Gardens at Home and Abroad

I am in withdrawal.  This is the time of winter when a few visits to the Dartmouth Greenhouse sustain me and provide a stepping stone to spring.  With the greenhouse closed, no book can exhale that warm, fragrant air, but at least the eyes can feast.  Herewith, three gardening books from the new books area.  

Inside Outside: A Sourcebook of Inspired Garden Rooms, by Linda O’Keefe, is a tour of defined garden spaces from around the world.  Its intent is practical: sections entitled Space, Structure, Movement, Mood, Furniture, and Time guide one toward a conception of the elements of garden spaces.  But the effect is pleasure.  Space after verdant space unfurls before the mind’s eye.

Likewise, Japanese Gardening: A Practical Guide to Creating a Japanese-Style Garden with 700 Step-By-Step Photographs, by Charles Chesshire, is meant to instruct.  Whether one is looking to design in the pond garden style, the dry garden style, the tea garden style, the stroll garden style, or the courtyard garden style, this is your book.  But the endless series of photographs transports one to a place of serenity whether one intends to build a garden or no.  Gates, stone lanterns, pools, stepping stones, moss–even the discrete elements of the Japanese garden inspire and delight.

But for pure visual ravishment, spend a little time with Adventures in Eden: An Intimate Tour of the Private Gardens of Europe.  There are the usual suspects–England, France, Spain–all lushly and magnificently photographed, but also gardens of Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, in styles I couldn’t have anticipated with accuracy.  

If there were ever a winter in which other things have to stand in for travel, this is it.  Make a cup of tea, put your feet up, and dream.

-Jared J.

Shakespeare Retellings

Howe Library has started a new Shakespeare reading group, First Sunday Shakespeare. It’s a way to get together with others (virtually), engage with some great works of art, and have lots of fun. 

Inspired by this new program I thought we’d highlight the Hogarth Shakespeare Series, a series of modern Shakespeare retellings by popular, contemporary authors, commissioned by Hogarth Press.  

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson – a retelling of The Winter’s Tale 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler – a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew 

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood – a re-imagining of The Tempest 

Macbeth by Jo Nesbø – a retelling of Macbeth 

Dunbar by Edward St Aubyn – a retelling of King Lear 

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier – a re-imagining of Othello 

Contact jared.jenisch@thehowe.org for more information on attending First Sunday Shakespeare. 

-Mike M.  

Downloadable formats:

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

ALA Book Awards!

On January 25, the American Library Association (ALA) announced the top books, digital media, video, and audiobooks for children and young adults.  Recognized worldwide for the high quality they represent, ALA awards guide parents, educators, librarians, and others in selecting the best materials for youth. Selected by judging committees of librarians and other literature and media experts, the awards encourage original and creative work.

Newbery Medal: most outstanding contribution to children’s literature:

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller 

Caldecott Medal: most distinguished American picture book:

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom

Printz Medal: for excellence in literature written for young adults:

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

Coretta Scott King Award: recognizing an African American author:

Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson

-Denise R.

A SWIM IN A POND IN THE RAIN

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders – I don’t remember when I last felt so grateful to a writer as I am to George Saunders for having written this book. In it, he throws open the doors to a class he’s taught for twenty years at Syracuse University on the nineteenth-century Russian short story.  

Why read these stories? Because they unabashedly explore big questions. How should we live? What should we value? Is it okay to be happy when there’s so much suffering in the world? Those sorts of unanswerable questions the Russian writers nonetheless took a stab at answering, or at least delving into, thus producing stories that still speak to us so many years later. 

The book begins deliciously as an exercise in slow reading, as Saunders feeds you a Chekhov story one page at a time, checking in with you after each page and guiding you toward developing an awareness of your own reading experience. Stop, Saunders says, what did you notice on that page? What did it make you wonder about? Okay, now read on and see how the author responds to your questions. Stories are conversations between author and reader, Saunders shows us, and his book is a conversation, too, not a lecture.  

In the chapters that follow, Saunders gives us six more stories to read (by Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, and Tolstoy), and then considers what makes each one tick. How does the author make us care enough to keep reading? Which details are included and which are left out? Whose perspective are we given and why does it matter? Here’s another approach the author might have taken—why didn’t he? By articulating so well what animates these stories and by sharing his sheer admiration for them, Saunders teaches us to love them better ourselves. 

I think this feels like such a heightened reading experience because the habits of mind Saunders encourages me to cultivate as a reader—attentiveness, openness, inquisitiveness—make me feel that much more alive when I look up from the page. Even if only briefly, I feel more receptive to the world in front of me. 

If you’re looking to intensify and deepen your reading experience, if you crave a reading buddy who is witty and brilliantly insightful yet appealingly modest—who never suggests his way of reading is the only way—this just might be your book.  

-Kirsten G.

History in Objects

I love reading about history, but sometimes even my favorite historical eras can seem like slogs. If you want a dose of history but would like some closure at the end of a reading session, try these books on for size.  

PDF DOWNLOAD] A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor Free  Epub | World history, Books, History

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor 

The director of the British Museum takes you on a tour of humanity’s innovations and inventions. The historical artifacts have their own beautiful color photographs to go along with the texts, each object explaining a certain human innovation and its effect on the world. This is a terrific book to pick up and put down. You will never lose the narrative between readings. It starts with a primitive hand axe and ends with a credit card, but there is so much in between that is worth exploring. 

Space Exploration: A History in 100 Objects by Sten Odenwald 

If you are even casually interested in outer space this a wonderful book, for the same reasons that Neil MacGregor’s book was. You can digest it in little chunks here and there or pick out the most interesting objects. For many of us, anything to do with space can seem intimidating, but this is a nice hand-held walk through the history of human space exploration. Start with an Egyptian star clock. Move through all forms of early telescopes, gyroscopes, and astrariums. Refresh your knowledge of Sputnik and the Apollo missions. Wrap yourself in a warm space blanket. Eat some space food. Cruise around on Mars with the Curiosity rover, and finally peer into a black hole (such that you can) with the Event Horizon Telescope. Space is fun to explore when it’s not so daunting. 

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage 

This “history in objects” book certainly has fewer objects and isn’t as pick-up-and-put-down-able as the other two books, but it’s just as fascinating. Tom Standage picks six potables that have had a considerable influence on history. Beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-cola, each had an effect on some aspect of global history, themselves representing massive changes in politics, culture, and globalism. Bottoms up! 

-Mike M.

Escape to Other Worlds

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. Since he was five years old, Lazlo Strange, a war orphan and junior librarian, has been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep.  He’s convinced, however, that it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. When a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, Lazlo has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever. 

(Book 1 of the Strange the Dreamer duology

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang.  When war orphan, Rin, from the remote Rooster province, gets into Sinegard, the elite national military academy, everyone is surprised, but not everyone is pleased.  From the moment she arrives, Rin is targeted by her classmates because she’s poor, she’s the wrong color, and she’s female.  But Rin is also a powerful shaman.  As war encroaches on the Empire, Rin comes to the realization that her powers may be the only weapon that can save her people.  But at what cost?   

(Book 1 of The Poppy War trilogy

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin.   
 
In a post-apocalyptic world plagued by natural diasters, Essun lives in a small comunity barricaded against the outside world. When her husband realizes that she and her children are orogenes with the ability to manipulate seismic energy, he kills their son and kidnaps their daughter. Against the backdrop of the end of the world, Essun follows them, beginning an odyssey which will not end until her daughter is safe.   

(Book 1 of The Broken Earth trilogy

-Marilyn B.

Downloadable formats:

Strange the Dreamer and duology

The Fifth Season and The Broken Earth Trilogy

Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels, by Toby Ferris

Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels

Toby Ferris, his father recently dead and entering into fatherhood himself, sets out at the age of 42 to view all 42 of the surviving paintings of Pieter Breughel the Elder (save one).  They become the matrix through which he explores matters of myth, meaning, and mortality.

With insight and art-historical nuance he delves into the world of village celebrations, hunters, harvesters, and drunkards pushed into pigsties that’s portrayed in the paintings, opening out from there to stories of his own travels from museum to museum across Europe, memories of his father, and philosophical meditations on life.

Toby Ferris is also the creator of the arcane and alluring website “Anatomy of Norbiton,” which a favorite author of mine, Robert Macfarlane, describes as “a dazzlingly strange thought-experiment in virtual topography, counterfactual space, town-planning and tapirs.”  It would be easy to get lost in this genre-defying and labyrinthine literary creation without ever having a sense of what it’s about–or even quite what it is.  Ferris brings something of this esoteric sensibility to Short Life in a Strange World, but in a more concrete and accessible way.

His writing is worth enjoying in its own right.  Take these sentences on paragliders that are sucked into the upper atmosphere: “They would be tossed around in regions of lurid physics, as though buffeted in the red eye of Jupiter, would black out, and then, if they lived to tell of it, would be spat back frostbitten, wild-eyed, jabbering: ancient mariners of the upper airs.”

This is a book to be savored in bites, not consumed in a sitting.  It is dense, allusive, and evocative.  As a physical object it is a beautiful thing: heavy in the hand, cream-paged, rich with reproductions of Renaissance paintings.  It’s a good book for a winter bed stand–maybe interleaved with lighter fare for leavening.

-Jared J.

Epistolary Novels

We don’t write letters much anymore. Packages come in the mail. Correspondences do not. This was reinforced this year when my 4-year-old, who had already sent a written a letter to Santa, was confused when he received one in return. What? Why? The futility of explaining to a 4-year-old why someone would communicate with another via paper, stamps, and envelopes when you could just call, text, or FaceTime(!) became immediately evident. My knee-jerk reaction was to explain long-distance calling rates. Hmm. Guess those don’t really exist anymore either. I think I’ll just explain that Santa has bad cellphone service and is still on dial-up.  

When we do get a letter in the mail there is something more at work than just nostalgia for a simpler time. It reminds you why letter writing held value in the first place. They were crafted. They were moments in time, written by someone’s hand. The response couldn’t be an immediate reaction but a thoughtful wording, with ample time for revision. There’s a reason I keep all my old cards and letters from my grandmother, and I’m a little sad to think that no one will be able to keep letters from anyone anymore. But I am glad that there are some authors out there writing novels in letters (epistolary novels), allowing you live amongst that lost art once more.  
 

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher – A frustrated professor, Jason Fitger, losing-at-life at the moment, writes a series of letters of recommendations for students and colleagues and to senior administration at the college. The letters grow increasingly autobiographical as Fitger writes. It’s a witty novel and a satirical look at academia.  

Meet Me at the Museum – by Anne Youngson – An older woman, Tina, nearing the retirement years of her life, receives news that an old friend has died. For their whole lives the two friends had planned to visit a Museum in Denmark, and when her friend dies, ending that dream, she begins some correspondence with the museum’s curator, Anders. This sets in motion changes in the lives for both Tina and Anders that they cannot foresee. Their charming letters are intimate and introspective. This novel makes you want to buy some stamps, pick up a pen and write to someone you love.   

Dear Elizabeth by Sarah Ruhl – Well… not a novel, but a play, comprised of letters written between the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. These letters are honest and unsentimental and reflect a deep friendship of two complex and extraordinary artists. I saw this play performed at Northern Stage a few years ago, and it was wonderful. I’ve since re-read(re-saw?) (re-saw-read?) the play and it is a pleasure as well. 

-Mike M.

How I Made My Home Not Ugly

It took a pandemic and a stay-at-home order for me to finally invest time and money into making my home homey. The last six months, I have become a Home and Garden connoisseur, reading every issue of House Beautiful and HGTV Magazine and every home design book available at the library. Here are some of the titles I found informative, inspiring, and most importantly, full of gorgeous pictures. 

https://howe.evergreencatalog.com/opac/extras/ac/jacket/large/r/256145

Homebody: A Guide to Creating Spaces You Never Want to Leave 

by Joanna Gaines 

I mean, what would this list be without the Queen of HGTV? Homebody is a nice reminder that sometimes all you need to do to make your home beautiful is to not live in it. (Just kidding. Kind of.) Much of the book is about breaking down style aesthetics (Modern, Farmhouse, Classic, etc.), and the rest is bursting with design ideas. Even if the level of perfection in Homebody is unattainable for some people (me), it’s still a nice reminder that, more often than not, less is more. 

Remodelista: The Organized Home 

by Julie Carlson and Margot Guralnick 

I’ve read Marie Kondo and know all about the life-changing magic of throwing away your junk, but this book presents what to do with the stuff you have left. (Basically, hide it in baskets or cupboards, or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, hang it on your wall.) There are things in here I’ll never do, like store baking ingredients in cute glass containers, but this book DID help me devise the brilliant idea of hiding my recycling under a table behind a jerry-rigged curtain. 

The Perfectly Imperfect Home: How to Decorate & Live Well 

by Deborah Needleman 

Needleman packs this book with helpful tips to streamline your living spaces, breaking down the elements of a room and presenting sound advice for total beginners. (Get your furniture off the wall! Don’t overdose on symmetry and matchiness!) As the title demonstrates, this is the more practical the three, and unlike the others, which are decorated with bold photographs, The Perfectly Imperfect Home contains beautiful watercolor illustrations to convey its information. 

-Kelly S.

And the quirky title is just the beginning…

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson. 

Born in Iowa in 1951, young Bill Bryson grew up with a superhero fantasy life. He describes himself as running around his neighborhood with a thunderbolt on his shirt and a towel for a cape. Bryson describes it as a magical time to grow up: TV was the new technology and we didn’t yet know that cigarettes could kill us, although it was possible that the atomic bomb might. For Bryson it was a time of outrageous pranks with friends, aided and abetted by the benign neglect of quirky parents. That Bryson has never lost that childlike fantasy life, nor his fully developed sense of the outrageous, is clear to anyone who has read his many books. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is a delightful memoir that is a skillful blend of nostalgia and irreverence.  

Bag Balm and Duct Tape by Beach Conger. 

Young Dr. Beach Conger knows that he’s something of a mail order groom when he’s hired, sight unseen, to be the new doctor at a small hospital in rural Vermont. Conger has visions of himself as the kind and revered country doctor, even as he admits that arrogance is an essential trait for physicians. His patients, a motley crew held together by the bag balm and duct tape of the title, know that their task is to break Conger in. Conger’s tales are full of characters (most of them patients) who could only appear in a book by the doctor who coined the phrase, “Half a bubble off plumb…” That he’s as quirky as they are makes for hilarious, and heartwarming reading. 

A Libertarian Walks into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. 

Did you ever wonder what would happen if a ragtag group of Libertarians and wannabes decided to take over a small New Hampshire town? And what if, at the same time, that town was overtaken by bears? Sounds unlikely, I know, but that’s exactly what happened in Grafton, NH only a few years ago. Journalist Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, who was once a staff writer for the VALLEY NEWS, tells this stranger-than fiction story with a large dose of humor and a fair amount of sympathy for the bears. 

-Marilyn B.

Don’t Be Afraid of YA

Just because a book has a YA (young adult) or OT (older teen) label on it, doesn’t mean that adults can’t or shouldn’t read it.  It may be written for the teenage crowd, but a good story is a good story.  Here a few favorites I’ve enjoyed this year. 

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee  

17-year-old Jo is a Chinese-American trying to survive in Atlanta in 1890.  Jo and her father figure known as Old Gin live in the basement in a home built by abolitionists, so she often hears the Bell family’s conversations.  When she learns the Bell’s newspaper may have to shut down due to a lack of sales, Jo anonymously writes write an advice column for the newspaper, which becomes a widely popular.  While questions of “Who is Miss Sweetie?” swirl around the city, Jo is also uncovering family secrets of her own.  

Wilder Girls by Rory Power 

This horror-thriller novel is set a girl’s school on an island off the Maine coast that has been in quarantine for 18 months due to an illness known as “The Tox.”  Many have died and survivors face flare-ups.  But something isn’t quite right and Hetty is even more suspicious of this when she is assigned to a resupply mission off the island.  And then her best friend Betty goes missing… 

The Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooklyn A. Allen and Noelle Stevenson 

This is a graphic novel series that I discovered when I picked up #11 in the series on the new shelf.  I missed a few things (references to previous storylines) but I adored the story of a group of teen girls at a female scouting camp solving mysteries that have a supernatural bent.   

-Megan C.

Reading Inspired by Watching “The Vow”

I’ve been watching a documentary TV series on HBO called The Vow about cult/multi-level marketing company NXIVM (pronounced: nex-ee-um). No one thinks they will ever join a cult. They are too smart. But these were smart folks, and they were duped. Anyway, it got me thinking about other cults and small religious movements. Here are a few interesting books I’ve read over the years. 

The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn 

Jeff Guinn, author of Manson (2014), provides an account Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Though the author could dive deep into the psychological aspects of Jim Jones, he refrains(mostly), and explains how Jones rose to prominence in the Bay Area. Jones’ genuine want for equality and social justice was always undermined by his fraudulent practices, eventually leading to the death of more than 900 of his followers in a jungle in Guyana. This is a fascinating read about a tragic event. 

The Girls by Emma Cline 

Using a fictionalized version of the Mason family/Tate-LaBianca murders as an outline, Emma Cline writes about a teenage girl, her alienation from her family, and her gradual involvement in a cult that turns violent. Though most of us already know where the story is going this is an exploration of the precariousness of being a teen girl. Cline shows how a few life changing events can transpire and send one down the rabbit hole quickly. This is a rather dark coming-of-age story that is compelling despite the story’s familiarity. 

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist examines the world of Scientology, from its charismatic founder, L. Ron Hubbard, to its growth in popularity among celebrities in Hollywood. It was Scientology that I most thought of when watching The Vow, particularly because of the way members were treated when they left. Defectors were surveilled, bullied, and often taken to court, forcing them into years of litigation. This book explores Scientology’s deep dysfunction and machinations for control over its members. 

-Mike M.

Electronic content:

The Girls: e-book & e-audiobook

Going Clear: e-book & e-audiobook

Visual stories – Wordless Picture Books

Wordless picture books are important for children’s literacy development in many ways, instilling confidence with storytelling and enhancing comprehension.  The artwork is often stunning and the stories open for interpretation.

Here are three wordless books from our older picture book collection to explore.

Boat of Dreams by Rogério Coelho 

Window by Marion Arbona

A Stone for Sascha by Aaron Becker

-Denise R.

Books by Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore is an American history professor at Harvard University, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the author of many works of popular nonfiction. Her latest is If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future – This book tells the story of the Simulmatics Corporation, which pioneered many of the same methods that Facebook, Google, and Amazon use today. This buried history was uncovered by Lepore and exposes the earliest attempt at using computers to alter human behavior. The corporation employed some of the brightest social scientists of the day, who believed they had invented “the A-bomb of the social sciences”. This is the long-lost history of the origins of Silicon Valley’s current model, arrogance, and misunderstanding of its consequences. Netflix’s The Social Dilemma is good follow-up viewing.  

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by [Jill Lepore]

The Secret History of Wonder Woman – A cultural history of Wonder Woman, but really a biography of her creator William Moulton Marston. Oh, where to begin with this guy? He was a Harvard trained psychologist, the inventor of the lie detector test. He invented Wonder Woman, who would later go on to be a feminist icon. He entered into a polyamorous relationship with his wife and one of his college students, Olive Byrne, who was the niece to Margaret Sanger. They kept this relationship secret, from the public, and their own children. The story only takes more twists and turns. Jill Lepore creates a real page-turner where you would not expect to find one. Though not directly based on Lepore’s book Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a dramatized cinematic release that covers the same ground. 

These Truths: A History of the United States – Jill Lepore is at her best when writing about American history, and this book covers a lot of it. It is an honest account of the history of our country, and she does not shy away from asking the tough questions. Have the events in our past lived up to the mythology we have of them? The United States is a contradiction, she says, born from both ideals, and an opposite reality. It’s the American story, and it’s a lot more complicated than the one we learned in school.

Jill Lepore has written a number of other great books as well, some about American history, and others on quirky topics. You can access them here.

E-content accessed through the New Hampshire Downloadable Books Consortium

-Mike M.

 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:  A Life by Jane Sherron DeHart 

DeHart’s thoroughly researched biography of Judge Ginsburg examines her life, both private and public, from her childhood through her tenure on the Supreme Court.

Ruth Objects:  The Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Doreen Rappaport. Ill. by Eric Valasquez

For younger readers who may only know RBG as a popular culture icon, this beautifully illustrated book tells the story of the determined lawyer who championed women’s rights and rose to become a Supreme Court justice.

 Conversations with RGB by Jeffrey Rosen.

In a series of conversations with Jeffrey Rosen, the head of the National Constitution Center, Ruth Bader Ginsberg discusses her values and concerns on topics ranging from the right to choose to the #MeToo movement, from the strength of the Constitution to the future of the Supreme Court.

RBG

RGB by Magnolia Pictures. (Available on Kanopy)

This Academy Award nominated documentary film relates the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legal legacy as well as her unlikely emergence as a pop culture icon. 

-Marilyn B.

Other downloadable formats:

Ruther Bader Ginsburg: A Life, e-book & e-audiobook

Conversations with RBG, e-book & e-audiobook

Above the Clouds

Above the Clouds, Kilian Jornet

Kilian Jornet is the best in the world at what he does.  He is an outlier, someone with inborn gifts who has trained them into seemingly superhuman capacities.  He has won every mountain running competition in the world, many of them 100 mile races, numerous times.  He can run for 10 hours without food or water.  He runs up mountains other people climb–Mont Blanc in five hours instead of two days; Everest without supplementary oxygen, twice in four days, the first time while sick, the second time in 17 hours.  He has gone from fame in a niche sport to a million followers on Instagram.

Above the Clouds is his account of his passion and his life.  He describes his childhood with his mountain guide father and his mother who, when the kids were little, would get them ready for bed and then lead them out into the forest and have them listen their way home in the dark.  At the age of 4 he could hike for seven miles without resting.  From there he never stopped, pushing his body’s endurance and capacity for functioning without food, while always doing what he loved, running through the mountains.  The book is a gripping and inspiring read, and would pair well with Skyrunner by Emilie Forsberg, to whom Jornet is married, herself a record-breaking high-altitude mountain runner.   A year ago they had a child–it boggles the mind what this kid might be capable of.  Forsberg’s book has the added pleasure of being lavishly illustrated, and was reviewed on this blog in April, 2019.

-Jared J.

Inspiration From the United States Navy

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win 

by Commanders Jocko Willink and Leif Babin 

The authors of this book are both retired United States Navy SEALs who, through the experiences of their years of dedicated military service, devised practical instructions for the business world and life in general. The book describes direct combat situations that the authors experienced in the Middle East, the proving grounds for their ideas about discipline and hard work. Tactical failures in combat and in the business world, are experiences in which one can draw information from to succeed in a second time around. Moving away from placing the blame on others is something that the authors want the reader to understand deeply and to remind themselves about often. Readers will feel inspired to rise to the occasion in all their missions, in business, in society and in life.  

Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World 

by Admiral William H. McRaven 

The dedicated men and women who serve in the United States military branches must endure extreme tests of fortitude and physical stamina during their training. This book details many such exercises, including extreme swimming races and endurance challenges assigned to Navy SEALs when preparing for deployment. Many of the strongest people, most courageous, with the greatest wherewithal, are the ones who we least expect. The stories the the retired general writes reflect a true spirit of heroism, that in many ways echo the small tasks we complete each day. The simple act of making a bed, with precision and attention to detail, in a timely manner, can speak volumes about one’s character and determination. This book was inspired by the author’s commencement speech that went viral and has since inspired many in all walks of life.  

-Peter A.

Downloadable formats:

Extreme Ownership – E-audibook

Three Fantasy Novels

Here are a few of my favorite fantasy novels from the past couple of years. They are all quite different, but each offers a unique voice and story. 

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

This is a fairy tale retelling of sorts, set in an atmospheric Eastern European-ish land, that falls somewhere between the Brothers Grimm and Game of Thrones.  

It is the story of three young women: Myriem the daughter of a failed money lender, Irina the daughter of a duke, who’s newly married to a demonic Tsar, and Wanda, who is determined to rid herself of her abusive family relationships. When Myriem promises to metaphorically turn silver into gold, strange and mysterious things begin to happen. In the dark forest, beings that were once thought to be mythical begin to haunt Myriam and her family.  As the lives of the three young women become intertwined, survival, and their loyalty to the ones they love become paramount.  

It was the high degree of craft and fully conceived characters that really made me love this book. The author gives these seemingly weak members of society an incredible deal of agency and respect, highlighting their virtues without ignoring their human fallibility. 

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

This Hamlet inspired fantasy novel bucks the typical fantasy format, with too many characters and elaborate worldbuilding, to tell a concise story with memorable characters. No problem here keeping track of who’s who.  

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is how it is sometime told from the perspective of gods, both large and small. One of the main characters is a stone that is worshiped, another is a swarm of flies. Yet another is the Raven, who protects the Kingdom of Iraden from atop his tower in the city of Vastai. His will is carried out by The Raven’s Lease, a human charged with managing his wishes. The Raven’s power is waning and when the Lease is usurped it sets off a struggle for the future of Iraden. Mawat, the true Lease, and his warrior aide Eolo, seek to discover the truth, and attempt to find out what is being hidden deep beneath the Raven’s tower.  

I really loved how this book read like an intimate play. I could almost see the stage production with spare stage dressing and Shakespearean actors playing the rolls of Eolo and Mawat, and booming voice-overs for the gods.  

For those of you who don’t want to commit to a ten-volume series with no end in sight, try The Raven Tower. It beautifully written, original, and deeply satisfying. 

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

At one point during his promotion for his book Black Leopard, Red Wolf Marlon James jokingly said that this was going to be an African Game of Thrones. It isn’t. He didn’t really mean it. It is nothing like Game of Thrones. I’ve never read a fantasy novel like this. It’s intense, complex, confusing at times, funny, touching, violent. There’s a lot of sex. There’s a lot of profanity. It is not for the faint of heart. And unlike The Raven Tower, oh my goodness will you need to use the character reference list.  

It is set in an African like fantasy world, much in the way many high fantasy novels take place in a fictitious medieval Europe. It all begins with a storyteller informing you that “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know”. That storyteller then goes on to recount the search for the child and the band of people who came with him on his journey. But this storyteller is unreliable, and everything he says the reader treats with question. In this way Black Leopard, Red Wolf is more like a combination of The Lord of the Rings and African folktales. 

If you are used to reading medieval-Europe-based fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf might be difficult, because every single element is new. So, when a fantasy novel mentions dragons, one doesn’t have to understand what that is. It is likely that you already know what a dragon is. But what about Asanbosam (a “monstrous eater of human flesh”)? What is that? What does it look like? There are Ansambosams times a hundred in Marlon James’s novel.

Give this book a try. If it’s not for you, I get it. But it’s one of a kind. 

-Mike M.

Navigating Early

Navigating Early – by Clare Vanderpool

This story is set in 1945 and the beginning of this story is about Jack and his calm life with his mother in Kansas, awaiting his dad’s return from the war front.   But his mother dies and his father, unable to deal with the loss of family, sends Jack away to a boarding school in Maine.  At this boy’s prep school, he befriends the school’s oddest student, Early.   Jack learns that Early’s older brother attended the same school where he had broken all sorts of athletic records.            

Jack and Early become fast friends and together they “borrow” the boat that Early’s brother had mastered.   A little explanation – Notice the title Navigating Early, as in boating with his friend Early and steering him through this quest.  During their December break, they take off for the Appalachian trail with their quest being to hunt down the great black bear.  

Like all adventures there are all sorts of people on the way who are there to help and/or hinder them.  The conclusion has a great surprise that puts neatly together all the adventures that Jack and Early go through together.  This is why it won the Prinz Award. 

-Gary B.

Downloadable formats: E-book & E-audiobook

READING AND COOKING (AND EATING)

Three books that blend the literary with the culinary: by a novelist, an editor, and a passionate reader. 

HOME COOKING: A WRITER IN THE KITCHEN 

Laurie Colwin was a novelist who also wrote enough essays on food and cooking to make two books’ worth, this being the first. She’s a beautiful writer, and tells stories about the cooking and eating in her life in an opinionated, down-to-earth voice that makes for delicious reading. “I do not believe that you have to spend a lot of money to eat well,” she writes, “it is hard to beat a plain old baked potato.” Chapter titles are tantalizing and Colwin delivers every time: “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” “Bread Baking without Agony,” “How to Disguise Vegetables,” “Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir.” There are recipes at the end of most chapters (so far I’ve made the gingerbread with chocolate icing—yum).

THE TENTH MUSE: MY LIFE IN FOOD 

Judith Jones was the editor who recognized Julia Child’s brilliance and convinced Knopf that they had to publish what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The story of her life—in which she travels to France, falls for French cooking and meets her life partner, follows her passion for food and becomes the editor of many esteemed cookbook writers (including Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, and Edna Lewis)—is a most happy one. Jones inspires, in that she continually stretches herself and is always game to try new things—like a recipe for fried beaver tale from the L.L. Bean Cookbook she helped publish (making use of a beaver hunted on her Vermont property). There’s also an enticing collection of recipes from her childhood, her time in France, and the final chapter of her life spent in Vermont. 

THE LITTLE LIBRARY YEAR: RECIPES AND READING TO SUIT EACH SEASON 

The author describes the book as a literary and culinary almanac that celebrates the year with reading and cooking. Here are reflections (with recipes) on what you might like to cook and read in each season. I have not yet tried any of the recipes but have enjoyed simply reading through them—each one begins with a musing paragraph that often links the recipe to the author’s reading. Curry puffs, she tells us, are mentioned in a story of Gerald Durrell’s, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko has her craving kimchi and wanting to make it, and her recipe for coffee butter and biscuits is inspired by a breakfast described in The Color Purple

-Kirsten G.