no-good varmint who needs to be brought to justice, or have justice brought to him (yeah, it's usually a him.) Though a lot of Westerns are historical, I also like those that are more contemporary too - after all, people didn't stop writing westerns at the turn of the 20th century.

As I've mentioned before, True Grit is one of my all time favorites, featuring a girl who is not to be messed with. Most recently I enjoyed an twist on that story. Robert Lautner's main character in Road to Reckoning is Thomas, an introspective kid who loves books and has no business being on the road with his father, a salesman preaching the wonders of a new-fangled gun, the Colt revolver. When things go badly wrong, Thomas is reluctantly rescued by Henry Stands, a mercurial bounty hunter who has no desire to be saddled with a kid. Yep, there sure are a lot of parallels with True Grit, and that makes this book all the more enjoyable.

The theme of green-horn intellectual thrown into a wild and dangerous wilderness shows up in another favorite, Leif Enger's So Brave, Young, and Handsome. The story centers on a writer who has made a name for himself in the penny Western craze - think a fictional Louis L'Amour. But now he has writer's block and just when it seems he'll never write again, an elderly stranger comes to town, one whose criminal past is catching up with him. Together they go on an adventure that promises to save them both.

One reviewer calls the West portrayed in these books "regrettably familiar".  And it's true that these stories sometimes rely on stereotypes - a kind of short form that links directly to our imaginations. It's that reliance on the archetype that makes them good. After all, what else is a western than the age-old story of a fall from grace, and an effort to reach a more perfect world? For a few more small-w westerns that range from heart-warming to terrifying, take a look at my list. Happy trails.

I found  Dan Simmons' The Terror  positively ripping, a great big adventure story filled with interesting characters-- men of the sea testing themselves against the many, many things the Arctic throws at them. Then it changed, and it started to remind me of a book I read once about the Donner party. And then it changed again and became something unexpected and unusual, and I don't want to talk about that too much and spoil it for you.

The Terror is based on the real expedition of Sir John Franklin and his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, which in the 1840s disappeared in the Arctic on a doomed search for the Northwest Passage. There's not much sailing in The Terror, as a the ships get frozen into the ice pretty early on and stay there, the result of several exceptionally cold winters. Things start out pretty bad-- Franklin, the commander of the expedition, is something of a fool who fails to respect the Arctic as he should, the canned food is tainted and spoiling, there are no animals to be found by the hunters, crewmen are coming down with scurvy, and it’s unbelievably cold-- like -50 degrees Fahrenheit cold. The ship is crowded and the darkness is constant. And then things get worse. Something-- an enormous polar bear?-- is stalking the crew. And the ships, frozen in the ice for years, are starting to crack up under the pressure.

This is not for the faint of heart-- it’s almost a thousand pages long (or 22 CDs), and contains vast amounts of research about nineteenth century ships, polar ice, the early days of canned food, Inuit mythology, and more. But while I can’t believe that human beings actually signed up for these expeditions, I  just loved the time I spent in the world of this book. The writing is good,  the plot is thrilling, and it’s so compelling that I couldn’t stop listening. Oh, and if you are considering listening to the audiobook, as I did, you should know that the voice actor is excellent, as well, with a plummy English accent and great ability to express characters of different ages, classes and dispositions.

This list will provide you with even more opportunities to head into the cold during the hot summer days that will be coming back soon.

It’s been a rough few years personally: divorce, grad school, auto theft, dog death, ancient cat pissing indiscriminately throughout the house. I may be tough, but sometimes enough is enough. Give a girl a break already. Times like these make me contemplate running away. Before I chuck it all in and move to an undisclosed location, I thought I’d make a list. Why? Because lists soothe my virgo soul. Also list making is legal. And free. I shall call it my escapist list for hard times. On it will be absorbing things that don’t make me think too much, books that make me laugh out loud on public transport, hilariously ridiculous films, and music that puts a smile on my face and makes me move and groove involuntary of my mood (or talent).

There, you see, that’s better. Things are looking up already.

Can you guess what was the first Western television series to air on Soviet Television?  Here’s a hint:  it was also the first series to air on HBO - still stumped?   Fraggle Rock starring Jim Henson's Muppets. Yes, before The Sopranos, before the Game of Thrones, there was Fraggle Rock.

    

In Jim Henson, a biography, by Brian Jay Jones, we see how Jim was born into a big family  where holidays and birthday gatherings were marked by laughter and stories of growing up.  His creativity and ideas were encouraged by his family- especially by  his Grandma Dear.  But he knew from  the time he was a young man he knew he wanted to work in television.  He  mourned the fact that television’s great potential was  was used to sell products and to dull minds. It  was important to him that television be used 

 to educate and excite people- adults as well as children. Jim had  that  type of single- mindedness that showed him what to do, and the  tireless creativity to do it.

 Hence his creations- muppet and otherwise, reach out  to us like real living breathing people. He also had that rare gift of attracting innovative  and inventive artists like himself and giving them the power and opportunity as well, to be experiment, to dream, to create.

  Jim  saw television as a mighty instrument for change.  And change it did - Sesame Street helped to change the way children were taught- in fun short segments that kept them engaged and attentive.  It was entertaining to adults as well as children, so  it encouraged the whole family to sit and watch together. It mixed sophisticated humor with just plain sillieness that was hard to resist.  Sesame Street was such  a wild success that it led to the prime time program The Muppet Show and then to HBO’s Fraggle Rock. They all shared the  value  of inspiration through entertainment- pure and simple-but again appealing to both adults and children.
 
 

If  Jim Henson were still alive now what would he be doing?  Something tells me that he wouldn’t be putting  the muppets on Survivor unless it was to show how they could all live on a desert island together.  But best of all we would still  be experiencing the fresh  creativity of a  man who was able to achieve what no amount of political  diplomacy has achieved before or since-stimulating our  minds by  touching our hearts with laughter and song and love.  As it is, he left us with a unique legacy.   One that his favorite invention allows us to still enjoy.  As Uncle Matt says in Fraggle Rock:   "The magic is always there."

car sick book jacketGoing my way?

Hitchhiking is the blind dating of the highway. Strangers meet based on mutual intrigue and spend a brief period getting to know each other. Much like a date,  chemistry, perceived sanity, and direction each is headed determines how long the relationship will last.  However, stranger danger looms.  Most drivers pass up the chance to court the unknown ride seeker, leaving both parties to wonder what if...

Armed with scraps of cardboard scrawled with fading sharpie, film director John Waters set out from his Baltimore home thumbing his way to San Francisco. Told in three parts, Carsick imagines the best and worst possibilities, and the true tale of his trip. In classic Waters’ fashion the absurd blends with everyday reality. Alien tentacles, serial killers, old friends, and poor hotel lighting become fodder for an engrossing road trip.  Oozing with pop culture references of the cult variety, the trip also serves as a vehicle for memoir-esque moments of clarity amidst the search for a lift.

Carsick is a fun adventure with one of America’s camp treasures.  Take a look inside. You'll be glad you picked him up.

 

Whether or not you’ve ever been to Italy there are inevitable mental images that are sure to manifest. The sumptuous food, the iconic history and architecture, the picturesque landscapes manicured with vineyards and olive groves, the eccentric personalities of each major region, the famous post WWII films and the familiar stars birthed by them, or the operatic display of the tumultuous national calcio team, the Azzurri. These are the usual hallowed foundations conjured by La Bella Figura. Right now I could throw a rock out the window and hit a travel guide to Italy or a remaindered copy of Under the Tuscan Sun, but there are other dubious treasures to be had from the peninsula too...and there may be dragons.

Lesser known perhaps are the numerous fiction contributions to world literature by Italian authors, or at least translated modern works (no disrespect to Dante or Boccaccio, two entirely different blog entries). Older Gothic successes emerged from European authors writing about their dreams or experiences traveling to Italy, such as Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, or Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. This gave way to more poetry, drama, and novels in the first half of the twentieth century from famous scribes like Pirandello, Grazia Deledda, and Carlo Vittorio.

 

Beyond Hellboy

The creative boom came post-WWII with the scattered viewpoints of many authors, resulting from the constant struggle between their fierce nationalist loyalty and Mussolini’s fascist, oppressive policies. Writers such as the husband-wife team of Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante, Italo Calvino, Ignazio Silone, and Curzio Malaparte wrote smoldering novels of their experiences living through such a polarizing period. These important works paralleled the cinematic, neo-realist purge of post-war emotions from directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rossellini, and Fellini.

More modern contributions have included an explosion of genre fiction including the crime/noir creations of Massimo Carlotto, Andrea Camilleri, and Gianrico Carofiglio, comics from Lorenzo Mattotti and Tiziano Sclavi’s Dylan Dog, plus the unique originality of the fantasy and horror tales of Dino Buzzati, Iginio Tarchetti, and our own Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. If you have ever desired to explore the bountiful fiction created from Italian writers, try this book list featuring an extensive range of styles and voices from the boot of hypnotic magnificence. Buona lettura!

 

It's summer and time for a little light reading!  (At least that's what I told myself when I read the 21st Stephanie Plum book.  Upon hearing me snicker repeatedly while reading, my husband said "You're reading that series with the ditsy bounty hunter and the dueling romances again aren't you?" "Yes! Yes I am!") There's also a bit of fluffy fun to be found in urban fantasy (although with fewer dueling romances), so here are a couple of light suggestions from new series in that subgenre.

Charming book jacketI was considering the second book in a sort of OK series and in the back of the book was a sample chapter for Charming by Elliott James. "Chapter One" it read "A Blonde and a Vampire Walk into a Bar...".  I was sold right there. John Charming is part of a long family line under a geas to keep the Pax Arcana.  Any supernatural being that breaks the peace and risks exposure is slaughtered without mercy.  John isn't fully human: at the end of her pregnancy his mother was bitten by a werewolf so he was never completely trusted and, in the end, he had to flee. I knew it probably wasn't going to be the classiest book ever (and it wasn't) but that the author knew his audience and had a sense of humor (occasionally pretty juvenile). I've got book two, Daring, on hold as I write this.
The Shambling Guide to New York City book jacket
Mur Lafferty has two books out in a series about an out of work travel editor who finds a new position writing travel guides for the supernatural community.  In The Shambling Guide to New York City, Zoe Norris has moved to New York City after things fell apart in her former home.  She finds work with Underground Publishing as the only human employee and in the process of telling the story, the reader sees excerpts of her guidebook for the supernatural. Book two takes the reader on the Ghost Train to New Orleans where  Zoe learns more about her newly supernatural world.

Tama describes the story of a woman who wants to reconcile with her dad, a mountain man who's not that interested in maintaining a relationship. Sound compelling? Find Gone Feral: Tracking my dad through the wild and the author's first book, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer at a library near you.

 

 

2014 is notable for at least two anniversaries:  World War I began 100 years ago and the last of the Baby Boomers turn fifty.  That means there are a whole lotta women going through the change right now.  Sandra Tsing Loh and Annabelle Gurwitch both live in California, both are in the performing arts, both turned 50 about the same time, both went through menopause at the same time their children were going through puberty, and both have at least one aging parent who needs help.  And now, both have written about the whole sad, sorry and sometimes unexpectedly humorous experience in books published in guess what year - 2014!

The Madwoman in the Volvo book jacketThe Madwoman in the Volvo: My year of raging hormones starts with Loh's ill-advised extra-marital affair at 46 that left her living in a dumpy apartment without either her husband or her lover.  Things can only look up, right?  Whoa nelly!  Watch out for year 49!  Failed happiness projects, attempted weight loss, dealing with dad and his decades younger, but more decrepit wife, are just some of the joys Loh experiences in the lead up to 50.  And yet (spoiler alert!), she survives and lives to tell the tale in a very funny fashion.
 
I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, indignities, and survival stories from the edge of fifty is a series of personal essays on Gurwitch'sI See You Made an Effort book jacket mid-life experience.  While she doesn't have an affair, she does dream about men who are decades younger than she is.  Gurwitch also talks about the reality of being fifty in show business (yes, I can play a medieval crone), the challenges of being the menopausal mother of an adolescent son, and the fun of lying awake at 4:00 a.m. with no hope of sleep.
 
So for all you Boomers born in 1964:  Fifty - bring it on!  And good luck.

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