Tag Archives: Friday Reads

Friday Reads: Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach

Do you ever go outside? Are you going to have to make small talk sometime in the near future? Do you have any curiosity about the natural world? Then Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach, is the book for you.

Of course, the law in question here is human law, and you can be sure that plants, animals and birds don’t really care about breaking these laws. (Which recalls the story Roach tells us, of the person complaining about the placement of a deer crossing sign on a busy stretch of road—wondering why the local authorities were encouraging deer to cross there.) This book is about how humans react and adapt to nature’s lawbreakers—and how we try to get nature to adapt to us. With varying degrees of success.

You’ll read about bears getting really clever about getting to human food (like opening refrigerators and moving egg cartons, without breaking eggs, to get to the good stuff behind them). There’s also the Australian army’s losing battle against farm-foraging emus. Do you have a guess what creature the FAA says is the most dangerous to aircraft? Chances are that you’re wrong, but this book will explain it. You’ll find out why scarecrows don’t work and why macaques will pickpocket your cell phone. (It’s because they know you will bribe them with food to get it back. Roach purposely gets mugged by a monkey to make sure.)

Mary Roach writes popular science texts on a variety of subjects, and she does hands-on, in-person research and interviews with colorful characters and experts in the field of the book topic. In this book, she rides along with scientists who point out eagle nests and hand her badger droppings, among other activities. She relates to and sympathizes with the real people she uses as resources for her books, understanding where they are at in the big picture she is trying to paint for the reader. She handles their human concerns with grace and respect. And she has a healthy respect for every other creature we humans share the natural world with. All of these stories are interjected with many humorous observations–and plenty of anecdotes to amaze your family and friends.

I’m listening to the audiobook on CD in my car as I commute and run errands. There are some things I appreciate about this audiobook and some things I don’t like as much. The author reads the book, and she does a great job. Her vocal delivery is clear, and personable, and a good choice for a book so full of one-liners that another narrator might not realize are supposed to be funny. I didn’t like that the audio tracks were over twenty minutes long. Sometimes I wanted to rewind and hear a part again, which is not unusual for a book I’m listening to while I’m driving, especially in a book so dense with facts and information. While it would be easy to rewind within tracks on a digital audio book, it’s not as easy to rewind within tracks on a CD heard on a car stereo. I do realize most audiobook listening isn’t happening on car stereo CD players these days.

(I also checked the print book out of the library so I could check some facts against my memory of what I heard. Isn’t it great to be able to get both formats from my public library? Yes, yes it is.)

Roach, M. (2021). Fuzz: When nature breaks the law.

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Friday Reads: Run, Rose, Run by Dolly Parton and James Patterson

Run, Rose, Run and the accompanying music cd with the same name came out just in time for me to give to my sister for her birthday. She is a big Dolly Parton fan and I was interested in reading and listening to the music at the same time. I was also interested in a book/music combination. The audiobook was read with multiple narrators including Dolly Parton whose voice I love. Unfortunately, the songs performed in the book were spoken as poetry, not sung. Inserting musical interludes in the story as they were performed could have offered a unique and brilliant audio experience. A missed opportunity in my opinion.

Even though this is a typical Patterson thriller, it was the music industry part of the novel and the character Dolly narrated (Ruthanna) that made me interested in listening. Ruthanna is a newly retired country music singer who is ready to stop touring and singing even though her fans want more. AnnieLee (aka Rose) is a young, talented, singer songwriter newly arrived in Nashville, eager to launch her career with nothing but talent, tenacity, and something she needs to leave behind.

Ruthanna takes on AnnieLee as her protégé sharing her band, her recording studio, and business saavy. After reading a romance that was low angst, it is exactly the angst of AnnieLee’s past and her secret that fuel the plot and make her run, repeatedly. Hence the title and the earworm of the song Run.  

For me, the secret was predictable and fueled the finale in a chase across the country. In a thriller, the story begins like a roller coaster clicking up the incline, tick, tick, tick, tick. Then the drop begins, all hell breaks loose, and you race to the end. I read into the night and was glad to know the conclusion which was about what I predicted, almost. When my sister finished, our reactions were very much the same. As readers of mysteries and thrillers, this one didn’t stand out as something either one of us would recommend but we enjoyed talking about it together.  We also enjoyed the music, given more context from the book.  Reading books with one person is my new book group so I was grateful to have an opportunity to share with my sister.

Parton, Dolly and James Patterson. Run, Rose, Run. ‎ Little, Brown and Company. 2022.

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Friday Reads: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Beautifully written, with poetic prose, this novel is haunting in its storytelling. Set in a world where even the most common animals are on the verge of extinction, the skies are empty of birds, and the seas have been fished to nothing. Franny Stone has been tied to the ocean for as long as she can remember, her wandering spirit has always led her back to its cold embrace. Once again, she’s left everything behind, this time for a research trip. She’ll try and follow the only remaining flock of Arctic terns across the Atlantic, on what might be their last migration. Franny will have to convince a Captain and his eclectic crew to take her on this journey, with the lure of following the terns to herring. A desperate last-ditch effort to find fish in the sea. Told from Franny’s point of view, the story flashes back and forth from the present expedition to her past, explaining how her life has ended up here. Ornithology and natural sciences take a front seat in this story that is at times, both uplifting and heartbreaking. The perfect read for fans of strong and unique female main characters. “Migrations” is Australian author, Charlotte McConaghy’s, first foray into adult fiction. Her second novel “Once There Were Wolves,” published in August 2021, is next on my to-read list.

McConaghy, Charlotte. Migrations: A Novel. Flatiron Books. 2020.

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Friday Reads: The Four Winds: A Novel by Kristin Hannah

The Four Winds is a historical novel with true to life elements from a period of deep despair. Kristin Hannah’s book is about hard times, America in the 1930s – the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, with millions of people unemployed and struggling to meet day-to-day needs. It is a book about survival, family relationships, courage, and endurance.

The Four Winds reminded me of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a book I read many years ago and among the most disturbing I’ve ever read. In Hannah’s book, it is the Martinelli family. In Steinbeck’s, it is the Joads.

The Four Winds is told mostly through the eyes and voice of Elsa Martinelli. The story begins in the Texas Panhandle, a rural community – a typical small town with surrounding farms. The story moves from the prosperous times preceding the Great Depression to years of poverty and hardship as drought and dust storms transform millions of acres of landscape and turn the economy upside down. Martinelli, married with young children, struggles to overcome life-robbing elements. Family relationships are tested. There is betrayal, and there are strained relationships between Elsa and her headstrong teenage daughter Loreda. Tension grows with the seemingly never-ending drought and the prospects of leaving the farm to join the thousands migrating westward for a perceived better life in California.

Readers describe the book as depressing, but it presents a compelling and difficult to forget story. Libraries and librarians contribute to the story, and in a positive way.  

The audiobook (Macmillan Audio) includes an interview with Kristin Hannah and skilled narrator Julia Whelan. The interview offers interesting and helpful historical background – the author’s research and approach to writing the novel, and the narrator’s preparation and narration methods.

Among Kristin Hannah’s books are the notable The Nightingale, The Great Alone, and Winter Garden.

Hannah, Kristin. The Four Winds: A Novel. William Morrow. 2021.

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Friday Reads: Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama: A Memoir

In Nebraska, the comedic figure and dramatic actor Bob Odenkirk exists only in black and white. His two roles that are set in the cornhusker state – Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska and the Omaha vignettes of the popular television series Better Call Saul – are presented on a screen devoid of color. These hardscrabble visuals are in stark contrast to the majority of Odenkirk’s work recounted in his new book, Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama: A Memoir. This is a variegated trail of memories, from the earliest days as a comedy student loitering around Chicago’s Second City to an unlikely turn as a bone-crunching action star in last year’s Nobody.

The Comedy Comedy Comedy portion of the memoir establishes Odenkirk as a one-man U.S. history of alternative comedy. Starting out as a writer, Odenkirk penned some of the more innovative sketches that appeared on Saturday Night Live from 1987 – 1995, and he regularly worked for shows too ahead of their time to commercially succeed in mainstream television, such as the meta-sitcom Get a Life and The Ben Stiller Show.

These jobs would lead to roles in The Larry Sanders Show and a project he co-created, wrote, and performed: Mr. Show, a kaleidoscopic sketch comedy series that continues to influence entertainment and uncannily forecast real life. Some of the current spate of dueling campaign commercials for Nebraska governor, for example, would not seem out of place in the absurd Mr. Show universe.

Comedy…Drama also documents Odenkirk’s journey into more “serious” acting roles that mine the pathos always near the heart of even his silliest giggle-getters. The author’s down-to-earth and consistently funny tone does much to convince the reader of something lofty – that Odenkirk is on an artist’s journey full of risk and uncertainty. For those familiar with his comedy career, the book is a great resource for information about lesser known and unknown projects, like the sketch group The Birthday Boys, the 1989 one-man show Half My Face Is a Clown, and a number of failed pilots for series that never happened.

Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama: A Memoir arrives right as Odenkirk’s most well-known role begins its denouement in the last season of Better Call Saul. Saul Goodman, the crooked lawyer from Breaking Bad, is now Gene, disguised and working as a manager at a Cinnabon in Omaha. It will be fascinating to watch Bob Odenkirk inhabit this character one last time. Saul has always seemed compelled beyond his will to make decisions that will inevitably lead to tragedy. Is it an unavoidable fate, or can he re-saturate his world with color?           

Odenkirk, Bob. Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2022.

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Friday Reads: The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

As a long-time fan of the murder mystery genre, I have come to love a certain trope of the genre: closed circle mysteries. In these stories, only a limited number of suspects could possibly have perpetrated the crime, and they often take place in isolated or small settings. Classic examples of this trope include Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile where the murders take place on a train and a steamer boat respectively. Lucy Foley has become a modern master of the closed circle mystery trope and her most recent release, The Paris Apartment, does not disappoint.

At the start of The Paris Apartment, we find our main character, Jess, arriving at an upscale Paris apartment building late at night to visit her half-brother, Ben. When he is not there in his third floor apartment to greet Jess upon her arrival, she embarks on a dangerous investigation to find her missing brother. Each resident of the building knows something and each of them has something to hide. There is an angry alcoholic, the quintessential nice guy next door, a sheltered young woman and her party animal roommate, a steely socialite, and an observant and ever-present building concierge.

Foley’s writing takes you through the mystery at a breakneck pace, expertly exposing twists and revealing secrets. Although on a few occasions the characters are in other locations around Paris, the setting of the apartment building is so eerie and claustrophobic that it feels almost like a character itself playing a major role in the unfolding of the mystery. Fans of Agatha Christie novels or movies like Knives Out will delight in the fast-paced mystery with a cast of questionable characters in Lucy Foley’s The Paris Apartment.

Foley, Lucy. The Paris Apartment. New York: William Morrow, 2022.

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Friday Reads: Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of the Sopranos

There are very few guys (even the pacifists), if they are really being honest with themselves, who would disagree with the notion that at least sometimes they think or wish they could handle disputes like they do on The Sopranos. Very few. And by stating this reality, I’m not saying that those individuals actually would; I’m just saying they wish they could. Argument with some Putz at the store? Traffic road rage? Disagreement at work? Who doesn’t daydream about handling such disputes in the same fashion that Furio Giunta would?  There are also other examples besides the “Furio way” that an average Joe might imagine he could handle conflict resolution, of course. Cliff Booth from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood most certainly comes to mind as such a role model. The point is not the ultra-violent acts, but rather the calmness and confidence that accompanies the action. Now, enough of this tangent, let’s get to the book.

Many of you may have at least heard of Talking Sopranos, a podcast started by actors Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) and Steve Shirripa (Bobby Baccalieri), and this book (Woke Up This Morning) is basically the condensed highlights version of the podcast. If you don’t want to take the time to wade through each of the podcasts, I’d recommend this book. Easy to read and entertaining. Frequent guests on the podcast include the series actors, writers, set designers, and others that worked on the show’s production. Some quick highlights:

  • Steve Shirripa is not nearly as big as Bobby Baccalieri. He wore a fat suit for most episodes, and during the show was actually about the same size as James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano). Around 230 pounds. Ginny Sack (played by Denise Borino-Quinn) also wore such a suit.
  • Furio, played by Federico Castelluccio, while born in Napes, Italy, grew up in Patterson, NJ (since he was 3).
  • Tony Sirico (Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri) is shockingly similar in real life to the character he played. When an episode was set to take place in Paulie’s apartment, the directors went to Tony’s actual apartment, then re-created it for the show.
  • The episode “A Don Doesn’t Wear Shorts” was written after James Gandolfini received a phone call on his cell phone from an unknown number, and the caller said, mysteriously, “A Don never wears shorts”.
  • Matthew Weiner wrote for The Sopranos from 2004-2007, before Mad Men.

I intend to watch some of these podcasts at a future date. The book (and likely the podcast) sometimes comes across as highbrow back patting about this and that (actors and their “art”); however, overall there is many interesting things to be learned by this behind the scenes book and corresponding podcasts.

Finally, for the record, I’m disappointed by David Chase using The Sopranos theme song, and actors Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Meadow Soprano) and Robert Iler (AJ Soprano) to peddle on behalf of Chevrolet. Watch the show (or re-watch it), not the commercial. And to David Chase: You don’t need the money, so why would you do it? To summarize this, I must quote Tom Waits (substitute “song” for “show” in the passage below):

“It’s no wonder a corporation would want to hitch a ride on the spell these songs cast and encourage you to buy soft drinks, underwear or automobiles while you’re in the trance. Artists who take money for ads poison and pervert their songs. It reduces them to the level of a jingle, a word that describes the sound of change in your pocket, which is what your songs become. Remember, when you sell your songs for commercials, you are selling your audience as well.

When I was a kid, if I saw an artist I admired doing a commercial, I’d think, “Too bad, he must really need the money.” But now it’s so pervasive. It’s a virus. Artists are lining up to do ads. The money and exposure are too tantalizing for most artists to decline. Corporations are hoping to hijack a culture’s memories for their product. They want an artist’s audience, credibility, good will and all the energy the songs have gathered as well as given over the years. They suck the life and meaning from the songs and impregnate them with promises of a better life with their product.”

Imperioli, Michael and Shirripa, Steve. Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of the Sopranos. William Morrow, 2021.

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Friday Reads: Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake

I first read Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake last winter with my kids, who both enjoy humor and talking animals (who doesn’t, right?). A story of an unlikely friendship, Badger and Skunk must learn to co-exist in Aunt Lula’s brownstone. Quiet Badger has lived contentedly alone, doing Important Rock Work, when a knock on the door heralds the arrival of his new roommate, Skunk. An arrival Badger would have foreseen had he checked his mail more often and read Aunt Lula’s letter informing him of her decision to invite Skunk into the house. Alas, he had not and the knock is an unpleasant surprise. Now Badger’s world is chaos: no quiet time for reflection and Important Rock Work, piles of dishes to scrub after Skunk cooks them both delicious meals, an errant potato left in the corner of the kitchen. And the chickens! It’s too much for one Badger to bear. Change is hard, but sometimes even the most stubborn of Badgers will realize that life is better with a good friend.

This book was reread this past week by my 11-year-old to present as a book report, and an Important Brownstone Diorama is in the works on our kitchen table. We both highly recommend this first book in the series, as a read-aloud if you are more like Skunk, or as a quiet read-alone if you are more Badger-like. We are currently awaiting the arrival of the sequel in the mail, which we check about as often as a certain Badger.

Timberlake, Amy. Skunk and Badger. ‎ Chapel Hill, North Carolina : Algonquin Young Readers, 2020.

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Friday Reads: Heroes’ Feast: The Official D&D Cookbook

From the Wizards of the Coast description of Heroes’ Feast: The Official D&D Cookbook, by Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Michael Witwer:

“80 recipes inspired by the magical world of Dungeons & Dragons – perfect for a solo quest or a feast shared with fellow adventurers.”

This cookbook “invites fantasy lovers to learn about their favorite fictional cultures through their unique cuisines and lifestyles. With this book, you can prepare dishes delicate enough to dine like elves and their drow cousins or hearty enough to feast like a dwarven clan or a boisterous orcish horde. All eighty dishes – developed by a professional chef from one of the country’s top test kitchens – are delicious, easy to prepare, and composed of wholesome ingredients readily found in our world.”

Being long-time D&D players, my husband and I just had to have this cookbook. Sometimes you take a risk with these themed books. But, in this case, it was worth it.

The book is divided into six sections. First there are the five Cuisines: Human, Elven, Dwarven, Halfling, and Uncommon, followed by the final chapter, Elixirs & Ales.

Each section begins with a deep dive into that particular culture. At the beginning of each individual recipe, there is a short explanation about it or suggestions on how to use it. The writers are D&D experts, and it shows. They really know how to pull you into the realms and the fare of each of these peoples.

The first recipe my husband tried was the Yawning Portal Buttermilk Biscuits. This was actually his first time ever making buttermilk biscuits. And they were a huge success! Very moist and with a great flavor.

So, the recipes in this cookbook are legitimately good. I can’t wait to try more!

Of course, anyone who has played D&D before will enjoy Heroes’ Feast. But, with all of the lore that’s included, it’s also a good introduction for those who are curious about this world. So, roll your D20, grab a plate, and dig in!

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Friday Reads, Out of My Heart, by Sharon M. Draper

A year after the events in the March 2010 title, Out of My Mind, we join Melody during summer vacation.  She wants to go to camp and has researched camps that are designed to provide experiences for children with disabilities.  The Green Glades Therapeutic Recreational Camp – here comes Melody!  Her experiences are believable, her apprehension as well as eagerness to go and to participate. The reader learns more about Melody and her feelings, hopes, and readiness for adventure. 

For the first time in her life, Melody has friends, though it takes just a little while for her campmates to gel into true friends.  Her parents, especially her mother, are reassured that each camper will have a camp counselor assigned to them all day (and night) every day.  Melody was thinking she didn’t want to be monitored all the time, like her younger sister, she is 12 after all. 

But then, during the week she is at camp, Melody faces several new situations.  She is scared to get into the pool – what if she sinks? Trinity, her counselor, is there for her.  They go for a ride around the lake on a pontoon boat – what if it takes on water? No problem, Trinity is there.  But horses, they are huge, and how can Melody ride one?  The camp has it all worked out and Trinity rides with her.

Some of the best things about this book are all the wonderful new experiences for Melody, the safety of the camp, and her new friends.  Also, there are no mean girls or bullies.  It may seem like a week of unbelievable opportunities – but there are camps like this around the country.  Readers who wanted to know what happened next for Melody, after the first book, will be surprised and happy for Melody’s first camp experience.

Draper, Sharon M. Out of My Heart. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. ISBN 978-1-6659-0216-8.

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Friday Reads: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

They kept raising their hands excitedly to high-five, for they had discovered something even better than being soulmates: that they were exactly, and happily, and hopelessly, the same amount of online (118).

To be “Online” is to immediately call your girlfriend when researching the author of the book you read and find out, to your shrieking delight, that the author also the author of The Miette Tweet. “No way!” Thought I. “She wrote The Miette Tweet!?” shrieked my girlfriend. We knew her! We knew her before she wrote this book — and of course she wrote this book! And if that experience of discovery (and the parasocial feelings it triggered) wasn’t in some sort of spirit of No One is Talking About This, I’m not sure what else to say.

What I wanted to read was a tragedy, and a tragedy from the present moment. I have been trying to work my way through The Iliad (trans. Caroline Alexander) and its gravity was too much; Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad by Alice Oswald was better, but it was still too distant from what I felt now. When the reviews for No One is Talking About This told me that Part One was hilarious (or incomprehensible nonsense, depending on how “Online” one was), but that Part Two would cleave your heart in half and leave you unseamed, I dove right in.

No One is Talking About This is a stream-of-consciousness series of “portal entries” (read: Tweets) that follow an unnamed woman who becomes famous for the viral hit of “Can a dog be twins?” Elevated into the comedic spotlight and now an Influencer, she globe-trots to offer her Neodadistic philosophies. All the while, a sense of emptiness chases her. There’s a frantic pulse behind the words she throws out into the portal with her fellow portal dwellers — the familiar questions of “Are we just going to keep doing this till we die? … Are we in hell?” (12) There’s a feeling, which perhaps anyone who has been online too long has encountered, of trying to get one’s hands around the nonsense of everything and shake it so hard that something falls out, so that we can grab that thing and shake it and demand, “what does it mean? what does it all mean?”

Then, a text from her mother: “Something has gone wrong. How fast can you get here?” (119) And the whole of reality — the one that you cannot unplug from — comes crashing in, inescapable.

In the end, I wrestled slightly with my categorization of this book as a tragedy. But I think it holds. Here is a character, and her family, and what they go through is suffering (although it is not all suffering). But it does not end “happily,” in the way that there will be a miracle that stops the inevitable, that turns the ending; there is no deus ex machina. What I wanted from tragedy — what I think we all seek, from tragedy; why we watch Hamlet and Macbeth fret their petty hours on the stage, why we watch the war-gates of Troy open in celebration — is catharsis. To know how it will all end, to face it, to weep, and then to rise up again, wiser. Lighter. I wept through the ending of the book but I was not left hopeless and adrift.

If you are not chronically Online, you might struggle with Part One, but Lockwood’s prose and profundity throughout might guide you around the seeming nonsense (I myself have never been a dedicated Twitter user; I came of age on a different blue hellsite). If you don’t think No One is Talking About This would be your jam, at least please read about Lockwood’s cat, Miette, who is Twitter famous, and speaks in a British accent.

No One is Talking About This was shortlisted for both the 2021 Booker Prize and the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It is Lockwood’s debut novel.

Lockwood, Patricia. No One Is Talking about This. Riverhead Books, 2021.

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Friday Reads, The Councillor, by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor, by E.J. Beaton, is high fantasy, with a Machiavellian twist, whose author’s first book was poetry. It adds to the flavor and fits the pageantry of this political fantasy. The world building is interesting—a lot is accepted as normal, such as men and women both being soldiers, business leaders, politicians, artisans. And Lysande, herself, the Palace Scholar, is a woman in service to the Queen of Elier, who is called the Steel Queen. The Queen herself picked Lysande out of an orphanage to become the Palace Scholar. And raised and befriended her from that point on. She also receives an envelope, making her the Councillor, on the death of the queen, to pick the next heir to the throne. A duty that leaves her very uneasy.

Not only are men and women equals, it even seems, in an understated way, women are expected to be the leaders. Lysande herself, as well as the queen, are taller than the commander of the castle force. The majority of the rulers of the nation had been queens, no few of them warriors. Primogeniture doesn’t seem to be the usual way of naming a successor. Sexuality is more fluid, attraction and romance is not confined to heterosexual conventions. And, all of this is in the background.

I very much enjoyed this fictional debut. So much of the world building is just part of the story. Lysande was in an orphanage as well as many other children, due to a long war freeing the populace from the threat of the “White Queen”, a magically endowed contender for the throne. Magic users are known as elementals, and are magically in power of an element, such as earth, fire, water. At one time in the distant past, the Elementals were the rulers of the country, until they were cast down. Leaving the populace very anti-magic, to the point of executing anyone suspected of being an Elemental. A point of the law Lysande has often debated with the queen.

Lysande is an interesting, flawed character, herself. She never seems to think it unusual that the queen should take so much interest in her although as the Royal Scholar, she is still a commoner. The nobility, here called silver bloods, certainly never let her forget her humble beginnings. She even keeps her lover, a friend from the orphanage, a secret, from everyone in the castle. Partially in compensation for her perceived shortcomings, she takes a magical drug, made of the scales of a chimera, an extinct magical beast. However, all her study of history of the reigns, wars, and kingdoms of the realm serve her well in dealing with the four city rulers who come to be considered for the throne.

The story is not a simple sword & sorcery, but a political, renaissance type tale, mostly told from a complex character’s viewpoint about the difficulty in deciding who should reign over the realm. There is even a sequel that I hope follows up on some of the dangling threads left at the end, and I am definitely looking forward to it.

The Councillor, by E. J. Beaton, DAW Books, Inc., 2021, ISBN978-0-7564-1699-7

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Friday Reads: The Business of Building a Better World & Compassionate Careers

I’ll just put it out there: Income inequality disturbs me, and I have a special dislike for businesses that put profits before people. This book does too. The Business of Building a Better World outlines the changes that need to take place for businesses to support humanity, rather than treat people like human capital. To me, this statement seems obvious. People are human and want to know that the work they do everyday means something. Businesses should help solve climate change, gender and racial inequalities, environmental issues, oceans polluted by plastics, and more. Even if social change is not the core mission, businesses shouldn’t make the problem worse.

Yet this book is described as “a visionary look at the future of business”. As someone who has worked in nonprofits and libraries her whole life, I remain baffled that this concept is new. Luckily, this book isn’t the only one talking about how to change the business world for the better. I chose this book for this review because the title does not include “social change”, “social justice”, “manifesto”, or any number of other overwhelming or potentially triggering worlds.

Published recently in November 2021, this book acts as a summary, using stories and articles to show how businesses need to change to support the world. The book focuses on changes to leadership, from management practices to a shift in core values. Yet I read the book for a different reason.

I’ve been helping libraries build resources related to technology, skill-building, and the future of work. Like many, I realized that both leaders and employees need to change. Employees need to change the way they vet out employers and decide what to do for a living.

Look at the flip side in Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference, by Jeffrey W. Pryor. Part of the incentive for businesses to change is for employees to demand change and communicate the desire for work that makes the world better. By shifting the way we look at existing and future jobs, we can all make a difference.

We can’t have one side of the coin without the other. Leaders and employees need to work together. Neither book should be revolutionary. Nobody should bat an eye because the concepts are so obvious. People deserve to work under leadership that treats them like humans who are part of the wider world. Leaders should only be leaders if they understand what matters to people and how their organization can support the wider world.

Try to say it out loud: I deserve work that matters in the world. We all do. Our collective systems should support work that builds a better world. How did that feel? Could you get the words out? Did the words come naturally, or did your tongue feel thick with disbelief and anguish that future generations could have meaningful work while you did not?

Read The Business of Building a Better World and Compassionate Careers if you want the world to suck less in the future. As libraries continue to support job searches, career exploration, and the search for personal identity, maybe we help turn the tide for the better.

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Friday Reads: The House in the Cerulean Sea” by T.J. Klune

I’ve probably said it before but if you’re anything like me reading has recently become kind of a chore. After recently getting a dedicated e-reader the total volume of my reading has increased, just from the sheer volume of titles now available to me at the click of a button, but I was still having a hard time finding a book that I thought deserved particular attention. That is until I found this week’s book.

“The House in the Cerulean Sea” is the sweetest little novel, and a surprisingly quick read, written by T.J. Klune. It takes place in a fantasy world, not unlike earth,  that follows the life of one Linus Baker, a caseworker for the Department In Charge of Magical Youth. At DICOMY his job is to evaluate the orphanages the department runs when situations arise, including the facilities and the masters in charge of each one. Although not uncaring Linus is proud of his ability to do his work by the book, literally a 900+ page volume entitled “Rules and Regulations” that he purchased from the company and lugs with him wherever he goes. It is because of this attention to the rules that Linus is given a special assignment by Extremely Upper Management to evaluate one of their more extraordinary orphanages.

An orphaned gnome, who keeps the most beautiful garden, and a shy young man who, when overtaken by extreme anxiety, turns into a Pomeranian are just a few of the children that give this orphanage its life and color, a very different setting than Linus’s usual drab gray life. Over the month that Linus has been given to evaluate the home, he is confronted with how living by the book can not only be restrictive of life and all it has to offer but may end up being detrimental, too.

If you’re looking for a cozy read that makes you think a bit “The House in the Cerulean Sea” fits the bill perfectly. I’ve heard good things about his most recent book “Under the Whispering Door” and it’s now on the top of my to-be-read book pile. Could this mark the end of my reading slump?

Klune, T.J. The House in the Cerulean Sea. New York: Tor, 2020.

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Friday Reads: Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Patrick Radden Keefe’s latest book, Empire of Pain, released on April 12, 2021, is a timely account of three generations of the Sackler family and the role they’ve played in the ongoing opioid crisis. It starts out as a classic American rags-to-riches story–three entrepreneurial brothers, born to poor immigrant parents in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, who succeed beyond their wildest dreams, winding up as billionaire philanthropists. It also tells a darker tale of corporate greed, coupled with personal hubris, leading to devastating social consequences.

Most of us know a bit about the Sacklers, due to media coverage of the multiple lawsuits filed against their privately owned company, Purdue Pharma, which manufactures and markets OxyContin. Purdue Pharma introduced this highly addictive extended-release painkiller to the market in 1996, and it was a game changer. Indeed, many view its arrival on the scene as the most significant precipitating event leading to the now-decades-long opioid epidemic.

If you want to know more, Keefe’s extensively researched book provides compelling evidence of why this family and their pharmaceutical company are viewed as culpable. And sadly, it feels like a too-familiar narrative:

  • There’s the FDA employee who, shortly after overseeing approval of OxyContin, wound up accepting a well-paid position with Purdue Pharma.
  • There’s the misleading marketing strategy of touting OxyContin as less addictive and less prone to abuse because of its time-release coating, even though company insiders knew from monitoring online discussion groups that users were crushing and chewing the drug to get a bigger “hit.”
  • There’s the sales force that continued to call on and sell to doctors who were clearly running pill mills, because of unending pressure to increase revenue.
  • And finally, there is the pathological refusal of family members to accept any responsibility for the problems that proliferated in conjunction with OxyContin sales. They seemed to view reports of OxyContin-related addiction and overdose deaths as PR problems that unfairly sullied the reputation of Purdue’s prized product, not as human tragedies: Addicts were the victimizers and Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers were the victims.

If you’re a fan of corporate exposes, this book will be right down your alley. It would also be a good companion read if you are watching the limited series Dopesick, now streaming on Hulu.

Keefe, Patrick Radden. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. New York: Doubleday, 2021.

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Friday Reads: The Forgotten Botanist : Sara Plummer Lemmon’s Life of Science and Art

Every once in awhile, a book comes along that, even though it is non-fiction, is so well written that it reads like a novel. The Forgotten Botanist : Sara Plummer Lemmon’s Life of Science and Art, by Wynne Brown, is just such a book. I was drawn in immediately by Ms. Brown’s eye for detail and well written narrative of Sara Plummer Lemmon’s life, loves, and scientific contributions to the field of botany.

The Forgotten Botanist is the story of an extraordinary woman who, in 1870, was driven by ill health to leave the East Coast for a new life in the West—alone. At thirty-three, Sara Plummer relocated to Santa Barbara, where she established the town’s first library and taught herself botany. Ten years later she married botanist John Gill Lemmon, and together the two discovered hundreds of new plant species, many of them illustrated by Sara, an accomplished artist. Although she became an acknowledged botanical expert and lecturer, Sara’s considerable contributions to scientific knowledge were credited merely as “J.G. Lemmon & wife.”

The Forgotten Botanist chronicles Sara’s remarkable life, in which she and JG found new plant species in Arizona, California, Oregon, and Mexico and traveled throughout the Southwest with such friends as John Muir and Clara Barton. Sara also found time to work as a journalist and as an activist in women’s suffrage and forest conservation.

The Forgotten Botanist is a timeless tale about a woman who discovered who she was by leaving everything behind. Her inspiring story is one of resilience, determination, and courage—and is as relevant to our nation today as it was in her own time.

*Courtesy of University of Nebraska Press

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Friday Reads: The Unexpected Universe, by Loren Eiseley

If a Mount Rushmore of Nebraska literary figures were ever to be carved into the Dakota sandstone through which Lincoln’s Salt Creek flows, the bespectacled visage of Loren Eiseley would have to be considered for inclusion. Eiseley (1907 – 1977), a renowned paleontologist, anthropologist, poet, and science writer, was born in Lincoln and spent his formative years here (his early childhood home on South Street still stands and there is a Lincoln City Libraries branch named after him), establishing a lifelong pattern of wandering widely, often alone, and investigating what nature revealed to him.

Eiseley is a compelling writer because his interpretation of these clues is always an amalgam of hard science knowledge, compassionate humanism, and a sort of stoic poetry that often seems to stop just short of surrendering to the void. This is particularly true of the ten essays that comprise his 1969 book, The Unexpected Universe. Each essay is a set piece built around some image or experience that has profoundly affected Eiseley, and he spends the essay turning his scientific eye inward — examining his own emotional strata and why he is, to use modern parlance, so “shook” — and outward, drawing upon a classical set of allusions that include Plato, Shakespeare, Darwin, Emerson, Thoreau and others to frame the piece in context for the reader.

Similar to the transcendentalist modes of Thoreau and Emerson, being alive in human form is ultimately a cosmic mystery for Eiseley, and life is a quest for meaning. These essays suggest that this meaning or understanding tends to emerge in coded disguise, such as the letter-like markings of an alphabet shell, a suddenly recalled memory of a “junkman” and his horse-drawn cart at the corner of R and 13th in 1923, or a giant cecropia moth that invades an outdoor theatrical play staged under the lights. These sparks of connection with the rest of the universe are fleeting, leaving the author perhaps even more alone than he realized before.

In this sense, The Unexpected Universe is truly a product of its cultural-historical moment in the late 1960s, the same zeitgeist that infuses Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, created right before human beings placed one of our own on the moon on July 21, 1969. After decades of sci-fi pulp fiction speculation about encountering other intelligent life forms on other planets, the reality of the vast emptiness of outer space and the lonely human position within it became more apparent. 

The evolutionary anthropologist Eiseley reminds us that it was always so. However, within matter there is solid-arity: throughout the book he imbues most every living thing and once-living thing with the mythopoeic quest of Odysseus, at one point even lamenting individual blood cells reaching their adventure’s end as they pool below his head after a fall. Reading Eiseley is an exercise in heightened awareness of the microcosmic, macrocosmic, and long geologic history of the earth that offers a renewed sense of how special it is to be alive in this moment.

Eiseley, Loren C. The Unexpected Universe. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.

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Friday Reads: Celebrating Jolabokaflod

Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood” in English, is the Icelandic tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve and reading into the night. Here are two books I am gifting my friends Vern and Jon for their Christmas Eve reading.

Vern was born the same day and year as Stanley Tucci and honestly, there are some passages in Taste that make me believe there could be something to birthday twins being similar. Vern’s husband Jon is a huge Foo Fighters fan, and all the press Dave Grohl’s book, The Storyteller, received made me curious to learn more about this musician’s life.  I think it is helpful (mandatory?) to read a book before you gift it because giving books can be a burden to the recipient — if you don’t believe in the book, why should they? I’m pretty certain I have a sure thing with both titles.

For those who aren’t familiar with Stanley Tucci, he became an internet sensation this past spring for his viral instructional video on mixing a negroni which is, incidentally, the very first recipe in his book. The recipe concludes with the following instructions: sit down, drink it, declaring, “the sun is now in your stomach.” Tucci’s book is a memoir through the lens of food. There are chapters on his Italian parents and their traditions; the family’s year spent living in Italy; restaurants and life in New York as a young actor; food on several film sets and locations; food with his wife, Kate; life in London with his wife, Felicity; and surviving tongue cancer. This book also complements the CNN Series Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, which aired earlier this year and is still available for viewing on demand if you missed it the first time around. And good news, there is confirmation of season two!

I devoured this book, and knowing I would be sharing it with Vern I consumed it with anticipatory glee, imagining his reactions. And even though I listened to Tucci narrate the audio edition of his book, I used post it notes to mark certain passages in Vern’s print edition that I hoped would stand out. I predict the New York chapter and the Meryl Streep Julie and Julia chapter will be favorites. I read a review of this audiobook that said “listening to this memoir is not a completely successful experience,” but in my opinion that reviewer is simply wrong. While it’s nice to have the recipes in print, listening to Tucci speak Italian and curse makes the audio preferable to me.  During the pandemic, armchair travel was all many of us could do, and if Italy is on your list? Get Tucci’s book, watch his series, boil some pasta, and you’ll be halfway to celebrating la dolce vita!

As a former musician, I found Grohl’s process of coming to music as a vocation fascinating. Like the Beatles and my personal favorite, James Taylor, Grohl never learned to read music.  Dave taught himself to play by fastidiously listening to music and literally making the drum sounds with his teeth, leading his dentist to wonder what caused his early dental deterioration. Because he couldn’t rely on written music, there was a memorization that made the music a part of him. He does admit to taking one drum lesson where he was told he was holding his sticks wrong, but that was his only formal education. Grohl also described how he experienced music through synesthesia – a process when hearing music makes you see shapes or smell something specific. It is, quite literally, “a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses.”

The relationship between Dave and his mom is also one to cherish. Her counsel and support to a son who was danger prone (a frequent visitor to the ER) and not driven to scholarly success was affirming to read, especially knowing that it all worked out in the end. As a single mom, he describes her as his best friend. This famous relationship is documented in a book written by Virginia Grohl: From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars .

After reading several memoirs and biographies, I have to comment that Dave’s attention to his relationships lacks details. Describing a particular recording session, he mentions his marriage was falling apart, and unless I missed it there was no prior mention of a marriage. He begins another paragraph with a phone conversation to his mom by saying, “Mom, we’re having a girl.”  It’s possible wives past and present wanted little mention in the book or maybe that’s just the way Dave rolls. The overall takeaway for me is that Dave is driven and deeply introspective in a way that has served him well. I admired his ability to make and maintain friends throughout his life and his tenacious optimism.

And – if you’re wondering what my neighbor Mary is reading? Once I found the very first book in the Mitford Series in her book stacks, she was completely engaged with these characters and the North Carolina setting. She read all of the books in a couple of months. She followed the series by reading the Stanley Tucci book I loaned her and has now started on the Louise Penny Inspector Gamach series.  I gave her a copy of Rosamund Pilcher’s Winter Solstice for her birthday in October and we read it together for the holiday, a book that I learned she had purchased years ago and I located recently, tucked away in her collection. I only brought back to her what she had already found but had forgotten about. Happy Jolabokaflod everyone!

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Friday Reads: Maisie Dobbs Series by Jacqueline Winspear

The Maisie Dobbs mystery series begins in 1929 with Dobbs, a psychologist and investigator, opening her own detective agency. With 16 books to date in the series, the 17th is set to be out this March, Winspear has been writing this character for over 18 years. The heroine, Maisie Dobbs, is a physiological detective solving all kinds of cases including murders and missing persons in the heart of London. Her inclusion of non-western methods such as meditation and intuition make for a thoughtful and all-encompassing approach to solving mysteries. Working as a nurse on the Front during WWI, war and its effects play a large role in Dobb’s storylines as well as crossing society’s class lines. As a fan of mysteries, procedurals, and detective books in general, I find a certain comfort in Winspear’s series. The thrill solving the mysteries is there without some of the more graphic aspects you might find in other crime novels. I love the female lead in a mostly male occupation as well as the thought-provoking nature of the stories. The Maisie Dobbs series is perfect for readers who already love Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Armand Gamache. 

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Friday Reads: Stephen King. On Writing.

I have read only one Stephen King book and that is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I read the book several years ago and recently listened to the twentieth anniversary edition audiobook (narrated by King). The title suggests that the book covers more than writing. It is every bit as much a memoir, and an interesting one indeed. Included are experiences from early childhood growing up in a financially stressed home, and his early years as a struggling writer contributing essays and short stories for magazine publication. There is also his lengthy and difficult recovery from a near fatal accident.

Notable is the astonishing experience of being notified that his novel, Carrie, was accepted for publication by Doubleday and that he would receive a $2,500 advance against royalties. That happened while he was a lowly paid high school English teacher, and after his wife pulled his pages from the trash and encouraged him to keep writing. King thought he had written a loser. New American Library later purchased the paperback rights for $400,000. From there King has gone on to become one of the bestselling authors of all time.

King offers his views on writing as a craft with observations such as “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” King says that he writes daily and strives for 2000 words per day. His encouragement to writers is to make writing a daily habit. He credits the Elements of Style (Strunk and White) as a basic and valuable source. Oh, and he dislikes adverbs. King is quoted as saying “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”   

King has received nearly as many awards as he has published books. He has written over sixty novels, several non-fiction books, hundreds of short stories, and with hundreds of millions copies sold. Among many of King’s awards is the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

The twentieth anniversary audio edition includes Owen King reading his essay, “Recording Audiobooks for My Dad, Stephen King.” This, along with King’s excellent narration, makes the audio version a good choice.  

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Simon & Schuster. 2020.

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