Europe during World War II is the setting of many novels and it’s really no surprise. Such horror, fear, and devastation create an environment ripe for personal conflicts, long odysseys, and overcoming trials on an unimaginable scale. And, as with anything, there are novels that use this setting to their advantage and others that fall flat. Anthony Doerr’s latest work, All the Light We Cannot See, works with the period very well and you would do well to check it out.
For the most part, the novel intertwines the stories of two young individuals from different sides of the conflict. There is Marie-Louise, the visually-impaired daughter of the locksmith and keeper of keys for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Her father’s position aides in her curiosity about the natural sciences and she loves to read Jules Verne. Before the occupation of Paris, she is forced to flee with her father to Saint-Malo and there is the possibility that they are carrying one of the Museum’s most prized possessions. Or is it a decoy? Marie-Louise’s story is paired with Werner’s, a German orphan with an innate understanding of radios and radio frequency. His ability opens the door for him to attend an elite military school to work on special radio projects and prepare for working with radio units in the field. Of course, this leads him to Saint-Malo on a mission to find French resistance fighters using radio transmissions, right before the allies began a bombing campaign on the port city.
There are many surprising links between Marie-Louise and Werner before this Saint-Malo connection and Doerr reveals them skillfully. I also appreciated how Doerr played with time in the narrative, starting with the bombing of Saint-Malo and weaving in the back story steadily. Many novels work this way, but his was well-paced and structured.
It’s official: Spring is coming! How do I know this? I found my first seed catalogs in my mailbox this week! I had to knock the snow off the mailbox to open it, but the catalogs were there waiting for me.
Yes, I admit it. Rather than bleed black and gold like many in Iowa City, I have mud in my veins. I’m a gardener, and I’m ready for winter to be over and done so I can get back to playing in the dirt!
But for now I’ll be content with my new seed catalogs and the new gardening books at ICPL. So far this one is my favorite:
Midwest Gardener’s Handbook: Your Complete Guide by Melinda Myers. Nicely organized and illustrated, this guide to Midwestern gardening is just that – a general guide. It covers a bit of everything: annuals, bulbs, groundcovers & vines, lawns, perennials, roses, shrubs, trees and vegetables & herbs. It sounds like a lot to cover in a 256 page book, but Myers does it well.
Each of the nine sections of the book are laid out the same, beginning with a discussion of things to think about – from soil prep to choosing seeds or established plants, proper planting techniques and pest management. Then there are page after page of suggested plants – including a short but thorough descriptions of each plant (hardiness, bloom period etc), a “Why it’s Special” description of why the plant was included in the list, and “How to Plant & Grow” and “Care & Problems” sections. Each chapter ends with a month by month calendar that includes things that need to be done each month of the year (including the winter months).
The last 20 pages of the book are so packed with information they should be their own book. The 10 page appendix includes charts on how much mulch, soil or how many plants to buy given your space, four pages on proper pruning, pages on creating beds or designing and building raised beds, dealing with tree roots, and twelve state zone maps showing individual counties. A glossary, bibliography, common name and Latin /botanical name indexes follow. Myers book is definitely worth a look if you’re new to gardening, new to the Midwest, or someone who just likes concise, well written basic gardening books.
The recommendation came to me from a book group I had been invited to attend, and it happened to be perfect timing. I had just finished Jess Walters’s...moreThe recommendation came to me from a book group I had been invited to attend, and it happened to be perfect timing. I had just finished Jess Walters’s Beautiful Ruins and wasn’t yet tempted by the fill-my-head-with-applicable-knowledge nonfiction books I have checked out. So there I was, putting off what I *have* to read for what I *want* to read. What I had heard about the book: it’s sad. You’ll like it if you like the gut-wrenching ones. What I now know about the book: my recommender was right.
After I had finished the book, my initial thought was, “Well that wasn’t as bad as What Is the What,” Dave Eggers’s novel-autobiography of a Sudanese refugee (a Lost Boy). I bawled nearly the entire time through that book. At least Constellation of Vital Phenomenon has heroes in it.
Whereas What Is the What is a story of a refugee fleeing, Constellation of Vital Phenomenon tells a story of those who stayed behind. They are entirely different settings, yes, and the authors took different approaches to writing fictionalized accounts of real or could-be-real events. Eggers turned the memoir of his protagonist into a novel, and Marra pieced together the experiences of those who were living through war-torn Chechnya.
Constellation of Vital Phenomena is Marra’s first novel. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a few years ago, and his first book earned the 2013 John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle. (The award recognizes “outstanding first books in any genre.”)
Marra writes in the author’s note, “The axis on which this novel rests is formed from two narratives shared by Islamic and Christian traditions—that of a parent asked to sacrifice a child and that of an orphan delivered into the family responsible for her orphanhood…” This theme drives the book so smoothly you’d think the book was on autopilot. Marra beautifully weaves the stories of his three primary characters, and it works. There’s very little that’s superfluous in this book. Marra’s commitment to this theme delivers these relationships and storylines from being otherwise contrived. (Oh, Lord or Literary Fiction, deliver us from a contrived plotline!)
Is this a page-turner? Through many chapters, yes. I must admit there was a certain torture scene where I very much needed to put the book down. For readers of literary fiction, this book is highly recommended.
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is about the end of the world as told by 16-year-old Austin Szerba. Austin is confused: He’s in love with his girlf...moreGrasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is about the end of the world as told by 16-year-old Austin Szerba. Austin is confused: He’s in love with his girlfriend Shann, but he’s also in love with Robby, his gay best friend. Austin is preoccupied with history, and he points out that history chews up sexual confused young men.
Austin’s narration meanders and repeats itself. He gives us history lessons about his Polish ancestors as well as telling us the unlikely series of events that led to unstoppable, giant, man-eating praying mantises being unleashed on the fictional town of Ealing, Iowa. Yes, you read that right: Giant, man-eating praying mantises.
Grasshopper Jungle is a brutally honest work. Smith is an amazing writer. He has expertly tapped into the adolescent male mind. A word of warning: This book is awesome, and it also contains copious profanity, sexual situations and people being eaten by giant bugs. I recommend it to readers looking for a highly original YA book.
No, I’m not talking about the Sochi Olympics. I’m talking about Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story...moreA Cold, Snowy Russian Mystery
No, I’m not talking about the Sochi Olympics. I’m talking about Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, which I recently finished. In fact, I finished it about 24 hours after checking it out…it was a very interesting, well-paced book that I didn’t want to put down until I knew what had happened.
This is a nonfiction book that investigates a decades-old mystery, one that I had never heard of and that is so remote and foreign to me (both in terms of locale and subject matter) that it actually imparted a sense of foreboding and discomfort. In late January of 1959, nine university students set out on a 160 mile hike in the Ural mountains, during their winter break. They were already highly accomplished hikers, and this hike was intended to give them the highest ranking in outdoorsmanship that would allow them to instruct others; their plans were meticulous, their route reviewed and approved by foresters, their bags and provisions adequately thought out.
They never returned. After missing the beginning of the semester, officials began to search for them. Their tent was found intact on a slope, with all their shoes, clothes and belongings neatly arranged inside, and food set out waiting to be eaten. Eventually their bodies were found within a mile of the tent but in different places, mostly barely clothed, with injuries ranging from a broken nose and scrapes to blunt force trauma to the head and chest. Several died from hypothermia. After autopsies and looking at the evidence, the case was closed with the determination that an “unknown compelling force” led to their deaths.
Donnie Eichar came across mention of the hikers in a random fashion, while researching something else, and their story simply would not let him go. The mystery of what might have happened to these healthy, incredibly bright and vivacious young people in the remote, snowy wilderness prompted Eichar to visit Russia twice; he not only interviews people who knew the hikers as well as those who investigated the incident, he also makes the long journey to where their lives ended. I will admit, what he finds there and afterwards is not an entirely tidy answer, and if he is right, it is an ironic and cruel one.
I highly recommend you read his book, and see for yourself.
I discovered Sarah Addison Allen’s work about five years ago, devouring her first two books — Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen — in just a few days....moreI discovered Sarah Addison Allen’s work about five years ago, devouring her first two books — Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen — in just a few days. I had to wait for her to publish more, but my patience paid off with two more great stories: The Girl Who Chased the Moon: A Novel and The Peach Keeper: A Novel.
I was not aware that Allen was set to release a new book in 2014, but when I did, I was thrilled to learn it was already out and the Library had it on stock!
Lost Lake is a story about people who are at a turning point in their lives, but are unsure of which way to go. It seems fitting that this group of misfits have such ties to a run-down summer hideaway called Lost Lake.
Owner Eby Prim loves Lost Lake, but time has taken its toll on her and the cabins that used to house vacationing families. Restless, she agrees to sell the property, but her last summer takes an unexpected turn when her grand-niece arrives. Struggling with the death of her husband, Kate Pheris needs direction and her precocious daughter, Devin, needs to freedom.
Three generations of women, plus a scattering of supporting characters to add mystery, humor and depth, make Lost Lake a treasure worth finding.
Hi, guys. I made a Storify of people talking about B. J. Novak’s new book One More Thing. Long story short: I loved it, and others did too. Visit this...moreHi, guys. I made a Storify of people talking about B. J. Novak’s new book One More Thing. Long story short: I loved it, and others did too. Visit this —> Storify post <— to see the buzz this new book is getting.
I recently made a good find in the Book End: The English Major by Jim Harrison. Although the title makes it sound like an epic love story set in colon...moreI recently made a good find in the Book End: The English Major by Jim Harrison. Although the title makes it sound like an epic love story set in colonial Africa, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s a true American travel story.
Harrison fans who love his character Brown Dog will identify with the protagonist, Cliff, who has same down-to-earth way of looking at things, a love of the Michigan outdoors and a cluelessness about women (that somehow seems to work for both of them). Unlike BD, he was once a lit teacher with a love of books. But he became disenchanted with literature and eschewed the intellectual life for a pastoral one when his wife inherited a cherry farm in northern Michigan.
The story, which opens after his marriage falls apart, takes the form of a kind of travel diary. Mourning the loss of his dog and his cherry farm (his wife sells it to a developer), he sets out for a cathartic road trip to visit every state. Along the way, he hooks up with an former female student, reconnects with his son and has some raucous adventures with his fishing buddy. As he winds his way across the west, he is forced to reexamine his life and marriage with honesty. Although Cliff doesn’t make it to every state, with some help from his ex-wife, he figures out how to put together a new life.
The beginning of Lent is near, and those who participate in this ritual of going without are preparing to give up something that is meaningful in some...moreThe beginning of Lent is near, and those who participate in this ritual of going without are preparing to give up something that is meaningful in some way. I know many people are inspired by this event; Christians and those holding other beliefs use this time to remind themselves of those who have less, to inspire deeper thought about possessions and luxuries and what things are important, and to offer up penitence in some way. I grew up in a Catholic home, and participated in Lent for many years…I believe I usually gave up chocolate or allowance, some very tangible thing that made a small impact in my life.
While the things that people choose to give up vary widely, I suspect that for a number of people it will be caffeine and/or coffee. It may seem trivial, but going without this chemical can have many effects; many are so used to having it in regular quantities every day, and to suddenly stop can bring on withdrawal symptoms, general crankiness, and maybe even a feeling of sadness at not having that ‘cup of comfort.’ It may or may not go deeper than that in terms of what going without might teach you, but I’m not here to judge. I’m here to offer a dispensation, of sorts…
Coffee With Jesus is a nice little compilation of the online comic of the same name. A little humor, a little iconic art, and more than a little thought go into each strip. It avoids heavy lessons in favor of quick but lingering suggestions…hey, think about this a bit. Reflect. And yes, Jesus is a main character here, but he is quite modern in view while at the same time being the old-school, accepting of everyone kind of guy. There’s no offense meant here, whatever your belief (or non-belief, in fact) is. And this little book just might help you find a different jolt of energy and comfort for the time being.
Console Wars by Blake J. Harris is a narrative account of the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo, the two video game behemoths of the nineties. The boo...moreConsole Wars by Blake J. Harris is a narrative account of the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo, the two video game behemoths of the nineties. The book mainly focuses on the meteoric rise of Sega and the man behind it: Tom Kalinske. Tom became the CEO of Sega of America in the late eighties, and turned Sega and its 16-bit console the Genesis from underdogs to market leaders. Console Wars details how he pulled this off. The history of Nintendo is also delved into, but, for the most part, they’re portrayed as the enemy. As someone who owned a Genesis, I was surprised and interested in the inner workings of the video game industry. I highly recommend Console Wars to gamers and anyone who grew up during the nineties.
I believe most of us remember where we were on September 11, 2001, when four planes were turned into weapons and crashed into the World Trade Center’s...moreI believe most of us remember where we were on September 11, 2001, when four planes were turned into weapons and crashed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside. I was already at work here at the Library when I became aware of a group of staff clustered around a television in our audiovisual services area. When we realized the magnitude of what was happening we opened our big meeting room to the public, showing the ongoing news coverage on the big screen there. In the Library’s annual report for that year, Director Susan Craig described what it was like: “It was incredible to sit in the darkened room and watch the news with strangers, some in small groups, most just individuals. When I was there no one actually spoke, but I felt a connection with everyone in the room.”
The Stories They Tell: Artifacts from the National September 11 Memorial Museum reconnects us to the events that day and the long recovery process that followed. The Museum is part of the September 11 memorial site where the Twin Towers once stood. The pictures in this book are simple but evocative. The essays which accompany them—more like letters to the reader—are written by staff members of the Museum.
Many of the artifacts in the Museum are from the crash sites; others include the transcripts from phone calls from people on the planes, missing-person posters that blanketed New York City, and the Memorial Urn, with the names of the 2,977 victims on it, created by ceramicist Tom Lane.
It is difficult to choose just one or two examples to tell you more about. Should it be the recording of flight attendant Betty Ong’s hijack report? Or Karyn’s flight attendant wings, or the Last Column at Ground Zero, or patrol dog Sirius’s leash, or the wreckage of Engine 21 of the Fire Department of New York?
Each story brought goose bumps or tears, and often both. The professionalism of the flight attendants on the planes and the emergency responders on the ground, the many expressions of compassion and generosity during the tragedy and in its aftermath are unforgettable reminders of the prevailing goodness in humanity.
If you are unable to visit the Museum in person, this book is the next best way to witness that.
Recently a friend suggested we meet at Prairie Lights for a book reading. We have a monthly meet-up to knit and chat, but thought we might mix it up a...moreRecently a friend suggested we meet at Prairie Lights for a book reading. We have a monthly meet-up to knit and chat, but thought we might mix it up a bit and go to a book reading. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the Live from Prairie Lights schedule, so I was delighted when I discovered Iowa City native, Leah Eskin was reading from her new book, Slices of Life.
Leah and I were in 4-H together many years ago. She was a few years older than me and someone who I looked up to. It was fun to hear her read, and learn about her ‘slices of life’ – mother of teenagers, writer, cancer survivor, and much more. When she was signing my book afterwards, my friend mentioned our 4-H connection. Leah wondered if I remembered the goats she showed at the fair. I didn’t, but our conversation conjured happy memories for me of showing my rabbits and dog at the Johnson County Fair.
I’ve enjoyed Leah Eskin’s Slices of Life and how she connects her slices of life with her experiences. One entry that jumped out at me was an ode to her dog, Theo, as an introduction to the “Summer Couscous” recipe. After losing our dog to old age and illness last week, I still have a raw emotion when I think about the human-dog bond. Eskin writes, “At dinnertime we come. We sit. We stay for something delicious, something that fetches memories of meals past. Happily gnawing on a stick of grilled lamb, hunched over a jackpot of couscous, we know that in our family, we all speak the same language.”
I also appreciate the index to the book and the suggestions Eskin weaves into the list. For example, “BRUNCH: I always make Onion Tart (page 153). Other good ideas: Tortilla Espanola (page 185), Sparkling Salad (page 64), and Crab Cakes (page 111).”
Slices of Life is a wonderful tribute to love, cooking, connections and life. And the recipes are yummy too!
How do you select the next book to read? For me it is often from reviews or blogs or when a cover catches my eye as I walk by or put a book out for di...moreHow do you select the next book to read? For me it is often from reviews or blogs or when a cover catches my eye as I walk by or put a book out for display, but I think the best suggestions come from friends. I just finished Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant because a friend recommended it and it is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I was hesitant at first; Chast is the brilliant cartoonist for the New Yorker, but illustrated novels or memoirs are not my cup of tea.
Chast tells the story of her parents George and Elizabeth’s final years with drawings and photos. It is funny, laugh out loud funny – so funny that you want to find someone and read them the passage or show them the cartoon and have them laugh with you. It is also heartbreakingly poignant. Her parents have no desire to leave their Brooklyn apartment; their home since marriage. The home that Chast discovered had become through benign neglect a hoarders paradise and more and more unfit for her aged parents. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant is about escape and return, avoidance and confrontation, about coming face to face with the reality we are all growing older and that our parents will not live forever. And I really want to talk about it. Please read it and let’s chat.