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.

I don't actively look for vampire books. Or zombie books. (The only undead I like are skeletons.) That said, some horrific stories are so darned good that I have to like them despite my prejudice. The novella     I Am Legend and the book World War Z were of that calibre. Old-fashioned horror like Frankenstein is just plain fascinating. And so is Rick Yancey's tetralogy that begins with The Monstrumologist.
 
The Monstrumologist book jacketThe story begins with old folios and copious notes written by someone who appears to have lived an unusually long life. They chronicle Will Henry's days as an apprentice to a 'monstrumologist', a professional scientist who pursues and studies monsters. His new master, Pellinore Warthrop, is arrogant and mercurial, brilliant and generally uninterested in humanity. He's larger than life, yet he soon comes to find his young ward 'indispensable'.
 
These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed. But he is dead now and has been for nearly ninety years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets. The one who saved me . . . and the one who cursed me. 
 
Orphaned Will Henry (never just 'Will') is taken in by this unlikely mentor and soon finds himself tested, body, mind and soul. How much horror can he endure and still remain himself? And can he avoid the fate of his father, Warthrop's assistant before him, who met... an untimely demise?
 
The writing feels like classic horror; the reader wanders street, crypt and drawing room in a Lovecraftian New England and then much further afield in the later books.  It's absolutely accessible to teens (my 16-year old loves them), but I recommend this most often for people who like Dracula rather than Twilight
 
The books are The Monstrumologist, The Curse of the Wendigo, The Isle of Blood and The Final Descent. Now that the last one is out, get them all. This Dark Endeavor book jacketFreeze your holds until they're all ready. Set aside a weekend, pull the shades, and read by candlelight for maximum shivers. And then thank me or shake your fist and vow vengeance.
 
For other deliciously eerie fun (that involves beginning a career dabbling with dark forces) I also recommend Kenneth Oppel's series-in-progress featuring the apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. Start with This Dark Endeavour.

Triple Package book jacketSome of the publicity I’d read about The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld made me wonder if it would be like The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which aimed to prove that there is a racial difference in intelligence. The Triple Package is not a book about racial differences, but about cultural similarities. The Triple Package is a narrative about ethnic and religious minorities in America meant to explain what three factors make them successful. The traits are: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control (or self-discipline). These are characteristics that any individual can possess and aren’t exclusive to any race, ethnicity, or culture.

As a reader, I felt drawn to the stories shared about the immigrant experience and the complicated relationships immigrant parents have with their children. I thought some of the anecdotes felt true to my experience and I could imagine seeing myself and people I knew in these stories. I could also think of other figures and books I admire and imagine how their stories could fit within this schema. Before they were cited, Jhumpa Lahiri's work and Sonia Sotomayor, both popped into my head as “Triple Package” examples.

Although I found issues with The Triple Package, I found it to be a quick and straightforward read. The Triple Package addresses an incredibly controversial subject and raised many questions for me. I recommend this book for anyone who loves reading statistics and scientific studies. I especially recommend this book for those who are interested in pondering the meaning of the American Dream and America’s comeback in a recovering economy.

‘Tis a good thing that I canceled my Spring Break trip to Crimea because, whether hosting the Olympics amid conflict over human rights, racing to police Pussy Riot's random protests, or facing the tense scrutiny in the fight for Crimean annexation, Russia hasn't been this magnified since Reagan and Gorbachev sat through numerous photo-ops pretending to like each other. With all the negativity surrounding this great kingdom as of late, I was reminded of my first memorable images and introduction to Russian culture...skewed as it may have been. 

For someone whose formative years were sculpted in the late '70's through the 1980's, the image of Russia, other than my grandmother reading me sinister Baba Yaga tales, was discovered mainly through the synaptic helmet that was the burgeoning American media scene.  Initially, it was James Bond films, Robin Williams's discovery of true freedom in Moscow on the Hudson, or Yakov Smirnoff's anti-Cold War comic "therapy."  

Suddenly, the image became more ominous, a threat to the milk and honey U.S. zeitgeist. It was always "Us vs. Them," through the simplest, primordial lens of good vs. evil and everything was securely color-related. Anything referenced to Soviet life or Cold War politics was unscrupulously "red," moreso than any of the malingering effects of the McCarthy "Red Menace" years, and it seeped into American culture via John LeCarre and Tom Clancy books or the Hollywood films Red Dawn, Red Heat, and WarGames. You had  to choose or risk becoming ostracized: Yanks or Commies. Wolverines vs. Russkies. MI6 vs. KGB. Rocky vs. Drago.  

Once in high school, it was my trusty English teacher who introduced me to the more respectable literary and cinematic windows of Mother Russia. Not only did I devour classic films and books such as Ivan the Terrible  or every single frame available on Rasputin, but I learned that Russia had so much more to offer than Dr. Zhivago, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. Sure, I read the assigned Crime and Punishment  and Fathers and Sons, and I connected with Dostoyevsky while my classmates groaned, yet through college I learned that not all Russian literature was depression, oppression, and long brutal winters. There, slumbering comedic enlightenment came in the guise of The Master and Margarita, Gogol, and Viktor Pelevin with characters, stories, and political musings that I never knew existed outside of the omniscient, censoring hand of the Iron Editors (I assume in red  pen, naturally).  

The Russian legacy continues to innovate and astound into the 21st century as well, with genre fiction such as Sergei Lukyanenko's pseudo-Angelic Watch  series or stories from the hilarious pen of ex-pat Gary Shteyngart. Whatever your personal desires in Russian literature or culture, they can all be accommodated down at your local library should you seek more than blizzards, "If I Were A Rich Man," or the former governor of California's Oscar-snubbed role as a KGB agent. For in this expansive landscape of history and determination, Behemoth is not just a subversive, vodka-swilling black feline but a rich, thunderous bibliography of a resilient nation. Pazhalsta!

Photo of Asmat people in dug out canoesIt turns out that headhunting isn’t such a simple barbaric act as one would think.  It’s strategic, spiritual and essential to maintain the equilibrium of the universe. At least it was for the Asmat of New Guinea when they encountered Michael Rockefeller swimming towards shore on the morning of November 20, 1961.

Michael Rockefeller was living his dream, collecting primitive art for his father’s new museum, when his makeshift catamaran capsized and he vanished off the coast of New Guinea. After a search-and-rescue effort came up empty handed, it was determined that Michael Rockefeller drowned before reaching shore that fateful day.

Savage Harvest: A Tale Of Cannibals, Colonialism, And Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest For Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman presents a very different story. Balanced and exhaustively researched, Hoffman pieces together a picture of a divided island with a tense colonial history, a fierce cannibalistic warrior society stripped powerless by outsiders, and a privileged young man, unaccustomed to confronting barriers, and so passionate in his pursuit of art, that he cannot recognize the real danger he is in.Photo of book jacket: Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman

While perhaps not for the faint of heart, I found Savage Harvest to be a fascinating, one of a kind read for armchair anthropologists such as myself. It’s also the ultimate real-life whodunit for mystery fans. Books like this perfectly exemplify why I love reading non-fiction; stories like this simply can not be made up! 

If after finishing Savage Harvest, you find you can't easily let go of this story, check out items on this list to explore different aspects of the Rockefeller disappearance.

As much as I love to cook, love to shop for ingredients, love to put a tasty meal together, sometimes I am a bit confused. And the nutritional labels on cans and packages? Forget about it. The print is small and often I am too hungry or tired to care. Sometimes I give up all together. Isn’t it easier to just go out to eat? Or throw some frozen thing in the microwave? If only I had the time to figure it all out.

Luckily for me and other confused eaters, the authors of Eat This Not That by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding have more than figured it out. They have written a series of books that are so simple and easy to use that you could easily take one along with you to the grocery store to help you make the right choices about what to feed yourself and your family. Plainly put: the left side shows what you should eat, the right side shows what you shouldn’t eat. There are bullet points that give you tasty tidbits about nutrition and eating right.  Each volume in the series also has a section of straightforward delicious recipes and menus. The books themselves are small enough to fit into your coat pocket or purse or to lend to a friend. Their idea is not that their recipes or suggestions are low cal or carb or fat. Rather, they show you how to make the best choice based on what packs the most flavor and ease of preparation for the most nutrition. The Eat This Not That Restaurant Guide has a helpful section that covers the best fast food choices.

There are also price comparisons. Stay tuned for the next in the series: Eat It to Beat it!

Lately, educators have been talking about grit as a character trait that can predict success. I have always associated the term with girls, thanks to Charles Portis's original book, a title that was remarkable for its time. In the late 60s and 70s, there weren't a lot of stories about young women with gumption. Sure, there was Nancy Drew, but she so often relied on 'the boys' when the going got rough; There was also Pippi Longstocking, but she was for  younger readers. When the most recent movie came out, I was glad to see that the Coen brothers were true to the original Mattie and her enterprising spirit. Truly, she was the hero in the book, and not Rooster Cogburn, as the 1969 John Wayne film version suggested.

Ree Dolly, the tenacious teenager from the movie Winter's Bone is cut from the same cloth as Mattie Ross. The movie follows follows the mostly falling fortunes of 17 year old Ree as she discovers that her meth-cooking father is on the lam, having put the family house up for bond. If he doesn't show up in court, the family - 2 kids and a mentally absent mother - will lose everything. She sets out to find him among all the hard luck people living in her corner of the Ozarks and gains some unwanted attention from those who wish her father to stay hidden. The book is based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, an author whose works have been called "country noir".

Another novel featuring a woman who finds herself in an untenable situation is the award-winning Outlander by the poet, Gil Adamson. In the winter of 1903, Mary has lost her baby son to sickness and is frequently beaten by her abusive husband. She takes desperate measures, killing her husband and fleeing west. She is pursued by her husband's vengeful twin brothers, a pair of single-minded, characters who could easily have stepped out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Along the way she falls into the company of a group of eccentrics in a hard-scrabble mining town. 

All of these stories share an unforgiving landscape, a sense of lawlessness, and a determined underdog on a quest. And there are more of these than you might think: Molly Gloss's story of eastern Oregon, The Hearts of Horses, the somewhat obscure and spoofy Caprice by George Bowering, and Away by Amy Bloom. All of these stories feature strong female characters who move the action along. If that's your cup of tea, then happy reading and watching.

I blame the library. The first time my four-year-old daughter, who I’ll call Thing One, saw a Disney book at the library, she became obsessed, and soon, her babysitter told her there were movies, too. It wasn’t long before she was wearing nothing but pink and purple, and insisting on wearing tiaras to the supermarket. She wanted new princess books all the time. I didn't mind her fashion choices, but I wanted her to value things like bravery, loyalty, brains, individuality, and diversity, and to see that a woman’s main job in life was not to be pretty, well-dressed, and passive. Princesses with the enormous eyes and tiny waists were getting too much power over my child's imagination. It was time to fight back...With research.

I found a number of picture books and several collections of folk tales that celebrate female strength. I especially like Jane Yolen’s Not One Damsel in Distress, a collection of stories featuring strong, clever girls. And some of them are actually princesses! The young women in these stories defeat serpents, outsmart sultans, discover underground caves full of treasure and steal ships to sail away from the controlling men who want to trap them in marriage against their will. Jane Yolen’s writing is engaging and suspenseful enough to charm any princess wannabe between the ages of, say, four and eight.

Here’s a list of more good books for princess loving girls, or boys, that will make their feminist parents happy. Feel free to let us know in the comments if you have other titles that should be included in this list!

cover image of the feast nearbyThe Feast Nearby contains all the things I like in a memoir: a woman in the midst of some major life crises (her husband asked her for a divorce and she lost her job all in the same week), an element of budgeting and simple living by necessity, and recipes! She did lose a bit of credibility when she went on about "retreating to her small Michigan cabin."  Really, how bad could it be if you've got a little cabin all squared away for retirement I wondered?  But I digress...She imposes a strict limit on her grocery budget of just $40 a week and tries to have as much of it as possible be locally sourced, but not necessarily organic.

Forty dollars a week is a stretch no matter what you do these days, so reading about her method and reasoning seemed fantastic. Having shunned the freezer for a number of years, I have only just come round to the idea that the freezer is your friend and can save you not only time, but a little dosh as well. Of course it will save you nothing without the planning and preparation, so that is what I found most helpful about this book. Ms. Mather goes through the year in seasons and has some simple pleasing recipes to use the foods now as well as preserving them for future use. She shows that it is indeed possible to live the good life while enjoying the bounty of nature on a budget.

Sometimes one finds sparkle in the most unexpected places.  As a proper Portlander, I try to take public transit to and from work whenever possible.  To work, this involves a walk up a big hill (yay, exercise!), a bus ride, and another short walk. I try to walk home at the end of the day. Not bad, right?

Well, it's been one of those weeks. You know the ones, everything conspiring against me.  Not on top of my game, so to speak. This morning, the internal argument went like this:

Healthy Me:  Get on up that hill and catch the bus!

Whiny Me:  I don't wanna!

Healthy Me wins, and I truck on up the hill. Attitude in need of major adjusting, I wait for the bus in the dark.

It arrives, my regular driver in his seat, and when I board, lo and behold, the bus has been transformed into a sparkly wonderland!

Garland, flowers, twirly things, it looked like some sort of new club - the Bus Club!  I was smiling before I even sat down.  And on the short ride to work, I watched as everyone who boarded the bus smiled as well. 

When I quizzed the bus driver, he told me it was a surprise for his 34th anniversary with the company.  34 years!  He seemed a bit embarrassed about having to accept so many well wishes from his riders.  Congratulations, I say!
 
The morning commute, often not the most pleasant of tasks, turned out on this day to be just the pick me up I needed. I was reminded that sparkle can be found almost anywhere, even in the least sparkle-worthy places. Today and onward I shall try to remember to keep an eye out for it.  
 
Another place to search for sparkle?  Your local library!  Why not hop on some public transit and visit us.  One never knows what beauty will be found on the bus, and I am certain that we can help you find some sparkle at the library.  See you when you get here!

Cover image of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb PerlmanWhen I first stumbled upon Deb Perlman's food blog Smitten Kitchen, I was home with a small toddler and on a mad Google quest for homemade cracker recipes. Goldfish crackers specifically. My sister had recently exposed my son to the highly seductive, cheesy toddler staple and I wasn’t having it. I was on a passionate whole grain, non-boxed snack mission, and I approached it with the fervor that only a well-meaning and admittedly obsessive new mother can know.   

While it was Perlman’s labor intensive goldfish snack cracker recipe that reeled me in (I know..), I quickly found that while she would indulge my whim for scratch baked versions of boxed favorites, the vast majority of her recipes are much less demanding. Her specialty is simple, uncomplicated food that tastes delicious and leaves the impression that you’re a much better cook than you really are (I may only be speaking for myself here). 

Perlman makes her creations in a teeny tiny Manhattan apartment kitchen that doesn’t allow for huge productions.  Me in my teeny tiny Portland ranch kitchen can appreciate that kind of efficiency and I've learned to trust that if a Smitten Kitchen recipe takes more than 30 minutes to make or 3 bowls to mix in, it’s because that’s the way it has to be, because it will be worth it.  While I still visit the blog fairly regularly, when The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook came out, I quickly made space on my crowded kitchen shelf.

If you invite me to a potluck, it’s a fair bet that I’ll be bringing some variety of baked dish from this book.  The caramelized onion and butternut squash galette is a fool-proof crowd pleaser and when I breeze in twenty minutes late, with play clay stuck to my pants and Legos in my coat pocket, 'galette' just makes more of an impact than 'casserole.'

Ah, the allure of the three handed woman.  What, you aren't familiar with this particular woman?  I am betting you are, but this was a new term for me, too.  Last night I was enjoying my favorite jazz show, and the host played a song with this very title by Louis Prima and Keely Smith. The lyrics were so delightful and wicked:

'She's a three handed woman, a three handed woman
She's right-handed, and left-handed, and under-handed too
She's a three handed woman and she knows just what to do
She's a three handed woman and she ain't no good for you'

What a fabulous turn of phrase!  It immediately conjures up images of a femme fatale, a con woman, a woman no man can resist.  I don't know about you, but I have certainly daydreamed about living a life of crime, taking advantage of worldly, handsome, and, of course, rich men, while every hair remains in place and the line up the back of my stockings never goes crooked.  You know, like this:  pulp cover 

How fierce is she?

If you would like to indulge your inner three handed woman, the library has many choices, whether you prefer books or movies.  Take a look at the list to give some a try. You might discover a few hidden talents that you didn't know you had, and it's all perfectly legal in your imagination!

 

I love cooking in late winter and early spring, because this is the time of year that you can get really experimental. In the summer, from the time the asparagus and rhubarb start to sprout until you get those last tomatoes, there’s all this pressure to eat local, eat what’s ripe right now. Then in the fall, everyone wants comfort food, which is heavily prescribed by tradition. Roast chicken! Minestrone soup! Pot roast! Next, the holidays come along, and if you don’t cook just what everyone’s come to expect from you during the holidays, there  might be a rebellion.

But now, at least until May, we can go a little crazy in the kitchen and try new things. For me, that means checking out some of the library’s wide collection of international cookbooks and traveling the world a little, in a culinary way. And now, after the excesses of the holiday and while the rain is falling down outside, we want lighter recipes that take us to warm and sunny places.

Try Jerusalem by by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, two cooks who were raised in opposite ends of that city and inspired by its cuisine. My husband and I both cook and peruse a lot of cookbooks, and often when we look at cookbooks, we’re all, “Ho-hum, we’ve seen this before.” Jerusalem’s recipes are new and exciting, full of contrasts and sunshine. Make chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice and a spinach salad with dates and almonds.

Or head off to Vietnam with its beguiling combination of salty, sweet, hot and sour. A great book to explore Vietnamese food is Vietnamese Home Cooking by Charles Phan. You will be inspired by this cookbook's big, gorgeous pictures to cook delicious things like Lemongrass Beef Stew and a salad with leeks and roasted eggplants.

Visit India with Madhur Jaffrey, who has released a bunch of cookbooks celebrating Indian food, most recently At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. She has the knack of taking exotic, ingredients-laden recipes and making them seem utterly doable in your home kitchen. This is a great cookbook for someone who is exploring Indian cuisine for the first time. Cook Salmon in a Benghali Mustard Sauce and treat yourself to Kheer, a saffron- and cardamom-scented rice pudding, for dessert.

Portland is rich in international grocery stores where you can find the ingredients you’ll need to cook some of these recipes, and even trips to Fubonn, Barbur World Foods, or International Foods Supply can make you feel like you're traveling. Bon voyage!

Having recently lost the companion of an old and dear dog friend, I find myself both grieving her passing and anticipating the future. It is admittedly a weird place to be. I don’t want to rush the mourning process, but I am just no good without a dog. I’ve always had one and I feel a little adrift at finding myself dogless. Plus crying too much makes my eyeballs ache and gives me a headache. I need something to look forward to, but also need to deal with the present. The books I’m reading reflect this dichotomy and are an odd mix of coping with dog death and puppy parenting. It has been over sixteen years since I last trained a puppy after all, and I want to be prepared for that eventual newcomer, whenever the moment is right. But first, the long haul of grieving. Dylan was my superstar dog who led a very full and amazing life. She brought much happiness, was loved, and is missed.

Things I’ve found that may help ease the pain are of course work and friends (especially other pet parents), but also our local animal hospital Dove Lewis. They offer a free drop-in pet loss support group where you are able to share with other people experiencing the loss of a best friend and family member. They also have art therapy classes to memorialize your pet, which sounds intriguing. And of course the library is there with many books on the topic as you find your way. Here is my personal reading list:

In any given year I read quite a few books. Once I stopped trying to finish novels that turned out to be awful, I found I finished notably more books each year. The pages fly by when you're enjoying a book. When reading becomes a dreary slog through the pages it's too easy to find a more pleasant way to pass your evening and not much gets read. Once you stop reading the awful books, however, it takes a certain something extra for a title to really stand out from the mildly pleasing and good enough crowd of the average novel. So far in 2014 I've read two books that have really stood out.   

The Rook book jacketThe first of these titles was The Rook by Daniel O'Malley. The scene opens with a woman standing in the rain, in the mud, in the center of a ring of bodies. She doesn't know her name, she doesn't know where she is and she doesn't know what happened. All she has is a letter in her pocket from herself. Having read the letter, Myfanwy discovers that she is a member of a secret government agency that protects the UK from supernatural threats and is one of the few that has a supernatural power. Most powers are useless or nearly so; her power is not useless. Myfanwy must discover why her memory is gone, who she really is, and who found her enough of a threat to wipe her entire past from her mind. I would consider this a fairly literary novel for the genre and the author's use of the letters Myfanwy wrote herself to fill in the back story of her world is an interesting one. 

As I have often done before, I used my husband as my test reader. This time it was for Red Rising by Pierce Brown. It had been well-reviewed but I thought it seemed like it might be too much action and too little character development for my taste. I handed him the book to try at the start of a weekend when I had a nasty cold. I told him he'd love it and staggered off to suffer through my sniffles. I slept oblivious through his all-night reading session and he finished the novel in a single sitting! When I asked him how it was the next day, he 'fessed up to why he looked so tired and had slept so late. I've often read novels in one sitting but that was unusual for him. Here’s a bit about that compelling read:

Red Rising book jacketOn Mars there's very little gravity so when they hang you they let your loved ones pull your legs to hasten your death. Darrow is sixteen and works in the mines of Mars.  He knows, as all the Reds do, that the materials he is mining will help to terraform Mars (that is, make it habitable for humans) so that one day his descendants can walk on the surface. All he knows, though, has been a lie: Mars has been safe for generations. The Reds are slaves who have been kept in ignorance and despair by the higher castes who live well on the surface. The materials the Reds mine are being used on other planets and moons now instead. Darrow is strong from years of mining, but his young wife is small and thin. She always gives him part of her rations because he's still growing and she's "not hungry". She scarcely weighs a thing when he pulls her legs down.  Darrow now has nothing left to lose and gets pulled into a conflict between the ruling Golds and the Sons of Ares who are trying to overthrow the corrupt system.  Darrow only wants to live in peace, but they have brought him war.

I started the book that same evening and, miserable as I was with watering eyes from the congestion, the pages just flew past. I would have also stayed up far too late to finish the book in a single sitting if my husband hadn't come and taken the book from me and told me to be sensible and go to bed since I was so ill. Happily, Red Rising has been optioned for a movie even though it was just released; hopefully it turns out to be a good production of the book!

Chris a page at the Hollywood Library says this about the documentary Room 237:

Have you ever watched a movie and thought "There might be more going on here"? Well here's a movie about some people who have read many amazing things into the subtleties of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

The Sixth Gun Volume One Book coverThere were no undead in the wild wild west.  At least, not that we know of…Toss in six magical guns with unfathomable power, a world turned upside down, and a reluctant heroine and you’ve got the fatastically addictive graphic novel series, The Sixth Gun.

Not a graphic novel reader?  Well, pardner, maybe it’s about time you started. Combining the classic western genre with a touch of the supernatural and fantasy, The Sixth Gun has something for everyone.

Becky Montcrief is the reluctant heroine who inherited one of the pistols.  Not knowing the repercussions of picking up a gun, she’s thrust into the unforeseen adventure of fighting for her life. You see, once you pick the gun, it’s with you till death do you part.

Drake Sinclair is an enigma draped in black with a complicated past. Crossing his path means trouble from him or the folks on his tail. Will his past deeds catch up with his mission of atonement?

The other folks?  Their stories are even better.

Strap on your holster and get ready for the adventure of a life and an afterlife time…

For Hanna Lundmark, born in the forests of nineteenth century Sweden and abandoned in the Portugese owned colonial town of Lourenco Marques, what could be more alien than to wake up bleeding, in a hotel with a chimp named Carlos who wears a white waiter's coat and serves tea?  After the bare, bone chilling temperatures of her native Sweden, the African heat is overwhelming, blinding, suffocating. The bright colors are intimidatingly lush and foreign. And all the Africans! Is it true that they can't be trusted? That you have to lie to them and keep them from knowing too much or they will take advantage of white people?

Hannah feels uncomfortable and strange but when she slaps the black woman who saved her life and unjustly accuses her of lying, Hannah knows that she is no better than the powerful white Portuguese colonists who live there. Without  quite knowing how or why, Hannah realizes that something inside her is paralyzed, without words to make sense of what she feels and sees. It is then that she picks up an blank book discarded by her husband and begins to record everything that happens to her and to those around her.

Asked about the incredible detail of the book, author Henning Mankell says he found out about some remarkable tax records in the colonial archives of Maputo, capitol of Mozambique. At the end of the nineteenth century they show that a Swedish woman owned the biggest business in town - which was then called Lourenco Marques. After a few years she is no longer mentioned - she came from nowhere and vanished mysteriously. Who was she? What happened to her? Where did she go? Mankell couldn't quit thinking about her. So "based on what little we know and all that we don't know"  he imagined  a captivating story of prejudice and transformation that begins in the bleak forests of  Sweden and ends in the sun soaked continent of Africa. Read Henning Mankell's A Treacherous Paradise and you won't be able to quit thinking about her either.

​A few years back my husband was working in the storybook-beautiful and cosmopolitan city of Prague, and I had the chance to visit. He explained to me that I should not pet dogs belonging to strangers and I should keep my voice down when on the subway or bus. And it was true, voices were hushed on public transportation. One of our Czech friends explained that people became very worried about eavesdropping during the Soviet Era, so privacy was essential. 

Tram in PragueWhile the Czech Republic had the Velvet Revolution in 1989, there and in so many other Eastern European countries souls and psyches were scarred by years of corruption. On the other hand, they and other Eastern Europeans are still working to build a new kind of country.

For more about post-Revolutionary Prague, and a chance to look into the life of an American expatriate, Aaron Hamburger’s ebook The View from Stalin’s Head is essential. For an inside glimpse from Romania, watch 12:08 East of Bucharest where sixteen years after their soft revolution, townspeople all claim to have taken part in the protests in the square. Too bad the actual TV footage shows otherwise! Moving to East Germany, the stories in Ingo Shulze’s Simple Stories are not simple--they criss cross to build an intriguing novel that shows that blackmail, for instance, and other unsavory parts of life still lingered after the Berlin Wall.

Doctor ZhivagoHere are two stories that (still) inspire my soul.

In 1965 everyone was talking about a new must-see movie. Everyone that is, except me. My mother wasn’t sure it was appropriate for a 6th grader. I didn’t know what it was about exactly, but the trailer made it look exotic and full of passion and set to a soundtrack that blew me away like a flurry of weightless snowflakes. Its name was exotic too - Dr. Zhivago. Imagine my surprise when my mother agreed to let me go see it with the rough and rowdy Hansen family from down the street. It was  the first time I was allowed to go to a movie without my parents. So it was on a night dark and blue, my heart bursting with anticipation, that I began a love affair with Russia.

Not long after that I picked up a copy of the book Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I had never experienced poetry in a novel before. These poems  were like little stories themselves. As for the ending, it floored me: this wasn’t some contrived Romeo and Juliet tragedy; this was real life where true love doesn’t always win and many a good-hearted person dies.  Still what shines through is Dr. Zhivago's excitement and interest in life - harsh and tragic, but also achingly beautiful and exuberant. He says, "If you go near...a spark will light up the room and either kill you on the spot or electrify you for your whole life..." 

FAST FORWARD 40 YEARS...the year is now 2008.

I am reading about a new series on PBS Masterpiece Mystery. Kenneth Branaugh plays the lead, it takes place in Sweden and is based on a ‘wildly popular’  Wallander detective series by Swedish author Henning Mankell.  ‘Wildly popular’? I  consider myself a mystery connoisseur - why had I never heard of Wallander? In a frenzy I called the Woodstock brKurt Wallander PBS mysteryanch library.  Yes, they had it on the shelf, yes they would hold it for me.  Watching that first episode and reading Faceless Killers, the first book in the series, I fell headlong into a world stark and unkind, one so full of contrast and intolerance that it made my eyes ache. Enhanced by the sweet, melancholy theme music sung by Emily Barker, this was the story of detective Kurt Wallender, trying to solve a gruesome murder while also trying to connect with his elderly father and estranged daughter. But once again I couldn’t quit reading, couldn't quit listening, couldn’t quit watching the series over and over.

At one point, Wallender says, "These are our lives. And they're precarious. Miraculous. They're all we have". It made me wonder what is it inside me that lies dormant and asleep, waiting for just the right phrase or musical note or image to strike in a burst of fire and wake it up. It is hard to predict. All I can do is open my eyes and ears and heart. Tell you what I've found.  Maybe it is lying dormant, waiting inside you too.

We all know the scenario.   A few friends come over to visit, small talk fades, and everyone stares at one another in awkward silence.  Suddenly, the party erupts into excited cheers when someone suggests a game of “Thirst-Quench relay.”

“Four men or boys should be the runner in each of the competing teams for this, and they will have one girl partner.  She stands at the bottom of the lawn, with a tumbler and jug of water… but each runner when he reaches his team’s girl partner, must pause, and be fed by her with a tumbler full of water with a teaspoon.”  -- Games for Small Lawns by Sid G. Hedges

Sound like fun? No? Fine, be a spoil sport.   Maybe human croquet, tyre wrestling, or a good old fashioned shoe race is more your speed.  Books such as “Games for Small Lawns” offer a variety of entertaining options for your next social gathering.  The games are simple, require minimal equipment, and are guaranteed to turn the average party into something unforgettable.  After all, who doesn't’t love a good game of “nails”?

 

 

 

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