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.
There’s a theory I subscribe to that no matter what our chronological age might be, we all feel a different age inside. As in, our bodies grow, we mature in different ways, but mentally, we all feel stuck at some earlier age. For instance, I am mentally a 17-year-old girl who doesn't quite fit in anywhere yet.
I was thinking about this recently after reading an article in Slate Magazine entitled, Against YA by Ruth Graham. The gist of her essay is that teen fiction is written for teens and adults “should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”
There are several things I’d like to say to Ms. Graham. Here goes. . .
First of all, it’s sometimes a marketing/publishing decision as to what gets published as a young adult book. Take The Book Thief. Please, please take it. It's a brilliant book that should be read by everyone! In Australia where Markus Zusak hales from, you’ll find it in the adult section. But here in the U.S., it sits in the young adult section because his previous book was put out as teen fiction in the U.S. Arbitrary? Indeed.
And then I think back to my growing-up years. Once I reached a certain age, definitely when I was still in middle school and high school, I started reading “adult” books. These were books with younger protagonists that certainly were appealing to teens but they also were well-written novels that adults enjoy. Books like My Name is Asher Lev and To Kill a Mockingbird. The chances are that if these books were published today, they would be cataloged as “young adult” fiction and think how many adults would miss out on them?!
That brings me to today and my reading tastes. Sometimes I read young adult books and I enjoy them because I can totally remember what it was like to be that teen (Fangirl, I’m talking to you). I relate to the characters because I’m still a 17-year-old misfit inside. Other times, I enjoy a teen book because it tells a really good story (A Brief History of Montmaray fits the bill).
I hereby proclaim, I am not embarrassed to read young adult literature and you shouldn't be either! Here are a few more titles that you too can be proud to read.
How I love a good Western -- no, make that a small-w western -- one that rides right down the middle of the road. I'm not into books that stumble too far into Louis L'Amour territory or ones that lean towards romance. All I need is an underdog with a cause and no-good varmint who needs to be brought to justice, or have justice brought to him (yeah, it's usually a him.) Though a lot of Westerns are historical, I also like those that are more contemporary too - after all, people didn't stop writing westerns at the turn of the 20th century.
As I've mentioned before, True Grit is one of my all time favorites, featuring a girl who is not to be messed with. Most recently I enjoyed an twist on that story. Robert Lautner's main character in Road to Reckoning is Thomas, an introspective kid who loves books and has no business being on the road with his father, a salesman preaching the wonders of a new-fangled gun, the Colt revolver. When things go badly wrong, Thomas is reluctantly rescued by Henry Stands, a mercurial bounty hunter who has no desire to be saddled with a kid. Yep, there sure are a lot of parallels with True Grit, and that makes this book all the more enjoyable.
The theme of green-horn intellectual thrown into a wild and dangerous wilderness shows up in another favorite, Leif Enger's So Brave, Young, and Handsome. The story centers on a writer who has made a name for himself in the penny Western craze - think a fictional Louis L'Amour. But now he has writer's block and just when it seems he'll never write again, an elderly stranger comes to town, one whose criminal past is catching up with him. Together they go on an adventure that promises to save them both.
One reviewer calls the West portrayed in these books "regrettably familiar". And it's true that these stories sometimes rely on stereotypes - a kind of short form that links directly to our imaginations. It's that reliance on the archetype that makes them good. After all, what else is a western than the age-old story of a fall from grace, and an effort to reach a more perfect world? For a few more small-w westerns that range from heart-warming to terrifying, take a look at my list. Happy trails.
I found Dan Simmons' The Terror positively ripping, a great big adventure story filled with interesting characters-- men of the sea testing themselves against the many, many things the Arctic throws at them. Then it changed, and it started to remind me of a book I read once about the Donner party. And then it changed again and became something unexpected and unusual, and I don't want to talk about that too much and spoil it for you.
The Terror is based on the real expedition of Sir John Franklin and his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, which in the 1840s disappeared in the Arctic on a doomed search for the Northwest Passage. There's not much sailing in The Terror, as a the ships get frozen into the ice pretty early on and stay there, the result of several exceptionally cold winters. Things start out pretty bad-- Franklin, the commander of the expedition, is something of a fool who fails to respect the Arctic as he should, the canned food is tainted and spoiling, there are no animals to be found by the hunters, crewmen are coming down with scurvy, and it’s unbelievably cold-- like -50 degrees Fahrenheit cold. The ship is crowded and the darkness is constant. And then things get worse. Something-- an enormous polar bear?-- is stalking the crew. And the ships, frozen in the ice for years, are starting to crack up under the pressure.
This is not for the faint of heart-- it’s almost a thousand pages long (or 22 CDs), and contains vast amounts of research about nineteenth century ships, polar ice, the early days of canned food, Inuit mythology, and more. But while I can’t believe that human beings actually signed up for these expeditions, I just loved the time I spent in the world of this book. The writing is good, the plot is thrilling, and it’s so compelling that I couldn’t stop listening. Oh, and if you are considering listening to the audiobook, as I did, you should know that the voice actor is excellent, as well, with a plummy English accent and great ability to express characters of different ages, classes and dispositions.
This list will provide you with even more opportunities to head into the cold during the hot summer days that will be coming back soon.
Music fans! FANS with a capital F, you know your own history in relation to your favorite music or band, right? Wouldn’t you love to look at an illustrated timeline of that relationship? I would. The other day as I was listening to Queen on the way to work and it made me reminisce about my own relationship with the band and the book Freddie and Me: A Coming-of-age (Bohemian) Rhapsody. It tells the story in graphic novel form of Mike Dawson’s love of Queen and how their music intertwined with his life. There is a beautiful timeline of Mike Dawson’s life in connection with the albums of Queen in his comic book memoir! The timeline is a two page spread with family photos and covers of Queen albums. I can remember album covers of my favorite bands with certain snapshots of my life. Mike Dawson did this in a really thoughtful way.
I love that he made this memoir in a loving tribute to his life and his favorite band. It is such a thoughtful book. I think it is time to pick it up again. And if you haven’t had the chance to read a comic book memoir here’s a list to get you started.
It’s been a rough few years personally: divorce, grad school, auto theft, dog death, ancient cat pissing indiscriminately throughout the house. I may be tough, but sometimes enough is enough. Give a girl a break already. Times like these make me contemplate running away. Before I chuck it all in and move to an undisclosed location, I thought I’d make a list. Why? Because lists soothe my virgo soul. Also list making is legal. And free. I shall call it my escapist list for hard times. On it will be absorbing things that don’t make me think too much, books that make me laugh out loud on public transport, hilariously ridiculous films, and music that puts a smile on my face and makes me move and groove involuntary of my mood (or talent).
There, you see, that’s better. Things are looking up already.
Can you guess what was the first Western television series to air on Soviet Television? Here’s a hint: it was also the first series to air on HBO - still stumped? Fraggle Rock starring Jim Henson's Muppets. Yes, before The Sopranos, before the Game of Thrones, there was Fraggle Rock.
In Jim Henson, a biography, by Brian Jay Jones, we see how Jim was born into a big family where holidays and birthday gatherings were marked by laughter and stories of growing up. His creativity and ideas were encouraged by his family- especially by his Grandma Dear. But he knew from the time he was a young man he knew he wanted to work in television. He mourned the fact that television’s great potential was was used to sell products and to dull minds. It was important to him that television be used
to educate and excite people- adults as well as children. Jim had that type of single- mindedness that showed him what to do, and the tireless creativity to do it.
Hence his creations- muppet and otherwise, reach out to us like real living breathing people. He also had that rare gift of attracting innovative and inventive artists like himself and giving them the power and opportunity as well, to be experiment, to dream, to create.
If Jim Henson were still alive now what would he be doing? Something tells me that he wouldn’t be putting the muppets on Survivor unless it was to show how they could all live on a desert island together. But best of all we would still be experiencing the fresh creativity of a man who was able to achieve what no amount of political diplomacy has achieved before or since-stimulating our minds by touching our hearts with laughter and song and love. As it is, he left us with a unique legacy. One that his favorite invention allows us to still enjoy. As Uncle Matt says in Fraggle Rock: "The magic is always there."
Going my way?
Hitchhiking is the blind dating of the highway. Strangers meet based on mutual intrigue and spend a brief period getting to know each other. Much like a date, chemistry, perceived sanity, and direction each is headed determines how long the relationship will last. However, stranger danger looms. Most drivers pass up the chance to court the unknown ride seeker, leaving both parties to wonder what if...
Armed with scraps of cardboard scrawled with fading sharpie, film director John Waters set out from his Baltimore home thumbing his way to San Francisco. Told in three parts, Carsick imagines the best and worst possibilities, and the true tale of his trip. In classic Waters’ fashion the absurd blends with everyday reality. Alien tentacles, serial killers, old friends, and poor hotel lighting become fodder for an engrossing road trip. Oozing with pop culture references of the cult variety, the trip also serves as a vehicle for memoir-esque moments of clarity amidst the search for a lift.
Carsick is a fun adventure with one of America’s camp treasures. Take a look inside. You'll be glad you picked him up.
Whether or not you’ve ever been to Italy there are inevitable mental images that are sure to manifest. The sumptuous food, the iconic history and architecture, the picturesque landscapes manicured with vineyards and olive groves, the eccentric personalities of each major region, the famous post WWII films and the familiar stars birthed by them, or the operatic display of the tumultuous national calcio team, the Azzurri. These are the usual hallowed foundations conjured by La Bella Figura. Right now I could throw a rock out the window and hit a travel guide to Italy or a remaindered copy of Under the Tuscan Sun, but there are other dubious treasures to be had from the peninsula too...and there may be dragons.
Lesser known perhaps are the numerous fiction contributions to world literature by Italian authors, or at least translated modern works (no disrespect to Dante or Boccaccio, two entirely different blog entries). Older Gothic successes emerged from European authors writing about their dreams or experiences traveling to Italy, such as Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, or Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. This gave way to more poetry, drama, and novels in the first half of the twentieth century from famous scribes like Pirandello, Grazia Deledda, and Carlo Vittorio.
The creative boom came post-WWII with the scattered viewpoints of many authors, resulting from the constant struggle between their fierce nationalist loyalty and Mussolini’s fascist, oppressive policies. Writers such as the husband-wife team of Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante, Italo Calvino, Ignazio Silone, and Curzio Malaparte wrote smoldering novels of their experiences living through such a polarizing period. These important works paralleled the cinematic, neo-realist purge of post-war emotions from directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rossellini, and Fellini.
More modern contributions have included an explosion of genre fiction including the crime/noir creations of Massimo Carlotto, Andrea Camilleri, and Gianrico Carofiglio, comics from Lorenzo Mattotti and Tiziano Sclavi’s Dylan Dog, plus the unique originality of the fantasy and horror tales of Dino Buzzati, Iginio Tarchetti, and our own Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. If you have ever desired to explore the bountiful fiction created from Italian writers, try this book list featuring an extensive range of styles and voices from the boot of hypnotic magnificence. Buona lettura!
It's summer and time for a little light reading! (At least that's what I told myself when I read the 21st Stephanie Plum book. Upon hearing me snicker repeatedly while reading, my husband said "You're reading that series with the ditsy bounty hunter and the dueling romances again aren't you?" "Yes! Yes I am!") There's also a bit of fluffy fun to be found in urban fantasy (although with fewer dueling romances), so here are a couple of light suggestions from new series in that subgenre.
I was considering the second book in a sort of OK series and in the back of the book was a sample chapter for Charming by Elliott James. "Chapter One" it read "A Blonde and a Vampire Walk into a Bar...". I was sold right there. John Charming is part of a long family line under a geas to keep the Pax Arcana. Any supernatural being that breaks the peace and risks exposure is slaughtered without mercy. John isn't fully human: at the end of her pregnancy his mother was bitten by a werewolf so he was never completely trusted and, in the end, he had to flee. I knew it probably wasn't going to be the classiest book ever (and it wasn't) but that the author knew his audience and had a sense of humor (occasionally pretty juvenile). I've got book two, Daring, on hold as I write this.
Mur Lafferty has two books out in a series about an out of work travel editor who finds a new position writing travel guides for the supernatural community. In The Shambling Guide to New York City, Zoe Norris has moved to New York City after things fell apart in her former home. She finds work with Underground Publishing as the only human employee and in the process of telling the story, the reader sees excerpts of her guidebook for the supernatural. Book two takes the reader on the Ghost Train to New Orleans where Zoe learns more about her newly supernatural world.
2014 is notable for at least two anniversaries: World War I began 100 years ago and the last of the Baby Boomers turn fifty. That means there are a whole lotta women going through the change right now. Sandra Tsing Loh and Annabelle Gurwitch both live in California, both are in the performing arts, both turned 50 about the same time, both went through menopause at the same time their children were going through puberty, and both have at least one aging parent who needs help. And now, both have written about the whole sad, sorry and sometimes unexpectedly humorous experience in books published in guess what year - 2014!
Raising my son, Elan, has been a truly educational experience (also fun, scary, hard, or easy depending on what stage he and I happened to be in at the time). In some ways, he has qualities that remind me of myself and there are other parts that seem directly attributable to his dad. And then there are other things that are totally and uniquely his. One of those is his love of performing and specifically making hip hop music. I am simply in awe of Elan - he has been able to "work a crowd" since he was in middle school and his live performances have only become more and more inspiring over the years.
I’ve been asked to find books on hip-hop for numerous patrons so I decided to have a list of the best books on this subject ready for the next time I’m asked. I thought Elan would be my best source for coming up with a definitive list from the MCL catalog and in the course of formulating his list, he also wrote a brief essay on how he developed his love for hip-hop music.
Guest blogger Elan: From casual listener to hip-hop addict
When I first began listening to hip-hop at around eight, my drive may have been to distance myself from my parents’ music: The Beatles, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, etc. My classmates were discovering that the radio contained a station that played exactly what they wanted - the mainstream rap of the late 90s. These were good days.
It cannot be understated how much of an effect our peers truly have during adolescence. Three of my friends were making the leap from listener to participant and between rapping, beat making, and DJing, they had half the elements of hip-hop covered by sixth grade. A pivotal album was heard that year, Blazing Arrow, by the duo Blackalicious. We were blown away by the originality, the musicality of Chief Excel's production, Gift of Gab's insane lyrical dexterity, and the cohesiveness of the album itself. After only a single listen, we knew that contributing to this art form would be a life-long love affair.
In high school, making music became our escape from the mundane curriculum we were subjected to. It became my only creative outlet as we began putting on local shows for our peers. Although I was actively seeking out new artists to enjoy and learn from, my hip-hop education came from Vursatyl and Rev. Shines of the Portland hip-hop trio, The Lifesavas. Vursatyl and Shines held an afterschool class at Jefferson High School called You Must Learn. That's when I began studying the rich history of this culture. Books like Jeff Chang’s, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, and the writings of Michael Eric Dyson and Tricia Rose, helped me realize how BIG this thing we call Hip-Hop truly is.
These days I’m still making music, still reading, still putting on local shows, and I’m harnessing hip-hop as a tool for education and empowerment through my work with the non-profit, The Morpheus Youth Project.
If you’d like to do your own exploration of hip-hop culture, check out some of these books.
Two of the books I’ve read this year involve travel by unusual vehicles.
In the thoughtful The Man with the Compound Eyes Atile'i lives on the imaginary and fastastical island of Wayo Wayo, where second sons are exiled into the sea, never to return, and probably to die. Atile'i washes up on a floating island of garbage — the non-imaginary Great Pacific Garbage Patch, rendered fantastically stable enough to support a young man. He has no words for the things that carry him — he has never seen a plastic bag, or a plastic toy, or a plastic anything. The gyre carries him to Taiwan, to an eroding coast and a woman who cannot accept several of the cornerstones of her reality, including the fact that her house is falling into the sea.
In the much poppier Shovel Ready our hero Spademan is a hitman. Generally his hits are simple, because in his world most of the people spend their lives in wired sarcophagi, their consciousness moving through a sophisticated virtual reality (the ‘limnosphere’) while their bodies lie fallow. Spademan eschews this escape, living in the concrete world made miserable by a series of dirty bombs. However, before the book is over he has to travel into the limnosphere himself — and finds it has miseries of its own.
Check out some other books with unique modes of travel in the list My other car is a….
As a child, my favorite toy and tireless trivia companion was a robot named 2-XL. Ok, he was actually an 8-track player, shaped like a robot and designed by the Mego Toy Corporation to ask trivia and then offer up scripted retorts based upon my answer. We spent many rainy afternoons testing my knowledge of Babe Ruth’s batting average and who exactly is buried in Grant’s Tomb. You know, the kind of thing all third graders ought to know.
I still love trivia, but nowadays I discover it in reading, rather than memorizing 8-track recordings. There are some books brimming with so many fascinating facts, I have to put them down momentarily to share. In 2-XL's absence, my husband provides a patient ear but what these books really ought to have is their very own trivia night dedicated to them.
Does a ‘mouche’ worn on a man's left cheek in 1790s England reflect his political leanings as a Whig or a Tory?
When filming Sometimes a Great Notion on the Oregon Coast, which local beer did Paul Newman consider to be 'the closest substitute' for his beloved Coors?
Can you name the feather-friendly fashion designer who created the original costumes for the ongoing Las Vegas review 'Jubilee!'?
Already know the correct answers?
To quote my old pal 2-XL: "It is amazing that big brain of yours fits into the head of a child. Nice answer.”
Discover the answers to these trivia questions and more with books on this list.
After checking out more cookbooks than any one can realistically get through, I’ve acquired a fair number of repeatable recipes. I wanted to share these finds in the event that you too have gotten bored of your usual go-to’s. These cookbooks have more to offer than just one recipe, but here’s what lured me into the kitchen:
Korean-inspired Dumplings from L.A. Son by Roy Choi: Well-seasoned (garlic, ginger, scallions, and hot pepper powder), and meaty (tofu, beef, and pork), these pot stickers taste revelatory. Double the recipe and freeze some for later!
Roast Chicken with Caramelized Shallots and Fingerling Potatoes from 150 Things to Make With Roast Chicken, and 50 Ways to Roast It by Tony Rosenfeld: There are so few ingredients and so much flavor packed in this recipe. I love that you get a main entree and a side dish all in one.
Kidney Bean Masala from The Great Vegan Bean Book by Kathy Hester: In this recipe, boring ole kidney beans get transformed into a delicious garlicky, gingery curry.
Chandra Malai Kofta from Isa Does It by Isa Moskowitz: Crispy zucchini-chickpea patties are added to a creamy curry sauce. Even if you didn’t want to go through the trouble of making kofta, make the sauce and add roasted cauliflower. Just do it.
Mushroom Lasagna from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison: When I need a shake-up from macaroni and cheese, I have to make this white sauce lasagna. No boil lasagna noodles never got so fancy.
Stay tuned for my next installment toward the end of the year. I’ll lug more cookbooks home and try them out so you don’t have to!
I'm a library geek, so of course I was disappointed when someone in the press asked Michelle Obama if she and Barack still read to Sasha and Malia at bedtime, and she replied, “No-- the girls are old enough to read their own books themselves now." The Obama girls were about 8 and 11 at the time. I know that the President and his wife are very busy, and they seem to be pretty wonderful parents, but I was still a little sad.
Working in the library, I am often asked to help parents find books to start with when their children are ready to begin listening to chapter books. And don't get me wrong, I'm very enthusiastic about Charlotte's Web and The Boxcar Children. But I'm always especially excited to get a question about read-alouds for older children, kids who are at least 8 or 9 years old. Reading to older kids is a great way to keep your bond with them strong, and it's so much fun! They get the jokes. They're more able to feel compassion for the characters, to follow an intricate plot, to feel surprised by what happens, more likely to be moved and delighted by a story in the same exact way that you are, which is such a pleasure.
I basically decided to have children so that I could read to them, and reading books together has been a deep and sustained joy, just as good as I imagined it would be. My younger child, who is 10, still lets me read to him if I find something that grabs him right from the start. I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately the Milk to him just last night. This rollicking little book features the following: a brilliant, time-traveling scientist who is also a stegosaurus; pirates, vampires, a volcano, snotlike green aliens with a penchant for redecorating new planets, and two innocent children who are in desperate need of something to pour over their cereal at breakfast. At one point, we were laughing so hard that if we’d been drinking milk, it would have squirted out our nostrils. We laughed so hard that we cried. I couldn’t read the next line until we settled down after a full five minutes of helpless laughter-- at which point, we started all over again. When I thought of it this morning, I started laughing out loud in the shower.
It won't last forever, but reading books at bedtime has been a wonderful thing to share with my kids. Here’s a list of great read-alouds for you to enjoy with the not-so-little children in your life.
A dark and stormy night. A toppled lamp with an outstretched hand lying on the floor by its base. A knock on the door when you are least expecting it. All of these elements can add to a great thriller. I have been reading thrillers for more years than I care to count. I devour them. I do branch out and read other types of books, but I am always drawn back to the thriller. As it says in my My Librarian profile, I like it when bad things happen, but I prefer them to stay on the page. Sometimes I wonder, why is that?
Perhaps spending my childhood reading through every Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden mystery sparked my interest. Aside from a brief foray into science fiction and vampire lit (a requirement for every teen, I've come to believe), I stuck with suspense. As I got older, the books only got darker, more intriguing, and, yes, sometimes a bit violent. I'm a pretty perky person by nature, and sometimes folks are surprised to hear that I most enjoy reading about terrible things happening to people. I just figure that I get to relieve all of my dark tendencies on the pages of my books, and that leaves room in my heart and my head to enjoy the life that surrounds me!
If you've never given thrillers a chance, might I be tempted to persuade you? If you like to become attached to a character, you are not alone. Series thrillers are abundant, and allow you, dear reader, to become involved with the often colorful cast of characters. Seeing as it is summertime, why not start a new series, preferably read by flashlight in your backyard tent late at night.
This last Saturday I went to the Portland Zine Symposium at the Ambridge Event Center. I get so excited attending this event every year. Going to the Zine Symposium has me thinking about zines again. This is where I wish I could read everything. Now that would be a superpower. Reading and absorbing what you are reading at the speed of light!
I digress. What is a zine you might ask? A zine is an independent publication or, as a 6th grader told me, it’s a “homemade magazine.” Want to read something different? Something perhaps cutting edge? Off the grid? Zine authors are the voices that typically aren’t heard in the mainstream press. We have a large collection of zines you can find at Holgate, Belmont, North Portland and Central Library. There are zines about food, religion, politics, health, pets, comics and really just about everything. I made a list of some basic zines for you. Check them out. And let me know if you find out a way to get that reading superpower, okay?