Archive for the ‘Jeanette’s Picks’ Category


If you were a bird, would you prefer to live in a lush, green forest or one that was blackened and burnt by a recent wildfire? Surprisingly, as we learn in this slim, fully-illustrated, children’s non-fiction book, several bird species actually prefer to live in burnt forests. Sneed B. Collard III discusses work done by University of Montana biologist Dick Hutto, who set out to learn about the natural environment of areas blackened by wildfires. Hutto and his wife Sue counted more than 100 species of birds in several dozen burn areas in 1988, a year where more than 72,000 separate wildfires burned more than five million acres of land in the United States.

Hutto’s research found that some birds, including American Robins, Chipping Sparrows, Mountain Bluebirds, several species of woodpeckers, and others, find abundant food and shelter in burnt areas, often more so than in what we would normally consider healthier, richer environments. It isn’t just birds that thrive; insects, wildflowers, shrubs and other life also flourish in areas that have been recently burned. Instead of trying to suppress more wildfires, perhaps we should allow more of them to burn naturally.

Hutto also questions the current practice of loggers going into a forest after a wildfire and removing the remaining trees for industry. His reasoning is that wildfires are part of nature, and such “salvaging” disturbs the natural burnt environment and can do damage to the wildlife that thrives in those areas. However, Dr. Steve Arno, considered to be a world expert in fire and forest management, believes that logging after a burn can be helpful in making sure a more severe fire does not occur after the first “because you have all that dead fuel on the ground.” Dr. Vicki Saab, a wildlife biologist working with the U.S. Forest Service, is also featured in the book. She and her team have come up with scientific models that show what logging can be done in a burned area to balance the needs of some woodpecker species with industry’s desire to log the still-standing trees. The author shows that where industry, politics and nature meet, answers are not always easy or clear.

Although this 47-page book was written for children ages 8-14, I thought it was a good distillation for adults, too, of the complex issues surrounding wildfire. Those of us who grew up hearing Smokey Bear’s admonition, “Only you can prevent forest fires!” may start looking at wildfires a little differently.

The book is illustrated with many beautiful photographs of birds and burn areas. Scattered throughout the text are ten “Featured Fire Birds.” A photo of the bird is accompanied by a box of short text about the bird and how it survives in a burned area. This book focuses on Western bird species, since that is where most of the wildfires take place and where much of the scientific work is being done, but Virginia readers may recognize American Robins, Dark-Eyed Juncos, Northern Flickers, Hairy Woodpeckers and House Wrens.

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The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

Gordon “Rank” Rankin, Jr., is incensed when he starts to read a novel by a college friend, Adam Grix, whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years, and finds himself unmistakably but very imperfectly portrayed in the novel. He sits down at his computer and fires off email after angry email to his old friend, over a three month period, trying to set the record straight, trying to put into words the events of his life that led to the fateful night in their second year of college when Rank left their circle of friends and never went back.

Rank is particularly incensed that Adam mentions, in the early part of his novel, that the character’s mother had died. “It did nothing,” Rank writes to Adam. “[i]t was just a thing that had happened to this guy – his mom died, by the way. Background information. It’s mentioned once and never again.” Rank is furious that his mother’s death could be portrayed as no big deal.

Rank was always big. His size led those around him to see him more as an intimidating physical presence than as a deeply thinking, caring soul. When he was young, everyone perceived him to be older. Inside the body of a man, his teenage self hadn’t matured into someone who could stand up to those who wanted to use his bulk for their own purposes. His “tiny screaming lunatic” father, hopping around and complaining about the “punks” who frequented his Icy Dream ice cream parlor, got Rank to intimidate older classmates who would, simply by being teenagers, scare off family type clientele.

One of Rank’s punches in the Icy Dream parking lot, when Rank was fifteen, resulted in brain damage to a “smart-ass town punk” he’d known all his life. That moment, when Rank heard the sound of Mike Croft’s head crack against the pavement, was the beginning, he realized later, when the gods started messing with him. His life became like the board game from the seventies, Mouse Trap, where a “series of random plastic doodads” were “set up to interact with one another in frankly stupid and unlikely ways (the boot kicks the bucket, out of which falls the ball, which rolls down the ramp), and at the end of this rickety and dubious process, down comes the mousetrap.”

Rank’s emails to Adam are at times hilarious, but often, and in the long run, downright heart-breaking. Rank can’t escape his body and can’t escape how people react to his bulk. He gets a hockey scholarship to college – based on his bulk and on a letter from his high school coach and social worker, Owen Findlay, the social worker assigned to him after he busted Mike Croft’s head – and still his life seems scripted by uncaring gods playing around to see what he would do. He feels forced to give up that scholarship when he’s asked to butt heads with the opposing team; he will not relive the experience with Croft. He falls in with a group of friends — geeky, frail Adam in particular — with whom he shares stories from his life. He tells Adam about Mike Croft, about his mean little father, about his mother and about her death. He now writes to Adam: “I pulled off hank after bloody hank of flesh and just handed them over and you were so coy, you averted your eyes and pretended to be embarrassed like the rest of them when really you were squirreling away all those hanks and secretly stitching them together and building Frankenstein’s monster.”

We never read what Adam writes back to Rank, but we know he stops replying soon after Rank starts. It’s okay, though. We let Rank write his life’s story to his once-friend, and read the “bloody hanks of flesh” that make up his life. Rank gets it all out, all the anger, all the history. It’s tempered with love, but you don’t notice it until you’re finished and you sit there stunned and almost in tears.

I listened to this book as an audiobook download. The narrator, Macleod Andrews, is a perfect reader for the book. The book itself lacks some of the normal punctuation one would normally expect in a novel, but this is a series of emails – relatively well-punctuated and correctly-spelled emails — but still emails where the tense and voice may change depending on the tone. On second listening, and in skimming the text, I have to say this has become one of my favorite books of all time. It’s probably one of the most entertaining and raw portrayals of a character I’ve ever encountered.

Check the WRL catalog for The Antagonist (Book) and OneClickDigital The Antagonist (Downloadable Audiobook).

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I don’t remember why my husband and I first watched the DVD The Ice Storm, but it was probably because we were enjoying movies directed by Ang Lee  (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Pushing Hands; Brokeback Mountain, and others). We had been through Williamsburg’s ice storm of 1998 and knew how dangerous it could be. The movie wasn’t so much about the storm itself, but about two troubled white, middle-class, nuclear families in suburban New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1973. The emotional impact of the movie was shattering.

Events take place when the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal are topics on the news. The sexual mores have loosened considerably from the constraints of the 1950s and have not yet been walloped by AIDS. The Hoods, Ben and Elena, have two teens: a boy in boarding school, Paul, and a girl in middle school, Wendy. The Carvers, Janey and Jim, have two boys: strange, pensive teen, Mikey, and pre-teen, Sandy, who likes to blow things up. Throughout the course of the Thanksgiving week, each person in each family, except Paul who is away, explores his or her sexuality with others in the other family.

But the story is much more than about sex, and the sex certainly isn’t a feast of sensual stimulation. Almost the opposite, the sexual encounters are interrupted, fumbled, “awful” or, after the fantasy of the encounters have been built up, they don’t take place at all. The real story is of the emotional relationships between each of the characters. The actors are extremely good at showing these changing relationships. The cast includes top-rated actors Kevin KlineJoan AllenTobey MaguireChristina RicciElijah Wood, and Sigourney Weaver. Katie Holmes plays a rich, sort-of girlfriend of Paul’s. There are some very funny scenes, mostly of adolescents being adolescents, such as Wendy’s giving grace, “Dear Lord, thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday. And for all the material possessions we have and enjoy. And for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands. And stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed.” Her father’s reaction, “Jesus! Enough, all right? Paul… roll?”

One of the key scenes in the movie is a neighborhood “key party,” where men put their car keys in a bowl and, at the end of the party, after much drinking, their wives pull out random keys, and, at least in theory, go home with the owner of that set of keys. Meanwhile, there is an ice storm outside. The roads are slick, the power goes out. The adults are high or drunk at the party, and their children are left at home, within walking distance of each other’s houses. What could go wrong?



After watching the movie a second time, I decided to read the book, by Rick Moody, on which it was based. Although there are a few plot differences between the book and the movie (and the name Carver is Williams in the book), both are excellent in depicting the members of these two families. Each uses a different medium to portray the individuals and the dynamics between them. Moody’s words are a joy to read. “The idea of betrayal was in the air. The Summer of Love had migrated, in its drug-resistant strain, to the Connecticut suburbs about five years after its initial introduction. About the time America learned about the White House taping system. It was laced with some bad stuff. The commodity being traded was wives, the Janey Williamses of New Canaan. The payoff was supposed to be joy, but it was the cheapest approximation of exalted feeling. It was just a demonstration of options, nothing more.”

The characters in the book, notably, are less attractive and more “real” than those in the movie, and I was thinking that if readers have to “like” characters to enjoy a book or a movie, they may want to stick with the movie.  If you want to get a real depiction of changes some families were going through in the early 1970s, you may want to read the book. The language in the novel is frank and raw, but intricate and beautiful in places. Ang Lee’s theatrical adaptation, however, is also very good, distilling Moody’s words into a stunning visual portrait.

Check the WRL catalog for the DVD The Ice Storm.
Check the WRL catalog for the book The Ice Storm.

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Can you imagine what it’s like to die from Ebola? Do you know what filoviruses like Ebola and a sister virus, Marburg, can do to a body? If you read The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, you’ll have a vivid idea. The images will stay with you for a very long time, and you’ll have a good understanding of the horror that people in West Africa are going through right now. In a blurb, Stephen King wrote that the first chapter is “one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life.” I couldn’t agree more.

Preston brings his superb descriptive skills to this non-fiction book, part of his Dark Biology series. “Ebola Zaire attacks every organ and tissue in the human body except skeletal muscle and bone. It is a perfect parasite because it transforms virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles.” If you don’t want to read more like that, you may want to avoid this book and stick with the description of Ebola on the WHO website, “…fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding (e.g. oozing from the gums, blood in the stools)….”

The Hot Zone was published in 1995 and was a #1 bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list. It is now back on some non-fiction bestseller lists, as fears may be warranted that the outbreak in West Africa is out of control; the disease has spread to thousands of people and through at least five countries.

Last month, two U. S. aid workers in Liberia who contracted Ebola were brought back to the U. S. for treatment. Everyone involved understood that Dr. Kent Brantley and his colleague Nancy Writebol were infected with Ebola, and they were “transported with appropriate infection control procedures in place to prevent the disease from being transmitted to others.” Each was transported using an Aeromedical Biological Containment System, “a sort of framed tent made of thick, clear plastic with a negative-pressure, HEPA-filtered air supply designed to keep the [airplane] cabin clear of infections.” The two were taken to the isolation unit at Emory University Hospital where patients are sealed off from anyone not wearing protective gear. Both eventually recovered.

But this wasn’t the first time the Ebola virus was in a host in the United States. The last known time, the subject of this book, was in 1989 when the virus was found in the Reston [Virginia] Primate Quarantine Unit, a now-closed building that housed research monkeys. These monkeys were imported from the Philippines. At first, no one knew why the monkeys were getting very sick and dying. The staff knew something was horribly wrong, so the on-call veterinarian, Dan Dalgard, contacted experts at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, about an hour away. The virologist at USAMRIID, Peter Jahrling, “was surprised and annoyed when, the next day, a few bits of frozen meat from Monkey O53 arrived at the Institute, brought by courier. What annoyed him was the fact that the bits of meat were wrapped in aluminum foil, like pieces of leftover hot dog. … [T]he ice around [the monkey meat] was tinged with red and had begun to melt and drip.” If either party had suspected a filovirus was in play, strict isolation precautions would have been used, but they weren’t. Anyone who had any contact with the monkeys or samples—those who fed the monkeys and cleaned the cages, the veterinarians, the courier—could have been infected with the virus.

In striking detail, Preston describes the process of, and the people involved in, the diagnosis and the eventual disposition of the 450 monkeys housed in the building. Once you start reading, you will not want to put the book down.

There are other sections in The Hot Zone besides “The Monkey House.” Part 1, “The Shadow of Mount Elgon,” describes the 1980 infection and death of a Marburg virus patient, called Charles Monet in the book, a Frenchman who lived in Kenya. He and a friend took a New Year’s Day trip to nearby Kitum Cave. Preston describes the beauty of the African land and shows how interesting the cave—in a bat-filled, petrified rain forest—must have been. About a week after the cave exploration, Monet got a headache. He spiked a fever, became nauseated, and his personality changed. I will leave it to the reader to read how his transformation continues; the text is absolutely not for the faint of heart.

Check the WRL catalog for The Hot Zone

WRL also owns The Hot Zone as an ebook.

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cuckooLula Landry, a beautiful mixed-race supermodel, has fallen to her death from her third-floor flat onto the snow-covered walk in a posh section of London. The paparazzi and press go wild; everyone in the world is shocked. A woman who lives in the same building swears she heard a male voice arguing with Lula right before the fall, but the police investigate and determine Lula’s death a suicide. The witness, they conclude after lengthy investigation, is either a delusional coke-head or is in it for the publicity; she could not have heard anything through the triple-glazed windows of the high-end flats.

Three months later, young Robin Ellacott, newly engaged and newly arrived in London, is working for a temp agency as a secretary and is thrilled to find that her new assignment is for a private investigator, as she has always secretly wanted to be a private eye. Her first encounter with her new boss, the large, hairy, one-legged veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike, however, is not a pleasant one, and she learns on the first day of her week-long assignment that Strike is in a great deal of debt, is getting death threats from a former client, has only one current client, and is apparently living in his office.

It is fortunate, then, that a new client shows up at Strike’s meager office. The brother of Lula Landry, John Bristow, is convinced that Lula’s fall was not suicide, and has come to hire Strike to investigate. Strike at first says no; his conscience tells him he cannot take the money to investigate something that he is confident has been so thoroughly looked into that any investigation on his part will change the outcome. Bristow, fuming, says he had been willing to pay double Strike’s fee. Strike relents, his debts and living conditions weighing into the decision.

J.K. Rowling can create wonderful characters, and many populate this mystery novel. Almost anyone Strike and Robin look into in the course of their investigation could be a suspect: Lula’s rock star ex-boyfriend Evan Duffield; film-producer and neighbor Freddy Bestigui; Rochelle, a down-and-out friend Lula met in rehab; Guy Somé, a designer for whom Lula modeled; American rapper Deeby Macc who was supposed to stay in the flat below Lula’s the night she died; relatives, drivers, doormen, fellow models, and even strangers could have had a motive. As I listened to this audiobook, I was constantly changing who I believed the killer was, or even if there was a killer.

The reader for the audiobook, British actor Robert Glenister, is excellent. Though I am no expert on British accents, from my point of view, he nailed the various accents. I could easily tell who was speaking, and his inflections added so much to the story that I would recommend listening to the audiobook over reading the book for the immersive pleasure of Glenister’s outstanding storytelling.

According to news reports, a sequel is planned for publication in 2014. I am hoping Rowling, either using her own name or that of her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, will continue what promises to be an excellent mystery series where the complex, very likable, and extraordinarily adept Cormoran Strike and his proficient and enthusiastic assistant Robin Ellacott investigate many more cases.

Check the WRL catalog for the print version of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Check the WRL catalog for the compact disc audiobook version of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Check the OneClickDigital catalog for the downloadable audiobook version of The Cuckoo’s Calling

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amy_falls_downIn 2008, I wrote a review of The Writing Class, by Jincy Willett. That story revolved around Amy Gallup, the aging teacher of a writing class in which one of the students turned out to be a murderer. Willett’s latest novel continues Amy’s story, but does not involve a murder. As in her previous book, in Amy Falls Down, Willett dispenses fiction writing advice to readers while constructing a biting satire of the publishing industry.

The normally withdrawn Amy, a writer who had a few titles celebrated twenty or so years ago, has agreed to give an interview to a reporter from the San Diego paper doing a “where are they now” series about local authors. Before the interviewer comes for the afternoon appointment, Amy takes a Norfolk pine out to her raised garden. Keeping an eye on her aging basset hound, Alphonse, and her mind on other things, she loses her balance and falls, hitting her head on the bird bath. The interviewer comes and goes, and Amy later finds she has given a somewhat crazy interview that makes her sound like a quirky genius. Thanks to the Internet, her interview goes viral, and she becomes a celebrity. Her old agent Maxine calls her up and gets her booked on popular radio and television programs, and once again— twenty years since she was celebrated for her literary skill—she is in the public eye.

She does not like what the industry has become, where hot, new fiction is churned out rapidly and is pushed aggressively by publishers even if the books are drivel. The interviews she gives and the things she says on the panels that Maxine lines up for her are not just funny, but are inspiring to readers like me who love good writing and roll their eyes at most mega-best sellers. “Suppose there were a de facto moratorium on the brand-new printed word. Suppose all we were left to hold in our hands and read were the books that were already out there,” Amy says during one interview. The interviewer asks, “Wouldn’t that be terrible?” Amy replies, “For the first time in a hundred years, readers would have time to read all the books they’d been meaning to get to and the tens of thousands more that they never even heard of. Nosebleed-inducing farces. Horror stories guaranteed to rob us of sleep. Pulse-pounding page-turners. Sprawling, sumptuous histories. Best of all, those books that critics have told them were essential to our lives. Insightful novels of intoxicating ferocity. Intoxicating novels of ferocious insight. There’s a million of them and each one ‘compelling.’”

In some of the interviews, Amy discusses the state of fiction with a young, mega-bestselling writer and an old, alcoholic author who used to be lauded for his literary talent. She also stays in touch with some of the students from her old writing class and newer students who join them at a newly-established writers’ retreat of sorts at one of the older student’s houses. Each student has a unique personality and favors a different type of writing, which Amy skewers or admires as she reads from their manuscripts.

There are unexpected plot twists, especially near the end, that keep the book from merely being a polemic on the publishing industry. And while the novel is funny, there is a strong, emotional thread throughout as Amy frequently remembers her late, gay husband Max and his death from AIDS several years earlier. The book is hard to characterize. It has a pink cover, and, as I told anyone who saw me reading it, “I do not usually read pink books.” It may be packaged for women, but it should be a treat for anyone who loves books, especially anyone critical of pop best sellers and how they’re hyped.

Check the WRL catalog for Amy Falls Down.

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Blister rust. Cibiscosis. Genehack weevil. Plant and human diseases mutate quickly in the 23rd century, where genehacking by the powerful calorie companies runs the economy. Staying ahead of the plagues can cause otherwise honorable people to justify acts they would never believe they were capable of committing. Major cities, including New York and Mumbai, were drowned as the planet heated; the capital city in Thailand is protected by levees and pumps. Fossil fuels were mostly spent out generations ago. Most power is now human- or beast-created and stored in springs; computers are driven by treadle; radios are hand-cranked. Bicycles, ships, and dirigibles provide transportation.

Anderson Lake manages the SpringLife kink-spring factory in the capital city of Thailand. Megadonts, huge beasts of burden that have been genehacked from elephants, power the factory. SpringLife kink-springs, when finally manufactured, should hold and disperse many more joules than regular springs. This huge factory, with its workers, its megadonts and their handlers, is failing, though Anderson keeps it running. It’s a cover for his real purpose in Thailand. He works covertly for AgriGen, a calorie company based in Des Moines. He’s in Thailand to figure out how the kingdom is growing disease-resistant crops independently of the calorie companies. Potatoes, tobacco, and other nightshades flourish in the markets in Thailand—how can that be when most natural plants succumb to the diseases that thrive and mutate in the age of genetically modified produce of AgriGen, PurCal, RedStar, U Texas and other calorie companies?

Emiko is a windup girl—one of the New People—a genetically modified humanoid “born” in a crèche in Japan and bred to serve her master. She began her life as a kind of secretary for her owner, Gendo-sama, but after he brought her to Thailand on a business trip, he discarded her; dirigible fare back to Japan is exorbitant and Gendo-sama, who had once told Emiko she was beautiful and perfect, found it more economical to simply purchase a newer model once he got back to Japan. As an unnatural species, Emiko is illegal in Thailand, but Raleigh, her new owner, pays bribes to the Environment Ministry to keep her in his club.  She earns her keep as an entertainer in a sexually humiliating show for the pleasure of the patrons of the club. For the most part, Emiko can blend in with humans, though her engineered stutter-stop motions give her away, and her specifically designed small pore structure, fine in cooler Japan, causes her to overheat in Thailand.

When Anderson meets Emiko, Emiko reveals a vital clue to him about the plague-resistant foods, and he tells her something that changes her life forever—and ultimately leads to a rebalancing of power between the Thai government and the calorie companies.

Anderson and Emiko are just two of the many complex characters in the richly-developed Thai kingdom of the future that Bacigalupi has created. Anderson’s assistant, Hock Seng, a “yellow card” refugee from an environmental disaster in Malaysia, has plans and secrets of his own. The head of the White Shirts, the Environment Ministry enforcers, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and his lieutenant, the unsmiling Kanya Chirathivat, play their parts in this dense and detailed world. Trust and loyalty, kamma or karma, love, regret, and identity are themes that run throughout the novel. Religious beliefs and practices—Christian and Buddhist—have evolved also with the changing environment. The world described in The Windup Girl seems frighteningly possible as we ignore environmental concerns and allow corporations to patent seeds and genes.

The Windup Girl is novel that can be read multiple times without losing its surprises. It’s one of the best novels I have read in many years. It tied with China Miéville’s The City & the City (also a great novel) for the 2010 Hugo Award for best novel.

Check the WRL catalog for The Windup Girl.

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Robert M. Hazen’s exciting explanations of how the Earth and its geologic and biologic systems formed and changed had my head spinning with growing knowledge and dawning comprehension. About five billion years ago—several billion years after the Big Bang, which Hazen explains well enough for me to finally grasp, somewhat—an event such as a shock wave from an exploding star caused a cloud of gas and dust to collapse into a star system, our Solar System. “Like a twirling ice-skater, the big cloud rotated faster and faster as gravity pulled its wispy arms to the center. As it collapsed and spun faster, the cloud became denser and flattened into a disk with a growing central bulge—the nascent Sun.” Scientists can’t say for sure how the planets formed, but because all the planets more or less rotate in the same direction and are more or less on the same plane, Hazen explains, most scientists speculate that the planets formed from the same rotating gas and dust as the Sun, and were not objects hurtling through space captured by the Sun’s gravitational pull, as was once thought.

The Earth has gone through many drastic changes since forming. The names of the chapters in The Story of Earth illustrate this: Black Earth: The First Basalt Crust; Blue Earth, The Formation of the Oceans; Gray Earth: The First Granite Crust; Living Earth: The Origins of Life; Red Earth: Photosynthesis and the Great Oxidation Event; The “Boring” Billion: The Mineral Revolution (Surprise: these billion years were anything but boring!); White Earth: The Snowball-Hothouse Cycle; Green Earth: The Rise of the Terrestrial Biosphere. I’ve never really imagined our planet as anything other than a grey ball of rock slowly turning blue and green as life began. This book shows how that view is far from accurate.

The Moon, too, has changed over the billions of years. Did you know that it is moving away from the Earth by about 3.82 centimeters per year? Scientists know this because Apollo astronauts left mirrors on the surface of the moon in the 1960s and 70s, and scientists measure the distance very accurately by bouncing laser beams off them. If the moon is moving away from the earth at that rate, can you imagine how close the moon was to the earth 4.5 billion years ago? It would have looked gigantic. The surface of the Moon was quite different back then, too. According to Hazen, “The early Moon was a violent body of intense volcanism, quite unlike the static silvery-gray object we see now. Its surface would have appeared black, with glowing red magma-filled cracks and volcanic basins easily visible from Earth.” Hazen explains the current theory of how the Moon was formed by what he calls “The Big Thwack,” or the giant impact theory.

4.5 billion years is an unfathomably long time. In 283 pages, Hazen is able to clarify to someone like me, who never took many science classes, the current theories of how Earth and the Moon formed, how life began, how mineralogical forces influence life and how life in turn influences mineralogy, and many other fascinating phenomena. One of the more interesting sections was of the Great Oxidation Event, something I had heard about but had never understood. He writes about how he and his colleagues figured out that many of the minerals we see today—turquoise, azurite, malachite, and thousands of others—could never have occurred without the Great Oxidation Event, and thus how such minerals would never be found on a non-living astronomical body like the Moon or Mars.

If you have an interest in this planet on which we’re living, and you want to know more about how it got here, how it has changed throughout the estimated 4.5 billion years since it formed, and where it may be going, read this book. It’s fascinating.

Check the WRL catalog for The Story of Earth

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I started reading the title story in Dan Chaon’s dark and mesmerizing collection, Stay Awake, before going to sleep. I thought it was an interesting little story about a deformed baby with two heads. The parents had decided not to name each head, but only the “host” one, the one that might survive the inevitable and extremely risky surgery. The surgery would bring an end to whatever consciousness was in the “parasitic” head, which was capable of blinking and smiling and probably not much else, and may in fact kill Rosalie, the head that was more alert. I was tired and, frankly, looking forward to finishing the story and putting the book aside so I could sleep. When I got to the end of the story, and, with a jolt, understood what happened, I could not sleep. As befitted the title, I lay there awake, contemplating consciousness, thought, emotion, self, life — what exactly is this stuff that goes on inside a person’s brain?

Probably my favorite story is “Slowly We Open Our Eyes.” Two brothers are driving cross-country in the semi truck one of the brothers drives for a living. They think they have hit a deer, though the drugs and peppermint schnapps they’ve consumed may have twisted their perceptions.  In “I Wake Up,” an older sister — at least she says she’s his older sister — contacts her younger brother after being separated for years when their mother drowns two of their other siblings.  In “St. Dismas,” a young man kidnaps the son of his meth-addicted girlfriend and takes him on a cross-country trip, breaking and entering into people’s houses. What is he to do with the boy? He hadn’t thought the whole thing through. When he gets to his own isolated boyhood home in the country, ripe with memories, he makes a decision.  In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” a young man tries to get through life after his parents leave him a suicide note on the front door of the house in which he thought they were a happy family. The living space in the house narrows bit by bit as memories and mementos he can’t face force him to shut himself into a smaller and smaller space.  In the story most akin to a ghost story — “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands” — three sisters contemplate how their lives would be different if their Daddy had succeeded in killing them twenty years earlier.

The stories in this collection could be called horror stories, though there are no monsters, no aliens, no scary chases. There are, perhaps, some ghosts. The real terror comes from losing control of your mind, of not quite grasping what is going on around you. The horror comes from the inside:  confused states stemming from grief, separation, guilt. These twelve stories are mostly inner dialogues — somber, sometimes philosophical narrations by family members who have been through hell at the hands of someone who should have loved them. They start out gently, with little hints dropped throughout the narration that something just isn’t quite right and, by the end of the story, the reader realizes how utterly horrible the protagonist’s circumstances have been. Chaon powerfully describes the warped senses and circumstances of his characters, subtly weaving horror into what at first appear to be commonplace situations.

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I remember seeing the news about the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, when I was a student at William & Mary. I stood watching the television in the cafeteria, unable to believe that the story was real. My friends tried to convince me that it was real, that the story had been in the news and they’d been following it, but I was convinced they were pulling my leg. I thought it was a bad tv movie using real network news reporters as actors. When a reporter said a California congressman had been shot and killed, I was convinced it had to be fiction. Nothing like that could ever happen in real life.

But, no, it was real. Almost a thousand people had “killed themselves” by “drinking Kool-Aid.” As Scheeres’s book emphasizes, it wasn’t really Kool-Aid but an off-brand flavored drink to which had been added enough cyanide to kill everyone in the commune in Guyana, and many of the people who ingested the poison that night did not do so willingly. Many were in Guyana against their will and had been led to Guyana under false pretenses. None-the-less, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” has come into popular use to mean, according to Wikipedia, “a person or group’s unquestioning belief in an ideology, argument, or philosophy without critical examination.”

For the thirty-four years between the news reports of the tragedy at Jonestown in 1978 to the time I read Julia Scheeres’s book, I hadn’t really thought about the individuals who died that night. In “A Thousand Lives,” Scheeres concentrates on a few of those thousand, and shows how they ended up as part of Jim Jones’ sick cult. For the most part, individuals and families joined Jones’ Peoples Temple because they thought it was a community of racial and social equality, and that Jones was a powerful, positive healer who was in communication with God himself. By the time they found out that things were not as they’d been led to believe, they had been manipulated into giving Jones all their money and could not afford to escape. Some had been coerced into signing fake confessions to sexual crimes they did not commit; Jones threatened to make these “confessions” public to ensure the followers’ allegiance to the Temple.

The individual stories put faces to tragedy. Hyacinth Thrash and her sister, Zeporah, were black women who had grown up in segregated Alabama. Hy saw the Peoples Temple as a congregation of racial equality and saw Jones as a healer. The sisters followed Jones from Chicago to San Francisco and ultimately to Guyana as he moved his Temple as it grew. Stanley Clayton was a black seventeen-year-old foster child living near San Francisco when he heard Jones preach. He thought Jones was a savior that would help keep him off the streets. Edith Roller, an older white secretary, felt strongly that she needed to help the hungry and work toward peace and justice. She saw the Peoples Temple as a place that matched her ideals. Jim Bogue was a father who found the Peoples Temple after the accidental death of one of his sons pushed him to reevaluate his beliefs and his spiritual commitment to God. Tommy Bogue, Jim Bogue’s teenage son, was sent to Jonestown by his mother to be with his father. With his friend  Brian, Tommy tried to escape the cult in the jungle. (Photos of Hyacinth, Stanley Edith and Tommy are at http://juliascheeres.com/index.shtml)

Scheeres also paints a picture of Jones himself, and attempts to explain how, with the help of a handful of others he appointed to positions of power, he was able to control the 900-some people who joined the Peoples Temple. It is still hard to believe that nearly a thousand people would join Jones’ community, and would stay once they realized it was not a socialist paradise, but Scheeres’s book helps make clear how cults are formed. Powerful people make promises to pull people in, and use threats, fear and poverty to keep them in line. The story of Jonestown is much more complex than a flock of sheep following a man without question.

Written as a novel, but with detailed references in the back, Scheeres’s story of Jonestown was hard for me to put down.

Check the WRL catalog for A Thousand Lives



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I don’t think I’d ever heard of dog agility before I scrolled through the library’s non-fiction ebook selections and saw Robert Rodi’s Dogged Pursuit: My Year of Competing Dusty, the World’s Least Likely Agility Dog. Dusty, a funny-looking, grayish Sheltie, looking happy and proud in mid-jump over a bar, was pictured on the book’s cover. I was intrigued.

I learned that dog agility is a sport in which dogs and their handlers move through a series of obstacles, competing with other dogs and handlers for speed and accuracy. Some of the obstacles include bars to jump over, plastic tunnels to run through, A-frame structures to climb over, weave poles to run in and out of slalom-like, and (dreaded especially by Dusty) a teeter-totter that slaps down to the ground when the dog runs up to the middle of it.

Rodi had been entering another Sheltie, Carmen, in agility competitions, and had earned a few novice titles and ribbons until Carmen developed canine hip dysplasia. Carmen had seemed to enjoy the agility circuit in her prime, but her condition meant she could no longer compete. Rodi found himself missing the weekends on the circuit—something he never thought he would enjoy when he first started, as he thought of himself as an outsider, a “blue-state guy in a red-state world.” Rodi is an epicure, a sophisticate, and at first didn’t identify with the Midwesterners he thought of as “fanatics chasing ribbons.” Oh no, not him.

After Carmen was side-lined, Rodi looked for another Sheltie. He found Dusty on the website of the Central Illinois Sheltie Rescue. “…[W]hen I first glanced at Dusty’s photo, the phrase that came to mind was ‘heroin chic.’ A moment later, I changed my mind and dropped the ‘chic’.” It was not love at first sight, even when Rodi met Dusty in person and Dusty cowered under a chair. But the Rescue’s description of Dusty as a fast runner, able to jump over six-foot fences, helped persuade Rodi to sign the adoption papers and bring Dusty to the home he shared in Chicago with his partner Jeffrey.

Dusty was not another Carmen. He didn’t catch on quickly to the doggie track and field and didn’t seem to care either about getting ribbons or, really, about Rodi. Still, Rodi persisted for a year, taking Dusty to trials and competitions, making the circuit with their buddies from the dog training classes. Rodi’s very funny descriptions of what the two went through that year kept me chuckling. It wasn’t just Dusty having a hard time adjusting to the demands of the circuit, but Rodi, trying to fit in socially with people he felt he had little in common with.

Dusty gave Rodi mixed signals about whether or not he liked the agility work. On the advice of a fellow trainer, Rodi took him to an animal communicator, a.k.a., a “dog whisperer,” who translated Dusty’s thoughts to his owner. It’s interesting to read what people will spend money on for their dogs. Aromatherapy, too, is sold to dog owners and agility trainers.

Some trainers employ other unorthodox methods of preparing their dogs for the track, and if you’re easily offended, you may want to avoid the whole chapter on “Magic time.” Dusty gets car sick, and Rodi may drink a bit much at times. He writes about unpleasant bodily fluids almost as often as he describes the delicious-sounding gourmet meals he prepares at home.

If you read this book, you’ll learn what dog agility is all about, and you’ll probably have a few good laughs along the way.

Check the WRL catalog for Dogged Pursuit, or download Dogged Pursuit from WRL’s collection of ebooks.


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Author John Milliken Thompson created a captivating novel, The Reservoir, after researching an old court case involving the death of a woman in Richmond. On the morning of March 14, 1885, the body of a young, pregnant woman was found floating in the Richmond reservoir. Investigators first thought the woman had committed suicide, but evidence suggested that a second person had been with her the night before, when she had drowned. The body was eventually found to be that of Fannie Lillian Madison, known to her family and friends as Lillie. The Richmond Dispatch followed the case from the discovery of Lillie’s body through the trial of a distant cousin of hers, Tommie Cluverius, charged with first degree murder. Lillie had been involved with both Tommie and his older brother, Willie, when she was living with her aunt in King and Queen County. It was not known for sure whose baby she was carrying—one of the brothers’, or perhaps someone else’s. The case was a sensation at the time, with front-page headlines in Richmond and even in the New York Times.

Thompson writes chapters that take place after Lillie’s death in the present tense and chapters up to her death in the past tense. This was a little uncomfortable at first, but it only took a few chapters to get used to it. Then I found that the change in tense helped clarify the time period I was reading about.

I read The Reservoir twice, and both times I was absorbed in it. I thought about the book all day as I was doing other things and wanted to get back to it as soon as possible, even the second time I read it. There is a real sense of the nineteenth century, and of a very Southern Richmond, only a couple decades after the Civil War. From my memories of older Virginia relatives, the dialect Thompson uses seems just right.

Thompson posted images from the sources he used on his website, including images of articles in the Richmond Dispatch and the New York Times, photos of Richmond from the time, a photo of Lillie’s grave, and a map of Richmond showing where the reservoir and other key places were. Viewing these images further helped me feel I was immersed in the period about which I was reading.

As I read, I had to remind myself that this was a novel. Thompson didn’t really know what transpired between the brothers and their cousin, but he created such realistic characters that I felt I knew their motivations and emotions. By the end of the novel, the reader still isn’t sure what happened, but it doesn’t matter. A pat ending wouldn’t make this novel any better. It would, in fact, be disingenuous to what happened. We know what the jury decided; we don’t know what really took place.

Check the WRL catalog for The Reservoir


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Faithful Place, by Tana French

Frank Mackey, an undercover cop in Dublin, has a bitter relationship with his ex-wife, and a seriously cute nine-year-old daughter with whom he treasures every moment of his hard-won visitations. Yet when he finds five frantic messages one evening on his home answering machine from his estranged sister, Jackie, he knows he has to abort his weekend with his daughter and return to his childhood home on Faithful Place in a working-class neighborhood outside Dublin. Frank had left Faithful Place 22 years ago, never wanting to return. He hasn’t spoken to his Ma, “your classic Dublin mammy: five foot nothing of curler-haired, barrel-shaped don’t-mess-with this, fueled by an endless supply of disapproval,” his Da, an “unemployed alcoholic waster,” or any of his siblings, except occasionally Jackie, in all that time away.

In 1985, when Frank and his neighbor Rosie Daly were nineteen and unbearably in love, they had plans to elope to London. They saved up their money to buy ferry tickets, and agreed to meet at midnight at the top of Faithful Place. Rosie had the tickets. Frank waited for her, but midnight came and went and Rosie didn’t show up. Hours passed. Frank thought maybe he and Rosie misunderstood where they were to meet, so he went down the road to Number 16 Faithful Place, an abandoned house where neighborhood kids met to party, where he and Rosie first lost their virginity, to see if she was waiting there. At Number 16, in the front room, he found a note in Rosie’s handwriting, saying goodbye, saying she’s sorry. “I’ve thought about it really hard, this is the only way I’ll ever have a decent chance at the kind of life I wanted. I just wish I could do it and not hurt you/upset you/disappoint you… It would be great if you could wish me luck in my new life in England!! But if you can’t I understand. I swear I’ll come back someday.” Frank’s heart was broken but he waited a few more hours anyway, in case she came back, then he lit out to start his own life. He didn’t have a ticket to go to England, but didn’t want to go back home, so he found a squat in Dublin. When the two disappeared on the same night, the neighborhood gossip was that they had gone off together. For years, the families assumed that Frank and Rosie were living a normal, happy life together in England. It wasn’t until Jackie met up with Frank some years later that she learned Frank was still in Ireland and Rosie had not been with him.

On the phone in the present day, Jackie tells Frank that a developer has bought three houses on Faithful Place and started to demolish them to turn them into apartments. Stuffed up the chimney of Number 16, they found an old suitcase, and when it was opened, the Mackey family realized it had belonged to Rosie Daly. Frank understands that Rosie most likely never left Ireland either. He rushes right away back to his childhood home, knowing that he’ll be returning to the family hatreds and jealousies that made him want to leave in the first place.

Emotions between family members and neighbors are raw and vicious. Alcohol fuels the nasty fights and the mean-spirited father’s repugnance permeates the atmosphere. As a reader, I wanted to know what happened to Rosie, so I kept reading, but sometimes the clashes were almost unbearable.

This is Tana French’s best book yet. The atmosphere she’s created and her character development are brutally strong. As with the two other novels I reviewed earlier this week, this book is almost less about the mystery of the missing person and more about the characters surrounding the mystery. It’s sometimes hard to read, yet hard to put down.

I listened to the audiobook version first, and then read the book. The narrator of the audiobook, Tim Gerald Reynolds, a relative newcomer to audiobooks, is excellent. He’s spent a lot of time in Dublin throughout his life. Reviews have said his accent and his delivery of Irish slang is excellent. He portrays the raw emotions perfectly.

Check the WRL catalog for Faithful Place

Check the WRL catalog for Faithful Place audiobook


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I have heard people say they could tell it was spring because the goldfinches were back. But the goldfinches never go anywhere—they just change their feather colors. It can be hard to believe that the drab little birds of winter are the same as the bright yellow ones with the striking black wing bars in the spring and summer. And, interestingly, the black color doesn’t change, but against the bright yellow body, the black looks much blacker in the spring and summer than it does against the olive drab in the winter.

Geoffrey E. Hill has written a magnificent book for the general reader about how and why birds are colored the way they are. How birds are colored has to do with pigment, chemistry, physics, and diet. Why birds are colored as they are has to do with evolution. Why would painted buntings evolve to have bright, different-colored patches? Wouldn’t that make them more conspicuous to predators? Why would female northern cardinals prefer a bright red male to one that isn’t quite so bright? How do birds tell each other apart? Scientists don’t know all the answers, of course, but there has been a lot of research that tries to answer these and other questions. When Hill was editing a two-volume compendium of current scientific papers about bird coloration, he knew he wanted to share what ornithologists have been learning with the non-scientific community, and he’s done that in this book.

You’ve probably seen a lot of birds at your feeders that are little brown stripy jobs. Some have red on their breasts, head and a little bit on their backsides. These are most likely house finches (around here, in the southeast), though there are other species that fit that description. Male house finches have the red, females don’t. The redder the breast, researchers have found, the more carotenoids in the male’s diet. The better the diet, the redder the breast. Females are attracted to males with redder breasts, i.e., males with healthier diets. Birds that have blue feathers don’t rely on diet for this coloration; different shades of blue come from light reflecting from a certain structural pattern of the feathers. Blacks and grays come from melanin, and browns, rusts and other earthy tones come from other chemicals.

Mate choice is one reason some birds are spectacularly colored. Over millennia, males of some species have gotten prettier and prettier to compete with their fellow males for the attention of females. Often the more spectacularly colored a male is, the more likely he is to find a female willing to pair with him. Most birds have lifelong partners, but there are a lot of extra-pairings going on, and females (of some species) prefer to “cheat” with the more brightly-colored males. Then why would other bird species be drab browns, grays and whites? Camouflage is a good reason for birds to be dull colored. Some birds fare better when they blend in with their surroundings.

This book is full of exciting discoveries told in short chapters. There are sidebars with tidbits of information, notes to birders that offer specific identification tips, and many gorgeous pictures. It’s a National Geographic publication, so the photos are spectacular. Find out what researchers have been learning about these beautiful creatures you see every day.

Check the WRL catalog for National Geographic Bird Coloration.



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Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

“M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.” One of the main characters in Tom Franklin’s atmospherically dark novel refers to Mississippi as “the crooked letter,” from the jump rope chant that spells the name of the state. “Welcome back to the crooked letter,” he leaves on an old friend’s answering machine when he learns the friend has moved back to the rural hamlet of Chabot after more than twenty years away. The novel is as much about isolation, the tenuous friendships of children, family dysfunction, adolescent awkwardness, suspicious rumors, and race relations in the 1970s in the South as it is about the mystery of two missing girls. It is a deep, rich novel about two characters, Larry Ott, a lower-middle-class white boy, and poor African-American Silas Jones, now nicknamed “32” from his college baseball uniform.

In the present day, Larry Ott still lives in the house where he grew up. His father is dead and his mother, suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, is in a nursing home. Larry owns the auto garage his father once owned— Ottomotive Repair—but rarely gets any business, as the townspeople steer clear of him. He reads books that he gets from his book clubs, mostly horror novels. He tends his chickens and visits his mother when she’s having “a good day.” He drives his father’s 1970’s model red Ford pickup, with an umbrella in the gun rack. He can’t own a gun “because of his past.” A local girl has been missing for eight days now, and a county investigator, familiar to Larry, stops by his house with a warrant. “You understand,” the investigator says. Larry does understand, and lets him in. Larry sits outside while the investigator searches through every room of his house, looking for any sign of the missing Rutherford girl.

Twenty-five years ago, another girl, Cindy Walker, went missing, and Larry was the last one known to see her alive. He had taken her to the drive-in, or at least that’s what everyone thought. That Larry had a date was big news in the high school rumor mill. It was the only date Larry would ever have. When Cindy disappears after that night, Larry is fingered as guilty even though there is no evidence linking him to a crime, and Cindy’s body is never found. Small town rumors run rampant, and “Scary Larry” is shunned.

As a child, Larry is peculiar, asthmatic and weak. His father, who loves his bourbon, taunts him, calls him a Momma’s boy and laughs at him for reading books all the time. He says Larry will never amount to anything, will never learn how to fix cars. “[Y]ou can’t unscrew a god dang bolt to save your life, can’t charge a dad blame battery.” His mother prays for Larry. “Please take that stuttering away, and please help him breathe right, and please send him a special friend, Lord, one just for him.”

Silas Jones becomes his friend, but only for a short while, and not when people can see them together at school. It’s an awkward friendship, but the only one Larry has as a child. Larry tells Silas fascinating things about nature and the woods around his property, and lends him a hunting rifle he’s taken from his father. He tries to interest Silas in reading, but Silas doesn’t care about books. Silas gets to know other kids at school, and by the time the two are in high school, Silas rejects Larry the way the more popular kids do.

After Cindy Walker disappears and Larry is blamed, the break between the Larry and Silas is complete. Silas moves out of town, goes to college, enrolls in the Navy, and then the police academy, and eventually moves back to Chabot to become a constable. Larry tries to get in touch with his old friend, but Silas ignores his calls. It isn’t until the Rutherford girl is missing for over a week and the town again begins to blame Larry that Silas realizes he has to confront memories from the past. He knew Larry better than anyone twenty-five years ago, but he stayed silent when people were pointing the finger at him for Cindy Walker’s disappearance. Silas doesn’t want to let that happen again.

This is much more than a mystery novel. When I think about the book, it’s not the mystery of the missing girls I recall, but the awkward friendship between Larry and Silas “32” Jones. The sense of place is strong. Franklin’s description of the small, Southern town and its characters is vivid. It’s a mystery novel I’ll remember for a long time.

Check the WRL catalog for Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.


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Up From the Blue, by Susan HendersonThe freckled-face girl on the cover of this book got my attention. The basic description of the novel did not excite me: Tillie, a young woman going through labor, is faced with “painful childhood memories“ regarding her moody, bizarre but loving mother, Mara, and her strict, emotionally-distant father, a colonel in the Air Force. Novels about dysfunctional families do not usually interest me. Still, I picked it up because there was a mystery involved. The mother disappears, and the story of eight-year-old Tillie’s confusion and her subsequent attempts to figure out where her mother had gone were intriguing.

As young children in the 1970s, Tillie and her brother Phil lived with their parents on a base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over time, Tillie grew to understand that her mother was different from other mothers. Mara never left the house and wouldn’t answer the door when neighbors knocked. She left housework undone and crumpled on the floor in a heap sometimes when her husband tried to get her to be a good housewife and mother. But she seemed happy when she played with Tillie and always read Tillie bedtime stories. She also gave Tillie a warm, bitter drink in a special cup every night at bedtime, a drink Tillie loved, because it made the room spin pleasantly and helped her to fall asleep.

When Tillie was eight, her father landed a job at the Pentagon designing weapons of mass destruction. Tillie is sent to stay with one of her father’s female co-workers for a couple of weeks as the move takes place. She doesn’t want to be without her mother for so long and resists this new woman and refuses to cooperate, but her father promises that she’ll be reunited with the family once the household is settled. When Tillie arrives at the new house, her mother has disappeared. Tillie doesn’t know what happened to her mother. Her twelve-year-old brother Phil doesn’t know but makes some assumptions, and her father isn’t talking. Tillie is devastated and looks for her mother everywhere.

Tillie is a new kid at school, as is Shirl, an African-American girl. The two are shunned by the other kids, and soon become friends. With Shirl’s help, Tillie looks for clues to where Tillie’s mother has gone. She has a fertile imagination and a strong determination to find out what has happened to her mother. I had a hard time putting this book down. I, too, needed to know what exactly happened to Tillie’s mother.

There are a few chapters written from Tillie’s point of view as an adult, but they are not what makes the story. Her recollections of the year when she was eight and her mother disappeared are what makes this story fascinating. Even though the girl on the cover is cute, this is not a cute story. The interactions between family members are sometimes hard to deal with.  This is Susan Henderson’s first novel. She created believable characters and believable family dynamics.  I look forward to more novels by her.

Check the WRL catalog for Up From the Blue


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For most of my working hours, I catalog children’s non-fiction books. I get to see books that teach a little about a subject in clear, easy language, often illustrated with lots of pictures. One of these books was And Picasso Painted Guernica, written by Alain Serres and translated from the French by Rosalind Price.

Serres tells the story of Guernica by first offering a brief biography of Picasso. He adds historical details—Edison invented the light bulb the year Pablo Picasso was born, a Zeppelin flies over Switzerland when Picasso is nineteen—to help readers understand the times. Early drawings and paintings of Picasso’s, reproduced beautifully, show his development. His early works, including doves he drew when he was eight, and portraits of his parents he painted as a teen, are remarkably life-like.

When Picasso was a young artist living in Paris, he and fellow artist George Braque turned away from creating life-like reproductions and developed a style of painting eventually called Cubism. “They painted people and objects from many different viewpoints, as if they could see every surface at the same time.” Serres shows examples of Picasso’s colorful cubism on pages with bright colored background.

But then the war comes. General Franco and a section of the Spanish army launch a coup d’etat. The civil war has begun. The pages are now black, white and grey, just as Guernica is black, white and grey, reflecting the horror of the time.

This is an oversized book. Guernica is an oversized painting. The size of Picasso’s masterpiece—eleven feet tall by 25 ½ feet wide—makes it more effective than if it were on a smaller canvas. The size of this book, likewise, makes the book more effective.  There is a reproduction of Guernica as a fold-out, allowing the reader to examine the details close-up. Serres asks questions of the reader. “How to make an image more powerful than the blast of 50 tonnes of bombs? How to make it live on, long after the dust and debris has [sic] settled? How to make it linger in the mind’s eye, even when people have stopped looking?” He shows sketches Picasso tried before committing them to the canvas. He focuses on details. “Picasso throws back the mother’s head, and her child’s. He shatters the familiar image of Virgin and Child. Shows the world upside-down, like the child who dies before it can live, like the rain of steel that dreadful day. Like those eyes, those nostrils, made of tears. Like the mouth of the child that makes no sound, and the mother’s that cries out, that screams….”

After a thorough examination of the painting, enhanced with photos taken by a friend of Picasso’s while he was working, the pages again become brightly colored. Life goes on. “After 35 days and many nights of dedicated work on Guernica, Picasso puts away his pots of black, white and grey. Colour reappears in his paintings. … In life, death always brings transformation.” Serres shows paintings, sculptures and other art forms—some very light-hearted—created later in Picasso’s life.

This is a powerful book about a powerful painting and a magnificent artist. It doesn’t take long to read, but you’ll want to examine the sketches and the details. You’ll want to feel the questions Serres asks to understand better how Picasso created his most famous work. This book may be shelved in the children’s department, but adults will be affected by it as much as, or even perhaps more than, children will be.

Check the WRL catalog for And Picasso Painted Guernica.


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I don’t usually read westerns, but a few weeks ago I tried the first book in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire mystery series. I raced through The Cold Dish, then read the second, Death Without Company, and just finished the third, Kindness Goes Unpunished. After I write this post, I’m going to start the fourth, Another Man’s Mocassins. I laugh out loud while reading these books. The mysteries are good and the humor is just the way I like it: dry.

The stories are told from the perspective of Longmire, a Vietnam vet and the long-time sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, “the least populated county in the least populated state in the union.” His best friend since grade school is Henry Standing Bear, from the Northern Cheyenne reservation that abuts Absaroka County, and his deputy is Vic Moretti, a transplant from South Philadelphia where her brothers, father and uncles are all cops. Longmire has a daughter, Cady, his “singular ray of sunshine,” a lawyer now living in Philadelphia.

The first two mysteries take place in Wyoming, with Cheyenne characters playing a big part of the story, and while Kindness Goes Unpunished is set in Philadelphia, the element of Native American mysticism stays strong. Longmire, Standing Bear, and Longmire’s dog, Dog, drive Standing Bear’s powder-blue 1959 Thunderbird to Philadelphia, where Standing Bear is guest of honor at an exhibit of Native American photographs at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The sheriff is eager to see Cady and to meet her new boyfriend Devon, a lawyer at a different Philly law firm. But before father and daughter reunite, Cady is brutally attacked and almost killed. She stays in a coma for most of the book, while Longmire teams up with the Philadelphia cops to try to find the assailant. Several deaths and a drug bust occur while Longmire is in town.

There is enough fire power (including the brief appearance of a Howitzer) and fighting to satisfy those who like violence in their mysteries, but not so much that it turned me away. There’s some sex and a bit of romance. I’ve been intrigued over the course of the series by the developing relationships between Longmire and those around him. These books should appeal to women as well as men; the women’s characters are fully-developed and strong where appropriate. These are good mysteries – exciting, intriguing, funny and addictive.

Check the WRL catalog for the book Kindness Goes Unpunished


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