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.

What is it about the villain that captures our interest?  Sure, they provide a force for the hero to battle. But there’s more than that. While the hero is a spotless and shining example of our virtue, the villain shines a light on those dark recesses of our soul. They have motivations that are far murkier. They’ve had to make the tough choices. They are the losers who have to keep pushing through when the world turns against them. A good villain makes a story memorable. 

There are two sides to every story. The following books look at familiar stories from the villains’ point of view.

Medea: A Delphic Woman Novel by Kerry Greenwood

I know what you’re thinking: How could there be a good side to a woman who kills her own children.  But did you know that Euripides was paid by the city of Corinth to write his version of this myth with Medea murdering her children? This modern interpretation is closer to the original.

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

Aaron Burr is mostly remembered as the man who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel. However, though he's been stricken from the pantheon of the Founding Fathers, Burr influenced our burgeoning nation in innumerable ways.

Darth Vader and Son by Jeffery Brown

This playful graphic novel reminds us that before Darth Vader was the Dark Lord of the Sith, he was just a single dad with a precocious young son.

Breaking Chains book jacketGuest blogger Rae Richen’s short stories, poetry and articles have appeared in anthologies of Northwest authors, in Pacific Northwest newspapers and in Writers’ Northwest Handbook. She has taught junior high, high school students and adults since the ice age, and has always been impressed with the wide-ranging curiosity and the persistent search for answers among her students. Her newest book, Uncharted Territory is written for young adults and adults who enjoy a triumph of life over fear.

Breaking Chains: Slavery on trial in the Oregon Territory, by R. Gregory Nokes is an important addition to Oregon’s history. For three generations, my mixed-race family has known that Oregon’s legal relationship with its African American citizens was rocky, but details were elusive. Much of Oregon supported an apartheid-like atmosphere well into the 1960s. When my children and my students ask for specifics, I can now give a more complete answer. I can offer them Breaking Chains.

This untold part of Oregon’s history came to Nokes’s attention because a former slave was mentioned in his family genealogy. Nokes soon learned that Oregon, though admitted to the union as a free state, also tolerated slaveholding and had a constitution that supported a ban on African Americans. Its citizens voted for pro-slavery politicians, including the first territorial governor. Even when slavery was opposed by white Oregonians, it was often for reasons more self-preserving than selfless.

Nokes’s deep research, his interviews of slave’s descendants and his incisive story-telling style delves into the history of Robin Holmes who, with great perseverance, successfully sued his owner for his freedom, and of Reuben Shipley who was forced to choose between remaining near his enslaved family in Missouri and his tenuous hope of freedom in Oregon. There is a wealth of information about the life of Oregon’s early African Americans in Breaking Chains.

Kids these days. Back in the day we walked to school and didn't have cell phones to call home and report, "mom, come get me - there's a zombie following me!" But that was okay, because zombies back then could only shamble along at a mile an hour and it was easy to outrun them. And the vampires? They were a lot more polite back then. They'd only come into your house if you invited them, and what dork would do that?
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown jacketFiend bookjacket
Nowadays, you have your fancy schmancy running zombies and your political activist-type vampires. The undead just aren't what they used to be. Don't believe me? Take a look at this list of hipster horrors.
Tana wakes up at a party to find all her friends dead and her boyfriend infected with vampirism, necessitating a trip to Coldtown, home of vampires and their infected human pets.
Some people look on the zombie apocalypse with horror, but for meth-head Chase, zombies are just one more impediment to getting that next fix. One reviewer calls it Trainspotting for the Walking Dead crowd.
In the early days of the zombie apocalypse, a family stumbles upon a dead mother and her baby, also dead - undead, that is. Defying all mythological convention, baby Stony starts to grow and as he does, causes awkward situations for the family that adopted him.
Teenage angst, uptight parents and family dysfunction are all so much worse when you have to hide your true nature.
Like other zombies, R. feeds on humans, not only for sustenance but to absorb their memories. When he eats the brains of a teenaged boy, heHusk bookjacket falls in love with the boy's girlfriend. This is a book for those who wonder what zombies think about. And hey, if nothing grosses you out, it's also a movie.
Boyfriend troubles, an empty bank account, and several auditions gone disasterously wrong, but that's the least of Sheldon's troubles. How will he get his big break when he's falling apart - literally.

Comic books are full of charismatic leaders locked in desperate struggles, but a vast majority of these are fictional. It's perspective-changing when comics are used to tell stories of real people. One such book is Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, by Chester Brown.

Riel is a character of mythic proportions in Canadian history. He butted heads with the newly established government of Canada, starting in 1869 when he led the Red River Rebellion. Riel was a leader who believed he was divinely chosen to protect and defend the rights of the Metis - descendants of First Nations people and Europeans who suffered persecution from the wider culture.

Brown tells the story of Riel's fights and flights back and forth across the Canadian border, from Manitoba, to Montana and then to Saskatchewan, where he was eventually arrested for treason and hanged.

The minimalist color scheme and Brown's crisp drawings create a suspenseful story that could otherwise come across as a dry recitation of historical fact. If you never thought you'd read a comic book, but are a history buff, give this a try.

Find out more about the intriguing Louis Riel.

Sometimes I think it would be great to be the Queen of England. Having staff at your beck and call to cook and clean for you and drive you wherever you need to go, the trips to exotic locales, the lovely palaces and castles to live in - it just doesn't get any better. But there are definite downsides: the paparazzi, people constantly judging your every decision, and the daily round of obligations to meet (and meet with a smile). It's just so exhausting!

In Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn, Queen Elizabeth is tired. She's well past eighty years old, she's had some pretty significant stresses in the last few decades (children's divorces, Diana's death, Windsor Castle burning, the decommissioning of Britannia, the Royal Yacht) and now the final indignity: no more Royal Train for Her Majesty's use. The expense, she's been told, is just too great. So on one dreary winter day, Queen Elizabeth is thinking of Britannia, one of her favorite things, and takes the opportunity to slip out (mostly) unobserved and take the train to Scotland where the yacht is moored. What ensues is a wonderful story of the palace staff who care about Queen Elizabeth and a portrait of a monarch nearing the end of her long and largely successful reign.

Other people have imagined Queen Elizabeth II's life in books and film. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett examines the person the Queen becomes when she starts reading books from the local bookmobile. The film The Queen takes a look at the royal response to Diana's death.

If you, too, think it would be good to be queen, enjoy this film and these books and see if you change your mind!


So I'm pretty sure when a six-year-old asks if the babies just "explode out of their moms' stomachs" when they're born, the officially sanctioned and appropriately parental answer is not, "Well, yeah.  It's kind of a mess." To follow that terrible answer with an intentional subject change like, "Check out this kick!  Do I look like a ninja?" is probably enough to get me placed into some sort of mommy lock-down until I can be re-educated by guards named Spock, Leach, and Brazelton.

Luckily it's back-to-school time and I can again place my children's formal education in the capable hands of skilled professionals. Child the Elder's wailing and gnashing of teeth over school starting again was probably heard from space. After the children went to sleep on that dreaded and fateful eve, I joined the rest of the school-age parental demographic in the ritual night-before-school celebratory margarita. This night should probably be a recognized and formal holiday, like Mardi Gras. As Mardi Gras marks the sober beginning of Lent, we have a long school year ahead of us to attempt to make our children lunches they will actually eat or rip our hair out over projects requiring posters, costumes, and sonnets written in perfect iambic pentameter. In the face of all this, one night to party is not too much to ask.

As summer faJiro Dreams of Sushi jacketdes in the rear view mirror, it is good to be reminded that we are never too old to learn. One of the best movies I watched in between SpongeBob SquarePants and Brady Bunch marathons was Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about an amazing 85 year old sushi chef and his tiny three-star Michelin rated restaurant (the first of its kind) in a Tokyo subway station. This quiet movie is simultaneously a feast for the eyes and a meditation on work and family that should not be missed. Jiro's story had both me and my 11 year old riveted from beginning to end (which is saying something for a subtitled documentary with an 85 year old subject containing no chase sequences, explosions, time travel or animated sea sponges.) Jiro's wildly successful restaurant career is countered by his and his sons' musings on what price that success exacted from his parenting.

If you aBarbarian Nurseries jacketre a parent, you have entertained a fantasy about running away from it all. What happens when you decide to take a break from parenting and family life without properly informing all the parties involved? The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar examines this question through a lens of class and culture in southern California when the mistakes of one family become front-page tabloid news. Inexplicably left alone with Scott and Maureen's two boys, live-in maid Araceli takes them on a journey to Los Angeles which changes all their lives forever.

As all parents learn, the miseries of parenting are relative. We welcome new parents into the club without bothering to haze them, because we know the children will haze all the new members for us. (You know you are on the relative-misery scale when you are happy you only had to get up with a baby two times last night instead of three or four.) As a parent reading Jim Gaffigan's book Dad Is Fat , the first thing I thougDad is Fat bookjacketht was at least I don't have five kids under the age of eight. In a two-bedroom apartment in New York. That guy is up a certain creek without a certain piece of necessary boating equipment.

But of course, he is not. He is another parenting voice in the wilderness, proclaiming how our kids are our frustrating and adorable crucibles, slowly and painfully refining us into better, if more exhausted, people. We know there are good answers out there and maybe we can come up with them if only someone will let us take a nap. Because this is due tomorrow. And I need a costume.

Viking. Woman. Explorer.
The Far Traveler Book JacketWhen you think of Vikings, perhaps you envision a grim-faced man in a horned helmet, wielding an axe as he stands at the prow of a longship, long hair streaming in the cold wind, mind set on pillage and plunder. But how accurate is this image? What about Viking women - did any of them go along with the men on these voyages? And what did Vikings do when they weren’t raiding or exploring?

My interest in all things northern recently led me to read The Far Traveler by Nancy Marie Brown, which answers these questions and more. It’s a fascinating look at the life of Gudrid, an Icelandic woman who traveled far indeed, from Iceland to Greenland on a harrowing voyage in which half the crew died, then further to the distant continent of Vinland, and in later life to Rome. The book jumps from describing modern-day excavations in Iceland to bits of the ancient sagas (I loved hearing about the brothers, known for their tight pants, who took over as the local ruffians after Eirik the Red got kicked out of Iceland). By combining archaeology with literary evidence, a compelling case emerges that Vinland was in North America, and that Gudrid was there.  As she follows Gudrid’s story, Brown also reveals much about life in Iceland and Greenland around the year 1000. If you ever wanted to know how to build a turf house that will stand up to an Arctic winter, this is the book for you. Some of my favorite parts were details about Viking food, such as bone jelly soup and bog butter. How tasty! I also enjoyed the description of the fuzzy tufted cloaks the Icelanders were fond of for their warmth and rain-shedding abilities, and which they liked to dye… purple?

For more fact and fiction about Iceland and Greenland in the times of the sagas, take a look at the list below.

The story of this country is the story of people coming and going, but mostly coming. The very concept of America has captured the imaginations of millions, among them writers, artists and bloggers. I was reminded of the amazing pastiche of people who have come here after looking at artist Maira Kalman's latest on her blog The Pursuit of Happiness. In "I Lift My Lamp Beside the Golden Door", Kalman takes a long view of the history of this country, beginning with Leif Ericson and ending with a trip to a cemetery in the Bronx, where the diminutive immigrant Irving Berlin is buried, the one who gave us the line "heaven, I'm in heaven...".

New York is a fine place to start if you want to hear stories about outsiders and newcomers. A recent trip there inspired me to read, watch and listen to everything I could find about the city. Intrigued by the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side, I searched for some fiction of that era and discovered Up From Orchard Street  by Eleanor Widmer. It's a 'slice of life' story about a family living in a crowded apartment in 1920's Manhattan and trying to make ends meet by running a restaurant out of their front room. A earlier and grittier portrayal of immigrants is the movie Gangs of New York. Though Scorsese took artistic liberties in describing the rivalries between immigrant gangs, he did draw from the book of the same name Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, by Herbert Asbury, first published in 1928. Be sure to watch the extra footage provided on the DVD if you're interested in the environs of 1800's Lower East Side.

A recent album by Steve Earle, who himself 'immigrated' to Greenwich Village from Tennessee, celebrates his adopted home. Washington Square Serenade includes several love letters to the city. "Down Here Below" tells the story of Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk who took up residence near Central Park and became a media darling. Another song rejoices in the diversity of NYC: "I've no need to go traveling; open the door and the world walks in, living in a city of immigrants."

When I was a kid I begged my parents to buy me what was billed as a 'scultping' toy. The ads showed cool kids with berets chipping away at small square blocks of stone and then, voila! - the stone would reveal a figure. Never mind that the sculpture was actually pre-made and your job was just to peel away the outside, no creativity required.

I never did get my longed for toy, but I'm reminded of it now that I'm into the next season of Breaking Bad. Why? Because sometimes art is just about uncovering what's already there. At first blush, Walt seems like a good-natured sort, a sometimes overly moralistic guy affected by bad circumstances, always trying to do the right thing for his family. But as time goes by the real Walt is revealed. I would argue that the pragmatic guy who views the murder of one of his dealers as collateral damage is in fact the real Walt, the one who has always been there and who uses his upright personna as a cloak for his real self.

Is Walt corrupted by his desperate circumstances, or do his circumstances just uncover the true Walt? I think the criminal mastermind was always lurking in the stone. It's an interesting question to ponder, and the fact that Walt inspires that kind of inquiry is a credit to how well-crafted the character is.

I find myself wondering if the character of Piper in Orange is the New Black will follow a similar arc. I'm referring to the series and not the original, non-fiction book - you can hear what Piper Kerman thinks of the liberties the show has taken with her memoir on a recent Fresh Air interview; I wonder if the character will do a 'Walter White' and the softness of her constructed self will be peeled away by prison life. What do you think?

I started reading The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti late last week.
The subtitle says it all. Love, betrayal, revenge, great cheese. If there were room on the cover I would add the words 'Family' and 'Sun-burned Small-town Spain'.
For the first couple days I would think about the book for hours, clock-watching until I could get a few more minutes with it. But it's the kind of book that deserves more than 15 minutes between loads of laundry and emptying the dishwasher. It deserves a quiet space and a steaming cup of coffee. Now one week in I'm getting up extra early to read in bed during that delicious time before the city is awake. Every single page is densely packed with delicious writing and humor. There are on-page footnotes (love them) that make a Siamese twin to the story itself.
I'm not finished yet but I can tell you this book is my favorite of the year. And I know in my heart that Paterniti will find himself receiving accolades and awards for months to come.

A few years ago, I walked the Great Glen Way in Scotland. Ever since, I've been wanting to go back to Britain and do another walk, but I wasn't sure exactly where to go. After reading a review of Simon Armitage's Walking Home: A Poet's Journey, I immediately put a hold on the book.  I had heard of the Pennine Way and thought perhaps I might like to try a portion of it as it is mostly in the northern part of England which I love.

Thankfully, I actually read the book and learned that there is no way in heck that I would ever attempt even a small part of 268 miserably wet and foggy miles that Armitage experienced on his journey. That being said, it was a lot of fun to read about someone else doing the trail! Armitage is a well-known poet, and decided that he would fund his trip by doing poetry readings almost every night of the 19 days he spent on the trail. Sometimes only a few showed up, but other nights the pub or hotel where he was staying was packed, and people gave generously. Armitage mixes in several poems he wrote along the trail with his thoughtful, humorous and self-deprecating journal. While I won't attempt his journey, the narrative has inspired me to seek out his poetry.

Not every novel needs to be a great classic of literature -sometimes what you need is a fun read. One popular sub-genre of science fiction these days is urban fantasy.  These stories are set in the real world but with the addition of magic.  Examples range from Charles De Lint's literary works to thinly disguised paranormal romances.
One of the first urban fantasy novels I can remember reading is War for the Oaks by Emma Bull. It won the Locus award for best first novel back in 1987.  It still holds up in spite of the outdated tech. A newer discovery is Stephen Blackmoore.  I turned up my nose at his first book because zombies just don't interest me.  Somehow Dead Things did catch my eye with the blurb "Necromancer is such an ugly word but it's a title Eric Carter is stuck with".  The protagonist isn't a nice guy or a hero but he's not evil either.  He's just trying to muddle through a really bad situation as best he can when he goes back home after his sister's murder.
If you're looking for a bit of light weight campy vampire fun, try Jeaniene Frost, starting with Halfway to the Grave. I give this author a thumbs up. The paranormal romance sub-genre isn't usually to my taste, but I devoured all of this author's books in short order.  Make no mistake. These are not technically "good" books.  Parts are even laughably bad, but somehow I just kept picking up the next book.  Think of it as a bag of chips... You know you ought to just pour a few in a bowl and put the bag away and yet... 
If you'd prefer more plot with your monsters try Patricia Briggs' Mercedes Thompson series, starting with Moon Called.  Mercy is a VW mechanic in the Tri-Cities in eastern Washington.  She's also a skinwalker who can transform into a coyote.  However, in a world with vampires, fae and werewolves turning into a 30 odd pound coyote leaves one rather under-powered.  
Soon I'll be catching up with is Charles de Lint's Newford series.  Set in a fictional Canadian town that borders a magical otherworld, the series features a number of standalone novels and short stories that are mentioned frequently in awards shortlists.
Happy reading!

Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer  by Siddhartha Mukherjee

There are loads of you out there who love to read a fat book (Hi, Mom!). You're drawn to authors like David McCullough, Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin. I've always regretted that I'm not one of you. I was not at all looking forward to reading this fat book, but it was for a book club so there was no getting around it. I cajoled myself with thoughts like, 'it won the Pulitzer Prize--it'll be good for you,' like it was a giant vitamin, and 'c'mon, you really like science writing.'

So I did it. I read Emperor of All Maladies  because I had to. And sometimes when you read something you wouldn't normally choose, you stumble on something that will keep you thinking for weeks after. Like the little boys, as young as 4, who were apprenticed or indentured as chimney sweeps in England during the 17 and 1800's, working nearly naked in flues as narrow as nine inches square. If asphyxiation or burns didn't get them as kids, then dying in young adulthood from cancer caused by the soot that stuck to their bodies seemed almost guaranteed. I'm thinking of the sort of 'why don't we try this?' experimentation on cancer patients through history. I'm thinking of the horrifying, radical surgeries, done for decades, with the idea that cancer could be physically removed by surgeons if they just removed enough flesh. I'm thinking of the amazing discoveries of scientists that seemed almost random, like a light bulb suddenly went off over their heads in a very, very dark room.

We've all lost a loved one or friend or neighbor or coworker to cancer. Or maybe you're fighting its spread in your own body right now. Every week it's in the news. A new medication, a gene discovered, a warning about food or chemicals or the environment. Strangely, and I didn't expect this, reading Emperor was a comfort to me. That we really have made progress. That each form of cancer is so specific, working on the big picture is important. And working on the rare, one-in-a-million cancers is just as important, because the science behind a discovery is always connected to something else, even if we don't know what it is right away.

A six year old boy is bereft and lost when his father dies "after visiting friends". He begins to stake out a claim to his father's life. "Death hung over the house...Your absence is greater than your presence," he says. The family is complicit in the silence about this death.
I could feel the ache in this boy's heart as he seeks to conjure and reconstruct his father's life and to make him whole again.
The father, Bob Hainey was a hard-drinking, hard living newspaperman as was the custom in the newspaper world of 1960s Chicago. Now a deputy editor of GQ, Michael Hainey searches for clues and stories about his father.
In short, sharp, pointed sentences, Hainey paints a picture of his determined mother, his extended family and the Chicago world of newsmen and cops.
After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story is a quest for the truth. The lessons learned along the way and the discoveries awaiting the journey's end will keep you reading.

I don’t seek out dystopian novels: I’m not usually looking for a downer, but somehow I end up reading dystopian novels for young adults, and I like them. These books have appeal that crosses genres. Usually sci-fi, they have the intrigue of thriller, the creative world-building of good fantasy, and strong characters who are capable of facing hard times. Unlike those for adults, dystopian books for teens often have a more hopeful ending, or aren’t quite Unlike...cough...The Road.

Imagine living in a bottle two kilometers by two kilometers, and that people have been living there, reproducing, evolving as a society, well, forever now, and the small contained world is bursting at the seams. Maria V. Snyder creates such a space in Inside Out. Society is divided by the “uppers” in the upper two levels, and the “scrubs” packed into the lower two levels. Feisty scrub Trella tries to keep to herself, but ends up turning this world upside down, or is that inside out?

My first thought on encountering Uglies is remembrance of that old Twilight  episode in which the beautiful woman undergoes surgery so she can be as beautiful as everyone else - that is - ugly. At 16, everyone undergoes this surgery to be Pretty, except a few rebels. And that’s unacceptable.  Here we have the seeming elements of a utopia, with everyone happy, hoverboards and hovercars, ready-made food, and parties all the time. But then there’s that dark underside, that shadowy governing body that does anything to keep it that way. When Tally, so looking forward to her own Pretty-making surgery, is coerced to find rebels, adventure and coming-of-age hardships ensue.

A technological living prison gone rogue in which people inside have lost belief in the outside - that’s Incarceron. Outside, the prison world is also a myth. Outside, by royal decree, advanced technology is banned. Yet an insider and an outsider find a way to communicate. The insider’s memory has been wiped, but with clues that he once was outside. The outsider is a pampered daughter of the warden...the one person who has a clue about the forgotten experiment in incarceration. Of course, once the secret’s out to these two, action and intrigue develop.

I read a lot of books last year and kept a little list as I finished each one and gave them a point rating.  As the year closed I sorted them by rating looking for some really good titles I hadn't yet recommended. I finished out last year with the Grey Walker series by Kat Richardson.  Set in modern day Seattle, the series features Harper Blaine, a P.I. who develops the ability to move through the Grey after dying for a couple of minutes and being revived.  The Grey is the the realm of ghosts, vampires, witches, and magic that exists between our world and the next. Aside from this ability she's a very human and real-feeling character.  

Harper is possessed of human flaws and foibles.  She's touch too self centered: at one point when she has someone gunning for her, she hides out at the house of friends who have a little child.  She does keep trying though, and learns from her mistakes eventually. The secondary characters are also well-developed.  I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens to a certain major secondary character whose background and family history has been gradually revealed.  (I fear giving out the secondary's character name would be too much of a spoiler for early books in the series.) Sadly, now I've got to wait until August 2013 for book 8.  This is now one of my top ten favorite urban fantasy series.

Speaking of character driven urban fantasy, I'm currently enjoying the second season of Alphas.  In the short first season the viewer is introduced to a small group of characters who all have super-human ability, and a shrink who is studying/helping them.  None of the characters strike me as being very likable but they're all so very interesting that watching the unfolding story was one of my viewing highlights last year, not counting Game of Thrones of course!

It's said that history is written by the winners but many stories go untold, especially when they concern women. It's lucky for us when authors choose to highlight unfamiliar stories of accomplished women.

Take the recently released Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-making Race around the World, by Matthew Goodman. I had a vague notion about Nellie Bly buried somewhere in my brain - 'a reporter, wasn't she?' - but I knew nothing more. As it turns out, she entered journalism at a time when the only role for female reporters was to contribute to the society pages. In a bold move to show her editor that women could do hard-hitting journalism, she volunteered to go undercover, and be committed to the notorious women's asylum on Blackwell's Island. Bly reported that if one wasn't insane when committed, one would most certainly lose one's sanity in the horrendous conditions on the island. Her work resulted in improvements to the facility and better care for inmates.

A good reporter can never rest on her laurels though, and so in 1889, Bly set out to race around the world in 80 days or fewer to see if the journey that Jules Verne imagined in Around the World in 80 Days could be accomplished. What she didn't realize was that a rival paper decided to make it a race by sending the young Elizabeth Bisland around the world in the opposite direction.

Goodman's book is a great chase by ship and train across many countries. The excitement of the race is nicely balanced by the historical detail, and satisfies the curiosity while reading like a novel.

There are many more suprising histories about women and their accomplishments, focusing on people like Hedy Lamarr and Gertrude Bell. Take a look at the accompanying reading list for more.

"Mom! I had a scary dream and now there's a scary noise!" (This from the child who sleeps with a giant plush albino python named Night Demon, aka Deathy.)
The clock reads 3:33 a.m. as I blearily think of horror movies and hope the walls aren't oozing. In Child the Younger's room, I sit next to his bed and prepare to activate my supermom extrasensory bat hearing to detect the noise. It turns out I can hear it just fine, no bats necessary. It is high-pitched and repeats steadily, something between a squeak and a wheeze. Sort of what I imagine a bat might sound like, drunk and asleep in front of a tiny bat television.
The noise is originating from the large cage in the hallway which houses our three pet rats. The Girls (as we refer to them collectively) are piled together inside their fleecy hammock, asleep.
They are snoring.
Blerg! I have all manner of Liz Lemon expletives for them as I reach in and gently jostle their bed to interrupt the noise. They poke their little faces out in my direction and blink their sleepy eyes at me, showily yawning in a ratty version of "What the what?"
By the hammer of Thor, after all this middle-of-the-night waking and yawning and walls that are decidedly not oozing (thank Thor), we all deserve some good movies that will not inspire another sleepless night. Something to wake us up, pick us up, make us believe in a future with much stronger coffee but not so strong as to induce nasty heart palpitations. Here are the movies of dreams gone right and wrong that have earned my attention lately:
First Position: Six serious young ballet dancers from five continents participate in the Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious competition that could transform their lives overnight. Follow the progress of some amazing and talented children and teens as they compete with eyes wide open for places in the high-stakes international world of professional ballet. Even if you don't care one bit about ballet, the stories of these dedicated kids and their families will mesmerize you.
Mariachi High: This program documents a year in the life of Mariachi Halcon, a top-ranked competitive high school mariachi band in the rural ranching town of Zapata, Texas. These passionate teens and their devoted teacher will make you want to cheer as they pursue excellence and find strength in themselves and each other.
The Queen of Versailles: The riches to rags story of a billionaire and his wife seeking to build the largest house in the United States until the economic downturn flips the family fortune. Show up for the schadenfreude, stay tuned for the unexpected bits of compassion and insight that lend a surprising balance to what should be (and, yes, mostly is) an unmitigated train wreck of greed.
Dream away.
I spent most of last year reading non-fiction books for teens as a member of a booklist committee.  It was interesting and, for the most part, enjoyable. I learned a whole lot about the Titanic, Steve Jobs, the Civil Rights movement and rufa Red Knots, among many other topics.  When I finished up my work in late January, I started casting about for books written for adults, and found some new titles on the Lucky Day shelf.  
In Me Before You  by Jojo Moyes, Louisa loses her waitressing job when the 'Buttered Bun' closes and has a heck of a time finding a new one that doesn't involve dead chickens or tricking old people into buying something they don't need.  So when a job opening appears for a daytime companion to a thirty-something quadriplegic man, she decides to apply. It's a six month appointment, so if things don't go well, at least she knows it's only for a short time.  Will is not particularly easy to get along with, but as the weeks go by, they develop a quirky kind of relationship and suddenly six months seems like much too little time.  A publisher's representative told me that this was the best book she'd read in a while and although I'm not sure it will be the best book that I will read in 2013, it was a pretty good start.
I feel like I'm pretty aware of what's forthcoming in the publishing world, so I was a bit surprised to find two books on the Lucky Day shelves that I hadn't heard of, especially because they were by authors I usually enjoy.  Maeve Binchy died in July 2012, so presumably A Week in Winter is her last book, unless, like V.C. Andrews, she'll be writing from the grave.  It's classic Binchy with a wide cast of characters coming together for a week at a newly opened seaside hotel.  Each chapter tells the story of one of the guests, and all the stories dovetail at Stone House Hotel.  
Anne Lamott's latest foray into faith and spirituality is Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.  It's slight in pages, but large in spiritual concepts, although I felt like I'd heard pretty much the same thing in Lamott's previous books.  Still, I can never hear too often how people struggle with big challenges and still manage with a little help from their friends, including the "big entity upstairs", especially when it's dished out with Anne Lamott's signature humor and humanity.
If you're hankering after something new, check out the Lucky Day shelves.  You might be surprised at what you'll find!

"Remarkable events often have ordinary beginnings. Never was this more true than with my talks with Dean Spanley."

The movie Dean Spanley is a tale of forgiveness, transcendence and reconciliation. Every Thursday, Henslowe Fisk makes his way through the streets of London to visit his ancient, curmudgeonly and nihilistic father. The elder Fiske grumbles that his son's visits are a burden, and that the only thing special about a Thursday is to keep "Wednesday and Friday from colliding."

Fisk begins to wonder whether the time couldn't be spent in more enjoyable pursuits. At his next visit he insists that he and his father attend a lecture on reincarnation, held by a guru on his vast estate. The senior Fisk is skeptical: "Do you think if we had souls, they wouldn't get in touch? Of course they would!"

While at the lecture they meet a local vicar, Dean Spanley. He's an odd character who makes some intriguing comments about the possibility of an afterlife. Henslowe's curiosity prompts him to invite Spanley to dinner to discuss the topic further. He discovers that, plied with the right amount of wine, the Dean is given to telling fantastic stories of another, half-remembered life. After recounting one such tale, Spanley pauses to reflect, "One moment you are running along, the next you are no more." As time goes by, Henslowe realizes that these stories sound vaguely familiar, and may hold the key to a more enlightened relationship between Henslowe and his father.

The role of the elder Fisk is given Scrooge-like depth by Peter O'Toole, a valid reason on its own to watch this gem. Sam Neill's portrayal of the Dean is by turns hilarious and moving. Add wonderful dialog and the gorgeous Edwardian setting, and you'll find a movie that bears repeated watching. You'll have plenty of time to do so, if, as the guru insists, "You are, my dear sir, in the anteroom of eternity."


Subscribe to