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Friday Reads: The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home

In addition to the history of the Biltmore estate, this book also covers the Vanderbilt family. After a bit of background into the wealth inherited by George Washington Vanderbilt, the youngest son of William Henry “Billy” Vanderbit, the book focuses its attention mostly on the life of George, the building of the Biltmore estate, his wife, Edith Dresser, and the chronology of their lives and the evolution of the Biltmore estate. The Vanderbilt wealth was expanded through railroads and shipping and increased through inheritances. In 1877, Billy inherited nearly $100 million from his father, and when he died in 1885, his wealth had doubled to over $200 million. George was the youngest son of Billy, with seven siblings. Being the youngest, his inheritance was less than his siblings, although still in the millions of dollars. George was an eccentric cat, introverted with interests in art and books. Longtime bachelor until his marriage to Edith at age 37. In many ways, the book is also about Edith and her relationship with the Biltmore, especially since George died at the age of 51.

At any rate, the book covers interesting background information about the Vanderbilts, their fortune, philanthropy, and super-rich lifestyles. The book details George’s vision for the Biltmore, and its construction and maintenance. The estate was built from 1889 to 1895. Some of the statistics are staggering; especially considering this was pre-1900:

  • A woodworking factory and brick kiln was produced on site, generating 32,000 bricks per day;
  • 175,000 total square feet, with more than 4 acres of floor space;
  • 250 rooms in the house, including 35 guest rooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, and 3 kitchens;
  • Over 100,000 acres of surrounding area, including a robust forestry program (after George’s death Edith sold over 85,000 acres back to the federal government); and
  • A library with over 10,000 volumes, many rare and collectible.

The Biltmore has been open to the public since 1930, with a brief hiatus during World War II, when various paintings and sculptures were moved there from the National Gallery of Art to protect them in the event of an attack on the U.S. The home continues to be owned by a private company ran by the Vanderbilt heirs. The Last Castle is overall an interesting read, not only pertaining to the construction and maintenance of the Biltmore estate, but also the Vanderbilt family and surrounding Asheville community.

Kiernan, Denise. The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s largest Home. Atria Books, 2017.

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Friday Reads: The Library of Ever by Zeno Alexander

I’ll be the first to admit that you can put the word “library” in any book title, and I’ll read it without hesitation. But I am sure glad I picked up The Library of Ever by Zeno Alexander, because it was delightful. I read a handful of middle-grade books around this time each year, and this has been my favorite selection so far of 2020.

Trying to abscond from her nanny at the library and get some quality reading time in, Lenora stumbles into the “staff only” section. Recognizing her potential, the head librarian offers her a job as “Fourth Assistant Apprentice Librarian”, tasking her to use her wits and valor to serve her patrons. Lenora embarks on a series of adventures, some comical, some harrowing, in her quest to answer patron inquiries. If only my days on the reference desk were this exciting!

This book clocks in at 208 pages, so it’s a fairly quick read, making it ideal for read-alouds. The fast-pace and fun facts will keep middle grade readers engaged. I have a certain niece named Lenora that will be getting a copy soon for sure!

Alexander, Zeno. The Library of Ever. Imprint, 2019.

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Friday Reads: A Wrinkle in Time

Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining, and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure. Then, slowly, the shining dwindled until it, too, was gone, and there was nothing but stars and starlight. No shadows. No fear. Only the stars and the clear darkness of space, quite different from the fearful darkness of the Thing.

“You see!” the Medium cried, smiling happily. “It can be overcome! It is being overcome all the time!”

As this very timely quote illustrates, A Wrinkle in Time still resonates as strongly today as it did when it was first published almost 60 years ago.

This classic battle between good and evil is told through a unique, creative story. With the assistance of various supernatural beings, three children travel through space and time to save the universe from a dark force. It is sometimes depicted as being just a fantastical tale, but there is also hard science in there.

Madeleine L’Engle had a hard time getting it published, one reason being they couldn’t decide if it was for children or adults. I think that just makes it a perfect title for anyone to read.

If you are struggling with difficult events, and worried that nothing can be done to save us, A Wrinkle in Time gives us hope. Light will always triumph over darkness and evil. With the help of family and friends, we can be strong and brave, even when frightening times are upon us. Just have faith that we will battle and beat the demons in the end.

A Wrinkle in Time was also released as a very nice graphic novel in 2012. It’s not written word for word of course, but it is quite faithful to the main plot and themes of the original. I really enjoyed how the illustrations, done in only blue, black, and white, helped to enhance rather than distract from the story.

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Friday Reads: The Usual Suspects, by Maurice Broaddus

The Usual Suspects by Maurice Broaddus

While Thelonious Mitchell enjoys pulling pranks at school to get a rise out of their teacher and the principal, there is no way he or his best friend Nehemiah, would do anything dangerous. A gun was found in the park next to the school, and the administration is on alert.

Thelonious is more than irritated that the first place anyone looks for the guilty party is the special education classroom (where he is), where neuro-atypical students do their best (and occasionally cause trouble). He is now determined to solve this crime, along with Nehemiah, to prove their innocence

Mr. Blackmon is not the teacher, but he is assigned to work with Thelonious and guide him to better choices and decisions. The unfair accusations and suspicions hurt, and Thelonious’s growth as a leader with integrity, is delightful to see.

Broaddus, Maurice. The Usual Suspects. Katherine Tegen Books, 2019

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Friday Reads: Frankissstein: A Love Story, by Jeanette Winterson

Frankissstein: A Love Story, by Jeanette Winterson, is just that: a love story.

What kind of love story, though, is the question. Love between whom? Love for what? That’s the question at the core of it.

The book is divided between two main intertwined narratives: the first set in history, that of young Mary Shelley, as she sparks with inspiration to pen the novel Frankenstein. The second narrative takes place in the near future, following Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor, and their journey alongside the mysterious man they have fallen in love with: Victor Stein. Victor, who is seeking to overcome death, not through stitching and reanimating a corpse, but with AI technology. Accompanying them are their parallels from both times: Lord Byron, the poet becomes Ron Lord, the sex-bot inventor/dealer (ha!); Dr. Polidori, Byron’s physician, becomes Polly D., a writer for Vanity Fair, and Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister and Byron’s mistress, who becomes just Claire, a religious woman.

It’s a novel that was, largely, more philosophy than plot. Winterson’s stories are usually such — literary fiction; my all-time favorite book is her The Stone Gods — but this read almost like a thesis on what makes us human, the future of humanity, death, what our souls might be (if we even have one), gender, a smidge of socialism, reality, the ethics of AI/robotics, feminism… it was a lot packed into 344 pages. The interwoven narratives kept the book flowing, as did Winterson’s clever writing, as usual; though I did wrestle with choices she made, especially where Ry was concerned, choices that felt like amateur, insensitive mistakes. Overall, I loved Mary Shelley’s story more than I loved the pseudo-sci-fi story, even (or maybe because) I knew what happened in her life, tragedies and all. It was just the telling that varied. For me, that was where the love story shone through the brightest. Mary’s love and grief and curiosity were so well threaded together that she came alive on the page better than all the others, I felt, and was (re)animated for a little time with nothing more than a spark of imagination.

Frankissstein certainly isn’t Winterson’s most successful work, by any means, in my opinion, and unfortunately ended up feeling more like something like a work in process than a final product. And it definitely is no stellar crash-course in Trans 101; Ry is not understood by the characters that surround them in the narrative, which makes it challenging to see if they are understood by their author (who could have – should have – used non-binary instead of hybrid to describe them in-text), and so you feel for them, seemingly as displaced in the world as Dr. Frankenstein’s creation; a parallel, too, that perhaps is not the most kind; however, there is a great wealth of history of the queer and the creation, the queer and the monster. But the analysis one can pull from the text doesn’t fully make up for the discomforting wade through transphobia, and so if you’re interested in Winterson’s LGBTQ works rather than her musings on the human condition, another one of her earlier novels or her autobiography might be a better place to begin.

Winterson, Jeanette. Frankissstein. Grove Press, 2019.

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Friday Reads: Crosstalk, by Connie Willis

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

In Crosstalk by Connie Willis, a simple surgery to promote empathy between romantic partners goes hilariously wrong. It shows how constant, complete, personal connection is anything but desirable.  Briddey Flannigan should have known, since the cell phone company, (COMMSPAN) she works for in a  US city, is very nearly a model of what will come, with gossip seemingly carried on the breezes! And avoiding telling her family the news that she and her perfect boyfriend, Trent Worth will be having the implantation of a devise which will result in empathy,( if they are truly in love), before she tells her friends at work is, well, a lost cause.

The entire novel moves at a breakneck pace from one situation to another. Just as soon as Bridey has settled her family, her boyfriend Trent springs a speeded up surgery schedual on her, so she’s off to the hospital. And avoiding gossip and her family, by hiding her car. After seeing that her family has no boundaries where it comes to Bridey’s privacy one begins to see why she’s so secretive. And why she settles on the up and coming executive Mr. Worth,  and his push to get the EED (the empathy device) before they marry. Which her family and CB Schwarz think is a really bad idea–and they all email, call, or text her. She argues it’s been tested before, and that even celebrities have had it done, and that they are even having the Dr. who invented the device doing the surgery. The surgery goes well. The aftereffects are, well, telepathy.  And of course, the first person she hears  is not Trent, but CB Schwarz, who is naturally telepathic. 

Ms. Willis brings the claustrophobic and confusing experience that we imagine to be telepathy to a print page well. It can be confusing  for the reader as well, but having a sense of the harried life of Briddey, makes it worth a little push just to get through those passages. It also gives her new relationship with CB a understandably difficult start. And exposes the real reasons behind Trent’s wanting to get the EED before getting married, like other couples.

This is the perfect introduction to Connie Willis and her comic timing, her patter, and infectious humor and sense of irony. If you enjoy Crosstalk, you’ll enjoy, To Say Nothing About the Dog, and Bellwether.

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis, Del Rey, 978-0-34554067-6

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Friday Reads: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was banned or challenged in several communities. ALA’s Banned Book Spotlight quotes a complaint from one of the challengers, highlighting “shocking words of profanity, sexual innuendo and violence”. A reviewer on Goodreads recommends the book for older audiences because she is “all for letting kids enjoy their innocence for as long as possible”. This book does have adult themes, including alcoholism and child abuse, with the constant bitterness of death glaring between the pages.

Parents and schools can try to ban books and protect innocent minds. However, we cannot ban reservations to protect the innocent. For many kids living in these areas, life is not appropriate for a young adult audience. What is the alternative to life? We have a theme.

How do I know about reservation life? My dad is from the Bad River Band of Chippewa in Wisconsin. I grew up hearing the myths and legends of an amazing culture. The myths are better than the reality of that reservation. Poverty runs rampant, and alcohol and drugs are the strong thematic elements that propel many people through the day. The ones who leave the reservation are challenged to change their way of life. Reservations are often a small, tight-knit community. Leaving is traitorous. Leaving can mean you are no longer Indian. It’s like saying your skin changes color as soon as you cross the border. Not everyone thinks this way, and not every reservation is the same. But I’ve seen it often enough.

I didn’t grow up on the reservation. I grew up with the aftermath. That is another story. We’re here to talk about Junior, a Spokane Indian born with brain damage to alcoholic parents. He’s the protagonist of The Absolutely True Diary. This is the story of how he leaves the reservation by attending an all-white rural school, 22 miles from the reservation. He hitchhikes his way to school and back, catching fire and vitriol on both ends.

Yet he is determined to break free and make change happen. I’ve read the book, and concur that it is absolutely true. Change can be like raking over hot coals. The humor and cartoons make the pain bearable. Humor is the collection of small respites necessary to drive change to fruition. If you want to bear witness to the truth of life, laid bare by a teenage protagonist, please read this book. Read deeply, and take the wise words of a teenage Indian living through real, thematic elements: “Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community”.

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Friday Reads: The Little Book of Big Feelings: an Illustrated Exploration of Life’s Many Emotions by Maureen “Marzi” Wilson

Being the good reader that I am every holiday season I make sure to include books on my gift list. (Yes, my family still does Christmas lists but that’s a story for another time.) Sometimes I’ll ask for the latest hot fiction title, or I might want a larger coffee table book that I’ve had my eye on but couldn’t justify the price. This year though I went with something small enough to fit in my stocking.

The Little Book of Big Feelings is authored and illustrated by Marzi Wilson, creator of “Introvert Doodles”. If you’ve ever wondered about the care and feeding of your fellow introvert, or are one yourself, I highly recommend checking her out. She has a lovely little Instagram page, perfect material to scroll through when that party gets to be a bit to much and you’re taking a moment to yourself behind a potted plant. She has three other books, as well, including an activity book!

This latest book takes a look at those big feelings we all get, joy, sadness, anger and so on, how they may look different to an introvert and, greatest of all, how to deal with them. Reading this book is a great way to get perspective on those emotions and even to start processing and accepting them. Each section deals with one particular emotion in small cartoons as well as meatier parts dealing with they psychology behind them. This is a fun and easy to grasp little book that, while slightly geared towards adults, would totally be useful for those fun balls of emotions that are teens.

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Friday Reads: Exile from Eden, by Andrew Smith

Exile from Eden, the featured title in this Friday Reads, is the sequel to Andrew Smith’s 2014 apocalyptic novel, Grasshopper Jungle, which I claimed as my new favorite book in a July 15, 2016 Friday Reads. I guess, therefore, this is a sequel Friday Reads.

Exile from Eden begins sixteen years after six-foot-tall praying mantises with a taste for human flesh forced Austin Szczerba, Robby Brees, and Shann Collins, along with Robby’s mother, Connie Brees, her boyfriend, Louis Sing, Shann’s mother and stepfather, Wendy and Johnny McKeon, and Austin’s dog, Ingrid, to hole up in an underground bunker, called Eden. During these sixteen years, Johnny McKeon and Ingrid have died, and Arek Szczerba and Mel Sing have been born. Arek is the son of Austin and Shann, though he considers Robby his second father. Mel is the daughter of Connie and Louis.

Narrated by sixteen-year-old Arek, Exile from Eden tells the story of what happens when he and fifteen-year-old Mel leave Eden (or, as Arek calls it, “the hole”) to search for Austin and Robby, who have failed to return from one of their regular supply-gathering missions. A road trip adventure ensues. As was the case with Grasshopper Jungle, however, Exile from Eden is about so much more than a mere plot summary would suggest. After all, as Austin stated in Grasshopper Jungle, “[g]ood books are about everything.”

In Grasshopper Jungle, Austin was obsessed with recording history and telling the truth. In Exile from Eden, Arek, his son, also ruminates on truth—how we construct it for ourselves and try to convey it to others: “All stories are true the moment they are told,” Arek states in the opening sentence of the book. “Whether or not they continue to be true is up to the listener” (3).

Because he was born and raised in the hole, Arek has no firsthand knowledge of the before-the-hole world, and extremely limited exposure to the new post-apocalyptic world outside the hole. To address this deficit, his father, Austin, brings back artifacts—including books, maps, and paintings—to try to build a model of the world for Arek. As Arek discovers after leaving the hole, however, “the model . . . is not the thing” (110). This leads him to further epistemological exploration of what we can know and how we can know it:

. . . My father’s model of the world was supposed to represent everything that was outside the hole. The only thing that can re-present anything real is the thing itself. No models can ever adequately perform that job.
    The model presents—and re-presents—only the model, and nothing more.
    And the data—what’s really outside the hole—does not call to us, so we must go to it, and then interpret its meaning with our incompetent human minds. The data is mute; we give it an imperfect voice. (110)

Exile from Eden juxtaposes the before-the-hole world, with its rules and protocols, shame and inhibitions, with the terrifying, unstructured freedom offered by the after-the-hole world. In Eden, Arek’s grandmother, Wendy–“SPEAKER OF LAWS” (20), believer in following instructions, and segregator of the sexes—represents the pre-hole world. The promise of the post-hole world, on the other hand, is captured most powerfully by a line from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, recited by Arek’s father, Austin, after he and Arek finish reading the book aloud to each other: “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God” (244).

At one point, Austin tells Arek “you and Mel are like the first humans on earth. You are the new people, without the baggage everyone carried with them, without end, from before” (188). Indeed, after months outside the hole, Arek describes Mel and himself as “joined to the world outside, not as pieces of a model, but as the thing itself” (347).

In the final chapter, when he and Mel finally reunite with Austin and Robby, Arek, channeling Melville, describes himself as “Shoreless Man.” And when Austin asks how he likes it outside the hole, Arek replies “There are no rules, and it’s wild” (353). Based on the premise set up throughout the book, this is a good thing and a happy ending.

Smith, Andrew. Exile from Eden. New York: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2019.

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Friday Reads: Nebraska During the New Deal–The Federal Writers’ Project in the Cornhusker State by Marilyn Irvin Holt

I don’t generally read a lot of non-fiction, but occasionally I come across a title that really catches my Nebraska history eye: Nebraska During the New Deal : the Federal Writers Project in the Cornhusker State. And for those not already familiar with the writing of Marilyn Irvin Holt (The Orphan Trains, Children Of the Western Plains, and others), her meticulous research and insightful writing never disappoints. I highly recommend her newest title as another excellent example of the history of Nebraska and the Nebraska spirit.

As a New Deal program, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) aimed to put unemployed writers, teachers, and librarians to work. The contributors were to collect information, write essays, conduct interviews, and edit material with the goal of producing guidebooks in each of the then forty-eight states and U.S. territories. Project administrators hoped that these guides, known as the American Guide Series, would promote a national appreciation for America’s history, culture, and diversity and preserve democracy at a time when militarism was on the rise and parts of the world were dominated by fascism.

Marilyn Irvin Holt focuses on the Nebraska project, which was one of the most prolific branches of the national program. Best remembered for its state guide and series of folklore and pioneer pamphlets, the project also produced town guides, published a volume on African Americans in Nebraska, and created an ethnic study of Italians in Omaha. In Nebraska during the New Deal Holt examines Nebraska’s contribution to the project, both in terms of its place within the national FWP as well as its operation in comparison to other state projects.  (University of Nebraska Press)

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Friday Reads: Minecraft: The End by Catherynne M. Valente

First, a confession, I have never actually played Minecraft. I know the basic concepts and I’ve watched other people play it, I just haven’t played it myself (yet). The only reason I picked this book up is that I’ll read anything and everything by Catherynne. I don’t know the lore of the game, so I’m sure I missed certain things, but I still really enjoyed this book (and you don’t need to read the other three official Minecraft novels before this one either).

This is a story of two young twelve-year-old endermen. Twin brother and sister, Fin and Mo, have always lived on their purple ship attached to the end city of Telos with their angry little pet shulker, Grumpo. They spend their time scavenging for very good junk or just junk, visiting the Ender Dragon (ED) who circles and watches over the End, or with their friend Kan who is very much an outsider. They all communicate telepathically, but still have a distinct “voice.” It’s definitely interesting how Catherynne writes. I really didn’t expect to care so much about little square shadow creatures.

Individually, endermen become dumb and angry, but stacked together with other elders and fragments, they become smarter, stronger, better. However, Fin and Mo are happy just the two of them and are plenty smart, thank you very much.

Then the invaders arrive from another dimension. Humans. Fin and Mo now have to defend their home and treasures as everything they know changes.

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Friday Reads: The Lady From the Black Lagoon

The Lady From the Black Lagoon is a biography, but it’s also not a biography. Sure, it’s the compelling life story of Milicent Patrick, a woman on both sides of the Old Hollywood camera. Milicent was a striking figure in front of the camera, but she was a real trailblazer in the world of make-up and design—specifically monster design, most notably, the Creature from The Black Lagoon. It’s also the story of her biggest fan, author Mallory O’Meara, and her quest to find out Milicent’s story, and her determination that Milicent get the credit she deserves for her work.

Along the way, O’Meara faces challenges. Milicent reinvented her identity many times, and used variations of her name personally and professionally–which was not unusual in Hollywood by any means, but it still poses research challenges. Luckily, O’Meara was already knowledgeable about Old Hollywood, and it was her voracious interest in old monster movies that led her to Milicent in the first place. O’Meara also gets some good research advice from some helpful librarians and archivists, which warmed this library worker’s heart.

This book is full of amazing stories. We get Milicent’s childhood years spent growing up on the Hearst Castle grounds, because her father was an engineer on that never-ending project. We also get the complicated family relationships that shaped Milicent’s life. We learn a lot about the behind-the-scenes production of Old Hollywood movies—and what a tough place it was for a woman to work, and how easy it was for Milicent’s labor to be exploited and almost erased. What really brings it all together, though, are the parallels that O’Meara is able to draw between her own career in movie production, with Milicent’s experience. O’Meara understands why Milicent chose to fight some battles and chose to walk away from others, and shares her own stories—some inspiring, some frustrating. (I have a guess who the unnamed voiceover jerk actor is, so let me know if you do, too.)

I listened to this book, and the author read it. That’s a risk—and in this case, it’s one that paid off! The author has a pleasant and clear voice, and her passion for her subject comes through loud and clear. After listening, I learned that it’s on many best-of lists for 2019, and I’m not surprised one bit.

O’Meara, Mallory. The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick. , 2019. Print.

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Friday Reads: A Keeper by Graham Norton

I discovered Graham Norton watching his talk show on BBC America many years ago. I downloaded his latest novel, A Keeper, looking forward to another story set in Ireland where Norton was born and raised. A Keeper begins with Elizabeth Keene, a college professor living in New York City, separated from her husband, raising their 17-year-old son on her own. She returns to the house of her recently deceased mother in a small Irish village. While sorting, she discovers a group of letters that begin to reveal more questions than answers about Elizabeth’s uncertain paternity. The letters tell a story of Elizabeth’s mother Patricia, forty years earlier, communicating with a man named Edward Foley through a lonely-hearts ad in the Farmers’ Journal. When Elizabeth inherits a property that belonged to Edward Foley, she begins a journey to gather more information.

The novel weaves two stories labeled – NOW and THEN – with Elizabeth and Patricia respectively navigating their lives through difficult if not perilous circumstances. Elizabeth’s conversations with those who knew her mother and Edward Foley provide some never known information and with each new fact, there are more questions. A young Patricia arrives for a visit to meet Edward for a second date and his overbearing if not mentally deranged mother creates a scenario that is both unexpected and terrifying.

What Norton does so well in his books is reveal family secrets that are often difficult with deftness and humor. The inner thoughts of characters and dialog are strengths of his writing. Thinking I might be alone in my appreciation of his latest two fiction novels, I discovered A Keeper was shortlisted for in the fiction category for the National Book Awards and his first novel, Holding won an Irish Book Award for Popular Fiction. Graham Norton shows us his comic talent on his talk show but there is much more to him than witty banter. His writing and narration skills are also laudable.

Norton, Graham. A Keeper. Atria Books, 2019.

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Friday Reads: “Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood

Let me set the scene for you. Felix, is a disgraced theatrical director, down on his luck, he applies to teach a prison literacy program. He has faded into obscurity after suffering personal loss and professional betrayal. As a result, a motley group of prisoners takes on Felix’s challenge of performing “The Tempest” to earn themselves credit in the literacy program. A play Felix has become slightly obsessed with after the fall of his career. Not only do you get to experience the play re-told but also from behind the curtain, an angle only those on the stage usually have access to. Prepare yourself for an interesting and diverse cast of characters, dark plot twists, redemption, and in true Shakespeare fashion, revenge.

I’m always in favor of a good classic transformed, and Margaret Atwood does an exceptional job of bringing “The Tempest” into the 21st century with her novel “Hag-Seed: William Shakespeare’s The Tempest Retold” (Hogarth, 2016.) The novel is a part of Random House’s Hogarth Shakespeare series, where well-known authors re-tell one of Shakespeare’s plays. So for those of you who are fans of”West Side Story,” “Ten Things I Hate About You,” or “She’s the Man,” this is really a series you should check out.

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Friday Reads: “Low Mountains or High Tea” by Steve Sieberson

A few years ago, I read and enjoyed Steve Sieberson’s book, The Naked Mountaineer: Misadventures of an Alpine Traveler (University of Nebraska Press). Sieberson renews his adventure writing with an equally delightful Low Mountains or High Tea: Misadventures in Britain’s National Parks. Sieberson explains how he and his wife – lovingly referred to throughout the book as the Italian Woman – found themselves spending a summer in Britain with intention for travel to Britain’s national parks. A rental car, road maps and guidebooks were among the tools for their adventure.

Sieberson grew up in northwest Iowa. A family trip one summer from his rural home in northwest Iowa to Colorado began his lifetime fascination with travel and with high elevations. From there he read books on mountaineering, books that he found at his local library. His boyhood fascination has endured through his adult years. His summer adventure in Britain included mountain experiences, visits to far-flung places, pubs, teahouses, B&Bs, and much, much more.

What I found admirable and especially enjoyable about Sieberson’s book is his wonderful humor. Here’s an example: in conversation with a local about nearby trails, he writes “I said that I wasn’t much interested in the three-peak circuit, but that I just wanted to get to the high point and back in the most direct way possible. The tilt of her head and the lift of an eyebrow suggested that perhaps my slam-bam approach to her magnificent hills did not meet her approval.” Throughout, he pokes fun at British ways and novelties. His characterizations of the many people encountered and interactions are especially memorable.

Sieberson’s book is keenly descriptive and rich in detail. His descriptions of hiking and climbing are nearly photographic in detail. I’d like to know how he captured those many impressions and recorded them with such precision. Sieberson’s commentary on the people, places, customs, and food are more than travel guide worthy.  

Sieberson’s law career provided opportunities for travel throughout the world. In recent years, he has added professor to his resume as a Creighton University Law School faculty member.

Sieberson, Steve. Low Mountains or High Tea. University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

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Friday Reads: Live Young Forever

What I was really looking for was a biography about Jack LaLanne, but unfortunately, I was not able to find any. The next closest thing (although I later found out there was a documentary film made about Jack, called Anything is Possible, but only about 39 minutes in length) was Live Young Forever, which did just fine and it was written by Jack himself. How did I get to the point of seeking out this book? Well, for one I never learned of Jack’s world famous feats until years after they occurred, having mostly known him for his juicer infomercials that aired when I was a kid after the Saturday cartoons. Jack’s exercise show was before my time. I remember him as the old health nut in the jumpsuit hawking juicing machines. Then recently, I clicked PBS on and got intrigued by the documentary called Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. The documentary follows Australian entrepreneur, author, and filmmaker Joe Cross across the U.S., as he went on a 60-day journey of consuming only juices from fresh fruits and vegetables. While Jack advocated healthy doses of exercise, juice, fish, fruits, and vegetables, Joe’s condition (he weighed over 300 pounds and had a host of health conditions) necessitated a juice only “fast” to kick start his health. Then I realized I’d unfortunately (for me) sold my mom’s Jack LaLanne juicer at a garage sale for $10, so it was off to find another.

Back to Jack. For anyone looking to live a healthier lifestyle, this book has quite a few essential elements such as diet, exercise, and motivation. However, it was Jack’s personal stories that I liked the best. Aside from his health advocacy and TV show, this book also contains numerous stories of his famous feats. Such as a 21-year old Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in 1968 came to Venice beach in California and witnessed a 54-year old LaLanne doing chin-ups and push-ups. Arnold declared a challenge, and lost badly to LaLanne. Said Arnold: “That Jack LaLanne’s an animal! I was sore for four days. I couldn’t lift my arms.” Some of Jack’s other feats included:

  • 1955 (age 41) swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf, while handcuffed;
  • 1956 (age 42) set a claimed world record of 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes;
  • 1959 (age 45) did 1,000 jumping jacks and 1,000 chin-ups in 1 hour, 22 minutes;
  • 1974 (age 60) swam the same Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf route, handcuffed, shackled at the ankles, and towing a 1,000 lb boat;
  • 1976 (age 62) swam one mile in Long Beach Harbor, handcuffed and shackled, towing 13 boats to represent the original 13 colonies, and containing 76 people; and
  • 1984 (age 70) swam 1 mile in Long Beach Harbor, handcuffed and shackled, towing 70 rowboats containing various guests.

Finally, my favorite Jack LaLanne quote:

“15 minutes to warm up? Does a lion warm up when he’s hungry? ‘Uh oh, here comes an antelope. Better warm up.’ No! He just goes out there and eats that sucker.”

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Friday Reads: ‘Komi Can’t Communicate’ by Tomohito Oda

A black and white manga, set to read from back to front, as is done in Japan, this is the first book in a new series. Komi is the ultimate student at the high school and others are afraid to talk to her because she is aloof and extraordinary. Tadano is just happy he is now going to Itan Private High School, and he is planning to blend in and not be noticed. When asked to introduce herself, as all the students in class were asked to do on the first day, she walked to the front of the room, picked up the chalk, and wrote Shoko Komi on the board, walked back to her desk and sat down without saying a word.

At the end of the class, Tadano finds himself alone in the classroom with Komi after all the students and teacher have left. There he discovers Komi is not aloof, she freezes whenever she tries to speak to someone. She writes what she feels on the chalkboard, letting him know that she wants to make friends and hopes he will help her. Tadano finds he has promised to help her make 100 friends, starting with him. Tadano is in trouble now because he doesn’t have any friends yet, aside from Komi, and so has no one to introduce to her. Then he encounters Osana, an old friend from junior high, and she knows everyone in the school. Maybe they are on the way to making 99 more friends for Komi.

The artwork showing Komi with huge eyes or frozen and trembling does a great job of conveying her level of discomfort and social anxiety.

There are three volumes out now, and volume four will be published in December. The entry on Amazon says there will be six volumes in this series, and I definitely want to read the titles that are available now.

Oda, Tomohito. Komi Can’t Communicate, Volume 1. VIZ Media, 2019.

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Friday Reads: ‘Mortal Engines’ by Philip Reeve

We’re back to the age old question: which was better, the book or the movie?

In the case of Mortal Engines, I would have to say they were both good! But, they are also quite different from each other. Like many books that have been made into films, the movie version of Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve, is not an entirely faithful adaptation of the book.

The general storyline is the same in both. In a post-apocalypic future, war has devastated most of the world. In order to survive, many cities have been put on wheels, driven by huge engines. Larger cities chase down smaller ones to capture them, tearing them apart to take their resources and citizens. London has become one of the largest Traction Cities, and some of its leadership are determined to destroy anyone who doesn’t believe that this is how the world should be run. Because there are still cities that work the old way, without wheels, staying in one place.

The book is a Young Adult novel, and it definitely has more of that feel to it than the movie. In the movie, the main characters are not teenagers, so it may appeal more to a different audience.

The endings of the book and the movie are also very different. I won’t give either of them away. But, I will say that they both ended on a hopeful note, looking forward to a potentially better future.

I enjoyed Mortal Engines, both as a book and as a movie. If you read and watch them, don’t expect the same experience. I’d recommend that you consider them two separate stories, based in the same universe. Don’t worry about the fact that the movie isn’t an exact copy of the book. They’re each good in their own way!

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Friday Reads: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

It’s a well known fact that sisters have complicated relationships, possibly none more so than Korede and her younger sister Ayoola. Nurse Korede is hardworking, practical, and reliable, while her beautiful little sister is anything but. Charming and sweet, but ultimately selfish and unmotivated, Ayoola surrounds herself with those that will take care of her: men, friends, and Korede.

While she resents Ayoola’s easy and fun-filled life, Korede nevertheless continues to bail her sister out of every mess she gets into… including murder. Ayoola has killed the last 3 men she dated, calling her big sister to help her hide the evidence. Now, Ayoola has attracted the attention of Korede’s boss (and crush), head doctor Tade. Korede must decide if blood really is thicker than water (or just harder to clean up).

Braitwaite, Oyinkan. My Sister the Serial Killer. Doubleday, 2018.

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Friday Reads: Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country & Other Stories

Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country by Chavisa Woods is a collection of short fiction. Weird Stories. Liminal Stories. Queer Stories.

In the first, “How to Stop Smoking in Nineteen Thousand Two Hundred and Eighty-Seven Seconds, Usama,” a young New York lesbian returns to her rural hometown and strange things start happening: eerie lights in the woods, and a terrifying sense that everything is connected. In “Revelations,” a grieving widow’s friends tip her world upside down in an attempt to save the church she founded. And in the titular story, the narrator provides a sample menu of what they recommend one ought to do when one is Goth and living in the country: including, but not limited to, “a nonconsensual, surprise Southern Baptist exorcism. There’s just nothing else that can compete” (215).

At their cores, these eight stories are about two things: Being, and Doing, and all the contradictions and complications and messes that comes with all of that. To be both stuck and free. To be Goth – to be Queer – to be Outsider – to be of a place, born and raised; simultaneously claimed and unclaimed, known and unknown, liminal and with one foot always lifted and pointed and stepping somewhere else. But the other foot – the other foot, the one we love and hate in equal measure ­– is still rooted down and planted in the homesoil from which we grew. Woods tells these stories not with melancholy, and not even really with nostalgia, but with a casual shrug of honesty, an unflinching bluntness, and a dry snap of humor. Importantly, her characters don’t just exist, they act — in human, sad, rough-edged, transgressive and get-by ways. And what unfolds is a commentary on the larger nowhere places and strange spaces between friends, strangers, lovers and enemies in the Middle of Nowhere; where the corn rustles in the haunting thick of dark and the bone-thin coyotes laugh as you double-guess the shiver-trick question of movement in your rearview and press the gas a littler harder.

“This is where you belong. There is much to be done” (221).

This book is for mature audiences.

Looking for other unsettling books like this in the chilly prelude to Halloween this season? Here is what this author recommends: https://electricliterature.com/10-books-for-country-goths/


Woods, Chavisa. Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country. Seven Stories Press, 2017.

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