Seriesly

One thing that I spend far too much time thinking about is the psychology of television. For example, TV watchers can be more attracted to television programs than to interacting with real live people. And, watchers tend to like specific shows and to watch those shows repeatedly. So my inquiring mind wonders, Why?

In the past, I was one of those TV watchers. Perhaps this is why I’m fascinated by the topic. And one thing I figured out all by myself is that the characters on a particular show become like friends or family. And yes, I know this sounds pathetic. I particularly remember watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show 5 nights a week from start to finish in college, and when the series ended, even though I’d seen the entire run when it originally was on, I was very sad. My friends were gone.

As I said, pathetic.

But what this shows is that people like familiarity, characters they know. And obviously this translates into books as well as television. I am stunned by the number of series that are currently being written. It seems to me (without actually researching this) that in the past most books were standalones, and now most are part of a series. And one can see in the library how popular these series are.

2014 will be remembered as the year that I read series. Or at least parts of series. Focusing mainly on mysteries and detective pulps, I have spent 365 glorious days (pro-rated) with my literary friends and family. And today I share some of those series with you.

Meg LanslowMeg Langslow mysteries by Donna Adams.
Meg is a blacksmith in Caerphilly, Virginia. Her quirky family includes a professor husband, computer whiz brother, doctor/animal activist/mystery enthusiast father and renowned biologist grandfather. As with most cozy mysteries, an inordinate amount of murders happen in her small town, and Meg becomes the local crime solver. This series is a cut above most cozy mysteries.

Perry MasonPerry Mason mysteries/court dramas by Erle Stanley Gardner.
“The DA was Burger, the cop was Tragg, Della was the secretary, Drake sat on the desk with Perry…” ~ lyrics that The Blues Brothers set to the Perry Mason theme

Mason, one of the best lawyers in the country, is also a fair crime solver. While these stories are not filled with much character development, we still grow close to Perry and the gang. And Erle Stanley could write one mean story I must say.

Richard JuryRichard Jury mysteries by Martha Grimes.
Jury is a British police inspector or superintendent or whatever British coppers are called. His partner in crime, Sergeant Wiggins, is a professional hypochondriac. His non-professional crime fighting brother-in-arms is Melrose Plant, a filthy rich earl who cares nothing for money and has renounced his title. Plant’s village of Long Piddleton is filled with quirky characters and murders. But Jury is based in London, so the whole of England is fair game in this wonderful, and often dark, series.

Scotland YardScotland Yard’s Murder Squad by Alex Grecian.
This wonderful series looks at the infancy of crime solving in Scotland Yard. A very small number of detectives, with limited tried-and-tested crime solving techniques, are responsible for all of the murders in London, a huge amount to be sure. Fortunately, they have a Sherlock-like doctor who helps them along the way.

Spellmans

 

The Spellmans by Lisa Lutz.
A quirky, dysfunctional family of detectives. Imagine working in close quarters with your parents and/or siblings.

 

AntiquesAntiques mysteries by Barbara Allan.
Small town, mother and daughter antique sellers, both with psychological issues. Many murders, both mother and daughter narrate, interrupting each other in the narratives to make corrections. Cute and funny.

 

Travis McGeeTravis McGee, detective of a sort, by John D. MacDonald.
McGee does not call himself a detective, more of a person who helps others find things. He lives on a houseboat in Florida and would just as soon spend a lazy day in the sun as work. He is hard edged, but not without sympathy, and lands his share of the ladies. Excellent hard-boiled writing.

And this is just scratching the surface of my 2014 series. Here are a few other series you can find in the library that might be of interest.

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
Joanna Brady mysteries by J. A. Jance
The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde
Horatio Hornblower by C. S. Forester
All the Wrong Questions series by Lemony Snicket

Of course the list goes on and on. The only thing left is to ask, what’s your favorite series?

Into The Grey by Celine Kiernan

intothegreyI wanted to have a twin when I was little. Even last week I was thinking to myself: ‘You know who would get that joke I just told?  My twin.’ If she got stuck with a needle I’d feel it too. If my heart was breaking and I was choking on the pieces I’d have her with me, hurting just as much and helping me plan revenge on the person who tore my heart into bits. But then I thought: ‘Is it really a good idea having two of me stumbling through the world?’

No.

In Celine Kiernan’s YA novel Into the Grey, it’s 1974 and Patrick’s grandmother has burned the house down. Not on purpose. She’s got dementia but back in 1974 they called it senility or having a fit as in ‘Granny put her bra on the outside of her blouse today.’ The short stories and novel Pat had been working on? Gone. Dom’s drawings and sketches? Gone. Their mom and dad hate each other and now that their house has burned down, they hate each other more. The family couch surfs for a couple of weeks before going to a seaside cottage they rent once a year while on holiday.

Patrick and Dom think they’ll die from boredom, surrounded by a closed fairgrounds and the sea. It’s beyond cruel to have a fairground within walking distance only to find that it’s closed for the season. Nothing to look at but tourist shops, the sea, pubs, the sea. What’s that over there? Oh yeah. The sea. One day the boys are out for a walk when they see an old man being ejected from a bar. He’s singing an English tune in an Irish pub. Not a good idea. He gets thrown out of the pub with a warning: “If you come in here again singing your old army songs and wearing your old army poppy, I will have you disappeared.”

Pat and Dom watch the old drunk reel around. The man’s not only close to black out drunk but he seems almost…haunted. And he is. The old man walks into the sea to drown himself. Pat and Dom go in after him, nearly drowning themselves. They manage to get him to the shore and get help from a woman in a small shop. She tells them the old man’s name is James.

So, finding a majorly depressed old drunk who was a soldier in WWI  is kinda on the weird scale of things. But Pat begins to have vivid dreams that aren’t his own, nightmare images of muddy trenches. Dom begins to have nightmares too, only he becomes a ghost of himself. Something wanted Dom and Dom was wide open for a spirit to slip in. Dom says his name is Francis and that Patrick is named Lorry. One night Patrick wakes up in the bottom bunk and sees a small pale hand gripping the sides of Dom’s upper bunk.  It’s a boy. “Maybe ten years old.  White face.  Dark, dark eyes, underscored with deep lines, surrounded by purple shadows.”  I saw that creepy little kid from The Grudge when I read the description of the small boy.

Soon Dom is lost to Patrick and Patrick thinks Dom’s soul has flown the coop never to be seen or felt again. Francis, a soldier from WWI, has hijacked his body and isn’t going to give it up.

I don’t do spoilers. I won’t ruin a book for anyone.  Unless I hate them. Then I will blast the entire plot on a boom box and hold it over my head at my enemy’s house a la John Cusack in that one movie that I can’t remember the name of but I remember being annoyed by the movie but confused because I really liked John Cusack. What was I saying?  Celine Kiernan has written a seemingly simple young adult novel about the relationship between siblings. It’s not a simple book at all. It reads like a fast paced thriller but it’s about what you would do for your brother or sister, how far would you go to keep them safe and sound. Evidently, battling for your sibling’s soul is pretty high on the list of “Hey, brat. I rescued you from purgatory. Now gimme your fries.”

Inquiring Minds

whatifAccording to tradition, curiosity is a bad thing. If you’re a cat, curiosity kills and if you’re Pandora your curiosity releases all the evils of humanity. A tad harsh if you ask me. Luckily curiosity has a lot of defenders, especially among those that are scientifically minded. It makes sense since questioning and experimentation are at the heart of the scientific method. As Mr. Einstein said: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

The best thing about curiosity is that it can take you to some really weird places. I’ve always liked those incredibly odd hypothetical questions curious people ask that seem to come out of left field. There is a problem if you like these types of questions though. Rarely does anyone take them seriously enough to try to answer them. Imagine my delight then, when I saw this title while perusing the new nonfiction books here at the library: What if?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. Time to investigate.

Randall Munroe is the author of a popular webcomic, xkcd, and a former NASA roboticist. The fans of his webcomic are an inquisitive bunch that enjoy sending him all sorts of hypothetical questions that range from the intriguing to the downright scary. Monroe receives so many of these questions that he has set up a separate blog, what if?, to answer many of them and share them with the world. This book is a collection of some of the best of these questions and answers as well as lots of material not on the blog itself.

So how odd are the questions? Here are a few examples to give you an idea:

What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?

If you suddenly began rising steadily at 1 foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first? Or something else?

How much Force power can Yoda output?

Which U.S. state is actually flown over the most?

And my personal favorite:

What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person? Were they lonely?

Each question is answered by Munroe using all the powers of reason, science, creativity and lots and lots of humor. As you might guess, the author sprinkles each answer with hilarious, and often informative, illustrations of the concepts he is trying to get across. Whatever you do, don’t skip reading the footnotes. They are the opposite of the usually arcane explanations found in academic journals and Munroe’s dry wit really shines through. His footnote for the sentence “The periodic table of the elements has seven rows” reads:

An eighth row may be added by the time you read this. And if you’re reading this in the year 2038, the periodic table has ten rows but all mention or discussion of it is banned by the robot overlords.

The thing that surprised me the most about this book was that in addition to it being quirky and really funny, I found myself learning a lot. While the questions are definitely outlandish, the concepts used to answer them are grounded in many diverse fields such as physics, mathematics, geology, astronomy and many others I usually find difficult to absorb. It’s amazing what you can learn about fluid dynamics when the author is trying to explain what would happen if a rainstorm dropped all of its precipitation in one giant raindrop.

So ignore all those archaic dire predictions and let your curiosity run rampant while reading What If? Inquiring minds want to know.

Heartwood 4:6 – Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov

Pushkin HIllsIn Sergei Dovlatov’s entertaining Pushkin Hills, Boris Alikhanov is a struggling writer who takes a job as a tour guide at Pushkin’s estate. The book begins with his journey there and his interactions with the other guides and cultural functionaries. He gets settled into a squalid room with a raging alcoholic known as Misha for a landlord (whose drunken babblings include some great non sequiturs and neologisms). Boris learns what he has to in order to give tours and he seems to enjoy it, despite having to put up with ignorant tourists. He stays away from offers to go out for a drink, remarking that it’s easy for him to say no to the first one but once he starts he’s like a train without brakes.

Boris has a wife, he’s semi-separated from, who wants to emigrate to America with their daughter, but he doesn’t want to leave Russia, saying it would be a disaster for an author to be removed from speakers of his native tongue. You get the idea that Boris doesn’t write much but he has managed to publish a number of pieces in literary magazines and they have caught the eyes of Soviet censors. The news of his wife’s emigration plan causes Boris to fall off the wagon in a big way, and his spontaneous candor in a phone conversation with her after she has left the country raises the question of whether or not they will ever be getting together as a family again (yet he seems like a guy whose various transgressions are frequently forgiven).

This is a stylish and snappy piece of writing that surprises the reader with unexpected turns and an episodic storyline. Dovlatov is fond of witty dialogue and of aphorisms, such as “You want justice? Relax, that fruit doesn’t grow here.” There’s something both straightforward and enigmatic in his concise sentences. He leaves you wanting more – in a good way – and he tempts you to reread him for the pleasure of his prose, in this case, capably translated by his daughter Katherine. This is a short, comic, satisfying novel that should appeal to most readers.

__________

Masha Gessen, writing in the New York Review of Books, says in Russia Dovlatov “went from being a writer known to very few to a household name and, finally, to the status of a classic. Dovlatov is to Russian vernacular what Casablanca and Mark Twain are to American speech.”

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Warmth of Other Suns coverThe other day I was walking out with an armload of books on CD, and Richard our audio book selector got all excited because he thought I was getting non-fiction (something he’d like to see checked out more). Shamefacedly I had to admit that it was all fiction, and that I had been slacking a bit on listening to anything factual. His enthusiasm for promoting our non-fiction audio books inspired me to put some of my selections back and browse the other shelves.

I’ve always been a big non-fiction reader, but for some reason this passion hasn’t translated well to audio books. I have a long commute and like to pass the time listening to stories. I’ve found them to be easier to listen to in the little 35 minute drives I have to do throughout the week because I don’t have to pay too close attention to make sure I’m not missing any important points. It’s also easier to pick up where I left off if I haven’t listened in a while because we’ve been using the other car; often with non-fiction audio books I have to rewind a bit to refresh my memory. The only things that combat these issues for me when listening to non-fiction books is to find ones that are written in a very narrative style and have great readers.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of non-fiction audio books that I’ve listened to recently that have kept me enthralled from start to finish.

The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (read by Robin Miles). I guess if you need a place to start, choosing a Pulitzer Prize winning book generally isn’t a bad idea. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration by tracing the paths of four African-Americans who migrated north and west to escape the Jim Crow world of the South. Because the author interviewed all four individuals, the book is rich with dialogue and personal stories. Miles does an excellent job of reading Wilkerson’s work, making each individual’s personality shine through, and adding appropriate emphasis and emotion to some of the more difficult passages.

Mushroom Hunters coverThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook (read by Kevin R. Free). Foodie, traveler, hiker, lover of the Pacific Northwest – no matter what you consider yourself to be, you’ll probably find something to enjoy about this title. Mushroom Hunters reads like investigative journalism mixed with Food Network programming (in the best way possible). Cook tells the story of his quest to learn about the secret not-always-legal world of commercial mushroom harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. I really enjoyed driving back and forth on Highway 2 as Free described the kinds of lush rainy mountains that surrounded me, and all the secret things that may be happening in them.

Detroit cover imageDetroit: an American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff (read by Eric Martin). This is a book that I would have loved even if Mickey Mouse was reading it, but Eric Martin’s narration took it from good to perfection for me.  Martin’s gravelly no-nonsense delivery perfectly matches the tone of LeDuff’s vignettes of the rough, hard-working, beautiful, disturbing, hopeful, and troubled City of Detroit. This book isn’t another work of ruin porn aimed at exploiting what befell Detroit after the decline of its industrial might. It’s the honest collected experiences of a journalist who has spent his entire career covering every side of a city that seems to be almost universally hated and feared by the rest of America. No predictions are made about the future. No excuses are made for the past. It’s just the facts as he saw them happen, and it’s dark, light, and magnificent.

Naked coverNaked, by David Sedaris (read by the author and his sister, comedian/actress Amy Sedaris). Ending on a lighter note, I just have to say I’m a sucker for David Sedaris in any format, but I think experiencing his writing performed by himself is always the best. Whether it be appearances on This American Life, or full-length readings of one of his many titles, you’d be hard-pressed to not be entertained. Well, at least you would be if you and I share a similar sense of humor. In Naked, Sedaris tells stories about his upbringing; considering that his family spawned two comedians, you know things had to be unorthodox.  Even though he may be describing something completely ridiculous, his sense of humor remains dry and ironic. This tone is amplified when you hear him perform his work. His readings are so well-timed and pitch perfect that it’s almost impossible to later read something of his without hearing his voice in your head.

I hope some of these recommendations inspire you to treat yourself to some of the many excellent non-fiction audio titles we have in our collections. I know I’ll continue exploring!

You Just Need a Good Book!

Recently Christin Rude from the University of Washington Bookstore came to the Everett Public Library and presented some reading recommendations to the Everett Woman’s Book Club. I have been attacking this list with fervor and have found the books to be not just good, but excellent.

index (19)The first book I picked up was non-fiction. I think we all know what we would learn if we read the book The Shallows: What the internet is Doing to Our Brains. We would find what author Nicholas Carr presents: that books and reading help to focus our minds and promote deep thoughts while the internet, with its rapid, distracted sampling of small bits and pieces, is making us good at scanning and skimming. What we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection. We don’t have time to read and even if we did, we’d be too distracted to concentrate.

That is exactly what we’d learn if we had time to read The Shallows. I know I don’t.  I’m too busy with Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and my other online obsessions. Until I find a good book. And, you guys, I have! I have found two from Rude’s list that I’ve read more quickly than any in recent memory because they grabbed me and I was consumed with their worlds. In the interest of fighting Internet distraction, I’d like to share them with you.

index (20)Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin is fabulous. This literary murder mystery won the Gold Dagger Award in 2011 because of wonderfully drawn characters and a setting which sucks you into the world of rural Mississippi of the 1970’s. Silas was the son of a poor, single black mother, and Larry was the child of lower middle-class white parents. Despite the racial tensions of the era, they become friends until a girl goes missing after a date with Larry. She is never found and Larry lives with the suspicion of her murder for years, spending his days as a lonely mechanic and becoming known as ‘Scary Larry’ to the folks in the town. He’s a compelling character as he visits his mother daily and keeps her chickens (named after the first ladies) and home up, all the while just hoping for a friend. His boyhood friend Silas returns after many years to become the town ‘constable’ who must investigate a new murder. It turns out that Silas does know something of the long ago murder and what he has left unsaid impacts his life and that of many others. Read this book if you want an engrossing novel which you will contemplate and reflect upon for many days.

index (1)The second book I read from Rude’s list has been a runaway number one best-seller in France and is the first work translated into English by author Gregoire Delacourt. My Wish List  is the story of Jocelyne, a wife and mother living in a small French town. She runs a haberdashery and writes a successful crafting blog. Her best friends work at the hairdressers next door and dream of winning big on the Euromillions. Convinced that Jocelyne will get a taste for their lottery habit, they encourage her to buy a ticket and, amazingly, Jocelyne wins 18 million euros. Before cashing her winnings, Jocelyne begins to list her ‘desires’ which are mostly simple, everyday objects.  She ponders whether money can truly bring happiness. Should she cash the check? Or will having such a large sum of money cause more problems than it solves?

My Wish List made me contemplate just how much influence money has over our lives, not just the opportunities it can afford but also affecting how you are perceived by others and whether it is healthy to be able to afford everything you wish for. From the opening sentence to the closing message, it was a literary, yet very accessible book. Touching and heart-wrenching, My Wish List lives up to the hype surrounding it. It is a well crafted and all-consuming novel.

I am looking forward to reading more books on Rude’s list and perhaps sharing them with you. But right now, I gotta go check my Facebook page. Squirrel!

Looking for Ghosts

hauntedstuffI’ve been on the hunt for a good ghost story, not because it’s October but because ghosts scare the bejesus out of me. My friend gave me a book last week called Haunted Stuff: Demonic Dolls, Screaming Skulls and Other Creepy Collectibles by Stacey Graham. It’s not only about traditional hauntings but also about all the seemingly innocent junk around our houses that could have a dark past that is still with the object and shooting out trouble. I woke up at 3am and couldn’t go back to sleep and decided to read through this book. Big mistake, especially when I got to the chapter about a doll named Robert in Florida who likes to move around rooms and look out the windows all on his own.

That is so not cool. So not cool at all.

Ghost ships, skulls in walls that don’t stop screaming until they’re put back into the walls (because I guess there’s nothing to scream about when you’re sealed up tight in a wall), séances, this book has enough terrifying stuff to cause me a few sleepless nights. But it’s those dolls sitting on a shelf, staring and maybe moving around at night or, God no, crawling down from the shelf and touching your face while you sleep. Those were the stories that I craved. And feared. I creaved them. Yeah, I just made up a word.

roomsI wanted more ghost stories, something a little somber and less frightening than a doll moving around a room and staring out at the people in the streets. (Man, I am not going to get over that one.) I picked up Lauren Oliver’s Rooms. Ghost jackpot! In Rooms, Richard Walker dies and in swoops his estranged and EXTREMELY screwed up son, daughter and ex-wife to settle his estate. The house is already occupied by two ghosts: Alice, a house wife from WW II and Sandra, a woman who died in the house in 1987. Both ghosts watched Richard’s children grow up, lovely Minna who always seemed to have a hard edge to her and angelic Trenton.

The ghosts are disappointed to see what has become of this brother and sister in the 12 years since their parent’s divorce. Minna has become a bit of a whore although when a woman has daddy issues I don’t think you’re supposed to call her a whore when she uses sex to get what she wants. I think you’re supposed to shake your head in pity and go clean your own house. The funeral director comes over with picture samples of urns for her father’s remains and the next thing you know, bang a gong they’re getting it on. Minna’s 6 year old daughter Amy nearly catches them in the act but Minna stows the funeral director under the bed and doesn’t flinch when he calls her a crazy bitch. She moves on to the fed ex guy.

Trenton is now a pimple ridden 16-year-old who almost died a year before in a car accident. He goes to an all-boys school and is a miserable kid, more miserable than usual because he remembers almost dying and he wants to return to that feeling, of being in a warm and comforting place, a place where he doesn’t have an embarrassing nickname earned at a party. Their mom Caroline has spent years hiding in a bottle and is now a throwing-up-blood alcoholic who can’t make it past 8am without a glass of vodka. They have a whole house to get through along with a funeral. The two ghosts, Alice and Sandra watch them. Trenton is the only one who can sense them and sometimes catches them talking to one another. The ghosts have terrible secrets. In alternating chapters each tells her story full of tragedy, loneliness, and regret. But a new ghost appears out of nowhere and she can’t remember who she is or how she died.  And she tempts Trenton into killing himself so they can be together.

Like most great ghost stories, Rooms unfolds layer after layer of the past, examining wrong turns, unkindness’s and broken hearts. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I think we’re so chock full of energy that we leave an imprint behind, a mixed tape cassette left on repeat that keeps playing our lowest points and maybe even some of the good times.

Good news? There’s a happy ending to Rooms. Bad news? I have a weird take on what a happy ending means. Enjoy a good ghost story that won’t have you checking under the bed for evil dolls.