Last Five Books

Hello! It’s been TWO YEARS since my last post. Unlike some, including my spouse who somehow was able to read the most that he’d ever read in his life, I was unable to read or listen for the entirely of the pandemic. (Pandemic-ish? We’re still in it.) My brain froze, and what little concentration I could muster was expended on figuring out how to work and be at least somewhat of a good boss from home. Within the last two months, “hello, brain!” It’s (kind of) back.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

At 39, I have joined my first official book club. It may be shocking to read this, being that I am a librarian, but I am a selfish one and guard my time like a precious, tasty snack. The Paper Palace was the club’s first title and I listened on audiobook, which has a fantastic narrator. In a nutshell: affluent, dysfunctional WASPS unite. It’s a true, solid book club read. Lots to discuss and dissect about class, marriage, abuse, family, sisterhood/siblinghood (the parts with her sister were my absolute favorite of the book), mother/daughter relationships, and sometimes curious sex. A few scenes left us pondering, how can this sex be done? How would this happen? In all, it’s chock-full of all the good guts that make up a spirited discussion.

While reflecting on the seemingly constant ups and downs of the main character’s life, a memory floated up from when I interviewed Aimee Nezhukumatathil about her fabulous nature diary/autobiography, World of Wonders. She told a fascinating story about how her now hugely popular book was rejected by several publishers because it lacked drama and/or conflict. She got along with her mom, she loved her husband, she delighted in fireflies. If those elements are indeed the common criteria for major publishers to even consider a title, it’s no surprise that The Paper Palace has been on so many best-of lists over the past year.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

This book is a trip. Original; weird; unexpected; peculiar; very, “what the fuck is happening?” for much of the book. I truly delighted in reading a story where I had no clue what was happening, if I liked the narrator or not (I still have no clue), if I knew what the hell happened in the end or not. It kept me on my toes.

The story follows the main character, a woman in her 20s who decides to tap out of life for a year by plying herself with drugs and alcohol. She holes up in her apartment with the singular aspiration of sleeping for as much of the 365 days as possible. When she wakes in her foggy, drug-induced hazes, she finds herself participating in activities that are a mystery even to her in her more lucid states. Though published in 2018, this is the perfect pandemic read where it’s easy to identify with the character and her medicinal companions after our own two years of physical, mental and emotional solitude.

When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen

Chosen as one of the Stoker Award’s 2021 ballot finalists, When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen is at the top of my list (the winner will be chosen in 2022). I was enthralled from the beginning, following the story of three childhood best friends: Mira, Celine and Jesse, as we follow them from an incident in their childhood that takes place on an abandoned plantation through adulthood by way of flashbacks recalled by the main character, Mira. After the incident, the three friends part ways in the rural South, only to reunite when Celine, who’s white, plans to marry on the same plantation from decades ago. The plantation has since been turned into an extravagant wedding destination, despite it’s history of slavery and the ghosts that still remain at the plantation, which fuels the story of the tenuous friendship.

Author LaTanya McQueen weaves a tale that highlights nuance in a world that often seems to lack the boldness of delving into the grey areas of life. Much of the story is told through Mira’s internal monologue and we are privy to her confusion and consideration of deeds of the past and present; her past, the South’s past, and how those histories are ever present.

Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

It was news to me that the Road of Bones is an actual place in Russia where a mass amount of prisoners of war were buried into the road, otherwise known as Kolyma Highway. Author Christopher Golden uses this real-life highway with its heartbreaking past, mixed with the severe temperatures of Siberia to create a desolate, desperate, dark and mythical place that places the reader in a mental solitude of their own as they become more and more immersed into the story.

I first learned of Golden’s writing when I read Ararat, where much like Road of Bones, Golden uses history and legend, in Ararat’s case, the story of a devil lurking in Noah’s Ark. His books are what I’d call beach reads for horror lovers; nothing too heavy but with clever plots and interesting characters that you hope to God don’t get killed off by an archaic creature awakened after thousands of years.

Smile by Sarah Ruhl

I didn’t want to read Smile. It was a memoir about a playwright who gets Bell’s palsy after having children. Not being a theatre type of gal, nor a children type of gal, I read it because I needed to lead a book club discussion at my library, and Ruhl also has Chicago ties. However, as book clubs often tend to do, I was delighted by a book that I was reticent to read but was so immensely glad that I did.

I listened to the audio, narrated by Ruhl herself, and if Ruhl ever chooses to stop writing plays and narrate audio going forward, the woman has a promising career. Though I’d never read or watched one of Ruhl’s plays, it’s plain to see that her experience with writing about the human condition, specifically that of the female kind, translated impeccably into the memoir genre. What amazed me was her incredible insight into her surroundings, her observations about life and how women are treated by society, men, other women, careers, et al. Her ability to put a spotlight on what seems mundane or matter of fact and make it seem as if it’s the most important point of discussion is truly a gift.

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Dissecting a Dirty Word in Libraries: Science Fiction

Let’s do a little Reader’s Advisory, shall we?

When Emily St. John Mandel’s book Station Eleven came out, it quickly became my hot pick when a patron came in and asked if I had a recommendation for a “good book.”  I had them hooked from the get go, “it’s really a book about memory: family, relationships, love and how we move forward and connect in times of tragedy.  It’s a beautifully written story, and I love how just when you think Mandel is going to follow a predictable plot line, she flips the script, and it includes a travelling band of Shakespearian actors!”  Then, I’d start to lose them when I said, “it takes place after a plague… “ (patron’s eyes begin to widen and glaze over) “and it’s about how we regroup and reflect on our lives..” (me, beginning to talk really fast to keep their attention) “wait, it’s a gorgeous book and it’s not sad!”  Patron says, “is this sci-fi?!”  Me: “yes, but it’s sci-fi light! I promise! It’s really not that much sci-fi!” Annnnnd, I’ve lost you.

Science fiction gets such a bad rap in libraries to a general audience.  It has a reputation for going right to the “hard stuff” that we may collectively imagine, such as machines and far-out technology, space and interplanetary travel, cyborgs and the like.  Yes, while that is a portion of the genre, it encompasses so much more that deserves your attention and yes, maybe even your love. 

A more exacting definition of science fiction is that it takes place in a world/space/time different than ours now.  It can indeed be on other planets or places, or it can be earth, and is typically a little further into the future, or maybe even in the past.  There usually has been a mass societal change and could have been brought about by some shift in the environment or technology.  Literaryterms.net uses a phrasing that I like, that it’s imaginative and based on science, but whoa doggie, science is huge!  It encompasses so much!  (Side note: You may have also heard of other similar genres such as speculative fiction, which can include magic or the supernatural, think of it as a subset of sci-fi.)

Science fiction runs the gamut of hardcore to the most softest of core, and I’d like to recommend some of the latter so that you may just turn into that person who attends that post-shelter-at-home party and can wow your friends with how awesome and smart you are because “oh yeah, I’ve read some sci-fi in my day, no big deal” as you cooly sip your cocktail or mocktail. 

Here are some great, softer-core science fiction titles to get you going: 

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson 
American War by Omar El Akkad
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Recursion by Blake Crouch
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel 
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
You Have Never Been Here: New and Selected Stories by Mary Rickert
Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

*Please note that many of these titles can fall into the subgenres of the sci-fi umbrella, which can include fantasy, speculative fiction, and dystopian fiction to name a few.

Happy Earth Day Film Recommendation!

 

I’ve written about this documentary before and it bears repeating because it. is. that. good. The True Cost is a documentary for our time- it will change the way you see yourself as an active participant in our global economy. The film shows you what your purchases can do to our planet and those who make those items, and how your purchasing power can change so much.

The Last Five Books

American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment  by Shane Bauer (2018)

Reporter Shane Bauer goes undercover in the South as a guard for a for-profit prison and shares his experiences, most of which are documented via hidden surveillance and notes taken during his time “inside.” What Bauer recounts conjures the plethora of human emotion; his experiences with the administration, inmates and system itself are gripping, shocking, bittersweet, appalling, and beautiful. Reminiscent of In Cold Blood in its narrative style, Bauer leaps ahead of the genre by using source material as opposed to imaginative retelling because oftentimes reality is more heart-wrenching than any mind could create. The chapters alternate between the daily ruminations and experiences of both author and inmates, and a history of slavery and its direct link to the current-day for-profit system, throwing into stark reminder that the institution of slavery in America has never really ceased, only donned new mask.

Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger (2019)

In this haunting book about friendship and memory, author Nell Freudenberger creates a beautifully complex portrait of the intricacies, intimacy and miscommunication that accompanies all relationships, but especially friendships between women.  The entirety of the book details the friendship between Helen (astrophysicist) and Charlie (Charlotte, writer in Hollywood), on and off best friends since college.  We are placed in current day, and then taken back through time and forward again with a bird’s eye view of the ebb and blow of their lives in micro and macro ways, with a subtle emphasis on how powerfully one person can shape us, while continually remaining a mystery.   Freudenberger weaves memory with the wonder of space;  the validity, and lack thereof of what cannot be seen but proven, and the ambiguity of what lies within that space.

The Pandora Room by Christopher Golden (2019)

It was a surprise and delight to see Christopher Golden reprise a number of characters from his previous novel Ararat, about the discovery of Noah’s Ark with an evil presence lurking within.  The Pandora Room is what you could call a “sequel-light,” where it’s not necessary to read the first but if you do, it’s a fun little insider nugget to meet up with some old friends.  The Pandora Room leads us down a literal cave into the depths of  Northern Iraq as archaeologist Sophie Durand unearths (so many puns) a jar that much like Noah’s dubious ark in Ararat, may be an actual Pandora’s Box, containing within it the pleasures of all the world, or the alternative, all of its evil.  This is a perfect “outside of the box” summer read, containing romance, action, history, mythology, memory and longing, family, and most of what you’d want to transport you to another world while reading on your lunch break or sitting at the beach.

What to do When I’m Gone: a Mother’s Wisdom to her Daughter by Suzy Hopkins and Hallie Bateman (2018)

By far one of the best graphic/illustrated works I’ve read to date.  A mother/daughter duo write and illustrate this sometimes day by day, month to month and year by year guide from a mother to her daughter on what she can do/how she can cope following her death.  The illustrations and advice work seamlessly together, giving the reader a clearer picture of how they can take small steps after the death of a parent with visuals that seem to make it somewhat possible.  The advice begins concretely, such as “clean your house,” but is often followed up by tender life lessons, “You are numb. It’s time to put your home in order.  Give everything a place. Make it make sense.  Make your room the exact opposite of the randomness of existence, the mercilessness of mortality.”  This was day five, after her mother’s eventual death, written by her mother.  The book follows the daughter into old age, so that the mother may still impart lessons of moral standing and self-care that she won’t be able to relay in person.  The distillation of the book results in one whose reach extends beyond parent/child grief.  This book is for anyone who needs a guiding hand from a parental figure, and mother/author Suzy Hopkins fills in that space with encouragement and permission to switch jobs, take a mental health day, protest, travel, and pursue anything and everything that speaks to your individual soul.

Eat a Little Better : Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World by Sam Kass (2018)

This is a cookbook and thankfully it stole an entire weekend of my life that I’ll never want back–the recipes were that good.  That makes sense.  The recipes were awesome.  It’s very vegan and vegetarian friendly, and though about half of the book is meat/fish related, as a vegetarian it would still be a valuable part of any collection for the vegetable and grain recipes alone.  The basic tenet is eat healthy food that tastes good, without depriving yourself.  All I can say is that faro risotto with spinach pesto is my new GOD.  Plus, nearly all of the recipes are comprised of simple ingredients, minimal work and Chef Kass uses everyday ingredients to pack a lot of flavor, such as salty cheeses and lemon juice.  In my world, I don’t feel full unless there are carbs, cheese or a particular heartiness to the meal, and these recipes check the essential boxes, and I always felt satiated, for you, “it’s not a meal without meat” people.  For those people, the author advises utilizing meat and fish with a low footprint that’s both healthy for you, the planet and the animal.

Librarian’s Pick of the Week: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Library patrons are always asking me, “what have you read (sometimes seen) lately that you loved?”  This is what I loved this week.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Why:  Even with the string of fabulous reviews from journals, newspapers, radio shows and even coworkers, I hesitated reading this book.  As a librarian, why would I care?  I LIVE THIS  LIFE EVERY DAY.  Fast forward a bit to being on a nonfiction judging panel and guess what shows up in the mail? THE LIBRARY BOOK.  Cruel fate.

Though the print version is filled with wonderful photos that correspond to the text, I downloaded the audio, read by Orlean.  First off, why isn’t this woman a professional voice-over actress?  Her voice is soothing, strong, and emphatic–all the most exquisite ingredients that strengthen the truly captivating contents.  Orlean’s research into this book alights with the Los Angeles Public Library and a fire that just short of decimated the building and its contents.  From there, we are taken on a journey through time and space, pulling fantastic tidbits from library history that intersect with the history of the LA Public Library.  True crime, women’s history, women’s library history, sexism (UGH, the sexism in library!  The sexism!),  library history, world library history, homelessness, arrogance, death, legacy, love, eccentric patrons, eccentric librarians, fire history, book conservation, and that’s like, the first half.  Orlean’s way with words is never tortured or cliche, but awes you with its simple complexity.  One of my favorite lines describes the library fire to a monster eating chips.

If you’ve ever stepped into a library, even just to use the loo, place your hold now with your local library.  And oh, be nice to your librarians.

Readalikes: The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu : and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer (NF)
The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne (NF)
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (F)
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (F)
Party Girl dir. Daisy von Scherler Mayer (film, starring Parker Posey)

 

Librarian’s Pick of the Week: Jonesy: Nine Lives on the Nostromo

Library patrons are always asking me, “what have you read (or seen) lately that you loved?”  This is what I loved this week.

Jonesy: Nine Lives on the Nostromo by Rory Lucey (2018)

Why: When you look up “adorable” in the dictionary, this graphic novel is the tippey tops.  The author/illustrator Rory Lucey retells the film classic Alien from the point of view of Jones the cat, affectionately referred to as Jonesy by his human friends, and what he actually may be doing during the siege.

What follows is an imaginative foray into the life of your typical not-shit-giving feline as he nonchalantly licks his behind while those around him get skewered.  Author Lucey does a fantastic job of capturing the common thread that connects all cats: their sense of wonder, fun, cuddly warmth, and head butts that can quickly transform from ear-shattering motor purrs to a sudden nip on the nose.  The illustrations are a sheer delight as you focus in (glasses, people) on the finer details of each picture and compare them to the scenes in the film, except here you see the little tips of orange ears curiously sniffing at an alien.  What also makes this retelling so captivating is that unlike the film, wonderful and horrific in its own right, the graphic novel inserts a sense of whimsy and joy, enabling you to re-imagine each scene through the eyes of a curious kitty.

This would also be a perfect holiday or birthday gift for anyone who both loves cats and horror films, and is obviously an especially amazing human.

Hunter Mountain Haikus

While in upstate New York, I could think of no better way to encapsulate the most bourgeois celebration of my birthday in the Catskills than a series of haikus, some written while on caffeine, some under the influence of lots of red wine.  I hope you enjoy.

The Hunter Haikus

She looks to the side
short bangs, heart face, lit by fire
no joy in heaven

Big, strong, nashing teeth
doggie slobber on my leg
not so mean after all

White yogi raps chants
Michael said like Eminem
he only wishes

Rain beats on the glass
as we breath out Lion’s Breath
and I think of death

Do not poke the bear
walking around the corner
filled with excitement

Heart face walks away
she stares down at her cell phone
maybe she won’t trip?

Cotton is comfy
like a pillow to the skin
we wear all weekend

He reads Leonard Co-
hen-side by the firelight.
See what I did there?

Green tea jolts the nerves,
connects us to our family
run to the bathroom

Tea ceremony
touch the carpet with my palm
wet shoes were left on

Shades of green, blue, grey
we pay money to feel whole
as if we aren’t now

Tea ceremony
no Asian people present
white girl writing haiku

 

Looking at “heart face,” writing Haiku. New York on November, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If You Aren’t Voting on November 6, Especially for my White Friends and Family

Talking about privilege is a topic so many avoid, we as white people often feel a punch in the chest when someone accuses us of having privileges that other people don’t have.  We say, “we worked our butts off!” and no one is saying you didn’t.  In fact, you did, through the blood, sweat, fears and tears of your ancestors who were brutalized, jailed and harassed, fighting for the right to vote, unless you hail from the dubious past of the anti-suffrage movement of yore, akin to today’s female Donald Trump supporters.  But, if you have decided not to vote this November 6 and you are white, you are displaying your privilege to the highest degree possible.

“Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

When you refuse to vote, you believe that you face no discrimination in your life, and that is privilege.  If you don’t vote, you are saying that the lives of those around you don’t matter, because even if you don’t face any sort of prejudice for living some facet of your life, by not voting, you are saying that the struggles of your fellow humans don’t matter enough for you to go vote on their behalf.  When you refuse to vote, you are also throwing your privilege in the face of those who don’t have access, and you’re shitting on the women fought so hard for that right.  White women (who the 19th amendment mostly benefited) couldn’t vote until 1920.  It hasn’t even been 100 years since we fought to vote.  Many African American women couldn’t even vote prior to 1960 in many Southern states.  Vote for them.  Be part of the democracy that is being threatened, vote with love for yourself and vote for the love of your neighbor.

If you’re not voting, my guess is that you’re probably heterosexual, never had an abortion, don’t think black lives matter, (and let’s add non-Christian religions to that as well), you don’t think everyone is entitled to food, proper healthcare, school supplies, and don’t think the earth is dying and worth saving.  Not true?  Prove me wrong.  Consider yourself so lucky that you have the privilege to have a voice in our world.

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Photo: Helena Hill Weed serving a 3 day sentence prison for carrying a banner with the above quote.  Source for photo above: https://www.loc.gov/resource/mnwp.275034/

Banned Books Week-Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

What is Banned Books Week anyway? “Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information.” *

To this day, “don’t ever laugh as a hearse goes by for you may be the next to die…” still dances in my brain at random moments.  Having grown up in a funeral home, I knew this held no validity but still felt that thrill of the forbidden, the unknown.  Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark was a staple in my and my family’s collective experience during childhood, and may also be the reason we’re all extremely morbid adults.  Who knows?

The American Library Association conducted a study from 1990-1999** of the most commonly challenged books–guess who was #1 for a decade?

Why the most frequent challenges?  My guess is that Schwartz’s lighthearted treatment towards death and all that nitty-gritty, such as rot (specifically humans), worms, corpses, et al, commonly introduced to younger audiences is a lot for the general public to welcome, especially given our pervasive avoidance of the topic of death.  More specifically, according to the Intellectual Freedom Blog via The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association*** by way of the Banned Books Resource Guide, the reasons are commonly cited as:

  • “too scary and violent”
  • “too morbid for children”
  • “shows the dark side of religion through the occult, the devil, and satanism”
  • “cannibalism”
  • “unrealistic view of death”
  • “cause children to fear the dark”
  • “cause children to have nightmares”

You know what?  All of the above is true!  The stories are morbid, they do discuss death, and who didn’t fear the dark as a child?  Luckily, parents have the choice as to whether or not to allow their small children to read them, but do not have the right to make that decision for everyone else who patronizes their local library.

*https://bannedbooksweek.org/about/
**http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/100-most-frequently-challenged-books-1990%E2%80%931999
***https://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=7631

Banned Books Week-Charles Bukowski

What is Banned Books Week anyway? “Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information.”*

In 1985, Charles Bukowski’s book, “Tales of Ordinary Madness” was challenged and asked to be removed from a public library due to it being, “‘very sadistic, occasionally fascist and discriminatory against certain groups (including homosexuals).'”  Who is in the right?  How does one, or one group, deem art to be worthy or unworthy?  How does one group decide the level public exposure?  Does one person’s subjective resistance to a topic deem it suitable for termination?  Have you ever wanted to challenge a piece of film or literature?  Below is Bukowski’s response, which holds true today, over 30 years later.

Dear Hans van den Broek [journalist]:

Thank you for your letter telling me of the removal of one of my books from the Nijmegen library. And that it is accused of discrimination against black people, homosexuals and women. And that it is sadism because of the sadism.

The thing that I fear discriminating against is humor and truth.

If I write badly about blacks, homosexuals and women it is because of these who I met were that. There are many “bads”–bad dogs, bad censorship; there are even “bad” white males. Only when you write about “bad” white males they don’t complain about it. And need I say that there are “good” blacks, “good” homosexuals and “good” women?

In my work, as a writer, I only photograph, in words, what I see. If I write of “sadism” it is because it exists, I didn’t invent it, and if some terrible act occurs in my work it is because such things happen in our lives. I am not on the side of evil, if such a thing as evil abounds. In my writing I do not always agree with what occurs, nor do I linger in the mud for the sheer sake of it. Also, it is curious that the people who rail against my work seem to overlook the sections of it which entail joy and love and hope, and there are such sections. My days, my years, my life has seen up and downs, lights and darknesses. If I wrote only and continually of the “light” and never mentioned the other, then as an artist I would be a liar.

Censorship is the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and from others. Their fear is only their inability to face what is real, and I can’t vent any anger against them. I only feel this appalling sadness. Somewhere, in their upbringing, they were shielded against the total facts of our existence. They were only taught to look one way when many ways exist.

I am not dismayed that one of my books has been hunted down and dislodged from the shelves of a local library. In a sense, I am honored that I have written something that has awakened these from their non-ponderous depths. But I am hurt, yes, when somebody else’s book is censored, for that book, usually is a great book and there are few of those, and throughout the ages that type of book has often generated into a classic, and what was once thought shocking and immoral is now required reading at many of our universities.

I am not saying that my book is one of those, but I am saying that in our time, at this moment when any moment may be the last for many of us, it’s damned galling and impossibly sad that we still have among us the small, bitter people, the witch-hunters and the declaimers against reality. Yet, these too belong with us, they are part of the whole, and if I haven’t written about them, I should, maybe have here, and that’s enough.

may we all get better together,
yrs,

(Signed)
Charles Bukowski

7-22-85**

*https://bannedbooksweek.org/about/
**http://www.lettersofnote.com/search?q=+charles+bukowski