Blogging for a Good Book
The 39 Steps is an espionage story that has been through several incarnations. It began as a very popular 1915 book by John Buchan, the first of a series of adventures involving Richard Hannay, a resourceful engineer bored with London society, whose life takes a complete turn when someone is murdered in his London flat. Soon he’s on the run, framed for the crime by a mysterious spy organization, and in pursuit of a feisty love interest who’s attracted to him but not buying his wild story.
The novel was immortalized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock in a 1935 film. This incarnation of The 39 Steps was one of the first films to show some of Hitch’s trademarks, a hyperdramatic style, mistaken identities, mysterious villains, a dapper hero, cross-country chases, long tracking shots, and dashes of quirky humor.
Playwright Patrick Barlow keeps Hitchcock’s plot, but injects it with a love for old-fashioned humor in the style of English music halls and a nostalgia for theater in the days of greasepaint, melodrama, and hokum. The resulting play merrily employs grand old traditions into a show that contemporary audiences will find new and fresh.
Barlow’s adaptation keeps Hannay as the protagonist, but uses just three actors in all of the other parts. One woman plays both the femme fatale and the love interest drawn into Hannay’s mad flight, while two very busy actors play all of the other characters from the film, often changing so quickly that they can’t even leave the stage. The results is a suspenseful thriller made madcap with tongue-in-cheek humor, a screwball romance, references to your favorite Hitchcock films, acrobatic antics, sinister villains, and playful re-imagining of the conventions and language of classic theater.
While I recommend reading Barlow’s play for sheer enjoyment of the language, this story needs to be seen. Barlow employs a minimal set, using just a few moving set pieces, props, light and sound effects, and pantomime to suggest locations ranging from London flats to Scottish country inns, foggy moors to campaign bandstands, even the perilous heights of a towering bridge and a moving train car. The rapid transformations of two actors into a merry-go-round of quirky bystanders, leering villains, and thick-brogued Highlanders has to be seen and heard to be believed.
The Williamsburg Players will bring The 39 Steps to the stage March 12th through 28th in a production directed by the Emmy-winning Abigail Schumann, and featuring local actors David Stallings as Hannay, Annie Lewis as Annabella and Margaret, and Chris Hull and Jordan Wentland as the two chameleon-like “clowns.” If you can’t make that, try searching for The 39 Steps on YouTube to supplement your reading.
Check the WRL catalog for Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps
Evoking elements of The Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, even what was good about the silly old Saturday morning show The Land of the Lost, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner isn’t completely original–it couldn’t be in the crowded field of young adult dystopias–but it’s a fun read that deserves the attention of those who love dystopian action fiction.
The protagonist is a teenager who startles awake to find that he is riding some kind of elevator. At the top, he finds himself surrounded by other teenage boys who seem more interested in taunting than helping a new arrival. It turns out that they are the inhabitants of a small clearing they call the Glade. The Gladers (as the residents call themselves–they have developed a whole new argot) have to grow and raise all of the food they eat, supplemented only by a few supplies that arrive, sometimes with a new resident, via the elevator. It’s a tough existence, and one that has created leaders and outsiders, fast friends and bitter rivals among the boys.
They’re trapped in the Glade, which is surrounded by sheer cliffs. During the day, the cliff walls shift via some hidden mechanism, and openings allow a way out of the Glade, but only access a shifting maze that seems to go nowhere. The elite among the boys, called Runners, spend their days dashing through these mazes trying to map them and find a way out. But even the attempt is perilous. The walls shift again at night, trapping anyone who isn’t back by nightfall, when Grievers, biomechanical horrors, come out and sting or destroy anyone who hasn’t returned to the Glade.
As Thomas, the protagonist, slowly emerges from an amnesiac fog he recalls snippets of memory, in particular that the boys are part of some kind of grand experiment. Dashner unspools a twisting plot rapidly after the opening setup, and readers will find it hard to guess what is coming next. The arrival of the next person to the Glade changes all the rules and raises the stakes for Thomas, his friends, and his rivals.
The Maze Runner is followed by The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure in a trilogy. There’s also a movie series under way, which I found good at capturing the details of the terrain, but perhaps less successful at capturing the story’s suspense or character development.
Check the WRL catalog for The Maze Runner
Or try The Maze Runner as an audiobook on CD
Tom Franklin is a logical heir to William Faulkner, or more recently, Cormac McCarthy, powerful writers who explore the violent world of the American South through character-driven historical fiction. Perhaps even more than those other two greats, Franklin derives his tales from real historical events.
The subject of Hell at the Breech is the Mitcham War, fought in rural Alabama in 1897. Comparatively wealthy townfolk had been exploiting sharecroppers, and the resulting resentment boiled over into violence when Arch Bledsoe, a man-of-the-people political candidate, was mysteriously murdered. This killing was used as an excuse for violence by the Hell-at-the-Breech gang, a secret society of thugs who had been terrorizing their sharecropper neighbors into compliance. They went into town in a series of robberies and brutal raids, which in turn inspired a vigilante posse from town to ride roughshod into the countryside, attacking anyone unlucky enough to fall in their path.
Franklin’s novel is given extra dimension by wonderful characters. Tooch Bledsoe is a country Machiavelli, a gifted manipulator of men who leads the Hell-at-the-Breech gang. Mack Burke is a 15-year-old, apprenticed to Tooch under mysterious circumstances to work at his country store. He’s trying to do the right things, but unsure of what those are, and he carries the weight of a secret about the murder of Tooch’s step brother Arch. Billy Waite is the aging, decent sheriff–one of the few power figures from town who isn’t out to exploit the sharecroppers–sent into danger to investigate Bledsoe’s murder. These are the lead characters, but Franklin populates his story with a great variety of larger than life ne’er do wells.
This isn’t for everyone. Franklin will challenge your conception of ethics. There are no easy answers and nobody in his novel is blameless. Violence is a way of life for these people. You know you’re in for a dark ride when the opening chapter concerns a boy being instructed by his mother to drown a sack full of puppies. If you can handle that kind of darkness, you’ll find this a rewarding read, a believable if operatic look at the dark heart of the wild days of early America.
Check the WRL catalog for Hell at the Breech
Being a teenage boy is tough enough but for James Goodhouse it’s a disaster. In an alternate future that readers will find very plausible, he’s a student incarcerated in one of the Goodhouse homes. These “schools” are the compulsory homes of boys whose families have genetic markers that make them supposedly prone to violent behavior. They’re supposed to be places of training and rehabilitation, but due to a cynical system that pits each student against the others in a competition for the perks given to proctors, the only training is in the very antisocial behavior the Goodhouse system is supposed to be combating. The boys are also subjected to medical experimentation.
As if this weren’t bad enough, an element of religious fundamentalism is growing in the world outside the Goodhouses. This movement, nicknamed the Zeroes, believes that even the schools are too good for genetically tainted boys. They’d like to cleanse them right off the earth, setting fires to the Goodhouse homes and committing other acts of terror. James has been relocated from an Iowa Goodhouse, burnt to the ground, a fire from which as far as he knows he was the only survivor.
His new Oregon home brings new challenges, as particularly sadistic proctors have fought their way to the top of the student pile. The best way to get by in a Goodhouse is to stay under the radar, but James is getting attention due to his contacts with Bethany, a forward girl with a quick intellect and a rebellious nature who forms an attachment to James that may save him, but more likely will just get him in big trouble.
This novel reminded me somewhat of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, with its futuristic school setting, and the sad trait shared by both books’ students: they’ve absorbed society’s unfair judgment of them and come to believe that they are, indeed, somehow inferior. But while Never Let Me Go simmers slowly, remaining a sad psychological story played in a minor key, Goodhouse explodes into action, finishing in a dizzying stream of external events that suggest sequels are to come. Peyton Marshall has written a doozy of a first novel, a great pick for those looking for the next step after YA successes like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, or James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. Readers will enjoy the blend of coming-of-age, dystopia, social justice story, and thriller.
Check the WRL catalog for Goodhouse
In the first decade of the new century, urban fantasy went from a blip on the genre map to a big part of the fantasy fiction market. That success was built on kick-ass heroines modeled after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, quirky casts of characters such as those found in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, or glib modern magicians standing in for the classic noir detective, as in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. The novels featured the creatures of classic horror films–vampires, werewolves, and other monsters–and/or the traditions of the English faerie story–the battle of the seelie and unseelie court beneath the noses of regular mortals–all given a modern twist. At the time, these tropes were fun, and fresh, a great variation on the fat doorstops of epic fantasy.
But like any publishing phenomena, the pattern has been repeated so many times that it’s not so fresh anymore. After reading five or six series that follow the same approach, most readers feel like they had been there, done that.
That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see new takes on contemporary fantasy, and Alex Bledsoe has done just that with his novels about the Tufa people of the east Tennessee mountains. Yes, it’s another variation on the fairy courts, but by displacing the fey into the heart of the Appalachians, casting a wounded American woman soldier as the protagonist, bathing the story in mountain music, and putting Hatfield/McCoy-style feuding at the center of conflict, Bledsoe makes something entirely new.
The story concerns Bronwyn Hyatt, a young woman who went into the Army to escape the pressures of a close-knit family, her reputation as a trouble-making girl, and in particular her dangerously wild ex-boyfriend. But now she’s back from Iraq, a war hero with a shattered leg, knowing instinctually that she has to come to grips with her past and find a way to balance her own needs with her family obligation and destiny.
Two outsiders figure prominently. Craig Chess is a young Methodist preacher trying to build a congregation in the midst of people who don’t take to outsiders. There’s chemistry between him and Bronwyn, but that comes with the danger of provoking Duane, the hair-trigger violent ex-boyfriend who doesn’t want to believe that their relationship is over. Don Swayback is a reporter sent to cover Bronwyn’s return who rediscovers his forgotten family history and his own musical gift.
All of this is set in the mysterious Cloud County, a locale where roads seem to disappear or re-arrange for unwanted strangers. Family traditions run deep, with most divided into one of two feuding camps, united only in their dislike of the outside world. Music lovers will love this world, as the magic is intrinsically connected with its playing.
The story continues in Wisp of a Thing, from 2013, and Long Black Curl, due out this year.
Check the WRL catalog for The Hum and the Shiver
Marcelo is a seventeen-year-old who hears music in his head as a result of mild autism. His dad, Arturo, is a lawyer. Despite Marcelo’s plans to work at Paterson, the special school he attends, and help with the stables, his father pressures him to spend the summer at his law firm in order to experience the “real world.” The deal is that after spending the summer in the law firm, Marcelo can spend his senior year at his special school or he can choose to go to the regular high school. Arturo is betting Marcelo will want to go to the regular high school after seeing all that the world has to offer.
Marcelo understands that his parents want him to be more self-sufficient, but he is very concerned about what the “real world” involves. To him it means engaging in small talk with other people, refraining from talking about his special interests, shaking hands and looking people in the eye, doing things that have not been scheduled in advance.
The book shows Marcelo overcoming the challenges of the summer job, his friendships with Jasmine, his coworker in the mail room, and Wendell, the obnoxious, privileged son of another lawyer in his dad’s firm. Most interestingly, though, it addresses how Marcelo responds when he realizes the law firm is protecting a shady business that has been sued due to a faulty product.
I also really enjoyed the discussions Marcelo had with his rabbi friend about various aspects of religion. Lots of food for thought, especially as Marcelo struggles with doing the right thing once he uncovers information about his dad’s law firm. I loved how the ending really opened my eyes to what it meant for Marcelo to be a part of the “real world.”
I would recommend this book for a discussion group. There is a lot here to consider and talk about.
My colleague Nancy recommended I listen to the audiobook. Hearing Marcelo’s voice as he talks about himself in the third person really brought his character to life for me.
Check the WRL catalog for Marcelo in the Real World
Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of Marcelo in the Real World
A middle-school teen living in a comfortable suburb in Massachusetts is murdered in broad daylight on his way to school. A neighborhood is in shock and the police and local assistant district attorney, Andy Barber, immediately starts investigating. Andy’s son is the victim’s classmate, but Andy doesn’t see the connection as a problem until rumors, and then evidence, suggest his son is the murderer. He is immediately taken off the case. The story is told from Andy’s perspective as his life and his family’s lives unravel. Andy has come a long way from a murky past to get to his current position – a lovely wife, fine son, highly respected job and upper middle class suburban house. He doesn’t want intrusion from his past, some of which he hasn’t even shared with his wife.
Defending Jacob has a breathtakingly fast plot, twisting and turning in all directions. The reader is left wondering what actually happened – which I think is more like real life than some novels with omniscient narrators who know more than any real person could.
Family is a huge thing to risk losing, and Defending Jacob is wrenching as it deals with issues about the relationships between spouses, parents of dependent children, children on the way to adulthood, grown children, estranged parents and more. The book asks the questions about what is the best and moral way to relate to your own family. It even asks is the most moral course of action always the best course of action? Is it okay to keep long-term secrets from those you love best? What if the secret may be to protect them (or you) but the lack of displayed trust feels like a betrayal?
Don’t expect everything to be tied up neatly. Defending Jacob is a domestic suspense novel that is often seen as part of the Gone Girl phenomenon, the best-selling suspense novel that is now a movie. The reader is not only wondering “who did it” but since it is about everyday people we can picture ourselves in the same situation and wonder what we would do. Like several recent popular books such as The Dinner, by Herman Koch, Defending Jacob addresses the heritability of criminality. My recent non-fiction reading of books like The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience, by Kent A. Kiehl suggest that there often is a genetic component to antisocial behavior. On the other hand I firmly believe that genetics is not destiny. These points have led to some interesting discussions with my colleagues about these books, and for the same reason I think they make great book group reading choices.
Check the WRL catalog for Defending Jacob.
Confession: I am not a fan of James Patterson (though not a detractor).
Confession: l have tired of the slew of half-baked bandwagon dystopian fiction that has flooded the market in the past few years, following the success of several well-done iterations, especially in Young Adult fiction (blasphemy, I know!).
However – being a contrarian at heart, I had to pick up Toys, by James Patterson and Neil McMahon, after hearing someone despise it as both unlike typical Patterson, and a dystopian fiction!
Set in a not-too far-future United States, the country is run by Elites – synthetically incubated human beings with genetic upgrades that produce superior intelligence, physical ability, and looks – charged with the responsibility of protecting the flawed and warring human race from themselves. (Remind anyone of Asimov’s first of the Robot Laws?) The human race has not been difficult to run, however, as the majority not in poverty are lulled into a humming submission by the consumption of “toys” – a panoply of gadgets, devices, virtual diversions, and recreational drugs.
Elite government agents Hays Baker and his wife are among the top U.S. agents in the President’s stable combatting human crimes and enforcing Elite law. When a massacre of top executives of the Toyz company calls for Hays and Lizbeth to intervene, Hays is hospitalized and wakes to find himself excommunicated to the other side of a global conflict between a gang of revolutionary humans, and an Elite plan to extinguish the human race.
This book was a ton of fun, without being silly; think a less moody, fun, mildly sexy Blade Runner. It considered the dystopian questions of the division of the have and have-nots by technology, the hypnotism of society by mind-numbing entertainment, and the threat of creeping totalitarian government, but with sharp, snarling characters, and slick action scenes. This book is equal parts interesting and amusing; it’s neither fluff nor overly philosophical, nor too high a Sci-Fi. In summer blockbuster terms, this is the I, Robot (with Will Smith) or Judge Dredd rather than the Minority Report or Truffaut’s Farenheit 451.
I recommend Toys for young adults who enjoy action and espionage reads, as well as pop Sci-Fi fans. I give the audiobook bonus points for White Collar’s Matt Bomer’s great speaking performance.
Check the WRL catalog for Toys
A premise that I repeatedly turn to for a good read is that of the atypical or unexpected friendship. Sometimes that is simply the unlikely friendship (Notes from the Dog, Eleanor and Park), or means quirky outsiders who become friends (Stoner and Spaz, The Fault in Our Stars), and is expanded upon as the scarred heroes who heal through a new friendship (A Long Way Down). Althea & Oliver explores this premise somewhat in reverse.
Althea and Oliver grew up together as neighbors since the age of six, she without a mother, he without a father, she impulsive, and he controlled, she starting adventures, he keeping her out of trouble, both as inseparable as a loyal brother and sister. As their senior year in high school looms, Oliver begins to suffer from a rare sleeping disorder at the same time Althea starts to develop complicated feelings about Oliver and their friendship – ultimately clashing in a conflict between the two that threatens to end their friendship. In the middle of this discord, Oliver pursues a solution in the form of a sleep study and treatment in New York City, without telling Althea. Ever a fighter, Althea packs her beat-up car and sets out from their North Carolina hometown to find Oliver and try to remedy their relationship. This separation for the first time they can remember is where debut author Moracho explores possibilities of the individuality for these young adults, adding a different perspective to the teen friendship story – and exploring the benefits and losses of separation, rather than of coming together.
Although the story is a bit slow-moving, the teen worlds of both their hometown and New York come alive, with realistic characters and environments – almost characters themselves – whether it’s the neighborhood they live in, the halls of their school, a house party, or a hospital ward of teens. The characters are real, varied, messy, smart, and sometimes raw, giving the personalities of young people the more complicated treatment which they are due but don’t always get in popular young adult fiction. Some book summaries and reviews dwell on the placement of this story during the 90’s punk scene, and draw attention to Althea as the artist and Oliver the academic, but these aspects of the story seem peripheral in comparison to the characters, place, and exploration of the conflict of the book, which are very well done; perhaps these aspects were highlighted in an attempt to “sell” the more messy and complex whole that is the fully-realized story. I give kudos to this author for resolving one version of a more complicated stage of the friendship arc and the teasing out the gray areas between friendship and individuality.
Check the WRL catalog for Althea & Oliver
I knew that Judith Merkle Riley wrote historical fiction with strong female characters and a hint of the occult. These qualities put her on my “to be read” list. But that she had written a novel about “The Affair of the Poisons,” a macabre scandal from the age of Louis XIV, put her on the “move aside, all other books, I must read this immediately” list. What this says about me, I leave to the speculation of the reader.
Geneviève Pasquier, a serious young gentlewoman of the 1600s, isn’t a likely candidate to become a seer. She prefers reading Descartes and the Roman stoics to brewing love potions or telling fortunes. But when an assault forces her from her dysfunctional family home, she is adopted into a shady network of crystal gazers and amateur pharmacists who make their living on the fringes of respectable Paris.
Young Geneviève reinvents herself as the Marquise de Morville, a supposedly-150-year-old widow who stomps about Paris crankily lamenting the good old days of Henri IV and reading her customers’ futures in a basin of water. She refers customers to her colleagues for love spells, beauty elixirs, and other, less savory services–pins in a wax doll, a black mass, or a discreet abortion. Business is good, but her mentor, a Donna Corleone known to history as La Voisin, has ambitions that carry her protégé into dangerous circles, among the cutthroat “gilded wolves” of Versailles and the would-be mistresses of the king.
Geneviève’s visions of the future are the only paranormal aspect to a historical fantasy that is otherwise chockablock with historical detail. Riley is the kind of writer who never refers generically to a “carriage” when she can refer specifically to a sedan chair, a fiacre, or a vinaigrette. While many of the characters are historical, the secondary, fictional characters are equally entertaining. Pages from the ending I was already writing in my head the further adventures of Sophie, the ladies’ maid who conveniently becomes “possessed” by one of the ranking powers of Hell when she doesn’t feel like doing the chores (“Astaroth didn’t like dusting because he refused to bend over”).
This was a great blend of chills, history, and even some romance. For another entertaining police caper in old Paris, you could try Louis Bayard’s The Black Tower. If you’re more interested in history than fiction, don’t miss Anne Somerset’s scholarly-but-dishy The Affair of the Poisons, which covers this episode specifically, or The Poisoner’s Handbook, which covers poisoners and their “inheritance powders” in general.
Check the WRL catalog for The Oracle Glass.
If an asteroid hit the earth it would be bad news for all of us; that much is obvious. But what exactly would happen? Mega Disasters features ten episodes describing unimaginable catastrophes such as an F5 tornado hitting Chicago, a major eruption of Mt. Rainier onto Seattle or a huge earthquake hitting Los Angeles. It uses evidence from past cataclysms and tells the story with real disaster film footage. Expect lots of experts predicting doom and tons of (slightly cheesy) computer graphics.
Sometimes I feel like being completely awed by nature. This week I have talked about some of the smallest things (Molecules), some of the Oldest Living Things, and some of the cutest birds (Penguins and Chickens). But sometimes to fully appreciate these lovely things I have to imagine the most catastrophic. Many of this week’s science books are much more useful and appealing because they are visual. To get the full effect of a volcanic eruption (and not actually stand on an active geologic zone and risk pyroclastic flows and lava), I don’t think you can beat sound and action. Boom! Crash! Sizzle! Whoosh! Grab your popcorn, it’s time for a disaster movie!
Some of these mega disasters have happened before, such as the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago, or a Yellowstone eruption that buried the entire Midwest in feet of ash, but these happened long before humans or human civilization were around. The effects on us today would be enormous and perhaps not predictable, but in true History Channel style, Mega Disasters tries to predict. It shows the familiar high-rise buildings of Chicago and then shows computer-animated effects of wrenching winds with flying glass and debris. The creators of the series based their predictions on current expertise and up-to-date knowledge. They interviewed many geologists, meteorologists, astronomers and other scientists. Most of the scientists appear to be unflappable people, so when they dryly state things like, “This entire area would be devastated with nothing left alive,” you know it’s time to sit up and take notice.
My favorite episode is Yellowstone Eruption, because I am spellbound by supervolcanoes that could potentially kill most life on earth, as ably described in the teen novel Ashfall by Mike Mullin. Other good book tie-ins include nonfiction on the worldwide effects of a much smaller eruption, like Tambora, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood.
Mega Disasters will also interest viewers who like fictional disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012. And if you think this is a silly topic and you are ever feeling too complacent, just remember this quote attributed to Will Durant, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”
Check the WRL catalog for Mega Disasters.
Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler
The title of this book poses an interesting question: why do chickens occur all over the world, and have for a long time? The short answer is that people took them around the globe because they are useful and noble birds.
Penguins (which I blogged about yesterday) are relatively rare birds and are considered cute, while chickens are so ubiquitous as to be thought boring. Andrew Lawler has done a great job of convincing me that chickens are not in the least bit boring, and hopefully the photo below of Henny Penny and Co. (wondering if my iPad is edible) will convince you that they are cute. Readable, surprising and captivating, this book will make you want to immerse yourself to find out more about this fascinating bird of contradictions.
Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? is dense with facts, including many surprising ones such as that there are more chickens in the world than cats, dogs and rats put together, in fact, so many chickens that they outnumber people. Andrew Lawler argues that chickens are far more useful and important to human history than they are generally given credit for. They have been significant for religions from Zoroastrianism to Christianity for thousands of years and, because of the rooster’s habit of crowing just before dawn, they have frequently been seen as symbols of light and resurrection. As small animals that will eat scraps, they have always been economically important to poor or marginalized populations such as American slaves. They are important to medicine and scientific research in areas from growing vaccines to chick embryo development.
The chicken’s own history is somewhat murky. They are almost certainly descended from Asian Jungle Fowl (probably Red), but whether it was once or multiple times, and exactly where, is still controversial. We know why the chicken crossed the world, but how is not as clear, because chickens are small animals with tiny, easily eaten, scattered or rotted bones. Archaeological evidence of chickens is scarce, but it does suggest that Polynesians took chickens on their remarkable Pacific voyages, and that Tandoori Chicken recipes may have been invented in Indus Valley civilizations around 5000 years ago! For local history buffs, in 1752 the College of William and Mary banned their students from attending cockfights, but that didn’t stop George Washington attending one in nearby Yorktown!
One thing I found missing from this book was illustrations. When the author talked about the Red Jungle Fowl or Queen Victoria’s many exotic breeds, I wanted to see what they looked like, so I used a copy of Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds by Carol Ekarius with its great illustrations.
This book will appeal to readers who are interested in the intersection between humans and animals such as Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, by Hal Herzog, or the effects of animals on human history like Spillover, by David Quammen.
Check the WRL catalog for Why Did the Chicken Cross the World.
As the title says, Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is a guide book, but here in Williamsburg we are very unlikely to see a penguin landing on our bird feeder and pushing off the chickadees, so today’s book isn’t needed for immediate avian I.D. but is more for browsing, learning about these fascinating birds, and enjoying the dazzling photographs. Editors and publishers like to use superlatives to sell their books, but even without exaggeration, The Ultimate Guide lives up to its Ultimate hype!
Penguins are remarkable birds that also happen to be very cute. Author Tui De Roy grew up in the Galapagos Islands and has a long acquaintance with penguins and says they have an “exuberant gusto.” The book is arranged in three main sections headed by the three main authors who between them clocked up fifteen years of study and travel in the book’s creation. The first section, by Tui De Roy, goes over penguins’ general biology and occurrence; the second section, introduced by Mark Jones, includes double-page spreads by seventeen separate authors who are scientists, researchers and experts in their fields, with up-to-the-minute information such as “Beyond Prying Eyes: Tracking Penguins at Sea” by scientist Rory P. Wilson.
The last section, “Species Natural History,” is what you would expect from a guide book. It goes through the different species with common names, scientific names, physical appearance, distribution, breeding, conservation status, and so on. This section includes smaller close-up photos of individual and small groups of penguins to make positive identification. These contrast with many of the earlier photos that are often breathtaking landscapes with penguins.
Penguins: The Ultimate Guide has everything you need to know about penguins and plenty you didn’t realize you needed to know. If you consider yourself an amateur (or professional!) ornithologist, read it alongside Sibley’s Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley. Near Williamsburg Regional Library you are not going to see penguins, but you can always dream…
For travel buffs the book takes you to some out-of-the way locales that time seems to have forgotten, such as Subantarctic Campbell Island, in the empty ocean south of New Zealand. It brings home to me how lucky I am to have been hiking in New Zealand’s mossy and ferny Fiordland, a place about which Tui De Roy says; “there are few places on earth that feel more primeval and mysterious… Based on fossil evidence, this forest has changed little from the time it was still a part of the supercontinent Gondwana 80 million years ago and dinosaurs roamed in its glades.”
Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is worth reading even if you have read Penguins of the World by Wayne Lynch from 2007, as Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is larger, more in-depth, and more up-to-date.
Visual enough for children to enjoy perusing, break it out for fans of Happy Feet or the murderous penguins of Madagascar. For an overload of nonfiction cuteness, pair it with March of the Penguins, and I challenge you to view either without going “Awwww….”
Check the WRL catalog for Penguins: The Ultimate Guide.
Everything is made of something and on a scale that ordinary people (by ordinary people I mean me) can understand everything is made of elements and molecules. Author Theodore Gray has followed the winning formula (pun intended, sorry) of his 2009 book The Elements and has created another visually stunning book that informs, enlightens and fascinates.
There is no simple way to organize all possible molecular combinations, so Molecules is organised into chapters of how people use or perceive molecules, not necessarily how they are chemically related. So there are chapters on how things smell, on painkillers, and on molecules caught up in politics. He covers everyday substances (soap, nylon), controversial substances (mercury in vaccines), and things made of very odd substances. In Gray’s signature quirky style we find a section on “Keratin Extruded by Warm, Fuzzy Animals.” As you’d expect, this includes wool, mohair and feathers, but also includes a pair of socks that were made out of the hair of a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever! My dog is part husky, so she frequently sheds the equivalent of a small chihuahua per day, so there must be something I can do with all that hair….
Visually stunning is not an exaggeration for this book, and artistically inclined people can enjoy Molecules for the bright, active photographs and chemical structure diagrams that leap off the page from the black background. Artists will also be fascinated to learn about the origins and chemical analyses of historical pigments like burnt sienna, turquoise, and ultramarine. This is one of the occasions when Theodore Gray goes on flights of poesy not often seen in a chemistry book, such as “sienna, which has been the color of the Earth for as long as there has been an Earth and will stay that way until there is no longer an eye to see it nor a soul to hear its name.”
Molecules should be of interest to everyone, because we are all surrounded by these chemicals every day, but it is a must-read for science fans. It is attractive enough for coffee-table browsing and informative enough for supplementary reading in classrooms. It is the next logical step after Theodore Gray’s 2009 The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. Pair both books with Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik, which is more narrative non-fiction about chemical properties while Molecules is more visual with basic facts.
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Several months ago a group of us here at Williamsburg Regional Library presented The Top Five of Five for Non Fiction at the Virginia Library Association Conference. I was assigned science books, and one of the trends I reported on was “Guide Books Plus.” Over the next three days I will be reporting on some science Guide Books that are Plus, Plus, Plus! I think they expand the definition of guide book and that they are superbly readable, informative and visually stunning books. The first one is the loveliest book I have seen for a long time with a quirky and fascinating angle on nature: The Oldest Living Things in the World.
Rachel Sussman spent a decade travelling around the world finding, researching and photographing these enchanting, odd, and sometimes poignant organisms. Everything in the book is over 2000 years old and they go up to tens of thousands of years old. Animals, apart from primitive ones like sponges, simply don’t live that long, so most of the photographs are of plants, but there are also fungi, lichens and coral. Sadly, as the author says, “being old is not the same as being immortal,” so some of the organisms, like Florida’s Senator Cypress tree, are listed as “Deceased.”
Some of these organisms have become so old by using unusual survival techniques, or in everyday language by being very strange, for example the underground forest of southern Africa. The landscape is so dry and devastating fires so common that most of this plant grows underground. The photograph shows reddish desert dirt with an unassuming low-spreading plant with olive green oval leaves—just your average weed, except that the part showing is just the crown peeping through. If a fire rips through, it is only like having your eyebrows singed off and the tree will survive.
This is a large format book (27 x 30 cm according to our catalog) that is worthy to grace any coffee table. The exquisite photographs of varied landscapes from the fjords of Greenland to the rain forest of Eastern Australia to African deserts are dazzling enough to attract the attention of an art photographer, while the text about the organisms is personal and engaging. Rachel Sussman often describes how she heard of some of the more obscure organisms, how she traveled and what adventures she had in all corners of the world. About 3000-year-old Chilean desert plants she says: “Every once in a while you see something so ludicrously beautiful that all you can do is laugh.” Armchair travelers will thrill at seeing some little-visited parts of the world.
This is a great book for readers who like unusual science books with beautiful photographs like The Snowflake, by Kenneth Libbrecht or quirky guidebooks like The Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger. And read it if you find yourself ruminating on the brevity of our allotted three-score and ten.
Check the WRL catalog for The Oldest Living Things in the World.
My introduction to the film My Dinner with André came from a rather unlikely source – a Mad magazine parody called My Dinner with André the Giant. In the years since its release, My Dinner with André has inspired numerous tributes and parodies, including a Far Side comic and an episode of the the first season of Frasier called “My Coffee with Niles.” My Dinner with André is a unique film that I revisit every few years; usually when I’m looking for something insightful, but primarily because the extended conversation at the heart of the film is quite entertaining.
The film stars actor/playwright Wallace Shawn and director/actor André Gregory playing fictionalized versions of themselves. The movie opens with Shawn preparing to meet Gregory at an expensive New York City restaurant. Gregory was an early supporter of Shawn’s work; however, the one-time colleagues have not spoken to each other for years. Shawn is filled with trepidation at the prospect of meeting with Gregory. Over the years, he heard that Gregory had left his successful career as a director and traveled the world in search of spiritual enlightenment. Shawn’s concern is heightened when he hears that a mutual friend ran into Gregory in an obscure part of town, sobbing because he had just seen Ingmar Bergman’s film Autumn Sonata and was moved when Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) says, “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.”
Despite his concerns, Shawn agrees to have dinner with Gregory, and duration of the film consists of their wide-ranging and deeply philosophical conversation. Gregory begins by describing his artistic and spiritual pursuits after leaving the theatre. He goes to Poland to work with his friend, director Jerzy Grotowski; he travels to Findhorn in Scotland and the Sahara; and finally he stays at photographer Richard Avedon’s estate in Montauk, where he participates in a rebirth ritual in which he’s nearly buried alive.
Shawn is fascinated by Gregory’s stories, but he wonders if such pursuits are practical, especially if you have a wife and family as Gregory does. During the second part of the film, Shawn playfully challenges Gregory’s philosophical outlook and in the process begins to his see the world around him in a new light.
My Dinner with André is an eloquent and understated film that can be enjoyed on a number of levels. Gregory is an engaging raconteur whose stories are intriguing and often quite amusing. His interaction with Shawn is so relaxed and natural that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation between two friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time. Director Louis Malle keeps the film moving at a brisk, efficient pace. The restaurant is elegant, but the décor doesn’t overshadow the actors. Interestingly, although the film is set in New York City, the restaurant scenes were actually filmed at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond.
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Check the WRL catalog for season one of Frasier
Zhang Yimou’s masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern opens with a young woman preparing to make a fateful decision. In 1920 China, Songlian (Gong Li), a 19-year-old university student, is forced to abandon her studies after her father’s death left the family destitute. With few options available, Songlian tearfully tells her mother that she’s decided to marry a wealthy man. When her mother advises her that as the wife of a rich man she will be little more than a concubine, Songlian stoically replies, “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that the fate of a woman?” It’s a powerful scene staged with stunning simplicity; Songlian is shown in close-up addressing her mother, who remains off-camera. At end of her speech, tears slowly roll down her cheeks belying sadness and resignation to her fate.
Songlian becomes the fourth wife (or, as she’s referred to throughout the film, the Fourth Mistress) of Master Chen (Ma Jingwu). He lives on a vast estate with three other Mistresses and a cadre of servants. Each Mistress has her own apartment in the compound; however, like birds in a gilded cage, their life of luxury comes at a steep price: their freedom.
At first, Songlian is treated well by the Mistresses and the servants. The first night in the estate, her apartment is festooned with red lanterns, she receives an elaborate foot massage, and Master Chen comes to visit. She soon learns, however, that this treatment is the exception rather than the rule. On a daily basis, the master decides which Mistress he will spend the night with, and the Mistress he selects will choose the menu for the evening, receive the red lanterns and the foot massage, and garner the most attention and respect from the servants. This ritual has fostered an environment of fierce competition, as the Mistresses vie daily for Master Chen’s affections.
As Songlian adjusts to life as Master Chen’s Fourth Mistress, she gets to know the other women on the estate: Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), the First Mistress and the mother of Chen’s son; Zhuoyan (Cao Cuifen), the Second Mistress, described as having the face of the Buddha but the heart of a scorpion; and Meishan (He Saifei), the Third Mistress, a former opera singer. There is also Yan’er (Kong Lin), a longtime servant who dreams of becoming a Mistress herself.
Songlian is savvy enough to understand the peculiar dynamics of the Chen household and implements a few schemes of her own to curry the Master’s favor. Despite her initial success, she soon finds herself double-crossed by one of the Mistresses. When Songlian eventually discovers that another Mistress is involved in an illicit affair, she unwittingly sets into motion a series of events that threaten the fragile structure of the Chen household.
Raise the Red Lantern is a visually stunning film that uses color and cinematography to great effect. The color red is a central motif that connects the key visuals. The red of the lanterns is reflected in the reds of the cheongsams worn by Songlian and the other mistresses. The impressive architecture of Master Chen’s estate is complemented by Yimou’s use of overhead shots. The setting’s beauty stands in stark contrast to the grim fates that await the mistresses. Gong Li, whose films with Yimou include To Live and Shanghai Triad, delivers one of her finest performances as Songlian.
Raise the Red Lantern was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and, in 2001, Yimou developed a ballet based on the film. In recent years, Yimou has directed a number of popular films, including Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Fans of Yimou’s later films may want to check out Raise the Red Lantern, one of the best films of the 1990s.
Raise the Red Lantern is in Mandarin with English subtitles.
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In many of director David Fincher’s films, there’s an aura of unease; the sense that what you’re seeing onscreen can’t be trusted and the real story is far more sinister than you’ve been led to believe. In The Game (1997), an investment banker is led down a nightmarish rabbit hole after signing up for a virtual reality game. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), based on Stieg Larsson’s novel, a disgraced journalist uncovers dark family secrets while investigating a mysterious disappearance. A similar sense of unease hangs over his latest film Gone Girl, a dark and haunting adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s equally dark and haunting bestselling novel.
Andrew has already reviewed Flynn’s book, so I will keep the plot description to a minimum. The film opens with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) heading to work at the bar he runs with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). It’s Nick and his wife Amy’s (Rosamund Pike) fifth anniversary, but he’s not exactly celebrating. Once successful journalists in New York, Nick and Amy lost their jobs and moved to his hometown in Missouri to help take care of his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. The move was difficult on a marriage that seemed, to outward appearances, perfect in every way.
Shortly after opening the bar, Nick gets a call from one of his neighbors, concerned that there may have been a disturbance at Nick’s house. Nick arrives home to find the cat outside and Amy missing. Worried, Nick calls the police, who discover ominous signs of a struggle. The subsequent investigation into Amy’s disappearance yields clues that the Dunne marriage had its secrets.
Gone Girl is a twisty and lurid tale that transfers well to film thanks to Flynn’s keen screenplay, a stellar cast, and Fincher’s savvy direction. Flynn preserves the structure of her novel, and the story is told from Nick and Amy’s points of view. The well-edited sequences are aided by great visual cues, like Amy using different colors of ink in her diary to reflect changes in the marriage.
The casting is spot-on. Ben Affleck delivers one of his best performances as a man whose attempts to be seen as the good guy often fall short of expectations. Rosamund Pike brings a cool detachment to Amy that serves her character well. The outstanding supporting performances include Tyler Perry as defense attorney Tanner Bolt, and Missi Pyle as Ellen Abbott, the outspoken host of a television crime show.
Fincher’s direction ties everything together. Gone Girl is long, but the pacing is never sluggish. He starts with the central mystery and uses flashbacks and shifts in perspective to provide the background and context. Music also plays an important role in setting the mood of Gone Girl. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is effectively chilling and helps build tension throughout the film.
Taut and well-paced, Gone Girl is the perfect match of director, actors, and source material.
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Every year, parents of students at suburban Australia’s Pirriwee Public School look forward to Trivia Night. The combination costume party and trivia competition is a major fundraiser and the highlight of the school’s active social scene. The competition’s theme pays homage to Elvis Presley and Audrey Hepburn; however, Trivia Night will be anything but routine this year. A late caterer, unusually potent cocktails, a rain storm, and simmering tensions among parents result in a riot and an accidental death that might really be a murder. What events could plunge an ordinary parents’ night into chaos? Liane Moriarty explores this question in her latest novel, Big Little Lies.
Everything begins rather innocently when Madeline Martha Mackenzie meets Jane Chapman, a young single mother and newcomer to Pirriwee. Both women have children starting kindergarten: Madeline’s daughter Chloe and Jane’s son Ziggy. They spend the afternoon together, and Madeline introduces Jane to Tom, the proprietor of a café called Blue Blues, and Celeste White, mother of twin sons named Max and Josh. The women bond over coffee then spend the morning at their children’s kindergarten orientation.
At first, the orientation is routine; the parents socialize while the children meet their teachers and classmates. Towards the end of the orientation, an event occurs that divides the parents and teachers, and puts Ziggy and Jane in the middle of a controversy. Amabella, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful woman named Renata Klein, accuses Ziggy of bullying her during the orientation. Ziggy denies Amabella’s accusation, and Jane and her new friends believe him, although Renata and her supporters start a petition to get Ziggy suspended from the school.
Although Jane supports her son, a secret about his father causes her to question what she knows about her son and the incident. She is not the only one with an emotionally fraught personal life.
Madeline enjoys a comfortable life with her second husband, Ed; their children, Chloe and Fred; and her teenage daughter, Abigail. However, her former husband, Nathan, has moved to Pirriwee with his new wife, Bonnie, and their daughter, Skye, who is in the same class as Chloe. Not only does Madeline have to face Nathan and his new family at school functions, but Abigail has formed a close bond with Bonnie that threatens Abigail’s relationship with Madeline.
To the casual observer, Celeste’s life with her husband, Perry, and the twins is perfect in every way; however, a dark truth lies at the heart of this seemingly charmed family.
As the school year goes on, Madeline, Jane, and Celeste balance their complicated family lives with school projects, gossip, and rivalries. The parents of Pirriwee Public School are taking sides and forming alliances, setting the stage for a fundraiser that ends in disaster.
Big Little Lies starts out as a light and frothy read about mothers navigating the tricky social dynamics at their children’s school, but it turns into a provocative exploration of the effects of bullying and domestic violence. Moriarty makes it known early in the novel that a death will occur at Trivia Night, and the clues she plants along the way heighten the effect of the events at the fundraiser.
The story primarily centers on Jane, Madeline, and Celeste and their families; however, an entertaining – but frequently unreliable – Greek chorus of fellow parents and investigators provide additional depth and context to the story.
With a large cast of characters and a nuanced narrative, Big Little Lies is a fast-paced novel that’s a quirky mix of Desperate Housewives and David Lynch’s seminal show Twin Peaks.
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His journey begins with a trip to his local library to return two books: How to Build a Submarine and Memoirs of a Shepherd. He tells the librarian that he’s also looking for some books, and she directs him to Room 107, located in the library’s basement. When he reaches Room 107, he encounters a cantankerous old man sitting behind a desk. He impulsively tells the older man that he’s looking for books on tax collection in the Ottoman Empire, and he’s presented with three books: The Ottoman Tax System, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, and Tax Revolts and their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire.
The boy plans to check out the books and leave the library as quickly as possible; however, he’s told that the books can only be read in the library. He’s travels down another corridor, where he meets a man wearing what appears to be sheepskin. The sheep man takes the boy to the Reading Room and the boy gets another surprise: the Reading Room is a jail cell. The old man locks him in the cell and tells him that he must spend the next month memorizing the content of the books. At the end of the month, the man will question him about the books. If the man decides that the boy has mastered the content, he will set him free.
Later that evening, the boy receives another mysterious visitor: a mute girl who brings him a gourmet dinner. Communicating through hand gestures, the girl tells him that her vocal chords were destroyed. After she leaves, he finishes the dinner and starts reading The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector.
The Strange Library has many elements familiar to readers of Murakami’s work: quirky characters, surreal settings, and sense of melancholy or impending loss. Murakami’s characters in this novel are nameless except for the ones mentioned in The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector. This approach is very effective; the boy is an ordinary boy whose seemingly routine trip to the local city library takes an unusual and ominous turn.
The lavish color illustrations highlight the surreal nature of the narrative, and the repetitive images, including birds, eyes, and insects, reinforce the unusual nature of the boy’s journey and the people he encounters along the way.
Haunting and poignant, The Strange Library is a quick read compared to many of Murakami’s works, but the engaging prose and fantastic illustrations may inspire readers to make return trips to Room 107.
Check the WRL catalog for The Strange Library