Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German by Christine Lo

What is it about an atlas that I love so much? The colors, the names I've never heard, the ability to turn the page and get to a completely different part of the world. I can get from Portland to Florence, Oregon in a heartbeat, or Florence, Italy in a few seconds. How about a remote island, maybe in the South Pacific? Yes, please.

This sweet book is not your average atlas. It has a lovely size, easy to hold at just 143 pages, and not concussion inducing if you fall asleep while reading in bed. Each island has its own two-page spread, one page devoted to a single paragraph about its history, the facing page a map of the island itself. For those interested, the text is a style called MVB Sirenne which I thought just gorgeous, and I don't often notice that sort of thing.

Again, the key word here is remote. These islands are so far from most continents that they don't usually show up in an atlas, they're too small to bother placing in those wide expanses of blue ocean, I imagine. Some I've not heard of, many I have--not that I could tell you where they are, whether they're north or south of the equator, what ocean they're in, or anything at all about them, whether they're inhabited, whether they have fresh water, if pirates have frequented their jungles, or if cannibals still live there today. But now I've read all about them, and there are islands that meet all these fabulous descriptions.

I don't get many Sundays to myself these days, but this would be the perfect book for a long, casual, Sunday, favorite beverage at your side. For those of us who awake at 3:23 a.m. on a semi-regular basis (and I know you're out there), it is the perfect book to pick up and read at that dark and mysterious hour, and I loved every single minute of reading it.

P.S.  You know, Father's Day is just around the corner, and for a dad who loves to travel, or sail, for a dad who loves atlases or oceans, for a dad who longs for a quiet place--I think he may just love this book, too.

If you have ever come home to a preschooler chasing the cat around the house with a tube of Chapstick (because "the kitty wants WIP BALM on her WIPS!") you know that your first task is to confiscate that Chapstick. You also probably know that you will be too late, because by the time you liberate that tube from the greasy little fingers wrapped around it the cat will be staring at you accusingly from under a bed, glistening with fury and emollients.

We all have our monsters. Here are some of my favorites:

The Host
Set in Korea, a dysfunctional but devoted family pays a great price when a nefarious substance is dumped down a drain and winds up in the Han River. This movie is eccentric family comedy, political commentary and kick-ass monster in one compelling package. What is scarier--the thing that lives in the sewer or the self-serving governments that originate and perpetuate misguided terror?

The Abyss
A nuclear sub is sunk in some of the deepest waters on earth, and the only people with the equipment to potentially mitigate impending disaster are a ragtag bunch of civilian, off-shore drilling engineers, including the sparring, married-but-divorcing Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Love-hate relationship plus undiscovered alien life in the Mariana Trench? I'm there.

The Bad Seed
It doesn't get much scarier for a parent than the realization that your adored little girl is an eight-year-old homicidal sociopath. Patty McCormack is not to be missed as Rhoda Penmark in the title role; piano practice and penmanship will never be the same again. One of the best movie endings ever.

My Neighbor Totoro
Sometimes we need friendly monsters, and Hayao Miyazaki's lush animation is a treat. This is an all-ages movie for the whole family; two sisters discover the title "keepers of the forest" as they cope with moving to a new house and their mother's extended hospital stay. Hop aboard the Catbus and prepare to be delighted.

Our guest blogger is Sola, who is an avid reader and a library school student through the University of Washington. She is interning in the Central Branch Popular Library until the beginning of June.

I'm a sucker for a series where the characters start to feel like family members. That discovery that I can be reunited with someone I've come to appreciate (dare I say cherish?) by just reading another book is almost enough to make me do the happy dance. Usually this results in me devouring the books one after another, and then moping around until I find a new book I like, or the next one in the series gets published. If the series is something that my husband enjoys and we can chat about? Well, so much the better. A few years back, shortly after my twins were born, I stumbled on Craig Johnson's The Cold Dish. Being sleep deprived usually means that I'll forgo reading for a little shut-eye, but Sheriff Walt Longmire, of Absaroka County, Wyoming, jumped off the page and into my life, and I found myself unable, during those rare, quiet moments, to put the book down. Walt is one of those characters who is not immediately likable, and in fact, I don't really know that many mildly depressed, middle-aged, widowed, almost-alcoholic lawmen. Those questionable features were balanced out by the fact that he's also sweet, sincere, well-read, and is totally lost around women. Once I added in his friends, including a Native American named Henry Standing Bear, the former sheriff Lucian, and Walt's current deputy, the ever full-of-attitude Victoria Moretti, the scales definitely came down on the side of wanting to keep these people in my life. Walt would rather hang out in his partially built cabin, drink rainier, and obsess about a rape case that ended with suspended sentences for the four young men who were convicted, when one of those young men is found shot. Walt's sense of justice is strong enough to start looking into it, and determine that it wasn't, in fact, a hunting accident, when the second of the four is murdered in the same way, and it's clear that someone is out for revenge (a cold dish indeed). With a solid mystery, characters I found myself caring about, and a setting that I was starting to feel like I'd visited even though I've never been there, I powered through The Cold Dish.

And, in fact, I did do the happy dance when I found out it is was the first in a series of books with Sheriff Longmire. I'm up to speed at this point, but I'm always on the lookout for the next book by Craig Johnson. In the meantime, I'm hunting for a new book (or series) that I can fall in love with to fill the gap. Any suggestions?

Tired of all the British pomp and circumstance in the news around the royal wedding? I sure am. My antidote of choice: some classic British punk rock, delivered with sneer and two-fingered salute. “London’s burning” by The Clash, perhaps?

Back in their 1980 heyday The Clash were called “the only band that matters,” and maybe they still are. There’s a great new article in the 3/3/11 issue of Rolling Stone by Mikal Gilmore entitled “The Fury and the Power of the Clash” that gives a brief, comprehensive history of their rise and fall. In it he quotes Joe Strummer as saying in 1978: “we’re trying to be the greatest group in the world … at the same time we’re trying to be radical .. maybe the two can’t coexist, but we’ll try.” What do you think, do they still matter? Were they, are they, the greatest? There’s a lot of stuff here at the library to help you decide.

In the last few years, a bunch of new Clash material has been released: a live album of a 1980 performance at New York’s Shea Stadium; a documentary about the life of Joe Strummer; and a 532 page, appropriately epic account of the making of their epic masterpiece, London Calling. Speaking of that album, the 25th anniversary edition includes an additional disc with unreleased demos and songs from that album’s sessions that is definitely worth hearing. And in 2005, all their other studio albums were remastered and re-released. So if you haven’t already, it’s probably about time that you went back and listened to all those, too.

Strummer famously scrawled the slogan “passion is a fashion” on his leather jacket. Passion’s timeless. So is a sneer and a two-fingered salute. Whether or not they’re the only band, the Clash definitely still matters.

“Black or white turn it on, face the new religion
Everybody's sitting 'round watching television
London's burning with boredom now”

It is a rare and wonderful thing when something makes me laugh so hard that I cry.

Recently it happened while watching the Colbert Report. Mr. Colbert was ostensibly getting etiquette lessons from a fellow who is apparently a Professional Proper Englishman. Colbert is utterly unconstrained: he has no rules to follow. He eats sugar by the spoonful, lets a cupful of cream slide down his chin. The Englishman is defined by rules. He is outraged, perhaps even angry, but he can hardly show it. He can only murmur ‘No, you musn’t’. And the more he protests, the more outrageous Colbert’s behavior becomes, spurned on by his foil.

The scene very much reminded me of the Jean Renoir movie that made me laugh just as hard, Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux). A homeless man is ‘saved’ by a middle class family, and what ensues is a great deal like Colbert and the Professional Proper. Boudu spits out his beer, he wipes chocolate on the duvet. He does not follow the rules, and it is enormously funny.

If you think that a movie made in 1932 is too darn old, or you're not a fan of subtitles, check out this YouTube trailer and reconsider. The Criterion print is lovely, and the film is a true treat.

It's the voice. Someone described Rick Bragg's voice as 'honey over smoke'. That intrigued me. I listened to a CD copy of Rick Bragg reading The Prince of Frogtown. That Alabama rhythm caught me, that pure Southern sensibility; the words just seem to flow. The storyteller's magic takes over.

In All Over but the Shoutin' Rick Bragg wrote about growing up poor in the hill country of Alabama, especially about his mother picking cotton and cleaning houses so her boys would have more than the welfare checks she received. Rick's father was an alcoholic man and very violent. He seemed to float into the life of the family and out again at regular intervals.

The author Willie Morris once told Rick that he would never have any peace until he wrote about his father. In The Prince of Frogtown, Rick pieces together the story of his father's life from interviews with his faithful boyhood friends.

The people seem so real. His father, Charles, was destroyed by drink and destroyed by his hard scrabble, blue-collar life in the mills of Jacksonville, Alabama. Yet Rick lets the soul's true light shine through the awfulness.

You can't help but like this young mischievous, hell-bent for leather boy. Rick retells one incident where Charles and his friend were flying a kite so high that it was nearly invisible in the sky.

Another boy comes along and asks, "What you doing with that string?"

"Why we're fishing," Charles answered.

You ache for the alcoholic man and the family that he has let down. Rick does not whitewash or rewrite his father's life. You get a sense of the man that could have been, but for that evil drinking and the streak of violence that resulted from that drinking.

No one is more disappointed than Charles himself. He knew he could not be with his family, that he had ruined all the chances of a life with them by his ceaseless drinking and violent temper.

Interspersed with chapters about his father are chapters about "the boy" Rick's stepson. In these chapters, he describes his own journey into fatherhood and his growing love for this boy. This story gives light and humor to a dark tale. You grow to love this boy and his stepfather who tries so hard.

Now I want to read Ava's Man, the story of Rick's maternal grandfather and the culture that shaped him.

I don't know about you, but when I'm being pelted with hail under a brilliantly sunny sky my mind tends to think, "Hey, look at that. The apocalypse is here." (This is even without factoring distressing global geological and political current events into the equation, which hold their own private audience with my horrified psyche on what seems like a near-hourly basis.) Extreme maybe, but my default setting is "the sky is falling." If I override that, I can remember it's spring.

I should be reading up on how to outwit slugs in the garden or what to do when a child discovers (shudder!) an entire universe of massively multi-player online gaming. Instead, I've been indulging in some fabulous dystopian fiction. What better way to escape the end of the world hosted by our evil slug overlords?

The Hunger Games trilogy is compulsively readable. The first book wins some sort of award for being the only reading material that has ever made me miss my bus stop. The Capitol controls the twelve districts of Panem, a country which covers territory once known as North America. The primary device for this control is the annual Hunger Games, in which one boy and one girl from each district are chosen by lottery to fight to the death in a manipulated arena on live television until only one remains. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers herself for the Games when her twelve-year-old sister is chosen. The trilogy is executed in a spare and accessible style with unexpected twists and a powerful ending.   

If you balk at reading teen fiction, now is your chance to get over it. Really. Everyone else has, and you're missing out. The Hunger Games is now part of the Lucky Day collection, so may the odds be ever in your favor.

OK. I know there are a lot of holds on this, but trust me, it's worth the wait. Tangled was the most fun I had at the movies last year. I went to go see it with three other adults and we all agreed, including the one guy, that it was great. It's funny, it has catchy little songs and it's just charming. I watched it again recently with two teen-aged relatives and my mother and they all loved it too.

It's a retelling of the Rapunzel story. You've got the princess trapped in the tower except this time she has magic hair and her prince is a scoundrel with a good heart. There's a pet chameleon that's obviously intelligent and a horse with magical abilities. But it all works, even for an adult viewer, if you're willing to go with the magic for just 100 minutes. You can go back to being a grownup who knows better later. So, go get in touch with your inner child and watch a cartoon. This one is worth it.

A lot of people go through a crisis of sorts when they hit their forties, but in literature - at least in the books that I've been reading lately - things seem to go wackily and spectacularly wrong when characters enter midlife. In The Widow's Season by Laura Brodie, Sarah's forty-three year old husband goes on a short kayaking trip one day and after a huge storm, never returns. His kayak turns up, but his body doesn't and most people assume that he drowned. Sarah doesn't have the closure she wants, but believes that her husband is dead. She believes, that is, until she sees him at the grocery store. She also sees him other places including the churchyard right after his memorial service. And then there's the sighting on Halloween night. Maybe David isn't dead? Maybe he's just had enough of his old life and wants a change. Brodie kept me guessing right up until the end.

I wasn't even going to mention Chronicles of a Midlife Crisis by Robyn Harding, but then I read some reviews on Good Reads and discovered that there weren't very many other people who felt the way I did about it: that the characters were a bunch of self-absorbed, loathsome, childish losers; not to mention that the story was something like a cross between a National Enquirer cover story and the movie Fatal Attraction. It starts out well enough with some humor about how Lucy should have known that her husband of sixteen years was cheating on her (he's wearing skinny-legged trousers and using wrinkle cream - hello!). The story is told in back-and-forth fashion between Lucy and Trent. The more I read, the more I absolutely hated the characters. Not only is Trent involved with a psycho, but then Lucy starts seeing a teen celebrity (although really he's twenty-seven and just playing a teenage character on television) who happens to be her daughter's biggest star crush. Drama and severe stupidity ensues. But as I noted earlier, there were plenty of people on Good Reads who enjoyed it. One of the good things about reading midlife crisis fiction is that you can be pretty sure that your own drama will probably never be as bad!

Coming up with the perfect next read can feel like trying to scratch an itch just out of reach: sometimes there's a craving for something in that charmed middle ground - not genre fiction, not a series, not one of the warhorse classics - but how to find it?

Though most readers probably don't think much about specific publishers, and even less of searching the library catalog by publisher's name, here are two richly rewarding ones guaranteed to supply years of engaging and often offbeat reading: Europa (also Europa Editions) and New York Review of Books (search also New York Review Books, without "of", and the series New York Review Books classics.).

Perhaps best known for their bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Europa offers a wide array of sophisticated international literature, much of it, like Hedgehog, in translation. Jane Gardam's Old Filth (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong) is the sharp, funny, and moving story of an expat English lawyer and his wife dealing with retirement in the motherland after years abroad, and is just one example of the excellent choices on hand from Europa.

The New York Review of Books has undertaken to reissue wonderful but neglected older books, including novels, memoirs, travel writing, and children's literature. One not to miss is  Richard Hughes' deeply weird A High wind in Jamaica, a story of inept pirates and kidnapped children sometimes compared to Lord of the Flies, but Golding's book is bland as butterscotch compared to this disturbing little masterpiece. Gregor von Rezzori's unforgettable portrait of his family in the obscure corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called the Bukovina, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, is one of those books which, once read, just begs to be passed along to a friend. And foodies will love Elizabeth David's A Book of Mediterranean Food, written during a time of gray post-WWII privation, which opened a sunny window onto views of olive and lemon groves for the ration-weary English.

Both of these publishers will steer the reader towards something completely new, or - just as fulfilling - towards one of those great, familiar-sounding authors one always meant to get around to reading.


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