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Archive for the ‘Jan’s Picks’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RoyalTeas

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

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

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

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

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

sconesLemonCookies

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

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EmperorofAllMaladiesThe Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is as heart-wrenching as you’d expect from a book about a deadly disease, but it is also a majestically hopeful story because of its descriptions of the great strides in treatment. Practicing oncologist and researcher, Siddhartha Mukherjee, covers the vast sweeping history of cancer and its treatment, while focusing on a huge range of real people who played a role in cancer’s study, research and burgeoning cures. He always comes back to real individuals with cancer whom he has treated or studied and how their own struggles with their own disease are impacted by improvements in treatment. This is definitely a book about a disease but Siddhartha Mukherjee comes across as a deeply humane man writing a deeply humane book.

The earliest mention of cancer that the book talks about is a quote from scroll written by the Ancient Egyptian physician Imhotep over 4000 thousand years ago.  The scroll gives a perfect description of breast cancer, but unfortunately for breast cancer sufferers from that time up until recently Imhotep concluded that there was nothing that could be done to help. Two centuries ago the standard treatment became a mastectomy without an anesthetic which is horrible to even contemplate. Today a range of options including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation mean a much higher survival rate.

Siddhartha Mukherjee points out that cancer is actually more than one disease and survival rates for some forms of the disease have improved rapidly, while others haven’t changed much. One joyful and astonishing story is the treatment of some common forms of childhood  leukemia which went from a 5-year survival rate of less than 10% in the 1960s to a 5-year survival rate of over 90% today.

The Emperor of All Maladies is very readable and extremely compelling. It won the Pulitzer Prize for non fiction in 2011. Unless you are an oncologist be prepared to learn a lot from this 500-page epic of human ingenuity in overcoming a horrible disease that has caused untold suffering. I learned some astonishing facts, for instance that a chemical similar to mustard gas, the World War I trench horror, is used in chemotherapy.

As you’d expect from a reliable scientific book, The Emperor of All Maladies includes extensive notes with references, a glossary and an index. It also has some black and white photographs and drawings of notable people, events and procedures in the fight against cancer. The Emperor of All Maladies is a good choice if you like Oliver Sacks for his deep compassion for the people he treats and his profound knowledge of his area of expertise.

Check the WRL catalog for The Emperor of All Maladies.

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TheOrchardistTalmadge is a lonely man, living quietly in his orchard, enjoying the quiet rhythms of the seasons and nursing the loss of his mother and the unexplained disappearance of his sister decades earlier. When two feral and visibly pregnant girls steal fruit from his market stall, he is intrigued rather than angry. Talmadge manages to befriend the girls, but only on their own terms. He shelters the girls and tries to protect them from imminent danger, but an evil man appears from their past with shockingly tragic consequences.

A powerful story, deep and quietly told, The Orchardist  entraps the reader into its world.  First time novelist Amanda Coplin breaks tradition by leaving out quotation marks, and telling some events from multiple viewpoints, and she succeeds in creating a compelling novel that exquisitely captures a time (around 1900) and a place (the Pacific Northwest).  But she most effectively captures the lives of ordinary individuals caught in extraordinary circumstances. The Orchardist is a moving portrait of people who are damaged but who remain remarkably resilient. The characters, like real people, would be better off if they could put the past behind them, but also like real people, some of them cannot forgive and they must survive however they can. 

Try The Orchardist if you like to get caught up in a sweeping historical novel with hardship and misfortune, but also with burgeoning hope, such as The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman or Year of Wonders,  by Geraldine Brooks .

I listened to part of The Orchardist and I highly recommend Mark Bramhall’s reading as his gravelly voice captured Talmadge’s gruff personality and the slow unfolding melancholy of the story.

Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist.

Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist on CD.

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WorldsStrongestLibrarianThis sometimes ludicrous, but always poignant memoir is in part a love poem to public libraries and in part a moving account of living with Tourette’s Syndrome. Josh Hanagarne is a librarian in Salt Lake City Public Library who starts his book by describing  his workplace as “a giant pair of glass underpants” and pointing out that in the collection of a public library “there’s something to offend everyone.” He keeps up the literary theme with chapter headings labelled with Dewey Decimal Numbers and a sprinkling of the names of books to make his points.

At the same time that is is a celebration of libraries, Hanagarne’s book is also the story of a life lived with the involuntary tics, movements and vocalizations of Tourette’s Syndrome. Hanagarne’s tics started when he was a small boy and made a misery of his teenage years as he dealt with a a difficult and–above all–visible disease. His early adulthood was a story of  never being able to settle as he went in and out of jobs and school programs. As the subtitle points out this is also the story of the Power of Family and Josh’s family–parents, siblings, and wife–always supported him through Tourette’s Syndrome, schooling, life, struggles with infertility, and the various types of physical training which he attempted in order to control his tics. He is a large man who works his way up to a 590-pound dead lift (I am not sure what that is, but it sounds incredibly impressive), but from reading his memoir his true strength isn’t physical, rather it is his strength of character and strength as a human being that shines through.

Try The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family if you like memoirs about overcoming adversity. Other books in our library about living with Tourette’s Syndrome include: Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky or Against Medical Advice: a True Story, by James Patterson and Hal Friedman.

Don’t assume this is  a dark book, because Hanagarne is able to bring humor even to the description of library patrons throwing up in trash cans or his classmates jeering at him for his Tourette’s tics. And best of all for a librarian is the paean to public libraries: “I had faith in the library long before he walked in and told me what I already knew: A library is a miracle.”

Check the WRL catalog for The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.

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JustBabies On the arresting cover of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil we see one chubby baby’s arm labelled “Good” and the other labelled “Evil”. Like many people, I instinctively feel that babies as young as those pictured can’t be described as “good” or “evil,” no matter how annoying their habits, because their moral sense isn’t developed. I certainly feel older people can have these labels, so is the moral sense of older children and adults learned (Nurture) or innate (Nature)? This debate may never be completely settled but developmental psychologist and author Paul Bloom argues that “some aspects of morality come naturally to us.”

Paul Bloom is a working scientist and has performed numerous experiments and published several scientific papers designed to tease out the moral behavior of those who can not yet talk. He broadly concludes that babies of around six months feel empathy and compassion, have a sense of fairness, and are capable of judging the actions of others. He is not doing this as a parlor trick (see, I can upset a baby by pretending to be hurt) but because “an appreciation of the moral natures of babies can ground a new perspective on the moral psychology of adults.” He adds that “moral deliberation is ubiquitous” and all societies create a formal and informal moral code. Many observers over millennia have noted that “people everywhere have a natural disapproval toward actions such as lying, breaking a promise, and murder.” He then argues that the circumstances under which the great human capacity for kindness can turn into a terrible human capacity for horror occur when people assign other people to categories, and then decide that some categories are deserving of compassion and some are not. As travel, migration and communication have developed, many people are learning compassion for an ever widening circle, and Bloom asserts that this is a wonderful thing.

Paul Bloom concludes his book with a chapter called “How to be Good,” in case you were wondering how to achieve this. Babies have a strong desire to “be good” and see others around them being good, but so do adults although we usually express it a more sophisticated way. He points out that many real life moral challenges have no clear cut right answer, but if we are aware that some of our moral reasoning is innate, but that most importantly, we can use our reason and judgement as well to expand and reveal our full humanity because “our enhanced morality is the product of human interaction and human ingenuity.”

Try Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil if you are interested in the intersection of science, social science, and everyday behavior, such as in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by the popular Malcolm Gladwell. It is also a good choice if you are fascinated with questions of justice, retribution and meaning in books like Man’s Search for Meaning. Or just read it for a well-written, very readable book written by a real scientist explaining his own life work.

Check the WRL catalog for Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

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I guess you think you know this story.

You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.

RevoltingRhymes

These are the first lines of Roald Dahl’s retelling of Cinderella, but it applies to all his Revolting Rhymes. They are all familiar stories with characters such as Jack climbing his beanstalk or Goldilocks breaking into the bears’ house, but as readers of Roald Dahl’s acclaimed children’s books know – he never sugar coats the nastier aspects of life.

With wonderful rollicking rhythm and Roald Dahl’s hallmark mastery over words, Revolting Rhymes is full of quotable tit-bits. My family has been quoting them for over twenty years. I am not sure what it says about us that one of our most quoted lines is, “She beat the boy for half an hour, with (and nothing could be meaner) the handle of a vacuum cleaner” from Jack and the Beanstalk.

All the old favorites are here including Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs and Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. In these retellings the hero isn’t always who we assumed it was.  Goldilocks is described as a “brazen little crook” because after all she does break into a stranger’s house, steal their food and break their furniture. The morals of these stories might not be what you expect either. Which one of these well-known tales do you suppose has the moral of “A bath he said does seem to pay. I’m going to have one every day” or “Which shows that gambling’s not a sin. Provided that you always win”?

These are great read-aloud poems for all ages. I read them with great enjoyment (on both sides) to my children for years. Before I had children I read them to the residents of a continuing care home where I worked. Even those who were confused seemed to enjoy the readings. They are familiar stories and these versions are fast, punchy and funny. Try Revolting Rhymes for something light and humorous to be shared among the generations these cold winter days.

Check the WRL catalog for Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes

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“The Time Lord has met many aliens, cyborgs, robots, and humans on his journeys through history and across the universe.”

DoctorWhoDoctor Who has clocked  almost eight hundred episodes over thirty-three seasons. If you add in the fact that the Doctor can travel to any time in history and any place in infinity, then it isn’t surprising that it can be a little difficult to keep all the characters straight. That is where the Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia comes in very handy. With more than two hundred entries from Abzorbaloff, the greedy shape shifting humanoid to the Zygons who met the fourth Doctor, it can’t claim to cover all of time and space, but it comes close.

November marked the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who–an extremely exciting event for Whovians. Those of us without BBC America on cable would have been left waiting for the Fiftieth Anniversary Special to come out on DVD except that, for the first time I have encountered, the Fiftieth Anniversary Special was kindly shown at movie theaters. Our closest movie theater showed it on IMax 3D on a Monday night, which is not my preferred format or time, but I had to go anyway. I didn’t dress up–unlike dozens of other Whovians young and old. They varied from around ten years old to well into their fifties or even sixties which is a very mixed fan base, but is not surprising for a show that started running before the moon landing and continues to attract fans.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a well-organized book in which you can search for characters by name, or browse the Table of Contents where they are categorized by type such as “Alien,” “Companion,” “Cyborg,” or “Entity” with color coding matching their main entries. Each character gets a full page spread with a description, details about their origins, homeworld, which Doctors they met and how they fit into the stories. Sharp, bright photos, typical of Dorling Kindersley publishers clearly show the attributes of each character.

The BBC obviously saw publishing opportunity in the interest around the fiftieth anniversary and this is an official BBC publication. If this book is out, our library has other books of background for desperate Doctor Who fans, such as, Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler or Doctor Who Whology: The Official Miscellany, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a must-read (or a must-browse) for Doctor Who fans. If you are not a fan and are wondering what all the fuss is about try my review of the TV series of Doctor Who and check out some of the series on DVD.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia.

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HorseradishAs a librarian, “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them,” may be the best advice I have ever heard. This sterling counsel comes from children’s book author Lemony Snicket. His slim volume of silliness, Horseradish: Bitter Truths you Can’t Avoid, is full of similar useful admonitions. Lemony Snicket (or his alter-ego Daniel Handler) is most famous for his bestselling Series of Unfortunate Events, where his humor is also off beat, and always unexpected. I thought at first that this was a book of quotes from his other works, but he seems to have created original aphorisms, such as, “After you leave home you may find yourself feeling homesick, even if you have a new home that has nicer wallpaper and a more efficient dishwasher than the home in which you grew up.”  As a person who tends to get left with the dishes, I judge my many past homes on the remembered quality of their dishwashers, so I consider this quite germane.

The book is arranged into thirteen chapters of advice pithy or wordy, starting with “Chapter 1: Home” and “Chapter 2: Family” and going on to “Chapter 12: An Overall Feeling of Doom that One Cannot Ever Escape No Matter What One Does.”  There are many truisms to pop in and visit, no matter how you are feeling. The back cover of this book promises that its contents will not help with life’s “turbulent journey” but I beg to differ; life is always helped by laughter and a fresh perspective and Lemony Snicket can be relied upon to provide both. Try Horseradish: Bitter Truths you Can’t Avoid if you are in the mood for some frivolous fun, or you want an axiom that is more apt than usual. And remember, “A library is like an island in a vast sea of ignorance, particularly if the library is very tall and the surrounding area has been flooded.”

Check the WRL catalog for Horseradish: Bitter Truths you Can’t Avoid.

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SongsofInsectsThings have changed. Even crickets don’t chirp like they did in the old days. If you think the beat of the summer insects doesn’t sound like it used to, you could be right because the high-pitched songs of insects become inaudible to aging ears.

This is where The Songs of Insects comes in. It is a gorgeously illustrated visual guide to crickets, cicadas, katydids and grasshoppers, with each insect photographed on a natural surroundings and also on a white background, making them very easy to see and differentiate. It also promises to “shower you with auditory pleasures untold” and it lives up to this promise very well through the enclosed CD with the songs of almost eighty species of insect. The authors’ system of “electronics and sensitive microphones” that they used to record the insect songs means that we can listen to insect songs that we can no longer hear in the wild.

Before the guide portion of the book there are several pages of enlightening information about the classification of singing insects and the biology of insect songs. It includes some fascinating tidbits, for instance that some insects are left-handed vs. right-handed singers and their handedness (or wingedness?) is determined by species. Although we call them “songs,” insects have no lungs, so most rub wings or bumps or other modified body parts together to produce their chorus. Cicadas are different because their sound producing organs or “tymbals” resonate like drums, which explains how they can be so loud.

Each insect’s page includes sonograms or “sound pictures” for the technically minded. I was delighted to learn that “each species has its own distinct song, which is recognized by all individuals of the same species” and that pulse rates of songs vary by temperature and songs tend to speed up as the temperature rises so you can use the song to estimate temperature! But the best tidbit of all is discovering that there is an insect enchantingly called the Slightly Musical Conehead (Neoconocephalus exiliscanorous).

The Songs of Insects is a must-read for nature lovers, especially those who like to use books to identify the wildlife around them, like Sibley’s Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley, or more quirkily, Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, by George W. Hudler. If you aren’t on the East Coast of North America you won’t necessarily be able to hear all these insects in the wild, but you can enjoy them on the CD. The authors’ ongoing project can be found at http://www.songsofinsects.com/

The Songs of Insects is also a wonderful book for photographers. The authors explain the equipment they used and how they photographed a living creature that isn’t interested in a modeling contract and may hop away at any moment (the answer is to use a custom made “whitebox.”)

Check the WRL catalog for The Songs of Insects.

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DavidandGoliathEveryone knows that the phrase “David and Goliath” means big vs. small. And everyone also knows that in this Biblical story, against all odds, small won. Malcolm Gladwell famously likes to stand things on their heads and look at them from a new perspective. He starts his newest book with a historically detailed retelling of David and Goliath, and uses his wonderful storytelling skills to take the familiar and make us look at it in another light, so we see that even this well-known Biblical story has been interpreted incorrectly for thousands of years and sometimes being small or weak is a big advantage.

Malcolm Gladwell interviewed and features an assortment of ordinary people who fought their own Goliaths in a variety of ways, such as a middle school girls’ basketball team in Chapter One. They were a weak team in terms of height and usual skills, so they changed the way they played rather than trying to be better at standard basketball play. I don’t understand the strategy, being ignorant about basketball, but it involved more running than usual so the players had to be very fit and put in more effort, as Malcolm Gladwell says, “Underdog strategies are hard.

In another chapter he controversially argues against affirmative action in college admissions, describing how getting into a difficult college can make a student perform worse. He argues persuasively in the cases of the individuals whom he interviewed that they would have been better off in a less prestigious school because they would have been able to continue studying science, because in a prestigious college, a formerly outstanding student can become overwhelmed and discouraged. Colleges are the perfect example of big vs. small ponds and “Small Ponds are welcoming places for those on the inside.” Apparently this is especially common for science students as “more than half of all American students who start out in science, technology and math programs… drop out after their first or second year.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s books are best selling but have been criticized  for making overly-broad and simplistic conclusions from single scientific papers. David and Goliath is a series of personal stories, so each story carries the authenticity which each of our own stories necessarily carry–maybe what happened in my life isn’t likely, but it did happen. But in some cases it seems he has extrapolated a personal story to too general a conclusion. For example, the story of the development of a cure for childhood leukemia is an astounding and moving story, but it seems a stretch to claim that it depended on developer Emil Freireich’s tragically early loss of his father and grueling childhood. Most people with difficult childhoods don’t excel the same way.

Certainly try David and Goliath if you enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s other books, but also try it if you like to be challenged by ideas that you won’t necessarily agree with. Even try it if you are usually a fiction reader, because, as always, Malcolm Gladwell, brings together disparate, and sometimes dry, facts in a very readable and entertaining way.

Check the WRL catalog for David and Goliath.

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ChristmasMouse1“The kettle began to sing, promising comfort.”

Sometimes only cosy* will do. On occasion I feel like action and excitement from my literature, and I am willing to put up with violence and despair to get it, but sometimes life requires a more moderate gait. When you need a gentle tome, then Miss Read will deliver.

I am new to Miss Read, despite her first book being published in 1955. I was creating a “Curl Up With a Cozy Tale” display at the library and felt drawn to The Christmas Mouse. Being slightly obsessive, I have branched out into her other titles in myriad formats; as ebooks and as audiobooks on CD. Her basic postulation seems to be that nothing in life is so bad that the sadness can’t be lessened by time, a cup of tea and the warmth of family and friends, with special emphasis on the cups of tea.

For my commute, I grabbed the first CD that was checked in and plunged into the middle of her Thrush Green series. I discovered that there are a lot of characters, like when my Great Aunty Judith tells me long and involved stories about the internal workings and external marriage problems of distant cousins, and I am expected to keep them all straight. After negotiating a tricky intersection I’d hear something such as, “Betty, Maggie and Dotty all sat down at Betty’s scrubbed kitchen table for a nice cup of tea. Outside the birds hopped among the spring flowers and chirped cheerfully. ‘Tell me all about it,’ said Betty.” I would suddenly realize that I had no idea of the identities of Betty, Maggie and Dotty, but for the enjoyment of the story it doesn’t matter because it is like meeting real people; I am introduced to them as they are now, and then slowly learn about their pasts and how they interconnect to other people we know in common.

The Christmas Mouse tells the story of Mrs. Berry who lives with her widowed daughter and two small grandchildren. Despite the tragedy of the daughter’s young widowhood, the book gently and with quiet wit paints a portrait of a close and stable family. On Christmas Eve, Mrs. Berry must face her fears–of mice and other stray creatures. The line drawings by J.S. Goodall add to the warmth. The little boy in the frontispiece exudes contentment, sitting in an overlarge armchair, wrapped up in a voluminous coat and slippers, and eating a warm bowl of bread and milk.

Try The Christmas Mouse if you are in the mood for cosy. Try it if you are tired of the commercial fuss in the lead up to Christmas, as The Christmas Mouse’s characters don’t have much material stuff, but still make Christmas a warm, loving family affair. And just in case you think this sort of book isn’t intellectually stimulating, I learned a new word, which doesn’t happen frequently in my fiction endeavors: wayzgoose, which is a printers’ outing. Literary quotes at the beginning of each chapter, from Robert Burns to William Wordsworth add to the appeal. 

* And this is definitely cosy and not cozy because this is a Very British Book.

Check the WRL catalog for The Christmas Mouse.

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MrWufflesDrama! Danger!

Aliens invade and then …

encounter the cat.

David Wiesner once again proves that you don’t need words to tell a full and satisfying story.

Mr. Wuffles, as his name suggests, is a cat. He is a handsome beast, black with a white front and white socks. David Wiesner has perfectly captured his cat-arrogance as he moves through the pages with his golden green eyes wondering what’s in it for him. His jeans-wearing, green-shirted owner (who only appears as legs and arms) tries to engage him with new toys, but he stalks off past all the old rejected toys with their price tags still intact.  He finally finds one that engages his interest because it is full of tiny ant-sized green aliens. The appealing nose-less green-faced aliens know they are in mortal danger from Mr. Wuffles so they have to partner with friendly ants and a ladybug to attempt their escape. They communicate with each other in speech bubbles resembling hieroglyphics and with the reader in expressive gestures. They don’t notice the humans at all.

I enjoy reading graphic novels but at forty-mumble I am starting to struggle with the tiny print in some of them. I thought someone should invent large print graphic novels for the chronologically challenged, but realized they already exist and that they are called picture books. Most picture books aren’t interesting to adults on their own merits, unless they are planning to share them with a child. Some picture book authors break this rule frequently such as Chris Van Allsburg, Maurice Sendak and David Wiesner, with stories on multiple levels and gallery-worthy art. David Wiesner has a talent for turning things around like his award winning Flotsam with its changes in viewpoint.

The title, Mr. Wuffles, sounds positively sappy (which I don’t mind as a secret Reddit Aww viewer), but it isn’t a sappy book. Despite his name, Mr. Wuffles is portrayed as the terrifying hunter that any domestic cat really is to anything smaller than it. Older children will be able to follow this almost wordless story, but SF fans of any age and cat lovers will also get a kick out of it.  My sixteen-year-old loved it. See if you can spot when one of the aliens cries in his hieroglyphic script, “To infinity and beyond!” as he flies away on the back of a ladybug from the approaching killer cat claws.  Mr. Wuffles  raises important questions like,  what would happen if aliens invaded and they were not godzilla-like orders of magnitudes larger than us, but orders of magnitude smaller? What if it already happened? What if they just met the cat, who was only interested in cat things like chasing them and perhaps eating them?

And it may leave you wondering the next time your cat snubs the toys you buy, that maybe it’s because there are aliens under the radiator?

Check the WRL catalog for Mr. Wuffles.

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CrazyAboutPiesFor me, a pie is an object about which there is much to be crazy. Or perhaps that is not quite right, as pies are not “objects,” rather they are as manna contained within their own plane of being. To me, this isn’t so much a cookbook as a blueprint towards a better life.

Metaphysics aside, this is a great book that makes me hungry just looking at the pictures. It is beautifully illustrated with glowing photographs of creations that I know I could never bake as perfectly. The author, Krystina Castella, is an industrial designer as well as a successful cookbook writer, so it is not surprising that her pies are visually stunning. Crazy About Pies even has a section on “The Pie Decorator’s Tool Kit” although decorating pies is not something that had previously occurred to me beyond cutting out some leaves and an apple from left-over pastry or poking the vent holes in the shape of an “A.” Whether or not I would ever get around to putting a marzipan butterfly or a fondant blackbird on a pie, it is still lovely to look and dream…

Over the years I have perfected my one apple pie recipe to exactly how I like it, so I thought I would try something savory in the form of Bacon and Egg Pocket Pies. They took an unexpectedly long time to make, but the results were fabulously rich and incredibly yummy. Mixing little bits of bacon into pastry is not something that ever occurred to me before, but it worked out to be such a splendid idea, that I will have to try it again (but maybe not with apple pie). I managed to sneak one out of the fridge before my ravening hoards of teenagers pillaged them and (once warmed in the microwave), my colleagues agreed that they were just what we needed for breakfast.

For the sweet pies I am not sure whether to go with Mocha Pie or Cheesecake Pie with Marzipan Butterflies. Since I am at work, in the meantime, I will have to content myself with flicking through the book and drooling.

Definitely try Crazy About Pies if you want to expand your pie repertoire—you’ll get lots of great ideas. Or you can just look at it for the glamorous photographs of Pie Perfection.

Check the WRL catalog for Crazy About Pies.

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OceanatendofLane

“The dread had not left my soul. But there was a kitten on my pillow, and it was purring in my face and vibrating gently with every purr.”

Neil Gaiman has a great talent for seeing the sinister and malevolent under the everyday and mundane. But he also has a talent for pointing out the beauty and wonder that simultaneously exist in the same everyday and mundane things. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told mainly through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy, which gives the book a simple, direct style as the boy is without preconceptions. He reports matter-of-factly that his new nanny is an evil monster who rode out of another dimension in a worm hole in his own foot, but this is not the sort of thing that adults believe.

The book starts as a middle-aged man returns to his childhood village to attend a funeral, so we know that the narrator survives (something I would not have been sure of otherwise). Forty years ago, the tragic suicide of an almost-stranger and a series of seemingly small, but bad, decisions, lead to dramatic and possibly world-ending events, all under the eyes of oblivious adults.

Neil Gaiman has created a complete, but never fully explained, fantasy world living just under the surface of the world we see. His Hunger Birds are close to the creepiest fantasy creatures I have ever encountered. I can see glimmers of the best of other British fantasy. The woods that the boy first enters with Lettie Hempstock reminds me of the damaged, dimensionless woods in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Pinhoe Egg. Lettie Hempstock herself, being a non-human in human form, with her Universe-saving sentiments, reminds me of Doctor Who. These may be plausible connections: Neil Gaiman knew Diana Wynne Jones and considered her his mentor, and he has written for Doctor Who.

This book is being marketed as an adult novel and lots of adults and teens love it.  I think older children who are strong readers and fantasy fans will also enjoy it. They will appreciate the main character’s impotence in the face of the seamlessly complacent adult world. It has a few oblique references to sex, but they will probably go over the heads of many children. Simply, but poetically written, this a beautiful short book that I wanted to come back to and immerse myself in. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and have heard several read by the author. Neil Gaiman is by far the best reader of his own work that I have come across. From his pleasant English accent to the menace in the voice of the monster, I can’t wait to hear more.

Check the WRL catalog for The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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OperationYesBo Whaley lives on an Air Force base in North Carolina. His father is the base commander, which just makes life complicated, especially when most of the kids in his class also live on base. To make life even more convoluted, his cousin Gari arrives from Seattle to live with him because her mother is being deployed to Iraq. They are assigned to the same class to help Gari fit in, but things go badly between them from the start.

The only good thing that is happening to Bo is his new teacher. Ms. Loupe, who is in her first year of teaching, has a tattoo and is young enough to have been taught by the principal. For Bo the best thing about her is her passion for theater. She engages the class in improv involving a beaten up couch, and Bo discovers in himself a talent for acting that previous teachers had seen as a propensity to talk and goof-off in class. His enthusiasm grows until he discovers that the big theater camp that the teacher is planning will be held next summer. He will be gone then, when his family is sent to their next military assignment, which makes Bo furious with the military lifestyle.

Ms. Loupe also gets the class working on a project to send supplies to her brother, who is stationed in Afghanistan. When her brother is declared missing in action, Ms. Loupe is understandably distraught, and Bo’s whole class want to help. In the most moving part of the book Bo, his cousin Gari, Ms. Loupe’s entire class and finally the whole community find a way to work together and, if not fix the unfixable, at least make things better. In the process they learn about each other, themselves, friendship and community.

In turn hilarious and heartbreaking, Operation Yes is aimed at middle grades, but has a lot to offer adults. As a librarian I love the literary profanity that the school librarian indulges in : “‘Frog and Toad!’ Miss Candy said. ‘Not again!’” or “Green Eggs and Ham!” I am doing a project on books featuring children with parents in U.S. military, and some of these books are impossible to get through without crying. Operation Yes is definitely in this category. Read it for a moving portrait of a community coming together or an accurate depiction of the military family lifestyle.

Check the WRL catalog for Operation Yes.

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MansSearchforMeaning

“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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YearoftheJungle

Suzanne Collins achieved fame through her dark and dystopian Hunger Games series. Her latest offering is neither a dystopian tale nor a children’s fantasy series; instead she has written a picture book. Year of the Jungle is four-year-old child’s view of Suzanne Collins’s own experiences when her father was deployed to Vietnam in 1968.

Because Year of the Jungle is the newest book from a bestselling author, it has garnered a lot of attention. One review said that it would “bewilder” its intended audience of small children. Considering that over two million American children have had a parent deployed since 9/11, it must be a familiar story to many. Of course not all of them had exactly the same experience as Suzanne Collins, but many have had similar enough experiences that they will not be bewildered by this book.

Suzy hears that her father “has to go to something called a war,” leaving her not knowing “what anybody’s talking about.”  She also learns that he will be in a jungle. Suzy knows about jungles from cartoons so she pictures her father in a happy place among her favorite cartoon characters. In a strong portrayal of a small child’s misunderstanding of the passage of time, Suzy is confused about the length of the year he will be away. The book portrays Suzy’s growing unease as adults give her unlooked-for sympathy, showing how adults can make things worse, even though they are trying to be kind. Suzy loves getting her father’s postcards, but they start coming less frequently and start to change. But for a child about to turn five the most devastating thing is the realization that he sent a birthday greeting to the wrong sibling.  In the illustrations the cartoon jungle full of round and smiling animals changes into a far more sinister place with images of violence and fear.

It is hard not to speculate how Suzanne Collins’s early experiences influenced her imagination when writing her undoubtedly dark and violent Hunger Games series. As an excellent writer she has captured and condensed a world of childhood experiences into a very few words. James Proimos’ illustrations are of a rough cartoonish style that at first glance I didn’t find very attractive, but they do a great job of capturing Suzy’s innocence and her unusually early realization of the dangers of the world.

This is a picture book designed to be read aloud, and a parent or caregiver can judge if it is the right book for their child. I think it could be useful for young military children as it is ultimately comforting when her father returns safely, although it is so dark in places that an adult should read it first and decide if it is appropriate. I also recommend it for adults who are interested in Suzanne Collins, military children’s experience, or a darker picture book.

Check the WRL catalog for Year of the Jungle.

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