Blogging for a Good Book
The Graveyard Book was originally published as a novel in 2008 to a flurry of well-deserved praise, eventually earning the Newbery Medal, Carnegie Medal, and Hugo award. The story follows a boy named Nobody Owens, nicknamed Bod, who, as a very young child, flees to a graveyard after his parents are murdered by a man named Jack. The ghosts, after a heated discussion, extend to Bod the Freedom of the Graveyard, which protects him and allows him to interact freely with the dead. Of course, there is a limit to what a ghost can do, so Bod is assigned a Guardian, named Silas, who is neither living nor dead, and who can go out into the world of the living and procure the supplies that the boy needs. He begins his new life amongst the stones and tombs, protected from harm as Jack continues to search for his missing victim.
The story is wistful and haunting. The reader feels the great loss that Bod has experienced, yet he is himself too young to understand it fully. It’s not that the ghosts make bad parents; it’s just that a bit of emptiness haunts the margins of the book: the reader’s knowledge of the family life and friends that this little boy has been denied by virtue of his situation. This sense of longing can’t easily be shrugged off. Even leaving the graveyard puts him in serious risk, as the killer Jack can reach him if he wanders outside the gates.
The novel has been adapted by P. Craig Russell, who has won Harvey and Eisner awards for other projects, and who also created a exceptional graphic adaptation of a previous Gaiman book, Coraline. In this instance, the adaptation was done by Russell, but he only drew one of the chapters himself. Each chapter is done by a different artist, seven in all, and the illustrations are stunning. Sometimes having multiple artists can adversely affect the continuity of the visual storytelling, rending it difficult to recognize a character from one section to the next, but not in this case. Each section is unique, but all of the artists do a remarkable job of capturing the atmosphere of the book.
Recommended for readers of science fiction, horror, and graphic novels. Although the book is marketed as being for young teens, it is appropriate for adult readers as well.
Check the WRL catalog for The Graveyard Book, Volume 1
Refreshing and reinventing old superheroes has become somewhat fashionable recently, with rather mixed results. Some characters, like Batman, have seen so many iterations that it is difficult to separate them all, or find new ground to cover without being completely repetitive or utterly discarding canon. One good thing that has come out of this trend is the resurrection of old characters that never caught on, but were worthwhile for one reason or another.
The Green Turtle was a World War II superhero with a very limited run. He was created by a cartoonist named Chu Hing, who was one of the first Asian-Americans to enter the American comic book industry, a business with limited diversity, especially back in 1944. Hing obscured the face of his protagonist so that, even if he was not allowed to make his character officially of Chinese descent, there is enough obfuscation for the reader to make their own decision about his heritage.
It is this character that has been brought back to life in The Shadow Hero. Living in Chinatown are two immigrants and their son, Hank. Each parent brings with them shadows of their old life and unfulfilled expectations from their new life. Hank is the reluctant heir to a melting pot of their issues. There certainly isn’t any early indication of his superhero future, as he is quite content to work in his father’s grocery store, nursing the hope to eventually pass it on to his own son someday. But no superhero comes to being without some trauma, and his parent’s legacies eventually, violently, come to alter their offspring’s future in unimagined ways.
Gene Luen Yang, author of the Printz Award winning American Born Chinese, brings a strong sense of time, place, and culture in this story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero story where family and cultural heritage is this central to the creation and continued development of the character. The people surrounding Hank encompass a wide range of types without sinking in to caricature. His mother is especially complicated, being infuriating and relatable in equal measure. Parents want what’s best for their child, but so often their view of what is best is founded on what they perceive to be missing from their own life.
Recommended for readers of graphic novels, superhero stories, and anyone with an interest in stories about family dynamics.
Check the WRL catalog for The Shadow Hero.
Barbara is a fifth-grader who lives with her big sister and her older brother. She sticks out from her peers for myriad reasons: she wears a different pair of animal ears every day; she is completely unable to interact with people in a normal manner; and she is obsessed with her quest to kill giants. She tells stories of many bloody, violent battles with the monsters, and sees signs of an impending attack that no one else notices. Armed with Coveleski, the Giant Slayer (the name she gave her war hammer), she is tough, smart, and in many ways completely unlikable. When finding herself cornered, either physically or emotionally, she lashes out with a vicious intensity.
Offsetting her brutal ferocity is Sophia, a sunny, gentle girl who is new to the neighborhood and is fascinated by Barbara’s stories of giants and the imminent war. As damaged as Barbara so obviously is, she cannot completely cast Sophia aside, and the reader gets glimpses of what looks like desperation for normalcy peeking through her façade. But Barbara is pretty expert in keeping people from hurting her emotionally, and even Mrs. Molle, the school psychologist, finds Barbara a tough case to figure out.
Heavy in the air is a secret, something so terrible that it is driving Barbara into a world of fantasy in order to find some solace. So strong is her emotional shutdown, that even people’s words are blacked out whenever the topic is mentioned. Bit by excruciating bit, her secret is revealed to the reader, as she finds herself unable to keep things contained and her raw pain is brought to the surface
Graphic novels can be a fantastic medium for delving into tough, sensitive topics, as the art can make a reader comprehend those quiet moments of complete emotional devastation better than any possible combination of words. The illustrations by JM Ken Niimura are subtle and explosive as appropriate. Joe Kelly’s writing is nuanced and tense. Recommended for readers of graphic novels, and anyone who likes journeys of self-awareness or coming-of-age stories.
Check the WRL catalog for I Kill Giants.
As someone once quipped, “they don’t have issues, they have an entire subscription.” Six dogs of varying breeds make up this sled dog team, and each has their own flavor of neurosis. Dolly is the lead dog, and is consumed with an existential crisis, constantly wondering why she was chosen to lead, and whether or not she has the skills to be successful. Winston is a purebred Samoyed, and bears the heavy burden of his blue blood with mounting desperation as his chances of passing on his valuable genes seem slimmer as each season passes. Buddy, a strong but not particularly bright wheel dog, has been used several times for mating, but this has confused him about his exact relationship with the mother of his pups. Venus, Buddy’s unwilling partner in puppy making, has to fend off his amorous advances and her increasing frustration with her lack of choice in these matters. Guy is determined to take over the lead position from Dolly and is willing to manipulate the other dogs into helping him. And finally there is Fiddler, part philosopher, part devil’s advocate; he seems to be able to figure out everything, except what he actually wants for himself. The owners of this motley crew are a man and a woman who intentionally moved far away from all other people, and are dealing with their enforced solitude with varying levels of success.
The dogs live to run, and it is only in their long stretches of down time that they are forced to turn to social drama as an antidote to boredom. Buddy flirts, Venus rebuffs, Dolly questions, Guy plots, Winston preens, and Fiddler philosophizes. For all the soap opera-like drama as they jockey for their rightful place in the world, either real or perceived, the dogs are relatable and quite often funny. Somewhat gloomier is the relationship between the humans, who each only have one other person they can interact with. For both parallel stories, nerves can only fray so much before something drastic will occur.
The story is an engaging, quick read. Some of the humor is more appropriate for an older crowd, especially Buddy’s repeated attempts to compliment Venus based on her litter-making skills. Recommended for readers of graphic novels and character-driven stories.
Check the WRL catalog for Mush! Sled Dogs with Issues
The Stuff of Legend: Book 1: The Dark, by Mike Raicht and Brian Smith, Illustrated by Charles Paul Wilson III
A lot of admonishments are made about not judging a book by its cover. But as I was browsing our shelves, I came across this dark little volume and was immediately intrigued. Mimicking a dinged up, ink spattered journal, its rather grandiose title The Stuff of Legend was set above the drawing of a stuffed bear. Its face set with a sense of purpose, the bear steps towards the reader as if walking towards its destiny, glancing at the toys behind it with a look of either challenge or warning. It is an arresting image, but despite the ominous subtitle, The Dark, I picked up the book fully expecting the fluffy cuteness of the bear to be the reader’s companion through the story, juxtaposed against whatever low-level gloom the authors threw at the character. After just a few pages I realized I was entirely off base.
The story has some familiar elements: a young boy and some toys that come alive, but only when humans are not there to witness the transformation. One of the toys is even a piggy bank, but this book is definitely not a Toy Story knock-off. Set in 1941, with the boy’s father off fighting in the war, a great and unexpected evil is about to invade the world. Straight out of every child’s nightmares, the Boogeyman is in the closet. One night his nightmarish tentacles emerge from behind the door to snatch the boy, leaving the toys behind in shock. Should they venture in after him to save their owner? Or should they maintain their directive of non-interference?
Obviously, if all the toys decided that discretion is the better part of valor, this story would have ended after only a few pages. Instead we follow a few brave toys who volunteer (or get volunteered) to go into the darkness after the boy. The world on the other side of the door is truly transformational, and the long quest begins.
When I finished book 1, my only thought was that I needed to get book 2 as soon as possible. The story is gloomy, yet riveting and absorbing. The artwork is appropriately dingy in sepia with dark shadows staining every scene. So far, four books in the series have been published, and there is a promise of a fifth volume later this year. Recommended for readers of graphic novels, light horror, an adventure books.
Check the WRL catalog for The Stuff of Legends
Throughout their 30-year history, the band Sonic Youth won critical acclaim for their distinctive dissonant, guitar-driven sound. Led by the husband and wife team of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, the band enjoyed commercial success in the early ‘90s with the release of Goo (1990), featuring the single “Kool Thing,” and as a headlining act with the 1995 Lollapalooza festival.
Sonic Youth continued to release records and tour until the announcement in 2011 that Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were divorcing after 27 years of marriage. Fans were shocked. How could a marriage and musical partnership that seemed solid dissolve so suddenly and publicly? Kim Gordon offers thoughtful, well-balanced insight into her career and personal life in her candid memoir, Girl in a Band.
Gordon opens with Sonic Youth’s final concert at the SWU Music and Arts Festival in Itu, São Paulo, Brazil. A month prior to the show, Sonic Youth’s record label issues a press release announcing Gordon and Moore’s divorce. While the band members try to remain professional as they complete their South American tour, the tension is evident. Gordon observes that for a couple and a band who embraced artistic and musical experimentation while maintaining a stable family unit, the end was “another cliché of middle-aged relationship failure—a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life.”
Gordon’s path to musical success was a bit unconventional. The daughter of a sociology and education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and a homemaker, she grew up interested in visual arts, eventually attending York University in Toronto, Canada and the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. She had one sibling, an older brother named Keller. Of all the relationships Gordon discusses in her memoir, her relationship with Keller is the most complex. Growing up, Gordon adored her brother, despite his constant teasing, which occasionally turned cruel. After a troubled adolescence, Gordon and her parents learned that Keller suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. According to Gordon, Keller and his mental illness “shaped who I was, and who I turned out to be.”
Gordon moved to New York in 1980, intending to become part of a thriving art scene that included Cindy Sherman and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’m more familiar with Kim Gordon’s music than her art, and I especially enjoyed reading her recollections of the New York art world in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Gordon was asked to write an article about music, and she chose to focus on the onstage interactions between men. Her article was well-received and inspired her to start making music herself. After meeting Thurston Moore, they formed a band that eventually became Sonic Youth. Their early years were a bit of a struggle as they balanced day jobs with the process of recording, touring, and developing an audience. From the beginning, Sonic Youth had a distinctive musical and artistic aesthetic that carried over into fashion in 1993 when Gordon co-founded the clothing line X-Girl with Daisy Cafritz.
Rather than delve into the minutiae of every Sonic Youth song or album, Gordon focuses her discussion of Sonic Youth’s music on songs and albums that are especially meaningful to her. Along the way, she includes fascinating stories and anecdotes about the musicians she toured or worked with, including Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.
Told in short, fast-paced chapters, Girl in a Band is an engaging memoir and an entertaining account of an influential period in American alternative music.
Check the WRL catalog for Girl in a Band.
Meet Barb Colby and Lily Stanton, longtime friends and heroines of Amanda Filipacchi’s sharp and witty fourth novel, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty. Barb is a costume designer and Lily is an acclaimed pianist. Despite their talents, their lives are defined more by their physical appearance than their accomplishments. In response, Barb and Lily set out to subvert society’s perceptions and expectations of their looks.
Barb Colby is in her late 20s, but she looks like an unattractive 40-year-old with bad teeth and unkempt hair and clothing. Strangers typically regard her with a mix of pity and contempt; however, Barb’s appearance is actually a skillful disguise. In reality, Barb is a stunning beauty, but instead of flaunting her appearance, she hides it because she believes it was responsible for the death of a close friend. Gabriel, a successful chef, killed himself after falling in love with her. In his suicide note he wrote that her beauty had “grown so painful for me to behold.”
Wanting to be loved for who she is and not her beauty, Barb uses her design talents to create a fat suit and a wardrobe of dowdy clothing. Whenever she goes to bars or restaurants with her friends, she makes a point of engaging men in conversation then exposing their shallow views on beauty before removing the costume to reveal her true appearance. Her resolve is tested when she meets a man who may be in love with more than her physical beauty.
Lily Stanton is also in her 20s, but her appearance is very different from Barb’s. Her friend very bluntly describes her as being “extremely ugly—the kind of ugliness that is inoperable.” Lily is deeply in love with a former co-worker named Strad, a fellow musician who’s only interested in dating beautiful women. One afternoon, Strad and Lily attend a recital and he’s so moved by the music he tells her that he could “fall in love with—and marry—any woman who could create music like that.”
Realizing that her talent may be the only way she can attract Strad, Lily resolves to compose music that’s so alluring he has no choice but to fall in love with her. She starts by composing music that will make people desire objects, such as office supplies or books, and soon develops a lucrative career composing music for companies seeking to increase sales through the suggestive power of music. The piece she composes for Strad brings success; however, complications cause her to reconsider her plan.
Barb and Lily are supported in their artistic and personal endeavors by their close friends: Georgia, a successful novelist; Penelope, an aspiring potter who survived a horrific kidnapping; and Jack, a former police officer who rescued Penelope. Collectively, the group is known as the Knights of Creation, and they meet regularly to work on various artistic and literary projects. Gabriel was also a member, and before his suicide he arranged for the group to receive a series of letters. These letters reference Lily’s hopeless crush on Strad and an unsolved murder that was allegedly committed by a member of the group. His final letters warn the group that the killer has planned to murder Strad if Lily doesn’t get over him. The group’s attempt to protect Strad leads to a strange dinner party that serves as his introduction to the Knights of Creation.
Filipacchi’s breezy narrative is pitch perfect and never gets too heavy-handed. Barb and Lily’s attempts to transcend their physical appearances result in provocative and often hilarious situations as they struggle to find love and acceptance for who they are, not how they appear. Several intriguing subplots, including one concerning a missing laptop, help flesh out the secondary characters.
The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty succeeds as both a quirky mystery and a meditation on beauty itself.
Check the WRL catalog for The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty.
Lola (Franka Potente) receives a call from her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). He’s worried and scared. Lola was supposed to help Manni deliver a bag containing 100,000 Deutsche Marks to Ronnie (Heino Ferch), a mobster; however, she failed to meet him, leaving Manni no choice but to take the subway. During the ride, Manni panics when he sees a police officer. He gets off the subway, leaving behind the bag of money. He has 20 minutes to come up with 100,000 Deutsche Marks or else Ronnie will kill him. Lola tells him not to worry; she will meet him and they’ll figure out a way to get the money. Desperate, Manni tells her that he’s prepared to rob a nearby supermarket if Lola doesn’t show up. Lola urges Manni to wait for her, and then she thinks about possible sources of money. After considering several possible options, she decides to ask her father, a bank manager, for the money. With no time to waste, Lola sprints out of her apartment and spends the next 20 minutes running through the city in a frantic attempt to get the money in enough time to save Manni.
Will Lola find 100,000 Deutsche Marks and save Manni’s life? Anything can happen in the course of 20 minutes, and Run Lola Run presents three possible outcomes to this scenario. The same basic sequence of events unfolds with each iteration of Lola’s run, but subtle differences and twists of fate alter the resolution to Lola and Manni’s dilemma.
A fast-paced and entertaining exercise in style, Run Lola Run takes a simple and straightforward premise and embellishes it with surreal animation sequences, rapid-fire editing, and a surprisingly tender love story. The movie is only 81 minutes long and Tykwer keeps the story tightly focused; there’s not a wasted scene in the film. Although the scope of the film is limited to Lola’s run, brief interludes between the scenarios establish how deeply Lola and Manni care for each other. In these scenes, they discuss their love and their fears of what might happen should one of them die. As Lola and Manni, Franka Potente and Moritz Bleibtreu bring a wonderful intensity to their roles that makes their characters’ predicament all the more urgent.
Run Lola Run is an energetic thriller and a clever meditation on the vagaries of fate.
Run Lola Run is in German with English subtitles.
Check the WRL catalog for Run Lola Run.
Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) appear to be a pair of lovers innocently planning a passionate rendezvous. Their ardor is palpable and their sentiments are almost poetic. “I won’t leave you, Julien,” Florence tells him, her eyes brimming with tears. “Without your voice, I’d be lost in a sea of silence,” Julien replies. Then the conversation takes an ominous turn. They make plans to meet later that evening at a café once Julien removes the one obstacle standing in the way of their happiness—Florence’s husband and Julien’s boss, Simon Carala (Jean Wall), a wealthy arms dealer.
Julien carries out his plan with calm and calculating efficiency. A former Foreign Legion parachutist, he uses his military training to secretly enter Simon’s office. The men have a brief confrontation before Julien shoots Simon, staging the scene to look like a suicide. Julien slips out of the building the same way he entered and conceals the evidence before getting in his car. As he prepares to leave the office, he glances up and discovers he’s left behind a critical piece of evidence. Julien races back into the building to retrieve the incriminating item; however, as he’s riding up in the elevator, a maintenance worker turns the power off, trapping him between floors. Shortly after Julien goes back to the office, his car is spotted by a young couple, Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Véronique (Yori Bertin). Louis has a criminal record, but that doesn’t deter him from stealing Julien’s car, taking Véronique along for the ride. Later that evening, the couple drives past the café where Florence and Julien planned to meet. Florence sees the car speed past the café and believes that Julien has run off with another woman. While Julien struggles to find a way out of the elevator, a despondent Florence wanders the streets of Paris looking for him. Meanwhile, Louis and Véronique continue their crime spree in Julien’s car. They know Julien and his background, and in addition to stealing his car, they check into a hotel under the name Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier. This scheme sets in motion a series of events that could separate Florence and Julien forever.
Elevator to the Gallows is a well-constructed thriller that moves at a brisk and tense pace. Instead of relying on surprise plot twists to generate suspense, Malle effectively uses the consequences of the characters’ actions to heighten the tension. It is also a rather stylish and atmospheric film. Henri Decaë’s glorious black and white cinematography and Miles Davis’s distinctive and moody score bathe the action in an air of melancholy.
The mood of the film is also reflected in the performances. As the desperate Florence, Jeanne Moreau brings a heartbreaking vulnerability that’s echoed by Maurice Ronet as Julien, her equally besotted lover. Although their phone conversation sets the murder plot in motion, Moreau and Ronet do not share any scenes together; however, they are convincing as a couple willing to do whatever it takes to be together.
A classic example of French New Wave Cinema, Elevator to the Gallows is one of Louis Malle’s best films.
Elevator to the Gallows is in French with English subtitles.
Check the WRL catalog for Elevator to the Gallows.
April is National Poetry Month, and today’s review centers on a film that celebrates the beauty of poetry—Il Postino: The Postman, a whimsical tale of the friendship between a postman and a famous poet.
Based on Antonio Skármeta’s novel Ardiente Paciencia, the film is set in the early ‘50s in a remote Italian village. Lifelong resident Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi) lives with his father, a fisherman. One of the few literate people in the community, Mario’s a simple man whose knowledge of life outside the village comes from newsreels at the cinema and the occasional postcard from relatives in America.
Life passes uneventfully in the village until the day Mario sees a newsreel announcing the arrival of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret). Neruda has been exiled from his native country for political reasons and he plans to stay in the village until he can safely return to Chile. Mario’s unfamiliar with Neruda’s poetry, but he’s impressed by his celebrity status, especially his adoring female fans.
Neruda’s arrival provides Mario with an unexpected job opportunity. The local postmaster needs a temporary postman to deliver mail to Neruda. Eager to learn how he can impress women, Mario accepts the job and begins an awkward, but persistent, campaign to become friends with Neruda. Charmed by Mario’s earnest attempts to understand poetic conventions, Neruda becomes a friend and mentor to the shy postman. When Mario falls in love with Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the niece of the village’s café owner, he uses Neruda’s advice—and his poetry—to win her heart.
Il Postino is a charming film that gently and eloquently explores the transformative power of friendship and poetry. Mario has a great enthusiasm for life, but a limited frame of reference until he meets Neruda. He’s eager to understand Neruda’s work and his discussions with the poet introduce him to new ways of expressing his thoughts and feelings. As his friendship with Neruda blossoms, he demonstrates a newfound level of confidence in the way he speaks and carries himself. It’s a subtle change beautifully captured by Massimo Troisi’s elegant and understated performance. Philippe Noiret is delightful as Neruda, and under Michael Radford’s deft direction the friendship between Mario and Neruda never feels forced or gimmicky. Neruda’s poetry is an integral part of the plot, and the poems used in the film are a perfect fit for the central themes and storyline.
Il Postino was the final film of Massimo Troisi, who also co-wrote the screenplay. A case of rheumatic fever as a child left him with a serious heart condition and he needed a heart transplant. He postponed the surgery so he could finish the film. In June 1994, he died of a heart attack hours after completing the project. He received posthumous Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay; the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and Luis Bacalov won for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score.
The film received a new round of publicity several years ago when opera composer and librettist Daniel Catán developed an operatic version. The opera, featuring tenor Plácido Domingo as Pablo Neruda, opened in 2010 to positive reviews.
Il Postino: The Postman is in Italian with English subtitles.
Check the WRL catalog for Il Postino: The Postman
WRL has several collections of Neruda’s poetry, including The Poetry of Pablo Neruda
At Williamsburg Regional Library we face a problem common to many public libraries; seasonal items are, well, seasonal. The hold lists for the most popular Christmas DVDs, CDs and books gather steam in late November and peak just before Christmas, so many people find they are finally getting their Christmas items in January or later. For me this was a happy circumstance. Christmas is over, but our wintry weather isn’t, so I have been enjoying Downton Abbey’s magnificent music CD well into March.
This two-disc set has almost fifty tracks performed by a variety of artists, including famous singers like Kiri Te Kanawa and the Choir of the Kings College Cambridge. They showcase a variety styles but there are no rock versions; all the music is traditional. With my astounding musical knowledge I would describe them as “tinkly.” The tracks range from single voices (O Holy Night) to joyful and uplifting choir numbers (Joy to the World, The Lord is Come) to somber organ music (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen) to instrumental (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy).
Even if you don’t have a voice like Kiri Te Kanawa (I’m guilty!) these are wonderful songs for singing along. Some beloved Christmas carols have been sung for hundreds of years and are the Christmas songs of millions of childhoods. I may not be able to hold a tune but I know all the words to Good King Wenceslas, and I feel better for belting them out on my commute. I have to admit that I have gotten some funny looks at traffic lights but I know confining my sing-alongs to my car is better for everyone’s health and safety. I suspect if I sang along at work I might find myself out the window despite (or because of) any winter storm warnings
I recommend this CD for all year long (coming from the southern hemisphere, I’ve always been a bit seasonally confused when it comes to Christmas). You don’t have to be a Downton Abbey fan to need and enjoy comforting, inspiring music that will get you out there exercising your lungs!
Check the WRL catalog for Christmas at Downton Abbey.
The term “architecture” usually means buildings. In this book the term can mean structures made of materials from outside of an animal’s body, such as a bird’s nest or beaver dam. It can also mean structures made with materials from animal’s bodies such as webs, or even ones that stay on their bodies such as shells.
Some of the featured animals are very small, such as the caddis fly, but the sparkling photographs with black backgrounds show every hair-like appendage on the tiny creature’s body and every minute piece of wood, stone, leaf, shell or straw in the amazing cases that they build to protect their soft bodies. The photograph with the largest scale goes to another of the smallest animals. The compass termite in northern Australia builds 3 meter (10 feet) high mounds and the aerial photographs taken at dawn and dusk show a flat semiarid field with long shadows highlighting hundreds of aerie gravestones. On any scale, we are not the only creatures who can mold our environment. The changes can be destructive for the host like the galleries of the bark beetle larvae or cause great changes to the entire local environment like beaver dams, termite mounds, or coral reefs.
The photographer, Ingo Arndt, has won numerous awards and been published by National Geographic and it’s easy to see why. These photographs are immediately arresting but also bear long study to examine the intricacies of the galleries of the bark beetle larvae, the bower bird’s opus, or the staggering variety of corals. The text by Jurgen Tautz takes up less space but it provides clear and digestable chunks of information about these spectacular architects.
Try Animal Architecture if you like the spectacular nature photography of The Oldest Living Things in the World, by Rachel Sussman, The Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger or Sea, by Mark Laita. Or if you are interested in the substances that these creatures use try Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik.
Check the WRL catalog for Animal Architecture.
Five centuries after the birth of Christ the ancient Mediterranean world was booming; architecture, literature, trade, and philosophy, were experiencing great leaps in development. In Constantinople, Justinian was trying to hold together the Roman Empire despite inroads from barbarians from all directions. By all accounts he was an able (if at times brutal) leader, but he was unable to fight the first pandemic of Bubonic plague. From 541-542 it is estimated to have killed 25 million people, depopulating cities and perhaps leading to the shape of the modern world from the European nation states to the rise of Islam.
Justinian’s Flea tells this story with sections ranging from the biology of rats, and their passengers of fleas and Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague), to the political intrigues of Justinian’s Court. The author has brought together disparate disciplines and facts including climate estimates from tree rings, the technological advances of ancient warfare, grave sites, and notarized wills. The book is fleshed out with wrenching quotes from contemporary accounts such as the prolific Procopius who said “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.”
Justinian’s Flea is a weighty but readable tome and since I don’t usually read nonfiction history, I learned an enormous amount. I lean towards science nonfiction and this book is a great companion for other books about the role of diseases in human history such as The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack, or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
For fiction readers, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which is set in the time of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague 600 years later), includes harrowing descriptions of the disease and the effects on people even if they survived. For those interested in visuals you could also try the History Channel DVD The Dark Ages.
Check the WRL catalog for Justinian’s Flea.
I know that having children is a life-enriching experience but I didn’t expect my almost-grown children to get me hooked on an initially unappealing children’s T.V. show; Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. At first the cartoons and martial arts action seemed cheesy, but the show delivers a compelling story filled with friendship, family (good and bad), coming of age, and sympathetic but realistically flawed characters.
The story is set in a fascinating universe where certain people have an innate ability to move and control physical matter, called bending. All benders can move only one element: either earth, water, air or fire. All, that is, except the Avatar who can bend all four, and this power is meant to be used to keep balance and harmony in the world. The Avatar disappeared over one hundred years ago which allowed the Fire Nation to wage a war to take over the world. In the first episode our heroes Katara and Sokka discover that the Avatar, Aang, has been frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years as a twelve-year-old boy. The three of them set off on journeys and adventures all around the world, gathering friends and enemies, such as plump, kindly General Iroh who dispenses sage advice and cups of tea, or short, blind Toph who seems helpless, but is much tougher than everyone else. The situation often looks dire, but as Katara says in the opening sequence, “I believe Aang can save the world.”
The well-developed universe includes real martial art systems as the basis for each type of bending and buildings, costumes and cultures based on real ancient Asian cultures (although sometimes mixed). But the best invention may be the chimeric animals! Aang has a huge, furry, guinea-pig-shaped Flying Bison named Appa that you can’t possibly see without wanting one.
There are many spin-off works such as the sequel The Legend of Korra which expands on the story of the Avatar. It occurs seventy years later than Avatar: The Last Airbender and features that show’s character’s children and grandchildren. They live in Republic City which bears an uncanny resemblance to 1920s New York City. There are also graphic novels some of which are drawn by the same artists and include original stories that are not in the original show like Avatar the Last Airbender: The Promise.
Like Doctor Who or Spirited Away this is great for the whole family to watch together. The stories are simple enough (and active enough) to appeal to the youngest set while the geopolitical wrangling and character development is enough to keep adults coming back for more.
Check the WRL catalog for Avatar: The Last Airbender.
It can be fun working right next to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum; not only do we get to see Thomas Jefferson wandering along the street texting, but we also get to walk past old-fashioned zigzag, split rail fences and see fields of farm animals in the middle of the city.
Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals is a great way to learn about these animals. It includes sections on cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, pigeons, fish, horses and pets, with simple, clear descriptions of animal management and use, in both colonial times and the present day. It points out that in colonial times animals shared people’s daily lives in a way that they don’t often do today. Of course the colonists used the meat, milk, eggs, and wool from their animals but there were also surprising uses such as including animal hair in plaster for house building, which Colonial Williamsburg brickmakers still do, as they always strive for authenticity.
Modern farm animals have been bred for specific traits over the last several hundred years so to be authentic, Colonial Williamsburg has researched, bought and raised rare breeds such as the Leicester Longwool Sheep. Their research includes works written by the colonialists so Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future has several quotes from George Washington about how he managed his animals.
The text explains and complements the pictures, but like the other books about Colonial Williamsburg Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future is an enjoyable and worthwhile book just for the photos. Every page includes wonderful photographs of the interpreters in costumes performing their farming tasks by hand, as well as photographs of the animals as they go about their lives.
This book is great to read with other Colonial Williamsburg titles: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene, or The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It also includes the history of chickens which you can learn about in greater depth from Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.
Check the WRL catalog for Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future.
I am always on the lookout for academic fiction. I love novels set in English departments and featuring an amusing cast of characters—David Lodge, Michael Malone, James Hynes, Richard Russo, and Jon Hassler are among my favorites. Now I can add Julie Schumacher to the list.
Told as a series of one-sided letters of recommendation, this novel is both funny and poignant. The protagonist, and writer of recommendations, is Jason Fitger, a tenured English professor at Payne, a not so highly rated Midwest university. The letters here are for students, some of whom he has never taught but who are desperate for a recommendation for a job or a fellowship, and for fellow faculty members and college staff.
Fitger’s voice is the only one we hear, and he is in turn cranky, sarcastic, and petulant, but he is also concerned about his students’ well-being and clearly cares deeply for his friends and colleagues, even those with whom he has fallen out over the years. At first the book seems mostly a satire, but as you get into the story, the letters reveal the story of Fitger’s life, his struggles as a writer, and his contention with the human condition. He becomes a character for whom the reader cares, and the end of the novel is both somber and redemptive.
Check the WRL catalog for Dear Committee Members.
Charlotte’s post about Lloyd Alexander got me thinking about books for younger readers that are also of interest to adults. I think that Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart and its sequels, Inkspell and Inkdeath fill the bill here. Although they are marketed as young adult fiction, they will work equally well for anyone who is a fantasy fan.
These are very literary stories, premised on the ability of the some characters to read people in and out of fictional tales while reading aloud. It sounds like a great idea at first, but the problem is that when something is read out of a story, something present in the real world is read into the story. Meggie, our heroine, is the daughter of a bookbinder named Mo, and she wonders why he will not read her stories from books. We discover that Meggie lost her mother when Mo accidentally reads her into a dark tale. Worse, Mo has read out of the story its arch villain, Capricorn, who is bent on getting back into his story and uses Meggie as a tool to coerce Mo into once again reading aloud.
As Meggie and Mo are pursued, captured, and attempt to escape, they meet with unexpected help, are betrayed by some that they thought true, and must rely on the power of language to face Capricorn and his men. Funke tells a delightful though dark tale about the power of words and the love of books and reading. It is a great story for anyone who shares that love.
Check the WRL catalog for Inkheart
At first, it sounds like some sort of NPR show or something, but All Things Reconsidered is actually a delightful collection of essays that Roger Tory Peterson published in Bird Watcher’s Digest over the last decade and a bit of his life. Peterson’s name is a household word among birders, and his Field Guide to the Birds can be found all over the country, often in tattered, field-worn condition (my personal copy is taped together and dates from ornithology class at William and Mary ca. 1982).
In addition to being an excellent illustrator, Peterson is an engaging writer, with an obvious affection for and appreciation of the natural world. Whether writing about confusing fall warblers, birding in Kenya, or the renaissance of the Peregrine Falcon, Peterson’s clear prose style and narrative line are a delight to the ear, and the photographs and drawings are a delight for the eye. These are personal stories, introducing the reader to many of the characters of the bird world, both avian and human. They also are a fascinating look at the environmental and citizen science movements over the years, as seen through Peterson’s life and work.
Another great collection of stories to prepare you for observing spring migration.
Check the WRL catalog for All Things Reconsidered
It is Spring once again (or almost anyway) and soon the Williamsburg area will begin to see migrant birds coming through on their way North. After a long, cold Winter, it is a joy to get outside and be alert to what birds might appear today. It is almost as good to be inside reading Miyoko Chu’s fascinating book about bird migration.
Chu, who works at the acclaimed Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, has written a book anyone who loves birds should read. It is a deft blend of science and history, along with practical information about watching migrant birds at the different seasons of the year. Chu covers topics from birdsong to nesting to banding in her discussion of migrating birds. Her narrative style moves easily from the specific (looking at a particular species’ migratory habits) to the general (examining how habitat loss at either end of the migration affects bird populations). Her writing is crisp and elegant, and always accessible for the lay reader.
Anyone who enjoys birding will find something to like here. It is a great book for those rainy days where the birds are not calling or moving much.
Check the WRL catalog for Songbird Journeys
Back in 2012, I wrote about Mary Doria Russell’s superb historical novel Doc, where she relates the backstory of the gunfight at OK Corral, looking at the early lives of Doc Holliday and the Earps. I am happy to report that she does an equally excellent job in her newest novel Epitaph, bringing the story forward through the incident in Tombstone and beyond.
As in the earlier story, Russell focuses on characters and there are lots of them in this story. While not quite as complicated as a Russian novel, the cast here is large and you have to pay attention. This is in part because of the fluid nature of the relationships between the characters–friends, or at least drinking buddies, one day and then deadly enemies the next.
In many ways this is a sadder and darker story than Doc. Where the first story was haunted by premonitions of death, death is constantly present in Epitaph. There is also the pain of seeing relationships that seemed so strong in Doc, especially between Wyatt and Holliday, be tried, and sometimes found wanting. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the Western history, or in the study of human nature, will find much to enjoy in this somber sequel.
Check the WRL catalog for Epitaph