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 am endlessly fascinated in reading about America’s Civil War. So now that we come to the end of the four-year observance of its sesquicentennial, I feel inclined to say a few thoughts about it.
The observance began in April of 2011 which actually is beginning to feel like a long time ago to me. That has given me an appreciation for what it might have felt like to those who lived through it, although I suspect it must have seemed much longer to those folks who served and those who suffered the loss of loved ones.
During these four years there have been numerous special observances at battlefields and re-enactments across the nation. And this period of remembrance has also sparked a good deal of publishing about the war, its battles, and the personalities who shaped the conflict. Yet after 150 years, people are still asking themselves about the war’s causes and ultimately what the meaning of the war was for us as a nation.
April 9, 1865 is generally recognized as the date the war ended. This was the day that General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Federal forces under the command of Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. Due in part to delays in communications and in part to southern determination, it took a while for all Confederate forces to surrender in places as far-removed as Florida, Texas and territories west of the Mississippi; and it wasn’t until November that the Confederate ship C.S.S. Shenandoah ended its around-the-world raids before surrendering in Liverpool, England.
For some great books on the Appomattox campaign, I'd suggest checking out Bruce Catton's class A Stillness at Appomattox or the more recent Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the end of the Civil War by Elizabeth R. Varon. For a shorter account of the campaign with lots of color illustrations and maps, take a look at Appomattox 1865: Lee's Last Campaign by Ron Field.
Some years ago I read Ross Poldark by Winston Graham. I fell headlong into the story and quickly recommended the novel to my dad who shared it with a friend. The three of us have varied reading tastes, but share a love of fine historical fiction and each of us read the entire series (12 books!). I’ve been rereading it, and it's just as wonderful as I remembered. Why?
Let’s start with the fabulously good dialogue and concise description. Graham reveals character and relationships in deft strokes. Add a strong sense of place and accurate historical details which bring to life the social upheaval in Cornwall and England from 1783 - 1820's: the corn riots, smuggling, the vagaries of mining, the effects of industrialization and the Napoleonic wars.
In the first novel Ross Poldark returns home after fighting in the American colonies to a world where nobody is much interested in or affected by the war he fought in. He’s been gone so long that everyone close to him thinks he died. What does he find? His father dead and buried, the house he inherited in a squalid state. I’m not even going to tell you what his sweetheart has done!
In 1975 the BBC adapted some of the early Poldark novels into a tv series which was wildly popular. In June 2015 PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre will air a new BBC production starring Aidan Turner as Poldark. I plan to watch it with my dad, so we can compare the screen versions to the novels we love.
I’ve never written a novel or a short story (unless you count the required writing course I took about a million years ago as a freshman in college) but in some ways, I think that it might be harder to write a short story than a full-fledged book. A short story has to suck you in immediately, tell a full plot in a small number of pages, and shoot you out at the end with a quick climactic pay-off. A great short story will stay with you forever. Raymond Carver’s "A Small Good Thing" with a young boy’s unpicked up bakery cake has been part of my very soul since I first read it years ago.
The past few months, I’ve read several collections of really amazing short stories. When I did a search in our catalog, I found that there have been a ton of short story books published in the last couple of years; I checked a bunch out and found a bounty of vivid stories that I find myself still thinking about weeks after reading them. Kelly Link’s stories in Get in Trouble are a feast of surreal images that are also weirdly believable. Katherine Heiny writes about infidelity in her collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, but she does it in a refreshingly nonjudgmental way. And then there are always my old favorites, Flannery O'Connor and Peter S. Beagle.
If you're in the mood for a short story or two or three, try one of these collections.
“I know there'll come a day
When you'll say that you don’t know me
And I know there'll come a time
When there’s nothing anybody owes me anymore
Locked in the attic again
Out of the shallow and into the deep end
I've got a wound I know will never end
Locked in the attic again”
-Meat Puppets, “Lost”
Meat Puppets II is one of those rare records that defies rock's all too static vocabulary. The record emerged out of a particularly stagnant historical moment for independent music - 1984, though lauded as some kind of golden age for the underground (think R.E.M.), more realistically represented a kind of cultural paralysis and retrenchment. US indie rock was rediscovering the 60s, comfortably (and farcically) reiterating the corny gestures of "psychedelia" with none of the radical fury and desire to tear down the foundations. At first listen, one might be tempted to slot Meat Puppets II into this very paradigm. Pastoral/stoner free-association lyrics, noodly Grateful Dead-influenced guitars layered over a slightly accelerated cowpunk two-step - how obviously conservative can it get, right?
The record is genuinely gorgeous in the way it expresses a sublime - almost gentle - awe in the face of natural space (the band were based out of Tempe Arizona). But what lifts Meat Puppets II from the everyday morass is the awkward hesitancy with which primary songwriter Curt Kirkwood gropes for new structures, new neuronal paths and logistical tracks that want to rupture the received moves and pantomimes of rock and roll's handbook.
Not that the songs are mind-blowing or necessarily destructive - Meat Puppets II doesn't begin to really approach the detourns of a Captain Beefheart or early Pere Ubu. The music is surprisingly fragile and while one can't really call them unconfident, the songs tend to move as though they're always already entering new territory - watchful; but joyous too. It's no wonder Kurt Cobain found the record inescapably addictive - the record tracks (and promises) perpetual escape.
Of course the band tightened the reins and future records abandoned the inventive hesitancy for an almost muscular assurance (culminating in 1994's boogie-drenched Too High To Die). But MP II could never really be recuperated or reproduced - it was always a way out with no desire to actually get anywhere.
When a long-awaited book finally arrives, it’s hard not to place high expectations on its performance. So when I finally had a copy of Esther Freud’s latest book Mr. Mac and Me in my hot little hands, dreams of a great story, pristine writing and new lands to explore were circling above my head. As a fan of Esther Freud (see Hideous Kinky and The Sea House among others) I was not disappointed on any front.
Freud’s latest tells the story of thirteen-year-old Thomas Maggs, who lives in the Suffolk coastal town of Walberswick under the watchful eyes of an overprotective mother and an unpredictable father. Thomas’s father runs the local pub and helps himself freely to the goods. Times are not good. Business is far from booming and World War I looms ahead. When not in school, Thomas spends his time helping out at the pub, assisting the local rope maker ply his trade and exploring the countryside. He is also a talented artist who frequently sketches ships and dreams of escaping by sea. His life is changed when Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret move to town. The renowned architect of the Glasgow School of Art is down on his luck and hoping some restorative time at the seaside will change his fortunes. A quiet, contemplative relationship develops between Mackintosh and Thomas, an association that will be deeply affected when the war finally comes to town.
Freud’s family has its own history of life in Walberswick. Her paternal grandfather Ernest, also an architect, spent years living in the village and transforming local cottages with his Bauhaus-style designs. Her father, the painter Lucien Freud, spent time there as a child. And Esther Freud herself owns a home there, her second in fact. The first house she purchased in Walberswick was the former pub, known in this book as the Blue Anchor.
Freud, the author of eight novels, is an extraordinary writer. She particularly excels is her descriptions of the physical world. The village and its surroundings act as characters equally as important as Mr. Mackintosh or young Thomas Maggs. As Thomas and Mr. Mac and the others who populate Walberswick move towards their prescribed destinies, readers have the pleasure of witnessing the development of a relationship both strikingly subtle and completely life changing. Mr. Mac and Me is not the perfect read but it does exactly what I want a book to do for me: introduces me to new people and new places and provides me with much appreciated and invaluable food for thought.
Postscript: Sadly, a fire at the Glasgow School of Art in May of 2014 destroyed a portion of the school’s west wing which housed the Mackintosh Library. The library is expected to reopen by 2018.
It's about the Americas.
Because it is as homegrown as corn on the cob, baseball & plantains. Because we have an art that is original and unmistakeable.
Because it makes me feel good.
Now I am going to talk about music I know and grew up with. Not to diss anybody's else's version, just to acknowledge the love of my people who intended the music to sustain me and give me joy.
Start with: Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings, Aretha Franklin
This is where the music began. Future information on how it grew and where it is forthcoming.
Have you ever wondered if you have what it takes to be a good terrorist? Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing wondered that too. In December 1983, a bomb was set off in Harrod’s Department store in London. The media said it looked like an amateur job. When she read this, Lessing was curious: what is the difference between an amateur terrorist and a professional one? And if you WERE an amateur, how did you get better?
The terrorists in this book are strictly small time, a group of 4-6 people thrown together by need and the desire to fit into something ‘big’ like the IRA or the Soviet Communist Party.
Except for the main character, Alice, who is telling the story. Oh, Alice believes in the necessary destruction of society but until that happens she is busy cleaning up, making their squat livable, smoothing out relations with the ‘real’ communists living next door and cooking kettle after of kettle of her nourishing vegetable soup.
But when bomb-making Jocelyn moves in, the focus shifts from theory to the practice. As in practice makes perfect. As in people injured, killed, even their own members. Each member of the group is now forced to evaluate just how ‘good’ they really want to be.
This book is a fascinating read because of the dead-pan realistic writing told through Alice- what she thinks , what she feels, what she denies. Will she be able to live up to her ideals? Does she have what it takes to be 'good'?
I’ve been in Scotland twice, but the last time didn’t count as I was there for literally five minutes. Fortunately I’ll get to spend more time there this spring and I can’t wait. Hiking! Pub crawling! Trading insults with my Scottish pal! It doesn’t get any better than that. My departure date is still a wee while off, though, so I’ve had to settle for immersing myself in books, music and film to satisfy my impatient desire to be in Bonny Scotland. If you, too, are longing for the land of whisky, thistles and tartan, try out some of the following:
When I was in my teens and twenties, I used to fairly loathe poetry. I either had no idea what it meant or thought it was mostly really soppy. I guess I’ve mellowed some as I’ve aged because now I think that Robert Burns penned some really good verse. There are many collections of his poems, but the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition claims to have the “most essential of the immortal poems and songs.” To hear some of his songs and poetry sung, check out There Was a Lad. For a selection of bagpipe tunes (yes, there really is more than one piece that can be played on the bagpipes), check out Duncarron: Scottish Pipes & Drums Untamed.
For some Highland eye candy (not to mention a yummy accent), there’s nothing better than Billy Connolly in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown. I was envious of Judy Dench for years after I saw that movie. If you’re more interested in the beauty of Scotland found in nature, clap your peepers on Visions of Scotland.
For two lovely books of travel, read H.V. Morton’s classic In Search of Scotland and Scotland: The Place of Visions by Jan Morris. Morton is one of my favorite travel writers – his humor and storytelling prowess make reading about his adventures in his native Britain and elsewhere a true pleasure. If you just want to look at gorgeous photos of Scotland, check out Morris’s book, but really, read the text as well! Morris is a keen observer and a wonderful writer.
I don’t know about you but I love music! I didn’t want to start with the often repeated phrase “music is a universal language” but inevitably I have to. We have such a diversity of genres, styles, authors, singers and countries offering us so many listening options. The more we’re exposed to other musical tastes and preferences the more our taste is refined over the time -- as with tasting food for the very first time -- you have to try it again and get familiar with the variety of flavors.
We all connect directly with the language of music, even if it is in a language different than our own - we all connect directly with the language of music. I want to invite you to explore more pop music in Spanish with my list, but before I send you there, you can take the time to watch these videos. Enjoy!
When reading The Man Who Could Fly and other stories by Rudolfo Anaya, a famous Chicano writer, I came across the name B. Traven. He was a German/American writer who inspired one of Anaya's stories entitled “B. Traven is Alive and Well in Cuernavaca.” I couldn’t wait to know more about this intriguing character.
B. Traven (1890-1969) is considered one of the most international literary mysteries of the twentieth century, because he refused personal data to publishers. Author of 12 fiction novels and several short stories, most of his books were originally written in German and were first published in Germany. His real name, date place of birth and nationality are still begin questioned, which makes me think that he might be hiding his identity on purpose to gain more public attention or as a kind of strategic marketing maybe?
I became a bit obsessed with trying to know more about Traven. My quest began with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a book that was adapted to a film of the same name. The film won an Academy Award in 1948; another of his remarkable works is The Death Ship”: The story of an American Sailor written in German and then translated into 12 languages including English. Both books led to him to international popularity.
It’s estimated that he used at least twenty seven aliases and many researchers are convinced that he is more than one person.
It’s amazing how books connect us with other important events and characters. I started by reading a Chicano writer and followed my curiousity to learn about B. Traven. Something else I found out going through this journey is that Macario, one of my favorite movies ever, was adapted from a short story by B. Traven -- or whoever the real person was.
by Matthew Pearl
An historical thriller about literary pirates who would steal manuscripts and publish them without the authors' consent. By the author of The Dante Club.
Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance
by Christopher McDougall
The author of Born to Run tells about the ancient and modern techniques for endurance and natural movement that allowed Greek soldiers to run for hours.
by Cynthia Barnett
A science writer tells the history of the most crucial element on earth describing the downpours that filled the oceans billions of years ago to the megastorms of today.
by Steve Osborne
The author, a familiar storyteller on NPR's The Moth, now presents his touching and humorous tales from 20 years as a lieutenant in the Big Apple.
by James M. Scott
A re-telling of the daring attack on Tokyo in the dark days after Pearl Harbor. Includes records and photographs never before published.
by Stephen Buchmann
The author describes the role flowers play in the production of our food, spices, medicines, and perfumes while bringing us joy and happiness.
by Mary Norris
New Yorker's editor of grammar and usage relates her experiences with famous authors while humorously advising on the tools of her trade.
by Cokie Roberts
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Washington was turned into a massive Union army camp. Roberts tells the stories of the of women who joined in the cause working as nurses, sanitation workers, supply organizers and more.
Though I don't read a lot of typical Westerns, I love authors who experiment with the form. I enjoy Mary Doria Russell's approach to iconic stories of the Wild West (Doc and Epitaph) and I've always appreciated how Kent Haruf could take the stoic and hard-bitten cowboy out of history and place him in the modern world - in his stories set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.
Sadly, Kent Haruf died in the fall. But according to Ron Charles of Washington Post's Book World, with Black River, S.E. Hulse is poised to take up Haruf's torch. As a Haruf fan mourning the loss of an author who could capture a depth of character in just a few lines of dialogue, I immediately placed Black River on hold. I tried not to see the very young looking author photo on the back - how could she possibly write with the gravitas of Haruf?
I'm glad I didn't let my biases stop me. Black River is a beautifully taut and painful story of an embattled man who has lost everything. After the death of his wife, Wes Carver returns to the small Montana town where they met. At a time when he should be mending his troubled relationship with his stepson, he is instead intent on one thing - preventing the parole of a man Wes guarded years before while working at the local prison - a man who took something essential from Wes.
There are authors who can keep you emotionallly attached to a character even as you're mentally exhorting him to take another course of action. S.E. Hulse seems to have that knack. I hope you enjoy Black River as much as I did.
I found a single remaining copy Of Walking in Rain by Matt Love on the shelf of a coffee shop in Manzanita. It was high summer, but I couldn’t resist its pull, the feel of the paper, the promise of reading it on a rainy day in autumn. There was no price tag and the cashier seemed baffled as to what to charge. I had a $20 bill in my pocket and offered that. A signed copy for $20? Done.
It sat on my bookshelf the rest of the summer. And it was an unusually hot, long, and dry summer too. By the time the rains came and leaves began to change colors and fall, it was November. At last. Historically I have been a sun worshipper, but have long had a love affair with rain. Especially stormy downpours. The sun brings out the super efficient doer in me, while the rain gives me a reason to take a breath, pause, reflect.
This is Matt Love’s contemplative musings on rain. Will it make you a lover of rain?
Notes to Mr. Love:
p.s. Counting Crows have some of the best rain songs around and none were mentioned.
p.p.s. Also, I carry an umbrella and refuse to feel guilty about it.
It captured my imagination when a colleague told me that Roy Blount Jr. said of Charles Portis that he “could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.” I listened to the audiobook of True Grit soon thereafter, and I agree. He’s my favorite kind of funny, too. The humor all emerges out of-- and illuminates-- beautifully realized characters. In this, I’d compare him to Jane Austen as much as anyone else-- Jane Austen without the courtships but with more shooting and swearing, and with a very different set of social expectations. The conversations around the campfire are priceless. And in True Grit, as in Austen's novels, the most important thing is to be a fair and strong person, even in trying circumstances.
You might already know the story of True Grit. A 14-year-old girl is determined to avenge her father’s death, so she hires a crusty U.S. Marshall to find the murderer and make sure he is punished. Much against his will, she rides into Indian Territory with him to see the job done. The Coen brothers flick absolutely did this story justice, but I'm glad I turned to the book (actually, the audiobook) to enjoy the elegant writing. I vow that there will be a lot more Charles Portis in my life in the future.
Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch and The Secret History, was the voice actor for True Grit, and she was perfect. If you’re interested in experiencing more classic works read by their ideal voice actor, take a look at this list, and please let me know if you think of any more audiobooks that need to be added to it.
I have lived in Portland for 56 years now, raising kids, writing books, and reading books. I never would have got through those 56 years without the Multnomah County Library.
“Favorites” -- A favorite book? Impossible! Seven favorite books? Impossible! I have too many favorite books. A lot of them are a lot of other people’s favorites too, so they don’t need to be mentioned. But I’ve just been rereading one that has pretty much slipped outof sight, and I want to remind people of it, because it’s a terrific novel: Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. It came out in 1964, won the Western Heritage Award, and got a nice movie based on it. But it’s way, way better than the movie. Little Big Man is a highly improbable story told so well that you believe it.
For one thing, you want to believe it. And also you can trust it, because the true parts of it are true. The history (and ethnology) is real. There’s no whitewashing the racism and greed that have always threatened the American dream of freedom. You get the story of what really happened at the battle of the Little Big Horn, not all that Custer hype. You get an entirely new view of Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and several other celebrities, too.
Like Mark Twain, Berger has a pitch-perfect ear for how Americans talk – and think. And like Mark Twain he can ruthlessly indict human stupidity and bigotry while never losing his temper, and being really, really funny. Old Lodge Skins is my hero. I love this book. I wish every high-school kid in America could read it. And then (like me) read it again twenty or forty or sixty years later...
As for nonfiction, I have to mention Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which brings together scientific and medical research (and hypocrisy), the biography of an almost invisibly elusive black woman, the exposure of an act of exploitation, racism and social injustice, and the writer’s own deeply respectful involvement with the people from whom she won this absorbing, troubling, wonderfully told story.
How about a favorite piece of music? Can I have two, please? OK! One is the short opera Galileo Galilei by Philip Glass, performed here in Portland two years ago (a recording of that performance is available now from Orange Mountain). The stage set was all magical circles and spirals and pendulums, lights moving through shadows, illuminating the story that spirals back in time from the dark end of Galileo’s life to a radiant, joyful beginning. Set, words, and music, it was and is completely beautiful.
And for a change of pace. . . how about Hoyt Axton singing “Five Hundred Miles.” (Find it on the CD Greenback Dollar: Live at the Troubadour). There are several versions of it on YouTube. I like the one where the visual is just a b/w video of a train that comes and goes by and is gone.
For more great recommendations, customized just for you, try My Librarian.
Our guest blogger is Memo. Memo works at the Central Library. Besides reading history and literature about Latinos, workers, and immigrants, he enjoys re-reading the great literary works of nineteenth and twentieth-century realist writers.
What makes a literary work an American classic? Clearly, there is no one answer to this question. It is a matter of opinion. It is no wonder book publishers have debated this issue in the past, and that they will continue to discuss it in the future. The question, also, hangs over my head every time I read Tomás Rivera’s …y no se lo tragó la tierra: Is this fictional tale of Mexican American migrant farm working families an American classic? After all, this novella is an iconic piece of literary art in Chicano/a literature, and is a must read in Chicano/a literature courses in U.S. colleges. It was also the first recipient of the Premio Quinto Sol award.
Is it an American classic? Yes! It is. In spite of being written in Spanish,* …y no se lo tragó la tierra is a story of perseverance in the American tradition of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Like their fictional counterparts in The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath, the characters in …y no se lo tragó la tierra have dreams and grit. The Mexican American migrant families’ determination to make their dreams real no matter the odds given - it is the 1950s and people of color are segregated in the workplace and society—is what makes their tale of perseverance an American classic.
The story takes place in two locations: a small town in rural South Texas, where the migrant families live on a permanent basis and the Midwest, where they toil in the fields of commercial growers. The hardships they confront in their annual migrations to Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other Midwestern states in search of seasonal farm labor say more about their determination to better their lives than about the work itself. That is not to say that the seasonal farm work they do doesn’t influence their willingness to live their American dreams. On the contrary, the very work itself, with its low wages, no rights, no dignity, and no hope, drive migrant families to continue struggling for a better life.
Like two other American classics of the twentieth century, Native Son and Invisible Man, …y no se lo tragó la tierra illuminates an experience once ignored by mainstream Americans. It sheds light on a harsh reality that can no longer be overlooked.
*The library's copy is bilingual.
Before Topshop and Alexa Chung, there was Biba, an affordable women’s clothing brand that transformed girls into Hollywood starlets. The Biba Years by Barbara Hulanicki covers the career of British visionary, Barabara Hulanicki, and the rise and fall of an iconic brand.
Reading parts of The Biba Years is like hearing your much older friend recount the party of a lifetime. There are so many great details: the anachronistic design influences, celebrity gossip (the terrible thing she says about Audrey Hepburn!), and examples of Hulanicki’s unstoppable creativity. My favorite parts involved reading about the shops and how visits could best be described as revelatory or a “non-stop Fellini film.”
Want to pine after Twiggy-approved clothes? Waiting for the final season of Mad Men? Wish you could hang out with Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and their ladies? Get your paws on this book!