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.
" A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum"' wrote Mel Brooks. He might have been talking about the public uproar re post-racism. Pour moi, that line is about how Life happens when no one is looking. The New York Times Magazine article on George C. Wolfe's revival of the Broadway musical "Shuffle Along" hit me like that. Back in the day, when we were changing from negro to Negro to black, 'shuffling' was a synonym for Uncle Tom. We were saying it "...Loud, Black and Proud!" Any music before Coltrane was a sellout. So, with a sneer on my face; I opened the rag and prepared to be insulted.
"Shuffle Along" is out of the minstrel, blackface era. The very words make me wince in denial. Then I heard what what Audra McDonald, six-time Tony Award Winner, had to say about the show. In a CBS interview, McDonald says "This was my history, and I knew nothing about it." I realized that this was true for me also. I was discrediting a folk without knowing their story. So, I resolved to learn that story. This will be a tale about that journey. We will be making it together, I hope. Some conversations are hard to have, don't mean we shouldn't have them anyway.
Don't know where we're going, but it starts here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/27/magazine/shuffle-along-and-the-painful-history-of-black-performance-in-america.html?_r=0
I do know it ends well, and I love happy endings.
When I first met the Scottish Lad, practically the first thing out of my mouth was some version of a question that many Brits find terribly intrusive: What do you do for a living? People wonder why the British talk constantly about the weather. Here’s a hint: Every other topic of conversation is considered rude at best or taboo at worst! I didn’t know my question was intrusive because I hadn’t read a bunch of books on British etiquette and culture. Again, I thought I had no need of them. Again, I was wrong. Here are some titles I have since read. You, too, can educate yourself so you don’t make the mistakes I did!
Many Americans apparently want to (and do) marry British people. At least two of them have written revealing books about living in the land of their mates. The Anglo Files by Sarah Lyall and Erin Moore’s That’s Not English cover some similar territory, but the latter book explores English and American cultural differences with a focus on language. Moore titles each chapter with a word and then delves into what it means for each country. You’ll get the scoop, for example, on why the English seem to dislike “gingers” while Americans generally find redheads attractive (although an American friend of mine who has beautiful red hair was teased mercilessly in school because of the color of her locks). Other chapters include Knackered, Whinge, Bloody and Dude.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Scots and Welsh are the same as the English! To get an understanding of Scottish life and culture, as well as practical tips on living in or visiting Scotland, read Culture Shock! Scotland. For a glimpse into Welsh life, try A Writer's House in Wales by Jan Morris.
For even more books to help you navigate the British cultural waters, try these.
I feel like author Catherine Newman has been right there in the trenches of parenting with me for the past twelve years or so. I started reading a parenting column she wrote when she and I were both pregnant with our second children. Later, I enjoyed her book, Waiting for Birdy. She writes funny, thoughtful essays that show up all over the place, and she has her own blog. Her two kids are right about the same ages as mine, and she's got exactly the irreverent but warm sense of humor I most enjoy. She’s a passionate home cook, too, the kind of person who, like me, not only makes her own granola but glories in making it (even though neither of us would ever consider ourselves “granola”).
And now there's a new book. Catastrophic Happiness is more of a series of appreciations about kids and family life than a story about anything actually happening, although she does have some pointed things to say about how our culture foists its stupid ideas about gender on our children. If you have kids in your house, this book will make you laugh--a lot. It also might make you feel more present, make you stop spacing out long enough to love the life you have with your family.
My father is in the last years of his life. Once a strapping man well over six feet tall he becomes smaller and more frail with each passing day. His physical world has shrunk as well and his days are passed in the small, walkable space between “his” chair, the kitchen table and his bathroom and bedroom. The things that are important to him now are few: watching a good ball game (any seasonal sport will do), his next meal (the man has an appetite!) and a good book to read. Despite his deteriorating condition he has always placed a big importance on reading and having books around. He has always been surrounded by books: some he inherited, many he was given as gifts and several I have absolutely no idea where they came from (a Japanese phrase book, Milton Berle’s favorite joke book, Tiling 101 to name a few. )
One of my jobs as his caretaker is to make sure he has something good to read. He loves mysteries (I once caught him starting a new one from the last page!) He loves Stuart Woods and Alex Berenson. He loves stories about World War II, tales of espionage and anything to do with the U.S. Navy. There is always a book next to his chair and more than one on his nightstand.
I know reading will always be a part of his day. And I look forward to keeping him well-stocked with good stories. They are always his best medicine.
Here are a couple of my dad’s go-to authors:
Robert B. Parker, the Jesse Stone Series
Parker’s original series of nine novels tells the story of Jesse Stone, a troubled detective desperate to rebuild his career when he takes the job of Police Chief in Paradise, Massachusetts. Along the way Stone battles the mob, white supremacists, a corrupt town council and the occasional homicide while struggling to come to terms with himself. All nine novels have been made into films for television starring Tom Selleck as the new Chief. The first in the series is Night Passage which the library owns as a downloadable ebook.
Daniel Silva, the Gabriel Allon series:
Part spy and part artist, Gabriel Allon works for “the office,” the name employees have given to the Israeli Intelligence Service. While attending art school Gabriel was offered a post with the elite special forces unit, tasked with tracking down the perpetrators of the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. At the conclusion of the job Gabriel decides to stay on, maintaining an official cover as an art restorer. The Kill Artist is the first in the series.
Vanity film projects are a terrible idea. Funding is shaky, poorly constructed scripts are battered about, and rumors of an impending Hindenburg of a movie are spread. Fueled by egos and inexperience, these problems offer easy fodder to the media waiting to rip apart the darling superstar who’s in over their head.
Purple Rain should have failed. However, it did not.
Upon its release, the film propelled Prince, and to a lesser degree the Revolution, to superstar status. Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy sheds light on Purple Rain's improbable success driven by an unlikely group of collaborators.
So, forget your shrink in Beverly Hills. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the tale of the quest to make a musically charged film which can only be described as magically cringe-worthy experience.
Like a rebellious cigarette you had smoked when you were twenty, or a night under the stars with a girl or a boy who had only wanted to be your friend.
These are just some of the ways that the character James Bennett, an art critic with synesthesia, describes paintings and people in Molly Prentiss's debut novel, but he could just as easily be describing the book. One that has left me in such a daze that I'm at a loss for my own words to describe how much I loved it.
Set in a pre-gentrified SoHo, Tuesday Nights in 1980 follows Argentine artist Raul Engales, bright-eyed New York newcomer Lucy Olliason and the wonderfully odd art critic James Bennett; whose lives are all irreversibly altered on a series of Tuesday nights at the start of the new decade.
Whether you're an art lover or just up for visiting a unique time and place through vivid characters, check out this vibrant whirlwind of a book.
There are a couple of flavors I like in Highlander romance -- I enjoy the ones that are straight up historical; but mmm, a Highlander story especially if it involves time travel? Yes! Maybe you have seen the new Outlander television series? Guess what? It's based on a book!
The story starts with Mrs. Claire Randall on her second honeymoon in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s 1945 and she's a former combat nurse who has taken up the hobby of botany to fill her free time. She is gathering plants at the stone circle Craigh na Dun when she is transported through time to 1743, and finds herself in the midst the fighting prior to the Jacobite uprising of 1745.
This first novel of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon is a passionate romance with depictions of wartime violence, and steamy sex scenes. If you're squeamish about these things this isn't for you. Presented in the context of the times, these details give the story historical resonance. I found comic relief in Claire’s swearing. She doesn’t swear like a sailor but she swears like a healthy woman dealing with brawny men, exciting, brutal times, and frustration. I don’t know about you, but if I was a fish out of water I might swear a lot too. If romance, brawny men in kilts and time travel are among your favorite flavors too, there's more to explore in my list, Scottish highland romances.
Emerging from an ultra conservative Jamaican childhood, Grace Jones created her own path and a life well lived. In her memoir, I'll Never Write my Memoirs she opens her life, inviting readers into a world of adventures and experiences that only her words can convey.
I’m not even going to try. Just take Grace Jones’ words for it.
Already said hello? Try this list for similar books.
I love to travel … and when I travel I often enjoy reading about the place I’m visiting.
Several weeks ago I traveled to the beautiful city of San Antonio, Texas. As a history buff, the obvious choice for something to read was a book about the Alamo. So the day before my departure, I downloaded James Donovan’s The Blood of Heroes to my Kindle. I started reading it on the flight to Texas and finished it up about a half hour before touching down at the Portland airport.
I’ve always thought of the Battle of the Alamo as an isolated incident, but reading about it made me aware of its key role in the wider context of a Mexican civil war and the fight for Texan independence. The Texan revolution actually began several months before near a Spanish mission a few miles to the south called Mission Purisima Concepción and ended with the defeat of Santa Ana's army a few weeks later at the Battle of San Jacinto. Reading about the conflict enhanced my enjoyment of visiting the place; and visiting the place deepened my understanding and appreciation for what I had read.
Now if you’ve ever watched Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, you may be under the impression that there is no basement at the Alamo. Having visited there myself, I have to tell you that this is statement is not true -- there actually is a basement. Although not a part of the original structure, it can be found directly across the street!
Folks in my family came to Oregon in, on and around covered wagons, part of the great migration that brought about 400,000 people across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains to occupy the land that they thought was available up and down the West Coast. (There were people living here already, it turned out.) My indirect ancestor on my mom's side (something like great-great-uncle, I believe) was Ezra Meeker.
Meeker came out via covered wagon, and then after a very busy life of business, planting hops, founding a town and going to the Klondike in gold rush days, noticed that now, in the early 20th century, people were forgetting about the Oregon Trail. He opted to do something about that. Ezra mounted an expedition - at age 71 - to travel the trail backwards, by ox-drawn wagon, to raise awareness for the trail's preservation. He succeeded, and kept going, eventually reaching New York and Washington DC, meeting with President Teddy Roosevelt. He eventually crossed the country by wagon, train, automobile and airplane and managed to place (or have placed) hundreds of Oregon Trail markers. You can read more about him and his trips in his journals, available in physical form or online.
Our guest blogger is Memo. Memo works at the Central Library. Besides reading history and literature about Latinos, workers, and immigrants, he enjoys re-reading the great literary works of nineteenth and twentieth-century realist writers.
Raymond Carver’s tales offer portraits of run-of-the-mill Americans living in unexciting monotonous places. His characters are mostly working-class whites, residing in small-town America where life is plain and ordinary. There is nothing special going on in their social environment, and the daily routines of the characters are fairly monotonous. The simplicity of their world makes their constant preoccupations for the basic needs in life dull. Their strengths and flaws, even between those who have stable lives and those who do not, share similar features, in part because their vigor and imperfections are the products of the same banal world.
However, there is more than meets the eye in these representations of the mundane. Carver portrays a realism that is humane, complex, and universal. His fictional characters such Earl and Doreen Ober in “They’re Not Your Husband” and Del Frazer in “Dummy” are not only sketches of ordinary people living uneventful lives, they are portraits of working-class Americans whose lives were and are overlooked in favor of ones that express exceptionalism.
If you enjoy the works of realist writers, you will appreciate the literary representations of plain folks in Raymond Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Cathedral, and Where I’m Calling From. His ability to dig deep into the daily and simple worlds of the ordinary Americans puts his fictitious universe at odds with triumphal post-World War II Americana.
Recently I decided to see if I could up the number of books I finished in a year if I moved the books that were well reviewed to the top of my reading list. I know it takes me longer to finish a book that's only just barely good enough not to put down than it does to finish a top-notch page-turner of a book.
Two well-reviewed titles I've finished recently are Uprooted by Naomi Novik and A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly. Uprooted is a charming fairy tale about Agnieszka, a peasant girl in a humble village on the edge of a corrupted Wood. The village is kept safe by the Dragon who asks only that a girl of his choice from one of his dependent villages enter his service every ten years. At the end of her term of service, she is let go with a fine fat pouch of silver coins for her time. But the girls are never the same after and they always leave their village homes. Agnieszka never thinks that she'll be the chosen one....
A Criminal Magic is about a 1920s America where prohibition doesn’t ban alcohol; instead it bans sorcerer's "shine". Sorcerers can bottle their shine which gives an incredible and addictive high, but the shine loses its power after only a single day. After prohibition begins, shine distribution falls to mobsters - the same as alcohol did in the real1920s world. Joan is a sweet young orphaned sorceress from the back woods who only wants to earn money and look after her little sister and her cousin. Alex is a Federal Prohibition Unit trainee with a scandal in his past who is forced to go undercover into the world of "shine" dens. Both are forced to confront all the unpleasant realities of the world they find themselves in. It's early in the year but I can already tell you that A Criminal Magic will be in my top ten titles for the year.
If you are looking at a title in the newer version of the catalog (Bibliocommons), scroll down past the title information to "Opinions" then look for "From the critics" to see professionally published reviews. In the classic catalog, click on the cover picture for the book (you'll need allow new windows to pop up) and any published reviews will be available in the new window. I found these two titles as delightful as the reviews promised and finished both in short order since I didn't want to put either one down!
Part of the joy of reading The Improbability of Love was that it was like revisiting the art history classes I loved in college. Author Hannah Rothschild clearly knows the art world, and it was such a pleasure to learn about the mechanics of that world, the kinds of characters that populate it, and the art itself. I learned to keep my iPad close by so I could look up paintings and statues that were mentioned, and all that beauty became part of my experience of the book.
In this novel, a young woman impulsively buys a painting that’s been moldering in a London junk shop for decades. It winds up being an important (imaginary) painting by Watteau, a (non-imaginary) French painter from the eighteenth century- a Rococo painting, featuring attractive people in nice outfits in an outdoor setting. There’s a bit of romance as well as a family secret that is very dark indeed. The painting itself is one of the narrators, telling us about its long, fascinating history, from Madame Pompadour's boudoir to dark days in Nazi Germany.
Treat yourself and read this book. Then take a look at my list of fiction about art and artists.
If you hear “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” in my apartment, you’d know that rice was cooking. That’s the song my rice cooker plays when I hit the “start” button. I like planning my meals around rice and these past few months I’ve found some star accompaniments: short rib kare-kare, Visayan roast chicken, and garlic shrimp. (Most of these recipes are available online in some form or another, but I encourage you to check out the books too.) Here’s what I made:
1. Short Rib Kare-Kare from Asian-American by Dale Talde: Kare kare, as slightly reinvented by Talde, is a decadent Filipino pot roast in a savory coconut milk and peanut sauce. Talde labelled the recipe with a "Filipino advisory explicit flavor" warning, noting that it was "too funky for most white people" probably due to the shrimp paste ingredient. I’ll just say that my boyfriend loved kare kare and creatively used it later in sandwiches and burritos. (Note: if you can’t find boneless short ribs, feel free to substitute with another cut ideal for slow cooking.)
2. Visayan Roast Chicken with Lemon Grass from The Cooking of Indonesia and the Philippines by Ghillie Başan: This roast chicken is a riff on Filipino barbeque flavors. Here, the whole chicken is rubbed in a heavenly spice paste containing garlic, ginger, lemongrass, soy sauce, brown sugar, and lemon. I love that the recipe has you make roasted sweet potato fries as a bonus “one pot” side dish. (Note: Ignore the temperature and time directions and roast this chicken at 425 °F for 35 minutes breast side up, flip it, and roast for 20 minutes or until the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 °F.)
3. Ms. Vo Thi Huong’s Garlic Shrimp from Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes by Peter Meehan: Just a few words: best souvenir from Vietnam ever. Here, the shrimp is quickly stir fried in an amazing combination of garlic, shallots, green onion, Sriracha, Kewpie mayo, and soy sauce. Much like many of the recipes in the book, the garlic shrimp was super easy to make.
These recipes are perfect for people who like Southeast Asian flavors and want to feel proud of themselves in the kitchen. I’m all about kitchen victories. Are there any recipes that you’d recommend to me? Please let me know in the comments!
I can’t get enough of some authors that I love. I also try to slowly savor authors I discover. I don’t read all their books in one fell swoop: I read one every couple months. I am on my third book by Rainbow Rowell: Carry On. I love how Rowell writes about contemporary life, people, class issues and love through her adult and teen fiction.
There’s a reason she’s a best seller. She can tell a love story. I am haunted by the amazing and awkward love story of Eleanor and Park. I want to reread Fangirl which alludes to the romance between Baz and Simon in Carry On. Fangirl has its own marvelous, slow paced romance but I don’t want to give anything away.
I grew up working class: my father was a surveyor’s aide, and my mother was a part time key punch operator. The worries of Rowell’s working class characters really resonate with me. For instance, Eleanor worries about clean clothes with her small wardrobe, and Simon just wants enough to eat like many growing teens. These details add to the realistic aspects of the world she is building. She nails it without rubbing it in your face.
I’m so happy to find another author to love! Have you found any new authors to love lately?
It was a dark and drizzly night in Portland, Oregon...
Thanks to the magic of Roku, the hilarious and irreverent Newsradio was on my television. Nothing could have been better. Then, out of the elevator, arrived the cast of Mr. Show.
Mic dropped. Laughs ensued.
During the 90s and early 00s a collective of writers and comedians produced a body of work featuring each other in one form or another. However, when shows like this aired, the internet was merely a buffering baby - finding and watching these shows was not a click away. Well worn VHS tapes and personal retelling after a ten mile uphill walk through the snow filled the gap until the current overabundance of content was available.
Ah, spring break! In my memories of childhood, it was always filled with chocolate Easter eggs and lots of time to read the stack of good books I’d just checked out from my local library. In honor of those memories, I’ve gathered up a crop of new books for kids and teens that I want to read over the upcoming spring weeks that are bound to be cool and rainy. I might just have to buy a bag of chocolate to go with them!