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When Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey came out I read the review and decided it wasn't really going to be to my tastes. Too violent, too scary, too gory... not my thing at all. Then I picked it up on a whim. I needed something new to read and was in the right mood to try something that might be pretty gross. Turns out I was wrong to reject it the first time. I loved it. Sure it's violent and it's gory, but it isn't actually scary. Instead the books are really pretty funny -- in a sick, twisted, puerile and violent way -- but they are surprisingly humorous.

Stark was a callow young magician who loved his girlfriend and had a few daddy issues. Then he got betrayed by his buddies and cast into Hell. Alive. There he spent eleven years getting tortured in unspeakable ways while killing monsters and demons in an arena to amuse other monsters and demons, all to survive a little longer. Now he's back on earth, has a few anger management issues, and wants revenge, in part for being betrayed and in part for his murdered love. While he's getting his revenge he earns a buck freelancing as a monster killer for an angel and as a bodyguard for Lucifer when he's on earth. The only side Stark is on is his own.

These are nice light books in their own blood-and-unspeakable-gunk-soaked way. The books are a very fast read. I also enjoyed book three, Aloha from Hell: A Sandman Slim Novel. I hope there's a fourth book in the works!

Is your iPod at capacity? Mine is. And when I download songs to my computer, I never do anything with them. Add to that a shed crammed with CDs I can’t bear to part with, and it’s too much music to handle.

Library CDs broke my cycle of pointless song-hoarding. The music they hold is ephemeral, passing through my life like fragrance. Newly liberated, I scaled way back on listening to my iPod. Overuse was making me numb to its charms. These days, I only listen to it while walking on lunch break. Reducing iPod visitation hours has made me fall in love with a few bands all over again.

Like The Misfits and the anthology Static Age. It’s a collection of songs they recorded during graveyard hours in New Jersey, but it plays like tinny transmissions from a cave in outer space. Cruddy recording never sounded so right, and neither did the words “Her omelette of disease awaits your noontime meal/ Her mouth of germicide seducing all your glands.”  It was 1978, and they were young enough to pull off lyrics like that with punky-sincere sneers. In my book, Static Age is all the Misfits you need.

I look like a mom and a library nerd lady who wears knitted ponchos, because I am. But on my walks I am listening to THE MISFITS, and therefore a bad-ass! And no one knows, unless I am pumping my fist and muttering some ridiculous mock-Satanic chant along with Glenn Danzig under my breath.

Today on my awesome bad-ass walk I saw a crusty old dude walking from the opposite direction. He had a puffy coat and a black eye and carried a little boom box like the one our youth librarian has in the meeting room. I paused my Misfits and heard Sam Cooke’s velvety voice blasting out of the boom box. I smiled at the puffy coat guy and he smiled back. And for a happy moment, our private music worlds intersected.

Do you have a case of the winter blahs? The sparkle of the holidays has passed, but the winter weather remains. Spring and summer seem a long way off, know what I mean? Well, never fear. Cue Fred Astaire! You can't go wrong with his singing and dancing charms. Check out the film A Damsel in Distress, based on the novel by P.G. Wodehouse and recently released on DVD. This lighthearted movie is heavy on talent, featuring the music of George & Ira Gershwin and co-starring George Burns and Gracie Allen. You won't find Ginger Rogers in this one, but the story involves the usual plot suspects (romantic complications, mistaken identities, etc). And the musical numbers are fantastic! An Oscar-winning fun house routine features Astaire, Burns, and Allen dancing on and around turntables, tunnels, slides, and distorting mirrors. A Gershwin gem, "Nice Work if You Can Get it", highlights Astaire's incredible rhythm and musicality, both as a dancer and as a drummer.

If you'd like to learn more about Fred Astaire, check out his engaging autobiography Steps in Time. In his conversational, easy-going style, Astaire relates the story of his life and work, at least up to 1959 when the book was first published. In a more recent publication, Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz, author Todd Decker describes Astaire's contributions to the art of jazz music and his collaborations with a variety of musicians, arrangers, and performers.

Sit back, relax, and let Fred Astaire tap your troubles away!

Whenever some pundit or book reviewer decries Young Adult or teen books as somehow not as good as books for adults, don't believe them. (This happens regularly, usually when they think they are talking about an exception to the rule.) I find there are many teen books that are complex, extremely well-written, and compelling, and many books aimed at adults that are simplistic and puerile. So if you're looking for a quick but satisfying read, check out that YA section.

I'm sure I'll write about many YA books for adults in the future, but today I will focus on a few historical fiction books.

The Pox Party (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Vol. 1) by M.T. Anderson. A boy raised as a science experiment is given a classical education and sheltered from his status as a slave in New England in the 1760s. Blinders are removed and a pox party changes things. This book is not for the casual reader...you do have to like that 18th century baroque style.

Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. I'm sure you knew our fledgling nation's capitol was in Philadelphia in 1793. Did you also know a yellow fever epidemic claimed around a fifth of the residents? There would have been more if many hadn't fled the city, including George Washington. Protagonist Mattie Cook falls ill despite fleeing, but survives to return to the devastated city.

The Land by Mildred D Taylor. The son of a white landowner and a former slave, Paul Logan is openly acknowledged by his father in post Civil War Georgia. Paul works hard to acquire land of his own. Needless to say, he faces many obstacles. The author draws upon true family stories for her well-crafted books on the Logan family.

A few summers ago, I went to visit some cousins who live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania which is essentially THE place to be if you're Amish. I tried not to stare, but ultimately failed because everything about the Amish was so different from my experience and totally fascinating. We went to a horse auction run by the Amish, parked the minivan next to a horse-drawn wagon, passed horse and buggies and a sort of bicycle/scooter mashup that was one young man's mode of transportation, and shopped at Good's which is kind of like an Amish Wal-Mart. I finally got the inside scoop about these people when I recently read Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler.

Ira now lives in Lancaster Co, PA, but was born into a large family in an Old Order Amish community in Aylmer, Ontario (who knew there were Amish in Canada? Obviously not me.). Wagler talks about the customs, rules and differences among Amish communities (they can be pretty wide) and what it was like for him growing up in several of them. We're let in on life at an Amish school, we go to an Amish wedding and church services, we see communities work well, and sometimes not so well, and we experience the pain and struggles of Amish youth who don't fit the mold. Wagler was one of those youth. He first left when he was a teenager, and then came back and left several more times before finally leaving for good. The writing is sometimes a bit overwrought, but the feeling of being let in on a secret was certainly worth it.

One City prospers
One City falters and fades
Chosen perceptions

The City and the City by China Miéville

I just finished Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan. He self-published his series as e-books and they did well enough that Orbit books picked it up to reprint in three omnibus volumes. This just doesn't happen very often so I was intrigued. Generally speaking I will turn my little nose up at anything self published. There's a lot of junk out there and some of the stuff I've read in the past... What has been seen cannot be unseen and I've become jaded enough to insist that an editor has been between me and that slush pile of badly written horrors. Sullivan is one of those occasional exceptions to the rule. 

This isn't high brow literary fantasy by any stretch of the imagination. The two main characters are introduced with a scene that's truly hilarious if you read lots of epic fantasy. Let's not talk about how late I stayed up finishing the book one night that I was home alone and didn't have that external voice of reason telling me it was past time to turn off the light and go to sleep. (Just 100 odd pages left... OK, closer to 200. Won't take me more that an hour... or two....) The author takes all the grand old tropes and cliches and goes to town with them. The heroes are scoundrels with hearts of gold. The villains all but twirl their mustaches and laugh manically. If there had been a chandelier in this book I'm certain somebody would have swung from it. So yes, the book was flawed. I've certainly read better books and I can see why editors passed it by initially. But it's just so darn much *fun* that I found myself forgiving every flaw.

It reminded me of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. You know it's not going to be 'good' but when Captain Jack Sparrow first staggers onto the screen you can't quite help but smile.

You know how sometimes a book crosses your path and you know absolutely nothing about it, but the cover just makes you want to pick it up? This is exactly what happened to me with The Family Fang. I was instantly intrigued by the edgy cover design, which reminded me of A Series of Unfortunate Events meets The Royal Tenenbaums meets Bored to Death. A quick scan of the back cover noted a lovely blurb from Anne Patchett. A poll of my literary go-to-friends elicited the appropriate amount of cooing. “Oooh, The Family Fang. Supposed to be good. Haven’t read it yet. On my list.”

I excitedly checked it out with only a small rock in my gut, because I have to say, sometimes these key ingredients -- beautiful jacket cover plus glowing review by a fave author plus friend praise -- don’t always add up to be a win win in the incredible book department. Like any recipe you try for the first time, something can go horribly wrong, which, as a self-described heartless reader I usually know by page 15. So imagine my delight when I opened The Family Fang and was immediately hooked.

What a beautifully written, intriguing first novel from Alex Award winner Kevin Wilson. Here the author has taken the idea of performance art and turned it on its head by asking what happens when two self-obsessed artists have children. Why, they turn their children into an art project of course! Annie and Buster Fang (known only as Child A and Child B) spend their entire childhood this way. Fast forward 15 years. The Fang parents have suddenly disappeared. As their grown (and now estranged) children try to figure out what happened, all the while they ask themselves if this is just another one of their parents’ elaborate artistic events, or are the Fangs really dead? As a reader you will find yourself pleasantly on the edge of your seat until the last bizarre and wonderful moments unfold.

I love Christmas music, and I am not embarrassed. I love to sing Christmas songs and I love to play the Christmas records my Mom played when I was growing up, especially Johnny Mathis’ Merry Christmas.

But years of retail work spoiled too many Christmas songs for me. In retail, hearing bubblegum cover versions of “Wonderful Christmastime” multiple times a day for nearly three months straight is an inevitable occupational hazard.

I’m not about to let the season’s rabid consumerism ruin all my fun. You don’t have to, either. Take back Christmas music by creating your own holiday programming at home with offbeat selections from the library’s extensive selection of Christmas CDs. Here are some of my favorites.

The Original Soul Christmas, a compilation originally released in 1968, offers funky delights aplenty, especially Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” whose opening riff many of us will recognize from the sample in Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” It’s both Christmas-y and groovy all at once, and great for parties.

Best known as the original vocalist for Judas Priest, Rob Halford might seem an unlikely musician to record a Christmas album. His Winter Songs offers a mixed bag of classics and originals, but it’s worth listening to just for the mighty metal glory of his uptempo yet appropriately majestic “We Three Kings.”

My most beloved of the library’s Christmas CDs is Mario Lanza Sings Christmas Carols. The Italian-American tenor from Philly with the bombastic pipes (he was the Josh Groban of the 1950s) died in 1959, the same year he recorded this collection of secular and sacred classics; it’s borderline cheesy, but I love the deliciously dated way he enunciates “fa la la la la.” Its old-timey charm sets my heart aglow with transmissions from yore.

(And a here’s a bonus! You can download the aforementioned “Christmas in Hollis” from our Freegal service. Thanks, Library Santa!)

 

Today, as I sit to write this, it’s the day after Black Friday (Grey Saturday?). The Oregonian and The Wall Street Journal both have front-page photos of crazed shoppers in queues, loading carts with deeply discounted merchandise; yesterday’s USA Today had a cover story about the abundance of seasonal retail jobs. Employment rates, shopping. It’s all covered to death. But who’s talking about the daily lives of people working those low-paying jobs?

That’s what prompted me to pick up Caitlin Kelly’s Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail. Kelly, a 50-something career journalist, was laid off from her job reporting for a major newspaper. Tired of the isolation of freelancing from home and unable to find a permanent position, Kelly got a part-time job at the North Face store in the mall in her affluent community. At first, she enjoyed the solidarity she found with her co-workers and the challenges of thinking on her feet, but after two and a half years she quit, drained and demoralized.

Kelly struggles with tired feet, rushed breaks, and growing resentment at the impossible policies of an unseen corporate office. She also finds helping customers exhilarating. Retail work is funny that way: a monkey could do it, but it takes a clever, extroverted human to do it well.

According to Kelly, one-fifth of American business is retail, worth 4 trillion dollars a year. But “the money that stores devote to their labor budgets--between 8 and 13 percent--is almost always the absolute least...take away decently compensated employment that matters to us, and our souls begin to die.” Lots of people who’d otherwise love their retail careers quit in frustration or become soul-less retail robots, because the company employing them does not love them back.

Kelly’s writing from the perspective of an outsider who went inside, just as Barbara Ehrenreich did in her now-classic Nickel and Dimed. For a different perspective, try the anthology The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles, where writers share their most horrific memories from the retail jobs they had before they became established authors. Be glad these people won’t be ringing up your purchases this season.

What about the millions of other retail workers who don’t have a book deal to escape to? Keep them in mind, no matter which side of the cash wrap you may find yourself.

If you judged the book Mr. Chartwell by its cover, you might think “Oh, a charming dog story.” Well, not exactly. The central character of Rebecca Hunt’s debut novel is indeed a dog named Mr. Chartwell.  However, he is not a happy, loving creature. No, Mr. Chartwell, also known as Black Pat, haunts his humans in rather dark, oppressive ways.

The story takes place in England in 1964, during the last days of Winston Churchill’s political career. In fact, Churchill is one of the novel’s main characters. It helps to know that the real Winston Churchill suffered from recurrent depression which he referred to as “the black dog.” Another principal character is a young, grieving woman named Esther. Esther works in the library at the House of Commons, has recently lost her husband, and is looking to take in a boarder to help cover expenses.

As the story unfolds, Black Pat frequently visits both Churchill and the young widow, bringing his strangely powerful charms with him. While Churchill has made his peace with the mutt’s presence, Esther is taken aback by the smelly, talking canine that answers her ad for a boarder. Will Black Pat stay on permanently? Time will tell.

Yes, Mr. Chartwell requires you to suspend your disbelief just a bit. Not only does the dog represent the oppressive nature of depression, he engages his unfortunate companions in regular conversation.  Even so, Hunt’s clever storytelling works. The novel reaches a satisfying conclusion when the lives of the legendary leader and the struggling young woman intersect. Engaging characters, humorous dialogue, and a powerful metaphor combine to make Mr. Chartwell a most enjoyable read.

Check it out!

You might also like Never Give In!: Winston Churchill’s Greatest Speeches, available as a downloadable audiobook. Featuring digitally remastered recordings, Never Give In! includes many of Churchill’s most famous and historically significant speeches, selected and introduced by his grandson.

All of us have times when no book satisfies. An empty space screams for a good read, but one after another disappoints. You want something that is just like X, but also completely different. Something intelligent but not too cute about it. Something comfortable but not worn out.

The one book that will cure your no-book blues is: ha! Just kidding. We’re all different, and different today than we were yesterday. I picked up The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay three times before it drew me in, but when it did I discovered it was a wonderfully written bit of the divine, the Book I Needed.

I’m developing a theory on how to break through these moments: Don’t dip into your ‘to-read’ list, instead, take a leap into the unknown. Always chasing the latest Booker Prize winner? How about a thriller, say, L A Outlaws: good cop meets bandit queen schoolteacher. Been on a Scandinavian mystery bender? Try a historical novel, maybe An Instance of the Fingerpost: chunky, complex & brilliant.

In other words, when everything tastes tired, refresh your palate. And remember: we're here to help.

Welcome to our new guest blogger Sarah, who says this about her interests:  I read a boatload of non-fiction, mostly about ancient science/archeoastronomy, physics, and human social behavior/culture. I love bizarro and cult fiction, live for Fridays when a new issue of Entertainment Weekly arrives in my mailbox, have never met a cartoon I didn’t like, and actually have that drinking problem from the Airplane! movies (does anyone have a towel I can borrow?). 

Your feet are dragging. It’s the end of a long week and you’re spent. Your mind is beginning to draft that clever excuse to your body explaining why you won’t be in the gym tonight. If only there was some way to get SUPER PUMPED-UP RIGHT NOW! Well, you’re in luck. Listening to The Chaos, last year's release from The Futureheads should do the trick. A frenetic, euphoric, (and yet strangely, not chaotic) album produced by Youth (aka Martin Glover) of Killing Joke fame, The Chaos is packed with enough post-punk energy to launch you into interstellar flight, as promised by singer Barry Hynde in the titular track, “5,4,3,2,1...Let’s GO! Let’s travel at the speed of light, in a split-second we’ll be out of sight.”

If you aren’t familiar with this Sunderland quartet, you will love the powerful tension that develops between their herky-jerky guitar riffs, poppy brain-worm hooks, and sugarplum four-part harmonies, as beautifully illustrated on their eponymous debut (The Futureheads, 2004), produced in part by Gang of Four’s Andy Gill. Working with producers like Gill is particularly fitting as the debt owed to bands like Gang of Four, and XTC is on full display in any song randomly selected from The Futureheads’ canon. Plus, they’ve got those lovely extreme Northeast English/almost Scottish accents which come beaming through the music, lending it a special authenticity of time and place (if you like The Proclaimers singing “f-eye-ve hoon-drad my-les” in "I'm Gonna Be", then you're gonna love this.) Several of these tracks also make great additions to your Soundtrack for the Revolution (“I’m gladly watching as the walls come tumbling down, what you pulling out your hair for, let’s dance as it hits the floor” from The Baron), deftly mixing quasi-political lyrics with hip-shaking, head-bopping beats.
So, check this out, pop it in the player and get ready to dance it out. I dare you to sit still.

This post is a follow up to Dana's previous post on Christmas albums. Below Dana heps us to some of the choice singles in our Christmas Music collection.

Elvis Presley, "Merry Christmas Baby". Like most of his albums, Elvis' many Christmas albums are largely filled with dreck (you can thank his manager, Col. Parker, for that). But left to his own devices Elvis sang Charles Brown's Xmas blues with pure delight. Mix tape gold.

Otis Redding, "White Christmas". Available on various Christmas compilations, which all seem to have "Soul" in the title. And rightly so, this is what soul music is supposed to be -- proof that everybody's got soul, but some people just make you feel it more. The key lyric here is "dreaming", but definitely not expecting, that all his days will be "merry and bright".

Willie Nelson, "Pretty Paper". Many new songs are written for the holidays each year, but precious few are added to the canon. This one should be, if it hasn't already. It's the tale of a down and out guy reduced to trying to sell wrapping paper to holiday shoppers too busy to even notice him. Willie sings it like he's been there. There, but for the grace of god, go you and I.
 

While I love watching a good stage musical, I have always been more fascinated by the view behind-the-scenes. From the initial writing and composing to the auditions, rehearsals, staging, set and lighting design, and costuming, a Broadway production involves a lot of people spending a lot of time together for months on end, creating drama well before the curtain rises. Two recent documentaries did a brilliant job of bringing me backstage.

If you were a 9-year-old girl sometime between 1977 and 1983, the odds are good that you wanted to be an orphan. The musical Annie was a huge hit on Broadway, plus there were four touring companies and a film version; that’s a lot of little girls getting paid to sing and dance. The documentary Life After Tomorrow revisits those “orphans” 30 years later to get their firsthand accounts of sudden fame, stage parents, rehearsals, rivalry, and the devastation of puberty when you are a child actor. Those interviewed include some still-famous women (actress Sarah Jessica Parker, MSNBC anchor Dara Brown) and others who have distanced themselves from show business as much as possible. The film ends with some sweet and funny reunions where the now all-grown-up women find that they remember much of their choreography 25 years after their last performances.

Every Little Step is a documentary about the auditions for the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, the celebrated musical about auditioning for a Broadway musical. (Meta, anyone?) We get to know some of the young men and women moving through the increasingly difficult process; interspersed with their stories are interviews with, and footage of some of the original participants in the workshops that led to the writing of the play. Like the play itself, this film is heart-wrenching, suspenseful, and hysterical.

For a behind-the-scenes look at plays that were not so successful, check out Kate’s entry on Broadway flops on the library’s Furthermore... blog.

 

Not once a year, but every day,
to keep those nasty brain-eaters at bay;
Fill your greedy little mind
with candy of a different kind:
books on science, works of fiction
vampire films and books on diction.

And where would you get this stuff, primarily?
Find it all at your local librarirly.

Because walking-dead, gray-matter-feeders
turn up their noses at avid readers!

(And here's a little music to go with that.)

You're welcome.

Please welcome our newest blogger, Sara B.! She has this to say about herself: I’m a former arts and entertainment reporter who loves to root out common threads running through the books and media I happily stumble across daily. At the library, I feel like a kid in a candy store where everything is free.  

Hippies, punks, jocks, rednecks, preps, heschers -- everyone loves Creedence Clearwater Revival, and even those who don’t can’t be bothered to hate them. CCR songs are such a part of our collective pop culture that their hooks have become part of our bodily being, inhaled through accumulated listenings on classic rock radio, worn-out copies of Chronicle, and blaring stereos at beery gatherings.

Like the blue jeans and flannel shirts favored by John Fogerty, Creedence’s catalog is so comfortable it’s easy to take for granted. Stumbling on a copy of the 2001 box set simply titled Creedence Clearwater Revival reminded me not only why Creedence matters, but how visceral their music is. It also reconnected me with a period in the mid-1990s when, young and rootless and unhappy, I was a Creedence maniac. The working-class aesthetic of songs like “Willie and the Poor Boys” and “Don’t Look Now” helped me feel grounded, and the mythical rural South they painted was a soulful place to escape to.   

Then I moved to California, and I just didn’t seem to need CCR as much. Ironically, I was living just miles from El Cerrito, the band’s quiet and unremarkable hometown. Like many, I’d always assumed CCR sprouted from some Louisiana swamp, and discovering their actual suburban roots perplexed me.

Creedence started out as a run-of-the-mill teenage garage band, playing rock’n’roll and devouring R&B songs. The story of how they morphed into America’s least assuming blockbuster rock group is lovingly outlined by critics including Ed Ward and Robert Christgau in the fat and juicy liner notes accompanying the Creedence box set. Lacking earthiness in sleepy El Cerrito, Fogerty and his bandmates simply manufactured it, most audibly in Fogerty’s meaty drawl.

My husband noticed the sudden abundance of CCR in our lives and quoted from The Big Lebowski, in which the band’s music is a leitmotif for The Dude’s ideal headspace (note how, once The Dude’s Creedence tapes disappear, the movie’s plot really careens into un-Dudeliness).

When was the last time you actually listened to a Creedence song? Do so and The Dude’s headspace can be yours, my friend. Times for us are tough; many people are suffering and unhappy. That our divided society can find unity in CCR’s music is not only a pleasure, but a solace. They give us the strength to keep on chooglin’.

I do so love a good debut or two. Farlander by Col Buchanan, the first in a new series, introduces a steampunk world with basic pistols, dirigibles and acid rain pollution along with the standard fantasy trappings. There's a corrupt and evil empire and an order of assassin monks, the Roshun, who will sell the wealthy and paranoid an amulet. If the person wearing and bonded to the amulet dies by anything other than natural causes the monks will provide blood vengeance. The murderer will die and no other person will need to start a blood feud. Given how often everyone seems to expect the services of the Roshun to be needed, those that purchase an amulet aren't really being all that paranoid. Farlander isn't absolute perfection - there's a little new novel roughness. For example, there's never any doubt that the evil empire is Evil... and enjoying it. But it is interesting, fast-paced and fun. Find out what happens next in the recently released book two: Stands a Shadow.

I recently read J.M. McDermott's second novel Never Knew Another. There are children of demons whose blood and sweat corrupts the very ground. Touching one will sicken and eventually kill any human.  The demon-sired children are being hunted down by a priestly order of skin-walkers, wolfish even in human skin. It is death to aid a demon and death to be a demon - even if all you want to do is hide and not hurt anybody. The wolf priests find it necessary to burn down contaminated buildings or even entire sections of town to purify the corruption. They count the resulting human pain and loss as no more than a minor pity. The humans still have their lives after all. The church will see they don't starve or freeze to death, so even if someone loses everything, they are at least alive, and not spreading the demon sickness. 

It's a little different for the genre. The writing style is meant to convey the not-quite-human perspective of the wolf priestess. The author seems to be aiming for literary fantasy. It's very fast paced: I was 100 pages into it the first time I sat down with it. It's the first in a series and I'm really looking forward to book two. The author's first book, Last Dragon, came out in 2008 and I'm putting a hold on that first unrelated stand-alone title just on the strength of writing in this book.

Welcome to our new blogger Katie, who has lived in Portland most of her life and never thought her high school library job would evolve into a lifelong (hopefully!) career. She worked as a news writer and reporter in a previous life and especially appreciates efficient, powerful writing. She also loves music, documentaries, quirky characters, stories of triumph over adversity, dogs, and tap dancing.

Produce clear, concise copy - that was my task as a college intern in a radio news department. I spent several hours a day rewriting news wire content. Like many aspiring journalists, I dreamed of writing feature stories – genuine human interest pieces that allowed the freedom to tell a story or make a point in more than one to two paragraphs. These are the kinds of stories you will find in The Fiddler in the Subway by Gene Weingarten.

Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer and humor columnist for The Washington Post. The Fiddler in the Subway collects some of his best work into one not-to-be-missed volume. The book’s title comes from one of the pieces for which Weingarten won a Pulitzer. The idea behind the story was to conduct an experiment. Place a world-renowned violinist, Joshua Bell, in a busy Washington, D.C. subway station, with some loose change in his nearby violin case. How would passersby react? Would they recognize this top-notch musician in his jeans, t-shirt and baseball cap? More importantly, would they know and appreciate the quality and beauty of the music? The story reveals much about the power of context and the way in which people move through their busy lives, often oblivious to what is happening around them. Joshua Bell, who plays a Stradivarius violin worth more than three million dollars and fills concert halls the world over, made about $32 dollars that day. Of the 1,097 people who passed by Bell that January morning, seven of them stopped to listen for at least a minute.

Now, I suppose you could draw some doom-and-gloom conclusions about the state of humanity from this story. But Weingarten doesn’t do that at all. He doesn’t do that in any of his pieces. He simply observes the human condition in a variety of settings and circumstances, and writes about it, completely engaging and entertaining the reader along the way. Weingarten is a humor writer after all, and the way he describes many of his subjects will have you laughing out loud.  Take “The Great Zucchini,” the story of a much sought-after children’s entertainer who commands $300 per birthday party and does things like pour water on his head and eat toilet paper. What is it about this college dropout with no fancy costumes or props that has him booked solid months in advance? Weingarten is determined to find out, and he does, revealing a somewhat complicated but entirely human character who relates to children on their own level.

The Fiddler in the Subway offers many other gems, including the story of the ghost writer of the Hardy Boys novels, a profile of the intensely private cartoonist Garry Trudeau, and the search for the city most deserving of the official “Armpit of America” title. Weingarten’s diverse collection of well-written stories proves that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, and just as entertaining.

You can listen to Joshua Bell playing Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” one of the pieces he played in the subway station, on his Voice of the Violin CD. You can also download Joshua Bell’s music through Freegal, a free music service available to library card holders.

Welcome to Joanna, a new blogger for EOR. She has this to say about herself: After a tropical childhood, I stumbled upon Portland and decided to sit for a spell; nearly twenty years later, it appears that I'm here to stay. I am an enthusiastically geeky Library Assistant, which means that I sometimes approach strangers in coffee shops to gush about library databases. When it comes to my media intake, I am omnivorous: I will read or watch anything if the characters grab me and don't let go. I don't leave the house without a book. I still think A Bargain for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban is one of the smartest books ever written.

When I can't sleep at night, I am sometimes haunted by cringe-worthy embarrassments I suffered in high school. Maybe I'm just a little too in touch with my inner 14-year-old, but I love books that capture teen angst and the way our adolescent mortification reverberates into adulthood. I couldn't help but fall in love with Celia West, the 20-something protagonist of After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn.

Celia has just been kidnapped. Again. It’s the worst thing about being the child of the world’s greatest superheroes; well, that and knowing that you will never, ever, live up to your parents’ expectations. The crushing sense that she was a disappointment led Celia to a teenage rebellion that was a shocking betrayal to her parents; she joined up with their archival, ubervillain Destructor. Seven years later and she’s still dealing with the repercussions; meanwhile, she's trying to use her skills as an accountant to solve Commerce City’s latest crime wave. Also, she might be falling in love with the mayor’s son. And she’s broke. Oh, and she’s trying to avoid being kidnapped. Again.

After the Golden Age is a snappy mystery about family, identity, forgiveness, and what it means to be a hero. Now if I could just stop thinking about that time in the cafeteria...

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