Blogging for a Good Book
A chance encounter between a British writer and a French antiques dealer leads to an exploration of authenticity in both art and relationships in Iranian director and screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami’s marvelous 2010 film Certified Copy.
James Miller (William Shimell) is a British author who is visiting Tuscany as part of a promotional tour for his latest book, Certified Copy. In his book, Miller argues that, in art, reproductions are just as valid as the original work because it “leads us to the original and in this way certifies its value.” He believes this approach could lead to an understanding of life as well as art.
Shortly after the lecture begins, an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) arrives accompanied by her teenage son. Her son is restless and keeps distracting her until she finally decides to leave, but not before giving her number and address to Miller’s translator. Although the dealer disagrees with many of the points Miller makes in his book, she is eager to meet him and has purchased several copies of the book for him to sign.
The next day, Miller visits the dealer at her shop and they spend the afternoon driving through the countryside, visiting museums and debating the importance of authenticity in art. At a local café, Miller steps out to take a call, and the café’s owner mistakes Miller for the dealer’s husband. The dealer doesn’t correct the owner, and tells her that they’ve been married for 15 years. When Miller returns to the café, the dealer tells him the café owner thinks they’re married and at this point the nature of their conversation shifts. Miller and the dealer begin to relate to each other as if they have truly been married for 15 years: they discuss her son as if he is their son, and they begin to share memories and grievances. He even begins conversing with her in French instead of English. The reality of their relationship gradually becomes ambiguous, and the viewer is left to wonder if they really are a couple or simply two people copying the behavior of a long-married couple.
Certified Copy reminded me of director Richard Linklater’s series of films featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. In Linklater’s films as well as Certified Copy, you’re following the development of a relationship, and all of the action and dialogue serves to move the relationship forward. Unlike the relationship between Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) in the Linklater films, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing an authentic relationship unfold or one that was a reproduction of a 15-year marriage, but the ambiguity was quite effective in that it mirrors the philosophy of life and art Miller discusses in his lecture. Juliette Binoche’s character is also somewhat ambiguous; although her profession is discussed at length, her character’s name is never mentioned.
The film is beautifully acted. Shimell is a British opera singer in his first film role and he’s a terrific foil for Binoche, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1996 film The English Patient. They’re together in nearly every scene, and their chemistry makes the relationship between their characters engaging and convincing.
Playful and thoughtful, Certified Copy is a clever mediation on the nature of art and relationships. The film is in English, French, and Italian with English subtitles.
Check the WRL catalog for Certified Copy
Is reading in the summer any different than reading at other times of the year? So far, my summer reading has been a variety of old and new books ranging from fast-paced crime novels to history nonfiction to longer classics that require more attention (e.g. James Joyce’s Ulysses). In thinking about it, this is actually my usual mix of reading any time of year. Maybe it is just the idea of taking more time to read in the summer when the days are long and there is perhaps a summer vacation in store.
A good mystery series is always a welcome summer read. One of my favorite discoveries this summer has been M. J. Trow’s historical crime novels featuring playwright Christopher Marlowe. The series is a delightful blend of spy novel, Marlowe was involved in the shadowy world of Elizabethan espionage working for Sir Francis Walsingham, and mystery.
Trow has a great sense of place, capturing life in the Elizabethan period without overloading the reader with extraneous details. In particular, and of particular appeal to me, is setting of the stories in the world of the Elizabethan theater. As a fan of Edward Marston’s Nicholas Bracewell series, I found much to enjoy in Trow’s rendering of the competition between playwrights and in the daily lives of the actors, including a rather awkward young man named Shakespeare, just up from the country and finding his place in the London theater world.
The plots are well-crafted and the mystery will keep you reading, but it is the characters who seem the most interesting to me. The only hard part is knowing that Marlowe, who is an appealing if roguish and somewhat self-centered fellow, will meet his end in a tavern brawl (or so it is said) only a few years down the road.
If you like well-researched and carefully written historical fiction or are just looking for a good mystery series this summer, give M. J. Trow’s Marlowe series a try.
Check the WRL catalog for Dark Entry
Or try the series in ebook
On March 30, 1938, two women left their hotel in El Paso, Texas and drove out of town towards Dallas. Hazel Frome and her beautiful 23-year-old daughter Nancy were wealthy socialites from Berkeley, California on a road trip east to visit relatives. The following afternoon, their brand new Packard automobile was found abandoned by the side of the road.
Three days later, the women themselves were located. They were face down in a sandy culvert 60 miles from where their car had been found. They’d been shot in the back of the head execution style, and both showed signs of torture. The investigation into this unusual murder case is detailed in a terrific new True Crime book, Fetch the Devil: The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America by Clint Richmond.
Leading the criminal investigation was Chris Fox, the Sheriff of El Paso County. Sheriff Fox was confronted with a puzzling case rife with anomalies. The prevailing theory of a simple robbery gone bad, didn’t mesh with the fact that the women had been held and tortured for two days and expensive diamond jewelry was left behind on the bodies.
It was also strange that Hazel’s husband Weston Frome, upon being notified about the abandoned car, insisted that his wife and daughter had been kidnapped and murdered before there was any evidence that such a crime had occurred. He only reluctantly cooperated with the police during the investigation.
But perhaps the strangest facet of the case involved the ammunition used in the murders. In the middle of America’s Chihuahuan Desert, two society women had been killed with a specialized type of bullet made only in Germany for the specific use of high ranking members of the Nazi party.
Beset by contradictory witness accounts, jurisdictional in-fighting among the various investigative agencies, and stonewalling superiors in the government, Sheriff Fox pressed on, and the book becomes a real page-turner as he collects evidence and sorts through leads that hint at the involvement of some European career criminals and a cabal of international spies.
The author, Clint Richmond, does a fine job in relating this interesting bit of criminal history in a book that is clearly written, fast-paced and crowded with colorful characters. I would recommend it for anyone interested in True Crime or tales of espionage.
Check the WRL catalog for Fetch the Devil
Richard Leroy, a wine-maker, takes Etienne through the whole one-year process of creating a good wine from his vineyard in the Loire Valley region of France. Etienne learns first-hand about the fine art of pruning the vines, selecting the right kind of barrels, using the right kind and amount of natural fertilizers, and knowing which grapes to pick – and not pick — at harvest time.
Etienne gets to experience first hand the hard work that goes into making a wine as sweat is in ample supply on these pages. They are visited by an assistant of Robert Parker, the famous American wine critic and taster, who makes the long trip to France to sample several of Richard’s wines.
Etienne introduces Richard to the world of the graphic novel, a subject with which Richard is completely unfamiliar. They start by visiting Etienne’s publisher, Futuropolis, and Richard gets to see the whole process of how a graphic novel is produced. Richard watches Etienne finish making the first proofs of the novel and is taken aback by how much paper is used to get these proofs. Richard also meets and interacts with the many people involved in getting the book finished and shipped.
They have the most fun (as does the reader) when they make special trips to enhance their learning of and appreciation for their very different vocations. Richard takes Etienne on a trip to visit a vineyard in Corsica and on trips to several wine exhibitions, including one in Angers that features mostly “biodynamic” or organic wines from all over France. Etienne takes Richard to several comic book festivals and they visit several well-known graphic novelists, including Marc-Antoine Mathieu and Jean-Pierre Gibrat. It was refreshing to see how upfront and honest Richard is about his opinions, how he shares with them that he does not like many of their novels. The graphic novelists are fine with that; they agree that their graphic novels, like a type of wine, are not meant for everybody.
In the end, both of these men find that they share many common values about their work and the products that they make. They are both passionate about what they do, and both men have a hands-on approach so as to control the quality of their products. They both want their products to be enjoyed by people, “something to gather around, a link between people.”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, my first graphic novel . The black and white illustrations of Etienne Davodeau are excellent and really helped me understand and appreciate the steps that go into making both wine and graphic novels. This graphic novel has won several awards, including Gourmand Magazine Best US wine book translation and Slate Cartoonist Studio Award nominee. It is unfortunate that this is his only graphic novel that has been translated into English.
Check the WRL catalog for The Initiates
In this young adult novel, the powerful head of a wealthy family has spent two generations playing each of his three daughters off the others – who loves me the most? Which of you is my favorite… today? Who will inherit my “kingdom”? The Boston house? Grandmother’s pearl necklace?
Cady Sinclair Eastman is the granddaughter. She spends every summer on her family’s private island, where her mother and aunts each have a house, where she and her cousins swim and boat and have clam bakes and bonfires to their heart’s content. It sounds like heaven, but there are fault lines running through all the family relationships, and Cady’s closest cousins, who call themselves “the Liars,” get tired of being pawns in the Sinclair family mind games. And for the past few summers, their close-knit group has been joined by Gat Patil, handsome and ambitious, who enters the closed, privileged world of the Sinclair family island like a catalyst for disaster. Or first love.
Cady has no memory of what happened to her two summers ago. An accident has left her with crippling migraines, and everyone in her family is acting even weirder and more dysfunctional than usual. Every time she asks—what did happen before she was found, shivering and amnesiac, on the beach?—she forgets the answer. This summer, her seventeenth, she’s going to find out the truth.
Foreboding hangs over every page of this story as bits and pieces of Cady’s fifteenth summer resurface—family squabbles, way too much alcohol, a confusing relationship with Gat—is their connection just a summer fling or something more? Punctuating contemporary suspense with passages of bloody fairy-tale retellings, author E. Lockhart presents a chilling novel very different from her previous titles. With short chapters and prose that’s almost free verse, this is a quick, summer page turner that touches very lightly on the larger issues of class and race prejudice that it raises. What did Cady do last summer? Teens will be flying through the pages to get to the awful answer.
For a similar mix of modern-day drama and prose laden with metaphor, try Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls; or try Adele Griffin’s Tighter for another suspenseful story of privileged, troubled teenagers in which nothing is exactly what it seems.
Check the WRL catalog for We Were Liars.
There is joy in Gotham! After decades of legal wrangling, the 1966 Batman TV show is finally coming to home video in November. Starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo, the series achieved pop-culture immortality thanks to its campy style and viral catchphrases, which need not be repeated here.
Confession: Adam West was my first Batman. I still love the show, but the parody wears thin, and Batman is a Batusi-dancing buffoon. For a more artistic and complex Batman experience on the small screen, I recommend that you turn your eyes and ears to Batman, The Animated Series, which aired on Fox in the 1990s.
The Animated Series was created by actual comics artists and writers, while the live-action series was not. It is stunning to look at. Don’t take your eyes off the screen, because you are bound to miss something beautiful. The 40s noir atmosphere is enhanced by the use of black backgrounds, against which Batman’s eyes are nothing more than white slits. Lead artist Bruce Timm’s characters are drawn with stark angularity: Batman’s jaw is literally square.
Does the Joker’s voice sound familiar? It is Mark Hamill, going against his heroic Luke Skywalker type. Other members of the stellar cast include Kevin Conroy as Batman, Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon, Efram Zimbalist, Jr., as Alfred Pennyworth, and Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman. Adam West himself was invited on the show to play an aging superhero in the episode, “Beware the Gray Ghost.”
The storytelling is just as strong. The characters, especially the villains, are developed as real people who talk, feel and act like adults. This was not at all the norm for a kids’ cartoon show, which is how Batman was marketed. Take the Emmy-winning episode “Heart of Ice,” written by Paul Dini. Underneath his refrigerated suit, the seemingly emotionless villain, Mr. Freeze, is a grieving husband bent on vengeance. Woven into this dramatic story is a humorous and clever side plot: After being blasted by Mr. Freeze’s ice gun, Batman catches a cold, which Alfred treats with chicken soup… and if I told you what happened to the soup I would spoil the joke, so I won’t.
These episodes will keep everyone in your family happy for 22 minutes. Parents, never fear: the Bureau of Broadcast Standards scoured every scene to make sure it was suitable for children. You can read some of the creative team’s comments about the censors in the beautiful companion book to the series, Batman Animated. For example, “Censor wants us to figure out someplace for Catwoman to land other than on her face or breasts.” Or “We have to make it clear… that Batman’s kneeing the Walrus in the stomach.”
Check the WRL catalog for Batman, The Animated Series
This book starts off with the origin story of the feline felon. Early comics had her as a bored socialite who liked the taste of danger in stealing jewelry, while later comics expanded her background to mousy, expendable secretary or avenging prostitute. In all scenarios she turns to a life of crime, and despite Batman’s efforts she will not reform.
Chapters then address her costumes (tight), tools of the trade (poisoned perfume and fabulous whip, to name a few), and an ongoing flirtation with Batman. Each chapter includes frames from comics, tv shows, or movies to help illustrate the point. My favorite part of the book is the interspersed comics that show the feline arch-villain as she appeared in the 1940s through early 2000s. The book even ends with a Bob Kane “Batman with Robin” adventure featuring Catwoman.
This Catwoman book is more overview than in-depth study. It’s a purr-fectly delightful read. But Catwoman fans will have to go to another source for information about how the character was fully developed and which comic artist contributed what feature to the story.
Check the WRL catalog for Catwoman.
Batman Week, Day 3. Today’s post highlights a small sample of Batman books for the younger generation. These books are very popular at the library, so be sure to check the catalog if you don’t see these on the shelf!
Let’s start with a Junior Graphic Novel, Batman: The Story of the Dark Knight, written and illustrated by Ralph Cosentino.
This book covers the basics of the Batman story and introduces four familiar villains without going into a specific story of how they are vanquished. The layout is very similar to a picture book with many of the illustrations covering both pages. But like a comic strip, the book has word boxes and the familiar sound effects (boom! bonk! pow!). While the story talks about Batman studying hard to outsmart the bad guy, the pictures show him using his physical strength to subdue the villain.
The library also has several titles in the Junior Easy Reader series by Scholastic. I borrowed a few books for reading level 2 (reading with help) and level 3 (reading alone). These were my favorite stories:
Level 2 stories like I Am Batman and Batman Versus Bane have pictures on every page, but also tell a simple story of how Batman uses his brains and cool gadgets to battle the bad guy. These stories in particular have illustrations reminiscent of the Dark Knight movies.
The Mad Hatter, a level 3 story, has a more complex plot and fewer pictures. The pictures are more comic-like with frames and word boxes, and the story is quick moving action. Once people report that their hats have been stolen, Batman quickly figures out that the Mad Hatter is once again in Gotham City. He catches up to the bad guys at a museum, but the Mad Hatter escapes with a cryptic message: “My next adventure will be my crowning glory!” Batman knows the villain is up to something big and has to figure it out before the Mad Hatter strikes again. Brains and cool gadgets once again help Batman make the city and its citizens safe.
And finally, the Junior Fiction chapter books include a DC Super Heroes series about Batman by different writers and illustrators. I picked up The Fog of Fear. This was the most complex story of the batch I collected. Written in chapters with an occasional picture, the book features many challenges for Batman to overcome. A master criminal called “The Scarecrow” releases a fog on Gotham City. It appears to be just a nuisance until Batman discovers that water will react with the fog to create hallucinations of your greatest fears. Batman has to figure out a way to clear the dense fog from the city. And in the process, he must help a friend who gets transformed into a vicious Man-Bat!
This is definitely another action-packed adventure for young fans who are ready for a bigger reading challenge. My only gripe was the illustrations. I love Legos, but didn’t like that the Batman in this series looked like a Lego character. Probably not a big deal for the audience this is actually aimed at—but I thought the illustrations from the Scholastic series were better. I also liked the added features at the end of the book—a profile of the villain, discussion questions about the book, and writing prompts for further activities.
Check the WRL catalog for Batman: The Story of the Dark Knight
Check the WRL catalog for The Mad Hatter
Check the WRL catalog for The Fog of Fear
Batman Week, Day 2. With our regular comics blogger off at Comic-Con, we implored librarian and geek culture goddess Jen to write about a favorite Batman story arc. This one comes from the library’s collection of graphic novels for adults. — Ed.
We librarians are not known for our poker faces. We’re bad liars. So what to do when a co-worker (yes, Melissa, I am pointing the finger at you) comes to you in desperate need of a blog post. And not just any blog post: would you be willing to write a Batman blog post? What she doesn’t know is that you have an entire storage box full of classic 1980s Batman comics. You hesitate, wondering if you can get away with the lie that you know zip about Batman. She waits. After a long pause, she whips out “that’s not a no!” And there you are. Stuck with the job.
Where do you start? There is just soooo much! You can’t go into your hidden stash and pick a comic. That could take weeks and she needs this thing stat. So I did what any smart librarian would do: I went to the stacks (bookcases for you regular folks out there). And —yay me! — found a true gem of the Batman universe.
Batman: The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. When you write about Batman comics you have to come to grips with the fact that many people over the years have not only told portions of his story, but many people have been tasked with drawing it. And in my mind these sometimes undervalued illustrators are just as important as the story’s writer. Actually, to be truly honest, I feel the illustrator is MORE important than the writer. Many a time I have picked up a story and put it right back down, left absolutely cold by the illustrations. I like realism in my graphic novel world. I don’t particularly care for comic-y looking illustrations, and I have a really, really hard time with jagged line artwork (not a huge Frank Miller/The Dark Knight Strikes Again fan.) Brian Bolland does a fine job and leaves it up to Alan Moore to hit the home run with his amazing story.
The story is absolute genius. We see how a normal man, hounded by the pressures of providing for his family and the continual failures at succeeding at his chosen job, yields to temptation and has “one bad day.” Interposed with the flashbacks that make up The Joker’s bad day, we see Commissioner Gordon’s “one bad day” as provided by none other than The Joker. The Joker seems bent on proving to himself and all others that what happened to him would happen to anybody. In looking at the story deeper, Moore has sprinkled it with parallels, and we get to see that Batman and The Joker are really two sides of the same coin. Both men are created from “one bad day,” and in some ways both are insane because of it. If you like Batman and you haven’t read this story yet, I highly recommend it. If you have read it, but it’s been a while, it might be time for a reread. And while you’re reading, see if you can spot the origin of one of DC’s most amazing heroes, Oracle. And while all librarians are super heroes… some of us take it to a whole new level!
Check the WRL catalog for Batman: The Killing Joke.
All week, Blogging for a Good Book honors Batman, who is celebrating his 75th anniversary this year. To lead off, Laura reviews a book that takes us back to the Caped Crusader’s early career as a detective. –Ed.
Since the basic premise of Batman is so well known, it can be reimagined countless ways and effectively applied to a wide range of storylines. In this version, Batman is not a lone crusader; he is merely the most recent member of a longstanding roster of familiar historical detectives, including Allan Pinkerton and Teddy Roosevelt.
The action begins with events that preceded the Lincoln assassination, which set loose a devious plot by an evil faction led by a southern gentleman who looks remarkably like the Joker. Like many comic bad guys, they are pinning their hopes on a remarkably intricate stratagem. This one might be a tad on the unbelievable side, even for a villain’s plan, since it will take 74 years to come to fruition.
The time lag brings the action into the modern day, which in this case is 1929. Poor little Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents and then gets sent off to boarding school for the next ten years. Fortuitously, his travels around the globe give him a chance to study a wide range of subjects, including criminology, oriental fighting techniques, and costume design, which are surprisingly useful for his later activities (although one can imagine the despair experienced by his school’s career counselor). His talents catch the eye of others, and he is quickly enlisted by the detective group. They are known to each other only by number, and as their most recent member, he is known as Detective #27. He has a lot to learn and not much time to do it, but at least he has, as always, the loyal Alfred by his side.
Will good triumph over evil? Or will the Joker’s minions rule the day? Find out next week…or just read the book. Recommended for graphic novel readers, historical fiction readers, and anyone who has spent time in Gotham and enjoyed it.
Search the WRL catalog for Batman: Detective No. 27.
Summer is a great time for a good mystery book. I always look for something with a bit of action, an interesting setting, and characters with whom you enjoy spending time. This is the sort of book I like to while away a lazy summer evening or weekend. Barbara Hambly’s A Free Man of Color, the first in her Benjamin January series, certainly fits the bill here.
Hambly’s protagonist, Benjamin January, the free man of color of the title, lives in New Orleans, where he teaches music and performs with an ensemble of mixed races. January is also a doctor by training, having studied as a surgeon in Paris, where he lived prior to returning to New Orleans after the death of his wife. January is a fascinating character, thoughtful and ethical, but with an understandable anger beneath the surface. Much of the tension in the stories comes as January walks the precarious racial lines of the city in the years before the Civil War.
Hambly ably portrays life in 1830s New Orleans, showing interactions among all levels of society, especially pointing out the distinctions between white, black, and colored, and she clearly depicts how New Orleans society is changing with the arrival of increasing numbers of Americans. In this first book in a superb series, January is drawn into solving the mystery of the murder of the colored mistress of a recently deceased plantation owner.
With its mix of history, mystery, and social commentary, Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series is a great summer read.
Check the catalog for A Free Man of Color
Also available in ebook format
In one of the first posts here at BFGB, I wrote about Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding mystery series, set in 18th century London, and featuring the blind magistrate of the Bow Street Court, brother to novelist Henry Fielding. Alexander’s untimely death brought the series to an end in 2003, and so I was interested to recently come across a new series featuring Sir John in the library’s ebook collection.
Unlike the Alexander books, where Sir John Fielding is the primary character, Lake’s series focuses on John Rawlings, a young apothecary in London. In the first book in the series, Death in the Dark Walk, Rawlings initially comes under suspicion of murder when he comes across a body in the popular, and unruly, pleasure gardens at Vaux Hall. He is quickly cleared of wrongdoing though, and then assists Sir John Fielding in seeking out the actual murderer. Further titles in the series find Sir John calling on Rawlings’ assistance in a variety of cases across England.
Though lighter in tone than Bruce Alexander’s mysteries, Lake’s series is a pleasure to read, especially if you have an interest in 18th century England. The stories move easily from the upper ranks of society to the dark and seedy corners of London, and Lake has a good command of the language, social customs, and pastimes of the period. Lake introduces a number of fascinating secondary characters throughout the stories, both fictional and historical, including some romantic companions who complicate John Rawlings’ life, and make for fun reading. The characters are also developed in sometimes surprising ways over the course of the stories, which adds to the appeal of the series.
We have a number of the titles in the series in both our print and ebook collections, and you can get started here:
Check the WRL ebook collection for Deryn Lake’s John Rawlings series
Check the WRL catalog for the John Rawlings series
All readers know that there are times when it is hard to figure out what to read next. Authors and titles that appealed in the past have for some reason lost their sheen, and no longer seem of interest. These dry spells can be hard to break, and so we look for recommendations from friends, and we here at BFGB hope, from librarians. But there are also tools available to help readers find new authors and titles, based on what you have enjoyed in the past.
One set of tools that you can find at WRL is the Read On… series. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I am the series editor, and have written one of the titles, Read On Crime Fiction, for the series. The idea of the Read On titles is to introduce readers to a broad sampling of the best titles and authors available in a given genre or subject area and to offer new directions to explore in those areas. The books are each arranged into five chapters, each covering a major area of appeal for readers–Character, Story, Setting, Mood/Tone, and Language. Within each chapter, there are lists of titles arranged around common interests. So if you are a fan of history about medieval lives or fantasy featuring epic quests, you will find a list of titles that you might enjoy. One way to use these books is to search the index for an author that you like and then see what lists that author appears in and look for other authors in that list that will appeal.
Titles in the Read On series cover most major genres as well as several nonfiction subject areas, and WRL has these titles in the circulating collection, so you can check them out to use at your leisure to develop some lists of new authors to try. If you are in a reading rut, take a look at some of the titles below, or stop by the reference desk and ask the librarian to help you find some new books, we are always happy to talk to readers.
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Audiobooks
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Crime Fiction
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Fantasy Fiction
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Graphic Novels
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Historical Fiction
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On History
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Horror
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Life Stories
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Science Fiction
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Speculative Fiction for Teens
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Sports
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Women’s Fiction
I have written a number of posts about collected letters, see here, here, here, here, and here. So I have an obvious affection for letter-writing, and particularly for reading letters by authors whose books I enjoy reading. I find that their letters often give insights into their fiction, even if at the same time those letters display their all too human natures.
For those reasons, among other, I have been enjoying Distant Neighbors, a collection of letters between a favorite writer of mine, Wendell Berry, and a writer with whom I am much less familiar, poet Gary Snyder. The two writers began corresponding in the 1970s, through shared connections with a San Fransisco publisher, Jack Shoemaker. Berry and Snyder shared many interests, among them poetry and language, and the early letters frequently discuss the pair’s work and the quotidian details of a writer’s life.
As the friendship quickly deepened, and Snyder came to visit the Berrys on their Kentucky farm and Berry made the trip to the Snyder family homestead in the Sierra foothills, the letters begin to expand, exploring themes that will resonate for readers of both Snyder and Berry. Community, and its central role in society, religion in its varied expressions, connections between people and the land, and the resulting sorrow with the loss of that connection are all central to the ongoing discussion that these “distant neighbors” shared.
There is some humor here and some sadness, but mostly what is delightful about this book is to see two people who share many, though by no means all, beliefs discuss their common work and thoughts in a charitable and fruitful fashion. In today’s world, where angry voices and name calling seem to have replaced discourse, this is a good reminder of how things can and should be.
Check the WRL catalog for Distant Neighbors
So (or hwaet if you prefer), you may be asking how many versions of Beowulf does one person really need to read (or review)? My answer would be at least one more. As he has been doing since his father’s death, Christopher Tolkien has brought out another previously unpublished work by his father, J. R. R. Tolkien. This time it is a translation of the great Anglo Saxon poem that J. R. R. Tolkien completed in 1926 but never thought to publish.
Tolkien’s translation is, perhaps, not as easy to read as Seamus Heaney’s more poetic version that I reviewed here. For one thing, Tolkien chose to write a prose translation rather than a metered one. The translation is by no means dry though. A scholar of Anglo Saxon, Tolkien has a feel for and a delight in the rolling rhythms of the story, and even in prose he captures that rhythm. His language and sentence structures will seem familiar in some ways to readers of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There is a formal and almost archaic feel to some of the writing here that is mirrored in Tolkien’s own work, and he does not entirely abandon the alliterative approach that anchors Anglo Saxon poetry, viz. “great gobbets gorging down” as Grendel rends a Dane into dinner.
A welcome companion to the poem itself are excerpts from a series of lectures on Beowulf that J. R. R. Tolkien gave in the 1930s and that Christopher Tolkien has edited here as a commentary on the poem. In these lectures, the senior Tolkien discusses language, symbolism, and early poetry, helping to set his translation into time and place. Following the commentary are two short pieces that Tolkien wrote under the influence of the poem. “Sellic Spell” is a retelling of the possible mythical tale that would become Beowulf, and “The Lay of Beowulf” is Tolkien’s telling of the story in a rhymed ballad form.
Fans of Tolkien will definitely enjoy his translation of this classic poem, and readers interested in Anglo Saxon poetry will find Tolkien’s commentary of interest. While I prefer the poetic version of Beowulf created by Heaney, Tolkien’s translation is a worthy read and a fine addition to the Beowulf canon.
Check the WRL catalog for Beowulf
An evil and cruel plot involving small children. Alien animals such as the spider-like rat-snake or camel-like drom. Levitating cars. A secret underground rebellion. All these combine to make an intriguing science fiction world. Add in mystery, adventure, romance and action and Tankborn has it all.
Kayla 6982 is a GEN or Genetically Engineered Non-human who was created in a tank. She is the lowest level of the tightly controlled, rigidly stratified society on the planet Loka settled by survivors of a ravaged Earth. She grew up with an unrelated “nurture mother” and has no control over where she lives, her education, job, or life. She can be electrically reset (similar to being lobotomized) for the smallest infraction.
Despite her lowly status Kayla is happy living in the Chadi tenements with Tala, her kind but stern nurture mother and her mischievous nurture brother, Jal. But she knows her time there is short, because at the age of fifteen she will receive her Assignment which will determine her future work. Her best friend, Mishalla, has already been Assigned and they may never see each other again as GENs are not allowed to contact each other after they are Assigned. Kayla’s sket (skill set or genetically modified ability) is great arm strength, so she expects to be Assigned to manual labor.
To her surprise, Kayla is Assigned to assist an elderly high-status man, Zul. Before long, she learns that things are not what they seem. Kayla is strongly attracted to Zul’s great-grandson, handsome Devak, although she knows that romance between them is forbidden. The highborn family hide many secrets and Kayla must rethink her world and unlock the secrets because she, Mishalla, Devak, Zul and dozens of innocent children are in grave danger.
Try Tankborn if you like well-imagined dystopias featuring young protagonists like The Hunger Games or Divergent.
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Have you ever wondered why, despite putting one in your mouth every day, you don’t taste your spoon? I had never considered cutlery’s marvelous properties that mean it is simultaneously malleable in production, slow to corrode and unreactive in our acidic mouths. In fact, I had never considered the properties of the millions of unregarded everyday objects that we live in, drive on, sit on, eat and use every moment of our lives. That is where scientist Mark Miodownik comes in with this wonderful book about material science. It sounds like a dry topic and I would never have guessed that such a book could be fun, but it entertains enormously as it informs. Remember that “everything is made from something” but even Mark Miodownik couldn’t cover everything, so he has limited himself to ten substances and written a chapter named after an intrinsic quality of each, so “Trusted” for paper and “Fundamental” for concrete.
My favorite chapter has to be the one about chocolate, which is of course “The most deliciously engineered material on earth.” Beware, though: you won’t be able to read about the “wild and complex, sweet and bitter cocktail of flavors” without getting an urge for a Little Something. ( I will admit that I had to partake and “Flood [my] senses with warm, fragrant, bittersweet flavors, and ignite the pleasure centers of [my] brain.”). If chocolate is not your thing you can read Stuff Matters for the explanation of why the sky is blue on page 98 and how this relates to the “Marvelous” substance aerogel, which “is like holding a piece of the sky”.
Stuff Matters is a great book that I recommend for everyone. It is accessible enough for middle school and high school science classes, with lots for the students to learn: “The definition of the temperature of a material is, in fact, the degree to which the atoms in it are jiggling around.” It is very readable for everyone while also being accurate, up-to-date science written by a scientist. Try it if you liked the fascinating nonfiction of The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox, or the intersection of science, history and society in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. You should also read it if you have ever been in a concrete building or wrapped a gift in paper that is strong, colorful and creasable.
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Above the East China Sea is a profound statement about the sorrow of war. It is both an eerie ghost story and a story about the love in families, especially between two sets of sisters, alive seventy years apart and both torn from their closest sibling by war.
Modern day Luz is a military child, stationed on Okinawa and emotionally pummeled to the point of suicide by the recent death of her sister, Codie, in Afghanistan. Her family now consists only of her and her mother, who has left on a TDY (temporary duty). Luz is alone in a new place and has no family or friends around, a very plausible illustration of how isolated military families can be.
Parallel to Luz’s story is the wrenching tale of Okinawan Tamiko, who was a teenager at the time of the World War II battle of Okinawa. In the litany of horrors of World War II, the Battle of Okinawa isn’t well known, but it killed more people than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs combined and caused unimaginable destruction and deprivation for the Okinawan people and the permanent destruction of their traditional Okinawan way of life.
As the book starts Tamiko seems to be a hostile, even evil, ghost bent on Luz’s destruction for her own ends, but as Luz learns more about her past and forges a connection with local Jake, the reader receives hints about the mysterious connection between Tamiko and Luz. Okinawa is portrayed in its lush tropical beauty with its proud past, uneasy relationship with Japan and current heavy U.S. military presence.
Like Sarah Bird’s other book about U.S. military family life, The Yokota Officers Club, many details of military life ring true. For example: clothes from the BX are lame (a claim my children have made all their lives), “we’re not racists, but we are rankists,” and military kids have the “CGI ability to constantly splinter and then reconstitute on a spot halfway around the world” and even the claim that “military kids enlisted at birth.” Like The Yokota Officers Club, Above the East China Sea emphasizes the importance of siblings for children who move every few years and can’t form lasting friendships — “the question that military kids hate the most…Where are you from? Where is your hometown?” Luz says, “Codie was my hometown.” She was “my sister who always took care of me” and “the only person on earth who really knew me, who would really, truly care if I vanished.”
Try Above the East China Sea if you like compelling historical novels about young women’s lives in a time of war like Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I also recommend it for people interested in the lives of contemporary military families, who may also be interested in a recent Association of Library Services to Children blog post about serving military families in the public library.
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Something happened in Levy, South Carolina when Magnolia was seven years old. She is now in her eighties living in a nursing home, possibly with Alzheimer’s. In her own words she is “trapped somewhere deep behind my eyes, waving… calling… but no one can hear me.” Her husband George is dying, but with his trademark dry humor, he knows that they have enjoyed a good life and he still adores his beautiful wife “even though [we're] on the first floor where dementia lives, even though we are older than dirt, she is lovely and sweet and she is my bride.” But they are both learning that the past is never lost when people who lived through it are still alive.
When a life-size photograph of Magnolia and Joe, a stranger from their past, arrive at the home on the same day, we start to learn of a tangled web of lives, in the present and in the distant past. Each character, from Annie, their kind, but disappointed caretaker, to Ash, Magnolia’s long lost brother, tells his or her own story, some in the first person, some in the third person. Most of the characters have long buried secrets to hide and may not even admit the truth to themselves, so beware: everyone may not be a reliable narrator.
The Inheritance of Beauty can be read on several different levels. First it is a straightforward novel, with a leisurely revelation of the 70-year-old mystery, while it describes the sadness of families split by terrible circumstances who never get back together because no one wants to be the first to make contact. The characters are well-drawn, memorable and mostly thoroughly likable. It can be enjoyed as a touching love story of Magnolia and George’s relationship that lasted from childhood into old age. It also has touches of magic realism that are harder to spot: when my book club discussed it, only one of us noticed that a journey to a pond and a wetting symbolized a character’s baptism and rebirth.
The Inheritance of Beauty will appeal to lovers of Southern fiction, particularly for caretaker Annie’s lovely speech patterns. It is a good book for readers of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which also deals with Alzheimer’s Disease, but on more practical everyday level.
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I have tried gardening on several continents with many climates and soil types. I soon learned that a plant that grows well in one place may get resentful and sulk — or outright die— in another. That is why gardening books that address local conditions are spectacularly useful. Here in southeastern Virginia we are well served by Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene. When I was starting to grow herbs I was looking for a book about a particular type of plant rather than tightly focused on one place, and Southern Herb Growing has turned out to be a wonderful resource to help me with our hot and humid conditions.
The author Madalene Hill was the national president of the Herb Society of America in the 1980s and her expertise shines through. The first part of the book is called “A Herbal Primer” and covers getting started with sections on soil, mulch and propagation. A large part of it is given over to design ideas including historical knot gardens and theme gardens. The before and after photos can be a little discouraging because the full, tangled cottage-garden look that I crave may take five years to grow. I guess I just have to be patient and wait for my two inch tall sprigs of rosemary to become bushes! And for those readers who can only dream of the space to grow a proper garden, the book includes container gardening (which herbs are well suited to).
Around half the book is the “Growing Guide” with hundreds of herbs listed alphabetically with advice for growing them in the hot, humid South, the herbs’ historical uses and significance, and their modern culinary and medicinal uses. Each listing has the scientific genus and species names, as well as alternate names, so from from Acanthus to Yarrow you should be able to find almost any rare or common herb you are interested in.
Southern Herb Growing is a great book for all gardeners, especially if you want prosaic advice poetically put such as “Basils go home to their fathers at the first sign of cold nights in the fall.” It includes hundreds of beautiful photographs of herb gardens growing throughout the South, so try it whether you are able to immediately use their advice to improve your current garden or look at the lovely pictures and dream…
Check the WRL catalog for Southern Herb Growing.