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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.

Have you ever started a book and thought, "I don't like these characters or the way this story seems to be developing." only to keep reading and by the time you arrived at the last page thought, "Wow, that was a good book"? This happened to me as I read the 2007 Giller Prize winner, Late Nights on Air by the Canadian Elizabeth Hay.

I didn't much care for the characters - Harry, the washed up station manager of a radio station in Yellowknife that is soon to be replaced by a television station; self destructive Dido who has fled her affair with her father-in-law and now is torn between two other men; Gwen, the newcomer, so unsure of herself, but assigned to learn about radio broadcasting by covering the late night shift; Eleanor, lonely and wondering if it is time to leave Yellowknife; Eddy, the charming, but secret misogynist; Ralph, "a man of books and pockets, and pockets stretched out of shape by books."

Disturbing emotional and sexual upheavals and undercurrents in the first part of the book almost made me quit reading. I persevered and came to realize Elizabeth Hay's power to cast a spell.

The characters interact against a backdrop of a great change that may come to the Northwest Territories. 1975 is the year that a judge is making an inquiry into the proposed construction of a gas pipeline across the Canadian North that would threaten the environment and the native way of life, the year before a television station begins to broadcast in Yellowknife, the year before great changes come to the area.

Inspired by a radio drama of John Hornby, who traveled throughout the Northwest Territory before starving to death, Gwen, Harry, Eleanor and Ralph embark on a canoe journey to retrace Hornby's route. In the descriptions of this journey, the whole area becomes another character in the book.  The book becomes a meditation on the fragility of life and love, and fighting against the odds.

Later, Gwen is musing on the fate of a forlorn fox who has invaded her urban neighborhood. "The phrase that came to her mind was 'the long and sudden of it.' We go on and on through the long months of our lives until we hit a sudden moment that stuns us...By the battle-scarred look of him, he'd been fighting against the odds for a long while...The fox had seemed magical to her. A creature from one world passing through another."

How perfectly she sums up this lovely book.

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!

Twisted: A Balloonamentary

Huh. A documentary about balloon twisters. Really? I do love a good documentary but truth is I didn't expect to love this one quite as much as I did, and now I can't stop telling people about it.

Filmmakers Naomi Greenfield and Sara Taksler met at their freshman orientation a few years ago. It was the classic "Say Something About Yourself" icebreaker, when Sara said "I can make balloon animals." Naomi, next up, said "I was gonna say that!" Bam--instant friends, and now partners in film making.

The charm of their movie lies in the lives of the twisters themselves and their lovely, eccentric, sometimes obsessive personalities. There are Ph.D.s, troubled teens and cancer survivors. They came to twisting for a variety of reasons, and for some, money was a good reason. And it turns out the money is good, my friends, surprisingly good. We're taken to one of the big twisting conventions, Twist and Shout, where we meet balloon twisters from all over the world who welcome in curious passers-by without reservation, put a piece of latex in their hand, and teach them how to make a doggy.

But there's way more to balloon twisting than doggies. For example, I'd never thought about how easily some balloon shapes lend themselves to representations of the male and female anatomy. There are adult-themed twisters who cater to bachelor and bachelorette parties, as well as gay bars. There are gospel twisters who cater to a different crowd and see twisting as part of their mission. But there's everything in between--a gigantic flying octopus, a Trojan horse, and 100-foot-tall soccer players. Literally, the sky's the limit, or not the limit, depending on how you look at it. Is it sculpture? Engineering? Fun and silliness? Yes.

What made my movie-watching experience extra nice was that Naomi Greenfield was there in the theater. She stayed to teach us how to twist a balloon doggy, and then put a movie promo pin on my jacket. She was lovely and sweet to the only two people who were in the theater to see her movie that day and who were mostly thumbs when it came to twisting. I liked her immediately. And next time I meet a twister at the farmers' market, I'll probably strike up a conversation with them as I hand them a donation for that doggy they made for my son.

More at http://www.twistedballoondoc.com/

It’s that time again - holidays are fast approaching and I am looking for things to make for gifts.  I found a great book in the library collection called Food for Friends: Homemade Gifts for Every Season by Sally Pasley Vargus.

There’s a wide variety of recipes offered in this lovely Ten Speed Press book. The recipes cover many savory and sweet edibles: from breakfast items like Five-Grain Pancake and Waffle Mix, Chai, and Mexican Hot Chocolate. Preserved fruits, vinegars, and salsas are also covered. Of course there are cake and cookie recipes available in an abundance.

But I zeroed in on the interesting and wide selection of liqueurs one can make for gifts: Raspberry Framboise, Sweet Blackberry Wine and Strawberry Cordial are some of the beverages I hope to make during the summer months. I might attempt a batch of Orange Ratafia. If you don’t like coriander you might not like Orange Ratafia because there is at least of a cup of coriander seeds in this recipe. Luckily, everyone in my household loves coriander.

I will admit I don’t like cookbooks without photographs unless it is the Joy of Cooking. This book didn’t disappoint! Almost every page has an inspiring full color photograph illustrating the presentation of the gifts or the preparation of the recipes.

For more books like this in the library catalog, see this list. Have fun cooking!

Were you around when bomb shelters and fallout shelters were being built in the 1950s and early 1960s? Can you picture Christopher Walken as a compulsive and slightly crazy scientist? Then the film Blast From the Past is for you.

One night Calvin and Eve are visiting their neighbors and news of the Cuban missile crisis comes on TV. The nervous Calvin insists that he and his wife, Eve, go down to spend the night in the elaborate shelter he has built under their house. That very night a jet plane crashes into their house and Calvin decides that is a nuclear bomb since he cannot see what it really is. The very pregnant Eve gives birth to their son, Adam, soon after they have been in the shelter.

The three of them end up spending 35 years in the shelter because that is the half-life of radioactivity and they would then be safe from the side effects of nuclear fallout. The fun begins when Adam emerges from the shelter on his 35th birthday to a world he has never experienced before.

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.

I’m fascinated by the reports about the religious community in Eldorado, Texas. Multiple wives, child brides, lost boys, an all-powerful leader, a mammoth limestone temple -- mainstream newspaper and website “YFZ Ranch” headlines read like the tabloids.  

It wasn’t so long ago - early 1980s - that stories about an Indian guru and his red-robed followers in Antelope, Oregon, made the nightly news. I was living in the Midwest, and up ‘til then the only images I had of Oregon were of a top-less Mt. St. Helens and a psychedelic bus. I thought Oregon was smothered in ferns and green forests; Rancho Rajneesh’s landscape could have been the Arizona desert. And I couldn’t reconcile a psychiatrist friend’s glowing account of his visit to the ashram with the salmonella-in-the-salad-bar plot. 

Journalist Tim Guest spent his childhood in the Rajneesh spiritual communes during the 1980’s.

In My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru he describes his life as a “disciple by default” -– he was 3 years old when his mother became a follower of the Bhagwan and moved them to ashrams in London, India and Oregon. His memoir is funny, poignant and moving, a closely-observed account of a very odd childhood. I guess it’s no surprise that his new book, Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds, explores how computer technology enables people to create new utopias.

But before the Baghwan appeared in Antelope, a charismatic Christian preacher named Joshua Creffield settled in Corvallis in 1903 and won the souls (and bodies) of young women. Intrigued by the stories of her town’s “Holy Roller” cult, Corvallis native Linda Crew based her novel Brides of Eden on historical documents, court records and photographs.

Using the voice of 16-year-old Eva Mae Hurt, Crew reimagines how she and her friends became entranced with the self-proclaimed messiah. Brides is strong on facts, but less convincing in capturing Joshua’s magnetic personality. Still, this is a fascinating exploration of religious fanaticism and group thought, a stranger-than-fiction true Oregon tale.

Photo: Oregon followers greet Osho Rajneesh as he drives by. © 2003 Samvado Gunnar Kossatz

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