Blogging for a Good Book
Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a sound engineer who specializes in nature films, travels to Italy to work on the sound editing for what he thinks is a film about horses. He’s right about the horses, but it’s not a nature film. Upon viewing the opening credits, he discovers that he’s actually been commissioned to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, a lurid horror film about witchcraft and murder at an all-girls riding academy. To make matters worse, he barely speaks Italian, the cast hates the film, and the director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) won’t even acknowledge that he’s even making a horror film, insisting instead “It’s not a ‘horror’ film. It’s a Santini film.”
Homesick, but unable to get his travel expenses reimbursed so he can return home, Gilderoy stays in Italy to work on the film. As the sound editing progresses, he not only becomes more entrenched in the tense and often claustrophobic atmosphere of the studio, to the point of speaking Italian fluently, but he is unable to separate his life from his art.
Berberian Sound Studio is an inventive homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s. Giallo is a genre of horror that typically, but not always, combines elements found in mysteries and police procedurals with common horror tropes. Giallo films are also distinguished by their distinctive production design and sound, and a hypnotic, but incredibly creepy, score. Notable Giallo directors include Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci. Viewers who are unfamiliar with the genre will find additional background and context if they watch the special features included on the Berberian Sound Studio DVD.
Berberian Sound Studio is all about sound, and Peter Strickland keeps the focus on sound by not showing any scenes from The Equestrian Vortex aside from the opening credits. The viewer experiences The Equestrian Vortex as Gilderoy does, through dialogue, music, sound effects, and, of course, lots of screaming. Berberian Sound Studio is a meta horror film without many of the elements commonly found in horror films. Through the use of sound, Strickland manages to create moments of real tension without relying on violence to generate scares. Strickland also succeeds in crafting an impressive tribute to the art of foley, the creation of background sounds using common objects.
In addition to the use of sound, I really enjoyed the acting, particularly Toby Jones’ performance. At the beginning of the film, Gilderoy is meek and polite, in sharp contrast to the brash rudeness of Santini and his producer Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco). As work on The Equestrian Vortex progresses, Gilderoy’s personality begins to subtly change to match his surroundings, much to his chagrin. Toby Jones gives a fine performance that works well with the tone of the film.
At the beginning of Berberian Sound Studio, Gilderoy is told, “A brave new world of sound awaits you.” Strickland’s film is a clever and absorbing look at how this “brave new world” of sound is created and how it changes Gilderoy’s life.
Check the WRL catalog for Berberian Sound Studio
Sylvia Plath’s summer internship as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine is explored in William and Mary graduate Elizabeth Winder’s insightful debut Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953.
In the spring of 1953, Plath, then a 20-year-old junior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one of twenty young women selected by the editors of Mademoiselle magazine for an internship as a guest editor of the magazine’s yearly college issue. She travels to New York in late May and spends the month of June in the city: living at the Barbizon Hotel; spending long days working at the magazine; and enjoying evenings filled with parties, ballets, and dates.
Within two months of her return to Massachusetts, Plath suffers a mental breakdown that leads to her first suicide attempt. Years later, these experiences form the basis for her only novel, The Bell Jar, published shortly before her suicide in 1963.
Instead of recounting the grim details of Plath’s breakdown, Winder focuses on Plath’s interests and cultural influences in an “attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist.” Winder succeeds in reaching her ambitious goal.
Divided into eight sections filled with short, fast paced chapters, the book’s structure gives the reader the experience of an exciting, yet ephemeral, summer adventure. The whirlwind of activity is anchored by candid interviews with several of Plath’s fellow guest editors. These interviews are insightful and serve as a response to Plath’s depiction of her summer in New York in The Bell Jar. The interviews, particularly the recollections of Carol LeVarn, provide some of the book’s most poignant and thought-provoking moments.
Winder balances the serious tone of the interviews with lively descriptions of Plath’s love of literature, fashion, and the popular culture of the early 1950s. The text is enhanced by the inclusion of photographs, vintage advertisements, and fashion illustrations, including photos from the college issue. Frequent sidebars include extended interviews, biographical sketches of people Plath met in New York, and quotes from her journals. These sidebars add context to Plath’s experiences without breaking the momentum of Winder’s narrative.
Engaging and well-researched, Pain, Parties, Work will appeal to readers who are interested in Sylvia Plath’s life and work. Elizabeth Winder is scheduled to present a program on Plath with Catherine Bowman at William and Mary on Thursday, March 20.
Check the WRL catalog for Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953
Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”), the daughter of an Anglican bishop, lives a quiet, sheltered life with her parents and sister in England. Beautiful and clever with a talent for math, her parents, particularly her mother, insist that she study the subject at Cambridge. Serena’s passion, however, is reading, and if left to her own devices she would have happily pursued an English degree at a small local college. Her undergraduate studies at Cambridge are a disappointment; although she excelled in math as a schoolgirl, she struggles with her math tutorials. Despite her lackluster academic performance, Serena continues to read voraciously, eventually writing a book column for a classmate’s literary magazine. She also develops a relationship with a history student named Jeremy Mott.
Serena’s introduction to the world of espionage begins with a chance meeting with Jeremy’s history tutor, Tony Canning. Captivated by her beauty and idealism, Canning begins an affair with Serena while grooming her as a possible MI5 recruit. Their brief affair in the summer of 1972 includes intense tutorials on British politics and history, stoking the political fervor Serena discovered as a student at Cambridge. The affair ends abruptly, but not before she lands an interview with MI5.
Although she starts her MI5 career performing low-level clerical duties, she soon receives an assignment that draws on her love of reading. Seeking to influence the cultural conversation, MI5 is funding writers whose politics are consistent with those of the government through an operation with the code name of “Sweet Tooth.” Serena’s mission is to recruit a promising writer and academic named Tom Haley. His stories, surreal with a subtly political bent, enchant Serena, and she soon finds herself falling in love with Haley. Their romance coincides with Haley’s first major literary triumph, but his nomination for a major award threatens to unravel MI5’s carefully crafted scheme.
The opening paragraph of Sweet Tooth not only reveals the outcome of Serena’s brief tenure in MI5, but it also lays the groundwork for McEwan’s audacious metafictional trick. It’s a risky gambit; why bother reading the rest of the book if you already know how the story will end before you finish the first page? I thought it worked because it ultimately ties in with Serena’s love of stories and literature.
Some of my favorite moments in Sweet Tooth involve Tom Haley’s stories, particularly the novel he completes after he meets Serena. These stories within a story help develop Haley’s character and the relationship he has with Serena. The intriguing cast of supporting characters include Shirley Shilling, Serena’s friend and co-worker at MI5; her colleague Max Greatorex; and Tony Canning.
Wryly entertaining, Sweet Tooth deftly mixes espionage, love, and literature.
Check the WRL catalog for Sweet Tooth
Cinder is a teenage mechanic living and working in New Beijing. An orphan, she lives with her legal guardian, Adri, and Adri’s daughters, Pearl and Peony. She doesn’t remember anything about her past or the operation that turned her into a cyborg. Every day, Cinder works in the local market fixing androids and other electronic devices with her trusted android Iko by her side, returning at night to a difficult home life with Adri and Pearl. Her lone ally in the house is the sweet and gentle Peony. One day, the handsome Prince Kai comes to Cinder’s booth asking if she can fix an android he calls Nainsi. An immediate attraction develops between Cinder and Prince Kai, but Cinder refuses to acknowledge her feelings because she’s afraid the prince will reject her once he finds out she’s a cyborg.
Prince Kai is also struggling with a few problems of his own. His father, the Emperor Rikan, has been stricken with a seemingly incurable plague called letumosis, also referred to as the Blue Fever. If Rikan dies, Prince Kai will become the Emperor and even more attractive to the Lunar Queen Levana. Before he fell ill, Emperor Rikan and Queen Levana had been negotiating an alliance. The prince, however, is suspicious of the motives of the queen, a crafty and vain woman who was implicated in the deaths of her sister, Queen Channary, and her niece, Princess Selene, the rightful heir to the queen’s throne. Prince Kai believes Princess Selene may actually be alive, and he’s desperately searching for any information to confirm his suspicions.
When Emperor Rikan dies of letumosis, Queen Levana travels to New Beijing to discuss the alliance with Prince Kai. Levana’s idea of an alliance includes marriage to Prince Kai, and she uses the threat of war to secure an engagement. Meanwhile, Cinder discovers information that could be useful to Prince Kai while working on Nainsi. Will Cinder reach Prince Kai before the coronation ball, where he will announce his engagement to Queen Levana?
Cinder is an inventive twist on the classic tale of Cinderella with great characters and fast-paced action. Cinder is an appealing heroine who uses her intelligence and creativity to solve problems. Prince Kai is a noble hero who tries to stay one step ahead of Queen Levana’s schemes. The attraction between Cinder and Prince Kai is obvious from their initial meeting, but I liked how Meyer kept the subplot fresh by adding a few unpredictable complications. Queen Levana is an intriguing villain who uses the power of illusion to manipulate people. The science fiction elements of the story work really well with the allusions to the fairy tale Cinderella, especially the way Meyer handles Cinder’s preparations for the pivotal coronation ball. Cinder is full of more characters and storylines than I could comfortably fit into the synopsis, but Meyer adeptly uses these elements to establish the basis for the next book in the series.
The Lunar Chronicles continue with Scarlet and Cress.
A young man named Simon (Pierre Perrier) dies on the eve of his wedding to Adèle (Clotilde Hesme). He had just found out that she was pregnant with their first child.
Years later, Camille and Simon, along with several other people who died years before, suddenly and inexplicably return to their homes and families in a remote mountain town in the first season of the beautifully eerie French series, The Returned.
The first episodes focus on the characters of Camille and Simon, who are unaware they are dead, as they return to their homes. Both soon discover that everything has changed. In the years since their deaths, Camille’s parents Claire (Anne Consigny) and Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot) have separated, and her twin sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) is now an adult. Adèle has moved on as well. She is now engaged to a Gendarmerie captain named Thomas (Samir Guesmi), who is helping her raise Simon’s daughter Chloé (Brune Martin).
For Claire, still struggling to come to terms with Camille’s death, the return of her daughter is a miracle; one she hopes will bring her fractured family back together. Jérôme and Léna are a bit more skeptical, but accept Camille’s return for Claire’s sake. Adèle’s feelings about Simon’s return are more complex. Like Claire, Adèle still grieves the loss of Simon, but she has found love and security with Thomas. Adèle is soon faced with a choice that will have an effect on the life she has built with Thomas and Chloé.
While Camille and Simon attempt to reintegrate with their families, several other mysteries unfold. A waitress is attacked in a tunnel and left for dead. Her attack bears all the hallmarks of a serial killer who terrorized the town years ago. A respected teacher burns down his house then jumps to his death from the local dam. A nurse whose brutal attack seven years ago was linked to the serial killer, is followed home by an enigmatic boy whom she decides to call Victor. Then there is the matter of the dam. Water levels in the reservoir unexpectedly drop, wreaking havoc on the town’s water supply. Are these seemingly random events linked to Camille and Simon’s return?
Over the course of eight episodes, the first season of The Returned weaves together several seemingly disparate storylines into a compelling and creepy mystery. I think the key to the show’s success is the setting. On the surface, the town looks quiet and peaceful with its pristine mountains and tranquil lakes; however, the only access to the rest of civilization is a road that goes over the dam. If the residents can’t cross the dam, then they are unable to leave the town. The town’s isolation enhances the tension as the mystery deepens.
The Returned is an adaptation of a 2004 French film called They Came Back. Although both share the same basic premise of the dead returning to their families, the film is a drama with supernatural elements while the series is a supernatural mystery. Fans of The Returned should check out They Came Back if they haven’t already seen the film, but they should not expect the film to have the same characters and storyline. Both are in French with English subtitles.
Check the WRL catalog for The Returned
Crenellated towers, mysterious deaths, possible hauntings, coded letters, and a fifty-something mistress climbing drainpipes to burgle the house of hidden rubies… Within pages, I realized I was reading one of my favorite kinds of book: a nonfiction history that wants to be a gothic novel when it grows up.
Author Catherine Bailey was given permission to use the family archives at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, in order to examine World War I as it affected a single English community. These archives are in “the secret rooms,” where John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, died in 1940. With 356 rooms to choose from, he remained on a mangy sofa in the unheated servants’ quarters, barring doctors and servants alike as he raced to finish some mysterious project before succumbing to pneumonia. After his death, the rooms were sealed. Now, opening the files for the first time in decades, Bailey is stymied by missing letters and empty diary pages, very specific gaps from which every family member’s correspondence have been removed. Servants keep popping up behind her in passageways to say things like “these rooms are forbidden… because of the curse.” What secret, she wonders, was the duke trying to excise from the family records before he died?
After setting the scene for every possible horror—maybe the duke was hiding a murdered body in the floorboards under his sofa?—Bailey settles down, reluctantly admits that she doesn’t believe in ghosts, and gets into the meat of the story. There is no body under the floorboards, just a slice of dysfunctional aristocratic life from the turn of the century through WWI. Fortunately, I also love dysfunctional, aristocratic slice of life stories! Cross referencing letters and leatherbound account books, exploring the archives of other noble families, and enlisting the help of a cryptographer, Bailey pieces together a family history of childhood tragedies, rows over money, and misleading war memorials.
For all the letters exchanged, no one says what they mean, and the somewhat guilty pleasure of reading between the lines entertains author and readers alike. (The very best thing about the avalanche of correspondence is how often the authors repeat, “destroy this letter!”) Choose sides: is John, the young duke-to-be, a bookish lad fascinated with archaeology or a tortured soul with an unhealthy interest in exhuming bodies? Does he reluctantly assume the mantle of responsibility for an ancient estate or hide from the front lines while the other young men of Leicestershire are being gassed in Belgium? Lady Violet: loving mother, calling in every favor to protect her children, or, as one of her acquaintances described her, a “Burne-Jones Medusa,” a master manipulator who spends forty years sculpting an effigy of her deceased eldest son while ruining the life of her second son, the “spare” heir?
The back cover blurb recommends this story to fans of Downton Abbey, and the setting and time period make it a good match. Here are the grand, failing estates and the rebellious younger generation torn whether to marry for love or money. But the manor house that really comes to mind in the end is melancholy Brideshead. Is Belvoir Castle haunted? You bet! Not by ghosts, but with regrets and guilty consciences.
Check the WRL catalog for The Secret Rooms.
Otters have got to be one of the cutest, most adorable animals in the world. They are also one of the most helpless animals when they are newborn. When a baby otter in distress is found near Monterey Bay, California, marine biologist Karl Mayer begins the long and difficult process of rehabilitating and educating this otter so that he can eventually be reintroduced back into the wild. This documentary is the story of this otter, nicknamed Otter 501 because he is the 501st otter to be rehabilitated by Mayer and other biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Fortunately for Otter 501, much has been learned about what works and what does not work in this type of rehab since the first otter was helped many years ago. Otters who enter the program are assigned a number rather than a name, and staff wear special suits with large welding helmets that prevent the otters from recognizing them. The star of the program is Toola, a female otter who gave birth to a stillborn pup when she was in rehab herself, and now is used as a surrogate mother to pups like Otter 501. It is quite moving to see some of the key moments in the relationship that develops between Toolah and Otter 501, which include the moment she first gains his confidence and when she shows him how to dive underwater in one of the main tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Prospects for Otter 501 to survive in the wild are not great, but Toola gives him a fighting chance. I won’t give away the ending, but it is a bittersweet one — be sure to have the tissues nearby!
There is a wealth of information about otters presented here, much of it new to me. Some of it is quite sobering. One of the most depressing facts is that this animal, once prevalent from Northern Russia into Alaska and all the way down the Pacific coast of the United States, was hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century. The 2000 or so that are left (up from 50 at first count) are carefully monitored by marine biologists. The many fascinating behaviors of these endangered animals are sure to mesmerize you. My favorite one was watching them crack open clam shells with a stone on their tummies while they float on their backs in the water.
There is a lot to like about this documentary. The cinematography is excellent: the views of Monterey Bay were gorgeous and the many close-ups of otters were exceptional. I plan on watching other fine programs in the Nature Series put out by PBS; WRL has over 30 of these programs.
There is nothing like seeing these creatures live and up close. The Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach, VA has an otter exhibit that I enjoyed seeing a few years ago. A little further away in Atlanta is the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium and one of my favorite places I have visited. It has several exhibits that feature otters, it has a special Sea Otter Encounter Program, and it is actively involved with otter rehabilitation like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
This is a great documentary, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in animals and animal rescue operations. To further entice you to see this, you can see a short video clip and nine incredibly cute pictures of Otter 501 here.
Check the WRL catalog for Saving Otter 501
Bud has found another gem hidden in the stacks:
One of the best things about working at a library is being able to wander through the stacks and find, through sheer serendipity, wonderful books that you’ve never heard of before. Higher by Neal Bascomb is an example of this. I noticed it, hidden away in the architecture section, while re-shelving and was intrigued enough by the description to start reading. It hooked me from the start.
This non-fiction book tells the story of how three of New York City’s most famous landmarks, the Chrysler Building, The Manhattan Company Building and the Empire State Building, came to be built. It’s a fascinating tale.
In the early 1920s, architect William Van Alen was asked by automobile magnate Walter Chrysler to design a skyscraper that was unique, beautiful and tall… taller than any other building in the world. Van Alen, an example of the architect as artist, was delighted, and with a virtual blank check began the design and construction on what would eventually become that art deco jewel, the Chrysler Building.
Meanwhile, across town lived another architect named Craig Severance. Severance was far more interested in the financial rewards of the construction business than its artistic aspects. He and Van Alen had formerly been partners in a successful architecture firm but had parted acrimoniously leaving them bitter rivals, both professionally and personally. Severance was not about to let Van Alen get credit for the world’s tallest skyscraper so he gathered funding from friends and investors and started work on the Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall Street.
As the book goes on and the buildings go up we learn a lot about how the construction industry operated in the 1920s. How funding was pulled together through financial wheeling and dealing and the covert finagling involved in buying property. The construction trade was complicated and detail-oriented. Hiring work crews, the demolition of the property’s pre-existing building, the logistical problems of making sure that materials are at the right place at the right time, and the actual process of constructing a skyscraper floor by floor are all clearly explained.
You might think this kind of technical information would be boring but it’s not. The work was by its very nature costly, difficult, dangerous and exciting all at once, especially at the rapid pace the projects mandated. Remarkably, construction on both buildings was completed in less than two years despite the additional complications brought on by all the secretive architectural adjustments and machinations that Val Alen and Severance went through in order to insure that THEIR building was the tallest.
Unfortunately for the both of them these efforts were all for naught because while they were focused on each other, a group representing General Motors also entered the race and with its completion in 1931, the Empire State Building became the world’s tallest skyscraper.
I found this book to be colorful, fast-paced and well written. It makes you look at something you’ve always taken for granted, an office building that’s been standing there for 80 years, with a new eye and appreciate what a wonder it is and just how much effort went into creating it. I was also struck by the pride and optimistic, “can-do” spirit that was such a big part of America at that time. Bascher concludes the book with this paragraph:
All the exuberance, daring, romance, moxie, innovation and pride that infused the decade is seen in these pinnacles. No misfortune or turn of events could take that away. Even if these skyscrapers were ‘torn down, as others have been before them, ‘ Chrysler said at the time of the race, ‘the spirit of the men working together that they represent will build new ones.’ It was this spirit-not steel and stone- that carried these skyscrapers higher.”
I recommend Higher for anyone interested in New York City, architecture or history.
Check the WRL catalog for Higher
Every century, one is born who is chosen by God to be the bearer of the Godstone. This time, he has chosen Elisa, an unlikely princess whose primary loves are reading religious texts in their classic form and making frequent visits to the kitchen for pastries. Those who bear the Godstone are expected to carry out a mission on behalf of God at some point in their lives. However, many die young and never realize their goal, or at least that’s how history records them. Though she’s a studious scholar of the religious text, Scriptura Sancta, Elisa knows very little about the Godstone and often wonders what task she will have to perform.
On her sixteenth birthday, Elisa is married to the handsome and charming King Alejandro de Vega of Joya d’Arena. But after arriving in his kingdom, she realizes things are a bit off. He is keeping their marriage a secret and is more interested in her serving on a military council than building a life together. Elisa soon discovers it was her powerful Godstone and her father’s promise to send troops to assist Joya d’Arena that ultimately led to their marriage. Disappointed and confused, Elisa finds the only comforts to be her lady-in-waiting, the church, and of course, copious amounts of food.
The story takes an unexpected turn when Elisa is kidnapped and taken to a far-off desert town. The kidnappers know that she is the one who bears the Godstone, and they have high hopes she can help them to defeat their enemy. Because if she cannot, if she fails, all the kingdoms will fall, one by one, to the darkest and oldest of armies, the Inviernos. Yet despite the fact that everyone has put their faith in Elisa, can she find it within to have faith in herself? A good choice for fans of Graceling by Kristin Cashore.
Check the WRL catalog for The Girl of Fire and Thorns
A Hundred Summers is set in the 1930s and takes place primarily in the town of Seaview, Rhode Island. We are immediately introduced to Lily Dane, a New York-born socialite with quite the interesting past. While all she may want is a quiet summer in Seaview, away from busy Manhattan, she is in for a shocking surprise.
After a seven-year absence she unexpectedly must share Seaview with the two people she never hoped to come across again, her once best friend Budgie Byrne and her former fiancé, Nick Greenwald. Much to the absolute dismay of the upper-class tight knit community of Seaview, Budgie and Nick have wed and return to restore Budgie’s old summertime home. Lily manages to put on a very strong air, but she is breaking on the inside. Her feelings for Nick never really went away, and the reader can infer she still cares for him deeply, maybe even loves him. For the people of Seaview the matter is even more complicated, as Lily has a six-year-old sister she is the primary caregiver for (whose skin and eyes are nearly an identical match to Nick’s). However, it soon becomes clear that all things may not be as they appear.
Told in alternating chapters between the years 1931 and 1938, the story slowly unfolds into a tale of young love, jealousy, misunderstanding and betrayal. Also included are a fair number of deeply buried family secrets that have the ability to rock both the Dane and Greenwald names and reputations.
This novel seemed much like a present to me, and as each section of wrapping was removed the contents became clearer and clearer and very much so in an unexpected way. Well-written and gently told, this book holds a great deal of appeal for anyone looking for a multi-layered story that accurately portrays both a very real period of our country’s history and a fairly realistic, though at times heartbreaking, love story.
Check the WRL catalog for A Hundred Summers.
I started off the week with Nick Hornby’s collected essays about books, so it seems appropriate to end the week with one of Hornby’s novels. High Fidelty is my favorite, and I recently reread it in ebook form.
As can be seen in his essays in Songbook, Hornby not only loves music, but he can write about songs, performers, and listening to music with affection and understanding. High Fidelity recounts the story of record store owner and occasional DJ, and inveterate list-maker, Rob Fleming. When the story opens, Fleming is making a list of his “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split ups,” which he then shares with the reader. Sadly, or not perhaps, his current breakup does not make the top five list. But it is his relationship with Laura, the current breakup, that drives the story.
Well, that and music. For Rob–and Dick and Barry, his two employees at the record store–everything comes back to music. They are forever creating and critiquing lists of songs such as “best side one, track ones of all time.” Rob’s list is “Janie Jones” (The Clash), “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen), “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana), “Let’s Get it On” (Marvin Gaye), and “Return of the Grievous Angel” (Gram Parsons) in case you wondered. These lists and the myriad other musical references provide a sound track to the novel that carries the story along.
Hornby understands how people talk about their interests, music in this case, and how those interests can sometimes slide into obsessions. In Rob’s case, his musical obsessions seem to keep pulling him away from making commitments. It is easy to just keep going back to the shop everyday and not worrying about your relationships.
Like a great song, High Fidelity pulls you in to the flow of the story, has its crescendos and decrescendos, offers some great solos, and finishes with a satisfying cadence. What more could one ask?
We have reviewed a lot of Bill Bryson’s books here at BFGB. For good reason: Bryson is one of the wittiest writers currently publishing. Whether he is writing about travel, literature, or hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bryson always has the right turn of phrase, and often it is one that leaves you laughing out loud.
But there is often a more serious side to Bryson’s writing; it is not just about the jokes. That is the side that comes out in his thoughtful and intriguing look at America in the summer of 1927. It was a busy summer, and Bryson pulls a lot of threads together as he examines what was capturing the public imagination. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight was in May, Babe Ruth was breaking home run records while leading the Yankees to victory in the World Series, the Mississippi was flooding, and Al Capone was taking over Chicago. These are just a few of the stories that Bryson weaves into his narrative.
What makes the book more than just a dry history lesson is Bryson’s seemingly effortless ability to move from these big events back to the individual. He always can find the personal in the global, and it is the stories of these smaller lives that make One Summer: America, 1927 come alive. Part of the book’s poignancy is knowing that the Great Depression was just around the corner, and that many of the people that you are reading about will face hard times. There is an elegiac tone to the whole book.
Reading history often can tell us as much about where we are now as where we have been, and as we come out of the most recent recession, with our own big events playing out on the global and national stages, it is fascinating to compare the similarities as well as the differences between 1927 and 2014. Bryson is an astute observer and an able guide on this journey.
Check the WRL catalog for One Summer: America, 1927
In Ten Years in the Tub Nick Hornby mentioned a number of books that sounded like ones that I would like. First on that list was Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. WRL had a copy, so I took it home and dove in. While Hardy is known to most readers as a great novelist, I am more partial to his poems. In either case, readers will come away from Tomalin’s superb book with a better understanding of Hardy’s life and writing.
It is always interesting to see how much a writer’s personal life is evidenced in his or her fiction. Tomalin does an excellent job of pointing out both how Hardy’s relationships with his family, his friends, and his geographic circumstances not only informed his writing, but sometimes appeared directly in the stories and poems. It is often the case when reading a biography of an artist whose work you enjoy that you run the risk of disappointment in their personal life. Does it really matter to your enjoyment of his writing that Hardy and his wife had a difficult relationship, and that he was hardly blameless for their problems? I think that the further away in time that you get from the person the easier it is to separate out the personal and the artistic lives. So for me, the revelations about Hardy’s prickly personality set the poems and novels in a new context, but did not reduce my pleasure in them.
Thomas Hardy’s life and his creative work were both shaped by the Dorset countryside that he loved. Tomalin is an excellent biographer of place as well as of person and she leaves the reader with a clear picture of the villages, farms, and wild places that Hardy enjoyed. She also easily kept my attention from wandering throughout a long (Hardy lived from 1840 to 1928) and character-filled story. Anyone who loves Hardy’s novels or poetry, or who is interested in the writing life, will find a great deal to enjoy in this delightful biography. As a sample, here is how Tomalin ends her book:
[Hardy's poems] remind us that he was a fiddler’s son, with music in his blood and bone, who danced to his father’s playing before he learnt to write. This is how I like to think of him, a boy dancing on the stone cottage floor, outside time, oblivious, ecstatic, with his future greatness as unimaginable as the sorrows that came with it.
Check the WRL catalog for Thomas Hardy
Each winter I try to read something from the 19th century that I have not read before. These sprawling, character-laden stories seem to be just the thing for reading the winter blues away. I had intended to get started on something over the Christmas holidays, but circumstances prevented me, so in January, on the recommendation of a colleague ~ thanks, Penelope ~ I dove into Our Mutual Friend.
Dickens’ last finished novel is, in some ways, a recapitulation of many of his earlier themes; poverty, social climbing, unscrupulous lawyers, and loving families all make appearances. It is also typical Dickens in its many plot lines that run in parallel for so long that you cannot see where they are ever going to intersect or even resolve. And, to be honest, they do not always resolve cleanly; some plots just seem to drift away and are never heard from again. Nonetheless, the story is a fascinating one, and it is worth the time to read through it.
Like Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend concerns an inheritance, in this case, one gone oddly wrong. Young John Harmon, on his way back from abroad to take up the profitable “dust” business left to him by his estranged father, is thought to have been murdered by a local boatman, and a body found floating in the river confirms that suspicion. The will stipulates that John only inherits if he marries Bella Wilfer. Needless to say, the body in the river is not John, and the story, or one of the stories, revolves around Harmon’s efforts to prove the boatman innocent of his murder, to woo the girl that his father’s will would have forced him to marry, and to come to his rightful inheritance. I told you things got complicated.
There are a lot of other tales here too: the pursuit of Lizzy Hexam, whose father supposedly killed John Harmon, by a lawyer and a schoolmaster; the trials and tribulations of the Veneerings, who are seeking to rise up in society; and the ups and downs of the delightful Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. Written in serial form, abrupt shifts of scenery, plot, and cliffhangers abound. But Dickens manages to wrap everything up at the end, pulling together the various strands of the story in sometimes surprising ways. I was delighted to meet several new characters here who will stay with me–Jenny Wren, Noddy Boffin, Mr. Riah, and Reginald (R.W.) Wilfer among them. They can join company with any of Dickens’ better-known creations. Our Mutual Friend is an excellent novel to start with if you are new to Dickens, and if you enjoyed others, you will find much to like here too.
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I am feeling very meta-…, writing about a book that is about writing about books, some of which are about writing. I have a great affection for essays and my library at home has lots of examples from Montaigne to Abbey to McPhee to the Whites (E.B and Katherine) and many more. When I came across this collection of Nick Hornby’s essays on books he has read, written originally for The Believer magazine, on the new book cart, I checked it out, immediately realized I needed to own it, and went to the bookstore and bought a copy. Hornby’s column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” has been running more or less monthly since 2003 and covers just that–books that Hornby has read in the past month. Each essay begins with a list of books purchased that month and then a second list of books read. Hornby then proceeds to discuss those two lists and anything else that comes into his agile, inventive, and always entertaining mind.
There are two ways to read books like this. First, you can look at the lists the author offers, and count how many titles you have read, or at least heard of, reveling in your superior literary tastes. This is the competitive, ego-driven option. Or, you can step back, read the essays, and start making your own lists of titles mentioned that you ought to go right out and get and read. This is, of course, the more mature way to read the book. OK, I did both.
Hornby is a font of great ideas for books to read as his interests, his own protests to the contrary, go beyond football (by which he means soccer) and rock-and-roll. From all types of fiction to a fascinating array of nonfiction, Hornby’s descriptions of his monthly reading are filled with titles I want to read right now. As The Believer‘s “About” page indicates: “We will focus on writers and books we like. We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.” So the reviews here are generally positive, and that is great. I would much rather hear about why I should be interested in a particular book or writer than why I shouldn’t.
This is also a book about what it is to be a reader, and Hornby captures all the ups and downs of the reading life–those times when you just cannot get through a book and the times when you start a book and the next thing you know it is 3 a.m. and you are still reading. Hornby understands and conveys with humor the times when life gets in the way of reading. Spouses, children, deadlines, one’s own work, and, yes, the Arsenal vs. Manchester United match, all have a way of derailing our reading time. That being the case, it is great to have a guide as thoughtful, eloquent, and passionate as Nick Hornby to offer some possible titles to get you back on the road to reading.
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Time for a confession. I’ve been binge-watching the SyFy series Haven on Netflix. Haven is a fictional small town in Maine where people are cursed with unusual gifts–like being able to conjure storms when they are stressed or make monsters attack when they are frightened. It’s not spells or demon powers–it’s what residents call “the troubles.” The series has an interesting (and attractive) cast, and I like the supernatural twist on the solve-the-mystery-in-an-hour format.
In the opening credits of every episode there’s a note that the series is based on The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. So I read the book.
Newspaper intern Stephanie spends an afternoon with veteran newspaper men Vince and Dave discussing a cold case mystery. It’s a case the older men say isn’t really appropriate for a big newspaper like the Boston Globe because unlike many of the often repeated local stories–like the ghost lights or the mysterious shipwrecked boat–this one doesn’t have a clean “musta-been” explanation. For example, the ghost lights appearing above the baseball field “musta-been” a reflection off the clouds, or maybe it “musta-been” aliens. As Vince explains, the story of the Colorado Kid has too many unknown factors.
He and Dave proceed to tell Steff what little they know about how a man from Colorado went to work one morning and ended up dead on a little island off the coast of Maine only hours later. He was unidentified for months. But even when the police followed an initially missed clue and identified him, they were no closer to understanding why he was found so far from home or why he had a Russian coin in his pocket.
Nothing fits together, and that can be frustrating for some readers, but I liked the interaction between Stephanie and the old timers. It was nice to see that she was beginning to fit in with the small town community. And I liked that Vince and Dave laid out all they knew about the Colorado Kid and accepted there are just too many things still unknown to be able to give a guess, a “musta-been” explanation, as to what happened. The newspaper can’t print the story because there’s nothing but questions left at the end.
So what’s all this have to do with Haven the TV series? Some character and place names are the same, and some facts about the mystery of the “Colorado Kid” are mentioned in earlier episodes, but you really get to the meat of it in the author notes at the end of the book. King explains that not all mysteries are solvable, and “it’s the beauty of the mystery that allows us to stay sane.” Nicely put, Mr. King. And I think the reminder that everything doesn’t always have an answer is the inspiration for the television show.
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Just for fun, check the WRL catalog for season 1 of Haven
Ten years ago, Quinn was interrupted right before she walked down the aisle by her fiance’s brother, Frank. Frank felt compelled to tell her that Burke, her fiance, had had an affair (or two) while they were engaged. After calling off the wedding, Quinn and Frank leave town for a couple days of drowning sorrows and steamy sex. When Quinn comes back to her senses, she returns home alone and settles into a quiet rut. Which is where the story picks up.
Quinn has a successful business making original bridal gowns (as penance for walking out on her own wedding?) She prides herself on being able to create the perfect gown for the bride and her party.
When Dolly, the grandmother of the two brothers decides to get remarried, she comes to Quinn for her gown. And Quinn realizes she’s not as over the high school romance as much as she thought she was.
With the help of her best friend Glenn, she tries to change her life. He gives her a mission every day for a month (experience speed dating, eat breakfast out, try a new hairstyle, etc.) There are some laugh out loud moments as Quinn tries new things to shake up her perspective. (I made a mental note not to try all of Glenn’s suggestions!) And with the brothers back in town for the wedding, there is certainly opportunity to confront the past and put it behind her.
In many ways it reminded me of the movie The Runaway Bride. Like the Julia Roberts character, Quinn needs to figure out who she is before she can take the steps to be with someone else.
Harbison’s characters are imperfect, and that’s what makes them appealing. I felt like I knew people like them in “real life”–and ended the book hoping they would find their happily ever after.
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If you enjoy television shows like Criminal Minds or CSI or Cold Case, or any of the many TV dramas that involve solving criminal cases in an hour, you should pick up the YA novel The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
Cassie is a 17-year-old with a gift for reading people. At the beginning of the book she’s working in a diner using her gift of picking up subtle details to figure out what kind of eggs a customer might order, or if they are likely to skip on the check. She catches the attention of an FBI agent named Briggs who has developed an experimental program that uses gifted teens to help solve cold cases.
He asks Cassie to join his group of “naturals” so she can develop her skills. Cassie doesn’t have anything to lose. Her dad is serving overseas in the military and her mother, who taught her much of what she knows about reading people, was murdered years ago. With little to keep her in Denver with her grandmother and the hope that maybe she can learn something about her mother’s unsolved murder, she agrees to join the eclectic group and work for the FBI.
The “naturals” live together in a house in Quantico, Virginia, near FBI headquarters. She meets Michael, the handsome rebel who reads emotions, but doesn’t like to be read himself; Dean, the other profiler, who is the son of a convicted murderer; Lia, who specializes in deception and sarcasm; and Sloane, the computer nerd whose gift is numbers and probability. The characters are easy to distinguish and likeable–if also somewhat stereotypical.
The plot moved along quickly and kept me entertained. Interspersed with the training exercises and the teens getting to know one another (in part through a risky game of “Truth or Dare”) are chilling chapters from a serial killer–a killer who seems to be escalating in the number and brutality of murders… a killer who targets Cassie as the next victim.
The Naturals is listed as the first in a series. I couldn’t find out when #2 is due, but will stay on the lookout.
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Nancy from Circulation recommended this book to me. In particular, she said the audiobook was really enjoyable — and she was right — I loved it! It is narrated by two different women playing the role of the main characters. The voices were perfect for the story, and I was quickly drawn in. But I don’t think I would have picked it up without her glowing review. Here’s what Nancy has to say about this book:
In the small southern town of Plainview, Indiana, there are three female childhood friends, Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean, who have lived through the 1960s, one adventure after another. Nicknamed “The Supremes” at an early age due to their looks, attitude, and regular meetings at the same table at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat diner.
The story begins as the girls reach middle age. Their group includes their husbands, and they meet regularly after church for dinner at Earl’s, now managed by his son. You soon find out Earl’s is much more than the first black-owned business in a racially divided town. It is a place of refuge, peace talks, and forgiveness.
The first of the wonderfully charismatic, strong-willed women you meet is Odette who is the “say it like it is and don’t take no guff off of anyone” member of the trio. I fell in love with her sense of humor and her realistic viewpoint when she describes an early morning bout with hot flashes and her refrigerator remedy. She states, “I opened the refrigerator door to get the water pitcher and decided to stick my head inside. I was in almost to my shoulders, enjoying the frosty temperature, when I got the giggles thinking how someone coming upon me, head stuffed into the refrigerator instead of the oven would say, ‘Now that’s a fat woman who is completely clueless about how a proper kitchen suicide works!’” Her adventures include visits from her pot-smoking mother and Eleanor Roosevelt (who, by the way, are both dead), and a life-altering event that requires the strength of her family and friends to get her through.
Clarice is the wife of a charming, handsome, but unfaithful, husband. He probably loves her, but can’t seem to manage to be monogamous. She realizes she is following in her mother’s footsteps–and struggles with the thought of how her life might be without him. She has the perfect marriage in the public eye, but a not so private truth has to be faced eventually.
Beautiful Barbara Jean, the last of the trio, seems to be the one who has dealt with many of her life decisions poorly and struggles to hide her drinking as a result. The loss of her first love, marriage to a much older man, and losing a child are things even the best of friends cannot always fix. Luckily for her, Clarice and Odette don’t give up trying.
The story is told by intertwining tales from the past with the current lives of the three and the multitude of friends and family characters they encounter daily. The author invites you to step into the lives of these amazing women as they face racism, greed, emotional and physical tragedy, all the while demonstrating the bond of true friendship. There will be tears of joy and sorrow shed for the characters one minute, and the next you’ll get the giggles–as Odette would say.
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Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat
When Maxine Cambridge is dumped by her controlling husband for a younger woman, she moves in with her mom. The divorce is messy. She describes it as being at DEFCON 5.
In her desperation to get a job, any job, she unloads the whole story to the luckless manager of the Cluck Cluck Palace–so right from the beginning of the book, you know what Max is up against. There’s a prenuptial agreement. Her husband cheated on her. She left their home with their teenage son, but few clothes, very little money, and not a glimmer of self respect–and she needs a job desperately. Now imagine the scene as she attempts to keep a hapless teen from entering the restaurant until she convinces the manager to hire her. Actually, just read the book, it’s as good as anything you could imagine.
Moments after the most humiliating experience of her life, an old high school classmate notices her. And this is not just any guy–this is a guy who leaves Max speechless as she gazes up at his handsome face. She doesn’t recognize him as the geeky kid who had been her lab partner senior year. But now Campbell Barker exudes sex appeal and success. It really hits home for Max how little she has accomplished since high school. She can barely make excuses for why she can’t have coffee with him to catch up on what’s been happening in their lives since high school before she breaks down.
As fate would have it, Campbell is helping his dad do odd jobs–at the same senior citizens retirement village where Max’s mom lives. Max and Campbell run into each other again and again. And finally things start to look up in her life, not just because of Campbell’s attention, but because she gets a job and starts building her self-esteem.
The book has a good bit of romance, some steamy sex, a number of laugh out loud moments, and a dollop of self-analysis as Max remembers how she doesn’t have to give up all her hopes and dreams just to be with a man. Let me tell you, Campbell is a treasure to put up with all the self-doubt Max has to work through!
I liked the characters and appreciated that they were more mature than the 20- or 30-somethings that seem to dominate the romance genre. The dialog is snappy and fun. The supporting characters are interesting and provide some depth to the story (though this is still a breezy read). There’s a great twist to the divorce at the end. It made me feel good to spend a few hours in Max’s world.
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