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.
Waaaay back in the day, I was a nanny for six months, and I have to admit that I was not a particularly good one. In junior high and high school, I had tons of (mostly) enjoyable babysitting experiences, but living with a family is so much different than going home after a few hours of coloring and playing hide-and-seek. To clarify, though: the family was fine and I had the best bedroom in the house. I didn’t have to clean and, fortunately for the kids, I had only light cooking duties. It’s just that when you aren’t the ultimate authority, things can be a bit tricky. Taking care of other people’s children is not for the faint of heart as Kelly Corrigan relates in her memoir Glitter and Glue.
Kelly Corrigan became a nanny a few years after I, only her family gig was in Australia. She hadn’t planned on it, but when she and her friend ran out of cash on their trip around the world, jobs suddenly became necessary if they wanted to eventually continue their adventure (not to mention get back home to the United States). Kelly’s Aussie family was grieving the loss of the mother who had died of cancer a few months before.
As she navigated those sorrowful and difficult waters (so many topics of conversation with the children seemed to potentially contain mother references), Kelly gained a new appreciation for her own mother who was not particularly affectionate but kept the family on track - the “glue” in the family as opposed to her father’s role as the “glitter” (read “fun”). She constantly heard her mother’s voice as she was going about her daily routine and making decisions about the kids (“Children, Kelly. Kids are goats. Are Millie and Martin goats?” ). Now that she’s a mother herself, Kelly realizes how much her mother influenced the way she is raising her own daughters and, for Kelly, that’s a really good thing.
Lolita. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
Do you know this book? It’s about middle-aged, European Humbert Humbert, who has had his eye on certain girls between the ages of nine and fourteen for his entire adult life. Through a mix of strategy and happenstance, Humbert gets 12-year-old Lolita completely in his power and makes her his concubine-- who also poses as his daughter. And yes, it's as deeply disturbing as it sounds. The book was banned for years all over the world after its publication and still carries an air of scandal.
I’d been reading indiscriminately and in volume, heading every couple of weeks to a used bookstore that sold paperbacks and filling a grocery bag with books by Danielle Steele, V.C. Andrews, and Jacqueline Susann (who I still kind of love). Lolita, when I finally picked it up, grabbed me in a different way than those books. For one thing, I thought it was sexy. At 15, I wasn’t completely horrified at what I saw as Humbert’s seduction of a twelve-year-old. I knew I was sexual, and I wasn’t that much older than Lolita. At that age, I was interested in older men. I was also seduced by the novel’s sinuous music and deep romanticism. There’s beautiful poetry in this book. “My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.”
I read Lolita at least five or six more times in my teens and early twenties, but then I worked in bookstores and libraries for awhile. It seemed that books were flying at me all the time, so I didn’t do much rereading. Later, in the wildly hormonal years when I was having babies and dealing with being a mom to small children, I couldn’t imagine wanting to read a book about a sexual predator and didn’t even want to think about Lolita.
Recently I found out that Jeremy Irons was the voice actor for the audio book of Lolita, which the library has on CD and in downloadable audio, and I thought, “Sign me up!” Honestly? Sign me up to hear Jeremy Irons read a grocery list or the ingredients in a bottle of shampoo. After years and years, I “read” Lolita again.
At the age I am now, the book was so much more, in every way, than I remembered, both lovelier and more poignant, and more distressing. It’s genius, having Humbert narrate the book in the first person. You’re right there with him, appreciating Lolita’s beauty, remembering the shock of new love, and then he says something so devastatingly cruel and selfish, so perverted, that you’re shocked. You go in and out of sympathy like this again and again and again. He becomes a monster, then someone whose pain we understand perfectly, then a monster again. Walking home, with Jeremy Iron’s voice in my earbuds, I would sometimes have to stop and cry out, bury my head in my hands. "Hi, there, neighbors. It's not mental illness. It's literature."
Jeremy Irons reads the book with verve, showing us Humbert’s charm, his anger, his often very funny sense of humor. But at the end, as I listened on a grey, drizzly morning on my way to work, his voice grew more subdued as he tells of realizing what his love has done to Lolita’s life. “We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.”
I showed up at the library in no kind of shape to help patrons, at least for a little while. But I’m glad I listened to this masterpiece again.
I’ve been reading Scandinavian mysteries for years (even before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo burst onto the international scene). I’ve always been drawn to the dark, murderous mayhem in these books, but I’ve also wondered about the crimes that abound in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic mystery books. Are there really so many violent occurrences in those cold climes? Or is it rather that all of those sunless days of winter just breed writers searching in the dark for soulless murderers?
Since I spend my days at the library, I decided to do a bit of research on this. First, looking at crime statistics in those countries, I compiled this chart from statistics in 2012:
|Homicides||per 100,000 people||rate||
Okay, compared to the U.S. (14,612 per 100,000 for the rate of 4.7!), Scandinavians are a peaceful people. In terms of sheer numbers, the United State is the ninth most murderous country. Yes, there are tons of books set in this country about horrific murders and violence but sheesh, there was only 1 murder in Iceland in 2012 (or possibly up to 3, I couldn’t find the actual number),but I counted at least 20 murders set in Iceland written by their popular authors.
I can only think that those long, dark winters create the perfect atmosphere to spin tales of violence. Here are some of the Scandinavian mysteries I’ve curled up with during Portland’s long, rainy winters. Skal!
Blogs tend to lend themselves as a platform for books. It is a natural forum for sharing book reviews, what you’re reading now, and learning about new books you might be interested in reading next. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites who all just happen to be British…
Rachel at BookSnob is a voracious and serious reader, who has thankfully been slowed slightly by her duties as a new(ish) literature teacher to a group of sometimes apathetic students. She also shares stories and pictures of her weekend explorations of her beloved England. I stumbled upon her blog through LibraryThing, which is another handy tool for the bookish crowd. I use it more as a means to catalogue my books, but there are plenty of reviews and chances to discover new titles.
Persephone Books is not a blog, rather it is a publisher of classic grey paperback novels. They re-publish neglected titles by women, for women, and about women that have gone out of print. Their claim is that “the books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking, and impossible to forget.” This forum is a book club of sorts. Each month a book from the Persephone Press catalogue is chosen and discussed.
Dove Grey Reader is another one of those insatiable consumers of the written word. She always has a list of titles she’s currently reading and anticipating, plus what she’s watching or listening to at the moment.
Honorable mentions go to Simon over at Stuck in a Book who has very similar reading tastes to myself but brings a male perspective to the table, Jane over at FleurFisher, and to the now defunct blog by Verity where she catalogued her read through the entire Virago Modern Classic canon.
How will you find your next book?
Eric works at Central Library and is reading The Female Man by Joanna Russ. "It reminds me that Sci-Fi can actually warp minds and beg questions that will never be easily answered. Who can resist a radical feminist take on gender destabilization, utopia and forms of resistance? The novel is somewhat demanding in its break with straightforward narration but commitment pays off. It's also very funny."
When my husband and I are not dreaming about living off the land on some kind of homestead, we're dreaming about having our own restaurant. As I dawdle around my kitchen on a Saturday morning, I think, "If we had a restaurant that served brunch, people would get totally addicted to my savory cornmeal pancakes with chives and corn." My husband talks about offering his home-brewed sour cherry beer in our brew pub, and of course there would be homemade pretzels with homemade mustard. But it's all a pipe dream. Sometimes, just the work of getting dinner on the table for my husband and myself as well as a vegetarian teenager and a picky 10-year-old brings me to the brink of despair. And ask any friend I’ve ever invited to a dinner party: I am a slow cook who gets bogged down in details. Reading Molly Wizenberg's new book, Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage made me deeply grateful that we never even came close to opening our brunch destination or our brew pub.
You know Molly Wizenberg, right? From the Orangette food blog, the Spilled Milk podcast, and articles in magazines like Bon Appetit? She's that nice 30-something friend you hang out in the kitchen with while she tells you stories, and then she shares recipes, many of which celebrate vegetables, but then she's always getting you to make some version of banana bread, too. In her first book, A Homemade Life, she talked about growing up in the kitchen, the loss of her father, and how she found her food-enthusiast husband. In this one, she talks about how she and her husband opened and then operated Delancey, their artisanal pizza restaurant in Seattle. I liked it-- but then, I like her-- and she's a good storyteller. It was interesting to see what goes into a restaurant from someone who is inside that world. Keeping a restaurant running sounds even more high-pressure and difficult than I ever imagined. At one point, diners at Delancey ordered so many salads that Wizenberg started to sob, even while she continued to plate them.
One thing: the recipes do seem a little forced into this book. She admits that she wasn't cooking much during this time except when she was at the restaurant. And that's Orangette’s schtick, the stories with the recipes. But I'm quibbling here, and, really, I’m glad she included the recipes. The recipes are good. I definitely plan to make that slow-roasted pork and the chilled peaches in wine. And I'm approximately twice as glad as I was before I read it that my husband and I never opened the restaurant of our dreams.
Well, it has happened again - I have fallen in love with a fictional character who lives in a time and a place created out of real history.
Sister Pelagia is the main character in a mystery series written by Boris Akunin. She is an inquisitive, bespectacled, red-haired nun living in Imperial Russia, trying to observe her faith in peace and harmony with her fellow sisters and the students at the school for girls where she is a headmistress. But her insatiable curiosity, her stubborn persistence and her penchant for seeing all the details make her a detective without equal. Somehow she always seems to find herself in the middle of a mysterious circumstance: the poisoning of a rare white bulldog, an inexplicable ghost haunting the Hermitage Abbey or a Christ-like prophet who appears to be able to come back from the dead.
Her adventures always begin in Russia but her sleuthing takes her all over the world, from the dark, thick forests of Siberia to the sun drenched land of the Middle East.
With the Sister Pelagia series you get the best of both worlds: the great philosophical questions that Russian authors have always debated: Love, Death, God, Good, Evil; you also plunge into the depths of a world peopled with extraordinary characters, unorthodox situations and exotic places. Not the least of these is the mystery itself that is interwoven into the story as a living breathing creature.
Writing in the style and with the plot complexity of Charles Dickens, Russian author Boris Akunin deals unflinchingly with the attitudes of the time, especially the question of how we treat those who are different, whether by race or class or sexual preference. He doesn't try to softsoap the truth, but tempers it with humor and unusual historical details.
If you like mesmerizing mysteries set in a different time and place with a heroine who won’t give up until she finds the truth, you will love the Sister Pelegia series by Boris Akunin. Start with Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog.
Shandra from Central Library is reading Half-off Ragnarok and has this to say: "Half-off Ragnarok" is the latest by my favorite author Seanan McGuire, combining great characters, mythical creatures that aren't so mythical, lots of action, and excellent humor."
The implications of people colonizing Mars were delved into wonderfully by Kim Stanley Robinson. In Red Mars, he told the story of one hundred people, most Russian or American (this was published 1993, the last gasp of that binary world), who travel to Mars.
A few months ago I thought Buried in the Sky was an A+ read. This week it came back to hit me in the face after the avalanche on Everest that killed a dozen or more Sherpa guides. Please read this book. You will not regret it. And if you are in the 99% of Portlanders who've read the John Krakauer book about a similar Everest tragedy, you might find yourself wondering which of the two books you like more. It's that good. It's that important.
I loved Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, but I hesitated before checking out We Live in Water, his new collection of short stories. Short stories can seem like a trial--you have to go through that process of getting involved again and again--but I found that with these stories, I slipped in quickly and easily every time.
The characters in We Live in Water are getting by in Portland or Seattle, or most often, in Walter’s hometown, Spokane, and none of them are doing very well. They’ve either fallen already or they’re headed for a fall. The title story was clearly by the same author as Ruins, with multiple narrators and a complicated structure, shifting back and forth between the '50s and the '90s. It told of a man who disappeared long ago and his grown son's efforts to find out what happened to him. It read like a film noir story, I thought, imagining Robert Mitchum as the lost father.
My favorite story in the collection was “Virgo,” narrated by the now unemployed features editor of a small local newspaper. When he and his girlfriend are together, their morning ritual involves going right to her favorite page in the newspaper, the page where you find the horoscopes and the crosswords. He notices that on the days when her horoscopes are good, she has a better day, and is more generous with her, ahem, amorous attentions. After they break up and she has a new boyfriend, he begins changing the horoscopes, giving her endless one-star days and entries like “one star: hope your new boyfriend doesn’t mind your bad breath”. He changes the crossword clue that reads, "Jamaican spice"--answer: “jerk”--to her new boyfriend’s name. I thought this was hilarious, and a great idea for a story.
If you're in the mood for a good short story, consider investigating some of the books in this list.
I love all things BBC! Comedies, dramas, detective shows, spy series, period stuff. I've checked out a ton of shows from the library (it's great that we have all the current seasons of MI-5 and Doc Martin) but sometimes there are shows that we just can't get for whatever reason. One of my all time favorite shows is Blackpool (not to be confused with the horrible U.S. remake called Viva Laughlin with Hugh Jackman) and here's why it's the best show ever:
- It's British.
- The stars are David Tennant and David Morrissey. They are beautiful men and as a bonus they can act.
- There's a murder to solve.
- It's a musical.
And what a musical! The characters basically burst into karaoke at propitious times. Which I think is the reason it's unavailable in U.S. dvd format - the issue of musical rights must be hindering the release here.
So your choices are: watch the entire season 1 of Blackpool on YouTube (don't bother with the second season; it doesn't compare to the first one) or check out some of my other favorite British shows at MCL.
Hey you! Yes you, with the curious look in your in your eyes...
Beyond these canvas walls lies an irresistible display of mystery and intrigue. Unbelievable sights, sounds, and emotional awakening await your already tingling senses. It’s not for the faint or frail among us. Oh no... Only the strong of heart and soul will survive the spectacular journey that awaits you inside. What do you say? Dare you enter?