Archive for the ‘Amy’s Picks’ Category

Unaccustomed Earth

Short story collections generally don’t circulate well. I’m not sure exactly why, but I can certainly theorize. Personally, I enjoy immersing myself in a detailed, involved story, with well-thought out characters and vivid settings, but the very nature of short stories (They’re short!) seems counterintuitive to achieving those lofty goals. Honestly, If I’d known Unaccustomed Earth was a collection of short stories, I don’t think I would have bothered to pick it up. Fortunately for me (and I hope, by extension, you), the cover of this advance reader’s copy wasn’t very clear about the nature of this book, so I took it home and was several pages in, before I realized I was “duped.” Having frightened you away, let me lure you back in by saying that I really loved this collection of short stories, and Lahiri gave me almost everything I was looking for in a work of fiction.

Lahiri is the daughter of Indian immigrants, and her cultural background and life experiences figure prominently in her stories. The main character is usually an educated woman, almost always a second-generation Indian, and often involved with a non-Indian love interest. The consistency of her characters has led several reviewers to characterize Lahiri’s work as repetitive, but I think most of her stories transcend their characters’ origins. I, for instance, am an educated woman of mostly German ancestry (many generations removed), and while my love interest is non-Indian, that’s hardly remarkable since I am not Indian myself. Yet even so, there was much in Lahiri’s writing to which I could relate. (I found myself thinking about one story for days, even weeks after I read it. I don’t even feel comfortable sharing it here, because it hit way too close to my personal life.) While the Indian culture provides an interesting backdrop for the stories and occasionally produces conflict, in the end, I think what Lahiri is really writing about the complexities of life itself. What could be more universal?

Lahiri’s writing style is simple, but elegant, and is well-suited to the short story format. (I did not find her novel, The Namesake, quite as engrossing as her short story collections.) Sometimes the stories end on a sadder note, sometimes, a happier, and occasionally the reader is left uncertain how to feel. In fact, to say that her stories ever really end is perhaps misleading. Each conclusion features a transitional point in the main character’s life, a turning point with considerable implications. While the writing ends, the reader can’t help but be aware that the characters’ lives continue to go forward, and I have to say, if there was one frustration I had, it was that I wanted to follow them further. Ultimately I still found the stories satisfying, because I was encouraged to think long and hard about what had happened and what it might mean. Even so, those readers who appreciate tight, neat endings, with all the loose ends wrapped up in a neat little bow, might be frustrated by Lahiri’s technique. Otherwise, I would say Unaccustomed Earth is an excellent choice for both fans of multicultural fiction and those who simply enjoy good stories about the ups and downs associated with being alive.

Check the WRL catalog for Unaccustomed Earth

Or try Unaccustomed Earth as an audiobook

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“And now for something completely different…”  The legions of Monty Python fans out there will be quick to recognize this quote, and I repeat it here because Monty Python’s Flying Circus is so very different!  Monty Python (as the creators of this show are known) features the writing, performing, and artistic talents of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin.  This sketch comedy show is replete with the absurd—a veritable host of improbable characters in surreal situations.   Sheep infest the walls of a suburban home, a gang of grannies terrorizes a defenseless neighborhood, an intrepid group of hairdressers attempts to climb Mount Everest, etc, etc.  (Far be it from me to make assumptions about anyone’s recreational habits, but I often find myself wondering what mind-altering substances these guys were on when they wrote this stuff.)

No subject is safe from the Monty Python’s mockery, and squeamish watchers should be aware that nudity, foul language, and violence all appear on a regular basis (not recommended for the faint of heart).  Honestly, there are times where Monty Python is hit and miss.  Sometimes I can watch a sketch or two without cracking a smile, only to lose control when a line or sketch suddenly jabs my funny bone.  I also think the unending absurdity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus makes it unsuitable in large doses.  I wouldn’t try watching more than two shows in a row, as I once tried to do. (At some point your brain will start rotting, and your desiccated head will eventually roll right off your shoulders.  Trust me on this.)

I was first introduced to Monty Python while I was in college, when I saw the feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  (This loose parody of the Arthurian legend is a good starting place for hesitant neophytes.)   As I sat in the theatre, listening to others around me repeat by heart lines that I had never heard, something about the insanity struck a chord deep inside me.  Not every viewer will react the same way, but I encourage you to give Monty Python’s Flying Circus a chance.  Best enjoyed with a large group of close friends.

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The Church of England ordained its first female ministers in March of 1994. Before that year was out, while churchgoers were still adjusting to this new development, The Vicar of Dibley debuted on BBC. Their old vicar has passed away, and the residents of the fictional village of Dibley are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the man who is to be their new spiritual leader. Only—guess what—he is actually a she! And not just any she, but a liberated, intelligent, outspoken she!  Geraldine Granger, chocolate lover (as I’m sure she would like to be described), is either the answer to the villagers’ prayers, or a woman ready to lead them down the highway to hell.

Luckily for everyone involved, it turns out to be the former. Geraldine is a refreshing breath of fresh air for Dibley, and a strong bond soon grows between her and her eccentric parishioners. The main players are the members of the parish council: David Horton, staunch conservative and occasional blowhard; Hugo Horton, dimwitted but sweet son of David; Frank Pickle, the most boring man alive; Owen Newitt, foul mouthed and foul smelling farmer; Letitia Cropley, “culinary genius” and inventor of such perennial favorites as lard and fish paste pancakes; and Jim Trott, a ditherer with a weakness for the ladies. Add one verger to the mix, dimwitted and sweet Alice Tinker, and you’ve got some entertaining chaos. (Does my description of Alice make you think of another character? Hmmm….a match made in heaven perhaps?) The supporting actors in this series are all talented, but the boisterous Dawn French (Geraldine) is the lynchpin that holds the series together.

Even watching as many British comedies as I do (and having been to the UK twice), I’m occasionally stymied by references to unfamiliar British products and British celebrities, but these cultural barriers don’t detract too much from my appreciation of this show. Also, I feel I should mention to wary viewers that this show is respectful to both Christianity and Christians. I’d happily recommend The Vicar of Dibley to even the most devout of my acquaintances (and all the rest of you too). This is one of my favorite Britcoms!

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It’s the early 1950s.  Lionel is an army officer, and Jean is an army nurse.  They meet.  They fall in love.  Then Lionel gets shipped to Korea.   Communication lines break down, and their relationship ends.  End of story?  Nope.  It’s just the beginning.

As Time Goes By begins forty years later, when this lucky pair is given a second opportunity.  A chance meeting puts them back in touch with each other, and their relationship begins anew.  The story of the couple’s rekindled romance is slow-paced and tender, liberally sprinkled with gentle humor.   Jean (Judi Dench) and Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) have a delightful chemistry, and their relationship seems very loving and real—their playful banter, their arguments, their loving endearments…the whole shebang.  (The character of Lionel is about twice my age, and he’s not exactly a Greek Adonis, but I still find him attractive.  It’s just weird that my husband doesn’t feel threatened by this fact…)

Jean and Lionel’s lives aren’t just about each other, of course.  A wide range of supporting characters add interest to the storyline–Alistair, an overenthusiastic, and often annoying publisher, and Rocky, Lionel’s unrestrained and adventuresome father, are among the many gems.  (Some of these individuals are more over the top than the very relatable Jean and Lionel, but they still don’t exist outside the realm of possibility.)  After Lionel and Jean’s relationship is well established, many of the later episodes follow relationships involving these secondary characters.

This is a long series, featuring an impressive nine seasons of episodes.  I would recommend that new viewers start the series at the very beginning, so they can follow the progression of the storyline and the development of the characters.  It may take a while to finish all that viewing, but a quality, well-scripted show like this one is worth every second!

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The basic premise behind this series should seem familiar to American viewers.  Six twenty-somethings (3 men, 3 women), each with their own entertaining eccentricities, experience the highs and lows of life and love, sharing all their adventures in the milieu of their mutual friendship.  Sounds a lot like Friends doesn’t it?  Well, it  is…but it’s not.  For one thing, Coupling spends a lot time on the subject of sex, and since BBC television is far less censored than American television, things can get pretty explicit (not vulgar, mind you, but definitely explicit.)  Take, for instance, a comment from Jeff, a character who spends a great deal of time obsessing about boobs, bottoms, and everything else to do with women’s bodies, “Oh, wouldn’t that be great… being a lesbian. All the advantages of being a man, but with less embarrassing genitals.”  Or for another Jeffism…“Sex…. It’s just like cuddling – only damper.”   (The series abounds with great quotes like these, and the actors deliver them with all the necessary panache.)

The central arc of the story is the relationship between two characters known as Susan and Steve, but the supporting characters–Jeff, Jane, Sally, and Patrick…and later Oliver, who replaces Jeff in the fourth season (not entirely successfully)–start to gain more depth and prominence as the main storyline advances.  The writers spend a lot of time exploring different viewpoints, and it’s common for a misunderstanding, or even several misunderstandings, to lie at the root of the group’s dilemmas.  Surprisingly, while the characters often display farcical extremities in their attitudes and behavior, their interactions ultimately seem both believable and realistic.  (Actually, I guess it’s not that surprising—my life is chock-full of farce.)

Release your inhibitions and try some Coupling today; I’m sure you’ll find it an enjoyable experience.  :)

 Check the WRL catalog.


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I’m trying to write this post, and all that keeps running through my head is the catchy theme song to this silly series.  The words change on a regular basis, but the tune remains basically the same…and since I watched several BlackAdder episodes over the weekend to prepare myself for blogging, the chorus line is running through my head like a herd of stampeding wildebeests.    No coherent thoughts can remain standing against the onslaught, but nevertheless, I shall attempt to persevere…

BlackAdder is really five shows in one.  Each season is set during a different time period and follows the adventures of that generation’s BlackAdder, a man with few, if any, redeeming qualities.  Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) shows his range and talent as he portrays each BlackAdder in turn.   The series and characters change over the course of the show’s development, so I’m going to take a moment to break it down by season:

BlackAdder I:  These first six episodes are set in the Dark Ages, during the reign of King Richard IV (Never heard of him?  Don’t worry; many eminent British historians haven’t either.)   Richard’s youngest son, Edmund, takes the name BlackAdder following the Battle of Bosworth field.   BlackAdder seeks to put himself on the throne, and to do so must rely on the help of his two companions, an idiotic nobleman named Percy and a slightly wiser peasant named Baldrick.  The sniveling, insipid little man in these early episodes bears little resemblance to BlackAdder’s later incarnations, and these shows are generally not as well received as the later seasons.  Even so, I found myself laughing aloud several times.

BlackAdder II:  Time jumps forward about a hundred years, and the next Edmund BlackAdder is a favorite in the court of Queen Elizabeth.  BlackAdder is much, much cleverer this time around, but he needs to be in order to survive the lunacy of Elizabeth’s court.  Baldrick is still a sidekick, as is Percy, but while the character of Percy remains much the same, Baldrick has lost several I.Q. points over the years.  BlackAdder’s new intelligence makes the show more interesting, and without this crucial transition, I doubt the show would have had the cultural impact that it ultimately did.

BlackAdder III:  BlackAdder is now a butler to the Prince Regent, the son of George III.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, at least for BlackAdders machinations), the Prince (played by Hugh Laurie, familiar to Americans as the star of the TV series House) is a doddering idiot.  Baldrick and BlackAdder have to work overtime to keep their idiotic master out of trouble, but BlackAdder is often driven to distraction by his own selfish goals.   Laurie is a welcome addition to the cast, and I think this season is one of the best.

BlackAdder Goes Forth:  Set in the trenches during WWI, this season is not only funny, but also makes a commentary on the ridiculousness of war.  BlackAdder is a captain on the front, where he is “assisted” by fellow officer George (a goofy Laurie again) and the ever-faithful Baldrick.  There seems to be a bit more “gross out” humor in this season, which is not as much to my taste, but I love watching the interplay of the three main characters.

BlackAdder Back and Forth:  Really this is just one episode, and a slightly disappointing one at that.  The twentieth century BlackAdder tries to con his dinner guests (played by actors who appeared in earlier seasons) by convincing them that he has constructed a time machine.  Unfortunately for him and Baldrick, the time machine actually works, and they end up bumbling their way through history.  It all comes off as a little contrived, but there are still a few funny moments.

The BlackAdder series is an entertaining mix, and the different settings provide it with some welcome variety.  The supporting cast is excellent, and many stars went on to other successful projects.  It does help for viewers have a little knowledge of British history, but it’s not unapproachable to those who are unfamiliar to the background.  Bawdy humor and some questionable language makes this series inappropriate for younger viewers, but older teenagers should be able to enjoy the show alongside their parents. 

Now, back to the song running through my head…. “BlackAdder, BlackAdder…with many a cunning plan…BlackAdder, BlackAdder…you horrid little man.”  Watch a few episodes, and you’ll be ready and raring to join me in song!

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It’s Friday.  Today represents my last chance to impress you with my intellectual capacity, my poignant insights, and my witty banter.  Since I know I won’t be doing that, I’m just going introduce you to a book that I think is a fun read.

Boese ferrets out the truth behind urban myths, scams, hoaxes, outright lies, and a few strange things that actually turn out to be true.  Some of these stories will be familiar (Is anyone still falling for that Nigerian bank scam?  You know, the one where some guy asks you to send some money to help him get his money into the U.S.….).  Other stories might not be (Did you know that the Sudanese press once contributed to a rumor that a Zionist agent was loaning out electric combs that removed the borrowers’ genitals?  I missed that one!)

The author’s approach is lighthearted and humorous, and while this isn’t the kind of book that cites everything, Boese exudes authority and reliability in his conclusions. As each individual entry represents a quick, self-contained reading experience, you can choose to read one entry at a time, or you can enjoyably devour an entire chapter at once.

If you’re interested in some additional entertainment, take a gander at the customer reviews for this book on Amazon.  They’re a perfect example of why Hippo Eats Dwarf warns “Amazon reviews should be taken with a heavy grain of salt.”

Check the WRL catalog for Hippo Eats Dwarf.


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I’ve always been a fan of Emily Dickinson, so when I read an early review of Afternoons with Emily, a fictional work featuring the intriguing poet, my interest was piqued.  I devoured the novel during a weekend vacation at the beach, and, even though Emily is ultimately characterized as flawed (aren’t we all?), I was not disappointed in what I read.  (Sadly, there will be no more novels by the accomplished Rose MacMurray. She passed away shortly after completing this book’s manuscript.)

Although Emily is a prominent figure in the storyline, she’s not the main character.  That honor falls to the fictional Miranda Chase, a young woman growing up in intellectual society.   At a young age, Miranda befriends Emily, whose character serves as both a complement and a counterpoint during Miranda’s development.  MacMurray obviously did her research; it shows in her detailed portrayal of the enigmatic Emily Dickinson, and her faithful rendition of nineteenth century society (although the character of Miranda is slightly more liberated than one might expect.).   The writing is lyrical and enchanting, but admittedly there is one notable fly in the ointment:  MacMurray (or her editors) chose to let Emily emphasize certain words by speaking them in capital letters.  This quickly becomes an ANNOYING feature of the book.  One WONDERS why they simply couldn’t have used italics.   This minor annoyance is a small price to pay, though, considering the overall quality of the text.  A book like Afternoons with Emily, with its poignant writing style and well-developed characters, is something to be savored.

I’m going to leave you with a Dickinson poem.  Nothing fancy—it’s quoted often, and you have probably all heard it before.  Even if you don’t care for the woman’s poetry, readers of this blog should understand the sentiment behind her words:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry—
This Travers may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll—
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.

Check the WRL catalog for Afternoons with Emily.


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I really dislike using the designation “coming of age story” to describe a book. I’m not totally sure why, but I think it’s partially because of the term’s pretentiousness, and perhaps more significantly, the fact that it makes me think of sappy Hallmark TV specials (*grimace*). Still, “coming of age story” is so very apropos for Blankets, that I’m having a hard time avoiding it. So, in order to preserve both my principles and my sense of dignity, I’m going instead to use the related German term, bildungsroman. A helpful colleague mentioned the word to me the other day, and after I looked it up, I was able to roughly translate it into “shaping novel.” (In this instance, the shaping refers to that of the main character, whose maturation is the central theme of the work.) I think the Germans put it very well, so I’m going to run with it…

Ahem….Blankets is a bildungsroman. An autobiographical bildungsroman, actually. And not just an autobiographical bildungsroman, but also a graphic novel, autobiographical bildungsroman. (Some of you will read the words “graphic novel” and stop reading this post—don’t! This book is a true work of art with a touching storyline, and it deserves your time and attention.) Thompson grew up in an evangelical Christian household, and Blankets begins with scenes from his childhood. As the work progresses, the reader sees him enter his teenage years and meet Raina, his first true love. While he deals with the feelings she has awoken in him, he also explores his own identity.

Thompson uses black and white ink drawings as his medium, changing the viewpoint and perspective frequently, but smoothly. Most of the imagery is grounded in reality, but surrealistic depictions often appear during times of extreme emotion. When Craig is confused, the art evokes confusion, when he is lonely, loneliness, and so forth…and when Thompson draws the woman he loves, you can’t help but love her with him.

Blankets includes sexual themes and depictions of nudity, which might be off-putting to some readers, but nothing is there that doesn’t belong. Some scenes are disturbing (but not inappropriate.)

I consider this a great book—a must-read for those who read graphic novels, and a should-read for those who don’t. Enjoy!

By the way, did I mention that Blankets is a bildungsroman?

Check the WRL catalog for Blankets.


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I’ve read a lot of fantasy over the years, and while I thoroughly enjoy the
genre, I will admit that some of the concepts have become overused. The
cliches can still be done well, and make for fun reads, but the characters, the
creatures, the magic systems, and the societies can all start to seem basically
alike. The stories that enthralled me when I first started reading fantasy
literature are no longer as new and exciting as they once were, and I find I
have to look harder for a book that really intrigues and surprises me.
Sanderson’s first novel, Elantris, fit the bill. It was a stand alone work,
with an original idea and a unique plotline. Now, when a book by a previously
unknown author is well-received (as Elantris was), the usual response is the
quick creation of a sequel, with the same characters, or, at the very least,
the same setting.

I imagine Sanderson must pride himself on being unpredictable. The first thing
he did was start an unrelated trilogy, on an entirely new world with entirely
new characters. Enter Mistborn, a trilogy featuring works titled The Final
, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages (Before you get engrossed
in this series, be aware that the third novel isn’t due out until late spring
of 2008).

According to legend, the Lord Ruler saved the land from the “Deepness” (an
unknown entity or force, presumably malevolent in nature) over a thousand
years ago. After his triumph, he established his own empire, but one where
half the population, those known as the skaa, lived as slaves to the nobility.
The Lord Ruler gave his early supporters (the future nobility) the power of
Allomancy, which allowed them to manipulate the magical forces inherent in a
set of metals and alloys. If an Allomancer swallows a small amount of a
metal, he or she can “burn” that metal to produce a magical result. Tin
sharpens the senses, pewter increases physical strength, iron allows a user to
push off of a source of nearby metal, etc… Most Allomancers can only use one
metal, but a rare few, the Mistborn, can use all of them.

Even though the Lord Ruler forbade interbreeding between the nobility and the
skaa, a few half-breeds were born—skaa with Allomantic abilities. One such
individual is Vin, a street rat struggling to survive in a hostile and
dangerous environment. She doesn’t recognize her own latent abilities, until
Kelsier, a powerful Mistborn leading an underground skaa rebellion, takes her
under his wing. After years of relying only on herself, Vin is suddenly part
of a group of talented conspirators, and she must play a part in bringing
about the downfall of the immortal Lord Ruler. The scenario may seem straightforward, but the Mistborn trilogy is full of surprises, and the plot of The Final Empire is neither predictable nor disappointing.

After the final confrontation with the Lord Ruler at the end of book one, The Well of Ascension continues the rebels’ story. A revolution has begun, and now the survivors must find a way to persevere in the face of new challenges, ones brought on by their very own actions. The second novel has as good a plotline as the first, and I found the characters to be more interesting and developed. Unlike the first book, the second leaves the reader hanging (always a frustrating experience), but I anticipate that the finale will be worth the wait.

Check the WRL catalog for The Final Empire.

Check the WRL catalog for The Well of Ascension.


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I used to know very little about the Nantucket whaling industry.  As far as I was concerned, the intrepid crews sailed offshore, filled their holds in a week or so, and soon returned home to their adoring families.  Not so, it seems.  Far more typical, at least in the early nineteenth century, was the voyage of the whaleship Essex, which set off on a two year voyage that took it from the New England shores, around Cape Horn, and up to fishing grounds somewhere around the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  (Seems the supply of whales right around Nantucket was dwindling for some reason…) 

Of course, the Essex’s journey eventually deviated from the norm—about the time that a huge sperm whale rammed into the ship, destroying the vessel, and leaving the twenty- man crew adrift in three small whaling boats.  The survivors were two thousand miles off the coast of South America, with only meager provisions to sustain them.


Philbrick’s narrative nonfiction account of the Essex story is a real page-turner, and I found it hard to put down after the reading just the first few pages.  I learned a lot about Nantucket and the whaling industry, and, on a more gruesome note, the effects of starvation and dehydration on the human body.   (As a word of warning to squeamish or sensitive readers, I should tell you in advance that not all of the crew survives, and Philbrick doesn’t pull punches when he describes their fates.)  This is a tale wrought with irony, and during its most absurd moments, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.


Not surprisingly, the Essex’s sensationalistic story was well known in the early nineteenth century.  In fact, a certain contemporary author was inspired enough to write his own book about an oversized whale attacking a whaling ship–ten points to the first person who correctly identifies this mystery man!  (And really, this contest should be considered more of a race than an intellectual challenge.)


Nathaniel Philbrick is coming to WRL on December 1, 2007.  Click here to learn more about it!

Check the WRL catalog for In The Heart of the Sea.


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