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.

Sometimes children do horrible things. Sometimes children are horrible things. Well, in fiction, at any rate.

In Mike Carey’s new book, The Girl with All the Gifts, the titular girl is one of those horrible ones. But she doesn’t know it, at least not at the beginning of the novel.

Melanie spends most of her life alone in a cell. Every weekday morning she is bound by soldiers that handle her with prods and cuffs, then take her to a schoolroom full of similarly restrained children. There Melanie, with her voracious and brilliant mind, learns a great deal about the world that used to be. Her favorite lessons are from her beloved teacher Miss Justineau, who teaches her about the Greek myths.

Slowly Melanie learns that her life is the way it is for a good reason. At first she cannot believe she is so dangerous, but she bravely, impressively, does accept it. In fact, she practically embraces it, using her power to protect the one person she loves.

Carey has created an ultra-compelling story of a lovable fiend. For other stories with really, really bad children check out the list My beloved monster.

Book Jacket: How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia by Mohsin HamidJust as often as I judge a book by its cover, I judge it by its title.  I love a title that hints at irony and leaves me thinking- "well that can't really be what the book is about."  Sometimes my curiosity is rewarded with a really great story.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is one of the most delightful and original books I’ve read in recent memory. Cleverly presented as a self-help book, author Mohsin Hamid lays out each chapter as a step to becoming filthy rich in an unnamed Asian country. The second-person narrative immediately drawns you into the story, but when step three: Don’t Fall in Love, proves impossible to adhere to, you may find yourself asking, as Hamid does:

“Is getting filthy rich still your goal above all goals, your be-all and end-all, the mist-shrouded high-altitude spawning pond to your inner salmon?”

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan is indeed a book about crazy rich Asians. Chinese American Rachel Chu, has no idea her low-key boyfriend of two years, Nick Young is one of Book Jacket: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin KwanAsia’s wealthiest and most eligible bachelors when she agrees to accompany him home to Singapore for the summer.

Once in Singapore, hilarious stories of excess, evil bridesmaids, scheming mothers, couture catfights and the most over-the-top wedding imaginable ensue. This book is crazy fun reading and delivers all the glamour of the Jackie Collin’s novels I devoured off my mom’s bookshelf as a teen.  But it's not all superficial fluff inside this gold cover: Crazy Rich Asians is also a reflection on family, tradition, and the things in life worth fighting for. If that doesn't appeal to you, the mouth-watering descriptions of Singapore street food ought to.  It's not always about the money.

June is weddings and honeymoons, summer camps and vacations; time to get ready for life in the future or step back from the life you are living.

Journeys are begun that can lead to escape from the mundane. Dorothy Gilman of Mrs. Pollifax fame offers three works that could be travelogues due to the exquisite descriptions of culture and country off the tourist path. Yet they are also explorations of the inner terrain, the place where we really are when we know who we are.

Incident at Badamya book jacketIncident at Badamya is set in war-torn Burma in the 1950’s. Europeans traveling the river Irrawaddy are kidnapped and held for ransom by freedom fighters/terrorists. Enter sixteen-year-old Gen Ferris. Born and reared in Burma, she is newly orphaned and on her way to an America which she knows only from movie magazines. Dangerously innocent, relentlessly honest she is a catalyst for change. Masks are ripped off, dark secrets come to light as the detainees plot and plan their escape. The reader learns anew that ‘to thine own self be true’ is the magic in the real world.

Uncertain Voyage and Caravan complete the trio. Find yourself in 1960’s Europe, newly divorced and diagnosed with mental disease. Or take a journey across the Sahara sands as a slave in the early days of WWI. Both are worthy companions for long, lazy days full of lemonade or margaritas, whichever is your preference.

I just started reading romance novels a few years ago.  I wanted to be able to help readers find romance titles more easily.  Now when I want to find an escape through reading I find myself looking for a good regency romance with witty dialogue.  Or I am looking for a contemporary romance with a strong female character.  I find though that supernatural romances can be a big escape from real life. That's when I look for a romance with vampires, immortal highlanders or witches.  This list has romances for everyone that can be steamy or mild. Hopefully you find something here that will make pull your heart strings!

I was practically sobbing last summer as I scrubbed away eleven years worth of smudges and fingerprints on the walls of a hallway leading down to my basement. Not because I don’t especially enjoy housework, or because it's hard getting a house ready to sell when you've lived in it for a long time with a rather slovenly family, or because the prospect of finding a new house to buy was stressful, although all those things are true. My face was wet with tears because a character I’d come to love in my audio book had met a terribly sad end. When my husband, who was doing some other chore, passed by on his way to the basement and gave me a quizzical look, I flopped back my hair to show him my headphones, and he nodded. 

I'm too busy-- just like everyone else in the 21st Century, right?--but I have to have books in my life, not only because they matter to me, but because staying on top of what’s happening in the world of books is part of my job. Audio books have been my secret weapon. I can read on the way to Trader Joe's, while I make fish tacos for dinner, while I get the exercise that is so important to my mood, while I clean up the clutter in my house. 

I resisted audio books for awhile. The experience is, admittedly, different from reading a “real” book. And I tend to try to save things that are deeper or more complex for reading on an actual printed page. But some books are actually better in audio. I always feel a little sad for people who are checking out David Sedaris' printed books at the library, because I love them so much in Sedaris’s very unique voice. And listening to Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman is an absolutely lovely experience. Her current English accent is very pleasant to listen to, but sometimes in the course of the story, she uses the accent she had in her working class, Northern English childhood, which is hilarious. Libba Bray’s The Diviners is set in 1920s New York City, and the voice actor does an astonishing job with a wide variety of characters. There's a showgirl who sounds a lot like Mae West, and the main character sounds a little like Gracie Allen. The reader's narration brings an already wonderful book to life and makes it even better. And did you know that there’s an audio book of Graham Greene’s romantic, moody novel, The End of the Affair that is read by Colin Firth? Come on. Colin Firth speaking right into your ears. This could make even cleaning out the cat box a transcendent experience. If you enjoy audio books and want ideas for a new one to listen to, take a look at some lists I made. There's one for young adult fiction, one for adult fiction, and one list of great audio books that are read by the author. And please-- let me know if there are more good books in our collection that you think are better in the audio version.

Summer is here! Maybe you’ve got some plans to pile the kids in the car and set out on a family road trip. Just a half hour down the road, your teenager is ear-budded-up staring glumly out the window, your tween is playing some game on a handheld and driving everyone crazy with the grunts and sighs of competition, and your youngest is starting to get a little restless (“Are we there yet?”).  Is someone feeling a little carsick? Could it be time for an audiobook?

The books on the lists below have a little something for everyone, and won’t make Mom or Dad fall asleep from boredom.  Nothing too violent, scary, sexy or literary for this road trip, yet the adventures will make the miles roll by.  

If you’ve listened to a great book on a family road trip, let us know in the comments.

A large portion of my youth and high school years were spent in southern Arizona. Half of my father’s side of the family were immigrants from Montenegro who settled near Bisbee and worked the large copper mines. I was fortunate to have family members and eventually teachers who would introduce me to the history and literature of the area, focusing on Native Americans and the quiet, divided majesty of the Sonoran Desert.

At age nine, my grandfather gave me a copy of Anton Mazzanovich’s Trailing Geronimo, and soon after I wanted to absorb any other books or stories about the legendary Chiricahua warrior and the local history too. I even read his autobiography as told to S.M. Barrett. I still wonder if his story lost any details within the transcription. My mother would also take me to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum outside of Tucson on many occasions, where I discovered a unique mix of an open-area zoo, geological caves, and a botanical garden. The center has changed much since that time, adding an art gallery and hosting events, but if you are ever in the area I highly recommend the experience.

Early accounts

In a recent booklist, I highlighted some diverse and important Native American authors. All introduced me to fresh voices and had an important influence on my writing. College helped invariably, but you can educate yourself down at the local library! While those titles were fiction, written by talented and respected representatives of many indigenous nations, here I decided to illuminate some other books that magnify history, nature, and travel.

I do miss the endless red-orange canvas skies and voluminous, crisp air of a freshly-emptied Arizona monsoon, as I do not see them on a regular basis anymore. The literature and memories, on the other hand, I can carry forever: No arid zones in these pages.

Everything I Never Told You bookjacketI needed a book to take on a trip to my hometown of Bowling Green, Ohio. I was heading out to help my mom pack up and move to a new apartment. I was also hoping to get together with friends I hadn't seen for decades. I rifled through my bookshelf looking for a paperback book that would be entertaining and picked out Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. It begins, "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet." Totally grabbed me.

Sometimes you find the perfect book at the exact moment you need to read it. And for me, Everything I Never Told You was that book. It's set in a small college town in northwestern Ohio in 1977. Bowling Green, where I grew up, is a small college town in northwestern Ohio and I graduated from high school in 1977. Celeste Ng captures that era perfectly - here is a town where everybody is pretty much the same and they all live their lives just trying to fit in. Reading this book took me back to my childhood - it made me appreciate some parts of growing up in a little college town but also reinforced the decision I made, oh so many years ago, to escape the homogeniety of small town life.

Everything I Never Told You is a completely engrossing, well-written, literary mystery. But it's more than that; it touches on themes such as the immigrant experience in the U.S., discrimination, the early days of women's equality. The main characters are a multi-racial Chinese American family. Each member of the family struggles with whether they want to fit in with societal norms or embrace their individuality. And it all happens within the messiness of family relationships and amidst everyone's flawed perceptions. Everything I Never Told You captures life. I’m glad I found this book.

Oregon sign

Photo: Oregon Department of Transportation

I visited again and again. I loved it.  I moved. 

People move to Portland for an assortment of reasons.  Access to nature, food, a slower pace from larger cities, and for some, the opportunity to grow a beard without abandon. Personally, I can't grow a beard, but three out of four isn't bad.

Chuck Palahniuk's Fugitives and Refugees fueled my early Rose City explorations. However, I quickly discovered there was so much more.  The stories of Oregon have something for everyone.  Want a true crime thriller? Try Sky Jack by Geoffery Gray.  It reopens the case of  hijacker D.B. Cooper who, in 1971, parachuted from a Northwest Orient Airlines jet with $200,000 cash. For a fictionalized version of the story, there's William Sullivan's The Case of D.B. Cooper's Parachute. How about a trip down to Corvallis to investigate the fascinating life of Edmund Creffield and fanatical following that would rather be forgotten in Holy Rollers?  Perhaps settling in with an Oregon classic is more your taste? Below is a sampling of interesting Oregon histories.  If you'd like more like these or any other recommendations you can always ask me.

The stack by the bedOh, hello. Remember my stack thing from last month? This is my friend Joanna's stack by her bed.  She is one of the kindest and most generous people I know. When my then teenaged daughter went away to college leaving a gigantic mess of a bedroom behind, Joanna helped me excavate for an entire day. We quit when we got to the almost empty bottle of raspberry vodka. Here's what Joanna says about the stack by her bed:

I have an obsessive thing happening now with infographics. Information that is presented in ways that are visually pleasing is, um, pleasing. Entertaining is Fun!  is a reprint from 1941. I love advice books about entertaining, particularly from past decades. I was kind of disappointed by Swan Gondola. I loved How About Never --Is Never Good for You?  (so irreverent) and Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  (surprisingly sad). It's extremely rare that there's not a single young adult fiction title in my stack. But [confession time] I bought an   e-reader a few months ago and have Code Name Verity and More All-of-a-Kind Family downloaded and ready to read. [E-reader not included in stack.]

 

bungalow1928. Our Portland house was built in 1928. As an east coast girl growing up in the suburbs, I couldn't imagine living in a house that was built in 1928. That's just so OLD. Then life brought me to Portland, and to the lovely story book cottage that we now call home. It was already a work in progress when I arrived, and the finishing touches are being added as I type. The house has special meaning to my partner, and it has been his labor of love for ten years now. 

The move from the suburbs to the city has been challenging, invigorating, and enlightening in so many ways, but none so much, I think, than making the transition from newer house to older. Our house has great character. I know some of the history of who has lived in the house, and I love to sit in the living room in front of the fireplace on a cold winter's day imagining the daily interactions that used to take place in that very room. We are fortunate enough to have photos of the house in its earlier days, both inside and out, and those only fuel my imagination. Yes, we work hard to keep our home period correct, and it is an ongoing (and sometimes messy and expensive) project, but the feeling that I get when I walk in the door at the end of the day is nothing I ever experienced in my homes in the suburbs. This old house welcomes me with its sturdy and strong arms, and I look forward to keeping them strong for decades to come.

Looking for more great old house resources? Uncover the history of your home at the library's House History page. You might enjoy Craftsman Bungalows: Designs from the Pacific Northwest. You can place a hold on that title here . And after doing all of that legwork, get busy renovating with our Do it yourself reading lists. Happy hunting!

Recently, I recommended some bead jewelry making books to a patron.  This inspired me to write about them.

Beads called my name back in 1992. They beckoned me over to look at them and dress them up with wire, filigree and clasps or earhooks. They are a comfort to me. Hours of joy is bestowed upon me when I spend time with them.  A friend taught me how to manipulate wire, beads and findings together to make necklaces and earrings when I visited her in San Francisco.

Over the years I have heard people talk about their bead obsession: they call it an addiction, a hobby, and a disease. I think of it as a healthy hobby. A hobby that lets the mind relax and stay in the present moment while crafting.

I am mostly a jewelry maker that likes to wire wrap. I essentially connect beads together with wire and connectors. I have also worked with crimp beads and soft flex wire (a type of string) and strung beads together.  And the newest thing I have tried with beads is bead embroidery which is stitching or hand sewing beads onto fabric or fabric forms.  

So of course, I have a list for you if you want to explore the world of beading and wire-wrapping. Have fun!

book image of victorian chaise longueMarghanita Laski is an author not much talked about, but who has an enormous talent for writing a gripping novel. Her books vary in their subject, but all keep you turning pages. If you are looking for an emotional thriller, you will find Little Boy Lost will do a fine job of suspense while pulling at your heart. But if psychological thriller is more your bag, try Multnomah County Library’s new acquisition The Victorian Chaise-Longue. And yes America, it is longue and not lounge—see here for explanation. It is similar to that Charlotte Perkins Gilman classic The Yellow Wallpaper. A well-kept wife decides to take a nap on the newly obtained antique only to find herself waking in a very different world. At first she tries to believe she is dreaming, but then the terror grows when she realizes she is awake and not in her own body. Will she wake from this nightmare? How will she cope? How will it end?

Like Laski, there are other grande dames of the psychological thriller genre who have been quietly ignored by history. Rediscover them here.

Plover bookjacket"I think everything that ever happened to us is resident inside your head and heart and often you just need the right key to get it out -- a snatch of song, and angle of light, a taste, a smell, a tone of laughter..."

This quote by Brian Doyle aptly describes what happens in his latest book The Plover. Though one reviewer accused the book of being 'plotless', really the main character's thoughts, the accumulation of all that he learns and sees as he floats around on his sailboat, seemingly aimlessly, is the plot.

The Plover is the story of Declan, who flees society to sail around the world with only his thoughts and his beloved author, Edmund Burke, for company. Starting with a persistent gull (yes, another sentient bird!) he is obliged to take on passenger after passenger and has to adjust both his physical and mental space to make room for each one. From a father and his injured daughter to a larger-than-life woman and a singing shiphand, each subsequent passenger challenges Declan to emerge from his introspective life.

The storyline is often meandering, evoking the meditative state of being on water, of being on long journey and having time to ponder whatever comes to mind. There were many times when a plot point was introduced, and I thought with a certain dread, 'this isn't going to end well'; but Doyle resists cliche. Even though the people on board are tormented, Doyle treats both them and the reader with compassion.

If you enjoy meditative reads that make you think, stories rich in language and a sense of place and all things sea and sailing, this might be the book for you.

If you are looking for original, brave science fiction the Tiptree Award is there for you.
 
Given out annually to science fiction or fantasy works that expand or explore our understanding of gender, the Tiptree has been called “the single most subversive award in Tiptree autographsscience fiction.”  Tiptree winners are nearly always superlatively well-written, and always investigate the cultural constructions and biological realities of gender with insight and inventiveness.
 
The award also serves to publicize often neglected works — novels that were not reviewed in major publications or distributed widely find eager readers after they receive the Tiptree. 
 
Two of my all-time favorite novels, China Mountain Zhang (post) and The Sparrow, are Tiptree winners. I am currently reading Ammonite by Nicola Griffith, which won the Tiptree in 1993. It is about a human colony on a planet far from Earth where the men were all killed by a virus generations ago. I have not yet discovered how the generations have been possible, but I am discovering a beautiful, harsh, and believable alien landscape. 
 
The Tiptree is named in honor of Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree, Jr. and was both a talented science fiction writer and a fascinating person. It is given out annually at WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention. Read more about it at tiptree.org.
 

The Illusion of Separateness book jacketOn a muddy World War II battlefield a young soldier happens upon the enemy, shoving a gun in the terrified man’s mouth. In 2010 Los Angeles a newly arrived nursing home resident drops dead at his welcome party. In 1960’s rural France a young boy excitedly shows his classmate the ruins of a burned-out German plane. A pair of young lovers has their picture taken at Coney Island in 1942. A blind woman in the Hamptons in 2005 yearns for someone to love.

What do these people have in common? Nothing at first glance but then again that is the illusion of separateness. In a world that is vast and often alienating it is comforting to think we are somehow all connected – that like the idea of six degrees of separation we don’t have to go too far to find our footing or to appreciate the intricate twists and turns that got us here. More than a series of linked short stories, Simon Van Booy’s delicate novel is a world slowly revealed, where discoveries are made, connections are forged and the reader is part detective, part voyeur and part conspirator.

Beautifully written, with fascinating characters readers will grow increasingly attached to, The Illusion of Separateness depicts a world that will stay in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

Kitty cats. We love them. They power the internet (proof). The little dears surely deserve their crystal goblets of Fancy Feast, don’t they?  Or is that a more malign glint I see in that crescent-pupiled eye?

House dvd coverThe most unhinged, bats-in-the-belfry-surreal cat movie of all time has to be House (Hausu), a must-see for all crazy cat ladies (and men) in training. In this cult film from Japan, high school girl Gorgeous is upset when her father introduces her to his new fiancee - perhaps understandably so, since the fiancee enters in a white dress that conveniently streams in the wind every time the camera settles on her. Outraged at this soft-focus replacement for her dearly departed mother, Gorgeous plans a summer vacation to her aunt’s country house instead of with her father. She takes comfort in the companionship of a white cat named Blanche who has mysteriously appeared in her room at the same time as her aunt agrees to host her.  All her friends, who have unlikely names like Fantasy, Prof, Mac, Kung-Fu, Melody, and Sweet, are invited, and they think nothing of it when Blanche appears on the train. But when they arrive at the aunt’s house, she is a little too eager to see them, and they begin to be killed off one by one.  The cat starts shooting green lasers from its eyes, pianos eat people, mattresses swallow others, and then things really get weird.

Part of the joy of the film is in its unabashed use of the most cheesy, improbable special effects - it really must be seen to be believed, and even then you still won’t believe it. What’s that, Puff? You need me to bike home from Fred Meyer with a can of tuna and 20 lbs of litter on my back? At your service, my feline overlord, at your service.

You know how it feels when you are in love with new music or a book, and you feel all exultant that this is yours, yours, yours? That’s how I am loving the new tUnE-yArDs CD, Nikki Nack, like a dragon loves his treasure, like cookie monster loves his cookies. The only reason I’m  telling you about it is that I actually bought it, because otherwise I wouldn’t want you to put it on hold and take it away from me.

The tUnE-yArDs is largely the work of one person, Merrill Garbus. She plays most of the instruments and does all the singing, including back-up vocals. You can hear the single here.

The music is amazingly interesting, a wild and free mix of R & B, Haitian rhythms, children’s music (with a dark side), pop, punk, and a lot of sampling and repetitive sounds. It sometimes veers close to Captain Beefheart’s and Ornette Coleman’s disjointedness-- which I actually don’t like-- but it doesn’t quite cross that line. It’s unusual, but catchy, even in its strangeness, and you know what?-- you can dance to it, too. Garbus’s  voice is the most powerful instrument she has. It sounds to me like my own voice in my head, sometimes sweet and melodic, sometimes ragged and atonal, and sometimes a roar. She’s playful, brave, and astonishing. There’s even an interlude in the middle, a sweet little story about eating children which comes to a much quicker and more hedonistic rationale for cannibalism than Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal.

Have a listen!

Lan Su Chinese GardenLan Su Chinese Garden is on a city block downtown. Most of us only go there when we have out of town visitors, traipsing through and taking photos. I have a membership and love to go there often. A visit to Lan Su truly complements a reader’s life.*  Here’s what you might do in the garden:

1. Sit in a cozy spot and read.

Benches in gazebos or rocks by a pool are so cozy, and everyone else will ignore you. When you get up, rest your eyes on the many shapes and textures, and breathe deeply--fragrant plants are in bloom year round.

2. Get the feel of the inner courtyards, gardens and rocky landscapes featured in books about China.

I just finished Amy Tan’s Valley of Amazement, which sweeps through several settings in old China and sometimes takes place in a scholar’s quarters.  The Garden is also known as a scholar’s garden and has many of the objects I read about on display.

3. Enjoy the brush paintings, script and poetry on the walls and even inscribed in the wood.

Maples in the Mist is a great intro to contemplative poetry for kids and adults. There are also occasional live demos of brush painting and poetry readings.

4. Enjoy music, tea, and treats in the teahouse.

Perhaps you’ll be reading The Garden of Evening Mists, a moving story set on a tea plantation, as you sample the many varieties available. Check the calendar for music times.

5. Find wonderful Chinese-themed books for children and adults in the bookstore.

And, as a bonus, if you love to read cookbooks, look for the cooking demos throughout June.

*There are usually a few free days in January.

Still Point of the Turning WorldI recently read The Still Point of the Turning World and was blown away by it. It's a memoir by Emily Rapp whose son was born suffering from Tay-Sachs disease, a horrible, rare genetic disease that causes a progressive deterioration of nerve cells and mental and physical abilities resulting in death before a child turns four. The author has written a powerful, beautiful, devastating book about every parent's worst fear. Actually devastating doesn't even begin to describe how it felt to read this book. In many parts, I had a difficult time deciphering the words through my tears. Even now as I write this, I find myself with tears in my eyes. This book is the story of Emily's son, Ronan, and so much more. It's about philosophy, poetry, literature, and the question of how to live a mortal life.

I was totally immersed in The Still Point of the Turning World and when I finished it in one afternoon, I came up gasping for air and thought about my own son. He's 24-years old and just moved away last December to start his new post-college life in Ann Arbor. I'm happy and sad about it. And I know how lucky I am to be able to still have a son no matter how far away he might be living. . .

[Emily Rapp has also written Poster Child, her story about being born with a congenital defect that required the amputation of her entire leg below the knee; it's at Poster Childthe top of the stack of books by my bed that I'll be reading soon. On a brighter note - Emily gave birth to a baby daughter on March 8th. I hope that she won't need to write a heartbreaking memoir ever again.]

 

 

 

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