Blogging for a Good Book
For the last review this week I am looking at a graphic novel. Refresh Refresh is by far the darkest and saddest of these stories. Like Operation Oleander, Refresh Refresh is set in recent history. Josh’s father and Cody’s father are Marine Reservists who are deployed to Iraq. They live in a small, unnamed Oregon town where a lot of the men have gone to war. For many of the families the men’s absence is a financial as well as practical burden. Cody’s power is cut off even though his mother has a job and his father is being paid by the military. His mother says that they are in financial trouble from losing his father’s overtime pay, although she works extra hours at the factory, so she is hardly ever home for him and his small brother.
The title, Refresh Refresh, comes from the action of refreshing the computer browser to see if any email has arrived and at the beginning both boys do this continuously, almost obsessively. As I said in my post on Operation Oleander, electronic communication is both a blessing and and a curse. In wrenching panels we see the boys repeatedly looking at their computer screens and seeing the cheerful but heartbreaking message, “Welcome! You have 0 unread messages.”
Refresh Refresh does a good job of portraying the complex feelings military service creates in the families left behind. Josh and Cody are about to graduate from high school, but in their small town there are not many opportunities open to them. Most of their friends feel they have to work in a local factory–”the plant”–or join the military. The boys resent that their fathers are gone and see the negatives of military service, but at the same time are proud of them, leading to ambivalence, “This is what we all wanted: to please our fathers, to make them proud–even thought they had left us.” Josh wants to go to university–a fact that he hides from his friends. His distant mother and stepfather are willing to pay for college, but if he gets bad news from Iraq what decision will he make?
The artwork reflects the dark subject matter, with severe lines and somber, drab colors, mostly in army green and grey. Try Refresh Refresh for a stark and uncompromising look at military family life, especially for reservists. Refresh Refresh is a violent and often disturbing graphic novel suitable for adults and older teens.
Check the WRL catalog for Refresh, Refresh.
Second Fiddle is a story of adventures in exotic locales. From the outside it may seem that this is always true of military family life. It is accurate that I have lived in six countries and four states. And I have the annoying habit of being able to trump just about anyone’s extreme temperature stories, having lived in both one of the hottest cities in the world, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and one of the coldest, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. But the appeal of exotic travel chronicles only part of the experience. The constant moving of military families is an important theme in Second Fiddle and the book does a great job of capturing the sense of loss, while at the same time, even the thirteen-year-old characters appreciate that they are also receiving a gift.
As the main character, Jody says near the beginning, “The upside of being a military kid was that you got to see a lot of cool places. The downside was that every time you made a friend, you had to move away.” And her friend Vivian adds, “My mother thinks I’m having this great international experience, but changing schools all the time is just the same horrible experience over and over.”
Jody and her two friends Giselle and Vivian live on an American Army base in Berlin in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They are brought together by their love of music and they travel by train each week to music lessons in East Germany with Herr Muller. They are scheduled to attend a music competition in Paris and they all know it will be their last time to perform together as they are all moving away. On their way home from a music lesson they witness an attempted murder and the adventure begins, sending them across international borders as they desperately try to save the life of a young man.
Without their musical connection the three would not have been friends at all, as Giselle’s father is a general and the base commander, while Jody’s father is enlisted. Jody feels she can’t invite the general’s daughter over as even the adults in the enlisted housing area wouldn’t like it. Of course, parents’ ranks shouldn’t make a difference to the children, but this book accurately reflects that they do.
Author, Roseanne Parry based Second Fiddle on her own life experiences as she says that she moved to Germany in 1990 with her soldier husband. While the details of girls’ adventures can at times seem melodramatic, the book does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of military life. She mentions details that I recognize or have heard from my children and other people. For example, impending doom in the smell of moving boxes; the constant absence of Jody’s Dad; Jody not minding moving so much when she was younger; finding the question of where are you from impossible to answer; living in one place for three years for the first time and feeling unnatural in knowing her way around; and also remembering the time of an event in your personal history from where you lived (“I was seven so it must have been Missouri”).
Second Fiddle is an exciting older children’s adventure that sneaks in some history about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. Try it if you are interested in the military lifestyle and the people who lead it. I also recommend it for military families, both older children of around ten and up and their parents. It will be a great start for conversations about the lifestyle.
Check the WRL catalog for Second Fiddle.
“Daddy does not know what it is like to have to be a father to your mother. “
It is always an adjustment when a parent is deployed, but what happens when a family is held together by one parent and that parent leaves? In Joseph by Shelia P. Moses, Joseph’s father is deployed to Iraq and his mother, a drug addict, cannot cope. In fact Joseph, a boy mature beyond his years, ends up looking after her. When they are evicted he gets a chance to go to a better school although he is terrified that his new friends will learn that he and his mother are living in a homeless shelter. Joseph is torn; he is a good student who wants to do well in school and wants to take up tennis again, but he also wants to protect his mother and is suspended for three days for fighting with boys at school who insult her. Joseph’s parents were estranged before his father went away but the deployment makes it impossible for his father to offer any support to Joseph, except financial support. And that goes wrong when his mother uses Joseph’s father’s money to buy drugs rather than food or utilities. Joseph’s father knew about his wife’s problems and was trying to get custody of Joseph, but had missed two court dates because he was deployed, so may never get custody.
Joseph is a gritty book, not holding back from Joseph’s mother’s degradation and the negative effects on Joseph. Joseph’s mother is not at all likable, while his father is physically distant and therefore unable to help. Joseph is all alone. When some of his old school mates pick another fight with him: ”When they read me my rights they say I can make one phone call, but I have no one to call. Daddy is halfway around the world; Momma’s cell phone is off.” p75
Ultimately it is Joseph’s Aunt Shirley who saves him until his father returns, showing the importance of extended family in this sort of situation. When a military family are in crisis like this there are programs and people who are meant to help. I know that sometimes they are not as helpful as they are meant to be, especially in a case like this where Joseph and his mother live away from a military base. Isolated families face the same pressures in having a parent deployed but it is more likely that they will fall through the cracks and be missed by the military assistance.
The author Shelia P. Moses was a National Book Award Finalist and a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Recipient for her 2004 novel The Legend of Buddy Bush. In 2009, Joseph was nominated for the NAACP Image Award.
I recommend this book for adults and older teens who want a glimpse into the sordid life of addiction and the effects on children. It doesn’t talk a lot about what many people think of as a military lifestyle but does highlight that thousands of American children, far from military bases, have been affected by the recent wars as they have seen a parent leave.
Check the WRL catalog for Joseph
This is the newest of the books I am reviewing this week, published in 2013. I found it difficult to read, not because of the length of the book or the complexity of the language – because it is a short and quick read, but because it too realistically portrayed details of my husband’s recent deployment to Afghanistan, although he is now safely home.
Jess’s Dad is in Afghanistan and she lives with her mother and toddler sister at invented army base, Fort Spencer, in Florida. She and her friends Meriwether and Sam have set up an unofficial charity to raise money in Florida to donate supplies to a girls’ orphanage in Kabul, Afghanistan. Meriwether wants to stop working on the project and spend the rest of her summer sailing and swimming like usual. But Jess constantly looks at the photos and videos of the children they are helping and feels compelled to get more money for them.
A detail this book captures, that books set earlier miss, is the immediacy of electronic communication. Soldiers have always written letters home from war and letters from Civil War and World War I soldiers are now important and poignant historical documents. Will a transcript of a Skype session ever be seen as history? Can a Skype transcript even exist and can streaming video be saved? When you expect instant electronic communication from someone in a war zone at a certain time every day or at an expected frequency, if it doesn’t arrive, its absence carries a burden of worry. In the first few pages Jess says, “His email is there. I check the date and time of his note. As of this morning, Dad was still alive in Afghanistan.”
That turns out to be an ironic statement as they soon discover that a surge is underway and there have been several explosions in Kabul, including at the orphanage. The explosions over 7000 miles away in Kabul turn Jess’s life upside down. There are injuries and deaths and some people in her community blame her for the military being anywhere near the orphanage, endangering themselves and the orphans.
Operation Oleander is an up-to-date book that captures a slice of military child experience. A child with a deployed parent may be interested in the book’s perspective, although they may find it too raw and difficult to read, although it describes no graphic violence. And thankfully, most military children don’t have to deal with so much tragedy. It includes details about the expectations for extra responsibilities when a parent is away, such as Jess’s father teaching her specifically how to add gas to the lawn mower and turn off the water main before he goes away. For every reader Operation Oleander also asks profound questions about blame, accountability, unintended consequences and our obligation to each other as human beings.
Check the WRL catalog for Operation Oleander.
All this week I am writing about a theme close to my heart – books featuring children of American military personnel. Some of the books I’m reviewing are up to date, talking about children with parents in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I am starting with an older book, with an even older setting.
Durable Goods is primarily a moving and beautiful coming of age story, written with a present tense immediacy. Katie is twelve and her friend Cherylanne is fourteen. They live next door to each other in a row of six connected houses on an army base in Texas around the 1960s. Katie’s mother recently died of cancer and most of Katie’s time and attention is taken up with navigating the changes of adolescence without her mother. Katie’s life is teasing Cherylanne’s older brother, worrying about shaving her legs, wanting her breasts to grow, and waiting for her first kiss.
Katie’s father’s military position holds a dominant position in their lives, and her Colonel father is inflexible, demanding and violent. He is similar to, although not as colorful as, “Bull” Meecham in The Great Santini. When I told a colleague at the library who grew up in a military family about my plans for my blog posts this week, she said she doesn’t like this sort of book because she is sick of military men being portrayed as thugs, as her father was stern but never violent. Author Elizabeth Berg said that Katie’s father is based on her own father, but she adds that things have changed and violence is not acceptable in military families now.
Katie’s father clashes the most with Katie’s eighteen-year-old sister, Diane. “It’s not right, Katie. He’s not supposed to hit us like that. I’m going to tell someone, I swear. I’m going to get him into trouble.” Diane runs away and is brought back, but at eighteen she can leave, but will she?
Some of the details of military life are odd to civilians, “Our fathers’ names and ranks are posted outside our doors, above our mailboxes. We have look-alike bushes in the front and back.” Other details are well known, such as moving to a new base frequently, “‘We are not allowed to cry when we drive away–or any other time, either–about any place we leave behind. Sometimes it aches so hard, the thought of all you can’t have anymore, your desk the third in the third row, the place where you buy licorice, the familiarity of the freckles on your friends’ faces, the smell of your own good bedroom. You will be the new girl again, the one one always having to learn things.”
If you like the character-driven women’s fiction of Ann Hood or Anna Quindlen, try Durable Goods for its poignant coming of age story. I also recommend it for military children, either grown or older teenagers and current or retired military personnel. If you are interested in a longer list of books about military children check out my (now sadly dated looking but with updated content) website that I started for a class assignment in 2003. Things have changed a lot in ten years, not least the two wars that have lead to a resurgence of books about military children. I will review a sampling of four more of these books over the week ahead.
Check the WRL catalog for Durable Goods.
Nathaniel Philbrick is one of our most readable chroniclers of American history. While less well known than his breakout book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex and focused on a more obscure event than later works like Mayflower, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and 2013′s Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution, his book Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 is one of his best. The fact that the history of this expedition has mostly been forgotten by modern Americans only makes the book more astonishing.
The Exploring Expedition, often known as the U.S. Ex Ex, would journey down the U.S. and South American coasts, continue into Antarctic waters, then cross into the Pacific and chart South Pacific islands and portions of America’s Northwest coast, including the mouth of the Columbia River before returning via the reverse route over four years later. It would make contact with many native populations, create sea charts that would be used well into the 20th century, and bring home an astonishing number of scientific specimens that would ultimately form the start of the Smithsonian’s collection. It would do all of this in an era when propulsion was still by sail, cold weather gear was substandard, and navigation was hazardous. Pretty good for an expedition unknown to most modern Americans!
But what makes the story even more astonishing is that it succeeded despite the inept, self-aggrandizing leadership of young Charles Wilkes. Wilkes was barely 40 years of age, only a lieutenant, but won command of the expedition through diligent campaigning and the general opposition to the expedition of most of the Navy’s officers. When political wrangling back at home refused him the honor of a Captain’s rank even after he was away with the expedition’s five ships, Wilkes became ever more of a martinet, pretending to have achieved rank that he didn’t have so he could play the other young officers of the expedition against each other. He would often arrange the traveling order of the ships so that he could claim personal discovery of major sites or ignore the successes of other officers. He resorted to corporal punishments at the least offense and subverted the work of the expedition’s scientists.
I’ll let you discover the expedition’s many events for yourself, but I will hint at a bit of the ending. Wilkes returned home to find a different president than the one who backed his expedition, many dismissed officers waiting to level charges against him, a Navy determined to have him court-martialed, and powerful enemies in the country’s political leadership. The last part of the book considers the events of the case made against him. Wilkes may have been a disaster, but modern readers will be enthralled by the adventures of this little known expedition. This is an enthralling history that reads like a suspense novel.
Check the WRL catalog for Sea of Glory
J. R. Moehringer first came to the attention of readers with his 2005 memoir The Tender Bar. In 2012, he returned with a novel, Sutton, which chronicles the life of the American bank robber Willie “the Actor” Sutton. The two works might be closer in nature than that summary first suggests: told from Willie’s perspective, and dependent on his memory (his fictionalized memory: the real life Sutton didn’t talk much to reporters about his exploits, and when he did, as in his 1976 ghostwritten memoir, the information was often questionable), this historical novel reads like one of those contemporary memoirs that leaves readers wondering if they’re getting the whole truth. In this case, however, that’s not a negative, it’s kind of the point.
The novel opens with Sutton’s surprise parole from New York’s Attica prison on Christmas Eve, 1969 at the age of 69. Willie is on death’s doorstep with emphysema and weak arteries in his legs, a bit bewildered by the world’s changes, but he makes a deal with the New York Herald to tell his story. So on Christmas Day, a cub reporter and a beatnik photographer drive him around the city, visiting the sites of all of his life’s major events in chronological order. Arnold Schuster, the young man who spotted the heavily disguised Willie and turned him in to police, was killed by the mob. The question that hung over Sutton’s head was whether he had somehow ordered the hit. In the book, this piece of information is all that the reporter really wants from Willie, but Willie refuses to talk about Schuster until he has visited all of his old stomping grounds. The narrative alternates between Willie’s remembrances and his reactions to what has become of his former haunts and accomplices.
Sutton was born into an Irish Brooklyn neighborhood at the start of the 20th century. As he tells his story, the cycle of economic depressions, a lack of opportunities, and a desperate attempt to win the wealthy girl who was the love of his life away from her parents’ control were the key elements in his descent into a life of crime. He ultimately became famous for nearly one hundred nonviolent bank and jewelry store robberies, made successful mostly through disguises. While highly successful, Willie was always tripped up by undependable accomplices (at least that’s his story, perhaps the largest conflict of the book is deciding whether Willie is a dependable narrator). He went to prison often, but also became famous for his daring prison breaks. Sutton was on the FBI’s first Most Wanted list when it was released in 1950.
This novel should have broad appeal to crime fiction fans, historical fiction lovers, and literary fiction buffs. Willie makes a likable and fascinating narrator, even as one questions his veracity. Moehringer admits up front that he had to create most of his narrative with imagination, but the historical settings feel accurate and just when you think the plot is getting predictable, a surprising twist is always at hand.
I can highly recommend the audiobook, which actor Dylan Baker reads in fine style, switching deftly between many character voices. Baker is one of those great character actors whom everyone recognizes but few recognize by name. He attended college at William and Mary and acted in many local theater productions before making it big on the stage, on television and in films.
Check the WRL catalog for Sutton
Or try Sutton as an audiobook on compact disc
I’m an unabashed fan of fantasy fiction, but the genre has changed massively in the last five years. A few years ago, most fantasy novels were fat books with lots of story lines and a setting that was usually medieval. These books take a certain patience until all of the plot lines and characters are clearly established, but can pack a real wallop of excitement and emotion when the story comes together.
Now, urban fantasy has at least half of the market. The books are shorter, have a clear central character, and are lighter reads. It’s a format that doesn’t usually work for me. The books don’t have enough depth for my tastes, and when they do, that depth often comes after several books. In particular, the contemporary setting makes it hard for me to suspend disbelief, and I can’t buy into the fantastic elements enough to become engrossed.
Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer, the first in a new series, was a happy exception for me, perhaps because it’s centered on the book world and the magic that can come from reading good fiction. In this case, that magic isn’t just symbolic, it’s a literal manifestation. The book follows Isaac Vainio, a librarian on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As an encounter with vampires in the book’s first chapter makes clear, Isaac is more than just a book lover: He can reach inside books and pull magic from the pages.
As the story develops, the reader learns more about Isaac’s back story and the limits and costs of his magic. Isaac was once a practicing field agent for the Porters, a group founded and led by the still-living Johannes Gutenberg. They work, unknown to regular folk, to keep other magical figures like vampires under control and to prevent rogue libriomancers from doing wrong. Isaac got in trouble and has been reduced to the role of cataloger. He looks at new books and makes sure that the magic potential in them won’t accidentally destroy the world. As the book opens, the Porters are losing control as mysterious forces attack them on several fronts.
Isaac returns to active duty, but he’s in a precarious position, without the full support of the Porters, who may be succumbing to internal forces, and targeted by a host of powerful enemies. His allies are his pet fire spider Smudge and Lena, a dryad who’s a fierce warrior and whose magic makes her a powerful love draw to those with whom she bonds. These two provide plenty of comic relief and add some physical power to Isaac’s magical gifts.
What really makes this book click for me, however, are all of the loving references to fantasy and science fiction titles that Hines works into the plot. He clearly loves this literature, and cleverly finds a way to make its imaginative power into something more real in his book. Libriomancer is the start of a series which I’ll follow closely. I predict it’s the series that will make the well-reviewed Hines into a more household name.
Check the WRL catalog for Libriomancer
Patti Smith is the proto-punk goddess whose music is fierce, but hardly every listener’s cup of tea. Robert Mapplethorpe was a photographer whose most famous works were pictures of nude men, often depicted in sexually explicit poses and masochistic acts. I like some edgy things, but neither of these artists really do much for me, and a more conservative person might run the other way. I’m not even a huge fan of their scene, where style and innovation seem to matter more than substance, but I’ve always been curious about those magical moments in history where a group of creative people find each other and use the energy of their meeting to create something new.
Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, captures just such a time perfectly. Smith came to New York in 1967 after giving up a baby to adoption upstate. She was young and looking for a fresh start. One of the first people she met was Robert Mapplethorpe, a minor acquaintance who became her fast friend after saving her from a bad date. The two moved in together and tried to make a go of a relationship, even though it soon became apparent that Mapplethorpe was obviously homosexual. Patti somewhat naively believed that their love would overcome Robert’s sexual preference, and so began several years of ups and downs. Robert could be incredibly supportive of Patti and her art, but substance abuse and a need for fame could make him neglectful at other times.
The background here is fascinating, as Smith and Mapplethorpe rub elbows with the artists and scenesters of the Chelsea Hotel, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the pioneering music venue CBGB’s. The story follows the early rise of both friends, then jumps forward a decade and ends poignantly with Robert’s death from AIDS in 1989.
Smith writes with real heart. The prose gets a bit florid at times, but that’s easy to forgive, as is her sometimes naive view of Mapplethorpe, as the author so clearly feels all of the emotions behind her story honestly. This especially shines through on the audiobook. Smith is a clumsy reader, a bit monotone and with funny pronunciations for some words (“drawlings” instead of “drawings”), but she’s so absolutely free of pretense that I found the awkwardness charming and authentic, not off-putting.
Check the WRL catalog for Just Kids
Or try it on audiobook on CD
I have a lifetime reading project. My goal is to read one book from each fiction shelf at the Williamsburg Library. I allow myself the option of skipping a shelf if I’ve already read two books on it, but that isn’t most shelves. I’ve been at my project for over two years, and I’m still only 18 shelves in, still reading authors whose last names begin with the letter A! Since I only allot my project a small percentage of my reading time, I may never finish, but it’s a good project, and I’ll keep at it. The intent is to read authors whom I would otherwise never attempt, and this post is about one of these authors.
Jeffrey Archer is an English author who once was a Conservative Member of Parliament. He resigned that position in financial scandal. He was later investigated for insider business dealings and even served time in prison after being convicted of perjury from 2001 to 2003.
Archer’s writing style is a little old fashioned, and not something I would normally read, but he’s held popularity over the years, with a career that began with 1976′s Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, and continues right up to 2013′s Best Kept Secret. That makes him the perfect candidate for my reading project. Archer’s plots can be melodramatic, but as I read his second book, 1979′s Kane & Abel, I found that despite my skepticism, I was sucked into the story and found it hard to put aside.
Kane & Abel is the story of two men, born on the same day in 1906, destined to cross paths and butt heads throughout their eventful lives. Wladek Koskiewicz is a Pole who rises from impoverished birth, survives both the Germans and the Russians in WWII, and eventually emigrates to America. William Lowell Kane is the scion of a Boston banking family, a prodigy who rises to the top despite family problems and bitter enemies. Both men are admirable but intensely stubborn, and over the course of the novel, they cross paths many times but never become close acquaintances. In later life, they become fierce rivals because of misunderstanding and a failure to communicate.
More happens to each of Archer’s protagonists than normally happens in the lives of a hundred men, and both are too perfect to be believed most of the time and too stubborn to be believed the rest of the time, but what happens to them is consistently interesting, and as a reader, you can’t help but play along, thinking about how you would react to each new crisis, cheering the protagonists when they overcome another obstacle, cringing when they let pride bring them to a new low. It’s enthralling stuff with a strong connection to the world, even if it is at times hokey. It’s easy to see why Archer continues to hold a spot on the fiction shelves after all these years. When you’re tired of all the artsy literary fiction with flashy style and clever ideas that just doesn’t quite connect at the gut level, pick up this old warhorse and cleanse your reading palate with a bit of classic storytelling.
If you like this story, it continues with another generation in The Prodigal Daughter. Archer turned to books that are closer to political thrillers, but his most recent series, The Clifton Chronicles, which begins with Only Time Will Tell, returns more closely to the style of Kane & Abel.
Check the WRL catalog for Kane & Abel
Not to stretch a naval metaphor, but I’ve been in a reading doldrums. Nothing satisfies. At these times I fall back on one of two tried-and-true authors: Terry Pratchett or Patrick O’Brian. Pratchett pops up pretty regularly on Blogging for a Good Book, but I am amazed to see that we have never written about O’Brian, whose 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series fills an entire library shelf.
Set in the world of the royal navy during the Napoleonic wars, O’Brian’s novels are first and foremost the portrait of a lifelong friendship between Jack Aubrey, affable and resolute ship’s captain, and Stephen Maturin, surgeon, naturalist, and intelligence agent. The series pretty easily finds its audience of men (and women) who are interested in age-of-sail adventures on the high seas; I’m not sure it always finds its audience of women (and men) who enjoy Jane Austen’s prose style, well-crafted sentences and characters, or the complications of Regency-era manners.
The New York Times may have called them “the best historical novels ever written,” but I avoided this series for years based solely on the infernal diagram of sails that opens every volume. No one wants to have to memorize sailing terminology just to get into a good story. Even as I began to be won over by O’Brian’s carefully-chosen words and dry humor, I simply refused to care which sail was a spritsail.
Fortunately, there is so much more than sails to care about as you turn the pages: there are also debauched sloths. Battles, mutinies, French prisons, typhoons, desert islands, music, birds, rich vocabulary, and a whole Dickensian roster of colorful secondary characters. There is indeed a lot of naval jargon, but the reader is not beat about the head with it, or if he is, he has a sympathetic ally in his ignorance in the person of Stephen Maturin. Stephen is also a landlubber, an outsider looking in to the regimented world of the royal navy, and he does not care any more about how many masts a ship has than I did.
Jack is famously lucky at sea, a skilled, courageous ship’s captain who will take, burn, and destroy the enemy at every opportunity, while on land, he is easy prey for speculators or a pretty face. Stephen is an Irish-Catalan physician with a passion for natural philosophy, and is forever cluttering Jack’s ship with beetles, wombats, and diving bells. If you cross him, he will fleece you at cards. If you double-cross him, he will find you, he will shoot you, and then he will dissect you. Their world of naval battles and subversive intelligence work occasionally collides with the domestic sphere and the polite drawing rooms of Jane Austen, usually with disastrous results, and then they are back to sea to escape debt, lawsuits, wives, sweethearts, and mothers-in-law.
And if you do begin to care about spritsails, there are many fine books to help you explore Aubrey and Maturin’s world, whether you’re interested in the vocabulary, the geography, the ships, or even, heaven help you, the food (probably the only cookbook in the library with a recipe for rats in onion sauce).
Check the WRL catalog for Master and Commander.
Or try the audiobooks. Patrick Tull and Simon Vance are both fantastic readers.
Mad Science: Einstein’s Fridge, Dewar’s Flask, Mach’s Speed, and 362 Other Inventions and Discoveries That Made Our World, edited by Randy Alfred
This daily guide to memorable inventions and discoveries comes from Wired magazine’s popular blog “This Day in Tech.” The book covers a wide range of subjects, including medicine, computers, food and war. Each article is short (one page) and concise. The daily entries also mention two other discoveries made on the same day, as well as two discoveries made in the same year.
I found most of the articles to be entertaining and informative, the perfect material to use at your next cocktail party. For instance, I thought it was interesting that on November 11th, 1930, Albert Einstein applied for a US patent for one of the few commonplace inventions of his life, a refrigerator that used a complex process involving ammonia, butane and water. It was exceptional because it didn’t use freon or electricity, but it was not nearly as efficient at cooling as standard refrigerators of the time, so it never became a commercial success. Modern researchers have tweaked his formula and have been able to increase the cooling capacity of his refrigerator, so the verdict is still out on Einstein’s fridge.
Some of these inventions didn’t catch on right away with the public. Sylvan Goldman of the Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma City came up with one of the first grocery carts on June 4, 1937. He wanted to make it easier for his customers to carry their groceries, and at the same encourage them to buy more, but the public initially resisted using them. Women thought they were unfashionable and men feared that using them would make them look weak. So he hired male and female models to push them around in his supermarkets, and before long the grocery carts became a huge success.
Some of these inventions had unintended uses that became much more popular with the public. My favorite one in this category involved a Dr. John Kellogg, a strict Seventh-Day Adventist who taught the importance of a healthy diet to his mostly wealthy patients at his sanitarium in Michigan. He came up with bland cornflakes as a way for his patients to achieve a balanced diet. But his brother Will saw a different opportunity by adding lots of sugar to those cornflakes and, with lots of marketing savvy, the Kellogg cereal company quickly became a big business. John of course was very unhappy with the way his brother Will was using his cornflakes, and he sued him in court and lost.
Most of these articles can be found on “This Day in Tech” blog on wired.com. The online versions are slightly longer than those in the book, with larger pictures and text size, so they are easier to read. The online stories aren’t indexed, though you could try a Google search for “This Day in Tech” and the title of the entry you want to read. I enjoyed reading these both online and in print, so I would encourage others do the same.
Search the WRL catalog for Mad Science
Blister rust. Cibiscosis. Genehack weevil. Plant and human diseases mutate quickly in the 23rd century, where genehacking by the powerful calorie companies runs the economy. Staying ahead of the plagues can cause otherwise honorable people to justify acts they would never believe they were capable of committing. Major cities, including New York and Mumbai, were drowned as the planet heated; the capital city in Thailand is protected by levees and pumps. Fossil fuels were mostly spent out generations ago. Most power is now human- or beast-created and stored in springs; computers are driven by treadle; radios are hand-cranked. Bicycles, ships, and dirigibles provide transportation.
Anderson Lake manages the SpringLife kink-spring factory in the capital city of Thailand. Megadonts, huge beasts of burden that have been genehacked from elephants, power the factory. SpringLife kink-springs, when finally manufactured, should hold and disperse many more joules than regular springs. This huge factory, with its workers, its megadonts and their handlers, is failing, though Anderson keeps it running. It’s a cover for his real purpose in Thailand. He works covertly for AgriGen, a calorie company based in Des Moines. He’s in Thailand to figure out how the kingdom is growing disease-resistant crops independently of the calorie companies. Potatoes, tobacco, and other nightshades flourish in the markets in Thailand—how can that be when most natural plants succumb to the diseases that thrive and mutate in the age of genetically modified produce of AgriGen, PurCal, RedStar, U Texas and other calorie companies?
Emiko is a windup girl—one of the New People—a genetically modified humanoid “born” in a crèche in Japan and bred to serve her master. She began her life as a kind of secretary for her owner, Gendo-sama, but after he brought her to Thailand on a business trip, he discarded her; dirigible fare back to Japan is exorbitant and Gendo-sama, who had once told Emiko she was beautiful and perfect, found it more economical to simply purchase a newer model once he got back to Japan. As an unnatural species, Emiko is illegal in Thailand, but Raleigh, her new owner, pays bribes to the Environment Ministry to keep her in his club. She earns her keep as an entertainer in a sexually humiliating show for the pleasure of the patrons of the club. For the most part, Emiko can blend in with humans, though her engineered stutter-stop motions give her away, and her specifically designed small pore structure, fine in cooler Japan, causes her to overheat in Thailand.
When Anderson meets Emiko, Emiko reveals a vital clue to him about the plague-resistant foods, and he tells her something that changes her life forever—and ultimately leads to a rebalancing of power between the Thai government and the calorie companies.
Anderson and Emiko are just two of the many complex characters in the richly-developed Thai kingdom of the future that Bacigalupi has created. Anderson’s assistant, Hock Seng, a “yellow card” refugee from an environmental disaster in Malaysia, has plans and secrets of his own. The head of the White Shirts, the Environment Ministry enforcers, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and his lieutenant, the unsmiling Kanya Chirathivat, play their parts in this dense and detailed world. Trust and loyalty, kamma or karma, love, regret, and identity are themes that run throughout the novel. Religious beliefs and practices—Christian and Buddhist—have evolved also with the changing environment. The world described in The Windup Girl seems frighteningly possible as we ignore environmental concerns and allow corporations to patent seeds and genes.
The Windup Girl is novel that can be read multiple times without losing its surprises. It’s one of the best novels I have read in many years. It tied with China Miéville’s The City & the City (also a great novel) for the 2010 Hugo Award for best novel.
Check the WRL catalog for The Windup Girl.
This is the first in a satisfying cozy/police procedural mystery series set in England’s Lake District. It’s my favorite kind of case—a cold case!
Daniel Kind, an Oxford history professor, returns to his childhood vacation spot of Brackdale after many years’ absence. Enchanted by the peace and quiet of country living, he decides to relocate there with his girlfriend, Miranda. He becomes intrigued by an unsolved mystery from years before, in large part because his now-deceased father had been the investigating office on that case. Also, the prime suspect had been a friend of Daniel’s in his childhood— an autistic boy who had conveniently died soon after the crime, the ritualistic murder of a young woman.
Meanwhile, DCI Hannah Scarlett of the Cold Case Squad, who had worked under Daniel’s father years before, gets an anonymous tip about the very same case and begins digging. Things get complicated when her longtime boyfriend emerges as a suspect and Hannah’s official investigation collides with the amateur sleuthing of Daniel, with whom she feels an instant connection.
Daniel’s amateur sleuthing also complicates his relationship with his girlfriend Miranda, and he too senses the chemistry between himself and DCI Scarlett. These issues are left unresolved, with the promise of further romantic complications to come in future installments.
The mystery at least is resolved, with a nice twist at the end. I appreciated the juxtaposition of Hannah’s official “police procedural” investigation with Daniel’s personal interactions with suspects.
This series will appeal to readers of Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley/Barbara Havers series and Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks series.
For the scientists at Little Cam, a top-secret research compound hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest, immortality is no longer an ambition but a reality. With the creation of Pia seventeen years ago, the scientists achieved their dream after more than a hundred years of experimentation. Hidden away from the world at Little Cam, Pia has always considered her life to be perfect and absolute. But one night curiosity takes over, and she dares to venture outside the facility through a newly created opening in the fence. Once on the other side, Pia is so transfixed by the freedom of the jungle that she fails to notice a native boy, Eio, and runs right into him. Soon, Pia is discovering a new community of people, a different way of life and emotions that she never knew existed. The tropical forest and its native Ai’oan inhabitants along with handsome Eio all call to Pia in a way the compound never has. As the story progresses, the history and happenings at the research facility become strikingly more disturbing, and shocking secrets about Pia’s creation are revealed. When every ounce of her morality and humanity are questioned, Pia is torn between the life she is expected to live and the one that speaks to her heart.
Check the WRL catalog for Origin
Amid the anger, confusion, and chaos that reigned in the days following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, a white priest provided unforeseen direction for a group of young black men. With riots breaking out across the country, Father John Brooks set out to recruit black students to the College of the Holy Cross, an all-male Irish Catholic institution in Worcester, Massachusetts. A theology professor at the time, Brooks had previously been involved in progressive recruitment efforts that yielded little results. He decided the time for discussion and planning was over.
With an enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Holy Cross typically admitted two black students per year and had eight black students in April 1968. Wanting to bolster that number as soon as possible, Brooks persuaded the president of Holy Cross to authorize Brooks to offer scholarships on the spot to qualified black students, bypassing the lengthy admissions process. As a result, 20 black students entered Holy Cross in the fall of 1968 while Brooks assumed a new role as vice president for academic affairs and dean. Brooks became president of Holy Cross in 1970.
Brady focuses on five of those students and their relationships with Father Brooks and each other. The author draws in readers immediately by recounting where those figures were when King was killed and how that affected them. Brady deftly weaves the common threads of their stories through that event and their experiences on campus. On top of the experiences of adjusting to college life any incoming student has to make and issues associated with discrimination and racism, the specter of the Vietnam War and draft procedures loomed large for these young men.
Solidarity was important for these students even as they dealt with individual issues. Clarence Thomas found himself on a Catholic campus months after he left the seminary, which created problems at home. Ted Wells lost his desire to play football because he felt it detracted too much from his studies. Eddie Jenkins, later drafted by the Miami Dolphins, lost the majority of his first varsity football season after a hepatitis outbreak decimated the team. Basketball player Stan Grayson’s career came to an abrupt end when he suffered a knee injury. Ed Jones struggled as a math major before finding his calling as a writer and switching to English. Through it all, the students learned to lean on Father Brooks and each other.
Long before embarking on successful and influential careers, these men had to navigate campus life at Holy Cross. The formation of a Black Student Union was a key step, and shortly thereafter the BSU lobbied for and was granted a black corridor among student housing. Thomas was the lone dissenter on the issue of a black corridor, although some BSU members avoided the vote. Despite his dissension, Thomas decided to live in the black corridor in a sign of solidarity and later viewed the corridor as a de facto fraternity.
That solidarity was most evident in late 1969 when all but three or four of the 68 black students (41 enrolled in 1969) threatened to drop out of Holy Cross because of what they deemed racist disciplinary action after a protest on campus that included black and white students. After a long few days of campus meetings in which Father Brooks advocated for the BSU position, the president of Holy Cross gave amnesty to all the students disciplined, and all the black students remained in school.
Although Father Brooks did not always agree with the viewpoints of the black students and as president could not grant all their demands, he always had understanding and compassion for how they felt. Through Father Brooks and the students he recruited to Holy Cross, Brady captures not only the events of tumultuous times, but also the breadth and depth of the emotions associated with them.
Check the WRL catalog for Fraternity
Ferragosto: a major Italian holiday, celebrated August 15, that involves an elaborate meal. The majority of the population goes out of town for a few days. (Americans, think “Thanksgiving weekend”)
Pranzo: lunch or dinner
Youth, beauty, materialism, and other facets of contemporary culture permeate the cinema landscape today. Mid-August Lunch (2008), a gem of a movie, is the antithesis of these themes and should not be missed. The storyline is gentle, uncomplicated but rich, and leaves the viewer with considerable substance on which to ponder long after the film is over.
The movie begins with Gianni, a middle-aged man who lives with and cares for his elderly mother in her small apartment in Rome. Gianni inadvertently finds himself providing respite care for three additional elderly women, whose families have gone away on holiday to celebrate Ferragosto. Initially displeased with their disposition, after being dismissed to the care of a complete stranger, the women and Gianni try to make the best of this rather awkward situation. Liberated from the confines of their prescribed roles within their families, the women’s more youthful, true personalities begin to emerge as the afternoon evolves. Later that evening, one of the women confides to Gianni, “We live on memories. Without memories what would you do?” The following day the women and Gianni prepare their own Pranzo di Ferragosto celebration meal, creating new memories for each of these new friends.
Mid-August Lunch is a directorial debut for Italian actor and screenwriter Gianni Di Gregorio who also plays the central character of this film. The calculated simplicity of this story and the cinematography, which features close-ups of the actors, images of the delicious meals prepared, and quintessential scenes of Rome work together to create a rich story. The viewer readily connects with the characters, seeing the individual within each of the women, as well as the caring and generous Gianni. Foreign language film viewers who oppose subtitles should not dismiss this movie. The dialogue is not complex and moves at a comfortable pace; the viewer quickly forgets she is reading subtitles. Charming scenes of the story unfold during the final credits… do not shut the DVD player off too quickly. I urge you to see Mid-August Lunch, and, if you are like me, you will tell your friends and family to do the same.
Check the WRL catalog for Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto)
Virginia can proudly claim a number of records in United States history — having the first permanent English settlement, the birthplace of eight U.S. Presidents, and the oldest Executive Mansion still occupied by a state governor.
This year marks the bicentennial of Virginia’s Executive Mansion and the beautiful book First House, Two Centuries with Virginia’s First Families tells the interesting history of the mansion. Written by Mary Miley Theobald, the book is published by the Citizen’s Advisory Council for Interpreting and Furnishing the Executive Mansion and the Library of Virginia. It shows how the mansion combines being a historic site and a place for business and receptions, with being a home for the governors and their families.
The story of Virginia’s Executive Mansion actually begins in Williamsburg. During the Revolutionary War, both Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson lived in the former Royal Governor’s Palace. When the British landed in Portsmouth, the legislators decided that Richmond would be a safer location for the Capitol of Virginia. So in May 1780, Jefferson packed up what was left of the Palace’s furnishings and moved to Richmond.
For 32 years Virginia’s governors made due with a neglected house purchased by the state near the new Capitol Building. Finally in 1811 the monies were acquired to build a new house for the governor. The house was completed two years later. Governor James Barbour of Orange County, his wife Lucy, and their three children were the first family to live in the Executive Mansion.
Author Mary Theobald chronicles the house’s story as each governor moves in and adapts and decorates the house to their own needs. The well-used house has endured two fires — the first one during the burning of Richmond in the Civil War and the second one in 1922 when the retiring governor’s 5-year-old son’s sparkler set a Christmas Tree on fire — and several renovations and an addition. The last major renovation of the house was under Governor James Gilmore III (1998-2002). The renovation returned the historic portion of the house to its 1830s appearance while improving mechanical and technology systems and strengthening the structure.
In addition to the chronological narrative, Theobald has chapters on the gardens, distinguished visitors, the First Families and their pets, Christmas, and the staff who work behind the scenes to make the mansion run smoothly.
The book is beautifully designed and has wonderful photos, prints, and engravings. There are also little sidebars of trivia and information that are fun to read, like the story of the painting given to the mansion by Nancy Langhorne Astor, the first female member of the House of Commons, as well as the stories of the mansion’s ghosts.
One of Virginia’s recent First Ladies called the Executive Mansion “a happy house” and that happiness certainly comes across in this book. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent, any Virginian will find this book fascinating because the story of the Executive Mansion is also the story of Virginia.
Check the WRL catalog for First House, Two Centuries with Virginia’s First Families
Gran Cocina Latina (Great Latina Kitchen) is just that — big, rich, and fun to explore. In over 900 pages this new, award-winning cookbook by restaurateur and food historian Maricel Presilla brings together the diverse cooking traditions of Central and South America and the Spanish-speaking countries of the Caribbean.
Beautifully laid out, with a balance of recipes, background and equipment notes, and photos, cooks and armchair travelers alike will savor this comprehensive collection of recipes from a geographically and culturally “big” region.
Recipes are not arranged by country, but are grouped according to ingredient or type of food. Chapters introduce you to the layers of flavors that make up Latin America cooking. Here you can explore the variety of indigenous ingredients including chilies, squashes, corn, quinoa, beans, and potatoes that dominate the cuisine. You can also learn about the unique types of dishes that come from countries such as Argentina, Peru, Columbia, and Cuba such as empanadas, secos, tamals, ceviche, ollas (soups), moles, and dulce latino (sweets).
So get beyond the familiar Tex Mex tacos, refried beans, and salsa and journey through the complex flavors — but not complex cooking — of Latin America.
Check the WRL catalog for Gran Cocina Latina
This debut novel by Andrea Thalasinos attracted me for two reasons; it was about dogs and another culture that I didn’t know anything about. For me, An Echo Through the Snow was a win-win!
The story alternates between two settings and characters.
In present day Wisconsin, a struggling young woman named Rosalie, rescues a Siberian husky, which profoundly changes the course of her life. As she becomes more involved with dogs and the world of dog sled racing, her future looks brighter despite the odds against her.
Alternately, in 1929, a Siberian Chukchi woman, Jeaantaa, tries to
save her people’s Siberian huskies as the Russians force the Chukchi to give up their traditional lifestyle.
The story lines converge at the end, and I found both to be compelling. The book left me wanting to know more about some of the people in Rosalie’s world, as well as Jeaantaa’s people.
The author has rescued and raised Siberian huskies, and learned how to be a musher training dogs to run a dogsled team, so she knows her subject well. Her research on the little known Chukchi people and the history of the dog breed added to my enjoyment of the story.
Check the WRL catalog for An Echo Through the Snow