Recently I was digging around for something to satisfy me in the same way that Connie Willis' Oxford Time Travel series does and I dragged up the Small Change Series by Jo Walton. I am deep into book two, and I love it.
Book One, Farthing, is a Christie/Sayers-style country house mystery, the stakes increased enormously by the fact that this 1949 England has made peace with Hitler and the murder in question may push the country decidedly into fascism. The book is deceptively modest -- "oh, I'm just a mystery with a funny bit of alternate history, don't mind me" it whispers -- but manages to pull off a riveting whodunit, a chilling 'it really could have happened', and a lovely portrait of how brave everyday people can be.
Book Two, Ha'Penny, replaces the 'whodunit' with an effort to assassinate Hitler. But this isn't just a fantasy of derring-do in the face of evil. People who dream of a free England ally with Stalinists in order to accomplish their ends, good people are killed by other good people in the effort to do What Must Be Done. In other words, Walton acknowledges that the world is complicated while keeping the pages flying by.
The third and final book is Half a Crown, & I almost can't bear how much I want everything to be OK by the end of this reality-that-wasn't.
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.
Recently I was digging around for something to satisfy me in the same way that Connie Willis' Oxford Time Travel series does and I dragged up the Small Change Series by Jo Walton. I am deep into book two, and I love it.
Billy Wilder, director of such diverse and wonderful films that to begin to list them is to agonize over your exclusions, had a sign in his office that said “What would Lubitsch do?”
Ernst Lubistch made movies that sparkled, with wit and sophistication that has not been matched since.
Lubitsch’s 1932 film Trouble in Paradise was released before the Production Code acquired the power to prevent ‘immoral’ movies from being shown. Crime pays. People who are not married have a great deal of fun together. The screening of such delights was considered dangerous. Trouble in Paradise was unavailable for years, and never released on VHS.
Sometimes it seems to me that the Production Code changed our view of the past, that this board of censors determined not only the morality of what was on American screens, but also the way that we would see their times. The past becomes a foreign country where good was good, bad was bad, and human beings were somehow not so human.
I’ve made a list of Effervescent Pre-Code Movies in our catalog. For me these movies break down the barrier between us and the past, showing that our great-grandparents had desires and foibles that were just like our own. And that they were very funny and had great gams.
I want a book that will suck me in, make my brain spin, and not let me go until the very last page. Thank goodness there's been a surplus of books lately where the authors have written books that do exactly that.
One book is Karen Fowler’s We Are All Completely beside Ourselves. I’m rather mad that many reviews (and even Multnomah County Library’s catalog) describes with too much detail what this book is about. The best thing to do is just check it out and dive right in. It’s beautifully written, haunting, heartbreaking. At its core, this is the story of a family and the loss they experience. And after you read it, please don’t reveal the secret at its center so other readers can feel the surprise!
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver is another twisty book that I couldn’t put down. Lionel Shriver has written quite a few novels that take on big issues. In her latest book, she takes on obesity. As an American woman, I’ve struggled with body image and weight issues since I was a young adult so I found this book really interesting. The main characters are a sister and her obese brother. She decides to devote a year of her life to help slim him down. And boy does he. Or does he? Shriver’s book is a commentary on the epidemic of obesity and the ties of family. How can we help our family and at what cost? After I read the last section of this book, I had to meditate a while on everything that I had read in the previous parts. It made my head hurt just a little. But in a good way.
And speaking of heads hurting, a must read for anyone who wants a twisty, turvy book who isn’t put off by quite a bit of gruesomeness, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes is your book. Harper Curtis is a serial killer, a repulsive, horrible, yucky killer. He’s exactly what murderers should be like. He’s not the gentlemanly, charming, oh-so-relate-able serial killer that has become the norm in pop culture today. He finds a key to a house that allows him to travel back and forth across time to find his victims and then escape into another time. And then one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives and begins to hunt him back with the help of ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez. This story will make a fantastic tv series (Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company have bought the television rights). And after you read it, please let me know what you think happens at the end. It made my brain spin.
Welcome to our new blogger, Patrick, who says this about himself: "I work at the Holgate Library where I answer questions all day. When I'm not doing that (and if you don't believe me, check with my coworkers who have given up hope of engaging me in lunchroom conversations) I'm probably reading or playing games. I read lots of comics and graphic novels, but also enjoy dystopian fiction, rousing adventure tales, classic sci-fi and fantasy, Dickens, good writing about science, and the occasional bit of warm and fuzzy pop philosophy."
I like 'thoughtful'. Thoughtful and reflective and true, all things that bring about a calm philosophical life. (I'm also a fan of whimsical, dystopian and heroic but those will be other entries.)
It turns out that I have been finding many of those thoughtful moments via MCL's zine collection, particularly the works of John Porcellino. I discovered them randomly in the form of an issue of King-Cat Comics & Stories that passed in front of my face, and there was something about the simplicity of the line art that made me want to open it. What I found was a little handmade collection of comics and... well, 'essays' sounds boring, but 'stories' doesn't sound true enough. 'Reflections' seems to fit. John talks about his beloved cat Maisie, his sweetie Misun, sunrises, moving, music, and all sorts of things that occur to him. He's someone who struggles to find meaning in life, and he frequently questions things he has previously held true. What I like best are the little vignettes like 'Football Weather' from King-Cat #66 where all the neighborhood kids decide to help him with his lawn and then a football game ensues. It's not about leaves or football, though... it's about things like community, and appreciating life, and What Is Important to You.
If you enjoy King-Cat, there are hardbound collections, or you might also like his other work, including the short and sweet Three Poems about Fog, or a hardcover graphic novel called Thoreau at Walden. As is usual for me, a thing aimed at younger readers can actually be pretty universal.
And if you want another good autobiographical zine with less philosophy but equal self-discovery and more sass in it, try Jesse Reklaw's Ten Thousand Things to Do. where he describes his lifestyle of "inking, drinking, and anxious thinking".
Is there anything as sweet as discovering a new author?
I found one this month, Maureen McHugh, and I have Jo Walton to thank for it.
In her blog post revisiting the 1993 Hugo Awards she mentioned one of the nominees, China Mountain Zhang, with an adamant "It's wonderful" that intrigued me.
I grabbed it. I loved it.
The time is the near future -- after a Second Great Depression, China dominates the world. The US has gone through it's own Cultural Revolution -- a 'Cleansing Wind' -- and has settled down into Socialism. But economics and ideology are not the focus, they are only the background of the characters' lives.
The main character is Zhang Zhong Shan. He pretends to be things that he is not: 100% Chinese (he is half Hispanic), straight (he is gay). At the beginning he is not honest with himself, he does not know what he wants, and he is hard to like. But with the finest shown-not-told writing, McHugh brings him from being to a boy to being a mensch. I grew to love him, to be excited for him as he learned new things and began to be capable of making the world better. And as I learned to love him I gained understanding of why he had been the person he was: ashamed, torn, young.
In short, "It's wonderful."
I'll admit I do not have the world's classiest taste in movies. I adore the summer blockbuster season (even if I frugally wait for the really really bad ones to hit DVD and wait for my hold to come in). If like me you think winter means slow talky movies with a depressing minimum of explosions, I have a couple of books to suggest that you might like.
Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is set in a world where people suddenly turned up with superhero like powers. Only nobody who has developed the powers is heroic; instead everyone who developed the powers seize what power and slaves that they can without regard for the lives of others. Most have given up hope and have submitted to the rule of their new masters. David was a child of six in Chicago when the Epics came to be. At eight, he watched his father murdered by Steelheart whom everyone thinks is invulnerable to any physical harm. At eighteen, David wants revenge and he has spent the last decade gathering every scrap of information that he can find on the Epics and any weakness they might have. David saw Steelheart bleed once when his father died and he'll see Steelheart bleed again if it's the last thing he does.
The one type of action movie I have no real interest in is a zombie movie, although Warm Bodies was cute. I have no interest in seeing World War Z even on DVD. With that dislike in mind when I read the summary for The Darwin Elevator by Jason M Hough, I was almost ready to ignore this debut novel. "The world has succumbed to an alien plague, with most of the population transformed into mindless, savage creatures"... Okay. I'm not the target audience for this title. But the Library Journal review compared it to Joss Whedon's Firefly... Hmm, perhaps I'm being overhasty I thought! So, with cheery disregard for my husband's free time I hand him this novel and tell him that this book should be his next choice! (The poor trusting soul...) In short order he had it finished and comes back to me saying "This was fun! You'll love it! When can I have book two?" So I read it and found it everything I love about a good action movie. The plot runs along so quickly you'll have finished before you know it. Fortunately books two and three are already out and waiting for you because the publisher realized it had a hit on its hands and put this debut trilogy out in a three month window to build the author's readership. Every time a publisher has done this I've loved the series, so I should have realized that this series would be worth reading too!
How much did I know about James Garfield before reading Candice Millard's most recent book, Destiny of the Republic ? Almost nothing. He was just a trivia answer to me, one of our four assassinated presidents. But here's the thing: Garfield didn't die from the assassin's bullet. He died from massive infection eighty days after the shooting, almost certainly caused by his doctors.
Luckily for Garfield, the wound caused by his shooter was not mortal, though that would have been merciful. Unfortunately, the U.S. medical profession, for the most part, did not believe that there were such things as microorganisms. In 1881 doctors in America believed in the "old stink" of surgery, and were proud of it.
The infection that raged through Garfield's body was introduced within moments of the shooting by the unwashed hands and instruments of the doctors who battled to attend to him, determined that they would be the one to find the bullet. Their poking and prodding would continue daily, and it makes for cringe-worthy reading. Garfield lingered for months, getting weaker, always in excruciating pain, suffering in the heat of a humid D.C. summer, in a White House in disrepair where rats were a constant problem. When he finally succumbed and the autopsy was done, the doctors knew immediately what the cause of death was. The bullet was not where they had insisted it had to be, but on the other side of the body, "safely encysted." However, infection was everywhere. The doctor's words were "Gentlemen...we made a mistake." Profound septic poisoning was the cause of death.
The story of Garfield's life and death by Candice Millard is a stunning read, and gets an "un-put-downable" rating from me. Two remarkable ironies: had Garfield been an average Joe in America in 1881, he would've likely survived the shooting without a doctor's care, and simply walked around with a bullet in his body, like tens of thousands of his fellow Civil War veterans. Second, had the shooting happened just a few years later, it would have been easily survivable, even with a doctor's care.
[Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Medicine, Madness and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, and was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, 2011]
I have been waiting a decade to find many comics about contemporary women. Comics have changed - they just aren't about muscle bound men and scantily clad muscle bound women. Now there are comics about science, memoirs, history, and health. There's a little bit for everyone. Recently, we were asked for comics about contemporary women. With that in mind I have developed a reading list. I wanted to find women's voices in our comics culture. Finally and Ahhhhhh!
When I was on a tour in Germany about ten years ago, we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking Nuremberg. While I was admiring the red roofs and the medieval architecture, I was surprised to learn that many of the buildings we were looking at had been bombed during World War II, but had been rebuilt to match the pre-war structures. In The Aftermath, a new historical novel by Rhidian Brook, Colonel Lewis Morgan is in charge of rebuilding Hamburg, a city that was heavily bombed during WWII. The British government has requisitioned a beautiful home for him in an unscathed area of the city and has informed the current owner, Stefan Lubert, that he and his daughter must move out. Lubert, an architect before the war, is now working at a menial job while he waits to be cleared as a "good German", one who was not heavily involved with the Nazis. While Colonel Lewis is awaiting his wife and son's arrival in Germany, he decides that Lubert should stay and share the house with his family. His wife is NOT happy with that decision. Their older son was killed by a German bomb while playing in a house in Wales, and she is not ready to forgive the Germans or her husband, whom she partially blames, for that tragedy. I was fascinated by Rhidian's stories of people in immediate post-war Germany, both the Germans and the British, and was touched by the humanity and forgiveness that shines through the characters. This novel, based on the post-war experiences of the author's grandfather, will stay with me for a long time.
For another historical novel featuring strange bedfellows, check out Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Based on the life of the last woman executed for a crime in Iceland, Kent tells the story of Agnes who, along with two others, is accused of murdering a man. Because there are no suitable prisons in Iceland in the early 1800s, she is sent to live with a family on a remote farm until the time of her execution. The waiting period of several months gives the characters a chance to adjust to each other and move from anger and resentment to acceptance. Burial Rites is a quieter, more slow-moving book than The Aftermath, but is similarly compelling. Both novels made me want to delve into other historical events that I know little about (and there are many)!
At this time of year many people are tempted to pull out the tarnished sax hiding under their beds or dust off the old ivories to see if their after-school piano lessons can be resurrected. But what to play? "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" can get a little tired after the second or third time through.
Never fear - Multnomah County Library has one of the best collections of sheet music anywhere around.
For instance, maybe you'd like to know what the kids were singing in the 90's - the 1890's, that is. Take a look at Songs of the Gilded Age, which includes such great tunes as "Elsie from Chelsea" and that old favorite "She is More to be Pitied, than Censured", not to mention "Where Did you Get that Hat?".
Perhaps your instrument is your voice. Then maybe you'll want to check out the American Idol Presents series - complete with sheet music and CD accompaniment. You're sure to be a star in your own living room.
Or maybe you'd like to rock out and take it up to eleven. The Zen of Screaming might come in handy. It's a training program for rock singers "to preserve their vocal cords without compromising their passion."
According to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success, it will only take you 10,000 hours of practice to become just as good a guitarist as Etta Baker was. This instructional DVD might even cut it down to 9,500 hours.
After all, as the writer, Alexander McCall Smith asked, in a recent New York Times article, "why should real musicians — the ones who can actually play their instruments — have all the fun?"
When people speak about the mystery of Christmas, they generally aren't talking about crime novels, but I like to read something holiday-ish in December, and for some reason I gravitate towards mysteries. The following titles range from crimes as simple and relatively innocuous as a stolen Christmas tree to a death at a Victorian holiday party. Make a cup of cocoa, throw another log on the fire, and check 'em out if you'd like to celebrate the holidays with a mystery!
A Highland Christmas by M.C. Beaton
Hamish MacBeth is on the trail of a stolen Christmas tree and lights, as well as trying to solve the mystery of a missing cat.
Jerusalem Inn by Martha Grimes
Two dead bodies make for a not-so-merry holiday for Scotland Yard's Richard Jury and his friend Melrose Plant.
A Christmas Hope by Anne Perry
When a woman dies at a holiday party, the wrong person may have been accused. Claudine Burroughs wants to make sure that the truly guilty party is caught. This is just the latest in Anne Perry's series of Christmas novels.
Past Reason Hated by Peter Robinson
Just three days before Christmas, Inspector Alan Banks must sort out a tangle of relationships to find a killer.
Merry Sleuthing and a Happy Clue Year!
Shailene Woodley, starring as Tris, appeared in another movie adapted from a young adult novel: The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp -- as did Miles Teller, who plays Peter. Ms. Woodley is also starring in another hotly-anticipated movie adapted from a young adult novel: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
Theo James, playing Four, had an important role in the third episode of the first season of the BBC TV series Downton Abbey.
You might know Kate Winslet, playing the Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews, from Titanic or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Back in 1994, when she was a teen, she made her feature film debut in the creepy and compelling Heavenly Creatures.
Tony Goldwyn, playing Tris's dad Andrew Prior, also plays President Fitzgerald Grant on the ABC drama Scandal. And he's the grandson of producer Samuel Goldwyn, who's responsible for the G in the name of the movie studio MGM: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Lose yourself in books, movies, music & TV while you wait for the Divergent movie!
So I put myself on hold for Nick Trout's book, Tell Me Where it Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon after reading a positive review of it somewhere, and fortuitously it came in right before my vacation. Trout is a veterinary surgeon at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Massachusetts, and although he's British, he's pretty far removed from the James Herriot I knew and loved in my youth through All Creatures Great and Small.
Trout focuses mostly on the dogs he's met and operated on and condenses a number of cases he's seen over the years into one day to give readers a sense of the urgency and adrenaline rush one might experience in a day working at Angell. He begins with an early morning call that gets him out of bed and ends his day over fifteen hours later when friends of his child bring in a pet that needs some immediate attention.
Interspersed among the cases are Trout's ruminations on the practice and business of being a vet - issues that I had barely, if ever, considered over the years of taking my pet to the vet. Questions of ethics and finance, cures versus palliative care - these are all noted in Trout's honest, if at times slightly condescending, voice. Now that I make weekly visits to the vet with my elderly cat, the new insight has given me an even deeper appreciation for the doctors who work so hard to make sure our pets have the best possible care.
What is it about the villain that captures our interest? Sure, they provide a force for the hero to battle. But there’s more than that. While the hero is a spotless and shining example of our virtue, the villain shines a light on those dark recesses of our soul. They have motivations that are far murkier. They’ve had to make the tough choices. They are the losers who have to keep pushing through when the world turns against them. A good villain makes a story memorable.
There are two sides to every story. The following books look at familiar stories from the villains’ point of view.
Medea: A Delphic Woman Novel by Kerry Greenwood
I know what you’re thinking: How could there be a good side to a woman who kills her own children. But did you know that Euripides was paid by the city of Corinth to write his version of this myth with Medea murdering her children? This modern interpretation is closer to the original.
Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg
Aaron Burr is mostly remembered as the man who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel. However, though he's been stricken from the pantheon of the Founding Fathers, Burr influenced our burgeoning nation in innumerable ways.
Darth Vader and Son by Jeffery Brown
This playful graphic novel reminds us that before Darth Vader was the Dark Lord of the Sith, he was just a single dad with a precocious young son.
Guest blogger Rae Richen’s short stories, poetry and articles have appeared in anthologies of Northwest authors, in Pacific Northwest newspapers and in Writers’ Northwest Handbook. She has taught junior high, high school students and adults since the ice age, and has always been impressed with the wide-ranging curiosity and the persistent search for answers among her students. Her newest book, Uncharted Territory is written for young adults and adults who enjoy a triumph of life over fear.
Breaking Chains: Slavery on trial in the Oregon Territory, by R. Gregory Nokes is an important addition to Oregon’s history. For three generations, my mixed-race family has known that Oregon’s legal relationship with its African American citizens was rocky, but details were elusive. Much of Oregon supported an apartheid-like atmosphere well into the 1960s. When my children and my students ask for specifics, I can now give a more complete answer. I can offer them Breaking Chains.
This untold part of Oregon’s history came to Nokes’s attention because a former slave was mentioned in his family genealogy. Nokes soon learned that Oregon, though admitted to the union as a free state, also tolerated slaveholding and had a constitution that supported a ban on African Americans. Its citizens voted for pro-slavery politicians, including the first territorial governor. Even when slavery was opposed by white Oregonians, it was often for reasons more self-preserving than selfless.
Nokes’s deep research, his interviews of slave’s descendants and his incisive story-telling style delves into the history of Robin Holmes who, with great perseverance, successfully sued his owner for his freedom, and of Reuben Shipley who was forced to choose between remaining near his enslaved family in Missouri and his tenuous hope of freedom in Oregon. There is a wealth of information about the life of Oregon’s early African Americans in Breaking Chains.
Have you ever wanted to be invisible? What if you didn’t want to be invisible and you were? That’s what happens to Clover Hobart. One morning she wakes up and she is invisible.
It doesn’t help that she is 55-plus woman and already invisible in society’s eyes. Even her family is oblivious to the fact that she is invisible. The only one who notices is her best friend, who tries to help Clover in her non-visible adventures.
Calling Invisible Women is a clever and hilarious new book by Jeanne Ray. It’s a thought-provoking look at women of a certain age in our society and one of my favorite novels.
Comic books are full of charismatic leaders locked in desperate struggles, but a vast majority of these are fictional. It's perspective-changing when comics are used to tell stories of real people. One such book is Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, by Chester Brown.
Riel is a character of mythic proportions in Canadian history. He butted heads with the newly established government of Canada, starting in 1869 when he led the Red River Rebellion. Riel was a leader who believed he was divinely chosen to protect and defend the rights of the Metis - descendants of First Nations people and Europeans who suffered persecution from the wider culture.
Brown tells the story of Riel's fights and flights back and forth across the Canadian border, from Manitoba, to Montana and then to Saskatchewan, where he was eventually arrested for treason and hanged.
The minimalist color scheme and Brown's crisp drawings create a suspenseful story that could otherwise come across as a dry recitation of historical fact. If you never thought you'd read a comic book, but are a history buff, give this a try.
Find out more about the intriguing Louis Riel.
Sometimes I think it would be great to be the Queen of England. Having staff at your beck and call to cook and clean for you and drive you wherever you need to go, the trips to exotic locales, the lovely palaces and castles to live in - it just doesn't get any better. But there are definite downsides: the paparazzi, people constantly judging your every decision, and the daily round of obligations to meet (and meet with a smile). It's just so exhausting!
In Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn, Queen Elizabeth is tired. She's well past eighty years old, she's had some pretty significant stresses in the last few decades (children's divorces, Diana's death, Windsor Castle burning, the decommissioning of Britannia, the Royal Yacht) and now the final indignity: no more Royal Train for Her Majesty's use. The expense, she's been told, is just too great. So on one dreary winter day, Queen Elizabeth is thinking of Britannia, one of her favorite things, and takes the opportunity to slip out (mostly) unobserved and take the train to Scotland where the yacht is moored. What ensues is a wonderful story of the palace staff who care about Queen Elizabeth and a portrait of a monarch nearing the end of her long and largely successful reign.
Other people have imagined Queen Elizabeth II's life in books and film. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett examines the person the Queen becomes when she starts reading books from the local bookmobile. The film The Queen takes a look at the royal response to Diana's death.
If you, too, think it would be good to be queen, enjoy this film and these books and see if you change your mind!