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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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Friday Reads: Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News, by Eric Berkowitz

Dangerous Ideas

I didn’t know what to expect from Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News, by Eric Berkowitz. It was on the new audiobook display at the public library when I went in to grab some holds. I hadn’t heard any advance press, and didn’t know anything about the author. And of course I have some strong opinions about the subject matter—what library worker doesn’t? I decided to give it a chance, and I’m glad I did.  

Berkowitz is a lawyer and a journalist, and there is impressive scholarship here, with new angles on histories you think you might already know. It’s refreshing to read these new insights on familiar chronicles. It’s also interesting to see the long narrative arc of censorship through the centuries, and how there are periods of progress and regression, and how technology changes the conversation.

The historical insight on the use of censorship in Ancient Greece and Rome helps inform the history I’ve already learned, and I also think it would be interesting for someone without that previous grounding. The section on medieval England definitely draws some clear lines from then to now, and the evolution of the “marketplace of ideas.”

The section on WWII is especially interesting, and it gave me many anecdotes to share with others. I read about how censors in many countries changed standards quickly, as feelings about involvement in war changed—and how when alliances changed, censorship followed. And how changes in censorship informed the public’s feelings about the war.

The author’s observations of the modern era are clear-eyed, and he doesn’t pretend to have answers he can’t have. This might frustrate some readers, but I found it honest, and without the stridence that usually underlies discussions of censorship today. The author does note how censorship is changing with new media, and I think anyone interested in this topic would benefit from engaging with this discussion.

Berkowitz, Eric. Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News. 2021.

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Friday Reads: The Sneetches

Written in 1961 (with a variant early edition published by Redbook magazine in 1953), this book contains The Sneetches and, well, other stories (The Zax, Too Many Daves, and What Was I Scared Of?). Add The Sneetches to the list of Dr. Seuss material that provides a valuable life lesson that today’s society has completely discarded or forgotten. It is by far the highlight of this collection. A classic story of us v.s. them, diversity, and tolerance, The Sneetches further expands on these notions with the addition of a capitalistic villain who takes advantage of and pits the star bellied Sneetches against their non-starred counterparts. The parallels to the world we live in today are uncanny. The Zax expands on The Sneetches and provides a lesson about stubbornness, as a north travelling Zax meets a south travelling Zax, and both refuse to move out of the way of the other one. Too Many Daves tells the story, of well, a lady who named all of her kids Dave (all 23 of them), and, you guessed it, regrets her decision. Finally, What Was I Scared Of? tells the story of a young guy who is scared of a pair of pants (who wouldn’t be scared of a talking pair of pants?), but in this case, the pants are just as scared – of the scared guy. A classic example of perception. Many of the books published by Seuss ultimately circle back to lessons of differing viewpoints, open-mindedness, and acceptance, and The Sneetches is no different.

Seuss, Dr. The Sneetches and Other Stories. New York: Random House. 1961.

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Friday Reads: “Come Fly With Me: the Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am” by Julia Cooke

If you’ve spent the pandemic grounded as I have, you may enjoy the escape to exotic locates found in Julia Cooke’s Come Fly the World: the Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am.

Following the career progression of three Pan Am flight attendants, Cooke also delves into the evolution of the career itself from the 1950s through the ’70s. Many young women vied for the job of globe-trotting stewardess, but few possessed both the physical attributes (height and weight requirements) and education (a college degree and fluency in two languages were expected), combined with the poise and grace needed to deal with unruly passengers and remain calm in mid-air emergencies. Those who did were rewarded with the opportunity to see the world, shop in foreign markets, and establish themselves as independent women with their own income, with the caveat that they were expected to retire at the age of 26 or upon getting married.

These women were often on the forefront of world events, from Cold War espionage to shuttling U.S. troops on R&R trips out of Vietnam. Flight attendants on layovers in Moscow were surveilled by the Russian government, and planes were shot at in war zones.

They were also often on the leading edge of the feminist movement, pressing the industry for changes in uniforms and physical requirements, as well as allowing married and pregnant women to continue working, and helping men gain entry into the profession.

If your impression of flight attendants is more “Coffee, tea, or me?” than “I am woman, hear me roar”, you will find Cooke’s history of the profession, with it’s glamour and grit, as fascinating as I did.

Cooke, Julia. Come Fly With Me: the Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am. Marine Books, 2021.

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Friday Reads: Star Wars: Ronin: A Visions Novel by Emma Mieko Candon

I am my own blood,
and these are my own people.
Never again do I serve the Jedi.
Never again do I yield to their lords.

―The Ronin

Star Wars: Ronin: A Visions Novel, the debut novel by Emma Mieko Candon, is inspired by the first episode of the anime anthology series Star Wars: Visions, ‘The Duel’. The series is a re-envisioning of the Star Wars universe, with each episode an original story produced by various Japanese animation studios.

The novel begins with re-telling ‘The Duel’, the story of a lone wandering Ronin and his droid, B5-56, who come upon a village besieged by Stormtrooper bandits. The Ronin fights their leader in an attempt to free the village from them. But the novel provides more background and details, giving a better understanding of the anime episode. Then it continues with the Ronin’s further travels and battles throughout the Outer Rim.

Just like the anime series it is based on, Ronin is not part of the official Star Wars canon. It’s an alternate history of the Jedi and the Sith, in which the Jedi are feudal clans and loyal servants in their Empire. The Sith are a sect of the Jedi who attempted a rebellion against the status quo, but failed.

It is well known that George Lucas was influenced by Japanese cinema when creating Star Wars, and that same influence is well-represented here. Ronin is Star Wars set in a fully realized Japanese culture. That’s no surprise, as the novel is written by a fourth-generation Japanese-American.

With it’s more fantasy style of story-telling, Ronin is very different from other Star Wars novels. And I mean that in a good way. If you’re unsure if Star Wars literature is for you, I recommend trying Ronin. It is both completely separate form the Star Wars you know, and completely embraces it at the same time.

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Friday Reads: Garlic & the Vampire by Bree Paulsen

Since it is nearly Halloween, it seems appropriate to discuss a title that includes a vampire.  This is a full-color graphic novel aimed at the upper elementary school level.  A group of vegetables animated by a witch to help with the gardening and selling of vegetables has reached consciousness – they are aware of what they do and how it helps the townspeople.  The have distinct personalities.

Their peaceful life is completely thrown when Potato notices smoke rising from the formerly abandoned castle across the valley.  Could a vampire have moved in?  All are in a worried state.  At their meeting where they learn it is a vampire, thanks to the magic of the witch, Celery (who is miffed at Garlic) suggests Garlic should deal with him.  It does make sense, vampires are known to be put off by garlic, but this Garlic is a quiet, nonthreatening creature and she trembles at the idea of confronting a vampire.  Still, Garlic puts on a brave face and prepares for the mission.  Readers will delight in the idea that at the last minute the witch assigned Celery to accompany her on the mission.  Celery abandons Garlic at the castle door, immediately heading back home.  Garlic bravely goes in, and finds something quite unexpected.  Staking the vampire will not be necessary. 

(The Nebraska Library Commission receives free copies of children’s and young adult books for review from a number of publishers. After review, the books are distributed free, via the Regional Library Systems, to Nebraska school and public libraries.)

Paulsen, Bree. Garlic & the Vampire. Quill Tree Books, 2021.

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Friday Reads: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

“He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure. He hadnt kept a calendar for years …
He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face.”

This is how Cormac McCarthy’s The Road begins.  

It sounds familiar. It sounds relevant — timely; I was afraid, almost, that it would be too timely.

I’d read The Road before, years ago, and it easily became a favorite. Something about McCarthy’s prose is more akin to poetry, and that teetering, razor-edge brilliance of darkness not entirely lost to despair. This is a book whose memory of reading has haunted me through our own ever seeming dystopia; the world darkening through the corners like a vignette. And something beckoned me towards the book again; a glimmer of hope, survival.  

This time, I chose the audiobook. Because this time, I was thinking about stories, and what will come next, and what came before: how stories were told without paper, how simple it seems to carry something that weighs nothing more than the air in your lungs. How stories might ask to be told again, in the future (a clock, time, is a great circle).  

I’m a reluctant convert to audiobooks — my attention “span” is more of a blip these days, but I ended up listening while laying in bed, right before sleep. I’m sure this was partially responsible for some stressful dreams, but to be honest, they weren’t really any worse than normal. 

The other trouble I have with audiobooks — the primary reason for my hesitation — is that I am so very picky about narrators. When I first played the recording of The Road, courtesy of my public library’s hoopla service, I almost backed out.  

At first, hearing McCarthy’s words read instead of reading them was a jolt. McCarthy’s style is sparse — he eschews punctuation, dialogue tags, constructs sentences in short, sharp bursts. To hear it spoken out was so different than seeing it on the page; and yet, as I adjusted, listening ended up grounding the prose much more familiar terms. And, to be honest, it became enjoyable. When less engaged from the work of literature, I picked up on new dynamics of the story, new emotions; the narrator Tom Stechschulte, delineated the characters with excellent voices, and added a layer of closeness I don’t think I’d had to the story before. I’d originally enjoyed The Road because the language was gorgeous, and I like McCarthy’s style. I respected the human element, but I hadn’t connected to it. Having an actual person read the story — bring it to life, add dimension, did that for me in a way that hearing the story in the theater of my own mind wasn’t quite able to do. Near the midway point in the book, there’s a scene between the man and his wife — a terrible argument, about the horrors and reality of their future — that I felt was so well acted, and I was caught up in it, breathless.

The center of The Road is the man, and the boy — his son, his only son, and his legacy, and his only reason for living — unnamed and surviving the last gasps of a world ended on the road, trying to make it south, to the coast where the winter might be survived. On the surface, there’s really no reason to survive. Nothing is going to get better; in fact, in a world where cannibalism has become a fore-running dietary option, humanity made macabre ouroboros, it’s safe to say things are only going to get worse. Yet, call it foolish, call it stubbornness, call it humanity — the man and the boy keep going. Still they keep going, down the road.

I’ve always read that as the definition of hope, and now I’ve heard it, too.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Narrated by Tom Stechschulte, Recorded Books, Inc., 2006. Audiobook.

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Friday Reads The October Man, by Ben Aaronovitch, novella

The October Man, by Ben Aaronovitch is an offshoot of Aaronovitch’s The Rivers of London series, and perfect for the coming Halloween season. Set in the city of Trier, one of the few Roman conquered cities in Germany, this modern urban fantasy runs, KDA Polezei Tobias Winter, and local officer Vanessa Sommer, up and down hills, staircases, and steep vineyards in a puzzling magic and mythology-laden case.

Tobias is a member of the Abteilung Komplexe und diffuse Angelegenheiten (KDA)—Department of Complex and Diffuse Matters, a lovely, and vague way to say that his division looks into what it calls “infractions” –of a supernatural nature, often involving death. No aliens are involved, but, as in Aaronovitch’s other stories, a great many creatures from myth, plus, of course, river spirits. Tobias is the Director’s apprentice, just as Peter Grant of the Rivers of London Series, is an apprentice of the Nightingale. Vanessa Sommer is a Kriminalpolizei officer in Trier, specializing in crimes involving wine. As the story develops, she also has a budding talent for magic.

The mystery begins with a dead male body, covered with a fungus called Botrytis cinerea or Noble Rot (sometimes introduced to grapes to create a sweet wine, ) and not usually found on humans, much less as a cause of death. The body was dumped below a steep field of grapes, and above a river. The victim was a member of a club of mostly middle-aged men, who started with the quote from Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” They begin by drinking good wine, but eventually branch out by beyond their comfort zones, taking classes, going to museums, going to live theatre. When the first death occurs, it was actually at the point of starting to voluntarily disband. Every member had improved his life and was happier in it. Tobias and Vanessa have to discover how magic is involved.

The owner of the vineyard is involved, as well. The Stracker family had a connection with the river below, the Kyll (or Kelly, as she prefers to be known when walking around town.) When Jacqueline Stracker inherited the vineyard from her grandfather, she returned from working in the wine country of California, and that may have started the supernatural activity. And when pressed about unusual activities, admits to following her grandfather one night when he made a “wine sacrifice” to the river, intending to steal the bottles. She was very surprised when a shining, nude woman walked out of the water and gave her a message for her grandfather, that the compact was broken. She never mentioned the incident to family.

Aaronovitch’s writing is addicting, his descriptions of the countryside and highways can be confusing, but add texture to his stories. His characters have depth. I’d like more stories about these two. It doesn’t hurt to have an interest or background in folklore and mythology, but it certainly not necessary. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The October Man, by Ben Aaronovitch, A Rivers of London Novella, Subterranean Press, ISBN 9781596069084, hard back. 208 pages.

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Friday Reads: I Am Mr. Ellie Pooh by Dr. Karl Wald

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a coloring book. But it’s made out of elephant dung paper, so I couldn’t resist. Turns out when you wash the stinky poo part away from elephant dung, you get raw vegetation. I don’t want to know how they found this out.

After boiling the vegetation in a pressure cooker to kill bacteria, the end-result is mixed with post-consumer paper. From here, it’s smooth sailing. The paper can be made just like handmade paper: screen, press, and hang to dry. I used to make paper when I was in high school, so I was fascinated by elephant dung paper.

Now kids (and adults!) can color on paper that is 50% fiber from elephant dung and 50% recycled paper. The process was perfected by Dr. Karl Wald and his veterinarian friend on a trip to Sri Lanka. The book tells the story of how the paper is made, and how the book you are holding is saving elephants from angry farmers. You can read the story behind the story on the Mr. Ellie Pooh website. You can also see pictures of the paper-making process and how Mr. Ellie Pooh is creating jobs for local papermakers and artisans in the “About” section.

I got these coloring books for my niece and nephew for Christmas a couple years ago and they loved Mr. Ellie Pooh. Enough to grab Winnie the Pooh and declare, “Pooh is an elephant too!? There can be only one!” Then threw Winnie behind the couch. Poor bear.

At the time, I found the coloring books at Ten Thousand Villages in Lincoln. I’m not sure if they are still there, but they are also sold on the Mr. Ellie Pooh website. Apparently they have a bunch more stuff now too. I didn’t see the coloring book on Amazon, but the store does carry some items through Amazon as well. So if you’re looking for a new activity in the library, give Pooh a try.

Disclaimer: Pooh paper looks and smells just like regular paper. If I hadn’t read the stories and seen the pictures, I would have never known. That’s the power of pooh.

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Friday Reads: “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches book cover

Have you ever read a book that reminds you of someone?

The novel “Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness follows historian Diana Bishop as she researches science in the 15th and 16th centuries, more specifically manuscripts covering alchemy. Sounds boring, right?

During her work, Diana runs across one particular manuscript that just feels different. Literally! The book seems to sigh when she places her hand on it. Slightly spooked by the sigh, and what she finds within the volume, she sends it back to the bowels of the Oxford library where she has been working hoping to forget about it.

This seemingly insignificant moment sparks a journey for Diana across Europe, and eventually to her childhood home in New England, all the while trying to avoid witches, vampires, and other creatures, with the help of Matthew Clairmont, a fellow academic and a vampire. Oh, did I forget to mention that Diana is a witch? She’s been spending her entire life trying to forget that fact, too, leading to some interesting situations stemming from her out-of-control magic.

“Discovery of Witches” has recently been made into a series by AMC, causing the book series to have a resurgence. Deborah Harkness doesn’t waste a single word or phrase in this book and while a pretty hefty at nearly 600 pages I found this book really easy to read and enthralling. So much so, I’ve already purchased the rest of the series.

By now you’re probably curious about whom I’m reminded of when reading this book. I came across this book while spending an afternoon with my best friend, who just so happened to be heading off to Europe to teach at a university. The adventure, romance, and mystery of this novel will catch anyone’s interest but for me, the parallels to my own “Diana” made this read so much more enjoyable.

Harkness, Deborah. A Discovery of Witches. Penguin Books, 2011.

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Friday Reads: All In: An Autobiography, by Billie Jean King

Forty-eight years ago, on September 20, 1973, 90 million people worldwide watched top women’s tennis player, Billie Jean King, 29, defeat former champion, Bobby Riggs, 55, in the Battle of the Sexes. I was eight and not a sports fan, but King has been on my radar, at least peripherally, ever since.

Just because you know a few facts about someone doesn’t mean you really know them, though, so it’s been a delight listening to King narrate her recently released autobiography, All In. It’s a long listen—18 hours—but King provides an engaging, enlightening account of her lifelong fight for equal treatment and pay for women in sports. And the fact that I don’t understand or particularly care about tennis didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the book one bit!

One surprising takeaway is just how early King’s sensitivity to injustice and inequality, along with her commitment to rooting it out, kicked in. As an athletic, sports-loving girl growing up in the 1950s, King regularly ran up against gender-based stereotypes and restrictions. They ranged from being yanked from a photo of junior tennis tournament participants for wearing shorts instead of a skirt, to watching top teen boy tennis players getting comped for meals at the Los Angeles Tennis Club while she, a top teen girl, ate brown-bag lunches from home, to being told at 15 that she’d be good because she was ugly. “Even if you’re not a born activist, life can damn sure make you one,” she says of these early experiences.

Though young, King’s own run-ins with gender-based slights and limitations sensitized her to race-based discrimination as well. In 1955, while attending a championship tournament at the Los Angeles Country Club, she was particularly struck by “how white everything was.” She had what she describes as an epiphany:

I told myself that day that I would spend my life fighting for equal rights and opportunities for everyone, so no one felt scorned or left out. I believed our church’s teaching that I was put on this earth to do good with my life. Now I had a better idea what my calling could be: I could bring people together through tennis. If I was good enough and fortunate enough to be No. 1 in the world, tennis would be my platform.

King achieved number 1 ranking in the world for the first time in 1966 (she’d go on to achieve it five additional times) and she stayed true to her calling–leveraging personal success to fight for social change. All athletic champions feel pressure to stay at the top of their game, but for King the stakes were higher than personal glory: “Unless I was number 1, I wouldn’t be listened to,” she’s stated. And to me, learning more about these fights for equal rights, especially what went on behind the scenes, was the most interesting and inspiring aspect of the book.

Here are just a few of the fights you’ll learn more about if you tackle All In:

  • In 1970, despite threats of suspension from the male-run tennis establishment, King, along with eight other women, signed $1 contracts with Gladys Heldman, publisher of World Tennis magazine, to create the first women’s pro tennis circuit.
  • King campaigned vigorously for equal tournament prize money for women tennis players who were paid significantly less than their male peers—sometimes by a margin of eight to one. The U.S. Open was the first major tournament to offer pay equity, in 1973, after King threatened to boycott, but Wimbledon didn’t come around until 2007.
  • When King started college in 1961 she’d already won her first Wimbledon championship, but no sports scholarships were forthcoming because she was a woman. Just over a decade later, King testified before Congress in support of Title IX. Passed in 1972, this legislation prohibited sex discrimination in all federally funded school programs, including sports. This meant schools had to start distributing athletic scholarship dollars equitably between male and female student athletes.

If you like inspiring reads that shows how much work goes into achieving incremental social progress, All In is definitely worth checking out!

King, Billie Jean, et al. All In: An Autobiography. Random House Audio, 2021. 

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Friday Reads: The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah

I’m not sure why I haven’t read Kristin Hannah’s books until recently, but once discovered, I am completely hooked. So far, I’ve read four of her books, loved all of them, but especially The Great Alone. It kept my interest so completely that I stayed up late reading, and when I couldn’t read it, I was listening to the audio version. It’s that good.

Alaska, 1974. Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.

For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: He will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier. Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if means following him into the unknown. 

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources. But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in 18 hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: They are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves. 

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska – a place of incomparable beauty and danger. 

The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night audiobook about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature. (Audible)

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Friday Reads: Can I Give You a Squish? by Emily Neilson

Our two (and a half) year old recently discovered the delightful melodies of “Baby Shark” as performed by the Australian group Bounce Patrol, in multiple versions and complete with choreography, of course. Along with the adorable new dance moves, she’s been much more interested in anything with “fishies,” including books.

Can I Give You a Squish by Emily Neilson is an incredibly cute book about a little merboy and his fish friends. Kai is an enthusiastic hugger who loves to give squishes to his mama and to all of his underwater friends. After meeting a new little puffer fish though, he realizes not everyone likes hugs as much as he thought. With help from an octopus, a dolphin, and a crab, they all learn new ways of showing affection (and asking first), like fin bumps and tentacle shakes. The friends are all very encouraging and supportive of the scared puffer fish, and it’s a great way to start teaching young kids about boundaries and consent.

The illustrations in this book are lovely and it’s just a sweet story.

(She’s also really enjoying the Narwhal and Jelly books by Ben Clanton, if you need another good fishy book.)

With this squish book, I’ve been looking for some other picture books to start teaching or talking about consent/personal space:

  • C is for Consent by Eleanor Morrison and Faye Orlove
  • Don’t Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller
  • Will Ladybug Hug? by Hilary Leung
  • Hands Off, Harry! by Rosemary Wells

Neilson, E. (2020) Can I Give You a Squish?

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Friday Reads: The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert

The Perfume Thief: A Novel by [Timothy Schaffert]

I’m reading the new WWII novel, I’m reading the new perfume novel, I’m reading the new WWII perfume novel, and it’s delightful and I don’t want it to end.

I’ve been looking forward to reading The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert, and it’s finally here! The publisher describes the book as “A Gentleman in Moscow meets Moulin Rouge.” I’m ready to follow Clementine, a raconteur in tailored suits, who’s spent her seventy plus years living life her way—while happening to break all of society’s rules. Now she’s facing a big change in her life—the Nazis are threatening to destroy Paris, including the vibrant underground scene she loves. It turns out she has some very exceptional skills, honed over decades of her refined and indecent life, that can help hand defeat to the Nazis. She just has to thread the needle carefully, with the finest silk, of course.

I imagine a few agents in Hollywood are getting calls about playing the part of Clem in the movie that must happen. I can see Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep fighting over the part, but I can see Jamie Lee Curtis owning it. Of course Cate Blanchett or Tilda Swinton, although they are a bit young for the part—isn’t that refreshing? Casting suggestions are welcome in the comments, of course. (Not just for Clem, but also for Zoe St. Angel, and also the villain, Oskar Voss.)

Did I mention Clem is from Nebraska? Did I mention Schaffert painstakingly researched Paris life, down to the weather reports on every day in the book? Did I mention it’s a page-turner? Excuse me while I get back to enjoying The Perfume Thief.

(We did write about The Perfume Thief here as well–yes, we’re fans! And yes, our Book Club Kit is available for Nebraska libraries to check out, and details are at that link.)

Schaffert, T. (2021). The Perfume Thief.

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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: “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

If you could save the lives of eight people by sacrificing the life of one, would you do it? Is it possible to break free of a path your life has been set on since before you were even born? If you create something, do you own it? What if the thing you created is a human? These are all questions a reader will find themselves grappling with in “Never Let Me Go,” the sixth novel by British and Japanese author, Kazuo Ishiguro.

An idyllic childhood spent at a boarding school in the English countryside, what could be better? Kathy spends her adulthood traveling around England working as a Carer, looking after hospice patients. After ’caring’ for two of her old classmates and reminiscing about how they grew up, all Kathy can think about is her childhood. As Kathy’s memories unfold so does the mystery and strangeness that is this “Brave New World” she lives in. With each new memory, we begin to understand just how different Kathy’s life has been, and we come to understand that what at first seems idyllic is far from it.

In “Never Let Me Go” the topics of childhood innocence, science and ethics, and free will are all explored in this thoughtful novel. Readers who like a slow burn and subtle, yet thought-provoking plot twists will enjoy this book.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. Vintage, 2006.

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Friday Reads: Great Plains Indians by David J. Wishart

David Wishart covers a vast span of over thirteen thousand years in his book, Great Plains Indians. Many know bits and pieces of this astonishing story. Professor Wishart dispels a number of myths and provides important detail and perspective in his coverage of Indian life on the Great Plains.

Wishart describes in his Great Plains Indians historical account the elements of geography, climate, perseverance, innovation, culture, and adaptation. The book is organized in four broad chapters: coverage of thirteen thousand years of Plains history, life circumstances of Plains Indians around the early nineteenth century, the period Lewis and Clark explored the Plains region, and the period that began and continued with regional control by the United States.

Significant are the impacts of disease (notably smallpox), food sources, climate, horses, guns, alcohol, and beginning contacts and conflict with people moving into the Great Plains region.

Wishart provides extensive coverage of the nineteenth-century and continuing to the present geographic and cultural dispossession of the Great Plains Indians. Within a hundred year span, the Plains Indians land base was reduced from an area extending from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico to a territory inclusive of a small number of reservations in Oklahoma and other Plains areas.

A slim book, Great Plains Indians is written in a clear, concise style. Professor Wishart’s Great Plains expertise, and notably that of Great Plains Indians, provides the reader with a rich and informative historical presentation.

Great Plains Indians is among books in the University of Nebraska Center for Great Plains Studies “Discover the Great Plains” series (Richard Edwards, Series Editor).

David Wishart is a professor of geography at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The author of many books, Wishart is the editor of Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (2004).

Wishart, David J. Great Plains Indians. University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

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Friday Reads: Post Office

Charles Bukowski was a lowbrow writer. On the one hand, some can certainly relate to his pessimistic and unpretentious philosophies of life, while others surely look upon him with disdain. The thing is, he probably would not have cared either way. Perhaps he would have even relished in the thought that someone looked upon him with disdain, as this was often the case in his writing career. Frequently, he read his poetry in various settings (frequently college campuses), had too much to drink, and then arguments with those attending often ensued or the reading quickly devolved into chaos. A long time alcoholic, who for years lived on skid row in L.A., Post Office recounts his years with the agency, first as a substitute mail carrier, then after a gap in service, a full-time postal employee. Overall, Bukowski worked for the Postal Service for 14 years. The main character in Post Office, based on Bukowski himself, is Henry Chinaski, who appears in many of Bukowski’s novels. Think of Chinaski as synonymous with Bukowski. Post Office details the personal life of Chinaski, packed with heavy drinking and subsequent hangovers, gambling, and an overview of what working for the Post Office was like in the 50’s and 60’s in L.A. I imagine some parts are the same today, others much different. Bukowski has a way of telling a story in a direct and uncensored manner that is not only appealing but also refreshing for the lowbrow reader. This particular story has a second anti-hero, namely Chinaski’s postal supervisor, Johnstone. The interaction between Chinaski and Johnstone, aka “The Stone” provide comic relief in a sadistic sort of way. Here’s a taste of what to expect:

“The post office, or any world of work, is only one institutionalized system of control that is designed to beat people, to condition them into accepting that humiliation and failure is the norm. Those who do not rebel against this lose any ability to think for themselves. The workers are robbed of power whilst the bosses have only a small amount of it and can only use it arbitrarily, which is to say, pointlessly.”

–Charles Bukowski, Post Office

Bukowski, Charles. Post Office. Black Sparrow Press. 1971.

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Friday Reads: “Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused” by Melissa Maerz

I enjoy celebrity biographies and behind-the-scenes stories, and those two things come together quite groovily in Melissa Maerz’s oral history of the 1993 cult-classic Dazed and Confused.

Maerz interviews everyone involved with the movie, from Richard Linklater, to the costume designer, casting director, the casts and their families, even Linklater’s high school classmates, many of whom were inspirations for the characters (however unflattering they may find that fact). I learned all sorts of fun facts about the movie and it’s cast, as did my family and friends, because I would constantly share what I was reading as I went along (sorry guys!). I couldn’t help it – this movie was on constant VCR rotation when I was in high school and I can still quote whole scenes without fail. This book was a fun trip down memory lane.

It was especially fun to look at the cast and how far they’ve come since 1993 – this was Matthew McConaughey’s first movie, and his bit part grew and grew until he became the breakout star. Mila Jovovich, who was the biggest name of the cast at the time, saw her part shrink considerably as she got caught up in an on-set romance and neglected her role; her boyfriend Shawn Andrews effectively got himself blackballed from Hollywood for a time due to his attitude and behavior during filming. Texas native Renee Zillweger wanted to be in the movie badly enough that she took a non-speaking, uncredited roll as “Girl in Blue Truck”.

If you’re in need of a slow ride down memory lane while school’s out for the summer, this book will help you rock and roll all night long. Just don’t forget your reading glasses, because if this was your favorite movie in high school, you’re now old like me.

Maerz, Melissa. Alright, alright, alright: the oral history of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Harper, 2020.

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Friday Reads: Post-Apocalyptic Nomadic Warriors by Benjamin Wallace

What does a librarian do after the apocalypse? He becomes a post-apocalyptic nomadic warrior, of course!

Post-Apocalyptic Nomadic Warriors, by Benjamin Wallace, is the first book in a series, the Duck & Cover Adventures. There are 5 novels in the series, plus an anthology of short stories.

You would think that, seven years after nuclear bombs and chemical weapons destroyed civilization, there would be plenty of work for such a person. Chaos reigns, food and medicine is scarce, mutants and cannibals are around every corner! And don’t forget the Super Smart Bears. Right? That’s what we’ve all been told an apocalypse would bring.

But, no, not this apocalypse. Things are actually going…OK. Most people have gathered together into safely walled communities, growing plenty of food, governing themselves with few issues. The Librarian believes that they need his help anyway, and travels from town to town with his female mastiff, Chewy, offering to save them from whatever they might need saving from. He tries to convince the town of New Hope, Texas that they need to hire him. But, he’s told they’re doing just fine and don’t require the Librarian’s services, literally throwing him out the front gate.

The Librarian isn’t the only post-apocalyptic nomadic warrior around, though. His rival, Logan, has also come to New Hope. And he tells the town that there actually is a roving band of killers out there, and they may be on the way to New Hope next.

Will the Librarian or Logan be the savior of New Hope? Is there really a silver lining in an apocalypse? And how smart are Super Smart Bears anyway?

If you’re looking for a quick, fun read that doesn’t take the apocalypse too seriously, this book is for you.

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