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Tag Archives: Friday Reads
I don’t remember how I came to read Katherine Dunn’s cult-classic novel, Geek Love. It is the story of a circus couple and their literally homemade “freak show”; all of their children were purposely subjected to chemicals and drugs in utero in order to produce “show-worthy” birth defects. I was likely still reading The Babysitters Club when it was published in 1989, and while it was being praised by Kurt Cobain and Terry Gilliam, there is little chance it was carried by my small town library. Nonetheless, it eventually popped up on my literary radar and Dunn’s vivid and often grotesque imagery is forever seared into my subconscious. That Tim Burton bought the rights to the book probably says enough.
Geek Love is not the book I’m talking about today. However, without it, I would have probably never given a second glance to Toad.
Toad, published this past fall, 6 years after Dunn’s death, was penned long before she wrote Geek Love. Although she had two previous novels under her belt, this third book was declined by her publisher, and attempts to revise it and shop it around to a new house were unsuccessful. The story is based on Dunn’s experience in 1960s Portland, and having the largely autobiographical work rejected over and over was a blow to Dunn, who eventually shelved the book. She then spent years perfecting her ultimately-acclaimed next project, Geek Love, before submitting it to professional critique. Dunn never did try to find a publisher for Toad again, but after her death, her son Eli was contacted by an editor searching for Dunn’s lesser-known writing and he lent her the manuscript. After she overcame her shock that no one had tried to release the book before her, she helped usher it into print.
Compared to Geek Love, the characters in Toad are almost boringly normal. Sally Dunn, our protagonist, oscillates her narrative between her current life as a near-recluse, alone with her regrets in a small house she pays for with her disability check, and tales of her misspent youth near a college campus in Portland. She tags along after a group of hippie students, with their lofty (often naive) ideals and lack of work ethic, that she seems to simultaneously envy and loathe. She despises them because they come from cushy middle-class backgrounds and choose to live in bohemian squalor, but she despises herself even more for not fitting in, always being the outsider.
There are no heroes in Katherine Dunn’s world – only victims and villains, and they are often one and the same. There is no one to root for, or against, as everyone has the capacity for cruelty, kindness, love, and loss. Sally tells the story, but without the rose-colored glasses through which we often view our good old days. She recognizes that she, too, can be both brutal and benevolent, and that realization is among her reasons for her self-isolation.
At times sad, humorous, honest, and grotesque, Katherine Dunn’s writing is not for everyone. She doesn’t sugarcoat humanity – people can be gross, crass, and annoying. Nonetheless, I’m glad these books crossed my path. Now I need to go wash my hands.
Dunn, Katherine. Toad, New York, New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022.
If you’re looking for a fun, fast moving, unique story about dragons and secrets set in a modern dystopia, the Battle Dragons series by Alex London is for you. City of Thieves is the first book in the series. The second book, City of Speed, came out last August and the third, City of Secrets, will be released in March of this year.
Centuries ago, humans domesticated dragons and now they work in the modern city of Drakopolis: performing jobs such as burning garbage, running the taxi service, and serving as bus drivers. And of course, they are used for battle. The gangs that run the different areas of the city, called kins, compete with each other over territory, loyalty, and resources in dramatic, illegal dragon battles.
The main character, Abel, is a teen boy who is struggling to figure out what he will do with his life, since he failed his Dragon Rider Academy Entrance Exam. His brother and sister both passed their tests, although they took different paths after. His brother Silas is a dragon rider cadet, part of the city’s police force. His sister Lina however, choose not to become a dragon rider and instead works at Chimera’s All-Night Coffee and Comics shop. And maybe is involved in something else, as Abel starts to discover one night when she entrusts him with a secret hidden in a comic that she gives him.
That same night, enforcers from the Red Talon kin, the gang that controls the part of the city where Abel and his family lives, come banging on their apartment door, looking for Lina. But, why? Abel must figure out what the secret is that Lina asked him to keep.
With the help of his best friend, Roa, Abel tracks down his sister’s secret – a stolen dragon! The dragon bonds with Abel and that’s when the story really starts, as they are thrown into the world of the kin gangs, deal with the conflict between Abel’s siblings, and learn more than they expected about their city, its dragons, and themselves.
A nice touch to the physical copy of this book – the endpapers are embossed to look and feel like purple dragon scaled skin. I have only read the first book so far, but I am definitely looking forward to continuing with the other books in this series.
Asher (17) lost his mother a year ago in a car accident. The semi driver was drunk and ran her off the road. He did not receive the punishment Asher thinks he deserved, due to a technicality.
Over the course of the book certain facts and Asher’s plans are revealed to the reader. Asher has started group therapy, in 2 different groups, since he has made no progress in accepting his loss. He befriends an older gentleman, Henry, from his first group, and then he befriends Sloane and Will, close to his own age, from the second.
All three agree to travel with him from New Jersey to Memphis, so he can take his long-distance girlfriend to the prom. That’s what he tells them but he really is planning to kill the man who killed his mother.
Believe it or not, this is an upbeat book, with the final plan lurking in the distance. They accept and bond with each other as they travel. There are jokes, laughing, supporting each other when needed.
They have fun. Ultimately, what will Asher do?
This book was on my mind for several days after I finished reading it. Something about how the characters interact and how they express themselves made it hard to forget.
Reilly, K. J. Four for the Road. Atheneum, 2022.
It is called gastrointestinal stasis, and it is a common cause of death amongst rabbits.
To the untrained and inexperienced eye — for example, to children, who take on these complex creatures as pets, with no money of their own to provide the best quality of life — the rabbit, as it is phrased in the classic book Watership Down, just stops running. Suddenly. Frozen, with eyes open.
Her name was Pumpkin, and she was a very good rabbit. I picked her because she was soft and reddish-brown, and because her lop-ears had yet to lop. She was smart and gentle and friendly, and I loved her. She stopped running and was dead before I woke. To me, eleven years old and weeping, there didn’t seem to be a cause.
Pets are, if we are lucky, our first introduction to death. They are never our last.
Gilda — a nearly-thirty, atheist lesbian — has death anxiety. It probably started with the sudden death of her childhood pet rabbit, Flop. It doesn’t help that she has major depression, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts. Or that her parents are ignoring her brother’s spiraling alcoholism, or that she has recently been fired. It also doesn’t help that, in an effort to find affordable mental health counseling, she finds herself accidentally interviewed and hired for a job as a secretary — in a Catholic church. It also doesn’t help that reason for the job opening was because Grace, a sweet and well-loved woman well into her 80s, died. Or that dear sweet Grace may have been murdered. Or that Gilda, in a comedy of errors, assumes Grace’s identity through emails to Grace’s old friend Rosemary — who doesn’t know that Grace is dead.
Everyone in this Room will Someday be Dead is a poignant study of what it means to be a functioning adult, the ennui of the end of young adulthood, and the wrenching agony of growth. Austin’s writing is sharp, concise, and emotional; although at times, Gilda as a character and narrator frustrated me. It is sometimes difficult to be at a further stage of healing and growth than a character, maybe because I cannot offer them any advice or reassurance; or, maybe, because Gilda’s story hits a little too close to home. At times, I was reminded of Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This. Both books offer the same blunt and cathartic exploration of mental health, death, and the grief that comes from both (the grief from loss of the self, of relationships, of experiences).
Going into the book, I sort of expected a dark comedy or a mystery story (I have been very interested in mysteries lately). Everyone in this Room was neither. True, there were bright and shining moments of comedy that pierced the dark morbidity of Gilda’s story, such as when, food rotten in her fridge at home, she steals a bag of crackers from the church — and finds out she has stolen and eaten a bag of communion wafers (49-50). The main plot in the book is ripe for comedy, and Austin plays with that without trivializing or overshadowing the novel’s very serious tone and subject matter. These (brief) moments of levity stand to make the unflinching look at all of our mortality that much more impactful. There is an old adage, “make them laugh before you make them cry” — Austin succeeds in this, whole-heartedly and unabashed. I cried more than I laughed, yes, but I did laugh. It was a catharsis.
I think that I will leave you with Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes.” May we all accept the inevitable with grace, and grow kinder for it.
Austin, Emily R. Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead. Atria Books, 2021.
As we begin the countdown to 2023, we’re looking back at all the great books our NLC staff has reviewed in 2022!
In our weekly Friday Reads blog series, a staff member at the Nebraska Library Commission posts a review of a book every Friday. Spanning all genres, from science fiction to celebrity memoirs, young adult to crime fiction, we’ve shared what we’ve read and why we’ve read it.
Former NLC staffer Laura Johnson created this series to model the idea of talking about books and to help readers get to know our staff a little better. Readers advisory and book-talking are valuable skills for librarians to develop, but they are ones that take practice. We hope that our book reviews will start a conversation about books among our readers and encourage others to share their own reviews and recommendations.
The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo, reflects an exotic world, made both strange and familiar, for being set in 1930 Malay, (now Malaysia), a world of many races, including the white “foreigners” (British colonials.) The title has been selected for the Elizabeth II Jubilee list of titles, 10 books for each year of her reign. The story combines murder mystery, a quest, a ghost realm, were-tigers, and Chinese numerology, and the mythology of Malay. Oh, and a love story.
Yangsze Choo mixes exposition and action well. Her characters are interesting, her narrative goes from a young Chinese orphan houseboy, in present tense; an educated 21-year-old young woman forced to apprentice to a dressmaker, instead of continuing school, in past tense; and an English surgeon, in present tense. I found it an interesting style point, which brought Ji Lin closer as a character.
The story starts with the houseboy, Ren, 11, who is taking care of his dying master, an old, English doctor. The man lost most of his little finger in a surgery, and wants Ren to find it and bury it with his body within 49 days, or his master’s spirit will wander, forever. The Dr. lived in Malay a long time, and was especially interested in were tiger mythology, especially after a man who identified as a were tiger, called him one, too. The Dr.’s fevered dreams are haunted with images that might be seen by a tiger hunting. Ren is disturbed by this. He has repetitive dreams of his dead twin brother, which might be more than just dreams. Ren journeys to work for Mr. Acton, an English surgeon at the hospital in another town, Batu Gajah, and on the trip from the train station, learns there have been dogs eaten by a big cat, most are guessing a leopard.
Ji Lin, 20, has taken a second job dancing with strangers to help pay off her mother’s mahjong debt—exacerbated by being taken over by a loan shark. Not one of the more acceptable jobs for a young woman, at the time, but high paying. The woman who runs the May Flower Dance hall keeps things above board, there are bouncers, and only men with tickets are allowed to approach “the dance instructors.” One day, a particularly predatory man chooses Ji Lin to dance the tango, and boasts about many things, but mostly about being lucky. So while being tortured by bad dancing, mashed toes, and wandering hands, his good luck charm falls into Ji Lin’s possession. It turns out to be the old doctor’s little finger in a small specimen jar. All Ji Lin knows, is that it’s gruesome, and wants to get rid of it properly.
The path of the finger in a specimen bottle is traced with sudden deaths, near misses, and fevers, until it is finally buried with the old doctor. Along the way, a child matures, a young woman becomes engaged in a broom closet, and a murderer is captured. To be truthful, it’s so much more complicated than that, which is the fun of reading The Night Tiger.
The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo, Flatiron Books, (Macmillan), ISBN 9781250175458, hardcover
This Christmas I hunted around for Native American stories for my niece and nephew. They are finally old enough to start asking questions about their culture and the color of grandpa’s skin. My dad is from the Band River Band of Chippewa at the very tip of Wisconsin. My brother and I are half Native, which makes my niece and nephew a quarter Native. We all tan pretty well.
To help the kids learn their heritage, I am reviewing Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Not surprisingly, I learned a lot from this collection of poems and short stories as well. In hindsight, I probably won’t give it to the kids until they are in middle school or at a higher reading level, but it was still a good read.
Many of the stories centered on Indian kids learning their culture through powwow celebrations and everyday life on the reservation, or elsewhere in the world. My brother and I didn’t grow up on the reservation like our dad did, but the stories still felt familiar and well-worn. I’ve been to many a powwow in my lifetime, but my niece and nephew have never seen one in person. Now they can learn the good, bad and ugly of Indian life from the safety of this book.
While some stories pass down traditional fancy dancing and our native languages, one of my favorite stories was told from the perspective of a reservation dog observing people in all their flawed and wonderful glory. If you’ve never heard of a reservation dog, nearly ever rez has got one. That dog that cannot and will not be owned by a single person. Rez dogs are cared for by and cares for all the people on the rez. Sort of like a library cat.
Even though some of these stories represent specific tribes, when you stack them all side-by-side, the similarities are unmistakable. Every language has a word for family, belonging, fear, loss, identity, and all those very human things. Having explored stories from around the world, all of our Ancestors must have all been talking to each other for a lifetime.
If you want to peer into the lives of dozens of Native cultures, try Ancestor Approved. Our history comes to life through story. These stories are real and refuse to be whitewashed.
I listened to Leslie Jordan’s How Y’all Doing?: Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived, shortly after the 67-year-old actor’s October 24th death. Jordan was well known for his roles in “Will & Grace” and “American Horror Story,” but his profile shot through the roof during the pandemic. Stuck at home, he started making regular posts to Instagram to keep himself entertained. The posts were short and silly but obviously resonated, because before he knew it he had five and a half million followers and a book contract!
When describing his Instagram posting philosophy Jordan states: “On my Instagram page, I usually follow the old rule of not discussing politics and religion in company. I don’t know what I don’t know, and who would want to hear about what I don’t know? All I know is comedy and my sweet self.” And therein lies the appeal of listening to Jordan narrate the audiobook edition of How Y’all Doing? – it is a chance to spend four hours and 14 minutes in his sweet, hilarious company, listening to him tell stories in his delightful Tennessee accent.
Jordan writes about how much fun he’s had with Instagram, crediting the need to tell a story in around a minute with improving his comedic delivery: “Get to the point. Cut to the chase. No meandering around.” But he also celebrates the comedic freedom he experienced writing this book: “Who knew that writing for the printed page could send an artist soaring? To be able to tell not only the story but the backstory as well. And the story that led up to the backstory.”
Jordan’s memoir doesn’t have to be read in any particular order, since its chronology isn’t linear. Instead, most chapters are structured around a theme on which Jordan riffs, sharing stories from his life that are in some way related to that theme. In “The Bride Doll,” for instance, he talks about everything from the negative connotations attached to being a boy who loved playing with dolls, to being a man who, due to work he did in recovery programs, could walk into an American Girl doll store without shame and purchase one as a gift. “[I]t was a milestone moment,” Jordan writes. “Not one with trumpets blaring and angels singing, but a nice quiet realization that I had changed.”
It’s not until the chapter’s end that he tells the story of the bride doll he asked Santa to bring him back in 1958, when he was three. Initially, his father, “a man’s man” who died in 1967 when Jordan was 11, told his mother there was no way he was buying his son a bride doll. But on Christmas Eve, confronted with his son’s exuberant anticipation and unwilling to be the cause of his crushing disappointment the next morning, his father snuck out and procured one. “Thank you, Daddy. For having enough love for your son to buy him a doll,” Jordan writes in his conclusion. “And thank you, Don Norman [Jordan’s recovery advisor]. For helping me live a joyful, shame-free life.”
And that’s how most of the chapters unfold, including the final one, poignantly titled “”Until We Meet Again.” Jordan starts out reminiscing about the Florida vacations his family took each summer, and how bereft he felt when they ended: “It was then I realized how hard goodbyes can be.” He then pivots to the fact that even though the book is ending, it won’t really be the end because he has an endless supply of stories to tell. Knowing of his recent death, it was impossible not to choke up at his optimistic concluding words, which promise something that will now never come to pass:
So, to all my dear new friends, this is not goodbye forever. It is only goodbye for now. Goodbye till I get revved up and ready to launch into a whole bunch of new stories.
See you then.
Jordan, Leslie. How Y’all Doing?: Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived. Read by the author. Harperaudio, 2021. Audiobook, 4 hr., 14 min.
The Personal Librarian is a remarkable novel about J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, the Black American woman who was forced to hide her true identity and pass as White in order to leave a lasting legacy that enriched our nation, by New York Times bestselling authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray.
This book had my attention from the very first sentence, and I was so riveted that I listened to, and read, this book. The narrator of the Audible book, Robin Miles, is masterful as always. At the end of the audio book, the authors, Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, each talked about the process of researching and writing this book, and how, as a result, they became close personal friends. This is a MUST read, so here is a little more about it:
In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. P. Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Pierpont Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture in New York City society and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps create a world-class collection.
But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality. Belle’s complexion isn’t dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as White—her complexion is dark because she is African American.
The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths she must go to—for the protection of her family and her legacy—to preserve her carefully crafted White identity in the racist world in which she lives. (Audible)
Before the pandemic, Emma Donoghue took a boat trip around Skellig Michael, an island off the Southwest coast of Ireland. Also known as Sceilg Mhichíl, the island became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996—but you might more likely know it from a little film called The Force Awakens, episode seven of the Star Wars franchise. Before Donoghue could actually set foot on the island on her second trip, travel restrictions went into effect, and she finished her research and wrote this book before visiting it again.
Haven is a fictionalized account of an early attempt to set up a monastery on the island. Three Irish monastics, who all had different paths to the religious life, set out on a boat from the Irish mainland around the year 600 to found a new holy order on the skellig. The island is both abundant and sparse, an allegory for the faith of the travelers. Donoghue goes into fascinating detail of the natural world of the island, especially the bird life, and fans of nature writing will appreciate this immersion into the physical world of the island. While the monks have different ideas about how to interact with the natural world, two of the monks, Cormac and Trian, have vowed to obey Artt, whose vision has brought them to the island. Artt’s faith, more educated and intellectual, is served well by a monastic life—but not by a natural life.
The struggle for survival, both physical and spiritual, is heart-wrenching and transformative. The narrative is both claustrophobic and expansive, which might sound like a familiar feeling to fans of Donoghue’s most famous work, Room. There are lessons for the characters, and so for the readers, about faith, about stewardship, about vulnerability and acceptance—as well as about which freedoms and responsibilities we embrace, and turn over, and perhaps wrestle back.
Here’s a fun article about how there are so many birds on the island, that when filming that Star Wars movie, it was easier to create a new monster to CGI over the birds: Porgs!
Donoghue Emma. Haven : A Novel. First ed. Little Brown and Company 2022.
Ever wonder what the librarians at the Nebraska Library Commission do in their free time? When we aren’t ironing our cardigans or putting our grocery lists in alphabetical order (just kidding, I think?), we’re probably reading juicy celebrity biographies like this week’s BookFace selection, “Johnny Carson” by Henry Bushkin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). This title is also the subject of this week’s Friday Reads post, written by Information Services Director, Lisa Kelly. Library Commission staff take turns writing weekly book reviews of titles they have enjoyed (and sometimes not!) in our weekly Friday Reads series. Want to read it yourself? “Johnny Carson” is available as an ebook on Nebraska Overdrive Libraries!
“Henry Bushkin’s ‘Johnny Carson’ is that rare celebrity tell-all by an author who knows whom and what he’s talking about.”
— The New York Times
Find this title and many more through Nebraska OverDrive! Libraries participating in the Nebraska OverDrive Libraries Group currently have access to a shared and growing collection of digital downloadable audiobooks and eBooks. 189 libraries across the state share the Nebraska OverDrive collection of 21,696 audiobooks, 35,200 eBooks, and 3,964 magazines. As an added bonus it includes 130 podcasts that are always available with simultaneous use (SU), as well as SU ebooks and audiobook titles that publishers have made available for a limited time. If you’re a part of it, let your users know about this great title, and if you’re not a member yet, find more information about participating in Nebraska Overdrive Libraries!
When I shelved books at Beatrice Public Library, we had a separate room for biographies and all of our comfortable chairs were located there. I always wondered about the patrons that found the lives of others so fascinating, and now, I realize that person is me. Is it just one-step away from reading People magazine at your dentist office or is it something more? Since I have started reading biographies, they have become one of my favorite genres. Here are two biographies I read this summer:
Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin
I grew up with Johnny Carson reliably making us laugh at the end of the day until his last broadcast in May of 1992 when Bette Midler serenaded him with One More For My Baby. The author is described as Johnny’s “personal legal adviser, fixer, confidant, and close friend.” Carson referred to Bushkin as his best friend. The book covers their 18-year relationship, which began when the author was 27 years old in 1970. Had the relationship not ended abruptly or acrimoniously, I wonder if Bushkin would have written this book? The author reveals Johnny’s copious generosity, his inability to be a good husband or money manager, and the psychological damage inflicted on him by his mother from which he never recovered. His mercurial temperament and his grudges were legend. This book pulled back the curtain on an icon that I would have rather left alone but through the eyes of Bushkin, I felt I got closer to the truth or at least one version of it. Despite it all, nobody hosted a show quite like Johnny and watching old clips of him still brings a smile to my face.
Kate Remembered by A. Scott Berg
I listened to Kate Remembered shortly after it was published in 2003. After I gave copies to my neighbor Mary and to my friend Vern, I thought it was time to have another listen. Incidentally, the book is narrated by the actor Tony Goldwyn who does a fair Hepburn impression. The book focuses on Berg’s friendship with Hepburn that started in 1983 and lasted until her death. Berg was Kate’s chronicler as she lavished stories upon him from her life and some episodes that I suspect she rarely shared. From the author’s book cover, “… Miss Hepburn often used our time together to reflect, an exercise in which I don’t think she indulged with anybody else.” I found Scott’s speculative answer to Kate’s question on why he thought Tracy drank so much fascinating and likely spot on. Learning about Kate through Scott’s writing, and what I hope were direct quotes of Hepburn’s, was worth a first and a second visit. After I finished, I re watched The Philadelphia Story and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner again. Time well spent.
So what is the appeal of biographies? Because there is always more to someone’s life is than meets the eye. Triumphs and tragedies are a human condition no matter your fame or infamy. We are all broken.
Bushkin, Henry. Johnny Carson. Boston, MA; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
Berg, A. Scott. Kate Remembered. New York, NY. Putnam Adult, 2003.
Set in the Sandhills of Nebraska, this mystery centers around a children’s home for troubled youths and a psychologist who is trying to start a new life. Isolated and far off the beaten path, Hatchery House, is a treatment facility for orphaned children with psychiatric disorders. Lore Webber has left a job with the FBI in Omaha and moved out west to start over, but when one of her patients at Hatchery House is found murdered her old life and her new life will collide. This closed-door murder thriller will have readers guessing until the very end. The inherent remoteness of the setting has limited the suspect pool, and no one wants to think the people they live with are capable of murder. The beautifully written descriptions of the setting honor the unique beauty and seclusion of the Sandhills. Too many people who comment on the Nebraska landscape have only ever driven through on I80, it was good to read a book that looked deeper. The characters are complex and well-written, with interesting backstories that unfold throughout the story as you work alongside Lore to solve the crime. Thoroughly well-researched and compelling, this is Montag’s second novel, her first “After the Flood” was published in 2019, and is also a favorite read of mine. I would highly recommend both.
Montag, Kassandra. Those Who Return. Quercus. 2022.
It seemed good timing to read Lydia Kang’s Opium and Absinthe soon before Halloween. The vampire connection was enticing. The historical novel takes place in New York City in 1899, the year that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published. Lucy Pembroke is found dead in an alleyway by puncture wound and drained of blood on the eve of her marriage ceremony. Mathilda (Tillie) Pembroke is Lucy’s younger sister. Tillie is determined to find the murderer. An overprotective mother and a controlling grandmother hamper her efforts. Tillie must go to imaginative and extreme lengths to escape the confines of her home to seek answers to her many questions about the murder.
Tillie’s challenges include an opium and morphine addiction that came about following a horse-riding accident. Intended to provide pain relief, addiction followed and continued. Opium and Absinthe places drug addiction as a central theme. Heroin is also notable, introduced by Bayer as a cough remedy. At the time, all were legal and commonly prescribed.
An intriguing mix of characters emerge including New York’s rich and privileged and the working class poor. The Pembroke family is among the city’s elite. The mystery unfolds at a steady pace and, at least for me, comes to a surprising end.
The book is included among CrimeReads Best Historical Fiction of 2020.
Described as among the great virtuosos of the crime genre, Lydia Kang is an author and an internal medicine physician. Her writings include historical mysteries, popular history, young adult sci fi, essays and poetry. Kang’s most recent book, Patient Zero: A Curious History of the World’s Worst Diseases, co-authored with Nate Pedersen, is a 2022 Nebraska Book Award winner for nonfiction – popular history. Kang’s The November Girl won the Nebraska Book Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2018.
Kang, Lydia. Opium and Absinthe: A Novel. Seattle: Lake Union Publishing. 2020
Ted Barton has a problem. He doesn’t exist. When he visits his old hometown, the one he left eighteen years ago, he recognizes nothing. When he visits the town newspaper and checks into their archives, he discovers his name in the obituaries: funny, he doesn’t feel like he died of scarlet fever eighteen years ago. Something is Going On, and Ted Barton is going to hang around town for the length of an expanded novella until he finds out just what that Something is.
So begins the spaced-out mystery horror of 1957’s The Cosmic Puppets, which takes a Twilight Zone-style jumpstart of one individual’s profound alienation from history and memory, and builds from there, until the whole town, then the whole universe, is involved — and the nature of reality itself is called into question. In other words, just another book by Philip K. “for now we see through a glass, darkly” Dick (1928 – 1982), the fictionalizing philosopher whose works are the source for such movies and series as Blade Runner, The Man in the High Castle, A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall, and several others.
It turns out that the town Ted Barton vividly remembers – Millgate, Virginia – is still there, but on top of it lies the consistently projected illusion that he and the rest of the townspeople currently perceive. Through strenuously concentrating on his memories, he can bring back small details temporarily, but he can’t hoist up the real town alone: it’s a mass delusion that must be countered with a collective effort of memory.
Alliances are formed and sides taken, snakes and spiders fight with bees and moths, and primordial forces that predate the physical universe rise and join the psychic tug of war. Dick wrote most of this book in 1953, making it one of his first efforts, but PKD fans will notice that many of the classic preoccupations he explored in later books and writings — such as the 1978 speech “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” — are already in place, especially the old philosophical question, “what is real?
A warning to puppet enthusiasts and ventriloquists: puppets do not play a role in the story, except perhaps metaphorically; the original title of The Cosmic Puppets was A Glass of Darkness. This title is available through hoopla Digital via your local library (I read mine through Lincoln City Libraries) and also the Internet Archive, as well as well-curated used bookstores everywhere.
Dick, Philip K. The Cosmic Puppets. Boston: Mariner Books, 2012.
Top image: Cover of Centipede Press edition, 2020
“All great truths begin as blasphemies.”
–George Bernard Shaw
“Powerful people and popular ideas don’t need First Amendment protections; marginalized people and unpopular ideas do.”
–Nadine Strossen, former ACLU president (1991-2008), Senior Fellow, FIRE
During a time where free speech assaults are now taking place on behalf of both the political right and the left (nothing new to see here, folks), it’s interesting to take a look at this classic autobiography from Lenny Bruce. How to Talk Dirty & Influence People is a take on Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People, and describes the life of Bruce from his childhood up to the time of his premature death at the age of 40. Born in Mineola, NY, Bruce’s parents divorced when he was 10, and during his childhood he spent time living and working on a farm in Wantagh, NY. Bruce joined the Navy at the age of 16 in 1942, serving in WW2. After appearing in drag for a comedy bit, he convinced his CO that he had homosexual urges and received an honorable discharge. The Max Klinger character from M*A*S*H was based on Bruce. After discharge, he went on to develop his stream of consciousness comedy routines and worked as an MC in Jazz clubs. His routines often focused on themes of race relations, organized religion, and criticism of “the establishment”. Certainly, in today’s world, most of his bits would offend damn near everyone, and there likely would be numerous calls to ban or censor him. This in fact was the case with Brandeis University, which now hosts Bruce’s audio files. Brandeis University is named after former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, champion of free speech and advocate of counter speech:
“If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
This notion seems to be forgotten or kicked to the curb in today’s world. After the audio files came in the possession of Brandeis University, Michael Weller, former graduate of Brandeis and playwright, wrote a play based on Bruce’s work, examining the ideas of free speech. Outrage over the content of the play quickly ensued, and the University promptly cancelled it. Oh, the irony. College campuses are now replete with multiple trigger warnings on practically everything, self-censorship among students for fear of repercussions, and frequent disruptions and outbursts directed at speakers who are disagreeable. They are no longer the bastions of free speech, thought, healthy debate, and exchange of ideas they once were. As Penn Jillette says:
“If college is so comfortable and safe — I’m glad I’m not there. Who wants comfortable? Who wants safe? This old piece of carny trash still wants to be pushed and challenged, and I’ve proved I can do that without college. And it’s a lot cheaper than Brandeis.”
How to Talk Dirty and Influence People also describes Bruce’s marriage to burlesque dancer Honey Harlow, and the two obscenity trials that ultimately broke him (physically, emotionally, and financially). Plagued by legal troubles relating to his drug use and financial scams (he dressed as a priest and solicited donations for a “leper colony in British Guyana”), he was ultimately charged with obscenity in (of all places) San Francisco (acquitted), Chicago (convicted but later overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court), and New York (convicted but later overturned by the New York Court of Appeals). Bruce died while the NY appeal was in process.
The book is an interesting incursion into Bruce’s life, and while the title mentions talking dirty, there’s not much of it in this book. A few tidbits of his routines and trials, but it’s mostly about his life and not his comedy acts.
Bruce, Lenny. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography. Da Capo Press, Reprint edition. 2016.
The other players on the team looked at me funny when I borrowed a ball to take this photo at the end of their practice, but my kid just rolled his eyes and smiled. “Yeah, my mom does stuff like this all the time.” Being a a recurring #BookfaceFriday model has jaded him to the weird things I do with book covers. (He’s even better at lining up the shot than I am now.)
This book is also about a boy whose parents spend a lot of time with him on the soccer field. Golden Maroni’s dad was a pro soccer player, and now coaches the local high school team. His mom coaches Golden’s middle school team – she’s referred to as Coach or Mom depending on the chapter’s setting.
The title refers to Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion in his book “Outliers” that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a skill. While Amy Makechnie specifies in her end-of-book acknowledgements that this rule doesn’t apply to sports, our hero Golden is sure that 10,000 hours of soccer practice will make him as phenomenal as his idol Lionel Messi. But off the field, things aren’t going as well.
Lucy, his team co-captain and best friend (and maybe more?), will move soon if Golden can’t drive away her annoying future stepfather. His older sister Jaimes certainly needs another 10,000 hours of driving practice before Golden feels safe riding with her. And worst of all, a year and a half after a surprising diagnosis, Golden’s dad is losing his battle with ALS; no amount of positive thinking and hard work can stop the progression of this terrible disease. It feels like Golden’s whole world is crashing down around him. The Maroni family motto is “We do hard things.” They work hard, play hard, and never give up on each other. But this year will be different, and Golden must learn that letting go isn’t the same as giving up.
Makechnie, Amy. Ten Thousand Tries, New York, New York : Simon & Schuster, 2021.
Who is your favorite woman in the Star Wars universe? You may find her in this wonderful character guide, Star Wars: Women of the Galaxy, written by Amy Ratcliffe and illustrated by a group of incredibly talented female and non-binary artists.
“They are heroes and villains, Sith and Jedi, senators and scoundrels, mothers, mercenaries, artists, pilots….”
This oversized coffee table book tells the stories of 75 female characters from “films, fiction, comics, animation, and games”. Some of the profiles are your typical fictional character biography and others include background information about how the characters were envisioned and created. As a contributor to StarWars.com and Star Wars Insider, Ratcliffe has insider knowledge and shares details about these women that you may have never heard before.
The artwork is beautiful and in varying styles. There are over 100 illustrations from 18 amazing artists, such as comic book artists Annie Wu and Elsa Charretier, Lucasfilm artist Amy Beth Christenson, freelanceers Eli Baumgartner and Viv Tanner, and one of my favorite geeky artists, Karen Hallion.
You will find many characters you recognize as well as lesser known women (and droids!), but all of them make Star Wars a vibrant and inspiring place. I have been a huge Star Wars fan from the very beginning. Yes, I saw Star Wars in the theater in 1977. But the franchise has expanded so much since then, even I learned about many female characters I had never heard of, mostly from all of the novels and comics. Which has made my need-to-read list even longer!
Who is my favorite woman of Star Wars? I can’t pick just one. My first choice of course is Princess Leia, more recently Ahsoka, R2-KT, and Doctor Aphra. And of course, as the Chief Librarian of the Jedi Archives, Jocasta Nu holds a special place in my heart.
Finally, as the first woman of the Star Wars galaxy, the simple dedication For Carrie Fisher is perfect.
What would you wish for?
The Well is a full color graphic novel published for high school readers. Li-Zhen, called Lizzy, lives with her grandfather and for the first time she will travel to town by herself with some goats to sell, riding in a sailboat in which her friend Eli now rows. While in town, she snitches some coins from a sacred fountain to pay for her return trip. After returning home she is visited that night in her sleep. The well demands repayment, not in coins but in wishes. Lizzy must find a way to provide what has been wished for, or she will be drowned. The well’s servant says it is the wishes connected to each of the three coins that are valuable, not the coins. She has to talk friends and strangers into helping her and she only has a day to accomplish each task. Each task is different, and the last task may kill her.
One of the things that appealed to me about this book is the care put into wishing. Little children wish for candy or toys, they said, but wishing should be more thoughtful. Eli tells Lizzy that her mother explained it this way: “…first you’re supposed to think about what you have, what you are grateful for. Then think about what you want out of life.”
For the first task she asks for help from Eli, and they end up kidnapping a woman who has wished to return to her island, but now no longer wants to go there. The island was destroyed by the leviathan. The well doesn’t care about current wants or changes in wishes. It wants her to give what was wished for on the stolen coin, however long ago the wish was made.
This past summer I saw the movie “Three Thousand Years of Longing” with Idris Elba playing a genie. Wishes are a big part of his existence. That movie and this graphic novel made me think more about wishes. Fairy tales often have wishes involved, almost always tricking the wisher. I liked what Eli said in the book about wishing. It can be done too quickly with little contemplation as to the likely result of the wish. Maybe wishes should stay in our hearts and not be spoken out loud.
(The Nebraska Library Commission receives free copies of children’s and young adult books for review from a number of publishers. After review, the books are distributed free, via the Regional Library Systems, to Nebraska school and public libraries.)
Wyatt, Jake. The Well. First Second, 2022.
There is nothing like a good mystery.
While My Pretty One Knits is not exactly what I would call a good mystery. The murderer’s identity was obvious before the close of the first chapter. The village of Plum Harbor unequivocally fails to process – or even react much to — the brutal murder of one of their fellow villagers (it was brutal! And, as the book itself repeatedly reminds us, it was bloody!). There are enough knitting inaccuracies that unravel long enough to purl a swoncho. The knitting group doesn’t so much solve a murder so much as they stumble around talking about the murder, and incidentally and coincidentally facilitate the solving of the crime. And, as my fiancée put it with nothing but fondness, our dear anxious protagonist Lucy is “a bit touched in the head.”
Yet I finished the book feeling…well, cozy.
There were no high stakes (ignoring the fact that, had the murder gone unsolved, a cold-blooded killer would have gotten off scot-free). There was a dog (who did more work to solve the case than her human caretaker). There was knitting and humor. It was the cross between Hallmark and Lifetime that I’ve been seeking, even if the needles pointed more towards Hallmark. And it was, simply, fun.
Our core cast of characters include Maggie, the shop owner; Lucy, the newly divorced graphic designer; Dana, the psychologist; Suzanne, the real estate agent and mother; and Phoebe, the college student. There are many more characters, which helps the village feel populated, although in audiobook format it was difficult to keep everyone straight, and I eventually stopped trying. Familiarity will hopefully come with time.
I don’t hold out much hope that, as I continue the series, the ridiculously high statistics for murder per capita in Plum Harbor will be cause for concern. Luckily, the group has Suzanne. When the population dips down too low to support the village economy, they’ll have a head start on packing up and moving out.
I am, however, optimistic that the knitters of The Black Sheep will learn and change and grow. That’s what I’m interested in. And, I realize, as I frog back my snobbery; that’s what all cozy mystery aficionados are interested in. That’s what the writer is interested in. It was never about the mystery — it was about the characters.
And isn’t that warmer than a wool sweater?
Canadeo, Anne. While My Pretty One Knits. Pocket Books, 2009.