Search Results for: friday reads

Friday Reads: A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara

Image result for a little lifeI read A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara all day and all night for a full weekend. After I returned it to the library I lay awake thinking about the characters in the story and what it all meant. While reading, I had to physically put the book down and take a break from the progressively horrible life that was inflicted on the main character.

This book is written from the rotating point of view of Jude and several of his close friends. Jude doesn’t talk much about his past to his friends, but the reader is made aware of the damage inflicted upon him by the monsters in his past. You, dear reader, will barely be willing to believe the words on the page.

So why do I like this monstrosity of a book? The answer lies in the pure, face slapping truth in the book. Many books are about a character living through hell and learning to heal on the other side. This book is a reminder that not everybody makes it through to the other side. Bad things happen and sometimes there is nothing that can be done. Life is not all sunshine and happiness.

In A Little Life, Jude is nearly suicidal throughout most of the book. His friends care deeply but have no idea what to do. It is dark, gritty and unbearable at times. It is ‘set the book down and go to your happy place’ unbearable. Now think about this: the reader can set down the book and escape to safety. But there are people in the world who have no safety zone. Their world is so dark it would make no difference if they never opened their eyes.

Most people have never lived through hell. That is good. But for those who did, this book is a reminder that there are two options in life: you can close your eyes and stop breathing, or you can stand up and fight. Jude is partially on the way to healing at times, but there are entirely too many demons from the past waiting to drag him back into the shadows.

Jude’s story is not only for the downtrodden. A Little Life is also for the people who care about the downtrodden. If you have ever watched someone try to crawl out of the sewage rot that was their childhood, this book is for you. Read about where Jude’s friends went wrong. Read about how silence kills. Read about how it is not your fault if they slip back and drown in their own sewage infested mind. Healing is a choice that not everybody makes. Some people get out, but some will not.

This book is dark and only gets darker as you turn the pages. Many of you will hate and loathe this book. Most probably will not make it from cover to cover. That’s okay. This book is not for everybody.

But I need to tell somebody about this book. I hope this book reaches into a dark pit of misery and let’s somebody know they are not alone. I hope this book makes at least one person stand up and say ‘no more’. The demon does not get to win. Take control. Pack your bags and get out. With time and distance, the past loses power. Every time you stand up and speak, the past loses power.

It takes a few minutes to curl up and die. Survival takes a lifetime.

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: Figures in Silk, by Vanora Bennett

Figures in Silk, by Vanora Bennett, once again falls into my favorite genre to read: historical fiction.  It is a glimpse into early Tudor history: not into life at court itself, but rather into the way that the political machinations affected and disrupted the lives of London’s ordinary citizens and particularly its powerful merchants.

The year is 1471.   Edward IV, who won the throne with the help of his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is restoring law and order after the long years of war during the War of the Roses. Under Edward IV, life in England begins to improve. Business is booming once more and the printing and silk industries prosper in London.

 

When silk merchant John Lambert marries off his two beautiful daughters, their fortunes are forever changed. Elder daughter Jane Shore begins a notorious liaison with the king while industrious and clever Isabel finds herself married into the house of Claver, a wealthy silk dynasty. Fate delivers Isabel a challenge when her new husband is killed and she is forced into apprenticeship to her mother-in-law, Alice Claver.

Isabel is already an accomplished embroiderer of silk in her own right, but it is from Alice Claver that Isabel learns all there is to know about the silk trade and its’ purchase from Italy, Persia, Spain, Tunisia, and beyond. Isabel learns to make her way in this new world of silk and forges a contract with her sister’s lover, King Edward IV.  This new contract allows Isabel to bring silk production to London for the first time, and to hopefully break the monopoly that Venetian silk makers have over the silk trade.

As Isabel grows in power, and her plan for a silk industry run by Englishwomen is set into motion, the political landscape shifts in dangerous ways.  One sister will fall as the other rises and choices must be made that will change their lives forever.

If you enjoyed Vanora Bennett’s first novel Portrait of an Unknown Woman, you will definitely enjoy Figures in Silk!

Posted in Books & Reading, General, Information Resources, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is on a short list of my favorite authors. I adore his #1 Ladies Detective Agency, 44 Scotland Street, and Corduroy Mansions series, and when I visited Edinburgh a few years ago I made sure to visit 43 Scotland Street (there is no 44) and the Cumberland Bar just around the corner. I was delighted to be in the world of Bertie and all the adults he endures.  Smith writes some standalone books too, and for me those have been hit and miss. My Italian Bulldozer is not part of a series and would be a wonderful way to introduce yourself to this author if you haven’t already made his acquaintance.

The title alone promises humor in a picturesque setting. Paul Stuart is a food and wine writer and his girlfriend of four years has just left him for her personal trainer. Paul’s editor, Gloria, sends him to Italy for personal respite and time to work on his next book featuring Tuscan cuisine. As a result of a rental car snafu, and a short bout in jail, he ends up borrowing a bulldozer. This slows him down considerably but it soon becomes apparent how handy a bulldozer can be in certain situations! The cast of characters he encounters are the true talent of Smith’s writing: the woman whose car is upended; the man who needs assistance digging a ditch; and anonymous townspeople who “borrow” the bulldozer from its public parking space. This small community is one that keeps track of everything and everyone and Paul quickly becomes a part of the comings and goings.

After rescuing the young American college professor in the upended car, there is chemistry between the two writers. Enter the ex-girlfriend, who shows up to apologize in person, with Gloria, the editor, arriving close behind. The events that follow may be predictable but I was more than pleased with the ending. I began thinking that I need to plan to a trip to Italy and wonder if these idyllic adventures really can happen in rural parts of the country as they have in so many of my favorite movies and books. This is a quick read and one that would be perfect to take on vacation, not terribly taxing and satisfying for all the senses.

Smith, Alexander McCall. My Italian Bulldozer. Pantheon; First American edition. edition, 2017

Posted in Books & Reading, General | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Until recently, I rated Mansfield Park as my second least favorite Jane Austen novel. For the record, Northanger Abbey is my least favorite of Austen’s completed works. I did not care for Mansfield Park because of Austen’s depiction of Fanny Price. Fanny is a poor relation taken in by her wealthy uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. When Fanny first arrives at Mansfield Park, she is a scared and lonely ten year old. In many ways, she remains a frightened child, prone to low spirits and headaches. I disliked Fanny because she rarely offers an opinion or speaks her mind, is often judgmental and bursts into tears much too often for my liking.

Throughout the novel, we watch Fanny’s family ignore her needs while assuming they know what’s best for her. Unlike many of her other characters, Austen allows Fanny to seethe with frustration, resentment and disappointment as they place their well-being before hers. While outwardly agreeable and meek, Fanny reveals she can be neither when refusing to marry the well-off Henry Crawford. Later the rightness of her decision is revealed when Crawford seduces and runs off with Fanny’s married cousin, Maria.

The last time I read Mansfield Park, I discovered there was more to Fanny Price than tears and moral rectitude. I still found her annoying, but I realized that Fanny enjoys the small pleasures that many of us take for granted. Walking with her cousin Edmund or listening to her brother’s stories fill Fanny with joy – she genuinely enjoys these moments. Her brother William’s impending visit, an outing to a neighboring estate and attending a ball thrown in her honor; all reduce her to tears. Yes, she is overwrought. I can’t imagine being so caught up in the moment that I weep with happiness. Yet, there is something appealing about Fanny’s willingness to embrace each and every moment life gives her. Perhaps this is Jane Austen’s greatest lesson.

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Posted in Books & Reading, General | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie

I am currently listening to the audio edition of You Don’t Have to Say you Love Me, a memoir by Sherman Alexie, written after his mother Lillian’s death in 2015. In it he wrestles not only with grief, but also with the regret, guilt, and bitterness that characterized his relationship with her.

Born in 1966, Alexie grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. His family was poor, his dad often drunk and absent, his mother sober but sometimes cruel, and “On the reservation, violence [was] a clock, / Ordinary and relentless.” This is the formative experience that shapes all Alexie’s writing, but his power as a storyteller is his ability to craft a narrative both culturally specific and universal.

Speaking of the narrative, it is definitely not straightforward, and possibly not for everyone. The audiobook is read by Alexie, himself, which is a positive. He is known for his dramatic readings and has won slam poetry championships, so it’s doubtful any other narrator could own the material as he does. It has the feel of performance art, shifting seamlessly from prose with the texture of dramatic monologue, to poetry, to “rez accent” dialogue (Alexie recounts a conversation he once had with a white girlfriend, who said his mother had a “fancy accent.” When he tells her “[r]ez accents are the opposite of fancy,” she counters: “But rez accents make everything sound like music.”)

The stories Alexie tells aren’t presented chronologically, and even their authenticity is sometimes in doubt. In the first chapter alone there are multiple instances of family members questioning each other’s memories of how and if things happened. “You’re always making up stuff from the past,” his sister tells him. Even a writer friend teasingly accuses Alexie of being “the unreliable narrator of your own life,” for allegedly inventing a conversation between the two (about, of all things, storytelling and truth) and including it in the first chapter of his memoir. This is actually a perfect setup for Alexie’s subsequent examination of his relationship with his mother, a woman who told “many clever and clumsy lies,” as well as some that resonated with spiritual truth.

And that’s the thing about this memoir. Even if the anecdotes Alexie shares didn’t happen exactly as he remembers them, and even if one’s own life experiences and circumstances differ significantly from Alexie’s, the conflicted parental relationship he struggles with is recognizable and relatable, albeit uniquely described. That’s why I have appreciated this memoir so far and look forward to finishing it, though I don’t anticipate a particularly happy ending or any real resolution.

Alexie, Sherman. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2017.

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola has been on my reading list for the past few years. I’m now glad that I finally got around to reading it. It’s a delight. From what I knew about the book – not much – I expected it to be quirky, and it is, and in a good way.

The setting is the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair (The Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition). The book is a love story populated with some of the most unusual and colorful characters imaginable. At the center is Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist by trade, and a hopeful romantic. The object of his affection is the enigmatic and beautiful Cecily, an actress in a traveling troupe who plays Marie Antoinette in a fair horror show. And there is William Wakefield, a wealthy Omaha tycoon and fair investor who disrupts the Ferret and Cecily relationship.

Schaffert has an incredible imagination. His characters are finely developed, described as an endearing band of thieves and drunkards. Schaffert’s research for all things surrounding Omaha’s exposition in 1898 is thorough and admirable. He clearly did his homework and wrote his book with highly detailed descriptions of the society, culture, styles, and life near the end of the nineteenth century.

Schaffert’s fascination with the Wizard of Oz is notable and noted, mentioning such in the book credits.

Authors always earn my appreciation when they describe libraries and librarians in a positive light. And Schaffert does. He also gives recognition to a good number of Omaha librarians in the book credits, along with many others who contributed in one way or another to his research, writing, and eventual publication.

The Swan Gondola is Schaffert’s fifth novel. His earlier novels include the critically acclaimed Devils in the Sugar Shop and The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God. In addition to national recognition and awards, Timothy received the 2003 Nebraska Book Award (fiction) for his The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters.

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: Raven Rock

I had high expectations for Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die. I became interested in the book after listening to an engaging interview with the author, Garrett Graff, on NPR’s Fresh Air. Unfortunately, the book didn’t live up to my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, there is some good stuff here. But generally I found the middle part of the book to be a repetitive bore. Raven Rock picks up during World War II, when the U.S. was heading full throttle into the atomic age, with Harry S. Truman President of the United States. While there are many facets to Raven Rock, Graff primarily describes the aftermath of the atomic bomb deployment prior to the cold war, subsequent U.S. government preparations for doomsday, and other disaster planning. The book provides a chronology by each president after Truman. I found the first few chapters to be of interest (Truman and Eisenhower), then the beginning of aforementioned lackluster, drawn out, and sleepy sections, then heating up again around September 11, 2001 (Bush 43).

I think one of the challenges for Graff was getting his hands on information that wasn’t classified. This might explain why the reader has chapter after chapter devoted to the 50’s and 60’s time period, yet less than 2 pages devoted to President Clinton. Raven Rock, named after the massive Raven Rock Mountain Complex (also known as Site R), is an underground military nuclear bunker carved into the area’s greenstone granite, and located about 6 miles north of Camp David. It is basically an underground city, complete with offices, communications centers, bomb blast doors, dining facilities, an infirmary, bathrooms, etc. Speaking of Camp David, Graff provides an interesting narrative about the history of it (formerly known as Shangri-La). One of the appealing aspects of Raven Rock is these sorts of anecdotes, and I wish Graff devoted more attention to them. A few highlights include Graff’s descriptions of code names used for government officials and their family members, and the challenge to deciphering them on radio transmissions. Example: “Volunteer will reside at VALLEY for an indefinite time. I repeat: VOLUNTEER will reside at VALLEY for an indefinite time. VICTORIA requests that VENUS will go to VALLEY with agent” actually meant that Lyndon Johnson (VOLUNTEER) will reside at his private residence at The Elms (VALLEY), and Lady Bird (VICTORIA) requests that Luci (LBJ’s daughter, VENUS) will go to The Elms (VALLEY) with an agent. Also, the fact that up until at least 1910, tourists could sit at the president’s desk in the White House, and as Vice President, Lyndon Johnson’s phone number was listed in the phone book. Another anecdote describes a curious exchange between Chief Justice Earl Warren and officials who distributed a Mt. Weather entrance ID card to him but not Mrs. Warren. In our self-centered world of today, you have to appreciate the Chief’s returning the card, sarcastically saying:

“Then I suppose I should call my wife and say, ‘Honey, there is an atomic bomb attack to be made on Washington, and I am flying to safety in Appalachia. Sorry I don’t have time to come home and say good-bye, but it was nice to have met you.'”

Raven Rock is one of a number of emergency operations centers for the government, along with Mount Weather in Virginia, and Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. But Graff’s Raven Rock is about much more than the construction and maintenance of these facilities; it’s about government disaster, succession, and “COG” or continuity of government planning — the principle that government continues to operate in the case of a catastrophic event. Granted most of this centers around the cold war, but on September 11, 2001, it took a much different turn. As Graff points out, September 11 exposed a clustered mess of communications problems and other assorted government disarray. Graff also devotes quite a bit of attention to the nuclear “football”. While the football doesn’t explicitly contain launch codes, “one military aide compared it to a Denny’s menu. You can go through and point at different pictures and that’s the type of nuclear war you would order. …”

All in all, Graff provides an interesting narrative of how the government’s plans have evolved over time to adequately handle these sorts of real and potential doomsday type disasters. Graff points out some of these failures along the way, but also interesting facts that most readers likely are unaware of. Just skip the middle third of the book.

Posted in Books & Reading, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: “New Prairie Kitchen” by Summer Miller. Photographs by Dana Damewood.

It seems like the best cookbooks are the ones that tell a story—in addition to sharing great recipes and scrumptious photos. Recently I’ve been reading the stories, trying the recipes, and gazing at the photos in New Prairie Kitchen by Summer Miller. The author, a young mom and freelance writer from the Omaha area, explored restaurants and farms within a 200-mile radius of Omaha and brings us stories of real people who grow, prepare, and serve real food for their families and friends. The author says that the book “…pays homage to the outstanding and innovative chefs, farmers, and artisans of Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. They have shared some of their favorite recipes here, organized by season and focused on regionally sourced meat, poultry, game, and produce. Profiles of these exceptional people are nestled throughout the book.” I love the stories and photos, and I’m loving the food, as well.

After perusing the New Prairie Kitchen recipes, I went to the Farmer’s Market and bought a 4 pound pork shoulder roast from a local producer that was perfect for trying the Spice-Rubbed Slow-Cooker Pork (Kevin Shinn of Bread and Cup in Lincoln, NE). What could be simpler than a spice rub and a slow cooker? I did have to add some liquid to mine since my slow-cooker must be a little on the hot side, but after 6 hours the roast was juicy and fragrant—and I shredded it apart with two forks just like the experts on the cooking channel on TV. I should have made a YouTube video. Next, my backyard bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes inspired me to make Tomato Chutney (Sean Wilson of Proof in Des Moines, IA) and Tomato Marmalade (Clayton Chapman of The Grey Plume in Omaha, NE). Both are delicious on bread and cheese—and as a bonus, I got to use some of the garlic and jalapeño chilies from my garden too. And I’m not done yet. I’ll be making the Black Walnut and Clove Muffins (Maggie Pleskac of Maggie’s Vegetarian Café in Lincoln, NE) for the next Nebraska Library Commission potluck—and more.

The book might also provide a little tourism boost. The food sounds so good, it makes me want to hop in the car and go out in search of the places where other people will make this yummy food for me. Maybe a trip to the Back Alley Bakery in Hastings, NE is in my future?

To find out more about this Nebraska Book Award-winning cookbook and the “foodways” of the Great Plains, see Summer Miller’s blog at http://www.scaldedmilk.com/.

Review by Mary Jo Ryan.

#fridayreads

Posted in Books & Reading, General | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: Confessions of a Domestic Failure by Bunmi Laditan

While my summer reading list was often full of nonfiction, despairing memoirs, and dystopian nightmare scenarios, sometimes I just need to escape into a quick summer beach read. In this case, my interlude came in the form of “mommy lit” – stories about mothers of young kids; sleep-deprived mothers who are running on coffee and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets; moms who love their little ones dearly, but occasionally fantasize about long-ago child-free spa weekends – you know, someone I can relate to.

If you aren’t familiar with Bumni Laditan, she’s the creator of The Honest Toddler, a blog-turned-book written in that voice we all secretly think belongs to our own children. Confessions of a Domestic Failure is Laditan’s first novel, and it centers around Ashley Keller, a newly minted stay-at-home-mom (by way of corporate layoff).

Ashley is smart and resourceful – she was an ace at her marketing job before the layoff, and she can fashion an emergency diaper out of items in the backseat of her car – but she is also failing spectacularly at creating the blissful family life she thinks is expected of her. Her house is a mess, she hasn’t lost the baby weight, her daughter rarely makes it out of pajamas (so much for all those cute baby clothes!), and she is struggling to be supportive of her husband’s decision to quit his own corporate job to start a new company.

Ashley is determined to be a Pinterest-perfect mother with an Instagram-worthy home and a huge circle of supportive mommy gal pals… if she can ever peel off her Cheerio-crusted yoga pants and find the energy to shower. Laditan perfectly and hilariously captures the isolation and exhaustion of new motherhood and the pressures social media creates to project perfection.

Ashley is offered a chance to compete in a “Motherhood Better” competition held by superstar mommy-blogger Emily Walker. She stumbles through each challenge, and madcap antics ensue – from accidentally mooning the other competitors during a live video conference, to lying her way into a breastfeeding support group (though her daughter takes formula) while trying to make mom-friends, to nearly setting her house ablaze while “crafting”. But somehow she makes it to the finals and gets to meet her idol Emily. Will she win the contest and push her jogging stroller into the sunset… or will the pressure of domestic perfection cause her to crash and burn?

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: Restart by Gordon Korman

Chase (8th grade) wakes up in the hospital and remembers nothing of who he is, or his family—the group of people standing around his bed looking at him. He remembers how to walk, talk, eat, read, all the daily things we all do, but nothing personal about himself. His school is unfamiliar, but as he walks down the hall he notices students cringing away from him. Slowly he begins to discover that he has been the reigning bully, and not only that, he has encouraged his former two best friends to do it too. As the 8th grade team quarterback, he ruled the school. But now he is repulsed by who he was. How did he get that way when now his impulses are to be friendly and helpful? And what should he do now?

This is a fascinating look at human behavior, our inner selves vs. our outer selves, and how we may end up so far from where we were meant to go.  The author is known for his humorous books, but this one takes a more serious, and intriguing path.

Posted in Books & Reading, Youth Services | Tagged | 1 Comment

Friday Reads: Finders-Seekers

I’ve always been a scifi/fantasy fan, and The Ghatti’s Tale: Book One: Finders-Seekers, by Gayle Greeno, has a little of both. Mostly fantasy at the time of the story, but scifi in the past.

Over 200 years ago, colonists from earth came to the planet Methuen. Most of their technology has been mysteriously destroyed over the years. During their time on the planet they have developed a new ability – telepathic bonding with the native ghatti.

The ghatti are race of large cats on Methuen who can speak telepathically to humans, if they choose to bond with them. I wish I could talk to my cats, in any way at all. Would make my life so much easier!

These human-ghatti Bondmates settle disputes using their shared ability to truth-read people’s minds and emotions. However, not everyone may appreciate this involvement in their affairs. In The Ghatti’s Tale, telepathic humans and ghatti are being murdered. One pair of Bondmates, a woman Doyce, and her ghatta Khar’pern, have been chosen to find out who is doing this and why. Doyce has a special interest in the murders, as her intended fiance has become one of the victims.

I was thoroughly engrossed in this story and the characters. This is the first book in the three book Ghatti’s Tale series. Book 2 is MindSpeakers’ Call and Book 3 is Exiles’ Return. And there is a followup 2 books series that continues the story – Ghattens Gambit, made up of Sunderlies Seeking and The Farthest Seeking. So, if you’re like me, and after the first book you have to know what happens next, there’s plenty more to read!

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: Bohemians: A Graphic History by Paul Buhle and David Berger

BohemiansBohemians: A Graphic History is an enjoyable, and flawed, collection of illustrated vignettes about influential people, places and times in the bohemian movement. Beginning in 1850s Paris, and ending in 1950s New York, several different graphic artists take a turn at telling part of the bohemian story. The variety of artistic styles keeps the eye interested, and many of the characters you already know are larger than life—Walt Whitman, Josephine Baker, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, and Charlie Parker.

So what is a bohemian? The authors will give you many possible examples, but they will not give you an exact definition, which is appropriate considering that the movement itself encouraged disregarding boundaries and not letting life be limited by societal expectations. You could argue that free love and free thought were important to bohemians, but you’d want to remember those words meant something different in the Victorian era (and even in the United States of the 1950s), when rigid conformity was expected in society and relationships, even more so than today.

I read one review of this book by Joseph Donica in Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics that had this great line: “One rarely reads a book that disappoints on several levels and still decides to recommend that book to every likeminded reader he knows.” I think I like the book more than this reviewer, but I have reservations. I think advances in technology had a lot to do with the appeal of this movement—entertainment and communication were changing, and their influence on society can’t be underestimated. (This beginning of this era brings us the invention or accepted use of the telephone, the phonograph, the typewriter, and the camera.) Also, and this might be a critique more of the movement than the book—it’s easier for some people to reject society’s rules and still have a comfortable life, than it is for others. Class, race, and gender power structures still existed in the world, and sometimes the authors don’t give us this historical context—some bohemians sought freedom from, and some sought freedom to. But the stories are definitely enjoyable, and there’s enough of a variety that you’ll find plenty to appreciate even if not every story is to your liking. The graphic novel format works effectively in its portrayal of an array of places and times.

The authors prefer not to capitalize bohemian—perhaps to clearly separate the bohemian culture from the geographic area of Bohemia, which as Nebraskans (familiar with the “Bohemian Alps”) we know is a region of the Czech Republic. Incorrectly thought by nineteenth-century French dilettante historians to be the place of origin of the Romani people (sometimes known as “gypsy” people, a term now recognized as pejorative), the movement took the name because it found the Romani people’s “freedom” to be inspiring. This might seem strange to the modern reader, who knows that the Romani people were persecuted and impoverished, and later almost wiped out completely by the Third Reich. To think of their lives as “romantic” and “free” seems optimistic at best.

Buhle, Paul, and David Berger. Bohemians: A Graphic History, 2014. Print.
Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: You Gotta BE the Book by Jeffrey Wilhelm

You Gotta BE the Book“…engaged reading — beyond involving cognitive processes (as the Core and next-generation standards emphasize) — is a deeply emotional, participatory, dramatic, embodied, visual, artistic, psychological, and potentially transformational pursuit. This we must not forget as teachers or as readers, or we will not tap into the immense power of reading, and thus we limit our capacity to be effective teachers or readers.”

Why do some students struggle with reading? Why can’t they “see” the story in their mind or connect with text?  What are highly engaged readers doing or thinking when they read? How is this different from struggling readers and how can they be helped?

While this book isn’t exactly an exciting summer beach read, it’s always interesting to read about reading, I think. First published in 1996, with a third edition published in 2016, You Gotta BE the Book examines Jeffrey Wilhelm’s research in his middle school classrooms teaching his own experiences and through student stories from both engaged and struggling readers.

Wilhelm describes his difficulties trying to teach students who continually insist that they hate reading. They don’t enjoy reading and it’s difficult for them. Working with individual readers at all levels allowed Wilhelm to develop different interventions/strategies which then helped his students practice visualizing the text, creating the opportunities necessary for struggling readers to finally connect with literature in meaningful ways. The book is an interesting mix between Wilhelm’s early reflections as a teacher, the feedback of his students, and reading theory. The visualization strategies and activity ideas, including drama and art, that Wilhelm describes could also be adapted outside of the classroom.

“You Gotta BE the Book”: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents, Third Edition by Jeffrey Wilhelm (2016)

Also, if you want to read more about literacy theories, this is a good introduction:

Lenses on Reading: An Introduction to Theories and Models by Diane Tracey and Lesley Morrow (2012)

And another related book to add to your list, just because it’s interesting:

Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men by Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm (2002)

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology

I’ve always loved mythology. I’ve read Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, and middle eastern. But one of the books I loved, long ago, was of Norse mythology.

And as usual, Neil Gaiman delivers. The gods here are more equally represented, although Thor and Loki do manage to take up a lot of space in the stories. But these aren’t the gods as presented by Kirby and Stan Lee, and dialogued by Stan Lee’s brother Larry Lieber. These are the true Norse gods, terrible, dangerous, ancient, and to be called on only at your peril. Loki is not conflicted, but definitely without remorse. Thor, well, red bearded and not so bright. Odin is a dark, brooding wise and terrible. Even the goddesses are not entirely one sided.

The forward is worth reading for the origins of these particular stories. The author points out the melding of religions in the battles of the gods of the Vanir (brother & sister nature gods) and the Aesir (who we usually think of as the Norse gods.) There is included a story about the battle, and how they made peace. He mentions all the lost stories about goddesses, that he’d have liked to have included. The sources he used and didn’t use.

And then there are the progression of the stories. He begins, with a creation story, of fire and ice, and of course ends with the end story of Ragnarök, which is also a beginning. All the stories are set in a mythical, setting, Midgard is Earth, where the humans (mortals) dwell, and Asgard where the Aesir dwell, a world where the light elves dwell, a world where the dwarves dwell, and one where the ice giants dwell. There are nine worlds. And no one seems to be able to stay in their own world. Which of course, causes many of the problems in the stories. The stories do run in a progression, from creation to a sort of ending of an old world. They can be read as short stories, or read as a longer narrative. One does lead into the next. Neil Gaiman called the stories a journey. And so they are, a journey to a culture long gone.

 

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff

I’ve had bad book luck lately.  Even titles that have won fancy awards have left me feeling pretty unsatisfied.  But The Comedians broke my streak—this is a fantastic book, strong enough to be considered the definitive work on the subject.  Nesteroff starts off with comedy’s beginnings in Vaudeville and progresses through the radio era, comedy clubs and cable specials, & sketch comedy and variety shows.  The title is not a rib—this is a serious, expansive history of comedy as an art form and business—and the treatment of the material might disappoint people who just want a laugh-a-minute romp.  But they’ll be missing out if they skip this book.

The title is also not kidding about the “drunks, thieves, scoundrels”  part.    Early American comedy had strong links to seedy elements and there are numerous examples of that here—insult comics getting threatened by the Mafiosi sitting in the audience, people dying when cheap comedy clubs collapsed.  Beyond its chronicles of actual violence, The Comedians also devotes a fair bit of time to the “crying clown” idea and prevalence of addiction in comedy.  Some famous names come across as very broken people and a few emerge as basically forever-unhappy monsters.  Some of your favorites might seem a little tarnished after you read it and The Comedians occasionally gets gossipy in a Hollywood Babylon kind of way.  But, most of the time, it takes the high road and tells the story of the art form in a fun and engaging fashion.  It does for comedy what David J. Skal’s epic The Monster Show did for the history of horror.

One of the most important things about the book is its championing of obscure comedians.  Everybody knows the Marx Brothers and Joan Rivers, but it was great to learn about people like Eddie Cantor and Fred Allen, especially at a time when radio-era comedy is instantly accessible through sources like the Internet Archive.  If a comedian is/was important, they’re almost certainly here.  As I neared the end of the book, I was getting nervous that Andy Kaufman hadn’t been mentioned yet, but The Comedians came through for me.  Because of the book’s massive scope, nobody gets tons of spotlight time, but you’ll finish this with a solid understanding of pretty much everything you’d ever want to know about American comedy.

Nesteroff, K. (2015). The Comedians Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy. Pgw.

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews

Hello to all the loyal Friday Reads review readers! I am aware that it is Monday, but apparently computers have proven to be my downfall once again. While I had a Reads scheduled to go out, it decided not to budge. Luckily, any day is a good day for reading, so Happy Monday Reads!

On to the review:

This review is for a book called Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews. I chose this book because I loved the series but the book cover barely represented the content of the book. If you will notice, the cover makes it look like a bodice ripper. It is not. There are some delightfully steamy moments (I have no shame), but the couple is fighting their feelings through most of the book. Throughout the whole book, they do not cling to each other with wanton longing like they do on the front cover.

Now let’s dive deeper into the book:

This is the first in a book series that was written by a married couple who go by the pseudonym Ilona Andrews. They are a fascinating couple, but that is a tangent for another day. Nevada Baylor and Connor Rogan are the couple (supposedly) featured on the cover of this book. The series is told from the perspective of Nevada who is a private investigator who runs the firm with her delightfully quirky family. Rogan is an irresistibly sexy multibillionaire with magical powers who

No, wait, come back! Okay, stay with me now here. He’s different from all the other irresistibly sexy multibillionaires. This series is set in a world where a serum was developed in the 1800s which allows people to develop magical powers. People can do anything from starting fires, to mind-control, to controlling the elements. It is awesome. The world dynamics shifted so that people with greater magical abilities have more political power than those who do not. Rogan is a Prime and Primes have the highest level of power. People fear Rogan, but women still want him to rip their bodices from their dainty shoulders.

Nevada is not dainty. She will punch you in the face if you try to rip off her bodice. And maybe do creative things to your nether regions. Hmm…that didn’t come out the way I intended. Did I mention the cover is not representative of the book?

In any case, the Andrews duo does some great world building and writes some delicious banter. Oh, the banter! I need a moment…

Okay, I’m back. I will leave you with these thoughts: I’m a librarian. I read everything. I was not afraid to pick up a book that looked like a paranormal bodice ripper. I have a soft spot for sexy werewolves. But this is more of an urban fantasy. There are no werewolves, vampires, witches, or anything like that. There are just regular, normal people who occasionally summon the power to chuck cars across the street.

If you like sarcastic and witty female protagonists and do not want a lot of sappy romance, this is the book for you. If you actually were looking for a book to match the cover on here, have I got some books for you…

Andrews, Illona. Burn for Me. Avon: New York, NY, 2015.

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: The Women in the Castle

My favorite genre to read is historical fiction.  I really enjoy learning something about history at the same time that I’m enjoying fiction.  And occasionally, from within that genre, there comes along a book that makes the reader reconsider what they know about a certain period or event in history.   The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck, is an excellent example.  For all that we know and have heard about World War II and the Holocaust in Germany, there is much we haven’t heard about how the rest of the German population survived during and after the war.   The Women in the Castle tells us part of that story:

After Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns as a widow to the castle of her husband’s ancestors, now fallen into ruin after long years of war. Along the way, she follows through on a promise she made to her husband and others of the resistance:  to find and protect their wives, also widows like herself.

Marianne first rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of a resister, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together they make their way across war-torn Germany to Berlin, where they rescue Martin’s mother, Benita, from life as a prostitute to the Red Army. Then Marianne locates Ania, another resister’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees in one of the many displacement camps around the country.

As Marianne tries to create a family from the survivors of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that their previous lives, plus events that continue to bombard them as the country recovers, have complicated their perceptions with dark secrets that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually all three women must come to terms with the choices that they made before, during, and after the war – each with her own unique set of challenges.

If you enjoyed reading The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, or The Light Between Oceans, you will definitely enjoy The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck.

 

Posted in Books & Reading, General, Information Resources, Programming, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: “Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill” by Candice Millard

Candice Millard, author of River of Doubt (2005) and Destiny of the Republic (2011), is one of my favorite nonfiction authors. Her latest book, Hero of the Empire, is about Winston Churchill and, like many previous biographies of the famous Prime Minister, it focuses on a specific period in his life—his participation in the Boer War (1899–1902) instead of on its entirety. Examples of other focused explorations include last year’s Masterpiece Theater premier, Churchill’s Secret. This drama is set during Churchill’s second term as Prime Minister, when the 78-year-old leader (played by Michael Gambon) struggled, with the help of his wife, to conceal a debilitating stroke and an incapacity to govern. The popular Netflix miniseries The Crown cast 6’4” actor John Lithgow for its version of 5’6” Churchill during the early reign of Queen Elizabeth, revealing the private relationship between a PM and  a young Sovereign. Yet another biography is a 2010 documentary entitled Walking with Destiny, in which historian John Lukacs explains that “Churchill may not have won the War in 1940, but without him, the War most certainly would have been lost.”

In Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill, Millard describes the bravado of a young man who both wants and needs to go to war in hopes of gaining medals and fame as capital for his future political career. Churchill agrees to be a war correspondent in South Africa’s Boer War, where the British were both overconfident and under prepared.  When the train Churchill is traveling in is ambushed and derailed by Boer troops, Churchill calmly rallied British troops under enemy fire to clear the track and let the engine get away with the wounded. Most of the remaining British, along with Churchill, were captured. This was the first time in his young life he was not in control of his own destiny. It is his spectacular escape, with the help of several kind strangers along the way that helps him to become a hero who rejoins the British troops both as an officer and a war correspondent.  In a 2003 PBS Documentary entitled Churchill, this entire story is recounted in one sentence.

With my interest in Churchill piqued by Millard’s book, and inspired to learn more, I ran across this intriguing quote from Pamela Plowden, the woman he was in love with before he married his beloved wife Clementine and with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. She described Winston this way:  “When you first meet Winston, you see all his faults. You spend the rest of your life discovering his virtues.”  This is where I find myself in the last pages of Millard’s text – having been introduced to a multitude of his shortcomings but also seeing glimmers of his many redemptive qualities. Certainly his charisma and masterful public speaking skills are shown throughout his life and his place in history is one to be both reckoned and respected.

What makes Millard one of my favorite authors is her ability to create a cinematic and fascinating description of events that ordinarily might not compel me and dialog that is on par with some of my favorite screen writers. One of her Amazon reviewers pleads for this text to be turned into a movie. As Hollywood frequently adapts books for cinematic creations, I would imagine Millard’s titles will most certainly be adapted and yet another actor will be cast to play this iconic man of history.

Millard, Candice. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. New York: Doubleday, 2016

 

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: The Handmaid’s Tale

Many of the books I read are populated by strong female characters. Biography, science fiction, literature, mystery – all feature intelligent, feisty and powerful women. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is no exception.

Set at an unknown point in time, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a woman named Offred.  The story alternates between Offred’s current day-to-day existence and her memories of a past life. One with a daughter, a loving husband, and a fulfilling career. Now, Offred is valued more for her functioning ovaries than her intelligence.

Offred’s life shifted drastically because the United States no longer exists. In response to declining birth rates and civil unrest, a group of fundamental Christian militants overthrow the government. The Republic of Gilead, as this country is known, institutes a rigid social hierarchy and enacts laws inspired by the Old Testament.  Young and healthy women, like Offred, are classified as handmaids and assigned to the homes of childless high-ranking government officials and their wives. Their job is to bear these men’s children.

Although the Republic of Gilead has stripped Offred of her rights, she refuses to give up. She finds ways to assert her independence by swinging her hips while walking or through unsanctioned interactions with men.  Often, Offred risks her limited freedom by looking for people who may be able to help her escape from Gilead.  Offred reminds us that rebellion doesn’t have to be loud. It can be quiet and slow-burning and still succeed in the end.

The Handmaid’s Tale is currently airing as a series on Hulu.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York:  Anchor Books, 1986.

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged | Leave a comment

Friday Reads: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

After watching I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, I finally tracked down and read Baldwin’s much-referenced 1963 book, The Fire Next Time. This book contains two essays: “My Dungeon Shook—Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” and “Down At The Cross—Letter from a Region of My Mind.”

In the first essay, Baldwin endeavors to impart to his 15-year-old nephew the wisdom and advice he’ll need to survive growing up as a black man in America. Despite being “born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being,” Baldwin urges his nephew to trust his own experience, to resist internalizing messages of inferiority, and to continue to love. And in a more sophisticated exhortation than our contemporary “Make America Great Again” slogan, Baldwin writes: “Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.” This essay actually served as inspiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 book, Between the World and Me, which took the form of a letter to his own teenage son. The tragedy, of course, is that such letters are still necessary.

The second essay, “Down At The Cross—Letter from a Region of My Mind,” is quite a bit longer than the first. In it Baldwin recounts his experiences with the Christian church during his youth and the Nation of Islam as an adult, seeing in neither a solution to the racial problems that infect America. Throughout, he offers an unsparing analysis of the problematic role race has played in the development of American civilization, “which compromises, when it does not corrupt, all the American efforts to build a better world…”

This essay is a demoralizing read because of how applicable Baldwin’s criticisms remain. “People are not, for example,” Baldwin writes, “terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior.” And also: “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.”

Baldwin’s writing is not without hope, but his is a bleak optimism–more philosophical choice than true faith. This perspective is powerfully captured in a 1963 television interview (“The Negro and The American Promise,” WGBH), in his response to a question about whether he is a pessimist or optimist: “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” As he did in his letter to his nephew, in this essay he holds out love as the only way forward. But he makes clear that when he uses the word “love” he is referring to “a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Ashland, Oregon: Blackstone Audio, 2008.

Posted in Books & Reading | Tagged | 1 Comment