Blogs

picture of lee and bury me standing
Lee at Central has this to say about Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca. It opens up the mostly closed world of East European gypsies, or Roma, in the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Roma are a people it is still possible to actively (and violently) discriminate against and Fonseca attempts to tell us why.

In the spring it's hard to resist the urge to turn the house upside down, plough up the garden and in general give everything a thorough cleaning. But what about those cobwebs in our brains? After spending many a dark and rainy day curled up with the likes of Cormac McCarthy  and listening to The Smiths, spring just seems to require more redemptive reading. I like to call this epiphany fiction. These are the kind of books featuring protagonists undergoing life-changing events. With any luck maybe some of it rubs off on you, the reader.

One such is The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer. Henry, a 67 year-old retiree and widower is told that he has a terminal illness. Determined to make the most of his last days, he sells everything and moves to a Utopian town in Alabama. There he tends to his soul and is surprised at the number of lessons he has to learn. It's a gentle read that celebrates community and self-reflection.

Equally enjoyable and a bit more complex, Philosophy Made Simple by Robert Hellenga tells the story of Rudy, an avocado dealer in Chicago. He too is a widower who has lost his bearings after the death of his wife. He should be contemplating retirement, but instead, in a move that stuns his children, he sells everything and buys an avocado farm in Texas. His only road map for this new life is a book - Philosophy Made Simple. As he reads about the great thinkers of history he tries to find meaning in his new life, which now includes the care of a painting elephant named Norma Jean.

But my favorite epiphany fic choice of recent years is The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Pi Patel is a boy driven by curiosity. As a zoo-keeper's son, he's constantly studying animals. Unable to decide on one religion, he practices Hinduism, Christianity and Islam with equal fervor. When Pi is 16 his father decides that the family and the zoo will emigrate to Canada via cargo ship. The ship sinks and Pi is forced to share his lifeboat with the only other survivors, a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. What's a boy to do but to get really serious about the big questions of life and philosophy?

I hope I've given you a reasonable excuse to put down the mop and pick up a book. Happy spring and happy reading!

Book Jacket: Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan
Sometimes it isn’t until regular life gets interrupted, that you realize you’ve been in a rut. The same goes for reading. That’s what happened to me when I came across Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan. I won’t lie, It was the title that attracted me. That and the anthropomorphic cover art (Yes, I’m an Etsy shopper). What I found inside, was a surprising and original story that kept me laughing and led me to stay up much too late, watching videos of McClanahan reading his free-form writing as rapid-fire, spoken word poetry with a distinctive regional twang.

Crapalachia is published by Two Dollar Radio; a family run, independent publisher specializing in subversive, original, and highly creative fiction.  It would all be very Portland if they weren't located in Columbus, Ohio.  Perhaps best yet, the vast majority of their books published are 200 pages or less.  I have a tall stack of books competing for my limited reading time and while I do like subversive and experimental, I like it best kept short.  

Book Jacket: How to Get into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak

I’ve since enjoyed another Two Dollar Radio title, How To Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak.  She takes the immigrant experience novel in an entirely unexpected direction with a second generation Polish American woman who longs to pass as Russian to gain entry into the mysterious Twin Palms nightclub. 

Up next for me is A Questionable Shape, a zombie novel by Bennett Sims. Not just yet though. I’m saving it for when I need another quick jolt to interrupt my reading rut.

 
Find Two Dollar Radio books in our library catalog.

I have a strong preference for character-driven fiction.  If I can't bring myself to care about what happens to the characters or the characters fail to act in a fashion consistent with how they've been described, I tend to put the book down long before finishing it. The worst I've read recently was a well-reviewed urban fantasy where the main character, a nurse, expressed concern about bodily fluid borne disease transmission from her intravenous drug using brother.  The very next thing the character did was to go unwind at a bar and pick up a random stranger for the night.  The author lost me right then and there when the main character couldn't stay consistent in her actions and behaviors for even a single chapter... and I really wanted to like that book too after the good reviews. 

The Goblin Emperor book jacket
One book I've read recently that did have great characters who were well-drawn and consistently portrayed and who really drew the reader into the life of the novel is The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.  In this world, the goblins are warlike but not the bestial hordes that they are usually portrayed as in fantasy.  The elves have an early steampunk sort of technology including pneumatic tubes and airships.  Maia has been raised far from the court in a lonely and, since his mother died, loveless exile.  Maia is the half goblin, last and least-loved son of the elf emperor.  When his father and all his half brothers die in a fiery crash, Maia is summoned back to the rigid and formal elven court as the sole surviving heir to the imperial throne with unknown assassins aiming for his imperial head.

In The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley, a grimmer novel than the fairly gentle Goblin Emperor, the emperor has scattered his three

The Emperor's Blades book jacket
children across his land.  The heir is learning humility (and something else) being raised by monks in rural isolation.  The second son is learning to be a commando-like warrior and the daughter, unable to inherit, is made a minister by her father so her clever mind isn't wasted.  The emperor is assassinated and his three scattered children have to survive the forces arrayed against them in this excellent series set up.

Broken Blade book jacket
Lastly, if you would prefer a story about a killer of kings rather than the children of emperors, I'd like to recommend the Fallen Blade novels by Kelly McCullough.  Beginning with Broken Blade, you learn the story of Aral Kingslayer, one of the last survivors of a religious order that existed to bring a very final sort of justice to those too powerful for the law to touch. Of course, said powerful and corrupt went to great lengths to bring down the holy avengers of the weak and wronged. The series opens with Aral living in despair, addicted to drugs and selling his services for his next fix.  He hates himself and what he has become and still grieves for his dead comrades and goddess.  The one thing keeping him going is his familiar, a shadow dragon named Triss, but then he's contacted for another job....

We the animals bookjacket
Let's face it - books you remember long after you've read them, the ones that make you turn your clock to the wall so you won't know that dawn is approaching and you've stayed up all night reading - those books are few and far between. That's why I am so excited to tell you about We the Animals by Justin Torres.

Having grown up with two brothers, I was sure the author was capturing the chaos, fearfulness and bravado of boyhood. And as a child surrounded by boys and living in a place where we had the autonomy to come up with haphazard schemes that often put us in real danger, I felt a real sense of returning to childhood, a world that many adults have forgotten or idealized into a safe, sweet and carefree world. 

From the very beginning, Torres establishes the feral nature of childhood:

"WE WANTED MORE. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons aginast our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping fee; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more."

The language in We the Animals is perfect for reading aloud; and it's short - short enough that maybe you won't have to stay up all night reading, but instead will go to sleep and dream of that half-remembered world of childhood.

stack of books next to bed
We're all book lovers here, right? I mean, why would you be here if you weren't? My theory is that we come in two basic types. Type one (not me) checks out a few books at a time, reads them all, or at least gives them all a try, before returning and checking out more. Type two (me), takes books home all the time, because you have to get 'em when you see 'em. I want to read them all, but there's no way that'll happen. The rule is that I do have to at least open them. There are stacks in most rooms of my tiny house, except the bathroom--never in the bathroom.

This is a pic of my most important stack, the stack of honor, the one by the bed. That way these books are always close at hand for those times when I need an Amazonian jungle tale, for example. Or something to coach me through a dishwasher repair.

If a few of my friends aren't too shy--(they're not)--I'll get them to take a picture of their stack by the bed and we'll have little stack peep show. Stay tuned.

I know, I’ve been there. At times basic tasks like getting dressed and eating can seem overwhelming, and reading can fall away completely. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Don’t break up with books altogether! If your concentration balks at fiction, try non-fiction, poetry, or even a different format like audiobooks.

How to Be An Adult in Relationships

My own personal experience was that fiction could not hold my attention, so absorbed was I in my own story, but non-fiction was able to break through and perform a particular brand of magic. Self-help titles helped me! I clung to How to Be an Adult in Relationships by David Richo like it was a life raft (it was) and I was going over some very turbulent water. As I progressed, so did my appreciation for what came out of others’ break ups.  Sharon Olds took fifteen years to publish her most recent collection of poetry Stag’s Leap after her divorce, while Josh Ritter knocked his divorce album Beast in the Tracks out in just a year. Both are poignant, intimate glances at the demise of a relationship and prove that good things can come of these trying times. 

       Stag's Leap                 

                       

And for those David Richo fans out there, his new title How to Be an Adult in Love came out in paperback this year and I received my pre-ordered copy. I squealed when I saw it in hardback at the library, but then quickly realized I would be underlining the entirety of the book and I just prefer a paperback for self-help. It can be folded over onto itself and thrown around as needed...sort of like the state one comes to a self-help book in...

Breaking up is hard to do for the broken and the breaker. Find a getting through it guide, break up memoir, or break up art to help you here.

I think it's time to start an I Heart David Richo club.  Anyone with me?

 

Adam from Central is reading Beds are Burning by Mark Dodshon. 
"A book about a band so ferociously, fantastically exotic that no US library can contain it! Thanks Vancouver Public Library and MCL's ILL department!"

It's that time of year again to think about those wonderful women in our lives who have sacrificed so much for us: Time. Sanity. The last slice of pizza.
 
Our mothers.
 
It's time to think about and honor those mother figures in our lives. If we are mothers, it's also time to adorn ourselves with hand-painted necklaces made of macaroni, admire handmade cards and clean the kitchen after our offspring have endeavored to make us a "surprise" cake. It will look like a reenactment of a theater of war substituting kitchen utensils and food for soldiers and weaponry, but the real surprise is when you discover an entire thriving colony of ants a month later. They will be busily subsisting on a dripped mound of faintly familiar pink frosting. Try not to scream when you find this.
 
The Bad See dvd cover
This year I told my husband I wanted to celebrate with pizza and a movie. (And possibly a Dairy Queen run. I attribute part of my survival as a parent to Peanut Buster Parfaits.) The pizza, just this once, will not be ordered with my children in mind and, thus, will not involve pineapple. The movie will be The Bad Seed starring the inimitable Patty McCormack as everyone's favorite psychopathic child murderess, Rhoda Penmark. You can watch this movie instantly using the library's streaming service, Hoopla. If you have never seen this gem of a movie, you are in for a treat. (If you can define a treat as the escapades of a cold-blooded serial-killing eight-year-old in pigtails like I can.)
 
Another unconventional look at motherhood on film I recently enjoyed was Fill The Void, which provides a sensitive and riveting look
Fill the Void dvd cover
inside a Hasidic community and the dilemma of one young orthodox Israeli woman. Shira's older sister dies in childbirth, leaving a husband and brand-new baby boy. Does Shira continue on the traditional matchmaking path or step into the life and family her sister left behind? The last shot of the film made me want to watch the whole thing all over again. 
 
Mom's Who Drink and Swear book jacket
Whatever Shira does or does not decide to do, we can be reasonably sure her choices will not involve alcohol consumption or inappropriate language. Or Dairy Queen. Which is the polar opposite of the parental musings of Nicole Knepper in Moms Who Drink and Swear: True Tales of Loving My Kids While Losing My Mind. This book is hilarious if you do not mind a potty-mouth or someone comparing the chore of preparing dinner to a sexually-transmitted disease (see the chapter "Dinner Is Like Herpes"). As she so eloquently puts it:
 
Like a turd hitting the fan, motherhood touches everything. Nothing in your life is the same after you become a mother. Not your marriage, your friendships, your career, your ass, your breasts, your mind or your heart.
 
And there's really only one thing left to say to that.
 
Thanks, Mom.

Waaaay back in the day, I was a nanny for six months, and I have to admit that I was not a particularly good one.  In junior high and high school, I had tons of (mostly) enjoyable babysitting experiences, but living with a family is so much different than going home after a few hours of coloring and playing hide-and-seek. To clarify, though:  the family was fine and I had the best bedroom in the house.  I didn’t have to clean and, fortunately for the kids, I had only light cooking duties.  It’s just that when you aren’t the ultimate authority, things can be a bit tricky.  Taking care of other people’s children is not for the faint of heart as Kelly Corrigan relates in her memoir Glitter and Glue.

Glitter and Glue book jacket
Kelly Corrigan became a nanny a few years after I, only her family gig was in Australia.  She hadn’t planned on it, but when she and her friend ran out of cash on their trip around the world, jobs suddenly became necessary if they wanted to eventually continue their adventure (not to mention get back home to the United States).  Kelly’s Aussie family was grieving the loss of the mother who had died of cancer a few months before. 

As she navigated those sorrowful and difficult waters (so many topics of conversation with the children seemed to potentially contain mother references), Kelly gained a new appreciation for her own mother who was not particularly affectionate but kept the family on track - the “glue” in the family as opposed to her father’s role as the “glitter” (read “fun”).  She constantly heard her mother’s voice as she was going about her daily routine and making decisions about the kids (“Children, Kelly.  Kids are goats.  Are Millie and Martin goats?” ).  Now that she’s a mother herself, Kelly realizes how much her mother influenced the way she is raising her own daughters and, for Kelly, that’s a really good thing.

Cover image: Growing up sew liberated by Meg McElwee
One day a young boy around the age of four, marched into the library dressed in the most adorable vintage sailor suit, paired with very Pacific Northwest
Photo of little red riding hood cloak
practical and fashion forward leg warmers.  As he came up to the desk with his books I said, "I love your outfit!"  His reply? "This is not an outfit. These are just regular clothes."
 
That kid had it completely right. Some days you're a hulk-princess-mermaid and other days, you just want to wear head to toe brown. It's not a big to-do, just regular clothes because that's what the day calls for.
 
When I saw the hooded cape in Growing Up Sew Liberated: Handmade Clothes & Projects for your Creative Child by popular blogger Meg McElwee, I knew I had to make it.  Superhero capes were a big hit at my house when my son was younger, but they haven't been
Photo of child in brown hooded play cape
getting much use lately.  Add a hood and a little imagination however, and the possibilities open up to endless.
 
As with most all of McElwee's patterns, this one is crazy simple, even for the novice or impatient sewer.  Thus far I've sewn a little red riding hood cape for my niece, to gift along with a copy of the Grimm classic fairytale and a solid brown one for my son, which does double duty as either a Jedi or Robin Hood cloak.  I see a Harry Potter invisibility cloak on the horizon, just as soon as I find the right fabric. No big thing. Just regular clothes.
 

Andrea, who works at the Central Library, is reading the New Yorker on her phone.

Your body is a pretty amazing place to be.  Every day things try to make you sneeze, make your nose run, make you cough, or even something worse - throwing up!  Lucky for you, your immune system fights them off - most of the time.

Immune System, Nintendo Style...... Biology.

So think of your immune system as the Immune Platoon, a bunch of superheroes battling so you can be as healthy as you can be.  Using some great online resources you can get an overview of the immune system, find out how your body responds to an attack on your immune system by playing a parasite game or an immune system game, and even quiz yourself to see what you know!

And you can always contact a librarian for even more info!

Lolita
Lolita. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”

Do you know this book? It’s about middle-aged, European Humbert Humbert, who has had his eye on certain girls between the ages of nine and fourteen for his entire adult life. Through a mix of strategy and happenstance, Humbert gets 12-year-old Lolita completely in his power and makes her his concubine-- who also  poses as his daughter. And yes, it's as deeply disturbing as it sounds. The book was banned for years all over the world after its publication and still carries an air of scandal.

I’d been reading indiscriminately and in volume, heading every couple of weeks to a used bookstore that sold paperbacks and filling a grocery bag with books by Danielle Steele, V.C. Andrews, and Jacqueline Susann (who I still kind of love). Lolita, when I finally picked it up, grabbed me in a different way than those books. For one thing, I thought it was sexy. At 15, I wasn’t completely horrified at what I saw as Humbert’s seduction of a twelve-year-old. I knew I was sexual, and I wasn’t that much older than Lolita. At that age, I was interested in older men.  I was also seduced by the novel’s sinuous music and deep romanticism. There’s beautiful poetry in this book. “My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.”

I read Lolita at least five or six more times in my teens and early twenties, but then I worked in bookstores and libraries for awhile. It seemed that books were flying at me all the time, so I didn’t do much rereading. Later, in the wildly hormonal years when I was having babies and dealing with being a mom to small children, I couldn’t imagine wanting to read a book about a sexual predator and didn’t even want to think about Lolita.

Recently I found out that Jeremy Irons was the voice actor for the audio book of Lolita, which the library has on CD and in downloadable audio, and I thought, “Sign me up!” Honestly? Sign me up to hear Jeremy Irons read a grocery list or the ingredients in a bottle of shampoo. After years and years, I “read” Lolita again.

At the age I am now, the book was so much more, in every way, than I remembered, both lovelier and more poignant, and more distressing. It’s genius, having Humbert narrate the book in the first person. You’re right there with him, appreciating Lolita’s beauty, remembering the shock of new love, and then he says something so devastatingly cruel and selfish, so perverted, that you’re shocked. You go in and out of sympathy like this again and again and again. He becomes a monster, then someone whose pain we understand perfectly, then a monster again. Walking home, with Jeremy Iron’s voice in my earbuds, I would sometimes have to stop and cry out, bury my head in my hands. "Hi, there, neighbors. It's not mental illness. It's literature."

Jeremy Irons reads the book with verve, showing us Humbert’s charm, his anger, his often very funny sense of humor. But at the end, as I listened on a grey, drizzly morning on my way to work, his voice grew more subdued as he tells of realizing what his love  has done to Lolita’s life. “We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.”

I showed up at the library in no kind of shape to help patrons, at least for a little while. But I’m glad I listened to this masterpiece again.

Eric works at Central Library and is reading The Female Man by Joanna Russ.  "It reminds me that Sci-Fi can actually warp minds and beg questions that will never be easily answered.  Who can resist a radical feminist take on gender destabilization, utopia and forms of resistance? The novel is somewhat demanding in its break with straightforward narration but commitment pays off.  It's also very funny."

 
Kate is reading Thomas Jefferson: Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything. She finds that it is full of facts both small (the number of windows at Monticello) and large (the ownership of people).

When my husband and I are not dreaming about living off the land on some kind of homestead, we're dreaming about having our own restaurant. As I dawdle around my kitchen on a Saturday morning, I think, "If we had a restaurant that served brunch, people would get totally addicted to my savory cornmeal pancakes with chives and corn." My husband talks about offering his home-brewed sour cherry beer in our brew pub, and of course there would be homemade pretzels with homemade mustard. But it's all a pipe dream. Sometimes, just the work of getting dinner on the table for my husband and myself as well as a vegetarian teenager and a picky 10-year-old brings me to the brink of despair. And ask any friend I’ve ever invited to a dinner party: I am a slow cook who gets bogged down in details. Reading Molly Wizenberg's new book, Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage made me deeply grateful that we never even came close to opening our brunch destination or our brew pub.

You know Molly Wizenberg, right? From the Orangette food blog, the Spilled Milk podcast, and articles in magazines like Bon Appetit? She's that nice 30-something friend you hang out in the kitchen with while she tells you stories, and then she shares recipes, many of which celebrate vegetables, but then she's always getting you to make some version of banana bread, too. In her first book, A Homemade Life, she talked about growing up in the kitchen, the loss of her father, and how she found her food-enthusiast husband. In this one, she talks about how she and her husband opened and then operated Delancey, their artisanal pizza restaurant in Seattle. I liked it-- but then, I like her-- and she's a good storyteller. It was interesting to see what goes into a restaurant from someone who is inside that world. Keeping a restaurant running sounds even more high-pressure and difficult than I ever imagined. At one point, diners at Delancey ordered so many salads that Wizenberg started to sob, even while she continued to plate them.

One thing: the recipes do seem a little forced into this book. She admits that she wasn't cooking much during this time except when she was at the restaurant. And that's Orangette’s schtick, the stories with the recipes. But I'm quibbling here, and, really, I’m glad she included the recipes. The recipes are good. I definitely plan to make that slow-roasted pork and the chilled peaches in wine. And I'm approximately twice as glad as I was before I read it that my husband and I never opened the restaurant of our dreams.

Well, it has happened again - I have fallen in love with a fictional character who lives in a time and a place created out of real history.

Sister Pelagia bookjacket
Let me explain.

Sister Pelagia is  the main character in a mystery series written by Boris Akunin.  She is an inquisitive, bespectacled, red-haired nun living in Imperial Russia, trying to observe her faith in peace and harmony with her fellow sisters and the students at the school for girls where she is a headmistress.  But her insatiable curiosity, her stubborn persistence and her penchant for seeing all the details make her a detective without equal. Somehow she always seems to find herself in the middle of a mysterious circumstance: the poisoning of a rare white bulldog, an inexplicable ghost haunting the Hermitage Abbey or a Christ-like prophet who appears to be able to come back from the dead.

Her adventures always begin in Russia but her sleuthing takes her all over the world, from the dark, thick forests of Siberia to the sun drenched land of the Middle East.

With the Sister Pelagia series you get the best of both worlds: the great philosophical questions that Russian authors have always debated: Love, Death, God, Good, Evil;  you also plunge into the depths of a world peopled with extraordinary characters, unorthodox situations and exotic places. Not the least of these is the mystery itself that is interwoven into the story as a living breathing creature.

Writing  in the style and with the plot complexity of Charles Dickens, Russian author Boris Akunin  deals unflinchingly with the attitudes of the time, especially the question of how we treat those who are different, whether by race or class or sexual preference. He doesn't try to softsoap the truth, but tempers it with humor and unusual historical details.

If you like mesmerizing mysteries set in a different time and place with a heroine who won’t give up until she finds the truth, you will love the Sister Pelegia series by Boris Akunin. Start with Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog.

 

Shandra from Central Library is reading Half-off Ragnarok and has this to say: "Half-off Ragnarok" is the latest by my favorite author Seanan McGuire, combining great characters, mythical creatures that aren't so mythical, lots of action, and excellent humor."

When the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars, one report I heard described the landing using a ‘Mars Local’ time zone. 
 
Red Mars cover
Man is not on Mars, but we’ve sent time in front of us.
 

The implications of people colonizing Mars were delved into wonderfully by Kim Stanley Robinson. In Red Mars, he told the story of one hundred people, most Russian or American (this was published 1993, the last gasp of that binary world), who travel to Mars. 

One has been there before but in all other ways they are The First. They are scientists, and to me the reader they feel like scientists — curious, exacting, fiercely intelligent.
 
These one hundred scientists disagree passionately about the purpose of going to Mars. Are they there to explore it as itself, without imposing their needs or even their humanity on it? To make Mars habitable? To seize the opportunity to live in an entirely new way? To exploit the mineral resources? 
 
These factions are deeply divided, and the philosophy behind each is persuasive. Do we have to change everything we touch? 
 
Do we stay Earthlings, no matter where we go? 

 

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