Blogging for a Good Book
I’ve read many inspirational stories of overcoming health problems, and for the most part, they seem either to be self serving, to promote some hidden agenda, to be laden with false cheeriness, or just to fail to capture the experience in terms that others would understand.
And finally, I’ve ready many descriptions of growing up in the Mormon faith, and they either haven’t matched my experience, or again, have been tainted by hidden agendas.
That’s why I found it remarkable that Josh Hanagarne’s memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian: a Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family, proved successful on all three fronts. Hanagarne grew up in a somewhat unusual but loving family, but he encountered an obstacle early in life, when all of the tics associated with Tourette’s Syndrome began to manifest in him.
The book is the story of his family life, his many struggles to keep his illness in check, and how his connection to his religion, his discovery of an occupation in librarianship, his love of weightlifting, and his relationships with his parents and wife all helped him in his struggle. Each chapter begins with a story from his library work, then follows the strand of that experience to connections in the rest of his life and personal history. It’s an odd construction, and an odd combination of personal traits, but Hanagarne makes it work, and in the process really captures the daily experience of working with the public in a library.
This is the kind of story that could easily become maudlin, but Hanagarne’s easy use of humor, finding laughs in the most embarrassing of situations, overcomes any note of false sentiment. He’s also refreshingly honest, willing to embrace life’s contradictions, his own failures, and his moments of doubt. This combination of humor and honesty left this reader with a strong sense that Hanagarne would be a great acquaintance: insightful, but not so stuck in his own experience or so full of himself that he couldn’t admit when he didn’t have the answer. Those are great qualities for a memoir writer, and Hanagarne shows them plentifully.
Check the WRL catalog for The World’s Strongest Librarian
Charles Babbage, once described as “a logarithmetical Frankenstein,” was an eccentric Victorian inventor who is widely credited with inventing the first computer, although it was never built in his lifetime. Ada Lovelace, the daughter of mad, bad, and dangerous Lord Byron, was an exceptionally talented mathematician widely credited with creating the first computer programs, although she had no computer on which to run them.
Babbage died a bitter man, offended that the British government never funded his “Analytical Engine.” Lovelace met an even unhappier end, bankrupting herself at the horse races and dying at the age of 36. That’s the history. But wait!
In this alternate history graphic novel, animator and cartoonist Sydney Padua brings Lovelace, Babbage, and the Analytical Engine thundering back to life for adventures in a steampunk London. History, mathematics, gears and cogwheels, bad puns, and Boolean logic jokes mingle in this thoroughly geeky appreciation of computing history’s early days. There are cameos by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, who presides over the invention of the lolcat; Luddites; a 19th-century version of the oh-so-helpful Microsoft paper clip; and that cigar-chomping, rock star engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
The graphic novel is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster itself, a comic adventure stitched together with anecdotes of Victorian mathematics and computer science excavated from period letters and publications. Padua meant to post just one web comic about Lovelace, but her research led her down a rabbit hole that first became the blog 2dgoggles and later transmogrified into this book. There’s no straight-line narrative; you’ll flip back and forth between the comic panels and the extensive, no, really extensive footnotes1 , which explore historical Babbage and Lovelace’s lives and writings. An appendix concludes with diagrams of Babbage’s steam-powered calculating monstrosity.
1 I don’t just mean that this comic has footnotes, I mean that the footnotes have endnotes2.
2 And the endnotes also have footnotes.
Both the book and the blog are particularly recommended for fans of Kate Beaton’s Hark, A Vagrant! and others who enjoy tongue-in-cheek history with lots of all caps and exclamation points.
Check the WRL catalog for The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.
Bud here with a few mini reviews of some good non-fiction books.
The fascinating story of Charlie Manson, his fanatically loyal hippie followers and the savage Tate-LaBianca murders is engrossingly recounted by the author Vince Bugliosi, who was directly involved as a prosecuting attorney in the case. Forty-one years after its original publication, it deservedly remains one of the best, and most popular, True Crime books of all time.
Sample sentence: “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes down the canyon.”
Check the WRL catalog for Helter Skelter
The story of the tragic Donner party expedition in 1846 is vividly recounted in this fine history book. Told primarily through the experience of one young woman, the narrative is grim and occasionally heartrending but also educational. You learn a lot about what everyday life was like for pioneers on the overland trail and, in particular, about the astonishing ability of people to endure great suffering and survive. A tragic tale eloquently and engrossingly re-told.
Sample sentence: “When she first looked into the survivors’ eyes, Eliza Gregson was startled by what she saw looking back at her, and she later marveled at it. ‘I shall never forget the looks of those people, for the most part of them was crazy and their eyes danced and sparkled in their heads like stars.’”
Check the WRL catalog for The Indifferent Stars Above
The lifestyle, battles with white settlers, and eventual decline of the Comanche Indians in late 19th century Southwest America are detailed in this extensively researched and elegiac history. In particular the lives of white Indian captive Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah, last war Chief of the Comanche are poignantly recounted. A remarkable story graphically brought to life by a skilled writer. A good choice for anyone who thinks history is boring.
Sample Line: “What was she (Cynthia Ann) in the end? A white woman by birth, yes, but also a relic of old Comancheria, of the fading empire of high grass and fat summer moons and buffalo herds that blackened the horizon.”
Check the WRL catalog for Empire of the Summer Moon
Or try Empire of the Summer Moon as an audiobook on CD
This is the first entry in a series featuring Detective Inspector Peter Shaw and his Detective Sergeant Bob Valentine in Norfolk, England. It’s a police procedural with a “locked-room” element to the main plot: A line of cars is stranded in a snowstorm on a desolate coastal road. When help arrives, the driver of the first vehicle in the convoy is discovered dead at his steering wheel, murdered seemingly under the noses of the other drivers stranded behind him. With no footprints in the snow, Shaw and his team are stumped as to means and opportunity. As to motive, however, the police begin to uncover some very convoluted relationships between the other drivers–supposedly all strangers to each other–in the convoy. Complicating matters are two other murders in the immediate vicinity, one corpse floating to shore on a toy raft and another found buried in the sand. Could all these deaths be related? You’d be surprised!
The plot was satisfyingly byzantine, and the atmosphere deliciously chilling and bleak. But what piqued my interest was the back story of DI Shaw and his relationship with Valentine. Valentine is an older man who fell from grace and was demoted as a result of implied corruption in the fall-out of a failed investigation years before. His partner had been DI Shaw’s father, since deceased. Shaw Jr. wants to know the truth about this unsolved case, which involved a murdered child, and his father’s true role in the investigation. Valentine would like his name cleared and his position back, but suffers from resentment of serving under the younger man. A mutual lack of trust complicates matters even further, but over the course of the story each man begins to develop a grudging respect for the other’s detective abilities. One can tell that this back story will continue to develop in future series entries, which will keep me reading.
Check the WRL catalog for Death Wore White
Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents focuses on a group of rats led by a sly, conniving cat.. Oh, and let us not forget, the animals have gained the ability to speak to humans, think for themselves, reason, and gain a conscience. Pratchett allows his reader to contemplate the possibility of a society where animals, namely rodents, can not only live in peace and harmony with humans, but the two can help each other in the process.
In the town of Bad Blinitz Maurice the cat and his cohorts decide to pull their “Pied Piper” con. Little did they know that the town was fighting a food shortage thought to be brought on by the current rat population, and thus have hired rat catchers and deployed menacing traps throughout the city both above and below.
The fear of a plague from these rats caused scam artists of all kinds to attempt to capitalize on the growing fear of famine. Enter a small boy playing a magical rat pipe, who for a tidy sum would rid the town of rodents. Add in a know-it-all and somewhat bratty, young girl named Malicia, and the mayhem begins.
Pratchett’s sarcastic wit comes out in the actions and words of Maurice, the streetwise alley cat, while his fantasy and adventurous side is enjoyed through the antics of rat characters such as Hamnpork, Darktan, Dangerous Beans, and Sardines.
While reading this I found myself forgetting the main characters were simply animals for their wit, anxiety, emotional expressions, and snide comments fit many humans I know. Pratchett also adds an interesting aspect to the story in the form of quotes from another book introducing each chapter. The rats revere what is later discovered as a children’s book, “Mr. Bunnsy has an Adventure;” treating it as wisdom to live by.
Check the WRL catalog for The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
Unstuff Your Life! Kick the Clutter Habit and Completely Organize Your Life for Good, by Andrew J. Mellen
“Gentle reader; less-than-gentle reader; kind, clumsy, unfocused, slightly desperate reader… this book is for you.”
This isn’t the kind of book I usually read. It’s definitely not the kind of book I usually review. But my parents have told me (politely, but firmly) to get my boxes of stuff out of their garage, so I’ve found myself turning to books like Unstuff Your Life! in hopes they’ll help me out.
Surprisingly, they do! And of the ones I’ve read, Mellen’s book has stuck out for me in that it offered a lot of good-humored, practical advice, useful even for a twenty-something who lives in a small apartment.
Andrew Mellen is a professional organizer. He works with clients ranging from business owners to homemakers, and in his book he writes as though you, the reader, are one of his clients and he’s working through everything with you. His focus is on the psychological causes of clutter, and he makes a point of reiterating, “You are not your stuff.” He asks questions that prompt you to think about the way you think about your possessions. He reminds you that you can’t take it with you. He relates his conversations with other clients and shows how they worked through their mental stumbling blocks.
You might be thinking “Wait, I thought you said practical advice?” Well, he gives you that as well. The book is separated into specific areas to tackle – Kitchen, Paperwork, Mementos, and so on – and each section contains detailed instructions, checklists, and other information that you can use even if you don’t follow Mellen’s instructions to the letter. For instance: the cleaning tools you need before you start on a certain room, a checklist of things that might go in a car, and tips, like reminding you to sort stuff first and then buy storage, not the other way around.
The end goal is to get rid of clutter both in your space and your mind, so you can focus on you and your life. As Mellen says “I don’t think paying bills or filing papers or cleaning out the junk drawer is or should be that important. The messes that surround you are keeping you from what is important.”
If you have a garage full of boxes to deal with (or any clutter problem) and want some help with it, Unstuff Your Life! is a solid choice.
Check the WRL catalog for Unstuff Your Life!
Charlie is not your average high school freshman, as you will read in this coming of age story. In a series of blatantly honest letters to an unknown recipient, Charlie lays out his deepest fears, joys, and struggles while trying to survive his freshman year and deal with his past and the events that shaped him into a wallflower. Don’t be discouraged by the seemingly serious topic, for this story also includes true to life goofy thoughts of teenagers, hair-brained schemes, love triangles, sex, drugs, rock and roll, and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show!” Read on!
Charlie starts his story with the quote,
So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.
As the story progresses it is easy to understand why Charlie questions his emotions as his past is revealed through fragmented details that he intertwines into current events. Befriending a random group of friends, all of whom are a bit different themselves, Charlie begins to make peace with himself. As his gay friend, Patrick, explains, “You’re a wallflower …You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” While this is an acceptable definition of Charlie’s personality, it also masks the fact that he remains an observer rather than a participant of many things. This is the part of Charlie that he wants to change, but how?
As he ventures out of his shell, Charlie finds solace in the books his English teacher gives him to read and report on, not as homework, but as a way to instill confidence in Charlie and to foster the thoughts that his opinion matters.
Two of the major themes of this story are identity and secrecy. Each of the main characters struggle with these and in the end find a way to cope with what they can’t change and begin to heal.
This is a quick read, but DO NOT SKIP THE EPILOGUE! It gives some closure for both Charlie and the reader. This book was made into a major motion picture in 2012 and quickly became a sort of cult film for some teenagers.
Check the WRL catalog for The Perks of Being a Wallflower
During a 19-year period Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke appeared in three movies together: Before Sunrise (1994), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013). It remains a unique project, because the second and third movies were never intended to be sequels of the first; rather each movie portrays the relationship between the protagonists in a discrete time-frame – less than 24 hours of a particular day that was important to their relationship. Even though the second and third movies may be considered stand-alones, it makes much more sense to view the three movies sequentially, because each builds upon its predecessor and gives the unfolding events of each plot line background, history, and context.
The story of Before Sunrise is very simple. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are students going home for the holidays who meet on a train; she is French, he is American. When they arrive in Vienna he convinces her to get off the train and explore the city with him before they continue their journeys home the next morning (hence the movie’s title). It becomes obvious that they are attracted to each other, and the movie ends with them agreeing to meet each other at the same train station six months later. Because there is this mutual attraction, you hope that they do meet again.
Fast forward ten years to Before Sunset. Ethan Hawke is in Paris promoting the book he has written about their now long-ago encounter. She attends his book talk, and they decide to spend the afternoon reconnecting before he has to catch his flight home. As the afternoon develops we learn that he is unhappily married with a young child, and she has been unable to sustain relationships. The first bloom of youth has left both of them, and they are both slightly damaged by life. When it is time to leave for the airport, he can’t pull himself away. The movie ends ambiguously – will he catch the next flight home or will they seize the second chance to live their lives together as they and the audience hope?
The third movie, Before Midnight, shows that they are together, unmarried (he is divorced), with two children of their own. Once again they spend the day and night discussing all the ups and downs of their relationship. And most of us who are enamored of these three intelligent movies and their two compelling protagonists are earnestly hoping for a fourth movie that will show us where they are and what they are like as their story continues to unfold.
Check the WRL catalog for Before Sunrise
Check the WRL catalog for Before Sunset
Check the WRL catalog for Before Midnight
Let me start by giving a warning – this drama is “R” rated for language, some nudity, and graphic content. Topics covered are AIDS, homosexuality, gay activists, and governmental politics.
In the midst of the heavy drama, based on an award winning play, lie beautiful love stories, as well as anger, frustration, and feelings of helplessness. The struggles are real. This movie tells the story of the early days of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York City and exposes the viewer to the sexual politics of the ’80s. A star-studded cast including Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers), Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman), Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory), and Alfred Molina (Spiderman 2), take the viewer through an emotional rollercoaster showing the sometimes difficult to watch realities of life for those afflicted with AIDS and those who love and care for them.
Ned Weeks, a Jewish-American writer and gay activist helps to organize a group, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), focused on raising awareness about an unidentified disease killing off an oddly specific group of people: gay men largely in New York City. Dr. Emma Brookner, a physician and survivor of polio, joins the fight against this little known illness, encouraging abstinence for gay men for their own safety, since it is unknown yet even how the disease is spread. Ned’s brother Ben, a lawyer, is asked to help fund the GMHC, ultimately exposing his apparent homophobia.
In the middle of the struggle Ned falls in love with Felix Turner, a New York Times writer. Throughout the film Ned’s overly explosive activism creates tension with the group. Enter the politics. Ned next looks to Mayor Ed Koch’s administration for aid in financing research about the epidemic that is quickly killing off hundreds of gay men, including some of Ned’s personal friends. The elected leader of the GMHC, Bruce Niles, who is the calmer, more politically correct, and closeted member of the group, tries to keep the peace with everyone using diplomacy instead of accusations and threats to “out” those in political positions. When the virus hits close to home for Ned the stakes are even higher, and so are the tensions and tempers.
As the story concludes with the actual statistics regarding the mortality rate from HIV/AIDS, the one solace to this intense drama is the knowledge that science has made great strides in the prevention and treatment of this disease; and society has also made some progress in acknowledging, if not accepting, that this disease is a global concern, not just someone else’s problem.
This powerful drama is directed by Ryan Murphy and written by Larry Kramer. It left me thinking long after the movie ended.
Check the WRL catalog for The Normal Heart
Amber Appleton, at seventeen years old, is a busy girl – visiting the elderly at the local nursing home, swapping haikus with a Vietnam veteran, teaching English through R&B at a Korean Catholic church, and looking out for the socially-struggling guys of the “Franks Freak Force Federation.” She is an optimist, a Catholic, and homeless – sleeping in the school bus her single mother drives all day before barhopping at night for Mr. Right Now. Amber makes up for the lack of stability in her life with the diversion she finds in helping and connecting with others. Readers will question whether her pluck, happiness, and faith are in spite of her situation or because of it. Amber’s voice is funny, snarky, and authentic (her language likely influenced by Quick’s former years teaching high school). In the hands of a less skilled author, this could be a gag-inducing after-school special about unlikely triumph, but Quick gives us a real story about relationships, hardship, joy, and emotional survival.
Quick’s novels are engaging because of the authenticity of his characters and interactions among his diverse casts, and Sorta Like A Rock Star is no exception. The characters draw empathy and laughter because they are so carefully crafted to be genuine. Although Quick does not leave out any detail of characterization, the story isn’t bogged down in prose. It is perfectly tuned to a young adult audience, as young adults in my experience seem to have a radar for detecting falseness, and are less patient with wordiness. Young adult readers of realistic fiction will appreciate the funny yet complex characters in realistic circumstances, both humorous and dire.
The audio version of this book was fine, but the adult narration of the story did not always capture the accurate inflection of some of the slang terms, which could be a turnoff for teens. I would recommend the print version of this book to the next reader. Fans of tough and funny lead characters — Catcher’s Holden Caulfield or Whale Talk’s TJ — will enjoy this book, and despite the somewhat cheesy ending, my heart was singing because of my love of the characters. Feel good about Sorta Like a Rock Star.
Check the WRL catalog for Sorta Like a Rock Star
Anda is a skilled player in a multiplayer online game called Coarsegold Online who learns about gold farmers – paid players in the game who simply hunt and gather treasures in the game for other high-bidding players who pay for, rather than earn, these points and tokens. At first annoyed by these illegal “cheaters,” and shortly after hired to hunt them for money, she learns that these gold farmers are overworked, poorly compensated players in other parts of the world for whom gold farming is not just a game, but their livelihood. Anda deals with conflicts with others in her guild in the game, confronts her own conflicted feelings about the gold farmers, tries to allay her parents’ concern about her online behavior, and struggles with right and wrong from different perspectives. I had been waiting since September 2014’s reviews for this book and was not disappointed by this beautiful graphic novel.
Unfortunately, the book starts with what I believe to be a possibly irresponsible misstep by Doctorow–an introduction addressing the gap between those who make and those who consume products today, followed by an oversimplified treatment of this complex problem involving a young person. Sometimes a little information is bad thing for young readers, such that I recommend parents read this alongside their young readers, as well-intentioned Anda’s online actions in the real world could be harmful. I’d have preferred the author let the story stand alone as a beacon of awareness or call to action for those who would interpret it as such. I don’t think it is for Mr. Doctorow to address young readers “You still have to do the harder work of risking life, limb, personal fortune, and reputation”–this book is aimed at 13-year-olds! This is my personal, perhaps overprotective opinion, but I will leave you to decide.
Now let’s consider the loveliness that exists beyond the introduction. The artwork is stunning (who could leave that cover on the shelf?), the watercoloring effect giving subtlety and life to the seemingly simple black line drawings; the ruddy cheeks under the stark white big eyes are particularly expressive in many of the characters. I am interested in picking up Jen Wang’s other title Koko Be Good for more. The transitions between online and real life are creatively rendered with dreamlike segues, and online interactions are punctuated with message boxes and buttons to keep even the least tech-savvy reader on track, and to speak to the experienced gamer in the visual language in which they operate. The lead character, Anda, is a smart, sensitive, independent gamer girl with supportive, loving parents in a healthy home–eschewing the trend of abusive or clueless parents in young adult fiction–whose character and friends give readers a spate of female gamer heroines for a change. The cast of characters is fully-developed, showing different sides in the many situations that happen throughout the book which keep the plot moving and interesting.
Matt Miller is a modern day teen in Brooklyn whose mother has passed away from cancer. Partly to start helping his father and partly to distract himself from the fact that everyone seems to pity him, Matt visits the “Cluck Bucket” to try apply for a job, when a emergency cleanup he witnesses convinces him food service is not for him. The local funeral director, Mr. Ray, who coincidentally oversaw his mother’s arrangements, offers him $30 a day to help out around the funeral home when they run into each other this fateful day at the chicken joint. The next day Matt reports after school and helps Mr. Ray set up flowers, receptions, and handle basic arrangements. As Matt’s father descends into drink, Matt becomes both more independent and connected to more people in his community through his work at the home.
The novel chronicles Matt’s coming of age through his work, mentoring by Mr. Ray, and a new friend. This is also a satisfying story about how a young man grows up as a part of his community by opening himself up to new experiences and responsibilities, strengthening himself and, in small ways, his community. In this book we see not only the Brooklyn that challenges, but also the Brooklyn that supports–a refreshing change from the often one-sided negative portrayals in urban fiction of city neighborhoods.
The Boy in the Black Suit moves along at a leisurely pace, and is written with some great descriptions and unique turns of phrase (were I not listening to the audiobook in my car, I’d have written them down). Without dragging, Reynolds lovingly details his characters and the neighborhood, making them real. An added layer of authenticity comes from the very natural narration by Corey Allen on audio. Some of the coincidences and the neatly-tied ending were the only pieces of the story that did not feel realistic, but these are small criticisms in comparison to the quality of the work overall. This is a novel version of the male coming-of-age story that had me caring about the characters and invested in the story.
I recommend The Boy in the Black Suit to fans of Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk, and Walter Dean Myers’ young adult fiction. This book will be enjoyed by the more thoughtful young adult reader of realistic fiction, and by all ages of readers who enjoy character-driven stories with a strong sense of place.
Check the WRL catalog for The Boy in the Black Suit as an audiobook on CD
This volume of collected webcomics from Jillian Tamaki was a no-brainer purchase for the Young Adult Graphic Novel collection–it is centered on teen protagonists at an X-Men/Hogwarts-type boarding school, and is written and illustrated by the illustrator of the Printz Award-winning This One Summer. Upon receipt, it was cataloged for the Adult Collection, and when I sat down to reconsider its classification, I was hooked, and honestly doubtful as to just where this quirky volume should reside.
From page one, I compared the smart, sadly existential, darkly humorous tone to that of the late great Charles Addams, whose out-of-print collected works I own (as does the library) and cherish. I have no idea if the young Tamaki is influenced by his work at all, but I was thrilled to discover this texting, blogging, Dungeons & Dragons-playing fictional world that offers the same unpretentious and masterful mix of the sophisticated and the absurd for a new generation. You’ll meet Everlasting Boy, unable to die and doomed to live a teenaged life over and over; lizard-headed Trixie, obsessed with her looks and boys; the optimistic and shape-shifting Wendy; and her cynical friend Marsha, who is secretly in love with her; the laser-shooting Trevor who is dying to fit in; and Cheddar, the popular jock who defies stereotypes in secret. Don’t let me forget the cigarette-smoking performance artist Frances. The teens vary in form from dinosaur-faced, to feline, to human, and range in abilities from physical regeneration to object conjuring, but these aspects of this cleverly created world are second to the teen high-jinks and angst, making it both bittersweet and fun.
Unlike a collected volume of subsequent comic issues or a traditional graphic novel, this a collection of individual webcomic strips which, though ordered, may disappoint readers who like segues and seamless plot sequences. The series also poses more questions than it answers, so that this will appeal to a more literary older teen or adult reader.
In conclusion, I think this volume may live most happily in the adult Graphic Novel collection, as many young webcomics fans to whom this style of work would appeal have already read the run of this series online, and because enough of our teen readership already knows to cross into the Adult Graphic collection for more mature reading. This collected edition will appeal to sophisticated young adult, new adult, and other adult readers of more thoughtful graphic works. I recommend for fans of An Age of License, The World of Chas Addams, and I Kill Giants.
Check the WRL catalog for Super Mutant Magic Academy
As a fan of David O. Russell’s film adaptation of The Silver Linings Playbook, I picked up Matthew Quick’s latest young adult novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, fell in love with it, and went on a Matthew Quick reading frenzy. In his latest novel, due out June 16th, Quick looks at a woman ready to trade a comfortable but unfulfilling life for the one her high school English teacher made her believe she could attain.
Portia Kane married a slick young film director whose charm and opulent lifestyle wooed her after she dropped out of college, uninspired yet desperate to leave her unsatisfying home life. Mid-thirties, her gilded cage built, she finds herself finally unhappy enough to confront her long-philandering husband about his dalliances with his barely-eighteen string of “film” talent. (Those kinds of films.) Portia returns home to suburban Philadelphia to stay with her mother long enough to reconnect with her adored high school English teacher, become newly inspired, and engage with the world as a contributing member. Portia knows to expect the decrepit state of her hoarding mother’s home, the roughness of the old neighborhood, and the adult versions of the classmates who still hang around the neighborhood bars; but she is shocked by what has happened to her beloved teacher Mr. Vernon.
As in several of his other novels, Quick’s world is set within the working-class neighborhoods around Philly – think Billy Joel’s “Allentown” – and focuses on the lives of regular people trying to do their best, flaws and all, repairing themselves through bad times, after bad choices, and with old friends. The authenticity of Quick’s characters transports you to a barstool or to an elderly mother’s kitchen table. This novel is lighter than most of his work – anyone into hair metal in the 80s will appreciate the references – but still explores the personal work of people trying to reinvent themselves and find happiness despite wrongs that can’t be righted, only survived. I found myself disappointed in some of the characters, as I felt they didn’t learn or recover from the depths as much as I wish they had, but perhaps this is one reason the characters feel authentic, as people don’t always in the real world either. Quick’s fully-realized characters connect the reader to what might otherwise be a lukewarm slice-of-life story.
For a novel about the struggle of regular people trying better themselves with characters you can’t help but connect to, read Love May Fail. I recommend this title to fans of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry and Jodi Picoult.
Check the WRL catalog for Love May Fail
Christmas, 1992. We ate a spiced beef roast that I had cured with juniper, allspice and salt for two weeks and a Country Christmas Cake, a heavy, dark fruitcake swathed in marzipan that had been aging since October. I’m sure they were wonderful, but I can’t quite remember how they tasted. What I do remember is knowing that I had to make them, next Christmas, as soon as I read “How to Face the Holidays” by Laurie Colwin in the December 1991 issue of Gourmet magazine. It began:
When Thanksgiving has passed and the leaves are off the trees, the harried modern person looks to the winter holidays like someone slumped across a railroad track contemplating an oncoming train.
She has found two splendid things to eat that can be made long in advance. “There is nothing else like them. They must be made by hand. And they cannot be bought.”
The cake will amaze your friends:
Most impressive is the fact that you have made this gorgeous, amazing, traditional cake yourself from an ancient recipe. Hands down, it is the best cake I have ever made—and also the best I have ever eaten.”
The spiced beef, from a recipe by Elizabeth David “…is perfectly expressed, perfectly correct, and perfectly delicious. The fact that I produced this rather magnificent thing shocked even me.”
Laurie Colwin was a well known novelist by the early 1990s, when she began writing a series of columns for Gourmet. Their irresistible combination of food writing, memoir, and life advice made her immediately beloved by Gourmet’s readers, including me. She was funny, opinionated, personal, and, most of all, forgiving. She wrote about simple, delicious food that could be flung together easily by a frazzled cook. She also told wonderful stories about bad food: kitchen experiments gone awry (a pudding that tasted like “lemon-flavored bacon fat”) and repulsive dinners (“There is something truly triumphant about a really disgusting meal.”). Several of the recipes — fried chicken, tomato pie, creamed spinach, gingerbread — were instant sensations that are still kept in many cooks’ clipping files.
The Gourmet columns are collected in Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. The second book was published after Colwin’s untimely death in October 1992.
Long before the term “comfort food” came into fashion, Colwin understood and relied on the consoling power of food and, by extension, food writing:
… for those of you who are suffering from sadness or hangover, or are feeling blue or tired of life, if you’re not going to read Persuasion, you may as well read Italian Food by Elizabeth David.
Or, better yet, read Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.
Check the WRL catalog for Home Cooking.
Check the catalog for More Home Cooking
Readers who enjoy police procedurals and are looking for stories of justice in the New South will find a lot to enjoy in Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. Maron sets her books in contemporary North Carolina (like fellow writer Michael Malone). Over the course of the series, Judge Knott has to address the same problems and concerns—racial and social divides, economic inequality, etc.—that face Malone’s Police Chief Cuddy Mangum. Maron does not shy away from addressing challenging issues in contemporary society.
The problems that Judge Knott faces are often rooted in the evils of the past. Family and community play important roles in both the life of Judge Knott and in the stories. Maron’s novels are straight ahead mysteries, with engaging characters and interesting plots. This is an excellent series for readers interested in contemporary crime writing, issues in the New South, or police procedurals. Start with Bootlegger’s Daughter.
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If you were a bird, would you prefer to live in a lush, green forest or one that was blackened and burnt by a recent wildfire? Surprisingly, as we learn in this slim, fully-illustrated, children’s non-fiction book, several bird species actually prefer to live in burnt forests. Sneed B. Collard III discusses work done by University of Montana biologist Dick Hutto, who set out to learn about the natural environment of areas blackened by wildfires. Hutto and his wife Sue counted more than 100 species of birds in several dozen burn areas in 1988, a year where more than 72,000 separate wildfires burned more than five million acres of land in the United States.
Hutto’s research found that some birds, including American Robins, Chipping Sparrows, Mountain Bluebirds, several species of woodpeckers, and others, find abundant food and shelter in burnt areas, often more so than in what we would normally consider healthier, richer environments. It isn’t just birds that thrive; insects, wildflowers, shrubs and other life also flourish in areas that have been recently burned. Instead of trying to suppress more wildfires, perhaps we should allow more of them to burn naturally.
Hutto also questions the current practice of loggers going into a forest after a wildfire and removing the remaining trees for industry. His reasoning is that wildfires are part of nature, and such “salvaging” disturbs the natural burnt environment and can do damage to the wildlife that thrives in those areas. However, Dr. Steve Arno, considered to be a world expert in fire and forest management, believes that logging after a burn can be helpful in making sure a more severe fire does not occur after the first “because you have all that dead fuel on the ground.” Dr. Vicki Saab, a wildlife biologist working with the U.S. Forest Service, is also featured in the book. She and her team have come up with scientific models that show what logging can be done in a burned area to balance the needs of some woodpecker species with industry’s desire to log the still-standing trees. The author shows that where industry, politics and nature meet, answers are not always easy or clear.
Although this 47-page book was written for children ages 8-14, I thought it was a good distillation for adults, too, of the complex issues surrounding wildfire. Those of us who grew up hearing Smokey Bear’s admonition, “Only you can prevent forest fires!” may start looking at wildfires a little differently.
The book is illustrated with many beautiful photographs of birds and burn areas. Scattered throughout the text are ten “Featured Fire Birds.” A photo of the bird is accompanied by a box of short text about the bird and how it survives in a burned area. This book focuses on Western bird species, since that is where most of the wildfires take place and where much of the scientific work is being done, but Virginia readers may recognize American Robins, Dark-Eyed Juncos, Northern Flickers, Hairy Woodpeckers and House Wrens.
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Despite being abandoned by her Danish mother when she was an infant and her Chilean immigrant father’s absence working as an international airline pilot, Maya was raised by her grandparents with spirited enlightenment and fiercely bolstering love. She was propped to have sound character, and her future held so much promise, until her Popo died when she was fifteen. Popo was her Nini’s second husband, but his presence meant the world to Maya. He had promised, “I swear I’ll always be with you.” Popo was a remarkably attentive surrogate parent to Maya, but following his death, whatever threads held her in check were unraveling at an alarming rate. The trio formed with her two girlfriends styled themselves as the “Vampires” and challenged each other to commit increasingly risky criminal acts and venture into dangerous sexual territory. By the time Maya is nineteen and living on the streets of Las Vegas, by the time she phones home, she’s on the run from criminals and the law. As she’s ushered onto a plane to exit the country and ride out the danger, her grandmother hands her a notebook for writing out her troubles as a tool for recovery, or as her Nini says it,
take advantage of it to write down the monumental stupidities you’ve committed, see if you can come to grips with them.
In the audiobook version I enjoyed, as the narrator began speaking in the voice of the 19-year-old female main character in Maya’s Notebook, she sounded far too mature, using unrealistic vocabulary and sounding too worldly. Soon, however, that didn’t matter because I was spellbound by Maya Vidal’s troubled past. She’d experienced complex problems and was running from drug lords, international criminals, and the FBI, and she comes from a highly unusual family; clearly her life was more complicated than an average teen girl’s. She was sent by her Chilean grandmother, her Nini, to Chiloé Island, perfect as a place for banishment or exile, to ride out the danger with an old friend of Nini’s, Manuel Arias. Manuel is a man with a mysterious and painful past as well. The narrative floats easily between Maya’s present in Chiloé and her past in Berkeley, California, then a rehab academy in Oregon, then in Las Vegas where she reaches the darkest pit of her degradation and suffering. Just when you think her story has been told already, it just gets deeper and more layered.
Maya’s Notebook is an Adult Fiction title which would likely appeal to many older teens, but the book contains very graphic scenes of criminality, violence (both sexual and drug-related), sexuality, and extreme drug use. It’s available in the WRL collection via regular print, audiobook on CD, e-audiobook, and in large print.
This memoir is the third in a series written by Chris Jericho. The full title, The Best in the World: At What I Have No Idea, gives a sense of the many facets of the author. He does lots of things. In addition to performing in the ring, Jericho is a musician, actor, dancer, comedian, showoff, father, and husband. Like his previous books, A Lion’s Tale and Undisputed, Jericho regales his readers with his adventures and misadventures, chronicling the highs and lows during the past few years.
First and foremost, Chris Jericho is a professional wrestler. His career spans more than two decades. Since 2010 he’s helped create some of the most entertaining wrestling angles (storylines) in history. In The Best in the World, Jericho highlights his recent wrestling “feuds” with Shawn Michaels, Ricky Steamboat, and CM Punk. He recounts his altercations with Mike Tyson and Mickey Rourke, being fined for various in-ring antics, and becoming world champion no fewer than three times. His ability to capture an audience’s imagination makes him among the best professional wrestlers everrrrr.
A consummate self-promoter, Jericho not only uses The Best in the World to playfully plug his previous books and his many wrestling successes, he also uses this latest memoir to showcase his life outside of the squared circle. Jericho has a passion for heavy metal music, and a significant portion of this book talks about his career as a musician, touring with the band Fozzy. When not working for World Wrestling Entertainment (a.k.a. WWE), Jericho sang lead vocals with his band. Fozzy toured Europe, played music festivals, and cemented their fan base. Within the heavy metal world, Jericho stood in awe of the top tier acts, always striving to improve his performance and be the best in the world.
When he was not singing or wrestling, Jericho became a household name as a competitor on Dancing With The Stars (DWTS). He notes the experience was physically and mentally exhausting. He didn’t win DWTS and basically admits he was not the best dancer in the competition. Still, he suggests he was robbed and should not have been eliminated when he was.
Although Jericho takes his endeavors seriously, he nearly always pokes fun at himself. He knows he is a living caricature. He is extremely self-confident, yet quick to admit missteps he’s made along the way. Jericho’s stories can be funny, although they are sometimes a bit disturbing. More often than not his errors are compounded either by too much alcohol or too quick a reaction (Jericho’s temper comes out more in this memoir than in the previous books). Despite his flaws, Chris Jericho may well be the best in the world at something. When he figures it out, he will be the first to let us know.
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Few filmmakers capture the beauty and heartbreak of unrequited love like Wong Kar-wai. His innovative, emotionally charged films feature themes of longing, love, loneliness, and the nature of time and memory. These themes figure prominently in one of his best films, In the Mood for Love.
Set in 1962 Hong Kong, the film opens with new tenants moving into a crowded and lively apartment building. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is a journalist and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) is a secretary at a shipping company. Both are married, but they are frequently left alone since their spouses work late or travel for business. Aside from their introduction when they moved into the building, their initial encounters are polite but fleeting.
While Chow and Su seem to have happy and stable marriages, they secretly suspect their spouses of infidelity. Eventually, Chow and Su determine that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Hurt and saddened by this discovery, they meet to discuss the affair. What begins as a clandestine meeting between betrayed spouses soon blossoms into friendship as Chow and Su discover a mutual love of martial arts serials. They begin collaborating on stories, but their friendship becomes the subject of gossip among their neighbors. Chow and Su do not want to be like their cheating spouses, so they keep their friendship strictly platonic; however, as time passes they slowly begin to realize their feelings run far deeper than friendship.
A lot of the action takes place off-screen, which shifts the narrative focus to the main characters’ reactions to the affair. Chow and Su’s spouses are only heard in a few brief scenes and have no scenes together, leaving Chow and Su to reconstruct the affair from a few scattered clues and how they imagined their spouses initiated the affair. These scenes are especially well-acted by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, whose performances capture the repressed longing under their characters’ desire to maintain propriety. Chow and Su rarely touch and maintain a discreet distance when they’re in public, but their connection is intensely romantic.
The film is visually stunning with a soundtrack that complements the movie’s themes and the relationship between Chow and Su. The colors pop with intensity, from the deep red of a curtain blowing in an empty room to the blues and greens of Su’s elegant cheongsams. The memorable soundtrack features classic songs from Nat King Cole and contributions from composers Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi.
Elegantly structured and beautifully filmed, In the Mood for Love is an emotionally resonant story of two lonely people discovering an unexpected connection.
In the Mood for Love is in Cantonese and Shanghainese with English subtitles.
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