Blogging for a Good Book

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A suggestion a day from the Williamsburg Regional Library
Updated: 32 min ago

Main Street Vegan, by Victoria Moran

Wed, 2014-03-26 01:01

Here, in the middle of the week, I’d like to address you middle-of-the-roaders about a book that ensures that veganism is not only for celebrities, that you mustn’t wait until you’re making big bucks to take the vegan plunge.

Victoria Moran gently instructs in the ways of being vegan, without judgment, without scolding those who claim to be vegans who eat fish (you either are or you aren’t a person who doesn’t eat animals), with only a subtle amount of coercion through the storytelling she feels obligated to impart, as a witness to the deaths of animals at slaughter and the horrific conditions of the dairy, poultry, pork, and other animal product industries. Some may have heard it all before—a lot of shocking videos circulate the internet—but for those of you who’ve been oblivious to this media outrage, her essays may cause you to pause before you order that next chicken sandwich.

Even if you’re already convinced that vegan is best, you feel handicapped by the outrageous price difference between organic, locally grown produce at the trendy farmers’ markets and the genetically modified, pesticide-coated, homogenous assortment in your supermarket and discount store grocery aisles! What to do???

Forty brief chapters with facts, personal stories, and guidelines introducing you to vegan concepts and cooking techniques each conclude with a recipe. It’s meant to make plant-based cuisine possible for every kind of eater with any kind of income, not just the elite many of us believe are the only folks who can actually afford to live a vegan, organic, eco-conscious, locavore’s lifestyle. Basically, the book is for those of us who live “main street” lives, not “Fifth Avenue” existences. Moran addresses the fact that wherever you are with these goals, it’s okay; you don’t have to do everything perfectly from the beginning.  Our heartstrings are often pulled by myriad causes. She nudges us in the most compassionate direction, and seems to want us to prioritize minimal impact on the animal world above concerns for our individual health if we truly wanna go vegan—are we okay with that? She challenges us to think about such things as we progress.

But you can only do what you can do, especially if you’re raising a family, and stretching paychecks has become an acrobatic feat.


For example, though we are encouraged to support the organic movement, which she says will become more affordable as demand increases (put your money where your mouth is), she’s realistic about such dilemmas as eating organic all the time being terribly more expensive. She helpfully elucidates a “dirty dozen” list of produce to avoid if not organic and a “clean 15″ list of more economical fruits and vegetables you can buy without worrying over the lack of an organic label (sourced from Environmental Working Group).

A very comprehensive collection of appendices provide additional resources and bibliographies for those who want to take things to the next level, from where to go online for further research to where to buy your clothes, shoes, and household cleaning supplies without harming animals. This book is worth picking up even if it’s just for the to-die-for-yet-guiltless Chocolate Mousse recipe—putting together the unexpected ingredients required a leap of faith but I was astounded by the results.

Check the WRL catalog for Main Street Vegan.


Vegan Cooking for Carnivores, by Roberto Martin

Tue, 2014-03-25 01:01

Personal chef to Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, Roberto trained as a master chef, not a master vegan chef! He learned to substitute meatless ingredients in his first week of employment with the celebrity couple who’d gone vegan. All I’m thinkin’ is: not vegan, doesn’t cook vegan, Ellen and Portia determined to live vegan, Roberto must have been spectacular in their eyes (and his references’) despite a lack of experience! I imagine a shortage of truly vegan chefs at this point in culinary history, so I suppose a truly fine chef can adapt. The proof is in the… truly tasty dishes you can create with his cookbook. Perhaps your favorite will be Red Beans and Rice—it’s Ellen’s—served each Monday.

Packed with “meaty” and “cheesy” recipes substituting vegan ingredients while aiming for equivalent texture and taste, vegans with a fond taste for burgers, quesadillas, pizza, pasta, and pork will find much to love. Now, in my household, in addition to trying to please the meat-lovers in my family with plant-based no-meat-or-dairy recipes, I’m avoiding refined sugars plus seeking real, cleaner food. And while some of the commercial ingredients need scrutiny, Roberto’s ingredients are fairly easy to identify, making vegan cooking more convenient for us busy folks. The “Breakfast” section delighted me by using no sugar other than natural fruits, Agave nectar, and pure maple syrup. Folks, it seems to me that going vegan shouldn’t equal loading up on sugar daily! “Desserts” will satisfy those who desire to live it up occasionally with such treats as the incredibly simple Pumpkin Pie and fiercely scrumptious chocolate cake, Vegan la Bête Noire (The Black Beast).

Very useful is the section “Condiments, Sauces, and Dressings,” recipes that should adequately substitute for some of the staple ingredients of meat-milk-and-cheese-eating culture, including cream cheese spread (using cashews, tofu, and savory seasonings), sweetened condensed nondairy milk with cornstarch, sugar, almond milk, and vanilla (used in “Desserts”), and a very passable Caesar Dressing with no eggs, anchovies, or cheese. I’d been looking for better natural salad dressings made without sugar or corn syrup and Roberto provides a variety.

This is a handsome book—well, Roberto’s on the cover, so that was easy—with color photos of real food, not fancy or over-garnished—how real [vegan] celebrities might eat on ordinary days in the privacy of their homes! Plus, this book helps you feed the true carnivores at your table without sacrificing your vegan principles. The text addresses ordinary cooks who love good food, family time, and entertaining. I absolutely love it when nearly all recipes are complemented with visuals to aid those of us without a personal chef. There are sweet photos of Roberto, his wife, and their son cooking together. Ellen wrote a nice afterword for their chef’s book and features him on her television show. Portia’s story told in the foreword brought tears to my eyes and may convert many a carnivore to veganism.

Search the WRL catalog for Vegan Cooking for Carnivores.


Pure Vegan, by Joseph Shuldiner

Mon, 2014-03-24 01:01

This week, Mindy highlights titles from the rapidly growing universe of vegan cookbooks.

Embark on a culinary adventure with this mind-blowingly beautiful showcase of very elegant vegan cuisine, artfully presented in jewelescent photography and a very eye-pleasing graphic design format. I love the subtle color-coding of warmish pastel-tinted recipe pages that distinguish “morning” from “afternoon” and “evening,” closing with “late night” and “very late night” (for your midnight cravings). It’s refreshing—not the usual categories of breads, soups, salads, entrées, etc…, no entire meal plans either, just fine examples of fancy vegan recipe standouts to fall in love with.

Shuldiner wants his readers to venture into previously unexplored territory, recommending we give any intimidating or obscure items a first go even though it’s possible to substitute some ingredients with more familiar items. Thankfully, hard-to-find food items don’t predominate, but a few did have me searching online for definitions and sources: agar, yuba, sumac, and pomegranate molasses, not your every-day staples. A list of mail-order and online resources is included. Some of the exotic cooking implements he suggests I was not inclined to acquire—Shuldiner has a recipe for Chocolate-Tahini Timbales cooked in timbale (aka baba) molds, which will surely taste just as exquisite cooked in mini-muffin or popover tins (though not nearly as cute as the pictured “corks” or “bouchons” as they’re called). I’ll cook just about anything with the word “chocolate” involved.

Shuldiner doesn’t use this book to engage in any political or environmental debates about veganism. He merely aims to share his supreme vegan creations for those who want to enjoy imaginative plant-based recipes and to dispel any imaginings of vegan blandness. Gourmet-literate cooks who want to impress guests with fancy vegan food can’t go wrong with this lovely book, and there are many unique and appealing appetizers to try. Vegans, regardless of whether they consider themselves purist, can take their usual fare to the umpteenth level of class with these recipes.

Check the WRL Catalog for Pure Vegan.


The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner

Fri, 2014-03-21 01:01

Wallace Stegner was one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. You can’t really go wrong with his books, which are all a little different, but always center on characters that are hard to forget. Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety seem to be his most often mentioned titles, and both deserve the attention, but there are more gems in Stegner’s canon.

Narrator Joe Allston is the “spectator bird” of Stegner’s title. He’s a retired literary agent, unhappy both with the circumstances of his retirement and the way in which he conducted his life. He feels as though he was always watching the parade of life, for instance serving as an agent to writers instead of doing the writing himself. His circumstances don’t help, as he has retired to rural area outside of San Francisco where he sees few people but his wife, whom he loves immensely but but whose familiarity he has come to find overpowering.

When he receives a note from a Danish acquaintance in the mail, Joe retrieves his journal and begins to read about the fateful trip that he and his wife took to Denmark back in the years shortly after World War II. His wife insists that he read the journal aloud, as she didn’t know he kept it. Although it’s about an awkward time in their relationship, he complies. He has put aside most of what happened on that trip for the sake of his marriage, but now it all comes burning fresh into memory.

I don’t want to give away too much of the tale, but there’s a mad scientist theme, Hamlet allusions, dilemmas of wartime loyalties in an occupied country, and plenty of surprises in the plot, something the reader might not see coming in a book that at first seems to be a subtle character piece about the cruelties of aging. Joe might be a curmudgeon, and he might be a spectator, but his life hasn’t been uninteresting, even if he chose not to follow every opportunity. This book is about the choices we make, even if we make them by not choosing.

I also recommend this book in the audio format, where it’s read by the talented actor Edward Herrmann (perhaps best known to modern audiences as the grandfather in The Gilmore Girls) whose intelligence comes through every sentence delivered by a pleasing baritone voice.

Check the WRL catalog for The Spectator Bird

Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc


Room 237 (2013)

Thu, 2014-03-20 01:01

Have you watched The Shining? Did you notice the placement of cans of Calumet Baking Powder in the hotel pantry? The disappearing chair, the impossible window, the reversal of the hexagonal carpet pattern? Danny’s hand-knit Apollo 11 sweater? If you’re like me, you were too busy recoiling from scenes of ax murders and blood gushing from elevators to pay attention to the carpeting.  But for some obsessed fans, every piece of set decoration, every line of dialogue, every camera shot in The Shining is a potential clue to the film’s hidden meaning.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic, adapted from the Stephen King novel, is ostensibly about a family isolated in a haunted mountain hotel while the father (played by Jack Nicholson) gradually becomes murderously insane. But Kubrick included so many weird scenes and omens not found in the book that an entire subculture grew up around analyzing and interpreting the film. Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts is a documentary narrated by five members of that subculture who are convinced that they have cracked Kubrick’s secret code.

Is the Calumet baking powder can a reference to the massacre of American Indians? Are a German typewriter (which changes color!) and the number 42 signs that the film is about the Jewish Holocaust? Do you have to run the film backwards to find its true meaning? Or perhaps the whole thing is a cloaked confession by Kubrick that he was involved in faking the video of the moon landing.

Room 237’s director, Rodney Ascher, found an unusual and rather brilliant way to tell his story. We never see the five narrators; we just hear their voices expounding their various theories. The visuals consist almost entirely of thousands of movie clips—from The Shining, naturally, but also from Kubrick’s other movies as well as a huge number of familiar Hollywood films.

While the theories may sound loony when I describe them, actually they’re not. Most of the signs and portents that the narrators see in The Shining really are there—although I’m pretty sure that the guy who insists you can see Kubrick’s face in the clouds above the hotel is making it up. It’s not crazy to believe that every detail of the movie exists for a reason, since Kubrick was a legendary control freak. So there are no bad edits, no continuity errors, and you’re off down the rabbit hole, trying to find out what it all means. Maybe Kubrick had a secret message, or maybe he was just messing with your mind. Trying to interpret The Shining is like entering the haunted Room 237 in the movie’s Overlook Hotel: go there, and you are marked for life. If you love movies and pop culture, watch Room 237, but take warning from its tagline:  “Many ways in, no way out.”

Check the WRL catalog for Room 237

Check the catalog for The Shining


The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker

Wed, 2014-03-19 01:01

I enjoyed this debut fantasy by Emily Croy Barker. And I’m torn with how to write this review–because a big part of what I liked about the book was not expecting the plot twists.

So before going into a brief summary–here are some of the book’s other appealing features:

There are plenty of interesting characters in the story. Nora, a graduate student in English Literature, is the central character. One reviewer described her as an American Hermione (from Harry Potter fame, of course). I don’t know that Nora was that studious! In fact, my one complaint about the book is the title: “The Thinking Woman’s Guide.” No doubt Nora is smart, but there were times I wanted to smack her because she seemed to miss the obvious. The main male character is the magician Aruendiel–he’s talented, but flawed. He makes no apologies for his arrogance. I would probably hate meeting him in real life, but he keeps things interesting within the pages of a book.

The setting is a mix of modern and medieval. Putting a modern woman in the medieval world creates interesting situations, some I found myself thinking about long after the book ended. I also got a kick out of the period quotes from English literature. It was fun trying to identify the literary references, and I was amused with how the author was able to fit some of these in the story.

So stop reading the review now and pick up the book if you want to avoid the plot summary.

The book begins in our modern world with Nora Fischer having a crappy day. Her advisor is unhappy with the progress on her thesis, her boyfriend dumped her for another girl, and there’s a mouse in her kitchen!  Although Nora is oblivious, the reader quickly realizes that when Nora wishes for something it unexpectedly comes true. I was all ready for her fairy godmother to swoop in and tell her about her magical heritage when–SURPRISE–that didn’t happen!

Instead, Nora stumbles through a hole in the fabric of universes and ends up in a medieval world where magic and wizards exist. Nora is enchanted, literally, by the Faitoren. The spells are particularly powerful, and she is caught up in the life of these fae-type creatures who love beauty and fun. It isn’t until after she has a devastating emergency that she realizes she is in danger. She calls on the magician Aruendiel to come to her aid.

The next 500 pages of the book include magic, romance, battles, kidnappings, murders, and more!

I listened to much of this hefty story as a downloadable audiobook. AudioFile magazine gave the book well-deserved double honors—naming The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic one of the Best Audiobooks of the year in Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Audio Theater, and Alyssa Bresnahan one of Best Voices in the same category for her excellent narration.

The author has an excerpt, map, and book club guide available on her webpage.

Check the WRL catalog for The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic


The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox

Tue, 2014-03-18 01:01

Do you know which event was on the front page of The Times of London in 1953, the same day as an article about the first ascent of Mount Everest? Would you believe that the translation or “decipherment” of the ancient script of Linear B was seen as newsworthy as the heroic efforts of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?

Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code is narrative non-fiction at its best, with mystery, and high drama. I had never heard of Linear B, and don’t worry if you haven’t either. You don’t have to be a devotee of ancient languages to be sitting on the edge of your seat to find out who, how and when Linear B was deciphered. Margalit Fox’s narrative thread focuses on the American Alice Kober who was a university teacher, but who worked on Linear B in her spare time on her dining room table. The book paints a picture of the academic world in the era before computers led to instant and easy sharing. Linear B aroused great passions and rivalries among academics and lay-people, even to the extent that they hoarded ancient clay tablets and didn’t let anyone else see them for forty years.  Also, as in the best nonfiction, I painlessly learned an enormous amount about Linear B, ancient languages and linguistics in general.

Linear B was written on clay tablets in the Mediterranean area that is now Greece for a few short hundred years around 3000 years ago. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations that used it collapsed then it was lost to the world until clay tablets bearing indecipherable text were discovered in 1900 by British Archaeologist Arthur Evans. The clay tablets and the inscriptions on them remained a mystery for the next fifty years. Many people tried to decipher them, but all failed until finally British architect Michael Ventris published his work in the early 1950s. Michael Ventris is usually the hero of this story, such as in books like The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick in 1958  and The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson in 2002. Margalit Fox argues that the meticulous, painstaking and time consuming work done by Alice Kober was instrumental in him reaching his final conclusions. Alice Kober left behind boxes packed tightly with index cards systematically annotating and data-basing minute aspects of the known symbols.

Linear B was only used for administration. In the words of Alice Kober, “we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 BC”, but the clay tablets still afford an unprecedented glimpse into the daily lives of people long gone. Only around 120 “hands” have been detected in Linear B tablets, which means not many more than 120 people knew how to write it. That contrasts to the huge gains in human development, because now it is estimated that 80% of the world population is literate!

Try The Riddle of the Labyrinth if you like riveting, historical non fiction with a touch of mystery about diverse topics such as The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester or The Poisoners Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

Check the WRL catalog for The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.


Royal Teas with Grace and Style, by Eileen Shafer

Mon, 2014-03-17 01:01

Nothing speaks teatime more than freshly baked scones, slathered with strawberry jam, and topped with cream.

In my world real scones are plain and stodgy objects which I learned to bake a long time ago, first at Brownies and then as “quick breads” in Cooking class at Intermediate School. When I have made them ever since, I used my Grandmother’s ancient and annotated Edmonds Cookery Book. In the antediluvian antipodes I learned that, as the name quick breads suggests, they are meant to replace bread in a meal, not something sweet, so they are mostly flour and milk and never have eggs. But I am game to try most things once (especially if it involves baking), so tradition be hanged, I exactly followed the Basic Scones recipe from Royal Teas with Grace and Style.  These were not my grandmother’s scones, but light, airy, with cranberries and a crunchy sugary top–they were well worth making (and consuming!)

Author Eileen Shafer has run teashops and tea tours for many years and it shows in this engaging idea, etiquette and recipe book. Almost half the book is hints and advice for making the perfect elegant tea party, and with chapter headings like “Setting a Beautiful Table” and “Creating an Inviting Atmosphere” there is a lot to work with. It is full of exquisite photographs of table settings, tea sets, dignified rooms and (my favorite) food. Eileen Shafer lives part of the year in Williamsburg and the book is part of Williamsburg Regional Library’s Local Author Project.

Royal Teas with Grace and Style has smaller selection of savory tea time recipes such as sandwiches, but comes into its own with a great selection of cakes, cookies and slices. I got carried away one day and made so many cookies and cakes that the chocolate cake didn’t get eaten (unusual in my teenager-filled household). The book gives the splendid idea of using the left over chocolate pound cake to make trifle, but the recipe for trifle calling for cool whip and instant pudding didn’t sound nearly so splendid. This time I stuck with tradition and used whipped cream and custard from imported custard powder for a scrumptious trifle. I also made the lemon drop cookies and they were mouthwatering – strongly lemon flavored and slightly astringent. I like lemon flavor with other flavors so I had the idea of rolling the dough out with a batch of chocolate cookie dough to make lemon and chocolate swirl cookies, with triumphant results.

Try Royal Teas with Grace and Style for great recipes and wonderful ideas about stylish teas. My colleague Janet wrote a lovely review of Eating Royally, by Darren McGrady in 2012, which features how the British Royals really eat. Royal Teas with Grace and Style may not have the British authenticity of Eating Royally but it has plenty to inspire fans of baking and fans of elegant tea parties.

Check the WRL catalog for Royal Teas with Grace and Style.

And here are some of the lemon cookies and scones that I made.


13 Little Blue Envelopes, by Maureen Johnson

Fri, 2014-03-14 01:01

Author Maureen Johnson will be Skyping with readers at the Williamsburg Regional Library on March 21st from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Come hear the stories behind her young adult novels, including 13 Little Blue Envelopes and the Shades of London series. The visit is open to ages 13-22, and space is limited. Call the library at 757-259-4050 to sign up!

I do try to be a cool aunt, but Aunt Peg, Ginny Blackstone’s bohemian artist aunt, takes the cake. Who wouldn’t enjoy an expenses paid tour of Europe? The only problem is that Aunt Peg isn’t there to share the adventure any longer. Ginny’s “runaway aunt,” never the most reliable person, took off two years ago without a forwarding address, and the next thing her family heard, she had died overseas. As the next best thing to being there, she’s left her 17-year-old niece money for a solo plane ticket to London and 13 envelopes, each to be opened only in a certain time and place.

London, Edinburgh, Paris, Rome: in each city, Ginny has instructions. Find a particular café, fund a starving artist. When in Rome, ask an Italian boy out for cake! Obviously Aunt Peg’s posthumous mission is not only to retrace her European travels, but to push quiet Ginny out of her comfort zone. Feeling more and more ordinary without the company of her extraordinary aunt, Ginny fumbles her way through the assigned tasks. She meets the Harrod’s manager who packs Sting’s holiday baskets, is temporarily tattooed by a famous artist, and is briefly adopted by the world’s most frighteningly organized tourist family. It’s an emotional scavenger hunt: with each letter, Ginny learns a little more about her aunt’s missing two years, and that she isn’t finished grieving for her aunt… or quite through being angry that she vanished in the first place.

Teens will enjoy Ginny’s not-exactly-a-relationship with her adopted starving artist and the whirlwind tour of Europe with nothing but an oversized backpack and a bank card, but I finished this book thinking about things from the aunt’s perspective. If you wanted to lead someone through the greatest hits of your life—the places where you were the happiest, or learned the most important lessons—where would you send them?

Check the WRL catalog for 13 Little Blue Envelopes.

There’s a sequel, too: The Last Little Blue Envelope.


Garrow’s Law (2009)

Thu, 2014-03-13 01:01

You’ve just been accused of stealing 17 yards of lace. Your trial lasts eight minutes. No one testifies on your behalf. Verdict: Guilty! Sentence: transportation to Australia. Don’t you wish you’d had a lawyer?

Set in the late 1700s, this BBC courtroom drama brings all the plot twists and cross-examinations that we have come to expect from a long line of lawyer shows, but with an entertainingly rudimentary legal system that is not yet close to what we would consider a fair trial. It’s based on the career of English barrister William Garrow, who championed such radical ideas as “innocent until proven guilty” at a time when it wasn’t even a given that you’d have a lawyer for the defense.

A Robin Hood of the legal system, Garrow speaks up for the poor and powerless, the defendants most easily steamrollered by the machinery of justice. He shakes up the status quo with his indignation and debate skills, and he doesn’t make himself any more popular by starting an affair with Lady Sarah Hill, the wife of a politician. (Lord Hill is played by the dashing Rupert Graves, whom it pains me to watch in a villainous role. Disliking Rupert Graves, even in character, goes against natural laws.)

Over three seasons, Garrow confronts corrupt thieftakers, slave traders, and the infamous “London Monster,” said to have disguised a knife in a bouquet of flowers to stab young ladies in the face as they bent to smell the roses. Many details of the cases come from the archives of the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court. Even the pettiest cases can be life or death. Under what would later be referred to as the “Bloody Code,” an enormous number of crimes could incur the death penalty. The emphasis on crimes against property seems to defy reason: note that Renwick, the London Monster, isn’t tried for assaulting a young woman’s person, but for ripping her dress.

Enjoy the raucous, public trials; the charismatic acting; and the period Georgian sets and costumes. WRL owns all three seasons (twelve episodes).

Check the WRL catalog for Garrow’s Law.


The Monuments Men, by Robert Edsel

Wed, 2014-03-12 01:01

I hadn’t meant to write about The Monuments Men, which, thanks to a movie starring the dapper George Clooney, already has an impressive reserves list. But I keep running into folks who say, “I had no idea there was a book!”—a statement that brings out the evangelical librarian in me. So: there is a book! And if you’re at all interested in the intersection of art and WWII, then you’ll enjoy learning where history and the movie overlap, and where the truth has been stretched to fit a different story.

Nazi art thefts during WWII were meticulously planned and immense in scope. After the war, 400 tons of artworks removed from museums and private collections were found in salt mines and castles, the best of them earmarked for Hitler’s proposed Führersmuseum, never built. But while the scale of art plundering was unprecedented, so were the preservation efforts of museum curators and the military, especially the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit, known as the Monuments Men.

Eventually, 350 men and women from 13 countries served, but at the beginning, there were only a handful: as of D-Day, eight men to inspect every important monument between the English Channel and Berlin. They expected to do conservation triage—follow after the front-line soldiers, survey liberated towns for damaged sites, and organize emergency efforts to protect works from exposure or keep Roman ruins from being used as parking lots for tanks. They didn’t expect that so many masterpieces would be missing completely. As the war drew to an end, their mission morphed into a treasure hunt for artworks and other valuables stashed in hiding places throughout Europe.

Possibly the most bizarre of these was at Bernterode: underground, in a sealed room, a circle of regimental flags surrounding the coffins of Frederick the Great and former German President von Hindenburg. The most exciting cache was at Altaussee, where the paintings were a survey of Art History’s greatest hits, and the mine was packed with bombs.

Edsel’s account follows several of the Monuments Men, drawing on their writings and interviews with surviving officers. It was lonely work, each man improvising on his own without much support or even assigned transportation. The work of identifying and returning artworks continued until 1951, while questions of rightful ownership concern the courts to this day. (For a taste of postwar Monuments work, the National Archives has a fascinating article about the myriad political and logistical issues raised by those coffins alone.)

Check the WRL catalog for The Monuments Men.

The Monuments Men in Italy had a slightly different chain of command, and Edsel covers their exploits in a second book, Saving Italy.


A Woman Entangled, by Cecilia Grant

Tue, 2014-03-11 01:01

Kate Westbrook is deeply in love… with a house. She can’t stop looking at the broad sweep of its double staircase, or keep her hands off the banisters. Sadly, the elegant home of her Mayfair relatives is not for the likes of her: Kate’s father has been ostracized by his wealthy family ever since he married (shudder) an actress. But Kate is not going to let family disgrace stand between her and her rightful place in “that glittering world of champagne and consequence.” She has ambition, studied manners, and stunningly good looks. Maybe a wealthy suitor will marry her before he notices how embarrassing her family is.

Nicholas Blackshear, longtime friend of the Westbrook family, is carrying a torch for Kate, but he knows it’s hopeless. She’s aiming for earls and above, and he’s just a barrister saddled with his own family secrets. Nick has deliberately reshaped his romantic aspirations into brotherly affection. When Kate has a brief opportunity to make her impression on London society, Nick intends to help her land the suitor of her dreams. But that lingering admiration just makes him the world’s least suitable matchmaker… or chaperone.

Language, for me, is what makes Regency novels such a pleasure to read, and Grant’s style hits just the right notes, never forced or artificial. Her sentences flow easily, whether in sharp dialogue or self-mocking interior monologues. The surrounding characters, especially Kate’s bluestocking sister Viola, add life and color to the story, rounded out with conversations about women’s rights and courtroom tactics and fannish discussions of Miss Austen’s commendable novel, Pride and Prejudice.

Grant’s A Lady Awakened was my first read of the new year; I’d meant to blog about its hilariously incompatible sex scenes, the trapped heroine who just wants to make a difference in her ridiculously circumscribed world, and lovers who warm towards one another not from any of their antics in the bedroom, but when they start discussing land management—but, it turns out Christine beat me to it. What she said!

Check the WRL catalog for A Woman Entangled.


An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield

Mon, 2014-03-10 01:01

You forget, sometimes, that there are people living in space.

During his 146-day sojourn on the International Space Station in 2012-2013, astronaut Chris Hadfield reminded me, and many others, about life in space, as well as the natural beauty of life on earth. While his crew carried out a record number of science experiments, Hadfield was also spreading curiosity and enthusiasm about life on the ISS through savvy use of social media.

He traded tweets with fellow Canadian William Shatner (“Standard Orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface”). He posted YouTube videos about working without gravity (why you can’t wring out a washcloth in space, for instance). And he used his enviable perspective from the ISS cupola to share photos, including a Valentine’s Day heart for the planet.

Hadfield’s post-retirement memoir is loosely organized around three missions in space: from his first flight to Mir on the Atlantis, both now retired; through a spacewalk from Endeavor, installing a giant robotic arm on the ISS; to his last landing, after five months on the ISS, in the Russian Soyuz—”a wild 54-minute tumble to Earth that feels more or less like 15 explosions followed by a car crash.” Mission anecdotes are mixed with advice on how to think like an astronaut, much of which boils down to extreme, obsessive preparation and attention to detail. Canada didn’t even have a space agency when 9-year-old Hadfield decided that he wanted to be an astronaut, but he set himself to acquire the flight and engineering skills that he would need, spending years as a fighter pilot and test pilot until reality caught up with his dreams.

I am too hard-headed to benefit from most self-help books, but apparently I will listen to motivational pep talks from people who have been in space. And Hadfield does have a gift for presenting his career of extreme competence without coming across as a braggart. He’s easy to relate to and has a clear calling for sharing his passion for the space program and involving readers in the sheer “wwooooww” factor of a spacewalk.

If you enjoyed Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, you’ll appreciate Hadfield’s wry descriptions of peeing for science. Astronauts on the ISS perform scientific experiments, but also they are scientific experiments—in how the human body reacts to long sojourns without gravity.

Check the WRL catalog for An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.


Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Fri, 2014-03-07 01:01

A mild-mannered sound engineer’s latest project blurs the line between fantasy and reality in Berberian Sound Studio, writer/director Peter Strickland’s homage to ‘70s Italian horror films.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a sound engineer who specializes in nature films, travels to Italy to work on the sound editing for what he thinks is a film about horses. He’s right about the horses, but it’s not a nature film.  Upon viewing the opening credits, he discovers that he’s actually been commissioned to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, a lurid horror film about witchcraft and murder at an all-girls riding academy.  To make matters worse, he barely speaks Italian, the cast hates the film, and the director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) won’t even acknowledge that he’s even making a horror film, insisting instead “It’s not a ‘horror’ film.  It’s a Santini film.”

Homesick, but unable to get his travel expenses reimbursed so he can return home, Gilderoy stays in Italy to work on the film.  As the sound editing progresses, he not only becomes more entrenched in the tense and often claustrophobic atmosphere of the studio, to the point of speaking Italian fluently, but he is unable to separate his life from his art.

Berberian Sound Studio is an inventive homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s.  Giallo is a genre of horror that typically, but not always, combines elements found in mysteries and police procedurals with common horror tropes.  Giallo films are also distinguished by their distinctive production design and sound, and a hypnotic, but incredibly creepy, score.  Notable Giallo directors include Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci.  Viewers who are unfamiliar with the genre will find additional background and context if they watch the special features included on the Berberian Sound Studio DVD.

Berberian Sound Studio is all about sound, and Peter Strickland keeps the focus on sound by not showing any scenes from The Equestrian Vortex aside from the opening credits.  The viewer experiences The Equestrian Vortex as Gilderoy does, through dialogue, music, sound effects, and, of course, lots of screaming.  Berberian Sound Studio is a meta horror film without many of the elements commonly found in horror films.  Through the use of sound, Strickland manages to create moments of real tension without relying on violence to generate scares.  Strickland also succeeds in crafting an impressive tribute to the art of foley, the creation of background sounds using common objects.

In addition to the use of sound, I really enjoyed the acting, particularly Toby Jones’ performance.  At the beginning of the film, Gilderoy is meek and polite, in sharp contrast to the brash rudeness of Santini and his producer Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco).  As work on The Equestrian Vortex progresses, Gilderoy’s personality begins to subtly change to match his surroundings, much to his chagrin.  Toby Jones gives a fine performance that works well with the tone of the film.

At the beginning of Berberian Sound Studio, Gilderoy is told, “A brave new world of sound awaits you.”  Strickland’s film is a clever and absorbing look at how this “brave new world” of sound is created and how it changes Gilderoy’s life.

Check the WRL catalog for Berberian Sound Studio


Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, by Elizabeth Winder

Thu, 2014-03-06 01:01

Sylvia Plath’s summer internship as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine is explored in William and Mary graduate Elizabeth Winder’s insightful debut Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953.

In the spring of 1953, Plath, then a 20-year-old junior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one of twenty young women selected by the editors of Mademoiselle magazine for an internship as a guest editor of the magazine’s yearly college issue.  She travels to New York in late May and spends the month of June in the city: living at the Barbizon Hotel; spending long days working at the magazine; and enjoying evenings filled with parties, ballets, and dates.

Within two months of her return to Massachusetts, Plath suffers a mental breakdown that leads to her first suicide attempt.  Years later, these experiences form the basis for her only novel, The Bell Jar, published shortly before her suicide in 1963.

Instead of recounting the grim details of Plath’s breakdown, Winder focuses on Plath’s interests and cultural influences in an “attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist.”  Winder succeeds in reaching her ambitious goal.

Divided into eight sections filled with short, fast paced chapters, the book’s structure gives the reader the experience of an exciting, yet ephemeral, summer adventure.  The whirlwind of activity is anchored by candid interviews with several of Plath’s fellow guest editors.  These interviews are insightful and serve as a response to Plath’s depiction of her summer in New York in The Bell Jar.  The interviews, particularly the recollections of Carol LeVarn, provide some of the book’s most poignant and thought-provoking moments.

Winder balances the serious tone of the interviews with lively descriptions of Plath’s love of literature, fashion, and the popular culture of the early 1950s.  The text is enhanced by the inclusion of photographs, vintage advertisements, and fashion illustrations, including photos from the college issue.  Frequent sidebars include extended interviews, biographical sketches of people Plath met in New York, and quotes from her journals.  These sidebars add context to Plath’s experiences without breaking the momentum of Winder’s narrative.

Engaging and well-researched, Pain, Parties, Work will appeal to readers who are interested in Sylvia Plath’s life and work.  Elizabeth Winder is scheduled to present a program on Plath with Catherine Bowman at William and Mary on Thursday, March 20.

Check the WRL catalog for Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953


Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

Wed, 2014-03-05 01:01

A Cambridge graduate gets in over her head when she’s recruited by MI5 in Ian McEwan’s witty and metafictional tale of love and espionage in ‘70s Britain, Sweet Tooth.

Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”), the daughter of an Anglican bishop, lives a quiet, sheltered life with her parents and sister in England.  Beautiful and clever with a talent for math, her parents, particularly her mother, insist that she study the subject at Cambridge.  Serena’s passion, however, is reading, and if left to her own devices she would have happily pursued an English degree at a small local college.  Her undergraduate studies at Cambridge are a disappointment; although she excelled in math as a schoolgirl, she struggles with her math tutorials.  Despite her lackluster academic performance, Serena continues to read voraciously, eventually writing a book column for a classmate’s literary magazine.  She also develops a relationship with a history student named Jeremy Mott.

Serena’s introduction to the world of espionage begins with a chance meeting with Jeremy’s history tutor, Tony Canning.  Captivated by her beauty and idealism, Canning begins an affair with Serena while grooming her as a possible MI5 recruit.  Their brief affair in the summer of 1972 includes intense tutorials on British politics and history, stoking the political fervor Serena discovered as a student at Cambridge.  The affair ends abruptly, but not before she lands an interview with MI5.

Although she starts her MI5 career performing low-level clerical duties, she soon receives an assignment that draws on her love of reading.  Seeking to influence the cultural conversation, MI5 is funding writers whose politics are consistent with those of the government through an operation with the code name of “Sweet Tooth.”  Serena’s mission is to recruit a promising writer and academic named Tom Haley.  His stories, surreal with a subtly political bent, enchant Serena, and she soon finds herself falling in love with Haley.  Their romance coincides with Haley’s first major literary triumph, but his nomination for a major award threatens to unravel MI5’s carefully crafted scheme.

The opening paragraph of Sweet Tooth not only reveals the outcome of Serena’s brief tenure in MI5, but it also lays the groundwork for McEwan’s audacious metafictional trick.  It’s a risky gambit; why bother reading the rest of the book if you already know how the story will end before you finish the first page?  I thought it worked because it ultimately ties in with Serena’s love of stories and literature.

Some of my favorite moments in Sweet Tooth involve Tom Haley’s stories, particularly the novel he completes after he meets Serena.  These stories within a story help develop Haley’s character and the relationship he has with Serena.  The intriguing cast of supporting characters include Shirley Shilling, Serena’s friend and co-worker at MI5; her colleague Max Greatorex; and Tony Canning.

Wryly entertaining, Sweet Tooth deftly mixes espionage, love, and literature.

Check the WRL catalog for Sweet Tooth


Cinder, by Marissa Meyer

Tue, 2014-03-04 01:01

Marissa Meyer reinvents the story of Cinderella as dystopian science fiction in Cinder, the first novel in her series The Lunar Chronicles.

Cinder is a teenage mechanic living and working in New Beijing.  An orphan, she lives with her legal guardian, Adri, and Adri’s daughters, Pearl and Peony.  She doesn’t remember anything about her past or the operation that turned her into a cyborg. Every day, Cinder works in the local market fixing androids and other electronic devices with her trusted android Iko by her side, returning at night to a difficult home life with Adri and Pearl.  Her lone ally in the house is the sweet and gentle Peony.  One day, the handsome Prince Kai comes to Cinder’s booth asking if she can fix an android he calls Nainsi.  An immediate attraction develops between Cinder and Prince Kai, but Cinder refuses to acknowledge her feelings because she’s afraid the prince will reject her once he finds out she’s a cyborg.

Prince Kai is also struggling with a few problems of his own.  His father, the Emperor Rikan, has been stricken with a seemingly incurable plague called letumosis, also referred to as the Blue Fever.  If Rikan dies, Prince Kai will become the Emperor and even more attractive to the Lunar Queen Levana. Before he fell ill, Emperor Rikan and Queen Levana had been negotiating an alliance.  The prince, however, is suspicious of the motives of the queen, a crafty and vain woman who was implicated in the deaths of her sister, Queen Channary, and her niece, Princess Selene, the rightful heir to the queen’s throne.  Prince Kai believes Princess Selene may actually be alive, and he’s desperately searching for any information to confirm his suspicions.

When Emperor Rikan dies of letumosis, Queen Levana travels to New Beijing to discuss the alliance with Prince Kai. Levana’s idea of an alliance includes marriage to Prince Kai, and she uses the threat of war to secure an engagement. Meanwhile, Cinder discovers information that could be useful to Prince Kai while working on Nainsi.  Will Cinder reach Prince Kai before the coronation ball, where he will announce his engagement to Queen Levana?

Cinder is an inventive twist on the classic tale of Cinderella with great characters and fast-paced action. Cinder is an appealing heroine who uses her intelligence and creativity to solve problems.  Prince Kai is a noble hero who tries to stay one step ahead of Queen Levana’s schemes.  The attraction between Cinder and Prince Kai is obvious from their initial meeting, but I liked how Meyer kept the subplot fresh by adding a few unpredictable complications.  Queen Levana is an intriguing villain who uses the power of illusion to manipulate people.  The science fiction elements of the story work really well with the allusions to the fairy tale Cinderella, especially the way Meyer handles Cinder’s preparations for the pivotal coronation ball.  Cinder is full of more characters and storylines than I could comfortably fit into the synopsis, but Meyer adeptly uses these elements to establish the basis for the next book in the series.

The Lunar Chronicles continue with Scarlet and Cress.

Check the WRL catalog for Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress


The Returned (2012)

Mon, 2014-03-03 01:01

A fifteen-year-old girl named Camille (Yara Pilartz) is on school trip.  As the bus reaches a sharp curve in the road, it suddenly careens down a steep embankment, killing all aboard the bus.

A young man named Simon (Pierre Perrier) dies on the eve of his wedding to Adèle (Clotilde Hesme).  He had just found out that she was pregnant with their first child.

Years later, Camille and Simon, along with several other people who died years before, suddenly and inexplicably return to their homes and families in a remote mountain town in the first season of the beautifully eerie French series, The Returned.

The first episodes focus on the characters of Camille and Simon, who are unaware they are dead, as they return to their homes.  Both soon discover that everything has changed.  In the years since their deaths, Camille’s parents Claire (Anne Consigny) and Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot) have separated, and her twin sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) is now an adult.  Adèle has moved on as well.  She is now engaged to a Gendarmerie captain named Thomas (Samir Guesmi), who is helping her raise Simon’s daughter Chloé (Brune Martin).

For Claire, still struggling to come to terms with Camille’s death, the return of her daughter is a miracle; one she hopes will bring her fractured family back together.  Jérôme and Léna are a bit more skeptical, but accept Camille’s return for Claire’s sake.  Adèle’s feelings about Simon’s return are more complex.  Like Claire, Adèle still grieves the loss of Simon, but she has found love and security with Thomas.  Adèle is soon faced with a choice that will have an effect on the life she has built with Thomas and Chloé.

While Camille and Simon attempt to reintegrate with their families, several other mysteries unfold.  A waitress is attacked in a tunnel and left for dead.  Her attack bears all the hallmarks of a serial killer who terrorized the town years ago.  A respected teacher burns down his house then jumps to his death from the local dam.  A nurse whose brutal attack seven years ago was linked to the serial killer, is followed home by an enigmatic boy whom she decides to call Victor.  Then there is the matter of the dam. Water levels in the reservoir unexpectedly drop, wreaking havoc on the town’s water supply.  Are these seemingly random events linked to Camille and Simon’s return?

Over the course of eight episodes, the first season of The Returned weaves together several seemingly disparate storylines into a compelling and creepy mystery.  I think the key to the show’s success is the setting.  On the surface, the town looks quiet and peaceful with its pristine mountains and tranquil lakes; however, the only access to the rest of civilization is a road that goes over the dam.  If the residents can’t cross the dam, then they are unable to leave the town.  The town’s isolation enhances the tension as the mystery deepens.

The Returned is an adaptation of a 2004 French film called They Came Back.  Although both share the same basic premise of the dead returning to their families, the film is a drama with supernatural elements while the series is a supernatural mystery.  Fans of The Returned should check out They Came Back if they haven’t already seen the film, but they should not expect the film to have the same characters and storyline.  Both are in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for The Returned


The Secret Rooms, by Catherine Bailey

Fri, 2014-02-28 01:01

Crenellated towers, mysterious deaths, possible hauntings, coded letters, and a fifty-something mistress climbing drainpipes to burgle the house of hidden rubies… Within pages, I realized I was reading one of my favorite kinds of book: a nonfiction history that wants to be a gothic novel when it grows up.

Author Catherine Bailey was given permission to use the family archives at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, in order to examine World War I as it affected a single English community. These archives are in “the secret rooms,” where John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, died in 1940. With 356 rooms to choose from, he remained on a mangy sofa in the unheated servants’ quarters, barring doctors and servants alike as he raced to finish some mysterious project before succumbing to pneumonia. After his death, the rooms were sealed. Now, opening the files for the first time in decades, Bailey is stymied by missing letters and empty diary pages, very specific gaps from which every family member’s correspondence have been removed. Servants keep popping up behind her in passageways to say things like “these rooms are forbidden… because of the curse.” What secret, she wonders, was the duke trying to excise from the family records before he died?

After setting the scene for every possible horror—maybe the duke was hiding a murdered body in the floorboards under his sofa?—Bailey settles down, reluctantly admits that she doesn’t believe in ghosts, and gets into the meat of the story. There is no body under the floorboards, just a slice of dysfunctional aristocratic life from the turn of the century through WWI. Fortunately, I also love dysfunctional, aristocratic slice of life stories! Cross referencing letters and leatherbound account books, exploring the archives of other noble families, and enlisting the help of a cryptographer, Bailey pieces together a family history of childhood tragedies, rows over money, and misleading war memorials.

For all the letters exchanged, no one says what they mean, and the somewhat guilty pleasure of reading between the lines entertains author and readers alike. (The very best thing about the avalanche of correspondence is how often the authors repeat, “destroy this letter!”) Choose sides: is John, the young duke-to-be, a bookish lad fascinated with archaeology or a tortured soul with an unhealthy interest in exhuming bodies? Does he reluctantly assume the mantle of responsibility for an ancient estate or hide from the front lines while the other young men of Leicestershire are being gassed in Belgium? Lady Violet: loving mother, calling in every favor to protect her children, or, as one of her acquaintances described her, a “Burne-Jones Medusa,” a master manipulator who spends forty years sculpting an effigy of her deceased eldest son while ruining the life of her second son, the “spare” heir?

The back cover blurb recommends this story to fans of Downton Abbey, and the setting and time period make it a good match. Here are the grand, failing estates and the rebellious younger generation torn whether to marry for love or money. But the manor house that really comes to mind in the end is melancholy Brideshead. Is Belvoir Castle haunted? You bet! Not by ghosts, but with regrets and guilty consciences.

Check the WRL catalog for The Secret Rooms.


Saving Otter 501

Thu, 2014-02-27 01:01

Otters have got to be one of the cutest, most adorable animals in the world. They are also one of the most helpless animals when they are newborn. When a baby otter in distress is found near Monterey Bay, California, marine biologist Karl Mayer begins the long and difficult process of rehabilitating and educating this otter so that he can eventually be reintroduced back into the wild. This documentary is the story of this otter, nicknamed Otter 501 because he is the 501st otter to be rehabilitated by Mayer and other biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Fortunately for Otter 501, much has been learned about what works and what does not work in this type of rehab since the first otter was helped many years ago.  Otters who enter the program are assigned a number rather than a name, and staff wear special suits with large welding helmets that prevent the otters from recognizing them. The star of the program is Toola, a female otter who gave birth to a stillborn pup when she was in rehab herself, and now is used as a surrogate mother to pups like Otter 501.  It is quite moving to see some of the key moments in the relationship that develops between Toolah and Otter 501, which include the moment she first gains his confidence and when she shows him how to dive underwater in one of the main tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Prospects for Otter 501 to survive in the wild are not great, but Toola gives him a fighting chance.  I won’t give away the ending, but it is a bittersweet one — be sure to have the tissues nearby!

There is a wealth of information about otters presented here, much of it new to me.  Some of it is quite sobering. One of the most depressing facts is that this animal, once prevalent from Northern Russia into Alaska and all the way down the Pacific coast of the United States, was hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century.  The 2000 or so that are left  (up from 50 at first count) are carefully monitored by marine biologists. The many fascinating behaviors of these endangered animals are sure to mesmerize you. My favorite one was watching them crack open clam shells with a stone on their tummies while they float on their backs in the water.

There is a lot to like about this documentary. The cinematography is excellent: the views of Monterey Bay were gorgeous and the many close-ups of otters were exceptional.  I plan on watching other fine programs in the Nature Series put out by PBS; WRL has over 30 of these programs.

There is nothing like seeing these creatures live and up close. The Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach, VA has an otter exhibit that I enjoyed seeing a few years ago.  A little further away in Atlanta is the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium and one of my favorite places I have visited.  It has several exhibits that feature otters, it has  a special Sea Otter Encounter Program, and it is actively involved with otter rehabilitation like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

This is a great documentary, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in animals and animal rescue operations.  To further entice you to see this, you can see a short video clip and nine incredibly cute pictures of Otter 501 here.

Check the WRL catalog for Saving Otter 501