Author Archives: Lisa Kelly

Friday Reads: Reading with Mary

My dear friend Mary, who lives two floors above me, suffered a television outage last winter. This was catastrophic since her TV is always on, serving as companion, entertainer, and white noise. Out of desperation, Mary–who in recent years earnestly believed she’d lost the concentration needed to read an entire book—picked up the copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer that I’d given her. She read it cover to cover; it reminded her of her home in North Carolina, and she loved it! More importantly, she felt triumphant, proving to herself that she COULD still read books!

I wanted to keep her reading momentum going so when Nigella Lawson, a favorite food writer of ours, released a new book called Cook, Eat, and Repeat: Ingredients, Recipes, and Stories, I ordered two copies. We kept a running commentary as we consumed the pages. An entire chapter on anchovies? Are they REALLY the bacon of the sea? Saving and cooking with banana peels was a zero waste solution? Not something either of us will try. But her essay on food as a guilty pleasure?  That was worth rereading together.

Nigella’s book made me think of Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life: A Cookbook, and I bought it for Mary and I listened to my copy a second time. This lead to conversations about Ruth’s other books, many of which Mary owned. Just as she’d somehow missed My Kitchen Year, I’d missed For You Mom, Finally, so Mary happily lent me her copy.

I turned to Mary’s own book stacks for my next recommendation, handing her an unread copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer. As a faithful letter writer and a lover of stationary, I had a feeling she would enjoy this epistolary book. She did and was ready for more.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is mary-2.jpg
Mary in her eclipse sunglasses, August 2017.
Photo credit: Julee Hatton

After I finished reading Andre Leon Talley: The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, I thought it would be a good fit for Mary knowing she had been a Women’s Wear Daily and Vogue subscriber. An added bonus was Andre’s North Carolina nativity. After reading the first chapter she told me she was purposely taking it slow to make it last. Mary took a reading break to watch Wimbledon but once she was finished with Andre, I handed her I.M.: A Memoir by Isaac Mizrahi because I could tell she was still in the mood for fashion designers and had a penchant for biographies.

We next tackled, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free by Paulina Bren, recommended by a coworker. This safe haven for modern, working women was the home to many celebrities including Sylvia Plath, an author Mary had previously researched. We both finished and thought the book was interesting and worthwhile but the finest takeaway was our discussion afterwards.  I was able to ask Mary questions no one had ever asked her before, and she answered them. It was an intimate communion and an evening I will never forget.

Floundering over what to offer Mary next, I ended up loaning her my copy of The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, continuing with the theme of female solidarity. Mary initially greeted this selection with reticence because she grew up in a house with hired help. However, because I’d earned her trust with my previous recommendations, she acquiesced and agreed to try it. She was hooked from the first page! When she finished it a week later, she returned it with high praise and a heartfelt thank you note I will treasure forever.

Having spotted two Rosamunde Pilcher paperbacks in Mary’s collection, I gave her a copy of the The Shell Seekers, confident she would appreciate Penelope, the bohemian protagonist, and the English locations. She finished in a week, sad for it to be over and sharing that she usually skips over description but she read every word in this book. She then expressed concern that she was now spending too much time reading, but she also wanted more Pilcher books!

Most recently–and just in time for the U.S. Open Tennis tournament–I presented her with the new Billie Jean King autobiography, All In. The next day she told me she stayed up way too late the night before, using the index to cherry pick stories, and that she really needed to get more sleep! My copy of All In is on hold at the library, and I’m eager to read it so we can discuss this amazing icon of tennis and gender equality.

I have never experienced this kind of simpatico with another reader. Whatever aligned for us to enjoy so many of the same books at the same time has been a luxury. Our discussions have been a respite from the pandemic and the news, but the biggest gift is learning more about each other and deepening our friendship. It has been such a pleasure to plot Mary’s reading through these last several months, and I must say I’m so grateful Mary’s television stopped working!

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Friday Reads: Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes by Ira Rosen

Who hasn’t heard of 60 Minutes, the iconic show that begins with the sound effect pronouncing Sunday night more effectively than any other time-keeping device ever could?  Ira Rosen, a longtime producer, pulls back the curtain on his years working with the famed newscasters. If you don’t want to know the dirt on these storied men, and it was all men at the beginning, this may not be the book for you. But I think you’ll want to know.

This iconic news program debuted in 1968, created by Don Hewitt and Bill Leonard. The now familiar magazine style newscast pioneered many techniques of investigative journalism including hidden cameras and “gotcha journalism”, the now infamous ambush visits to a home or office of an investigative subject.

Ira Rosen survived 25 years working behind the scenes of 60 minutes and was first assigned to Mike Wallace who said to Rosen “I know what I can do for you. What can you do for me?”  I shouldn’t have been surprised by the description of the smoke-filled, misogynist work place Rosen described. Oversized egos lead to thieving stories and unforgivable, sometimes inhumane behavior. With story after story, what is clear is that Mike Wallace was a deplorable, horrible man, with tremendous journalistic skills.

Certain parts of this book will make you cheer for journalism the way All the President’s Men and Spotlight did in cinema. That news can be a force for good and actually make a difference is something I often forget. The heart of a good journalist is not about tabloid questions but actually making a difference. In his years in the news business, Rosen and his colleagues did just that.

Rosen, Ira. Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes, New York: St. Martin’s Press 2021,

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Friday Reads: All the Devils are Here by Louise Penny

My colleague Tessa Terry reviewed the Inspector Gamache series in 2018. This book is the latest (#16) in the series and takes place in Paris. It begins with the entire family walking home from a bistro dinner only to witness Armand’s godfather; Stephen Horowitz, violently hit and run over by a van. To Armand’s eyes, this is no accident, but the French Police aren’t convinced.

Series readers love the stability of spending time with beloved characters in a familiar place. This book leaves the usual setting of Three Pines (a small town in Quebec) and takes place primarily in Paris. French names were a challenge, keeping track of who was friend or foe, which was part of the plot twist. Working out of his jurisdiction Chief Inspector Gamache relies upon his librarian wife, Reine-Marie, a local librarian, and his family members to help discover the truth about his godfather’s attacker.

Tessa mentioned the narrator Ralph Cosham in her first review. From Audiofile Magazine: We are saddened that Ralph Cosham passed away in September 2014.  His voice for Gamache is described as one that “combines British intellectual with a Frenchman’s warmth … it’s as if those two got married–and Gamache would be their son.” From Louise Penny’s newsletter: “after this tragic loss, we finally have our new voice for the books … he’s a British actor named Robert Bathurst, best known in North America for his role in Downton Abbey.”  I was delighted that Bathurst recently beat Tom Hank’s in this past year’s Audie Awards for best Male Narrator for his recording of Louise Penny’s Kingdom of the Blind. For a devoted series reader/listener, the narrator is as important as the text. I can personally vouch for both narrators.

If you are looking for some Pandemic reading (or listening), that will take you away from your living room to a small Canadian town with colorful characters, look no further. Here is the series listing if you prefer to read them in order.

Penny, Louise. All the Devils are Here   Minotaur Books. 2020.

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Dr. Becky Pasco is retiring!

After 23 years as the Director of the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Library Science Education programs, Dr. Becky Pasco is retiring on December 18, 2020 and heading off to new adventures. Dr. Sara Churchill is taking over as the Director of the Graduate School Library Education program at UNO. Erica Rose will continue as the Coordinator for the Undergraduate Library Science Education programs at UNO. Inquiries for information regarding the UNO Library Science Education programs should be directed as follows:

Dr. Sara Churchill
schurchill@unomaha.edu
Graduate School Library program

Erica Rose
ecrose@unomaha.edu
Undergraduate Library Science programs

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Friday Reads: Break Shot: My First 21 Years by James Taylor

More accurately described – Friday listens, this title is available exclusively from Audible.com. Break Shot was recorded by James in his home studio, TheBarn in western Massachusetts and released in conjunction with his 19th studio album, American Standard. At only an hour and a half, I listened twice, enjoying it even more the second time. It begins with the following: “I’m James Taylor and I’m a professional autobiographer. I usually talk about myself with a guitar in my hand and I have one now.” James explains that the title is an analogy for his tight knit family that eventually split apart “like a break shot in the game of pool … when you slam the cue ball into the fifteen other balls and they all go flying off.”  James and his four siblings were raised with great privilege in North Carolina in the ‘60’s but the family fell apart. Three of the four kids ended up in psychiatric hospitals.  Drug and alcohol addiction took their toll.

Despite coming from a family of doctors and lawyers, James wasn’t interested in college. His parents supported his decision to spend tuition money on a flight to London. This trip provided the pivotal moment of his life. Through life-long friend Danny Kortchmar, James met with Peter Asher, the head of A&R (Artist & Repertoire) at Apple Records and played his demo tape.  Peter liked what he heard and recalls calling out,  “is there a Beatle in the house?”  James auditioned for Paul McCartney and George Harrison with the song Something in the Way She Moves. James’ first album James Taylor, was the first recording by a non-British artist released by Apple Records in 1968.

Break Shot didn’t provide a great deal of revelatory information, so much of James’ life is in his lyrics, but the storytelling intertwined with the recorded songs provided an experience you can’t have with a printed book. This audio memoir was for me, a private concert. This recording is part of a new series, Words+Music, Audible’s musical storytelling initiative. With other exclusive music biographies by Tom Morello, Common, St. Vincent, Sheryl Crow, and T Bone Burnett, I hope other audio publishers will begin providing similar recordings.

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Open by Appointment beginning Monday July 6th

Beginning Monday July 6th, the Nebraska Library Commission will be open by appointment only. Appointments can be made by calling 402/471-2045,  800/307-2665, or emailing nlc.ask@nebraska.gov.  Staff will be wearing masks to protect you, and we ask that you wear a mask to protect staff. If you do not have a mask, one will be provided.  Use of hand sanitizer is required of all visitors upon entry.  Public restrooms and water fountains will be unavailable to visitors so please plan accordingly.  All pickups and drop offs can be transacted at a designated table near the front door.

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Friday Reads: The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig

I read this novel for my book club and was grateful to have discovered the Montana author, Ivan Doig, who unfortunately died in 2015. The Bartender’s Tale is a slow and pleasant read. It has the pace of a nice morning walk through a small rural Montana community where everyone knows your business.

The book takes place in 1960 and begins with Tom Harry, the owner of a well-worn bar called The Medicine Lodge as he drives to his sister’s home in Arizona to reclaim his 12-year-old son Rusty.  The atypical single father and son forge a new life together based largely in and around the bar. At The Medicine Lodge, life-long lessons in treating people right are more than just good business practice. Tom is something of a local ombudsman in every way but by election. 


Rusty knows that his mother and father split the blanket shortly after he was born but nothing much beyond that.  Rusty befriends Zoe, the daughter of the couple who own The Spot – an average eatery down the street – who is also new to town. Their jokes, laughs, and shtick are typical of kids coming of age. Their favorite thing to do is to listen to conversations through the vent in the back room of the bar; an activity that provides a curriculum of adult vocabulary and sex education.


When Del Robertson shows up with a grant-funded project through the Library of Congress to record people’s stories, there is a shift of focus for Tom and Rusty. They assist Del in helping persuade often-unwilling volunteers agree to participate. Then, another disruption named Proxy (a nickname for her hair color) arrives in a red Cadillac with her moody 21-year-old daughter in tow. Proxy has a past with Tom, from another bar named The Blue Eagle, and everyone seems to know that these still waters run deep. 

This was a book I was sad to finish. Despite Doig’s death, I’m grateful to know that he completed 12 books in this series. Even though this book is 10th in the series, this book worked quite well on its own.

Doig, Ivan. The Bartender’s Tale. Riverhead Books, 2012

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Friday Reads: Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving by Mo Rocca

Mo Rocca is a multi-talented actor, humorist, and journalist on various radio and television programs. I became a fan listening to him on National Public Radio’s Quiz Show – Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and watching him on CBS Sunday Morning. Because Mo is the narrator, I knew I would not be disappointed with this audiobook.

A Mobituary, as Rocca defines it, is “an appreciation for someone who didn’t get the love she or he deserved the first time around.” What I particularly loved about this book is that Mo’s cultural points of reference often parallel mine.  A good example was the love shown for Audrey Hepburn who died the day of Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Hepburn’s younger son, Luca Dotti, explained, “his mother suffered from severe malnourishment at the end of World War II, weighing only 88 pounds… the stress of the war stayed with his mother the rest of her life, but she hid it well. My mother was then a survivor … you always have this duality – you are happy to be alive, but you have this sense of guilt because the person next door didn’t make it.”  Hepburn’s older son Sean Ferrer, explained: “I think that this is one of the reasons why she wanted to do the UNICEF work, is that she remembered so vividly herself and her emotions as a little girl and living through the war.”

This book sheds light on many other celebrities, politicians, landmarks, trends, and trees. While not nearly as much in love with Barbra Streisand as Mo, (a very alive Streisand is included in the Fanny Brice chapter), I laughed out loud listening to Mo’s ruminations on both women. I had no idea Herbert Hoover saved Europe from starvation during WWI using his engineering abilities before he became a US President. Also laudable are the Mobituaries on the historic figures memorialized by rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike, the death of several fashion trends, and the loss of Auburn University’s famed oak trees. Mo completes his book with a Mobituary on his father Marcel (1929-2004) who resumed his teenage trumpet playing at age 50 in the cellar of their home. It was because of his father that Mo learned to love obituaries. A fitting end to an excellent collection of remembrances.  https://www.mobituaries.com/

Rocca, Mo. Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019

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Friday Reads: A Keeper by Graham Norton

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

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

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

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

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Friday Reads: Heart Land by Kimberly Stuart

I read Heart Land to highlight this author’s visit to our upcoming Nebraska Book Festival September 7th in Lincoln.  I could have easily shared this book with my mom as it fits into the genre of authors she liked including Jan Karon and Rosamunde Pilcher.  This book follows the Hallmark movie recipe of an urban woman interrupting her hectic life to return to her rural hometown. Upon her arrival, she discovers love and a new appreciation for a slower pace of life.

Such is the case with Grace Kleren, who graduated top of her class from the Fashion Institute of Technology with dreams of being a successful clothing designer.  Having lost both of her parents in a car crash as a teen, she suffered a crisis of faith. Grace is fired from her job after pitching her clothing line to the boss, and unable to pay the bills, she returns to her Iowa hometown to live with her Grandma Gigi. On her first day job hunting, she almost runs over her high school boyfriend Tucker. Happily, there are no injuries but finding a way to earn a living requires some ingenuity.

Working with Gigi, the Church Sewing Club, and some vintage fabric, Grace finds a new and lucrative way to exhibit her design creativity. A few postings on Etsy prove that others also appreciate her design aesthetic. Soon she receives national attention in an online fashion magazine and an invitation to New York. As Grace navigates the conflicts between her head and her heart, her journey is about finding her own truth and what matters most. All of this happens with the encouragement of those who have always loved her in rural Iowa, where life is less exciting, but a good place to sort out Plan B.

Stuart, Kimberly. Heart Land. Howard Books (2018)

 

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Remembering Toni Morrison

We are saddened by the loss of Nobel laureate  Toni Morrison. The Library Commission has several of her titles in the book club collection that your book club may wish to read in her honor.

Beloved, 21 copies
The Bluest Eye, 13 copies
Home, 1 copy
Jazz, 5 copies
A Mercy, 2 copies
Paradise, 11 copies
Song of Solomon, 8 copies
Sula, 12 copies

“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” – Toni Morrison

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Friday Reads: I.M.: A Memoir by Isaac Mizrahi

When I shelved books as a high school student at the Beatrice Public Library, there was an entire room dedicated to biographies and I never understood the popularity. Sometime around the beginning of the millennium, I started listening to this genre and now I understand the appeal, especially when the author has the required talent to read his or her own material. Learning about the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of someone else’s life can give perspective to your own. Recently I listened to Isaac Mizrahi read his autobiography, I.M: A Memoir. As a gentile from the heartland, learning about a young Syrian Jew growing up in Brooklyn was a little like binge watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, except from a gay male perspective.

Isaac shares stories of his life with two older sisters and his fashion forward mother, Sarah. Fabric and clothing design were passions as a young boy as was constructing puppets with the sewing machine his father gave him. Isaac provided critiques on his sisters’ ensembles for the high holidays and paid close attention to how his mother shopped, accessorized, and was stylish on a budget. His father, Zeke, manufactured children’s clothing, selling coats and suits to stores like JCPenney and Sears. This was Isaac’s first exposure to the retail industry.  Isaac’s relationship with his father was often difficult. At Yeshivah of Flatbush, an Orthodox Jewish school, the faculty told Isaac that God hated homosexuals and his father’s sentiments echoed this intolerance. The early death of Zeke demanded many religious obligations for Isaac to perform none of which he was able to complete with total conviction. This loss gave Isaac the opportunity to come out to his family, but remaining faithful to Judaism in the long term was untenable.

Isaac worked for Perry Ellis, Ralph Lauren, and others, leading him to begin designing his own clothing. He debuted his first signature line in 1987. Many of us remember Joan Rivers asking “who are you wearing?” to be answered with the name Isaac Mizrahi. The nature of life in a clothing design studio can be frenetic and unhinged, racing to meet deadlines and trying to satisfy high profile and often-difficult clients. The 1995 documentary Unzipped is an iconic representation of this period in fashion featuring many of the supermodels and personalities of the ‘90s. It highlights Isaac preparing for his 1994 fall collection after receiving critical reviews from his previous show.

Struggling with his own body image and insomnia were constant difficulties in his multi-faceted career, from hosting talk shows to cabaret singing. Ending his clothing line and transitioning to other projects, the speed of life settled into a more comfortable and healthy pace. Now Isaac is a spokesperson for his brand on QVC and is a judge on Project Runway All Stars. He continues to live in New York City with his husband Arnold and their two rescue dogs. Since his birth, the world has been Isaac’s stage. I only wish the stages were a little closer to the Midwest.

Mizrahi, Isaac. I.M.: A Memoir. New York: Flatiron Books, 2019

 

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Friday Reads: The Keeper of Lost Causes: The First Department Q Novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen

This book came to me by way of a recommendation from a book club member who also reads mysteries and series. I have read Nordic Noir authors Jo Nesbo, Steig Larsson, and Henning Mankell, but I had not read any books from the Department Q Series by the Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen. All of the authors have a reputation for their dark descriptions of crime, twisted plots, and grizzled detectives. This book follows a popular recipe for sleuths: troubled personal relationships, inability to get along with co-workers, abuser of substances, and a brilliant deductive mind. The plot goes back and forth between the last week Detective Carl Mørck was a homicide detective and the present, when he is assigned to lead a newly created Department Q – a literal closet in the basement of the police department where the most difficult cold cases reside.

Thinking this is a promotion, Carl soon realizes this position will take him out of action. The first case he selects from boxes and boxes of cold cases involves trying to find a missing politician captured five years ago and assumed by many to be dead. Carl is assigned a staff of one – a man with a mysterious past named Hafez el-Assad. Initially Carl views Assad as not much more than a driver and personal assistant, but Assad makes himself a real partner in solving cases and becomes invaluable to the department.  At home, Carl is separated from his wife Vigga, is a sometimes guardian to his stepson, and is in need of the rent that is paid by his opera-loving lodger to make ends meet. This book will take you on a ride that is sinister and horrifying. Expect that with Nordic Noir.

For those who have Amazon Prime, the first three books in the Department Q series are also films in Danish with subtitles. I found the casting to be spot on and the Danish countryside both beautiful and foreboding.

Adler-Olsen, Jussi,  The Keeper of Lost Causes: The First Department Q Novel. New York: Dutton, 2011.

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Friday Reads: Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks

Who knew Tom Hanks was an author? Even though his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, my introduction came through his book entitled Uncommon Type: Some Stories – a collection of seventeen short stories written (and read in the audio form) by Tom Hanks. This review is specific to the audio version and each short story revealed itself to me as a brief movie performed by Hanks. Tom’s narrative is visual and I saw characters and entire sets because his voice is so closely associated to the medium of film. Interestingly, when one of his stories intersected with subject matter Hanks had previously portrayed in a movie (space travel for example), I could not help but think of that particular corresponding movie and this was not an interrupter, but an enhancement. This book was enjoyable if only for the sake of having Tom’s voice in my ear. Just like listening to Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Tina Fey, or Carol Burnett read their own work, it is the quality, comfort, and familiarity of the voice that adds pleasure to the text.

Some stories were more enjoyable than others were and the ones that I really enjoyed have stayed with me. Hank’s first story is about two best friends from elementary school who turn their life-long friendship into a romance against their friend’s advice. The second is about a WWII veteran who makes an annual Christmas Eve call to his friend who saved his life in battle on Christmas Eve not so many years ago. Another story is about a newly divorced  woman with clairvoyant skills who moves with her three children to Green Street. The acceptance she feels from her new neighbors helps her embrace her new life. I am typically not very excited about a collection of short stories, but I very much enjoyed my time with these.

Hanks, Tom. Uncommon Type: Some Stories. New York: Knopf. 2017

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Friday Reads: Canada by Mike Myers

Canada by Mike Myers
Publisher: Doubleday Canada (October 22, 2016)

This title came to my attention on July 1st aka Canada Day as the daily special from Audible. I was intrigued, downloaded the title, and eagerly began listening. It helps that the author of whom I have long been a fan reads this title.

Myers begins with the premise that Canada lacks a mission statement. The country promises to provide good government and a safe place to live but is that enough? The inevitable comparisons to life in the United States make up a great deal of content. He compares regional colloquialisms, health care, the love of hockey, and the government supported CBC to their American counterparts. The United States does not propagate information about Canada so there may be many episodes in Canadian history that will be new information. To drive this point home, when my curiosity was piqued for the Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, I looked for books to read more about him from my local library, but there were none.

Mike Myers was born to two Liverpudlian parents who immigrated to Canada for better employment opportunities. English parents making a life in Canada caused a clash of culture. Mike shares how the values of his parents and the humor of his brothers Peter and Paul shaped his worldview and brand of comedy. One of the attributes of his father in often-difficult situations was a non-rhetorical question of “how can we make this funny?”

Mike shares how his character Wayne Campbell (Wayne’s World) is a quintessential Canadian creation, specifically from the Scarborough district of Montreal, dissecting everything from his language to his name. Other Saturday Night Live characters also owe their origin to Mike’s Canadian and British upbringing.  With Canadian, British, and United States Citizenship, it’s clear that Mike Myers is a very proud Canadian patriot despite being an expatriate.

Myers, Mike (2016) Canada. Doubleday Canada

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Friday Reads: Night School by Lee Child

A member of my book group recently had us read Night School, the 21st entry in Lee Child’s very successful Jack Reacher series. While I’ve often felt it can be more difficult to have good conversations about genre titles, I’m happy to report we found plenty to discuss.

If you are a Lee Child reader, you know that the books feature Jack Reacher – a loner, drifting from place to place after mustering out of the Army in 1997 with the rank of Major.  He does not own a home, possess a driver’s license, or collect federal benefits. The only item typically in his possession is a toothbrush and he never carries luggage of any sort.  In Night School, Child resets the clock and places Reacher back in the army as a military policeman – part of the fictional 110th Special Investigations Unit formed to handle exceptionally difficult cases. The book begins with Reacher receiving an award for completing a successful covert operation in the morning, and by the afternoon, he’s reporting to night school.

His classmates include an FBI agent and a CIA analyst, both of whom also recently completed successful covert operations. Wondering what this school is about they receive the following background briefing: “[A] Jihadist sleeper cell in Hamburg, Germany, has received an unexpected visitor—a Saudi courier, seeking safe haven while waiting to rendezvous with persons unknown. A CIA asset, undercover inside the cell, has overheard the courier whisper a chilling message: The American wants a hundred million dollars.” From here, we follow Reacher and his classmates trying to determine what could be worth a hundred million dollars.

On the Lee Child website, I found an article by Stav Sherez entitled “Five reasons why the Jack Reacher novels are brilliant.” The fact is that even though the books are hugely popular, they often fail to garner much critical respect –as is often the case with series, genre books. The most discussable point of the article for me was that “…the Reacher books are Westerns in disguise and this goes a long way to explaining why they are so phenomenally popular…. Reacher is the classic silent stranger who rides into town and saves the small folk from rapacious bullies.” I would have never thought of Child’s books as westerns, but endings where justice is served are always satisfying.

I asked my group if reading this series in order was essential and the answer was no.  Each book could be a standalone because each is uniquely episodic and Reacher’s personal life does not change or progress dramatically from title to title. Similarly, plots for the Jack Reacher movies starring Tom Cruise have been cherry picked from the series based on those most suitable for cinema (One Shot #9 and Never Go Back #18), as opposed to series order.  We also discussed why people read series (and why some do not) and overwhelmingly series reader do not want to leave the character when others are perfectly happy to do so. When I asked if Jack Reacher could be someone they knew, all of the readers of the series said – he is real to me. As long as Lee Child continues to write, Jack Reacher remains safely in our group of literary friends.

Child, Lee. Night School. New York: Delacorte Press, 2016

 

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Friday reads: The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog by Dave Barry

Stressed out by the festive season? Need a light read? A Dave Barry book might be just what the doctor ordered. And if it’s holiday-themed, all the better. The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog was a gift from my sister to add to my collection of annual reading.  It’s about Doug Barnes, an adolescent boy in the ‘60s with a family and a beloved dog named Frank. Frank is quite elderly, and Doug’s mom and dad have already started the conversation about the difficult and inevitable loss that lies ahead.

The story takes place during Christmas, when the annual pageant at St. John’s Episcopal Church is pressing upon Doug and his sister Becky. On a bitter Christmas Eve, a call to beckon Frank from the backyard does not yield a result. How will the family break the news to Becky, who is cast in the host of angels? How will Doug, who made the discovery, rise to the occasion of helping his parents? And how will the family deal with this sadness when everyone is due at the church in a few hours to perform their roles without tear stained faces?

Enter a cast of characters and a rescue dog named Walter. While the topic of pet-loss may not seem to lend itself to a holiday read, remember–this story is told by Dave Barry, who wields a pen to blend both levity and poignancy to produce a smile with a few tears or maybe even some laughter. Also remember that the word “miracle” appears in the title. That may help you decide this short read might be worth your time.

Navigating the holidays often includes a long list of things to do, and for many of us the lack of light can make the endless treadmill of tasks more exhausting. Sitting still with someone else’s story, true or imagined, may help you take a quick and necessary respite.

Barry, Dave. The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006.

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Friday Reads: My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

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

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

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

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

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The Harry Potter Series is 20 Years Old

It’s been 20 years since the British publisher Bloomsbury released J.K. Rowling’s debut novel. It’s unfathomable to recall that the initial print run was only 500 copies, contrasted with the more than 450 million copies sold after the series was complete. Rowling tweeted the following to mark the occasion:

The impact of the arrival of Harry, Ron, and Hermione into our lives not to mention on book publishing trends has been profound. The long duration of Rowling’s books on the New York Times Bestseller list caused the split into adult and children’s titles because of the need for ‘more room’ for other authors.  Despite this new sorting, readers of all ages waited in bookstore lines at midnight for their copies, Amazon promised home deliveries on publication dates, and many families had to purchase multiple copies because sharing would have been difficult. The impending arrival of the ‘next’ book in the series was the closest thing I felt to the Christmas Eve giddiness of my childhood. Twenty years later, we have a wildly successful film franchise, Oscar nominated soundtracks composed by John Williams,  a new film series called Fantastic Beasts, a Harry Potter Theme Park, video games, and a website devoted for fans called Pottermore. To mark this happy occasion, we asked how Nebraska Library Commission staff started reading the Harry Potter books and what Hogwarts House they would belong to according to the sorting hat. Here are our responses:

“It’s not exactly exciting, but my mom checked it out from the North Platte library around the time it came out. It was sitting on the table, I was bored, and I picked it up.” – Holli Duggan, Continuing Education Coordinator – Slytherin

“I apparently had been living under a rock and did not find out about Harry Potter until after the third movie had come out. After I watched that, my friends basically threw the book at my head. By the time I turned the last page of Sorcerer’s Stone I was hooked.” – Amanda Sweet, Reader Services Advisor -Gryffindor

“My mother wanted to review the book for age appropriateness before she would gift it to my younger cousin.  This was shortly after the third book had been released and the hype over the book series had come to a rolling boil.” – Anna Walter, Reader Services Advisor – Slytherin

“My daughter started reading them in 4th grade, and loved them so much I started listening to them on CD.” – Mary Sauers, Government Services Librarian -Hufflepuff

“I didn’t read Harry Potter until I started working in a library; the first book came out as I was finishing high school and I didn’t have time to read much fiction during college, so it wasn’t really on my radar until much later.  I picked up the audio version, narrated by Jim Dale, to listen to while I worked on a home renovation project several years ago, and was instantly hooked.  I listed to all 7 books back-to-back. That was the most fun I’ve ever had refinishing woodwork!” – Aimee Owen, Information Services Librarian – Gryffindor

“I came to Harry Potter by way of a co-worker who was reading the books to her kids. She loaned me the first two in the series and I bought the third and took it on vacation with me. I was transported. Rowling’s characters, setting, language, and story got me through one of the most difficult times in my life. Escaping to Hogwarts was literally a lifesaver. Then I discovered Jim Dale’s amazing narration and my family moved holidays to coincide with movie release dates. In every format, I am grateful for Jo Rowling and Harry Potter.”  Lisa Kelly, Information Services Director – Ravenclaw

“I read the first Harry Potter book as part of a six-person book review event that happened twice a year live via satellite and recorded on videotapes – it was sponsored by the Library Commission.  I was rapidly reading lots of books and I remember my comments about Harry being “it’s a fun fantasy…kids will like it…magic is popular with this age group…” – a rather bland endorsement.  When the second title was released it was in another reviewer’s batch so I couldn’t read it until after the live review session.  By then the third book had just been released.  I took my car during my lunch break and drove directly to the book store and bought my copy of book three, starting to read it that evening.  For some reason, I didn’t get hooked until book 2, but I have been an enthusiastic fan ever since.”  Sally Snyder, Coordinator Children & YA Library Services – Hufflepuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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