Books I Like

What do ennui in suburban Connecticut, a murder in the Basque country of Spain and a colony based on sun worship and coconuts in the South Seas have in common? Not much really, except the fact they feature prominently in three novels I recently read and enjoyed. I can usually find some kind of link between the books I like but I’m at a loss on these three, alas. So I will resort to expressing myself like the grammatically challenged Frankenstein’s monster (the one played by Boris Karloff not the Mary Shelley version): Three books. Me like.

The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

wondergardenThe characters in this series of interlocking short stories, set in the fictional Connecticut town of Old Cranbury, may seem very familiar at first. Much like the characters that inhabit the stories of John Cheever and Richard Yates, they tend to suffer from the classic east coast suburban turmoil of suddenly questioning their roles at work and at home. But in many of the stories, Acampora adds a touch of the odd that makes this collection stand out. There is the wealthy business man who bribes his wife’s surgeon to get closer to her than ever before in the operating room, the aging art professor who risks life and limb to decorate his neighbor’s house with large synthetic insects, and the colonial history reenactors who resort to breaking and entering to preserve the neighborhood’s architectural integrity.  While these tales can be strange and at times disturbing they are also funny and entertaining in a ‘misery loves company’ sort of way.

All That Followed: A Novel by Gabriel Urza

Tallthatfollowedhe murder of a Spanish politician in the small village of Muriga by a group of Basque separatists serves as the central event in this debut novel. The book isn’t a ‘who done it’, however, but rather a ‘why did they do it.’ In getting to the why, it becomes clear that politics is of minimal importance. Instead the reader gets a multilayered view of the village and its inhabitants with the story jumping in time and place to better get at the complexity of the situation. There are three narrators, each offering a unique perspective: Joni, an English teacher from the U.S. who has been living in Muriga for half a century, Mariana, the widow of the slain politician and Iker, a former student of Joni’s and a participant in the murder. The multiple perspectives, combined with the author’s excellent use of language and tone, help to peel back the layers of meaning. A truth, of sorts, is revealed that feels authentic but gives no easy answers.

Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas by Christian Kracht

imperiumBased on an amazing but true story, this novel tells the tale of August Engelhardt who in 1902 set sail for German New Guinea in the south seas to found a colony based on the worship of the sun, an exclusive diet of coconuts, and nudity. As you might guess, things didn’t turn out so well for Mr. Engelhardt and the author uses his plight to create a satiric fable skewering the allure of extremism and its inherent danger. The absurdist tone of the book is enhanced by the author’s writing style which often uses the language of classic adventure tales and at its best, a bit of Joseph Conrad. The story is mainly set on Engelhardt’s coconut plantation as things begin to fall apart but it bounces around in place and time to include cameos by odd figures such as the inventor of Vegemite spread and a fraudulent guru who believes he can live on sunshine exclusively. While difficult to categorizes, it is safe to say that Imperium is a playful and biting satire about an ultimately serious subject.

While the connections between these three books elude me, I do know one thing: They are well worth your limited reading time.

Fictional Non-Fiction

One of the more frequent questions we get here at the library is: What is the difference between fiction and non-fiction? The question is usually grounded in the very real need to know where a book is located in the stacks. The practical answer is that both are shelved in separate sections: fiction by the author’s last name and non-fiction by the Dewey number. If you are of a philosophical bent and want to know why something is considered fiction or non-fiction, well that is where it gets complicated. It seems obvious that non-fiction is ‘real’ and fiction is ‘made up,’ but in fact there is more crossover than you might think.

Case in point is the weird and entertaining world of fictional non-fiction. These books have avoided the fiction label and are housed in the usually serious and reality based non-fiction stacks. They are unexpected gems of fancy, shelved alongside their more serious brethren. Listed below are a few topics that house a lot of this fictional nonfiction.

User manuals for technically non-existent, but really, really cool vehicles:

deathstarThere are a surprising number of workshop manuals, many put out by Haynes no less, for fantastic vehicles in the Star Wars and Star Trek universes. Whether you want to figure out how to kick start the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive, fix the cloaking device on a Klingon Bird of Prey, or find out where the holodeck is located on a Galaxy-class starship, we have got you covered. Whatever you do, don’t pass up the Imperial Death Star: DS-1 Orbital Battle Station manual. Sure death is in the title, but you have to admit that the Death Star was a marvel of engineering. If nothing else, this book will give you an appreciation for all the hardworking men and women, most of them just trying to collect a paycheck, whom the Rebel Alliance thoughtlessly murdered. Twice no less. Just saying.

Not self-help:

zonetheoryWhile it is true that actual self-help books can seem a bit odd, there is a small subset that are clearly not intended to be helpful, one hopes, and are played for laughs. One example is Tim & Eric’s Zone Theory: 7 Steps to Achieve a Perfect Life. From the creepy images throughout the book and advice such as ‘friends are replaceable, money is not,’ this book is funny and disturbing which is to be expected from the creators of several Adult Swim TV shows.

7secretsIf you’ve ever seen the show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, you know that none of the characters should be giving out life advice. But that is exactly what has happened in the book 7 Secrets of Awakening the Highly Effective Four-Hour Giant, Today. If you are still tempted to apply their maxims, take heed of the warning on the back cover: ‘Following the advice contained herein could get you arrested, maimed or killed.’

Alternative histories taken seriously:

federationSadly we don’t even have a moon base yet, let alone the wherewithal to set aside our differences and unify the people of earth, but if you want to read a future history where there is an actual Federation of Planets, definitely check out Federation: The First 150 Years. You also might want to brush up on The Klingon Art of War and read The Autobiography of James T. Kirk to prepare yourself for the brave new world to come.

timelordlettersWhile the library has lots of great books about Doctor Who, they tend to treat it as a television show that continues to be produced. True believers know that the Doctor must surely exist on some plane of Space/Time. For this select group we have The Time Lord Letters, a detailed collection of the Doctor’s correspondence including his application for the post of Caretaker at Coal Hill School to his telepathic messages to the High Council of Gallifrey.

Practical guides to fictional places:

portlandiaWhile Portland is an actual place, Portlandia is, well, a place unto itself. But don’t take my word for it. Instead check out Portlandia: A Guide for Visitors and learn about a city where Kyle MacLachlan is mayor, knots have their own store, and cars are not allowed. If you are feeling more hands on, definitely take a look at the Portlandia Activity Book to learn how to ‘Build Your Own Chore Wheel’ and ‘How to Crowdfund Your Baby.’

zombiesurvivalZombies may not actually exist at this point, but bad things have been known to happen. If you want to be safe rather than sorry and prepare for the coming undead hordes, the now classic Zombie Survival Guide is the book for you. Chock full of useful information (including ideal weapon selection, home preparation, and useful zombie weaknesses) this book will guide you safely, for the most part, through a fictional disaster. The one gap in this very thorough tome is nutrition. Luckily we also have The Art of Eating Through the Zombie Apocalypse which contains recipes as well as advice on how to get the calories you need to fend off the living dead.

I Used to Be Cool


It’s official. I’m no longer cool. Admittedly, my coolness peaked a long time ago (we are talking the late 80s to early 90s) and it is true that my coolness may have been just in my head. That hasn’t kept me from clinging to the illusion of coolness for decades, however. The latest example of my extreme distance for all that is hip and happening (see I don’t even know what term to use) recently came in an unexpected area. The Dewey 780s range to be exact.

This year I’ve been ordering the musician and band biographies. As the year has progressed, I’ve been excited to be able to order books about bands, artists, and musical movements that I’ve always thought of as cool. Sadly as these books have come in, I’ve begun to realize that many are retrospectives with an emphasis on how great the band/artist/movement used to be and their importance to music history. Clearly I can no longer think I’m hip because I like New Order.

Even so, all of these books are a lot of fun and well worth your reading time, no matter what your position on the coolness spectrum.


Mellencamp: American Troubadour by David Masciotra
Even if you aren’t from the Midwest and grew up in a big town, John Mellencamp’s music and career is worth looking into. Sure he had that whole weird name change thing as he was starting out, but that was the music company’s fault, man. This biography sets out to reassess and appreciate a musical talent that is often overlooked.

New Order by Kevin Cummins
This collection of over a hundred photographs of the band, from their formation in 1980 to their initial breakup in 1993, is a fun and admittedly nostalgic trip. Come for the cool haircuts and skinny ties, stay for the really great music.

The History of Canadian Rock ‘n’ Roll by Bob Mersereau
I know Canada doesn’t scream cool for many, but when I was growing up in Northern Wisconsin their music was definitely an influence. This book will give you all the details on the rock history of our brothers to the north. Not to make you jealous, but back in the day I saw Corey Hart live in Kaukauna. Wait, that doesn’t sound impressive…


Let’s go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain by Alan Light
A film, an album, and a cultural phenomenon, Purple Rain continues to cast a long shadow on the cultural landscape. This book will tell you how the diminutive legend from Minneapolis got his unique sound and vision to the masses.

Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists by Lori Majewski
A collection of recent interviews with member of the more influential New Wave bands including The Smiths, Tears for Fears, Adam Ant, Echo and the Bunnymen, Devo, New Order, The Thompson Twins, INXS and many more. Sounds like a great retro MTV music video mix list as well.

The Big Book of Hair Metal by Martin Popoff
I’ll admit I tended to look down at ‘hair bands’ back in the day. But does that mean I can’t hum along with several Motley Crue, Ratt, Bon Jovi and even Poison songs? Absolutely not. This well researched and entertaining look at a colorful and well moussed musical phenomenon just might increase my appreciation.


Dancing with Myself by Billy Idol
I lot of factors make Billy Idol who he is: The snarl, the fist pump, the spiky blond hair, the amazing fact that he is still alive. This autobiography tells of his life’s highs and lows with a characteristically unapologetic and in your face attitude. Would you expect anything else? Would you?!

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
This memoir from Kim Gordon, a founding member of Sonic Youth, is more than a simple history of the band she was a part of for so many years. Instead it is a memoir of her upbringing in Southern California, the gritty 1980s New York music scene, her marriage, motherhood and everything in between. A good read even if you aren’t into their music. Though, why wouldn’t you be?

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello
You will have to wait until the fall to get your hands on this memoir from Mr. Costello but it is sure to be worth the wait. Always unconventional and ever-changing, it should be a kick to get his thoughts on all the great music he has created over the years. To prepare for the book’s release and to better appreciate the man and his music, check out fellow blogger Ron’s appropriately titled post The One and Only Elvis.

While my musical tastes are clearly no longer cool, there is one silver lining. As all these great books point out, the music created in my heyday has clearly influenced the new music coming out today. Luckily I can follow Lisa’s excellent new music blog posts to find out which new bands might appeal to me. Viet Cong, the band not the political movement, rocks! Now if they would only put on some skinny ties and a little eyeliner.

Pluto and Beyond!


Do you remember where you were on January 19th, 2006 at 14:00 EST? Unless you have an extremely detailed journaling addiction, I’m guessing you don’t. If you have a fondness for a certain celestial object, however, you just might. You see, on that fateful day the New Horizons probe launched on a journey to Pluto and the mysterious Kuiper Belt. If you have been following New Horizon’s progress through the solar system, complete with a gravity assist from Jupiter, you are in for a treat. In an epic case of delayed gratification, New Horizons is finally going to make its close encounter with Pluto, plus its five moons, in just a few days on July 14th.

plutofocusWhy is this exciting you ask? Well beyond satisfying the innate human desire to explore strange new worlds, the encounter with Pluto is epic because we know so little about it. Discovered in 1930 and billions of miles from Earth, Pluto is essentially a blank spot in our knowledge. As Pluto comes into focus, everything we learn is brand new. Even better, once New Horizons passes Pluto, it will go on to other objects in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud while exploring the icy ‘third zone’ of our solar system. To be honest, I’m not totally sure what many of those terms mean, but I love it when actual science starts sounding like an episode of Star Trek. Fingers crossed that we can start talking about the Delta Quadrant and the Delphic Expanse soon.

The one disadvantage to all this newness is trying to find current information on Pluto in book form. The library does have some great books on Pluto, but they are a little dated. This isn’t because we aren’t buying new books on the topic; it’s just that they haven’t been written yet. Once New Horizons sends back its data, new books are sure to appear on our shelves. Until then, you will have better luck using our magazine resources to find the latest articles about Pluto and New Horizons.  Our two major magazine databases are EBSCO and Proquest which are easy to search and include many science-related journals. You will also want to check out our new digital magazine services, Flipster and Zino, which have full issues of several science and technology magazines.

plutoOf course, for immediacy it is hard to beat the Internet. Luckily, there are plenty of great sites to keep you up to date on New Horizons and its discoveries. There are two major websites for the New Horizons Mission. One is based at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the other is based at NASA.  Both are chock full of current information, including the latest data, photos and timeline for the mission as well as a spiffy countdown clock to the closest approach.  If you feel like getting social there are Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts and even a Pluto Time feature where you can share photos of the exact brief time on earth when the sunlight matches that on Pluto at high noon. Also, be sure to hang on to all those web and social media links beyond the July 14th fly by. New Horizons is way out there, with data taking a long time to get back to Earth, so new information should be coming in months after the initial encounter.

So take a little time this July 14th to think of distant Pluto and all of the brand spanking new information we will finally be getting about the formerly mysterious Planet X. Go, New Horizons, Go!

Selfish, Shallow and Short

Much like Carol, I’ve got a fondness for brevity when it comes to reading. I could blame this tendency on the evil information age shortening my attention span. Really though I’ve liked short reads long before the interweb came on the scene. I’m told that The Snowy Day and The Story of Ferdinand were two of my childhood favorites. Moby Dick they are not. When it comes to brief adult books, short stories are a perennial favorite but I’m also very fond of their non-fiction relative: the essay.

Essays are great for many reasons, but one of my favorites is the way an author can focus in on a specific topic and essentially riff on it. A good essay is often like a good stand-up comedy set, just not necessarily funny. The author can make you think about a familiar topic in a totally different way and challenge your assumptions. There is also the pleasure of cheering them on if you agree with their point of view. Best of all, there is no two drink minimum to start reading.

Here are three newish essay collections to wet your whistle.

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum

selfishshallowWhile the confrontational, yet entertaining, title of this collection might make you think this book is simply a screed promoting the ‘child free by choice’ concept at all costs, the essays are actually quite thoughtful. To be sure there is plenty of material to offend, but unless you take the extreme position that every person must breed, you should find yourself chuckling, cheering, or shaking your head at many of the writers’ positions. All the big questions are addressed (What is natural? Is a child required for a fulfilling life? What is the point of it all?) with wit, style, and humor.

Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett

Iunrulyplacesn this collection, the author sets out to explore many of the odd, quirky and downright weird places that dot the globe. Each short essay examines places that are hard to define. There is the Principality of Sealand, an old World War II gun platform off the coast of England that has been declared a sovereign nation. And don’t forget Sandy Island which was placed on maps, even Google maps, for years despite never having existed. The author also explores odd communities, the RV Camp next to the runway at LAX, and strange unclaimed environments, the meridians between major highways, to get you thinking about what a place actually is.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

badfeministThe far ranging topics of these essays, from Sweet Valley High to Django, are served up by cultural critic and novelist Roxane Gay with humor and personal insight. She is a bona fide consumer of popular culture, who lists the Hunger Games and Scrabble as obsessions, but is not shy about pointing out the misogyny and racism that can be lurking in the many books, films, TV shows and albums that we choose to consume. Gay understands the oddly conflicted nature of enjoying and abhorring many aspects of popular culture simultaneously. It is this understanding that makes these essays humorous, confrontational and insightful but never boring.

Game Over, Man

I’ve always been a bit of a history geek. Well, okay, pretty much a full-blown history geek. My second major in college was history, not because I planned it that way, but because almost all the elective courses I took for fun were in the History department. Come my senior year, I found that all those credits actually added up to a second degree. Lest you think I was a practical youth, my ‘major’ major netted me an equally bankable English degree. Hey, at least it wasn’t in philosophy or basket weaving…

While I will give almost any history book a try, one of my favorite types features the ‘they’re all doomed’ scenario. These are the stories of expeditions, explorers, military campaigners, or just ordinary citizens who come face to face with imminent destruction. The historical reason for their demise varies, but there are often few, or no, survivors. While gruesome, this sense of doom adds a layer of mystery to the historical tale. The fewer witnesses, the harder it is to piece together just what happened and historians are forced to speculate. Listed below are a few historical events worth revisiting to find historians’ new takes on ill-fated individuals.

Trouble on the Bay of Naples

frompompeiiMy interest in the fate of the ancient city of Pompeii was recently reignited (ha-ha!) by an exhibit at the Pacific Science Center titled Pompeii: The Exhibition. What actually destroyed Pompeii is hardly a mystery; the smoldering nearby Mt. Vesuvius and lots and lots of ash provide the obvious answer. What is intriguing is trying to piece together how the people of Pompeii lived and died by sifting through the ample evidence. There are many great books that try to do just that and the library has a great collection of them. Recently, though, I came across a title that has jumped to the top of my ‘must read’ list: From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town.  This book is a history of the archeological site after its discovery and the way it has influenced visitors for centuries. A varied number of interesting people were influenced by the site including Mozart, Dickens, Twain, Renoir, Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan, Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.

A Bad, or Good Depending on Your Perspective, Day at the Little Bighorn

laststandAs with Pompeii, the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry by a combined force of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho nations in June of 1876 has a long paper trail with many books written about the event.  What exactly happened to Custer and the troops he personally lead on that day (other than the obvious: they died) is a source of endless speculation. Having been influenced early on by Evan Connell’s book Son of the Morning Star and the film Little Big Man I must admit that I have a rather dim view of Custer, but that doesn’t stop my curiosity for trying to find out the particulars of his fate. While not the newest, the last book I read on the topic was The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick. The work does cover the final battle in gripping detail, but it is far from a simple military history. Instead, Philbrick, fleshes out the characters and careers of all the participants. This gives the events much more significance and breathes new life into a tale that has been told many times.

The Frozen North (or South)

inthekingdomoficeWhile being a fan of all doomed exploratory expeditions (yeah I’m weird) I’ve always been particularly fond of attempts made in frozen conditions. In addition to the bleak landscape and the incredible endurance of the explorers to admire, there is an absurdity to these expeditions that I find irresistible. Risking your life to find an arbitrary concept like a pole or the Northwest Passage is pretty amazing/borderline insane when you think about it. Whether you go north or south there are plenty of books about these ice encrusted missions here at the library. A recent standout for me was In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette by Hampton Sides. This book is the story of an 1879 expedition to reach the North Pole led by U.S. naval officer George DeLong. Based on a faulty assumption, the odd notion that there was an open ocean surrounding the North Pole, the expedition quickly got locked into the pack ice. As you can imagine, things didn’t go well from there. The author creates a gripping narrative full of struggle and sacrifice with a predictably dire outcome for many of the participants.

So, if there is a little history geek in you as well, check out a few of these historical stories of the doomed. Now all I need to make my life complete is a film version of The Last Stand staring Bill Paxton.

A Serious Vocational Error

One of the great things about reading fiction is the way you can visit a person’s, admittedly fictional, life and experience the world from a different angle. I’ve always found stories to be much more helpful in dealing with the trials and tribulations of everyday existence than the numerous self-help and motivation works out there. Perhaps this is delusional and a tad unhealthy (you don’t want to pattern your life too closely on Mr. Kurtz after all ) but hey, it is the way I roll. I recently read three novels that let me examine different career paths and made me feel good about my own career choice. Ah the power of negative reinforcement.

The job: Middle school teacher
The book: Confessions by Kanae Minato

confessionsThis novel opens with Yuko Moriguchi’s farewell address to her middle school science class upon her early retirement. The reason she is leaving is the recent accidental death of her 4-year-old daughter on school grounds. As the address continues, however, it becomes clear that Yuko believes some of her students are responsible.  She also doesn’t believe the criminal justice system is up to the job of punishing them due to their young age. This is no simple tale of revenge, however.  The narrative shifts, with each chapter being from a different character’s point of view. This keeps you guessing as to what actually happened and who is really to blame until the very end. Even then, what is right and what is wrong isn’t entirely clear. A good book for testing your moral compass. It will also make you happy not to have chosen a career in secondary education.

The job: Office drone
The book: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

theroomBjorn, yes this book is a Swedish translation, shares a desk in an open office plan in a government ministry simply titled ‘the Authority.’ One day, while looking for the bathroom, he stumbles upon a room which is spacious and well appointed. To get away from the office hubbub and concentrate on his work, he frequently visits this room. The problem? No one else can see it. Even worse, when he enters the room, all that his fellow officer workers see is Bjorn staring at the wall and mumbling. It doesn’t take very long for objections to be raised, meetings to be held, and threats of termination to be bandied about. The entire novel is from Bjorn’s perspective, so there are definitely surreal elements that will have you questioning what exactly is going on. Primarily though, it is a funny and biting office satire that will leave you chuckling as well as scratching your head.

The job: Estate agent
The book: A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

apleasureandacallingWilliam Hemming does not suffer from job dissatisfaction. He loves showing people new homes to buy or rent in the small English town where he owns an estate agency. His job allows him to indulge in a rather odd hobby. Mr. Hemming keeps a key from every property he sells and likes to make return visits, unbeknownst to the owners. He is obsessed with viewing the minutiae of his clients’ everyday activities (making breakfast, doing laundry) but as a detached observer who never gets involved in their lives. The novel is entirely from Mr. Hemming’s point of view and you find yourself chuckling at his observations of small town life. When his darker side is slowly revealed, and his detachment turns into involvement with deadly consequences, you may feel guilty for laughing along. At the very least, it will make you consider having your locks changed at home.

So is using fiction to choose a career a sound policy? Perhaps not, but it sure beats going to a guidance counselor.