Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

mayesFrances Mayes nurtures a sense of home wherever she travels and writes, frequently envisioning herself buying the rented house and settling in even while just visiting. Literal homes seem to blend and expand with a myriad of temporary residences as she reflects upon flavors, tastes, scents, scenes, poetry, cultures, and histories. She and husband Ed explore a rich variety of exotic as well as ordinary destinations, sweeping a wide radius from their Tuscan epicenter through a European, Mediterranean, Asian, and African playground.

Everything I pick up seems to lure me away. … A desire to go runs through me equally with an intense desire to stay at home.

The memoir hints that this year’s travel in the world is a means for Frances and husband Ed to escape the dust and chaos of the ongoing contracted work at their perpetually-being-restored ancient Tuscan home named Bramasole. Or maybe it’s the growing sense of danger, with the possibility of random violence invading their domicile in northern California that pushes them away from home.

I didn’t know how deeply refreshing the landscape could be. The place does seem familiar, perhaps at a genetic level, but in a a nourishing way. Or maybe I’m just familiar with these friends, and when one is at home with friends, the surrounding world becomes friendly, too.

Whether traveling with newly made friends or rendezvousing with dear old friends, Mayes reflects on their friendships and fond memories, predicting potential relationships with new acquaintances or expressing relief that she won’t have to sit next to such boors as some of the cruise ship passengers at each meal. I found her most humorous when describing the absurdities of cruise ships and their tendency to transform passengers into cattle, driven through crowded tourist traps. Mayes’ first choice for travel is definitely not the cruise, preferring to rent homes and literally plant roots for a while in one village.

My early impressions of A Year in the World were tainted by my annoyance with what seemed constant obsession with food, especially meat and meat by-products, all forms of dairy and excessive indulgence in pastries on the part of Ed. I could assume he is quite rotund, despite his apparent energy and enthusiasm for daily excursions, even long strenuous walks in extreme heat such as their daily hikes to see the architectural and earthly wonders along Turkey’s Lycian coast. Could they possibly eat such meals while at home and shouldn’t they be more cautious with regard to health? My perspective did begin to soften once I reached the chapter on the British Isles—as they romped through English garden after English garden, I became so interested in garden tours. I love, and now wish to adopt, their habit of taking notes for use in the improvement of their home veggie, fruit, and flower growing techniques and varieties of plants. She describes serendipitous moments, such as finally coming across roses similar to a mystery species thriving in their Tuscany garden that was inherited after 30 years of neglect.

The book comprises about a dozen or so travel essays. Each may be dipped into separately or in sequence, yet it’s not the type of book you’ll read straight through. I started it months ago and picked the book up for just a chapter or two at a time, escaping to fascinating travel spots such as Andalucia, Scotland, and Mani. Mayes’ brief yet insightful reviews of books she travels with tempt me to add her inspired selections to my personal reading list. You may find it surprising that the title belies the format; you’ll seldom be aware of the month or year of her travels, and it’s never clear whether each of these trips occurred within a single year. That doesn’t matter, since you will be mesmerized by the poetic and lyrical way in which she transports you to a place and a moment, enveloping you in her experiences.

Check the WRL catalog for A Year in the World.

WRL also owns this title as an e-book.


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StuffMattersCoverHave you ever wondered why, despite putting one in your mouth every day, you don’t taste your spoon? I had never considered cutlery’s marvelous properties that mean it is simultaneously malleable in production, slow to corrode and unreactive in our acidic mouths.  In fact, I had never considered the properties of the millions of unregarded everyday objects that we live in, drive on, sit on, eat and use every moment of our lives.  That is where scientist Mark Miodownik comes in with this wonderful book about material science. It sounds like a dry topic and I would never have guessed that such a book could be fun, but it entertains enormously as it informs. Remember that “everything is made from something” but even Mark Miodownik  couldn’t cover everything, so he has limited himself to ten substances and written a chapter named after an intrinsic quality of each, so “Trusted” for paper and “Fundamental” for concrete.

My favorite chapter has to be the one about chocolate, which is of course “The most deliciously engineered material on earth.” Beware, though: you won’t be able to read about the “wild and complex, sweet and bitter cocktail of flavors” without getting an urge for a Little Something.  ( I will admit that I had to partake and “Flood [my] senses with warm, fragrant, bittersweet flavors, and ignite the pleasure centers of [my] brain.”). If chocolate is not your thing you can read Stuff Matters for the explanation of why the sky is blue on page 98 and how this relates to the “Marvelous” substance  aerogel, which “is like holding a piece of the sky”.

Stuff Matters is a great book that I recommend for everyone. It is accessible enough for middle school and high school science classes, with lots for the students to learn: “The definition of the temperature of a material is, in fact, the degree to which the atoms in it are jiggling around.”  It is very readable for everyone while also being accurate, up-to-date science written by a scientist. Try it if you liked the fascinating nonfiction of The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox, or the intersection of science, history and society in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. You should also read it if you have ever been in a concrete building or wrapped a gift in paper that is strong, colorful and creasable.

Check the WRL catalog for Stuff Matters.

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hornbyI am feeling very meta-…, writing about a book that is about writing about books, some of which are about writing. I have a great affection for essays and my library at home has lots of examples from Montaigne to Abbey to McPhee to the Whites (E.B and Katherine) and many more. When I came across this collection of Nick Hornby’s essays on books he has read, written originally for The Believer magazine, on the new book cart, I checked it out, immediately realized I needed to own it, and went to the bookstore and bought a copy.  Hornby’s column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” has been running more or less monthly since 2003 and covers just that–books that Hornby has read in the past month. Each essay begins with a list of books purchased that month and then a second list of books read. Hornby then proceeds to discuss those two lists and anything else that comes into his agile, inventive, and always entertaining mind.

There are two ways to read books like this. First, you can look at the lists the author offers, and count how many titles you have read, or at least heard of, reveling in your superior literary tastes. This is the competitive, ego-driven option. Or, you can step back, read the essays, and start making your own lists of titles mentioned that you ought to go right out and get and read. This is, of course, the more mature way to read the book. OK, I did both.

Hornby is a font of great ideas for books to read as his interests, his own protests to the contrary, go beyond football (by which he means soccer) and rock-and-roll. From all types of fiction to a fascinating array of nonfiction, Hornby’s descriptions of his monthly reading are filled with titles I want to read right now. As The Believer‘s “About” page indicates: “We will focus on writers and books we like. We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.” So the reviews here are generally positive, and that is great. I would much rather hear about why I should be interested in a particular book or writer than why I shouldn’t.

This is also a book about what it is to be a reader, and Hornby captures all the ups and downs of the reading life–those times when you just cannot get through a book and the times when you start a book and the next thing you know it is 3 a.m. and you are still reading. Hornby understands and conveys with humor the times when life gets in the way of reading. Spouses, children, deadlines, one’s own work, and, yes, the Arsenal vs. Manchester United match, all have a way of derailing our reading time. That being the case, it is great to have a guide as thoughtful, eloquent, and passionate as Nick Hornby to offer some possible titles to get you back on the road to reading.

Check the WLR catalog for Ten Years in the Tub

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All this week, Mindy reviews books about art theft, starting with two titles about some of the more sensational cases:

Museum of the Missing (2006) and Stolen (2008) are very similar booksboth have introductory material written by Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, a tool used worldwide to authenticate artworks and aid in the recovery of stolen art. Some of the true crimes described in the earlier work are also in Stolen. Both include pages filled with color illustrations of lost art and the fascinating stories detailing what is known about their thefts. (Those who are tracking the fluctuating state of art theft cases may also want to follow current events. One way that I have been doing that is with a Google alert that sends newly published articles and blog posts to my email inbox daily.)

These art crime stories range from sad, disturbing, and shocking losses of our cultural heritage to hilarious and often audacious stupid-crook capers. The good news is that a number of stolen works of art have been recovered by art crime investigators, often working in undercover sting operations designed to thwart criminal schemes. It’s delicate work, often prioritized in favor of recovering works of art unharmed rather than on locking up the culprits who stole them. Appeals to the public are often made, with rewards offered, without fear of prosecution if involved.

The reality is that the high-priced art world often makes the headlines with record-breaking art sales. This attracts thieves who can’t seem to resist. What thieves unfortunately fail to calculate is the market for fencing their loot. Thus, they’re sometimes stuck with stolen art, and without backgrounds in art history or an acquired taste for fine art they seldom show any concern for its preservation. Thieves who couldn’t find a buyer have sometimes destroyed the stolen art in order to eliminate the evidence of their crime. Sculptures are stolen for their metal content and melted down for scrap.

Houpt and Webb each do an excellent job of storytelling about these intriguing art thefts. They also provide a great deal of insight into the history of art and what has made stealing it such an irresistible crime. A nice shelf to browse for more titles like these is located in the true crime area of 364.162.

Check the WRL catalog for Museum of the Missing

Check the catalog for Stolen

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“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”

If you feel your life is short on meaning, a book club might help. Book clubs are great. I trust the members of my book club to recommend books that sound wonderful— for example I realize I really like character-driven, women’s, historical fiction and I am always keen to hear about the new titles they suggest. But my book club may be even better for getting me off my chuff to read things that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that may have intrigued me enough to pick up in the library, but it would have sat unread on my bedside table for weeks if not for my upcoming book club meeting.

It is a dense and sometimes disturbing read, but my head was bursting with ideas after getting through it. And then after discussing it with my book club, my head and heart were even closer to bursting. The cover of the copy I have says that there are over 12 million copies in print, so it is a book that has spoken directly to millions of people.

The author, Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who attributed his survival in part to his abiding belief that, even in a concentration camp, his life had meaning. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945 and it is remarkably without bitterness for a book written so soon after the horrific events that he describes. Viktor Frankl developed a form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, which literally means the therapy of meaning. This is a book whose message can be interpreted in religious terms, but it is also extremely meaningful to people without a stated belief or formal religion. In modern times, perhaps more than ever in human existence, we are expected to be happy all the time, and increasingly if we are not happy, then we are seen as ill. To this idea Viktor Frankl said:

I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I recommend for everyone. At some time or another most of us suffer from some form of existential angst and this is a wonderful book to put things in perspective. It is dense and full of weighty philosophical insights, but it is very readable, and if you are lucky, you may even have a book club to discuss it with.

Check the WRL catalog for Man’s Search for Meaning.

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bullspottingFor one brief shining moment, the Internet showed its possibilities. Then some shark-livered varmints screwed it up. Somewhere along the line some crazy learned HTML and it was off to the races with conspiracy theories (There’s a special place in Internet hell where the souls of people who used spam to spread their conspiracy theories will reside. Dial-up is only the beginning of their torment). A tool meant to disseminate knowledge became a loudspeaker to spout misinformation and shout facts down. What used to be some nutjob on the corner muttering and passing out mimeographed sheets took on the air of authority, and a chorus spread across the land: “I read it on the Internet.”

Based on his own conversion experience, Loren Collins decided to walk out of the mudpit of one particular argument to examine the short supply of critical thinking skills. By looking in detail at a select few Internet memes, he distills the methodology of online “discussions” to illustrate the many paths people take to passionately uphold their beliefs in spite of evidence that they are wrong:

  • Denialism – It didn’t happen because I want it to not have happened.
  • Conspiracy theory – It happened, but not the way everybody else thinks it happened, and only I know the truth.
  • Rumor – It happened!  It really happened!  I know somebody whose sister had a friend…
  • Quotations – This famous person said it perfectly, and it just so happens to apply.
  • Hoaxes – You’re never going to believe what happened!
  • Pseudoscience – It happens, but not when anybody can actually study it.
  • Pseudohistory - This person says it happened, and I believe him even if so-called historians don’t
  • Pseudolaw – I happen to have read the Constitution, and the Supreme Court is wrong.

As a librarian, I like to think of myself as a dispassionate consumer of information with the ability to analyze and spot the kinds of fallacies Collins describes. I am certain that in my professional life I provide patrons with their requests even when I believe those materials are patently poor sources of information. But I utilize selective news and information sources to check when I hear a fact too good to be true or too inflammatory to be tolerated (I hope I’m wary enough to take their information with a grain of salt). And even though it never does any good, I still don’t let my wingnut uncle get away with his stunts over the Thanksgiving turkey. After all, Josh Billings said, “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know but that they know so much that ain’t so.”

Wait a minute.  That was Mark TwainWill Rogers?

Maybe I better stick with “Ignorance is bliss.  Knowledge is power. You’ve got a choice to make.”

Check the WRL catalog for Bullspotting

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Subtitled “A portrait of American food — before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional–from the lost WPA files,” you must at least read the extremely interesting Introduction to this treasure mine sampled from what remains in the archives of America Eats, five dusty boxes of manuscript copy on onionskin.  Here Kurlansky showcases the best of what he uncovered, just as writer Merle Colby had hoped when writing the final report before the unedited, unpublished manuscripts were tucked away in the 1940s: “Here and there in America some talented boy or girl will stumble on some of this material, take fire from it, and turn it to creative use.”

The entries are informative and amusing excerpts from food writing and recipes gathered regionally for a federally funded writing project that employed out-of-work writers.  When spending priorities changed after Pearl Harbor, the unfinished project materials were abruptly preserved in the Library of Congress, and we can thank Kurlansky for digging out its most fascinating gems for our enlightenment.

Among the southern and eastern sections where I focused my perusal, I really got a kick out of the anecdotes and details on preparing such delicacies as squirrel, [o]possum, chittelins, and corn pone, how the hush puppy got its name & why some forms of cornbread were once much lower in status.  Of course, Virginians will find some definitive yet highly opinionated historical notes on the famed Brunswick Stew.

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a government agency that sprung up as one of  many efforts to alleviate poverty in 1930s America.   Some WPA projects designed programs according to individual skill, field of study or expertise. Remarkably, these included plans for the fields of art, music, drama, and literature. The Federal Writers’ Project commissioned writers to research, write, edit, and publish works and series on particular topics, usually with American themes or interests in mind; writers employed included Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. Following the successful production of numerous travel guidebooks, the concept for America Eats provided a means for capturing the distinct regional and cultural uniqueness of food and how it was prepared, served, and eaten in an America on the cusp of immense change. America’s culinary differences were destined to be homogenized through the diverse means that food production would soon become so heavily industrialized and globalized.

If you’re one of the many readers eagerly devouring information on real food, whole foods, traditional foods, or even paleolithic foods, in what seems like a mass revolution against modern food (in which I’m still trying to figure out what works best for my lifestyle), you’ll find much to inform and inspire you in Kurlansky’s book.  Some will reminisce; others will find a lot of eye-opening and useful knowledge about the way we once were; all we be entertained.

Check the WRL catalog for The Food of a Younger Land

I read the title in the e-book version.

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Approximately five years ago, I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as well as her other five novels after receiving an all-in-one collection as a gift. Having only truly read Pride and Prejudice once (I can’t count the Cliff Notes I used in high school), it’s a wonder that I am reviewing this festive micro-history which delightfully illustrates why Jane Austen’s perfect Regency romance has remained so untouchable since its publication in 1813, even as her style and subject matter are profusely imitated, now more than ever!  

Reading Susannah Fullerton’s pleasant homage to the timeless novel upon its 200-year anniversary provided me with all sorts of intriguing details, historical background, and gossipy tidbits about its creation and legacy that enhance my appreciation of the novel.  Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, effectively demonstrates the reasons for the novel’s perfection and its ever-increasing appeal for readers of either sex, of all ages, in nearly every community worldwide. She cheerfully describes her analysis of individual characters, Austen’s style, and the famous opening sentence on which an entire chapter is devoted.

It was especially amusing to learn of all the various editions, versions, translations, sequels, retellings, mash-ups, adaptations, film interpretations, and other assorted Austen-inspired endeavors that have fueled a sort of Pride-and-Prejudice mania. Darcy-mania culture took off on the tails of the sexy 1995 BBC film version, starring Colin Firth (of the infamous lake scene), and kindled much new interest in the reading of the novel.

Fullerton pretty much concludes that no sequel author or film producer has ever really matched Jane Austen’s masterful style and that what lovers of the novel should really ever do is just keep reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. I agree that the masterpiece stands alone, but Austen did very effectively infect most of her readers with a desire to continue knowing Elizabeth and Darcy and to learn ever more about each well-drawn character’s future. Imagine if she’d lived long enough to write her own sequels, or to taste the fame her novels eventually gave her!

Check the WRL catalog for Celebrating Pride and Prejudice : 200 years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece

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The Art Detective Philip Mould became a television celebrity from his role appraising works of art unearthed from dusty attics or flea markets on the popular “Antiques Roadshow,” but according to his memoir he began as an ambitious art dealer who just happened to fall in love with the game of chasing down a good find using the forensic and research expertise of his reliable staff, his vast knowledge of artists and fine art portraiture and often pure instinct along with a willingness to risk his reputation in the highly competitive art world.  Sheer luck seems to have been in his favor with a number of great finds that, had he been wrong — such as in his decision to scrape away some over-painting — might have had disastrous consequences both financial and for art’s sake.  He seems very fortunate to have found early success that he has been rolling with ever since, which makes for a very fascinating read about his life’s work.

“In this book I explain how the history of a picture can color its appearance.  I show how provenance can completely blind eminent authorities into believing a picture is authentic when it is a fake, and also how provenance can unlock a picture’s importance and stature.”

This book was very appealing for the sense of mystery involved with researching and following clues to determine a work of art’s provenance and condition, often literally peeling layers of paint to reveal the true masterpiece in disguise. I liked the storytelling skill and use of suspense.  Descriptions of bizarre art collectors’ habits created vivid portraits of the persons associated with the art under investigation.  These and some incredible frauds provided a number of laugh-out-loud moments for me as well.

The stories relating the complex process of unraveling the truth about individual works of arts were rich with detail, wit, and sensationalism.  I will say that they could have benefited from more complete documentation of his findings; particularly, some additional dates would have oriented me into the moment better.  Some of the works discussed are in museums or locations that I have either had access to or had contemplated in books previously, which increased my interest in learning more.  The book also sparked my interest in seeking episodes of Antiques Roadshow on both BBC and PBS, which before I read this book were the type of put-me-to-sleep programs I would have clicked right past.  I felt as though I were being welcomed behind the scenes of the elite art environment in which Philip Mould makes his living.

Check the WRL catalog for The Art Detective

I found it to be a very quick and engaging read as an e-book.

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Best2011The Best American Essays and other titles in its series allow a public library to provide a diverse range of high-quality and award-winning articles, essays, and stories that expands the purchase power of its periodicals budget. The library couldn’t possibly have it all, and many journals are regional or associated with specific foundation memberships. Magazines selected for browsing collections in the public library include a pleasant mix of popular titles for entertainment, news, and practical how-to information, nationally respected titles along the lines of The New Yorker plus national and regional literary gems such as The Oxford American and the Virginia Quarterly Review. These fine essays come from many that our library doesn’t carry, including Harvard Review, The North American Review, Portland Magazine, The Believer, and Orion.

I enjoyed the essays as literary yet not scholarly, meant for a general reading public and on virtually any topic, light to dark, newsie to personal, straightforward or allegorical. An expert reader/editor has already picked the best of the best for me–and I found a number of thought-provoking stories in this collection I might never have seen otherwise. An unforgettable journalistic piece from Mother Jones titled “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?” by Charlie LeDuff uncovers many layers of perspective on a Detroit homicide. Seven-year old Aiyana, asleep on her sofa, was shot by a police officer storming a home while on camera for one of those true-crime TV shows. In “Patient,” by Rachel Riederer, a college student recalls the devastating consequences of having her foot run over by a charter bus she was waiting in line for while partying with friends. “Lucky Girl” is a very chilling account of a 1960s illegal abortion and what it could have meant for author Bridget Potter if hers had been as botched as the majority of women without access to safe, legal medical care.

For this volume, published in 2011, the essays included are short-listed from 2010 publications sorted out by Series Editor Robert Atwan, then selected for this anthology by the annual’s Guest Editor. Scholarly thesis pieces that most of us would doze through need not be submitted. Some writers are up-and-coming while the collection also rewards many deserving veteran authors. Authors or editors mail their published works or publication subscriptions to the series editor who selects the best ones for presentation to the guest editor. Online publications are acceptable, but a printout of the piece must be mailed in order to be considered. This year, the editor is Edwidge Danticat, who won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008.

Look for The Best American Essays 2011 and other titles in The Best American series in the WRL catalog. In the series, you’ll find anthologies of comics, poetry, mystery writing, short stories, sports and travel writing, etc…, and even one titled Best American Nonrequired Reading!

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Calvin Trillin is a national treasure, but one not known by enough readers. His lovely ode to his wife and muse Alice, About Alice, made a bit of a splash a few years ago, but for many readers Trillin still isn’t a household name because much of his best work was in the form of columns and short journalism pieces, many of which were published in The New Yorker.

Trillin is a homespun, peevish, wonderfully droll American humorist. He perhaps first made a name by writing about the foods that made America great, not high cuisine but regional dishes like ribs, cajun food, deep dish pizza, and chili. This writing is collected in The Tummy Trilogy, which I also highly recommend.

But over the years, Trillin has tried his hand at all kinds of writing, a novel that is mostly about parking in New York City, impish little poems that skewer our political process, short articles about the writing life, tales of the put-upon family man, a memoir of his father, and so on. To get a sample of all this variety, the easy place to start is with his 2011 collection Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin. It has selections from forty years of his work. My advice for those trying to get started with one of our best living humorists is to sample here, then pursue more of the kind of pieces that you like best.

Check the WRL catalog for Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin

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How many of you mystery readers out there were drawn into the delights of crime fiction by reading classic mysteries from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle? I first encountered Holmes in “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful, a collection of thrillers that was at my grandparent’s house. It was a short jump from that story to the two volume Complete Sherlock Holmes published by Doubleday with a red spine with a black title patch and black cloth-bound boards. First published in the 1930s and reprinted in various editions, this was on my parent’s shelves and is now on my own along with the superb and more recent New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (ed. Leslie S. Klinger). It is a common story, and one that award-winning book critic and Holmesian Michael Dirda recounts in his wonderful tribute to all things Sherlockian, On Conan Doyle.

Dirda’s book is both a memoir of the evolution of a mystery reader and an attempt to fill in the picture of Conan Doyle as a writer. While some readers know that Conan Doyle tried unsuccessfully to kill off Holmes fairly early in order to focus more on other writing, I suspect that many people will be as surprised as I was by the breadth of Conan Doyle’s literary output. Essays, science fiction, historical novels, and much more flowed from the pen of Sir Arthur. Much of his work seems dated now, but some of the pieces have aged well. If you enjoy historical fiction set in the 1500s, you should try The White Company. Some of my favorite pieces are the Adventures of Brigadier Gerard, which we have in audiobook form. Fans of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series will find the gallant, though vain, French brigadier  an interesting counterpoint to the bluff, bullying Flashy.

Dirda is a superb writer, and whether he is describing his own first encounter with Holmes (“The Hound of the Baskervilles”) or relating tales of the Baker Street Irregulars, of whom Dirda is an invested member, his clear, elegant prose draws you in to the story. It is a trait that Dirda shares with Conan Doyle; both excel at story-telling. That is why, in the end, Conan Doyle remains so popular today. The Holmes tales are great stories that still enchant readers, and these readers continue to enjoy Holmes and Watson. This affection is seen in the myriad contemporary writers who use Holmes and Watson as a jumping off point for their own tales, as well as in the joy that Michael Dirda evinces in his appreciation of Conan Doyle. Any mystery reader will find much to enjoy here. The game’s afoot.

Check the WRL catalog for On Conan Doyle


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Mary Bly has published a charming memoir and travelogue of her family’s one-year sabbatical in Paris under her pen name, which has been selling romance novels since the late 1990s. As herself, Mary Bly is a Harvard, Oxford and Yale educated literature professor teaching Shakespeare at Fordham University who secretly published romances (successfully enough to pay all of her graduate school loans!) until she obtained tenure. Eloisa James is now regularly on the bestseller lists.

Paris in Love is a compilation of snippets from her carefully-composed Facebook entries along with some longer essays reflecting upon her carefree year in the “city of love” without deadlines and with few obligations. This makes it a perfect book for picking up and dipping into any page for the amusement of reading just a few paragraphs whenever you’re waiting somewhere, or just keeping it on the bedside or coffee table like you would a magazine. I found that I easily kept turning the pages.

Both parents are college professors, so they found it easy to take time off from work. Mary really wanted to make this drastic change because she had just survived breast cancer and was trying to force herself to savor life a little more fervently. Paris had also been on her bucket list since she was little. Emboldened with this second lease on life, they even sold their New Jersey home and gave away many of their possessions before flying off to France. Some of their time is spent in Italy, where Mary’s Italian husband Allessandro has family. Their children, 15-year old Luca and 11-year old Anna, who did not want to leave her friends in the states, provide excellent fodder for laugh-out-loud moments throughout the book. The reader gets to know each family member’s idiosyncrasies as well as a lot of interesting detail about Paris life, people, and culture.  My favorite parts are about the daughter’s rebellious nature and her exploits at school.

Two things appealed to me about this little memoir: the extravagant idea of spending an entire year living quite whimsically from day to day in a famously romantic and decadent city like Paris, and the author’s background as an Oxford scholar and Shakespeare professor. I’d love to know what it’s like to feel so free from deadlines, and I find inspiration in Mary Bly’s success story for my teenaged daughter, who has her heart set on attending Oxford University and becoming a literature professor.

Eloisa James has an official web site where you can match her delightful descriptions with photographs of her family members, including the obese Chihuahua named Milo.

Check the WRL catalog for Paris in Love: A Memoir.


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I’m not obsessing about food.  Really.  But my reading of Sarah Wu’s book led to David Kessler’s The End of Overeating, so you could say I’m just following a chain.  But I’m not obsessed about food.  Really.  (Caveat: I compulsively overeat things like pizza and ice cream, but it doesn’t really show on me.  This is not an “I’m better than you” post, just a look at an interesting book that illuminates my own relationship with food.)

Former head of the Food and Drug Administration under the Clinton Administration, Kessler led a national drive to reduce smoking, implemented nutrition information labels on packaged food, and made it easier for experimental drugs to make their way into the marketplace.  Reading his CV (Dean of the Yale Med School, top awards from major public health institutions), you know that if anyone has credibility on the topics he addresses, it’s going to be Kessler.  And American overeating is a huge (pun not intended) topic.

We know we overeat, but we don’t know why.  We also don’t really understand why some people can overeat and not gain significant weight and others become morbidly obese with all the attendant problems.  In exploring the decisions we make about food, he conducts informal tests on his employees and observes behaviors that you can see in your own life.  Some of those tests would make him a pariah in this library, but hey, he’s the boss.  But, lest we hasten to place all the blame on evil food companies, Kessler reminds us that we do have a measure of control over our eating decisions.

Not that the food companies – from growers to retailers – don’t try to capture our taste buds by creating links between their products and our brains.  Humans crave fat, salt, and sugar; when put into a precisely designed product, balanced among those ingredients and the feel of the food in your mouth, we are almost unable to resist.  (One term that stays with me is “bolus” – the scientific name for the wad of food you get as you chew.  Kind of makes the process a little less enjoyable.)  One area I think Kessler overlooks is the relationship between processed food and the speed with which we eat.  Those chicken tenders we pick up at the drive-thru have had the muscle broken down, making it easier to chew and digest as we speed from one commitment to the next.  What do you do when that much thought is given to arranging fast, tasty product consumption?

Well, you change your routine to avoid food temptation and limit your exposure to the foods that make you overeat.  By knowing how much food it takes to make you feel full until the next scheduled mealtime, or the proper size of a snack to bridge that gap, you can scale portions back.  By knowing alternate routes home, you can avoid the temptations of all those brightly colored restaurants that line our highways.  And, in part,  knowing how food is processed before it reaches you might encourage you to take the slow food path back to a healthier relationship with your diet.  It isn’t easy, but it is worth a try.

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You may be familiar with Gladwell’s previous books, The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers; all on the best sellers lists.  What the Dog Saw is a collection of his articles from The New Yorker magazine over the past decade. The articles are not overly long, generally 20 pages or so, which is nice if you’re looking for quick reading.  Gladwell has arranged the articles in categories, but they do not need to be read in any order; each one stands on its own merit.

What I enjoy about Gladwell is that he can take a subject, perhaps something that you have never really thought about, like ketchup or hair color, and draw you in. He reveals the history and background of a subject to give you a glimpse of the story behind it. His tone is conversational; you feel as though you’re reading a fictional story, but these articles are actually well-researched works of non-fiction. Some of the articles may have been more apropos when they were first published, but most of them are timeless works that will appeal to anyone.

I read the ebook version of this title, which you can download hereWe also have the print version, which you can find in our catalog.


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“University of Arizona researchers found more fecal bacteria in the kitchen—on sponges, dish towels, and the sink drain—than they found swabbing the toilet” (p. 11).

The researchers, by the way, had first washed everything with bleach. Twice.

Unless you’re a strict vegan, you’d be better off licking your toilet than your kitchen counter. If you eat meat, eggs, or dairy, you ingest what the animal ingested—and farm animals may eat pig and cattle waste, as well as poultry litter. It’s perfectly legal.

Gristle, a very quick read comprising ten short essays, is filled with all kinds of unsettling information. People who deliberately want to bury their heads in the sand about the perils of contemporary meat production and consumption should stay away. You can’t unlearn what you have learned.

But if you want a fast overview of the personal, environmental, humanitarian, and financial arguments against big agribusiness, this is a great place to start. Even if you already consider yourself well-informed, you’ll probably discover something new. For instance:

—You could drive to the moon and back 114,000 times and still have released less carbon than the United States chicken industry does each year (p. 57)

—In a given year, 1.5 million residents of Philadelphia produce 1,000,000 tons of urine and feces, while 800,000 pigs at one (only one!) pork facility produce 1,600,000 tons of manure (p.16)

—For nearly their entire four-month pregnancies, breeding sows on factory farms can only stand or lie down. They do not have room to turn around. (p. 43)

Contributors to the anthology include farmers, activists, researchers, grocers, business people, and world-famous musicians. The strength here is not depth but scope, with topics ranging from personal health to animal welfare to climate change, and perspectives advocating veganism and vegetarianism and even omnivorism (but only if the animals were raised ethically!). Filled with graphs and images  like the one shown here, from the Humane Society of the United States, the book is a great overview for people who are concerned about food supply and distribution; it is particularly timely, considering the recent outbreak of e. coli in Germany. I recommend it for anyone who eats food.

Check the WRL catalog for Gristle


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Connie from Outreach Services ends the week with this review:

I think just about everyone has had Regina Brett’s list of “50 life lessons” forwarded to them on the Internet.  But in case you haven’t (and even if you did), you should check out this wonderful little inspirational book. You, like me, will be hooked after just reading the introduction.

Brett, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and a weekly radio show host, candidly talks about the difficulties she has overcome. She matter-of-factly addresses the challenges of single motherhood, cancer survival, and alcohol abuse. As a result of her life experiences, she has developed into a very spiritual person who has learned to rely on her belief in God to move past the painful parts of her life and to look forward to every day with hope and appreciation.

This book devotes a few pages to each life lesson. Some of the “lessons” are ones you’ve probably heard before, like #5: Pay Off Your Credit Cards Every Month, or #35: Whatever Doesn’t Kill You Really Does Make You Stronger. Some are more lighthearted,  such as #10: When It Comes to Chocolate, Resistance Is Futile or #23: Be Eccentric Now– Don’t Wait for Old Age to Wear Purple. And many will touch your heart, like #27: Always Choose Life, or #13: Don’t Compare Your Life to Others’– You Have No Idea What Their Journey is All About.

Ms. Brett not only relates bits of her own life, but also adds touching stories of others to illustrate her ideas, many of which follow themes of acceptance, tolerance, gratefulness, personal responsibility, and living in the present. The book can be skimmed or read cover to cover, and referred to again and again. The lessons will resonate with people of many different age groups.  I think that anyone who reads this book will find some lessons will speak to them more strongly than others.  Book groups may find a lot to discuss here as well.

Check the WRL catalog for God Never Blinks


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As we celebrated Independence Day this past weekend, it seems only appropriate to close out this week’s series of posts with a look at a new title that celebrates American voices from the colonial days to the present. In their New Literary History of America, Marcus and Sollors have gathered together 211 essays that explore the breadth of the written word in American culture and life.

The editors have an expansive definition of the term “literary,” but that is part of the appeal of the book. In addition to essays on major American writers from Anne Bradstreet to the Roths, Philip and Henry, Marcus and Sollors include essays on Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” A.J. Liebling’s reporting on the Marciano-Moore boxing match, FDR’s Fireside chats, the development of the Winchester rifle, the “art of telephony,” and the Linotype machine. In each of these examples, and the many others that fill this delightful work, the authors discuss their topic in terms of how it influenced the literary life of the country.

Music, art, and film get their due here as well, with essays covering everything from Bebop to minstrel shows to “Roll Over Beethoven,” Audubon’s bird paintings to Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and The Wizard of Oz to Psycho. Essays on Jelly Roll Morton, Porgy and Bess, country music, and Miles Davis’ groundbreaking recording session “The Birth of the Cool” capture the panorama of American popular music.

The voices of politics and religion are amply represented here as well. Inaugural addresses from Jefferson, Lincoln, and Kennedy are covered, as are a multitude of other critical writings about the state of the Union. The impact of religion on American literary culture is explored through the work of John Winthrop, Richard Mather, Joseph Smith, the influential hymnal The Sacred Harp, and more.

Once you have read these essays, you can truly say that you have heard America speaking and singing.

Check the WRL catalog for A New Literary History of America


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