If you’re like me and are still in a post-"Downton Abbey" funk brought on by the gut-wrenching series finale, you may have heard about the recent ITV and PBS Masterpiece program "Victoria," based on the bestselling novel by Daisy Goodwin, which appears in many ways to serve as a capable, well-crafted "Downton" successor.
My friends have been raving about the lavish costumes, brilliant set designs, charming acting and enthralling story of "Victoria." In fact, it seems to touch on all of my favorite aspects of television. British drama set in the Victorian era, check. A haunting and amazing main title theme sung by the Mediaeval Baebes, check. Jenna Coleman from "Doctor Who" playing the titular character, a million checks.
As a massive steampunk and urban fantasy fan, the Victoria I typically read about is not the conventional variety, either appearing as an undead creature of the night or a human-mechanical hybrid. Since it was high time I gave "Victoria" a chance, I decided to break out of my narrative wheelhouse and read some historical fiction with no runic magic systems, supernatural beings, or fog-ridden streets in sight.
"Victoria" by Daisy Goodwin is a coming-of-age story that chronicles Queen Victoria’s ascent to the British throne and the first two years of her reign. Most of the narrative centers on familial drama and the unique series of events that led to her becoming queen, Victoria learning to navigate a bloodthirsty political environment with the aid of her faithful Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, her internal conflicts when it comes to balancing the responsibilities of a monarch, her own personal feelings on matters of state, and how her search for love fits into the equation. Told from Victoria’s perspective, the book brings history to life in an invigorating way. Goodwin even referenced Victoria’s personal diaries when writing the book.
I knew that "Victoria" was a match made in book heaven because I was invested from the introductory pages. I read very few books that hook me from the start, and I’ve read plenty that don’t get interesting even when you reach the concluding sentence. Goodwin doesn’t overwhelm readers with titles, government intricacies and minute historical details, but instead provides enough context to understand character predicaments without overwhelming her audience.
As readers, we’re allowed to experience the world through the mind of Victoria, who was sheltered by her mother from the world, due to the Kensington System, as a tactic to make her dependent on her relatives for advice on all matters. When Victoria learns to navigate new territory, we gain an understanding of the world in which she lives, absorbing information like a proverbial sponge. Goodwin employs this writing tactic in a brilliant fashion because it means readers aren’t bombarded with complex contexts and instead can experience the book as if they actually live in the world.
I appreciate how Goodwin focuses her narrative more on the people, their interpersonal relationships, and the omnipresent political intrigue of British life at that time rather than writing a story more akin to a biographical work. I’m the kind of person whose brain shuts down during information overload. Even my history book in high school functioned better as a napping pillow than a vessel for dispensing important information about the past. For me, historical fiction succeeds when it is able to effectively transport readers into the mindset of the characters, thus allowing them to see the past through the eyes of someone who lived during the time, which is an aspect this book exemplifies.
I’m sure that every reader will relate to characters differently, but I found Victoria to be such a captivating heroine. Even though those around her believe her to be unfit to rule due to the prevailing misogynistic attitude coupled with political jealousy from those who wish to rule in her stead, Victoria stands her ground against all the 19th-century haters while trying to be the best monarch for her people. She is frequently minimized by those around her and yet stays true to herself even in the face of difficult choices.
Although mistakes are made along the way, Victoria learns from them while continuing to move forward to face the new challenges of the day. Whether or not this is a modernist take on a character of the past or an accurate depiction of the true Victoria remains to be seen, but I like to think that Victoria is more akin to Goodwin’s positive and enthralling portrayal.
Overall, "Victoria" is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and I’m looking forward to reading more titles within the historical fiction genre along with seeing how ITV brings the book to life. Now, excuse me while I go binge watch this series and love every moment of it.
— Fisher Adwell is an information services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
No, we’re not actually talking about cattle today, unfortunately — or marketing, for that matter. In the library context, a brand is a personal mark a reader puts on the inside cover of a book. Normally I wouldn’t advocate defacing the collection in this way, but there’s a pretty good reason for the practice.
When you read heavily in a specific area, like some do — we’re talking two or three books a week or more — remembering which books you’ve already read can get tricky. For a series like Sue Grafton’s Alphabet mysteries, this isn’t a problem.
However, delineating Louis L’Amour’s extensive bibliography, with "Riders of the High Rock," "Rider of the Ruby Hills," "Riders of the Dawn," "Ride the River," and "Man Riding West" (Okay, we get it, Louis!) can get understandably difficult.
Book brands, then, allow a reader to make sure that they haven’t read a book before checking it out. Think of it like a very low-tech version of Goodreads.
Branding encompasses more than just utility, though. Each mark reflects its own bit of personality and artistic flair of the reader. These designs of ink and graphite form a permanent connection;not only are they mnemonic, but also meaningful. “I was here” is a powerful statement, and one not just reserved for carving into the walls of National Park picnic tables.
I admit that I might be romanticizing things, but nonetheless, I decided to keep track of some of the brands I came across. I mostly focused on the highly branded collections of Westerns and Inspirational large print, though they’re found throughout all the library's sections.
Here are my findings:
Roughly 67 unique brands exist at this time.
"Lawless Prairie" by Charles G. West is the most-branded title I found, sporting a whopping 10 brands.
The most prolific brander is far and away someone I'll call "Big Squiggle." I stopped counting their brands after 125 instances — all in all, they’ve probably branded close 200 books. Whoever you are, Big Squiggle, you amaze me.
"Little X" is the runner up, with about 70 instances, though this is likely a collective brand — which greatly reduces its effectiveness, I would think.
This one is rather subjective, but the coolest brand, in my opinion, is the X-Men Logo. I like to imagine that this person is actually a huge fan of both X-Men and Western novels. Also, it looks an awful lot like an actual cattle brand, which is neat.
Other interesting brands, described to the best of my ability, include "Red Ink Asterisks," "Double X," "Underlined OG," "@," "Little Hat," "Post-Modern Tulip Drawing," what appears to be “Ewe” (like a female sheep?), and "Tilted Z with Two Dashes." Initials, numbers, and various swooping letters make up the rest of the brands.
I like to wonder about this community of branders. Does Big Check Mark open up a book, see Little Double X’s mark, and decide it’s probably a good one? Or conversely, maybe they don’t want to follow in the footsteps of another. Maybe they’re just ships passing in the night, all interacting on the same twenty-year old page of yellowed paper, each staking out their patch of the previously blank space.
— Eli Hoelscher is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
The Lawrence Public Library has been a steadfast supporter of local writing talent, so much so that we’re curating a local author section. Given this, and April being National Poetry Month, it felt synergistic to check in with Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas. In 2015, we asked McHenry five questions, and with the release of his new collection,"Odd Evening," we felt like it was time to ask him five more.
Q: Does the lyrical nature of your work stem from the work of poets you admire, or do you have previous experience as a musician?
A: I agree with [Walter Pater] who said that poetry aspires to the condition of song. I love music and wish I could make it, but I’ve never been gifted in that way. It may be that my desire to sing and my inability to do so are among the things that drew me to poetry. They may have drawn me to metrical and end-rhymed poetry, specifically. It’s certainly true that, when I’m writing, I’m often consciously trying to make something as good as a poem or song I’ve admired, whether it’s W.H. Auden’s “Woods” or Donald Fagen’s “The Goodbye Look.”
Q: One of the many appreciated qualities of your poetry is the regional touchstones that you’ve crafted throughout each collection. In "Odd Evening," there’s “The Gil Carter Correspondence,” an elegy regarding Topekan Gil Carter’s famed longest home run during his time in the minor leagues. Is this an element that you strive for in your work or a natural instinct?
A: I write about what I remember most vividly, and about what’s around me, and about what obsesses me, and I think I’m more attracted to the familiar than to the exotic. I write about Topeka because I grew up there and I’m there a lot and I know it well and my dreams often take place there, even when I’m living somewhere else. In the case of “The Gil Carter Correspondence,” I got really interested in the idea that this man living quietly in East Topeka had hit the longest home run in history and that very few people knew that — the shot unheard ‘round the world.
Q: As with "Potscrubber Lullabies," "Odd Evening" offers poems that contain a number of references to pop-culture, modern technology, as well as word play. These devices, imbued with sardonic wit, recall poets Donald Hall or Jane Kenyon; who are some of the poets that you’re currently inspired by?
A: I don’t go out of my way to put pop-culture references in my poems, and I worry a little about doing it because they can date the poems so quickly. But, like Topeka, they’re what’s around me. Irony and humor and wordplay, too, but they keep happening in my poems. Irony sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s not the same thing as sarcasm; it’s much more resonant. Sarcasm is saying one thing and meaning the opposite. Whereas William Empson said “an irony to be worth anything must be at least somewhat true in both senses.” Poets I’ve been inspired by recently: Robert Francis, a great and undervalued poet. And my publisher, Waywiser, has just brought out a book by Austin Allen, "Pleasures of the Game," that I think is masterful. Jane Kenyon was one of my earliest influences, and I still treasure her work. When my wife and I lived in New Hampshire, I found the cemetery, and [Kenyon's] headstone, using only information from Donald Hall’s poems.
Q: As you near the end of your time as Kansas Poet Laureate, how has this been experience for you?
A: It’s been a highlight of my life. I get so much satisfaction out of sharing poetry with my fellow Kansans, and they’re so eager to hear it and discuss it. And I’ve learned as much from my audiences as they’ve learned from me, if not more. They’re always full of insights. So I feel grateful and lucky, and a little envious of whoever gets to do it next.
Q: A decade has passed since "Potscrubber Lullabies," and your latest work carries a very temporal quality about it. How would you describe where you are as a poet now as opposed to then?
A: Having kids and watching them grow ages you and tenderizes you. When "Potscrubber Lullabies" was published, I had one tiny kid and another on the way. Now Sage is almost 11, and we were talking tonight about college visits with Evan. In 2009 we moved from Seattle back to Topeka (and then to Lawrence). I never dreamed I’d go home again, and of course you can’t go home again, and all of this made its way into the new book. Which is already more than a year old, but I plan to go on calling it “the new book” until 2026.
-Ilka Iwanczuk is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
Sure, that title has a clickbait quality to it, but I’m pretty serious and vocal about my love for all things Hoopla. I’ve sung its praises in the past (mostly because the graphic novel selection is pretty darn great), but only recently have I really delved into the audiobook section.
Mostly because, until recently, I wasn’t exactly a fan of listening to books. Lugging around CDs is always a pain, and I’m still not sure what those MP3 things are all about, but listening to a book on your phone while multi-tasking or taking a walk? You mean I can read all the time if I want to?!
What started this new journey of mine was stumbling across "Wishful Drinking" by Carrie Fisher. I’ve been a fan of Carrie Fisher for years because of her outspoken nature and sharp wit, but this is the first time I have tried out any of her books. The audiobook was narrated by Carrie herself, which made the experience even better — she was intimate with her own writing style and knew just when to pause and emphasize certain words or phrases. "Wishful Drinking" is Fisher’s first humorous memoir, written after her first experience with electric shock therapy. She was an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness and treatment, which is one of the many reasons I admired her so much.
She covers everything in her book from her relationship with "Star Wars" (of course), to her musings on life and love, and an examination of the whole Debbie Reynolds-Eddie Fisher-Elizabeth Taylor debacle, which made me laugh until I cried. Carrie Fisher, in all of her life (which was tragically cut short this past December) was never shy about sharing her feelings or opinions, making "Wishful Drinking" one of the most entertaining memoirs I’ve ever read. Literally hearing about her life in her own words made the reading experience even better.
After that, I tackled "Shadowshaper" by Daniel Jose Older, an urban fantasy novel about a young girl named Sierra who is able to harness magical abilities through art. While "Wishful Drinking" was a sure thing (I was bound to love it based on my love for the author), "Shadowshaper" wasn’t. It’s been suggested by critics and co-workers alike, but after attempting it last year, I quickly gave up due to disinterest. In all honesty, I don’t think I would have ever read it, if it wasn’t for the book club I’m in--I’m technically the leader of it, so it always helps when you actually know what you’re talking about. I’m happy to report that this book is worth the praise!
A narrator makes or breaks an audiobook, and luckily for "Shadowshaper," the narrator is Anika Noni Rose, a talented actress who lent her voice to a little film called "The Princess and the Frog." Yes, Shadowshaper is narrated by Tiana. What a glorious discovery that was! Her narration was delightfully creepy at times, which made my nightly walks home from work both an exhilarating and absolutely terrifying (but fast!) experience. Her portrayal of all of the characters in the book made them come alive and made me recognize the humor in certain sections that I might have missed otherwise. One of the only complaints about the book during our book discussion was that people didn’t feel like they connected to the characters--almost exclusively, those comments were from people who skipped the audiobook for the physical copy. This is one of those instances where the audiobook reigns supreme, and if you’ve struggled with maintaining interest in this book, listen to it. It makes all the difference — trust me on this one.
The most recent book I listened to was a reread from a book I’ve already written about in the past — "Fat Girl Walking" by Brittany Gibbons. This book had such a profoundly positive impact on my life that I felt the need to revisit it over a year later after my life has undergone some pretty major changes. There were aspects of the book that I still related to more than anything (her battles with anxiety, her struggle with loving her body), but I rediscovered a new love for this book. I have a feeling this is one of those books that I will be glad to read again whenever I feel like I need a pick-me-up.
The narrator is someone unfamiliar to me — Lauren Fortgang, who seems to narrate some lesser-known audiobooks. She captured the author’s sarcasm quite well, and made situations in the book that were super uncomfortable a little more bearable. While I wasn’t entirely in love with her narration enough to listen to other books she has done, she did an excellent job, and I would highly recommend giving "Fat Girl Walking" a listen, even if my blog post from 2015 already convinced you to read it. I’m overwhelmed with happy feelings after finishing that book, and it’s one of those you should pick up if you’re ever feeling blue or perhaps a little down about yourself.
So what’s next? I’m definitely on an audiobook kick, and I’m not ready to give up on it just yet. Mary Miller’s "Always Happy Hour" has been on my radar for a while now (mostly because of that gorgeous cover) and so has "Things We Lost in the Fire" by Mariana Enriquez, but I could also go for a reread of "Bad Feminist" by Roxane Gay. Or how about continuing "A Series of Unfortunate Events"? The books are all narrated by Tim Curry, which is just plain awesome.
I could always give Caitlin Moran’s "How to Be a Woman" another chance, since that’s been gathering dust on my “to read” pile for an embarrassingly long time. Oh hey, did you know that "My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is also on Hoopla?! That one is always checked out. For now, I think I’ll settle on "Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls" by Jes M. Baker and carry on with the feelings of empowerment and positivity I got from my last great read. So here’s to audiobooks and a good pair of earbuds!
--Kimberly Lopez is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
When I saw the Lawrence Public Library Book Squad’s first Squad Goal (Re-read a book you haven’t read in more than 5 years), I was excited for an excuse to pick up one of the books that have been sitting untouched on my shelf for longer than I care to admit.
It also gave me an excuse to reflect on the many books I’ve read over the years. Here are five that have stayed with me:
"The Accidental Florist" (Jane Jeffry Series) by Jill Churchill
When I was in high school, my grandmother introduced me to Jill Churchill’s Jane Jeffry mysteries. Starting with "Grime and Punishment," the series follows the suburban housewife turned amateur sleuth who, with the help of her neighbor, solves the string of unrelated murders that happen around her. In the final installment, "The Accidental Florist," Jane marries her longtime beau, Detective Mel VanDyne, and it wouldn't be a Churchill mystery without someone turning up dead. Hanging on to these books has been a way to keep connected to my grandmother after she passed away more than a decade ago.
"Where the Heart Is" by Billie Letts
Beyond serving pizza and ice cream at a gas station, my only extracurricular activity in high school was book club. I’m pretty sure this was the first pick my sophomore year. Seventeen and pregnant, Novalee Nation is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Wal-Mart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma with just $7.77. She takes up temporary residence in the discount department store and meets a number of friendly, caring people who help her adapt to the community. With characters as eccentric as their names — Sister Husband and Benny Goodluck, for example — and heartbreaking events, it’s a story I never forgot. Overall, I think it’s a well-crafted representation of low-income, small town life in the Midwest.
"The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison
My junior year of college, I took an author study class on Morrison. There were about nine other students, and over the course of a semester, we read and discussed the seven novels she had published up to that point. It was basically like a book club, but with quizzes and term papers. "The Bluest Eye" was my absolute favorite, and I learned so much from it. The story — centered on a young black girl who dreams of having blue eyes — exposed me to a world that I will never be familiar with and opened my eyes to the damage of popular culture’s portrayal of beauty as “whiteness.” Definitely memorable.
"Reservation Blues" by Sherman Alexie
As an English major, I also took a course on Native American literature. Among the mix of books, short stories and poetry, we read Sherman Alexie’s novel about a group of misfits from a Spokane Reservation in Washington who form a blues band. Robert Johnson — the famous blues singer, who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil — winds up on the reservation in search of a local medicine woman called Big Mom and leaves his guitar in the hands of Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Thomas convinces two others from the reservation to form a band and they garner near-instant fame in the Northwest.
"Invisible Monsters" by Chuck Palahniuk
I read this in one sitting at an overnight job I had right out of college. A model recovering from having her lower jaw blown off in an accident meets a transgender woman who introduces herself as Brandy Alexander (among many other names) and drives across the country selling stolen drugs at nightclubs. In my favorite scene, the model and Brandy are at the top of Seattle's space needle flinging postcards off the edge. On the back of each they scribble little sayings like "All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring."
The best thing about re-reading books is that it can remind you of where you were when you first read one, and of how that book has affected or changed your perspective. For the Squad Goal, I ended up re-reading "Reservation Blues," and I was immediately taken back to both the Spokane Reservation in Washington and my college dorm room where spent a number of late nights trying to keep up with the reading.
What books have stayed with you?
— William Ottens is the cataloging and collection development coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.
We’ve all heard the old adage "never judge a book by its cover." The only time I don’t think you should follow that advice is when it comes to actual books.
On a purely literal level, when we’re talking about judging actual books by their actual covers, let’s face it: It’s impossible not to. If I’m being honest, being drawn to an interesting cover is probably the No. 1 way that I find new books to try; I spend way too much time walking the shelves not to be drawn in by intriguing covers.
So recently, I decided to test myself: I grabbed three books that simply looked interesting and settled down to read them without knowing anything whatsoever about the plot. And to make it extra interesting, I jotted down a guess at the plot — based purely on the cover design.
What I think it’s about: I think this is about someone inventing a type of lightbulb, or possibly having a great idea. I’m also going to guess that this is literary fiction, mostly because the cover of this book is made of a heavy, leather-like material with gold embossing, so it feels fancy in the same way that literary fiction feels fancy.
What it turned out to actually be about: Well, I was right that it was literary fiction, but boy howdy was I wrong about the plot. This book (which is actually two novellas in one volume) is about a successful author who decides he’s going to quit writing books to become a copyist, a profession that does not exist and that he decides to make up.
I would recommend this book if: You generally like authors published by "McSweeney’s" (Dave Eggers, for example, and other writers of brainy, genre-busting, style-first prose); they published this book, and it is very on-brand for them.
Did I finish this book? Nope! Not for me.
What I think it’s about: No help here for the plot, but those are mid-century colors, and that’s a mid-century font, so I’m guessing it has something to do with the 1950s and 1960s. The way the colors overlap the text looks vaguely like highlighting, so maybe it’s supposed to suggest taking notes. Is this a book about education?
What it turned out to actually be about: This book explores the fraught relationship between a mother and daughter over various periods in their lives (including, yes, the 1950s and 1960s) through a series of hypothetical stories they tell one another. I suppose I could claim they’re educating one another about their lives, but not really. A swing and a miss on that part.
I would recommend this book if: You like stories about complicated family relationships (not always my thing), and also if you are okay with second-person perspective (my thing, but a hard pass for some readers).
Did I finish this book? I didn’t finish it this time, but I could see going back to it in the future.
What I think it’s about: Literal interpretations aren’t going to help me here. The cover shows a multifaceted shape (an uncut stone?) reflecting clouds and sky at various angles, with a few angles showing a black sky scattered with pinpoint stars, all against a light pink background. My best guess is that this book might be about how everyone’s concept of heaven is different, skewed by our various perspectives to reflect where we’re coming from.
What it turned out to actually be about: This one is tough to explain, so bear with me. It’s sort of a feminist retelling of various Old Testament stories, but it also has a through-line of Eve telling readers about the existence of multiple heavens connected by a river of stars, which she discovers when she’s fleeing an attack from Orion in the sky. It’s not a religious book, though; you wouldn’t find this in the inspirational section. So I was technically wrong about the plot, but also kind of right.
I would recommend this book if: You like feminist reclamations of traditionally male texts and respond well to lyric writing; Storace is a poet, and her language is beautifully dense.
Did I finish this book? I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m going to keep reading. It’s not a “stay up all night” kind of book, I think — more of a “sit with this for a while” kind of book — so I’m taking it slow.
All in all, I’d say that was a successful experiment. I didn’t like everything I read, but I didn’t regret giving them a try. What about you? What’s the best book you ever picked up just because of the cover?
— Meredith Wiggins is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
I first met Amy Krouse Rosenthal while scrolling through social media. I tucked away her article “You May Want to Marry My Husband” for later, not yet realizing there wasn’t a later to be had. In fact, many people first met Amy through that New York Times article, which was published on March 3.
That was ten days before Amy died of ovarian cancer. She had written it as a love letter to her husband. When I met her again, through her obituary, I rushed back to find that article and read it with an aching wish to stop time, to bend it over on itself, to cancel it out and rewrite it.
“You May Want to Marry My Husband” left me sobbing and with a painful awareness of how much Amy and I had in common. We had both been married for 26 years. We each had three children with nearly the same age spread, hers just a few years older than mine. She had a husband whom she loved, deep and true. This husband, Jason, is nearly a caricature of The Perfect Husband, but he does exist and he was hers — flipping pancakes, fixing things around the house, admiring her whimsy, wearing amazing socks.
I am also married to my own “Jason” (minus the socks). The idea of writing him a letter like this hollowed me out. Amy and I both had a deep and abiding love of words, books, people, and serendipity. The similarities, which would have been delightful under other circumstances, made me feel heartsick.
Amy wrote many successful children’s books, but they were published when my kids were no long reading picture books, so I didn’t get to know her that way. I felt like we missed each other at a party. The day after she died, I checked out her memoir "Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life," published in 2005, and saw that it was noted as one of the ten most influential memoirs of the decade. She also has a second memoir, "Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal," published in 2014.
What I found in the "Encyclopedia" was a memoir like no other. This is not hyperbole. She includes orienting features and factual asides. Amy would like us to know that the word coffee appears 23 times. Awkward, 6. Love, 78. She includes a timeline of events that chronicle the authors, activities, happenstances, and preferences that lead her to write a memoir-cum-encyclopedia. The core of the book is her alphabetized existence, starting with (of course) Amy and finishing with You. Of all the entries, most of which I read with the sadness and regret of knowing Amy was gone, You might have been the most poignant of them all.
"Encyclopedia" works on a number of levels. If you like memoirs, it’s a unique take. If you avoid memoirs, please know it is devoid of navel-gazing and woe-is-me and humble-bragging. This is a different kind of memoir. Take her entry on Bowling: "It would be difficult to convince me that leaning has no effect whatsoever on the outcome of my bowling." Or Gas Tank: "Every single time I go to get gas, I have to lean out the window to see which side the tank is on."
These are random entries collected from notes she made over years, specific to Amy and yet universal to us all. We chuckle in self-recognition and at the same time know a little bit more about this person. And then you read other entries. Distraction: "I recognize that everything I do, from my work to going to the movies to raising children to vacuuming, might also be viewed as just one big distraction — Hey, look over here! And now, over here! — from belaboring the real issue at hand: One day I’m going to die." Her words strike true and heavy with meaning.
This is a book that I would have loved regardless of when I found it. I have an affinity for marginalia, side-jogs and searches for meaning — all my boxes are ticked here. I love that several of the entries are cross-referenced and contain deep dives (Childhood Memories is a chronology: “1977 — Uses Nair for the first time”.)
I love that some of the entries are interactive, and she invites the reader to email her through her website. In one entry, she agrees to bake the 100th emailer a pie and mail it to them. I mourned no longer being able to create performance art with her through these books. Amy took her artistry beyond just writing. She made participatory and community based art. The Beckoning of Lovely is just, well, lovely. She also has multiple Tedx talks. Here’s Amy, cheering on those running the "Marathon of Life," literally and figuratively.
I am devastated by and have cried over Amy’s death, not because I knew her when she was alive (though I have the sketch of her in her open-hearted work), but because a light has gone out too soon. Those who spend their time productively, beautifully, with the goal of human connection and uplift? Those losses hit us the hardest. Amy lived a life I found so very familiar, and I’m forced to face my mortality through hers. I wonder about my own life and what I’m creating. What is my "Encyclopedia"?
A unifying thread through Amy’s memoir and videos is meaning. Those little coincidences that we grasp and use to navigate our way through the waters of life. (I, like Amy, find meaning in things we both agree probably mean nothing, but we can’t stop looking for it.) My heart knows that I came upon this glorious, marvelous, ordinary person, one minute too late to have known her, for a reason.
Maybe the simple fact that I need to find a reason, and now will do so, is good enough. In Judaism, when someone passes, we say “May their memory be a blessing.” May Amy’s memory continue to bless us all.
— Polli Kenn is the readers’ services coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.
If you listen to much Top 40 radio, you’re already familiar with DJ Khaled; even if you can’t quite connect his name to a particular song or face, there’s likely some liminal awareness. Just close your eyes and think of the times a moment of transition static has been torn through with the bombastic roar of “DEE JAY KHA-LED” just as a beat starts playing.
Oh yeah, that guy! He’s one of the most eminent (and prolific) producers in popular music, responsible for anthems like “All I Do is Win” and “We Take’n Over,” often featuring a who’s-who team of A-list collaborators like Jay Z, Rihanna, and Kanye West.
But DJ Khaled is so much more than a musician. He expands his oeuvre with the recently published motivational self-help manifesto "The Keys." In this volume, part memoir and part knowledge-bomb, Khaled traces his rise to fame from troubled beginnings while describing his philosophical rules for life — the titular “Keys.” He beckons the reader on the back cover: “Ride with me through the journey of more success.”
And what a journey "The Keys" turns out to be. Right away, it’s apparent that Khaled isn’t afraid to inject the same explosive swagger that colors his music into his passages of life advice. “I need you to more than understand — I need you to overstand,” he implores the reader in the opening pages as he explains the fundamental concept of “they.” “They,” simply, refers to anyone out to hinder your success: “‘They’ don’t want you to have breakfast. ‘They’ don’t want you to have Jet Skis.”
This sounds pretty serious, right? In Khaled’s mind, we live in a world fraught with saboteurs, and thus we have to work relentlessly. Luckily, the adversity brought on by “they” also serves to make success all the sweeter. In one of the many guest anecdotes throughout the book, Khaled’s friend Cool explains one such moment of triumph involving a hot tub: “...it was so hot you could have boiled some eggs in there, and he’s like ‘Cool, we did it!’ and I’m like ‘Khaled, how do you even have skin left, bro?’ He had the Jacuzzi cranked up because ‘they’ didn’t want him to have a Jacuzzi.”
The philosophy of "The Keys" isn’t all paranoia-driven, though, to be clear. Khaled emphasizes relishing the beauty of life and all it has to offer. In one such chapter, frankly titled “Have a Lot of Pillows,” he explains: “That softness reminds your body that it’s time to relax… Pillows are like the angels of my bedroom.”
There’s something disarmingly sincere about how readily Khaled divulges this kind of personal sentiment. Having a lot of pillows seems like pretty basic advice, as well, but I’m sure at least person will read "The Keys," buy a few extra pillows, and have their life changed.
Other advice highlights include a discussion of the value of healthy, delicious smoothies and getting at least one haircut a week. Khaled is ostensibly serious, too, when he informs us to “Start every conversation you have, including ones with your best friend, by saying, ‘This is off the record,’” which is cheesy, but also looks kind of cool.
Khaled takes time to chart his own journey which has led to his current haircut-centric lifestyle. He describes his humble beginnings working for pirate radio in Miami and throwing house parties. For different stretches, he even had to live out of his car while saving to advance his DJ career. As over-the-top as Khaled’s character is, his story smacks immediately of the genuine American Dream.
At the same time, hard truths of America are given surprisingly poignant asides in other chapters: “Our prison system is flawed and unjust and the realities of that are heartbreaking… All I’m going to say is that that place is not for humans.” In the same vein, Khaled briefly touches on his experience as a Muslim, which lends new significance to his idea of the ever-present and adversarial “they.”
"The Keys" switches from serious to ridiculous with the turn of a page — “Major key for real: don’t drive your Jet Ski in the dark,” Khaled notes, which could be a pretty solid self-help metaphor, but actually is quite literal. The book is so charismatic that it’s actually undeniably compelling. To compare it to other popular self-help creeds, imagine "The Secret" enriched with a gusto that can only be conveyed by gold chains and champagne.
Khaled’s unflinching sureness of himself makes me feel motivated, and despite everything, that means the book fundamentally works. My only criticism is that upon cracking open its pages, there was no voice screaming “ DEE JAY KHA- LED” at me.
— Eli Hoelscher is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
Spring has sprung, and when I get joyously happy about the weather, I generally want to grab a fun read that’s perfect for sun-lounging. Here are three books — in three different genres — that are ideal for a sunlit afternoon filled with adventure and fun times.
These aren't going to fulfill your need for the next literary classic or the best executed plots of a lifetime. Some disbelief will have to be suspended. Some eyes will be rolled. But that's OK, because these are fun and free wheeling. You’ll like them, I promise.
Urban Fantasy: "Magic Bites" by Ilona Andrews
Firmly in the urban fantasy camp, "Magic Bites" is a rollicking read. In the not-too-distant future, magic is real; it has taken over, and technology only works periodically. Filled with lesser known myths, gods, and magic systems, "Magic Bites" will start you on a swordplay-filled journey with an awesome heroine hiding in plain sight.
The protagonist, mercenary Kate Daniels, has become one of my favorite females in fantasy. She’s full of snark and tough as nails, and Andrews crafts her deftly into a heroine to root for. Another thing I love about this book is that it lacks the boring world-building exposition. You are immediately dropped into the action. Plus, the wonderful cast of side characters and bad guys will have you furiously clicking the hold button for the other books in the series.
Sci-Fi: "Red Rising" by Pierce Brown
If you’ve been bemoaning the lack of a good "Hunger Games" read-alike over the last few years, then "Red Rising" is the book for you. Part uprising, part infiltration scheme, part brutal Machiavellian games, the whole book feels like "Ocean’s 11" or the "Six of Crows": the perfect con, perfectly executed. In the highly stratified caste system on Mars, Reds are worked as slaves while Golds profit from their servitude. Darrow is recruited by the Sons of Ares when his life as a Red is ended and he is remade into a Gold. He infiltrates the top echelon of their society and joins his “peers” at the Institute, where he must succeed in order to bring down the system from the inside.
"Red Rising" is impossible to put down. You’ll race through it at breakneck speed, hoping against hope that Darrow can pull off the greatest coup in Mars’ history. Another excellent thing about "Red Rising"? It’s a trilogy, and all three books have been published. There’s no waiting to find out what happens to Darrow; the whole space opera is ready for consumption.
Romance: "The Hating Game" by Sally Thorne
Think of those perfect romantic comedy movies: "When Harry Met Sally," "Moonstruck," "Sabrina." You can officially add, in book format, "The Hating Game." Lucy and Joshua hate each other to the very depths of their souls, forever and ever. When they are both up for the same promotion at their publishing company, tension ramps up to an unbearable degree. Neither is willing to back down, and yet when a tense moment in an elevator bubbles over (cue eye roll), Lucy is left wondering if she ever hated Joshua at all, or if this is just another game to derail her from earning the big promotion.
The sexual tension will have you gripping pages, and the downright cuteness of it all will make you want to binge-watch all your favorite romantic comedies. Thorne’s use of metaphor and general wordsmithing will leave you in a rosy, rosy haze. It’s an old and sometimes overused romance trope, but "The Hating Game" may have you re-evaluating your hatred of the love-hate dichotomy.
So there you have it. Three perfectly respectable rompy reads. Enjoy them! Enjoy the sunshine! Spring is in the air and good books abound!
-Lauren Taylor is a youth services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
After my most recent birthday, I discovered something new about my body: Occasionally when I squat down, my knees will give a little pop. That didn’t happen before. What’s also new are the little lines and crinkles underneath my eyes that definitely weren’t there before. I’ve always been a fan of sleeping, but now if I don’t get plenty of rest, my eyes become so bloodshot, I start to look a little like those white rabbits with the red eyes. I sound like I’m complaining, but I find this to be super exciting. I’m not being sarcastic. No, really.
Aging is, of course, a natural and — contrary to what the beauty industry and what certain health food companies claim — completely unavoidable process. It’s a process that I’ve been honestly looking forward to since around birth, when I was brought into this world a squalling infant with a full head of hair and the personality and disposition of a 40-year-old. If anything, the older I get, the more I relish the time spent in my body and the more excited I am to be closer to my “true” age.
Despite my own enthusiasm, aging (especially for women) is normally not treated with such a casual and welcome attitude. It’s met with rules and guidelines of how to behave, how to dress, and how to be. Clothing is often used as a tool of self-expression and individuality — a chance for you to show off what it means to be you. However, the older you get, the more you’re expected to tone it down and dress more conservatively.
Fortunately, there are people around like Ari Seth Cohen, who started a blog dedicated solely to seniors with style. The focus is mainly on women over a “certain age,” though there are a few dapper gentlemen here and there. I stumbled across his first book, "Advanced Style," a month or so ago, and it might sound hyperbolic to say that my life has been forever changed, but it’s true. My life has been forever changed.
Inside I found stunning color photographs of women I not only admired, but wanted to become. Unless you’re Betty White, who is a magical unicorn who can do whatever the heck she wants, women are so often shoved to the side and told to just blend in — color and sparkle and bold patterns are only for the youth. Each of the people featured in "Advanced Style" defy these conventions in the most glorious of ways. Signature orange hair and long, fluttery neon eyelashes to match? What a knockout. Dark, vampy lipstick and a thing for scarves or chunky jewelry? Oh my goodness. Here are all women who couldn’t care less what the unspoken rules and loud internet trolls have to say.
Shortly after the book was released, along came a documentary that follows some of the popular favorites of the book and blog. The documentary allows viewers to spend more time with some of the extravagant and fearless women Cohen has documented on his blog and in his book. Getting to know Illona Royce Smithkin (those eyelashes!) a little better was such a treat. The different personalities of the women shine through in the documentary, in the most touching (and heartbreaking) ways. No matter what, life is celebrated.
Luckily for all of us, there is now a second book — "Advanced Style: Older & Wiser," which has more than 260 pages of the best street style images you will ever come across, and more information on the people featured. For those who were left wanting more after the first book and the documentary… This will make you happy! Ari Seth Cohen’s love and affection for the people he captures on film comes across in the photography, and you will fall for them just as hard. Perhaps it’s because, like Ari, I had a close relationship with a grandmother I dearly miss, but everything in the "Advanced Style" publishing family fills me with so much inspiration and positivity.
The women are all so unique, and yet their voices all echo the same sentiment: be yourself, no matter what age, no matter what life experiences. This can be applied to how old you are, but it can also be applied to your gender identity, belief system, body size, and every other factor that makes you who you are.
If anything, this has encouraged me to truly embrace my own style and my own ways of being, because if this wonderful group of people is bold and brave enough to stand out when they have been told to stay silent, I can do the same. So if you catch me wearing light-up sneakers and kitty-cat sweaters a la Kimmy Schmidt and a Linda Rodini-inspired purple pout, don’t be surprised. I’m just playing around a little, so that in 50 years when I’m featured on "Advanced Style," I will have finally perfected my look. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have orange hair, too.
-Kimberly Lopez is a Readers’ Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.