Archive for the ‘Todd’s Picks’ Category

ForeignI really like the phrase “living forward into history,” partially because I coined it (I think), just after September 11.  To me, it means that at every great juncture in world events, no one standing at that juncture knows what is going to happen, how the whole thing will turn out, or even that they are at a juncture, yet they keep right on making the large and small choices that will shape the future.  It is easy for readers of history to forget that with the hindsight their knowledge gives them.  (And it depends on whether George Santayana or Karl Marx’s take on history is right.)  It also means that readers of history should have a greater measure of sympathy for people who don’t recognize the extraordinary times in which they live.  Anyone who reads Alan Furst is continually reminded of the second.

The Foreign Correspondent is set in Paris in 1939. Italian journalist Carlo Weisz, who left Italy during the rise of Mussolini’s Fascists, is now working for Reuters, covering the Spanish Civil War and regional dog shows, or whatever assignment his relaxed editor sends his way.  Weisz is also a contributor to Liberazione, an underground newspaper smuggled into Italy to counter Fascist propaganda. Paris is not a safe place for expatriates, as demonstrated by the murder of Liberazione’s editor, but Carlo agrees to take his place.   In this new function he is approached by both the French police and British intelligence, who seduce him into serving their interests.  Carlo is not without his own guile, though, and in return for his efforts on their behalf makes his own demands for both personal and patriotic gain.  The dramatic tension of the story lies in the way Carlo treads the ethically murky path that he must follow while still maintaining his individuality.  For the modern reader, there is also the tension of calendar pages turning over as we move towards September 1, when Hitler’s army crosses into Poland and ignites the war in Europe.

Carlo’s profession allows Furst to move him through pre-war Europe, so the reader gets a glimpse of life in several countries – the disillusionment and weariness of Spain at the end of the Civil War, the mass hysteria and righteous certainty of Nazi Germany, the cheerful anarchy that gave the Fascists fits in Italy.  Everywhere he goes, though, there is a sense of clouds gathering, of Hobson’s choices confronting ordinary people, and of the futility of trying to individually oppose an onslaught of state power.

While Furst’s stories don’t have the action of a Robert Ludlum or the claustrophobia of a John le Carré, they occupy an important place that make them stand out from the rest of the espionage fiction crowd.  His characters aren’t heroes, but they have the faculty of caring about something beyond themselves and their own safety.  They take risks to serve their ideals, with a very real knowledge of the consequences of failure, and they try to search for and preserve the individual relationships that bring them a measure of happiness.  At the same time, unlike the reader, they have no knowledge of the cataclysm that is about to engulf their world.  Furst makes them live forward into history, and that’s the real power of his writing.

Check the WRL catalog for The Foreign Correspondent

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Four days about birds, 2 books, 2 movies and I was all set to write about another bird book when I took a bribe (iced coffee is a wonderful bribe for me) to not write about birds to end the week.

So let’s move on and forget about the birds and change the focus to: No Talking by Andrew Clements.

Clements, a former elementary school teacher has been writing books for children for years and has become a household name since the publication of Frindle in 1996. No Talking was published last year I have read this book aloud to 2 separate groups: A summer school group of children at Norge Elementary School and my daughter’s 5th grade class this year at Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School with great results!

Dave Packer is researching a school report on India and while he is preparing for his oral report he reads that Gandhi practiced not talking one day a week to clear his mind. Dave decides he can do that as well and the novel is set moving. Dave forgets his one day promise to not talk when he over hears a girl in the lunchroom and the two set up a competition: Boys against the Girls, No Talking for Two Days.

Mr. May’s 5th grade class held the same competition around Thanksgiving, the boys claim the girls cheated (I wouldn’t have expected anything different) but the girls won…but who is the winner in the novel, and more importantly what lessons are learned?

Check the WRL catalog for No Talking


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“The story of bird migration is a story of promise, a promise to return.”

Breath taking and remarkable close up cinematography places you in the center of the flight patterns and along the nesting sites on cliffs and the sandy beaches as the film crew spent nearly 4 years filming from all corners of the earth.

The near lack of narration, I thought was perfect for the film, although some have disagreed with me. I did not think this film needed narration, on the other hand, I thought Morgan Freeman’s narration of The March of the Penguins was the bee’s knees and a film that needed that narration to be complete.

SPOILER ALERT: (do not read any further: I will reveal spoilers)





As I watched the film I was shocked that the birds would not shy away from the filming crew, only to learn that flocks of the birds bring filmed were raised and imprinted on the film crew for this film. So this film is not quite a documentary, not quite fiction, but somewhere in between. (But not at the level of This is Spinal Tap). Did watching the “making of” change my thoughts on the movie? Yes and No.

I still thought the movie was great and I was fascinated by the story, but I was disappointed in the “imprinting” aspect. My daughter felt a little lied to after watching the “making of” bonus feature. I can understand her point of view, now it’s your time to decide.

Check the WRL catalog for this DVD


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When Melanie Daniels rolls into Bodega Bay in pursuit of eligible bachelor Mitch Brenner, the small California town is inexplicably and viciously attacked by thousands of birds.

 Of course we know birds to not attack people, but that’s ok…let’s suspend belief and look at this wonderful Hitchcock film that was recently thrown back into the spotlight with the death of Suzanne Pleshette.

Rumors about bird care during the filming still persist today, I have read that magnet and fishing line were use to keep birds on phone wires and on roofs, also the use of birdseed in the hair of actors as well to promote the “active feeding” on the characters. I’m sure Hitchcock would have animal rights activist lurking around if the filming was today; be that as it may, sit back and enjoy the terror of The Birds, and look for Hitchcock walking his dogs for his cameo.

As I selected categories for this entry, I wondered is this movie a “classic”?


Check the WRL catalog for this movie


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I know we talked about birds yesterday, but that was birds during one year, this is birding over a lifetime.

Dan Koeppel tells the life obsession of his father, an extreme birder, one of the few persons in the world to have seen over 7000 species. Only from a lifetime commitment can you see such a high number of species; special vacations and travel arrangements, effort, money, strategy, and knowledge all play a large part of this lifelong compulsion.

Richard Koeppel wanted to become an ornithologist, but after much pressure from his family he decided on a medical career, a career that has allowed him to travel the world in search of birds.

A quick read that opens the birding world to everyone. The history of birding, rules and technicalities of creating a lifelong big list, and even the taxonomy of birds are examined. A closer look at the deteriation of the American family, this one torn apart, not from drugs or alcohol but from the natural world is also revealed in this gem of a book.

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Recently in Williamsburg there has been an unusual sighting of a rare bird in the area, a Townsend’s Solitaire. I came across a handful of folks that made more than an hour’s drive to see this western, Rocky Mountain native; folks from Charlottesville, Roanoke and even the brave folks that came through the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel on a weekend from Chesapeake. Luckily my daughters and I had to drive about 3 miles to see the bird.

The Big Year by Mark Obmascik details his “Big Year”(a birding term) that birders use to define a year long contest to see who can identify the most species during 365 day period. Obmascik also relates the year long obsession of other birders during 1998, how they cross paths, help each other and he even dabbles in the environmental and societal issues for birders as well.

At break-neck speed the story unfolds, from the western islands of Alaska to the keys in Florida birds are identified and checked off the list only to finally award the Big Year champion in December.

The trials, triumphs and frustrations of these three birders make this book a wonderful read for non-birders. If you are driving to see other rare species and don’t have the time to read the book, the Williamsburg Library offers this selection on audio cd as well. The Audio version was an Audiofile Earphones award winning selection.

2008 is THE BIG YEAR in my household, my oldest daughter and I are keeping track of the different bird species we see this year, and the Townsend’s Solitaire is one that I never would have guessed we’d see near the coast of Virginia.

Check the WRL Catalog for the book

Check the WRL Catalog for the Audio-CD


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Noted baseball analyst Bill James, best known for his Baseball Abstracts, turns his keen eye on the Baseball Hall of Fame in this diamond of a book for statistical junkies and baseball enthusiasts.

I first read this book right after Phil Rizzuto was elected to the HOF and clearly remember the controversy with his election and comparison to other players of his time. Rizzuto clearly, IMHO, campaigned his way into the hall. James discusses Rizzuto as a player as well as turns his eye on the Veterans Committee headed by Frankie Frisch, who may have persuaded votes for Frisch’s old teammates.

Pete Rose is not left out of the discussion and I’m waiting for a new updated look at the steroid era of baseball and it’s significance with future elections to the hall and immortality.

The book was originally published in 1995, so there has been plenty to re-examine, but you can not go wrong in the detailed report of the players of baseball golden age and the players that my father grew up watching in Forbes Field and the players of my youth.

Also published as Whatever Happened to the Baseball Hall of Fame: Baseball, Cooperstown and the Politics of Glory.

If you enjoy this title, please take a look at Bill Ferber’s The Book on the Book: A Landmark inquiry into which strategies in the modern game actually work. From the cover: Whenever you hear an announcer talk about the unwritten rule or say that so-and-so is going by the book in bringing in a situational substitute, The Book reviews the facts and determines what the real case is. If you want to know what the folks in baseball should be doing.

Check the WRL catalog for this title


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Pete Fromm spent a winter alone in the Bitterroot Mountains guarding salmon eggs. This is his account of his Walden-esque experience.

After a friend drops out of the job just before the training starts Pete says I can do that and works out his college class schedule (independent writing) and heads to the woods to provide protection for 2.5 million salmon eggs deposited in the channel between two mountain streams.

Any notion of the romance of the wilderness was quickly squashed by the Game Warden when he tells Pete he’ll be living in a canvas tent with a wood burning stove. The closest neighbors are 60 miles away and the closest paved road is 40 miles away, but Pete signs on and heads to the woods. He realizes on the road to the tent site that he really does not know where he is actually going to be living. Chopping wood, hunting, tanning hides, smoking meat and survival skills are tested to combat the loneliness of winter as Pete spends his winter alone.

Fired up by the romance of the mountain man mystic and the lure of the woods, I’d like to say I could spend a winter alone as well. I also like to think I could climb Mt. Everest as well. When shows on climbing Mt. Everest come on TV I have to watch and my wife still reminds me that the order of the shows follow this plan:

  1. gather gear and climb
  2. snow and wind, get caught in some kind of weather storm
  3. some kind of medical emergency: High altitude sickness
  4. frostbite and even death

I just can’t stay away from TV shows like this and I can’t stay away from books like this as well. All this wilderness experience and $200.00 a month, SIGN ME UP!

Check the WRL Catalog


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John McPhee is told “There are two places in the world—home and everywhere else…” as he spends time across America in his latest book about the folks who drive trucks and trains, captain boats, pilot towboats and even carry lobsters in the air for delivery. Seven brief chapters give us insight to the freight industry of America that keeps commerce moving. McPhee does not just research his subjects in a book he participates and from there can really explain the finer details of these subjects.

The men and women in this book are masters of their crafts: I have a hard time parallel parking my car along the street and I sat back and smiled at the ship captain who parallel parked his 700-foot ship in a 750-foot space without assistance.

McPhee ultimately gives us the little details of each place that reminds us that each place is unique and different. An eye opening look at America that Bookmarks Magazine called “narrative gold”. Do yourself a favor read this book by one of America’s keenest observers of life.

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Grice’s little book of wonder will fascinate, shock and horrify you in 7 chapters. The lives of Black Widows, Brown Recluse, Tarantulas, Rattlesnakes, Pigs, Canids and Mantids are all examined here with all the gruesome and morbid details of a car crash. Not overly scientific (no reference and footnotes) but who cares it’s like an ice cream treat of the natural world.

Grice’s raises Black Widows and clearly shares his love with the spider with us through the first 60 pages. I remembered this book after a friend’s son was recently bitten by a widow and I thought about his night spent in the emergency room being treated.

Grice writes, “…pigs eat just about anything, he writes, including the runts of their litters; most humans are more selective, but we do eat 88 million pigs each year.”

Enjoy this and make sure you shake your boots and gloves that you keep in your garage before you place a foot or hand in them…widows love to nestle down in these dark cool places.


If you enjoyed this book, also look for Suburban Safari by Hannah Holmes.

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Randy Morgenson served for 28 years as a back county ranger in the Sierra Nevada Mountains until one day he disappeared while on a three-day patrol. With a failing marriage and the wilderness as his true calling, some believe he may have just followed the tails of John Muir and left his troubled life behind him. Others believed in foul play or even suicide with Randy’s disappearance.

You’ll experience the highs and lows of the search and rescue teams while you read through Morgenson’s journal entries, and as Blehm narrates and history of the King’s Canyon National Park and ranger life.

A celebration of the wildness of the Sierra Nevada range and a captivating detective story rolled into one magnificent narrative that will keep you up late at night until you finish. If you are a reader of Outside Magazine or Backpacker Magazine then this book is for you. You may also want to read Into the Wild by John Krakauer.

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Let’s end the week with another Cormier book, that is soon to be a major motion picture starring Russell Crowe.

Eric Poole started out just killing small animals, kittens and birds, but soon finds himself in a juvenile detention center for killing his parents. Eric claims he was being abused and the murders were in self-defense.

Lori Cranston, a 15 year old runaway is drawn to Eric. She met him in passing a few years before Eric was arrested and wants to meet him again upon release from the detention home.

Eric and Lori are brought together and the tension begins. With a veteran police officer watching Eric, waiting for his one slip back to a life of crime Eric finds companionship in Lori and then in a Cormier-esque ending lives are shattered.

Check the WRL catalog for Tenderness


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After inheriting her Uncle’s land in Montana 16 year-old Hattie sets off to improve the land, stake a claim and finally have a place she can call home. Traveling from Iowa to Eastern Montana, Hattie narrates her struggle of cultivating 40 acres and setting 480 fence posts during a 10 month period. Hattie’s story is also revealed through a series of letters both to and from a friend who is off to war as well as newspaper clippings from back home in Iowa.

Hattie braves the harsh weather, then endless hours of farm work, her homesickness, and her hopeless cooking and most of all she survives the locals who want to buy her land. Hattie’s biggest test lies in her standing up to locals who increase the pressure to be a “loyal American” during World War I and the bigotry towards a local German-American family that Hattie befriends.

This novel is based on Kirby Larson’s great-grandmother who staked a claim on the Montana prairie. Please read the author’s note at the end of the novel.

A wonderful parent-child book group selection that provides a magnificent setting and memorable characters, and a story that may cause you to search for your ancestors and family history.

Check the WRL catalog for Hattie Big Sky


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Twelve year old Catherine is embarrassed by her autistic brother’s behavior so she sets rules for him to follow; rules like “No toys in the fish tank” and “a boy can take off his shirt to swim, but not his shorts”. In this heartfelt story of Catherine she shares her ups and downs of her family life and life as a tween.

When a Kristi moves next door Catherine would like to be friends with her, but she is unsure and scared how Kristi will react to David’s “embarrassing behaviors”. Catherine also meets Jason, a paraplegic and once again finds herself embarrassed to be seen with him. Only later does she realize that acceptance is the only rule that everyone needs to follow.

Cynthia Lord crafts a magnificent story of a young girl longing for acceptance in a world that we can all use some understanding of the differences around us.


Hi, Jessica the librarian here. Since a lot of people have questions about this book, I’m going to try to help readers understand some of the different issues. If you need more help, leave us a message in the comments field.

1. Setting: Setting usually involves two pieces, time and place. The time is pretty easy to identify; ask yourself if the story takes place in historical times or current times. And then ask yourself what time of year it is. (You can figure this out by clues such as the weather– is it warm or cold?– and whether or not the kids are in school.)

As for place, the author does mention the state a few times, but even if you forget that detail, you can still describe the setting.  Is it out in the country or in the city? Is it near mountains or the ocean or a lake, or a hospital or a school or places to shop?

2. Characters: There are lots of different ways to describe characters. Some characters are young or old, friendly or mean, frustrating or easy-going, insecure or confident, patient or impatient…

3. Themes: What do you think the author is trying to say? Why did Cynthia Lord write Rules? Is she trying to teach us something or give us a message? Did you learn anything from the book? Did the book reaffirm something you already knew?

Here’s a hint: This particular book has lots of different themes. Here’s just one (you’ll recognize it as one of The Rules): “Looking closer can make something beautiful.”

Good luck!

Check the WRL catalog for Rules


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Steve York lives in the shadow of his famous father, astronaut Alan York (“he may have been the 3rd or 4th man to step on the moon”). As Steve learns that he is about to fail English class and not graduate he is summoned to the guidance office and learns that he has been assigned a 100-page paper (at least Steve is given the parameters of “any topic”). Steve then chronicles his life over the past years for us to witness.

Steve is a typical teen, he has a girlfriend, an over-achieving little sister, parents going through a divorce, an after school job, he helps to create the school’s first Dadaist club (they build a wonderful Home-coming float entitled “Get Hammered” as well as produce a great spirit video); so where does his life derail?

In the spring of 2003 The Voice of Youth Advocates published a journal article selecting Retro-Printz Awards for the years 1978-1999, and Rats Saw God was the winning selection for book published in 1996. The Printz Award is given annually by the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, “for a book that exemplifies literary excellence for young adults.”

Rob Thomas has credited the genesis of this novel from a newspaper article he read while living in Texas. Thomas was also one of the executive producers of the now-cancelled TV series Veronica Mars.


Check the WRL catalog for Rats Saw God




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“They murdered him.”

Cormier opens his 1974 young adult novel The Chocolate War with the sentence that has forever changed young adult literature. Before the publication of this novel, books for teens promised sentimentalized, happy and joyful endings and Cormier shattered the glass with the story of Jerry Renault and his struggle against the ruling body of his private high school.

Jerry, a freshman, attends Trinity High School and has been told by the Vigils (Trinity’s secret society) to make a stand and not sell the chocolate bars for the school fund raiser. After his “assignment” ends Jerry makes the bold move, asserts his own individuality, and follows the poster in his locker and disturbs the universe by continuing to refuse to sell chocolate. Because Jerry refuses to follow the Vigils, he pays a high price that includes a brutal beating by another student.

Cormier refused to alter the ending of his manuscript and therefore had to shop the book around before it was accepted for publication. To this day the book appears of the American Library Associations most frequently challenged books across America.

Check the WRL CATALOG for The Chocolate War


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