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.

Northwest Passage bookjacketI've always loved singing, and the sound of a lot of powerful voices joined in harmony. So when a picture book celebrating Stan Rogers' song Northwest Passage showed up in the library, I was thrilled. Never heard of him, you say? Let me explain.

The name Stan Rogers resonates for generations of Canadians. A singer/songwriter who died at 33, he captured the romance of life across the vast landscape of the country.  He sang about the prairie farmers, Nova Scotia fishermen, and Alberta oil field workers. His songs portrayed the struggles of average people as heroic. Perhaps that's why his music excites a pride that Canadians don't always exhibit.

I like how this picture book works on so many levels. Follow the lyrics at the top of each page to learn about the ill-fated Franklin and his crew who, in 1845, tried to find a Northwest Passage through the Arctic to Asia. If you want to know more, read the detailed history on each page. Matt James provides gorgeous illustrations that depict Stan Rogers and his dog in his VW van, contemplating Franklin's voyage while making his own cross-country jouney. And of course, those of you who know it can sing along.

This song has particular resonance for me. One day I was with a group musical friends in a cafe when the song came on over the sound system. We all joined in at the top of our lungs, because it's impossible to sing this song quiety. Nearby, a table of tourists commented 'how quaint'. Looking back, I see how incredibly geeky this must have seemed - especially for those who wouldn't understand the mythic status that Stan Rogers had for us.

If you've never had the pleasure of hearing the song, I present to you Northwest Passage, as sung by the great man himself.

Lori, a regional librarian describes her latest read, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: "Nao, A Japanese teenager navigates the rough road of life by writing to a future reader in her diary. Meanwhile ( but also later) Ruth, a writer in Canada with angst of her own is reading the diary she found washed up on the shore. Time, self and relationships play a big part but great characters keep me reading. A healthy dose of Zen philosophy and a bit of Proust also keep it interesting!"

Jane, Belmont Library's youth librarian, is reading Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. She says, "The biography of Ben Franklin's obscure and poor younger sister makes you think about how awful it used to be to be a woman. The dichotomy of their lives is amazing despite knowing that she could have been just as smart as he was."

 

TigerA year or so ago, I started having a frequently recurring dream that I was living with something dangerous, usually a big cat, a tiger or a lion. In the dreams, I would try to go about my business while being conscious that the dangerous creature could lunge at any moment. It took me a while, but I realized finally that the dreams were about my teenage daughter. I knew long ago that my oldest, who I will call Thing One, would be a difficult teenager, and I tried to ready myself, but I was not ready. So I dived into the world of parenting books at the library until I found Laura Scribner Kastner's Getting to Calm. I find that I need to keep it around and go back to it again and again in order to keep my head in the right place and keep my cool when Thing One is behaving like the little girl in The Exorcist.

Getting to Calm doesn’t just throw theories at you; it actually walks you through conversations between teens and their parents, showing not only the content, but also the process, analyzing each participant's responses. It points out mistakes that parents make and explains what parents should avoid, and shows how to be more successful talking with teenagers.  With the help of this book, I stopped seeing my daughter's resistance to rules and instruction as a personal rejection, but as something she simply has to do, part of the process. Mind you, I have to remind myself of this again and again, because sometimes my gut response is that I’m living with a demon.

Getting to CalmI've accepted that there’s not an answer that will magically make everything go smoothly. It feels kind of like my idea of Buddhism. Being a parent is something you practice from day to day, as mindfully as you can. And keeping this book close will help me do the best I can, along with deep breathing, counting to ten, conversations with other parents who have already lived through this, and occasionally, a glass or two of wine. I might make it through Thing One’s adolescence. By then, Thing Two, a little over three years younger, should be in the thick of his own teen years.

By Kavallines, James, New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsSome parents sing "Rock a bye Baby" or hum "Brahm’s Lullaby" to help quiet their kids for bedtime, but my brother and I were rocked to sleep with songs like “Down in the Valley” and “Goodnight Irene”. 

We lived in the Yakima Valley, and one of my grandma’s close church friends was named Irene, so I was well into grade school before I realized that these songs were not personally made up for our family, but were sung by one of my dad’s favorite groups: The Weavers. Pete Seeger, song writer, singer, activist was an important member of the Weavers. Born into a musical family himself, Pete popularized folk music in the best way possible - he got people to sing it. He made singing fun for people of all ages with stories like “Abiyoyo”  and “The Foolish Frog” or by teaching his listeners about how things were in the world by sharing his favorite song "Guantanamera".

See the thing is, for Pete, every song was a singalong. He got his audience involved in a way that was copied by singers like Arlo Guthrie, Harry Chapin and John Denver. In our family we called it  ‘The Pete Way’. Here is how the the ‘Pete Way' works. First Pete introduced the song with a story or background about it. Then he taught the chorus by feeding it line by line to the audience until they could sing it back to him. Then he taught the verses the same way, line by line. Then everyone sang it altogether. The main ingredient of the “Pete Way” was his enthusiastic energy: you simply could not ignore it. He had complete confidence that evil could be conquered by song. That singing was fun! There are some who called him a communist, a socialist, an atheist. Some who felt he couldn’t be trusted to be patriotic or true to his country. But Pete remained true to himself, to ideas about bringing freedom and justice to the world - one song at time. Because that is truly the “Pete’ way.

If you want to know more about Pete Seeger and listen to his music, take a look at my list.

I'm a big Blazers' fan. I watch pretty much all of the games on TV (the only reason my household keeps Comcast is so we can get channel 37 to watch all of the Blazer games) and try to go to at least a couple of games every season. An entire group of my colleagues went to the San Antonio game in February. Though we (I'm a 6th man all the way!) lost by 2 points, it was an exciting game. And we all got LaMarcus Aldridge glasses, though we were very sad that he had to sit out the game with an injury. And I made it onto the Jumbotron. Woohee!

I was really happy to see that Robin Lopez attended Comic Con this year and also posted a great video of his tour through Powell's Books. He's a super big comic book fan. I grew up reading comic books - Archie, Little Dot, even Spider Man and the Fantastic Four. Then I got older and put away my comics thinking that phase of my life was over.

PersepolisHowever, while working at the library, I stumbled upon some amazing graphic novels. One of my favorite genres is memoirs and there are some absolutely fantastic memoir graphic novels. The first one I read was Persepolis, a memoir of Marjane Satrapi's childhood growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. I learned both about the history of Iran and the wrenching story of Satarapi's life in a terribly repressive society.

Another graphic novel that speaks directly to me is Ellen Forney's, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangolo & Me: A Graphic Memoir. Forney struggles with bipolar Marblesdisorder and the most difficult part is her worry that her creativity is connected to the disease. She didn't want to do anything that would take away from her artistic passion. I think that many people can relate to this - are there qualities that we possess that hinder us in living our lives to the fullest but are those the same qualities that make us who we are?

It's pretty amazing to me that comic books can teach us so much about the world and ourselves. There are lots more graphic novels that will open up whole new worlds and not just where superheroes live.

Thia, a clerk at the Belmont Library, is reading  The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter. "It's a complex discussion of the biology of trees," she says. "I'm learning a lot."

 

book cover of the mandarins american editionYou may know her from the feminist manifesto The Second Sex. Or perhaps you're familiar with her circle of intellectuals (Albert Camus, Nelson Algren, Arthur Koestler) or her lover Jean Paul Sartre. But The Mandarins is much more than an autobiographical novel and a story of intellectual society and struggle after the occupation in Paris. You don’t need to know Simone de Beauvoir was a great philosopher. You don’t need to know about the relationship between her and Sartre, or the affairs. You don’t need to know about existentialist philosophy or postwar Europe. If you do, it may make the reading more meaningful. If you don’t, it will not take away from the story one bit. This is a story about friendship, loyalty, war and the consequences, the roles of women, marriage, death, breakdowns, and the breakdowns and death of marriage. It is about making hard decisions and rebuilding from the ruins. It is a love story. 

It is a lengthy novel. This would usually have me muttering “still?” while madly flipping pages to see how far till the next chapter. (Don’t do this, by the way. The chapters are horrendously long.) My copy was an enormous first American edition hardback over 600 pages, and after dragging it around with me for weeks, it began to weigh what felt like that many pounds. But the heft was worth it, for I was transported during bus commutes and on those few cherished evenings reclining on the chaise longue. I haven’t had that experience with a novel in a long time. At first, the switch of narrators was jolting, but I think it contributed to keeping me interested and engaged in the long run. I found I actually cared about Anne, Paula, Henri, Robert, and the others. I was fascinated by their world and the choices they were making.

There are many elements that could bring you to this novel and keep you there…the setting, the era, the voyeuristic autobiographical aspect, the intellectual society, politics, ideology, love, or merely the writing. Whatever reason you decide to pick up The Mandarins, you will find it is not so easy to put down again. The characters will stay with you for a long while.

 

 

Donna, a library assistant at the Belmont Library, is reading Dangerous Women, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. She says, "This cross-genre anthology is like a big box of chocolates, with original stories from the likes of George R.R. Martin, Diana Gabaldon and Jim Butcher. The theme is Dangerous Women, so you know there's going to be some good action going on! I'm savoring it, one piece at a time."

Brian, a page at the Hollywood Library loves The Flame Throwers for the beautiful writing, the insight into the NY art world of the 1970s, plus the bonus of autonomia operaia, which he's interested in.

People love talking about the weather and this has certainly been the winter to do it. Epic storms in the East and droughts all over the West have been top stories nearly every day of the New Year. A lot of us had fun frolicking in our own mini-snowstorm earlier this month.

Usually, talking about the weather is considered polite conversation, a nice respite from politics and religion, or celebrity gossip.  Of course, this isn’t always the case. As the drought seems to be subsiding (fingers-crossed) for us in the Pacific Northwest, California has little hope in sight and the gloves have come off.

Cadillac Desert book jacketThe President has done his photo-ops, hundreds of millions are pledged for relief, and the fingers are pointing at the Republicans, the Democrats, the farmers, the cities, the Delta Smelt (ooh, what’s that?)… The news stories seem to be devoid of solutions for water scarcity, though many have been offered up over the years. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all detailed in Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner.

California is the main character in this sweeping epic, often the villain tormenting its neighbors. Other times, it is the victim of graft, its fragile ecosystems exploited by schemers and boosters. In riveting detail, the book recounts the long-held rivalry between the Bureau of Reclamation (Department of Interior) and the Army Corps of Engineers, the true story behind the movie Chinatown (Reisner’s recounting wins), Los Angeles’ plan to redirect the Columbia River, and many more fascinating and eye-opening chapters in the water wars of the west.

But wait! Here’s a plethora of books you could read in tandem, each one an exciting foray into water, the west, and/or land use planning (it’s all the rage with the kids these days).

 

Sometimes kids get all the breaks. I ask you, when was the last time that you sat at the knees of someone who was willing to read to you, AND was able to read upside down so you could study the pictures? It happens for kids everyday in schools and libraries. 'All well and good', you might say, 'but who writes picture books for adults?' Maira Kalman, that's who.

I've been a fan of Kalman's work ever since I came across Ooh-la-la (Max in Love). The book, admittedly written for kids, tells the story of the poet dog Max, who goes to Paris, gains enlightenment and falls in love. At one point he is awakened by "a k-k-k-k-knocking" and into his hotel room enters "a long mustache followed by a man". The words 'long mustache' form the thing itself curled under the Parisian waiter's nose.

Kalman is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, and has since illustrated The Elements of Style. Yes! How? You'll just have to take a look at it - it's hard to describe.

But my favorite of her recent offerings is The Principles of Uncertainty. The book is a mix of memoir, philosophical musing and photographic record - but the photographs are actually paintings. Paintings of people caught in different aspects: of the museum guard who sits in Proust's room; of elderly New Yorkers walking the streets; of Kalman's sister sitting at a kitchen table eating honey cake and telling stories. And all of it accompanied by prose that is matter-of-fact and poignant at the same time:

MY sister and I go to Israel during the short, furious, the world-is-doomed war. For a wedding. Because you CANNOT postpone weddings in DARK TIMES - especially in dark times. Who knows when the light will come on again. Are things normal? I don't know. Does life go on? YES.

Through her pictures and words, Kalman captures what is essential about life. So think about it next time you feel like a little storytime.

Find more of Maira Kalman's art here.

Sunshine, popcorn, the smell of sunscreen, the crack of the bat, and maybe a beer (or two).  Another rainy day?  Take heart, spring training is in full swing!spring training book cover 

Football is my fave, but the start of spring training hearkens the eventual arrival of flowers, leaves on the trees, and blue (well, here in Portland, occasionally blue) skies.  One of my most loved summer activities is taking in an MLB game or several, even though this east coast girl now has to travel outside of Portland to do so.  Why do I love a baseball game?  The pace is relaxed, the people watching is spectacular, and hopefully the play is on par.  I mean, what could be better?  Summer in all its glory captured in one evening. 

baseball stadium

Recreating this baseball mindset can be tough during the dark days of winter, but it is oh-so-rewarding when I can conjure up a June double header in December.  How do I do it?  You can find me hosting a tailgate party right after the new year, no matter if it's raining (or in this year's case, snowing!) on the grill and grill master.  My reading selections also tend to skew towards all things baseball.  I dig out my Pittsburgh Pirates jersey, and the Pittsburgh Steelers jersey is sent to the basement until fall.  Pour myself a cold one, settle in for a few night's baseball reading, a few hours viewing of Ken Burn's Baseball, and I am ready for opening day!  Say hi if you see me in Seattle this summer, I'll be the girl in the black and gold among the sea of blue Mariners fans.

Pardon my polite silence.  I am not a plane talker.State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

On a recent trip to the midwest, the airport newstand held little interest and other entertainment options were exhausted.  

Luckily, I remembered to look at Overdrive via my smartphone available through Multnomah County Library.  Ten minutes later I’d downloaded David Rakoff’s Glass Half Empty

Boarding the plane with earbuds in place, I smiled politely at my neighbor and escaped into Mr. Rakoff's soothing voice.

If you’re interested in learning more about e-books look here or ask us in person.  We're happy to help.

Maybe I'd even tell you about it when we're 30,000 ft in the air...  Then again, let's wait till we've landed.

Betsy a Library Assistant at the Hillsdale Library is reading Wild Tales: A Rock n' Roll Life by Graham Nash: "I like that he is narrating his own book and the stories behind the songs."

 

PDX pop now coverOnce upon a time, I went out to see bands play several times a week, I read Spin (remember Spin?) and I was on top of the local and national music scene. I had friends with encyclopedic music knowledge, and they lavished it on me. Now I’m old and I’m busy, and so are my friends who used to give me the heads up on music they thought I’d like. Babysitters are expensive, and I find that I like to be in my bed by midnight, book in hand. But although I’m not so interested in standing up in a club or music venue for hours and hours, I still love music. I’m especially always looking for new music to energize me as I take long walks around this city. There’s nothing like a new song I’m really into to get me up to the top of MountPDX pop now cover Tabor faster.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a CD in the library called PDX Pop Now! 2008, and I found that it was just one of a great annual series. PDX Pop Now is a local nonprofit whose mission is to celebrate local music. In 2004, they started having a music festival every year and releasing a CD of recorded music by the artists chosen for the festival. The music is wildly varied and the CDs don't really hang together as albums, but as a tool for finding something new to love right here in your own city, they are unbeatable. I found a band I’ll call Starf***er, who have three whole CDs of music to get me moving. I found Ioa’s song, called “The Boxcar Children”, which unites my love of kid’s literature and pop music ("Henry and Jesse lived under no rules at all in the little red boxcar..."). And there’s a rolicking song called “Let’s Ride” by Andy Combs and the Moth that always gets me up to the top of Mount Tabor really fast. This CD series might just add some excitement to your life as well.

As a child, my uncle Mike would pay me 25 cents to say ‘hello’. Once I said, ‘Hello Uncle Mike’ and got a fifty cent piece. I was an extraordinarily shy child, raised by an extraordinarily shy mother. It was a good partnership and suited me well, until I had my own child.  

My unabashedly sociablSoceity of timid souls bookjackete son liked to sit in other parent’s laps at library storytime. He chats up intoxicated passengers on airplanes and is absolutely confident that whomever sits near us at the neighborhood sushi house is dying to see his Lego minifigure collection. All of this sends me into a state of near panic. I’ve often felt that I ought to start a support group for shy and introverted parents of extroverted children. This was on my mind when I came across Polly Morland’s book The Society of Timid Souls: Or, How to Be Brave.  

Polly Morland is a documentary filmmaker and this book reads exactly like the most captivating of documentaries. From meetings of anxiety-ridden concert musicians struggling to overcome stage fright in the 1940s, to interviews with modern military heroes and high line walkers,  Moreland explores the many different forms that bravery can take and how we define it as a society. What struck me most however, was the idea that some forms of bravery may be practiced and learned. I'm unlikely at this stage in my life to undergo training to fight a bull and let’s just forget about joining Toastmasters. Parenting however is one training I can't opt out of.  My uninhibited son is guaranteed to test my faltering social skills for the rest of my life. In doing so, he might just be training me to move one small step further from timid to brave.

Dylan Thomas Caedmon Collection book jacketIt is a truism in the audiobook world that authors do not make the best narrators. Audiobooks have come a long way since Dylan Thomas sing-songed some of his poems in what is considered to be the first audiobook, produced in 1952 by Caedmon Records.

Audiobooks in the 21st century are more performance than reading, and performance requires different skills than reading aloud. Hence the hesitation about having authors read their own works. At the same time, no one is more familiar with a book than its author, and familiarity can bring out aspects of a story that a professional narrator might overlook. Some authors are memorably bad (unnamed here, click through for a book you should NOT listen to!), but some are surprisingly good, even excellent. Here are a few authors I’d be glad to listen to again:Neverwhere book jacket

Neil Gaiman. Absolutely the best author/narrator, his quiet English accent and subtle characterizations make for an entertaining visit to a haunted graveyard (The Graveyard Book) to an alternate London (Neverwhere), or perhaps down at the end of the lane (I’m still waiting for this one!).

Khalid Hosseini. The author reads his debut novel, The Kite Runner, with a sensitivity and emotion that makes it clear that this is a very personal story.

Barbara Kingsolver. With exception of her early books, Kingsolver has read all her work since. Prodigal Summer (2000). Her gentle Southern-tinged voice, along with her clear identification with her female heroines, brings out the humor and pathos of their stories.

Susan OrRin Tin Tin book jacketlean. This writer narrates her most recent book, Rin Tin Tin, in a conversational fashion that makes the listener feel like she’s enjoying a chat with a friend who wants to impart some very interesting information.

Simon Winchester. This prolific master of narrative nonfiction is an excellent reader of his own work, as he delivers a hint of British reserve and irony, fused
with absolute authority and command of his subjects. I enjoyed Krakatoa.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention three author/narrators of books for young adults that are well worth listening to:
ShermThe Golden Compass book jacketan Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian is a revelation into the mind of his alter-ego, Arnold Spirit, Junior.

Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens is a hilarious romp.

Philip Pullman expertly guides the full-cast performances of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Don’t miss them!

It’s easy to find most of the audiobooks read by the author at MCL. At the Advanced Search page, type “read by the author” (use quotes) and click Search.

Violeta, Troudale's Bilingual Youth Librarian says this about Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina:
I loved the occasional, seamless code switching between English and Spanish, and there were several times I had to put the book down to finish laughing about what I'd just read. And yet I've also had deep conversations with others about the themes of this book: cultural identity, mother-daughter relationships, and bullying.

 

​“What caLeopold von Kalckreuth - The Artist's Wife Reading in Bedn I do for you?” I ask my friend undergoing chemo. “Oh, just bring me a funny audiobook to distract me.” I used to arrive with stacks of them, but over time I’ve developed a list of greatest hits that work well for our recuperating loved ones. Some criteria: Not too embarrassing for one unrelated adult to read aloud to another, not too many worrying situations (why did I think that book with a scene where the author is interrogated by the protagonist was okay?), and of course, the kind of humor that makes for belly laughs. Some people claim that anything by David Sedaris will work, and there are plenty of those to choose from, but moving beyond that, here are my three greatest hits for the healing, or anyone wanting a laugh. 

​The story of the beleaguered corporate drop-out Samantha as she tries to fake her way through a live-in cook and cleaning job in Sophie Kinsella's The Undomestic Goddess has left men and women alike unable to stop laughing. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods seems like it might be a macho mind over matter tale of a journey on the Appalachian trail but is instead a tale of absurd urban warriors. The humor and scenery together make a great distraction. Richard Peck’s look back at his Grandma in the 1930s is so funny because Grandma is not the usual grandma of memoirs. She ​exaggerates, connives, trespasses, and contrives to help the town underdogs outwit the establishment. While A Long Way from Chicago lives in the children’s section, it's a great read for adults. 

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