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.
How do you explain something? If you are telling someone how to do something and they don’t understand, what do you do? Do you repeat what you just said hoping that repetition will help? Or do you come up with a new way to explain it. If you find a new way to say it, you are a much better explainer.
One book that made me think about this is Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. He set up a challenge for himself to explain things like a Saturn V rocket and weather maps using the 1000 most common words in the English language. This is hard because you can’t use words like rocket, Saturn, weather or thousand. He had to find a new way to explain everything.
The Saturn V became the US Space Team’s Up Goer Five. Weather maps are Cloud Maps. Complicated things have to be described in very simple ways to get by using only the ten hundred most common words. Reading this book will bring clarity and new understanding to complicated things you may or may not have understood before. This is a fun and very cool book.
If you want a challenge, try to explain something such as your job or a hobby using Munroe’s XKCD Simple Writer which only allows you to use the 1000 most common words.
Eureka! I have found one!
Does anyone else get this feeling when they find an audiobook reader that they can love?
My new favorite is Lisette Lecat. She reads the Alexander McCall Smith series No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels.
After trying (and failing) to read the No. 1 Ladies in print, it was a joy to hear the rich, rolling tones of Lecat sing out all those names that had given me grief. In The Full Cupboard of Life, the women are grown-ups, dealing with adult issues such as overbearing rivals, taking care of other people's children, or finding the perfect mate.
And I thoroughly approve of 'the traditional Botswana shape'!
If you have a reader that you adore, I would welcome the suggestion. And next month we might be able to write a blog together!
Victoria Jamieson is the author and illustrator of books for children, including the Newbery Honor book Roller Girl. Along with writing and illustrating, she teaches children's book illustration at Pacific Northwest College of Art.
A good percentage of my childhood was spent at the library. When my brothers and I were young, my mom helped organize the summer reading program at our local library outside of Philadelphia. I created many a diorama based on books during those summers. A few years later, my mom started working there as a children’s librarian where, much to our chagrin, she seemed to learn all of the gossip in town (“So, I hear you’re dating so-and-so!”)
The most formative books for me as a kid were the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. I related to her so much -- she seemed like a real kid. I appreciated the fact that her family worried about money, and her dad worried about finding a job. It reassured me to no end to read about kids facing real-life situations. I can’t tell you how many times I read those books. They MAY have been a factor in my deciding to move to Portland.
Other childhood favorites included Anne of Green Gables and all of the Roald Dahl, but especially The BFG. That book inspired a lifetime of whizpopper jokes. I love re-reading childhood favorites. I teach a continuing education class in writing and illustrating children’s books at Pacific Northwest College of Art, and I always recommend re-reading old favorites. It’s fascinating to read them from an adult perspective, and if you want to write children’s books yourself, it’s a great way to remember what you loved about reading as a child.
Here’s a list of my recent favorites:
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
This was the last book that made me cry — like, a deep, body-shaking sob. If you like a body-shaking sob as much as I do, this is the book for you.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
As soon as I read this book, I knew it would be a book I would read to my kids someday. It’s just a book you want to share. Now I just need to wait for my son to be old enough.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
You just have to read it. It’s an amazing book.
Ida B by Katherine Hannigan
This book is both laugh-out-loud funny and cry-out-loud touching. Be careful where you read this one; I was reading it on the subway in New York when I started ugly crying.
A few more:
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
El Deafo by Cece Bell
One Crazy Summer by Rita Willams-Garcia
Get even more reading recommendations hand-picked for you by My Librarian.
A picture is worth a thousand words, or so people say. If you’d like to learn about something but don’t necessarily want to read a big ol’ tome (or conversely, a short Wikipedia entry), there just might be an excellent graphic novel available that will tell you everything you want to know about a subject.
Interested in the history of film? Check out Filmish by Edward Ross. Not only did I learn about everything filmic, I also could congratulate myself on the huge number of movies I’ve watched over the years.
Do you spend your morning commute listening to podcasts? If you’re curious about the evolution of narrative radio stories (I’m talking to all you Serial fans out there), then check out Out on the Wire: Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. Not only will you get the behind the scene action of podcasts, you might just be inspired to create your own radio program!
Ready to delve into other subjects through the world of comics? Take a look at this list of some very enlightening graphic novels.
Before I headed across the pond for the first time, my stepmother loaned me a slim volume entitled Coping with England. While I appreciated her thoughtfulness, I seriously doubted that I needed that book. I mean what’s to cope with? I knew enough to avoid the mushy peas and eel pies and I’d heard about the quirky plumbing, but I was pretty sure I could hail a cab or understand directions as long as the person giving them out wasn’t from Glasgow. Well let me tell you how wrong I was about my ability to cope; on my first few days in London, I was introduced to the twin domestic horrors of limescale and salad cream. I’m still scarred by that experience, and so I will just say this: Avoid them at all costs! If you are about to make your initial journey to Britain or just want to know more about the ways of that island nation and its people, take a look at the following offerings. You’ll be glad you did (or at least you’ll know when you’re being insulted).
Someone (Shaw? Wilde? Churchill?) once said that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. If Masterpiece Theater isn’t helping you as much as you’d like with your grasp on British English, get your paws on one of these titles. Knickers in a Twist is a hilarious look at British slang. Due to my long association with Brits and their police procedurals, I was fully aware of about three quarters of the words and phrases; however, I encountered some new-to-me lexical gems when I read this recently.
Ever wonder what Brits mean when they natter on about toffs, yobs, twitchers or white van men? You'll wonder no more after reading The Queen's English and How to Speak Brit. They offer fewer words and phrases than Knickers, but most entries are longer. And finally, both you and your British pals (who somehow think the words "sidewalk", "stove" and "garbage" are weird and/or hilarious) might find Divided by a Common Language helpful in understanding each other. You'll find several side-by-side comparison charts for British and American terminology, words and phrases you shouldn't use while in one country or the other, and a pronunciation guide. So I'll close by saying Have a nice day! and Cheers!
For a list of books on British English, click here.
Jazz vocalist Rebecca Kilgore has been described as one of the finest singers of the contemporary jazz scene. As a "song sleuth," she researches songs of the 20s, 30s and 40s, and reinterprets them for appreciative audiences. She has been a guest on shows such as Fresh Air with Terry Gross and Prairie Home Companion; she is a inductee in the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
I fell in love with the majestic downtown public library building when I first visited Portland in 1979 from the east coast. It was among the reasons I moved here a year later! Since then my library card has been working overtime.
I am a full-time jazz vocalist and song researcher, so I’m always looking for information on the music, artists and composers from the era of the Great American Songbook and the jazz age. I take advantage of the library’s printed sheet music collection, streaming music and physical books.
Researching composer Billy Strayhorn’s life was essential for a concert of his music which I performed recently, so I checked out Lush Life, A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu and Something to Live for, The Music of Billy Strayhorn by Walter van de Leur.
For escape I love listening to fiction on downloadable audiobooks. I loved Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys, Abide With Me, and the new My Name Is Lucy Barton. I adored Room by Emma Donoghue, and an unusual book We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I could go on and on!
My neighborhood library is Hollywood which is perfectly friendly and convenient. I don’t often visit the Central Library, but I still get a happy feeling when I do.
Perhaps you’ve seen them in gift shops around town - those lavish reproductions of vintage natural history books and posters of Victorian era scientific illustration. Whether you are a science lover, an outdoorsy type, a designer looking to create the next Etsy hit, or have way too much in common with that scary orchid guy from Twin Peaks, why buy when you can check them out for free?
One of my favorite examples of natural history illustration is Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel. Fascinated by symmetry, Haeckel saw it everywhere, from the spiny stellate forms of radiolarians, to the undulating tendrils of jellyfish, even in the faces of bats. While his strong, elegant hand makes his images resemble the stylized motifs of an art nouveau designer, there was a scientific method to his almost rococo madness. His observations led him to the idea that any creature’s development goes through stages similar to the adult forms of its evolutionary ancestors - “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (as my biologist father used to intone, rather than reading me nursery rhymes). While this is no longer a current idea, Haeckel’s correspondence with Darwin on the topic influenced the latter’s theory of evolution.
The field of astronomy has also produced many images that have endured beyond their original scientific purpose. During one of my recent expeditions into the vasty deep of the sub-basement (yes, two basements are needed to store all the books at Central), I stumbled upon a magnificent discovery: The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings Manual. This is a folio of chromolithographs from 1882 by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, a self-taught scientific illustrator who made extensive observations through the telescopes at Harvard University and the U.S. Naval Academy. He depicts the aurora, the zodiacal light, the twisting ropy whorls of sunspots, the milky cataract that is Mars. Despite his artistic talent, he is probably more well know for accidentally releasing the forest-ravaging Gypsy moth. While you can request to see the folio down at the Central library, if you’d rather not make the trek, the images can be viewed here. Many of them are also found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time by Michael Benson, which is full of all kinds of other great astronomical images as well.
For more scientific illustration, check out this list.
“No, I cannot help you build a portal to The Nether to mine soul sand.”
It felt like overnight my 7-year-old became totally absorbed in a world full of “Mooshrooms” and “Snow Golem” that I knew nothing about. He had discovered Minecraft.
I think most parents experience some sort of struggle between accepting early exposure to technology as part of this generation’s reality, while worrying that their kids will become so engrossed in it, that it will hinder their ability to develop other skills and interests. It was out of this sort of concern, that I started exploring Minecraft on my own.
On my first venture I added an unintentional water feature in my son’s igloo which turned his carefully crafted home into a flood zone. Oops. I’ve since sharpened my construction skills with the help of Minecraft books from the library and even added the Minecraft Pocket Edition app on my phone so I can play with my son. An awesome side-benefit is that setting limits has actually gotten easier. It’s clear to me now why he needs ample warning to get back to his shelter and stow his inventory before re-joining the real world. I also understand that when you find an abandoned mineshaft or a desert temple you may need an extra ten minutes to explore, because “that is super rare.”
Check out this list for parents who want to get up to speed on Minecraft basics or you might encourage your kid to put down the pickaxe long enough to enjoy one of these books that share themes with their favorite game.
I was once like you.
Shrugging off the ridiculous covers, improbable plots, and ridiculous characters -- campy melodramatic stories with overwritten sex were a no go. That is, until I read a few of them. Then a few more, including the entertaining, The Burnt Toast B&B.
Derrick Richards is a ruggedly handsome lumberjack and reluctant bed and breakfast owner. He wants nothing more than to leave the hospitality world behind. Ginsberg Sloan is his “city boy” guest looking for respite and recovery at the cheapest place to stay in town. Regardless of the creature discomforts Derrick offers, Ginsberg is determined to make the B&B home.
After peeking in on their trials, tribulations and um… that too. Derrick and Ginsberg offer a reader their own break from the real world with a few hours of drama, love, and a happy ending.
Go ahead. Give a romance a chance.
Over the course of the last year, I served on a book award committee. For the most part it was a great experience. Brand new, straight from the publisher books arrived at my house (some 1800 titles!) like clockwork. I was privy to writers and titles I never would have discovered on my own. It was interesting work, overwhelming at times but tremendously exciting to be riding the crest of the publishing wave. The downside of this experience was that my reading choices were not truly my own. Someone and something dictated the whole of my reading life. Sad as I am to see a lengthy and engrossing project end I am once again delighted to be reading whatever I please. But where to start? I decided to start by revisiting some old favorites, authors and works I have deeply enjoyed in the past and that seemed perfect for a revisit.
Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson.
Barbara Buncle is low on cash. Her unorthodox solution to the problem is to write a novel. Lacking in experience but chock full of determination and keen observational skills she writes Disturber of the Peace, a somewhat screwball comedy based on the quirky inhabitants of her own village. The novel is a smashing success and the cash starts to flow until her friends and neighbors begin to recognize themselves within the pages. When her publisher begs for a sequel will Miss Buncle be able to deliver the goods while keeping her neighbors at bay?
Dinner at Antoine’s by Frances Parkinson Keyes.
Wealthy businessman Orson Foxworth hosts a dinner party to introduce his niece Ruth to the cream of New Orleans society. But hours later one of the guests is found dead with a pistol and a note by her side. Keyes' most memorable and best-selling novel is set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. It is an engrossing who-done-it filled with period detail and beautifully mixing the history and customs of 1940’s Louisiana.
The Valorous Years by A. J. Cronin.
Trained as a physician, many of A.J. Cronin’s novels have a hard-working doctor at their heart. The result was a forty-seven year career filled with engaging novels, masterful characters and stories with a deep moral code. In The Valorous Years, Duncan Stirling is a young man whose arm is crippled by polio yet is determined to become a doctor. Without the support of his family, Duncan struggles to believe in himself and to reach is goals. Best known for his 1937 book The Citadel, Cronin was a prolific writer and deeply engaging storyteller whose books have never gone out of style.
What Does February mean to you? I prefer my Valentine’s day with a mix of romance and candy. Visually I am fascinated with candy: All the colors, shapes, sizes and then the textures. February 14th is a parade of colors and images for me.
As an adult I get my husband nice chocolates and make him a love note. He returns the favor.
I have never had a secret admirer or a sweetheart send me a Valentine. I wished for it as a teen. I longed for a sweetheart and a heart locket.
My Dad though has sent me a valentine every year since someone broke my heart back in the nineties. Do you have a broken heart? My Librarian Heather has the perfect list for this called Divorce Support Group Reads.
Maybe though you are a teen. And like me you are wishing for a sweetheart. Here’s a list for you of romantic love stories called Teen Romance.
"A woman’s body never really belongs to herself. As an infant, my body was my mother’s, a detachable extension of her own, a digestive passage clamped and unclamped from her body. My parents would watch over it, watch over what went into and out of it, and as I grew up I would be expected to carry on their watching by myself. Then there was sex, and a succession of years in which I trawled my body along behind me like a drift net, hoping that I wouldn’t catch anything in it by accident, like a baby or a disease. I had kept myself free of these things only through clumsy accident and luck. At rare and specific moments when my body was truly my own, I never knew what to do with it."
What is a body and what is it for? Something to be improved? Something to be managed? Something to be disciplined? Something to be saved? Something to be remodeled? Something to set free? Something to be destroyed? Alexandra Kleeman's debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine does a remarkable job of tracking one young (presumably white) woman's body's movement in and through late capitalism. As much as A - the novel's narrator - tries to escape or resolve her body's contradictions, all she can eventually do is document the various ways her body is seen and reflected. At every turn, up against every potential escape route - roommate B who spends the first half of the book attemping to become A, boyfriend C who watches porn while they have sex so he might layer "fantasy upon reality upon fantasy," the mirrors she regularly consults for changes in her facial structure, the cult she later joins that prescribes a steady diet of nothing but Kandy Kakes - the possibly edible treats made of nothing ever alive hence nothing actually dead, and finally as a prop in a competitive dating show where real-life lovers test their knowledge of one another or face imposed and permanent separation - A inevitably finds herself simultaneously inside and outside her body, blurred lines never coalescing except in moments of extreme duress.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a surveillance report mapped and composed by the object of surveillance. Utilizing anorexia as a kind of totalizing metaphor, the novel turns the commodification of bodies inside out but we end up precisely where we began. Weird, paranoiac, and desperate, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine mines territories familiar to fans of DeLillo, Pynchon, and Philip K. Dick - an oddly recognizable and spooky map of our current historical moment where bodies are necessarily quantifiable but ultimately weightless, until the threat of brutal hunger arrives with a sudden flash.
When you’re driving through the country, do you wonder what’s inside that neglected barn leaning in the distance? When you see a derelict car do you slow down and try to figure out the year, make and model? When passing through the “bad part of town” do you long to go into a boarded up movie theater that still advertises “This year’s Best Picture winner, D ncing wi h Wo ves” on the marquee?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then urban exploration—the act of visiting abandoned man-made places to document the experience—might be something you’d enjoy. Even though they may be called “urban explorers,” as you can see from this example, many of the places they visit may not be in a city. Man-made structures and artifacts are everywhere and have been abandoned everywhere.
There are some theories out there about why people are drawn to abandoned places, but I don’t know if I’m self-aware enough to pick any one reason that explains my own fascination. In the United States, Detroit has become the poster child for urban decay, but it certainly isn’t alone. Urban explorers have an entire globe to discover and there is an active web presence for those who are interested. It isn’t for everyone, however. These are dangerous places, for many reasons.
Maybe running a gauntlet of armed guards or crawling through a dank ruined building full of bugs and asbestos isn’t appealing. Fortunately, there are those who are not only interested in that sort of adventure but also want to share, so you can vicariously enjoy man-made ruins by visiting the library and checking out one of the great books on this list.
The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie, tells a story that includes the economist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”; a big, bad pharmaceutical company; the department of defense; hippie parents; the upcoming marriage of a neurologist who has invented a tool to cut a perfect circle in skulls of soldiers with brain injuries and a translator for the Norwegian Diaspora; and a squirrel. It’s funny and sweet and endearing, just a tad on the experimental side with unique little illustrations sprinkled throughout. The book and its main character, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, are wonderfully quirky and ultimately quite wise. I laughed, learned new words, and thoroughly enjoyed The Portable Veblen.
If you’d like a bit more unconventionality and eccentricity in your reading, try one of the books on my list here.