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Once in awhile, I like to take a chance on a debut novel, especially if I've seen a good review. Kate Morton's The House at Riverton was published to great acclaim in Australia and a best seller in Britain according to Library Journal. It is kind of an upstairs, downstairs book told through the memories of the now aged former servant girl and ladies maid, Grace.

Grace goes to work at Riverton house just before the first World War when she is only 14. She becomes the silent witness to The Game played by the son and two daughters of the house. Grace observes and comments on family secrets, glittering society and the world of the 1920s that is just on the cusp of vanishing forever.

I liked the author's descriptions, especially this one giving us a first glimpse of the young poet who figures so hugely later in the story, "Alone in the room, his dark eyes grave beneath a line of dark brows, he gave the impression of sorrow past, deeply felt and poorly mended. He was tall and lean, though not so as to appear lanky, and his brown hair fell longer than was the fashion, some ends escaping others to brush against his collar, his cheekbone."

Years later in the summer of 1924 during a party, this young poet shoots and kills himself at the lake near the house. The only witnesses are the daughters Hannah and Emmeline, and only they - and Grace- know the truth.

Grace, now a 98-year-old woman living in a nursing home, is approached by a filmmaker who is making a film of the events of that fateful summer of 1924. The meeting stirs up old memories and Grace recounts her observations of the events and ultimately reveals the truth.

I was particularly intrigued by the juxtaposition of the two stories - long ago events with the everyday life of 98-year-old Grace and her thoughts about the working of memory, "And I told you about the memories I've been having. Not all of them; I have a purpose and it isn't to bore you with tales from my past. Rather I told you about the curious sensation that they are becoming more real to me than my life. The way I slip away without warning, am disappointed when I open my eyes to see that I am back in 1999; the way the fabric of time is changing, and I am beginning to feel at home in the past and a visitor to this strange and blanched experience we agree to call the present."

Later Grace says, "I am slipping out of time. The demarcations I've observed for a lifetime are suddenly meaningless: seconds, minutes, hours, days. Mere words. All I have are moments."

I have a strong suspicion that this is the way memory is for my own 96-year-old mother.

Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody by Mike Dawson is one of my favorite books of the last year. Think back, possibly way back, to when you were a child or a teen and there was music.  And music was one of the most important elements in your life. First it was the Beatles for me. Then it was a New Zealand band called Split Enz. Thereafter I branched out to local bands I could see live.

Well, Mike Dawson may have branched out but as we find out in this terrific graphic memoir, Mike can place the memories of his life with the releases of rock band Queen’s albums. Besides using graphic art methods to tell his story there is also timeline at the beginning of the book outlining major events in his life with the releases of Queen’s record albums. Queen fans and readers who love a good memoir will like this book. At times this book is laugh out loud funny and other times touchingly philosophical. Don’t miss it.

And in case you love this book and want to talk about it with other fans, Hollywood Library's Graphic Novel Book Group is discussing Freddie & Me on March 10 at 6:30.

I've been on a John McPhee jag lately. It started in about 1979 when an English prof handed me a copy of The Survival of the Bark Canoe  while I waited for an appointment with my adviser. It wasn't like anything I'd ever read before. I loved the subject, and the writing even more.

Very recently I read Uncommon Carriers for book group. I loved the subject, and the writing even more. And I really get off on materials movement, to coin a library phrase. Moving stuff efficiently--cool. McPhee's chapter on UPS really floated my boat.

On finishing Carriers I wanted another McPhee title right then, didn't want to wait for the material to move, so I grabbed Looking for a Ship (1990) which was right there on the shelf. Even though it's almost twenty years old, and I knew next to nothing about the United States Merchant Marine, it was awesome. Again with the moving stuff around. Love it. Before I finished this one I put The Founding Fish on hold and it came from another branch with perfect timing. I finished the ship book and picked up the fish book. One of my "wish I coulda been a" professions is an ichthyologist, so I loved this also. But it's not about the fish--it's the writing.

dNow I have to go back in time and reread The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). It's been so long that it'll be like reading it for the first time. How did that English prof, whose name I can't even remember, know I'd like it? We talked for less than five minutes in a dusty half-basement hallway. Was it something I said? Was it a vibe he got from the enthusiastic brown-haired girl madly in love the Transcendentalists? Doubtful. I'm pretty sure it was McPhee. The man can't write a bad sentence as far as I can tell.

I don't normally make resolutions at the New Year--I feel like I'm setting myself up for failure--but I may make an exception this year. Maybe I'll resolve to read half of the books John McPhee has written to date. Hold on--I think that's something like 27 titles. Maybe I can read one third. How about if I just resolve to read everything he's written with no time-line? Yeah, that sounds good.

One of my favorite books of last year is an oldie but a definite goody: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I was finally motivated to read this book when PBS aired a movie version, and I almost never see a movie before reading the book it's based on. Months later, I found out that it was a friend's favorite book, and he told me about other Durrell books he had enjoyed including two short story collections: The Picnic and Other Inimitable Stories and Marrying Off Mother and Other Stories. Durrell is a keen observer (as any naturalist should be!) of not only nature, but of family, friends and other people he comes across in his peripatetic life, and his delightful descriptions make for lots of fun reading.

My Family and Other Animals is about the time he spent with his mother and three siblings on the Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s. Larry (I had a "Duh!" moment when it finally hit me that Larry was the novelist Lawrence Durrell, author of the Alexandria Quartet!) is querulous and self-absorbed, Leslie - the second eldest brother - will shoot anything that moves (and some things that don't), and Margo, the lone daughter, could be a teenage girl today, with her boyfriend troubles and diets. Mother is vague and sweet, constantly mediating her family's quarrels while cooking a constant stream of tasty-sounding dishes.

Gerry delights in bugs and all other things in the natural world, and finds friends among the locals while enjoying his status as the youngest family member. This early love of nature endured throughout Gerald's life - he became a well-known naturalist who established the Jersey Zoological Park, and a prolific author and TV personality. The other two books in the Corfu trilogy are Birds, Beasts and Relatives and Fauna and Family. If you've never read Gerry, you're in for a treat!

I watched Young @ Heart in early December. While raving about it the morning after, a voice in my head said to zip it until I could put together a rational thought. I think I'm ready.

Young @ Heart is essentially the biography and recent history of a chorus of senior citizens. Established in 1982 in Northampton, Massachusetts, all the original members (none are still with us) lived in a senior center. Nowadays the chorus members are in a wide variety of living situations--some in their own homes, alone or with spouses, some in retirement homes or apartments. The choir's music, chosen by their artistic director, Bob Cilman, is not what one might expect--"I Wanna Be Sedated" by The Ramones, for example. Their struggles with "Yes We Can" by Allen Touissant and "I Feel Good" by James Brown are epic, and finally mastered, but, man, they were close ones. Considering the average age of the group members, syncopated vocal rhythms really are the least of their concerns. As a coworker said, "Fix You" by Coldplay takes on a whole new meaning when you see and hear it sung solo by an 80-year-old so weakened by congestive heart failure that he must sit, oxygen canister beside him. And it is perfection.

It is still so difficult to put my feelings about this movie into words. They make it sound trite and "feel good," and that demeans it, somehow. These are real people, forming friendships, rehearsing, traveling and performing together, fighting battles with illness which we see won and lost, and grieving together. They are as different from each other as you and I, but they have that common thread of age. There are moments of pure hilarity, absolute frustration, terrible sorrow, and sheer joy.

These folks master performances that would be difficult for any age, but they're all over than 65, some well past that mark. I can't seem to get a good walk in, but I'll be the first in line to buy tickets if Young @ Heart comes to Portland. Maybe I'll even hoof it to the Max station.

Learn more about the chorus at http://www.youngatheartchorus.com.

Every year in the late fall, youth librarian geeks throughout the U.S. start making predictions as to what will win the various youth book awards.  The three best-known youth literary awards in the United States are the Caldecott, the Newbery and the Printz, and all are awarded by divisions of the American Library Association at the midwinter meeting in January.

Several years ago, I got to serve on the Michael L. Printz Award Committee.  It was a great, although exhausting, experience.  I read all of at least 150 books (and a number of these twice), plus bits of 50 or so more books (all while working full time).  My committee and I were fortunate in that 2003 was a fabulous year for teen books.  We nominated titles, talked non-stop about books, eliminated some titles, and talked some more.  Our meetings were impassioned but respectful, and we ultimately came up with a winner and four honor books.

Many libraries host mock award workshops that involve reading, discussing and voting on possible winners. Over the last few years, Multnomah County Library, in conjunction with the Oregon Young Adult Network has hosted a Mock Printz Workshop. Librarians and teens read ten books in advance and come prepared to discuss the titles based on the Printz Award's criteria.  We get together in small groups to talk about the books, and then the voting begins. It's a great way to become familiar with new books for teens and to discuss what makes a good young adult book. This year's discussion will feature the following eleven books:

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
Paper Towns by John Green
The Last Exit to Normal by Michael B. Harmon
My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart
The Missing Girl by Norma Fox Mazer
Madapple by Christina Meldrum
Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson
Black Box by Julie Schumacher
Skim by Mariko Tamaki

Want to participate in geekishness? Find out who won on the morning of January 26 by checking the live webcast of the press conference on the Association for Library Services to Children's Website. And may the best book win!

For those of us who have ever fallen for the wrong man, Alice Hoffman's latest book assures us that we are in plentiful, if not necessarily good, company. There are many women in The Third Angel- so many that I had a bit of trouble at first keeping track - and their stories are told in interconnected, almost novella-like pieces.

At least three of these women have fallen for, or are with, men who are neither right nor good for them. Madeleine gets involved with her sister's fiance (big mistake), Frieda is attracted to a drug-addled singer (why?), and Bryn is still desperately in love with her wildly attractive and Irish-American (sigh), but criminal ex-husband although she is engaged to another man who is dull, dull, dull by comparison. Bad boys - ya gotta love 'em, and yet, I didn't really like them in this book.

I didn't see the attraction for either the men (well, okay, Michael the Irish-American was dishy and interesting and seemed to maybe truly love Bryn) or the women. I didn't really like anyone, nor did I have much sympathy for them, although I found their stories somewhat interesting and sorting out of all of the relationships was a bit amusing. I never really got the whole third angel bit - was it Teddy Healy? Call me dense, but then explain it to me please  I did enjoy the hope that came at the end of each piece, because, as any of us whose heart has been bruised by the wrong guy will tell you, there are few happy endings. 

For a fun book on getting over an ex-boyfriend (it will make you laugh while you're crying), check out The Ex-Boyfriend Book: A Zodiac Guide to Your Former Flames by Rowan Davis.  Sign by sign, dysfunction by dysfunction, you'll learn what you'll miss, what you won't miss, why you are so much better off without him, and, if you so foolishly decide you really want him back, how to get the job done.  But really, why bother?  There's probably another wrong man for you right around the corner!

Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table by Sara Roahen

Until recently, what I didn't know about gumbo was pretty much everything. I'd happily eat it if someone else made it, but I'm rarely that lucky. I had no clue about the religious fervor some people feel when it comes to okra in or okra out. And what the heck is filé? Dang, I didn't even know the Hank Williams song.

Now Roahen has pulled me into her world of the amazing food of New Orleans--is it street food? It can be, but is not always. She's made me want to visit every gumbo shack she mentions. And I want a Sno-Bliz from Hansen's if it's hot out--but can I stand the summer steambath that is New Orelans? Doubtful. I want Sazerac as my drink. What is Sazerac? I barely know, I barely care, but I want it. I want to eat boiled crawfish. I want red gravy. I want oysters during the high season. And I want to eat in a culinary speakeasy.

There are heartbreaking stories of businesses wiped out with Katrina, some resurrected afterward, but some lost forever, along with their owners.

This is on my "Best of 2008" list. In fact, I might need to buy it, and I hardly ever do that, being as I work for the library and all.

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