Blogging for a Good Book
Knitting is enjoying a resurgence, and the library owns dozens of books about it. Many are beautiful books with sparkling colorful photographs of wonderful projects of wonderful complexity. Every now and then I check one out with great intentions to knit. The last time I actually finished a project of any size was when I was pregnant (and my children are now starting to leave the nest). Back then, my late mother helped me with the tricky bits and (I am embarrassed to admit) did the tedious sewing up.
I was inspired to pull out my needles to contribute to a granny square project for a colleague’s upcoming happy event. I found it very therapeutic making granny squares and soon turned out enough squares for a Queen-sized crib (I must need a lot of therapy). I needed a new project and the word “Simple” in this book’s title grabbed me.
The book starts with basic techniques and useful line drawings. Their drawings show hands, yarn, needles and finished work as the knitter will see her own hands looking down.
The one problem I found with the directions is that each pattern gives only one brand and make of yarn to use. Many of these yarns are gorgeous! And some of them also contain mohair, angora and other luxurious fibers, which make them very expensive. Others are a discontinued line. With my beginners knowledge of yarn, I had trouble working out substitutions, although I managed with the help of Google searches. To give them credit, as in all instructions of this sort, the knitter has to use the exact yarn they suggest to get the results that they illustrated, but I am sure I am not the only person interested in substitution!
I decided to start with a small and simple project, a hat with the appealing name of “Feeling Fuzzy.” I planned it as a gift to my daughter, being aware that at my pace she may be wearing it next winter! My hat is going very slowly, but I know that displays a lack in my skill, not a lack in the book! (I will post a comment later when it is finished).
I recommend this book for people who, like me, are returning to knitting after a long break. It will also help absolute beginners. For the experienced knitter the book also offers attractive, quick projects that they may be able to complete in a weekend.
Check the WRL catalog for The Yarn Girls’ Guide to Simple Knits
The The Secret River is at once a beautiful and lyrical portrait of a marriage and a family, and also a history of a time of change, power and enormous wrongs. It portrays an unyielding clash of cultures–perhaps one Americans don’t think of often–the conflict between the English and the Aborigines during the early settlement of Australia.
It covers the lives of the Thornhill family as they are transported from London to the penal colony in New South Wales, Australia, in the early 1800s. The story begins in London with its filth, stench and desperation. The main characters are first reprieved from certain death by hanging for what seem like astonishingly small crimes. Then, if they survive the nine-month sea voyage to New South Wales, they have to adapt to the new world with its reversed seasons, harsh heat and unfriendly wildlife. Many don’t adapt and give up or take to drink. Those who do survive see the forested land outside mud-streeted Sydney either as an enemy or as an opportunity. As William Thornhill plies his transportation business up and down the Hawkesbury River near Sydney, he develops a lust for the land. None of the convicts could have aspired to be landowners at home in England, but here is a vast and seemingly empty landscape and William Thornhill sees himself as a farmer. Officially the convicts are not allowed to clear the land around the river and start farming it, but Sydney needs the food, so the Governor turns a blind eye. This is a story that is at once sad and triumphant as it becomes clear that if the English convicts use the land to find freedom and prosper, then the aborigines must lose the land and in many cases their lives. But this is not a simple blaming tale. An ironically named minor character, Loveday, sums it up for all of the convicts, “”We must grasp the nettle, painful though it may be, or else abandon the place to the treacherous savages and return to our former lives.’ There was a silence, in which they all thought of their former lives.” (Page 298). Their lives are so much better as farmers in New South Wales that they are willing to go against their own consciences and perhaps commit brutal acts to get the land.
William Thornhill craves the land, but his wife, Sal wants to stay in Sydney and dreams of returning to London. They were childhood friends and have a love so deep that she chose to be transported with him, rather than stay in London alone with their first son (although her life in London without a husband to help support her would probably have been terrible). But Sal is terrified of the Australian bush and the aborigines who are constantly rumored to be conducting “outrages and depredations.” It speaks to her deep love that she is willing to move their five children to the bush with him, but she gives him five years and makes marks on a tree to count the days.
The Secret River is the first book in trilogy. The story continues in The Lieutenant (2008) and Sarah Thornhill (2011). It was nominated for numerous awards and was a finalist for the Man Booker prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2006. Kate Grenville based the Thornhills loosely on her own ancestors.
This is wonderful historical fiction, and also a moving and beautifully written family saga. I recommend it for readers of books like Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks, another moving and character-driven historical novel that is a fictionalized account of real events.
Check the WRL catalog for The Secret River.
I don’t usually watch Anime, but my daughter enthused about Spirited Away, so we sat down on the couch to watch it together on her laptop. That became a nudging, pushing, “Turn the screen this way” experience for both of us, so I was very pleased to discover that my library owns it on DVD. The library copy usually has several holds, so I had to wait. But it was worth it! This movie proves that a great story is a great story, no matter its format.
Ten-year-old Jahiro is unhappy about moving to a new house in a new town with a new school. As they are driving to their new home her father decides to take a short cut and the road ends at a strange, abandoned building. Jahiro doesn’t want to enter, but her parents seem strangely compelled. A short while later, without realizing it, they have entered a new world, peopled with odd, grotesque spirits. Jahiro is terrified, but her parents are unaware that anything is wrong and are soon trapped. From here the story gets compelling and creepier and creepier. Jahiro will need help to navigate this world and save her parents. But who is really her friend, and who is pretending to help her for their own ends?
I enjoyed the snippets of Japanese culture, that may have been so ingrained in the creators’ minds that they didn’t realize that they were showing something that might be different in other places. For example, on several occasions I noticed that in the midst of drama and action and danger, the characters stop to take off their shoes before going inside. Even in an emergency they can’t imagine running into a bathhouse with their shoes on. Other details were also intriguing, such as the night clothes and driving on the left. To me this shows that the creators were portraying what they saw around them, and not what an outsider might think a place is like.
This movie was animated the old-fashioned way with drawings, rather than being computer generated. I found the animation painterly, rather than the gaudy, flashing, flatness of some Disney movies. I loved the details – I could even recognize the bushes in the background and name hydrangeas, daphne, camellias and rhododendrons (not a quality appreciated by my family in the middle of a movie!).
My library’s double disk set included a Japanese documentary about the making of the movie. At the time the documentary was made in 2001 Spirited Away was the highest grossing film in Japanese history. It was dubbed into English without changing the original animation at all, which is unusual. The English language version won the Academy Award for an animated feature in 2003. The director, Hayao Miyazaki had his sixtieth birthday while Spirited Away was being made, but he still wrote, drew and directed for it. The documentary shows a meeting when they are working on a scene where Jahiro needs to give a pill to a dragon to save it. Miyazaki asks, “Has no one given a pill to a dog?” When it turns out only one person has even owned a dog, he mutters, “Pathetic!” and takes them all to a veterinary hospital to see all sorts of dogs dosed. I think this attention to detail shows all the way through this gripping, exciting and usual movie.
I recommend Spirited Away for everyone! It is suitable for children, but the gripping story, creepy events, great art and wonderful music will entertain young and old, even those who never watch this sort of thing.
Check the WRL catalog for Spirited Away
There is no denying it, penguins are cute! They are also intriguing animals. Despite not being able to fly, “the penguin seems to have a greater range of ways to move than any other bird. [They] paddle, porpoise and flipper through the water, rocket and surf to reach the shore, then waddle, run hop leap and toboggan over the land” (p 26).
The author, Wayne Lynch, is a Medical Doctor turned science writer and nature photographer. He describes himself as a “penguin addict” and his passion for his subject shows in this fascinating book.
Penguins of the World is detailed and scientific enough for an ornithologist reader, but is is also written in a conversational and engaging style about a fascinating, but little understood animal which everyone recognizes but few of us know many facts about.
For example, did you know that there are only seventeen species of penguin? This figure may change because some scientists think there are a few more species and some a few less because some lump several species together as one and some split one species into several. Also only seven of the seventeen species ever go near the Antarctic. They range from the Galapagos Islands, right on the equator, to deep inside the Antarctic Circle and are adapted to the greatest climate range of any group of birds.
The book is arranged in informative chapters, some with odd titles like “Sex and the Single Penguin.” They cover everything you might need to know about the biology and lifestyles of penguins. It is filled throughout with stunning photographs by the author, and you can be entertained and learn a lot without reading a word.
Penguins of the World is a great choice for bird lovers who want to find out more about this unusual bird. I also recommend it for people who love great nature writing. And of course if you cried during March of the Penguins, this book is a must read to fill in the details about the majestic Emperor Penguins and all of their relatives.
Check the WRL catalog for Penguins of the World.
Reading this book was like watching a car accident, I was compelled and horrified at the same time. Katherine Boo spent almost four years interviewing and living alongside some of the world’s poorest people in the slum of Annawadi near Mumbai’s international airport. She has written the results of her researches into an un-put-downable book that reads like a novel.
A myriad of characters from different religions and at different places in the hierarchy of the slum, come living, smelling, fighting, struggling and striving off the page. But don’t get too attached, as several of them die in sordid, pointless and horrible circumstances. Others are entangled in a web of police corruption that just keeps on getting worse. I found myself wanting it to be fiction so that it could have a happy ending for some of the characters, but Annawadi is a place with few happy endings.
Katherine Boo says that when she gave a character thoughts, she has based this on extensive interviews where her subjects revealed their actual thoughts about life in general or a particular incident. What makes me uncomfortable is the extremely personal nature of some of the thoughts she puts in the book. If I revealed to a friend in quite crass terms that I was annoyed with my father for being too sick to work, but not too sick to get my mother pregnant ten times, then I don’t think I’d want my annoyance–perhaps understandable, but definitely tactless–revealed to my father in a New York Times bestseller.
This book has won lots of prizes, and was suggested to me in my book club as a must-read. I agree that is an important book because it paints a picture of a life that I cannot imagine, but a real life that these people often cannot escape through no fault of their own. It is a book that puts human faces and lives on news stories of India’s growth or India’s problems of TB. This is a great book for fans of fiction about the poor of India like A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. I also recommend it for readers who want to get a glimpse of a whole society through the lives of some of the most powerless, like in Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs, or readers of popular sociology books like The Big Necessity by Rose George. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the underside of India. Just don’t expect to feel comfortable after you finish the book.
Check the WRL catalog for Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
Williamsburg Regional Library is once again pleased to present the best of all the best-of-the-year lists. Sure, you can consult a single source to find the best books of the year, but which list should you believe? After all, no reviewer or even organization can possibly read even a fraction of everything published in a calendar year. With the All-the-Best-Books Compilation (ABBC), you don’t have to choose. The ABBC compiles all of the major lists and awards of 2012 into a single spreadsheet (Best2012) so you can see the true consensus of critics, authors, bloggers, librarians, and other people in the know about books.
The ABBC spreadsheet includes twelve categories:
- novels–literary and mainstream fiction
- short stories–literary and mainstream fiction
- crime fiction and thrillers
- speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, and horror
- historical fiction
- romance fiction
- young adult fiction
- graphic works
- narrative nonfiction (but not life stories)
- biographies and memoirs
- informational nonfiction: how-to books, art books, cooking, and reference works
In each category, books are listed by the number of mentions they’ve received as a best-of-the-year. Titles and authors are given, and also a coded list of which compiled sources mention each work. The final page of the spreadsheet provides a key to the source codes and a link to the page from which the information was obtained. Thanks to the Reader’s Advisor Online Blog and Largehearted Boy, two sites which collect great link lists for best-of-the-year lists and make it easier to complete this compilation. The ABBC takes their concept one step further and compiles the results into a single document.
The ABBC comes in the form of an Excel spreadsheet (Best2012) that you can download and re-sort alphabetically by title, by author, or in any other way you choose. Libraries, bookstores, and others who promote books are welcome to re-use information from the list to build displays, advise readers, inform collection or stock development, or just share the results with your patrons. We ask that you credit to Williamsburg Regional Library, Blogging for a Good Book, and chief compiler Neil Hollands if you use information from the ABBC in print or online. Do not republish the ABBC as a whole, but instead, link to this post (http://bfgb.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/all-the-best-books-compilation-abbc-2012-first-edition) or those that follow for future editions of the list.
This first edition of the list includes 66 sources (about half of the number that will make the final edition), but it should already show the general trend of which books are likely to make the top of the list. The biggest changes are likely to occur in genre categories, where many of the genre-specific lists have yet to be compiled. Stay tuned here at Blogging for a Good Book to find future editions of the list as additional sources are compiled. The final edition of the 2012 ABBC will be completed in March as compilation takes time and we’re still waiting for some of the major awards for 2012 to be presented.
Previous editions of the list can be found at the WRL site.
To be compiled, works must have first been published (or first published in a substantively new edition or translation) in the United States in 2012. The ABBC definition of genre (particularly speculative fiction and historical fiction) may be broader than those used by some publishers, so if you don’t find a book in the list where you expect it, look in another category where it might also be placed.
I’ll be posting about results in the different categories of the ABBC at my two blogging homes, here at Blogging for a Good Book and also at Booklist’s Book Group Buzz. Check in at both sites over the coming weeks for annotated summaries of the most frequently mentioned titles and my thoughts about trends in publishing and awards. I’ll kick off coverage later today at Book Group Buzz with a quick list of the most mentioned books overall so far.
Finally, due to time constraints and the complications of figuring out which works published in Britain, Australia, and other English-speaking countries were also published in the U.S. in the same year, this year I’m not compiling all of the great lists from English, Canadian, Australian, and other international sources into the ABBC. Hopefully next year I’ll have time to put them back in the ABBC!
Enjoy! I hope you have as much fun using this list as I did in compiling it.
I, Claudius is one of the most beloved miniseries ever made and is a wonderful, blackly funny dramatization of the Robert Graves’ novel of the same name. It tells the story of the Roman Empire from the reign of the first emperor Augustus – a reign that brought a longed-for period of peace after over a hundred years of on-and-off civil wars – right up to the rule of the infamous Nero. It romps through seventy years of Roman history, all told through the eyes of an elderly Claudius as he records the history of his extraordinary family.
The BBC miniseries stars Derek Jacobi as our eponymous hero, although he doesn’t seem like much of one. Born with a club foot and terrible stammer, Claudius is alternatively mocked and ignored by his extended family. Claudius soon realizes the value of being underestimated, and as he grows, he hides his intelligence behind his physical disabilities and avoids politics as best he can. But in this family, even the ultimate underdog can’t hide forever.
I, Claudius features Brian Blessed as Augustus and Siân Phillips as Livia, the manipulative, conniving matriarch and Augustus’ wife. Indeed, this tale is as much Livia’s story as it is Claudius’. Livia is the true power behind the throne, delicately manipulating with a rumor here and a little poison there. She is the center of the wheel, turning her family’s fortunes and fate at will. Livia desperately wants her son, Tiberius, to follow in Augustus’ footsteps and become the next emperor of Rome. The problems with that grand plan? One: Tiberius is her son from an earlier marriage, not Augustus’ biological son. Two: Augustus has grandsons by his biological daughter, Julia, who precede Tiberius when it comes to inheriting. Three: Tiberius himself has no interest in being emperor – he’s a soldier through and through. But these minor impediments certainly don’t phase the mighty Livia. Despite her sins, Phillips manages to make you understand, if perhaps not sympathize with, Livia’s single-minded pursuit of power. There is a deeper motivation here beyond mere money and influence.
The miniseries also includes a young Patrick Stewart (with hair!) as Sejanus, the corrupt and power-hungry leader of the Praetorian Guard, and John Hurt in one of his most magnificently terrifying roles as the mad emperor, Caligula.
Bribery, corruption, murder, poison, blackmail, adultery, madness, lust – I, Claudius has it all.
Check the WRL catalog for I, Claudius.
Everyone knows about the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit in the mid-90s. Or at least, they think they know. Hot Coffee, a recent HBO documentary, strives to tell the truth about this case, and other civil lawsuits, that have been deemed “frivolous” and the impact of tort reform on the United States’ civil justice system. Sound kinda boring? I thought so too – at first.
It analyzes and discusses four cases and how each one relates to “tort reform.” It begins with the infamous Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case in 1994, which has practically entered into urban legend. I certainly thought I knew the details of the case, but I only knew the inaccuracies and the game of Chinese whispers I had heard in the media. In truth, Ms. Liebeck was a 79-year old lady, sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car, who, while trying to add cream and sugar to her coffee, pulled off the lid and spilled the cup of coffee on her lap. Coffee that, in keeping with McDonald’s franchise instructions, had been kept at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. And indeed, Ms. Liebeck suffered severe third-degree burns in her pelvic area, and the documentary does not skimp on the photographic evidence – the burns are appalling. Nor was Ms. Liebeck the first to suffer terrible burns because of their coffee – there had been over 700 prior complaints. (And these are just the individuals who made the effort to lodge a formal complaint.)
As well Ms. Liebeck’s case, the documentary goes on to discuss Colin Gourley’s malpractice lawsuit and caps on damages; the prosecution of Mississippi Justice Oliver Diaz and the buying of judicial elections; Jamie Leigh Jones v. Halliburton Co. and the growing pervasiveness of mandatory arbitration.
The documentary concludes by examining how the plague of mandatory arbitration is swiftly erasing many individuals’ ability to take complaints to the courts. Own a credit card? Cell phone? Well, if you do, it’s almost certain you have signed away your right to a civil trial in your contract and if you ever have a serious complaint and feel entitled to claiming damages, you will be forced into secret mandatory arbitration with an arbitrator who – wait for it – has been chosen by the corporation itself!
Hot Coffee is an eye-opening, jaw-dropping documentary that exposes how corporations have spent millions on a propaganda campaign to distort the average American’s view of these civil lawsuits. This documentary will forever change what you think you know about “frivolous lawsuits” – in reality, what you’ve been told by corporations and doctors afraid of being sued.
The way that the individual’s rights have been infringed upon by mandatory arbitration, caps on damages, and corporate campaign contributions is unacceptable. Hot Coffee shows how access to the courts has been blocked by greed, corruption, and the power of special interests and how the U.S. civil justice system has been changed – maybe forever.
Check the WRL catalog for Hot Coffee.
I first came across Camilla Läckberg when she was mentioned in an article on Scandinavian mystery writers in Romantic Times. I became even more intrigued when I read the review on the front of The Ice Princess from Val McDermid –“Heart-stopping and heart-warming.” “Heart-warming?” That certainly made me pause. After all, “heartwarming” is not an adjective I expect to read describing a murder mystery, and a Scandinavian mystery at that, which tend to be characterized by their wintry settings and bleak atmosphere. But after finishing this book, I couldn’t help but agree with Ms. McDermid’s review.
The two protagonists and primary investigators –Erica Falck, a biography writer, and Patrik Hedström, a local policeman – both grew up in the sleepy fishing village of Fjällbacka, Sweden. This village, overrun by visitors from Stockholm in the summer, desolate and empty during the bleak winter months, has definitely seen better days. The Ice Princess is definitely not a “cozy” mystery, but the blossoming relationship between Erica and Patrik, as well as the various familial bonds that lace the narrative, help to temper the sadness and gloom surrounding the murder.
Following the sudden death of her parents, Erica returns to her hometown and soon discovers the body of a beloved childhood friend, Alexandra Wijkner, frozen in her bathtub. As a biography writer, Erica is seized with the impulse to write about her one-time, enigmatic friend and the reasons that could drive a woman who seemed to have everything to commit suicide. But, as any seasoned mystery reader will guess, Alexandra’s apparent suicide is only the beginning. As Erica begins to delve into Alexandra’s past, Patrik begins to investigate his own suspicions surrounding her death.
A picture of the victim begins to build. Alex was beautiful, blonde, icy, and remote – everything this reader wants in a Swedish noir mystery. And, like any good victim, she was hiding a deep, dark secret that somehow seems to involve the tragic figure of the town drunk, Anders Nilsson. No one in the village can understand how these two disparate figures were connected, least of all Erica and Patrik.
The Ice Princess features tragic childhood secrets, mysterious disappearances, and bribery, all set against the backdrop of the bleak Scandinavian winter. Fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will enjoy this mystery, although it focuses less on social issues and politics, and is more in the vein of a traditional mystery.
The novel has a wide cast of characters, and the author continually introduces new characters to keep her readers guessing. We meet Erica’s family, her ex-boyfriend, the victim’s family, and the motley crew of police officers at the local police station, including Mellberg, the pompous, slimy, self-obsessed monster of a police chief, who is both hilarious and horrendous at the same time.
This is a great winter read, perfect for a cold night, curled up with a blanket. Camilla Läckberg is one of Sweden’s bestselling crime novelists and The Ice Princess was her first novel. If you gobble this one up as quickly as I did, never fear! WRL has two more in the series, which have been translated into English.
Check the WRL catalog for The Ice Princess.
The Hour, a recent BBC period drama, has flown somewhat under the radar (at least when compared with the roaring success of a series like Downton Abbey), and it wasn’t until a colleague recommended it that I even became aware of the series. Set in 1956 at the BBC Lime Grove Studios in London, it follows the launch of an hour-long weekly current affairs television show, simply titled, The Hour.
The six-part miniseries stars Romola Garai as Bel Rowley, the independent (female!) producer of the show; Ben Whishaw (the new “Q” in Skyfall and star of Cloud Atlas) as her best friend, Freddie Lyon, a brilliant and passionate reporter; and Dominic West as the charming and well-connected anchorman, Hector Madden. This is the opportunity Bel and Freddie have been waiting years for – to be a part of a new breed of investigative news program that could change the face of news at the BBC.
But a chance meeting with a childhood friend and a hushed-up murder on the Underground thrusts Freddie right into the middle of a deadly Cold War conspiracy and the silent war being waged between MI6 and the KGB. As Freddie begins to investigate, the trio becomes embroiled in a tangled web of politics, ambition, and romance. But a controversial breaking story could spell the end for the program, just as it is beginning.
And in amongst all the secrets and spy-games, I even learned a fair amount about the Suez crisis in 1956 between Britain, France, Egypt, and Israel (something I wasn’t even particularly aware of prior to the show), as well as the rules regulating broadcasters at the time. To my surprise, there used to be a fourteen-day gag rule that prohibited news programs from debating or analyzing anything discussed in the Houses of Parliament until two weeks after the event. But our intrepid team manages to find a neat way around this limit to free speech.
The Hour is lushly produced with period sets and costumes and is a wonderful piece of escapist drama. It is full of quick-witted repartee and fast-paced dialogue. The love triangle at the heart of the story is nicely balanced by the Ian Fleming-esque intrigue that seems to follow Freddie wherever he goes. Best description? It’s like HBO’s The Newsroom crossed with John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Check the WRL catalog for The Hour.
I studied Classics at university, and of course the Iliad was required reading. But I often had to admit, always a little sheepishly, that I was never really a big fan of the epic. I could never enjoy the long lists of ships, war prizes, heroes, and descriptions of violent, bloody deaths that fans of Quentin Tarantino would find familiar – and least of all the sulking, brutish, prideful Achilles. I always found myself cheering for the tragic figure of Hector instead – the prince of Troy who fights not for glory or everlasting fame, but to defend his home and family.
But Madeline Miller has caused me to completely rethink and revise my opinion of Achilles. The novel tells the story of this mythological hero, from his boyhood in the kingdom of Phthia to the Trojan War, through the eyes of his beloved companion, Patroclus. Patroclus is a character from Greek mythology who we know less for himself and more for the cycle of vengeance that follows his death. (Spoiler alert! Hector, prince of Troy, kills Patroclus; in vengeance, Achilles kills Hector; to avenge his death, Paris kills Achilles; to avenge him, Philoctetes kills Paris, and so on. You get the idea.)
Ms. Miller begins her story with Patroclus, a sullen, awkward prince exiled from his home to the kingdom of Phthia, ruled by king Peleus. Patroclus quickly falls under the spell of the bright-eyed, golden-haired prince, Achilles. Achilles is intrigued by Patroclus and the two become inseparable. When Achilles is sent away to become a student of the ancient, learned centaur, Chiron, Patroclus cannot bear to be separated from his closest, and only, friend; and so he runs away from the palace and joins Achilles on the slopes of Mount Pelion.
The author handles their blossoming affection and romance very delicately and reverently. She does not beat around the bush in her explanation of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship as many more prudish historians and translators have been wont to do over the centuries. Moreover, Ms. Miller gives her readers an opportunity to better understand Achilles’ motives for going to war and provides believable explanations where Homer remains silent. She fleshes out both his and Patroclus’ characters and gives added dimensions to a character, who, in the Iliad, is little more than the sum of his anger (μηνιν…ουλομενην) and pride.
One of the difficulties facing any modern adapter of Homer and his heroic epics is the omnipresence of divinities. Do you, as an author, ignore them, thereby stripping the stories of their heart and soul? Or do you portray the heroes living in a magical world, thereby making the story unrealistic to modern readers and difficult to reconcile with the grim, visceral effects of war? Well, Ms. Miller simply takes the gods in her stride. At the beginning of the novel, she deals with them matter-of-factly in Patroclus’ child-voice. It reminded me very much of how a child today might explain the existence of Santa Claus and his elves. He does not think twice about their existence, and consequently, neither do you. She writes with clear, evocative prose and I would agree with the Guardian’s review that the prose is better than almost all the so-called poetic translations of Homer I have ever read. The Song of Achilles is a must-read for any lovers of historical fiction, and Classicists too, whether they are fans of the Iliad or not.
Check the WRL catalog for The Song of Achilles.
Cormac O’Brien’s book gives brief biographies from Martha Washington to Laura Bush. After describing each woman’s background and marriage to the man who would be president, there are two or three tidbits about “what your teachers never told you.”
Some of these facts I already knew: that Abigail Fillmore (First Lady from 1850-1853) is credited with starting the White House library or that Nancy Reagan (First Lady from 1981-1989) consulted an astrologer. But other “secrets” were new to me.
Take the fascinating story of Louisa Catherine Adams’s (John Quincy’s wife, First Lady 1825-1829) trip from Russia to Paris with her son Charles Francis and a few servants. The journey took six weeks and was one of the most harrowing ever for a First Wife. At one point Louisa used her son’s toy sword to deter marching brigades from attacking her carriage in France (this being the time Napoleon was making his triumphant return). And did you know that Bess Truman (First Lady 1945-1953) sent her laundry to Kansas City for washing because she didn’t think the establishments in Washington could do a good job?
It was interesting to see how many of the wives, particularly at the beginning of the new nation, dreaded having their husbands take on the presidency. But even contemporary First Ladies had their reservations about their new role. Laura Bush was asked by reporters what her concerns were upon becoming First Lady. She replied, “It’s a major life change. I’m not particularly worried about safety. Privacy. I’m very worried about privacy.”
Because the book is set up in short chapters dedicated to each First Lady, you can spend a few minutes reading one or two entries, or a whole afternoon soaking up decades of history. Either way, pick up Secret Lives and brush up on some little-known chapters in America’s past.
Check the WRL catalog for Secret Lives of the First Ladies
Today’s book is a young adult retelling of the Greco-Roman myth of Cupid and Psyche.
The story in a nutshell: beautiful, mortal girl Psyche falls in love with Cupid, the god of love. Cupid, having never been in love himself, doesn’t trust Psyche’s feelings for him and makes stupid demands. Psyche in turn makes a dumb mistake, and they break up. Jealous mother/goddess puts girl through several tests, and just when you think she’ll make it, it looks like she won’t. But Cupid shows up at the last minute and saves the day. They live happily ever after.
Hmmm, that sounds like quite a few romance books I’ve read.
What makes Julius Lester’s book so appealing is the playful narrator who speaks directly to the reader and provides commentary on why people are behaving as they are. His lessons on love are insightful for readers of all ages. I particularly liked his observation at the end:
The interesting thing about this story is that it taught me that sometimes I act like Cupid and sometimes I act like Psyche. Stories don’t much care who’s male and who’s female, because everybody has a little of both inside them. That why this story and my story and your story, well, they’re all the same story.”
The audiobook, read by actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, is delightful. I could listen to Henderson’s rich, rumbly voice read the phone book and be happy. Needless to say, his narration of Cupid had me hanging on every word of the story.
Check the WRL catalog for Cupid
Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of Cupid
Do you ever wonder how t-shirts went from being a simple undergarment to a stand-alone icon of American fashion? Did you ever say to yourself, “Khaki, what a strange word. I would love to know where that came from?” Though clothes constitute a large part of our day-to-day life, and are even called “defining” by some, it is surprising how little we actually know about them. The latest book in Gunn’s literary treasure chest, Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible, is entirely interesting and offers the most fascinating insights into the history and evolution of our wardrobe staples. From t-shirts to jeans to ties and scarves, Gunn provides information on the history of the fashion pieces we have come to love in an easy-to-read and enjoyable format.
Gunn effortlessly incorporates popular culture into his writing that readers of all ages are able to identify with and understand. For example, Gunn discusses the near death of the t-shirt in the 30’s when he writes, “And then one man threatened to take down the entire t-shirt business: Clark Gable. In the 1934 film, It Happened One Night, Gable’s character takes his shirt off and he’s not wearing an undershirt… By appearing naked under his shirt, he signaled that he was too cool, too manly, too liberated for an undershirt. At that moment, American men took his lead…” This single illustration of the near collapse of our most beloved fashion garment is nothing short of fascinating. What would we be wearing today if the t-shirt, in all its glory, had died over seventy years ago?
While historically captivating, Gunn’s book also offers tips and opinions on today’s fashion choices for both men and women. Finding a good tie that will last can be a bit trying. Gunn suggests the following: “When you’re shopping for a tie, you want to look for a lining that gives it some weight. Without that infrastructure, ties can be limp.” This and other general guidelines will help every man and woman find quality pieces that fit correctly. Tim Gunn’s book is great for both fashion lovers and those simply interested in learning more about what they wear. A pleasant and entertaining read, this book should appeal to all types.
Check the WRL catalog for Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible
A friend told me she picked up this book for the title alone. She didn’t know Julia Sweeney was part of the Saturday Night Live cast several years ago. She was just drawn to the title and the blurb on the front that says “Laughing through the worst year of my life.” My friend kept recounting the funny parts, so I had to read the book for myself.
Julia Sweeney is well known for playing the androgynous character “Pat” in the SNL skits and the 1994 movie It’s Pat. She also has appeared in numerous television shows and films, including Pulp Fiction and Beethoven 3.
But this isn’t a Hollywood “tell all.”
The book describes how Julia is at a turning point in her life in the 1990s. Her stint with SNL was ending, her marriage was breaking up (amicably), and she was ready for a new start.
I was finally an independent adult! I felt so mature and self-reliant. I had gone to college, I’d started my career, I’d even had the big wedding, and that BIG relationship. But nothing was more exciting to me now than having my own place.
And that’s when God just said… “Ha!”
Her brother Mike, who had always been an independent, private individual, was diagnosed with lymph cancer. His condition worsened quickly and he had to move in with her in her new, cozy bungalow. Her parents, whom she loved (but perhaps loved best from a distance of several hundred miles), moved in with her to help take care of Mike. And Julia was reduced to sleeping on the sofa in the dream home she had finally created.
The interplay of Julia and her parents had me laughing out loud. She writes that the fresh chunky salsa she purchased was replaced with a can of tomato paste that her mother was sure could double as salsa. Julia’s mother interrupted her at work because she couldn’t find the Parmesan cheese. It blew her mom’s mind that she had to grate the chunk of Parmesan in the fridge herself. “And she said, shaking her head, ‘Oh, Julie, you don’t have to do all that.’”
Then when things can’t get any worse, they do. Julia herself is diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer. But she focuses on taking things one day at a time, and she continues to find humor in the interactions with her family.
Don’t get me wrong: there was a point where I had to continue reading through my tears, but I didn’t feel the book was about the cancer, or the medical treatments, or the unfairness of life—it was about family. A quirky, loving family. And Julia Sweeney does a fantastic job of taking the reader through the journey of the worst year of her life.
Check the WRL catalog for God Said, “Ha!”
Shadow and Bone is the first in the new Grisha Trilogy that takes place in the land of Ravka. Alina is unremarkable in every regard. Raised as an orphan alongside a single friend, Mal, only to become a sub-par mapmaker for the First Army, Alina has no illusions of grand beauty or remarkable skill. Her only pull is towards Mal, who has grown to become a very handsome young tracker for the Army. They both serve together for Ravka, a land torn by war and the darkness of the Shadow Fold. Created by an evil Darkling, the Shadow Fold is a sea of complete darkness, full of flesh-eating monsters, that cuts Ravka off from the True Sea. The Second Army, made up of those with magical abilities, has been working to undo the Shadow Fold as well. But it seems all their power is useless against the darkness.
During an Army-led excursion attempting to cross the Shadow Fold, Alina and Mal come under attack from the “Volcra,” vicious monsters that fly out of the sky to kill anyone trying to cross the Fold. While trying to save Mal, Alina spontaneously emits a strong radiating white light. Its raw energy leaves her unconscious and when she awakens she is among the Second Army (the Grisha). However unbelievable it may be to her, Alina is in fact a Sun Summoner, one who can call and control light. She is the only person who has the ability to destroy the Shadow Fold and the Volcra. Taken to a Grisha training area and introduced to a whole new way of life, Alina isn’t sure how to proceed and has little faith in her own gift. Only after extensive hard work and a close relationship with the beautiful Darkling himself does Alina began to hope she is the one who can save Ravka.
But everything may not be what it seems and Alina’s gift might turn into a curse she never could have imagined.
Check the WRL catalog for Shadow and Bone
Although I started off the week with the intention of writing about older books that are worth a second look, I want to finish with one very new title. I was at the American Library Association conference this past week, and was fortunate enough to pick up a copy of Sean Pidgeon’s debut novel Finding Camlann (thanks, Golda!). Like the A. S. Byatt book I wrote about yesterday, Pidgeon’s novel deftly blends literary research, archaeology, mythology, and relationships into a satisfying and compelling story.
The Welsh have had an uneasy relationship with the English for centuries, and Pidgeon mines that rich lode for the foundation of the story. He moves easily between from the time of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s rebellion against the forces of Henry IV to the Welsh Nationalist movement of the second half of the 20th century to contemporary times. Running through all of these stories is the search for the historic King Arthur, if he really did exist.
Pidgeon’s story follows the work of archaeologist Donald Gladstone to place Arthur in a historical context. His newest book has been dropped by his publisher as too scholarly, especially in light of the discovery of some early human remains that some are claiming as the bodies of Arthur and Guenevere. Gladstone refuse to sensationalize his work, despite pressures to do so. An encounter with Julia Llewellyn, a linguist whom he met once while studying at Oxford, rekindles both their friendship and a shared interest in an obscure piece of Welsh poetry describing a lost battle. As the pair delve into the meaning of the poem, unsettled incidents from the far and near past must be reckoned with, as must their rekindled affection.
Like Byatt, Pidgeon uses a mix of narrative, letters, poems, and journal entries to shed light on both characters and events. He has a fine ear for dialog and a clear understanding of and affection for the scholarly process. You can read the book for its well-drawn characters, its crystalline language, its thoughtful telling of Welsh and English history, or its compelling plot. In all cases you will come away satisfied.
The layers in Pidgeon’s story are as complex as those of any archaeological site, and as satisfying to uncover. So dig in.
Check the WRL catalog for Finding Camlann
In addition to mysteries and science writing, I am also easily won by books about scholarship, research, occult books, and academia. One of my long-time favorites in this category is A. S. Byatt’s luminous novel Possession. Probably her best known work, Possession explores romance, scholarship, and literary detection in elegant language.
As in many of Byatt’s stories, Possession features a complex plot that moves both between multiple storylines and alternating time periods. Byatt relates parallel stories. The first involves two contemporary literary scholars, and the second two nineteenth century poets whom the modern scholars are studying. As their research progresses, the modern scholars bring to light an undiscovered relationship between the poets. At the same time their shared research interests spark a relationship between the scholars.
Byatt moves easily between the present and the late nineteenth century, and she has a gifted ear for dialog and language of both periods. Of added interest are the forays away from the standard narrative form. Byatt creates letters, poetry, and journal entries in the voices of her various characters. These more personal sections help create completely believable characters. Byatt’s writing frequently explores the challenges and difficulties of relationships between her characters. She is clear-eyed and fearless in her depiction of both the pleasures and the possibilities of deep sadness that we open ourselves up to when we fall in love.
Possession will appeal to a wide range of readers. Anyone who loves clear, thoughtful prose will delight in Byatt’s style. Readers interested in literary scholarship or poetry will find Byatt an able guide to those fields. And those looking for a moving examination of the human condition will be amply rewarded.
Check the WRL catalog for Possession
Readers looking for a writer who can smoothly blend together interesting characters and hard facts will enjoy the writings of Richard Rhodes. Like yesterday’s author, John McPhee, Rhodes is known for both the quality of his research into the subjects about which he is writing and for an ability to make complex topics understandable.
This ability is most evident in Rhodes’s trilogy on atomic weapons, beginning with The Making of the Atomic Bomb. In these books and his other works, Rhodes brings a sense of scale to the broader story by relating the lives of those people involved. In the case of his works on nuclear warfare, soldiers, scientists, and politicians all have their say, and the stories of their lives ground the science in humanity.
Like McPhee though, Rhodes can also write perceptively about the natural world, and his biography of John James Audubon, one of America’s first naturalists, is an excellent introduction to Rhodes’s writings. Here, Rhodes deftly captures the a sense of the possibilities that the undeveloped expanses of North America raised for naturalists in the early days of the country. Through the story of the life of Haitian-born Audubon’s early years in France, his emigration to America, and his struggles to support his family, Rhodes also tells the story of the early days of the Republic.
Audubon’s entrepreneurial spirit and drive to succeed make him an excellent choice to model the spirit of the young America. Rhodes does an excellent job at conveying both the details of Audubon’s life and of the broader canvas on which Audubon lived and worked without overwhelming the reader in either case. Readers interested in the early days of ornithology, in the development of the American republic, or in the development of an artist will find much to enjoy here.
Check the WRL catalog for Audubon: The Making of an American
I have written about John McPhee before, but in looking back at my reading list, I came across this book of McPhee’s that I had just re-read. I enjoyed it immensely. McPhee’s interests are truly catholic, and he has written about everything from oranges to Scotland to geology, and he has profiled characters as diverse as Bill Bradley (in his college basketball playing days) and environmentalist David Brower. There is however a common thread that runs through all of his writings. McPhee always connects his stories to people. McPhee’s classic work The Pine Barrens examines not only the unique ecology of this remnant of the great eastern forests, but also the lives of the people who have chosen to live in this remote place.
In Looking for a Ship, McPhee profiles Andy Chase, a merchant mariner who is “looking for a ship,” as well as examining the state of the U.S. Merchant Marine at the end of the 1980s. He does this by joining Chase on the S.S. Stella Lykes, a carrier ship that takes on Chase as Second Mate. As in any McPhee book, we learn a lot about the workings of the ship, from the engine room to the bridge, and we get thoughtful and clearly drawn portraits of the crew from the captain on down. They are a fascinating bunch, if a bit idiosyncratic.
Looking for a Ship shows McPhee’s strengths in many areas. He is a nature writer without peer, his delight in the ocean and the smaller waterways is evident. McPhee also has an eye for both details and for the larger picture, and his descriptions of the Stella Lykes echo the issues in the larger Merchant Marine. McPhee also has a clear curiosity for how things work and how individuals do their jobs. He seemingly effortlessly conveys this enthusiasm to readers leaving them equally fascinated.
With appealing characters, writing that is both detailed and crisp, McPhee can be read and enjoyed by a broad audience. Looking for a Ship is a great starting point.
Check the WRL catalog for Looking for a Ship