Shallow Choices

There are a lot of great reasons to choose a book. An interesting topic, a good review, a friend’s recommendation or even an intriguing title are all tried and true methods of selecting a book here at the library. But let me recommend one other way that might seem frivolous at first: beauty. While definitely a poor method for choosing human (and pet for that matter) companionship, selecting a book based solely on looks can yield great results. It can even introduce you to titles you might not dream of looking at otherwise.

Still skeptical? Take a gander at these four titles that I plucked off the shelves for their beauty alone; and ended up thoroughly enjoying.

The Old West, Then & Now by Vaughan Grylls

The concept for this book is deceptively simple: display a historical photograph of an important location in the development of the idea of the American west and juxtapose it with a recent one. Seeing the differences, or not, brought to a place by the simple passage of time is actually quite thought provoking and complex. It doesn’t hurt that the photographs, both old and recent, are stunning and the locations well chosen, either.

Star Wars Propaganda by Pablo Hidalgo

Whether you are a potential recruit for the Empire or the Rebellion, you will find a lot of gorgeous art posters to confirm or deny your leanings in this unique book. This work takes its Star Wars lore very seriously, with a detailed chronology that places each poster in a specific time and place within the Star Wars universe.  But even if you don’t know Darth Vader from Darth Maul, you will enjoy the sleek artwork and the sometimes-disturbing references to current cultural events and tropes that are displayed.

The World of Dinosaurs by Mark Norell

A post about beautiful books wouldn’t be complete without one on the topic of dinosaurs now would it? These long extinct creatures have been the subject of artists reconstructions since the first fossilized bones were dug out of the ground. This masterwork, chock full of speculative illustrations and photographs of the fossils themselves, is a feast for the eyes. Being authored by the chairman of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History guarantees that all the speculation is scientific and based on the latest research as well.

The Drink that Made Wisconsin Famous by Doug Hoverson

While beauty might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Wisconsin and beer, this book is definitely gorgeous. Chock full of photographs of vintage advertising, bottles in various shapes and hues, and historical as well and modern production machinery, this book is truly a looker. In addition to the beauty, this impressive tome is chock full of well researched and detailed histories regarding brewing and breweries in the Badger state. Plus, beer!

So, go ahead, and be a little bit shallow. Check out a book or two based solely on looks.

Not Your Father’s Ancient History

Do you like your historical biographies bold and unapologetic? Do you want to learn something new from a set of seemingly old and exhausted primary sources? Want to hear the tale of a person constrained by crushing societal forces, but striking out in an unconventional and incredibly effective way? Finally, are you o.k. with expletives and current cultural references while learning about the ancient world? If so, let me recommend to you the thrilling, fascinating, well researched and bitingly funny Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon. Read on to find out more.

If you haven’t heard of Agrippina before (technically Agrippina the Younger but, as Southon points out, the Romans were super unoriginal when it came to giving a child a name) you have probably run across some of her notorious relations. She was the granddaughter of the first emperor Augustus, the sister of the emperor Caligula (yes, that one!), the wife of the emperor Claudius, her own uncle (Ewww), and the mother of Nero (oh, my!).

So with an interesting pedigree like that, why haven’t you heard more about her? Well the elephant in the room when it comes to telling the story of a woman in the ancient world, and much of history alas, is who does the telling. The two primary surviving historical accounts of her time are written by two senators, Tacitus and Suetonius, roughly a hundred years later. Both had a major axe to grind when it came to the idea of a woman stepping out of her ‘proper’ role and, heaven forbid, wielding a little power for herself.

Southern does an excellent job of demonstrating how Agrippina only shows up in the historical record at all as a foil or reaction to a male protagonist. Because of this, there are huge gaps when it comes to trying to form a cohesive narrative of her life. Most historians look at the gaps and just give up on trying to tell her story at all. Not Sothern. Instead she embraces the ambiguity and speculation with gusto and produces a convincing and entertaining account.

It is really hard to do her style justice by just describing it, so I’ll just quote a great passage here concerning Agrippina’s mother, yet another Agrippina, and her return to Rome after her husband’s death:

Agrippina the Elder returned to Rome in 19CE with two symbolic middle fingers raised in Tiberius’s direction, while Tiberius sulked in his palace. The atmosphere went slowly downhill from here. But they were family, and – like Michael Bluth – the Julio-Claudians put family first. They couldn’t just avoid one another and get on with their lives, and Agrippina the Elder didn’t want that anyway. Agrippina the Elder wanted revenge.

So clearly this is not your father’s ancient history. But if you give this excellent history a chance, you will be thanking the gods that it isn’t when you finish.

The Great Forgetting

How do you describe a book that is best not described? That is the conundrum I’ve found myself in when trying to talk about The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. It is a beautiful, haunting, touching and disturbing read very much grounded in the real. When you describe the plot, however, it sounds like a fantastical and dystopian work with possible tendencies toward heavy handed allegory. I was hesitant to pick it up myself after reading the synopsis, but I’ve absolutely adored other books by the author (The Diving Pool is a standout) and knew I had to give it a try. I was well rewarded and I think you will be as well.

Now let’s get that problematic plot out of the way.

The unnamed protagonist, a young novelist who recently lost both her parents and now lives alone, resides on a very peculiar, also unnamed, island. The residents wake up every so often and find they have forgotten that a specific object (a hat, a bird, a rose) exists. The objects then cease to exist in the world. While this is definitely disturbing at first, the residents come to accept it and eventually forget the object ever existed in the first place.

A very few people, however, are not subject to this forgetting. It is the job of the Memory Police, a sinister lot in well pressed uniforms, to find these people and take them out of the community; to where exactly, no one knows. The young novelist discovers that her editor is one of those who can remember and with the help of an older neighbor, decides to hide him in a basement compartment of her house.

So yeah, not your standard storyline.

Don’t let the fantastical nature of the plot scare you off though. The relationships between the characters, and Ogawa’s plain but haunting use of language, are the real stars here. Their thoughts and feelings are described in such a straight forward and seemingly plausible way, that you too come to accept the seemingly impossible.

As with most of the author’s work, however, there is a sense of unseen menace behind the plain language. It is hard to describe, but the lead character captured my own feelings about this novel, while describing her own work:

I myself wasn’t sure what would happen next. The story seemed simple and pleasant enough, but I had a feeling it might take a frightening turn.

So, if you don’t mind a frightening turn or two, and appreciate really great writing, definitely check out The Memory Police.

Crew Expendable

Ah, the summer of 1979. If you were more than a gleam in your Mother’s eye, you might have noted the signing of the SALT II agreement, celebrated the Sonics wining the NBA championship or listened to Michael Jackson’s newly released album Off the Wall. If you were to ask my 11-year-old self what the most important event was, however, it would definitely be getting to see my first R-rated movie. After much cajoling on my part and vetting of the film by my parents, I was allowed to attend a viewing, with an appropriate adult of course, of the movie Alien. I still may not have fully recovered.

If you have seen the film (and if you haven’t: a. seriously?? and b. spoilers ahead) you know that there are many things that could leave an impression on a developing mind. The alien itself is a literal nightmare, its method of reproduction is grotesque to say the least, and a decapitated android admiring a ‘perfect organism’ while covered in milk/blood has a tendency to be disturbing. But no, my fevered preadolescent mind began quaking in fear because of…… air ducts.

Ridley Scott created a set so convincing that I felt I was trapped along with the crew in a cramped, grittily industrial and incredibly dark spaceship. When the camera slowly panned across a hallway, I was filled with dread even before the creature appeared. The final straw for me was when Dallas, played by Seattle’s own Tom Skerritt, crawled through the air ducts in a doomed effort to flush the alien into an airlock. As the device that is tracking him started to register two blips, I began slumping down in my seat getting ready to cover my eyes.

If you too are terrified by effective film set design, or just want to see a great movie again, now is a good time to check out Alien. Not only do we have the DVD at the library, but in honor of the 40th anniversary of the film’s release in the summer of 1979, it is being shown in actual theaters again and will be coming to Everett in October.

Now, if you would like to delve into the film a little deeper and learn all about its complicated creation story, the library has just purchased The Making of Alien by J.W. Rinzler. The book is an Alien aficionado’s dream containing new interviews with Ridley Scott and many others involved in the production, rarely seen photographs, and enough concept art of the Alien from H.R Giger to give you nightmares for weeks.

The story of the film’s journey from concept to creation is actually quite fascinating in its own right. It serves as an intriguing reflection of the shifting mores regarding gender (a female hero??), the creeping influence of commercialization (damn company!), and fear of automation (I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathy). Either that, or I’ve seen the film way to many times.

Also, just let the cat go. Come on!

To the Moon

As you have no doubt heard by now, July 20th is the 50th anniversary of human beings landing on the moon. One of the side benefits of all the hype is the fact that the library now has a slew of new books on this important technological achievement, the moon in general, and other quirky space exploration topics. There are so many new books, in fact, that it might just be hard to sift through them all. Never fear, your trusty librarian is here to guide you through all of the goodies.

So whether you want to revel in a technological marvel, examine the geopolitical forces that made the launch possible, examine firsthand astronaut’s experiences, find out about the moon itself or contemplate future explorations, we have a book to pique your interest. There is also a little something for the cynic (great, we have another pristine resource to exploit) or the grump (why isn’t there a freakin’ moon base after 50 years!) to enjoy as well.

The Mission

There is no denying that the mission to the moon was an impressive technological achievement. But it certainly wasn’t easy. Or safe. Or guaranteed to succeed. Learn all the harrowing details in these tense and fascinating books documenting the mission and those who succeeded in pulling it off.

The Politics

While the astronauts operated in a vacuum, the Apollo missions definitely did not. Large amounts of political intrigue, historical factors, and taxpayer funding was required to get those rockets off the ground. Check out these books to get some historical perspective on the Apollo missions and gain some insight into the controversies surrounding the program to this day.

The People

What does it take to walk on the moon? What is it like to be blasted into space? What does it feel like to live out the rest of your life tethered to the earth and considered a hero? Find out with these books from the astronaut’s perspective.

For the Graphically Inclined

The moon landing provided some stunning visuals, so it is only appropriate to have this reflected in books celebrating the anniversary. Also included are two excellent graphic novels that depict the Apollo program and the historical landing.

A Different Take

While traditional historical narratives are great, I always appreciate a book that tries to take a different approach to a well-known topic. These two books examine the moon landing by focusing on a few, or one, key object and telling the story from there.

The Moon Itself

We often take our closest celestial neighbor for granted, but the moon is actually more important and interesting than you might imagine. These books examine the moon from a cultural and scientific perspective, revealing it to be much more than a simple lifeless chunk of rock.

What Next?

Sure landing on the moon 50 years ago was an impressive feat, but what happens now? Will we revisit the moon and expand outward into the solar system? Should we? Check out these books to speculate about the future of the moon, humanity, and space travel.

So come on into the library and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by checking out a book or two. The future is yours!

In a Lonely Place

This is the city. Late 1940s Los Angeles. The war has been won and the economy is booming, but something sinister is prowling the foggy streets of the city at night. Women are being murdered and their lifeless bodies abandoned in seemingly random locations. The police are unable to find a pattern or a motive. Panic and fear permeates the streets.

If this sounds like a standard noir plot from the likes of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett you would be right. The difference here is that this tale is written by the little known, but much regarded Dorothy B. Hughes. In a Lonely Place, written in 1947 and reissued here in the NYRB Classics series, is as entertaining as it is subversive. Hughes works within the noir genre to expose its own dark underbelly: the genre’s disturbing attitude towards its female characters.

Most of the novel is from the perspective of the killer, Dix Steele (a noir name if there ever was one). Recently back from the war and living off a stipend from a rich uncle, he wanders the city streets claiming he is a writer of detective fiction. Underneath this suave facade, he feels entitled to an easy life and is enraged by those he sees denying him, primarily women. There is Laurel Gray, the cynical aspiring actress who lives next door and Sylvia Nicolai, the wife of his best friend during the war. Sylvia is married to Dix’s old war buddy, who just happens to be a detective investigating the recent string of murders plaguing the city.

Hughes takes these classic noir characters (the femme fatale, the good girl, the detective, and the killer) and uses them to play with the readers expectations. The result is a novel grounded in, but not straightjacketed by, the genre. I won’t give any more of the details away. Just know that this is not a ‘standard’ noir tale in execution or resolution.

Do be warned though, it can take a bit of time to adjust to this excellent work. The prose can be dense and heated, the slang sometimes obtuse, and it is grounded in the mores of its time. That being said, this slim novel is well worth your limited reading time.

Back in My Day…

Historical reenactment has always seemed a weird yet compelling activity to me. Sure it is easy to laugh at grown adults in period costumes trying to recreate a bygone era, but you have to admire the commitment. As a person of many compulsions myself (yes, there is a large schematic of the USS Voyager hanging above the fireplace at home), I definitely understand the desire to live out the obsession, if only for a brief time.

But there is a danger: Do reenactors want to know what it was like to live in an era or do they actually want to go back to that time? Worse yet, do they think of that era as a golden age that needs to be applied to today’s world? It is this possibility for toxic nostalgia that lies at the heart of Sarah Moss’ excellent, haunting and ‘disturbing in a good way’ novel, Ghost Wall.

Sylvie finds herself in a remote location in Northern England with her enthusiastic and domineering father, Bill, and her compliant mother, Alison. They are there for a two-week ‘holiday’ reenacting the lives of Iron Age Britons. As you might guess, wearing an itchy tunic, foraging for berries, and eating cold porridge is hardly a dream come true for a young adult. Luckily, they are joined by a group from the local university (a professor of ‘experimental archaeology’ and three students) who provide an outlet for Sylvie to escape her family from time to time.

The author slowly reveals that Bill’s relationship with his wife and daughter is clearly abusive. Worse still, his passion for recreating the lives of Iron Age Britons extends to a rather disturbing ritual: human sacrifice, complete with the disposal of the body in a local bog. Sylvie, due to years of living in an abusive family, has a tendency to accept her father’s bullying behavior even when it becomes extreme. After befriending Molly, one of the students, she begins to see that there is another way of living.

While the plot of this short novel is excellent, it’s really the author’s mesmerizing use of language that stands out. To get a feel for it, a lengthy quote is in order:

Of course, that was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do it properly, I thought, we would almost have to absent ourselves from ourselves, leaving our actions, our re-enactions, to those no longer there. Who are the ghosts again, us or our dead? Maybe they imagined us first, maybe we were conjured out of the deep past by other minds.

There are many such elegant and thought provoking passages in Ghostwall, making it a excellent use of your limited reading time. No period costume required.