Blogging for a Good Book
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
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
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a completely serendipitous discovery which I feel fortunate to have stumbled across. This is a new Victorian-era murder mystery series, set in London, featuring a brilliant, eccentric detective with few social skills and his feisty young ward who gives him a run for his money. The most obvious comparison is with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, especially Laurie King’s version with Mary Russell. The author does not shy away from this but rather seems to take great pleasure in inserting sly references here and there—such as a suggestion that Grice is Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes!
With all of the obvious similarities, I found this a refreshing, funny read and a good mystery to boot. It has more of a modern feel to it than King’s, or Conan Doyle’s, narratives. The great detective, Sidney Grice, is not nearly as likeable a character as Sherlock Holmes. He is rude, unkind, contemptuous and heartless. Loathsome as he is, the reader becomes quite attached to him (and his glass eye, which becomes a surprisingly successful running gag). His new ward, March Middleton, gives it right back to him without flinching, making their interactions entertaining and very often humorous.
When the unfeeling Sidney Grice refuses to take the case of a penurious woman whose son-in-law stands accused of murdering his wife, March takes pity on her and offers up shares in a portfolio inherited from her father to pay the fee, provided she is allowed to co-investigate the case. Thus an uneasy and contentious alliance begins. March finds herself at odds with the conclusions drawn by Grice, and a battle of feminine logic and intuition versus cold reason and science marks most of the narrative. In the end both are right and wrong; it’s an auspicious beginning for this formidable team.
Kasasian illustrates the poverty, desperation and griminess of London in this era with a brilliant blend of mordant humor and poignancy. He also hints at a tragic secret in March’s past, of which the reader hopes more will be revealed in further series entries. More loose ends remain to be addressed as well, such as how Grice came to be March’s guardian after the death of her father, and—last but not least—
“I have not seen him this way since…” Molly said, but could not finish her sentence. “Oh, I do hope he is not indulging in his secret vice.”
The idea of my guardian having a vice was rather appealing.
“But what is this vice?” I asked.
“I can’t say I know, miss.” Molly screwed up her pinafore. “For it is a secret.” Her eyes filled and she scurried off.
Check the WRL catalog for The Mangle Street Murders.
For many people it is inconceivable to not feel a true love for the giant movie The Princess Bride. This memoir, authored by the Man in Black himself (a.k.a. Westley, the Dread Pirate Roberts, and Cary Elwes), is a tribute to the people who took William Goldman’s The Princess Bride from page to screen. If ever you told someone to “have fun storming the castle,” introduced yourself as Inigo Montoya, or whispered “as you wish,” this book is for you.
While Elwes takes center stage through the telling of how they made The Princess Bride, he dedicates much of the book to heaping laudatory remarks on those with whom he worked. Again and again, Elwes writes about how wonderful it was to make the movie with these people. Robin Wright was perfect in every way. Mandy Patinkin brought a competitive spirit that made everything better. Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, only on set for three days, were extraordinary. André the Giant (and this has been corroborated by many others) was the sweetest, kindest, gentlest giant who ever walked this Earth. Elwes unleashes unreserved praise and adulation for director Rob Reiner.
Among the entertaining features of As You Wish are the commentary boxes. Throughout the pages are brief observations from Elwes’s colleagues relating to whatever topic is being written about at that point. The reader gets to hear from Wright, Reiner, Patinkin, Shawn, Guest, Crystal, and others about their experiences on set. For anyone who has enjoyed one of the greatest on-screen fencing scenes ever filmed, Elwes dedicates a whole chapter to how he and Patinkin trained for it. Elwes wants the reader to understand that the beauty of the movie is largely a result of the beauty of those who made it (although he also is quick to state that the book and screenplay are brilliant).
For anyone not familiar with The Princess Bride, “as you wish” is synonymous with “I love you.” Given how Cary Elwes waxes poetic about the delightful experiences of making the movie, the phrase is apropos. He loved everything about The Princess Bride except the food and the weather. After reading As You Wish I felt a strong urge to re-watch the movie. If that is the case for you, be sure to check it out from the library.
Check the WRL catalog for As You Wish.
Check the WRL catalog for the movie, The Princess Bride.
If you’ve spent any time in the last few weeks watching the Weather Channel, you’re accustomed to the long lead-in we have to any winter storm. Plenty of time to gas up the generator, run to the grocery store for more milk, or double- and triple-check the school closings. This riveting and often heartbreaking look at a 19th-century blizzard reminds us that once, the only warning of a deadly cold front was the wall of fast-approaching clouds and a plummeting thermometer.
In January 1888, an unprecedented winter storm swept across Nebraska, the Dakotas, and southern Minnesota, freezing cattle in their tracks, freezing farmers and their children where they fell, or sometimes even where they stood. (Yes, Jim Cantore, there was also “thunder snow.”) It became known as the “Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” because it struck on a clear, fine day when many youngsters were at school, and it was their attempts to reach the safety of home that ended in so many tragedies. Laskin’s history draws on memoirs and oral histories from pioneers who lived through the blizzard, and he notes that even the most taciturn, uncomplaining immigrants wrote about this storm as being unlike anything they had lived through before.
Just like any modern weather event, there’s a lot of talking before the weather actually hits. Laskin spends the first half of the book describing the lives of the Swiss, German, and Norwegian immigrants who came to the great prairies in search of land and freedom. He surveys the 19th-century weather service, run by officers in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The scandal-ridden weather service was surprisingly entertaining: it depended on staff like the fellow who took all of his weather observations at the local pawn shop, where he had hocked his barometers to pay off a poker debt. Laskin is actually quite poetic in describing the atmospheric dance of high and low pressure areas that builds to a winter storm. Then, finally, the blizzard itself arrives: blowing in at 45 mph, temperatures and visibility plummeting. Across the prairies, students and schoolteachers take stock of the situation and decide whether to shelter in place or strike out for the warmth of nearby homesteads. And you, the reader, want to warn them, just like we warn characters in horror movies not to head to the basement… don’t leave the schoolhouse.
The narrative follows several individuals and groups who walked into the storm and were blinded and disoriented by the wind’s intensity. They were assaulted not by the “lacy star-patterned crystals” of Christmas-card snow, but a fine, choking, blinding dust of nearly microscopic ice crystals. Disoriented, travelers wandered from their paths. The lucky ones found shelter in haystacks. Others died within sight of their destinations—if only they had been able to see. Hundreds died that night, although some survived, like schoolteacher Minnie Freeman, “Nebraska’s Fearless Maid,” who roped her charges together on their walk to safety, or so goes the song. In telling these stories, Laskin explains the physiology of hypothermia and frostbite and why some survived a night of exposure only to drop from cardiac failure as soon as they stood up the next day.
If you enjoy tales of survival and disaster like Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, The Children’s Blizzard is a sad but fascinating winter read.
Check the WRL catalog for The Children’s Blizzard.
This trilogy of children’s adventures is a longtime favorite of mine, but I find it difficult to categorize. Libraries shelve it in juvenile fiction, which is misleading, as it has more tragic deaths than Game of Thrones, plus an ironic style that would likely whoosh over the heads of most children. It certainly did mine. On the other hand, it made me cry like a kid when I was in my thirties…
Three volumes with a Dickensian ensemble cast, from monarchs to street urchins, cover several years of political upheaval in the imagined countries of Westmark and neighboring Regia. Theo is the viewpoint character, a printer’s assistant who is driven from his livelihood by an increasingly despotic government bent on censoring the press. He takes up first with a traveling ensemble headed by showman and charlatan “Count” Las Bombas, where he meets Mickle, a streetwise apprentice thief, ventriloquist, and (unknown to anyone, including herself) missing princess. The escapades grow more serious when Theo falls in with a cell of student revolutionaries headed by the charismatic pragmatist Florian, a dashing figure in a soldier’s greatcoat. Now Theo is loyal both to the next monarch of Westmark and to the soldier-philosophers who want to abolish the monarchy.
Theo’s adventures present him with several moments of split-second decision making followed by self-doubt—is his hesitation to take a life a moment of conscience or of cowardice? Ideals are tested to the breaking point in the second book of the trilogy, The Kestrel. As Regia invades, the young are betrayed by the old, and fighting in the countryside intensifies, conscience seems ever more a luxury. Readers who thought this would be a light and fast-paced adventure will instead be traumatized by the sharp turn the series takes into harrowing warfare. The third book, The Beggar Queen, sees the survivors dealing with the legacy of their decisions, their lives further complicated as former enemies and worshipers of fallen heroes try to shape their country to different ideals.
The Westmark books are crowded, packed full of characters and events, and yet they aren’t long books. Alexander’s style is so streamlined, not a word is wasted; like a caricaturist, every line counts either to sketch a character or further the action. The books are fast-moving and dramatic, with characters and situations reminiscent of the French revolution, the Three Musketeers, or other Ruritanian adventures like The Prisoner of Zenda. There’s a lot of overlap between devotees of this series and fans of the gallant, doomed student revolutionaries of Les Mis. With well-drawn characters and moral complexity, it’s also a natural choice for readers of Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series, starting with The Thief.
Check the WRL catalog for Westmark.
In the course of one spectacularly bad week, Margaret “Peggy” Fitzroy is forcibly engaged to a man she’s never met, assaulted in a greenhouse by the same young lout, and rescued by an enigmatic figure who claims that her late, lamented mother was not just another pretty face in the English court, but also actively supplying intelligence to he and his associates. When Peggy refuses to marry as told, she’s thrown out on the streets, and therefore throws herself upon the mercy of this man who knew her mother. Peggy agrees to be made over as his ward and placed as a maid of honor to Caroline, Princess of Wales, where she can report back on the doings of the court. To this end, she’s given a new identity and trained in the skills she’ll need as a lady in waiting: flattery, witticisms, cheating at cards, and sizing up someone’s wealth by the quality of the cloth and lace in their outfit.
Peggy has somehow forgotten to ask one important question: Hanover or Stuart?
Are her mysterious employers loyal to King George I and the House of Hanover, or are they among the rebellious supporters of exiled James II, “king over the water”? Between unexpected suitors and unexpected enemies among the royal household, it’s pretty likely that Peggy will be found out, and while being unmasked will certainly mean disgrace, being unmasked as a spy for Jacobite conspirators will get her beheaded for treason.
Peggy Fitzroy is a vivacious narrator, particularly when skewering ladies’ fashion. Being imprisoned in a mantua plus a ton of ribbons and furbelows makes it difficult to break into houses and run for her life! Fortunately Peggy is a great improviser with whatever weapon comes to hand, be it a ladies’ fan or a fireplace poker. Her adventures would be a good bet for readers of Y. S. Lee’s Agency series or Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage.
Check the WRL catalog for Palace of Spies.
The series continues with Dangerous Deceptions.
Laura Ingalls was my first heroine. Despite her tales of crop-destroying grasshoppers and bitter winters and wolves howling outside her door, there was something in her spare, vivid writing that made me want to live in a log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.
Pioneer Girl is a handsome volume, compiled with love and scholarship by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. It presents Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first, handwritten memoir, which was later reworked by the author and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, into the beloved “Little House” series.
Many of the episodes will be familiar to readers who followed the Ingalls’s westward migration from Wisconsin to De Smet, South Dakota. Other incidents, memorably the death of a nine-month-old baby brother, never made it into the children’s series.
The manuscript has been annotated with microscopic attention to detail, cross-referencing Wilder’s recollections with census records, land records, old family photographs, and news articles. Footnotes sift fact from fiction and fill in some historical context: why were Indians hanging out in Ma’s kitchen, helping themselves to the food? Because the Ingalls were homesteading illegally on land still belonging, by treaty, to the Osage tribe.
You may not need to know the exact species of leech from the infamous incident in which Laura led her nemesis, Nellie Oleson, into the bloodsucker-infested waters of Plum Creek (Erpobdella punctata). You may not want to know that Nellie Oleson herself is a fiction, a composite character made into a villain to give the narrative a stronger structure. (Life, so frequently, lacks a strong narrative structure.) But if you are interested in these details, or in the process by which a novel is made out of memories, then this is a worthwhile book to browse through on a cold winter day.
Check the WRL catalog for Pioneer Girl.
Downton Abbey is all well and good, but what about the folk who weren’t living (or working) in the big manor house? This captivating series from the BBC documents one year in the life of an Edwardian farm, as recreated by historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Peter Ginn and Alex Langlands.
The team has a ready-made backdrop for their endeavour, which is filmed in the historic port of Morwellham Quay, on the Tamar River, in the county of Devon, UK. Its mild climate in southwest England and natural resources made it a center for fisheries, copper mining, and market gardening of crops like daffodils and strawberries as well as crop farming. Each episode covers a month of the year, beginning with fall’s preparations for winter and carrying on through all stages of planting a cereal crop, raising livestock, and celebrating the turnings of the year.
The crew pull this project off with infectious enthusiasm, making the audience part of their successes and failures and reminding viewers that their experiments with, for instance, building a hayrick to keep the cattle feed dry, could make or break a farmer’s livelihood. Ruth Goodman is illegally cheerful even when getting up in the pre-dawn dark to lace her Edwardian corset and scrub the stone floors, and given her share of chores—stewing the sheep’s head, mucking out the pig, lime-washing the privy—it’s no wonder she’s practically giddy when she gets to escape on a bicycle to film another segment on something like the old cottage industry of Honiton lace. Meanwhile, the archaeologists can be found chasing livestock about, fossicking for copper left behind in the mines, or firing up a lime kiln to prepare ten tons of fertilizer. Even the usually taciturn Peter Ginn is adorably beside himself when his handmade trout hatchery, against all odds, yields three tiny trout.
It’s an interesting time period, 1901-1910, horse-drawn plows and steam railways working side by side until traditional ways give way to steam-powered machines like the newly-invented tractor. For those traditional crafts, Goodman, Ginn, and Langlands learn from a parade of experts: coopers and farriers, miners and horse whisperers, lacemakers and hazel wattle hurdle makers. Other supporting “characters” include the beautiful Devon landscape and a variety of native livestock including Red Ruby cattle, beautiful Dartmoor ponies and Shire draft horses, and assorted chickens and pigs.
Edwardian Farm is one of a series of recreations including Victorian Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm, and Wartime Farm. Sadly, none of the others have been released yet in the United States. Even if it doesn’t inspire you to get out there and lay a hedgerow, it will certainly renew your appreciation for hot running water.
Check the WRL catalog for Edwardian Farm.
Congressman John Lewis has spent almost the entirety of his life fighting for justice and civil rights in America. March is a trilogy that brings to life his experiences and struggles in a deeply personal account that is both inspiring and riveting. The first volume was published in August 2013, and the second was just released in January 2015.
The story bounces back and forth in time between the inauguration of President Barack Obama and Congressman Lewis’ own history, starting when he was a young child in Alabama, the son of a sharecropper. This serves as an effective juxtaposition between how far African-Americans have come and where they were just a short lifetime ago. Congressman Lewis weaves his narrative adroitly, using stories like his experience being in charge of his family’s chicken coop to build a foundation for his ongoing dedication to non-violence. His eagerness for education sometimes chafed against the needs of his family’s farm, but Lewis pressed on in his quest for learning. Along the way, he also got an education on the social injustice that tried to keep the worlds of blacks and whites separate.
Early on, his path crossed with the older, more established Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The reader knows what the young John Lewis does not: that this initial meeting is between two men who will become icons. This part is intentionally quiet; the reader silently follows Lewis on the journey to King’s church for the meeting, feeling their nerves get tighter and tighter in anticipation along with the narrator’s. It is an exceptionally well-executed scene.
Lewis eventually joins a local pacifist group committed to non-violence in their quest for desegregation. A larger group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, had published a comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story which helped serve as guidance and inspiration for their work. Although this item is no longer available in print, it is obtainable in full-text online through Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project. As an avid reader of graphic novels, this was a fascinating piece of literary history.
Nate Powell is a talented illustrator and took up the daunting challenge of depicting major historical figures with particular sensitivity. He is a previous winner of the Eisner Award for his book Swallow Me Whole and his work is always worth a look just on its own merits. March, was named a Coretta Scott King honor book in 2014 for co-authors John Lewis and Andrew Aydin.
Recommended for readers of American history, social justice, African-American history, and biography.
Check the WRL catalog for March, Book One.
In 1994, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was executed by fellow members of his gang. He was 11. What was his crime? In the eyes of his killers, he was bringing too much police and media attention to their part of town. Eager to prove himself to older gang members, he had shot wildly into a group of kids playing in the street, killing a 14-year-old girl named Shavon. Yummy’s murderers were only 14 and 16 years old themselves. The shocking nature of his death as well as his life landed his mugshot on the cover of Time magazine and a mention by President Bill Clinton in a speech addressing the three-fold increase in homicides in Chicago since 1980.
What would drive a child to become a hardened gang member at such a young age? Author G. Neri uses a fictitious narrator, named Roger, who is the same age as Yummy, as his vehicle for exploring the cause and provocation for his conduct. The story unfolds with few surprises: abuse, abandonment, and a lack of supervision that left Yummy to find his own amusement out on the streets. Arrested for the first time when he was 8, he quickly came up against a shortcoming of the state laws regarding juveniles. Since no juvenile could be convicted of a felony, gangs eagerly took advantage of this law, using young men to do hard crimes with no harsh consequences. Yummy was just one of a veritable army of children living on the streets and committing crimes to please their gang leaders.
Were Yummy and other juveniles in the same situation monsters or children? The authors don’t pretend to have a pat answer. Finding a solution to the spiral of violence would be ideal, but first the problem itself needs to be understood. Human troubles are always fraught with nuance and are hostile to simple resolutions. Instead, the book aims to shed light on the lives of the different players, in order to bring some humanity to what is otherwise just a grim set of statistics on youth gang life.
Designated a Coretta Scott King Award honor book in 2011, this title is a tough read, but the author brings a lot of honesty and reality to the dramatization of these real events. Recommended for readers with an interest in graphic novels, American history, and social justice.
Check the WRL catalog for Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have been repeated, revived, and reimagined countless times in literature, in addition to TV and movies. Whatever dreams Arthur Conan Doyle had for his creation, I doubt he could have foreseen the wild success and immortality his work has achieved. As a mystery lover and a graphic novel lover, I was intrigued by the combination of my two favorite genres, and I love a good twist on a classic.
In this iteration, writer Karl Bollers conceives both characters as modern African Americans living in New York’s Harlem district. Watson, not yet a doctor, is an Afghanistan war vet working in a clinic. Sherlock is a dreadlocked, fedora wearing PI who steps easily into the storied role from the first “Elementary…” that passes his lips. The game is indeed afoot.
A seemingly unconnected string of murders and kidnappings brings the two together. The duo dash through the streets of New York, chasing clues and hoping to stay one step ahead of their increasingly desperate quarry. The Baker Street Irregulars make an appearance, as well as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, although he quite understandable prefers the nickname “Mike.”
Why does Watson join Holmes in his quest? I think this is the crux of any successful remake of Sherlock: tying the two characters together not only in their interactions with each other, but making their collective motivations realistic and sympathetic to the reader. As this volume only covers the first arc of the series, much of the interaction between the two characters is a slow buildup of that relationship, and the acknowledgement that sometimes what drives you can’t be easily explained, even to yourself.
My only issue with this title is that the author did such a fantastic job of echoing Sherlock’s unique way of speaking, that I couldn’t help but hear his voice in my head with an English accent, which jarred against the setting. However, since this is such an intrinsic part of the character, I can’t really knock the authors for being too successful.
The art in this series has a rough quality, with some lines still maintaining the attributes of a sketchbook rendering. At times the faces of characters are executed in detail, at others they are kept fuzzy as the viewer’s eye is pulled back to take in more of the scene. The coloring is downright phenomenal, with scenes moving fluidly from night to day or outside to computer-screen lit inside. I eagerly look forward to a second volume.
Recommended for readers of mysteries, graphic novels, and crime fiction.
Check the WRL catalog for Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black.
While the majority of people are (hopefully) aware of all-black regiments that have fought for America like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers, many do not realize that there were black soldiers who fought in WWI. Highlighting a piece of our nation’s history that has been minimized, ignored, and forgotten, Max Brooks brings the story of the 369th Infantry Regiment roaring back to life. Although the account is fictional, much of the storyline and action comes directly from historical accounts. The amount of research that went into this book is readily apparent and helps ground the story in the mud-laden reality that was life in the trenches.
The first sixty pages of the story cover the forming of the regiment and their training before they are sent overseas. While this might seem like a lot of space to dedicate to inaction, it sets up the reader’s understanding of the social injustice that surrounds the men. These individuals are not just going to war, they are putting their lives on the line to help defend a country that allows them to be beaten, treated lower than dogs, and murdered without hope for justice. It then comes as no surprise that when they are finally about to go off to war, the other New York National Guardsmen, the Rainbow Division, get a parade in their honor, but the 369th are not allowed to attend because “black is not a color of the rainbow.”
Once in France, they are eventually sent to the front lines during a particularly desperate part of the war. As the narrator, Edge, explains: “while our own country didn’t want us, another country needed us.” The French called them the “Men of Bronze”, but after showing their fierceness on the battlefield, the Germans dubbed them “The Harlem Hellfighters.” Several of the characters in the book are actual historical figures, including Eugene Jacques Bullard, a pilot and veteran of both World Wars, and Henry Johnson, who was the first American, black or white, to receive the French Cross of War. The 369th spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit.
The narrative is gripping and entertaining, weaving together the current story and episodes from the individual’s pasts. The characters are concurrently honorable and flawed, but their dignity in fighting both the war they volunteered for and the war on their skin tone is moving and well-executed. The illustrations are by Caanan White, an African-American artist best known for his work on “Uber”, an alternate-ending WWII horror story. White is certainly experienced in depicting scenes of war with all the grit and the violence and intensity. I was often times glad that the art was in black in white, rather than color.
Recommended for fans of military history, civil rights history, and graphic novels.
Check the WRL catalog for Harlem Hellfighters.
Calling the life of Leroy “Satchel” Paige remarkable seems an understatement unworthy of its subject. But how else could you describe a man who, though held back by the bitter shackles of Jim Crow, embarked upon a baseball career that lasted six decades and earned accolades from fans and competitors alike. Joe DiMaggio called Paige “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”
Rather than a straightforward biography of Paige, the author chooses to present the story through the eyes of a man named Emmett, an African-American sharecropper from Alabama who has baseball aspirations of his own. Emmett’s story overlaps with Satchel Paige’s every few years, starting in 1929 with Paige’s early days in the Negro leagues through 1944, which is four whole years before Paige becomes one of the oldest rookies ever in Major League Baseball at age 42.
Emmett’s life and experiences as a sharecropper are filled with reminders of his place in society: daily doses of disrespect and not-so veiled promises of violence if he steps out of line. He watches Paige, a talented, cocky, showboating athlete who doesn’t seem to show the weight of society’s injustice on the mound. In this biography, Paige lets his pitching do the talking for him, tightening up his form and getting strikeouts when it matters most, whether it is in a Negro League game or a white team vs. black team barnstorming game.
This story is a well-paced, easy read, and although categorized as a children’s book, it is approachable by readers of all ages. The art is clean, although the characters aren’t particularly expressive; this serves to keep the emotional focus of the story on the narration.
Recommended to readers of history, specifically sports history and civil rights history.
Check the WRL catalog for Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow
The 39 Steps is an espionage story that has been through several incarnations. It began as a very popular 1915 book by John Buchan, the first of a series of adventures involving Richard Hannay, a resourceful engineer bored with London society, whose life takes a complete turn when someone is murdered in his London flat. Soon he’s on the run, framed for the crime by a mysterious spy organization, and in pursuit of a feisty love interest who’s attracted to him but not buying his wild story.
The novel was immortalized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock in a 1935 film. This incarnation of The 39 Steps was one of the first films to show some of Hitch’s trademarks, a hyperdramatic style, mistaken identities, mysterious villains, a dapper hero, cross-country chases, long tracking shots, and dashes of quirky humor.
Playwright Patrick Barlow keeps Hitchcock’s plot, but injects it with a love for old-fashioned humor in the style of English music halls and a nostalgia for theater in the days of greasepaint, melodrama, and hokum. The resulting play merrily employs grand old traditions into a show that contemporary audiences will find new and fresh.
Barlow’s adaptation keeps Hannay as the protagonist, but uses just three actors in all of the other parts. One woman plays both the femme fatale and the love interest drawn into Hannay’s mad flight, while two very busy actors play all of the other characters from the film, often changing so quickly that they can’t even leave the stage. The results is a suspenseful thriller made madcap with tongue-in-cheek humor, a screwball romance, references to your favorite Hitchcock films, acrobatic antics, sinister villains, and playful re-imagining of the conventions and language of classic theater.
While I recommend reading Barlow’s play for sheer enjoyment of the language, this story needs to be seen. Barlow employs a minimal set, using just a few moving set pieces, props, light and sound effects, and pantomime to suggest locations ranging from London flats to Scottish country inns, foggy moors to campaign bandstands, even the perilous heights of a towering bridge and a moving train car. The rapid transformations of two actors into a merry-go-round of quirky bystanders, leering villains, and thick-brogued Highlanders has to be seen and heard to be believed.
The Williamsburg Players will bring The 39 Steps to the stage March 12th through 28th in a production directed by the Emmy-winning Abigail Schumann, and featuring local actors David Stallings as Hannay, Annie Lewis as Annabella and Margaret, and Chris Hull and Jordan Wentland as the two chameleon-like “clowns.” If you can’t make that, try searching for The 39 Steps on YouTube to supplement your reading.
Check the WRL catalog for Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps