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.
This summer I kept finding myself reading fiction about teens and death. There was The Fault in Our Stars of course, which I avoided reading for a long time because-- teenagers! With cancer! But it was really good once I relented, and read it in two tearstained days. I also enjoyed Goldengrove by Francine Prose, about a girl whose sister dies in a boating accident and how she, her parents, and her sister’s boyfriend deal with their grief. The writing in this one is extraordinary, evocative and poetic. And then I read Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, which is kind of a Mean Girls/Groundhog Day mashup. We watch Sam, one of four horrid, popular girls who rule their suburban high school go through a day-- Valentine’s Day-- being so mean to everyone around them that you don’t mind when their car flies off the road that night. And then Sam lives that day again, and again. It's so interesting to watch how things change, how Sam changes, as she lives through that day repeatedly.
What is it with teenagers and death? I wondered.
But the truth is that we're all interested in death. When my kids were really little, they tortured me by playing with the idea of their deaths or mine. Shakespeare’s plays are full of it, the whole mystery genre is built on it, and let’s not even talk about movies, TV or video games. Death is a great big, dramatic mystery, and we’re all interested in it.
If you’d like to plunge into the mystery-- at least in the context of YA books-- here is a list of good ones. Please let me know if there are any you’ve enjoyed that I missed.
This past week, I've woken up a bunch of times throughout the night thinking about all of the stressful things happening in my world. My thoughts keep churning around and around. Will there ever be peace in the Middle East? My mom's heart problems. Why is my car insurance so expensive? Will I ever visit Europe? Oh the anxiety! There are simply periods of my life when I am drowning in it. I don't quite get people who don't get anxious. The world is an anxiety-producing place and the only thing we can do is try to figure out ways to lessen it or to adjust to it. And here's a book that will do just that: My Age of Anxiety by Eric Stossel. Wow.
This book will tell you everything you need to know about anxiety. Stossel, the editor of The Atlantic, has suffered from anxiety and various phobias since an early age. The great thing about this book is that it might make you feel better about your own anxiety; Stossel's description of his own is so outrageous that the chances are good that yours will pale in comparison. I will not soon forget the hilarious but painful tale of his visit to the Kennedy compound that involved a search for a bathroom, a leaking toilet, and a pants-less encounter with John F. Kennedy, Jr. Another plus in reading this is that Stossel really does write about everything you need to know about anxiety. I'm hoping to sleep better in the coming weeks.
Having wanted to visit Havana for a long time, partially out of defiance to America’s travel restrictions and partially because of the culture—plus just a tiny dose of Hemingway significance, I set about making it happen. There are ways for Americans to experience Cuba short of obtaining citizenship elsewhere and one of the easiest legal options is through a people-to-people license. This is essentially, a guided educational tour. Now, I’m not typically a group tour kind of girl, but I also did not want to bother about going through Canada or Mexico. I did not want to worry, or to plan, or really if I’m being honest I don’t even like to think whilst on holiday, but best of three isn’t bad. Group dynamics and challenging personalities aside, I found the tour to be just the thing. It was very informative, as all educational tours should be, and I learned more about the culture than I would have had I wandered around at my leisure snapping photos. But I did take some photographs...would you like to see?
I love a country with a poet immortalized in the revolution square. Of course he did have a hand in planning the Cuban War of Independence, but still. Sure, Che Guevara is there too, along with Camilo Cienfugeos, but have you read anything about or by José Martí ?
Next stop, La Terrazas. This is a tropical oasis (thanks to a government issued reforestation program) a few hours from Havana. It is an eco-village of sorts which sits on the site of the Buenavista coffee plantation ruins. Also on the tour was a place called Fusterland, the home/museum of José Rodríguez Fuster. He has been compared as a cross between Gaudi and Picasso and his home is showplace to the art of mosaics.
Then it was a quick tour of the Colon Cemetery where Hemingway's bartender Constantino Ribalaigua Vert is buried (who it is rumored invented the famous Floridita daiquiri). And who doesn't like a good cemetery? Or a good daiquiri for that matter.
There was an afternoon spent experiencing the culture through the palate...i.e. a coffee, rum, and cigar tasting. Learning can be tough I know, but when in Cuba as they say... I watched the rolling of a cigar, learned how many leaves go into the making of one, and how some came to be named after famous works of literature. (It has been said that workers in cigar factories were some of the most literate as there was a designated reader of classic texts, newspapers, etc. in the factory being broadcast while the workers rolled and cut cigars.)
The agenda included a heavy dose of art, with a performance of opera, ballet, and a graphic arts workshop with a meet and greet of the artists, plus a visit to Hemingway’s home, the Finca Vigia, which has been preserved as if the author just stepped out for a moment...probably on a drinks run to the Floridita.
And because you can’t go to Cuba and not have a night of dancing at the Buena Vista Social Club, I did that too...albeit badly.
What if you could take back all the regrettable things you did or said and their horrible outcomes? Fantasy becomes reality in Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Seconds stars Katie, a 29-year-old chef who is opening a brand new restaurant. Like her predecessor Scott Pilgrim, Katie is a pleasure seeker and acts impulsively and selfishly. She makes so many mistakes, but it doesn't matter because she can redo anything by popping a mushroom. It felt easy for me to forgive her because it felt so relatable. Why do your twenties feel like one long never-ending failure?
I actually read Seconds three times because I couldn't get enough of the art and coloring, the exotic idea of a Canadian winter, house spirits, Hazel’s thrifted outfits, and the hilarious facial expressions. Will Katie ever open her restaurant or is she stuck to repeat the same day? Read Seconds - it’s my favorite graphic novel this year!
Gentle reader, do you harbor a fond regard for Jane Austen? Is there a quiet little corner of your mind that remembers your literature classes fondly? Can you be found watching just about every costume drama that hits the movie theater or television screen? (The occasional water bottle forgotten on set just gives me a good chuckle!). If so, you might enjoy the following series.
I just caught up on Glamourist Histories series by Mary Robinette Kowal. I had ignored the books when they first came out and ended up reading the third book first. I liked it so well I dropped my other reading to go back and catch up on the series.
The first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, introduces Jane, the plain elder daughter of a respectable gentleman. In this world the real reason ladies of good families swoon so very often isn't the too tight corseting, but the strain of casting glamour. Part of a respectable girl's education includes not just the arts a young lady would have learned in the real world but also learning to cast glamour, entertaining her would be suitors and providing a decorative grace, with her illusions, to her family's home.
Jane has a lovely younger sister and, being of a certain age, has become resigned to her fate as a spinster sister. As Jane has always been plain, she has thrown herself into her lessons and is a talented illusionist after years of study and practice with glamour. A nearby family hires a gifted artist, mysterious Mr. Vincent, to decorate their manor home with glamours. The expected misunderstandings occur!
I'm really looking forward to the final book, Of Noble Family, late next spring and will definitely read any other series this author writes. I heard her reading from an upcoming new series this summer and it was intriguing!
Can I interest you in a piece of cake? September is a month of celebrating. So many birthdays! Conway Twitty. Sophia Loren. Upton Sinclair. Me! I'm sure that many of you either have birthdays during the month of September, or know many folks who do. I attribute this to the Christmas and New Year's holidays falling approximately nine months before this most celebratory month ;-). But whatever the reason, September offers opportunites to party at every turn.
However you enjoy celebrating your big day, or the big days of your loved ones, I wish you the best. I'm hoping for a quiet day spent out of town, surrounded by people I love, followed by cake, chocolate please, maybe from the library's new acquisition, Betty Crocker Birthdays. The day of one's birth is a time for rejoicing, no matter what that entails.
Before I go, I would like to remind you of another very important September birthday. Our very own Multnomah County Library turns 150 years young this month! What an honor to be part of such a special birthday! I, and everyone who has a hand in making our libraries the magical places that they are, would like to invite you to attend our 150th jubilee, Saturday, September 27. Take a look at this page and join us for a bash of unrivaled revelry, with fun for all ages. After all, you, dear reader, are part of what makes the Multnomah County library extraordinary! Happy Birthday!
Yep, swuft--if you take that to mean anything that is cool or wonderful or fascinating. Swuft is a catch-all phrase in Seattle author Ivan Doig’s Bartender’s Tale, and it really does describe one of my favorite authors. Doig’s characters are flawed but big-hearted; miners, ranchers, teachers, raconteurs trying to get by in tough times. His settings are always in Montana, perhaps in the early 1900s or the 1960s, and he weaves in a historical event or two into his stories. Doig’s characters' vocabularies are full of “Montanisms” derived from real research. (He’s even involved with a national group studying regionalisms.) ‘Swuft’, by the way, is unusual in that Doig has said his “fingers” made it up. Doig’s own writing style is old-fashioned and full of “fine turns of phrase.” Finally, what I love most about Doig is that despite of some horrendous happenings, his books end on a hopeful note.
If you haven’t read Doig, try starting with the Whistling Season, to see how he intersects the lives of an Eastern Montanan widower, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, and a housekeeper hired on the merits of her ad in the paper. (The ad: “Can’t cook, but doesn’t bite.) If you like that one, try the related novels, Work Song and Sweet Thunder. Another place to start is This House of Sky, Doig’s autobiography of his early years in Montana. If you like Doig’s masterful mix of characters, language, setting and hopefulness, try some of the titles on my list, (Mostly) Western Places, (Mostly) People You’d Like to Know. Those books are all pretty swuft.
Gillian is a British American redhead who is extremely clumsy and forthright. You know where you stand with her! Or that you really shouldn’t stand next to her because you might end up with paint on your ballgown. Whereas Noble, yes his name is Noble, has alas so much emotional baggage as a widow and possible murderer. You may wonder can they find love? Can they be in the same room without someone getting hurt? Read Noble Intentions to find out.
This title is part of the genre Regency romance - novels set during the period of the British Regency early in the 19th century.They are compelling stories that push boundaries. I love the ones that comment on gender inequality and try to right wrongs.
And the wrongs can come packaged in characters who are trying to overcome serious disorders like stuttering or dyslexia. All these details add a flavor which is at odds with the perfect grace that is expected of the aristocrats in these novels.
Witty dialog is a must and most of these racy romances make me laugh out loud.The sexy physical romance between characters seems inevitable, like rain or sunshine. It’s a question of when the sexual activity occurs that creates tension and makes the verbal banter all the more humorous.
It seems that all is not perfect in the Regency world, and that makes for good reading!
Out of the blue Tristan, a young and aimless American, receives notice from a London solicitor's office that he could stand to inherit an unspeakably large fortune that has been left unclaimed for nearly eighty years. He has only to provide evidence that he is the great grandson of one Imogen Soames-Andersson; a name he's never heard before. Oh and Tristan has only two months before the trust expires and the fortune is turned over to charity.
So begins The Steady Running of the Hour, a debut novel by Justin Go that's part historical romance, part pulse-racing scavenger hunt. This is a book for fans of multi-layered historical fiction, whirlwind European travel, genealogy, and mysteries that reveal clues that only lead to more mysteries, until uncovering the story becomes the only thing that matters.
Just be warned that when you are forced to put Go's book down momentarily: to wash dishes, put on pants, or otherwise keep up appearances as a functioning member of society, you too may find yourself walking around in a daydreamy fog, contemplating clues written on brittle letters left behind in isolated Swedish barns.
Agatha Christie was queen of my reading list when I was in junior high school, and when I ran out of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot books, I started consuming other English mysteries of their ilk. It turns out that what I mostly liked was a sub-genre of mystery called "the cozy", and I read truly frightening numbers of them during the summers from the age of 12 until about 18.
Barry Trott notes in Read On…Crime Fiction that "In a cozy mystery, most of the deaths occur offstage, and even when death makes a visit, there is a distinct lack of violence. The same applies to sex…Although the action may be mellow, the characters and the humor in cozies keep the reader entertained and coming back for more." Favorite authors of mine included Dorothy Sayers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine Aird, Elizabeth Daly, Margery Allingham and Robert Barnard. In later years, I discovered and enjoyed M.C. Beaton's Hamish MacBeth books and Rhys Bowen's Constable Evans series.
Mostly these days I prefer British police procedural series with complex characters and relationships that change and develop from book to book; however, the brooding inspectors and their personal problems have been a bit too heavy for me this year, so I was pleased to read a new book in the cozy arena titled Death of a Cozy Writer by G.M. Malliet. It was perfect - it had all of the elements that I love in a good cozy: dysfunctional English families, lots of suspects, murders that were not too graphically described and, best of all, a country house setting!
When the eldest son and heir apparent to the Beauclerk-Fisk family fortune is bumped off in the wine cellar and it looks like the murder is an inside job, family secrets begin rising to the surface and nobody is exempt from suspicion. Will the rest of the family get out alive?
Check out the Cozy Mystery List for more ideas and info about this subgenre. And here's a source for long lists of authors and cozies by theme, courtesy of cozymystery.com.
I am the product of a English teacher/homemaker mom and a history professor dad. Dig deeper into the family dirt and you’ll find coal miners, farmers and engineers. My paternal grandmother even served as a Chief Yeoman in World War I. I have relatives on both sides of the family who have done the genealogy, so I know my familial history back a number of generations. My roots are in England, the Netherlands and the Midwest. It’s no wonder I’m an Anglophile and a Green Bay Packers fan!
The women in The People in the Photo and The Sea House are not so fortunate. They can’t even get a grip on who their mothers were, let alone their grandmothers. In The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern, Parisian archivist Helene Hivert doesn’t know much about her mother except that she died when she was four. For years she didn’t even know how her mother died because nobody would talk about it, and her father would get very upset when Helene asked. Years later as an adult, Helene finds a newspaper clipping with a photo of her mother and two men on a tennis court and decides to find out who those men were. What follows is a series of letters between Helene and Stephane, the son of one of those men. Peeling the layers of family mysteries was fascinating and if I hadn’t had to go to work, I would have finished this novel in a day.
In The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford, Ruth similarly knows little about her mother. Her mother also died when she was young, but not before she had told Ruth stories about her grandmother’s grandmother: She “was a seal woman. She cast off her seal skin, fell in love with a fisherman, had his child and then she left them. Sooner or later, seal people always go back to the sea.” Well Ruth goes back, not to the sea, but to an island in the Outer Hebrides where her mother said she had grown up and buys a house, and soon she is deep in investigating secrets involving a dead child who just might have some Selkie (seal people) blood in her. I loved the way the book shuttled back and forth between the 1860s occupant’s story and that of Ruth, the present day owner. I definitely want to get to the Hebrides one day, even though, as far as I know, I have no Selkies in my ancestral pool.
If you love books about family secrets, you’ll enjoy these two titles.
I've read a lot of novels set in Europe during World War II. Hasn't every reader of historical fiction? It's the just war—the only war in recent memory where there was a clear line between the good and the bad guys, which makes it very useful for literature. But of course, it's not really that simple. Recently I read Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, and it gave a thoughtful and moving look at what it would have been like to be on the wrong side of that war.
We meet Werner as a young orphan in a bleak mining town in Germany. Germany is already turning into a war machine, one fueled by the coal mines that Werner and all the boys in the orphanage are going to be sent down into when they get old enough. But Werner is a bit of a prodigy. He has the ability to fix radios everyone else has given up on, and when his talent catches the right person's attention, he's given a chance to escape from the mines. He takes this chance, getting a place at a national school that, with the use of shocking brutality, is molding the future leadership of the Third Reich.
Marie-Laure is a blind girl living in Paris with her father. She's a great character, extraordinarily brave, and indeed, she needs to be brave as she flees Paris, loses her father, and gets involved with the French Resistance.
The narrative alternates between these two characters and they do not meet until very close to the end of both the war and the book. The writing is lovely, and the book is full of interesting and well-developed characters.
Sometimes I look around at the books in the library where I work and despair-- the whole world of literature is darkness, except for those books I've inhabited for a while and made my own, and there are so many I'll never get to. If you enjoy fiction set during World War II, this list contains other good books that you may not want to leave in the dark.
I have vivid memories of rummaging about in my mom’s stockings drawer when I was a kid and finding two books - one was on boys' development (my brother was in his difficult puberty years) and the other was Margaret Mead’s, Coming of Age in Samoa. I didn’t quite understand why my mom had hidden this book away and it didn’t look enticing enough to read so I left it and spent a lot of time reading about how boys develop. I wish now I had read a bit of Coming of Age in Samoa to see just how ahead of its time it was.
My memory of finding Margaret Mead’s groundbreaking book came back to me as I was reading Lily King’s latest book, Euphoria. Euphoria takes as its starting point an event in the life of Margaret Mead and spins off into a tale that takes you into the world of anthropologists exploring the world of New Guinea in the 1930's. It’s the story of three anthropologists: Nell Stone, modeled after Margaret Mead, her husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson, a troubled, suicidal man who is saved by his relationship with Nell and Fen. It’s a tale of passion, imagination, memory. It makes you think about how objective any of us can be when viewing the world. And you'll be blown away by the amazing writing:
Do you have a favorite part of all this? she asked. . .
It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on this place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion--you’ve only been there eight weeks--and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.
Bloody hell. I laughed.
You don’t get that?
Christ, no. A good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.
If you’re looking for a book filled with wonderful imagery, a fascinating story, an exotic setting, and interesting characters, then Euphoria’s a book for you.
If you are enamoured at all with the Lost Generation era, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles may just be the next read that recreates that initial flutter. It's not technically Lost Generation, but the feel is much the same. The setting is the tail end of the roaring 30s in New York City. It is the leftover last hurrah of the long party, which was the 20s, with the Great Depression still lingering. It is a sophisticated novel, which captures the romance of the time while never letting the reader forget the gritty underbelly. Mr. Towles manages to write convincingly from a woman’s perspective and has created quite the character in Katey Kontent. Katey is a witty and independent young woman making her way in the world when she meets Tinker Grey, who may as well be Jay Gatsby himself with his rags to riches story and suave debonair manner. This novel has many elements to enjoy. It has interesting, admirable, flawed, yet relatable characters, a plot that keeps you turning pages because of the subtle twists in the story, a setting in a major metropolis at a memorable time in history, and language that is simply exquisite with its rich and unique turns of phrases like “slurring is the cursive of speech." There is unrequited love, loss and gain of fortune, clever quips, and a cinematic atmosphere. So relax. Sit back with a drink and loll the passages over with your tongue. This is one unpredictable journey.
Today I made a discovery. I still enjoy reading old fashioned stories about the Old West.
Some people call it pulp fiction, but for me it brings with it memories of spending hot summer afternoons lying on the old metal bunk in my grandfather’s office in Eastern Washington, reading Zane Grey’s Western magazine and paperback westerns by Louis Lamour.
Well I’m more sophisticated now. I read Swedish mysteries by Henning Mankell and Pulitzer Prize winners like The Goldfinch and Olive Kitterige. But something inside me still loves those stories about strong silent cowboys and rugged, bold spirited American Indians who feel much but say little; times when everything seemed black and white simple. So when I saw The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, my hand was already picking it up before I knew what I was doing. From the first story "Trail of the Apache" which takes place in Arizona in the 1880s, I was hooked again. The tough realism of his later suspense and crime novels is there as well as a dispassionate awareness that makes the characters- native or white stand out from their stereotypes.
If you are looking for a good read for a long afternoon, give it a try.
It’s wonderfully original and highly compelling. I generally read only the first book in a series (as my mission is to help you all find great reads, I choose reading widely over reading deeply) — however, I’m so attached to the main character that I will be dropping everything when Ancillary Sword is published next month.
Breq was once a spaceship, and a soldier, and a thousand other parts of a vast artificial intelligence that existed for hundreds of years. Now Breq is just one heartbroken cyborg, bent on vengeance against the ruler of the culture that created him. If you are familiar with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-inspired song "Marvin, I Love You" (You Tube), then you have an inkling of how I feel about Breq.
Looking for more good space opera? Check out my list.
Technically Street Literature began with classics like David Copperfield and Maggie: a Girl of the Streets and the genre continued through other canonical writers like Jack London, Henry Miller, Ralph Ellison, and William Burroughs. However, the Renaissance of Street Literature is the most obscured part of its history.
During the Mid-20th century, the Pulp Fiction racks were a place to by-pass the censors and tell stories outside of regressive cultural mores. Here, Street Literature thrived along with Queer fiction and other genres that were deemed obscene and low-brow. Among the languishing writers of Pulp, was a man named Robert Beck; better known as Iceberg Slim.
Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp recounts his life in detail (so I will not here). Instead, I want to highlight Slim’s most surprising and underrated work Mama Black Widow, which recounts a poor sharecropping family’s move to Chicago and descent into the madness of the streets.
Addiction, violence, prostitutes, pimps, pool hustlers, dope peddlers, crooked preachers and cops, numbers, extortion, and manipulation spin around the black widow. Drag Queen Otis (aka Sally/Tilly) relays her story with vivid detail and haunting emotion as she tries to break free from her mama’s sinister web and survive the violence waiting beyond. Tragic, graphic, and years ahead of its time, Mama Black Widow is not for the faint of heart.