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A suggestion a day from the Williamsburg Regional Library
Updated: 10 min 21 sec ago

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

11 hours 9 min ago

Louis Malle’s 1958 crime thriller Elevator to the Gallows opens with a deceptively ordinary telephone conversation.

Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) appear to be a pair of lovers innocently planning a passionate rendezvous. Their ardor is palpable and their sentiments are almost poetic. “I won’t leave you, Julien,” Florence tells him, her eyes brimming with tears. “Without your voice, I’d be lost in a sea of silence,” Julien replies. Then the conversation takes an ominous turn. They make plans to meet later that evening at a café once Julien removes the one obstacle standing in the way of their happiness—Florence’s husband and Julien’s boss, Simon Carala (Jean Wall), a wealthy arms dealer.

Julien carries out his plan with calm and calculating efficiency. A former Foreign Legion parachutist, he uses his military training to secretly enter Simon’s office. The men have a brief confrontation before Julien shoots Simon, staging the scene to look like a suicide. Julien slips out of the building the same way he entered and conceals the evidence before getting in his car. As he prepares to leave the office, he glances up and discovers he’s left behind a critical piece of evidence. Julien races back into the building to retrieve the incriminating item; however, as he’s riding up in the elevator, a maintenance worker turns the power off, trapping him between floors. Shortly after Julien goes back to the office, his car is spotted by a young couple, Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Véronique (Yori Bertin). Louis has a criminal record, but that doesn’t deter him from stealing Julien’s car, taking Véronique along for the ride. Later that evening, the couple drives past the café where Florence and Julien planned to meet. Florence sees the car speed past the café and believes that Julien has run off with another woman. While Julien struggles to find a way out of the elevator, a despondent Florence wanders the streets of Paris looking for him. Meanwhile, Louis and Véronique continue their crime spree in Julien’s car. They know Julien and his background, and in addition to stealing his car, they check into a hotel under the name Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier. This scheme sets in motion a series of events that could separate Florence and Julien forever.

Elevator to the Gallows is a well-constructed thriller that moves at a brisk and tense pace. Instead of relying on surprise plot twists to generate suspense, Malle effectively uses the consequences of the characters’ actions to heighten the tension. It is also a rather stylish and atmospheric film. Henri Decaë’s glorious black and white cinematography and Miles Davis’s distinctive and moody score bathe the action in an air of melancholy.

The mood of the film is also reflected in the performances. As the desperate Florence, Jeanne Moreau brings a heartbreaking vulnerability that’s echoed by Maurice Ronet as Julien, her equally besotted lover. Although their phone conversation sets the murder plot in motion, Moreau and Ronet do not share any scenes together; however, they are convincing as a couple willing to do whatever it takes to be together.

A classic example of French New Wave Cinema, Elevator to the Gallows is one of Louis Malle’s best films.

Elevator to the Gallows is in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Elevator to the Gallows.


Il Postino: The Postman (1994)

Mon, 2015-03-30 01:01

April is National Poetry Month, and today’s review centers on a film that celebrates the beauty of poetry—Il Postino: The Postman, a whimsical tale of the friendship between a postman and a famous poet.

Based on Antonio Skármeta’s novel Ardiente Paciencia, the film is set in the early ‘50s in a remote Italian village. Lifelong resident Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi) lives with his father, a fisherman. One of the few literate people in the community, Mario’s a simple man whose knowledge of life outside the village comes from newsreels at the cinema and the occasional postcard from relatives in America.

Life passes uneventfully in the village until the day Mario sees a newsreel announcing the arrival of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret). Neruda has been exiled from his native country for political reasons and he plans to stay in the village until he can safely return to Chile. Mario’s unfamiliar with Neruda’s poetry, but he’s impressed by his celebrity status, especially his adoring female fans.

Neruda’s arrival provides Mario with an unexpected job opportunity. The local postmaster needs a temporary postman to deliver mail to Neruda. Eager to learn how he can impress women, Mario accepts the job and begins an awkward, but persistent, campaign to become friends with Neruda. Charmed by Mario’s earnest attempts to understand poetic conventions, Neruda becomes a friend and mentor to the shy postman. When Mario falls in love with Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the niece of the village’s café owner, he uses Neruda’s advice—and his poetry—to win her heart.

Il Postino is a charming film that gently and eloquently explores the transformative power of friendship and poetry. Mario has a great enthusiasm for life, but a limited frame of reference until he meets Neruda. He’s eager to understand Neruda’s work and his discussions with the poet introduce him to new ways of expressing his thoughts and feelings. As his friendship with Neruda blossoms, he demonstrates a newfound level of confidence in the way he speaks and carries himself. It’s a subtle change beautifully captured by Massimo Troisi’s elegant and understated performance. Philippe Noiret is delightful as Neruda, and under Michael Radford’s deft direction the friendship between Mario and Neruda never feels forced or gimmicky. Neruda’s poetry is an integral part of the plot, and the poems used in the film are a perfect fit for the central themes and storyline.

Il Postino was the final film of Massimo Troisi, who also co-wrote the screenplay. A case of rheumatic fever as a child left him with a serious heart condition and he needed a heart transplant. He postponed the surgery so he could finish the film. In June 1994, he died of a heart attack hours after completing the project. He received posthumous Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay; the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and Luis Bacalov won for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score.

The film received a new round of publicity several years ago when opera composer and librettist Daniel Catán developed an operatic version. The opera, featuring tenor Plácido Domingo as Pablo Neruda, opened in 2010 to positive reviews.

Il Postino: The Postman is in Italian with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Il Postino: The Postman

WRL has several collections of Neruda’s poetry, including The Poetry of Pablo Neruda


Christmas at Downton Abbey

Fri, 2015-03-27 01:01

At Williamsburg Regional Library we face a problem common to many public libraries; seasonal items are, well, seasonal. The hold lists for the most popular Christmas DVDs, CDs and books gather steam in late November and peak just before Christmas, so many people find they are finally getting their Christmas items in January or later. For me this was a happy circumstance. Christmas is over, but our wintry weather isn’t, so I have been enjoying Downton Abbey’s magnificent music CD well into March.

This two-disc set has almost fifty tracks performed by a variety of artists, including famous singers like Kiri Te Kanawa and the Choir of the Kings College Cambridge. They showcase a variety styles but there are no rock versions; all the music is traditional. With my astounding musical knowledge I would describe them as “tinkly.” The tracks range from single voices (O Holy Night) to joyful and uplifting choir numbers (Joy to the World, The Lord is Come) to somber organ music (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen) to instrumental (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy).

Even if you don’t have a voice like Kiri Te Kanawa (I’m guilty!) these are wonderful songs for singing along. Some beloved Christmas carols have been sung for hundreds of years and are the Christmas songs of millions of childhoods.  I may not be able to hold a tune but I know all the words to Good King Wenceslas, and I feel better for belting them out on my commute. I have to admit that I have gotten some funny looks at traffic lights but I know confining my sing-alongs to my car is better for everyone’s health and safety. I suspect if I sang along at work I might find myself out the window despite (or because of) any winter storm warnings

I recommend this CD for all year long (coming from the southern hemisphere, I’ve always been a bit seasonally confused when it comes to Christmas). You don’t have to be a Downton Abbey fan to need and enjoy comforting, inspiring music that will get you out there exercising your lungs!

Check the WRL catalog for Christmas at Downton Abbey.


Animal Architecture, by Ingo Arndt

Thu, 2015-03-26 01:01

From its arresting cover to its fantastic photographs to its quirky animal facts, Animal Architecture is a winner for art lovers, photographers, and nature lovers.

The term “architecture” usually means buildings. In this book the term can mean structures made of materials from outside of an animal’s body, such as a bird’s nest or beaver dam. It can also mean structures made with materials from animal’s bodies such as webs, or even ones that stay on their bodies such as shells.

Some of the featured animals are very small, such as the caddis fly, but the sparkling photographs with black backgrounds show every hair-like appendage on the tiny creature’s body and every minute piece of wood, stone, leaf, shell or straw in the amazing cases that they build to protect their soft bodies. The photograph with the largest scale goes to another of the smallest animals. The compass termite in northern Australia builds 3 meter (10 feet) high mounds and the aerial photographs taken at dawn and dusk show a flat semiarid field with long shadows highlighting hundreds of aerie gravestones. On any scale, we are not the only creatures who can mold our environment. The changes can be destructive for the host like the galleries of the bark beetle larvae or cause great changes to the entire local environment like beaver dams, termite mounds, or coral reefs.

The photographer, Ingo Arndt, has won numerous awards and been published by National Geographic and it’s easy to see why. These photographs are immediately arresting but also bear long study to examine the intricacies of the galleries of the bark beetle larvae, the bower bird’s opus, or the staggering variety of corals. The text by Jurgen Tautz takes up less space but it provides clear and digestable chunks of information about these spectacular architects.

Try Animal Architecture if you like the spectacular nature photography of The Oldest Living Things in the World, by Rachel Sussman, The Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger or Sea, by Mark Laita. Or if you are interested in the substances that these creatures use try Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik.

Check the WRL catalog for Animal Architecture.


Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe, by William Rosen

Wed, 2015-03-25 01:01

Five centuries after the birth of Christ the ancient Mediterranean world was booming; architecture, literature, trade, and philosophy, were experiencing great leaps in development. In Constantinople, Justinian was trying to hold together the Roman Empire despite inroads from barbarians from all directions. By all accounts he was an able (if at times brutal) leader, but he was unable to fight the first pandemic of Bubonic plague. From 541-542 it is estimated to have killed 25 million people, depopulating cities and perhaps leading to the shape of the modern world from the European nation states to the rise of Islam.

Justinian’s Flea tells this story with sections ranging from the biology of rats, and their passengers of fleas and Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague), to the political intrigues of Justinian’s Court. The author has brought together disparate disciplines and facts including climate estimates from tree rings, the technological advances of ancient warfare, grave sites, and notarized wills. The book is fleshed out with wrenching quotes from contemporary accounts such as the prolific Procopius who said “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.”

Justinian’s Flea is a weighty but readable tome and since I don’t usually read nonfiction history, I learned an enormous amount.  I lean towards science nonfiction and this book is a great companion for other books about the role of diseases in human history such as The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy,  Plague: A Very Short Introduction by  Paul Slack or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

For fiction readers, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which is set in the time of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague 600 years later), includes harrowing descriptions of the disease and the effects on people even if they survived. For those interested in visuals you could also try the History Channel DVD The Dark Ages.

Check the WRL catalog for Justinian’s Flea.


Avatar: The Last Airbender

Tue, 2015-03-24 01:01

I know that having children is a life-enriching experience but I didn’t expect my almost-grown children to get me hooked on an initially unappealing children’s T.V. show; Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. At first the cartoons and martial arts action seemed cheesy, but the show delivers a compelling story filled with friendship, family (good and bad), coming of age, and sympathetic but realistically flawed characters.

The story is set in a fascinating universe where certain people have an innate ability to move and control physical matter, called bending. All benders can move only one element: either earth, water, air or fire. All, that is, except the Avatar who can bend all four, and this power is meant to be used to keep balance and harmony in the world. The Avatar disappeared over one hundred years ago which allowed the Fire Nation to wage a war to take over the world. In the first episode our heroes Katara and Sokka discover that the Avatar, Aang, has been frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years as a twelve-year-old boy. The three of them set off on journeys and adventures all around the world, gathering friends and enemies, such as plump, kindly General Iroh who dispenses sage advice and cups of tea, or short, blind Toph who seems helpless, but is much tougher than everyone else. The situation often looks dire, but as Katara says in the opening sequence, “I believe Aang can save the world.”

The well-developed universe includes real martial art systems as the basis for each type of bending and buildings, costumes and cultures based on real ancient Asian cultures (although sometimes mixed). But the best invention may be the chimeric animals! Aang has a huge, furry, guinea-pig-shaped Flying Bison named Appa that you can’t possibly see without wanting one.

There are many spin-off works such as the sequel The Legend of Korra  which expands on the story of the Avatar. It occurs seventy years later than Avatar: The Last Airbender and features that show’s character’s children and grandchildren. They live in Republic City which bears an uncanny resemblance to 1920s New York City.  There are also graphic novels some of which are drawn by the same artists and include original stories that are not in the original show like Avatar the Last Airbender: The Promise.

Like Doctor Who or Spirited Away this is great for the whole family to watch together. The stories are simple enough (and active enough) to appeal to the youngest set while the geopolitical wrangling and character development is enough to keep adults coming back for more.

Check the WRL catalog for Avatar: The Last Airbender.


Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals, by John P. Hunter

Mon, 2015-03-23 01:01

It can be fun working right next to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum; not only do we get to see Thomas Jefferson wandering along the street texting, but we also get to walk past old-fashioned zigzag, split rail fences and see fields of farm animals in the middle of the city.

Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals is a great way to learn about these animals. It includes sections on cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, pigeons, fish, horses and pets, with simple, clear descriptions of animal management and use, in both colonial times and the present day. It points out that in colonial times animals shared people’s daily lives in a way that they don’t often do today. Of course the colonists used the meat, milk, eggs, and wool from their animals but there were also surprising uses such as including animal hair in plaster for house building, which Colonial Williamsburg brickmakers still do, as they always strive for authenticity.

Modern farm animals have been bred for specific traits over the last several hundred years so to be authentic, Colonial Williamsburg has researched, bought and raised rare breeds such as the Leicester Longwool Sheep. Their research includes works written by the colonialists so Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future has several quotes from George Washington about how he managed his animals.

The text explains and complements the pictures, but like the other books about Colonial Williamsburg Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future is an enjoyable and worthwhile book just for the photos. Every page includes wonderful photographs of the interpreters in costumes performing their farming tasks by hand, as well as photographs of the animals as they go about their lives.

This book is great to read with other Colonial Williamsburg titles: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene, or The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It also includes the history of chickens which you can learn about in greater depth from Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.

Check the WRL catalog for Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future.


Baa-bara who came to meet children at Williamsburg Regional Library’s “Sheepish Storytime” on February 21.


Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher

Fri, 2015-03-20 13:23

I am always on the lookout for academic fiction. I love novels set in English departments and featuring an amusing cast of characters—David Lodge, Michael Malone, James Hynes, Richard Russo, and Jon Hassler are among my favorites. Now I can add Julie Schumacher to the list.

Told as a series of one-sided letters of recommendation, this novel is both funny and poignant. The protagonist, and writer of recommendations, is Jason Fitger, a tenured English professor at Payne, a not so highly rated Midwest university. The letters here are for students, some of whom he has never taught but who are desperate for a recommendation for a job or a fellowship, and for fellow faculty members and college staff.

Fitger’s voice is the only one we hear, and he is in turn cranky, sarcastic, and petulant, but he is also concerned about his students’ well-being and clearly cares deeply for his friends and colleagues, even those with whom he has fallen out over the years. At first the book seems mostly a satire, but as you get into the story, the letters reveal the story of Fitger’s life, his struggles as a writer, and his contention with the human condition. He becomes a character for whom the reader cares, and the end of the novel is both somber and redemptive.

Check the WRL catalog for Dear Committee Members


Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke

Thu, 2015-03-19 01:01

Charlotte’s post about Lloyd Alexander got me thinking about books for younger readers that are also of interest to adults. I think that Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart and its sequels, Inkspell  and Inkdeath fill the bill here. Although they are marketed as young adult fiction, they will work equally well for anyone who is a fantasy fan.

These are very literary stories, premised on the ability of the some characters to read people in and out of fictional tales while reading aloud. It sounds like a great idea at first, but the problem is that when something is read out of a story, something present in the real world is read into the story. Meggie, our heroine, is the daughter of a bookbinder named Mo, and she wonders why he will not read her stories from books. We discover that Meggie lost her mother when Mo accidentally reads her into a dark tale. Worse, Mo has read out of the story its arch villain, Capricorn, who is bent on getting back into his story and uses Meggie as a tool to coerce Mo into once again reading aloud.

As Meggie and Mo are pursued, captured, and attempt to escape, they meet with unexpected help, are betrayed by some that they thought true, and must rely on the power of language to face Capricorn and his men. Funke tells a delightful though dark tale about the power of words and the love of books and reading. It is a great story for anyone who shares that love.

Check the WRL catalog for Inkheart


All Things Reconsidered, Roger Tory Peterson

Wed, 2015-03-18 01:01

At first, it sounds like some sort of NPR show or something, but All Things Reconsidered is actually a delightful collection of essays that Roger Tory Peterson published in Bird Watcher’s Digest over the last decade and a bit of his life. Peterson’s name is a household word among birders, and his Field Guide to the Birds can be found all over the country, often in tattered, field-worn condition (my personal copy is taped together and dates from ornithology class at William and Mary ca. 1982).

In addition to being an excellent illustrator, Peterson is an engaging writer, with an obvious affection for and appreciation of the natural world. Whether writing about confusing fall warblers, birding in Kenya, or the renaissance of the Peregrine Falcon, Peterson’s clear prose style and narrative line are a delight to the ear, and the photographs and drawings are a delight for the eye. These are personal stories, introducing the reader to many of the characters of the bird world, both avian and human. They also are a fascinating look at the environmental and citizen science movements over the years, as seen through Peterson’s life and work.

Another great collection of stories to prepare you for observing spring migration.

Check the WRL catalog for All Things Reconsidered


Songbird Journeys, by Miyoko Chu

Tue, 2015-03-17 01:01

It is Spring once again (or almost anyway) and soon the Williamsburg area will begin to see migrant birds coming through on their way North. After a long, cold Winter, it is a joy to get outside and be alert to what birds might appear today. It is almost as good to be inside reading Miyoko Chu’s fascinating book about bird migration.

Chu, who works at the acclaimed Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, has written a book anyone who loves birds should read. It is a deft blend of science and history, along with practical information about watching migrant birds at the different seasons of the year. Chu covers topics from birdsong to nesting to banding in her discussion of migrating birds. Her narrative style moves easily from the specific (looking at a particular species’ migratory habits) to the general (examining how habitat loss at either end of the migration affects bird populations). Her writing is crisp and elegant, and always accessible for the lay reader.

Anyone who enjoys birding will find something to like here. It is a great book for those rainy days where the birds are not calling or moving much.

Check the WRL catalog for Songbird Journeys


Epitaph, by Mary Doria Russell

Mon, 2015-03-16 01:01

Back in 2012, I wrote about Mary Doria Russell’s superb historical novel Doc, where she relates the backstory of the gunfight at OK Corral, looking at the early lives of Doc Holliday and the Earps. I am happy to report that she does an equally excellent job in her newest novel Epitaph, bringing the story forward through the incident in Tombstone and beyond.

As in the earlier story, Russell focuses on characters and there are lots of them in this story. While not quite as complicated as a Russian novel, the cast here is large and you have to pay attention. This is in part because of the fluid nature of the relationships between the characters–friends, or at least drinking buddies, one day and then deadly enemies the next.

In many ways this is a sadder and darker story than Doc. Where the first story was haunted by premonitions of death, death is constantly present in Epitaph. There is also the pain of seeing relationships that seemed so strong in Doc, especially between Wyatt and Holliday, be tried, and sometimes found wanting. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the Western history, or in the study of human nature, will find much to enjoy in this somber sequel.

Check the WRL catalog for Epitaph


The Martian, by Andy Weir

Fri, 2015-03-13 01:01

If ever there was a book guaranteed to make you wish you’d paid attention in high school science classes, The Martian is it.

The story’s hero, Mark Watney, must have broken a mirror while walking under a ladder with a black cat on another Friday the 13th. When the story begins, he is stranded on Mars, thought dead by his crew and mission control. A fierce Martian windstorm has forced his exploration team to evacuate the surface, and an accident during the process destroyed the life support telemetry of his suit. Coming to and finding himself alone on the planet and discovering that he has no radio to contact the crew or NASA nearly crushes Mark. But a creative and indomitable spirit keeps him going as he reconfigures the living quarters, begins working out how he’ll survive until the next planned landing – which is 3000 kilometers away and a couple of years off – and looks for ways to communicate with Earth.

Most of the story is told in first person through the logs Watney keeps of his work and experiments in survival. These are not official or officious, but personal, wisecracking, and profane. Sometimes the audience is everyone off the planet Mars and sometimes it seems to be himself as he works out the details of his extraordinary plans. (If the space programs of the world would let their astronauts communicate in a voice like Watney’s, there would probably be more support for interplanetary exploration.)

However, Mark’s efforts to communicate with Earth turn the story’s focus back to our home planet, and to the committed, skillful, and highly individualistic people who will try to rescue Mark. How they deal with the enormous personal and engineering obstacles involved make for as compelling a story as Mark’s survival epic.

In one sense, I suppose the first person to be born or to die in a new place can be called its first citizen. (The terminology of European expansionism in human history aside.) In this case, we are rooting for Mark to not become the first Martian, but in the end of course he does. How he gets to that place is an intensely adventurous and gripping blend of hard science and science fiction. And it forces me to understand that I wouldn’t last ten minutes in Mark’s situation. I’ll take the desert island scenario any day.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Martian


Angry Wind, by Jeffrey Tayler

Thu, 2015-03-12 01:01

The Harmattan is a fierce wind that blows across sub-Saharan Africa, stripping vegetation, drying out watering places, and causing health problems for the inhabitants of the Sahel, as the region is known. The dust clouds it creates can block the sun, and have even been strong enough to lift sand particles which are carried by trade winds as far west as Florida. In Jeffrey Tayler’s skilled hands, the Harmattan becomes a metaphor for the insurmountable problems that affect countries across the widest and poorest part of continent.

Jeffrey Tayler, who served in the Peace Corps and writes for The Atlantic, traveled from Chad to Senegal, encountering first-hand the ancient traditions and modern troubles that define Africa for many Westerners. Fluent in both Arabic and French, he was able to speak with all types of people without the filter of an interpreter. These encounters turned up both superstition and up-to-the minute awareness of international affairs (many people weren’t shy about criticizing the Iraq War, then two years old), but were for the most part genial and even-handed. One tradition, that of hospitality, has not diminished even in the face of desertification, unrest, and religious extremism.

Even ten years after Angry Wind was published it remains a timely read. Boko Haram’s power base is in the Sahel. Niger holds the last spot on the Human Development Index. Mali suffered a revolution co-opted by an al Qaeda offshoot and had to have French assistance to quell it. Chad is overwhelmed by refugees from Darfur, and has a history of coups d’etat that could destabilize the central African region that surrounds it.  And history dominates it all – Tayler finished his journey in the House of Slaves on the Atlantic Coast of Senegal, where men, women, and children from the region would have their final views of Africa. Anyone who wants background on this essential region of a continent headed for its own maturity owes it to themselves to read Tayler’s journey.

Check the WRL catalogue for Angry Wind


Skylight, by Jose Saramago

Wed, 2015-03-11 01:01

Jessica wrote about Jose Saramago‘s works some time ago, citing his dark social satire and language as reasons for his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I didn’t read the two she wrote about, but did read The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, and All the Names. Now, his final work, which is also his first, has been published.

Skylight is the story of six apartments in a single building, each housing people who couldn’t be more different from each other, and nearly all with families divided by their own differences. While disputes among neighbors are a staple of news, drama, and comedy, in the real world, clashes within families are truly more fraught, and so it is with this novel. Skylight is an appropriate name for the way he structured the book, which could be read as a collection of short stories, but which also has a novel’s unity. Like a skylight, it illuminates various parts of the building in turn, revealing the weaknesses and strengths of each resident.

This is not to say that Skylight is perfect, but it is far more mature than a reader can expect a first novel to be. Perhaps that’s because Saramago wrote it in 1953 at the age of 32 after varied experiences as a laborer, office worker, and opponent of the repressive government in a politically-charged Portugal. Perhaps it’s because we have the luxury of knowing where his future writing would go. Saramago’s next novel wouldn’t be published until 1971, and in that time he sharpened both the language and keen eye that won him honors around the world. And those who admire his work should try the writings of JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Raymond Carver or, more recently, Damon Galgut.

Check the WRL catalogue for Skylight


The Swan Gondola, by Timothy Schaffert

Tue, 2015-03-10 01:01

Whatever happened to legendary Worlds’ Fairs and International Expositions? Some left their mark on the landscape. Some became cultural icons long after they ended. Some turned up in unexpected places. Was the idea killed by the Cold War, by television, by this?

For the characters in Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola, the 1898 World’s Fair is the centerpiece of their lives. ‘Ferret’ Skerritt, ventriloquist, literary illusionist, and minor prestidigitator, narrates the tale of that summer, when he fell in love with the mysterious Cecily, discovered the secret she carried in her carpetbag, lost her to millionaire Billy Wakefield, and escaped in a hot air balloon to become the spiritual center of desperate Nebraska farmers.

Like most World’s Fairs, Omaha’s is an illusion, and illusion is at the heart of the story. The gliding alabaster swans are poorly painted and chipped; the marvelous buildings are caked in glass fragments to make them glisten; and daylight reveals the midway’s tawdriness. Everything is false. Except Ferret’s love for Cecily, which he knows is true. Unfortunately, other people are better at manipulating reality or creating illusions far more intricate than Ferret’s basic honesty can conjure.

There’s a sense of doom that pervades the story, but it ends on a redemptive note. Along with the universe of marvelous characters and settings that Schaffert creates, that ultimately makes it an uplifting read.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Swan Gondola


Once an Eagle, by Anton Myrer

Mon, 2015-03-09 01:01

Readers’ Digest Condensed Books takes it on the chin from many quarters – dumbed down books stripped down for readers who place more value on popular titles than quality reads. Looking back at them now, it seems that Readers’ Digest was the only transition from kids’ books to “adult” literature I had access to. My brother and sisters and I would check the mail every day, and when that box turned up it was Katy, bar the door. And while we were waiting there was always the shelf full of previous collections we could grab. Now, most of the books weren’t memorable, but others set me on the path of my pleasure reading, and where’s the harm in that?

Once an Eagle was a transition from my childish understanding of war to a more sober take on its dark and dirty side. The story of one man’s Army career from private in the futile search for Pancho Villa to retired general seeing the early signs of the coming war in Vietnam, it is also the story of the American military through the 20th century.

Sam Damon grows up in a small Midwestern town, hearing tales of glorious and deadly battles from veterans of the Civil War and the Philippine American War. He joins as a private soldier at a time when the Army was considered a refuge for drunks, brutes, and incompetents, but those men become the cadre around which newly-minted civilian soldiers became an Army in 1917. Damon is a powerful leader, inspiring loyalty and pulling reluctant men into his fearless wake. He frightens them, though – in battle he is savage and coldly brilliant, with the mythical luck of the born warrior. His successes earns him medals and brevet promotion, but his first loyalty is with his men. He also comes up against Courtney Massengale, a bloodless, politically-connected West Pointer who sees war as a series of staff exercises, and whose time-in-grade will keep him a half-step ahead of Sam throughout their parallel careers.

After 1918, Sam and his new family begin the grinding tour of moving from one camp to another to study his craft. With the world determinedly turning its back on the horror of the recent war, the Army once again becomes a backwater. But such backwaters creates a sense of community and continuity in their denizens, forming deep friendships and uneasy truces between enemies. It isn’t just the men, either – their wives are their allies, spies, and bulwarks against the maneuvering that might destroy a man’s career. There are also the common soldiers, rootless, bored, underpaid, and kept in line by relentless, sometimes cruel discipline.

Then war comes again, and the officers who have languished in rank are suddenly given armies to train and command. Damon’s war is in the Pacific, where repeated amphibious assaults give way to jungle fighting against an enemy that does not surrender.  As an infantry commander on the beach, Damon has to rely on a Navy with its own agenda, a fledgling Army Air Corps, and a superior officer – Massengale – who still doesn’t see the blood and death his orders cause. Damon must call on his innate skills as a warrior, as a leader, and as a commander who must place professional duty above personal sacrifice. In the wake of the war, with no political patronage, those qualities get him put on the shelf. Until he’s needed to investigate a local brushfire war threatening American interests.

Myrer’s control over both his characters and their situations makes it easy to keep up with, even care about, the myriad of people who must populate a book about armies and war. Even after so long, I’m pretty sure I could even tell you what characters appear in what parts of the story and what their relationship to Damon is. Myrer’s descriptions of battle are detailed and horrible enough to strip the shine off the techo-thrillers and are reminders that war is, after all, friend only to the undertaker. I’m pretty sure Sam Damon would agree with Edwin Starr.

Revisiting the book as an adult, I made an interesting discovery about the condensation process Readers’ Digest used on this particular story. A significant section that has Damon travelling to China to observe the Communist guerrilla war against the Japanese. A heroic Chinese commander teaches him about both ideology and tactics, striking a sympathetic chord in both character and reader. That section was completely missing from the digested version, possibly because, up until recently, Reader’s Digest was a leading anti-Communist voice in American society. On the other hand, that same conservative approach took a lot of sex out of other books they condensed, which probably made it more palatable for the parents of pre-teens and adolescents like me and my siblings. Middlebrow? Maybe. But re-reading The Outsiders and Go Ask Alice wouldn’t have led me to travel through the lives and stories of so many different people and kept me reading until it became an indispensable part of my life.

Check the WRL catalog for Once an Eagle

Sam Elliott also starred as Sam Damon in an NBC miniseries that follows the novel pretty closely.


Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, by Frank J. Barrett

Fri, 2015-03-06 01:01

Yes to the Mess introduced an entirely new model among leadership and business titles, and Frank J. Barrett, a jazz musician himself, brilliantly succeeds at utilizing real-life examples to illustrate that the risk-taking and improvisational mentality practiced by jazz musicians is akin to what successful business leaders do. One example is the accidental invention story of Play-Doh (and its patent), resulting from letting Cincinnati school kids fool around with a sticky wallpaper cleaner and finding it the perfect modeling clay for youngsters. Practicing the art of jazz improvisation through risk-taking in today’s unclear, complex, evolving universe can reap innovative benefits that more linear thinking and traditional top-down leadership can hinder.

The media and public opinion are unfairly harsh on those who take the risks that produce innovation. It often takes a lot of failure to produce brilliance. Barrett shows that leaders can instill trust in others by revealing vulnerabilities and the human capacity to make mistakes just like the rest of us, being open to correction and feedback that can improve things throughout the team’s efforts. Jazz “fallibility models” inherently accept this sort of model that allows the leader to sometimes be taught by underlings—as Ellis Marsalis reportedly learned a few new things from his son Wynton.

Good musicians, like competent executives, have learned how to learn…

A key component of learning is hanging out with good mentors. With our intranets, databases, shared servers and software programs that make everyone’s files searchable within an organization, we get a false sense that it’s all there for efficiently taking and using or that we need less of the human connection (jamming). But the real-life face-to-face jam session is what it’s really all about. Best business practices today demand the inclusion of leaders and philosophies that are actively

nurturing spontaneity, creativity, experimentation, and dynamic synchronization…

Barrett emphasizes the need to be storytelling and brainstorming and roleplaying in order to discover the unexpected and the unplanned solutions, and for just doing: hands-on learning experiences, not just knowing what’s in the rule books. Some skills simply are “not easily articulated, codified, or stored.”  Serendipity (one of my favorite things!) means that solutions are not always straight from some manual.

Jazz improvisers and great scientists and innovators alike know the value of keeping at it: making guesses, trying things out (sometimes repeatedly), tinkering with incremental adjustments, all with an open spirit of curiosity and wonderment.

This jazzy attitude reminds me of experiences I’ve had with the iterative process of beta-testing databases built from scratch when I was in library school. It taught me to appreciate the inevitable shortcomings of most end products we encounter as consumers—there really is no such thing as perfection. More than a few databases could have used a bit more tweaking before release, such as the “very public beta test” of Healthcare.gov.  On the other hand, can you imagine not having Amazon’s database, or IMDB? How about not being able to search the library’s online catalog database and returning to the old days of the handwritten card catalog? Today’s librarians could only step up to that plate after crash courses in penmanship!

Barrett annotates  a set of “eleven practices and structures that can help your organization emulate what happens when jazz bands improvise.” My two favorite take-aways are that we should all get a chance to solo now and then and that play flows into learning. This book should have widespread appeal far beyond the jazz music fans most likely to notice it first.

Check the WRL catalog for Yes to the Mess.


Latin for Bird Lovers, by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr

Thu, 2015-03-05 01:01

Birdwatching has been a passion of mine for many years, and I have been fortunate to see some amazing birds in exotic locations that include South Africa and Tanzania. I saw this book on the library’s new book shelf, and I was immediately interested. Very few popular birding books are based on the scientific names of birds, which are usually in Latin. Most guides are based on common names and classes of birds, with the scientific name coming after the common name and listed in smaller print. I was intrigued by this approach, which uses the binomial system of genus and species, which scientists use to classify and study birds. These scientific names can be based on several things, including the features of the bird, places where they are found, and even the names of people. The authors hope that this approach will deepen your understanding of birds and make your birdwatching more fascinating.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, though I have a few quibbles with the actual listing of names which makes up the bulk of the book. The listing is actually a compilation of both genus and species names. But you only get one of the names, so if you have a specific bird you are looking up, you have to look up both names to get a full understanding of the scientific name of the bird. I also think an index of common names of birds matched to their scientific names would have been helpful. Without it, those of us who are Latin-deficient either have to browse through the list (which can be fun, but…) or we can grab a bird guide like Birds of North America by Ken Kaufman, find the Latin name of common birds we like, and then use this guide to find their scientific meaning in English. I like woodpeckers, so I did a search for some common woodpeckers I see around my bird feeder. The red-bellied woodpecker is Melanerpes carolinus, a black creeper from the Carolinas, whereas the Northern Flicker is Colaptes auratus, a golden chiseler. I could not find the complete scientific names for the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) or the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), but I did find that picoides means “likeness of a woodpecker” and pileatus means “capped,” so you get at least a partial understanding of their names. And any new knowledge of the birds you love to see is a good thing.

This book is packed with special features, including profiles of 20 genera of birds, including my favorite, Melanerpes, the largest genus of woodpeckers (with 22 species); Corvus, the genus of about 40 species of crows or ravens (known as the smartest birds in the world, they can make tools, play games and find hidden objects); and the beautiful but odd Phoenicopterus, which is made up of 6 species of flamingo. There are also 8 different bird themes covered in this book, including bird beaks, the color of birds, and feathers and the important role that they play in the life of birds. There are also brief biographies of 11 famous birders, including the well-known John Gould and the birder with the famous name, James Bond, whose book, Birds of the West Indies, was read by Ian Fleming, who decided to use his name for the hero of his novels.

I highly recommend this book for people who are interested in knowing more about birds. And, if you like this book, you should definitely check out some of the other excellent birding books in the WRL collection, some of which I have reviewed for Blogging For a Good Book, including Angry Birds: 50 True Stories of the Fed Up, Feathered, & Furious by Mel White, Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds, by Hugh Wiberg, and Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? And Other Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask by Mike O’Connor.

Check the WRL catalog for Latin for Bird Lovers.


Grumpy Cat

Wed, 2015-03-04 01:01

For the few people who haven’t yet heard of Grumpy Cat, let me enlighten you. Grumpy Cat, whose real name is Tardar Sauce, is a small cat of indeterminate breed who became an internet sensation in 2012 because of her particular puss. The kitty’s mouth turns down, her eyes are large and the markings on her fur make her appear to be perpetually frowning. Not scary frowning, mind you, but endearingly funny frowning. From this facial peculiarity, the Grumpy Cat was born and launched a thousand memes, two books and a holiday movie.

The two books, Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book and The Grumpy Guide to Life, are novelty tomes that feature pictures and commentary by the grouchy grimalkin. The comments are all amusingly sour observations such as:

Next time you’re feeling pretty good about how things are going in your life, remember that the dinosaurs were probably feeling that way, too, before that meteor fell.

And:

Don’t Forget: Every silver lining is part of a larger, darker cloud.

Of more interest are the plentiful photographs of the telegenic tabby, with my particular favorite being “The Frown File,” featuring several classic crabby snapshots with advice that “If you master each of the following looks, you can effectively ruin anyone’s day.” Indeed, a laudable goal to aspire to.

In the Lifetime TV movie, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, we get to see the frowning feline in action as the disgruntled denizen of a mall pet shop. Grumpy spouts a non-stop stream of snappy snark as she begrudgingly helps a lonely teenager foil a robbery and rescue a kidnapped dog. This self-mocking film will never win an Oscar, but it is good cheesy fun and something the whole family can watch. Hey, Lifetime, how about a follow-up film, maybe, Grumpy Cat vs. The Turkey: A Tale of Thanksgiving Grousing, or Heartburn: A Grumpy Cat Valentine’s Day, or The Case of The Sourpuss: a Grumpy Cat Mystery.

The library’s entire Grumpy Cat oeuvre is recommended for people of all ages who have a sense of humor and low expectations.

Check the WRL catalog for Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book.

Check the WRL catalog for The Grumpy Guide to Life

Check the WRL catalog for Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever