Lights, Camera, Read

You see them everywhere: smiling for the camera, promoting their latest film, putting their hands in cement. Yes, I’m talking about the famous (and infamous) stars of stage, screen and television. You can stoically resist their charms, but even the most cynical of us have a tendency to succumb to their gravitational pull eventually.

I was surprised to find that, for me, this even holds true when I’m selecting an audiobook. I’ve found that, if the narrator of an audiobook has a famous name, I will sometimes give it a try no matter what the book itself is. Call me shallow, but this has actually led me to listen to some interesting audiobooks that you might enjoy as well. Here are two examples:

world war zWorld War Z (Movie Tie-In Edition) by Max Brooks
I know, I know. More zombies. But there are two good reasons to give this audiobook a try. First there are more stars than you can shake a stick at narrating this edition. Clearly the author, with the help of the studio promoting the upcoming film I would wager, pulled some strings to get the likes of Mark Hamill, John Turturro, Nathan Fillion, Simon Pegg, Henry Rollins, Martin Scorsese and many, many, others to narrate. Secondly, this book is actually more of a social history of a zombie apocalypse than a survivalist do or die zombie apocalypse. I know it sounds odd. Lisa captured the feel perfectly in her post from last summer. Once you get into it, it truly does feel like an oral history, albeit of a fictional future event.

I, ClaudiusI Claudius: A BBC Radio-4 Full Cast Dramatization by Robert Graves
There is no need for an ancient history degree to appreciate this fun visit to a very, very dysfunctional family who just happens to rule the Roman Empire. While definitely based on the Robert Graves novel, this recording is a fresh take on the material and is more akin to a recorded play than a reading of the book. There is little gravitas which lets the dark humor of the Machiavellian scheming come through. Best of all, the cast is chock full of British stage, film and television actors that are top-notch. Standouts include Tim McInnerny, Harriet Walter, Jessica Raine, Tom Goodman-Hill and, of course, Derek Jacobi playing Augustus this time around.

Sadly my listening time is even more limited than my reading time. There are only so many listening hours (primarily when I’m driving, exercising or weeding) that I can squeeze out of the week. But if my formula of star power leading to intriguing listening experiences holds true, these new titles might also be worth considering.

gatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Timed to coincide with the theatrical summer release, this version is narrated by the actor Jake Gyllenhaal. To my shame, I’ll admit that Gatsby has never been one of my favorite novels. On the other hand I really did like Donnie Darko. Perhaps the two might negate each other and lead to a pleasurable listening experience. Stranger things have happened.

88 by Dustin Black
This is a recording of Black’s play about the legal attempt to repeal proposition 8, a constitutional amendment that repealed the right of same-sex couples to marry in California. While an important topic, politics and the legal system can be a bit dull. The all-star cast (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon, John C. Riley, Jamie Lee Curtis and many more) might just bring it to life, however.

During my search, I was surprised to find that actors and actresses narrating audiobooks is not a new phenomenon. There are many who regularly narrate and are well represented in our collection. A few names that you might recognize are: Joe Mantegna, Campbell Scott, Elizabeth McGovern, Gary Sinise, Bronson Pinchot, Wil Wheaton and Dan Stevens.

So there you have it. A new method of selecting audiobooks based on star power. Don’t be embarrassed. Resistance is futile.

Richard

Questionable Things

Due to my exposure to the Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius at a formative age, I’ve always had a weakness for biographies of historical figures with a healthy amount of scandal. There is an admittedly voyeuristic pleasure at poking around the lives of others. Along with that goes a rather questionable, though undeniable, desire to judge the historical figure by your own standards: Are they guilty or innocent? Good or bad? Sympathetic or villainous?

Two biographies I recently read are great at taking this desire on the part of the reader and turning it on its head. Both introduce you to individuals who may have done “questionable things”. Instead of becoming an indictment or whitewash of their character, however, each author sketches a figure that is complex and hard to define. This ultimately frustrates the reader’s desire to judge, but leads to even more meaningful insights.

Vera GranVera Gran: the Accused by Agata Tuszynska.
We are first introduced to the subject of this biography, Vera Gran, as an elderly and paranoid woman who rarely leaves her small Paris apartment. The author must first interview her in the hallway since, according to Vera, spies are everywhere and the apartment is bugged. Eventually she is allowed inside the cramped and document filled space and Vera begins to tell her story.

And what a story it is. Vera Gran, the stage name she went by the most often, was a torch singer from Poland who established a career before the German occupation of her country during World War II.  It is her activities during the war that, for better or worse, defined her life in her own and many others eyes.  Vera and her family, being Jewish, were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto and in order to survive Vera, as well as many other Jewish entertainers, continued to perform.

Almost the entirety of the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were murdered but Vera was one of the few to survive. The very act of survival, however, brought up questions after the war concerning complicity, culpability and possible collaboration. It is this struggle to defend her actions that becomes the focus of Vera’s life. Her relationship with Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist who also survived the Ghetto and whose life became an Oscar-winning film, eventually becomes the focus of this all-consuming need to clear her name.

Vera Gran: The Accused is a character study that delves into the ideas of guilt, survival and what it actually means to be an “honorable” person during horrific times. As a reader you start to question your own actions and begin to see society’s intense need to judge the past as inherently flawed.

Faithful ExecutionerThe Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel Harrington
Based on a personal journal from Renaissance Germany, this book is the story of Meister Franz Schmidt who was the executioner of Nuremberg from 1573 to 1618. As you can imagine, there are some pretty gruesome details involved in the telling of this story, execution by “the wheel” is not a pretty sight, but the author endeavors to fill out a full sketch of the man and his times and reserve judgment.

Franz Schmidt was actually born into a family of executioners, the odious profession was forced upon his father by an unscrupulous aristocrat, and he had few options to pursue other careers since the profession was considered unclean and inherited. In fact, his whole life’s goal was to ensure that his own family could somehow get out from under the social stigma and transition into a more respectable profession.

In addition to the personal drama of Schmidt’s life, the author paints a vivid portrait of his times describing how the executioner and the citizens of Nuremberg lived day-to-day. While death was all around, in the form of a high infant mortality rate and periodic deadly disease outbreaks, crime and punishment were considered issues of the utmost importance. In the end, the author finds more similarities than are comfortable to admit between our ideas and the attitudes of those who walked the streets of Meister Schmidt’s Nuremberg.

His final conclusion rings true as an assessment of the figures in both books:

Perhaps, in a cruel and capricious world, there is hope to be found in one man defying his fate, overcoming universal hostility, and simply persevering amid a series of personal tragedies.

Richard

Poetry Friday the third

Welcome to our third Poetry Friday. Every Friday of this month, in honor of National Poetry Month, a staff member will choose a poem that is a particular favorite. This week we present a selection from Richard. Also, don’t forget that we are having a friendly competition this month where you can submit your own poems. Click here to learn all the details.

NPM_LOGOrobertfrostChock it up to a short attention span, but I’ve always preferred brevity when it comes to poetry. Some of my favorite short poems are by Robert Frost. My parents introduced me to Frost’s poetry at a young age and consequently his poems have a strange sense of comfort and nostalgia despite their often despairing tone. Photographs of Frost on book jackets always reminded me of a kindly grandfather. A kindly grandfather who takes you aside during a birthday celebration to say “I know you are happy right now, but I’m afraid the universe is indifferent to your plight. Now enjoy your cake.”

Here are two of my favorites:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I rued.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

New (to Me) Short Stories

I don’t set out intentionally to read short stories. Really. As I look through reviews and hear of books, I simply write down the titles that seem interesting. When I revisit that list later, though, it becomes painfully obvious that I’ve got a short story addiction. I’m sure it reveals some kind of character flaw, a lack of focus perhaps or maybe an inability to commit. Luckily for me denial is a favorite response to problems. So I’m afraid society will have to pry that copy of Winesburg, Ohio out of my cold dead hands.

If you share my affliction, or simply feel like trying something new, here a few superb recent collections.

weliveinwater

We Live in Water by Jess Walter
This is the first collection of short stories from Walter, who has recently become well known for the novel Beautiful Ruins, but let’s hope it is not his last. Each story has a strong sense of place, Spokane for the most part, and the empathy Walter displays for his down-and-out characters is matched only by his ability to bring out the humor in everyday situations. Particular standouts include “Virgo” (the tale of a newspaper editor who makes the horoscope section way too personal), “Wheelbarrow Kings” (detailing a misguied attempt to cash in a big screen TV for drug money), and “Don’t Eat Cat” (a dystopian view of a future Seattle that wants to mainstream drug addicted zombies).

athousandmoronsA Thousand Morons by Quim Monzo
Absurdity abounds in this surreal collection of brief stories. Be prepared for a man in a nursing home who decides to take up cross dressing (“Mr. Beneset”), and a woman who methodically tries to rid herself of every memory she has every had (“Saturday”). Interspersed are more meditative stream of consciousness pieces such as “I’m Looking Out of the Window” in which the title accurately describes all of the action. If you can, briefly, abandon your sense of reality this collection is well worth the effort and might lead you to see the world in a different light.

The People of Forever are Not Afraid: A Novel by Shani Boianjiu
Ipeopleofforever know, I know… this title states it is “A Novel”. But it is really a series of connected short stories, in my view, so I’m going to stretch a point. Each story, or chapter if you must, is a different episode from the lives of three young women who grew up together and were conscripted into the Israeli army. While the stories are connected, there is no linear sense of progression. Instead each serves as a vivid description of a time and place, be it a dusty checkpoint in the middle of nowhere with a group of protestors literally demanding to be tear-gassed, or a Tel Aviv sandwich shop which promises to make a sandwich any way the customer demands. Tying everything together is a direct and effective use of language which brings every scene to life.

revengeRevenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa
Ogawa is one of my favorite authors and is a prolific writer. Sadly many of her works are not translated into English. Imagine my delight then, when I found out, thanks Spot-Lit, that a collection had just been translated. Revenge is a series of stories that are connected but often in ways that seem oblique at first. I hesitate to describe the plots of the various stories. Let’s just say her language is sparse but very affecting and the overall impact is a quiet foreboding that is ultimately toxic. This may not sound like a compliment but trust me, it is. Here is an example, from the story “Afternoon at the Bakery”, for you to get a feel for her writing:

The kitchen was as neatly arranged as the shop. Bowls, knives, mixers, pastry bags, sifters—everything needed for the work of the day was right where it should be. The dish-towels were clean and dry, the floor spotless. And in the middle of it stood the girl, her sadness perfectly at home in the tidy kitchen. I could hear nothing, not a word, not a sound. Her hair swayed slightly with her sobs. She was looking down at the counter, her body leaning against the oven. Her right hand clutched a napkin. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, but her misery was clear from the clench of her jaw, the pallor of her neck, and the tense grip of her fingers on the telephone.

The reason she was crying didn’t matter to me. Perhaps there was no reason at all. Her tears had that sort of purity.

So there you go: Several short story collections from which you have nothing to fear. Well, be advised, they may be habit forming.

Richard

Voices in Your Head

Not to cast aspersions on your sanity, dear reader, but in all likelihood you often hear a voice in your head. I’m not talking about a sinister whisper suggesting unspeakable acts, like eating that jelly-filled donut or calling in sick to watch every cut of Blade Runner back-to-back. No, I’m thinking of the voice you hear when you read a book. The words are on the page, but you have to provide the inflection, tone and, occasionally, sound effects.

When you listen to an audiobook, however, all of that narration is provided for you. And therein lies the rub. No matter how good a book is, if you can’t stand the narrator’s voice or presentation, the experience is not going to be a pleasant one. In order to avoid bad narrators, one of the rules I’ve learned is to always be wary of audiobooks that are read by the author. Good writing doesn’t always translate into good narration alas.

There is one case, though, when you absolutely want the writer to be the narrator: comedic books. To prove my point here are a few titles where it is essential that the author reads his or her work. In fact, even if you have read the book already, you might want to check out the audio version for an enhanced “reading” experience.

americaagainAmerica Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert
This irony drenched reaffirmation, or is that affirmation, of all things America is best heard rather than read. The material is tailor-made for the author and he deftly delivers. If you were to read the book you would just insert the star of the Colbert Report’s voice anyway so why not give it a listen? Enjoy all the truthiness.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
bossypantsWhile this book is technically a memoir, it reads, or listens as the case may be, like a series of comic vignettes from Fey’s life. Her delivery while telling these stories is spot on and her many impersonations are all here including, of course, Sarah Palin. Also included are plenty of anecdotes from her Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock days for TV fans and those just wanting to know what working with Alec Baldwin is like.

I Drink for a Reason by David Cross
idrinkforareasonFirst of all, great title. Secondly this is a great series of riffs on a myriad of topics that enter David Cross’ wonderfully deviant brain starting with his observations on seeing the bumper sticker “Don’t Abandon Your Baby.” Cross proves the point of this blog piece by having another narrator attempt to start reading the book and failing miserably. Clearly you need Cross’ narration to get the full impact of the material, though I must admit it was hard not to imagine Tobias Fünke while listening.

whenyouareengulfedinflames

When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
I just chose one representative title, maybe because of the gruesome cover art, but any of Sedaris’ audiobooks are excellent. Don’t get me wrong, he is a great writer, but once you have heard him read his material you will demand to listen to his books from then on. Luckily we have a great selection of his work on audio from which to choose, so you can get your fix.

God, No! by Penn Jillette
godnoWhat fun would it be to simply read a rant by Penn Jillette? You need to hear the slow buildup in his voice and then the eventual thundering denunciation of one hypocrisy after another. The topic here is religion, or lack thereof, so be prepared to be offended. But really, what else would you expect from one half of Penn & Teller, a duo dedicated to demystifying and debunking everyone’s sacred cows in a raucous way?

So there you have it. Just a few examples to whet your appetite. Now go out there and listen!

Richard

Back in Black

CorvusI think it is safe to say that every great story needs a great villain. If there isn’t someone in opposition, obstacles become way too easy for the protagonist to overcome and the story can get deadly dull. In The Art of Racing in the Rain, this year’s Big Read book, Enzo’s arch nemesis is clearly the common crow. As he states:

They sit in the trees and on the electric wires and on the roofs and they watch everything, the sinister little bastards. They cackle with a dark edge, like they’re mocking you, cawing constantly, they know where you are and when you’re in the house, they know where you are when you’re outside; they’re always waiting.

Now I’ve always had a certain sympathy for villains. In fact, I tend to make excuses for their somewhat questionable behavior: Grendel had issues with his mother; Macbeth was caught in an existential crisis; Darth Vader just wanted to rule the galaxy with his son. When it comes to crows, however, there are a gaggle of admirers who have a respect, bordering on admiration, for these often maligned creatures. Lest you think this is always motivated by some unrealistic new age feel-goodery, I present to you several excellent books that sing the praises of the crow based on the ice cold logic of science.

inthecompanyofcrowsWhen it comes to crow science, it won’t take you long to come across the name John M. Marzluff, who is on the faculty here at the University of Washington. He has teamed up with artist and writer Tony Angell to create two excellent books examining the complex lives of corvids and their often tempestuous interactions with humans. In the Company of Crows and Ravens is their first work together and Gifts of the Crow : How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans was just published last year.

giftsofthecrowMarzluff and Angell have spent years observing and studying crows and both books are chock full of impressive examples of the birds’ intelligence and cunning. One of my favorites includes the Carrion Crows in Sendai, Japan who purposefully place walnuts in the intersection while cars wait at a red light. Once the light turns green they get their nut cracked open without much effort. Interestingly enough, drivers began to purposefully aim for the walnuts in order to help the crows out in a case of cultural coevolution.

amurderofcrowsMarzluff has also conducted extensive studies demonstrating the way crows pass information, such as recognition of an individual, not only to each other but down through generations. This research, and much more, is detailed in the excellent DVD A Murder of Crows. If you can’t wait that long take a look at this snippet and watch which mask you wear the next time you are on the UW campus.

Fascination with crows is not limited to the intrepid duo from Washington, however. There are several other books in the library’s collection by dedicated naturalists that sing the praises of crows. Each is based on observations, studies and historical research and they are well worth reading:

Crow Planet : Essential Wisdom From the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Crows : Encounters With the Wise Guys of the Avian World by Candace Sherk Savage
Corvus : a Life With Birds by Esther Woolfson
Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays by Candace Savage

Now I’ll admit that crows have a few attributes that some might see as villainous:  they are black, travel in numbers, won’t pass up a meal of carrion, and can have a disturbing tendency to stare you down. Just remember that there are always extenuating circumstances

Richard

Winter of Our Discontent

With the holidays behind us we now face, let’s be honest, a month or two that can sometimes seem a little bleak. Sure you might get a glimpse of the sun now and again but the cold temperatures will remind you that spring is a ways off. When it comes to selecting what to read this time of year the healthy thing to do, most would say, is to distract yourself with light, humorous or optimistic fiction and be sure in the knowledge that the season will change.

Sadly, I just can’t take that advice. Perhaps it is a case of misery loving company but I always end up selecting titles that are more reflective of the short days and cold nights. If you are of my disposition, or just feel the tug of something dark at your sleeve now and again, you may want to sample a few of these titles. They are a bit strange, disturbing and at times a tad depressing but for your convenience I will list them from least to most despair inducing. If you have to bail early I totally understand.

downtherabbitholeTochtli, the young boy at the center of Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, has his heart set on one thing: A Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. It might seem an impossible choice but Tochtil’s father is a powerful, and paranoid, drug kingpin who denies his son nothing while keeping him, and a few retainers, isolated in a mansion in the desert. More absurdities abound (including a hat collection, samurais and a fascination with the French Revolution) but what humor there is, is definitely dark. This slim novel is told entirely from the boy’s unique perspective and skillfully reflects the isolated nature of his existence while blending the real with the seemingly fantastic.

The characters in the short story collection Stay Awake by Dan Chaon also inhabit a space somewhere between the real and, for lack of a better word, something else.stayawake What that “something else” actually is, is left tantalizingly unclear. But you definitely get the feeling it isn’t good. ‘The Bees’ tells the story of a boy’s inexplicable nightmares that trigger his father’s sense of guilt about the family he abandoned. ‘Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted’ is the tale of a directionless 20 something who is living in his dead parents’ house with a growing sense of dread. ‘I Wake Up’ follows a foster child who suddenly starts getting calls in the middle of the night from his long lost sister who wants to talk about a past he can’t remember. Chaon’s characters are sympathetically drawn and artfully reflect the confusion and pain of a personal loss that can lead toward an altered view of reality.

yourhouseisonfireThis last book is not for the faint of heart. But with the title of Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone that isn’t too surprising. The author, Stefan Kiesbye, has created a seemingly innocuous rural town in Germany, Hemmersmoor , that outsiders see as a bit backward but typical of its type. As the novel opens, several of the children who grew up there have come back later in life for a funeral. Their recollections, some repressed others freely remembered, of what occurred in their childhood are then shown in a series of interconnected stories. The town their tales reveal is a darkly fantastical place full of cruelty, vice, vindictiveness and horror. The best way to think of this chilling book is as a cross between Shirley Jackson and the Brothers Grimm.

You made it. Well done. Apologies if I bummed you out, but hey, it is January after all.

Richard

The Fastest Hunk of Junk in the Galaxy

Nothing is more practical, necessary, and – let’s be honest – downright boring than a repair manual. I don’t mean to belittle the format. The last thing you want is witty dialog or a stunning use of metaphor when you are trying to change a spark plug. But the tedium of trying to always be clear and concise, manual after manual, must weigh on the writers.

Clearly this burden has gotten to the folks who produce the Haynes Repair Manual series. Tucked away amid the usual Ford Escort and Chevrolet Nova guides, are some truly odd and fantastical Haynes repair manuals that have come out recently.

Haynes Boeing 747Take, for instance, the Boeing 747 : 1970 Onwards (All Marks) Owner’s Workshop Manual. If you just happen to own a Boeing 747, a 350 million dollar investment (and that’s without the engines), this is the manual for you. Actually since the book is only 168 pages I’m guessing you might need a little more information, not to mention a grounds crew, to fly and maintain the aircraft. Still it is a fun read and packed with useful facts: who would have guessed that an oil change is rarely, if ever, needed?

Haynes U.S.S. EnterpriseThe jump from the improbable to the impossible begins with the U.S.S. Enterprise NX-01, NCC-1701, NCC-1701-A to NCC-1701-E : Owner’s Workshop Manual. Starting in the model year 2151 this manual examines (in a level of detail only the lovingly obsessed possess) the history, major technologies and functions of every starship with the name of Enterprise. If you are curious about warp propulsion, holodecks, photon torpedoes, and deflector shields, this manual will not disappoint. The section on How Transporters Work, complete with a second by second operational timeline, is not to be missed.

I must admit, it was a kick to see how the authors put together all of the various television series and movies into one cohesive narrative based on a fictional ship. The manual shows no evidence of the internecine conflict that can happen between the different series’ admirers. It just depicts a united Federation going where no man/one has gone before. If all this goodwill isn’t to your liking, then definitely check out the Klingon Bird-of-Prey : I.K.S. Rotarran (b’rel-class), Owner’s Workshop Manual.

Haynes Millennium FalconSpeaking of rivals, that other great science fiction universe has a manual as well. Yes it’s the Millennium Falcon Modified YT-1300 Corellian Freighter: Owner’s Workshop Manual. As I’m sure you know from your Star Wars viewing, the Millennium Falcon is in constant need of repair so a manual makes perfect sense. Learning how to fix, temporarily, that pesky hyperdirve and how to successfully navigate an asteroid field (the odds of which are approximately 3,720 to 1) are just a few of the helpful skills you will learn. You will also find out about the famous pilots of the Falcon including Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca and of course Han, I shot first, Solo.

Being of a more Imperial nature, I hope the rumors are true that an Owner’s Workshop Manual for the Death Star is in the works. Until then I will have to content myself with the current petition to the United States government to build a Death Star by 2016. Having achieved 25,000 signatures it meets the rules for an official Presidential response. I’m hoping that James Earl Jones will deliver the decision.

Richard

Timber!

With the Thanksgiving meal just barely digested, many peoples’ thoughts turn to the mega holiday of Christmas. Some battle the hordes on Black Friday to try to find a deal. Others brave the rain and wind to get the holiday lights display put up on their house. In my family though, the day after Thanksgiving means one thing: getting a Christmas tree.

I know there are those who prefer the practicality of a plastic tree. Still others are satisfied with a real tree bought at a lot. For us it is has to be a tree that we chop down, precariously strap onto the roof of the car, and then try to set up, hopefully at not too crooked an angle, in the living room. We do, however, go to tree farms as opposed to the true hardcore tree fanciers who go out into the forest, with a permit of course, to bag their tree.

If you keep some of the same traditions, here are a few titles to help you on your quest.

Of course, tree selection is key:
Northwest Conifers: A Photographic Key by Dale Bever
Timber Press Pocket Guide to Conifers by Richard Bitner

But definitely not:
Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast by Robert Van Pelt

When faced with cutting down your selection, why not try:
Practical Outdoor Survival by Len McDougall
Basic Illustrated Camping by Cliff Jacobson
Big Timber, Big Men by Carol Lind

And finally, when it comes to strapping the tree on the roof of your car:
Geometry Success in 20 Minutes a Day
Knots for the Outdoors by Cliff Jacobson

If all goes well, a big if I know, you should have a tree in your home in no time. One Christmas task finished, 99 more to go.

Richard

What’s in a Name?

When you order books for the library, a lot of different titles come to your attention. Many are straightforward (The Complete Guide to Roofing & Siding), some are brazen (F**k It Therapy : The Profane Way to Profound Happiness), and others are just bizarre (Fifty Shades of Chicken : A Parody in a Cookbook ). But every so often you come across a title that is so intriguing, you have to put down your copy of Library Journal and place a hold on it. Such a moment struck me when I came across The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lepore.

Even after reading a review or two I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I got my hands on the book. What I found did not disappoint. Lepore has written a clever, funny and quirky series of essays that examines the peculiarly American take on what it means to be born, to live, and to die and how those ideas have changed throughout our history.

Now I know that the subtitle (A History of Life and Death) might make the book sound grandiose or way too general but it isn’t at all. As she states in her introduction: “To write history is to make an argument by telling a story. This is, above all, a book of stories.”  And luckily for the reader, the stories she tells are doozies.

The chapter “Baby Food” is a good example. The author examines the surprisingly contentious social history of the “proper” way for an infant to get nutrition. As the tale unfolds you are introduced to people such as Dr. Fritz Talbot who in 1910 started the Wet Nurse Directory, policy statements like the American Academy of Pediatrics position paper on breast feeding in 1997, and technology such as the Medela ‘Pump In Style’ breast pump. All of these elements are weaved together in an entertaining and insightful way.

Many of the chapters are gems but a few of the stand outs include:

“All About Erections”: Concerning Sylvester Graham’s crusade against ‘self-pollution’ and the curious history of sex education.

“Mr. Marriage”: Examining the disturbing connections between marriage counseling, founded by Paul Popenoe, and eugenics.

“Happiness Minutes”: Highlighting the lives of Lillian and Frank Gilberth and the attempt to run your life along scientific management principles.

My favorite though, is the final chapter “Resurrection”. Lepore interviews Robert Ettinger and tours the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Michigan. The institute is really just a small warehouse that preserves the frozen remains of those who hope to one day be revived by future scientific methods. While the idea is clearly ludicrous, the essay isn’t cruel, though it is funny. Instead Lepore effectively highlights the strong pull of self-centered belief and how it often triumphs over reason.

Life is full of surprises. But one of the best is discovering a book that actually lives up to its intriguing title.

Richard