Blogging for a Good Book
This young adult historical romance is set in 1523-24, embroidering on what little is known about young Anne Boleyn, before she ever caught the eye of Henry, King of England. Recently returned to the English court after years abroad, she is an outsider with the wrong looks and clothes, standing out for her French manners and fashion just in time for war with France, oops. Her tyrannical father is pushing her marriage to a boorish Irishman (actually, historically nicknamed James the Lame), and Anne is desperate for another choice.
Thomas Wyatt, playboy poet and professional flirt, offers to take on the project—for a wager—of elevating Anne’s social profile. With his savvy advice and very public attention, he can remake her into a centerpiece of the court. Only young Anne is never quite sure whether they are playacting. And even with her newfound status, nothing is simpler. Everyone who’s enamored is already married, or out of her social league… or the King of England. Who is, of course, sleeping with Anne’s sister.
Langshore writes a determined but vulnerable Anne who doesn’t have many options and hasn’t yet settled on a path of action. Her ambitions, her desire to be heard, her dysfunctional family, and, yes, her schoolgirl crushes are all very relatable, which is probably why her story has been retold so many times.
Tarnish is the middle book of three that are set in the Tudor court, but they don’t have to be read in order. Gilt tells the story of Catherine Howard, number five among Henry’s queens, and Brazen centers around Mary Howard, who married Henry’s illegitimate son.
Check the WRL catalog for Tarnish.
Miss Frederica “Free” Marshall is a suffragette, which, as she points out, is pronounced with an exclamation point. An investigative reporter for her own Women’s Free Press, she campaigns for the vote while fighting accusations of plagiarism, threats of arrest, and attempts to burn her home and business.
Edward Clark doesn’t really do exclamation points. After a harrowing experience abroad during the Franco-Prussian war, he’s a realist with a particularly dark view of reality. While he doesn’t have any problem with Free’s lady-empowering views, he doesn’t understand why she devotes time and passion to a cause so unwinnable, so much like “emptying the Thames with a thimble.”
Also, Clark is secretly Edward Delacey, Viscount Claridge, whom everyone knows to be missing in the Siege of Strasbourg and believes to be dead. (Yes, it’s a “Surprise! A lord!” romance!) Being a viscount is something else Edward doesn’t have any patience with, so he’s reinvented himself as a metalsmith, a forger, and an all-around scoundrel. Sharing a mutual enemy, Edward and Free engage in bouts of flirtation via blackmail and reverse blackmail.
This is a surprisingly lighthearted and joyful book, skating very lightly over the history of struggle and suffering that inspires it—wartime firebombings and the investigative exploits of women like Nellie Bly and Josephine Butler. Milan, in her author’s note, actually calls it “as much an alternate history as it is a historical romance.” Great women characters have been true of every one of Courtney Milan’s books I’ve read, but with a suffragette main character, this is unsurprisingly the most overtly feminist of her romances. The “huzzah” moment in this book isn’t even to do with the romance, it’s Free’s rousing explanation of just what she’s trying to do with her thimble and the Thames.
Check the WRL catalog for the ebook of The Suffragette Scandal.
I’ve been enjoying this rambling tour of the Paris art world in the 1860s and ’70s, when the established traditions of great painting were under siege, and newcomers wielding their paintbrushes like floor mops were revolutionizing, or possibly just ruining, French Art.
It’s organized loosely around the careers of two painters, figureheads of the opposing schools. Ernest Meissonier paints musketeers and subjects from history, in moments that impart a moral lesson. Edouard Manet depicts absinthe drinkers and prostitutes, a contemporary crowd in modern dress (or inexplicably nude while picnicking). Meissonier, passionate about historical accuracy, collects period dress and weaponry to create military re-enactments on canvas, laboriously layered with great detail and rewarding examination with a magnifying glass. Manet, if his critics are to be believed, slops the paint (or coal dust) on with a floor mop, approximating a scene without finishing it. Are first impressions good enough? They are for the painters who are not yet called the Impressionists, a disgruntled but passionate lot of struggling artists who are repeatedly rejected from the Paris Salon or whose paintings are “skyed,” hung so high on exhibition walls that no one can see them.
Call me old-fashioned, but I have to side with Meissonier, who is described as one of the best-selling painters you’ve never heard of. You have to respect an artist who, after his scale model of a battlefield is ravaged by mice, recreates it in full size in his yard, dragging heavy carts around to furrow the ground and strewing bags of flour about to simulate a snowy landscape. (Fortunately, he resembles Napoleon enough to model for his own paintings.) He has the local cavalry charge about on maneuvers so that he can get a better idea of how to paint horses in motion. And here comes a generation that paints wisps of colors and calls it an “impression”!
Well, history and auction prices have come down on the side of the Impressionists. But King immerses you in their controversies with great relish, including the politics of the Salon de Paris, the juried exhibition that could make or break a painter’s career. Such passions! Paintings are assaulted with walking sticks, styles are derided with great energy and imagination in the (censored) press. “This is the painting of democrats,” writes a Salon director about the new style, “of men who don’t change their underwear.” There are fisticuffs over newspaper reviews! Duels are fought!
A wealth of anecdotes, mingling history, art history, and biography, cover a lot of ground but not very deeply. This is the kind of book that adds to your to-be-read pile with tantalizing references to people and subjects you now need to know more about. Or you could go from here to Christopher Moore’s irreverent but wildly enthusiastic novel of the same time period, Sacre Bleu.
Check the WRL catalog for The Judgment of Paris.
WRL also owns the audiobook.
In this young adult mystery, Abigail Rook, a young woman recently arrived in New England in 1892, apprentices herself to a detective of the supernatural. Author William Ritter owes a double thanks to the cover artist, for the gorgeously eerie book jacket, and to the publicist who decided to market the book as “Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes.”
The character of R. F. Jackaby deliberately evokes Conan Doyle’s detective, if Watson had ever been turned into a duck. (Jackaby’s previous assistant is “temporarily waterfowl.”) Aloof, inscrutable, and garbed like an eccentric in a wild hat and scarf, Jackaby sweeps around the city of New Fiddleham dealing with the domovyk, kobold, or pixies that the police force overlook. The police may not be fond of him, but his esoteric skills and bottomless pockets full of tuning forks and gizmos for spying the unworldly make him an invaluable asset when a serial murderer preying on the city seems to be not a man, but a monster.
Narrator Abigail is resourceful, a paleontologist’s daughter who took off to see more of the world than her staid English upbringing could show her. She quickly adjusts to sharing her living quarters with a ghost, not to mention to encounters with bridge trolls and a perfectly chilling banshee. Like any good Watson, she grounds her employer in the mundane world, noticing the overlooked details and trying to be as helpful as one can be when one’s boss is dogged by unsettling paranormal occurrences and doesn’t know how to give a straight answer to a question:
“How many people have you got living here?….”
“Well… that depends on your definition of people… and also of living.”
I’m honestly not sure why the novel is set in America, as its inspirations are so very British, and the humor has a decidedly English twist, a reined-in Douglas Adams voice: “Across town, Mr. Henderson–the man who had heard the banshee’s silent scream—spent the evening dying. To be more accurate, he spent a very brief portion of the evening dying, and the rest of it being dead.”
Quirky and occasionally touching, this is a promising start to a series with spooks and derring-do that should appeal to fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood and Company.
Check the WRL catalog for Jackaby.
“Never have I seen a deadlier-looking collection of firemen, street brawlers, Party thugs, and fighting entrepreneurs in my life…. If you were loyal to the Party or maybe even a good watchman, you could wear a copper star. If you looked like you’ve killed a man with your bare hands and aren’t shy about doing it again, you could be a captain.”
It’s 1845. A blight on potatoes is sending wave after wave of destitute Irish through Ellis Island. Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feeling run high on the streets of New York, and political debate, as often as not, takes place between mobs armed with lead cudgels. Nominated for a 2013 Edgar award, Faye’s entertaining crime novel is set at the genesis of the NYC police force, a motley crew of ruffians and Democrats nicknamed the Copper Stars.
New Yorkers are not enamored of the baby police force, decrying it as a “standing army” and an infringement of their native liberties. And barkeeper Timothy Wilde has no desire to fight crime or support the political party in which his older brother, Valentine, is such a rising star. But when an explosion wipes out his home and his livelihood, his brother pulls party strings to get Timothy a job as a Copper Star in the crime- and rat-infested Sixth Ward. Only a few days into his rounds, Timothy is involved in a foul case of murder and debauchery: he’s sheltering a ten-year-old runaway from a brothel, who won’t tell him how she came to be covered in blood. And the murder of a second child, blamed on an Irish madman, could be a lit match set to the tinder of NYC.
Faye’s first novel, Dust and Shadow, was one of many in which Sherlock Holmes confronts Jack the Ripper, and in some ways this reads like the same story on a different continent. Mutilated bodies, missing spleens, mad letters signed dramatically, “the Hand of the God of Gotham…” Wilde even has a crew of newsboys reporting to him, his own New York City “Irregulars.” Author Faye is enamored of her setting and its language, loading the story with vivid metaphors and slang straight out of a period lexicon compiled by George Washington Matsell, the city’s first police commissioner.
If bringing evildoers to justice is the main narrative thrust of the novel, its secondary theme is “Damn you, Valentine Wilde.” Val, the older and less responsible brother, lights up every scene that he stumbles into, whether drunk, hung over, coming down off a morphine high, or holding rehearsals of how to properly stuff a ballot box. A childhood’s worth of rivalry and resentment, plus the ability of any sibling to know exactly which button to push, makes the brothers’ relationship a suspenseful and entertaining crime scene of its own.
I listened to both Gods of Gotham and the sequel, Seven for a Secret, on audiobook, and they were fantastic picks for a long commute. Reader Steven Boyer conveys Wilde’s narration with wry flair and creates engaging voices for the other characters as well. There was only one drawback to listening, rather than reading: each chapter is prefaced by a quote from some anti-Irish writings of the period, and every single time the text mentioned the evils of Popery, I had a moment of confusion. Potpourri? Evil?
Check the WRL catalog for The Gods of Gotham.
You know the story, right? A lovely girl befriends a frog. She kisses the frog; he turns into a prince; and they all live happily ever after.
Not in this version. Yes, the beautiful and smart girl, Sunday Woodcutter, meets a talking frog by a pond in the woods. They become friends. And yes, she kisses him to see what would happen. Hours later, when the frog finally turns into a man, Rumbold realizes he is the one person Sunday would never want to see again. He is the Crown Prince of Arilland, the man responsible for her beloved brother’s death.
Prince Rumbold can’t stop thinking about Sunday, though. He decides to hold three balls and invite all the women in the country to attend so he has a chance to woo Sunday as a man. But the balls don’t go exactly as planned. Spells and secrets need to be revealed before the story can end in the expected happily ever after.
The author cleverly weaves glimpses of other fairy tales throughout the book–one sister has a story similar to Cinderella, another tragically dies from magical dancing shoes, her brother trades a cow for some beans, and there is a giant–it was worth turning the pages just to see who would turn up next and how the “real” story would unfold.
Kontis has written a second in the Woodcutter sisters series, Hero, about the adventures of Saturday. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next in this delightful, magical world.
Check the WRL catalog for Enchanted
I saw a new book in the library the other day – Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate. While flipping through the colorful picture book, I was reminded of how much I had enjoyed Applegate’s Newberry winner, The One and Only Ivan.
Ivan is one of the animal attractions at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. In fact, he is one of the featured attractions on the billboard that he can see outside the window of his small enclosure. He spends his time watching TV; talking with his friends Bob, a stray dog, and Stella, an older elephant; and painting pictures. Ivan chooses not to remember what life was like prior to coming to the shopping mall.
When the shopping mall owner buys a younger elephant to bring excitement – and more paying customers – to the Big Top Show, Ivan makes a promise to Stella to help Ruby find a safe place to grow up. That promise leads Ivan to remember what it was like before he was caught and put in the cage. That promise leads Ivan to figure out a creative way to send a message to the Julia and George, the humans he trusts. That promise leads not only to Ruby finding a good home in a zoo, but Ivan finding a home with other gorillas and lots of open sky.
The story is told in simple sentences through the unique perspective of Ivan. Of course, the story is the author’s imaging of what Ivan was thinking and going through, but I forgot that part as I rooted for Ivan’s friends to understand what he was trying to say.
Publisher’s Weekly recommends the title for ages 8-12. But I think it was well worth taking an hour or so to read the story. It is also available as an audiobook, well-read by Adam Grupper, if you would prefer that format.
Check the WRL catalog for The One and Only Ivan
Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook for The One and Only Ivan
What exactly makes a hero? Take Johnny Hiro: he works paycheck to paycheck as a busboy/dishwasher in a sushi restaurant, has a strained relationship with his parents, and is being sued by his ex-landlord for damage done to his last apartment by a Godzilla-like monster reptile who was taking revenge for sins perpetrated by the mother of Johnny’s current girlfriend, Mayumi. All pretty typical stressors in the life of a New Yorker.
Mayumi is the bright spot in his life, and Johnny strives not only to make ends meet, but to get ahead for her, much more so than even for himself. After a day spent leaping across rooftops with a stolen lobster, engaging in a high speed chase with a van full of stolen fish, or fighting off 47 samurai, he gets to go home to her peppy optimism. She keeps him grounded, and full of hope, despite his many misadventures.
Several celebrities make cameos throughout the pages, which is sometimes played for laughs (Alton Brown, especially) and sometimes rather random. All together they all read as a fond nod to popular culture, especially the continually quoted hip hop lyrics. This might cause the stories to age badly, but for now they are still relatable.
Fred Chao, who is both the author and artist of this series, provides commentary throughout the story that grounds the often absurd plot into humanistic realities. Some of these comments are little gems, which help elevate situations above their most basic reading. Two of my favorites are “Most of the things that affect us will never be explained. They are simply the trickle-down effects of the unknowing decisions made around us.” And “Those hours…hold the most potential for change. That is if we just look up, instead of simply hoping to make it to the next day.”
Sometimes heroes are just normal people who have something to fight for. “Fortunately or unfortunately, there are few happy or sad endings. Most stories simply go on.”
Recommended for readers who like humor and humanism.
Search the WRL catalog for Johnny Hiro.
Mice live in the shadows, overseen by the moon, which they believe is the eye of their god, Wotan. As their legends go, in years past they were protected by a band of fierce warriors, guardians of the night: the Templars. After years of defending as a unified brotherhood, one year, for a reason yet unknown, the Templars were divided and began warring against each other. After the epic battle, no Templars were allegedly ever seen again. Now the mice have mere watchmen guarding them against all the creatures, large and small, who threaten their existence.
Karic is a young mouse who soaks in all the stories of the battles of yore with relish and loves to imagine himself as a brave fighter. His obsession with combat seems a harmless boyish phase until his village gets attacked by an army of rats. Any similarity between this story and Mouse Guard by David Petersen is quickly squashed with the first (of many) beheaded mouse in the vicious, horrific bloodbath that ensues. Karic loses contact with his mother and sister, surviving the conflict and receiving a message from the fish gods claiming that he is some kind of chosen one. He meets up with an old warrior mouse named Pilot who admits to being a former Templar living in exile. Pilot takes Karic under his wing as they begin searching for answers and a path to follow.
These mice are far from fluffy and cute. They have huge ears which display their mood, droopy when tired or sad, flung back when on the attack, perked up when focused. These same ears are often marked with notches, scarred from the ongoing battle for their fragile lives. Their bodies are thin and angular and every mouse appears exhausted, deep shadows under their eyes. They are ruled by gods and prophecy, though they fear that their god has abandoned them. And it is hard to fault them, as almost everything seems to exist as a threat to the tiny creatures, and their world quickly begins to spiral into terrible, bloody chaos.
As Karic’s journey progresses, he is forced to learn, and then unlearn, then learn again. In this land of wars and betrayal, exactly who represents the good and the right is hard to discern, as everyone has blood on their paws. Tiny as he is, even compared to other mice, it will be up to Karic to live up to his billing as the one chosen by the god Woten.
Dark and unrelenting, this title is not recommended to those who prefer lighthearted, humorous tales.
Search our catalog for Mice Templar
I can’t think of a more unlikely animal to swath in the robes of a noble hero than a mouse. After all, mice have a position about as close to the bottom of the food chain as is possible, and seem to spend the day scurrying around tucking food away and trying not to get eaten themselves. Shouldn’t the fighting be left to those creatures that were born with rippling muscles or fearsome claws or at least a mighty roar? Maybe it is just this somewhat odd juxtaposition between underdog and champion that has piqued the interest of several authors including David Petersen.
In his fictional medieval world, mice have created cities tucked away in tree roots and rocky caverns where they are protected from discovery by predators. Travel between cities is treacherous, and mice that need to make the trip are protected by the Mouse Guard. Originally called into action as soldiers, recent times of calm and prosperity have altered their role into a more passive one of watchful escorts to merchants.
Kenzie, Saxon, and Lieam are three members of the Mouse Guard, who are trying to track down a grain merchant that disappeared while traveling between cities. In searching for his person (or his body), the trio stumbles onto a plot that threatens the very foundation of their world. Can they prevail against the worst threat their society has ever faced before? As one of their sayings goes: “It’s not what you fight, but what you fight for.”
Winner of the 2008 Eisner Awards for Best Publication for Kids and Best Graphic Album, the ink work is phenomenal, with deep shadows and sharp edges. This then sets up space for waves of watercolor-like hues to paint the appropriate mood, whether it is bright sunny beach scene or the terrifying glow of burning embers.
Recommended for readers of graphic novels who love a good adventure story and fiercely adorable protagonists.
Search our catalog for Mouse Guard
The mortgage that broke Thomas Jefferson’s heart. The worldwide cholera pandemic. The writing of Frankenstein. The first Irish famine and typhus epidemic. The opium trade beginning in the Golden Triangle. The striking paintings of JMW Turner. The surge of British polar exploration. All of these, according to Gillen D’Arcy Wood, have their roots in a single event – the eruption of the Tamboro volcano.
On April 10, 1815, the volcano, located on the island of Sambawa in the Indonesian archipelago, literally blew its top. A few days before, the volcano had hurled out a column of fire and ash; on the 10th, three columns of fire, a tsunami of lava, and ashfall up to 3 meters thick blasted the serene population of Sumbawa, killing nearly everyone on the island and forever destroying its natural resources. Ash from the explosion was flung into the upper atmosphere in tiny particles, and the equatorial winds did the rest.
Those aerosols circled the globe, blocking sunlight and changing the climate. Droughts in some areas, record flooding in others, temperatures so low that 1816 became known as the Year Without a Summer and the Year of the Beggar. Storms lashing Europe, sea ice disappearing off Greenland – all were the result of Tambora’s eruption. The secondary impact on humans began almost immediately and would govern the world’s social and economic foundations for at least the next three years. Without the monsoons, Indian peasants migrated to urban areas, where their waste polluted drinking water and sparked a nearly 20-year migration of cholera around the world. Famine struck one of China’s most fertile provinces, and without rice to eat or sell, opium became the cash crop. Clouds shot through with apocalyptic color entranced the Romantics, who captured their deadly glory in words and images. And farmers in the United States experienced for the first time crop failure leading to bankruptcy and westward migration to evade their debts.
Wood mixes the historical narrative with records from the nascent science of meteorology and modern-day measurements of volcanic dust trapped in arctic ice to document his story. He also draws parallels between the temporary climatic effects that Tambora’s eruption caused and the long-term irreversible anthropogenic climate change we are now seeing. But capturing the worldwide effect of one little-known eruption in tragic human terms makes Tambora a moving book.
Check the WRL catalog for Tambora
I love mysteries. From the hardest of the hard-boiled to…well, ok, I don’t really care for cozies, but I’ve read them…but I’m especially fond of mysteries that give me a strong sense of place and people along with a good puzzle. For some reason, Italian settings seem to capture all three in style and substance. (Barry has written about Andrea Camilleri’s excellent Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily, plus there’s the Guido Brunetti collection, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, and plenty of other series where the protagonist visits Italy.) Christobel Kent’s series featuring Sandro Cellini (The Drowning River is the first) stands with the best.
Sandro is something unusual for Italian mysteries – a private detective. A disgraced ex-cop, he’s been ordered by his wife to hang out his shingle and get out of her hair. Resigned to sitting around an office, he’s surprised when he gets his first client: an older woman whose husband died in the Arno River. Verdict: suicide. Cellini takes the case mostly gratis to comfort her, but discovers right away that the man’s last hours leave questions. What exactly was Claudio Gentileschi, architect, faithful husband, Holocaust survivor, doing when he wasn’t at home or work?
Then a young English art student disappears. Sandro had encountered her before and her mother hires him to be her “representative” to the Italian police while she makes up her mind whether or not she cares. No big deal, Veronica’s done it before, she’s got some mysterious guy she’s probably shacking up with, and she’ll come back to art school when her cash runs low. Sure her instructors and her mousy roommate are worried, but Sandro will take care of it. And he does, and learns more about Claudio and the business of Florentine art in the process.
Kent keeps the puzzle intriguing and builds to a satisfying resolution. But she also builds characters the reader knows will play important roles in Sandro’s future. His wife Luisa, who has breast cancer and is struggling with her decision to have a mastectomy; Giulietta Sarto, the former prostitute who ended Sandro’s career and is the closest thing he and Luisa have to a child; his former colleagues; but most of all, Florence itself.
This is the Florence where regular folks live alongside the tourists and the art students who come to study in the Mecca of classical art training. Ordinary bars with extraordinary food and companionable bartenders, secret passages in and out of the Boboli Gardens, odd locals who are part of the daily background of any city. In this story, the rains are continuously falling and the Arno is threatening to overflow its banks in a disaster that would equal the L’Alluvion of 1966. (For a great book about the aftermath of that flood, check out Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures.) Sandro Cellini knows Florence better than most anyone, and he leads us on an intimate tour while solving a puzzling mystery. Who could ask for more?
I’ve written before about Loewen’s take on history as presented to American students, but in Lies Across America he’s taken on the other history texts that we see all around us. They’re ubiquitous (except, apparently, in Maine), sometimes invisible, sometimes easily overlooked, sometimes a destination for interested visitors. These are the monuments, roadside signs and historic sites that personalize and define American history for many.
Loewen points out that these sites fall into two categories, which he calls sasha and zamani. (If you want a terrific fiction take on the same idea, try Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief History of the Dead.) Sasha essentially means people or events retained in the memory of the living; zamani denotes events or people that occurred before anyone currently living could have experienced. The monument to Arthur Ashe is an example of sasha: there are plenty of people who remember him firsthand. A statue closer to home is zamani – no one living ever encountered Norbert Berkeley. There’s another aspect to these sites, which falls into the zamani realm – who controlled the landscape when the memorial was established?
There are some extreme examples of this: a monument to the Confederacy where there was zero link to the War? The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum that doesn’t have any actual, you know, miners? Plantation houses all across the South that talk about the design of the silverware, but never mention the people who did the work that produced the income to buy that silverware?
More common are the roadside signs that leave you scratching your head. (As an inveterate reader of those black-on-pewter signs, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a U-turn, parked in a questionable spot, then scratched my head at the astonishingly vague text.) “One mile north of here the Whitaker house was built.” When? Why? By whom? If Mr. Whitaker did it, did his wife help? Were there slaves? Was it built in a special way with special materials? Where can I find more? Plus, these signs are nearly always written in a generic passive voice that deliberately deflects reflection on any deeper topic.
Loewen couldn’t visit every historical marker or monument in even one state, much less in the country, but was able to read an enormous proportion of them. He offers a set of penetrating questions to ask when visiting historical sites, most guaranteed to put docents on the spot; if they can’t answer those questions, perhaps it will trigger a reexamination by the site’s managers. He also offers a tongue-in-cheek alternate for the proliferation of roadside markers.
The book is structured so that each entry is self-contained, with footnotes and a complete list of the sources that Loewen used to critique the 100 entries he limited himself to. He also cross-references entries with the same topics or themes, which means a reader can bounce around without losing interest, then go back and read new material with a fresh perspective. Best of all, he is able to balance outrage over the hijacking of history with humor, making this a great resource for teaching students how to critically evaluate what they read and hear from history.
Check the WRL catalog for Lies Across America
It’s Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, the day the guns finally went silent in a Europe shattered by World War I. The Armistice was scheduled to begin at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One bitter joke that made the rounds in the trenches – “Why didn’t they wait ’til the eleventh year?”
Of all the novels which emerged from the War to End All Wars, All Quiet on the Western Front is surely the greatest. While its imagery and the episodes it recounts did not exactly break new ground, Remarque captures both the external devastation of the war and the internal havoc it wreaked on a generation of soldiers. The fact that this story is about Paul Baumer, a German, matters little – it could be about Paul Bois or Paul Wood, or any young man from any country affected by the War. They saw the same horrors, suffered the same degradation, endured the same unendurable lives. But there was a difference even within the armies, and All Quiet on the Western Front unflinchingly told readers how an entire generation was lost.
Paul and his classmates join the Army en masse under the exhortation of their schoolmaster. Filled with patriotism and the orderly knowledge only young men fresh from the classroom could retain, they enter their training regime and begin to learn the ways of a random world. When they arrive at the front, they learn entirely new lessons about a chaotic world striving to kill them. They serve with men of all classes and from all regions of Germany, all of whom are gradually descending to the most basic levels of humanity. Paul and his friends have the farthest to fall, but the trenches eventually make all men equal.
When I was very young, All Quiet on the Western Front gave me a graphic illustration of war stripped of its illusions of honor. Only as an older reader did I become aware of Paul’s complete loss of self. Having gone straight from childhood to a debased manhood, Paul realizes that he has nothing to return to – unlike the older men, he cannot take up a pre-war life. Unlike the younger, he cannot return to a meaningful school life. That changed my understanding of the ending, which I had remembered along the lines of Richard Thomas’s portrayal of Paul in the 1979 movie. Remarque’s original is far more tragic.
The original title, Im Westen nichts Neues, translated literally from German means “In the West, Nothing New.” Whether Remarque meant it as literally as the translation suggests, or as a warning in light of the increasing aggression and xenophobia characterized by the rise of the Nazis is hard to say. Unfortunately, it seems that Ecclesiastes was and continues to be right.
Find All Quiet on the Western Front in the WRL catalog.
I work on a public service desk, so I see lots of people from all walks of life and economic classes. When they ask for computer help, or to use the phone, it is impossible not to see or hear what they’re doing. (The cardinal sin of librarianship is denying them service based on those observations.) But when I hear someone reeking of cigarettes negotiating a payday loan, or see a woman with a toddler and a baby bragging about her sexual adventures on Facebook, it’s hard not to mentally question their choices. Linda Tirado has given me 191 pages of smackaround for my presumption in asking those questions.
Tirado came to international attention when her essay on the bad decisions many poor people make went viral. Based on that attention she was able to get a book deal to expand on the post, and to share the experiences of other people she knows. Those people might as well be the ones I see coming in the door of the library, because they face the same problems: minimum wage jobs where they rarely get 40 hours, second jobs that frequently conflict with the first, unreliable cars, uncertain housing, lack of resources or time to buy and cook fresh food, and difficult choices about prioritizing the little money they earn.
So why do poor people smoke? Wouldn’t you, if it cut down on hunger, gave you a jolt of energy, and allowed you some break time at work? Why do poor people live in such lousy housing? Wouldn’t you, if you had to come up with first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit on a place that goes for more than a few hundred bucks a month? Why do they pay sky-high interest rates on short term loans? Wouldn’t you, if your car broke down and it was still a week until payday? Why are they so poor at planning for the future? Wouldn’t you be if a supervisor, a manager, a district supervisor, and corporate policy all dictated when you could go to the bathroom?
Our prejudice towards the poor is enshrined in our public policy, which begins with an automatic suspicion that poor people can be divided into the worthy poor and those who are to blame and ought to pay the price. And I’d bet you couldn’t get 10 regular people, much less the 21 senators, 51 delegates and 1 governor in Virginia to agree on who is worthy. Tirado’s writing is conversational and often funny, but her humor doesn’t negate the anger in her voice when she talks about those policy-making individual and political prejudices. And her name couldn’t be more perfect for this book – it’s a cross between a tirade and a tornado, demanding that we listen and pay attention.
Check the WRL catalog for Hand to Mouth
The art of essay writing is one that requires a sharp eye, a command of the language, and a wide-ranging interest in the human condition. Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite contemporary essayists, has all of these in abundance. I first encountered Trillin in the 1980s as a writer about food and eating, with the delightful collections American Fried, Alice, Let’s Eat, and Third Helpings, now conveniently collected as The Tummy Trilogy. Later, I discovered his clever and pointed political commentary (in verse) for The Nation, where he has the enviable post of “verse columnist” (see Deadline Poet for examples). Next came Trillin the novelist, as I found Tepper Isn’t Going Out on the shelves here. So you might say I am a Trillin fan across the board.
Quite Enough of offers readers new to Trillin an assortment of his writing on food, sports, politics (and especially politicians), science, languages (especially Yiddish), and his own life. Originally from Kansas City, Trillin retains an affection for barbecue even as he revels in the food opportunities he encounters in and around the Greenwich Village neighborhood where he has lived for many years.
Like others of my favorite essay writers Trillin excels at writing about people’s lives. He clearly has an affection for the characters about whom he writes (even when he also clearly disagrees with them), and lets their voices come through. His short political poetry often skewers politicians for what they say and do, but Trillin writes with a certain playfulness that if it does not blunt the sword at least makes the blow a bit tempered.
This collection is a great place for readers to start who have never read Trillin before (though readers of The New Yorker, The Nation, and other magazines may have come across some of these pieces in their original publications). With four decades of pieces to choose from, there is really something here for everyone. Good reading for an autumn afternoon.
Check the WRL catalog for Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin.
I have written here about Ted Kooser before, as part of my annual April poetry posts. As I was browsing the new book cart, I was happy to discover that he has a new collection of poems out, and that we had gotten a copy here at the library.
Here, as in his previous collections, Kooser presents us with ordinary lives and quotidian objects, but invests them, through his feel for language, with a power we might not have seen on our own. That is his achievement as a poet, to make the ordinary extraordinary. There is a sense in the poems of endings and losses. Not in an awful way necessarily, but more in a recognition that all things, including the poet’s life, will reach an end. But there is hope too. I particularly was touched by “Swinging from Parents”:
The child walks between her father and mother,
holding their hands. She makes the shape of the y
at the end of infancy, and lifts her feet
the way the y pulls up its feet, and swings
like the v in love, between an o and e
who are strong and steady and as far as she knows
will be there to swing from forever. Sometimes
her father, using his free hand, points to something
and says its name, the way the arm of the r
points into the future at the end of father.
Or the r at the end of forever. It’s that forever
the child puts her trust in, lifting her knees,
swinging her feet out over the world.
Another wonderful section of the book was titled “Estate Sale.” Here Kooser offers a series of short poems on things that have been left behind by people whose lives have moved on. The sequence concludes with these lines:
And among these homely things,
an antique gilded harp,
its dusty strings like a curtain
drawn over the silence,
stroked by fingers of light.
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I thought that I had finally exhausted the possibilities of Victorian ghost stories to write about at Halloween time. I have covered the Jameses, Henry and M.R., LeFanu, as well as all the anthologies (here, here, and here), or so I thought. But one dark, rainy, October afternoon, while prowling the quiet stacks of the library in forlorn hope of discovering something occult, I came across a mysterious, worn, leather-bound tome whose title, as best it could be read, was Necronom…. OK, it was actually an unusually warm autumn day, bright and sunny, the library was packed, and the book was a trade paperback copy of The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert. It was a good find nonetheless, and most likely safer than dipping into the Necronomicon, that accursed text.
Here, the editors have assembled a fascinating collection of less common ghost stories from both well-known writers of the Victorian period as well as those whose star has perhaps fallen (or maybe never really rose). Le Fanu is here as is Elizabeth Gaskell. Fantasist George MacDonald has a place as do Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and E. Nesbit. Many of these authors are better known for other genres of work than ghost stories, but I can attest that they all can raise the hair on the back of your neck in a fashion suited to the season. A host of lesser known writers also appear in the collection. I particularly enjoyed R. S. Hawker’s “The Botathen Ghost” from 1867, a story of a haunted preacher in 17th-century England.
Like most early ghost stories, these tales appeal more to psychological terror than the gore and violence that seem to dominate contemporary horror writing. Revenants, arcane objects, and unusual books and paintings are often at the center of the tale, and handling them as often as not is definitely the wrong thing to do. These are great stories for reading aloud, as many of them probably were intended to be. But also just fun reading in the fall when the dark comes early, and the shadows begin to creep.
Check the WRL catalog for The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories.
Writing yesterday about Michael Pollan’s Cooked got me thinking about other great books about food and its preparation. In my mind, Harold McGee’s masterful On Food and Cooking is the best writing I have found on food, covering chemistry, preparation, taste, individual fruits, vegetables, fish, cheese, meats, and pretty much anything else you might eat—algae anyone?
Whether you want to know about sugar substitutes and their qualities (p. 660-661), how baking pans affect the qualities of the item being baked (p. 563), what drinkers mean when they talk about the “tears” in strong wines or spirits (p. 717), or how you get from tea leaves to black, Oolong, or green tea (both Chinese and Japanese) (p. 438) there is something here for you.
Along the way, McGee includes recipes, food lore, quotations, and more, but the heart of the book is the comprehensive exploration of how cooking, fermenting, and other forms of processing affect the taste, texture, and edibility of food stuffs. An obvious appeal here is for readers who are cooks themselves and are perhaps developing new recipes. McGee is a great source for figuring out how to best combine and prepare ingredients. The book also is a useful compendium of cultural histories of food and ingredients. For instance, the chapter “Cereal Doughs and Batters” begins with a section on the evolution of bread from prehistoric to modern times (concluding with a section on “The decline and revival of traditional breads.”
On Food and Cooking is best read by dipping into an chapter that looks interesting, but be forewarned, McGee is an addictive writer, and, like a bag of potato chips, you will find yourself wanting to read just one more section. For readers who have forgotten their chemistry, there is a helpful “Chemistry Primer” at the end of the book that covers atoms, molecules, chemical bonds, energy, and the phases of matter. Any food lover will find a banquet of topics here to feast on.
Check the WRL catalog for On Food and Cooking.
Ever since purchasing On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee back in the 1980s, I have been a fan of books that explore the scientific and cultural aspects of food and its preparation. I recently picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s wonderful Cooked and was delighted to discover another title I need to add to my permanent collection of food books.
Pollan is probably best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he explores in sobering fashion how we eat in the 21st century. In Cooked, he looks at the four elements—fire, water, air, and earth—and how humans use these elements to transform animals and plants into food. Pollan has a clear affection for food and food preparation, and his enthusiasm and passion drive the stories here. In each of the sections of the book Pollan seeks out experts in the field—a barbeque grill master, a master baker, wheat growers, brewers, cheesemakers, and more—and talks with them about their work. Like John McPhee, another of my favorite writers, Pollan gives his characters the stage and lets them talk about their own passions in their voices.
Pollan also writes engagingly about his own attempts at cooking. Pollan writes about grilling, making liquid-based dishes, baking bread, and brewing not only as an observer but also as a participant. In doing so, he makes clear the value in preparing your own food from scratch, rather than purchasing processed meals. Cooking forces us to slow down, think about things closely, and then to share with family and friends the results of our work.
Cooked also provides a somewhat bleak picture of contemporary eating habits and commercial food preparation. In exploring the concepts of taste, Pollan relates how the processed food that makes up a disturbing percentage of our diet relies on unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar, and salt to make up for the lack of careful, and slow, preparation. After reading Cooked you may come away wanting to spend a bit more time in the kitchen, baking a loaf of sourdough bread, making a hearty stew for a cool fall evening’s meal, or appreciating a well-aged cheese. At least I hope so.
Check the WRL catalog for Cooked.