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.

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."

 
Kate is reading Thomas Jefferson: Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything. She finds that it is full of facts both small (the number of windows at Monticello) and large (the ownership of people).

cover image of joy harjo books

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 bookjacketLet me explain.

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."

When the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars, one report I heard described the landing using a ‘Mars Local’ time zone. 
 
Red Mars coverMan is not on Mars, but we’ve sent time in front of us.
 

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. 

One has been there before but in all other ways they are The First. They are scientists, and to me the reader they feel like scientists — curious, exacting, fiercely intelligent.
 
These one hundred scientists disagree passionately about the purpose of going to Mars. Are they there to explore it as itself, without imposing their needs or even their humanity on it? To make Mars habitable? To seize the opportunity to live in an entirely new way? To exploit the mineral resources? 
 
These factions are deeply divided, and the philosophy behind each is persuasive. Do we have to change everything we touch? 
 
Do we stay Earthlings, no matter where we go? 

 


Ross, a librarian at Central Library, is reading Ship of Theseus. He is enjoying the way that it invites you to read
in a multi-directional way. 

 Buried in the Sky book coverA 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. 

 

 

 

cover image of Rose

We Live in WaterI 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...

circus barker

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?

Man has always dreamed of flight . . . okay, maybe that’s a cliché, but perhaps it’s because flying is now cramped coach seating, $3 bottled water, and endless TSA lines. It’s easy to forget the romance that was once associated with travel by air. Airplanes were symbols of modernity and often a source of wonder and deep emotional connections. While there are plenty of memoirs by pilots about the adventure of flying, there are also those that go beyond the technology and excitement and speak of flying as an emotional, transcendent experience. Perhaps best known for this kind of writing is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but I want to highlight some other equally enticing choices.

The Spirit of St. Louis book jacketCharles Lindberg’s The Spirit of St. Louis and his wife’s North to the Orient both describe flights of exploration. The first is about Charles’ solo flight from New York to Paris and allows the reader to experience the solitude of flying across the Atlantic. He reflects on life and the nature of flight. He writes, “There are periods when it seems I’m flying through all space, through all eternity” as he battles sleep, space, and time. His wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wrote her own account of flying with Charles in North to the Orient. She provides her own personal insight into the wonder of flying, but because she isn’t the pilot, she solely focused on the sensation of flying rather than the practice of piloting. The feeling of altitude, rushing wind, and speed is strikingly real.


A Bell P-39 Airacobra Whereas the Lindberghs captured the awe of flight, Edwards Park speaks of the relationship between man and machine in Nanette. Parks was a WWII fighter pilot and Nanette was his first fighter, a P-39 Airacobra. He writes, “the Airacobra was lazy and slovenly and given to vicious fits of temper. It was a sexy machine, and rotten. Nanette was like that, and I was a little queer for her.” Much more profane than the other books here (Park was a fighter pilot after all), he nevertheless makes very clear the personal connection one could have with an airplane. To him, Nanette had a soul, a personality, and an agenda that did not always match his own, and for that he loved her.North to the Orient book jacket

Anne Morrow Lindberg captured something of what draws me to these books in North to the Orient. “It is not in the flying alone, nor in the places alone, nor alone in time; but in a peculiar blending of all three, which resulted in a quality of magic—a quality that belongs to fairy tales.” Flying akin to magic, hmmm. . . I would have liked to experience that.

Listening to my genius nephew plan an outing with his friends (all Northwest born & bred):
Them: “Yeah a hike, let’s not waste such great weather!”  (60 degrees, partly cloudy?!)
Me: a desert child- freezing and feeling like a fish out of water. Then I remembered that according to science, a fish out of water was the first step on the evolutionary bridge to humanity. Hm-m-mn.  So welcome to my fish out of water favorites.

Fresh Off the Boat book jacketEddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat, is by the proprietor of Baohaus-the hot East Village hangout where, as stated on the book cover, “foodies, stoners, and students come to stuff their faces with delicious Taiwanese street food”. Jay Caspian Kang wraps it up nicely: “(He takes) the archetypes of the immigrant experience-food, family, and capitalism-and infuse(s) them with a new energy…” If you want a howl-out–loud memoir from a Chinese-speaking, hip-hop loving kid who grew up in Florida and landed in NYC, this is it.

And now for your viewing and listening pleasure: Joyful Noise starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton. Randy, failed NYC hipster, has no place to run but Pacashau, Georgia. Hiding out with his country-music loving grandma exposes him to A Joyful Noise-a win or go home gospel singing competition that is not long on brotherly love. As one MCL commenter noted, the storyline can be seen as predictable. OR, one might remember that first beings told stories around the campfire to entertain and pass on knowledge. Knowledge, my chirrens, needs to be replicable or it ain’t science. What’s it all about in the end except for the music? The Queen and Miz Dolly do deliver, along with a cast of talented others (shoutout to Andy Karl [Caleb]-scene stealer)!

So remember all you fish out of water: you’re needed for the evolution of the race because, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, “We had better learn to hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”

There are lots of good reasons to listen to audiobooks: They can get us through tasks that don’t require much brain power (exercise or folding laundry), they can allow us to read when our hands and eyes are busy (commuting), or they can provide new literary options for those whose comprehension might be beyond their reading skills (second language learners or younger readers).

Dreamers of the Day CD coverThese are all very well and good, but they really don’t have much to do with a story itself. One of the things I enjoy most about audiobooks is the opportunity to get inside someone else’s head. You could argue that this is the role of literature to begin with (unless you only like reading about people exactly like you!), but audiobooks offer a unique perspective: When I listen to a narrator read the story of a person who’s not like me, their authentic voice cuts through the white baby-boomer female that colors everything I read and allows me to really get that person. It could be an African American Iraq War vet trying to makThe Last Werewolf CD covere it as a P.I, a 14-year boy with impulse issues, an Ohio spinster on the fringes of post-World War I Middle East history, a werewolf with a serious case of ennui, or two people stuck in a very bad marriage.

For a good listen that might step beyond your experiences, try The Cut by George Pelecanos, narrated by Dion Graham; Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford, narrated by Nick Podehl; Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell, narrated by Ann Marie Lee; The Last Werewolf by Ian Duncan, narrated by Robin Sachs, or Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, narrated by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne.

What worlds unlike yours have you explored with the aid of a fine narrator?

cover image of sandra cisneros books

 
Jennifer, a page at Central Library, is reading The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X. "Malcolm X was an interesting and brave person whose message is still relevant."
 

Jan is reading Extreme Medicine: How exploration transformed medicine in the twentieth century and has this to say about it: "Dr. Kevin Fong is one of the most brilliant people I've ever heard speak and brings all this breadth of knowledge to the study of how physical extremes push human limits and spawn medical breakthroughs."

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