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.

WPC 56BBC shows set in different eras can be so spot-on. They've produced some brilliant series that completely capture the milieu of a particular time period and do it whilst telling a really interesting story. I enjoy watching Downton Abbey for the beautiful frocks but the story of how the world of the upper class was changing after the turn of the century is the more important tale to observe. And yes, I love the fashions of the 40s and 50s so I’ll watch a lot of shows just for the look of those times, but give me a series that explores the changing roles of women and men, and I’ll binge-watch the entire thing in a couple of days.

WPC 56 is one of those shows. It’s set in the 1950s, in the West Midlands police force. Gina Dawson is the first female police officer to serve in her home town police station. At her first meeting with the chief inspector, he sternly says to her, “Never forget that your sole responsibility is to support the men so that they can get on with the job of real policing.” Unbelievable. But then again, so believable. In just a few episodes, we see how such tough issues as rape, mental illness, and race relations played out in a small town in 1950s England. Even though I wish I had a few of their party dresses, I’m glad I’m living in 2014. 

Here's a list of some of my other favorite British series that bring to life other times and places. 


Susan Seubert Photography, Inc.Thomas Lauderdale was raised on a plant nursery in rural Indiana. He moved to Portland in 1982 and founded the "little orchestra" Pink Martini in 1994. He has appeared as soloist with numerous orchestras and ensembles, including the Oregon Symphony, the Portland Youth Philharmonic, and Oregon Ballet Theatre. Active in Oregon politics since he was a student at U.S. Grant High School (where he was student body president), Thomas served under Portland Mayor Bud Clark and Oregon governor Neil Goldschmidt. A connoisseur of Pacific Northwest literature, he has hosted readings by Tom Spanbauer and poets Michael and Matthew Dickman. He maintains an active interest in local history and politics. Here are some of his favorite reads:

Portland: A Historical Sketch and Guide by Terence O’Donnell and Thomas Vaughan

There have been a lot of books written about Oregon and Portland, but I think the best book about Portland was written in 1976 by Terence O’Donnell and Thomas Vaughan, who led the Oregon Historical Society and just died recently. This is a beautiful book. I think that every person who moves to Portland should read this book. This is the book to read. The book is entirely readable, it explains a lot about the mindset and what’s inside the head of the people who came to Portland.

The Story of Opal by Opal Whiteley

This is an incredible story of a woman who grew up in Cottage Grove, Oregon. She was clearly a genius and was very much involved in nature, and kind of had a crazy life. I think that there was renewed interest, because at the Multnomah County Library, an author by the name of Benjamin Hoff, who wrote The Tao of Pooh, found The Story of Opal on the shelves of the library and the whole thing was republished. It’s basically the diary of a very advanced girl – I guess she was seven when she wrote it. It was declared a hoax at a certain point in the 1920s. It became a bestseller and then was declared a hoax. But it’s just incredible. She’s the original flower child of Oregon. She had this whole imaginary world. And even if she was in her teens when she wrote it, it’s still remarkable. The whole thing is just amazing. She has this whole secret world of flowers and animals and creatures, and all in Cottage Grove, Oregon, in 1920.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

She is such a fantastic writer, and I was her assistant for about a year when I was in high school. She had a column in the Willamette Week called “The Slice,” in which people would write questions and she would answer them.

The Portland Red Guide: Sites and Stories of Our Radical Past by Michael Munk

I love this book! It has maps! It has pictures! It talks about how crazy and wonderful the history of Portland is. Whether it’s Emma Goldman, the pioneering feminist and anarchist, giving a lecture on lesbianism in 1915 at the Portland auditorium, two blocks away from my house, and getting arrested and hauled off to jail, to Woodie Guthrie living on SE 92nd in the summer of 1941 and writing all the songs for the Bonneville Power Administration, to the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war. It also talks about writers like John Reed, the Oregonian journalist who is buried in Red Square.

I Loved You More by Tom Spanbauer

I find myself underlining passages and coming back to them again and again. It just resonates. It’s so unbelievably honest and forthright.

Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be by Myrlie Evers-Williams

This is a great, great, great book…I heard her speak at the art museum for Dan Wieden’s organization Caldera and Dan Wieden revealed that she had studied to be a classical pianist with dreams to play at Carnegie Hall.  We got her to make her Carnegie Hall debut, and we filmed it!

A Shout in the Street: An Excursion into the Modern City by Peter Jukes

A Shout in the Street is kind of like those Nietzsche aphorisms. It’s a collection of quotations and moments – film stills, photographs, excerpts from essays – and it’s about four different cities. The cities are London, Paris, Leningrad, and New York City. And they’re so beautiful. Small little quotations about each of these cities at different times. (Note: this work is out of print, but is available through the library by interlibrary loan to Multnomah County residents.)

My Librarian and our featured guest readers are made possible by a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to The Library Foundation, a local non-profit dedicated to our library's leadership, innovation, and reach through private support.

photo credits: Autumn De Wilde and Susan Seubert Photography, Inc.


Although I hope never to experience war first-hand, I find exploring the topic through books and other media endlessly fascinating. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One. Since there are many fine resources that explore the conflict on a large scale, I thought I would feature a couple of recent releases that provide more intimate looks at this world-changing event.

The burning of the world BookBéla Zombory-Moldován was a young Hungarian artist when the war broke out in 1914. The Burning of the World, recently published for the first time, recounts his experiences as a soldier on the eastern front and his observation of the drastic changes the war brought upon the world. A short read, this reminiscence is a Behind the lines jacketfirst-hand account of a little-known front in the conflict and brings to life the horrors of war on a very personal level.

In Behind the Lines, soprano Anna Prohaska and pianist Eric Schneider explore the repertoire of the soldiers’ song. Although the focus is on the First World War, the songs range in time from the Renaissance to the 20th century, sung in English, German, French and Russian. Included is a German folk song; lyrical songs by Beethoven and Schubert; the four songs by Hanns Eisler offer some challenging listening; and Charles Ives’ setting of "In Flanders Fields." A carefully conceived and thought-provoking collection.

So many disasters to choose from! Earthquakes! Ice storms! Ebola! Zombies!

I don't know about you, but I have a hard enough time preparing for the mundane events I know for certain will happen. Like school lunch. I know exactly when it happens and I know what I need for it, and yet somehow a kid gets sent to school with peanut butter and marmalade on a stale tortilla and a rapidly browning banana. If I can't even get it together for lunch, how do I begin to approach the subject of disaster preparedness?
Prepper's Pocket Guide book jacketOh, I think about it plenty. But I'm curiously inert when it comes to the actual "doing something about it" part. Many of the books I've seen threaten to turn me into a version of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream. I want to be reasonably prepared without being told I must build a bunker and buy a year's supply of freeze-dried food. The Prepper's Pocket Guide : 101 easy things you can do to ready your home for a disaster by Bernie Carr is an easy way to wade into a kiddie pool of preparedness waters without jumping off the high dive and into the deep end.
But what about that biggest disaster of all? The one we all think about even if we don't want to think about it? That inevitable thing that will happen to each of us no matter how much seismic retrofitting we do or how many flashlight batteries we hoard? The event that mostly no one wants to talk about in American society (with the exception of my children right before bedtime.) The Big D. 
Death is a difficult topic under the best of circumstances. Glimpsing Heaven: The stories and science of life after death by Judy Bachrach is one of the most Glimpsing Heaven book jacketinteresting and hopeful books I have read this year. As someone terrified of death, the author began her long journey to the book as a hospice volunteer in order to overcome her own paralyzing fear of death's unknowns. She discovered that, thanks to modern medicine, CPR and technology, more people than ever before are returning from up to an hour of clinical death to report on what lies beyond. 
Those reports are generally life-changing for the "death travelers", as she terms them, and completely fascinating for the rest of us. The experiences and scientific investigations detailed in the book are the tip of an enormous submerged iceberg. Published by National Geographic, these may be some of the most unique travel experiences in print. Death is an uncharted distant planet we have successfully landed on and awaits the courage and funding for more exploration. What we really want to know: Is death the end? 
After reading this book even the most skeptical person might answer: Probably not.

tiki popCome with me, if you will, to a tropical paradise. The darkness has returned to Portland, and with it, my desire to read about all things palm tree. Imagine my delight when I came across this new edition to the collection of Multnomah County Library. Published in connection with an exhibition at the prestigious Musee du quai Branly in Paris, Tiki Pop , by Sven Kirsten, is a massive coffee-table exploration of the Tiki phenomenon.  

Tiki culture at its height was a manifestation of exotic visions of island culture inspired by the tales of American soldiers stationed in the South Pacific during World War II: trees loaded with exotic fruits, sleepy lagoons, white-sand beaches, and gorgeous people dancing in grass skirts. Americans made Tiki their own, often ignoring authenticity, and created a mid-century cultural movement that was then forgotten until the recent Tiki resurgence.  Tiki Pop explores the history of Tiki, from James Cook's first explorations of the Pacific Islands in the 18th century, all the way through Hollywood's embracing and manipulating of the Tiki culture through its jungle films. But the real highlights of Tiki Pop are the hundreds upon hundreds of glorious, colorful images. Kirsten has assembled what I think might be the penultimate photographic memory of a time in our culture that was unique in so many ways. What a pleasurable journey!

So, if the rainy skies are getting you down, mix yourself a zombie, a mai-tai, or a hurricane, settle in, and be transported to a different (and warmer) time and place. Cheers! cocktails



It’s that time of year when I start thinking about what I could make as holiday gifts. Do you make gifts? Host a cookie exchange?

I have been part of a craft group for more than a decade. We get together about once a month to eat, work on projects and discuss the world. They have inspired me over the years to make liqueurs, cookies, jewelry, cards and photo books. I've created a list of terrific books for any of these endeavors. Hope you like it and are inspired to create.

My reading lately has taken a nose-dive because I have found nothing that holds my attention quite like my new pup. That's right, I am proud new mama to Inspector Meriwether Lewis.

Much like having a baby, a new puppy brings lots of unsolicited advice. And because I want to do what works for Meri and me, I end up ignoring the bulk of it. I do find books to be quite useful though, and take great comfort in the many puppy manuals available. Ian Dunbar is one of those soothing voices that remind me "Oh yes, I can do this! Training should be easy and fun and even children can do it!" An oversimplification perhaps, but it buoys my self-confidence no end. And then when it all goes pear-shaped (which is British for horribly wrong) as it does, a solid and reassuring tome like Housetraining for Dummies renews my hope for living with rugs on the floor again someday. This is my personal list.

Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters

by Mallory Ortberg

Humorous imagined texts from your favorite literary characters such as Scarlett O'Hara, Lord Byron and Emily Dickinson. Sure to amuse bibliophiles.

The First Lady of Radio: Eleanor Roosevelt's Historic Broadcasts

by Stephen Drury Smith

The author presents transcripts of Roosevelt's most historic and influential broadcasts heard by millions of Americans during the Depression and World War II.

The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute

by Zac Bissonnette

The story of one of the biggest consumer crazes in history including stories about the fanatical collectors and the great wealth it generated for the inventor.

The Paris Winter

by Imogen Robertson

Set in 1909, a young art student becomes involved in deception, violence and murder. A deliciously chilling historical thriller.

The Rose City Rollers league is made up of over 400 smart, tough, accomplished women who skate fast, hit hard, and defy stereotypes about female athletes ...And they read. Check out a list of favorites from Axles of Annihilation, one of the Rose City Rollers’ two All-Stars teams. Want more reading recommendations? Try My Librarian and get a personalized list made just for you.

Avalanche #K2 started playing roller derby in 2010 as a way to make friends here in Portland. When she’s not skating she runs an art gallery and retail store called Land on Mississippi Avenue. She and her 9 year old son love to read!

The Mental Athlete by Kay Porter

Roller derby takes a lot of mental and physical strength. This book has given me a lot of great tips on how to deal with the tough situations. It’s a great guide not just for sports but also for life. We all have different challenges to face and it’s nice to have different ways to combat them head on.

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, followed by Inkspell and Inkdeath

A wonderful series of books about books! It’s about a father/book binder named Mortimer. When he reads books aloud, the characters come out of the book and into the real world, but with each character that emerges a new one must return to the book. One night when his daughter Maggie was very young, he accidentally reads his wife into a book called Inkheart. The trilogy follows him and his daughter as they go on a series of adventures trying to find Maggie's mother. One of my favorite parts about this series is that each chapter starts with a quote from a different book, so once I finished the series I had an incredible new list of books to read.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne is a smart, adventurous, young, orphaned redhead. As a young freckle faced redhead growing up in the country, I always felt that Anne and I were meant to be bosom buddies.

Yoga Nabi Sari #808 is a real life Librarian!  She started roller derby around the same time she started graduate school, and grad school was easier.  Nabi graduated with a Masters in Library Science from Emporia State University in August 2012.  During her two years in grad school she worked at the OHSU West Campus Science and Engineering Library and did volunteer work and research for Multnomah County Library.  Nabi currently works as a librarian for a local commercial real estate company.

When Nabi is not skating she enjoys…oh never mind, right now she is skating all the time. When the season is done she will hopefully read more books, see live theater, and do more hot yoga.

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson rolling out in March, 2015.

Victoria Jamieson aka Winnie the Pow is a fellow skater with Rose City Rollers.  I am lucky enough to be her derby wife and she gave me an advanced copy of her graphic novel.  This beautifully illustrated book captures the heart of this sport.  You don’t have to be involved in roller derby to fall in love with this story!

The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey

Mind Gym: An Athletes Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack

I went on a sports psychology kick this season and read both of these multiple times, and they really helped with my mental game.

Ripley #426 spends her days in two extreme realms, playing roller derby with the Rose City Rollers, and in stark contrast, working professionally as a Child and Family Therapist at a non-profit. Ripley moved from Colorado two years ago to work in the mental health field in Portland and skate with one of the most competitive leagues in the world. She has little time for other activities, although she does enjoy reading, cooking, and international travel, when she can squeeze it in.

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

A novel of two Afghanistan women in the same family but generations apart, who share similar hardship and struggles in a culture where females have little freedom.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

The true story of a World War Two pilot who survives a crash at sea, only to face continued abuse as a prisoner of war.  

The Chosen by Chaim Potok. 

A book about two Jewish boys who grow up in completely different households. The father of each boy recognizes what his son will need to succeed in life, but it comes at cost to the father-son relationship.

Shaolin Spocker #1701 works as a graphic and web designer, professional photographer, and Benevolent Overlord of her own branding design studio, Upswept Creative. When Spocker started roller derby, she still had a day job, and spent a lot of time playing with swords - she practiced the martial art of Wushu for 7 years before her growing fascination with derby took over.

When Spocker isn't skating, you'll often find her indulging in sci-fi, fantasy, and gaming, geeking out about lighting design, baking some serious-business desserts, obsessing over font libraries and color theory, or maybe even singing karaoke.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I first read this in middle school, and it's always been an important book for me: as a half-Chinese girl growing up in the United States, a lot of the experiences in the book felt familiar, and helped me understand more about the Chinese side of my background.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The entire 5-book “trilogy” was a lot of fun, but the first book always stands out in my mind. It’s an entertaining and funny flip on the science fiction genre, and a must-read for any sci-fi geek.

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

A lot of people know about the HBO show, but the books came first, and they’re worth the read. It’s not a series for the faint of heart, and you should be careful what characters you get attached to - no one is safe! :-) - but it’s a complex and riveting story that’s really grand in scope.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

I like a lot of Murakami’s work, and this was the first book of his that I found. It’s a story that’s split between two worlds--with odd-numbered chapters about one, and even-numbered chapters about the other! One world that feels a bit cyberpunk-y, and the other more mysterious and otherworldly.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book creates an interesting world, where Thai culture and society is at the center, natural food is scarce, and calories are more valuable and coveted than anything else. The story follows multiple characters’ perspectives, and it was fun to watch the story emerge from their individual threads.

My Librarian and our featured guest readers are made possible by a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to The Library Foundation, a local non-profit dedicated to our library's leadership, innovation, and reach through private support.

photo credits: Mercy Shammah - Your Sunday Best Photography

Meanwhile in San Francisco book jacketMy favorite city is San Francisco. When I was slogging through high school in the Midwest, I dreamed about moving out to California and going to college there. It took me a few years after high school, but eventually I made it out there and stayed for the next twelve years. Now I try to visit the Bay Area once in awhile. It’s changed a lot since I lived there but the main things that I loved about San Francisco are still there. Golden Gate Park, huge and green, with pockets of bison and windmills all leading to the cold, cold ocean. The neighborhoods, each with its own character and atmosphere. I was there just a few weeks ago and found a bevy of hippies still hanging out in the Haight.

My new favorite book about San Francisco is Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words. The author and illustrator, Wendy MacNaughton, has captured the people and places of Meanwhile in San Francisco illustrationSF perfectly. She visited different neighborhoods and drew the people and the scenes. And she had lots of conversations at each location. MacNaughton then gathered the twenty to thirty stories she had heard and combined them into one story for each picture. It’s both deceptively simple and deeply profound. The section on the main branch of the SF Public Library is perfect; on one page she has a list of all of the people that entered the library between 12:45 and 12:50: number 9 of 59 is “old man bent over, beard nearly touching the ground.”

Meanwhile in San Francisco captures both the characters of the city and the city as a character. Sheer loveliness.

She has a really great website too. Check it out here.



Station 11 book jacketA lot of people will hear the word ‘post-apocalypse’ about Station Eleven and will decide then and there not to read it. That’s a shame because this isn’t your usual vision of the collapse of civilization - there are no zombies hunting prey, no organized savage games to survive. There is savagery for sure, but most of it takes place off screen and the characters mourn the ways in which violence has touched them - they retain their humanity.

The story slips back and forth from a past that is familiar to us all - cell phones, red-eye flights, suburban lives, and tabloids - to a fateful night when an actor performing in the role of King Lear collapses on stage, his death a harbinger of a devastating and virulent flu that will rewrite the story of human-kind. Then we jump to a future in which a small company of actors and musicians makes its way from one sparse outpost of humanity to another, because, after all, what else is there? Each member of ‘the symphony’ has scars; some cherish memories of life before, and to others this ragged and primitive world is all they have ever known. As the story unfolds, the past and present weave together.

Yes, it’s a book about apocalypse and devastation, but in a quieter vein. More accurately it's about loss and memory and how each little piece of the world we carry with us changes our story. And it's well worth reading.


darger bookUntil his death on April 13, 1973 not many folks knew Henry Darger. However, while cleaning his small, cluttered apartment, what Darger’s landlord’s found forever changed that. In the process of clearing out decades of presumed clutter, “30,000 manuscript pages, and over three hundred canvases depicting a rich, shocking fantasy world - many featuring hermaphroditic children being eviscerated, crucified, and strangled” were discovered.

Intrigued? I was. After attending an fascinating exhibit of Darger’s work at the American Folk Art Museum I was drawn into his outsider art and wanted to know more about the man behind the vast and bizarre body of work.  Unfortunately, aside from speculation based on the imagery there was little to know. Luckily Jim Elledge stepped in. After ten years of research, he produced “Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy” a scholarly, yet readable history of Henry Darger that not only illuminates the man, but also his societal backdrop to better understand him.

Check it out!  

Book jacket: Mannequin Girl by Ellen LitmanIf you’re a female who grew up in this country during the 1980s, odds are good that you lived in fear of scoliosis checks. The impact a back brace could have on a teenager’s social life was made very clear to me by Judy Blume in her book Deenie.  

But what if, instead of growing up in New Jersey under the watchful eye of a controlling mother, Deenie had been born in Soviet Russia to inattentive bohemian parents?

What if Deenie’s spine curvature got her sent to a school-sanitorium where life’s disappointments brought out a bit of an impulsive mean streak?

That alternate universe Deenie might look something like Kat Knopman, the sympathetic but prickly protagonist of Mannequin Girl by Ellen Litman.

Part of what I love about reading 80s coming of age stories, is recognizing my own experience in the lives of characters in fiction.  The other part is reflecting on how much of these experiences of a common era are colored by things like geography, race, politics and maybe just simple circumstance.

Were you an 80s child, or just interested in coming of age stories set in not so far removed historical times? Check out my list for more tubular tales from different points of view.

In September 199_, at the age of 14, I was driven into the city and deposited in the brick hallways of Catholic high school. It was in that cold, drafty, but nevertheless optimistic institution (in the English class of one Mr. Stiff) that I first encountered the writings of John Irving. The book was A Prayer for Owen Meany, which follows two boys as they grow up (one of the boys is unusually short, has a strange, nasal voice and believes that he is an instrument of God). I enjoyed this long, funny, sad book, enough so that I decided to try another book by Irving: The World According to Garp. This one was even more funny, and it had a lot more sex. It was also about an unusual boy and his progression through an unusual life, en route to becoming a perhaps slightly less unusual man. Did I mention that there was sex in it? Naturally, it became one of my favorite books during those high school years, and Irving remained a favorite author of mine during all of the challenging, arduous, character-forming years since.

More recently, I read his Until I Find You, about a young boy with a fantastic memory who, along with his tattooist mother, journeys around Europe in search of his wayward father, a church organist addicted to tattoos. The book goes on to follow this boy as he grows to manhood and comes to grips with his relationships to both of his parents. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think, "...again? Another boy with a screwed up life, growing up?" But still, I loved it and couldn’t put it down. And it got me thinking about why it was that I like Irving’s books so much, even though the stories and characters in them seem so similar. His writing and plotting are wonderful, but I think that maybe the appeal is also exactly that the stories are so classically structured and almost formulaic in the progression of the character from young age to adulthood. Almost all of his books are examples of the bildunsgroman genre, the coming-of-age story. And he’s not the only one writing in this mode: a My MCL search for the subject term “bildungsromans” produces, at the time of this writing, 2,082 results.

So why do I/we like this kind of book so much? I suppose that the one constant in life is that you grow older, and maybe it’s nice to think that we also mature along the way. Or maybe there’s just nothing funnier or sadder than growing up.

Chanur Saga bookjacketI grew up 60 miles from Roswell, New Mexico; so my love of SciFi is natural. CJ Cherryh writes a very entertaining SciFi series called The Chanur Saga about a galaxy far, far away that is full of Hani, Mehendo'sat and Kif with sundry other species, and not a human in sight. Family, Trade and inter-species Diplomacy are the bedrocks of society. Then the Outsider stows away aboard the Hani ship 'The Pride of Chanur' and all hell breaks loose.

You don't have to love SciFi to appreciate Cherryh's world building (spoiler alert -- methane breathers!); or the ironic way she depicts the Powers that try to rule over folk perceived as weak or inferior. She handles culture shock with humor and insight enough to make you wonder: suppose it was me who made First Contact. What view of human kind would I give?

The Chanur Saga is fantastic! George Lucas would want to film it if it ever came to his attention.

“You need a rest, and so do I," I'd say firmly, and then I'd close the door (also firmly) and brew myself a cup of tea. Then, with a sigh of happiness, I’d pull out a book or pop in a DVD and take at least an hour for myself. My kids both stopped napping at about three and a half, but I didn't stop being a quiet time-enforcer until both of them were in the care of Portland Public Schools five days a week. Days with young children can be very long, and I found that if we had this time to refuel, the rest of the afternoon and evening would be much more pleasant for everyone.

A library patron recently told me that she uses audiobooks to entertain her preschooler during quiet time and I think this is a brilliant idea. Let them be diverted for a while by Frances, a badger who likes to make up charming little songs, or let them spend some time enjoying the sweet friendship of Frog and Toad. I’ve made a couple of lists to give parents ideas for audiobooks that would be perfect. The first list contains audiobook CDs and the second contains downloadable audiobooksI offer them with the sincere hope that the stories you'll find on them will provide enough time for both parent and child to feel refreshed.

No visit to memory lane is complete without a few moments of fascination and horror.  Remember your 20’s?  I do -- my first apartment, helpful or harmful roommates, dating, and encounters with people that have since turned into lifelong relationships. I love that I had so much energy and anything felt possible. I still love many of the people I encountered then.

So, it’s not surprising that I love the HBO series Girls created by Lena Dunham, a sometimes comedic and horrific drama. This series is a very entertaining guest that I want to invite into my living room.  Dunham’s girls explore connections with lovers, jobs, friendships and all the possibilities of life while trying to maintain and develop their self esteem in wild New York City. It’s the exciting and uncomfortable 20’s unveiled in all it’s shabby glory, something to witness and marvel at while discussing the thought-provoking topics that each episode brings up. Oh and she just wrote a funny and moving collection of essays called Not that Kind Of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "learned".  I’ve learned that I love what Lena Dunham creates and hope she keeps making books, movies and television for a long long time.


cover image of mr. phillips

Mr. Phillips is a modern classic in my estimation. Faintly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, this single day novel focuses on the life of a middle-class British male who has been summarily sacked from his job of accountant last Friday. Monday morning however, he dresses the part and leaves for the office just the same, Mrs. Phillips being none the wiser. The reader is privy to his thoughts (which are borderline sexually obsessive) as he spends the day wandering London, doing some very normal things like riding public transport and the not very mundane like witnessing a bank robbery. It is bawdy, but great. 

Having walked the streets of London myself on those quiet weekday afternoons (not because I had been made redundant, rather a work schedule thing); I have selected a musical pairing for this book. If there was ever an album to enjoy while exploring the city (employed or no) it would be Songs for Distingue Lovers by Billie Holiday.



Film adaptations of popular books are usually eagerly anticipated happenings. There is a curiosity inherent in waiting to see just how beloved characters and settings, so well established in the mind’s eye, present themselves on the big screen. It can be very satisfying to see a movie character who is the embodiment of the person you have been imagining all along. On the other hand it can be deeply frustrating to see a film character say or do something that your well-established fantasy character would just never say or do.

Orange is the New Black dvd coverThe bigger challenge in accommodating a film translation is accepting the subtle or not-so-subtle changes to the story line that Hollywood feels it needs to make the movie work. Take, for example, the Netflix adaptation of Orange is the New Black, an episodic rendering of Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir of her time in prison. Bored with her middle class life and fresh out of Smith College, Kerman took up with a group of artists-turned drug smugglers. In exchange for a world of first class travel and posh resorts, Kerman became a drug mule, delivering large cash payments to international drug bosses. Ten years after she quit the business, federal officers knocked on her apartment door and arrested her. She was sentenced to fifteen months in a minimum security women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut.

The show is highly entertaining, with familiar characters come to life and new and interesting ones added to the mix. The film versionOrange is the New Black book jacket highlights and deeply embellishes the drama, which was much more subtle in the book. The book highlights Kerman as an adept lexicographer of prison life as well as someone who took a painful experience and made something of it. But the amped- up drama of television keeps viewers hooked and waiting (as I am, I admit) for season three.

I’m grateful to have read the book. It is an engaging and informative read and since the publication of the book, Kerman has become an outspoken advocate of prison reform. Part of her success of Orange is the New Black comes from indirectly highlighting some of the failures of the U.S. Prison system. By creating an emotional connection to these injustices through the book and through a highly-watched television series, Kerman has been a powerful advocate for change.

Beyond the potential discrepancies between book and film, it’s just plain interesting to see a beloved story come to life before our very eyes. So watch the show or read the book? Why not do both!

One of the things I like about science fiction is that it can encompass almost any other genre, but to be done well, the author really needs to be aware of the elements that define both science fiction and the genre from which they are borrowing. One particular melding that I’ve been enjoying is that between science fiction and the murder mystery—especially when it involves the intersection of our inherent human nature—jealousy, greed, envy, etc.—and the unintended consequences of technology.

Caves of Steel book jacketThese stories have a long history. For me, Isaac Asimov set the template in the 1950s with his first two Robot novels, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. What gives the stories their power as science fiction are the ways in which Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics shape Nimbus book jacketthe murder investigation at the center of each tale and the society at large. Another of my favorites is Nimbus by Alexander Jablokov which opens with someone murdering members of a group who had been secretly modified as children years before. What those modifications were and who is responsible are closely linked—and that’s all I’m going to say about it. More recently, Ken MacLeod wrote The Night Sessions where artificial intelligences play a central role following the bombing of a church and murder of a bishop. MacLeod writes very sophisticated novels that often focus on artificial intelligence and this is no exception. And finally, just published in 2014 is Jon Scalzi’s Lock In which opens with a murder in a world where a large number of people are fully conscious but trapped within catatonic bodies. Some can escape by either projecting their consciousness into machines or into the minds of “Integrators”-- individuals who can share their physical bodies with others. One of the big questions here is how do you know who is responsible when consciousness can be swapped?

Whether you like science fiction or mysteries, there is much to explore within this sub-genre. Using a science fiction setting allows for all kinds of new and interesting questions—the nature of reality, what is consciousness, the ethics (if any) of non-human intelligence—these are just a few that you won’t find in, say, an Agatha Christie story. So, if I’ve piqued your interest, go ahead and dive into this subset of science fiction and let me know what you think in the comments below.  Also check out this list for more great science fiction mysteries.


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