Blogging for a Good Book
Today’s post is written by Jennifer from Circulation Services.
The story of three sisters seems to be deeply ingrained in our human subconscious. There are the mythological Weird Sisters, the women of Ang Lee’s film Eat Drink Man Woman, and those of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, to name just a few examples. One could even go so far as to contemplate the “Three Sisters” method of planting beans, squash, and corn, used throughout North America in pre-Columbian times. The motif is not limited to any single culture, and more often than not, as in Lee and Esquivel’s works, the lives of the three sisters are intimately connected to the food that they cook and enjoy.
Marsha Mehran’s novel Rosewater and Soda Bread is a fine addition to this little niche of a subgenre. After fleeing their home country of Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the three Aminpour sisters open Babylon Café in the tiny Irish town of Ballinacroagh. Practical Marjan, the oldest, is trying to keep the café (and everyone’s lives) running smoothly while being pursued by a dashing English gentleman. Middle sister Bahar bears a heavy burden from a troubled past, but is finding solace in an unexpected place. And the youngest, Layla, is a Shakespeare aficionado who just wants a little independence from her older sisters – and time to spend with her boyfriend. As if life isn’t complicated enough, their landlady and former pastry chef Mrs. Delmonico finds a “mermaid” washed up on the beach. Who is she, where did she come from – and what about the baby on the way?
Much like a rambler in the hilly Irish countryside, Rosewater and Soda Bread is unhurried in reaching its destination, minding small details and occasionally taking detours. This is part of the book’s charm, though, especially when Mehran describes Marjan’s cooking and its effect on those who consume it. For (most of) the residents of Ballinacroagh, Bablyon Café’s food and drink are synonymous with comfort. Indeed, the best word to describe Mehran’s prose would probably be “cozy.” I would highly recommend settling in with the book on a rainy day, a hot cup of bergamot tea by your side, and letting yourself be enraptured by the charm and intrigue of the Aminpour sisters’ adopted hometown.
Recipes for many of the dishes referenced in the story can be found in the back of the book, something for which I’m very grateful. I nearly drooled when reading the description of Marjan’s tacheen, a saffron rice and chicken dish: “…first buttered rice and almonds, then fried chicken and sautéed spinach, the yogurt binding them into a brotherhood of delicious play.” Sounds delightful, doesn’t it? I would recommend this book for gourmands, anyone interested in Irish culture, those who are fascinated by what happens when cultures from thousands of miles apart meet – and by how sharing a meal can help break down even the most seemingly insurmountable barriers.
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Atticus O’Sullivan looks a youthful 21, with blond hair, charming grin, and a trace of surfer dude attitude. Atticus enjoys the sunshine of Tempe, Arizona, has a close connection with nature, and enjoys hunting with his Irish Wolfhound Oberon. He owns his own business and has a relaxed, carefree life.
Atticus is the last of the Druids; he’s made it 2,000 years by keeping a low profile and communing with nature.
So far Atticus has managed to stay far ahead and hidden from a crazy Celtic god, but his luck is about to change. Aenghas Og has found Atticus and wants his sword, Fragarach, back. This time he won’t quit until he has beaten Atticus, even if it includes unleashing a few demons to get his way.
There are other magical beings in this world, including many from Celtic mythology. The author adds the requisite vampires, werewolves, witches, and fairies to flesh out Atticus’ story, but they aren’t the main focus.
Hearne weaves old mythology, popular references, puns, and witty repartee to create a funny, action-filled story. If you enjoy urban fantasy but have been looking for something that feels fresh and different, while also providing a sense of comfort familiarity, this is the book to pick up.
Prepare to put your feet up for a few hours of laughs, action, and a refreshing new perspective of a modern magical world.
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Fictional Academy Award-winning director Stanislas Cordova’s oeuvre consists of 15 films released from 1964 to 1996. As controversial as he is revered, his last five films were released independently and are collectively known as the “black tapes.” His fans, known as Cordovites, regularly stage secret showings of these films called red-band screenings. Enigmatic and reclusive, Cordova hasn’t been seen in public or granted an interview in years, but stories about Cordova’s family and lifestyle at his private estate, “The Peak,” are the stuff of urban legend. Stanislas Cordova is also the elusive focus of journalist Scott McGrath’s personal journey into the heart of darkness in Marisha Pessl’s second novel, Night Film.
Night Film opens with the apparent suicide of Cordova’s beautiful and talented 24-year-old daughter, Ashley. Her death piques the curiosity of Scott McGrath, an investigative journalist whose remarks about Cordova on a national television program resulted in a libel suit. Despite paying a substantial settlement to Cordova, McGrath still believes he is a dangerous man and he starts an investigation into Ashley’s suicide, intent on proving Cordova was somehow responsible for what happened to his daughter.
Joining McGrath in his quest are two strangers who have a connection to Ashley: Nora Halliday, a coat check girl who encountered Ashley shortly before her death, and Hopper Cole, who met Ashley when they were teenagers. As McGrath, Cole, and Halliday trace Ashley’s movements in her final weeks and unpack the mysterious nature of Cordova and his films, they learn the unsettling truth about a genius filmmaker and his family.
As a movie fan, I was interested in reading Night Film because the book’s plot and the character of Stanislas Cordova sounded intriguing. Pessl did not disappoint. Her characterization of Cordova and the descriptions of his films are so vibrant and detailed that I finished the book regretting that Cordova’s films do not exist in real life.
I’ll admit I had a rather mixed reaction to Night Film’s protagonist, Scott McGrath. On the surface the character seems awfully similar to Mikael Blomkvist from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (both are divorced investigative journalists whose reputations are tarnished by high-profile libel suits). Scott’s investigation is compelling and the friendships he forms with Hopper and Nora are sincere and poignant. Ashley Cordova may be dead at the beginning of the book, but Pessl does a nice job bringing the character to life, so to speak, through newspaper and magazine articles, interviews with film actors and acquaintances, and, especially, through her relationship with Hopper.
Another effective aspect of Night Film is Pessl’s use of multimedia elements. These elements are extensive and include copies of internet slideshows, news articles, and web pages from the Blackboards, a secret web site dedicated to all things Cordova. The narrative is fast-paced and engaging, but these multimedia elements truly immersed me in Cordova’s life and work. This experience doesn’t end once the last page is turned. There’s even a free app for smartphones called the Night Film Decoder that readers can use to scan select pages of the book and access videos, audio clips, and slideshow presentations. The additional content is a lot of fun and complements Pessl’s vision of Cordova, his family, and his films.
“Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are.”
- Stanislas Cordova (Rolling Stone, December 1977)
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I admit it; I occasionally hit a reading slump. I’m surrounded by hundreds of thousands of wonderful stories, and sometimes I am unable to find one book that will pull me down the rabbit hole. So I turned to a fellow librarian for advice. I asked for the one book she had read that she just could not get out of her head. Her response was immediate — R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. No hesitation, no thought, no second guessing, she laid Wonder at my feet and I’m so glad she did.
Ten-year-old August Pullman will be starting public school for the first time after being homeschooled his entire life. Auggie happens to have a combination of rare genetic mutations that cause severe facial abnormalities. Because Auggie is so obviously different on the surface it is hard to see that he is just like many other boys his age — intelligent and funny and passionate about Star Wars. Needless to say going to public school will be an adventure filled with friends, enemies, middle school wars, laughter, joy, and pain.
I don’t want to give details of the plot because Wonder is a story about everyday life for someone that happens to be ordinary with an extraordinary face. These details are best appreciated and understood as revealed by Auggie. Wonder weaves together the shifting perspectives of Auggie and his friends and family to reveal the joys and challenges of life with compassion and humor.
Wonder is magic that will pull you in and won’t let go. For me it’s the very best kind of book, one that makes me love being in the rabbit hole, but also able to appreciate the world around me a little more when the story has ended. There will be moments this book will make you cry, but it is worth every teardrop. This is a book that will stay with you for a long, long, long time.
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A destroyed tribe, a talking pug, enslaved elves, a cruel Santa, a murderously evil and monstrously large baby harp seal, and a revenge-filled barbarian. Turning the first pages of Battlepug might make you wonder if the author had taken a list of all the random ideas he had during his entire childhood and created a mad-lib of a graphic novel. In a world of super-intense angst-ridden, save-the-world superheroes, it’s refreshing to have an artist break free and just draw whatever they think is cool and/or amusing.
There is no pretension to this story; it is narrated by a naked (but coyly covered), tattooed woman who is retelling this legend to two dogs: a pug and a French bulldog because one asked for a bedtime story with flaming devil monsters while the other one asked for one with puppies. She promises the dogs it will be both terrifying and sweet to appease both their desired flavors.
A gentle but unnamed boy witnesses the murder of his entire village, including his doting mother, by a smiling and sweet-faced baby seal of Godzilla-like proportions. He is saved by a fateful flick of the monster’s tail and rescued by several elves and taken to their evil master, the King of the Northland Elves (a glaring, thinly veiled Santa Claus) only to be enslaved and sentenced to a cruel life of hardship and toil. The difficult life doesn’t break the child. Rather his hate and need for revenge become magnified and he learns the art of combat, originally for their amusement, eventually for their doom.
The warrior (who seems to be based on Conan the barbarian) seeks the scarred man who let the seal loose on his village, and his travels lead him to a swamp where he first encounters the elephant-sized pug. Despite a bumpy first meeting (and not an insubstantial amount of slobber), the warrior and the rideable dog team up with a crazy old man named Scrabbly to track down his nemesis, Catwulf.
Mike Norton launched Battlepug in February 2011 and in 2012 won an Eisner award for the best Digital Comic. While it could be easy to dismiss this story based on any one of its ludicrous parts, the storytelling is deft and the artwork is solid and amusing without being silly. The pug’s eyes pointing in two different directions and lack of a convincingly ferocious bark play perfectly against the warrior’s grim and unsmiling presence.
A promising start to a unique series, I would recommend this to graphic novel, fantasy, and adventure readers and anyone who has a strong sense of the absurd.
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Paige is despondent. Her family recently moved from central Virginia to Manhattan and she has to deal with acclimating herself to a new city and culture while her relationships with her parents, especially her mother, have been crumbling. She misses her old life, and her old friends, especially her best friend Diana. Paige floats around New York with a sensation of being lost, unsure of herself or what she wants.
Both her mother and father are writers (hence her unfortunate name, Paige Turner), but she is more like her grandmother, a painter. Introverted and quiet on the outside, Paige is full of life and emotions on the inside. She can’t express these feelings in words so she buys a sketchbook, determined to follow her grandmother’s rules that she came up with to teach herself to be an artist. Starting the first drawing is daunting, and brings to the surface more of her anxieties. Is she a good enough artist, what if she has nothing to draw about? Monologues of self-doubt constantly run through her head, even as the pages begin to fill up with sketches.
Entering her new school, Paige quickly falls in with Jules, her brother Longo, and his friend Gabe. The foursome is soon inseparable. Paige still struggles with self-doubt, and everything cool and fun she sees in her friends strengthens her inferiority complex, and fear that her lack of specialness will be discovered. Her inner voice promises that she can change. But how can she build a new self and remove those parts she dislikes most?
Ever practical, Paige makes a list of those aspects of her personality she dislikes the most and intentionally faces them with the help of her friends. She discovers that they too have things that they lack the courage to face, and she begins to coach them, even as she is developing and evolving herself. The image of a seed being planted and carefully tended to as it grows into a fragile shoot appears several times in the drawings and is particularly apt.
The writing is lyrical and evocative while being relatable to anyone who was unsure of themselves when they were a teenager. Paige has a knack of summing up complicated emotions using simple phrases. She states that “like fun house mirrors, different people reflect back different parts of me” and while mourning her loneliness early on, she states that she hates how all her “friends now live in picture frames.”
Recommend for young adults and graphic novel readers and anyone else who can relate to the heart wrenching process of finding yourself.
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While watching the Avengers movie in the theater (I admit, twice), I was intrigued by the characters of Hawkeye and Black Widow. Not having much knowledge of the Avengers outside of Iron Man and Thor, I found it interesting that there were members of the team who did not possess any superpowers or special flying suits. Experience and training will only get you so far when facing a massive army of technologically superior aliens from another dimension. Hulk may smash, but normal humans should be running in the other direction while screaming.
As expected, when a movie piques the public’s interest in specific characters from a comic universe, new material often follows. I picked up a copy of the first volume of the new Hawkeye graphic novel series, titled Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon. The series covers Hawkeye’s life away from the Avengers, where he lives quietly as Clint Barton in a rather crummy apartment building. He is assisted in many of his exploits by Kate Bishop, who is a member of the Young Avengers, and had previously stepped in for Clint when he took some time off from the Avengers. She is an equal, if not better, bowman than Clint.
Unlike other human superheroes like Batman or Iron Man, Hawkeye isn’t angsty, and there is a lot of humor injected into his interactions, especially with Kate. He fights mainly with his bow and an array of sometimes ridiculous specialty arrows, a method which is used smartly against him by the authors in a humorous segment where he keeps firing random arrows with somewhat unbelievable abilities. He tries to live as normally as possible, enjoying rooftop BBQs with his neighbors, buying a used sports car, and practicing his archery, but generally finds ways to get himself in trouble much as he might try to avoid it. It seems once you are identified as a superhero, groups of ninjas can’t help but attack you.
This volume is a quick but fun read. Recommended for fans of the Marvel Universe and anyone who is tired of having perpetually disagreeable and tormented superheroes.
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I am the first to flee at the sight of blood. As such, I don’t watch boxing and I quickly switch the channel when watching football if the station decides there is a need to show slow motion replays of a player’s injury from EVERY ANGLE. But for whatever reason, I can stomach violence in graphic novels, as the images can be processed as art by my brain, conveniently disconnected from reality.
Browsing our shelves, I picked up a copy of Heart but almost put it back again when I realized that the story revolved around an MMA (mixed-martial arts) fighter. I ended up holding on to the volume, deciding that since I had been in a reading rut recently, something so far out of my normal comfort zone might be just what I needed.
The story throws you right into the middle of the octagon at the beginning of a fight between Oren “Rooster” Redmond and Mike “The Hooligan” Murphy. Glaring and tattooed with muscles tensed, they square off with the cheers, jeers, and bloodlust of the crowd in a roar around them. The story is narrated by Oren, and he baldly presents his adrenaline and bravado as well as his mistakes as he takes us through his journey from slightly overweight office worker to trained fighter. He’s inspired by his older brother, who started out as a college wrestler and progressed to MMA after graduation. From the drudgery of his data entry job, Oren enters a life that finally allows him to live life on his own terms.
It’s Oren’s honesty about how his fighting career progresses that really pulls the reader into the story. He’s not trying to fool anyone, not even himself. His frankness and honesty are refreshing yet surprising, since MMA promotion isn’t known for being austere or unembellished. Oren wryly confesses to prior unkind thoughts about “guys who wore too-tight t-shirts with shiny, metallic crap written on ‘em” before he entered and embraced the culture.
Heart is an engaging and powerful read. I would recommend it to sports fans, readers of graphic novels in general, or any reader who loves stories where the human element transcends the environment.
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I have a fascination for Swamp Thing that started a few years ago when I picked up a copy of one of the volumes penned by Alan Moore (he of Watchmen fame). Swamp Thing isn’t your normal Superhero. He doesn’t fight supervillians, although he has had occasion to save the earth and humankind before. He’s a conflicted creature, no longer quite human but not fully removed from the person he once was. He is pulled between two worlds, caught between his human memories and the pull of The Green, a force that connects all plant life on Earth. Swamp Thing generally keeps to his damp living space, communing with nature and trying to find a semblance of peace.
The character of Swamp Thing has been reinvented and restarted many times over the years, with admittedly varied success. When I saw that Scott Snyder was taking the helm for the new Swamp Thing series I was excited. Snyder is one of my favorite current graphic novel writers (see my review of American Vampire) and I was confident that the story would be done justice to in his hands. Rather than ignoring the past incarnations of Swamp Thing, Snyder was able to build upon the legend, keeping the past intact while carving out his own unique storyline. He is even able to pull in the character of Abigail Arcane who is typically the partner/wife of Swamp Thing and helps to ground him and keep him connected to his human past.
Swamp Thing has always been most easily classified as horror, although that seems unfair as it classifies him more by how others react to him than how he actually conducts himself. Snyder has always shown himself to be remarkably adept at this genre. He is able to build an atmosphere of eerie menace in even the most mundane scenarios but also doesn’t shy away from gore or shock. This is the first of two published volumes in the DC Comics New 52 Swamp Thing series. The third volume will be released in November.
I would recommend this book to anyone who reads horror, especially graphic novels.
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For me, a pie is an object about which there is much to be crazy. Or perhaps that is not quite right, as pies are not “objects,” rather they are as manna contained within their own plane of being. To me, this isn’t so much a cookbook as a blueprint towards a better life.
Metaphysics aside, this is a great book that makes me hungry just looking at the pictures. It is beautifully illustrated with glowing photographs of creations that I know I could never bake as perfectly. The author, Krystina Castella, is an industrial designer as well as a successful cookbook writer, so it is not surprising that her pies are visually stunning. Crazy About Pies even has a section on “The Pie Decorator’s Tool Kit” although decorating pies is not something that had previously occurred to me beyond cutting out some leaves and an apple from left-over pastry or poking the vent holes in the shape of an “A.” Whether or not I would ever get around to putting a marzipan butterfly or a fondant blackbird on a pie, it is still lovely to look and dream…
Over the years I have perfected my one apple pie recipe to exactly how I like it, so I thought I would try something savory in the form of Bacon and Egg Pocket Pies. They took an unexpectedly long time to make, but the results were fabulously rich and incredibly yummy. Mixing little bits of bacon into pastry is not something that ever occurred to me before, but it worked out to be such a splendid idea, that I will have to try it again (but maybe not with apple pie). I managed to sneak one out of the fridge before my ravening hoards of teenagers pillaged them and (once warmed in the microwave), my colleagues agreed that they were just what we needed for breakfast.
For the sweet pies I am not sure whether to go with Mocha Pie or Cheesecake Pie with Marzipan Butterflies. Since I am at work, in the meantime, I will have to content myself with flicking through the book and drooling.
Definitely try Crazy About Pies if you want to expand your pie repertoire—you’ll get lots of great ideas. Or you can just look at it for the glamorous photographs of Pie Perfection.
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“The dread had not left my soul. But there was a kitten on my pillow, and it was purring in my face and vibrating gently with every purr.”
Neil Gaiman has a great talent for seeing the sinister and malevolent under the everyday and mundane. But he also has a talent for pointing out the beauty and wonder that simultaneously exist in the same everyday and mundane things. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told mainly through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy, which gives the book a simple, direct style as the boy is without preconceptions. He reports matter-of-factly that his new nanny is an evil monster who rode out of another dimension in a worm hole in his own foot, but this is not the sort of thing that adults believe.
The book starts as a middle-aged man returns to his childhood village to attend a funeral, so we know that the narrator survives (something I would not have been sure of otherwise). Forty years ago, the tragic suicide of an almost-stranger and a series of seemingly small, but bad, decisions, lead to dramatic and possibly world-ending events, all under the eyes of oblivious adults.
Neil Gaiman has created a complete, but never fully explained, fantasy world living just under the surface of the world we see. His Hunger Birds are close to the creepiest fantasy creatures I have ever encountered. I can see glimmers of the best of other British fantasy. The woods that the boy first enters with Lettie Hempstock reminds me of the damaged, dimensionless woods in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Pinhoe Egg. Lettie Hempstock herself, being a non-human in human form, with her Universe-saving sentiments, reminds me of Doctor Who. These may be plausible connections: Neil Gaiman knew Diana Wynne Jones and considered her his mentor, and he has written for Doctor Who.
This book is being marketed as an adult novel and lots of adults and teens love it. I think older children who are strong readers and fantasy fans will also enjoy it. They will appreciate the main character’s impotence in the face of the seamlessly complacent adult world. It has a few oblique references to sex, but they will probably go over the heads of many children. Simply, but poetically written, this a beautiful short book that I wanted to come back to and immerse myself in. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and have heard several read by the author. Neil Gaiman is by far the best reader of his own work that I have come across. From his pleasant English accent to the menace in the voice of the monster, I can’t wait to hear more.
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Bo Whaley lives on an Air Force base in North Carolina. His father is the base commander, which just makes life complicated, especially when most of the kids in his class also live on base. To make life even more convoluted, his cousin Gari arrives from Seattle to live with him because her mother is being deployed to Iraq. They are assigned to the same class to help Gari fit in, but things go badly between them from the start.
The only good thing that is happening to Bo is his new teacher. Ms. Loupe, who is in her first year of teaching, has a tattoo and is young enough to have been taught by the principal. For Bo the best thing about her is her passion for theater. She engages the class in improv involving a beaten up couch, and Bo discovers in himself a talent for acting that previous teachers had seen as a propensity to talk and goof-off in class. His enthusiasm grows until he discovers that the big theater camp that the teacher is planning will be held next summer. He will be gone then, when his family is sent to their next military assignment, which makes Bo furious with the military lifestyle.
Ms. Loupe also gets the class working on a project to send supplies to her brother, who is stationed in Afghanistan. When her brother is declared missing in action, Ms. Loupe is understandably distraught, and Bo’s whole class want to help. In the most moving part of the book Bo, his cousin Gari, Ms. Loupe’s entire class and finally the whole community find a way to work together and, if not fix the unfixable, at least make things better. In the process they learn about each other, themselves, friendship and community.
In turn hilarious and heartbreaking, Operation Yes is aimed at middle grades, but has a lot to offer adults. As a librarian I love the literary profanity that the school librarian indulges in : “‘Frog and Toad!’ Miss Candy said. ‘Not again!’” or “Green Eggs and Ham!” I am doing a project on books featuring children with parents in U.S. military, and some of these books are impossible to get through without crying. Operation Yes is definitely in this category. Read it for a moving portrait of a community coming together or an accurate depiction of the military family lifestyle.
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“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”
If you feel your life is short on meaning, a book club might help. Book clubs are great. I trust the members of my book club to recommend books that sound wonderful— for example I realize I really like character-driven, women’s, historical fiction and I am always keen to hear about the new titles they suggest. But my book club may be even better for getting me off my chuff to read things that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that may have intrigued me enough to pick up in the library, but it would have sat unread on my bedside table for weeks if not for my upcoming book club meeting.
It is a dense and sometimes disturbing read, but my head was bursting with ideas after getting through it. And then after discussing it with my book club, my head and heart were even closer to bursting. The cover of the copy I have says that there are over 12 million copies in print, so it is a book that has spoken directly to millions of people.
The author, Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who attributed his survival in part to his abiding belief that, even in a concentration camp, his life had meaning. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945 and it is remarkably without bitterness for a book written so soon after the horrific events that he describes. Viktor Frankl developed a form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, which literally means the therapy of meaning. This is a book whose message can be interpreted in religious terms, but it is also extremely meaningful to people without a stated belief or formal religion. In modern times, perhaps more than ever in human existence, we are expected to be happy all the time, and increasingly if we are not happy, then we are seen as ill. To this idea Viktor Frankl said:
I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”
Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I recommend for everyone. At some time or another most of us suffer from some form of existential angst and this is a wonderful book to put things in perspective. It is dense and full of weighty philosophical insights, but it is very readable, and if you are lucky, you may even have a book club to discuss it with.
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Suzanne Collins achieved fame through her dark and dystopian Hunger Games series. Her latest offering is neither a dystopian tale nor a children’s fantasy series; instead she has written a picture book. Year of the Jungle is four-year-old child’s view of Suzanne Collins’s own experiences when her father was deployed to Vietnam in 1968.
Because Year of the Jungle is the newest book from a bestselling author, it has garnered a lot of attention. One review said that it would “bewilder” its intended audience of small children. Considering that over two million American children have had a parent deployed since 9/11, it must be a familiar story to many. Of course not all of them had exactly the same experience as Suzanne Collins, but many have had similar enough experiences that they will not be bewildered by this book.
Suzy hears that her father “has to go to something called a war,” leaving her not knowing “what anybody’s talking about.” She also learns that he will be in a jungle. Suzy knows about jungles from cartoons so she pictures her father in a happy place among her favorite cartoon characters. In a strong portrayal of a small child’s misunderstanding of the passage of time, Suzy is confused about the length of the year he will be away. The book portrays Suzy’s growing unease as adults give her unlooked-for sympathy, showing how adults can make things worse, even though they are trying to be kind. Suzy loves getting her father’s postcards, but they start coming less frequently and start to change. But for a child about to turn five the most devastating thing is the realization that he sent a birthday greeting to the wrong sibling. In the illustrations the cartoon jungle full of round and smiling animals changes into a far more sinister place with images of violence and fear.
It is hard not to speculate how Suzanne Collins’s early experiences influenced her imagination when writing her undoubtedly dark and violent Hunger Games series. As an excellent writer she has captured and condensed a world of childhood experiences into a very few words. James Proimos’ illustrations are of a rough cartoonish style that at first glance I didn’t find very attractive, but they do a great job of capturing Suzy’s innocence and her unusually early realization of the dangers of the world.
This is a picture book designed to be read aloud, and a parent or caregiver can judge if it is the right book for their child. I think it could be useful for young military children as it is ultimately comforting when her father returns safely, although it is so dark in places that an adult should read it first and decide if it is appropriate. I also recommend it for adults who are interested in Suzanne Collins, military children’s experience, or a darker picture book.
Check the WRL catalog for Year of the Jungle.
To tell the truth, no librarian should have favorite books. There are too many out there to read, too many different circumstances under which to read them, too many ages at which to discover that a book you hated now speaks to you or one you loved falls flat. Under theoretical laboratory conditions, though, I might have to admit that I do have favorites, and that several of them are by Stephen King. The Stand. Salem’s Lot. Christine. The Green Mile. The Dead Zone. Night Shift. And, of course, The Shining. I still remember sitting by a pool in 95-degree weather and shivering as a snowstorm sealed me into the Overlook Hotel with the Torrance family and the reanimated dead.
Now King has returned to continue Danny Torrance’s story in Doctor Sleep. (And if you haven’t read The Shining, forget this review and go get that book. Seriously.) Of course, time has passed and Danny, now Dan, is all grown up. But the combined burdens of his childhood, his family’s history of drinking, and his dubious gift have left him a place no reader would have wanted to see the tow-headed little boy.
Dan is a drunk. A drifter, a brawler, sleeping with strangers who promise another high, or in a culvert if he has to choose between the price of a bottle and a bed. A full-blown alcoholic who hits his personal bottom early in the story, he spends the course of the novel running from his shame.
The thing is, Dan still has his shine, that ability to glimpse things that were or that are or that will be. It helps him reach in and hold the essential part of other people, and gives him extraordinary empathy. When he can hold down a job. But that same empathy gives him haunting visions that he cannot evade. This time, the shine guides him to a small town in New Hampshire, where he thinks he might be able to start again. Through the good graces of another person with just a little bit of the shine, and with the help of a hard-ass AA sponsor, Dan Torrance quits drinking. He also goes to work at the local hospice, where he and the resident cat comfort the dying and guide them to the threshold of whatever lies beyond.
But there are other special people out there in the world, and Dan becomes a sort of unwilling fulcrum between them. On one side is Abra, a young teenaged girl who out-shines Dan like a lighthouse outshines a flashlight; on the other, the True Knot, a band of psychic vampires who live on the pain and fear of children. Led by the horrific Rose the Hat (and like all subcultures, the Knot has insider names and public names), the Knot travels in a caravan of campers seeking out fresh victims. During their time off the road, they lie up in a charming Colorado campsite with a plaque that designates it as the site of the now-destroyed Overlook Hotel. When the True Knot detects Abra’s ability, they know that they could feed on her for decades, if they can seize and control her. Dan Torrance must pit his lesser abilities and Abra’s immature skills against Rose’s blind greed and power to save the girl and destroy the Knot. If he can survive the place of his own fears.
Like the best of King’s fiction, Doctor Sleep excels at framing the relationships between imperfect people drawn together to face an impossibly evil power. Sometimes those relationships are deep bonds: parent and child, teacher and student. Sometimes they are forged in hellish fires, as Dan discovers through his AA sponsors and supporters. And sometimes they erupt from the unlikeliest of sources to create the possibility of redemption. Maybe that’s the real reason I shouldn’t have favorite books: too many unlikely sources, too much need for redemption, too little time to find either.
Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Sleep
Although I most frequently read mysteries, fantasy, 19th century novels, and Southern fiction, something keeps bringing me back to Peter Høeg’s writing, though these stories in many ways fall outside my usual scope. While Smilla’s Sense of Snow was sort of a mystery, it was not particularly traditional, and Høeg’s The Quiet Girl is a peculiarly appealing blend of genres and styles. I think that it is the beauty of Høeg’s writing that keeps me on the lookout for his books on the new fiction shelves.
If you enjoy thoughtful, well-crafted sentences, along with occasional flashes of humor, you will find much to like in Høeg’s most recent novel, The Elephant Keeper’s Children. The novel follows the adventures and misadventures of Peter, the narrator, Tilte, and Hans, whose parents have disappeared off the fictional island of Finø, off the coast of Denmark. The children’s father is a church pastor, and as Peter tells it, his parents are not above manufacturing miraculous events to draw people to their church. With their parents gone, Peter and his sister Tilte set out to find out what they are up to this time, with help from their older brother Hans and a variety of unexpected acquaintances. As in any thriller, help appears when it is least expected, and shifting allegiances make the search even more challenging. Along the way, the pair encounters angry bishops, unstable teachers, a romantic pair of police officers, and terrorists aiming to explode a bomb at an ecumenical gathering. Høeg has an excellent feel for pacing a story, and his characters are all memorable.
But the book is not just a tour-de-force of fine writing. Høeg explores fundamentalism and belief, the power of love, and ultimately the nature of what it means to be human. With Peter as our guide, we come to see the world in a new way, to look for those “openings” that lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and each other, and that allow us to escape from the rooms that we put ourselves in. The title of the book is taken from an “old Indian saying”
In case you wish to befriend an elephant keeper,
make certain to have room for the elephant.
Check the catalog for The Elephant Keeper’s Children
This hard-hitting historical novel is a “companion book” to the Edgar award-winning Code Name Verity, with which it shares a World War II setting and a handful of characters.
Rose Justice is an 18-year-old American pilot with England’s civilian Air Transport Auxiliary. Only recently arrived in England, she’s chirpy and excited about her work and a little naïve. She dismisses rumors of terrible things happening in German prison camps as propaganda. And one day, returning from a flight over France, she flies off course—while tipping a bomb out of the air, may I add—and suddenly two Luftwaffe jets are escorting her into Germany. Mis-classified with a group of French political prisoners, Rose is sent to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück.
She has entered a different world. In six months, from September 1944 to March 1945, Rose has any remaining naïveté starved and frozen and beaten out of her, until the appalling becomes ordinary. She is taken under the protection of the Rabbits (we would say “guinea pigs”): Polish prisoners, mostly students, on whom the camp doctors have run unconscionable medical experiments. The Rabbits know that they will all be executed eventually, but various means of evasion may keep them hidden away for another week, or day… in perpetual hope that the war will end and someone will survive to let the world know what happened in this place.
Rose’s narrative is written after she escapes Ravensbrück. A survivor in a sort of post-war limbo, Rose is also concerned with how to return to “real life.” Having sworn to herself and others to “tell the world” about the atrocities at the camp, she isn’t even able to describe the experience to her family. The Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg suggests one path to closure by way of judgment and retribution, but Rose is looking for other ways to redeem her experience.
A poet as well as a pilot, she creates a pilot’s metaphor—lift and weight, thrust and drag—to describe the forces that fueled her survival during and after the prison camp. Obviously, Rose Under Fire is a story carrying a lot of weight. It’s the strong relationships between very different women—women from the French resistance, Night and Fog agents, Girl Scout saboteurs and Soviet bomber pilots—that give the novel lift as well.
Check the WRL catalog for Rose Under Fire.
Ruined is a hauntingly mysterious ghost story that takes place in the heart of New Orleans. When Rebecca finds out that she has to leave her beloved hometown of NYC for a few months while her father is away in China for business, and stay with a little-known family friend in New Orleans, she is mortified. What about her friends? What about school? But there’s no choice, and Rebecca soon finds herself in the heart of the Big Easy, wandering through the Garden District and casting curious glances at the cemetery down the street from her “Aunt’s” house.
When she follows a group of the popular, old-money kids from her new private school into the cemetery one night, she surprisingly encounters a lonely girl, about her age, wearing a slightly torn dress. Interested but concerned that she will be discovered by the other teens, Rebecca asks the girl for a way out of the cemetery and runs off. As the days go by, Rebecca finds herself thinking more and more about the girl in the graveyard. When she returns a few nights later, Rebecca once again talks to the girl, but can’t help thinking there is something a little off about her. It is only when the girl, Lisette, takes her hand and she becomes invisible to the living that Rebecca makes a startling realization. Lisette is a ghost. But there’s a lot more than that to the story.
Once Rebecca looks into Lisette’s past, and her death, a shocking trail of clues, curses and hundred-year-old buried secrets comes to light. And the rich and powerful of the city are willing to do anything to keep the past hidden and their good names intact. A chilling tale with not only mystery and intrigue but also cultural detail and historical insight, this story will appeal to a range of readers.
Check the WRL catalog for Ruined.
Altered is a thrill ride from the beginning to the last page. We immediately meet Anna, who lives with her father in a rather isolated farmhouse. Anna and her father share some weekly traditions, like fresh lemonade and homemade cookies. She is also home schooled and learns not only the academic side of things but some tough hand-to-hand combat courses as well. However, the best part of Anna’s routine is her work, which she also shares with her father. Together they administer treatments and monitor the four teen boys who inhabit their basement. The boys have each been “altered” in some way, but the details are unknown.
Anna and her father work for “The Branch,” a completely secretive organization that they themselves know very little about. As readers, we demand answers. But the author seems skilled at giving little away, especially upfront. This incredible amount of “holding back” will keep readers flying through the pages on a search to know “why, who and how.” Each boy has a distinct personality; there’s Nick, resentful and angry, Cas, fun and playful, Trev, soft-hearted and exceedingly intelligent and Sam, the quintessential silent and strong leader who has Anna’s heart from the start.
When The Branch comes to retrieve the boys, Sam creates an escape and Anna’s father demands that she go with them, making Anna question everything she knows. As the boys hunt for clues to their pasts (which proves difficult as they cannot remember anything before the lab), Anna is searching for answers of her own. What the boys discover will shatter not only their own worlds, but Anna’s as well. The first in a series, Altered promises an exciting ride to readers who are desperate to find out the truth behind The Branch and the lives of everyone involved.
Check the WRL catalog for Altered.
It’s a wonder anyone lives in England, given the high murder rate and what must be a tough housing market for both amateur and professional detectives. And with all those historical figures taking on investigations in the US and UK, it’s a wonder they had time to write, make movies, or run their political careers. So when I was looking for a good mystery, I decided I’d steer clear of the usual place and time settings and give another location a shot. Outsider in Amsterdam happened to come to the fore. And what a unique tone and feel the city brings to this mystery.
Amsterdam in 1975 is a unique mix. The Dutch are still fully aware of the cost of the breakup of their empire, but not tolerant of the still-loyal castoffs of their former colonies. They are almost uniformly conformist to the laws that keep the city orderly, but don’t hesitate to cheat on their taxes or hire illegal immigrants. Hard drugs are anathema, but heroin addicts get treatment, including small doses of the real thing. Cops like Henk Grijpstra and Rinus DeGier spend most of their time handling petty crimes while waiting for more serious crimes to come up.
When Piet Verboom, master of a hybrid Eastern religious movement, is reported dangling from a noose in his office, Grijpstra and DeGier are assigned to investigate. The case appears open-and-shut, but of course small inconsistencies catch their interest–where is the money from the members-only restaurant and bar? Why did Verboom’s wife leave him? Why are all his employees happy to see him gone? And why is a former high-ranking constable in the Dutch colonial police, a Papuan, living practically rent-free in the building?
The investigation is driven more by their intuition and unwillingness to let even small details go than by strict procedure. When that intuition pays off, they must chase a dangerously clever criminal through Amsterdam’s narrow streets and over canals, and out onto Holland’s Inland Lake, but they net more than they initially bargained for.
As solid as the mystery portion of the story is, van de Wetering introduces solid characters for this first entry in a series. Grijpstra is a rumpled middle-aged family man willing to do almost anything to get away from his wife and (hinted at) children. DeGier is well-dressed, handsome, and a bachelor content with his surly cat, a houseplant on the balcony, and occasional female companionship. In many ways they are fairly innocent–they don’t have the innate wariness that marks most urban cops, and they don’t have so many difficult crimes to investigate that they are jaded.
There’s also some humor in the story, especially surrounding the running of the police budget. What do they do when the last VW is checked out of the police lot? Is it easier to walk to the crime scene or to catch a streetcar and submit for reimbursement? Can DeGier get expenses for a date with a potential witness if he sleeps with her?
Although WRL only has seven of the fourteen books, I’m looking forward to venturing through Amsterdam with van de Wetering as my guide.
Check the WRL catalog for Outsider in Amsterdam