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.

Calico Pie,

The little Birds fly

Down to the calico tree,

Their wings were blue

And they sang 'Tilly-loo!'

Till away they flew,—

And they never came back to me!

They never came back!                                                                                                   

They never came back!

They never came back to me!

A couple of years ago I was a school librarian desperately trying to encourage poetry reading and appreciation among students kindergarten-eighth grade. I was succeeding to a certain degree, but one afternoon I was sitting at my desk wondering if I ever would be able to get through the barrage of Disney princesses and  Lego warriors to the just plain silliness of Edward Lear.  

Among the things  I tried with my students:

  • Reading out loud in unison
  • Memorizing
  • Colouring a picture with the words
  • Clapping the rthymn
  • Encouraging students  to write their own silly ryhmes

The response was lukewarm and after my last class left I sat there wanting to cry from frustration thinking that such poems would be lost to the newer generations forever.  Lucky for me I did what I often do when upset - listened to music.  Suddenly I heard from my computer where Pandora had been merrily playing away - Calico Pie, Little Bird fly….WHAT?  HOW? The very poem I had just read to the  first graders. The tune was peppy and clean.  I was so happy  I felt like dancing. The voice sounded familiar. Was it Natalie Merchant? Yes, Yes it was.  When given the option to listen to the whole album, I hit  'enter' so enthusiastically that my keyboard almost  bounced off the the desk .Natalie Merchant Leave your sleep

The rest of the afternoon passed  in a dream, poem after poem set to music and sung with Natalie Merchant’s unique personal style.  One poem was  new: "Bleezers Ice Cream", by Jack Prelutsky, but most were classics; " Maggie and Milly and Molly and me"- by e.e. cummings and "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child" by Gerald Manley Hopkins.

Other verses like "The King of China’s Daughter" and "The Man in the Wilderness" were so well-worn into my memory that I couldn’t remember where I had first heard them. When I consulted Natalie Merchant’s website I found that she and I were worried about the same thing: how to give children a sense of poetry, a sense that past things should be remembered. Natalie wanted her young daughter to know poetry at an early age. So she composed music for a selection of her favorite poems. She looked up the background of each poet  and added it to the package.  The result is Leave Your Sleep, a beautiful collection of readable, singable poems. I have been singing them ever since. I am no longer a school librarian but I know that many of my students memorized poems through her music and I am inspired to know that there are still those who are using their talents to keep poetry alive.

 

Librarian Beverly is reading The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. She says: "What impressed me in Sarah Bernhardt's memoirs was her courage during the Franco-German War, when she established a military hospital in the theatre where she was an actress, and her ever present readiness for new places and experiences."

The House of Special Purpose book jacketIn a tiny Russian village of Kashen, seventeen year-old Georgy Jachmenev steps in front of a bullet meant for the Tsar’s uncle. As a reward for his bravery, Georgy is offered a job working for Tsar Nicholas and his family as the personal bodyguard to young Alexei Romanov. Georgy excels at his job and becomes part of the Tsar’s inner circle. But when Georgy meets and falls in love with the Tsar’s youngest daughter Anastasia, his life is changed forever. Flash forward to 1981, when an aging Georgy is retired, living in London and caring for his cancer-stricken wife Zoya. Told in alternating chapters, these two worlds travel toward their inevitable meeting. Readers get a bird’s eye view of life in imperial Russia, from the glitz and glamour of life in the Winter Palace to the evil influence of the legendary Rasputin and finally to the sad fate of the Romanov family at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

As with many of his other fascinating novels, including Crippen, The Absolutist and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne has once again made history accessible and timeless. In The House of Special Purpose, he takes a much-examined story and makes it fresh and inviting. It is a story of love across sixty-five years of history, and a testament to the power of accident and determination to control our lives.

Ahhh riot grrrl , be still my heart. I have fond memories of you.  When I was fresh out of college with my women's studies certificate I got to witness and participate in the rise and fall of your movement.  

One of the most memorable days of my life (besides my wedding day) was when I did a poetry reading for 150 Canadian teens at a Vancouver Riot Grrrl concert in 1992.  I was the only poet on the bill. I was told by an organizer at the event that most of the audience probably hadn’t heard a poet before.  

I was shaking in my shoes when I started with these words:

Spoon Fed Our Daily Dose of Violence

You may wonder but may not care about my primal deep weep.

Or my cautious unspeaking nature.

Sure the words can be spelled or spilled upon the page but when real things are said I stutter.

I feel people shy and not so afraid of death.

They responded with screams and applause after this first poem.  As a poet I felt like a punk rock star for a moment.

Riot Grrrl was a grassroots feminist movement in the punk scene.  Riot grrrls were fighting against mainstream misogyny and subcultural sexism evident in punk rock shows and culture.  They fought the good fight and their efforts still echo in our contemporary culture.  Publishers and record labels have been collecting, reprinting and producing books, videos and music from this prolific movement.  I created this list in honor of these cultural “sheroes.”


 

cover image for ballisticsI avoided his poetry for years, the way one avoids eye contact in a lift. Imagining it to be all about horses, I ignored the ravings—sane as they turned out to be. Perhaps it was his Poet Laureate status, or maybe just his popularity in general. I don’t remember now what compelled me to pick up that first book of his poetry. It was on display  (oh those evil displays) and it was his newest publication at the time. I really wanted to hate him, but then I read the poems and I didn’t. The language he uses elevates the ordinary everyday and mundane into an appreciative art.  It was accessible and relational. It made me rethink the small moments in life and wonder if they could ever be captured in just such a simple manner.

I started with Ballistics, but I don’t believe it matters which one you pick up to begin. Just begin.

ICool Tools bookjacket’ve never really read more than an issue or two of Wired  magazine, only because I knew if I did follow the periodical on a regular basis, I would further more be a slave to technology than is humanly necessary. That said, for a few years now I have been a loyal follower of the “Cool Tools” blog curated by Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired. The blog proved so popular and full of, well, cool tools, that Kelly collated the best of the best into one gigantic catalog-reference guide of the same name. Over 450 pages of a seductive hybrid, melding your grandmother’s clockwork Sears catalog and the bottomless carpetbag of an exceptional, twinkle-eyed gadget clown. Initially, I checked it out from the library (of course), but after a day or two of barely exploring one-third of the tome, I knew I had to purchase my own personal copy. 

The “title” page reads thus: “A cool tool is...anything useful that increases learning, empowers individuals, does work that matters, is either the best or the cheapest or the only thing that works.” The inside and back covers are divided and indexed into 31 separate topics such as Craft, Dwelling, Edibles, Big Systems, Mobile Living, Storytelling, Aurality, Science Process, and Somatics. Sold yet? Ok, there is also another index by the specific  name of the tool and QR codes in each and every entry to link you straight to the web, usually the manufacturer’s specific site or Amazon. The back cover alone also gives you options: Raise backyard chickens, Erect an igloo, Publish an ebook, or Design your own fabric. Kelly and his team inform you in the first seven pages that all entries and/or links are as updated as possible, provide a FAQ, a How To Use This Book primer, and a handy supportive entry of a book on de-cluttering your life. Sounds counter-productive, right? Not really. Think of it as a non-threatening “abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Kelly plays the wide-eyed Tools R’ Us Virgil to your drooling Dante. 

This seems like a sales pitch, I know. As if I’m the underground marketing intern for Kelly’s company; but the title is self-published and most of the profits go right back into the people and materials that shaped the book in the first place. The best part is that you can spend hours slowly thumbing through it and not even think of purchasing anything.  Opening it randomly now, this is what I find: Three Jaw Brace, Virtual Piano, Silicone Pinch Bowls, and Etymotic Research Earplugs. If you put this title on hold down at your local library, make sure you bring a big bag as this book is like a yoga mat for cats.  Your brain, your budget, and your exposure to stuff that’s actually productive, however, will most certainly need their own personal Corpse pose.  Enjoy. 

When would you like to have lived? I sometimes wonder what I would be doing if I lived in a different time. What would my life be like? The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer has helped me learn about life in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, 1558-1603.

book jacket for Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan EnglandThis is a prosperous time in England. Towns and cities are growing. London’s population hits 200,000 by the end of Elizabeth’s reign. While I am visiting London, I would want to see Shakespeare's latest play. Many customs are very different. Even the Queen likes a good bear baiting. This is a much rougher time. Some things have changed more than others. Lawyers were just as skilled then as now, but doctors are much better in the 21st century. If I were sick in Elizabeth’s time, I would probably do better if I called a priest instead of a doctor. I also need to remember to pay heed to my social betters as this is a very class-conscious time.

There is lots of beer. It is safer than the water. I will be drinking about a gallon a day. Unless I am a gentleman, I won’t be able to afford wine. A strong nose and lots of perfume are helpful as there are many noxious smells. The growing populations only add to the problem. The Elizabethan people don’t enjoy the stink, but there often is nothing they can do.

Does Elizabethan England sound interesting? Why not take a trip back and see if it is for you.

Librarian Patricia is reading Estamos Hasta la Madre. Poet and activist Javier Sicilia analyzes Mexico's corruption and so-called "war on drugs," reflects on the Movement for Peace and Justice, and demands accountability from government.

our lady of the circus book jacketWhen applause fades and bleachers empty, the big top is a lonely place. The performers in the Mantecon Brothers circus know this all too well. Night after night, they showcase their stage personas, losing who they are once the spotlight dies. The road perpetually beckons. It’s a hard life, but the adulation of the crowd is a powerful drug.

When the brothers abruptly part ways, Don Ernesto and Don Alejo negotiate for performers. The latter bargains poorly and is left with eight sub par performers and a diving pig.  The circus seems all but finished, but their story is only beginning. The quest for survival and rediscovering who they are takes over fanfare-laden dreams.

Stumbling into the nearby town with all the pageantry they can muster proves futile.  Years of abandonment are visible, as is the lack of a sustainable habitat.  As reality sets in, the vacant houses offer an invitation of unknown normality to settle down and leave the transient life. What does permanence mean for people who only know the circus?  Who will they be if they aren’t performers?  What does their future hold?

It’s not pretty.

Wit and compassion are two qualities that do not always go together, but they always seem to mingle nicely in the work of David Rakoff. It was bittersweet reading his last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. I’d heard him so often on the radio, especially on This American Life, that I could hear Rakoff’s quiet, witty voice in my head as I read. Rakoff died of cancer at the age of 47 in 2012, and I miss him.

This novel in verse is short and sweet, sometimes dark, but leavened with rhymes that are so clever I’d sometimes have to stop and give a whoop of pleasure before returning to the story. At one point, a 1950s secretary named Helen, her affair with her unworthy boss having ended badly, is remembering the scene she made afterwards at a memorable office Christmas party.

...Where feeling misused, she had got pretty plastered,
And named his name, publicly, called him a bastard.
The details are fuzzy, though others have told her
She insulted this one, and cried on that shoulder,
Then lurched ‘round the ballroom, all pitching and weaving
And ended the night in the ladies lounge, heaving.


The story jumps through the whole 20th century through a number of loosely connected characters, and is more a series of character studies and vignettes than a novel. Terrible things happen to some of these characters, but what shines through more than anything else is Rakoff’s pleasure in life and his pleasure in observation.

Towards the end, a chapter about Clifford, a character who is dying of AIDS, ends with these lines:

He thought of those two things in life that don’t vary
(Well, thought only glancingly; more was too scary)
Inevitable, why even bother to test it,
He’d paid all his taxes, so that left… you guessed it.

Here you'll find a list of audio books by Rakoff and by other familiar voices from public radio. Please let me know if I forgot to include a good one.

I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it.”
- Cassandra from I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

BeingStaying alive bookjacket a lapsed poet myself, I thought it important to take the time for a blog on poetry for National Poetry Month. Lapsed poet? Lapsed, meaning I studied it at university, have been published, won a competition, but have all but given it up. Sounds sorrowful, but truly it isn’t. More to the point, it is a changing of priorities. I only write when I feel like it. And often times, I feel like going for a walk instead, laying in the sun, reading, watching a film, trying a new recipe, or learning something new like the cello. You can see how poetry begins to take a backseat. 

What I do now to keep my fingers in the poetry pot, is to use the poetry post in front of my house to post poems out into the neighborhood on a regular basis. Sometimes I post my own and sometimes it is another’s work that moves me at that particular moment. This keeps me reading poetry, which often leads to feeling like writing it myself. And the cycle continues…last year I purchased three new volumes of poetry, so perhaps I am warming up again to the idea of being a poet. If you are new to poetry or coming back to it after a break, why not pick up Staying Alive by Bloodaxe Books? In this perfect anthology you will find both the old standard and contemporary poets, easily digestible and applicable sections, and approachable poems about everyday topics.

One April I thought I would write a poem each day to celebrate National Poetry Month. It ended badly. How will you celebrate?

Witch of little Italy bookjacketI've been working as a librarian for eighteen years. I have been involved in projects over the years. I heard about the My Librarian project. I thought about applying. Then I read a novel I loved. I had to share! I wanted to spread the love. My Librarian is about spreading the love of reading. I especially love novels about witches - witches that succeed and dispel evil or dark forces - witches who, against all odds, disarm evil.

Ok, maybe you're wondering what the novel is that turned my head. The Witch of Little Italy by Palmieri made me excited again about this genre. The story is about Eleanor Amore who returns to her grandmother and aunt’s home in the Bronx. She is pregnant and needs the comfort of home with her estranged family. Oddly enough Eleanor doesn’t remember her life before that tenth summer that she spent with her family. She is hoping they have the keys to her memory loss. If you liked Witches of Eastwick and Practical Magic, try The Witch of Little Italy.  Also check out my list of Witchy novels.

book jacket

 Ever wonder why a cheeseburger in Ohio tastes the same in Utah?  Your cup of coffee has the same kick in St. Louis as it did in Santa Fe?  Look no further than Fred Harvey and the "Harvey girls".

Stephen Fried’s wonderful book, Appetite for America examines the westward expansion of the railroad through the life and legacy of Fred Harvey. Known to some as the “founding father of the nation's service industry”, Harvey saw railroads as more than transportation.  The growing needs of workers and tourists required a better quality of amenities.  Harvey was happy to accomodate.  From humble beginnings, he transformed the landscape of America’s eateries featuring clean restaurants, efficient service, and a cup of coffee that tasted the same no matter which depot you stopped at.

It is a fascinating tale of one man's desire to provide a civilized place to eat and how it became so much more.  All aboard!

Earlier this week I attended the reading of a will. Unfortunately, the reading wasn't received well, and it looks like we are headed to trial. Thankfully, I get to witness the debacle from the comfort of my easy chair.

I'd like to share what I am reading this week. The best seller lists call out to me, and this week I am enjoying Sycamore Row by John Grisham. Featuring several of the characters from A Time to Kill, Sycamore Row takes us back to Ford County, where we realize that racism is still alive and well in the late 1980's. Seth Hubbard, termminally ill with cancer, has ended his life, and left behind a handwirtten will leaving almost all of his 21 million dollar fortune to his black housekeeper, and that does not sit well with his family. This story reminds me that, although we as a society have made great strides with regards to racism, we still have a long way to go.

Grisham's writing evokes the south in glorious ways, from the drawl of its residents, to the wrap around porches on the most stately of the town's houses. We also get a taste of the wrong side of the tracks, the areas where the poor blacks live. Put it together and throw in the trial and you've got a simmering pot of racial tension disguised in the genteel conversation of the south. 

If you've been wondering what happened to young lawyer Jake Brigance, think about placing your hold for Sycamore Row.  Access the title here, and take your pick from the book, the audio CD, or the ebook!  And while you are waiting your turn in the holds queue, maybe revisit some older John Grisham titles, and rediscover one of the great storytellers of the day.

 

You listen to Radiolab, right? I know bunches of you do. We all stood shoulder-to shoulder late last year waiting to get into their live gig at The Keller Auditorium. (I was the short brunette with a glass of wine.) Anyway, did you hear their recent replay of the show on rabies? It blew my diabolical-virus-loving mind. And made me think back to a book I read a couple years ago, Rabid, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. If you loved that Radiolab show, read the book. It chronicles the Milwaukee protocol story, and tons of other cool stuff.   

Book cover, Rabid by Bill Wasik and Monica MurphySo. Rabies. Turns out that it is one smart virus, like so many of the super deadly ones are, and we can learn loads of valuable info from its four thousand year history. It spreads easily from animal to human, and exhibits pretty normal symptoms at first... headache, fever, sore throat. Makes you think twice about that cold you're fighting now, doesn't it? 

Why this cure? An antidote to screen time, a break from the princesses and ninjas, finding time to share a passion with your children of all ages, even something to read for grownups that can be digested in small bites.

Where’s this cure? Right here in the greater Portland metro area, in our backyards and urban forests.

What’s this cure? Reading books that have inspired me to delight and revel in the natural world, followed by a visit to a nearby park to answer questions I didn’t know I had. What? I was trampling on efts? What are those again?

Here are some of my favorites: fiction that includes natural history and natural history that reads like a story. Find out why voles turn somersaults or learn to tell bird nests from squirrel dreys in books about your backyard or our urban forests.

Did you know that there are regular programs for preschoolers at many of our natural areas?  Or that you can see live owls and vultures at Audubon’s Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center? You might also try a guided family hike to explore painted turtles or working to evict invasive species. One great website that consolidates these opportunities is Exploring Portland's Natural Areas.

Maybe instead of a cure we should just call it fun.

louder than hell book coverOnce upon a time there was a commercial-free heavy metal station under the control of high school students.  Upon reaching that magical spot on the dial, “abandon all hope ye who enter” should have wafted via backmasked message about an inevitable descent into a magnificent and all too misunderstood musical realm.

My trek into the rabbit hole of metal began with the siren calls of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Pantera, and Slayer. Soon, I encountered King Diamond, Sepultura, Nail Bomb, and Dio, making some frightening new friends who forged a permanent place in my heart.  

Metal is not simply about black clothes, hellfire, and crunchy riffs at the speed of darkness. There’s a rich history of true musicianship, passion, and very interesting lives.  In the definitive history of Metal, “Louder than Hell” Wiederhorn uses over 250 interviews from the musicians who lived and died to tell the tale.  Skillful editing has created a pleasantly exhaustive account of the many genres and subgenres of metal including, thrash, speed, death, and yes, even nu...  

 If you've ever been curious about what lurks behind the black curtain and behind the wall of Marshall amps, this is your backstage pass. 

 

 

Before I go to sleep bookjacketBefore We Met and Before I Go To Sleep, You Should Have Known How to Be a Good Wife but there were These Things Hidden Under Your Skin and Rebecca, The Silent Wife was Watching You with Sharp Objects in the Apple Tree Yard under The Cover of Snow so even though you knew The Husband's Secret you would no longer have The Innocent Sleep you so desperately needed after reading so many psychological suspense novels!

Whew. I almost used all of the titles of my favorite thrillers in one sentence! Gone Girl was one of the first of this genre to get a lot of press and now there are more and more of these unpredictable books to keep you quickly turning those pages. 

I'm always trying to find books with the most surprising plot twists. These books go by different names: psychological dramas, suspense novels, chick noir, domesticYou Should Have Known bookjacket thrillers, twisted marriage novels, but they all have some common elements. The characters are ordinary (or sort of ordinary) people in extraordinary situations. The setting needs to be at home, not some international, espionage-y kind of place. The most common backdrop is a marriage - how well do you really know your spouse? Often there is a murder or a disappearance or a disappearance that turns into a murder. Amnesia is pretty common.

The best sinister psychological dramas are well-written with full character development and a twist that catches you by surprise; they’re the ones that keep you up reading way too late at night. Hope you find these as fascinating and wonderfully unpredictable as I found them to be. If you've read other suspense novels that should be on this list, please let me know!

 

 
I don't actively look for vampire books. Or zombie books. (The only undead I like are skeletons.) That said, some horrific stories are so darned good that I have to like them despite my prejudice. The novella     I Am Legend and the book World War Z were of that calibre. Old-fashioned horror like Frankenstein is just plain fascinating. And so is Rick Yancey's tetralogy that begins with The Monstrumologist.
 
The Monstrumologist book jacketThe story begins with old folios and copious notes written by someone who appears to have lived an unusually long life. They chronicle Will Henry's days as an apprentice to a 'monstrumologist', a professional scientist who pursues and studies monsters. His new master, Pellinore Warthrop, is arrogant and mercurial, brilliant and generally uninterested in humanity. He's larger than life, yet he soon comes to find his young ward 'indispensable'.
 
These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed. But he is dead now and has been for nearly ninety years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets. The one who saved me . . . and the one who cursed me. 
 
Orphaned Will Henry (never just 'Will') is taken in by this unlikely mentor and soon finds himself tested, body, mind and soul. How much horror can he endure and still remain himself? And can he avoid the fate of his father, Warthrop's assistant before him, who met... an untimely demise?
 
The writing feels like classic horror; the reader wanders street, crypt and drawing room in a Lovecraftian New England and then much further afield in the later books.  It's absolutely accessible to teens (my 16-year old loves them), but I recommend this most often for people who like Dracula rather than Twilight
 
The books are The Monstrumologist, The Curse of the Wendigo, The Isle of Blood and The Final Descent. Now that the last one is out, get them all. This Dark Endeavor book jacketFreeze your holds until they're all ready. Set aside a weekend, pull the shades, and read by candlelight for maximum shivers. And then thank me or shake your fist and vow vengeance.
 
For other deliciously eerie fun (that involves beginning a career dabbling with dark forces) I also recommend Kenneth Oppel's series-in-progress featuring the apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. Start with This Dark Endeavour.

Triple Package book jacketSome of the publicity I’d read about The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld made me wonder if it would be like The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which aimed to prove that there is a racial difference in intelligence. The Triple Package is not a book about racial differences, but about cultural similarities. The Triple Package is a narrative about ethnic and religious minorities in America meant to explain what three factors make them successful. The traits are: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control (or self-discipline). These are characteristics that any individual can possess and aren’t exclusive to any race, ethnicity, or culture.

As a reader, I felt drawn to the stories shared about the immigrant experience and the complicated relationships immigrant parents have with their children. I thought some of the anecdotes felt true to my experience and I could imagine seeing myself and people I knew in these stories. I could also think of other figures and books I admire and imagine how their stories could fit within this schema. Before they were cited, Jhumpa Lahiri's work and Sonia Sotomayor, both popped into my head as “Triple Package” examples.

Although I found issues with The Triple Package, I found it to be a quick and straightforward read. The Triple Package addresses an incredibly controversial subject and raised many questions for me. I recommend this book for anyone who loves reading statistics and scientific studies. I especially recommend this book for those who are interested in pondering the meaning of the American Dream and America’s comeback in a recovering economy.

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