Two by Liz Moore

Liz Moore has produced two of librarian Sarah’s favorites in recent years. Enjoy her reviews of both of them.

The Unseen World

unseenworldAda Sibelius was home-schooled by her father David. A prestigious scientist, David ran a university research laboratory and raised Ada to think independently and embedded her love of cryptography. The pinnacle of David’s work is an artificial intelligence program named ELIXIR. When David begins to show the beginning signs of Alzheimer’s, Ada is sent to live with one of his colleagues and her three adolescent boys. As David’s past starts to unravel, it’s determined that he may have not been forthright about his childhood and upbringing. As Ada struggles with her own teenage turmoil, she attempts to uncover the truth about her father and the ELIXIR program. Moore does a superb job of bringing together smart characters and emotionally charged circumstances. A truly graceful story about identity, love and science.

Heft

heftArthur Opp used to be a successful university professor. But things are different now. He lives alone, in the house he inherited from his parents. He doesn’t venture outside and has all of his meals and necessities delivered. Morbidly obese at over 500 pounds, Arthur is trapped in a cycle of overeating, anxiety and depression.

While he was teaching, he befriended a young student, Charlene. They developed a close relationship and remained pen pals for years. Arthur misrepresented himself in his letters and when Charlene proposes to meet up, he is forced to reconcile his surroundings and lifestyle. Nervous about the condition of his house, Arthur turns to a maid service and young, energetic Yolanda shows up on his front doorstep. Arthur hasn’t let anyone into his life for years and they develop a special friendship based on mutual acceptance and openness.

Liz Moore does a magnificent job of harnessing the human desire to connect. She does an outstanding job of conveying social anxiety, embarrassment and shame in her characters, without making them seem weak or hopeless.

It Felt Like Love

thegirlsThe version of the post you’re reading didn’t exist until a couple hours ago. I wrote the first draft last week, read parts of it and thought: ‘Yeah….no. I can’t let that go out into the world. It’d probably invite something evil in. Or a lawsuit.’ So I started rewriting, and by rewriting I mean watching YouTube clips of people falling down. That always cheers me up. I’m looking forward to the Olympics not because I like ice skating but because I like watching the skaters go spinning over the ice on their butts. As the immortal Amy Winehouse said “You know I’m no good.”

This might be a goofy post on a library’s blog, but like a lot of writing it’s kind of like therapy even if I’m just writing about a book. I swear I was one “The power of Christ compels you!” away from pushing a priest out a window while writing this one. But like a good morning scratch, this post drew a little blood in places but that’s what band aids are for.

I was a late bloomer when it came to falling in love. Or what felt like love. I now know that falling in love is 38% wonderful and 62% doing a face plant into a big pile of excrement. I was 30 and seriously lacking some judgment when it came to an older man, a friend of the family. I fell in love with a man I’ll refer to as Il Douche (because seriously, this guy was the biggest douchebag on the planet) who was already juggling a couple different women. I was a goner. I worshipped him. I was so lost I would’ve pulled a Mary Magdalene and washed his feet with my hair. It was like that. That bad. That good.

Tell me you love me

I bought him lunches I couldn’t afford. Over drew my bank account a couple of times. And all I got in return was him complaining about how crazy his girlfriends were. I let him hold my own feelings against me like a gun to my temple. He used those feelings and I was inexperienced enough to think that’s how it was all supposed to go.

Tell me you love me

So when I dove into Emma Cline’s The Girls, I felt that gut-wrenching strangle hold a persuasive man has over some women. But in Cline’s book, that love takes an even darker turn.

Picture it: California, 1969. Evie is a 14-year-old girl on the cusp of something. She just doesn’t know what that something is yet. She’s bored out of her mind. Her mother and father are divorced and her mother is entering an ‘It’s all about me’ phase, barely noticing her daughter and dating some sketchy dudes. Evie’s father lives elsewhere with his much younger girlfriend. Come September, Evie is going to be shipped off to boarding school.

The summer unwinds in a slow furious rhythm. Nothing is happening; nothing is ever going to change. You remember what 14 felt like. Nothing is happening fast enough. But then Evie sees a group of girls in the park who are the epitome of ‘Dance like no one is watching.’ One girl, who is a few years older than Evie, attracts her. Evie is lonely. She and her best friend are drifting apart and she’s on her own a lot. She watches the girls dumpster dive for food. They’re feral and beautiful and frightening.

Evie doesn’t think she’ll see the girls again but by chance she meets Suzanne, the dark-haired girl who first caught her attention, in a drugstore and decides to prove she’s a badass by stealing toilet paper for Suzanne. Practical thieves, huh? At the age of 14 I knew girls who were stealing makeup and hair clips (not me, not because I’m a goody-goody but because I don’t have a good poker face) but in 1969 ragamuffins needed toilet paper. Evie steals the TP and her part in the sordid ‘Family’ begins.

Suzanne takes Evie to an abandoned ranch where a group of young people have been squatting and worshipping a douchebag named Russell. The girls tell Evie: “He sees every part of you.” They all have sex with him and all I could imagine was a giant chore chart nailed to the wall with Venn diagrams showing whose night it was to sleep with Russell. A famous musician named Mitch has promised Russell that he’ll be rich and famous with his musical skills. He’s going to be FAMOUS.

There’s a load of drug taking, snorting, smoking, a bunch of uncomfortable sounding sex and nobody has a stick of deodorant but hey, it’s the 60s. In a moment of clarity, Suzanne asks Evie is she wants to go home. Evie thinks about her empty house, her mother out on dates or going on diet cleanses and realizes there’s no way she’s going home. She’s hooked on the Family. I can believe that at the age of 14 (or 30) if someone older showered me with affection it would be addictive.

Evie begins to steal money for the Family. The ranch is all love and freedom and blah, blah, blah but the shine begins to wear off and it begins to take on a sinister glare. Mitch, the man who told Russell he was going to make him famous, backs out citing money troubles. Everything becomes a sign. The very stars in the night sky become a portent of things to come. The heavens whisper something harmoniously relevant to members of the Family. But remember the amount of drugs these people were ingesting.  You’ve read about my sordid relationship with Benadryl. I can’t imagine doing hard drugs and trying to tie my shoes. Maybe that’s why hippies never wore shoes.

The ‘we love and support everybody’ feeling at the ranch sours. Evie’s still grasping at the feeling of being wanted and being shown love. One evening the Family packs into a car and heads into the night. They’re going to pay Mitch a ‘visit.’ Russell stays behind at the ranch. Evie knows something bad is about to go down. Suzanne is not herself or maybe she’s more of the self Evie doesn’t know.  Suzanne demands the car be stopped and tells Evie to get out in the middle of nowhere. The car speeds away to make gruesome history.

What would have happened to Evie had she gone along that night? Who would she have become?  This book delves into what could have been and what was.

Summer Reading, Having a Blast!

Book and StonesI’ve signed up for the Adult Summer Reading Program at the Everett Public Library and I’m super happy about my reading stack this summer. I’ve only read three so far, but I’m excited to get some time to read and also to share the whole pile with you. Here goes!

indexIf you’re pining for the old days when you could ride your pony to the candy store, I recommend Elizabeth Lett’s book The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse that Inspired a Nation. This book tells the dramatic odyssey of a horse called Snowman, saved from the slaughterhouse by a young Dutch farmer named Harry. Harry and Snowman went on to become America’s show-jumping champions, winning first prize in Madison Square Garden. Set in the mid-to late-1950s, this book also includes a fair amount of history of the horse. I dare you not to cry when Snowy dies.

indexUnder the Wide and Starry Sky is the fictionalized account of the relationship of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his spunky, older American wife Fanny. It is beautifully written and meticulously researched. This novel met all of my criteria for good historical fiction: believable characters, atmospheric setting, and it leaves you wanting to know even more about the people, places, and events. Besides, the boat that they adventured in is right here on the waterfront in Everett.

index (3)Shadows in the Vineyard: the True Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine is by Maximillien Potter. On the surface, it is a true story of an extortion plot against the world’s greatest vineyard, a tiny patch of land in Burgundy, France which grows the universally acclaimed best wine in the world. But it’s also the story of the family that grows the wine: the generations that have owned and run the vineyard, treating the vines like their own children, back to when they bought it after the French Revolution. Cheers!

index (1)A Hero of France: A Novel by Alan Furst is set in Paris,1941. Mathieu leads a small group of Resistance fighters. They help British airmen stranded in occupied France to make their way to Spain and then return to England. It’s dangerous work. Mathieu has to rely on his instincts to know who he can trust. He also needs to build a network of people he can rely on and be able to rapidly improvise when things don’t go according to plan (which is pretty much all the time). Meanwhile, a top German detective has arrived in Paris tasked with identifying and arresting members of the Resistance.

index (2)Seinfeldia: How a Show about Nothing Changed Everything by Jennifer Armstrong is about nothing and everything. If you are a Seinfeld fan this is a MUST READ! It goes in depth on the genesis of Seinfeld from its main characters, the writers and the real-life situations that inspired most of the insane plot lines. It follows the show from it’s inception to finale, including the “reunion” on Curb Your Enthusiasm as well as the effect that Seinfeld has on pop culture even to this day.

index (3)I am listening to Here’s To Us by Elin Hildebrand and it looks like the perfect summer read, doesn’t it? Deacon Thorpe was a famous bad boy chef. When he dies at his Nantucket house, his agent calls his three ex-wives together to the house to say goodbye. The story is told by several characters and switches from the present to the past. Secrets are revealed and at the end the family learns to forgive. This is a quick read with some interesting characters.

index (5)I’m also listening to The National Parks: America’s Best Idea by Ken Burns because we recently drove down to Rainier. Burns and Dayton Duncan delve into the history of the park idea, from the first sighting by white men in 1851 of the valley that would become Yosemite and the creation of the world’s first national park at Yellowstone in 1872, to the most recent additions to a system that now encompasses nearly four hundred sites and 84 million acres. There’s a lot of history and adventure here to be enjoyed. Going to Glacier? Grab these CD’s for the car ride.

index (6)Everyone Brave is Forgiven is by Chris Cleave, the best-selling author of Little Bee.  The plot centers on three Londoners (Mary, Thomas and Alistair) and how the war orchestrates the choices they make. The story is loosely based on love letters between the author’s grandparents. The beauty of this book is not so much the plot, but how the story is told with beautiful prose, cleverly placed humor, and a quiet urgency. It would make a good book club book.

index (4)And lastly, a co-worker suggested Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart the gal who wrote The Drunken Botanist. It is a novel based on the forgotten true story of one of the nation’s first female deputy sheriffs. Apparently it’s “really good”, so good, in fact, that there will be a sequel titled Lady Cop Makes Trouble. I haven’t actually gotten my hands on this one, but will have to wait. Without a gun.

Well, gotta go. I hear a hammock calling my name. What’s on your reading list this summer? Come on down to the library and check out these and other great summer reads. See you there!

Nostalgia and the New Mexican Desert

Enjoy a review from Katie as she continues to work through her Reading Challenge:

ultimaNostalgia is a funny thing. I tend to get swept up in that warm, slow, nap-in-the-afternoon feeling far more than I should, but I can’t help it. Remembering the better days seems to be an involuntary reaction that will inevitably lead to me being a little old lady regaling my grand-nieces and nephews with long stories having no point and no plot—kind of like this sentence.

I recently went back to Phoenix after a year of living in Washington to watch my youngest brother graduate from the high school I attended. I would be seeing family and good friends after more than a year of being away, and there was also the possibility of seeing some of my old high school classmates. (Spoiler Alert: I actually did not see any of my old classmates so they were unable to see how adult and hot I’d become.)

When I was in high school I participated in Academic Decathlon which is basically the Nerd Championships consisting of seven tests (arts, science, music, math…), an interview, a memorized and impromptu speech, and an essay surrounding a particular topic each year. In my sophomore year of high school the topic was Mexico, and the book we had to collectively read was Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. This is why I have chosen this novel as my “Book I Have Not Read since High School.”

I was excited about this book because AcaDeca (as we called it) holds a lot of good memories for me. Rereading books is an opportunity to recall specific memories as I find that books hold impressions and thoughts and feelings so I don’t have to. Bless Me, Ultima is also a coming-of-age story which perfectly sets the mood.

Antonio Marez is constantly caught in the middle of his parents’ plans. His mother wishes him to become a priest to bring honor to her farming family. His father wishes for Tony to become a vacquero (cowboy) like he himself was long ago, and to live in the Llano (the New Mexican desert). Tony does not know what he wants, but he does know that he loves Ultima. She is a curandera (a person who is a mix between a priest and a witch) who has come to live with Tony’s family and to use her magic to heal the town folk. The intense mix of religious superstition and magic creates an interesting dynamic which fuels much of the story’s conflict.

The entire book teems with magical realism as Tony struggles with his parents’ wishes, with growing up, religion, and navigating the complicated social network that is his circle of friends. Anaya’s cast of colorful characters and detail-oriented descriptions draw you deeply into the story, causing you to feel as Tony feels. He even makes the desert sound like a desirable place to live which (for me) is quite the task.

High school was a difficult time for a lot of people. I got through relatively unscathed (college is another story), and books like Bless Me, Ultima made everything a whole lot easier. While it was true that books were my constant companions, the character study I was able to conduct enriched my life beyond words. I would recommend Bless Me, Ultima to those who want to remember what it was like being a kid — the drama that was real and the drama that was blown out of proportion. As I struggle to be an actual real-life adult, it’s nice to remember that it was hard to be a kid too sometimes, but it was worth it.

Reading for Empathy

indexThe 2016 summer reading assignment for Whitman College freshmen  is to read the book Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. It is a collection of essays that explore empathy, beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose. Jamison’s essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: Why should we care about each other? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? How can my child become more empathetic? How important is reading fiction in socializing children? How does reading literature move people in a different way than non-fiction reading?

Researchers at The New School in New York City have found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling. And a Cambridge University study by Maria Nikolajeva, professor of education, found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think.” Finding the right book is the first step to helping children understand what their peers may be thinking and feeling.

index (1)I once had a father who wanted a book for his young son who was starting to bully another boy in preschool partly because the new boy was from another country. I came up with I’m New Here by Anne O’Brien, in which three children from Somalia, Guatemala, and Korea struggle to adjust to their new home and school in the United States. It is positive and uplifting, as they do all make new friends and succeed at the end of the book.

index (2)The book that I thought of after the father had walked away was Children Just Like Me by Anabel Kindersley. Photographs and text depict the homes, schools, family lives, and cultures of young people from around the world. Children will enjoy reading about the dreams and beliefs, hopes and fears, and day-to-day events of other children’s lives. Children are encouraged to participate in a special pen pal arrangement, so they may share their own experiences with children in other countries.

index (1)Another book along these lines is A Life Like Mine: How Children Live Around the World by DK Publishing. Wonderful photos show children from all over the world leading their lives in completely different and fascinating ways. They speak different languages, look different, and face all kinds of challenges every day. Although they live thousands of miles apart, in so many ways their needs and hopes are alike. Meet these special children in this book and other books created by UNICEF and DK Publishing.

index (2)A fascinating ‘look-at’ book is What the World Eats by Peter Menzel. This is a  photographic collection exploring what the world eats featuring portraits of twenty-five families from twenty-one countries surrounded by a week’s worth of food. The resulting family portraits give an interesting glimpse into the cultural similarities and differences served on dinner plates around the world.

index (3)One of my favorite picture books is Stella’s Starliner by Rosemary Wells. Stella is perfectly happy living in her silver home until a group of weasels tease her for living in an air stream trailer. Her bubble is burst but her parents help her by moving the trailer to a new setting where she meets two bunnies who think that her home is awesome and that she must be really rich to live in a silver home. You’ll just love Stella and her story.

indexLast Stop on Market Street won both the Caldecott Honor Award and the Newberry Medal this year. Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don’t own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn’t he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty–and fun–in their routine and the world around them.

Reading is a great way to understand another’s situation or feelings. When you read, you walk a mile in another’s shoes and get an idea of his feelings and situation. I hope that these books (and others that we have at the library) will help your child empathize with others.

Vroom Vroom

suicidemotorclubI have to admit I almost didn’t read this book for a stupid reason: I kept seeing an ad for it on Facebook. I rolled my eyes and thought ‘Another self-published writer hawking his stuff on Facebook. Ugh.’ This is how I know I probably won’t be a published writer. I don’t like to pimp my work out. I feel like one of those pimps with a gold-fish in the heel of his platform shoes, a purple fedora with an Ostrich feather dangling off it, and a voice that could melt steel: “Hey, guuuuuuuurl. You wanna read my short story? Leave the money on the dresser.”

But then I was processing new books and The Suicide Motor Club by Christopher Buehlman turned up. I sighed the sigh of a billion sighs and thought: ‘might as well take a peek at it.’

I am glad I did.

Granted, I am super high on Benadryl as I’m writing this so maybe I’m seeing the novel through Benadryl colored glasses. And that little dragon running by with a cat on its back isn’t helping. Someone’s at the door. I smell pennies. The lights just flickered. I smell burning toast.

Oh….Benadryl.

Picture it: a deserted stretch of road on Route 66 in New Mexico, 1967. In the dark heart of the night a car full of psychopaths preys on those passing through this lonely stretch of nowhere. They pull up alongside other cars and snatch people away. Sounds kind of acrobatic for humans, huh? Well they aren’t human. They look into your eyes and can convince you of anything. Want to kill your husband? Go ahead, the rifle is in the hall closet. On top of a high-rise? Get up on that ledge and drop because you’re a bird.

One night while roaring up and down the highway looking for cars to wreck, they pull alongside a car with a woman, a man, and a small child. Quick as an eighth grader sneaking a cigarette behind the cafeteria dumpster, they grab the boy from the car and intentionally run it off the road where it crashes, killing the man but leaving the woman barely alive. Nobody questions a wrecked vehicle along the side of the road. Bad things happen on empty roads. You drive by a wreck and a secret sick fascination compels you to look for bodies by the road.

Fast forward two years later. The woman, Judith, has physically recovered from that horrible night but in her brain she’s been plotting revenge. Not knowing whether her child is still alive or was killed immediately after being grabbed, she becomes a nun. This is the first step of her revenge. Waaaaay drastic measure. She gets contacted by a group made up of people whose loved ones have been snuffed out by the carload of vampires and are bent on seeking revenge. Yeah, I said vampires but don’t worry about it. These vampires do not sparkle or feel love. This is basically the group:  a bunch of people who were assholes when they were alive and are now undead, but still assholes.

Except there’s one vampire who walks a fine line between good and evil, whose vestiges of humanity throws Judith for a loop. Kinda threw me too. I like my vampires evil as can be. I don’t want any of those vampires who loathe their existence and rail at a God for letting them become monsters. Not God’s fault. He was probably on a conference call with Pat Robertson and Jim Jones.

While reading this I would sometimes have to close the book and stare off into space for five minutes. How is that different from what I do with every book I read? Usually when I stare at a wall I’m thinking about what I want to eat, is it going to involve putting on pants, and do I have to interact with other humans. Reading The Suicide Motor Club made me put the book down and stare at the wall both in awe and in frustration. I’ll never be able to write like this, damn it. This book is up there with Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire mixed in with a little bit of Stephen King and a pinch of the hilarious Christopher Moore.

So there you have it. A car full of marauding monsters not unlike the ‘Squeal like a piggy’ psychopaths from Deliverance except instead of rape, they will drain your body of blood and leave you on the side of the road next to the burned out hulk of your car. End of story. Okay. You can go now. Get out of here before I throw some holy water on you and throw a cross at your head.

Heartwood 6:4 – The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre

JacketPierre is a 56-year-old bartender in a Parisian restaurant called Le Cercle. The restaurant is owned by a husband-and-wife team (Henri and Isabelle) in their early 40s. In addition to Pierre, they also employ a Senegalese cook by the name of Amédée, a waitress named Sabrina (with whom, it is assumed, Henri is having an affair), and a new girl, Madeleine, who’s been hired to fill in for Sabrina, who is out with the flu. The title is a bit misleading, as the new waitress is a very minor character and this tale is really about Pierre, the wonderfully – and a bit woefully – composed barman who the reader comes to understand through his gentlemanly behavior and conversations with the others, but especially through his thoughts and observations.

The action takes place over just a few days. On the day the new waitress starts, the boss slips out the backdoor and disappears. The boss’s wife typically shows up mid-day and she is glum when she finds her husband has skipped out. There is a pattern to this behavior, and Pierre and Isabelle assume he has gone off for a tryst with Sabrina. This is the dramatic set-up which makes the workday that much harder for the other employees, being a small operation where every hand is needed to get things done. The day ends with Pierre wondering if the new girl will even return the next day. As the senior employee, Pierre provides some emotional support for the boss’s wife, and we also learn about the dissolution of his own marriage (which he thinks was for the best), his mid-life crisis of two years earlier, and even a bit of his mother’s parenting style. The story develops from here in ways that are significant for the few Le Cercle staff, but without any great action, mostly we get Pierre and details of his daily life: Pierre in his apartment doing domestic chores, worrying about reaching the point where he can claim his pension, attempting to shake off the image of dead leaves from a dream, taking his medications, and trying to muster his energy for the next day.

One might grumble about the rather abrupt ending, but this is in keeping with the slice-of-life narrative and the uncertainty that circumstances have thrust Pierre into – I only wished for a little more time in his company. The Waitress Was New is an everyman kind of story told by a character with an easy and, at times, melancholy grace. We’re there as Pierre habitually wipes down the bar, sizes up and interacts with customers (some of whom need to pay off their tabs), banters with Amédée across the pass-through, and reflects on the path his life has taken. Readers drawn to books for character will definitely be glad to have taken a seat at the bar where, in a switch of typical roles, they get to listen to this personable barman’s story, insights, and observations.