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Books we love

Joyce, Standley Lake Library

For years I have been trying to pawn off a favorite book on family, friends and unsuspecting library patrons. Some took the bait, but others looked at the title, raised an eyebrow and said, “Gosh.  I really have an awful lot on my plate right now.  Maybe next time.”

So, imagine my delight when I saw Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, mentioned in the acknowledgements at the back of Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things.  I couldn’t believe that anyone other than Kimmerer’s publisher, friends, family and me knew about this book.  (Okay, I’m exaggerating just a little – Gathering Moss won the John Burroughs Medal for an outstanding book of natural history writing in 2005.) Still, it felt as if Gilbert and I were part of some secret society, a clandestine clique complete with knowing winks and special handshakes.
Kimmerer’s book is a collection of essays about, as the title suggests, moss.  I know – it sounds like a real snoozer.  But, well-written essay collections are one of my favorite things to read and well-written essay collections about natural history topics are this girl’s idea of heaven on earth.   (A disclosure -- I majored in Biology in college, with an emphasis in Botany and a special interest in the bryophytes – those nonvascular oddities of the plant world that include the liverworts, hornworts, and mosses.)

Kimmerer’s book combines not only fascinating explanations of the ecology and lifecycles of various moss species, but weaves in her take on motherhood, the environment and Native American traditions (Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation), as well.  She expertly takes what, on the surface seems minute and mundane, and infuses it with universal meaning.
By the way, Gilbert’s book is a winner, too. It’s her first novel in 13 years and from the first page, I was hooked. It’s the story of Alma Whittaker, a fictional 19th century botanist and explorer who becomes an expert in moss taxonomy and biology.  (Another disclosure – while I’m not a big fan of Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert’s earlier work of nonfiction, The Last American Man about Eustace Conway, a self-proclaimed survival expert, is a personal favorite.  The book was a National Book Award finalist in 2002.)
While we’re on the subject of women in science, I must share a recent online discovery. Emily Graslie is the Chief Curiosity Correspondent for the Field Museum in Chicago and as such, hosts an absolutely delightful digital blog called The Brain Scoop. She was recently featured on NPR responding to the sexist comments she’s been receiving on her blog -- more specifically the comments posted by viewers who, shall we say, pay more attention to the messenger than the message.  (Honestly though, Emily is smart, perky and cute as a bug, and if I were a guy, I’d want to date her, too!)   For a good introduction to Emily and The Brain Scoop check out the video about her favorite science books.
And if you just can’t get enough science news and views, check out the Real Clear Science website and their list of the Top Ten Science Bloggers.  You’ll find more time-sucking blogs and websites than mosses have spores. 

Chris, Standley Lake

If you’ll indulge me—and let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you’re already indulging me—I’d like to start with an imaginative exercise. This shouldn’t scare you, because you read books, and what is reading if not an imaginative exercise? The act of reading releases a book’s creative energy, like reciting an incantation or spell whose power lies dormant until its words are spoken aloud. Reading allows us to become the co-authors of a book, because everything the story contains is imagined differently by each reader. So in this sense, the little exercise we’re about to undertake is not so different than reading a book.

Imagine a city as a book that is read differently by each of its ten million inhabitants. Now imagine a particular street in that city as a character in the book, and suppose that this street, as much as any other, represents the joys, perils and problems of the city at large.  

OK, got it? Well, so has John Lanchester, whose newest book, Capital, advances the same premise: the city is London, and the street is Pepys Road. It’s a typical London street, whose houses (like many in London) were built in the aftermath of the Second World War, when much of the city’s housing stock had been reduced to rubble by German bombs. In response, the postwar government set about building thousands of new homes, most of them in the neo-Victorian style that typifies much London architecture today.  

The area of Pepys Road was traditionally working class, but as the city expanded, the middle class, in search of affordable housing, arrived and poshed up the place a bit. They eventually paved the way for the appearance of the well-heeled, who completed the process that most of us call gentrification. If you’ve ever lived in a city yourself, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  

But the idyllic calm of Pepys Road is disturbed when its residents begin receiving a series of strange postcards in their letterboxes. In fact, each postcard is not a postcard at all, but a photograph of the person’s front door. On the reverse is written the following message: we want what you have. The residents eventually complain to police and an investigation is opened, but there are no leads, little evidence, no apparent motive, and beyond the vaguely menacing tone of the postcards themselves, no real commission of a crime.

Set against the background of this persistent tension is the fact that it’s the summer of 2008, and the house of cards that is the derivatives market is beginning to tremble. The very wealth that turned Pepys Road from a working class East End neighborhood to an unaffordable playground of the rich is evaporating with astonishing speed. In this way, Capital is a bit like Anton Chekhov’s famous play The Cherry Orchard, in which an over-leveraged patrician family carries on as if nothing is different, taking afternoon tea and engaging in inconsequential small talk, even as their beloved estate is foreclosed upon by its creditors.

But as a book, two things make Capital more than a simple tale of upper-class hubris. First, there are no main characters: Capital is populated by a fantastic ensemble cast, with no character more central than any other. And in a rare display of literary virtuosity, Lanchester assembles an array of fascinating characters, with no obvious weak links. Each character’s story, if expanded, could serve as the basis of its own novel.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Capital is how Lanchester writes those characters who are not residents of Pepys Road--those who come to service the needs of the rich. There is the Polish builder who renovates the houses of Pepys Road, hoping to save enough to fund the retirement of his elderly father in Warsaw; the Hungarian nanny who relieves her employers of the burden of raising their own children; the Zimbabwean asylum-seeker who finds illegal work as a meter maid, doing the ironic job of ticketing luxury cars whose sticker prices are greater than ten years of her wages. The fact that much of the servicing of the rich falls to recent immigrants and refugees, many from countries that were formerly part of the British Empire, allows the reader to realize that colonialism is not dead – it’s simply assumed a different form. And you can see this not just in the London of John Lanchester’s novel, but in the London that, at this very moment, lies just on the other side of the Atlantic.

Capital by John Lanchester.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.


Emily, Columbine Library

I still remember reading The Thirteenth Tale when it debuted in 2006.  Diane Setterfield’s atmospheric, gothic tale was a page turner, perfect for chilly weather reading, preferably in a cozy spot with something warm to sip on.   I’ve been periodically checking the author’s name on Amazon and in the library’s catalog ever since, hoping to find that she had published another book.  All those years of keeping her name filed in the back of my brain have paid off with the discovery that Diane Setterfield’s second novel, Bellman and Black, is finally out.  This new book promises another ghostly tale as we head into the dark and cold months of the year.

Here are other gothic tales that will keep you satisfied until you have a Diane Setterfield novel in your hands.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton begins with Edie’s quest to solve the long buried secrets surrounding her mother’s time spent at Milderhurst Castle during the Blitz.  What she finds are the Blythe sisters, the last in the family line living at the estate in Kent, whose numerous tragedies and long dead romances are tangled up with her own mother’s story.

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff tells a modern, gothic story with plenty of family secrets and delicious scandal.   Prepare to be entertained and intrigued when you sit down with this one.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is an atmospheric, suspenseful, and dark tale with memorable characters set on an eery Cornish estate overlooking the sea.  Get lost in the world of Manderley with the new Mrs. de Winter as she deals with the haunted memory of her predecessor, Rebecca.

Chris, Standley Lake

Love, ugh.  If there’s a more overused theme in fiction than love, then I haven’t discovered it.  Most novels focus on new love, that all-consuming stage at the beginning of a relationship when colors seem brighter, food more flavorful and the world full of boundless possibility.  The main characters get together, lose each other, find each other, and then decamp to live in an idyllic state called happily-ever-after, which is always located just beyond the book’s final page.
Hanif Kureishi writes about love, too, only his novels pick up where others leave off.  He waits until after the fireworks are over, and writes about what comes next.  His work grapples with the real stuff of commitment: compromise, tolerance, effort, and dissatisfaction—all qualities of a real-world relationship, but nothing that you’ll ever hear mentioned in ads for Valentine’s Day.

Intimacy, one of Kureishi’s early works, is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of book, gone almost as soon as it begins. Weighing in at just over 100 pages, it tells of a middle-aged man’s evening at home with his wife and two young sons.  Everything proceeds normally, domestic rituals are dutifully followed, and from appearances, there would seem to be nothing to distinguish this evening from any other. But this night is different, because in the morning, when the sun is just warming the earth, this man will rise from bed, take his suitcase and leave his family forever.

Intimacy is written as an internal monologue that the man is having with himself as he lives his last day at home.  Although his plan is premeditated, his personal history intrudes, and through a series of flashbacks, the reader is given access to many past scenes from the man’s life.  We also watch how he struggles to maintain his resolve, as he struggles with his doubts and very nearly decides to scrap the whole plan.

Kureishi’s main character offers us no catharsis, no epiphanies: everything he is (and everything he’ll become) depends upon a single choice that he will make in the morning.  Nothing happens in Intimacy, but something will happen.  And the weight of that anticipation, that all-important manner in which Kureishi holds that crucial moment suspended, make Intimacy a short but important read.

Chris, Standley Lake Library

When Spencer Dew writes a novel set in the Midwest, he does not depict the exceedingly earnest, impossibly polite Midwest of a Garrison Keillor radio show.  Instead, he relates a more plausible tale of Midwestern tragedy as told by a group of turpentine-huffing students at a small Ohio college.
Here is How it Happens begins with the promise implied in the title.  Rather than constructing a narrative where everything is hidden until the author is ready to reveal it, Dew prefers a more forthright approach, one that suggests the book’s ending from the very first page.  We know things will not end well, that the relationships of the characters will not reach fruition, that every desire will be named and promptly frustrated.  Dew possesses the artistry and confidence to tell the reader upfront: you know how this will end, but here is how it happens.
Our protagonist, Martin Wheeler, spends much of his time ignoring phone messages from his Cleveland-based girlfriend and passing the hours with his pal Courtney, whose love life revolves around her oft-absent partner Sloan.  Both of their romantic relationships have calcified into habit: neither loves their partner, but neither seems capable of separating.

As the narrative proceeds, it’s clear that Martin and Courtney are drawn to one another, but we know, almost from the moment they are introduced, that they will never end up together.  Mismatched love is as old as literature itself, and in an American context, it takes on an added degree of poignancy, because America—the home of free will, individualism and seemingly infinite choices—allows Dew’s characters to make every choice but the right one.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Here is How it Happens is Dew’s treatment of nostalgia, a quality we often associate with those whose best years are behind them.  In Here is How it Happens, Dew suggests that nostalgia infects the young as well.  Whether it’s Martin’s friend Eddie, who spends his time building a precise and detailed diorama of the Kent State shootings, or Courtney’s friend Bear, who buys a seal tranquilizer gun just so he can shoot himself with it, the characters are obsessed with experience and the processing of memories.  However, the reader gets the sense that each new experience is the basis of a future nostalgia, that today’s mundanity is tomorrow’s longing, and that for Martin and his friends, the future exists only as a series of returns, so that what lies ahead simply loops back to an idyllic and reimagined past that never actually existed.

The characters of Here is How it Happens desire experience, but are instantly bored by what they create.  They do not live in the present: their happiness is dependent on making memories that can then be idealized – memories that are, by definition, unattainable.  This brings to mind what the poet William Blake called "gratified desire,” and the frustration of that desire serves as the very life that Martin and his friends build for themselves – in other words, something attained is no longer an object of desire.  And nostalgia, at once sweet and bitter, cannot exist if the world it imagines is ever realized.
As an Ohio boy myself, I deliberately choose to call this novel a work of tragedy, because ungratified desire is part of the quiet desperation that pervades small towns throughout the Midwest.  Works of tragedy are also rich in humor and Dew’s book is no exception.  With a keen ear for dialogue, yet with all the grit and unflinching clarity of a documentary, Dew’s novel is that rarest of things: fiction that so closely resembles its subject that it actually warrants the disclaimer printed on the flyleaves of so many lesser books: This is a work of fiction.  All resemblances to any person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.  Dew demonstrates that you cannot know the Midwest without knowing its nostalgia, which is, in a curious sense, its idea of heaven.

Joanna, Lakewood Library

On Friday, September 20th from 6 to 8:30 PM, the Arvada Library will host Books and Bites, a casual opportunity to meet more than thirty Colorado writers, many of them award winners. With authors for children, teens, and adults, Books and Bites promises to be a fun and relaxed literary event for everyone.

For the next few weeks, we’ll be spotlighting some of the fascinating authors you can expect to meet at Books and Bites. This week we want to introduce you to Lois Lindstrom Kennedy and Carol Turner, two authors with unique insights into Colorado history.

A former schoolteacher, Lois Lindstrom Kennedy specializes in non-fiction of the local history variety, and has published several books and monographs about Arvada since dedicating herself to the subject in 1971. In books like Ralston’s Gold, Lois has written in detail about Lewis Ralston, the prospector from Georgia who made the Rocky Mountain region’s first documented gold discovery in 1850.

You may know Carol Turner from the history column she writes in the Broomfield Enterprise. Carol’s most recent book, Notorious Jefferson County, describes the dark and seamy side of Jeffco’s frontier days, amazing readers with a wild cast of rogues, frauds and murderers. Take a shot of bourbon while you peruse this book and you’ll feel like you’re in a saloon!

You can check out their books from the library or purchase them at the event. Until then, be on the lookout for more Books and Bites author spotlights in the days ahead!

Christina, Lakewood Library

Dearie: the Remarkable Life of Julia Child begins with a hilarious description of the first show of the French Chef series on WGBH-TV when Julia Child prepared an omelet using her favorite pan and a hot plate. These were the days on cooking shows when ingredients were not prepared beforehand. What you saw was what was happening right at that moment. And Julia was a character with a big personality and presence. In this lengthy (Mastering the Art of French Cooking had to be separated into two volumes) and thoroughly engaging biography of the queen of the cooking show, Bob Spitz portrays Julia Child with warmth and humor and tells of her cooking in peoples' living rooms at a time when most American housewives were besotted with Cheez Whiz, Hamburger Helper and TV Dinners. With that unmistakable warble in her voice she became an iconic cult figure and joyous rule breaker who began a revolution in America's kitchens.

Veronica, Columbine Library

In Proof of Heaven, a neurosurgeon has a near death experience which contradicts his lifetime of studying science and medicine. In dealing with his patients, Dr. Alexander has always gently explained away afterlife events as hallucinations, or any number of injured brain illusions. But then it happened to him. Now he is in the unique position of being a scientist/neurosurgeon and having an unbelievable experience in the great beyond to report, explain and understand. This fascinating book takes us on that afterlife journey with Dr. Alexander.

Veronica, Columbine Library

It’s 1905 in a small village in the Lake District of England, and author and illustrator Beatrix Potter has just purchased Hill Top Farm. But when she visits and begins making the farm her home, there is a mysterious death in the village. Can sensible Beatrix unravel the clues and get to the bottom of the matter? Albert has fictionalized the life of the famous author and given us a delightful series of cozy mysteries for adults. Animals talk (of course!) although not to humans, just to each other, and village mysteries are solved with everyone’s help. Jump in and enjoy yourself with The Tale of Hill Top Farm!

Ros, Evergreen Library

George Glenn, a shepherd in rural Ireland, has been murdered. His flock is determined to find out who did this evil deed, and bring the person to Justice. The sheep are hampered in this task by a limited knowledge of human behavior but have listened to George read romance novels to them over the years. This makes Othello, Melmoth, Miss Maple, Mopple the Whale and their flock-mates worldlier than the average sheep, but still quite puzzled by human ways. The spirited discussion on whether or not people have souls is by itself worth the read. One part mystery, one part philosophy, and certainly threaded with humor, this quirky first novel by German author Leonie Swann follows the clues to a satisfying end.


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