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!

Books That Started as Blogs

If you’re like me, and I hope you are, you follow a blog or two just because it’s fun. Of course I read this very blog because my smart and hip co-workers contribute valuable stuff to it. Hey, you’re reading it right now! You must be just like me.

Did you know that there are a lot of great books which have been spawned from blogs? Let’s explore some recent titles which had their starts as blogs. I’ll start with the visual ones:

indexCake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong by Jen Yates is so funny! Yates has been entertaining us with the worst cakes ever, including the ugly, silly, creepy, sad, and suggestive on her blog since 2008. It currently features photos of awful graduation cakes. Have your cake and laugh at it, too. With witty commentary and behind-the-scenes tidbits, Cake Wrecks will ensure that you never look at a cake the same way again.

index (1)There, I Fixed It! No, You Didn’t by Cheez Burger is part of the ubiquitous Cheezburger Network of blogs and is another hilarious visual feast full of epic fails which show human ingenuity at its worst. My favorite ‘chapter’ features quick fixes with duct tape.

index (14)How To Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You is based on the blog, The Oatmeal, a hugely popular website. It is a brilliant 136 page offering of cat comics, facts, and instructions to help you enjoy, love, and survive your cat. The book is a #1 NY Times best seller and sold over a half million copies in its first three months in print. Check it out from the library for free. Even I laughed, and I hate cats.

index (3)I do love dogs and fortunately for me there’s Dog Shaming by Pascale Lemire, based on the blog with the same name. This book features the most hilarious, shameful, and never-before-seen doggie misdeeds. It reminds me of the evening we were sitting around with friends having a nice conversation, when we discovered that our friend’s dog had chewed apart another friend’s shoe. We didn’t think to take a photo, but these folks have taken some pretty funny ones.

index (13)And what blog-book list would be complete without an awkward family photo selection? I’ll include Awkward Family Pet Photos which came from the Awkward Family Photos blog. These books are always so weird, yet funny. Just look at this fellow hugging his dog on the cover. The photos with monkeys, possums, and chickens are especially hilarious. And now on to the blog-books which have more text than photos.

index (4)Let’s Pretend This Never Happened:  (A Mostly True Memoir) is written by Jenny Lawson, the “Bloggess”. She’s ‘like Mother Theresa, only better.’ She writes this about her book: “You should probably go buy it right now, because it’s filled with awesomeness. And cocaine. But only if you hollow it out and fill it with your own cocaine. I’m not buying you cocaine. Because I love you.” I thought it was hilarious when I read it and you may also, since you’re just like me!

index (5)Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian by Scott Douglas who writes dispatches on McSweeney’s. Scott Douglas works for a smallish public library nestled cozily between Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County, California. This is where most of his observations occur, although sometimes he goes to other libraries. This book is super funny because it could have taken place at our very own local library. Read it and see for yourself.

index (6)The Happiest Mom by Meagan Francis who writes the Happiest Home blog online. The author also writes for Parenting magazine and is the mother of five children, so she presumably knows her stuff and spells it out in ten simple rules that are delivered with humor. This book has gorgeous graphics and the main idea is that you can be a mom (or grandparent) and still be happy. As I’ve always said, if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!

These blog-books are sure to make you happy.  Check them out at your local library!

Physician Heal Thyself

DR.I’m not sure exactly when the shift happened, but doctors, in the real world at least, are no longer considered infallible gods. This is great when it comes to getting second opinions and not being railroaded into unnecessary treatments. There is, however, a downside:  the perils of self-diagnosis. You see, without an authority figure (I tend to imagine Spock or Tuvok) to say “the chances of you being inflicted with such a disorder are infinitesimal” my fevered brain tends to see a deadly and rare disorder in the slightest cough or rash. Luckily, perhaps, the library has many tomes to guide me on my journey of disease self-discovery.

It is always best to start with the classics. The two heavy hitters are Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment (CMDT) and The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. Such scintillating titles no? Both are geared toward the medical professional and provide rational, current and highly technical information on almost every disease and its symptoms, that you could possibly think of. Just don’t expect much sugar coating. Also avoid looking at the diagnostic images at all cost.

If ice cold logic doesn’t put your mind at rest, perhaps it is time to admit that the problem lies in the fear of disease itself or as the professionals like to say, hypochondria. Luckily, you are not alone. There are many tomes dedicated to individuals who struggle with the fear of disease. Best of all, they tend to use liberal doses of humor to describe their plight. Here are a few examples:

wellenoughalone

Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria by Jennifer Traig
Convinced she was having a heart attack at 18 (the college nurse’s reply: It’s a gorgeous day and you’re not dying) the author realized that she just might have a problem. This book is a witty, and often hilarious, self-examination of all the foibles of a woman convinced she has every disease known to man. Each chapter not only highlights her own “issues” but also puts her hypochondria in a historical perspective with amusing anecdotes from the past.

Hyper-Chondriac: One Man’s Quest to Hurry Up and Calm Down by Brian Frazer
hyperchondriacFrazer definitely suffers from hypochondria, as a child he came down with a new disease every month, but this book is also a far ranging quest to find relaxation and, for lack of a better term, inner peace.  He tries reiki, yoga, Zoloft, Craniosacral therapy, Ayurveda, dog walking, and even, gasp, knitting. Sadly none of them seem to fully rid him of his demons, but the hilarious journey is well worth it. For the reader in any case.

The Hypochondriacs: Nice Tormented Lives by Brian Dillon
hypochondriacsnineAnother subtitle for this book could be: misery loves company. After reading about these nine famous suffers and their quirks, you probably won’t feel so bad about any fears of disease that you might have. While each sufferer’s oddities are definitely amusing, this work also highlights the interesting connection between each malady and the individual’s creativity. In several cases, such as Charlotte Bronte, the illnesses, both real and imagined, provided a means of escape as well as inspiration.

hypochondriacsguidetolife

The Hypochondriacs Guide to Life and Death by Gene Weingarten
While there is a smattering of actual medical information throughout this work, this is pure satire and all the better for it. The author introduces you to his own neuroses, and then tries to convince you that you should have them as well. The chapter titles (such as ‘How Your Doctor Can Kill You’ and ‘Pregnant? That’s Wonderful! Don’t Read This!’) tell you all you need to know about the contents of this book. There are even helpful quizzes to confirm your paranoia.

So you now have all the tools you need to calm your irrational fear of disease. I’m sure you will be fine. Well, maybe not.

Not Just a Pretty Face

The Magicians coverLike a literary magpie, I am drawn to pretty, shiny, exciting things. I often enter the library without a clue about what I want to read. I wander and browse until something jumps out at me – a cool spine design, a flashy cover, a witty title. It doesn’t take much.

I judge books by their covers.

Sometimes this approach backfires, but more often than not, I find that I like the book if I like the way the author has chosen to decorate it. It could be dumb luck, or perhaps the author and I agree on some deep, mystical, aesthetic level. Either way, I’ve been happy with my track record, and I’d like to share some of my favorite ‘window shopping’ finds:

Dreams and Shadows coverDreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill. This book will appeal to anyone who is into folklore, mythical creatures, and generally wizardy stuff. Cargill’s style of writing was right up my alley – a little bit edgy, but sprinkled with humor and an occasional academic interlude to fill in more information about some of the supernatural beings that are involved in his story. I feel this book was left open-ended enough that it could be turned into the first of a series, or it could remain as a good stand-alone work. Those who liked American Gods may be into this.

Utopian Man coverUtopian Man by Lisa Lang. This was a really lovely read from start to finish. I enjoyed getting lost in the world that Edward William Cole, our Utopian Man, was trying to create with his glorious Arcade. Setting the story in 19th-Century Melbourne made the book all the more fascinating, as it’s a time and place that is very unknown and exotic to me. I think the author brings this feeling of newness and excitement across very well to the reader. This is a light read full of beautiful imagery, a little bit of conflict, and a lot of imagination.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. I’ve already raved about this book in another post, so I’ll get to the important part. This book jacket GLOWS IN THE DARK! Aside from it being a great book, what more do you need to know?

Deathless coverDeathless by Catherynne Valente. 2/3 Russian fairy tale, 1/3 history of Russia from the death of the Tsar through the Siege of Leningrad. It took me a couple of chapters to warm up to this book, mainly because I didn’t know what it was I was getting into: fantasy, a dream sequence, a paranoid delusion, or allegory. Once I figured out how I related to the book, I was drawn in. Deathless reads primarily like a folktale, punctuated with passages full of beauty, mystery, hardship, poetry, mythology, joy, and melancholy. While the library doesn’t own Deathless, I was able to get it through Interlibrary Loan. EPL does have many of Valente’s other titles on shelf.

Age of Wonder coverThe Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. I picked this one up shortly after I finished grad school. I found a note I’d written about it on GoodReads while I was reading the book that made me chuckle: “Interesting subject matter, but perhaps a bit more dense than my poor brain wants to deal with so soon after graduating. Recovery is a long, hard road. I’m sticking it out though, for the greater good.” I am happy to report that it was worth it, and that I learned a lot about science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As grueling as I made it sound, the book was quite a pleasure to read.

Super Sad True Love Story coverSuper Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. SSTLS is kind of an odd book for me. Generally when I love a book, I love it from the beginning. With this story, my feelings sometimes bordered on hate, and for the most part, hovered in the area of disinterest. Then a funny thing happened: I finished the story and let it marinate in my brain for a while. Soon enough, ideas from SSTLS started popping up in conversations with friends and they would immediately jump in saying that they’d read the same book and completely agreed. Similar to the movie Idiocracy, SSTLS delivers a darkly humorous appraisal of the future of mankind that occasionally seems prophetic when watching the news.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Kind of like Harry Potter, but for grown folks. I went on to read the sequel, The Magician King, and enjoyed it just as much. I would recommend Grossman for anyone who likes a little humor and sarcasm to go along with their fantasy reads.

Travels in Siberia coverTravels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. Before I knew that Ian Frazier was awesome, I stumbled upon his cover for Travels in Siberia. I thought it was lovely and that combined with my odd fascination with all things Russian was enough to get me to put it on hold. I was not disappointed. I think those who enjoy the kind of travel writing one gets from Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson would really connect with this author.

Lisa

Beauty Queens and Other Aberrations of Nature

Ever since a brilliant, beautiful friend of mine entered a small-time city beauty pageant and lost to the mayor’s granddaughter (whose talent was disco roller skating), I’ve not held these contests in the highest regard. But actually, my disdain started much earlier in life. SmileOne of the first grown-up movies I remember watching as a kid is Smile, a biting satire of pageants and middle-class American society. Teenagers compete for the Young American Miss crown while running the gauntlet of an overprotective chaperone (a former Young American Miss crown-holder herself), a sleazy, dimwitted emcee and a temperamental choreographer. The pinnacle of the film is the pageant itself, highlighted by a participant demonstrating how to efficiently pack a suitcase. Amongst the contestants are very young versions of Melanie Griffith and Annette O’Toole.

But this was just to be the beginning of my complicated relationship with beauty and its contests.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Beauty QueensThis hilarious book opens with a plane full of teenage beauty pageant contestants crashing near a small, apparently deserted island. The crew members, as well as many of the competitors, die in the crash, and those who survive must figure out how to make like Gilligan. All this death and suffering makes for a knee-slapping premise in the hands of Libba Bray. At first the surviving contestants are little more than stereotypes, albeit not simplistic pageant queens (well, except for Miss Mississippi and Miss Alabama who are impossible to tell apart). Each young lady has special knowledge and talents that come in handy and Miss Texas, well, she’s just a natural born dicta…, um, leader. The story is occasionally interrupted by pageant entry forms, commercials for the pageant’s sponsors, and other humorous asides. As time passes we meet faux pirates who star in a reality TV show, a foreign leader patterned after Chairman Mao, and bad bad government men. Adventures and merriment abound, and throughout it all Miss Texas makes sure that the young women practice their pageant routines daily.

Little Miss Sunshine
Little Miss SunshineAlthough a beauty contest does play a central role in this comedy, it’s a family’s quirkiness that’s the focus of the story. Olive is a seven-year-old pageant-hopeful surrounded by a remarkable cast of characters: an overworked mother, unsuccessful father, suicidal uncle, mute-by-choice brother, and heroin-using grandfather. In the midst of everyone’s issues, Olive dreams of winning the Little Miss Sunshine contest in faraway California. So the entire clan climbs into their trusty VW bus and begins an 800-mile journey. Hilarity ensues, misfortune is overcome, and the family arrives at the last minute to discover a gaggle of skinny, tan, and overtly sexual little girls. Olive, in contrast, is plain and somewhat chunky. The family tries to talk her into withdrawing from the contest to avoid embarrassment, but in a lovely show of support Olive’s mom decides that Olive should just be herself and compete. Humor, drama, pathos, angst, and merriment combine for a unique movie-viewing experience.

There’s a (slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell: a novel of Sewer Pipes, Pageant Queens, and Big Trouble by Laurie Notaro

There's a slight chanceLaurie Notaro is a hilarious woman. In her first novel we find Maye Roberts moving to a small university town in Washington where her husband has landed a tenure-track job. She leaves her job and friends in Phoenix and moves to Spaulding, a clique-ish place where it’s difficult to make friends. The town originally was famous as the world’s largest producer of sewer pipes, but a devastating fire put an end to this claim and Spaulding is now known for its prestigious university. A final remaining vestige of the town’s plumbing heritage is the annual Sewer Pipe Queen pageant, a remnant of the Spaulding Festival which featured sewer pipe oriented contests. It is suggested to Maye that she compete for this title, which is a guaranteed gateway to instant popularity, and she decides to follow this advice. While this is not a book about a beauty contest per se, it is an amusing look at the challenges of fitting in.

Drop Dead Gorgeous
Drop Dead GorgeousPerhaps my favorite pageant movie, Drop Dead Gorgeous, is a mockumentary about the Sara Rose Princess America Pageant in small-town Minnesota. As the contestants begin to expire spectacularly one-by-one under suspicious circumstances (exploding tractors and what-not) the remaining contenders soldier on in fear and trepidation. The talented cast, which includes Kirstie Alley, Kirsten Dunst, Ellen Barkin and Denise Richards, lends an aura of authenticity to the proceedings. Who will win the crown, and more importantly, who will survive?

Ron

Long Live the Dog!

Don't, just don't...

Don’t, just don’t…

I’ve never seen nor read Old Yeller - I just know better. My mom preferred stapling the last couple pages of The Snowman together over having me be repeatedly disappointed that the boy’s wonderful new friend never got to stick around. Bambi didn’t get much airtime in our house, and All Dogs Go to Heaven still makes me feel betrayed (but seriously, shouldn’t the halos on the posters have tipped me off?). Alas, I was a sensitive child.

Taking all that into account, it should be no shock to my readers that I still try to avoid books and films where the non-human lead dies in the end. If you’re like me, just knowing that a book has a lovable (or not so lovable) dog in it tends to be a deterrent because you just know how that’s going to wind up. It doesn’t matter if it’s supposed to be a heartwarming death or a senseless one, we instinctively know to steer clear.

Thankfully there are books out there that buck the trend. The best way that I have found to avoid having my emotions brutally toyed with is to get into a series in which the dog happens to be the main character. To help you all out, here are a few series that I would recommend for other softies like me who wouldn’t flinch if the human protagonist got eaten by a tiger, but would cry their eyes out if the author dared to have Rex die peacefully of old age surrounded by a litter of loving offspring.

For kids and young adults:

Clifford the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell. Originally introduced in 1963, Clifford has lived to an amazing 213 dog years and shows no sign of decline. The Clifford empire has expanded from simple, delightful softcover books for young readers, to a range of television programming, movies, video games, and toys.

Harry the Dirty DogHarry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion. Harry was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. I’m happy to report that, like Clifford, Harry continues to live a long and productive book, DVD, and merchandise life.

Castaways of the Flying Dutchman* by Brian Jacques. This title gets an asterisk because technically the dog is already dead; that’s how the series begins (no real spoilers there). I won’t get into the details, but Ben and his dog companion Ned travel throughout the ages, irrevocably tied to the fate of the famously cursed ship, The Flying Dutchman. As they wander through time the duo get into a series of adventures, befriend an interesting cast of characters, and fight evil when they encounter it. Though these books can be a little bittersweet at times, because Ben and Ned are always forced to move on from their newly established lives, you know that they will not be parted from each other.

For Adults:

The Mrs. Murphy Mystery series, by Rita Mae Brown. I know some dog-loving purists may take issue with the fact that this series was co-authored by Brown’s cat, Sneaky Pie, and features two cat detectives, but hear me out. I personally love Tee Tucker, the lively crime-stopping corgi that plays a big role in all of Brown’s mysteries. I think if you gave the series a chance you’d root for Tee too.

A Fistful of CollarsThe Chet and Bernie Mystery series, by Spencer Quinn. For those who can’t stomach the idea of their dog hero sharing the spotlight with a couple of cats, there are Chet and Bernie. Failed K-9 cop Chet, the narrator, works with his human companion Bernie as a private eye. These books are full of suspense, humor, and a little bit of canine mischief, that all adds up to very enjoyable reading.

All of the above series have multiple volumes, so you shouldn’t have any trouble getting your dog hero fix with minimal heartbreak. That should keep your eyes busy and your tails wagging!

Lisa

All I Want for Christmas is My Sense of Humor

Tis the season for crazy sweaters, spiked eggnog, and blackmail photos. If you’re following the library on Facebook you’ll know we’re not above poking fun at ourselves around the holidays.

Crazy Sweaters

But if you’re like me, this time of year is so crazy-busy you really try to find the humor in whatever new holiday-related predicament you find yourself in. Let me lead you through my holiday routine and you’ll see why I believe there’s no place like the library for the holidays.

awkwardfamilyphotos.comWhen my waistline is somewhat back to normal post-Thanksgiving and my calendar is now screaming DECEMBER at me, I will usually gather up my husband and our cats and attempt to pose us into some semblance of order. We aim for cute. What we usually end up with are semi-strangled pets and harried looking adults grimacing in what is sure to be the 30th attempt, one that will “have to do” because no one wants to do this anymore. The Awkward Family Photo books have similar photos to show you what I’m dealing with on an annual basis.

People of WalmartOnce the photo has been taken, it’s off to get the prints made. Usually I can send the photo over the Internet to be printed at my local pharmacy. But if you’re unlucky enough to need to wade through the hordes of holiday bargain-hunters and actually set up your photo card in person, you will be sure to find some truly bizarre individuals completely oblivious to social norms. The People of Wal-Mart books have just a few samplings of folks who haven’t paid any attention to their attire—or in some cases paid entirely too much attention to what they’re wearing, to a horrifying degree.

sketchy-santasIf you have children, or feel like a child yourself, the next stop will probably be the North Pole, aka your local mall Santa. These days you can even take your pets to visit Santa, though I suspect my cats would be truly horrified should we ever attempt that with them. While there you may find yourself face-to-face with what can only be called a Sketchy Santa.

Who’s that excessively jolly fellow with the fake beard, shifty eyes, sweaty hands, and boozy breath? Why, it’s not just Santa but sketchy Santa!

crap at my parents house

Eventually we will arrive at the big day: holiday celebrations with the family! I was lucky to have grown up celebrating Christmas Day at my Grandma’s house, a home which was tastefully decorated and yet still inviting for the sticky-fingered, running, screaming grandkids. However, occasionally I would visit friends’ houses during Christmastime and inevitably stumble across something that could have come straight out of Crap at my Parents’ House: creepy ceramics, giant Santa figures that could easily be mistaken for a Sketchy Santa, and hundreds of Precious Moments dolls crammed into one tiny hutch.

my kids ruinedAfter the holidays come to an end, there’s always something else to look forward to. Yes, there will be another holiday season to anticipate next year. But really I’m talking about the time when that gift you loved getting is inevitably ruined by someone you love and thought you could trust. Sh*t My Kids Ruined features some prime examples. Toys shoved in the VCR, diplomas graffitied with ink pens, and countless pets massacred with everything from condiments to vomit are sure to leave you clutching your loved ones close but your prized possessions closer.

This holiday season, I am fortunate to be able to travel back home to Illinois, where my story began. Spending so much time with my family I can guarantee I will laugh, I will cry, and I will be thankful for the life I have and for the possessions that haven’t yet been destroyed.

Carol