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 read Pride and Prejudice in high school and college, thankful I had put it behind me. Slumped at a desk with pink-streaked hair and dirty Converses, a marriage plot among ladies of class fell short of resonating with me as a reader. So when someone suggested I read Shades of Milk and Honey —promoted by its publisher as Jane Austen, with magic—I had my reservations. Flash forward one week to me forgetting to feed my grandmother (sorry, Grams)  and missing MAX stops with this book in hand.

Mary Robinette Kowal has won scads of sci-fi and fantasy awards for her short fiction—Hugo, Nebula, Locus, you name it. After reading Shades of Milk and Honey, it’s easy to see why. Her style is easy, her sentences agile, and her dialogue witty. And if there were a few “shews” and “La!’s” thrown in, well, I might have even enjoyed them.  

Shades of Milk and Honey is a story of two sisters, one born with stunning looks and the other born with a stunning mind. Jane Ellsworth is the neighborhood’s best glamourist, expertly conjuring scents, sounds and images that enhance the family home. Jane fights her attraction to a very eligible neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, while her younger sister loses herself in a maze of feelings for the same man. Their sibling rivalry is full of bitterness, and jealousy, but also moments of kindness. Jane struggles to tame her own passions while keeping a watchful eye out for her sister—and fails, spectacularly, among secret rendezvous and sensational duels.

Kowal’s debut is a light, absorbing read—a perfect choice to enjoy in the Portland sunshine, while it lasts. Be on the lookout for our upcoming Twitter chat with the author on Aug. 11th, from 12-1. Please join the conversation!

I should have started reading the newest series by Elizabeth Moon much sooner. In the late 80's Moon wrote a trilogy called The Deed of Paksenarrion. In a fantasy world, a sheep-farmer's daughter, a big sturdy girl, joins the local Duke's military to avoid an unwanted marriage. She rises to become a paladin and to see that lord chosen as a kingdom's heir. I liked that trilogy quite a bit. I've even held onto my yellowing paperbacks all these years. In the decades since, Moon has written a number of military science fiction novels that just didn't catch my interest, though they've been popular and well received. Recently Moon has gone back to the world of The Deed of Paksenarrion with the start of a new trilogy.  

You don't need to read the first series to enjoy Oath of Fealty, the first in this new trilogy. It has been twenty plus years since I read the original books and I had no trouble falling into this new story. Paks, the heroine of the first trilogy is only a secondary character in this trilogy.

In Oath of Fealty, after the duke, Kieri Phelan, is discovered to be the heir to a neighboring kingdom, he leaves his former holding under the care of his captains, one of whom will be named the new lord in his place. The kingdom Kieri is leaving is in turmoil after the assassination of the king, leaving an untried young prince about to be crowned. To add further to the machinations, the assassin of the young prince's father was one of his other dukes. Now the crown prince must question the traitor's entire family to find how far their service to an evil god and blood magic has spread. That leaves only one reliable person to whom the lands might be entrusted: an aging captain of Kieri's who was cast out of the family as a girl for refusing to practice blood magic. I really need to get my hands on book two, Kings of the North, in short order because the end of Oath of Fealty left me wanting more.

Once in a while, if a librarian is lucky and judged deserving, a co-worker will recommend an especially treasured book. Different from our everyday title-swapping and book banter, these suggestions are usually made privately, with a kind of offhand gravity, and are intended as both gift and compliment. What are these personal favorites like? They're often highly idiosyncratic, and share a certain intensity. In some cases they are their authors' only works. They're always memorable, sometimes hauntingly so. Here are a few of the gifts received from librarians  over many years:

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout
Through the eyes of a Dutch child on her grandmother's sugar plantation, we see a beautiful, slightly menacing Java, alive with mysteries and scented with spices.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Forget "The Godfather" - this portrait of the last patriarch of a great house in decline gives a deeper grasp of Sicily than any work of fiction has a right to do.

The Gipsy in the Parlour by Margery Sharp
A fey, ambitious Welsh interloper with a gift for hypochondria insinuates herself into an English country family. Charming and very funny.
    
The Bear by Marian Engel
Magic realism done right: There is Bear, the totem and archetype, and then there's an actual wild bear. Which turns up at the cabin of a lonely Canadian woman?
 
Just today, another gift-suggestion: The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame). A meek young woman is handed a fatal (maybe mistaken?) diagnosis, so decides to live out her remaining days being exactly as outspoken as she feels. Sounds irresistible!
 
And from me? The Viceroy of Ouidah, Bruce Chatwin's fever dream of depravity. The Means of Escape, eight dazzling stories by Man Booker Prize-winner Penelope Fitzgerald.  And anything at all by Rose Tremain - her work is like the ideal box of chocolates, where each bite is a unique, exquisite surprise.

How do you pick books? From the bestseller list? From blogs? Recommendations from friends? By reading reviews in newspapers and magazines? By browsing and scanning the shelves? By using Ask the Librarian?

Attracted by the unusual cover, I recently read The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry. What a terrific surprise! Ginny is a young woman with Asperger's syndrome. She hates loud noises, being touched, and frequently hides in the closet when life becomes too much. Over the years, she has saved scraps of the use of the word "normal" gleaned from newspapers and magazines to prove to herself that normal has many different meanings. She has been sheltered and protected by loving parents but now they are dead in a tragic accident.

She must learn to cope with her grief and with her sister who wants to protect her. Ginny has long used thinking about the tastes and textures of food, and cooking techniques to help calm herself. Now she discovers that she has the ability to cook up family ghosts from their handwritten recipes. What she learns about cooking and ghosts, grief and love and the many ways of being normal make for a lovely book. I dare you not to be touched by this surprisingly good novel.

The other night during dinner Child the Younger excused himself from the table, walked over to the cat minding her own business by the front door and proceeded to make large and dramatic conjuring motions in her direction (think Mickey the Wizard in Fantasia.) This was accompanied by those weapon sound effects that all small boys seem to perfect. When he was finished he walked calmly back to his chair, sat down and resumed eating with no explanation. I couldn't resist asking.

"What was that you just did?"

"I needed to give the kitty her laser so she can shoot fire out of her fingernails."

"Oh. Okay."

I managed to keep it together during this exchange, but my husband was trying not to look like he was howling with laughter while snorting iced tea through his nose. It's an admirable parenting skill. Why the cat needed her fire-shooting powers at that very moment remains a mystery to all but one of us.

I've read some great graphic novels lately and one of the best is directly from the mind of a five-year-old boy. Axe Cop is the imagined universe of Malachai Nicolle as drawn by his older brother, Ethan. The title character is a policeman who picks up a fireman's axe and never looks back. He uses his weapon of choice and his somewhat violent tendencies on any number of bad guys, but the best parts involve the crazy sidekick characters including a dinosaur soldier who transforms into an avocado with a unicorn horn, a dog named Ralph Wrinkles, and The Best Fairy Ever. If you would like a direct window into the imagination of a five-year-old, here's your ticket. If you are hoping it will explain why you must NEVER MOVE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES the plastic fireman's axe that currently resides in the drawer with your brushes and combs, you will be sorely disappointed. Not recommended for reading on public transportation or while drinking iced tea, and especially not both at the same time. And remember: only cowboys and warriors can control the magic riding spider.

Smile is Raina Telgemeier's biographical saga about losing her permanent front teeth to an accident in sixth grade and the drama that ensues for the next five years as she simultaneously experiences the horrors of dental reconstruction and adolescence. The combination of compelling story and detailed drawing make it more than the sum of its parts and you will be transported back to middle school (whether you want to go back there or not. And I'm guessing not. But go anyway.)

Kampung Boy by Lat is the luminous story of a boy from birth to boarding school growing up in rural Malaysia on a rubber plantation. The love and humor surrounding this family make the story rise off the page as the tropical environment and Muslim customs and rituals are explored and explained in a down-to-earth manner.

The sunshine is finally here, so park it in a lawn chair and read some comics before Axe Cop comes after you on his transformed Tyrannosaurus Rex-turned-dragon with rocket wings and machine gun arms. Awesome.

Recently a fellow library employee was looking for some books to keep her company on a long plane ride. She took advantage of our “Looking for a good read?” form, requesting noir-like mysteries with “an engaging narrative, compelling characters, and an overall doesn't-insult-your-intelligence-ness”.

I was excited to answer this question because I love noir, and I love leading people to books. My first suggestion was Dashiell Hammett – his characters suffer, and his language really sings. Among his best works is Red Harvest, in which a nameless detective is called to the corporate town of Personville (the locals call it Poisonville) and becomes embroiled in byzantine back-stabbing. Our poor Continental Op always seems to think he’s one step ahead when he’s one step behind. The cast includes gangsters, union men and heartless capitalists. No one is better than Hammett at writing a sentence – every word pulls the weight of three.
 
A lesser known noir author is Chester Himes. His detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson investigate crimes in Harlem. The language isn’t quite Hammett (nothing is, in my opinion -- not even Chandler), but it’s good, some of his metaphors really make you sit up. And this is popular fiction written in the 1950s by a black man about black people – a rare bird. The first book in the series is A Rage in Harlem.
 
One author that I did not suggest to my co-worker, but I will here, is James M. Cain. Cain was originally from Maryland (where he formed a close friendship with H. L. Mencken), but did not find his voice until he came out west. Western working people were his muse, and he wrote about them with a succinct and grim humor. His best books went on to be made into some of the greatest noir movies – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce.

When I was a child and my family headed out on Highway 26 toward the coast in our VW bus, we could always count on the delighted scream of my younger sister coming from the last row:  "Going beach!" Those memories of playing in the cold ocean in my Salt-Water Sandals, building castles and eating slightly sandy lunches on a blanket are some of the best I have. I still love the beach, whether it's in Oregon or elsewhere.

Apparently a lot of authors do too, as there are plenty of novels set in coastal locations. Elin Hilderbrand's books take place on Nantucket where she, herself, lives. In The Island, Birdie Cousins is immersed in planning her daughter's incredibly expensive and complicated wedding - until she gets a late night call from Chess saying she's broken it off with her fiance. Birdie decides that a summer trip to the old family home on Tuckernuck Island is just the thing to help Chess heal and Birdie reconnect with her daughter. Birdie's other daughter, Tate, and her sister, India, are soon folded into the plans and so begins a month of family time that includes old dramas and at least one new flame. Is happily ever after possible for the Cousins family?

In The Silver Boat by Luanne Rice, three sisters converge on Martha's Vineyard in order to clear out the family home after their mother's death. They lead less glamorous lives than the Cousins family, but I liked them better. Dar, the daughter who lives on Martha's Vineyard, doesn't really want to sell the house, but the other two see no viable alternatives. As the days go by, conflicts arise and a family secret is uncovered on a trip to Ireland. At the risk of a spoiler, you can count on happily ever after in this book.

If you aren't "going beach!" in real life this summer, at least try to get there in a novel.

If there's an afterlife for people, how about entertaining the thought of an afterlife for books? Just imagine all of those mournful leather-bound volumes, all the titles that didn't move off the shelves because of lackluster covers, all the sorry stories that languished in the shadows because they were published at the same time as Stephen King's latest. Imagine them all at their best, crisp unmarked pages, yet to have been taken into anyone's bathroom, sitting plumply on the shelves of the Afterlife Library, full of promise. What titles would you find there?

I, for one, would look for Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place. It's the story of Rebeck, an eccentric recluse who has chosen the ultimate home for a misanthrope - he lives in a cemetery. His only living companionship comes in the form of a raven who brings him stolen sandwiches. But Rebeck does enjoy another form of friendship -  he can see and talk with the ghosts of the dead, who are tied for a while to their resting places until their memories begin to fail them and they slowly fade away. His latest friends are Laura, the ghost of a bookstore clerk who wasn't watching when she crossed a street and Michael, a man who was either poisoned by his wife or committed suicide - his memory is beginning to fail.
Into this cast of characters comes the very much alive Mrs. Klapper, who is ostensibly coming to tend her husband's grave but who seems to be more and more interested in Rebeck with each visit.

A Fine and Private Place is both a mournful story of lost opportunity, and a redemptive one, of friendship and last chances. And fortunately, you won't have to visit the Afterlife Library to find a copy. What forgotten book do you wish more people knew about?

Let's face it. I'm really just chaffing at the bit to read Ghost Story in July. Then I read a review for a debut novel, Hounded by Kevin Hearne, that compared the book and the main character to The Dresden Files and Harry Dresden, my favorite series and character. Sold! That was really all I needed to hear to give Hounded a try.
Oh man, I just love these books. I snatched up the second, Hexed as soon as I finished the first. I couldn't wait. Let's be honest though. These aren't great classics of literature... It's only the weight of the cover that keeps them from floating off - they're pure fluff and fun. These are the 'summer action movies' of books. There's adventure, occasionally crude humor, a good sidekick or two and just enough plot to hang it on. I even scared my poor timid old cat off my lap at least once with each book when I burst out laughing.

Atticus O'Sullivan (at least that's the name he's going by), the last of the Druids, is living peacefully in Arizona. He lets people assume he means 21 years when they ask his age, when he's actually 21 centuries old. He just wants to be left alone and has picked Arizona as an out-of-the-way place to avoid the magical beings that might want a piece of him. His quiet is shattered by the arrival of an angry Celtic god who wants Atticus's magical sword, forcing Atticus to call upon some unlikely allies for help. The first two books introduce the universe and all the magical beings and characters therein.

At least I only have to wait until early July before I can read book three. The publisher is putting out the first three books in three months to build up a readership for the series; a fairly common practice within the genre. I will say that the reviewer who compared them to the Dresden files was a bit off. The tone is lighter, the humor is different, the action less serious and the hero is less heroic and good-hearted. Still, I'm not at all sorry that review got me to pick up the first book. Hounded and Hexed were just such good zippy fun and it was great to get a new urban fantasy that wasn't just a thinly veiled romance. If, like me you really can't wait for Ghost Story, or just like urban fantasy, give this series a try. I haven't had this much fun reading a novel in a good long while.

Marriage and long-term relationships can be challenging even when they're good, and keeping them alive and well can be tricky when something new is introduced. The something new in Peter Hedges's (author of What's Eating Gilbert Grape - who knew the movie was based on a book?) latest novel, The Heights, is Anna Brody, the gorgeous, wealthy mother who has just moved into the most exclusive house in Brooklyn Heights. Everyone is infatuated with Anna, but instead of hanging with all of the other rich moms, Anna attaches herself to Kate and Tim, parents of two small boys who live in decidedly less ritzy circumstances than the Range Rover-driving families in the Heights. What's the attraction? Kate thinks it's kind of cool, but also a little weird. Soon their world is turned a bit upside down when Kate, a stay at home mom, goes back to work, and Tim leaves his job as a teacher at a nearby private school to become the primary childcare provider. It turns out that Tim's quite good at it, and Anna begins to ask for more and more help with her small daughter, but is that really all she wants from him? Is there a marital train wreck in the offing? The world of The Heights is so not my milieu, but it was fascinating to catch a glimpse of the place and those who inhabit it.

As anyone who has ever watched Desperate Housewives knows, the suburbs are not always as tranquil as they might seem on the surface. In Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer, a cool breeze is blowing through the New Jersey suburb of Stellar Plains, stirring up trouble between men and women. The women are the only ones who feel it and when they do, they go off men immediately. In marriages, the wives are done with sex; in teenage couples, the breakups are spectacular and nasty; and even the illicit affairs go off the rails. Oddly enough, at the same time this breeze is taking hold, the high school is doing a production of Lysistrata, the Ancient Greek play in which the women refuse to sleep with the men until the men end the Peloponnesian War. What is going on here? Will life ever get back to normal?

Marriage is hard work.  Let's hope that at least a few survive and thrive in our newer novels!

There’s a fiction fad about knitting and relationships. My latest read was How to Knit a Love Song by Rachael Herron. I haven’t laughed out loud in a long time and this book remedied that problem. Herron has written some really funny dialog between the protagonist and the cowboys in this romance. Abigail, the main character is a young Californian fiber artist starting over on a ranch. She inherits a cottage from another fiber artist.

This book reminded me of the other 'knit-lit' title I loved, The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club by Gil McNeil. Both books have great characters, funny dialog and a moving plot. The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club is about Jo, a British widow who starts over in seaside town with her two small boys. Jo is taking over her grandmother’s knitting shop.

Knitting circles give people a chance to relax, create, and connect with other people. This positive community building gathering seems the perfect activity around which to build the plot of a novel. The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs, The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society by Beth Pattillo and The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood are also more great examples of this genre.

Perhaps you want to try your hand at knitting? When you're done reading and want to knit with others, check out the knitting circles that are hosted at some of our branches.

I've discovered a wonderful coffee table book that is a hymn to nature. It is the 100th Anniversary Illustrated edition of My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir. It is a dip-in and refresh yourself kind of book, one that needs to be read in short sessions of meditation. Read and listen for the poetic language.

Come, climb to the top of a nearly cubical mass of granite:       

"...the one big stone with its mossy level top and smooth sides standing square and firm and solitary, like an altar, the fall in front of it bathing it lightly with the finest of the spray, just enough to keep its moss cover fresh; the clear green pool beneath, with its foam-bells and its half circle of lilies leaning forward like a band of admirers, and flowering dogwood and alder trees leaning over all in sun-sifted arches."

Feel the frustration after an afternoon spent forcing a flock of sheep across a small stream:      
"The wool is dry now, and calm, cud-chewing peace has fallen on all the comfortable band, leaving no trace of the watery battle. I have seen fish driven out of the water with less ado than was made in driving these animals into it. Sheep brain must surely be poor stuff. Compare today's exhibition with the performances of deer swimming quietly across broad and rapid rivers, and from island to island in seas and lakes ; or with dogs, or even with the squirrels that, as the story goes, cross the Mississippi River on selected chips, with tails for sails comfortably trimmed to the breeze. A sheep can hardly be called an animal; an entire flock is require to make one foolish individual."

Listen to the bubbling brooks:
"A more tuneful set of streams surely nowhere exists, or more sparkling crystal pure, now gliding with tinkling whisper, now with merry dimpling rush, in and out through sunshine and shade, shimmering in pools, uniting their currents, bouncing, dancing from form to form over cliffs and inclines, ever more beautiful the farther they go until they pour into the main glacial rivers."

Glory in the description and renew yourself.

I was recently chatting with a friend of mine about books, and I said that I wanted something with witty dialog and a strong female lead. To my surprise, one of the books she recommended was Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. This is a book that I read a million years ago, when I was in high school, but I have to admit that I couldn't remember anything about it: not the names of the characters, or the plot, or what it was about. I had a vague feeling that it was a love story, but that's about it. A few weeks later, when I was between other books, I picked it up off the shelf and decided to give it a go. Now there are some books that I fall right into and it's like taking a deep breath and diving into another world...and then there are some that are more of a slog until I really understand the characters, what's going on, and really want to find out what happens next. This book fell into that second camp, but once I was used to the style and the language, I found myself staying up late to find out how, exactly, Elizabeth Bennett would end up with the reserved Mr. Darcy. It was a satisfying race to the finish, and when I was done, I looked around and thought "Now what?"

I don't know if it's just me, or if there are suddenly a lot more books about vampires, zombies, werewolves and the like than there used to be, but I suddenly see them everywhere. I had previously heard about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance-- Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! and was now in a position to think "How in the world would you pull that off?" Since the idea of "ultraviolent zombie mayhem" is so contrary to the whole Regency romance idea, I decided to find out if Seth Grahame-Smith had pulled it off with any grace. In fact, I found myself surprisingly impressed by the way he inserted zombies without totally changing the course of the story, and even used zombies in ways that support the plot, rather than just feeling like a gimmick. Believe it or not, this book stays pretty true to the original, even if there are zombies eating cauliflower (they mistake the cauliflower for brains) and attacking humans on a regular basis. It did not take long for me to realize I was having fun, and was looking forward to finding out what twist would show up next. Although I was glad that I had recently read the original, since it let me really appreciate the zombie mash-up features, I'm sure reading this without any "prep" would be a piece of cake, and also enjoyable for someone who enjoys a parody, or is looking for a hilarious variation on the staid period piece.

Now I'm on the hunt for a new book. And it looks like I have my choice of mash-ups if I want to go that route, since there's Little Vampire Women, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, among others, but maybe I'll take a break and watch the movie Pride and Prejudice. I know I'll have multiple choices, since it's been remade multiple times. Have they made a movie version with zombies yet?

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German by Christine Lo

What is it about an atlas that I love so much? The colors, the names I've never heard, the ability to turn the page and get to a completely different part of the world. I can get from Portland to Florence, Oregon in a heartbeat, or Florence, Italy in a few seconds. How about a remote island, maybe in the South Pacific? Yes, please.

This sweet book is not your average atlas. It has a lovely size, easy to hold at just 143 pages, and not concussion inducing if you fall asleep while reading in bed. Each island has its own two-page spread, one page devoted to a single paragraph about its history, the facing page a map of the island itself. For those interested, the text is a style called MVB Sirenne which I thought just gorgeous, and I don't often notice that sort of thing.

Again, the key word here is remote. These islands are so far from most continents that they don't usually show up in an atlas, they're too small to bother placing in those wide expanses of blue ocean, I imagine. Some I've not heard of, many I have--not that I could tell you where they are, whether they're north or south of the equator, what ocean they're in, or anything at all about them, whether they're inhabited, whether they have fresh water, if pirates have frequented their jungles, or if cannibals still live there today. But now I've read all about them, and there are islands that meet all these fabulous descriptions.

I don't get many Sundays to myself these days, but this would be the perfect book for a long, casual, Sunday, favorite beverage at your side. For those of us who awake at 3:23 a.m. on a semi-regular basis (and I know you're out there), it is the perfect book to pick up and read at that dark and mysterious hour, and I loved every single minute of reading it.

P.S.  You know, Father's Day is just around the corner, and for a dad who loves to travel, or sail, for a dad who loves atlases or oceans, for a dad who longs for a quiet place--I think he may just love this book, too.

If you have ever come home to a preschooler chasing the cat around the house with a tube of Chapstick (because "the kitty wants WIP BALM on her WIPS!") you know that your first task is to confiscate that Chapstick. You also probably know that you will be too late, because by the time you liberate that tube from the greasy little fingers wrapped around it the cat will be staring at you accusingly from under a bed, glistening with fury and emollients.

We all have our monsters. Here are some of my favorites:

The Host
Set in Korea, a dysfunctional but devoted family pays a great price when a nefarious substance is dumped down a drain and winds up in the Han River. This movie is eccentric family comedy, political commentary and kick-ass monster in one compelling package. What is scarier--the thing that lives in the sewer or the self-serving governments that originate and perpetuate misguided terror?

The Abyss
A nuclear sub is sunk in some of the deepest waters on earth, and the only people with the equipment to potentially mitigate impending disaster are a ragtag bunch of civilian, off-shore drilling engineers, including the sparring, married-but-divorcing Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Love-hate relationship plus undiscovered alien life in the Mariana Trench? I'm there.

The Bad Seed
It doesn't get much scarier for a parent than the realization that your adored little girl is an eight-year-old homicidal sociopath. Patty McCormack is not to be missed as Rhoda Penmark in the title role; piano practice and penmanship will never be the same again. One of the best movie endings ever.

My Neighbor Totoro
Sometimes we need friendly monsters, and Hayao Miyazaki's lush animation is a treat. This is an all-ages movie for the whole family; two sisters discover the title "keepers of the forest" as they cope with moving to a new house and their mother's extended hospital stay. Hop aboard the Catbus and prepare to be delighted.

Our guest blogger is Sola, who is an avid reader and a library school student through the University of Washington. She is interning in the Central Branch Popular Library until the beginning of June.

I'm a sucker for a series where the characters start to feel like family members. That discovery that I can be reunited with someone I've come to appreciate (dare I say cherish?) by just reading another book is almost enough to make me do the happy dance. Usually this results in me devouring the books one after another, and then moping around until I find a new book I like, or the next one in the series gets published. If the series is something that my husband enjoys and we can chat about? Well, so much the better. A few years back, shortly after my twins were born, I stumbled on Craig Johnson's The Cold Dish. Being sleep deprived usually means that I'll forgo reading for a little shut-eye, but Sheriff Walt Longmire, of Absaroka County, Wyoming, jumped off the page and into my life, and I found myself unable, during those rare, quiet moments, to put the book down. Walt is one of those characters who is not immediately likable, and in fact, I don't really know that many mildly depressed, middle-aged, widowed, almost-alcoholic lawmen. Those questionable features were balanced out by the fact that he's also sweet, sincere, well-read, and is totally lost around women. Once I added in his friends, including a Native American named Henry Standing Bear, the former sheriff Lucian, and Walt's current deputy, the ever full-of-attitude Victoria Moretti, the scales definitely came down on the side of wanting to keep these people in my life. Walt would rather hang out in his partially built cabin, drink rainier, and obsess about a rape case that ended with suspended sentences for the four young men who were convicted, when one of those young men is found shot. Walt's sense of justice is strong enough to start looking into it, and determine that it wasn't, in fact, a hunting accident, when the second of the four is murdered in the same way, and it's clear that someone is out for revenge (a cold dish indeed). With a solid mystery, characters I found myself caring about, and a setting that I was starting to feel like I'd visited even though I've never been there, I powered through The Cold Dish.

And, in fact, I did do the happy dance when I found out it is was the first in a series of books with Sheriff Longmire. I'm up to speed at this point, but I'm always on the lookout for the next book by Craig Johnson. In the meantime, I'm hunting for a new book (or series) that I can fall in love with to fill the gap. Any suggestions?

Tired of all the British pomp and circumstance in the news around the royal wedding? I sure am. My antidote of choice: some classic British punk rock, delivered with sneer and two-fingered salute. “London’s burning” by The Clash, perhaps?

Back in their 1980 heyday The Clash were called “the only band that matters,” and maybe they still are. There’s a great article in the 3/3/11 issue of Rolling Stone by Mikal Gilmore entitled “The Fury and the Power of the Clash” that gives a brief, comprehensive history of their rise and fall. In it he quotes Joe Strummer as saying in 1978: “we’re trying to be the greatest group in the world … at the same time we’re trying to be radical .. maybe the two can’t coexist, but we’ll try.” What do you think, do they still matter? Were they, are they, the greatest? There’s a lot of stuff here at the library to help you decide.

In recent years, a bunch of new Clash material has been released: a live album of a 1980 performance at New York’s Shea Stadium; a documentary about the life of Joe Strummer; and a 532 page, appropriately epic account of the making of their epic masterpiece, London Calling. Speaking of that album, the 25th anniversary edition includes an additional disc with unreleased demos and songs from that album’s sessions that is definitely worth hearing. And in 2005, all their other studio albums were remastered and re-released. So if you haven’t already, it’s probably about time that you went back and listened to all those, too.

Strummer famously scrawled the slogan “passion is a fashion” on his leather jacket. Passion’s timeless. So is a sneer and a two-fingered salute. Whether or not they’re the only band, the Clash definitely still matters.

“Black or white turn it on, face the new religion
Everybody's sitting 'round watching television
London's burning with boredom now”

It is a rare and wonderful thing when something makes me laugh so hard that I cry.

Recently it happened while watching the Colbert Report. Mr. Colbert was ostensibly getting etiquette lessons from a fellow who is apparently a Professional Proper Englishman. Colbert is utterly unconstrained: he has no rules to follow. He eats sugar by the spoonful, lets a cupful of cream slide down his chin. The Englishman is defined by rules. He is outraged, perhaps even angry, but he can hardly show it. He can only murmur ‘No, you musn’t’. And the more he protests, the more outrageous Colbert’s behavior becomes, spurned on by his foil.

The scene very much reminded me of the Jean Renoir movie that made me laugh just as hard, Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux). A homeless man is ‘saved’ by a middle class family, and what ensues is a great deal like Colbert and the Professional Proper. Boudu spits out his beer, he wipes chocolate on the duvet. He does not follow the rules, and it is enormously funny.

If you think that a movie made in 1932 is too darn old, or you're not a fan of subtitles, check out this YouTube trailer and reconsider. The Criterion print is lovely, and the film is a true treat.

It's the voice. Someone described Rick Bragg's voice as 'honey over smoke'. That intrigued me. I listened to a CD copy of Rick Bragg reading The Prince of Frogtown. That Alabama rhythm caught me, that pure Southern sensibility; the words just seem to flow. The storyteller's magic takes over.

In All Over but the Shoutin' Rick Bragg wrote about growing up poor in the hill country of Alabama, especially about his mother picking cotton and cleaning houses so her boys would have more than the welfare checks she received. Rick's father was an alcoholic man and very violent. He seemed to float into the life of the family and out again at regular intervals.

The author Willie Morris once told Rick that he would never have any peace until he wrote about his father. In The Prince of Frogtown, Rick pieces together the story of his father's life from interviews with his faithful boyhood friends.

The people seem so real. His father, Charles, was destroyed by drink and destroyed by his hard scrabble, blue-collar life in the mills of Jacksonville, Alabama. Yet Rick lets the soul's true light shine through the awfulness.

You can't help but like this young mischievous, hell-bent for leather boy. Rick retells one incident where Charles and his friend were flying a kite so high that it was nearly invisible in the sky.

Another boy comes along and asks, "What you doing with that string?"

"Why we're fishing," Charles answered.

You ache for the alcoholic man and the family that he has let down. Rick does not whitewash or rewrite his father's life. You get a sense of the man that could have been, but for that evil drinking and the streak of violence that resulted from that drinking.

No one is more disappointed than Charles himself. He knew he could not be with his family, that he had ruined all the chances of a life with them by his ceaseless drinking and violent temper.

Interspersed with chapters about his father are chapters about "the boy" Rick's stepson. In these chapters, he describes his own journey into fatherhood and his growing love for this boy. This story gives light and humor to a dark tale. You grow to love this boy and his stepfather who tries so hard.

Now I want to read Ava's Man, the story of Rick's maternal grandfather and the culture that shaped him.

I don't know about you, but when I'm being pelted with hail under a brilliantly sunny sky my mind tends to think, "Hey, look at that. The apocalypse is here." (This is even without factoring distressing global geological and political current events into the equation, which hold their own private audience with my horrified psyche on what seems like a near-hourly basis.) Extreme maybe, but my default setting is "the sky is falling." If I override that, I can remember it's spring.

I should be reading up on how to outwit slugs in the garden or what to do when a child discovers (shudder!) an entire universe of massively multi-player online gaming. Instead, I've been indulging in some fabulous dystopian fiction. What better way to escape the end of the world hosted by our evil slug overlords?

The Hunger Games trilogy is compulsively readable. The first book wins some sort of award for being the only reading material that has ever made me miss my bus stop. The Capitol controls the twelve districts of Panem, a country which covers territory once known as North America. The primary device for this control is the annual Hunger Games, in which one boy and one girl from each district are chosen by lottery to fight to the death in a manipulated arena on live television until only one remains. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers herself for the Games when her twelve-year-old sister is chosen. The trilogy is executed in a spare and accessible style with unexpected twists and a powerful ending.   

If you balk at reading teen fiction, now is your chance to get over it. Really. Everyone else has, and you're missing out. The Hunger Games is now part of the Lucky Day collection, so may the odds be ever in your favor.

Pages

Subscribe to