Keeping it Local

With the current restrictions on social gatherings, as well as the return of the November rainy season, you might find yourself spending a lot of time indoors and at home. If, like me, you have caught yourself analyzing the animal residents of your backyard or scrutinizing the behavior of your beloved pet, it may be time to just lean into the situation. Why not declare your immediate home environment a new obsession and give your curiosity free reign?  

Luckily, the library has a lot of great new books to help you investigate your local surroundings and find out what makes its inhabitants tick. Here are a few excellent examples. 

Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy by Zazie Todd

Whether you dog follows you around all day, barks at a leaf falling on the roof, or likes to take 8 hour power naps, spending so much time with them begs the question: Are they happy? Zazie Todd sets out to not only answer that question, but to also find out ways to make their lives markedly better. She interviews a broad range of experts, including veterinarians, behaviorists, shelter managers and trainers to gain insight into the dog mindset. Equally important, she asks the reader to examine their own expectations when it comes to living with, or even getting, a canine companion. 

Decoding Your Cat: the Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones

Ah the inscrutable feline. Even with extra hours of observation at home, is it possible to understand what makes yours tick? This book, from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists no less, believes you can understand your feline companion and learn to cohabitate better. They even provide a handy chart of common behavioral cues, like the set of their ears, to help you interpret your cat’s changing temperament. This book is also full of practical advice (cats like to observe from above so providing a perch to view all the human action below is ideal) and DIY cat toy ideas. 

Peterson Guide to Bird Behavior by John Kricher

Birds, aka avian dinosaurs, are another set of creatures you have probably had more time to observe lately. While your backyard feathered friends might not belong to any unusual species, their behaviors are definitely exotic and fascinating. This Peterson guide is not about bird identification but instead delves into the many aspects of bird behaviors: social interaction, nesting, migration, feeding and many more that you can observe. Best of all, this guide is written in an easy to understand style, which ditches obscure and technical jargon in favor of ease of understanding.  

A Cloud a Day by Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Even if you don’t have a pet or local fauna to observe, there is one sure fire way to connect with your local surroundings: simply look up. Clouds are easily taken for granted, but are actually pretty amazing, and come in a dazzling array of shapes and sizes. Put together by the Cloud Appreciation Society (yes, it is a real organization) this book provides you with 365 cloud formations to contemplate and appreciate. Each entry is gorgeous in its own way, with photographs and famous illustrations of each formation. A detailed, but easy to understand, scientific explanation of each cloud is provided as well. 

So get out of your headspace and observe some of the fascinating, complex and beautiful creatures and phenomena that surround you. Library books included.  

Escape to the Future

I think most of us can currently be described as ‘forward thinking.’ The desire to see 2020 in the rearview mirror is nearly universal at this point. My reading choices have been reflecting this trend with science fiction being my go to genre of late. I’ve always liked it, but something about our current position on the space-time continuum makes me gravitate towards stories of the distant future. My reasoning being: whatever that future is, at least it isn’t now.  

Luckily for me, there are a lot of great science fiction tales being published. While it is hard to choose, here are two of my recent favorites. 

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine 

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare has her work cut out for her. Arriving in the imperial capital of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire, she has been tasked with preventing her independent, but small, mining colony from being annexed. While she has studied and admired Teixcalaanli culture and literature, she isn’t totally prepared for its Byzantine political structure and rituals. She also arrives at a time of political turmoil, with an aged emperor facing succession problems and a growing threat on the border. Oh, and the matter of the former ambassador being murdered, officially a case of food poisoning no less, has complicated things.

A Memory Called Empire is definitely chock full of world building and political intrigue, but it didn’t feel like a space opera to me. The author creates fully formed characters, Mahit and her cultural guide Three Seagrass especially, who you sympathize with as they try to negotiate a foreign cultural landscape. It also brings up intriguing ideas about identity and assimilation; the push and pull of simultaneously wanting, and not wanting, to be something else. All this plus lots of adventure, humor and fascinating concepts that only science fiction can provide make for a great read, or listen.

Network Effect by Martha Wells 

Murderbot, its chosen moniker, hacked its governor module long ago and is free from the corporate entities that once controlled its every move. But what is an artificial intelligence with organic elements to do with new found freedom? If it was up to Murderbot, all its time would be spent watching its beloved media serials, especially The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, and making snarky comments. But, sadly, reality always has a way of intruding. This time around, reality includes protecting clueless, and somewhat gross humans, interacting with a cynical ship’s AI named ART, all while trying to prevent evil corporations from getting their hands on alien technology.

Network Effect is the first novel length book in the Murderbot diaries series but easily stands on its own. Wells has created a unique and incredibly entertaining central character whose take on the humans around it is both hilarious and unique. As the ultimate, but sympathetic, outsider, Murderbot’s perspective also examines the idea of looking in at a corporate culture that produces great fictional universes via popular media, but which has a reality that doesn’t match up. Ultimately, though, this is an adventure story chock full of interesting characters that is hard to put down once started.  

So if you need a little break from reality as well, give these two excellent science fiction novels a try. What have you got to lose? 

Mars 2020

It seems that Mars is the preferred destination this month. The UAE launched the Hope probe to Mars on July 19th and China launched the Tianwen-1, both a probe and a lander, on July 23th. Not to be outdone, NASA launched the Perseverance Rover (with a rover the size of a SUV and a super cool helicopter) this morning on its seven month journey to the red planet.   

While I have to admit that my favorite planet, sorry dwarf planet is Pluto, the space nerd in me could not resist taking a deep dive into all things Martian. Luckily we have plenty of books here at the library about Mars and its exploration as well as the tantalizing possibility of human habitation there. Read on to satisfy your curiosity (sorry, couldn’t resist).

The Perseverance rover will hardly be the first vehicle to visit Mars. There is a long and triumphant history of rovers on Mars, overcoming the odds and furthering our knowledge of the planet. We have several books and DVDs about the rovers, especially Curiosity, their findings and the scientists and engineers who made the missions possible.  

Mars is also a key player in the search for life beyond our planet. While, sadly, earlier ideas of little green men or a deadly invasion force have not panned out, there is still keen scientific interest in possibly finding life at a much more basic level on the red planet. An excellent recent book that sums up this quest, both the scientific and fantastical aspects, is The Sirens of Mars by Sarah Stewart Johnson. The author expertly conveys our fascination with Mars and our deep seeded need to seek out new life and find out if we have company in the universe.  

Finally, one of the more tantalizing ideas concerning Mars is whether human habitation is possible there at all. Beyond the realm of fiction, there are a surprising number of books that explore the possibility via science and technology. Some of the tantalizing titles here at the library include How We’ll Live on MarsMars: Our Future on the Red Planet, and The Case for Mars: the Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.  

So why not take Perseverance’s seven month journey time to read up on Mars and all its possibilities? The library has got you covered.

Dynamic Fluids

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve always found books about scientific ideas oddly comforting. In times of stress, books in the sciences, with their often specific and single-minded focus, allow me to take a step back and ignore the chaos all around. If only for a little while. 

Since I’m not of a naturally scientific bent myself (the curse of being a humanities major, alas) I need my science explained to me in layman’s terms. In addition, I especially like books that focus on quirky and often overlooked ideas. You can imagine my anticipation and delight when I came across Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances that Flow Through Our Lives by Mark Miodownik. I was not disappointed. Read on to find out why. 

The author smartly realizes that many may not initially find the liquid state fascinating. To help convince the skeptical, he grounds his discussion in a common experience (well what used to be common): a transatlantic flight from London to San Francisco. While most of us might be making sure our phone is in airplane mode or perusing the inflight magazine, Miodownik has one thing on his mind: kerosene, the primary ingredient in aviation fuel. 

Kerosene is a transparent, colorless fluid that, confusingly, looks exactly like water. So where is all that hidden energy stored, all that secret power? Why doesn’t the storage of all that raw energy inside the liquid make it appear, well, more syrupy and dangerous? And why is it not mentioned in the preflight safety briefing? 

Thus begins an immensely entertaining, quirky, uproarious, and, yes, informative deep dive into the mysterious world of liquids.  

As we continue on our flight, we are introduced to liquids that are not only explosive (kerosene) but also intoxicating (alcohol), sticky (glue), refreshing (tea or coffee), cooling (freon), visceral (saliva), and cleansing (liquid soap) to name just a few. The author’s style is the furthest thing from a lecture you could think of and you will find yourself learning a lot without even realizing it.  

He accomplishes this by lots of self deprecating humor and a keen sense of human foibles. You will come to sympathize with his fictional, but long suffering, airplane seatmate who must put up with his awkward attempts at dialogue and odd unsolicited observations. 

So why not distract yourself for an hour or two with some keen insight about an often encountered, but rarely discussed, state of matter? You will be entertained, informed and gain a new appreciation of the liquids in your life. Well, most of them anyway. 

A More Challenging Reading Challenge

While having both of our physical locations shuttered has made things more challenging for all of us, there is one challenge that you can definitely overcome while practicing social distancing and spending lots of time at home. Yes, I’m talking about the Everett Public Library Reading Challenge 2020.  

But how can I cross off all those twelve tasks without being able to check out a physical book you might ask? Let me show you how you can fulfill every one of them without setting foot in one of our, admittedly wonderful, locations. While the road will not be easy, actually it will, once completed you will feel like Hercules after he completed his twelve labors. No hydra killing required. 

Pro Tip: Most of these suggestions require access to our eBooks and eAudiobooks via the OverDrive and CloudLibrary apps. Check out this post on how to get started if you need help getting set up. 

A book by Yangsze Choo 

Read or listen to several titles by the author on the Libby, Overdrive, or CloudLibrary app. Also check our her webpage and Twitter feed

A book by Tayari Jones   

Read or Listen to her novel American Marriage which was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and won the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. For more, take a look at her website and Twitter feed

A book by Phillip Margolin 

There are several titles from which to choose in both eBook and eAudiobook format. Also check out what the author is up to on his official website

A book set in the 1920s 

You can definitely fulfill this one in the electronic realm by sticking with some of the classic 1920s authors including F. Scott FitzgeraldEdith WhartonGertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway to name but a few. You can also expand out by using topic searches such as Jazz AgeProhibition or simply 1920s to get lots of contemporary fiction and non-fiction set in the 1920s. 

A graphic novel or comic book 

Surprisingly, well surprisingly to me at least, our digital service Hoopla is the go to for graphic novels and comic books. I thought Hoopla only had digital movies and music, but after reading Jesse’s excellent post on their graphic novel content, I found out otherwise. Being a Sci Fi nerd, I was delighted to find the large collection of graphic novels exploring alternative storylines and versions of classics such as AlienBlade Runner and Star Trek

An eBook or audiobook 

The choices are limitless here. Just take a gander at all that is available on Overdrive and CloudLibrary to get you started. If eAudio is your thing, Hoopla is also an excellent source of titles to listen to. 

A book that challenges your point of view 

This is a tricky one since everyone’s point of view is unique. Override your instincts, and go for an ebook that you might otherwise avoid. Do you like tragedy or comedy?  Are you a believer or a doubter? Whatever your position, we have plenty of ebooks from both perspectives to challenge your ideas and help you cross this one off the list. 

A book of short stories or essays 

A simple subject search in the catalog will give you more than enough books of short stories and essays to choose from. If you don’t mind your short stories on the dark side, let me recommend Florida by Lauren Groff, Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez and Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah as excellent choices.  

A book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics 

Step 1: find out which cities have hosted the Olympics. Step 2: in the catalog, use that city name as a keyword and limit the results to eBooks. Result: lots of great titles to choose from based on one city alone! 

A book recommended by library staff 

Might I humbly suggest this very blog for staff recommendations? While you could limit yourself to posts published since March 12th (totaling 27 so far and counting) that have focused on eBooks and electronic resources exclusively, I would suggest looking at all the authors and checking to see if the item is available as an eBook. Chances are it is. 

A book published in 2020 

So many new ebooks, so little time. One of the few good things about our our physical locations being currently closed is the fact that the library is buying more ebooks than ever. To find them, you could search the catalog by limiting the publication date or take a look at the new releases on the OverDrive and CloudLibrary collections sites. 

A cookbook or a book about food 

You could definitely search the catalog to find more than enough titles to check this one off the list. However, I would recommend taking a gander at two outstanding posts recently published by Joyce and Susan that focus on cookbooks and food related titles in ebook format to get you started. 

Short But Not So Sweet

I’ve always had a soft spot for short stories. Maybe it is my limited attention span or perhaps wanting to feel I’ve accomplished something quickly, but there is always a short story collection or two on my reading list. In addition to brevity, I’m also drawn to fiction that is odd, introspective, and, might as well admit it, a tad dark at times.

So be warned, if you want to invest in characters for 800 pagers or more and need a happy ending, the titles I’m about to recommend are probably not for you. If you don’t mind visiting the dark side now and again, however, here are three collections that are well worth your limited reading time. I will be brief. Promise.

…and Other Disasters by Malka Older is a surprisingly unified work for a collection of stories, a poem or two and a few written fragments. All are brought together by their subject: a speculative future that seems both plausible and frightening. You will learn about a child implanted with a recording device, a Lifebrarian, from birth, receive advice from voting ‘counselors’ who scientifically measure who you should vote for and why, and get inside the head of an artificial intelligence that is taught to feel in order to make better decisions. While the ideas are big, all the stories are told from an individual and personal perspective. This makes them all the more affecting, and chilling.

Quirky, at times surreal and always a bit odd, the stories making up Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction by Chuck Klosterman are many things, but never dull. How odd you ask? Well there is the story of a man who finds a puma in an airplane lavatory, a couple considering a medical procedure that transfers the pain of childbirth to the man, and a high school football team that only executes one play repeatedly every game. All the stories are told in a plain and matter of fact style, with the characters accepting the weirdness as perfectly natural. If you give this unique collection a try, you might come to accept the altered reality as well and will definitely have a good chuckle or two in the bargain.

The darkest of the three titles, Rag: Stories by Maryse Meijer is a powerful, intimate and deeply unsettling collection. The writing is sparse and direct, but the author has an uncanny ability to convey her characters’ inner thoughts and struggles. Whether you want to be in that headspace is another matter. I won’t give away any of the plots, but each story deals with ideas of gender, violence and the roles we are assigned and what we do with them. While there are elements of horror, or perhaps dark fairy tales, in these stories, they come off as all too real. This adds to their impact and is a credit to Meijer’s unique and affecting style. This is an unforgettable collection, just remember: you have been warned.

 

Evil Corp

In fiction and movies, when it comes to finding a reason for all the nastiness in the world (especially in a Science Fiction setting) I’ve always preferred the Evil Corporation being the responsible party.  Whether it is the suits from the Tyrell Corporation (More Human Than Human) or Weyland-Yutani (Building Better Worlds) delivering the lines, it always seems appropriate. You could argue, however, that the dastardly company is a bit of a worn-out theme at this point. If so, let me introduce you to two excellent books I recently read that breathe new life into the idea, with slightly different takes on corporations gone wrong.

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

Told from the perspective of three newly hired employees, The Factory presents a slightly surreal, but definitely disturbing, view of a behemoth corporation and its ability to indoctrinate those who work for it. What the company produces exactly is never spelled out. Also, the protagonists have some rather odd jobs: Yoshio is tasked with the ‘green roof project,’ but is the only person in the department, is given no direction, and ends up leading a children’s ‘moss hunt’ as his primary task. Ushiyama is a proofreader of obscure company documents, but the editing is all done by hand and not checked for accuracy. And Yoshiko is a ‘professional shredder,’ who simply shreds documents, all day every day. As they continue to work at the factory, all three slowly begin to accept the illogic and absurdity of their tasks, and the company itself. So much so that the appearance of a huge flock of flightless black birds produced in the company labs and a middle-aged man known as the Forest Pantser terrorizing the company campus, just seem like another day at the office.

The Warehouse by Rob Hart

In a near future where the climate is heating up fast and resources are dwindling, the Cloud corporation is the largest in the world. Not only does it have a monopoly on almost all retail commerce (items delivered by drone straight to you) it is fast replacing government and is almost the only source of jobs. Those who do work for Cloud are housed in huge complexes, called Mother Clouds, must wear colored polo shirts that designate where they work, and have their movements tracked via Cloud Bands which are worn on the wrist. The story is told through three distinctive viewpoints: Paxton, who’s business was destroyed by Cloud, and now works in security; Zinnia, a corporate spy who is working undercover on the floor of the warehouse; and Gibson, the founder of Cloud who is on a farewell tour of all the Mother Clouds in the country. All three characters are far from caricatures and challenge your sense of sympathy and condemnation. This combined with the all too real comparisons to our present corporate and environmental landscape, make this a compelling and disturbing read.

So, I hope you will take a look at these excellent books featuring evil corporations. If not well… I made a decision and it was…wrong. It was a bad call, Ripley. It was a bad call.

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.