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 love Christmas music, and I am not embarrassed. I love to sing Christmas songs and I love to play the Christmas records my Mom played when I was growing up, especially Johnny Mathis’ Merry Christmas.

But years of retail work spoiled too many Christmas songs for me. In retail, hearing bubblegum cover versions of “Wonderful Christmastime” multiple times a day for nearly three months straight is an inevitable occupational hazard.

I’m not about to let the season’s rabid consumerism ruin all my fun. You don’t have to, either. Take back Christmas music by creating your own holiday programming at home with offbeat selections from the library’s extensive selection of Christmas CDs. Here are some of my favorites.

The Original Soul Christmas, a compilation originally released in 1968, offers funky delights aplenty, especially Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” whose opening riff many of us will recognize from the sample in Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” It’s both Christmas-y and groovy all at once, and great for parties.

Best known as the original vocalist for Judas Priest, Rob Halford might seem an unlikely musician to record a Christmas album. His Winter Songs offers a mixed bag of classics and originals, but it’s worth listening to just for the mighty metal glory of his uptempo yet appropriately majestic “We Three Kings.”

My most beloved of the library’s Christmas CDs is Mario Lanza Sings Christmas Carols. The Italian-American tenor from Philly with the bombastic pipes (he was the Josh Groban of the 1950s) died in 1959, the same year he recorded this collection of secular and sacred classics; it’s borderline cheesy, but I love the deliciously dated way he enunciates “fa la la la la.” Its old-timey charm sets my heart aglow with transmissions from yore.

(And a here’s a bonus! You can download the aforementioned “Christmas in Hollis” from our Freegal service. Thanks, Library Santa!)

 

Today, as I sit to write this, it’s the day after Black Friday (Grey Saturday?). The Oregonian and The Wall Street Journal both have front-page photos of crazed shoppers in queues, loading carts with deeply discounted merchandise; yesterday’s USA Today had a cover story about the abundance of seasonal retail jobs. Employment rates, shopping. It’s all covered to death. But who’s talking about the daily lives of people working those low-paying jobs?

That’s what prompted me to pick up Caitlin Kelly’s Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail. Kelly, a 50-something career journalist, was laid off from her job reporting for a major newspaper. Tired of the isolation of freelancing from home and unable to find a permanent position, Kelly got a part-time job at the North Face store in the mall in her affluent community. At first, she enjoyed the solidarity she found with her co-workers and the challenges of thinking on her feet, but after two and a half years she quit, drained and demoralized.

Kelly struggles with tired feet, rushed breaks, and growing resentment at the impossible policies of an unseen corporate office. She also finds helping customers exhilarating. Retail work is funny that way: a monkey could do it, but it takes a clever, extroverted human to do it well.

According to Kelly, one-fifth of American business is retail, worth 4 trillion dollars a year. But “the money that stores devote to their labor budgets--between 8 and 13 percent--is almost always the absolute least...take away decently compensated employment that matters to us, and our souls begin to die.” Lots of people who’d otherwise love their retail careers quit in frustration or become soul-less retail robots, because the company employing them does not love them back.

Kelly’s writing from the perspective of an outsider who went inside, just as Barbara Ehrenreich did in her now-classic Nickel and Dimed. For a different perspective, try the anthology The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles, where writers share their most horrific memories from the retail jobs they had before they became established authors. Be glad these people won’t be ringing up your purchases this season.

What about the millions of other retail workers who don’t have a book deal to escape to? Keep them in mind, no matter which side of the cash wrap you may find yourself.

If you judged the book Mr. Chartwell by its cover, you might think “Oh, a charming dog story.” Well, not exactly. The central character of Rebecca Hunt’s debut novel is indeed a dog named Mr. Chartwell.  However, he is not a happy, loving creature. No, Mr. Chartwell, also known as Black Pat, haunts his humans in rather dark, oppressive ways.

The story takes place in England in 1964, during the last days of Winston Churchill’s political career. In fact, Churchill is one of the novel’s main characters. It helps to know that the real Winston Churchill suffered from recurrent depression which he referred to as “the black dog.” Another principal character is a young, grieving woman named Esther. Esther works in the library at the House of Commons, has recently lost her husband, and is looking to take in a boarder to help cover expenses.

As the story unfolds, Black Pat frequently visits both Churchill and the young widow, bringing his strangely powerful charms with him. While Churchill has made his peace with the mutt’s presence, Esther is taken aback by the smelly, talking canine that answers her ad for a boarder. Will Black Pat stay on permanently? Time will tell.

Yes, Mr. Chartwell requires you to suspend your disbelief just a bit. Not only does the dog represent the oppressive nature of depression, he engages his unfortunate companions in regular conversation.  Even so, Hunt’s clever storytelling works. The novel reaches a satisfying conclusion when the lives of the legendary leader and the struggling young woman intersect. Engaging characters, humorous dialogue, and a powerful metaphor combine to make Mr. Chartwell a most enjoyable read.

All of us have times when no book satisfies. An empty space screams for a good read, but one after another disappoints. You want something that is just like X, but also completely different. Something intelligent but not too cute about it. Something comfortable but not worn out.

The one book that will cure your no-book blues is: ha! Just kidding. We’re all different, and different today than we were yesterday. I picked up The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay three times before it drew me in, but when it did I discovered it was a wonderfully written bit of the divine, the Book I Needed.

I’m developing a theory on how to break through these moments: Don’t dip into your ‘to-read’ list, instead, take a leap into the unknown. Always chasing the latest Booker Prize winner? How about a thriller, say, L A Outlaws: good cop meets bandit queen schoolteacher. Been on a Scandinavian mystery bender? Try a historical novel, maybe An Instance of the Fingerpost: chunky, complex & brilliant.

In other words, when everything tastes tired, refresh your palate. And remember: we're here to help.

Welcome to our new guest blogger Sarah, who says this about her interests:  I read a boatload of non-fiction, mostly about ancient science/archeoastronomy, physics, and human social behavior/culture. I love bizarro and cult fiction, live for Fridays when a new issue of Entertainment Weekly arrives in my mailbox, have never met a cartoon I didn’t like, and actually have that drinking problem from the Airplane! movies (does anyone have a towel I can borrow?). 

Your feet are dragging. It’s the end of a long week and you’re spent. Your mind is beginning to draft that clever excuse to your body explaining why you won’t be in the gym tonight. If only there was some way to get SUPER PUMPED-UP RIGHT NOW! Well, you’re in luck. Listening to The Chaos, last year's release from The Futureheads should do the trick. A frenetic, euphoric, (and yet strangely, not chaotic) album produced by Youth (aka Martin Glover) of Killing Joke fame, The Chaos is packed with enough post-punk energy to launch you into interstellar flight, as promised by singer Barry Hynde in the titular track, “5,4,3,2,1...Let’s GO! Let’s travel at the speed of light, in a split-second we’ll be out of sight.”

If you aren’t familiar with this Sunderland quartet, you will love the powerful tension that develops between their herky-jerky guitar riffs, poppy brain-worm hooks, and sugarplum four-part harmonies, as beautifully illustrated on their eponymous debut (The Futureheads, 2004), produced in part by Gang of Four’s Andy Gill. Working with producers like Gill is particularly fitting as the debt owed to bands like Gang of Four, and XTC is on full display in any song randomly selected from The Futureheads’ canon. Plus, they’ve got those lovely extreme Northeast English/almost Scottish accents which come beaming through the music, lending it a special authenticity of time and place (if you like The Proclaimers singing “f-eye-ve hoon-drad my-les” in "I'm Gonna Be", then you're gonna love this.) Several of these tracks also make great additions to your Soundtrack for the Revolution (“I’m gladly watching as the walls come tumbling down, what you pulling out your hair for, let’s dance as it hits the floor” from The Baron), deftly mixing quasi-political lyrics with hip-shaking, head-bopping beats.
So, check this out, pop it in the player and get ready to dance it out. I dare you to sit still.

This post is a follow up to Dana's previous post on Christmas albums. Below Dana heps us to some of the choice singles in our Christmas Music collection.

Elvis Presley, "Merry Christmas Baby". Like most of his albums, Elvis' many Christmas albums are largely filled with dreck (you can thank his manager, Col. Parker, for that). But left to his own devices Elvis sang Charles Brown's Xmas blues with pure delight. Mix tape gold.

Otis Redding, "White Christmas". Available on various Christmas compilations, which all seem to have "Soul" in the title. And rightly so, this is what soul music is supposed to be -- proof that everybody's got soul, but some people just make you feel it more. The key lyric here is "dreaming", but definitely not expecting, that all his days will be "merry and bright".

Willie Nelson, "Pretty Paper". Many new songs are written for the holidays each year, but precious few are added to the canon. This one should be, if it hasn't already. It's the tale of a down and out guy reduced to trying to sell wrapping paper to holiday shoppers too busy to even notice him. Willie sings it like he's been there. There, but for the grace of god, go you and I.
 

While I love watching a good stage musical, I have always been more fascinated by the view behind-the-scenes. From the initial writing and composing to the auditions, rehearsals, staging, set and lighting design, and costuming, a Broadway production involves a lot of people spending a lot of time together for months on end, creating drama well before the curtain rises. Two recent documentaries did a brilliant job of bringing me backstage.

If you were a 9-year-old girl sometime between 1977 and 1983, the odds are good that you wanted to be an orphan. The musical Annie was a huge hit on Broadway, plus there were four touring companies and a film version; that’s a lot of little girls getting paid to sing and dance. The documentary Life After Tomorrow revisits those “orphans” 30 years later to get their firsthand accounts of sudden fame, stage parents, rehearsals, rivalry, and the devastation of puberty when you are a child actor. Those interviewed include some still-famous women (actress Sarah Jessica Parker, MSNBC anchor Dara Brown) and others who have distanced themselves from show business as much as possible. The film ends with some sweet and funny reunions where the now all-grown-up women find that they remember much of their choreography 25 years after their last performances.

Every Little Step is a documentary about the auditions for the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, the celebrated musical about auditioning for a Broadway musical. (Meta, anyone?) We get to know some of the young men and women moving through the increasingly difficult process; interspersed with their stories are interviews with, and footage of some of the original participants in the workshops that led to the writing of the play. Like the play itself, this film is heart-wrenching, suspenseful, and hysterical.

For a behind-the-scenes look at plays that were not so successful, check out Kate’s entry on Broadway flops on the library’s Furthermore... blog.

 

Not once a year, but every day,
to keep those nasty brain-eaters at bay;
Fill your greedy little mind
with candy of a different kind:
books on science, works of fiction
vampire films and books on diction.

And where would you get this stuff, primarily?
Find it all at your local librarirly.

Because walking-dead, gray-matter-feeders
turn up their noses at avid readers!

(And here's a little music to go with that.)

You're welcome.

Please welcome our newest blogger, Sara B.! She has this to say about herself: I’m a former arts and entertainment reporter who loves to root out common threads running through the books and media I happily stumble across daily. At the library, I feel like a kid in a candy store where everything is free.  

Hippies, punks, jocks, rednecks, preps, heschers -- everyone loves Creedence Clearwater Revival, and even those who don’t can’t be bothered to hate them. CCR songs are such a part of our collective pop culture that their hooks have become part of our bodily being, inhaled through accumulated listenings on classic rock radio, worn-out copies of Chronicle, and blaring stereos at beery gatherings.

Like the blue jeans and flannel shirts favored by John Fogerty, Creedence’s catalog is so comfortable it’s easy to take for granted. Stumbling on a copy of the 2001 box set simply titled Creedence Clearwater Revival reminded me not only why Creedence matters, but how visceral their music is. It also reconnected me with a period in the mid-1990s when, young and rootless and unhappy, I was a Creedence maniac. The working-class aesthetic of songs like “Willie and the Poor Boys” and “Don’t Look Now” helped me feel grounded, and the mythical rural South they painted was a soulful place to escape to.   

Then I moved to California, and I just didn’t seem to need CCR as much. Ironically, I was living just miles from El Cerrito, the band’s quiet and unremarkable hometown. Like many, I’d always assumed CCR sprouted from some Louisiana swamp, and discovering their actual suburban roots perplexed me.

Creedence started out as a run-of-the-mill teenage garage band, playing rock’n’roll and devouring R&B songs. The story of how they morphed into America’s least assuming blockbuster rock group is lovingly outlined by critics including Ed Ward and Robert Christgau in the fat and juicy liner notes accompanying the Creedence box set. Lacking earthiness in sleepy El Cerrito, Fogerty and his bandmates simply manufactured it, most audibly in Fogerty’s meaty drawl.

My husband noticed the sudden abundance of CCR in our lives and quoted from The Big Lebowski, in which the band’s music is a leitmotif for The Dude’s ideal headspace (note how, once The Dude’s Creedence tapes disappear, the movie’s plot really careens into un-Dudeliness).

When was the last time you actually listened to a Creedence song? Do so and The Dude’s headspace can be yours, my friend. Times for us are tough; many people are suffering and unhappy. That our divided society can find unity in CCR’s music is not only a pleasure, but a solace. They give us the strength to keep on chooglin’.

I do so love a good debut or two. Farlander by Col Buchanan, the first in a new series, introduces a steampunk world with basic pistols, dirigibles and acid rain pollution along with the standard fantasy trappings. There's a corrupt and evil empire and an order of assassin monks, the Roshun, who will sell the wealthy and paranoid an amulet. If the person wearing and bonded to the amulet dies by anything other than natural causes the monks will provide blood vengeance. The murderer will die and no other person will need to start a blood feud. Given how often everyone seems to expect the services of the Roshun to be needed, those that purchase an amulet aren't really being all that paranoid. Farlander isn't absolute perfection - there's a little new novel roughness. For example, there's never any doubt that the evil empire is Evil... and enjoying it. But it is interesting, fast-paced and fun. Find out what happens next in the recently released book two: Stands a Shadow.

I recently read J.M. McDermott's second novel Never Knew Another. There are children of demons whose blood and sweat corrupts the very ground. Touching one will sicken and eventually kill any human.  The demon-sired children are being hunted down by a priestly order of skin-walkers, wolfish even in human skin. It is death to aid a demon and death to be a demon - even if all you want to do is hide and not hurt anybody. The wolf priests find it necessary to burn down contaminated buildings or even entire sections of town to purify the corruption. They count the resulting human pain and loss as no more than a minor pity. The humans still have their lives after all. The church will see they don't starve or freeze to death, so even if someone loses everything, they are at least alive, and not spreading the demon sickness. 

It's a little different for the genre. The writing style is meant to convey the not-quite-human perspective of the wolf priestess. The author seems to be aiming for literary fantasy. It's very fast paced: I was 100 pages into it the first time I sat down with it. It's the first in a series and I'm really looking forward to book two. The author's first book, Last Dragon, came out in 2008 and I'm putting a hold on that first unrelated stand-alone title just on the strength of writing in this book.

Welcome to our new blogger Katie, who has lived in Portland most of her life and never thought her high school library job would evolve into a lifelong (hopefully!) career. She worked as a news writer and reporter in a previous life and especially appreciates efficient, powerful writing. She also loves music, documentaries, quirky characters, stories of triumph over adversity, dogs, and tap dancing.

Produce clear, concise copy - that was my task as a college intern in a radio news department. I spent several hours a day rewriting news wire content. Like many aspiring journalists, I dreamed of writing feature stories – genuine human interest pieces that allowed the freedom to tell a story or make a point in more than one to two paragraphs. These are the kinds of stories you will find in The Fiddler in the Subway by Gene Weingarten.

Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer and humor columnist for The Washington Post. The Fiddler in the Subway collects some of his best work into one not-to-be-missed volume. The book’s title comes from one of the pieces for which Weingarten won a Pulitzer. The idea behind the story was to conduct an experiment. Place a world-renowned violinist, Joshua Bell, in a busy Washington, D.C. subway station, with some loose change in his nearby violin case. How would passersby react? Would they recognize this top-notch musician in his jeans, t-shirt and baseball cap? More importantly, would they know and appreciate the quality and beauty of the music? The story reveals much about the power of context and the way in which people move through their busy lives, often oblivious to what is happening around them. Joshua Bell, who plays a Stradivarius violin worth more than three million dollars and fills concert halls the world over, made about $32 dollars that day. Of the 1,097 people who passed by Bell that January morning, seven of them stopped to listen for at least a minute.

Now, I suppose you could draw some doom-and-gloom conclusions about the state of humanity from this story. But Weingarten doesn’t do that at all. He doesn’t do that in any of his pieces. He simply observes the human condition in a variety of settings and circumstances, and writes about it, completely engaging and entertaining the reader along the way. Weingarten is a humor writer after all, and the way he describes many of his subjects will have you laughing out loud.  Take “The Great Zucchini,” the story of a much sought-after children’s entertainer who commands $300 per birthday party and does things like pour water on his head and eat toilet paper. What is it about this college dropout with no fancy costumes or props that has him booked solid months in advance? Weingarten is determined to find out, and he does, revealing a somewhat complicated but entirely human character who relates to children on their own level.

The Fiddler in the Subway offers many other gems, including the story of the ghost writer of the Hardy Boys novels, a profile of the intensely private cartoonist Garry Trudeau, and the search for the city most deserving of the official “Armpit of America” title. Weingarten’s diverse collection of well-written stories proves that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, and just as entertaining.

Welcome to Joanna, a new blogger for EOR. She has this to say about herself: After a tropical childhood, I stumbled upon Portland and decided to sit for a spell; nearly twenty years later, it appears that I'm here to stay. I am an enthusiastically geeky Library Assistant, which means that I sometimes approach strangers in coffee shops to gush about library databases. When it comes to my media intake, I am omnivorous: I will read or watch anything if the characters grab me and don't let go. I don't leave the house without a book. I still think A Bargain for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban is one of the smartest books ever written.

When I can't sleep at night, I am sometimes haunted by cringe-worthy embarrassments I suffered in high school. Maybe I'm just a little too in touch with my inner 14-year-old, but I love books that capture teen angst and the way our adolescent mortification reverberates into adulthood. I couldn't help but fall in love with Celia West, the 20-something protagonist of After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn.

Celia has just been kidnapped. Again. It’s the worst thing about being the child of the world’s greatest superheroes; well, that and knowing that you will never, ever, live up to your parents’ expectations. The crushing sense that she was a disappointment led Celia to a teenage rebellion that was a shocking betrayal to her parents; she joined up with their archival, ubervillain Destructor. Seven years later and she’s still dealing with the repercussions; meanwhile, she's trying to use her skills as an accountant to solve Commerce City’s latest crime wave. Also, she might be falling in love with the mayor’s son. And she’s broke. Oh, and she’s trying to avoid being kidnapped. Again.

After the Golden Age is a snappy mystery about family, identity, forgiveness, and what it means to be a hero. Now if I could just stop thinking about that time in the cafeteria...

Welcome to Dana, a new blogger for EOR, who has this to say about himself: I've worked for Multnomah County Library for fourteen years.  I play C-melody sax and plan to blog some about our great sheet music collection. I also worked in record stores here and in the Twin Cities and wrote about music semi-professionally in a former life.

At most branches they only come out once a year, and fly off the shelves once they're on display. Given the constraints of a (largely) set repertoire and seasonal appropriateness, how many Christmas CDs does one need for a truly Happy Holidaze? Yet, IMHO, great Artists have no problem putting their personal stamp on shopworn seasonal fare. And there's still plenty of time to place holds and get things right on time without having to revert to the Orthodox/Julian calendar. So here are a few suggestions to help you explore some of the many approaches to music making found in our libraries under the call number CD Xmas.

Phil Spector's Christmas Album, a/k/a A Christmas Gift to You (1963). Yes, I know he's nuts and in prison and deservedly so. Nonetheless, this is arguably the greatest rock 'n roll Xmas album ever, indisputably the most imitated. It was pulled from its scheduled release (in 'the States', not the UK) because of president Kennedy's assassination, which no doubt blunted its initial impact (by the next year, everything had changed in popular music). The infamous Wall of Sound is applied to standard seasonal fare and one original, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", which got Darlene Love in the Hall of Fame and on Letterman every year forever. Crystals, Ronnettes, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, not to mention the Wrecking Crew and various hangers-on, were roped into playing sleigh-bells so they could have enough on the track without having to overdub.

Brothers of the Baladi, A Time of Peace (1999). At first blush it may strike your ears as strange to hear these oh so familiar tunes done up in Middle Eastern instrumentation.  But last time I checked, that's where that Little Town of Bethlehem was. You know, where all this Christmas stuff started.  And after you get used to it, it just sounds good.

John Fahey, The New Possibility (1968). The late steel string guitar guru had any number of holiday platters on offer, but he got it (most strikingly) right with this, the first one. definitely a different perspective -- stark, austere, bracing as a blast of cold air, traditional carols are here made new again by taking them back to what was presumably their original sense of wonder and awe.

Boston Camerata, Medieval Christmas (1975). When you get good and tired of the usual mall muzak, set the Wayback Machine for your favorite century/era/epoch and there you go. Everything olde is new again. If this is nostalgia for you, someone needs to call the Guinness Book.

Welcome to Enji, a new blogger for EOR. She says this about her reading interests: I tend to gravitate toward fantasy, scifi, and young adult books for my light reading, any genre for those books that call for a discussion, and kids and young adult books for listening.  My TV viewing runs along the same lines, almost anything BBC, and I have a strange pacifist's fascination for the cop shows.

The thing I have come to love about being part of a book group is that it forces me to read books I wouldn't ordinarily choose.

Some of these very books, the ones I wouldn't have picked up myself, are the very ones that become my favorites of that year.  I doubt I would have noticed The Echo Maker if it hadn't been on my book group's reading list.  Sure, it explores the nature of the self, and I love that stuff, but it's set in Nebraska (nothing against Nebraska), and I wasn't too sure it sounded like a story that could be pulled off.  What I discovered is a richly layered book, full of metaphor and the meaning of life.  It contains so much more than the story of a man with the rare brain disorder called Capgras Syndrome.

Some people are helped, and some are hindered, by the knowledge that a book was chosen to be an Oprah Book Club selection.  I tend to stay away from those, so I avoided Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True. But I was blown away by this story of twins, one schizophrenic, one not, who have never known who their father was. The story of their grandfather within the story speaks to theirs, and there's a surprise twist at the end about their family history.

I had my doubts about Ahab's Wife, or, The Star-Gazer. I figured it takes a bit of hubris to write a book from the flip side of the truly great Moby Dick. It turns out, perhaps thanks to Moby Dick, I have a soft spot for sea-going novels.  While Ahab's wife Una spent a greater amount of time next to the sea and on the sea before she ever met Ahab, her sea adventures do not disappoint...and this author dares to go further than Melville with her shipwrecked sailors.  I absolutely loved Una's narration of her childhood spent on a lighthouse island.  If this book has any flaw, it's that it goes too far with something I call the Forrest Gump effect.  Una crossed paths with a few too many literary figures, and trends of the times, for my tastes...but even that did not affect my love for the book.

Read all the books in No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and looking for another good read?
Check out A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson.

Mr. Malik has been secretly in love with Rose Mbikwa who has been leading the Tuesday bird walks. Now he faces competition from an old rival of his schooldays. The two decide to make a deal. The one to identify the most species of birds in a week's time will have the privilege of asking Rose Mbikwa to the Asadi Club's annual ball in Nairobi, Kenya.

This is a charmer of a book with an old-fashioned feel.

There's nothing more enjoyable then tucking in to a lovely gothic suspense story on a crisp fall day. Neil Gaiman, author of a long list of beloved books, including Anansi Boys, Coraline and Sandman, agrees. Recently, he suggested a new Hallowe'en tradition - rather than candy, give a scary read this year. The treat this season is that several authors have released creepy books that you'll be hard pressed to put down when the trick-or-treaters ring your bell.

Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman is a fine choice for those who like a good old-fashioned scare, along the lines of Peter Straub. Frank Nichols returns from World War I, somewhat the worse for wear, bearing both physical and psychological scars. But things look brighter when he falls hopelessly in love with Eudora, a beautiful and intelligent woman who is equally infatuated with Frank. Together they pack up and move to a small town in Georgia. Frank's recently deceased aunt has left her house to Frank, with the express wish that he sell it. But Frank is anxious to start on his book, a history of the life of his powerful and eccentric great grandfather, a local plantation owner reviled for his cruelty to his slaves. Frank and Dora are welcomed by the villagers, but become uneasy when they hear stories about a mysterious group of people living across the river. The advice to the couple? "Don't go there". You can guess whether Frank heeds it or not.

Charles Frazier's Nightwoods combines gothic elements and a growing sense of menace. The story is set in a small town populated by eccentric and sometimes disturbed characters. Luce is the daughter of a hard-hearted mother and a drug addicted father who is also the town's lawman. After she is raped, Luce gives up on socializing with the town's sorry mix of misfits and on humanity in general. She sets up a hermitage across the lake in an abandoned lodge. She is enjoying her own company just fine until a social worker from the state shows up with two feral children, her niece and nephew. Their mother has been murdered by their sociopathic father, Bud. Luce doesn't love the children, who seem damaged beyond repair, but she knows she has an obligation to her sister. She tries to create a sanctuary for the kids. Unfortunately, their father is not done with them, and the situation intensifies when Luce realizes that Bud has tracked the children to the lodge.

A few others: Colson Whitehead's Zone One, an exploration of existential crisis brought on by zombies, and the graphic novel version of the hit series, The Walking Dead. What's your favorite read for a Hallowe'een night? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

I love an action show; give me explosions and I'm a happy camper. So when someone recommended Chuck to me, I was willing to give this action/comedy/science fiction show a try.

Chuck, the title character, is introduced as an underachieving slacker with some personal issues that he's not working out, thanks in part to his sister's well-meaning enabling. Chuck's old college roommate arranges to have a "sufficiently advanced technology" computer downloaded into Chuck's head. Chuck's brain is loaded with all the intelligence that the National Intelligence Agencies have, and their physical database is blown up.

If Chuck sees or hears something that's in the database, he has a flash of intelligence on the topic. Suddenly Chuck's an 'asset', with 'handlers' -- and the too-tall bumbling nerd (with all the athletic skills you'd expect in a computer repairman who spends his free time playing video games) is stuck in a string of spying expeditions, scared out of his wits.

Then Season Two rolled around...and I really fell for the show. Chuck grows as a person, his sister and friend change, his handlers become three dimensional. Plus, Chuck is a decent human being who really wants to do the right thing and cares about his family and friends. The writers made me care, and I want this character to get a happy ending!

Lastly, I'll deny being a sucker for a romance with my final breath, but there may be a pretty decent love story somewhere in there. I might possibly want her to have a happy ending, too.

Recently I've been on a bit of a way back kick for my movie tastes. No, not WAY way back. But back far enough to see how films from the 80s have held up over time. I grabbed a copy of the original Tron and plunked down to watch it last week. By today's standards, the graphics and computer animation seems clunky. It was 1982 after all! But what's interesting is that it actually holds up over time. And while it didn't gross much at the box office (the arcade game actually made more money than the film), it quickly became a cult favorite.

Two of the film's biggest fans have a bit of a cult following of their own, the duo known as Daft Punk. I've written of my love for them before, but what's great is that they came up with the musical score to Tron's sequel, Tron: Legacy. Sure, the sequel has better graphics, but the score is a glimpse into the true capabilities of Daft Punk. Working with an 85-piece orchestra, they were able to give the sequel the appropriate futuristic electronic funk for which they are so well known.

An animated series called Tron: Uprising is scheduled to premiere in 2012. Let's hope it will stand the test of time as well as Tron, the first.

You know it’s only a matter of time - already your computer corrects you when you make a typo or reminds you to take your vitamins. Pretty soon they’ll be sentient, and when they wise up and start taking a look at the mess mankind has made of the planet they might come up with a highly organized plan to fix it - a plan includes getting rid of the species that mucked everything up in the first place. That’s the premise behind Daniel H.Wilson’s Robopocalypse.

In a not so future world, just about every manufactured thing includes a computer chip. Your car has a computer, your vacuum cleaner has a computer, the building you live in has a computer that regulates the light and the heat. Companion robots help with all aspects of your life. It's a wonderful world until a master computer surpasses its maker and becomes sentient. It determines that mankind is a species that has become an infestation. Linking itself to all the computers in the world, large and small, it begins to direct a plan of human annihilation. Suddenly crossing the street or walking through an automatic door becomes a life and death matter.Wilson's familiarity with robots comes from his work as a robotics engineer. The book is slated to be made into a film in 2013, with Stephen Spielberg directing.

Wilson's work is thrilling stuff, comfortably on the side of fiction. A more optimistic view of the rise of our robot overlords is found in the nonfiction work The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. His view is that soon (yes, soon) the ever-doubling power of computer chips will lead to computers solving problems that are beyond humanity's grasp. And humanity will cross into a new reality.

So is it the fight of our lives, or nanobot-enabled immortality? Either way, I'm not ready.

Flann O'Brien, né Brian O'Nolan, aka Myles na gCopaleen was born 100 years ago today.

I've been an O'Flanngelist since I was a teen. His novels are exuberant, wildly intelligent, and like nothing else.

NPR called his The Third Policeman "The funniest, and scariest, book ever written." Narrated by an amoral would-be academic, it features fake footnotes, policemen who greet every inquiry with "Is it about a bicycle?", and...er...eternity. Our hero, such as he is, has lost his gold watch, much to the disbelief of the policeman who cannot imagine why anyone would steal anything other than a bicycle. "Never in my puff did I hear of any man stealing anything but a bicycle when he was in his sane senses. [...] If we ever find the watch I have a feeling there will be a bell and pump on it."

It may be too late to get to Dublin in time for the Centenary Conference, but surely you can secure some sort of transportation -- a bicycle, perhaps -- and become acquainted with Flann.

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