An Embarrassment of Riches

An Embarrassment of Riches is a blog about the best the library has to offer. From audio books to movies, from novels to zines, library staff and guest bloggers will tell you about their latest library discoveries. Read. Watch. Listen. Chat.

I don't 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.

OK. I know there are a lot of holds on this, but trust me, it's worth the wait. Tangled was the most fun I had at the movies last year. I went to go see it with three other adults and we all agreed, including the one guy, that it was great. It's funny, it has catchy little songs and it's just charming. I watched it again recently with two teen-aged relatives and my mother and they all loved it too.

It's a retelling of the Rapunzel story. You've got the princess trapped in the tower except this time she has magic hair and her prince is a scoundrel with a good heart. There's a pet chameleon that's obviously intelligent and a horse with magical abilities. But it all works, even for an adult viewer, if you're willing to go with the magic for just 100 minutes. You can go back to being a grownup who knows better later. So, go get in touch with your inner child and watch a cartoon. This one is worth it.

A lot of people go through a crisis of sorts when they hit their forties, but in literature - at least in the books that I've been reading lately - things seem to go wackily and spectacularly wrong when characters enter midlife. In The Widow's Season by Laura Brodie, Sarah's forty-three year old husband goes on a short kayaking trip one day and after a huge storm, never returns. His kayak turns up, but his body doesn't and most people assume that he drowned. Sarah doesn't have the closure she wants, but believes that her husband is dead. She believes, that is, until she sees him at the grocery store. She also sees him other places including the churchyard right after his memorial service. And then there's the sighting on Halloween night. Maybe David isn't dead? Maybe he's just had enough of his old life and wants a change. Brodie kept me guessing right up until the end.

I wasn't even going to mention Chronicles of a Midlife Crisis by Robyn Harding, but then I read some reviews on Good Reads and discovered that there weren't very many other people who felt the way I did about it: that the characters were a bunch of self-absorbed, loathsome, childish losers; not to mention that the story was something like a cross between a National Enquirer cover story and the movie Fatal Attraction. It starts out well enough with some humor about how Lucy should have known that her husband of sixteen years was cheating on her (he's wearing skinny-legged trousers and using wrinkle cream - hello!). The story is told in back-and-forth fashion between Lucy and Trent. The more I read, the more I absolutely hated the characters. Not only is Trent involved with a psycho, but then Lucy starts seeing a teen celebrity (although really he's twenty-seven and just playing a teenage character on television) who happens to be her daughter's biggest star crush. Drama and severe stupidity ensues. But as I noted earlier, there were plenty of people on Good Reads who enjoyed it. One of the good things about reading midlife crisis fiction is that you can be pretty sure that your own drama will probably never be as bad!

Coming up with the perfect next read can feel like trying to scratch an itch just out of reach: sometimes there's a craving for something in that charmed middle ground - not genre fiction, not a series, not one of the warhorse classics - but how to find it?

Though most readers probably don't think much about specific publishers, and even less of searching the library catalog by publisher's name, here are two richly rewarding ones guaranteed to supply years of engaging and often offbeat reading: Europa (also Europa Editions) and New York Review of Books (search also New York Review Books, without "of", and the series New York Review Books classics.).

Perhaps best known for their bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Europa offers a wide array of sophisticated international literature, much of it, like Hedgehog, in translation. Jane Gardam's Old Filth (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong) is the sharp, funny, and moving story of an expat English lawyer and his wife dealing with retirement in the motherland after years abroad, and is just one example of the excellent choices on hand from Europa.

The New York Review of Books has undertaken to reissue wonderful but neglected older books, including novels, memoirs, travel writing, and children's literature. One not to miss is  Richard Hughes' deeply weird A High wind in Jamaica, a story of inept pirates and kidnapped children sometimes compared to Lord of the Flies, but Golding's book is bland as butterscotch compared to this disturbing little masterpiece. Gregor von Rezzori's unforgettable portrait of his family in the obscure corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called the Bukovina, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, is one of those books which, once read, just begs to be passed along to a friend. And foodies will love Elizabeth David's A Book of Mediterranean Food, written during a time of gray post-WWII privation, which opened a sunny window onto views of olive and lemon groves for the ration-weary English.

Both of these publishers will steer the reader towards something completely new, or - just as fulfilling - towards one of those great, familiar-sounding authors one always meant to get around to reading.

Our guest blogger is Naomi, who is a librarian at the Midland library.

For me, one of the highlights of a recent conference was meeting author Devon Monk and being introduced to her Allie Beckstrom series. Devon Monk lives in Salem, Oregon with her husband, two sons and a dog named Mojo. She has sold over fifty short stories to fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, and young adult magazines and anthologies. Her stories have been published in five countries and included in a Year’s Best Fantasy anthology. She is currently writing two series, including the Allie Beckstrom books (Magic to the Bone, Magic in the Blood, Magic in the Shadows, Magic on the Storm, Magic at the Gate). Her latest book in the series, Magic on the Hunt, is due out this month and you can hear her read from it at the Midland Library on Sunday April 10th from 2-4 p.m.

In the Allie Beckstrom series, you are transported to a Portland where magic has become a commodity to better the lives of the masses - all made possible by Allie Beckstrom’s father, the CEO of the company. Of course there are those people who are the real holders of magic. In the first book, Magic to the Bone, Allie doesn’t realize how much magic she holds. She’s too busy scraping by as a hound, a person with magical powers who is brought to the scene of a magic crime to help the police. No one, except other hounds, know the physical toll the use of these magical powers has on the body. And then her father, who she has always despised, is murdered.
Living in Allie Beckstrom’s Portland is like living in an alternate Portland - both familiar, yet different. The hounds will remind you of the homeless kids you see hanging out in Pioneer square or the front of the downtown library. Allie hangs out at her favorite coffee place which is oh so familiar to those of us who live here. And so much takes place in St. Johns, the one area of Portland not wired for magic with the most dramatic scenes taking place under the St. Johns bridge.

Please join us on April 10th at the Midland Library to hear this engaging author in person.

Recently Heidi wrote about The Tudors in this blog, reminding me of my own failed attempt to watch that program. Which is not to fault the program - it’s likely that I would have really enjoyed it - if I had not read Wolf Hall first.

Wolf Hall is about Henry’s advisor Thomas Cromwell, and over the course of reading I had grown to think of Thomas Cromwell as ‘Cromwell my Cromwell’.

Throughout the book Hilary Mantel creates a feeling that you are sitting on Cromwell’s shoulder, experiencing the world with him, from the blacksmith’s son to the Cardinal’s councilor to the King’s chief minister. Through humiliation, manipulation, and the plague.

And I adored Mantel’s Cromwell, this extremely intelligent, ruthlessly pragmatic man, who loves his family so deeply and understands that they are all just as human as he is. The writing in Wolf Hall is not complex, but the ideas are -- power, the Reformation, the inevitably democratizing effects of literacy.

It gave me a hunger for more on the Tudors. So I tried A Man for all Seasons, various BBC documentaries, and The Tudors. None satisfied.

I only want ‘my Cromwell’, not other representations. Or the facts.

Simple enough to remember and a glorious, larger than life story to watch.

I just finished watching The Tudors, the story of King Henry VIII and his six wives. The writing and acting are good and the costumes and settings beautiful. The beheadings, burnings, battle scenes, hangings, urine, feces, vomit, blood, scabrous beggars... well, those just add a little accurate historical color. There's one execution in particular where the screams of the condemned - well, the actor really hit the right pitch to convey the hysterically desperate howl of a man in mortal agony and terror. I suspect he had a sore throat by the end of the filming that scene. I admit to a little queasiness after that scene.

The drama of a king who thinks himself divinely appointed, who holds the power of life and death and has a horde of wives and mistresses to get through in four short seasons makes for interesting television. The history isn't too bad either, though Showtime wanted good television, not a history lesson.

Each episode left me wondering what would happen next. The characters of the wives were well drawn. One was just too stupid to live, another a tragic figure. Wife number four, Anne of Cleves, actually got a rather good deal out of her hasty obedience to the king's demand for divorce. She was given a settlement that left her wealthy and was treated with friendship by the king, all because she was clever enough to see the headman's ax in the shadows.

The four seasons of The Tudors served as an admirable distraction while I wait impatiently for Game of Thrones on HBO this April 17th.  If it comes close to the quality of The Tudors in acting, writing and production, I'll be nigh ecstatic.

Does our gloomy weather get you down?  Would you like to have a new way of thinking about things?  Would you like to spend some time in a warmer and sunnier location, maybe do some things that would give you more pleasure in life?
The women in the following movies find pleasure almost by accident. Their senses are reawakened in different ways. In each one of the films, there is a very special scene where you may find yourself saying YES or maybe laughing out loud with the characters.

Babette’s Feast, takes place in a village in Denmark after the Paris uprising in 1871. It is based on a story by Isak Dinesen, which can be found in a collection of stories by the author called Anecdotes of Destiny.  Babette is a political refugee from France where, unknown to the Danish villagers, she was a gourmet chef.  She meets two sisters and out of the goodness of their hearts, they allow her to work as their cook and housekeeper in exchange for room and board. The two sisters lead a rather grim life where the atmosphere is all shades of gray and their very strict religion considers all pleasures to be sinful. Their father is dead but the 100th anniversary of his birth is fast approaching and they want to hold a celebration.  Babette has recently come into some money and she wants to prepare a special feast for the event. When Babette has worked her magic on the meal and the sisters taste the food, the simultaneous look of pleasure and guilt on their faces is priceless.

The second film is Enchanted April, based on the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim.  When I first heard the title and knew nothing about the film, I thought April was a person in the film. Instead, April refers to the month of the year.  Lottie and Rose live in England.  The weather has been rather cold, wet, and gloomy, just as our Oregon weather has been. They learn about a villa in Italy that is for rent and leap at the chance to visit there. They are not alone. Two other women, Mrs. Fisher and Caroline Dester, will be sharing the villa with them. Mrs. Fisher is played by Joan Plowright and if you are familiar with her film work, she is her usual forthright self and adds a few notes of discord to the mix. The sun, the warmth and the beauty of their surroundings, however, work their magic on the four people and they begin to relax and see their senses reawaken. Even Mrs. Fisher begins to loosen up. When the husbands of several of the women join the little group, their senses are reawakened as well.
The third film is Cold Comfort Farm, based on the novel by Stella Gibbons.  It is the 1930’s and cold comfort is indeed what you will find at that farm.  An old woman, Ada Doom, mostly just stays in her room, but when she mixes with the others, she is constantly muttering to herself “something nasty in the woodshed”. Ada is, of course, a rather crazy and spooky person. Be assured, though, that by the end of the film, you will know what has happened in that woodshed.
Into the mix comes Flora Poste, who is only twenty years old and has recently lost both of her parents. Although she comes from a well-to-do family, she only has a small inheritance. She wants to become an author in the style of Jane Austen and looks for a situation where she will have a variety of experiences with a variety of personalities. When a cousin asks her to move in with the cousin’s family on the farm, she agrees to give farm living a try.
There are plenty of colorful characters to fuel Flora’s imagination. The other relatives at the farm are rather rough around the edges and Flora tries to transform them into her image of refinement. Well, you can just imagine how well that goes over with the group!  Flora soldiers on, however, and she and the other residents of the farm begin to slowly change.
Flora tries to teach one of the women, who is almost perpetually pregnant, about birth control, and the woman bursts out laughing. She cannot imagine such a thing. Chances are you will find yourself laughing right along with the woman. Of course, birth control methods in the 1930’s were very basic and not always effective, but the incident is illustrative of some of the changes Flora tries to implement. If you try this film may you find it as enjoyable as I did.
Happy viewing!

When I was a kid, I loved creepy stories: the grimmer of the Brothers Grimm fairy-tales, books of ghosts and hauntings and anything that had a mystery with history. I spent a fair amount of time on visits to Grandma's big, old house back east trying to live in those stories: running up the (long gone) servants' back staircase, scouting around the gigantic attic and searching for secret doors and hidden passages ala Nancy Drew. It would have been so cool to visit the places where some of my favorite stories originated, but my grandmother's house, fascinating though it was, was not one of them. The characters in two novels for adults I read recently were luckier.  

In Carol Goodman's Arcadia Falls, Meg Rosenthal has just snagged a teaching job at Arcadia School, an art institute for high-schoolers in upstate New York.  The school was founded in the first half of the twentieth century by several women who wrote and illustrated a haunting tale entitled "The Changeling Girl", one that Meg read to her child and one whose origins she is now researching. Being the good gothic novel that it is, secrets abound, a death occurs, the past impinges upon the present, and there is, of course, a romantic element.

The Distant Hours, Kate Morton's latest, takes place during WWII and in 1992. Driving back from a business trip, Edith comes across Milderhurst Castle, the place where the author of her favorite childhood story, "The True History of the Mud Man", lived and, coincidentally, the place where Edith's mother was evacuated to during WWII.  Now it's occupied by the author's three spinster daughters, all well beyond seventy years of age. Edith is dying to find out more about the family and her mother's stay there, but Mum isn't talking and something's being hushed up. Secrets, death, romance yada yada yada and 500 plus pages later, we know the whole story including the true "True History of the Mud Man." So pull your chair close to the fire, get your goth on, and read some slightly sinister stories the are definitely for adults during these cold and rainy March nights.

Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.

These are the words of sixteen-year-old protagonist Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell's book Winter's Bone, giving her younger brother a lesson in conduct. Their father has not been home in days and they are hungry. A family across the way, to whom they are related, has freshly killed carcasses hanging in the trees; he is wondering about requesting some of the meat.

Ree's father cooks crank and the story picks up after he is missing and in danger of skipping a court date; if he does, the family will lose the house and land--their only security, pledged to a bail bond. Ree's mother, mentally ill and a vacant shell of her former self, is a burden Ree carries without question, along with her two younger brothers. They are family, and family is all.  

This novel is atmospheric, darkly lyrical and devastating. While the gritty portrayal of hardscrabble Ozark life is striking, even more compelling is the seeming resignation and acceptance of the status quo by adults, children and the law. The questioning Ree is a lone and exposed nail waiting for the hammer of the system to come down. She is clear-eyed about the risk she is taking but she also knows that without that risk she will sacrifice her life and the futures of her small brothers to the ravenous and self-perpetuating cycle of drugs and poverty.

She knows that searching for her father will take her deeper into darkness than she wants to go, but she also knows it is her only chance of finding the light.

Preston Sturges is the absolute King of the Romantic Comedy, in my opinion, and though I am a chronic equivocator, this is one area where I hold steadfast. Sure, there’s Lubitsch. Sure, there’s Capra. Yes, there’s also Wilder. Those are all great points. But Sturges is King. (As I imagine is obvious, if it’s post-1965 I’m agin' it. ‘Romantic Comedy-wise’ as Jack Lemmon’s character in The Apartment would say.)

It’s a tough choice, but at the top of my ranked-Sturges list is The Palm Beach Story. It stars the iridescent Claudette Colbert – she also starred in The Smiling Lieutenant (Lubitsch) and It Happened One Night (Capra), and it’s no accident that those are my favorites in their respective oeuvres. Recounting the plot would only provide a pale reflection, so I’ll just say this: "You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything”.

The Onion’s AV Club did a fantastic ‘primer’on Sturges a few months ago. The writer describes Veronica Lake’s introduction in Sullivan’s Travels as “machine-gun screwball flirtation at its finest, conversation as half blood-sport, half seduction”. Yes, that’s Sturges.

Ken Scholes is an Oregon author of a five volume series titled the Psalms of Isaak (Lamentation, Canticle and Antiphon; Requiem and Hymn are still forthcoming). While this series has all the trappings of traditional epic fantasy he's really describing a post-technological society that has collapsed into near barbarism; the "magic" is all that remains of technology. While I normally don't enjoy audio books, the first is well worth listening to. It's a great production with different readers for each character's chapters.

Long ago there was a great civilization ruled by wizard kings. After a great war the world was destroyed by fire, disease and madness. Now much of the world is a terrible wasteland filled with rubble. Legends of the world before the destruction abound. One character tells another that there's a green place on the moon because one of the wizards went up there and created a great garden in which to live (and might be there still...). There are mechanical servants, dug out of the rubble and repaired and little mechanical birds act as message bearers.

We're introduced to this world when the city of Windwir is destroyed by a "great spell" that consumes everything in a blast of noise, wind, light and fire. The only survivor is a boy waiting for his mentor on a hill far outside the city. The blast is so powerful that it knocks him senseless. Windwir had a great library run by an order of monks, an archive of all the knowledge of the ancient world. The monks went out into the wastelands to scavenge old papers or bits of technology. They carefully doled out this knowledge in order to maintain power. A steam engine here, a bit of medicine there, some books to this king and some to that merchant lord; the weapons were never let out into the world.

The destruction of the library creates a power vacuum. The lords jockey for power and the remaining scraps of knowledge. There are also two competing sets of prophecies and in the finest human tradition the two factions are merrily slaughtering each other. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one character, so we hear from the stripling boy who survived the destruction, Rudolfo, a lord of one of the kingdoms, and a mechanical servant who is self aware enough to go by a name instead of a number. The world is well developed and the characters interesting. It's a great read for anyone who likes a lot of politics and power struggles (best served with a side of assassin.)

I'm not much into mysteries, especially when the puzzle is the main draw and the characters play second fiddle. But when the mystery is part of what makes a character tick, that's compelling reading. I'm reminded of one of the players in The Usual Suspects (name withheld to protect those of you who haven't seen this brilliant film - place a hold here!) and how the secret of his identity is revealed only in the final scenes.

Often when a story is narrated by a child, the tension comes from what is called the 'unreliable' or 'naive' narrator. The child gets to tell the story, but doesn't know everything or even understand all that he sees. The trick for the reader then becomes to read between the lines, and infer the part of the story the narrator can't tell you.

Emma Donoghue uses this technique to good effect in Room, the story of a boy and his mother who have lived all of his short life confined in an 11 by 11 foot room. The reason for their captivity is only slowly revealed as 5 year old Jack gains the intellectual capacity to start asking questions.

Peter Carey creates a sense of tension in His Illegal Self by telling the story through a narrator alternately known as 'the boy', Che and Jay. Jay lived a comfortable life with his grandmother in an apartment overlooking Central Park; When he is spirited away by a woman he supposes to be his mother, Che lives in a van, or a trailer, or anywhere else they can find to lay down, somewhere in Australia.

Nine-year-old Lawrence struggles to recount the story of his road trip from England to Rome with his mother and pesky little sister in Matthew Kneale's When We Were Romans. But why did they leave home so abruptly? And why does his mother believe they are being followed by Lawrence's father? The bewildered Lawrence tries to make sense of the strange adult behavior around him but prefers to read about science and history - the only bits of information that seem true to him.

A narrator can also be unreliable because of a mental illness or a disorder. In Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher, an autistic 15-year-old, sets out to solve the mystery of the murder of a poodle who is found on a front lawn with a garden fork through it. Christopher admires Sherlock Holmes and sets out to prove his favorite detective's methods by using them in the investigation of the death. Christopher has amazing powers of focus, but can't see the social clues between people that might lead him to understand the incident.

In a recent Portland Literary Arts lecture, author Elizabeth Strout talked about how fiction provides one of the few ways to really understand what it's like to be someone else. Even when seeing through a character's eyes is like looking through a hole in a wall and trying to figure out what's on the other side, the mystery is worth exploring.

After a day of work, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to sit on the sofa and have obedient and loving children welcome me with my slippers and a cup of tea while a well-trained dog fetches the newspaper (which has not been torn asunder and scattered to the winds in the required-by-law daily comics raid.) This imagined scene gives me a hopeless little chuckle as I enter what I affectionately call "The Battle Zone of Wars Eternally Lost", also known as "My House." For the sake of brevity (the soul of witless parenting) my dear husband and I call this place, simply, "The Zone."

My homecoming assessment of "The Zone" begins on the street as I monitor the noise level from outside the front gate. Silence does not guarantee détente, but screaming, yelling, and whining do almost certainly guarantee impending misery. The sound of a child practicing piano is a good sign, but the sound of, say, deafeningly determined Rachmaninoff means that my co-parent is waving the white flag of surrender and is completely ignoring the children in a last-ditch attempt to save any scraps of sanity he might have left after a day of endless screeching demands. There is no sitting on the sofa (unless my spouse has gone beyond Rachmaninoff and is huddled in the far corner of the couch with a blanket over his head.) There is no tea if I do not prepare it, and instead of a dog we have a cat with a personality disorder who bites only me, routinely and somewhat enigmatically, with no provocation or warning. Whatever The Zone holds, the objective is always the same: survive through Bedtime. If I live to tell the tale, my reward is a little television. I am sorry to say there are only three existing seasons of my latest favorite BBC show, Clatterford. On British soil it goes by the title Jam and Jerusalem, but they changed it for the American audience. Don't ask me why--trading reference to a familiar food and a known geographical place for the name of an obscure English town is the sort of sensible exchange that goes through my cat's brain just before she sinks her fangs into my flesh.

The show is a kinder, gentler comedy from the brilliant mind of Jennifer Saunders, creator and star of the searingly hilarious Absolutely Fabulous. The show centers around the life of Sal Vine (Sue Johnston), a nurse and recent widow in the small town of Clatterford St. Mary. Sal's efforts to reorder her life after her husband's death orbit around her grown children and the town Women's Guild, which is populated with fascinating minor characters. Outrageous comedic bits--Rosie (Dawn French) nursing a lamb in the pub; accidental vacuuming of church displays of the Nativity/Palm Sunday/Resurrection in which the primary players have been carefully crafted using stalky roadside weeds with googly eyes; Caroline's (Jennifer Saunders) constant misuse of pornographic sexual terms--are balanced with sincere drama. Loneliness washes in and out of lives as the characters struggle with relationships lost and found. Clatterford is complicated and messy. It's funny and familiar and at the end of the day you can't wait to go there. Just like home. Without the cat bites.

In the early 1960s a librarian and a postal worker fell in love and married. They loved art and began to collect what they could afford, living on her salary, buying with his. At the time what they bought was modern and conceptual art. It was cheap and many of the artists were starving. Now the artists are household names and the librarian and the postal worker own one of the largest and most important collections in the world. And they still live in their one-bedroom, rent controlled Manhattan apartment.

"We never realized something was going to become important...we never thought of that." Dorothy Vogel

Megumi Sasaki tells the inspiring story of this couple in Herb and Dorothy. The film has garnered a number of awards, including winner of the "Audience Award" at the Hamptons Film Festival, and winner of  the "Best Documentary" award at Provincetown Film Festival.

 A portion of their collection was recently in Portland as part of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: 50 Works for 50 States Projects, which distributes their vast collection across the country for all to enjoy.

*quote by Patrick Mimran

Here's a rare treat for music lovers, armchair travelers, and those who value the cultural background of current events: the 68-minute DVD documentary "Umm Kulthum: a voice like Egypt", narrated in English by Omar Sharif.

Umm Kulthum was an immensely influential Egyptian classical singer. For decades she performed to sold-out houses across the Arabic-speaking world, reviving and expanding the tradition of sung poetry. She was a patriot and a nationalist -"Music must represent our Eastern spirit", she said -  but she was an artist above all. Learn by ear, play by heart, she instructed her musicians; and like "a preacher inspired by her congregation", as novelist Naguib Mahfouz described her, her hours-long concerts would bring her audiences to a state approaching ecstasy. She has no counterpart in the West. She swayed kings and presidents; when she died in 1975, four million people came out for her funeral; and even now, every day at five o'clock Cairo radio plays a song by Umm Kuthum. This short, well-edited film is a fine portrait of a great singer, but it also provides a remarkably compact, insightful look at the evolution of modern Egypt.

Mesdames et Messieurs, I bring you a tale of love and betrayal and revenge. It is the year 5053. Young friends from Paris’s most powerful families are set against one another after one of them meets a mysterious stranger during Carnival on Luna. The stranger calls himself the Count of Monte Cristo, and he has come to live in Paris after amassing a huge fortune in the far reaches of Eastern Space. No one knows the details of his past, but soon he begins to influence every aspect of Parisian society, and the dark secrets of those who are in power begin to be revealed.

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo is an animated Japanese television series, a retelling of Alexander Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo. It had me captivated from its first moments and kept me that way for all 24 episodes with its suspenseful, sensuous plotting, beautiful artwork, and its brilliant 19th/51st century atmosphere.

A new edition of Letters from America by Alexis de Tocqueville has arrived at the library and what a find it is for me! Chatty, opinionated and full of history from the perspective of a Frenchman in America, these letters were written in 1831 and many of the trends and characteristics that struck Tocqueville are still evident even today. I can't resist commenting below.

His main opinion about the American character is that Americans have an "immoderate appetite for wealth, and a desire to get rich quickly."

Did this play out in the financial melt down of recent years?

He also characterizes Americans as living "in perpetual fickleness, a continual need for change, the total absence of old traditions, ancient mores, a commercial and mercantile spirit applied to the most incongruous things."

Perhaps this seeking spirit is why we are such an inventive, creative and industrious people today.

He and his companion and fellow lawyer, Gustave de Beaumont came to America to study the American prison system. They wrote that in the prisons of New York absolute silence was required of all inmates and harsh punishment for violations was rigorously applied. Tocqueville goes on to say, "Strength lies not in numbers but in association, and thirty individuals united by constant communication, ideas, common projects, schemes, have more effective power than nine hundred people whose isolation is their fatal flaw."

Does our strength lie in always being in touch through Facebook, Twitter and texting?

Tocqueville was concerned for his family left in France during much political turmoil. He writes, "While the political world engenders revolutions in Europe, here physical nature is prey to frightful convulsions. All the talk is about enormous hurricanes and appalling devastations; New Orleans, the Antilles, have been the theater of these calamities."

I couldn't help, but think about the recent devastation in New Orleans and Haiti.

De Tocqueville and Beaumont, visit the virgin forests of the Detroit area. I was surprised when he wrote, "some of the forest dwellers use the bears as guard dogs; I saw a few tethered near doorways."

I was also surprised to learn that "The custom among women of the forests (Chactas Indian)  is to have their feet pointing inward...It is achieved by binding the feet of female infants. By age twenty, a woman walks pigeon-toed, and the more pigeon-toed her walk the more fashionable she is thought to be."

I admire Tocqueville's endearing honesty: "In short, there is no one in the world I know less well than myself; I am a permanently insoluble problem. I have a very cool head and a reasoning--even calculating--mind; at the same time, ardent passions carry me off without convincing me, subdue my will without compromising my reason. I see the good very clearly, and spit it every day."

Tocqueville is clearly thinking of writing a book about his experiences and ideas about America when he writes, "I shall write what I think or write nothing at all, while bearing in mind that wisdom does not want every truth aired." This book would be his famous Democracy in America published in 1835.

My friend told me about a 2006 book by the Frenchman Barnard Henri Levy called American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. He apparently traveled in America recently. Shall I make this my next read? What new surprises will I find?

Awards. No matter what contemporaries may think of them when they are given, no matter how arbitrary they may be, over time they come to represent 'the best' of an era, a must-see, must-read, must-have. Few of us have time to read everything that we would like, so often we look to these awards as guideposts.

I confess, I don't think I would have read The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi if it had not won the Hugo Award (tying with China Miéville's The City and the City). And that would have been my misfortune. It's an extraordinary novel that takes place in Thailand after fossil fuels are kaput and genetic modification has led to waves of plagues. Energy, in joules or calories, is the population's obsession. The story is slow going at the beginning, but once the titular character is introduced the pages fly. Emiko is a genetically augmented human, trained to be a courtesan but discarded and surviving as a sex worker of a far less genteel type. To the people she encounters she is an aberration, but within herself she is at least as human as any of them. She shares the book with several less sympathetic characters, chiefly an American Calorie Man looking to manipulate the Thais into letting him access their seed bank and a Chinese refugee who has been taught by cruel experience to be relentlessly self-interested.

The Windup Girl does what much of the best science fiction does, concocting a future from germs of the present while placing the characters squarely in the center.

And we know it's among the best that 2009 had to offer because it won an award, right?

While I've already named a number of good books in earlier entries (and you really should go put a hold on the first book in the Dresden Files), I didn't cover them all by any means. Here are a few more titles that you shouldn't miss from 2010.

Steven Brust has been writing books in the Jhereg series since 1983. His latest, Iorich, brings the total number of volumes to thirteen. Vlad Taltos, is a thief...and an assassin....and a gang boss running drug dealers, prostitutes and engaging in other illegal activities. He's also a witty and likable underdog. He's an amateur chef owing to a childhood spent in a restaurant (don't read Dzur if on a diet) and loyal to his friends. You can't help but like a character who you'd want to see in jail for life if he were a real person. Brust's writing style has improved over the last 27 years but all the books are slim and quick reads. The first books in the series are available as omnibus volumes starting with The Book of Jhereg.

Speaking of main characters who really should be facing the hangman's rope instead of being protagonists, try The Conqueror's Shadow by Ari Marmell. The story could be summed up as "what happens when the Evil Overlord retires...". Corvis Rebaine cut a bloody swath across the world and was known as "the Terror of the East". Now he lives quietly under an assumed name, with his wife and children in the middle of nowhere. Obviously that's not going to last or it would be a boring book.

N.K. Jemisin published her first two books this year. I've already praised her debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Her second book The Broken Kingdoms is also very good. Ohree, a blind artist who can only see magic, takes in a strange, homeless man on a charitable impulse. This lands her in the middle of a conspiracy. Someone is murdering the godlings that live among mankind and leaving the desecrated bodies all over the city. Ohree's guest is somehow entangled in the mess.

Lastly, gentle reader, peruse Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate, a steampunk urban fantasy series set in an alternate Victorian England with vampires and werewolves. Alexia Tarabotti is a young lady of good family who is far too firm willed and practical to be appropriate in a lady of breeding. While not great classics of literature these three volumes are pleasing diversions for any lady of discerning tastes.


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