Tag Archives: Friday Reads

Friday Reads: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Far away from bike paths that lead to grocery stores that sell kale is Appalachia.  It runs through West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, and some parts of Tennessee and the Carolinas, too.  It’s mostly dirt-poor and the things for which it’s known—family feuds, coal mining, moonshine—seem to have little connection with modern life in other parts of America.  These days, unless Appalachia is being mocked, it’s generally ignored.

Which is why it’s strange that this memoir has struck such a chord.  It has been sitting atop the bestseller lists for months and has received coverage in tons of major media outlets.  On its face, the story doesn’t seem to be widely relatable.  J.D. Vance’s family originated in the hills and hollers of rural eastern Kentucky.  He experienced the traumas that often shadow poor communities: drug abuse, outbursts of violence, and other self-defeating behaviors.  But, unlike many, Vance escaped and prospered, eventually attending Yale and joining a San Francisco investment firm.  Hillbilly Elegy reads like a gateway into the world of “Bloody Breathitt” County, Kentucky.  But it also details the process through which Vance found a better life outside the region.  The book is interesting as a depiction of an overlooked place, but it also works as a coming-of-age story.

And it’s getting talked up as a kind of Rosetta Stone that explains election results.  The Times calls it “a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election”.  I’m not sure that I totally buy that.  Appalachia is a pretty unique place.  I don’t know how much you can port over its attributes to cities in the Rust Belt and so on.  It’s worthwhile to examine a culture and community for its own sake, but if you’re just looking for national power brokers or explanations for electoral trends, Hazard, Kentucky might not be where you want to start.

Even if Hillbilly Elegy can’t provide pat answers to complex political questions, it’s still a good book that’s very affecting and ultimately inspiring.  If you would like to learn more about the region, I’d recommend this book, as well as two documentaries.  American Hollow focuses on the same area and lifestyle described in Hillbilly Elegy and Oxyana viciously captures the prevalence of drug addiction in Appalachian communities.   It’s great that attention is being drawn to a part of our country that’s often been forgotten—hopefully, it will lead to some real change for the region.

Vance, J. D. (2016). Hillbilly elegy: a memoir of a family and culture in crisis. New York: Harper.

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Friday Reads: Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

At the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards, Viola Davis said the following upon accepting her award for Outstanding Performance by a Female for the movie Fences: “What August (Wilson) did so beautifully is he honored the average man …and sometimes we don’t have to shake the world and move the world and create anything that is going to be in the history book. The fact that we breathed and lived a life … means that we have a story and it deserves to be told.”  I think writers who choose ordinary subjects can tell amazing stories. I think this is Kent Haruf’s talent–to tell everyman’s story, the story of those people we all know and recognize, who live next door if not in our own home.

Our Souls at Night was Haruf’s last novel before his death in 2014, and it takes place in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, a small town created for three of his other novels. Addie Moore and Louis Waters have both lost their partners and have lived a long time in Holt knowing of each other rather than being well acquainted. One day, Addie pays a visit to Lois and asks: “I’m wondering if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me … I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you could sleep in the night with me. And talk … I’m not talking about sex, I’m talking about getting through the night … the nights are the worst don’t you think?” And this is where their story begins as this invitation turns into many evening conversations and the revelations of life, regrets, and love lost. It confirms how grief needs to be shared with others especially those for whom the loss is similar. When two people form a bond, onlookers will have opinions and often, not so quietly. I could relate to the gossipy town conversations that made me forever choose to live in a city with a population of at least 100,000 or more.

This is a spare read with uncomplicated and honest characters. There is a cadence to Haruf’s books – small town living and the daily minutia that are both familiar and regular. The conversations are ones you’ve had yourself. Spending time in Holt is downshifting to rural America; slowing down and looking people in the eye when you walk past them on the street.

A movie adapted from this book will be released sometime this year, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, who first appeared together in 1967’s Barefoot in the Park. This will be quite a contrast.

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Friday Reads: The House of the Spirits

I first read Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits my junior year of high school.  At the time, I was taken with the elements of magical realism that permeated the story. In the twenty years since, I have lost track of the number of times I have read this book.  Each time, I gain new insight into this complex, multi-generational novel.

Set in Chile, against the backdrop of social and political upheaval, Allende focuses on the ever-changing fortunes of Esteban Trueba, his wife, Clara del Valle and their children: Blanca, Jaime and Nicolas. While Esteban concentrates on accumulating wealth and power, Clara endeavors to strengthen her clairvoyant talents.  Since childhood, Clara has been able to move objects and predict future events, such as the deaths of her older sister and parents. Although Clara cares for her husband, she leads an independent life because she abhors his conservative values.  Following their mother’s lead, the children, and later Esteban’s green-haired granddaughter, become swept of up in the socialist revolution and  subsequent military coup.

Despite its dark themes, The House of the Spirit is a story of hope and survival.  Allende’s characters often experience the worst, but retain an innate sense of right and wrong.  Until the bitter end, they continue to believe in the basic goodness of mankind.  The last time I read The House of the Spirits, I realized that despite the horrors she had just experienced, Esteban’s granddaughter continues to hope for a better tomorrow. Following her imprisonment, she encounters a woman whose spirit remains strong regardless of efforts to destroy it. Alba, whose name is Spanish for dawn, knows the conservative regime will end and life in Chile will improve for everyone.

Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. Translated by Magda Bogin. New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

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Friday Reads: How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS, by David France

After watching Dallas Buyers Club several years ago, I wanted to learn more about the early treatment challenges that caused people with AIDS to criticize and bypass the FDA’s slow-moving and bureaucratic drug approval process. This led me to a copy of Randy Shilts’ classic 1987 book, And the Band Played On, which covered the AIDS epidemic through 1985. I hesitated to start it, however, because of the 25+ years of subsequent developments that wouldn’t be covered, including significant advances in treatment options in the mid-90s. So when David France’s How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS showed up on the New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2016” list, I jumped on it!

David France is an investigative reporter who has been covering AIDS since the early 1980s. He moved to New York City in June 1981, immediately after graduating from college and just weeks before a headline in the July 3 New York Times proclaimed “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” This put France at a major epicenter of the epidemic from its opening days—and from the very outset of his adult life. It is this embedded perspective that gives an intense intimacy to what is also a thoroughly researched and gripping account of the gay community’s mobilization to political and scientific activism and advocacy.

Although death and dying pervade France’s narrative, there is hope and inspiration in the formation of groups like Gay Men’s Health Crisis, ACT UP, with its rallying cry of “Drugs into bodies,” and TAG (Treatment Action Group). Members with an affinity for research, though lacking scientific background and in some cases without college degrees, educated themselves on the inner workings of government health agencies like the FDA, CDC, and NIH, and became experts on immunology and virology. This allowed them to challenge and ultimately collaborate as partners with a medical establishment used to patients passively accepting whatever treatment options were prescribed. They were able to press for an accelerated drug approval process, modifications in clinical trial protocol, reductions in drug costs, and more.

France’s account traces drug development through the January 1996 annual Conference for Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, where breakthrough results of two clinical drug trials were reported, heralding the arrival of new treatment options supporting long term survival of people with AIDS. Finally, AIDS no longer equaled death! While this is a victorious point at which to conclude his story, a happily-ever-after ending would have been inappropriate, and France avoids one with the final words of his final chapter: “It was not over. It would never be over. But it was over.” His epilogue also bears witness to the toll the plague took on surviving activists, often in the form of depression, drug addiction, underemployment and unemployment. Not only had they lost so many friends and lovers, they were now set adrift without purpose in a life they hadn’t prepared for, because they never expect to live to see it.

Although I still plan to read Shilts’ And the Band Played On, I’m glad I started with David France’s book; it provided me with the education I was looking for, in a compelling and thorough manner. If you’re interested in this topic but don’t want to tackle a 600+ page book (either Shilts’ or France’s), you may want to consider watching the 2012 documentary written and directed by France, also titled How to Survive a Plague. It is currently available to stream on Netflix.

France, David. How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. New York: Knopf, 2016.

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Friday Reads: The Goldfinch: A Novel by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, published in 2013, was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I had read reviews and commentaries about the book, looked it over in a bookstore, and considered borrowing or buying a copy. I resisted because I was daunted by its length – the hardcover edition is 760 pages. I recently found a paperback copy in a Colorado library on the books for sale shelves. For a two dollar contribution to the library’s friends group the book was mine. It’s the second longest book I’ve ever read and it was a long haul, but a good one. During the course of reading it I also borrowed from Lincoln City Libraries the excellent digital audiobook version.

The Goldfinch begins with a terrorist act – a bomb explosion in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – and the resulting tragic destruction and loss. What follows is an evolving mystery about a missing painting – a Dutch masterwork called The Goldfinch. Included are theft, drugs, the art black market, the craft of antique furniture restoration, and the complex relationships among family, friends, friends of friends, swindlers, and much more. Art, in many forms, is central to the book. The characters are vivid, the settings are rich in detail, and the plot pulls the reader along toward a surprising end. For me, it is the kind of book you don’t necessarily want to come to an end.

Stephen King, in a New York Times Book Review commentary, said “The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind…..” Donna Tartt has also written the novels The Secret History and The Little Friend.

Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch: A novel. New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2013.

 

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Friday Reads: “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen

When a fan approaches the autobiography of a rock star, the bar is set pretty high. And with Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, I thought the high bar was reached and sailed over. I didn’t really know what to expect. I always thought the real Bruce was probably a combination of the characters that shine out from his songs, but of course that’s an oversimplification. The character that comes off the pages of this book does have a lot in common with the characters that are seen in the narratives in his music. But Bruce Springsteen is a multi-layered guy and he is complicated. He is the real deal, for sure. He came up on the streets of New Jersey and early Greenwich Village, and his reflections on those early days (and what came later) take the reader into a slice of America that goes well beyond voyeuristic star gazing. When he says, “The grinding hypnotic power of this ruined place and these people would never leave me,” (in reference to his hometown) you can bet it won’t be leaving the reader soon either.

This book was written over seven years in several drafts and redrafts. Springsteen likens the process of writing the book to song-writing. That comparison isn’t lost on this reader. He writes the book in the same cool, clean voice that brought us “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream / At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines.” The pages of this book ring just as true as the lyrics to the Springsteen songs that this fan listened to over and over on a front porch in Nebraska on hot summer nights.

I was also struck by the fact that for an autobiography there is a ton of rich, juicy detail about the others on this journey with him. His family is finely drawn and very interesting. And there is lots of intel on the cast of characters that made up his bands through the years. For me, Stevie Van Zandt (think stellar musician and one of the central members of the Sopranos cast) and the late sax great Clarence Clemons are tremendously compelling characters that really help paint the picture of Springsteen. Knowing more about his close relationships really rounds out the reader’s understanding of who “The Boss” really is. You’ll love this book if you ever sang along to “We gotta get out while we’re young / `Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” Even if you didn’t, this autobiography is worth your time.

Review by Mary Jo Ryan

#FridayReads

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Simon & Schuster, 2016

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Friday Reads: League of Denial

Let me say up front (gasp!) that I am not a football fan. Not one bit. OK, I admit that at a time in my life long ago I might become moderately interested in seeing a good game (and rooting for the underdogs), but in today’s day and age I have little interest. I read the bulk of League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru while hanging out in airports and on airplanes during a recent trip. Before getting into the content of League of Denial, it might be beneficial to describe the authors’ backgrounds, as well as why these brothers have different last names (including the origin of the hyphen). Steve Fainaru is an award winning reporter for the Washington Post (known for his field reporting in Iraq). His brother Mark (he hyphenated his name with that of his wife’s) has a background in sports reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle, worked on the BALCO steroids reporting (subsequently co-authoring Game of Shadows), and is a current investigative reporter for ESPN.

League of Denial details the NFL’s concussion crisis. It describes the first players that were diagnosed (post-mortem) with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease that had previously only been identified in boxers or other persons that suffered repeated blows to the head. League of Denial chronicles a number of former NFL players who suffered from the effects of CTE, from their playing days to their life struggles after retirement. The first former player to be diagnosed with CTE was Pittsburgh Steeler hall of fame center Mike Webster. Webster’s story is interesting because his life is illustrative of the struggle that many former players go through during and after their days in the NFL. It’s a very sad story. League of Denial chronicles Webster’s retirement financial troubles, living out of his truck, addiction to various prescription medications, and the fact that he often couldn’t sleep unless a friend hit him with a Taser, rendering him incapacitated for brief periods of time. To illustrate, this interview, taken from the PBS Frontline documentary (titled League of Denial) shows the depth of his brain injury, as well as the struggle of former NFL safety Gene Atkins.

Then there are the suicides. A number of these former players that committed suicide were diagnosed with CTE afterward. League of Denial describes some of these, including Terry Long (45 years old, drank antifreeze), Dave Duerson (50 years old, shot himself in the chest and left a note indicating that he wanted his brain to be used for research), and Junior Seau (43 years old, another gunshot to the chest). League of Denial has a bit of it all, including intrigue, mystery, and cover-ups. A land where NFL doctors argue with independent ones, former players fight for disability payments, and the NFL (by far the leader in worldwide sports revenues fights to maintain its image (among fans, players, and moms). A lot of parallels exist between the NFL concussion crisis and the tobacco industry, and many of the league insiders have called for a different handling of the crisis by the NFL, which up until recently denied any link between football’s inherent traumas to the head and CTE. Dr. Ann McKee, longtime Packers fan and professor of Neurology & Pathology at Boston University, aptly sums things up by saying:

“Football is an American sport. Everyone loves it. I certainly would never want to ban football. . . . We haven’t banned cigarette smoking. People smoke. People make that choice. But they need to make an informed decision. They need to understand the risks and it needs to be out there if they want to pay attention to what those risks are.”

I would recommend this book, even though Ann is wrong about everyone loving football. It is an easy read and informative, whether you are a fan or not a fan, and the science surrounding the concussion crisis is presented in an interesting way.

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Friday Reads: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

https://pics.librarything.com/picsizes/fe/c5/fec559bdd73040d59712b726a77434f414f4141.jpgBecause Haruki Murakami’s birthday was yesterday, and because this is a library blog, this week I’ve chosen to write about The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami. While this is available as an audio book, I must recommend the Knopf print edition if you are able to read that instead. The book design is by Chip Kidd, and it’s lovely. The cover alone references the narrative in several creative ways, and the illustrations within the book are plentiful and thoughtful.

The art design struck me even more as a vehicle for the story, a vehicle almost approaching a translation of the story, because of a recent article about Murakami. If you’re interested in Murakami, you should read “The Murakami Effect” by Stephen Snyder, which appeared on Literary Hub on 01/04/2017. You may agree or disagree with the writer’s arguments (here’s a clue to its contents: the subtitle is “On the Homogenizing Dangers of Easily Translated Literature”), but reading a critique of the translation of Murakami’s work does give you an insight into how the author structures his works. Murakami does not write about complicated ideas as much as he juxtaposes unexpected, easily visualized entities and actions, which allow the reader to fill in the complicated ideas themselves, around those entities and actions. This happens to make him very easy to translate—or, he writes this way because it’s easy to translate, according to Snyder.

I have more of an appreciation for Murakami after reading the Lithub article, which may not have been the author’s intent. Snyder attempts to take some wind out of the literary sails of Murakami’s reputation, comparing him to other Japanese writers (like Minae Mizumura, whom you might want to learn more about) and finding him, in the end, pop.

But I like pop. Murakami is nuanced enough to be quality while being accessible. And letting the reader draw some conclusions is one of my favorite things that an author can do—I love this about Flannery O’Connor, for example. It is important, though, not to take Murakami’s work as any sort of object lesson about Japanese life, just as we can’t expect to learn all we need to know about the South from O’Connor. This is another point in Snyder’s article—how Americans see Murakami’s writing as synecdochical for all things Japanese, overwriting reality with a magic key they think they learned from some magical realist novels. Readers need to try to be smarter than that, and I think we can be.

The Strange Library is a quick read—for a less marketable author, this would have just been a short story in a magazine. So hipster grad students won’t be able to carry it around as long as they can carry around their copies of 1Q84… but it’s a good introduction to Murakami if you’ve been interested and yet haven’t taken the leap. And you know you want to read a book called The Strange Library. And yes, that’s all I’m going to tell you about the actual text.

Fun facts about Haruki Murakami: not related to writer Ryu Murakami (whom I recommend if you want something grittier) or artist Takashi Murakami (if you want something even more pop). And if there’s anything more precious, predictable, and yet still enjoyable, than a McSweeney’s humor piece about Haruki Murakami, I don’t know what it would be, so here that is.

Murakami, Haruki, and Ted Goossen. The Strange Library: 107. , 2014. Print.

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Friday Reads: Star Wars: Bloodline

I am a member of the original Star Wars trilogy generation. My parents took me and my sister to see Star Wars in the theater in 1977, before it was IV, before it had a subtitle.

Along with all fans, I was devastated by the sudden death of Carrie Fisher. Her portrayal of the strong, independent, powerful rebel, Princess Leia, was an inspiration to pre-teen me.

From their first encounter, when I saw Leia stand up to the hulking Darth Vader, I was hooked. So, when I heard that a new Star Wars book was coming out last year that focused on Leia, I had to have it. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Star Wars: Bloodline, by Claudia Gray, is part of the new series of novels that are being published in conjunction with the new films and TV shows.

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, all of the Star Wars books and comics that had been previously written were declared non-canon by Disney, meaning that those stories were no longer the history of the Star Wars world. Instead, Disney is publishing new books that will bring the storytelling in the new movies into continuity with the older ones.

Bloodline takes place between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. It is a fast-paced novel, full of espionage, planet jumping, and clandestine missions. Yes, the Rebellion defeated the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi. But unfortunately, that did not bring peace to the galaxy. Politics and in-fighting is undermining the New Republic Senate, of which Leia is a member. But, her investigations into criminal activities related to the problems in the Senate lead her to determine that something much bigger is going on.

In addition to being an engrossing story about Senator Leia and her young team of followers as they track down this new threat to the Republic, Bloodline provides some important context for The Force Awakens and future films. It reveals the beginnings of the formation of the Resistance and the origins of the First Order.

And you’ll also discover where Leia earned the awesome title ‘Huttslayer’. Killing a crime lord with the chain keeping you his slave can earn you big points with certain parties.

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Friday Reads: All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor

Perry, age 11, was born and has lived all his life with his mother in the fictional Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility in Surprise, Nebraska, thanks to the current warden pretending he isn’t there. Then the new district attorney, Tom VanLeer, living in a nearby town, discovers his existence and “rescues” him from his mother and friends by bringing him home and becoming his foster family with his wife and his step-daughter, Zoey.  Zoey is Perry’s best friend at school.

For his class project, Perry decides to write the story of several inmates, who are his friends, and who agree to be interviewed. Regret for what they, including Perry’s mother Jessica, had done and how they have changed and are working toward parole, staying positive as much as possible, all send a different message than one might expect from prisoners. There are a few negative people incarcerated there, and Perry keeps his distance from them.

District Attorney Tom VanLeer is certain his approach is the right one, even as he delays Jessica’s parole hearing, believing she is guilty of making her son suffer in prison. Zoey finds some of her stepfather’s viewpoints and habits condescending and irritating. She and Perry also find their new situation, as foster brother and sister, rather problematic.

Perry is a wonderful character, with a positive viewpoint and an understandable confusion about things he has never encountered before, such as how to make the bathtub become a shower. His upbringing in the correctional facility has prepared him to give others a chance, and to challenge Tom VanLeer on his misconceptions. Other characters are well-developed and offer additional viewpoints as to how things can go terribly wrong and hopefully be forgiven. A terrific choice for grades 5-8 as well as adults.

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Friday Reads: The Fireman by Joe Hill

A fast-moving plague has set the world ablaze, quite literally. The “Dragonscale” spore marks its hosts with intricate tattoo-like patterns, which just happen to also cause them to spontaneously combust. Whole cities watch in terrors as their inhabitants burn to death, no cure in sight. To protect themselves, some citizens band together into “cremation squads” and hunt down those carrying the disease.

Before the local hospital ignited, Nurse Harper cared for the infected in her New Hampshire town. She and her husband Jakob made a pact to kill themselves if they ever caught the spore. Now Harper’s on the run from the cremation squads and Jakob, having discovered her own dragonscale markings… and her pregnancy.

This is the second book by Joe Hill I’ve read, the first being NOS4A2 (which I loved). It lived up to my expectations, and I will seek out more of his work. It wasn’t until I finished this book that I realized that Joe is the son of Stephen King, writing under a pseudonym so that his writing could stand on its own merit (which it does). If you’re in the mood for a fast-paced horror/thriller novel, this is it!

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Friday Reads – Alton Brown: EveryDayCook

EveryDayCook cover

Cold Brew Coffee! Fish Sticks and Custard! Midnight Mug Cake!

I’ve loved Alton Brown since watching his show Good Eats on Food Network (as well as Iron Chef America and Cutthroat Kitchen). His cookbooks are always fun to read as he offers commentary on the science behind the ingredients, humorous insight on why he likes a particular recipe, or some history of each dish.

These 101 recipes include his personal favorites or things he eats on a daily basis “from morning to late and night and everywhere in-between.” Recipes are arranged by the time of day: Breakfast, Coffee Break, Noon, Afternoon, Evening, Anytime, and Later. Recipes range from classics, such as meatloaf or peanut butter cookies, to new twists with EnchiLasagna (enchilada + lasagna).

Separate sections are included that focus on pantry basics and kitchen tools. He explains his methodology within these sections and throughout the different recipes which I thought was fascinating. One note to point out, if you don’t have a kitchen scale, is that he does use both cups and grams in different recipes. For the few specialized kitchen tools, he does offer explanations and alternatives which is always helpful.  If nothing else, check it out for the pictures (which were all taken on his iPhone). The food looks gorgeous.

Brown, A. (2016). Alton Brown: EveryDayCook. New York: Ballantine Books.

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Friday Reads; The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library

The Invisible Library

Irene is a librarian, a junior librarian of The Invisible Library, which spans alternative worlds and saves and secures copies of unique books. She answers to a senior librarian, much older & more experienced, and unable to leave the library to secure texts for the library. She’s not unique except that both her parents are librarians, as well. She isn’t 007. She knows she has a lot of experience to gain yet, and one of those experiences she needs to face is training an apprentice. And the time has finally come. Her first trainee is Kai, a tall, dark, beautiful young man of mystery. And their first mission together is nearly stolen by a competitor of Irene’s.

The world they enter is a clockwork world of 1890 era, but also infected with “chaos”, meaning that there are creatures of magic and legend at work here. The most chaotic of them all are the Fae, personified in Lord Silver, a diplomat. The book they were to take, has already been stolen, but it’s unclear who’s done the deed–a famous catburgler who may have killed the new owner, or a cult of clockwork engineers who are anti-magic (the deceased was a vampire.) The waters are further muddied by the “great detective”, who has a better relationship with the local police than S.H. And a particularly frightening rogue librarian that was once one of the library’s greatest librarians.

The characters are wonderful, Irene is someone you will want to read about–whether she’s running from granite gargoyles or escaping from cyborg crocodilians. And unlike 007, she’s often wondering why she can’t just have a nice screaming fit, oh yes, that’s right, she has to get herself out of this. Whatever this is.  Kai has his secret, which I won’t reveal, but he is young, and while handy to have around, he’s still learning. Irene and other librarians have the ability to use “the Language”, to open, close, manipulate objects, and to a certain limit, people. It’s a sort of World re-arranging type of magic, rather than the chaotic brand that the Fae use. Kai has his own talents.

The world building is excellent. Just when you think, oh, yes, I’ve seen this, something new happens, a mini zeppelin takes off from the roof of the British Museum, headed for the British Library.  Or at Lord Silver’s ball, when Irene’s just about to get information about the book they are after, her competition strolls in, wearing a stunning Worth gown, with an adoring pack of men. But you’ll have to read it yourself! I’m waiting for the sequel, The Masked City.

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Friday Reads: Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis

livesmonsterdogsA Prussian mad scientist relocates to rural Canada, where he uses his mad science skills to create “monster dogs”. The dogs’ intelligence is boosted.  Instead of paws, they have prosthetic hands on their forelegs, and implanted voice boxes allow the dogs to speak.   They can also walk upright, although some need to use canes for support.  Despite these enhancements, the dogs are treated as virtual slaves in their isolated town—so isolated that it retains the scientist’s 19th-century Prussian culture—until the beasts finally revolt.  In 2008, the monster dogs arrive in Manhattan, wearing top hats and white ties.  Their new city welcomes them and things finally seem to be looking up for the dogs, but a new threat could endanger their entire existence.

If this synopsis sounds appealing, you should probably read this book.  The imaginative premise is definitely the best thing about it.  The blend of walking, talking dogs and their old-fashioned Germanic manners is very compelling, and at times this novel has an almost steampunk-like feel.  The author skillfully merges the fantastic and the antique, especially in elements like the dogs’ opera libretto, which tells the story of their Canadian uprising.

But there are a few slip-ups.  Some of the narration is handled by Cleo Pira, a young writer whom the dogs befriend.  Cleo is not an especially interesting character and her adoption by these fascinating dogs seems kind of Twilighty.  Sometimes she talks a lot about clothes instead of the talking, walking dogs that wear them.  Additionally, some of the plotting is overly loose and the ending seems a bit abrupt and unsatisfying.

But, for me, the monster dogs made up for it.  It’s a very audacious idea for a story and, even if everything doesn’t gel perfectly, this is certainly a memorable read.   This book was published almost twenty years ago and it is, to date, the author’s only novel.   It seems to have gone unnoticed, so here’s hoping that it eventually finds an audience that can appreciate its charms.

Bakis, K. (1997). Lives of the monster dogs: A novel. New York: Warner Books.

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Friday Reads: The Tenth Man: A Novel, by Graham Greene

22944771One advantage I have had over the years with the Nebraska Library Commission is that of being able to visit libraries all over the state – primarily public libraries, but a few other types as well. Often the public libraries have ongoing book sales of both weeded and donated books, usually on a shelf or sale table with suggested prices for paperback, hardbacks, or magazines, sometimes with statements such as, “Donation accepted.” On one fairly recent swing through the western part of the state to do a strategic planning workshop, I paused briefly at a book sale and purchased The Tenth Man, a short novel by Graham Greene.

Of course it was the author’s name that intrigued me, and the recollection of a film based on one of his novels, The Third Man, that caught my attention since I had never heard of a book by him entitled, The Tenth Man (and since the title so closely resembled the more well-known one). A summary of the novel itself is fairly easy and straightforward. The setting is a German prison camp during the World War II era in which political prisoners are forced to draw lots to determine which of every ten men will be executed – a “decimation” order that is apparently similar to what happened in Spain during its Fascist years.

This short novel (about 30,000 words) moves quickly, with the action and dialog quite spare, yet effective. The primary story concerns that of a wealthy attorney who is among the prisoners and who draws one of the marked papers indicating he will be executed (following orders of the prison masters who allow the prisoners themselves to determine who will be sacrificed). The crux of the story is that the attorney desperately offers all his wealth, his home and his land to any other prisoner who will take his place and be executed. He has a taker, and, being an attorney, knows how to put the proper papers together to bring this about to make the destitute man temporarily rich, at least until his death, with his family provided for.

The substitute is executed, and later, after the war has ended, the attorney returns to his former home, passing himself off with a different name and identify. He is, of course, penniless, but he is befriended by the executed prisoner’s sister and her crotchety mother, and is given caretaker-type work there since the family is in a somewhat precarious position. Yet another imposter – as it turns out, an unemployed actor — shows up, claiming to be the surviving attorney and ingratiating himself to the sister.

The story is fairly sparse, as I mentioned, but very well-written. What was most interesting to me, however, was not so much the novel itself, but more how it came about. According to the author, he wrote this novella sometime in 1944, based on an idea he had had in 1937. In 1983 Greene was contacted by an agent in America, telling him that The Tenth Man was being offered by the movie giant MGM for sale to an American publisher. Graham’s memory of the novel was so vague, that he thought he remembered writing a two-page summary of the story idea, not the 30,000 words it turned out to be. Apparently Greene had sold the rights to the novella to MGM under what he deemed a “slave contract” to ensure security for his family’s income.

Graham Greene himself worked for MI6, England’s spy agency. His travels for the agency took him all over the world, and he used many of the settings from his travels in his novels. The Tenth Man is not considered among Greene’s greatest work, but this author’s prolific career of writing novels, short stories, travel books, essays, plays and screen plays bears looking into. The Tenth Man is my introduction to an author I always meant to, but never had read, before this.

 

 

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Friday Reads: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

american_godsAmerican Gods, by Neil Gaiman, is one of those books that my husband has always  insisted I read, but that I’ve put off reading until now.  Why am I reading it now?  Because the TV show, starring Gillian Anderson and Ian McShane (among others), is set to debut in 2017, and I wanted to know the story before I watch the show.

American Gods is the story of Shadow Moon.  Sentenced to three years in prison for robbery, Shadow did his time, quietly waiting for the magic day when he could return to Eagle Point, Indiana. All he wanted was to be with Laura, the wife he deeply loved, and start a new life. But just days before his release, Laura and Shadow’s best friend are killed in an accident. With his life in pieces and nothing to keep him tethered, Shadow accepts a job from a beguiling stranger he meets on the way home, an enigmatic man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. A trickster and rogue, Wednesday seems to know more about Shadow than Shadow does himself.

Life as Wednesday’s bodyguard, driver, and errand boy is far more interesting and dangerous than Shadow ever imagined. It is a job that takes him on a dark and bizarre road trip and introduces him to a host of weird characters whose fates are somehow mysteriously intertwined with his own.

Along the way, Shadow will learn that the past never dies; that everyone, including his beloved Laura, harbors secrets; and that dreams, totems, legends, and myths are more real than we know. Ultimately, he will discover that beneath the placid surface of everyday life, a storm is brewing,  and that he is standing squarely in its path.

I listened to the 10th Anniversary full-cast audio version of American Gods, and was completely drawn in from the very beginning of the author’s introduction.  Neil Gaiman actually traveled the United States while writing this story, so that he could accurately describe Shadow’s road trip on paper.  Gaiman’s masterful descriptions and the actor’s performances brought this story completely to life, and I highly recommend both the book and the audio version.

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Friday Reads: The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg

allgirlfillingstationslastreunionI grew up knowing Fannie Flagg from the ‘70s game show Match Game. Knowing of my love for books and movies, my Southern Uncle took me to visit Juliette, Georgia the actual film location of Fried Green Tomatoes (based on the book of the same name by Fannie Flagg) where a Whistle Stop Café actually exists and operates.  I have thought of Fannie as a comedic personality but having read nearly all of her books, she has a knack for balancing humor with poignant story lines and creating very memorable, sometimes outrageous characters and plots.

Fannie weaves two stories from different families together in this novel. In the first chapter we are introduced to Mrs. Earle Pool Jr., better known to her friends and family as Sookie. Sookie is happily married with four children and a loving husband but unfortunately is burdened with an extraordinarily difficult, high-maintenance mother named Lenore, all living in Alabama in 2005. We are taken back to 1909 Pulaski, Wisconsin and the Jurdabralinsky family. The patriarch, Stanislaw Ludic Jurdabralinsky, emigrated from Poland and he struggles to make a new home for his wife and children by opening a Filling Station that operates with roller skating daughters during WWII. Meanwhile back in 2005, Sookie receives a mysterious registered letter from the Texas Board of Health that puts her identity and her mostly quiet life into a tailspin. The collision of the two stories makes for a delightful read, ending with a twist upon a twist.

The great takeaway of this book for me was learning about the daughters from the Jurdabralinsky family who served in World War II as Women Airforce Service Pilots – WASP for short.

“During the existence of the WASP— 38 women lost their lives while serving their country.  Their bodies were sent home in poorly crafted pine boxes.  Their burial was at the expense of their families or classmates. In fact, there were no gold stars allowed in their parents’ windows; and because they were not considered military, no American flags were allowed on their coffins.  In 1944, General Arnold made a personal request to Congress to militarize the WASP, and it was denied.  Then, on December 7, 1944, in a speech to the last graduating class of WASP, General Arnold said, “You and more than 900 of your sisters have shown you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. I salute you … We of the Army Air Force are proud of you. We will never forget our debt to you.” With victory in WWII almost certain, on December 20, 1944, the WASP were quietly and unceremoniously disbanded.  What is amazing is that there were no honors, no benefits, and very few “thank you’s”.  In fact, just as they had paid their own way to enter training, they had to pay their own way back home after their honorable service to the military.  The WASP military records were immediately sealed, stamped “classified” or “secret”, and filed away in Government archives, unavailable to the historians who wrote the history of WWII or the scholars who compiled the history text books used today, with many of the records not declassified until the 1980s.” taken from: http://www.birdaviationmuseum.com/WASPS.html

This year I read books by Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsberg – both advocates for women’s rights; and while Fannie Flagg writes another kind of book, this title fit in nicely and was a great selection for my book club with many things to discuss. If you enjoy audio books, please consider listening to this book as Fannie Flagg is the narrator. I think you’ll enjoy her comic southern accent and stereotypical Wisconsin accent both of which made me laugh many times.

 

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Friday Reads: The Secret History of Wonder Woman

wonder-womanIn late October the United Nations celebrated Wonder Woman’s 75th birthday by making her an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Woman and Girls.  You may be wondering how a character, known as much for her “pin-up girl” looks as her crime-fighting skills, achieved such an honor.  According to Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2015), Wonder Woman stands “at the very center of the histories of science, law, and politics.” Lepore argues that the man who conceived of Wonder Woman not only drew from the early-twentieth suffrage and feminist movements, but from his life and “the lives of the women he loved.”

Yep, that’s right.  Wonder Woman was created by a man.  Not just any man, but William Moulton Marston, the inventor of the lie detector test.  Marston was a man of many abilities. In addition to inventing components of the modern polygraph, he also worked as a lawyer, filmmaker and taught psychology prior to becoming a comic book writer. His experiments with lie detection and psychology, in conjunction with a belief in women’s superiority, heavily influenced Wonder Woman’s character.  While some of the more suggestive elements later vanished from the strip, Wonder Woman’s feminist message persists.

However, Lepore contends there was more to Marston than met the eye.  Unknown except to a few, Marston shared a home with two women: his legal wife and his mistress.  Marston married Elizabeth Holloway in 1916. Like Marston, Holloway also held degrees in psychology and the law.  Holloway gave birth to two of Marston’s children and worked as an editor and lecturer at American and New York Universities before becoming the assistant to the chief executive at Metropolitan Life Insurance. In the mid-nineteen twenties, Marston became involved with one of his psychology students, Olive Byrne, who also happened to be Margaret Sanger’s niece. Lepore suggests that Holloway allowed Byrne to become Marston’s mistress if Byrne raised Holloway and Marston’s children; permitting Holloway to continue with her career.  In time, Marston was the father of Byrne’s two children.  The entire family shared a home, with each woman fulfilling her designated role in Marston’s life.

Jill Lepore deftly weaves women’s history through Marston’s biography to create a well-rounded biography of Wonder Woman. A close reading of Wonder Woman comic books reveals many of Marston’s beliefs regarding free love, his complex family life (Wonder Woman’s bracelets are said to honor Byrne who wore a similar pair), patterns of deception and feminist and suffrage themes such as enslavement and bondage.  In fact, Lepore argues that “the philosophy of Margaret Sanger’s Woman and the New Race would turn out to be the philosophy of Wonder Woman.” Secret History demonstrates that Wonder Woman is more than skimpy attire and stunning looks, but a pillar of strength and equality – a woman worthy of the title Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Woman and Girls.

 

Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. New York:  Vintage Books, 2015.

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Friday Reads: Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon

manhoodforamateursMichael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He’s been on my radar for years, but I only recently sought out his work after running across a GQ article he wrote about attending Paris Fashion Week with his 13-year-old son. Because his account of the trip—a bar mitzvah present for his fashion-loving son, Abe—was so loving and insightful, I gravitated immediately to Chabon’s collection of personal essays, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son, rather than his fiction.

In Manhood for Amateurs, as the subtitle suggests, Chabon writes about the relationships he’s experienced and the roles he’s played as a boy and a man—son, brother, husband, son-in-law, father.  The essays that resonate most with me are those in which he contemplates fatherhood, a role he clearly cherishes. I think I find them so touching because they echo back to me experiences and feelings I’ve had as a parent.

In “William and I” he laments how little it takes to be considered a good father today (still apparently not much more than taking your 20-month-old grocery shopping with you), compared to what it takes to be considered a good mother (“[p]erhaps performing an emergency tracheotomy with a bic pen on her eldest child while simultaneously nursing her infant and buying two weeks’ worth of healthy but appealing break-time snacks for the entire cast of Lion King, Jr.”). He clearly expects more from himself and expresses reverence at the intimacy you develop with your children as a result of the mundane, day-to-day tedium of raising them, especially through “your contact with their bodies, with their shit and piss, sweat and vomit, . . . with their hair against your lips as you kiss the tops of their heads, with the bones of their shoulders and with the horror of their breath in the morning as they pursue the ancient art of forgetting to brush.”

I think what I appreciate most about Chabon’s essays is their honesty, which is both humorous and poignant. In “The Memory Hole,” Chabon begins with an admission that he and his wife regularly throw away a large percentage of the flood of artwork his four children bring home from school. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to hear another parent admit to this. However, what begins as a self-deprecating account of how they try to manage the influx (“We don’t toss all of it. We keep the good stuff—or what strikes us, in the Zen of that instant between scraping out the lunch box and sorting the mail, as good.”), skillfully transitions into a meditation on how quickly childhood passes, how many moments we squander, and how few clear memories we carry forward with us into the future.

In “The Losers’ Club,” the introductory essay in Manhood, Chabon writes about his failed attempt, as a lonely boy in suburban Maryland, to convene a fellowship of likeminded individuals by founding the Columbia Comic Book Club. (No one attends the inaugural meeting, which results in it also being the final meeting.) It feels like a vindication, therefore, when in “The Amateur Family,” one of the last essays in the book, he describes himself as “the geek matrix of four bright geek spawn.” While this essay revolves around the family’s collective love of the Doctor Who television show, what it really celebrates is the fellowship Chabon shares with his children, and that they share with each other: “In the hands, minds, and geekish chatter of my children, I have found again that long-lost, long-desired connection. Each of us stands ready, at any moment, to talk Who, to riff and spin and sketch out new contours for the world we collectively inhabit, creating and endlessly re-creating the fandom that is our family.”

What I love most about “The Amateur Family” is Chabon’s understanding of the innate human drive to connect with others in “a shared universe of enthusiasm”; the fact that he ultimately finds this connection within his own family just makes the account that much more wonderful. Not surprisingly, his respect for and recognition of this impulse also featured prominently in the GQ article on taking his son to Fashion Week—which is what turned me on to this book of essays in the first place. In the GQ article, it’s Chabon’s appreciation of his son’s need to connect with people who share his love of fashion, an interest that Chabon doesn’t share, that I found so moving. He obviously respected his son’s obsession before the trip, or he wouldn’t have taken him on it; but by the end of the trip he gets it—and his son—in a whole new way.

If you like reading meditations on parenthood, I’d definitely recommend this collection of essays. And if you don’t have time to read whole book, at least check out the GQ article!

Chabon, Michael. Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

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Friday Reads: Books: a Memoir, by Larry McMurtry

booksI’ve been a Larry McMurtry fan since reading Lonesome Dove (1986 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Fiction), the only book I recall reading twice. Most likely, I’ll read it again someday. Since then I’ve read many of McMurtry’s books: The Last Picture Show, Comanche Moon, Dead Man’s Walk, Streets of Laredo, and more. Well known as a prolific novelist, McMurtry also has credits as an Academy Award winning screenwriter (Terms of Endearment, Brokeback Mountain and The Last Picture Show to name some), and has added nonfiction writings including Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen – a wonderful autobiographical reflection on many things – and particularly those things from his home state Texas.

McMurtry self describes as a reader, writer, and bookseller. Add teacher, book scout, dealer, business owner to those descriptors. It is his passion for books, book scouting, and book dealing that many might not know of and that is the subject of Books: A Memoir. In Books, McMurtry reflects on his life-long affinity to all things books. The reader will discover that McMurtry knows books, really knows books – all kinds of books.

It’s curious that McMurtry tells of growing up in a house without books and musing that it is perhaps his discovery of books that led to his lifelong passion for them. The absence of books in his home ended when a relative gave him a box of nineteen books, a small batch that the young McMurtry read and re-read many times. When his family moved from their Texas ranch home to Archer City he had opportunities to explore many other books, including those in the local public library.

McMurtry’s book scouting, buying and selling happened in many places, emphasis on many. And those pursuits resulted in acquaintanceships with many book stores and book dealers – a good number colorfully described in Books. I took special notice when he mentions searching, in San Francisco, for a Weldon Kees’ book, and for Wright Morris’s The Home Place.

McMurtry estimates he’s handled over a million books during his lifetime. His own collection, at the time his book was published, numbered nearly 30,000, including a few thousand reference titles.

For over 30 years McMurtry co-owned, with long-time partner Marcia Carter, the legendary Booked Up book store in Georgetown (Washington DC). Booked Up was moved in the mid ‘90s to McMurtry’s Texas hometown in Archer City, eventually growing to several stores housing some 450,000 books (a true book town somewhat on the order of the notable Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye). Sadly, several years ago, McMurtry sold many of the books in these stores – described by McMurtry as “The Last Book Sale.” Fortunately, it wasn’t and he kept Booked Up No. 1, the original store.

For those who love books and fine writing, McMurtry’s Books will be an enjoyable read. And for those who enjoy book stores there is a great adventure ahead in traveling to Archer City, Texas, to visit McMurtry’s remaining store.

McMurtry, Larry. Books: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. Print.

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