Blogs: Adults

If my husband were to send me flowers at work (please don’t), I’d likely hide them away in a closet.  Not one for overt romantic gestures, it’s unlikely that I’d ever pick up a romance book for the romance.  Yet occasionally I do find myself enjoying a love story, especially if it has an international setting and an unusual narrative.  Here are three surprising, globe-trotting love stories that I’ve enjoyed recently.  But should you read them?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.


Book jacket: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno GarciaSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Three misfit teens in Mexico City explore the magical power of music and unintentionally alter the course of their lives.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: Your own life carries a mixtape soundtrack. You enjoy stories where reality is suspended only momentarily to make room for a bit of magic. You love YA books, remember being a surly misfit teenager yourself or maybe still are a surly misfit teenager.

Maybe not: You have little patience for adolescent struggles and need your fiction believable. What you’re really looking for is a book that evokes a sense of place.


Book jacket: A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: An ill-suited lover opens up the world and enlivens the city of Delhi for a restless young woman none too keen on having an arranged marriage.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: You like your characters a little dark, reckless and unpredictable.  You take delight in beautiful writing and vivid descriptions of foreign cities. You enjoy psychological stories and pondering women’s roles around the world. You just want to hold this gorgeous, compact and gold-flecked book in your hands.

Maybe not: Unhealthy relationships that play with power balance leave you cold. You need a more cohesive plot and less psychological (and ahem sexual) exploring.


Book jacket: I Am China by Xiaolu GuoI Am China by Xiaolu Guo: A London translator takes an unusual assignment translating the journal and letters of a punk rock musician and soon finds herself immersed in the story of two Chinese lovers.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: Chinese punk rockers alone is intrigue enough. You love a slow-to-unravel mystery and a novel in letters. Language and the complexities of translation intrigue you. You like a little revolution with your romance.

Maybe not:  You can’t forgive an underdeveloped character and need a faster pace to keep you interested.

For a long time, I read nonfiction almost exclusively. Much of it was academic so occasionally I needed to find something light and fun to mentally recharge myself. The problem was if I read fiction, then I’d feel guilty about “wasting time” with books that didn’t further my professional development. My work-around was the humorous travelogue. Certain authors have a great talent for both telling a great story about themselves and their adventures while including colorful tales about the history of their destination.

Confederates in the Attic book jacketWhat often makes these so appealing is the emphasis on the colorful, whether it be the place or the people our intrepid travelers encounter. A great example is Robert Lee Hodge, a Civil War reenactor who specializes in imitating a bloated corpse in Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. Another is Bill Bryson’s friend, Stephen Katz, as the two attempt to traverse the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods. Katz had spent the previous two decades as Des Moines, Iowa’s “drug culture” selling pot, partying, and getting drunk.  You can imagine how well he took to life on the trail. . .
Lost on Planet China book jacket
What kept my guilt at bay, however, was the fact all of them incorporate some history into the story. For example, Sarah Vowell is not only very funny, but tells us a lot about the 19th century as she travels to the locations associated with Presidential assassinations in Assassination Vacation, and  J. Maarten Troost provides us with a great primer on post-Mao China in Lost on Planet China.

If this kind of story sounds appealing, please take a look at the accompanying reading list. These are all great fun, and you’ll probably learn a thing or two. If you know of another author with a similar emphasis I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

The Rocks

by Peter Nichols

A romantic love story set on the Mediterranean coast about a mysterious sixty year secret that shaped the lives and loves of two families.

The Wright Brothers

by David McCullough

Master historian David McCullough tells us the inspiring story of the Wright brothers drawing from the Wright papers, diaries and letters to portray the men behind the myth. For history buffs everywhere.

Empire of Deception

by Dean Jobb

The story of a charming and charasmatic con man in 1920's Chicago who pulls off an unscrupulous scam and is then relentlessly pursued by a Chicago lawman. An entertaining read of a little known story from the jazz era.

I Regret Nothing

by Jen Lancaster

Jen is back with another hilarious memoir about self-improvement and re-invention. Get ready to laugh out loud.

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789

by Joseph Ellis

Ellis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, now tells about the years after the Revolution when the colonies agreed to submit to a federal government. He focuses on four key players: George Washington, James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton.

The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos

by Leonard Mlodinow

From the author of The Drunkard's Walk, Mlodinow takes us through the eras and  events of the development of science, and how the simple questions of "why" and "how" have led to scientific discovery.

The Great Fire: Two Americans' Heroic Mission to Rescue Victims fo the 20th Century's First Genocide

by Lou Ureneck

The harrowing story of two Americans who helped to save 250,000 refugees from the genocide of Armenian and Greek Christians in 1915. Published to coincide with the centennial of the event.

Elon Musk: Tesla, Spacex, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

by Ashlee Vance

Vance portrays the vision and genius of Elon Musk who is recognized as being one of today's most renowned entrepreneurs. For high tech and outer space fans.

Born Survivors

by Wendy Holden

A remarkable story of three pregnant mothers who were sent to concentration camps in eastern Europe during the later years of World War II and how they mananged to survive to give life to their children. 




Cathedral bookjacketI’ve never written a novel or a short story (unless you count the required writing course I took about a million years ago as a freshman in college) but in some ways, I think that it might be harder to write a short story than a full-fledged book. A short story has to suck you in immediately, tell a full plot in a small number of pages, and shoot you out at the end with a quick climactic pay-off. A great short story will stay with you forever. Raymond Carver’s "A Small Good Thing" with a young boy’s unpicked up bakery cake has been part of my very soul since I first read it years ago.

The past few months, I’ve read several collections of really amazing short stories. When I did a search in our catalog, I found that there have been a ton of short story booksSingle, Carefree, Mellow bookjacket published in the last couple of years; I checked a bunch out and found a bounty of vivid stories that I find myself still thinking about weeks after reading them. Kelly Link’s stories in Get in Trouble are a feast of surreal images that are also weirdly believable. Katherine Heiny writes about infidelity in her collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, but she does it in a refreshingly nonjudgmental way. And then there are always my old favorites, Flannery O'Connor and Peter S. Beagle.

If you're in the mood for a short story or two or three, try one of these collections.

“I know there'll come a day
When you'll say that you don’t know me
And I know there'll come a time
When there’s nothing anybody owes me anymore

Locked in the attic again
Out of the shallow and into the deep end
I've got a wound I know will never end
Locked in the attic again”
-Meat Puppets, “Lost”

Meat Puppets II Album Cover
Meat Puppets II is one of those rare records that defies rock's all too static vocabulary.  The record emerged out of a particularly stagnant historical moment for independent music - 1984, though lauded as some kind of  golden age for the underground (think R.E.M.), more realistically represented a kind of cultural paralysis and retrenchment.  US indie rock was rediscovering the 60s, comfortably (and farcically) reiterating the corny gestures of "psychedelia" with none of the radical fury and desire to tear down the foundations.  At first listen, one might be tempted to slot Meat Puppets II into this very paradigm.  Pastoral/stoner free-association lyrics, noodly Grateful Dead-influenced guitars layered over a slightly accelerated cowpunk two-step - how obviously conservative can it get, right?  

The record is genuinely gorgeous in the way it expresses a sublime - almost gentle - awe in the face of natural space (the band were based out of Tempe Arizona). But what lifts Meat Puppets II from the everyday morass is the awkward hesitancy with which primary songwriter Curt Kirkwood gropes for new structures, new neuronal paths and logistical tracks that want to rupture the received moves and pantomimes of rock and roll's handbook.

Not that the songs are mind-blowing or necessarily destructive - Meat Puppets II doesn't begin to really approach the detourns of a Captain Beefheart or early Pere Ubu.  The music is surprisingly fragile and while one can't really call them unconfident, the songs tend to move as though they're always already entering new territory - watchful; but joyous too. It's no wonder Kurt Cobain found the record inescapably addictive - the record tracks (and promises) perpetual escape.  

Of course the band tightened the reins and future records abandoned the inventive hesitancy for an almost muscular assurance (culminating in 1994's boogie-drenched Too High To Die).  But MP II could never really be recuperated or reproduced - it was always a way out with no desire to actually get anywhere.

Mr. Mac and Me book jacketWhen a long-awaited book finally arrives, it’s hard not to place high expectations on its performance. So when I finally had a copy of Esther Freud’s latest book Mr. Mac and Me in my hot little hands, dreams of a great story, pristine writing and new lands to explore were circling above my head. As a fan of Esther Freud (see Hideous Kinky and The Sea House among others) I was not disappointed on any front.  

Freud’s latest tells the story of thirteen-year-old Thomas Maggs, who lives in the Suffolk coastal town of Walberswick under the watchful eyes of an overprotective mother and an unpredictable father. Thomas’s father runs the local pub and helps himself freely to the goods. Times are not good. Business is far from booming and World War I looms ahead. When not in school, Thomas spends his time helping out at the pub, assisting the local rope maker ply his trade and exploring the countryside. He is also a talented artist who frequently sketches ships and dreams of escaping by sea. His life is changed when  Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret move to town. The renowned architect of the Glasgow School of Art is down on his luck and hoping some restorative time at the seaside will change his fortunes. A quiet, contemplative relationship develops between Mackintosh and Thomas, an association that will be deeply affected when the war finally comes to town.

Freud’s family has its own history of life in Walberswick. Her paternal grandfather Ernest, also an architect, spent years living in the village and transforming local cottages with his Bauhaus-style designs. Her father, the painter Lucien Freud, spent time there as a child.  And Esther Freud herself owns a home there, her second in fact. The first house she purchased in Walberswick was the former pub, known in this book as the Blue Anchor.  

Freud, the author of eight novels, is an extraordinary writer. She particularly excels is her descriptions of the physical world. The village and its surroundings act as characters equally as important as Mr. Mackintosh or young Thomas Maggs. As Thomas and Mr. Mac and the others who populate Walberswick move towards their prescribed destinies, readers have the pleasure of witnessing the development of a relationship both strikingly subtle and completely life changing. Mr. Mac and Me is not the perfect read but it does exactly what I want a book to do for me:  introduces me to new people and new places and provides me with much appreciated and invaluable food for thought.

Postscript:  Sadly, a fire at the Glasgow School of Art in May of 2014 destroyed a portion of the school’s west wing which housed the Mackintosh Library.  The library is expected to reopen by 2018.

Eilean Donan Castle, Lochalsh, Scotland. Photo by Dave Conner.I’ve been in Scotland twice, but the last time didn’t count as I was there for literally five minutes. Fortunately I’ll get to spend more time there this spring and I can’t wait.  Hiking! Pub crawling! Trading insults with my Scottish pal! It doesn’t get any better than that.  My departure date is still a wee while off, though, so I’ve had to settle for immersing myself in books, music and film to satisfy my impatient desire to be in Bonny Scotland.  If you, too, are longing for the land of whisky, thistles and tartan, try out some of the following:

Burns: Poems book jacketWhen I was in my teens and twenties, I used to fairly loathe poetry.  I either had no idea what it meant or thought it was mostly really soppy.  I guess I’ve mellowed some as I’ve aged because now I think that Robert Burns penned some really good verse.  There are many collections of his poems, but the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition claims to have the “most essential of the imHer Majesty, Mrs. Brown dvd covermortal poems and songs.” To hear some of his songs and poetry sung, check out There Was a Lad.  For a selection of bagpipe tunes (yes, there really is more than one piece that can be played on the bagpipes), check out Duncarron:  Scottish Pipes & Drums Untamed.

For some Highland eye candy (not to mention a yummy accent), there’s nothing better than Billy Connolly in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown.  I was envious of Judy Dench for years after I saw that movie.  If you’re more interested in the beauty of Scotland found in nature, clap your peepers on Visions of Scotland.

For two lovely books of travel, read H.V. Morton’s classic In Search of Scotland and Scotland: The Place of Visions by Jan Morris. Morton is one of my favorite travel writers – his humor and storytelling prowess make reading about his adventures in his native Britain and elsewhere a true pleasure.  If you just want to look at gorgeous photos of Scotland, check out Morris’s book, but really, read the text as well!  Morris is a keen observer and a wonderful writer.

So get out your kilt, pour a wee dram and settle in with a book, cd or dvd.  You’ll be away to Scotland in no time at all! 

The Last Bookaneer

by Matthew Pearl

An historical thriller about literary pirates who would steal manuscripts and publish them without the authors' consent. By the author of The Dante Club.

Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance

by Christopher McDougall

The author of Born to Run tells about the ancient and modern techniques for endurance and natural movement that allowed Greek soldiers to run for hours.

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History

by Cynthia Barnett

A science writer tells the history of the most crucial element on earth describing the downpours that filled the oceans billions of years ago to the megastorms of today.

The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop

by Steve Osborne

The author, a familiar storyteller on NPR's The Moth, now presents his touching and humorous tales from 20 years as a lieutenant in the Big Apple.

Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor

by James M. Scott

A re-telling of the daring attack on Tokyo in the dark days after Pearl Harbor. Includes records and photographs never before published.

The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives

by Stephen Buchmann

The author describes the role flowers play in the production of our food, spices, medicines, and perfumes while bringing us joy and happiness.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

by Mary Norris

New Yorker's editor of grammar and usage relates her experiences with famous authors while humorously advising on the tools of her trade.

Capital Dames: The Civil War and Women of Washington, 1848-1868

by Cokie Roberts

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Washington was turned into a massive Union army camp. Roberts tells the stories of the  of women who joined in the cause working as nurses, sanitation workers, supply organizers and more.



Photograph of a young boy arranging fabric in preparation to sew.I love making anything with my hands. So when my six-year-old son asks, “Can we make me an Ant-Man costume?”, my answer is always going to be an enthusiastic, “Yeah we can!”

There was a time when I would take control of these projects.  I’d Google images of Ant-Man, obsess about the right fabric and approach, until I found myself sitting at the sewing machine alone, while my son had long since moved on to his Legos.

Now I understand that my job is to dump a bag of fabric out on the table and as my son says, “Just stop freaking out so much about it.”  Sure, I help with the sewing machine.  He drives the pedal and I keep my fingers out of the way and try not to sweat the fact that the bobbin tension is completely out of whack.  

Our new laissez-faire family craft time doesn’t mean I’ve stopped seeking out fresh ideas and inspiration for projects.  Martha Stewart’s Favorite Crafts for Kids offers a bonanza of ideas for kids and parents.  I just make sure to check my inner Martha when it’s time to get gluing.

Side by Side by Tsia Carson is a great resource for matching projects that parents and kids can do separately but together.  One particularly endearing kid-project involves embroidering a leaf.  This is a woman who knows about managing expectations!

And when I just want to be inspired, blogger and illustrator Merrilee Liddiard’s Playful is so Anthropologie-beautiful I could weep.  But then I’ll get over it, enjoy watching my son dart about in what only started out as an Ant-Man costume, and “just stop freaking out so much about it.”

Our guest blogger is Memo. Memo works at the Central Library. Besides reading history and literature about Latinos, workers, and immigrants, he enjoys re-reading the great literary works of nineteenth and twentieth-century realist writers.

y no se lo tragó la tierra book jacketWhat makes a literary work an American classic? Clearly, there is no one answer to this question. It is a matter of opinion. It is no wonder book publishers have debated this issue in the past, and that they will continue to discuss it in the future. The question, also, hangs over my head every time I read Tomás Rivera’s …y no se lo tragó la tierra: Is this fictional tale of Mexican American migrant farm working families an American classic? After all, this novella is an iconic piece of literary art in Chicano/a literature, and is a must read in Chicano/a literature courses in U.S. colleges. It was also the first recipient of the Premio Quinto Sol award.

Is it an American classic? Yes! It is. In spite of being written in Spanish,* …y no se lo tragó la tierra is a story of perseverance in the American tradition of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Like their fictional counterparts in The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath, the characters in …y no se lo tragó la tierra have dreams and grit. The Mexican American migrant families’ determination to make their dreams real no matter the odds given - it is the 1950s and people of color are segregated in the workplace and society—is what makes their tale of perseverance an American classic.

The story takes place in two locations: a small town in rural South Texas, where the migrant families live on a permanent basis and the Midwest, where they toil in the fields of commercial growers. The hardships they confront in their annual migrations to Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other Midwestern states in search of seasonal farm labor say more about their determination to better their lives than about the work itself. That is not to say that the seasonal farm work they do doesn’t influence their willingness to live their American dreams. On the contrary, the very work itself, with its low wages, no rights, no dignity, and no hope, drive migrant families to continue struggling for a better life.

Like two other American classics of the twentieth century, Native Son and Invisible Man, …y no se lo tragó la tierra illuminates an experience once ignored by mainstream Americans. It sheds light on a harsh reality that can no longer be overlooked.

*The library's copy is bilingual.


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