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.
Billy Wilder, director of such diverse and wonderful films that to begin to list them is to agonize over your exclusions, had a sign in his office that said “What would Lubitsch do?”
Ernst Lubistch made movies that sparkled, with wit and sophistication that has not been matched since.
Lubitsch’s 1932 film Trouble in Paradise was released before the Production Code acquired the power to prevent ‘immoral’ movies from being shown. Crime pays. People who are not married have a great deal of fun together. The screening of such delights was considered dangerous. Trouble in Paradise was unavailable for years, and never released on VHS.
Sometimes it seems to me that the Production Code changed our view of the past, that this board of censors determined not only the morality of what was on American screens, but also the way that we would see their times. The past becomes a foreign country where good was good, bad was bad, and human beings were somehow not so human.
I’ve made a list of Effervescent Pre-Code Movies in our new catalog. For me these movies break down the barrier between us and the past, showing that our great-grandparents had desires and foibles that were just like our own. And that they were very funny and had great gams.
I went to see The Hobbit ...twice... on the opening weekend. If you've read my other Embarrassment of Riches entries you may have guessed that I am the target audience for that movie. Having read The Hobbit for the first time as a little girl I was reminded of other adventure stories I first read long ago.
Robin Mckinley's The Blue Sword and its prequel The Hero and the Crown were Newbery honor and Newbery medal books. Though they were written for children, they have appeal for adults looking for a light read. Much like The Hobbit they remind me of fairy tales. They could really begin "...Once upon a time" and both are set in a land where dragons and magic were once widespread but now have faded. In both of Mckinley's books the female lead saves the kingdom and just happens to find true love along the way. Both feature strong female characters and horses, ensuring a warm place in my heart for them as a child and a permanent spot on the shelves of my personal collection.
I finished reading my first novel of 2013 and I'm pretty proud of myself. (I won't bother confessing how much of the reading took place in 2012. Just be happy for me.) It's quite of feat for someone who lately gets to read a maximum two pages before being called to referee a fight over the last of the Nutella, or to star in the latest episode of Mom Cleans Up Cat Barf--Again!, or to read to someone before they go to bed. Child the Younger is learning to read, so bedtime stories have lately strayed from a variety of fun picture books to Green Eggs and Ham for the twenty-ninth time. I heartily endorse reading this loudly and with a British accent (think overwrought Shakespearean monologue) if you don't mind a small child pummeling you with his Ninja Fists of Annoyance as you do this. I promise, you too, will marvel at the wonder of green eggs and ham. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. And you can eat them here or there.
From an observant, slightly snotty, artistic, dramatic hat designer comes this story of an escape from Hitler's Vienna. The human emotions are very real, though not always admirable.
I’m pretty sure that each and every one of us has odd culinary preferences that we only indulge when we’re alone. I often make a never-the-same-twice dish that very loosely resembles fried rice, created from various leftovers and my lazy determination to only dirty one pan; I indulge my sweet tooth with impromptu desserts made of various combos of peanut butter, honey, chocolate chips and raw oats. When I cook for myself I am both less thoughtful and more inventive than when I cook for others.
Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone (edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler) is an irresistible window into the many different ways we approach cooking for and eating by ourselves. “A is for Dining Alone ...and so am I, if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself,” M.F.K. Fisher admits, as she writes about learning to make and serve herself delicious meals; other writers talk about the ritual of dining out alone. Steve Almond, on the other hand, hones his cooking skills only “in the abject hope that people would spend time with me if I put good things in their mouths;” Rattawut Lapcharoensap laments that recreating the meals of his native Thailand can “reinforce rather than eradicate feelings of dislocation and homesickness” when there’s no one to share them with him. Some people talk about the joys of eating the same meal day after day without any diminished pleasure: Ann Patchett admits happily eating Saltine crackers for dinner many nights in a row; Jeremy Jackson finds comfort in black beans and cornbread; Phoebe Nobles proudly eats asparagus every day for two months. And while Erin Ergenbright admits that dining alone feels wrong to her, Holly Hughes, a mother of three, fantasizes about the delicious meals she would eat if she only had to cook for herself. Writers proudly include their recipes for everything from Yellowfin Tuna with Heirloom Tomatoes to White-on-White Lunch For When No One is Looking.
I have read this collection three times now, and each time I am once again comforted and amused by all of the ways we find sustenance when no one is watching. As Laurie Colwin says in the first essay, “People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.”
So what do you eat when you are alone, really?
*From the essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” by Laurie Colwin.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis byTimothy Egan
Just finished it this morning and find myself in the sweet afterglow of my favorite book of the year. My thoughts haven't become solid matter yet and I blather on to friends the random, out-of-order pieces that come tumbling out.
I knew almost nothing about Edward Curtis. I knew a tiny bit about the history of photography. And pretty much all I knew about Native Americans came from my limited education on the Iroquois Confederacy, the result of my Western New York roots. I am blown away by something on almost every single page of this book.
It is glorious, velvety-rich history, fascinating in its details. Clearly, Egan had some amazing access to primary sources, including the Mazamas, the Rainier Club in Seattle where Curtis lived for years, the papers of Edmond S. Meany, and on and on. There are photos in the book but you'll want to see more.
The book is held gently in the hands of the first and last chapters. How did Egan do it? Make them paired so perfectly together, about two completely different people, the subject and the photographer, yet one and the same at the end of their lives? Astounding.
If you were to give one book this year as a holiday gift to the nonfiction reader in your life, you should give this one. Then get your game face on for next year, because you will have a reputation to uphold.
I must have a thing for books that have books within them, as two of my most favorite novels have such. Let me amend that...the books within happen to be parables...perhaps that is the icing on the cake for me.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler could also fall under my favorite book variety of 'Tough
Girls You'll Love'. Lauren Olamina lives in a not-too-distant future where violence rules, people must guard their walled enclaves, and harvest their own foods, eating things like acorn flour bread. Lauren also has a dream, a purpose for humanity, which she chronicles in her parable, Earthseed: Books of the Living. It is our destiny, she tells us, to seed the stars. As she feeds us this vision, this foundation for a new faith, I found myself wishing for her new religion to become reality. She's rather insightful for her young age. Perhaps this has something to do with her hyper-empathy, through which she feels acutely the pain of others. Read or listen to it...both versions are great.
I loved Lovers and Beloveds by Meilin Miranda so much I went to the library's Suggest a Purchase page and asked the library to get some copies, and the collections mavens did so. (Yay! ...and let me say, this is something any of you can do.)
A young prince comes of age after a sheltered childhood. He must find his own way, irrespective of the pressures of his father the King, his mother the Queen, or even his notions of duty. His new training comes from his immortal Teacher, who activates a magic book called An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom, stories of the queens and kings of his country's past. Through this book, Prince Temmin experiences everything the characters do, and he must consider theirs and his mistakes, as well as feel the very erotic elements contained therein. Meanwhile, he is seriously considering becoming a follower of the gods of love and desire called the Lovers, and his father the King will do almost anything short of heresy to stop him.
This book contains explicit sex scenes, but they are not gratuitous; they are essential to the story, and far from boilerplate. Without the scenes, this novel would be among the best of the fantasy books I've read, but with them, it becomes a rather unique, outstanding book. It makes you think about how sweet and natural sex is in this world MeiLyn Miranda has created, and how difficult it can be to find that unstained attitude in the real world. MeiLyn's wisdom of experience regarding the human psyche shines through every chapter.
The rain is back and it's another eight months until summer's return... (perhaps I exaggerate). All joking aside, winter is long, dark and damp so I've got some fun and light-weight fantasy to suggest.
I was pleasantly surprised by Shadow Kin: A Novel of the Half-Light City by M.J. Scott. If one were to judge a book by its cover, this seems like a forgettable paranormal romance where the feisty, independent female lead will find love with a sensitive and likable hero - or a tameable bad boy. I picked it up anyway and found myself falling for the characters and the setting, where four species share a city and an uneasy peace. I liked the second book, Blood Kin, even better and am hoping for a third.
Faith Hunter's Skinwalker is the first in a series about a female vampire killer/mercenary with a mysterious past. Jane Yellowrock is a skinwalker of Cherokee descent who can shift into any animal of which she has a claw, tooth or some other small piece. Then she is hired as a vampire hunter, by one of the oldest vampires in New Orleans. While tougher-than-tough female leads are a staple of urban fantasy, I found Jane more believable and fleshed out than most.
I just finished Angel's Ink by Jocelynn Drake. Gage is a tattoo artist and fairly decent guy doing a truly terrible job of hiding out from the evil witches and warlocks of the Ivory Towers that rule his world. He owns his own shop and works with a troll and an elf. The amount of trouble he gets into in one short book is a little over the top, but it was a fun page-turner with a hero so likeable that I was glad that the ending promises a sequel or three.
Every year, around this time, we compose a poem, which sometimes rhymes,
about ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties
who'll come to your door demanding a feastie
This year is no different, and we think that you'll find,
some blood-curdling tales will focus your mind;
And keep you awake for those folks who'll come calling...
What can we say? Our poem is appalling!
Stories of vampires and unwanted guests, comic book horrors, brain-eating pests
Of gruesome tales we have no lack, you just provide the pumpkin named Jack.
It doesn’t help that she is 55-plus woman and already invisible in society’s eyes. Even her family is oblivious to the fact that she is invisible. The only one who notices is her best friend, who tries to help Clover in her non-visible adventures.
Calling Invisible Women is a clever and hilarious new book by Jeanne Ray. It’s a thought-provoking look at women of a certain age in our society. It’s also one of my favorite novels of 2012.
Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places by Andrew Blackwell
I thought it was a sarcastic title. That the guy who wrote it must have a cracked sense of dark humor. Why would anyone want to visit Chernobyl? See deforestation as it happens in the Amazon? Visit the most polluted river in India? Blackwell asked himself the same questions. Did he have a thing for industrial waste? Was he some kind of environmental rubbernecker? What exactly was the point in going to some of the world's worst man-made, human caused devastation?
Some chapters really stick with me. The one on Port Arthur, Texas, for example, where the brown breeze has a rancid aftertaste; where the community is among the poorest and most polluted in the nation, yet is surrounded by multi-billion dollar companies. Back in the day, a huge oil gusher erupted from the ground near Port Arthur. The dirt-covered men who were witness looked at each other and asked "what is it?" Can you even imagine that? As Andrew Blackwell (irony of his last name is duly noted) traveled and researched this chapter, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and sank, the start of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
In other chapters he travels to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where he can't keep himself from channeling Hornblower's "Where away?"; the oil sands mining of Northern Alberta, Canada; Chernobyl of course (my favorite chapter)--did you know that, unbelievably, Chernobyl has become possibly the largest nature preserve in eastern Europe?. And there's plenty more environmental disaster where those came from, a little something for everyone.
And there is humor, and lots of it--I promise. It is wry and sweet, his use of language precise, sharp. I want to have a drink or two with Andrew Blackwell and ask about a thousand questions. He wrote the best armchair travel book I've read in a long, long time. There's no crumbling ruin, restored by wealthy retirees, true. Yet I find myself cruising the website chernobylwel.com with its jaunty black gas mask logo, just out of curiosity mostly, but you never know.
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway is the story of an exceedingly careful man with the euphonious name of Joe Spork. His father was the king of criminal London. His grandfather was a genius with clockwork. Joe runs a modest clockwork shop and tries to make amends for his father’s sins.
But when he is asked to repair a particularly ornate and clever device he finds himself drawn into the flotsam of super spies, religious zealots, and vengeful despots that his family left behind. Whole worlds live inside this book, each with its own rich history, and together weaving the background for strong characters and their fantastic capers.
Next Best Thing is a wonderful story about Ruth Saunders and her grandmother Rachel, who move from Boston to Hollywood. Ruth wants to make it as a sitcom writer. Her grandmother wants to have fun and finds work as a an extra for tv right away. Ruth is twenty-three and a bit broken. Grandma Rachel is tough as nails and elegant. She totally supports Ruth in finding herself and her career. Their loving relationship is what moves the story.
Weiner certainly knows how to write a grandmother character (take a look at In Her Shoes). There’s a reason she is a bestselling author, and much of it is due to her fully formed characters and her great story-telling. This is a lively and moving story about two women finding their way in the challenging place that is Hollywood, California. I think you will find yourself rooting for them if you decide to read The Next Best Thing.
I'll try pretty much any science fiction or fantasy book that falls into my hands... at least for the first 50 pages. That's the window an author has to hook me. Superheroes aren't quite my thing. I'll go to the summer blockbusters, sometimes, if the reviews are good. I didn't read that many comic books growing up so I probably missed the golden window to really learn to love superhero stories. So when I was lent a copy of Prepare to Die! by Paul Tobin, a Portland comic book writer, I wasn't sure it was going to pass my 50 page test. The news is that it passed with such flying colors that I immediately set aside the other books I was reading in favor of this one.
Partially set in a fictional Oregon town, the crux of the story boils down to what happens when a super villain says "Prepare to die!" and the hero asks "How long?"
Steve Clarke, aka Reaver, was a small-town boy when an accident caused him to become super-powered. The book is funny and frequently tragic: consider the post-traumatic-stress resulting from being a very young superhero who is trying to defeat super-villains who slaughter passers-by just for fun. Often crude, the tone fits the character and story perfectly.
I really hope this Portland comic book writer has another novel or three in him because I'm really eager to read him again. I'm glad I wasn't too picky to try it because, out of the last 100 or so novels I've read, I'd put this very character-driven novel in the top 5.
While my reading taste is pretty eclectic, until recently I hadn't read very much historical fiction. Perhaps it is thanks to those engaging YA historical novels I've listened to in the past few years that I'm dipping into this genre a little more.
It also helps if I find an author I like who bounces around genres. A couple of years ago my book group read The Sparrow. At the time, I said it was hard to believe this was Mary Doria Russell's first novel, and that the book was like Ursula LeGuin, only deeper. I know, hard to believe, deeper than Ursula? In this SF masterpiece, Jesuits make First Contact, because, well, Catholics go on missions. And you know how missionaries can get into trouble due to deep cultural misunderstandings? The sole survivor who returns to Earth must reveal his story that includes a brothel and a dead child, as well as recover from unimaginable trauma.
Since I loved this author's style, I'll happily read her other books. In Doc, Russell daringly covers a subject that has entered our cultural consciousness through many movies: Dr. John Henry Holliday, dentist. IMDB tells me there are 43 instances of the character Doc Holliday in movies and television since 1937. Along with Doc Holliday, in this book we get close to the Earp brothers, Wyatt, Morgan, and James, during their short time in Dodge City, before the famous OK Corral incident.
Despite all those occasions to encounter Doc as a character, I was surprised to learn there was a lot I did not know. John Holliday was born with a cleft palate, treated with surgery. He was a southern gentleman, and a search for relief from consumption drove him west. The tale is told as if from the view of a compassionate historian. The man was an alcoholic, but it was alcohol rather than laudanum that helped him relieve his consumptive cough without losing his sharp mental faculties he needed as a gambler. Faro was his game, not poker, usually. We're given the myth that was spread in the papers, like say how Doc shot and killed a man, and the often innocuous story (in which no one was shot) that spawned the myth. The author clearly is fond of Doc, and now I too have a soft spot for the man.
For the purpose of the gorgeous and astounding book, Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine by Piotr Maskrecki, the author defines a relic in this way:
Relic: a creature or habitat that, while acted upon by evolution, remains remarkably similar to its earliest manifestations in the fossil record.
Do we have relics here in the U.S. of A.? Bunches. Among them, the Atlantic horseshoe crab. It lives on the eastern North American Coast and has been doing a mass spawning every Spring, like clockwork, for 440 million years.
Relics not found in the U.S. : Emerald and black mottled treerunnner: Its cache of eggs is normally stashed in elevated piles of leaves in the geographical area of Africa called the Guiana Shield. If the nest is disturbed by a predator near the end of the eggs' development, all the eggs will hatch at once, within seconds of each other, the infant lizards scattering in all directions.
The Atewa dinospider from West Africa is from an ancient group of arachnids that go back all the way to the Carboniferous period. When was that? Three-hundred million years ago. What's a dinospider look like? Think brown pipe cleaners--those fuzzy things you used in third grade art class.
And New Guinea....my goodness. You're amazing. A giant, newly discovered and as yet unnamed gliding frog (think flying squirrel) and an equally astonishing and also as yet unnamed tiny frog of the species Choerophryne, smaller than a human fingernail.
I'd go further into the spider arena but I know it's gonna freak out some of you. But I can't leave without mentioning the Goliath tarantula that weighs in over 150 grams--about a third of a pound--that the author of this book thought at first was a small mammal when he saw it scurrying across the forest floor. I'm not an arachnophobe but the picture of this bad boy was all it took for me to close the book.
A former boyfriend of mine was a great cook, and I was only allowed in the kitchen when it was time to do the dishes. This worked well for me, as I like to eat tasty food without putting in a lot of effort, and I don't mind plunging my hands in warm, sudsy water. I was finally eating some meals that had more than five ingredients! So after we broke up, I went back to my standard fare of spinach salads and heat and eat entrees. To say I had no interest in spending hours cooking something that would take only minutes to consume would be a vast understatement. I had better things to do with my life.
Giulia Melucci's dating experience, chronicled in I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti was the exact opposite of mine: she loves to cook and prepared some pretty yummy dishes for the parade of boyfriends that began when she was in her early twenties. Yummy things (recipes are included) like "Risotto with Intricately Layered Hearts", "Pear Cake for Friends with Benefits", "Salmon with Lemon-Tarragon Butter", "Morning After Pumpkin Bread" and the one that I'm going to try out on my boyfriend: "Lachlan's Rigatoni with Eggplant".
Because, you see, I'm now with someone who actually enjoys it when I prepare meals (he helps, too, and also recently fixed the best grilled cheese sandwich I have ever eaten), and I've discovered how much fun it is to cook for someone besides myself. Guilia got that from the beginning and, with the exception of one guy who was lukewarm on the whole food thing, her boyfriends all seemed happy with her culinary skills. Never happy enough, alas, to give her the one thing she craved: a marriage proposal. We meet Ethan who, after three years, was given an ultimatum and declined to offer a lifetime together; Mitch Smith who, not very many years after they broke up ("I didn't want a girlfriend or whatever."); ended up marrying someone else, and Lachlan, a Scotsman who was passionate…about food. As we leave Giulia, she's still unwed but doesn't seem too downhearted. Optimism, like cooking, seems to come easy to her.
"In our era, more than some others, writers must buck up and take care of themselves" says Susan Bell in The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself. If you are writing the Great American Novel or just want to improve your style, study this book. Full of examples, graceful writing and thoughts from published authors, The Artful Edit is entertaining.
Bell illustrates her points by studying the well-known masterpiece, The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald, and illustrating Fitzgerald's collaboration with the marvelous editor, Max Perkins. More about Max in a moment.
She says, "Fitzgerald, too, was a master of the squared-off paragraph. He began and ended many with a startling mix of style, philosophy, and itch -- the itch that can only be scratched by moving to the next paragraph..."
That "itch" has just the right touch, as does 'free-fiddle" in the following observation of the author Luc Sante, "At the end of a work, he allows himself free-fiddle with words but not structure." I like Bell's way with words: "If you've written a bird's nest, then, untangle your ideas. Separate them into a few sentences. One small sentence, written well, can tell more than an expansive one that's gangly."
There are many ways to edit and the book is filled with examples of how different authors approach the process. For example, Michael Ondaatje says, "Having a concept of what the book is exactly about before you begin it is a tremendous limitation, because no idea is going to be as intricate and complicated as what you will discover in that process of writing it." Continuing he says, "I always write the beginning at the end. It's the last thing I write because then I know what the book is about."
I was so taken with the collaboration between Max Perkins and F. Scott Fitzgerald that I was inspired to read more about the famous editor. I found a lovely book of family letters collected by Max's five daughters and published as The Family Letters of Maxwell Perkins complete with his clever illustrations; also a biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg.
Berg says of Perkins, "Beginning with Fitzgerald and continuing with each new writer he took on, he slowly altered the traditional notion of the editor's role. He sought out authors who were not just "safe," conventional in style and bland in content, but who spoke in a new voice about the new values of the postwar world. In this way, as an editor he did more than reflect the standards of his age; he consciously influenced and changed them by the new talents he published."
Max not only edited Fitzgerald, but also Ernest Hemingway and Tom Wolfe among others. He even conjured up new plots or offered ideas for his authors to develop.Max's greatest gift was summed up by his longtime friend, Elizabeth Lemmon, in a letter to Max's wife after his death, "I have known people who were considered pillars of strength and loved to be leaned on, but Max poured strength into people and made them stand on their own feet."
After reading the story of Max and Tom Wolfe, I must now read Wolfe's autobiographical novels. Isn't it great when one book leads to another? So many books, so little time.