Tag Archives: 2012 Review

Book Review: Mrs. Queen Takes the Train–William Kuhn

mrsqeentakesthetrainMrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

At 86 years of age, Queen Elizabeth II has only three more years to go before she catches up with Queen Victoria in length of reign. Readers could well imagine what the impact of 60 years on the job, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week might have on a person, even with help. William Kuhn’s Queen Elizabeth is almost One of Us: struggling to deal with changing mores, keep up with technology (her son Andrew sets up Facebook and Twitter accounts for her), and find what comfort she can in her dogs and weekends away.

When she stops at the stables on a cold afternoon to visit her favorite horse, the stable girl presses her hooded sweatshirt on the Queen, who then wanders off the palace grounds and proceeds to make her way to Scotland for a nostalgic visit to the decommissioned Royal Yacht, anchored at Leith.  This undemanding but entertaining tale follows the Queen on taxi rides, a long-distance train journey with traveling companions who finally recognize her as Helen Mirren (as in the movie, “The Queen”), and ends with a kind of royal slumber party featuring a mismatched band of would-be rescuers and household staff.

Kuhn’s sovereign is a sympathetic character, who despite impeccable breeding feels warmly toward all her subjects, even a multiply-pierced punk. This book is highly recommended for lovers of all things British and for readers who enjoyed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, or The Uncommon Reader.

Book Review: The Wings of a Falcon–Cynthia Voigt

The Wings of a Falcon by Cynthia Voigt

Cynthia Voigt has been writing Young Adult (YA) novels since her first book in the Tillerman series, Homecoming, was published in 1981. In the 30 years since then, she has published over 30 books and has been nominated and won several writing awards. I recommend all of her books: her characters are beautifully realized and her settings are so clearly rendered that I feel as if I know them. Her girl characters, in particular, are complicated, tough, smart, caring, and insightful.

Girl heroes are in their heyday in young adult literature (great news for girls!) but this has meant that there are not nearly as many contemporary books available for and about boys. Cynthia Voigt’s young adult novel The Wings of a Falcon is a fantastic exception. The novel is the perfect adventure tale and it takes place in Voigt’s Kingdom series (a series which includes Jackaroo, On Fortune’s Wheel, and Elske—all three great adventures starring strong girls). This novel is probably the darkest and the most complicated of the series. The powerful story is the tale of an orphan boy who through his bravery, intelligence, and occasional ruthlessness becomes King. He begins the novel unnamed but later names himself Oriel. He is accompanied on his adventure by his best friend Griff—as loyal, kind, and sensitive as Oriel is brave and ruthless. Together, the pair face raiding Wolfers, rival armies, snow covered mountains, and other dangers.

Like all hero tales, the story ultimately concerns the development of character and the bonds of friendship. Recommended for all, and most especially for any boys looking for a great boy hero tale.

Book Review: A Hologram for the King – Dave Eggers

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A Hologram for the King – Dave Eggers

Is America in decline? A Google search for this phrase yields 153,000,000 results, so it’s safe to say that the idea has at least crossed some people’s minds. It’s one of the big questions author Dave Eggers examines in his latest novel, A Hologram for the King.

Eggers’ protagonist is Alan Clay, a divorced middle-aged businessman who’s seen better days. He used to work for Schwinn, travelling the world on bicycle-related business, but became an unwitting participant in the offshoring of Schwinn’s bicycle manufacturing to China and the loss of his own job. Now he’s landed a position as a consultant on a project to sell holographic videoconferencing technology to the King of Saudi Arabia. The novel’s “action” (as it were) takes place while Alan and his team await the arrival of the King for their presentation in a half-finished, mostly empty planned mega-community and business park, King Abdullah Economic City.

The novel’s epigraph, “We are not always needed”, is taken from Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, and whether Alan (and by extension the United States) is needed anymore is Eggers’ central question. Alan (and I suspect Eggers) spends a lot of time ruminating on the loss of American identity through the decline of our manufacturing sector. We used to make things like bicycles, microwaves, and cars, but what do we make now? The role of post-industrial America in the global economy is much more difficult to define and has led to a crisis of confidence that Alan tries to confront throughout the novel.

I enjoy Dave Eggers’ work, as he’s one of the few authors working in fiction who deals with these issues. The writing is sparse – no postmodern flourishes here – and the topic is serious. I had previously only read Eggers’ creative non-fiction (I really like Zeitoun, which we have in print and as an eBook) so it was interesting to see how he presents his ideas in a fictional format.

A Hologram for the King is available from Chatham Community Library in print and eBook format.

Our summer reading picks

In anticipation of summer vacations full of summer reading, the staff at Chatham Community Library offer up these great recommendations for your summer reading pleasure…

Amy: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer.

Visit the Channel Islands during World War II and honor creativity in adversity! It’s the power of books and community told through letters.

 

 

Brendan: Lost Rights by David Howard

I’m currently reading Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic for Chatham Community Library’s July Book Club meeting. It’s the story of how North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights was stolen during the Civil War and recently rediscovered in an FBI sting operation, and its convoluted journey through many hands along the way. Come talk about it with us on July 3 at 6:45 pm at the Chatham Community Library!

Dana: A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

This well-researched historical thriller launches the Benjamin Weaver series, in which a boxer-turned-private investigator travels through the seedy underworld of eighteenth-century London in pursuit of thieves and debtors. Weaver (a Jew among Christians, adding yet another layer of interest to the story) becomes entangled in the world of finance and scandal leading up to the world’s first stock-market crash, brought about by speculation in the South Sea Company’s stock. If you want a rollicking good read without even realizing you’re also getting a bit of a history lesson (the beginnings of speculative trading, anyone?), you won’t be able to get enough of this series.

Megan: On Writing by Stephen King

Summer always puts me in creative-mode, and Stephen King’s classic memoir is full of both writing advice and hilarious life stories. A perfect lead-in to our summer edition of National Novel Writing Month this July!

 

Molly: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte & Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Jane Eyre was written in 1847 and is the story of orphaned unloved Jane, self-described as “poor, plain, and little.” The novel, told in the passionate first person voice of Jane herself, chronicles the narrator’s life from age 10 through adulthood. While the story contains elements of romance, I would argue that it is a book primarily about one person’s quest for self-determination. Jane is caught in a time and place (19th century England) in which her role in the world is pre-determined. She does not accept this fate, however. There is a mystery at the heart of the book, too, which I won’t spoil. After reading Jane Eyre, definitely try Jean Rhys’s, Wide Sargasso Sea. While the book is technically a prequel to Jane Eyre, it was written over a century after Bronte published her novel, in 1966. This book follows the story of Antoinette, a brilliant and troubled creole woman from the Bahamas. To say more would be to ruin the surprise of both books.

Jennifer’s picks: Find yourself taking a “stay-cation” this year? Three outstanding new books will transport you to different times and places–from the deep woods of Michigan to the Blue Ridge of Virginia and North Carolina–hold you tighter than a patch of brambles, and haunt you like ballads “way over yonder in the minor key,” as Woody Guthrie put it.

The protagonist of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, Margo, is a teen abandoned by her mother. She’s learned most of what she knows on the river and is as sure a shot as her idol, Annie Oakley. After a tragedy forces her from her home, she survives in the wild on a search for her mother. This is a young woman who makes choices, though they aren’t always good ones, and faces challenges with a calm assurance. In a nutshell, Campbell has created a female Homer who overcomes trial after trial to return home—to herself. Although no Pulitzer prize for fiction was awarded this year, this book was long rumored to be in the running.

Ron Rash and Robert Goolrick are masters of atmosphere, and their newest novels ring with moonshine and high lonesome mystery. Neither Heading Out to Wonderful nor The Cove reach the art achieved in A Reliable Wife or Serena, but both are beautifully written mountain tales that evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of the Virginia and North Carolina Blue Ridge and readers would be missing stories as memorable and compelling as fairy tales.

Open Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful and you won’t be able to stop reading until the bitter end. In 1948, “Charlie Beale drove into town out of nowhere in an old beat-up pickup truck. On the seat beside him were two suitcases. One was thin cardboard. . .and in it were. . .a set of butcher knives, sharp as razors. . .The other one was made of tin and. . .it was filled with money. A lot of money.” Then the handsome, mysterious stranger not only meets the ethereally beautiful wife of the meanest man in Brownsburg, Virginia, but draws the four-year-old son of his new employer into a train-wreck of a tale that will remind you of Long Black Veil, Tom Dooley, and other traditional tragic songs.

In The Cove, the suspicious inhabitants of Mars Hill, North Carolina have labeled Laurel Shelton a witch, though they accept her brother Hank, who has returned home from World War I minus one arm. The gloomy, secluded cove where she and her brother have spent their lives is widely believed to be cursed. One day Laurel follows the sound of flute music emanating from a swath of rhododendron and discovers a mysterious stranger. Dressed in rags, he has a note pinned to his shirt explaining that his name is Walter, he is mute, and he needs to get to New York. Hank and Laurel want to keep Walter in the cove as long as possible; Hank in order to make improvements to the homestead so he can leave the cove for good, and Laurel because she sees in Walter her only hope for happiness. When Walter’s dangerous secret is unwittingly revealed to a vigilante, the story steams full-tilt to its dramatic ending. Readers will want to learn more about the true events that inspired this story.

If you are still looking for books to read, here are more recommendations:

NPR’ s 2012 Summer Books Series

Goodreads Popular Summer Reading Shelves

Nancy Pearl Unearths Great Summer Reads

Library Journal: Summertime and the Reading is Easy

Don’t forget: summer reading isn’t just for kids! Chatham Community Library is pleased to offer its first summer reading program for adults, Between the Covers. Click here to sign up.

Book Review: Veggie Burgers Every Which Way–Lukas Volger

Veggie Burgers Every Which Way by Lukas Volger

It’s summer, which for many people means it’s grilling season! Too often, though, vegetarians and vegans get the short end of the stick at cookouts. Let’s face it – those frozen, boxed veggie burgers really aren’t very good. They taste bland and artificial to me, and I have trouble appreciating that lovely dry, cardboard texture. Fortunately, delicious and nutritious veggie burgers are easy to make at home, and Lukas Volger shows us how in Veggie Burgers Every Which Way.

Volger’s book provides thirty unique veggie burger recipes, and the variety of styles ensures that there is something for every palette. All of the recipes are clearly-written and easy to follow, and many include directions for how busy cooks can prepare portions of the recipe ahead of time. Best of all, many of the recipes take thirty minutes or less of prep and cook time! Also included is a section on freezing your veggie burger mix for later use and the proper storage method for making your leftovers last, especially convenient for hectic schedules and small families.

Most of the recipes call for fresh ingredients readily available at any major supermarket. Those few ingredients that are less standard can be found in organic food stores or Asian grocers. The emphasis on fresh ingredients makes these burgers both more flavorful and more healthy than the alternatives provided in the (very few) other veggie burger cook books out there. More than half of the recipes are also vegan or gluten-free, and many others are easily modified for specialized diets.

The introduction to Veggie Burgers Every Which Way outlines the typical ingredients found in veggie burgers and the most common basic cooking methods for each, making this book easily accessible to fledgling cooks. For those who are looking to further amp their veggie burger experience, the section on condiments and toppings provides an eclectic mix of sauces, relishes, and other burger essentials. Definitely don’t skip the homemade french fry section; these tasty fry recipes are surprisingly easy and varied, a great change from frozen french fries. Adventurous cooks should try the burger bun section, which includes standard, whole wheat, pretzel, corn, and gluten-free recipes for homemade burger buns.

The burger recipes are divided into three sections based on their primary ingredients: Bean, Grain, and Nut Burgers; Vegetable Burgers; and Tofu, Seitan, and TVP Burgers. The offerings range from basic burgers that anyone can love to adventurous flavors inspired by international cuisine. Don’t be scared off by an unfamiliar ingredient or spice, though; Volger knows what he’s doing, and every burger is perfectly balanced.

I have personally tasted five of the recipes included in this book. At the American Library Association Conference in 2010, Volger prepared small samples of the Mushroom Burgers with Barley; I have made the Thai Carrot Burgers, Ginger-Soy Tempeh Burgers, Red Bean and Quinoa Burgers, and Pub Grub Veggie Burgers in my own kitchen. All have been straightforward, delicious, and satisfying to both vegetarian and omnivorous guests. Even the devoted carnivores in my life adore these recipes – this book is truly for everyone!

Book Review: Mushroom – Nicholas Money

Mushroom – Nicholas Money

Do you feel confused by chanterelles, mystified by morels, and bewildered by button mushrooms? Despite the huge number of species and ubiquitousness of mushrooms in fields, forests and supermarkets, the fungal kingdom is poorly understood by mycologists and laypeople alike, a problem Miami University Botany professor Nicholas Money aims to rectify in his new book Mushroom.

Written for a popular audience, Mushroom delves into both scientific and cultural aspects of fungi, from the unbelievable science behind spore dispersion (I’m not kidding! It’s amazing!) to the bizarre story of a Civil War veteran who made it his mission to personally sample hundreds of species of poisonous and unpalatable mushrooms (not recommended for people who wish to keep their original pair of kidneys). As an amateur mycologist myself, I found Mushroom to be more scientific than other mycological texts intended for non-scientists, a pleasant surprise. In addition, the chapters are short and can stand on their own as mini-essays, making the book extremely readable.

Mushroom is available at Chatham Community Library.

Other books I like on the fungal kingdom (some available at Chatham Community Library):
The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and famed amateur mycologist David Arora’s All That the Rain Promises and More represent the opposite extremes of mushroom identification guides – the Audobon Guide’s tone is staid and serious, while Arora includes numerous pictures of his wacky friends grinning and holding giant shelf fungi. That’s not to say it’s any less authoritative or useful as a guidebook!

In his guide 100 Edible Mushrooms, Michael Kuo begins by recommending that his readers not eat any wild mushrooms, given the deadly consequences of misidentification. If you’re the kind of person who feels compelled to eat wild mushrooms, though, this guide has great pictures and is extremely well-researched.

Paul Stamets covers many aspects of identification, biology, and cultivation in his book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World (available at Chatham Community Library). He isn’t kidding in the subtitle – Stamets describes numerous environmental and health benefits of various species of fungi. Chapters on mycoremediation, a technique of growing mushrooms on damaged and contaminated soil to help remove toxic heavy metals and break down petroleum were of particular interest to me.

Member Book Review: The Cove–Ron Rash

The Cove by Ron Rash

As I drive around North Carolina and see falling-down, decrepit barns and homes, I try to imagine the lives that once occupied them, before the highway went two feet in front of the door and before they became splintered shells.

North Carolina native Ron Rash’s new novel, The Cove, tells a thrilling story of one of those farms, discovered by a present-day government worker in the prologue, long-abandoned and full of mystery. Two adult orphaned siblings live and farm on a piece of land near the end of World War I, in a dark and damp cove near Mars Hill, North Carolina. Laurel and Hank Shelton have more than their share of troubles and only a handful of friends between them, and Rash captures the taciturn, all-business characteristics of Western North Carolina people and culture with great aplomb. Laurel dreams of much more than her life as a farm matron, but she’s surrounded by superstition and judgment that severely limits her ambition. When a mute stranger appears on their land needing medical attention, Laurel and Hank’s lives are set on a course with dire consequences.

The chapters alternate between life in the cove and in Mars Hill, with a jingoistic army recruiter named Chauncey Feith, who seeks the town’s approval even as they mock him behind his back. His ambitions and extreme pride collide with the Sheltons in the climax. If the novel has a flaw, I found the initial Chauncey chapters a little slow, though the hard look at the prejudice and fear surrounding the “enemy” at wartime was interesting and well-developed. Like any small town with lost and injured soldiers, the shared tragedy leads to all levels of fear and ambivalence towards a collection of civilian Germans being held prisoner nearby. Rash handles the exploration of a far-away war with local consequences quite deftly.

Ed. note: this post was written by a member of Chatham Community Library. If you’d like to write a review, check out our guidelines.

Book Review–Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down: Rosecrans Baldwin

Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin

During Rosecrans Baldwin’s first week at work as a copywriter in Paris, he forgets that in French buildings the first floor is what we consider to be the second floor. Summoned to a meeting on the sixth floor, he blunders into two different meetings before he finally reaches his destination. This could just be a metaphor for Baldwin’s entire experience living and working in France with the exception that, far from being a blunderer, he is the quintessential fair-haired boy.

Having landed a job with a French ad agency despite the fact that he can’t really speak French, Baldwin begins a stint as a working stiff in one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. Not for the faint of heart his grueling schedule, which begins before dawn so he can work on his novel before he heads  to the office until 6 or 7 pm, frequently  to return to his laptop and the online newsletter he edits. Truly, Baldwin is one lucky guy—his meteoric rise in the ad agency (he quickly moves from a breastfeeding account to one for Louis Vuitton luggage, rubbing elbows with celebrities like Keith Richards and Sean Connery) parallels the improvements he makes to his fluency in French and to his first novel, leading up to its acceptance for publication.

What I like about Baldwin’s book is the innocence and tenderness with which he regards France and the Parisians. Even while recounting events that resemble X-rated episodes of The Office, there’s no sarcastic undertone; he likes his colleagues for the most part and explores their idiosyncrasies with affection. His ironic descriptions of the struggles he and his wife Rachel (who speaks even less French than her husband) encounter with bureaucracy are humorous without being snide or cliché. For example, Baldwin inquires at the Post Office to see if it’s legal to ship wine to the U.S. and an indignant clerk tells him, “Sir, this is France,” in a tone indicating oui,  but of course, wine can be shipped to the States! Soon after, informed by another postal clerk that his wine has been impounded because it’s illegal to ship wine to the U.S., Baldwin’s self-deprecating dialog makes as much fun of his attempts to communicate in French as it does the absurd situation.

Like any of us who’ve ever taken a job at a tourist destination thinking how romantic it will be to work in paradise, Baldwin ultimately realizes that work is work, no matter where you are, and it’s eating into his ability to live as he wants. Rachel spends a lot of time home alone while Rosecrans jets off to exotic locales for Vuitton, they are eating a lot of frozen food, noisy remodeling has expanded from the floor above their apartment to the floor below and the apartments on either side so, on a rare day together at Giverny, the couple decide to return home.  His colleagues can’t decide which is more difficult to believe: the fact that Rosecrans will be moving to North Carolina (rednecks, woods, guns) or that he has managed to get a novel accepted for publication while working full time.

Anyone who’s ever wanted to live in France will find Baldwin’s book and its sparkling details as refreshing as a chilled Perrier after a long, dry walk.

More of My Favorite Books about Paris, In No Particular Order:

Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb

Robb peels back the layers of time in the city of light—we’re present for Napoleon’s first encounter with Paris (and the notorious Palais Royale), we navigate the labyrinth of limestone quarries beneath the city and meet the man who saved Paris from collapsing, we see how a place changes character over a century. The appeal of this book is that instead of feeling compelled to read it from beginning to end, chapter by chapter, you can dip in and out, at last able to travel through time.

Death in the City of Light by David King (Large print version)

Paris can be a sinister city, perhaps never more so than during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Serial killer Marcel Petiot murdered and stole from his victims in almost plain view of the police while he continued his medical practice. As King makes clear in this true-crime page turner, the Nazis weren’t the only force the French had to fear.  Highly recommended for fans of Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City.

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke

An entertaining tell-all by a Brit who also took a job in Paris; far more hostile and sarcastic than Baldwin’s book, but still good for a laugh.

Book Review: Our Noise: the Story of Merge Records–John Cook

Our Noise: the Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small, by John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance

This 2009 book would be considered mandatory reading for a course about Triangle Area music at the turn of the twenty-first century, were anyone ever to teach one.  But it would also be informative entertainment to anyone curious about the world of independent music, and might even contain helpful object lessons to folks who want to try wading in those murky waters themselves.  It’s the story of Triangle-based Merge Records, co-founded by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, and its journey from a home-grown imprint designed purely to release 45’s by local punk outfits (including McCaughan’s and Ballance’s own legendary group Superchunk) to international indie rock flagship.  While there is a narrative thread connecting the book’s chapters, a lot of the text is composed of quotes from Merge bandmembers, employees and cohorts, making the whole project feel like a conversation among old friends, which on some level it is, and that fact goes a long way toward explaining the secret of Merge’s success.

The reader follows the label’s improbable trajectory from its release of records by much loved but painfully obscure groups like Erectus Monotone, Pipe, and the Angels of Epistemology, to its emergence and recognition as an independent powerhouse with both the brains and the muscle to sustain the likes of household name bands like Spoon and the Arcade Fire.  The abiding question throughout remains: How did they do it?  How did they manage to survive, let alone thrive, in the predator-driven minefield of the popular music industry in an era that has seen sweeping revenue loss by Merge’s biggest corporate competitors?  A few answers might be:  A)  by staying realistic and not over-committing themselves financially, B)  by insisting on fair and transparent dealings with its bands (often with no written contract), and C)  by consistently choosing to release music because the Merge staff loved it, not because they were tempted by dancing dollar signs.  Here’s some perennially good advice to anyone seeking a recording contract:  Beware of promises made by major record label executives!

The whole book contains illuminating stories and great photo spreads, but for me the most fun parts were the stories about the label’s early travails and triumphs.  Maybe nostalgia has me in its grip, but balance sheets and marketing campaigns figure a little too heavily in the later pages, as they necessarily will when talking about big business.  I prefer the early anecdotes, when it was all about hand-assembling 7-inch singles fresh from the pressing plant in your living room, selling them one at a time out of the back of your van, and driving off with a truckstop coffee toward the next show.  DIY all the way.

Member Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank–Nathan Englander

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, was published in February, 2012. Englander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish New York home, but his adulthood led him on a secular path. In an interview with Book Browse, he said, “If it weren’t for fear of God’s instantaneous and violent retribution, I’d declare myself an atheist.”  Nevertheless, among his talents is the ability to make Judaism, the Holocaust, faith, loss of faith, family, love, and growing up in and out of religion both heartbreaking and hilarious. As a religious person myself, I am deeply moved by these characters’ struggles with and embracing of cultural and spiritual traditions. The title story in particular is a trifle of one-time pot-smoking adults until it’s very much not, and packs a gut punch in the last lines. I also loved “Free Fruit for Young Widows” and “Sister Hills” for similar reasons, and for their settings in Israel and Palestine. “Camp Sundown” is a darkly comic tale of old people at a leisure summer camp until it takes a turn that illustrates some profound and deep wounds. Overall this collection is incredibly strong.

I also greatly admire Englander’s beautiful prose, like this from “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” about locating dead relatives in a cemetery: “When you find your star and see the toasted-sand warmness of the name, you feel, in the strangest way, as if you’re being received as much as you’re there to pay tribute.”

If it’s frowned-upon to “trade” on the Holocaust, as some criticism of his stories seems to imply, I give Englander credit here for its every mention looming large over every character, and sometimes informing their actions in very meaningful ways.

Note: this post was written by a member of Chatham Community Library. If you’d like to write a review, check out our guidelines.