Tag Archives: 2012 Review

Book Review – The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa edited by Robert Hass

For those looking for an introduction to Haiku, for those who love poetry, or for those who simply are looking for something new, try Robert Haas’s wondrous book, The Essential Haiku. Haas serves as editor and translator for a collection of haiku from three of Japan’s masters: Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa. These small poems are full of life, wisdom, and humor.

Matsuo Basho is perhaps the best known of the trio of masters. His Narrow Road to the Far North, considered his masterpiece, centers on one man’s solitary journey. There is, perhaps, no better poem about the feeling of longing often found in moments of solitude than this one of Basho’s:

         Even in Kyoto—
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.

Yosa Buson, born some twenty years after Basho’s death, is often contrasted against Basho. Where Basho is a seeker, Buson is a painter. His poems capture still moments:

       Morning breeze,
the caterpillar’s hair.

Kobayashi Issa also writes about insects with humor and humanity in some of my favorite haiku:

       Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house


          Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
But slowly, slowly.

And another:

          Don’t kill that fly!
Look—it’s wringing its hands,
Wringing its feet.

And finally:

          Even with insects—
Some can sing,
Some can’t.

And now, I had better end this review before I excerpt the entire book and rob you, gentle reader, of the pleasure of discovering your own favorites. If you find one, post it in the comments.

Even better, I hope that you’ll now be inspired to not only read these wonderful haiku masters, but to write your own small poems. This month, in honor of the season and National Poetry Month, we invite you to send in your original haiku about the people and places you love in Chatham County. Click here for more information about this event or to submit your work.

Review: The Blue Sword & The Hero and the Crown — Robin McKinley

The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

The most popular book in the library at the moment is Suzanne Collins’s gripping young adult novel, The Hunger Games. But long before Suzanne Collins was writing about fierce and fearless girls, the fine young adult novelist, Robin McKinley was writing books about, what she calls, “girls who do things.” In her first novel, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, her protagonist, ironically nicknamed Beauty, is neither beautiful nor is she interested in romance.  She is, however, very smart and very brave. This book set the course for nearly all of McKinley’s future work. Her two most successful books are The Blue Sword (A Newberry honor book) and The Hero and the Crown (the 1985 Newberry Medal winner).  Both novels are set in the magical kingdom of Damar—a cross between a classical fairytale and a middle-eastern Bedouin landscape. The Blue Sword was written first, but its story takes place many hundreds of years after the events in The Hero and the Crown.  Readers may take up either novel without fear that it will spoil the other. Most importantly, as in Beauty, the heroes of both books are clumsy, often-overlooked girls who are also brave and smart and funny. And, like Beauty, they hold within them the power to save the world.

I know how important this idea was to me as a young woman. I also know that I’ll be giving these books to my daughter—and my son—as soon as they are old enough to read. I, for one, can’t wait and neither should you.

Book Review: Up From These Hills — Leonard Carson Lambert Jr.

Up From These Hills : Memories of a Cherokee Boyhood by Leonard Carson Lambert Jr., as told to Michael Lambert

North Carolina is home to the largest population of Native Americans east of the Mississippi, and one federally recognized tribe – the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The Eastern Band’s reservation encompasses several thousand acres adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina. Michael Lambert, an enrolled tribe member and UNC-Chapel Hill professor of anthropology and African studies, has edited and added an excellent introduction to this memoir written by his grandfather, Leonard Carson Lambert, Jr.

The history and current reality of the Eastern Band defies popular stereotypes of Native Americans. The Eastern Band of Cherokees avoided forced relocation to Oklahoma in the 1803s along the Trail of Tears through a combination of legal maneuvers (their struggles formed the basis for much of current US tribal law) and benign neglect by fleeing to the isolated Smoky Mountains. Michael Lambert’s story of growing up as in a family of poor subsistence farmers on and off the reservation in the 1930s is one that was shared by mountain people of other races. Lambert tells tales of his grandmother’s penchant for making moonshine, going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and raising farm animals as a boy. Readers will find his account an interesting slice of life from an isolated rural community a world apart from the ones most of us grew up in.

Michael Lambert’s introduction ends up being just as interesting as Leonard’s memoir. Lambert discusses the complex negotiation of identity among Eastern Band tribe members regarding how they choose to present (and not present) themselves to the dominant white culture. The tribe’s proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park has made Cherokee, NC a major tourist stop, and tribe members have long operated tourist shops selling “Indian crafts” made in China and dressed up as Plains Indians in headdresses for photo ops, finding that cowboys-and-Indians culture sells better than their own. Lambert makes the argument that these actions, rather than debasing Cherokee culture in fact strengthen it because they obscure authentic tribal traditions, protecting them from appropriation. It’s a perspective I hadn’t considered before, and one of the many ways Up From These Hills complicates our ideas of what being “Native American” really means.

Up From These Hills is available at Chatham Community Library, and is part of our North Carolina Collection.

Audio Book Review – The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

“Dr. Clifton came. He listened to my heart and asked me lots of questions. ‘Insomnia? Irregular sleep? Nightmares?’

I nodded three times.

‘I thought so.’

He took a thermometer and instructed me to place it under my tongue, then rose and strode to the window. With his back to me, he asked, ‘And what do you read?’

With the thermometer in my mouth I could not reply.

‘Wuthering Heights – you’ve read that?’


‘And Jane Eyre?’


‘Sense and Sensibility?’


He turned and look gravely at me. ‘And I suppose you’ve read these books more than once?’

I nodded and he frowned.

‘Read and reread? Many times?’

Once more I nodded, and his frown deepened.

‘Since childhood?’”

It turns out that Margaret Lea, the narrator of Diane Setterfield’s spellbinding novel The Thirteenth Tale is suffering from “an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination.” This is a novel for readers of a like-minded temperament.  Margaret is a biographer by vocation who is commissioned by the mysterious and compelling Vida Winter. Ms. Winter is a world-renowned novelist and storyteller with a deeply mysterious past. She is also gravely ill and wants to finally tell her true story before it’s too late. Over the course of the novel, we learn of Margaret’s past as well as the dark secrets hidden in Vida Winter’s memories.

I listened to this book on my morning walk, and it is an excellent audio book. Two readers take on the two different narrative voices; both readers were excellent.  This book is most reminiscent of Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. It was a deliciously guilty pleasure—gothic, romantic, mysterious, and deeply satisfying.

The library owns both print and audio versions of this novel.

Book Review: Food Rules — Michael Pollan

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan

You may have heard of Michael Pollan in connection with discussions about sustainability, farming, or organic food. He’s one of the premier writers on these topics, and put together Food Rules as a compendium of 64 simple rules on how and what to eat. Pollan believes that eating shouldn’t be complicated, so he boils the rules down to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables.” Pollan argues that the modern supermarket makes it difficult for consumers to find real food (he calls most processed food “edible foodlike product”), so he offers tips: for example, shopping on the edges of the supermarket, where raw ingredients (vegetables, milk, etc.) are found. The rules aren’t too difficult to follow, because Pollan also advocates an everything-in-moderation approach to eating – for example, eat all the junk food you want, as long as you make it yourself. This quick read was enjoyable, humorous, and edifying.

I checked Food Rules out from the e-iNC Digital Library, Chatham County’s eBook and eAudiobook library. If you’re interested in downloading library eBooks, visit our digital library at http://e-inc.lib.overdrive.com. The helpful librarians at CCL have also prepared step-by-step directions on downloading eBooks (PDF) available online. They also teach classes and can help you with your eReader or eBooks at the Reference Desk!

Food Rules is available as a library eBook from e-iNC Digital Library, and in print at Chatham Community Library.

Book Review: Nation by Terry Pratchett

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Nation (2008) is not your typical Terry Pratchett offering. Readers who aren’t familiar with Pratchett’s massive back catalog of works need not worry; this young adult novel is a standalone piece unrelated to his previous series work. The Times Online said of Nation, “Thought-provoking as well as fun, this is Terry Pratchett at his most philosophical, with characters and situations sprung from ideas and games with language. And it celebrates the joy of the moment.”

Nation is an alternate history set in the 1860s, though elements of fantasy are present throughout the book. The primary characters are Daphne, a high-born daughter of British nobility with too many thoughts in her head for society’s taste; and Mau, a young Island man set to complete his right-of-passage to adulthood. When a tidal wave destroys life as they know it, Daphne and Mau are forced to reconsider long-held beliefs and cobble together a community of refugees. They learn from each other, respect each other, achieve great things together — and make the greatest scientific discovery of the century.

The real value of Nation is in its handling of the most difficult issues in life: death, grief, faith, and community. While it may sound exceedingly sad, make no mistake, Pratchett’s dry humor and sense of the joy in life make Nation an inspiring and fulfilling read. No matter what your age, if you love character-driven stories then pick up Nation by Terry Pratchett in the YA Fiction collection.

A Printz Award Honor book.

Book Review: The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

Books have the wondrous power to free our minds and save us, but life for us is never quite as fanciful and free of consequences as it is for the characters in our books. The Borrower follows Lucy, an accidental children’s librarian with revolution in her blood; and Ian, a 10-year old book lover whose parents heavily censor his reading and force him to attend an anti-gay camp. The two inadvertently kidnap each other and set out on a completely unintended road trip, much to Lucy’s dismay.

Though the premise sounds far-fetched and funny, and there are indeed quite a few funny moments, The Borrower is in fact a challenging read for the ethical dilemmas Lucy faces, her questionable choices, and our view into her slowly crumbling identity. Ian’s sparkling characterization and bright personality shine a bright light into the dark places this novel explores, and the need to see the consequence and resolution for both characters keeps the pages turning. Fans of juvenile and young adult literature will be pleased by the frequent parodies and references to familiar works, though librarians may be offended by gross misrepresentations of library ethics and the profession itself.

You won’t find a rollicking beach read or a neat and concrete ending here, but the character interactions and the exploration of freedom and identity are worth the journey.

Book Review: State of Wonder — Ann Patchett

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Feeling the bite of winter? Journey into the sweltering heat of the Amazonian rainforest in Ann Patchett’s provocative novel, State of Wonder.  The book follows the journey of Dr. Marina Singh, a pharmaceutical researcher who is sent to the Amazon in search of a lost (and presumed dead) colleague, as well as the truth behind mystery of his death. The chaos and heat of the jungle setting is bookended by the quiet and cold of a Minnesota winter.

The book is a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s much-adapted novella Heart of Darkness. Instead of a a European male journeying deeper into colonial Africa along the Congo River, Patchett’s novel follows an Indian-American woman who travels the Amazon River. The charismatic center of Patchett’s novel is a brilliant scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson. The story, as in Conrad’s book, provides commentary on colonialism and the loss of innocence.

As an English teacher who has taught Conrad’s book many times, I relished the parallels with his novel. What I found most striking about this book, however, was how woman-centered this book was. This is a book about the female body, about fertility, about birth and its horrors and its wonders. Women are the heroes here, as well as the victims.

Book Review: Artisan Bread In Five Minutes a Day — Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois

Artisan bread in five minutes a day : the discovery that revolutionizes home baking
Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois

I’ve always been a do-it-yourself type of guy. I’ve taught myself to fix bikes, grow my own vegetables, and make websites, but making bread always seemed really hard. The mysterious process of dough rising was prone to failure, and baking felt like a chemistry experiment in which slightly mismeasured ingredients inevitably doomed the entire process.

Then I read a short article by the authors of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day published on the website of one of my favorite D.I.Y. agriculture magazines, Mother Earth News [pro tip: the essentials of the process are described in the article, so you can read this to try the basic recipe out before getting the book]. Chatham Community Library has a subscription, so check it out. The directions sounded ridiculously easy: mix up the dough, put it in the refrigerator, shape some into a ball when you want bread and bake. No kneading, no monitoring the rising involved.

And I made bread! My first loaf wasn’t perfect, but it was delicious and I made it. Since that day three months ago, I haven’t bought a single loaf of bread. I bake bread at least once a week and I’ve refined my technique, bought a baking stone, and made challahs and rolls and whole wheat breads. As a caveat, I will say that Hertzberg and Francois’ bread-making method yields fairly heavy, moist bread (think French baguette rather than fluffy American sandwich bread), so if that isn’t your style, you might not enjoy this bread. And, to quibble with the title a bit, it’s more like 15 minutes a day than 5 minutes to mix up the dough and refrigerate it. However, if you’re ready to revolutionize your home baking (no kidding!), I urge you to read Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

Book Review: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men — David Foster Wallace

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is known for being a difficult writer. He writes fiction with copious footnotes, uses words like “jejune” and “prognathous” seemingly for the fun of it, and never shies away from describing a small portion of a tennis match in dozens of pages of excruciating detail. His magnum opus, Infinite Jest, clocks in at 981 pages, not including nearly 100 pages of footnotes. When he passed away in 2008, he was working on a novel (The Pale King) about the IRS set in Peoria, Illinois, which was published this year in incomplete form – still 560 pages long.

What is less known about Wallace (at least to those who haven’t read him) is his enormous humor and his enormous compassion for human beings. These two character traits are radiantly apparent in all his work. I’ve read most of what Wallace has written, and I can’t think of another contemporary writer who is as funny or creates such a feeling of empathy for his characters as Wallace does.

David Foster Wallace’s collection of short stories, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, is as good a place as any to start if you want to get into reading him. The stories range from 5 sentences (“A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”) to 23 pages long (“On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon”), and many of them are in fact Q & A sessions with (more or less) “Hideous Men”. This hideousness is more self-identified than anything else, consisting of confessions of fairly despicable (but utterly human) moral failings that dismay the reader while also being completely believable. If you’re looking for a (relatively) brief encounter with one of the most brilliant writers of the late 20th century, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is well worth the read.