Tag Archives: Brendan’s picks

Book Review: A Hologram for the King – Dave Eggers


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: 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.

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.

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: 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.