TV killed the literary star
The sophomore season of Donald Glover’s cult-favorite TV show "Atlanta" kicked off yesterday, continuing the story of Earnest “Earn” Marks and his struggle to make money (and sense) in an often absurd world. It’s likely one of Glover’s lesser-known works among his renaissance-man slate of music and acting—such as playing Lando Calrissian in an upcoming "Star Wars" spin off.
Though the comedy doesn’t have the clout of a celebrated galactic saga, it’s nonetheless a complex and enjoyable piece of storytelling. Television has earned increasing recognition as a true art medium— going beyond its reputation as just entertainment— and Glover’s layered vision of modern city life convincingly furthers this trend.
With the new season underway, I’ve found some analogs in the fiction stacks that backlight the somewhat familiar literary underpinnings of "Atlanta."
The show could be described, in part, as a Gothic family drama; Earn and his girlfriend Vanessa are in a precarious on-again-off-again relationship while attempting to raise a child together. Their romantic posturing and conflicts, while sometimes darkly funny, never let the audience forget that a young life hangs in the balance. Earn’s mix of money problems and interpersonal shortcomings result in a family fighting the urge to crumble, not unlike Emily Brontё’s "Wuthering Heights" or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "The House of Seven Gables." The streets of Atlanta are certainly a big, but very welcome, shift from the estates and manors of the classics.
In a similar fashion, the ambitions of Earn and his cousin, up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi, recall the archetypes of celebrated Western literature. Their urban surroundings are a harsh and unforgiving landscape, and life is simply not easy. As the pair tries to make it big, they run up against underhanded promoters, rival rappers, and the quagmire that is modern public relations and social marketing. There isn’t a lot of violence, but it’s demonstrated as a necessary part of rugged life. The epic cattle drive of Larry McMurtry’s "Lonesome Dove" is a surprisingly apt comparison in many ways.
Going beyond plot themes, a dash of magical realism is one of the most refreshing facets of the production. In one episode, local celebrity Marcus Miles — who is otherwise a totally unimportant character — has an invisible car. It doesn’t affect the plot in a meaningful way, and its impossible existence isn’t confronted at any point. For me, this immediately brought to mind Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of the genre, in particular his short story, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.”
"Atlanta" breaks from conventional TV standards in more ways, too, sprinkling in moments of post-modern weirdness and surrealism. The episode “B.A.N.” upends the typical narrative style, transforming it into thirty minutes of a talk show within the show’s universe — with hilarious results. The writing shines when it turns to social satire; T. Geronimo Johnson’s excellent and challenging "Welcome to Braggsville" comes to mind whenever issues of race are engaged. I can’t help but imagine Kurt Vonnegut would be a fan of the show as well.
To be clear, Glover isn’t standing on the shoulders of giants, by any means. Though there are surely some direct literary influences at play, the artistic rendering of "Atlanta" is its own thing.
Personally, I can’t wait to see where we’re taken this season. The team wasn’t afraid of taking risks to begin with, and I hope that innovation continues as they seamlessly join humor and drama, questioning whether this world is as rationale as it appears. Books are definitely my favorite, don’t worry, but television of this caliber proves that a nuanced introspection on life can go beyond the pages.
-Eli Hoelscher is a Readers’ Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.
The Anglophile’s guide to historical fiction
There is nothing that brings me such unbridled joy as a richly written, atmospheric historical fiction novel. I have never been one to wish for times past, because I am a modern lady who enjoys modern amenities such as public works systems, vaccinations and air conditioning units.
However, I certainly do take delight in visiting other times and places, whether they be drab or fab. Historical fiction is an all-encompassing genre that features a variety of cultures and time periods and locations — to narrow the scope, I’ve come up with a pair of titles that are linked by their country, some general themes, and are best when paired with a cup of tea.
"The Fair Fight" by Anna Freeman
This book was all the rage several years ago on Booktube, so mostly I was afraid to pick it up for fear it would be a similar situation as to "Burial Rites" by Hannah Kent (a book that is often lauded but, for the record, one which I firmly detest). Female pugilists in late 1700's England — a story about overcoming your situation, gaining independence and the lasting power of female friendship? Surely the book itself is good in theory, but executed poorly, right? It really couldn’t be as phenomenal as it sounds, right? Wrong.
The story is gripping and surprisingly fast-paced considering the setting, and the characters are so compelling I became emotionally attached in an instant. "The Fair Fight" mainly follows two strikingly different female characters: Ruth, a scrappy, smart-mouthed individual who was born in the brothel her mother now runs, who isn’t quite pretty enough to be considered useful like her much more beautiful older sister; and Charlotte, who is born to immense wealth and privilege, but whose physical appearance is ravaged by smallpox, making her marriage and social prospects nonexistent.
The two come from polar opposite backgrounds, but their worth as women transcends their aesthetic beauty and their ability to serve other people. Ruth's fierceness and her indefatigable resolve to forge her own destiny and Charlotte’s cleverness and her ability to never be quite as she seems makes them both remarkable additions to the genre, and ones worth rooting for. I literally cheered once I reached the ending. To use a terrible pun, this one is a real knockout.
"As Meat Loves Salt" by Maria McCann
This is the book that ended my Great Reading Slump of ‘17. I have always considered myself to be a voracious reader, but last year, prior to this magnificent tome, I was relegated to anxiously picking through random books only to give up on them minutes later. It was frustrating, to say the least. Recommended to me by a wonderful friend whose reading taste is always impeccable, I knew "As Meat Loves Salt" would be a standout read, but I underestimated just how truly excellent it would be.
Set during the English Revolution, this novel is, to put it bluntly, a total assault on the senses. Maria McCann’s narrative style is visceral and immersive, even grotesque in its realistic descriptions of everyday life in the 1600’s. In spite of (or perhaps because of that), her prose is gorgeous. She has created a main character, Jacob, who for all intents and purposes is a despicable, beastly young man whose only goal in life is to better his situation without ever considering the humanity of others.
It should be easy to hate him, though the author presents him in such a way that you will find yourself sympathizing with him, even when he is vulgar or terrifying. This complicated relationship between reader and protagonist leads to moments of such bittersweet delight when Jacob is inexplicably kind, or intense sorrow when he is heart-broken over his impulsive actions. I found myself wishing for a better life for him, even though he might not deserve it. Maria McCann is a genius author — "As Meat Loves Salt" has been described as her literary masterpiece, and I am inclined to agree.
— Kimberly Lopez is a readers' services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
“Healing Mushrooms” has everything to know about the magic of mushrooms
Mushrooms are the new superfood craze you may not have heard of yet. Though they’ve been used medicinally for thousands of years for things like boosting the immune system and reducing inflammation, they’re only now becoming popular in mainstream culture due to the immense research that’s been done to assess their health benefits.
Tero Isokauppila’s "Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Mushrooms for Whole Body Health" lays out all the things you need to know about the most advantageous mushrooms and includes 50 easy recipes utilizing specific varieties.
For example, Isokauppila notes that reishi are considered the queen of mushrooms and deliver myriad health advantages, including helping with sleep problems and seasonal allergies. They've been a regular part of Chinese medicine for at least 2,000 years, so your well-being is sure to reap the rewards, according to the book.
Struggling to ward off a cold or lower inflammation from your busy life? Chaga is here to assist you. It's one of the highest sources of antioxidants in the world, with an antioxidant content more than 50 times higher than that of blueberries, which are commonly considered one of the ultimate sources of antioxidants we can consume.
Cordyceps are said to increase physical performance and energy, and they can even alleviate asthma or bronchitis. Historical lore from the Himalayan areas where they grow in the wild tells us that yak herders observed their herds becoming far more active and playful when they grazed fields where cordyceps grew.
Lion’s mane mushrooms are among the most fascinating varieties discussed in "Healing Mushrooms." Their ability to improve memory, boost concentration, and protect your nervous system has many people regularly supplementing in pill form. There is even compelling evidence that suggests they have strong Alzheimer’s-fighting properties. You can buy these in pill form from health food stores such as Natural Grocers.
Shiitake are the most common medicinal variety of mushroom cultivated in the world. Local growers at Wakarusa Valley Farm regularly supply our community with freshly grown, organic shiitakes among several other varieties. Beyond their ability to lower cholesterol and support your liver, they’ve been shown to have incredible results with skin-related issues like acne. It may be time to introduce your hormonally challenged teenager to these beauties!
There’s a lot to learn from natural medicine, and mushrooms are gaining the lead in terms of promising research. Once you know which varieties you want to try out, Isokauppila offers tons of recipes to help you incorporate them into your diet. From Mushroom Hot Chocolate to Lion’s Mane Pancakes to Mushroom Sauerkraut, there’s something for everyone to enjoy while simultaneously benefiting their health.
— Logan Isaman is the Community Assessment Coordinator at Lawrence Public Library.
What are we having for dinner?
Being a reader almost inevitably means forging relationships (at least in our own minds) with favorite authors. Once upon a time, as a nine-year-old hardcore "Little House on the Prairie" fan, I was devastated when at last it dawned on me that I would never, ever meet Laura Ingalls Wilder — I felt so deeply connected to her. The advent of author blogs has only increased the likelihood that a sense of kinship will bloom in a reader.
And so it is with my (in my heart) BFF, the cookbook author and food blogger, Jenny Rosenstrach. Back in my "Little House on the Prairie" days, I had zero interest in learning to cook — like Laura, I was way more interested in climbing trees and galloping across the plains on a fleet-footed pony than in giving Ma a hand in the kitchen (sorry, Mom!). Imagine my shock and horror when, as a college student out on my own, I came to the realization that I would need to procure and prepare food for myself pretty much every day for the rest of my life.
I limped along with my meager cooking skills, eating pasta and microwaved baked potatoes for a long time. And then I got married, and we had children — children who also need to be fed at regular intervals (and sometimes are incredibly picky eaters). Cue the dreaded question: What are we having for dinner tonight?
Enter Jenny. Her first book, "Dinner: A Love Story," was the first cookbook I ever read cover-to-cover — I even read the acknowledgements at the end. "Dinner: A Love Story" follows the early years of Jenny’s marriage and explores how the arrival in quick succession of two daughters (one, very picky!) upended and evolved their family’s approach to dinnertime. Rather than being arranged by ingredient or season or type of dish (entree, side, dessert), Jenny’s cookbook is a chronological memoir of a young family, punctuated by recipes, chronicling how the rhythm of their home life changes as the children grow.
Jenny’s companionable prose allows you to bask in the obvious affection at the heart of her family, while also embracing the less-than-camera-ready moments that make up so much of life with young children (so much of life, period, really). Being human can be hard, and I’ve often felt that a great book is one that makes you feel less alone. Who knew a cookbook, of all things — read at the right moment — could resonate so profoundly with a reader? Plus, the recipes are down-to-earth and within reach for folks who might a.) not be very comfortable in the kitchen, b.) live on a budget, and/or c.) need help coaxing a child away from a diet made up primarily of foods in the white-light tan-yellow color palette. My kids now regularly beg for homemade pizza night, thanks to in large part to Jenny’s pizza sauce recipe.
Jenny’s second book, "Dinner: The Playbook," and her third, "How to Celebrate Everything," also do a lot of heavy lifting when meal planning time comes around in my household. And her blog (also titled Dinner: A Love Story) continues to nourish the relationship that began, for me, with her first book. Odds aren’t great that I’ll ever meet Jenny Rosenstrach for real, but she’s been a welcome guest at my dinner table many times.
— Melissa Fisher-Isaacs is the information services coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.
Fancasting my favorite rom-com reads
Like many people, I love a good romantic comedy. I’m always in the mood for a meet-cute, a tale-of-friends-to-lovers, a happily-ever-after (or at least for now). Luckily, as a reader of romance, I usually have a stack of rom-coms sitting on my bedside table.
The only downside to my rom-com reading habit is that I would also like to watch many of these stories, and unfortunately, Hollywood no longer seems particularly interested in making these kinds of movies. Recently, though, fellow Book Squad member Kimberly sent me the trailer for "Love, Simon," an adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s YA romantic comedy "Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda." I cried watching the trailer, and I cried listening to the audiobook (it’s a comedy, I swear!), and then I almost cried again when I realized the movie won’t be released until March.
With nearly six weeks of time to kill before I can cry while actually watching "Love, Simon" (different trailer, equally worth watching), I decided to round up a few other rom-com reads I think would make amazing big-screen love stories.
The Book: Jasmine Guillory’s "The Wedding Date," an extremely charming new release about Alexa and Drew, who meet when she agrees to be his on-the-fly date to his ex-girlfriend’s wedding ... and then the pair can’t seem to shake each other, despite living at opposite ends of California and not being interested in a long-term commitment.
Why It Would Make a Good Movie: It’s about grown-ups who really like each other trying to fit into each other’s lives while also maintaining their own separate existences, and frankly I think we need more romances like that in the world. Also, it actually made me laugh out loud multiple times when I was reading it — always a promising sign for a potential romantic comedy.
My Fancast: In the book, Alexa is described as being a short, curvy African-American woman, while Drew is a tall, lean white guy, and I read both as being somewhere between late-20s and mid-30s. What about Danielle Brooks for Alexa and Matthew Goode for Drew? I would watch them fall in love and eat donuts (an extremely important recurring plot point) every single day and twice a day on Sundays.
The Book: Mackenzi Lee’s "The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue," an ever-so-slightly magical queer historical YA novel about upper-class teenager Monty, his biracial best friend (and secret beloved) Percy and his younger sister Felicity fleeing murderous noblemen across 18th-century Europe ... all while Monty tries to hide his feelings from Percy, who he’s convinced doesn’t love him back.
Why It Would Make a Good Movie: Didn’t you read my description of the plot? It’s about queer teenagers fleeing murderous noblemen across 18th-century Europe, with magic. Why am I not watching this movie right now?
My Fancast: Look, I don’t know if the cover model can act, but if he can, that’s our Monty — problem solved. If he can’t, Tom Glynn-Carney has the accent and the cheekbones to pull off the role, and Justice Smith has Percy’s sweet, shy smile down pat. I think Millie Bobby Brown could nail Felicity’s serious demeanor, and she actually looks like she could be Tom Glynn-Carney’s sister (I hate when actors playing siblings would never pass for related).
The Book: Katie Heaney and Arianna Rebolini’s "Public Relations," a completely wonderful workplace romance about fading pop star Archie Fox and his public relations representative, Rose Reed, who sets out to revitalize Archie’s career by engineering a relationship for him with up-and-coming hipster musician Raya ... which actually works great, career-wise, except that Rose falls for Archie herself.
Why It Would Make a Good Movie: This book did a great job of capturing how people in their mid-20s with careers actually talk to one another, and what they talk about; it sounded like conversations I’ve had with my friends. Plus, you get the on-screen contrast of Archie’s seemingly glamorous life with all the labor required to achieve it — very "Devil Wears Prada" — with an extra helping of “but when are they going to kiss?!”
My Fancast: This was the easiest movie to cast by far. I think Katie Stevens of "The Bold Type" would make an awesome Rose, and I was already imagining Zoe Kravitz as Raya when I was reading the book. As for Archie — well. The authors flatly acknowledge he’s heavily based on Harry Styles, and try as I might, I couldn’t think of anyone else who could be the Archie that lives on the page and in my brain. And he’s known to be a fan of rom-coms. Someone get him this script, stat!
I can pretty much guarantee that each of these movies would be a money-maker because I would personally see each of them no fewer than eleven bajillion times.
What about you? What romantic comedies do you wish you could see on the big screen, and who would you cast in them?
- Meredith Wiggins is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
World music mixtape
Since last November’s Luaka Bop spotlight, I’ve disgracefully neglected my world music search.
Hoping to make up for lost time, I asked my coworkers to share some of their favorite albums from our world music collection. Here are their responses:
Dom La Nena’s "Ela" is a hauntingly beautiful debut that combines elements of classical string music with subtle samba beats to create a unique form of cello pop. Her melancholy vocals, sung in Portuguese and occasionally Spanish, reflect emotional sincerity and depth that aren’t always so easily conveyed by such young artists. Admittedly, nearly all of the lyrical meaning is lost on me, as I don’t speak either language, but that doesn’t impede my appreciation of her gentle, flowing vocal delivery. And while each of these songs could stand as solo pieces, I can’t help but listen to the title track “Ela” on repeat. The raised heartbeat rhythm, gradual introduction of strings accompanying Dom’s cello, and her breathy vocal delivery leave me gasping for air by the song’s end.
— Kevin from Collection Development
Julieta Venegas, Mexican singer-songwriter, comes for your heartstrings in her fifth album, "Otra Cosa," with a delicate balance of home, memory, rejections and love. It’s a mishmash of all that is forlorn and sweet about the intimacies that we carry with us long after they have ended. A worthwhile listen while you’re on your way back to yourself after heartbreak, even when self-initiated. “Ya Conoceran” is one of my favorite songs, full of lyrical aches and triumphs.
— Vanessa from Community Development & Partnerships
Do you realize how impossible it is to pick just one world music artist? Stymied, I choose a true master, a man who was active in the global music scene for over sixty years. A giant in his native land, his reach ranged from classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin to Philip Glass, from The Beatles to The Byrds, from the stage at Woodstock to the Oval Office. He could be heard on Hollywood soundtracks and just up the road at Lawrence’s Lied Center.
Sitar master Ravi Shankar, of course. Listen and be transported.
— Jake from Information Services
Funky horns and infectious guitar lines abound: Fela Kuti's "Zombie" is a fabulously orchestrated example of Afrobeat from the pioneer himself. Threaded between the vibrant instrumental sections are Kuti's Nigerian Pidgin English lyrics, which build and eventually culminate into catchy melodic chants. It is worth noting the political fervor behind this record, with Kuti's lyrics being particularly critical of the Nigerian government and military (so much so that he saw an unfortunate reaction from the government). Music that causes political reaction, to me, is inherently cool. It is powerful. Funky, empowering and endlessly groovy, "Zombie" is a must-listen for funk music lovers new and old.
— Joel from Tech Services
The distinctive sound of Paul Simon’s 1986 album "Graceland" owed much to the backing vocals by South African male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Three decades later, the group’s newest album for children, "Songs of Peace and Love for Kids and Parents around the World," was nominated for a Grammy. The album contains songs about racial and gender harmony, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, even a Zulu version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” That the group makes interesting a song most American kids have heard hundreds of times is a testament to the transformative power of exposure to a culture different from one’s own via music. Plus, it’s just plain fun to learn the Zulu words for the sounds that dogs, cows, goats and pigs make.
— Dan from Collection Development
Do you have any favorite world music albums? Is the library missing any seminal works? What else should I be checking out?
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, apart from "Who is William Onyeabor?," one of my very favorite albums in our world music collection is French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux’s "Vengo." Its unapologetic feminism and confident progressivism go hand in hand with its stylistic diversity. Triumphant trumpets and hardcore pan flutes (who knew?) abound, but they pale in comparison to Tijoux’s fantastic multifaceted delivery, which manages to be simultaneously ferocious, optimistic and a dozen other emotions all at once.
— Ian Stepp is an information services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
On “American Heart,” the latest from Laura Moriarty
I’ve been a longtime fan of Laura Moriarty’s writing since I first heard her talk about "The Center of Everything" in the tiny cafe of the now defunct Borders bookstore in 2004. Her fully fleshed characters and well-developed plots often have me reading into the wee hours of the morning. Her latest book, "American Heart," is no different.
Labeled as a young adult dystopian novel, the story is so grounded in realism that it feels like many of her other books which revolve around characters contending with the choice to stand by the social and legal expectations of their worlds or strike out on paths they feel are right and humane. In this vision of the United States, Muslim-Americans must submit themselves to registries and are forced into detainment camp.
The main character of "American Heart," Sarah-Mary, is a Midwestern teenager waiting to escape the confines of her all-too-small world. Her mother is a footnote in the lives of Sarah-Mary and her brother Caleb, always chasing the golden ticket of romance and wealth through men she meets on the internet. The two children live with their authoritarian aunt, who has enrolled them in a private Baptist school where no real learning takes place, and Sarah-Mary suffers through the 24/7 monitoring by her new guardian.
On one bitterly cold winter evening, Sarah-Mary finds herself searching for a brother she loves, but whom she has hurt. For the love of her brother, she then promises to help Sadaf, a fugitive Muslim woman, to safety, and because Sarah-Mary is stubborn and headstrong, safety doesn’t mean across state lines, it means all the way to Canada.
The book is told entirely from the point of view of Sarah-Mary, apropos of the author’s own identity as a white woman. With Caleb as her only real family, she feels she must fulfill her promise, not only out of love, but also to prove she is not like her mother. Her stubbornness in all things, whether it’s retrieving Sadaf’s $300 when she gets ripped off by a sketchy fake ID artist, the glacial evolution of her perceptions of Muslims or even her perseverance to see Sadaf all the way to Canada, is not unlike many teenagers I know, and not a departure from many of the protagonists in YA fiction.
We do see Sarah-Mary’s slow evolution towards empathy and acceptance through the novel, which happens at an expected pace, given the filtered news and blatant propaganda that she has been exposed to through her life (the internet was banned at her aunt’s house, not to mention social media, where unsavory ideas could easily plant themselves in a young, impressionable mind).
Though Sadaf needs someone to book hotel rooms and cover for her in order to get to the northern border, she remains a rock throughout the novel, never swallowing Sarah-Mary’s racist comments and questions. Their discussions range from family to politics to Jeopardy, and Sarah-Mary eventually finds a deep respect for a woman who worked hard to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering and who moved to a new country and culture for increased social and economic opportunities.
Sadaf’s own heartbreak and betrayal leave her tight-lipped and terse through the beginnings of the book, but as the promise of freedom and safety open up the closer the pair moves north, so does Sadaf, speaking of her friends, her family, and especially the son she feels she abandoned. Any perspective shifting from Sarah-Mary to Sadaf (which could be a compelling storytelling element) could easily wander into a cultural appropriation minefield, and the author avoided this through the use of a consistent first-person voice from Sarah-Mary’s perspective.
Ultimately, this is a story of how someone grapples with the endgame of the racism they were born and raised into. Moriarty’s exemplary pacing and plotting make "American Heart" a satisfying read.
If you would like to hear Moriarty speak about "American Heart," please join us on Thursday, February 8th at 7:00 PM in the Lawrence Public Library auditorium. The Raven Book Store will sell copies of "American Heart" and a signing will follow the presentation.
— Kristin Soper is the events coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.
An erratic start to 2018
One month into 2018 and I find myself in a very erratic reading mode, so much so that I couldn't settle on trying to feature one book in depth, so I thought I’d take you, dear reader, on a stroll through some books I’m really enjoying — but haven’t finished yet!
I challenged myself to dive into the new biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow. Why? I guess I don’t really know a lot about Grant, so why not read 1,100 pages about him? This book is pretty easy to read in fragments given its traditional, chronological biography style.
I’m a bit over a third of the way in, and Grant has just become lieutenant general and commander of all Union armies. Chernow does a great job challenging a lot of misunderstandings about who Grant really was. Compelling reading!
Alongside the Grant biography, I have been reading "They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us," a collection of essays by Hanif Abdurraqib. The essays are wide ranging, concentrating mostly on his experience growing up black among lots of white emo and punk rock kids. I find his explorations of race most appealing, but there is also some really great music writing. I'm definitely excited about his visit to Lawrence on February 27. Thank you, KU Commons and Raven Book Store!
In addition, I have been reading essays from two soon-to-be-published books by Sloane Crosley ("Look Alive Out There") and Zadie Smith ("Feel Free"). Both books are shaping up to be pretty fantastic collections and come out in early April. Fun fact: Sloane Crosley will be here at the Lawrence Public Library on April 14 on her spring book tour.
Lastly, I decided to go back and read another in the fantastic series of Dave Brandstetter mysteries written by Joseph Hansen. I stumbled across a mass market copy of one of the books in this series in a bookstore in Vancouver and was intrigued. Little did I know that I had discovered a ground-breaking series of crime novels featuring Dave Brandstetter. He was one of the first openly gay protagonists in hard-boiled crime fiction. Every book is this series is a quick, gripping read. Pick one in the series at random and have fun.
- Brad Allen is the Executive Director of Lawrence Public Library.
Thanks to the discovery of a book called “Deep,” while it was below zero here in Kansas, I was immersed below sea level in a warm and magical aquatic world where the rules of life are tweaked and a different language is spoken. Hundreds of feet down and more, they speak of chemosynthetic life in the Garden of Eden. Static apnea. Xenophyophores.
In "Deep," author James Nestor describes diving with sperm whales — without scuba gear — eye to eye for as long as he could hold his breath. Which, in his case, is a long time. The whales (“the biggest predators on earth,” he can’t resist saying) didn’t mind. I found the whole thing ineffably appealing.
The more Nestor described it, the more interesting it got. The massive whales charged the divers, then pulled up short. Nestor heard — and felt — a constant clicking as the whales used echolocation bursts to check him out, increasing in intensity from gas stove sparker to jackhammer on pavement. I later found a similar story in Julia Whitty’s book “Deep Blue Home.”
I was once “clicked” by dolphins, though I didn’t realize it until later when my family excitedly told me they saw them swimming around me. I can hardly imagine swimming in the deep ocean as whales approach — and feeling the clicks of the loudest animal in the world reverberate through me.
The communications of sperm whales are but a piece of “Deep,” expertly embedded in a longer story of, as the subtitle says, “freediving, renegade science, and what the ocean tells us about ourselves.” The book starts with freediving, which I knew nothing about and now find nearly as interesting as talking whales.
As you might guess, freediving is diving without mechanical assistance. I like the idea because divers have learned tricks to overcome inner-ear pressure and extend one’s breath-holding abilities. Also, feeling gravity overcoming buoyancy at the “doorway to the deep,” around 40 feet down, must be pretty cool. Not without serious risks, freediving is now a global competitive sport.
We have learned some amazing things about the human body from freediving. One interesting phenomenon is the mammalian dive reflex, which changes our physiology and allows us to withstand the literal pressures of diving. Blood moves from the extremities to the core. The heart rate drops. The lungs shrink. But the really intriguing lessons, I think, are elsewhere. Freediving offers a chance to experience the world in an entirely new way.
Many whales tend to shy away from submersible vehicles and even the noises of scuba gear. As more is learned about their echolocation abilities, it’s easy to see why. Thanks to modern technology, the rapid-fire streams of sperm whale clicks have been broken down to discrete millisecond clicks, and they’re not random. They can be repeated down to the micro-click, directed at particular individuals, and even called back by other whales. Verbatim, if that’s the right word, over 1500 clicks per second.
Nestor profiles an amateur scientist who’s recording and analyzing these cetacean communications, a sailor who had a close encounter with a pod of whales that changed his life. After finding himself unexpectedly surrounded by curious and clicking sperm whales, Fabrice Schnoller set up a nonprofit research organization called DareWin to study whale and dolphin communication. Nestor more recently has followed suit, with an organization called CETI — the Cetacean Echolocation Translation Initiative.
“Deep” goes on to include more underwater surprises, from coral synchronously spawning under a full moon (how do they know?), to the weird organisms that inhabit the deepest trenches, to the very origins of life — which was perhaps not in tide pools, but near thermal vents at the bottom of the sea.
All in all, this was one of the most engrossing books I’ve read lately. The next time you’re holed up by the Kansas winters, expand your horizons down. Go “Deep.”
— Jake Vail is an information services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
A new book on Kansas LGBT pride
Kansas Day is almost here, and I’ve got an inspiring way to celebrate! A new book pays tribute to the Kansans who are advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights.
In "No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas," author C.J. Janovy shares the recent compelling stories of the leaders committed to making Kansas a safer place with legal protections from bigotry. Everyone who supports social justice will learn powerful models for continued advocacy.
Janovy is a veteran journalist, including ten years working for "The Pitch," and is now the arts reporter at KCUR; this is her first book. I asked her why she decided to focus on Kansas rather than the whole region.
Focusing on Kansas rather than the whole region was…where I knew there was a specific story… In 2013, when the US Supreme Court came out with its Windsor and Perry decisions, creating such an uneven legal landscape around the country [Kansas and many other states still banned gay marriage], Kansas was an especially interesting place to think about LGBT equality/advocacy/politics because of Westboro, which is known internationally as a place in Kansas (except when other writers mistakenly refer to it as in Florida, which I’ve seen). Finally, Kansas has a reputation. I knew an exploration of LGBT activism in Kansas would refute some of the stereotype, which made it fun and fertile territory to write in and about.
Living in the middle of the country often means being neglected by national journalists who emphasize faraway metropolises of more familiar activism in places like New York and California. Lawrencians have a reputation for making our town a liberal bubble inside a politically conservative state; we enacted protections from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations before most Kansas cities.
The examples in "No Place Like Home" champion Kansas pride and personalities from rural locales like Trego County and the tiny town of Meade to Manhattan, Salina, Hutchinson, Topeka, Lawrence, Wichita and everywhere citizens are taking personal risks to ensure this middle ground is welcoming to a wider rainbow-range of people.
Janovy vividly describes a 2014 gay pride rally in Wichita. This empowering moment punctuated ten days of pride events. The electrifying energy of the event she describes is depicted in this photo, provided by the author. At the podium is transgender heroine Stephanie Mott.
Nine years after the marriage amendment defeat, on a warm, sunny Sunday, a dozen teenagers wearing T-shirts and cutoffs stood in a formation rising up the stone steps of Wichita’s old Sedgwick County Courthouse, a relic of prairie Renaissance architecture circa 1888… On the sidewalk in front of them, and spread out under shady trees, several hundred people had gathered for the annual gay pride rally.
Everyone knew Mott, but no one in the crowd had ever seen the person to whom she passed the microphone. “Hi, my name is Sandra Stenzel. I drove four hours today from western Kansas to be here." Over the last few months, Stenzel had begun a creaky reemergence from her post-marriage-amendment decade of depression and isolation in Trego County, and people clapped when she told them how far she had driven to be with them. “Because it’s important that we have community,” she said, holding the microphone but not speechifying, just talking, as if these people were sitting at the kitchen table of her farmhouse on Downer Creek. “Don’t forget the people you left behind,” she told them. “There are so many of us here today who grew up in a small town, grew up in a rural area, and we blew that pop stand and never looked back.”
This earned cheers from people who had done exactly that. “But there’s work for us to do in the rural areas. If nothing else, it’s just to reach back because there’s some kid like you out there. There’s some single farm woman out there who needs company. And there’s someone who’s willing to drive four hours just to be with other gay people. Just to not be alone.” Stenzel reminded everyone that they were part of a long tradition and that the struggle didn’t begin with the marriage amendment. “The biggest problem we had keeping it off the ballot was we couldn’t find other gay people to work against it. We didn’t know how to reach each other. I look out here today, ten years later”—finally she yelled: “You are magnificent!”
Every page of "No Place Like Home" is filled with heartfelt courage and personal stories; there is no place like LGBT Kansas. Kansans everywhere are working to ensure that our state is friendly for us all — they’re digging in their heels just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz to declare “there’s no place like home.”
Meet Janovy and several of the heroines and heroes featured in her book at the library on Monday, January 29 — an apropos celebration for Kansas Day.
More information on the event can be found here.
— Shirley Braunlich is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
Never trust a librarian carrying a dog book
Sounder, Old Yeller, Old Dan, and Little Ann: children’s literature is littered with corpses of dogs who died too young and made us cry harder than we wanted to. Luckily, our parents burst into tears, too, which helped distract us from our own sorrow, since they looked so weird crying as they read.
As if that weren’t enough, many literary dogs earn themselves a statue, so in case you ever stroll by the Idaho Falls Public Library in a great mood and run across a statue inspired by "Where the Red Fern Grows," or approach Texas’s Mason Public Library humming a happy tune until you see Old Yeller similarly enshrined, you’ll be sure to burst into a fresh bout of tears, no matter how many years have passed since those heartbreaking days of youthful reading.
It’s funny how culpable public libraries are in the formation of so much grief over dead literary dogs, as if we were trying to teach kids that yes, while reading can be fun and rewarding, a book can also rip out your young heart and play baseball with it before your very eyes. In fact, libraries have such a bad reputation when it comes to children’s books about dogs, I’ve heard of parents who warn their children to walk the other way if they ever see a children’s librarian approaching with a book about a dog.
So, to atone for all the emotional scarring caused by my ilk over the years, I offer up this list of literary dogs who lived long, inspiring lives, which were not defined by untimely and deeply depressing demises. Each of these dogs has its own statue, by the way, although, not surprisingly, none are located at a public library.
• Balto (1919 - 1933). Much has been written about Balto over the years, but my favorite book about him has to be Meghan McCarthy’s "The Incredible Life of Balto," which presents all the highlights of his illustrious career painted in McCarthy’s trademark large-eyed and friendly style. Balto was a sled dog who rose to the occasion in the winter of 1925, when a delivery of medicine over 700 miles of snowy terrain was the only thing that saved Nome, Alaska, from a deadly diphtheria outbreak. Balto brought the serum and became an overnight celebrity, vaudeville star, and subject of a sculpture in New York’s Central Park.
When he was purchased by a neglectful sideshow, the children of Cleveland raised enough pennies to buy Balto’s freedom, and he lived out the rest of his days in peace at the Brookside Zoo. As if that weren’t charmed life enough, Balto was given voice in a 1996 animated feature film by an actor whose last name was one of Balto’s favorite foods, Kevin Bacon.
• Jim the Wonder Dog (1925 – 1937). If you grew up in central Missouri, you’ve probably heard of Jim the Wonder Dog. Jim was a Llewellin English setter who gave the people of Marshall something to talk about during the Great Depression other than failed crops and bank trouble. Instead, gathered in and around the Ruff Hotel (yes, that was its real name) where Jim lived with his master, Mr. Sam VanArsdale, the people of Marshall witnessed a number of miraculous feats of canine intelligence.
Not only could Jim point out a man’s car after reading its license plate number off a piece of paper, he also predicted the outcome of the 1936 presidential election as well as seven Kentucky Derby winners. He executed commands given in Spanish, German, Italian, French, and Morse code, silencing skeptics at the University of Missouri and the Missouri legislature. A long awaited biography of Jim was published for children last year, and just two hours east of Lawrence one can view a statue and visit a museum dedicated to his memory.
If Jim whets your appetite for wonder dogs, there are also great books on Bobbie the Wonder Dog, who walked nearly 3,000 miles back to his owners after he was lost on a vacation, and Bulu the African Wonder Dog, who adopted two baby warthogs in his personal quest to protect endangered wildlife in Zambia.
• Hachiko (1923 – 1935). Okay, I lied. Even when dogs live a long time, they can still make you cry, simply by being so darn doggie. That means loyal in the case of the Akita named Hachiko, who made history by waiting every day at the Shibuya train station in Tokyo for the return of his master, a professor who died one day at work. Hachiko kept up his vigil for over nine years on a spot now marked by a statue celebrating his faithfulness, a trait so beautifully captured in Leslea Newman’s 2004 novel "Hachiko Waits" that the book has quickly found its place in the canon of children’s books guaranteed to make you cry.
Sorry. Like I said, never trust a librarian carrying a dog book. But don’t worry, we’re also a practical bunch. Not only will we provide free tissues, but you can now come to the library and dry those tears in the cheering UV glow of a SAD lamp.
— Dan Coleman is a collection development librarian at the Lawrence Public Library.
What to read while you wait for Obama’s favorite book
While Barack Obama was president, he started an annual tradition of sharing his favorite books and music from the previous year, and he’s graciously kept with this tradition for 2017. At the top of his list this year? A new “dystopian” novel with some radical feminist themes called "The Power" by Naomi Alderman. The book was hovering around my to-read list for awhile, and the endorsement from this fella bumped it up several spots.
The reason I used the word dystopian in quotes above is because, when asked if the novel fit that category, Alderman’s response was, “Only if you’re a man.” Its premise asks the question: What happens if, globally, men were suddenly the ones constantly worrying about being overpowered, overlooked, and violently dominated?
The answers found in the book may be surprising, depending on the reader and their experiences. Women all over the world discover an electric power living within their bodies that has the power to shock, harm, or even kill another person. Upon this discovery, women start fighting back against their oppressors (victims of sex trafficking against their traffickers, children against abusive parents, etc.)
Given the recent revival of the #MeToo movement and the fact that rampant sexism/sexual harassment has come to light, Alderman’s book feels particularly timely. The book’s fast pace and attention to juicy detail compelled me to keep reading and filled me with an almost sadistic glee.
Along with being on Obama’s list, "The Power" won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction and was blurbed by Her Royal Dystopian Highness Margaret Atwood. Its hype is undeniable, and the holds list might be high for some time. Although we do have a couple of copies at the Lawrence Public Library that you may find on the new sci-fi shelf, here are some books with a similar feel to tide you over:
"The Book of the Unnamed Midwife" by Meg Elison — After a devastating fever wipes out 99 percent of the world’s female population and causes maternal mortality rates to skyrocket, a courageous nurse makes it her life’s mission to pass as a man and distribute contraceptives to any woman she finds (most of whom are in captivity). She’s like a queer, super-feminist Johnny Appleseed of birth control.
"Daughters of the North" by Sarah Hall — In the not-too-distant future, England experiences a total economic collapse and its population is forcibly relocated to urban areas. A young woman known in the book only as “Sister” (what’s up with all these unnamed protagonists?) escapes a controlling husband and is welcomed by an isolated group of women training to be rebel fighters.
"Who Fears Death" by Nnedi Okorafor — In Sudan, post-nuclear holocaust, a girl born out of a rape possesses mysterious powers and goes on a quest to save her people from annihilation. Okorafor’s writing is always deep, dark, and impactful, and though I have not read "Who Fears Death" (yet), I would expect nothing less from this Hugo- and Nebula-award winning author.
— Kate Gramlich is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
Read Across Lawrence 2018: the heartfelt middle-school story of “Wonder”
“Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world.” -Auggie, "Wonder"
Whenever I’m handed a book with the promise “This will make you cry,” I’m always a little skeptical. A montage of dogs seeing their owners after they get back from deployment, I am bawling, but it is the rare book that makes me break down and cry. So when "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio was handed to me and I was told that it was a tearjerker that might become the Lawrence Public Library's Read Across Lawrence book, I was skeptical.
Was this book really as good as I had been hearing for years? Would it really appeal to kids and teens and adults? Yes. Although I wasn’t overcome with gut-wrenching sobs while reading it, I can unequivocally say that "Wonder" has real emotional impact. It leaves you with profound gratitude. The overarching message of self-love and that there’s a little “wonder” in all of us bubbles through you, and even though the book is filled with cruelty and hardship, "Wonder" uplifts.
Auggie Pullman is much like other 10-year-olds: he’s obsessed with "Star Wars," he loves his dog and he’s nervous about attending middle school. But there’s one thing that very much sets Auggie apart. His face. He’s had 27 different surgeries to correct facial abnormalities, but he still doesn’t look normal. He “won’t describe what he looks like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
We do get insight from other people in Auggie’s life, as he is not the only narrator of "Wonder." Auggie’s sister Via, his friends from school and others all lend their voices to tell Auggie’s story at a crucial moment in his life: when he goes to school for the first time. Middle school. I bet a lot of you cringed when you read that. Can you imagine? Auggie has no hope of fitting in with a face that immediately sets him apart. He’s quickly labeled with several vicious nicknames like Freddy Krueger, Freak and Lizard-Face.
But here’s the thing. Auggie is cool. He’s funny, he’s smart, he’s clever. He has one of those personalities that makes him endearing. He’s one of those people you just want to befriend. But because of his face, no one will touch him. I don’t just mean that figuratively.
At one point in the book, there’s a game called "the plague," wherein if anyone touches Auggie they “catch a disease.” Even though this book is now six years old, the bullying that Auggie and his friends face rings as true in 2018 as it did in 2012. While many middle-grade books cover the upheaval of transitioning from elementary to middle school, bullying and the potential for all-out cruelty of kids that age is glossed over. Palacio shines a bright light into the dark corners of the middle-school experience of many children, but she does it in a way that never leaves the reader without hope.
So far "Wonder" sounds pretty grim, but throughout Auggie’s struggles to fit in, make friends and pursue life as a normal kid, Palacio weaves in unforgettable characters and utterly quotable lines and ultimately creates a message that will resonate with everyone: “When given the choice between being right or being kind. Choose kind.”
The library couldn’t have picked a better Read Across Lawrence book. There’s so much to dissect, discuss and dig through. It resonated with 27-year-old me, and it resonates with kids as well (I have rarely seen it on the shelf in my two-year tenure at the library). "Wonder" may not have made me cry, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel different after reading it. Palacio’s fantastic novel is moving, and I bet you’ll be moved too.
Grab a copy on Jan. 15 at 1 p.m. in the library auditorium and read along with us! Look for Read Across Lawrence programming throughout February and March as well. Since the book is so quotable, I started with one, so I might as well end the same way. Here’s one of my favorites:
“The real, real, real, real truth is: I missed seeing your face, Auggie. I know you don’t always love it, but you have to understand. I love it. I love this face of yours, Auggie, completely and passionately.”
— Lauren Taylor is a youth services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
Nancy Pearl’s “Rule of 50” and the books I did not finish
It’s typically a rare case for me not to finish a book. At some point, I think I convinced myself that not finishing was giving up on an author or myself as a reader. But I have come to understand that neither of those is true at all. For whatever reason, it’s okay to stop reading a book, especially if you’ve lost interest in it, because there are so many other books that could be more interesting to you.
This year, I’ve decided to try out Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50 for dropping a bad book. Pearl, a famous librarian with her own action figure and author of "Book Lust," acknowledged that the world of books is immense, but time is short. So “If you’re fifty years old or younger, give every book about fifty pages before you decide to commit yourself to reading it, or give up.” Over fifty? Subtract your age from 100 and use that as your guide.
To prepare myself, I’ve been thinking about some of the books that I did put down and why I never finished them:
"See Me" by Nicholas Sparks
Before picking this one up, "A Walk to Remember" and "A Bend in the Road" were the last Sparks novels I read, and that was back when I was in high school. I recall enjoying, and maybe even being emotionally moved by them. After getting only a few pages into this later release, though, my immediate thought was “Not for me!” It’s funny how your reading tastes change.
"Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace
Yes, I could not get through this notoriously unapproachable hipster tome that once had a movement dedicated to reading it. Honestly, it both confused me and bored me. I can’t say how many pages I made it through, because I made the biggest un-hipster-like mistake of trying to read it on a digital device. If you ever attempt it, I’d suggest purchasing your own print copy that you can mark up, dog-ear and post-it to death and carry around in a satchel so it weighs constantly on your mind.
"IQ84" by Haruki Murakami
Another gigantic hipster tome of doom, but I actually did find this one approachable and intriguing. The only reason I put it down was because I checked it out from the library back when it was on the new shelf and the two week checkout period was up before it seemed I had a chance to crack the spine. Not wanting to accumulate overdue fees, I returned it, and I never bothered to pursue it again. I’ve enjoyed Murakami’s other works, so I think if I ever have 46 hours and 46 minutes to kill, I might just check out the audiobook.
"Marvel and a Wonder" by Joe Meno
Up until I checked out this book, Joe Meno was one of the few authors that I had to purchase every title they’ve written. Unlike any of his previous novels, though, I just did not care for the characters in this one. The contemporary Western feel of it, too, put me off. But to admit, even after giving up on the library’s copy, I bought my own. I guess I’m not quite ready to give up on Joe Meno yet either.
I look forward to being more ruthless this year in my inclination to stop reading books that don’t interest me, if only for the chance of finding more that do. What are some books you’ve dropped?
— William Ottens is the cataloging and collection development coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.
December Look Play Listen Round Up
Hi Lawrence! Look Play Listen is the library’s team of AV appreciators. Each month we’ll round up some of our favorite music, film/TV, and video game reviews from our staff and put them in one easy to read, easy to locate blog post.
"The Mind of a Chef" somehow weaves together cooking, culture, and chef backstory in 25 minute short episodes that tend to culminate in some kind of thought-provoking reflection on life. The span of entries following Nordic master Magnus Nilsson are frankly the best. Magnus is at once a lovable goof with a childlike wonder and imagination for food and one of the best chefs on the planet with a merciless eye for perfection and control. We watch as he forages around the woods near his restaurant, Faviken, for dry, fallen oak leaves to flavor potatoes; he explains that he wants to "expand the potato eating experience." Sign me up, Magnus.
Eli from Readers’ Services
If you enjoy Tea Leoni in the TV series "Madam Secretary," give this movie a try. She costars with Nicolas Cage in a modern take on "It's a Wonderful Life." An encounter with an angel transforms Cage's pampered, investment-banker existence to a middle-class tire salesman's lot, complete with wife (Leoni), two kids, and a crummy minivan. Set during the winter holidays, this is a perfect movie for couples to enjoy over the end-of-year break, but really, it's fun to watch any time of year.
Tricia from Collection Development
As much as I'd like to consider myself an avid horror movie fan, I hadn't seen "The Shining" until a few months ago. I walked in expecting a chilling horror legend and what I found? Well, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. "The Shining" was a movie that didn't feel quite like horror but at the same time, it didn't feel like anything else I'd ever seen either. The movie baffled me. "Room 237," though I don't agree with any of the interpretations about the film, made me feel a bit better about being baffled.
"Room 237" is a documentary that highlights the madcap theories of avid fans. Without giving too much away, my favorite theory is that "The Shining" was a secret symbolic outcry from director Stanley Kubrick who felt guilt about his involvement in faking the moon landing. Now, I don't believe the interpretation, nor do I believe the Apollo 11 landing was a Stanley Kubrick production. "Room 237" also showcases darker theories about historical violence, genocide, and subliminal messages. Overall,the film isn't about the theories themselves, it's about how we as viewers can have vastly different interpretations of the same work. Perfect for both the avid film buff and the casual viewer, it’s a descent into madness (and subsequent interpretations of madness) that was a blast to watch.
Margo from Youth Services
"The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild"
It feels a little early to say "Breath of the Wild" is my favorite game ever, but man, is it a contender. The game’s not perfect. I can’t stress how much I miss classic Zelda dungeons and tools (no hookshot?!) and the weapon durability system can be tedious — do Hyrule’s blacksmiths only work in chalk? — but those complaints pale in comparison to the game’s living, breathing, astounding, explorable and incredibly fun open world.
Ian from Info Services
"Songs of Innocence" In the third major chapter of U2's career (beginning with 2000's "All That You Can't Leave Behind"), I find this to be a particularly standout effort. Unlike moments of the band's recent few albums, "Songs of Innocence" holds its coherence and message for its entirety — working off the threaded narrative of reflection on one's innocence and its loss.
Each song on this record stands alone with identity and sonic charm, though listening to the album top to bottom allows the songs to form the greater picture. The opening three songs are anthemic, catchy, and brooding and set the tone marvelously for the rest of the record. I could highlight every song, honestly. The only track that slips up for me is "Volcano," merely because the lyrics seem a bit unhashed. Through time this has become one of my favorite U2 releases, rivaling "Achtung Baby" and "Joshua Tree" as one of their finest efforts. It is the cornerstone of the current U2 chapter.
Joel from Tech Services
Lawrence Public Library director Brad Allen recently gave this album a thumbs up, and I am in complete agreement with him, but not because he's the boss. The songs produced by Jack Antonoff (“Fun,” “Bleachers”) truly are the strongest tracks of the record. This latest album is an excellent follow up to Taylor Swift's "1989," combining all the pop/dance hooks that made the previous album catchy, yet with better pacing and content. If this is the "Reputation" that Swift wants to be known for, she is on the right path.
Ilka from Readers’ Services
So that’s it from us for December! What media did you love this month?
Fact and fiction collide in “The Only Harmless Great Thing”
The stranger-than-fiction story of the women who painted radium dials during World War I got a proper exploration earlier this year in the nonfiction hit "The Radium Girls." Now the topic gets its due in the realm of fiction with Brooke Bolander’s "The Only Harmless Great Thing," with an intriguing twist.
As if the story of the radium factories were not already peculiar—and tragic—enough, Bolander imagines sentient elephants working alongside the women of history.
For those who aren't quotation buffs, here's the explanation for the enigmatic title. “Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing,” said John Donne, an English poet of the fifteenth century.
Though such a premise could simply be stamped as fantasy or perhaps science fiction, it feels more like magical realism in this treatment. The alternative history approach changes nothing here apart from the capacity of elephants to communicate with humans. There are no spells being cast or otherworldly technology at play; Bolander preserves the gritty, realistic fabric of history (with her own tusked amendment, of course).
"The Only Harmless Great Thing"’s narrative cycles through three different times and settings as distantly-related stories unfold. In the present day, we follow Kat, a scientist roped into diplomacy negotiations with sovereign elephants, in hopes that they will help designate the danger of radioactive sites even after mankind might perish. Then, in the 1910’s, Reagan, a radium girl, works with Topsy — an elephant, and a fiery one at that — both suffering the effects of radiation poisoning and ruthless working conditions. Finally, Bolander adds the what is essentially a telling of the elephant’s creation myth; it is the story of their first matriarch, who overthrew the bull elephants long ago.
Despite jumping around so drastically in focus, reading the novel feels like a well-tuned stream of consciousness. Bolander has a knack for creating a resonance that spans all the different protagonists while preserving each of their unique identities. She takes on quite the challenge, too, by writing in a modern voice, a rural 1910’s voice and an elephant voice that is fairly experimental and closer to poetry than prose. I’ll admit, the elephant sections aren’t the easiest to read at first, but they’re vivid, thoughtfully constructed and well worth it.
Tracing the elephants’ relationship with mankind — along with mankind’s relationship with radioactive substances — makes for compelling and effortless storytelling. Really, the premise is just too good. The radium girls already make for a fascinating topic, and adding elephants somehow feels perfectly appropriate. Every character feels real, and it’s the best kind of emotional devastation when we witness their increasingly-grim plights.
There are plenty of social critiques and insights that could be drawn from the book. Bolander, though, presents her story at face value, allowing the reader to derive any further meaning as they please, be it a message relating to the treatment of animals, feminism, labor rights, the military industrial complex et al.
Put it all together, and "The Only Harmless Great Thing" is a unique and satisfying read if you want to start the year off with a change of pace. John Donne may have been on to something: There is just something about elephants, isn’t there?
— Eli Hoelscher is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
It’s time for the 2018 Squad Goals reading challenge
In 2017, the Lawrence Public Library's Book Squad introduced the Squad Goals Reading Challenge, a collection of 13 prompts designed to get you reading more widely.
In 2018, by popular demand, we’re back with 13 new prompts that we hope will intrigue, delight and, yes, challenge you. We’ll have hard-copy forms available at the library by January, and the same “rules” apply as last year:
- Read along month-by-month, or read in any order you like.
- Make a plan and stick with it, or pick books on a whim.
- Start every book you finish, or
stop reading anything you aren’t
You do you, is what we’re saying.
Because I love making plans (and willfully discarding them), I’ve mapped out my choices below.
January: Read a thriller — I’m going with Tiffany Jackson’s "Allegedly," about a black teenager, Mary, who was convicted of murdering a white baby when Mary was just eight years old. I’ve heard this psychological thriller is great on audiobook, so I’ll plan to listen to this one.
February: Read an #ownvoices book — The #ownvoices movement encourages readers to pick up books written by authors who share an identity with the characters they’re writing about. I decided to read Corinne Duyvis’s "On the Edge of Gone," which has an autistic heroine written by an autistic author (also the founder of the #ownvoices movement).
March: Read a book with a character’s name in the title — After watching the very charming "Spider-Man: Homecoming" recently, I decided to delve deeper into Spider-Man, a hero who usually doesn’t interest me much. I’ve heard great things about "Miles Morales," author Jason Reynolds’ young adult novel about the current Spider-Man.
April: Read a book about a mythical creature — For many years, I summed up my taste in fiction as “no dragons” — then along came Naomi Novik’s "Temeraire" series. For this prompt, I’ll indulge my newfound love of dragons with Jo Walton’s "Tooth and Claw," about the power struggles in an influential dragon family after the death of its patriarch.
May: Read a book about nature — I read more poetry in 2017 than I have in years. I want to build on that progress, so I’ll read through the anthology "Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry."
June: Read a book with an LGBTQ+ protagonist — Spoiler alert! I’ve been meaning to try Adam Silvera’s work for a while now, so I plan to weep my way through his 2017 release "They Both Die at the End," about two young men who receive notice from the Death-Cast notification system that they’ve got one day left to live.
July: Read a nonfiction book on a topic you don’t know much about — In college, I took a course that explored the connections between math and music — and was shocked to find that I was more interested in the math than the music. I’ll brush up my knowledge with "Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity," David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction deep-dive into the mathematical concept of infinity.
August: Read an urban fiction book — I devoured Aya de León’s fun, thought-provoking heist romance "Uptown Thief" this year, and I’ve been saving its sequel, "The Boss," so that I wouldn’t tear through the series too fast. I’m especially excited because it moves one of my favorite secondary characters front and center.
September: Read an anthology of short stories by multiple authors — I mostly missed the "Hamilton" craze (I still haven’t listened to the entire show), but I can’t wait to read "Hamilton’s Battalion: A Trio of Romances," which brings together stories set at the Battle of Yorktown, written by three of the best romance novelists currently working (Alyssa Cole, Courtney Milan and Rose Lerner).
October: Read a book by an author with a disability — I’m going with Kody Keplinger’s "Run," a young adult novel about the friendship between wild child Bo and rule-follower Agnes. Keplinger has written several really good young adult novels, but this is the first one where she includes a blind main character. (Keplinger is blind herself, so this one would also work for the #ownvoices prompt.)
November: Read a true crime book or fiction based on a true crime — Talk about stranger than fiction: Did you know that prolific mystery writer Anne Perry was convicted for participating in the murder of her best friend’s mother in the 1950s? If that doesn’t make you want to read Peter Graham’s "Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century" with me, I don’t know what will.
December: Read a book set in the future — I was debating between two books for this prompt, and then I saw that my fellow Book Squad-ers Kate and Kimberly had both given one of them five stars. I’m reading "Orleans," by Sherri L. Smith, set in a quarantined, almost-abandoned Gulf Coast.
Anytime: Read a book you’ve been meaning to finish - Whatever else 2018 may hold, I can guarantee it will hold this: it will be the year I finally finish Bradley Udall’s "The Lonely Polygamist," which I have thoroughly enjoyed every time I’ve started it, and which has nevertheless been hanging out on my to-be-read list since 2010.
So that’s my very tentative plan for the 2018 Squad Goals challenge. I’m looking forward to reading along with you.
-Meredith Wiggins is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
Library staffers share their best books of 2017
As 2017 comes to a close, with all its turbulence—for better or worse—one thing remains constant: great books of all flavors.
Staff from all across the library share their favorites; read on for LPL’s best books of 2017.
Shirley Braunlich, reader's services assistant: "The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family's Story of Lenape Survival" by Denise Low is a memoir of deep exploration into the author’s ancestry. Thoughtful personal stories of family are beautifully interlaced with poetic prose and occasional wry humor. References to Lenape (Delaware) Indian landmarks in Lawrence are also noted. Also, "Wildness: Relations of People and Place" is an anthology of essays about human relationships to the natural world, self-determination and holistic environmental sustainability. Among the noteworthy authors included are Robin Wall Kimmerer, Wes Jackson, Vandana Shiva, Rob Dunn, Joel Salatin and Courtney White.
Dan Coleman, collection development librarian: British zoologist Nicola Davies has long been one of my favorite children’s authors, and this year she has outdone herself with "Song of the Wild: A First Book of Animals." Featuring the richly colored paintings of veteran Czech illustrator Petr Horacek, the book consists of over 50 poems broken up into five thematic sections, revealing wonder after wonder of the animal world. At over 100 pages, with ample room on pages nearly a square foot in size, this book will have a place in children’s lives from their earliest lap-sitting days through the years they are able to read by themselves.
Kate Gramlich, readers' services assistant: I'm going to throw in what I think is the funniest book of this year: "We Are Never Meeting in Real Life" by essayist and blogger Samantha Irby. What makes this book so good is the unflinching honesty and humor she employs when sharing not only embarrassing moments in her life, but also moments of serious struggle. She does an amazing job of balancing humor and sharp wit with insightful social commentary, and I can't wait to see what comes next for her.
Eli Hoelscher, reader's services assistant: It took me a second to fall under Wioletta Greg’s spell in "Swallowing Mercury," crafted from pastoral scenes and a somewhat confabulated childhood memory of rural life in 1970s communist Poland. As it undulates from grim to fantastic moments, this dreamlike autobiographical novel pulled me in deeper with every stirring vignette; it’s a work that will stay with me for a long, long time.
Polli Kenn, reader's services coordinator: "Heating and Cooling" by Beth Ann Fennelly: a surprising, stunning, tiny gem of a book. Funny, true and heartbreaking, Fennelly's concise, perfect prose has a poetic sensibility. You'll find every word in just the right place in these micro-memoirs of a life, seen from the midway vantage point. Read slowly to savor, then reread several times to remind yourself how perfect this wee book is.
Kimberly Lopez, reader's services assistant: It’s difficult to choose just one favorite book of 2017, so why not two? "Pachinko" by Min Jin Lee impacted me the most. A multi-generational tale of one Korean family living in Japan, this story is enlightening, enraging and emotional. I absolutely fell in love with all of the characters and never wanted to let them go. I honestly don’t see how I can ever forget them. This is easily one of the best historical fiction novels I have ever read. I also adored "The Bear and the Nightingale" by Katherine Arden, a fantasy novel based on Russian folklore. The writing style is absolutely gorgeous, the setting is so atmospheric (equal parts magical and creepy), and the heroine is someone you can really root for.
Sarah Matthews, account services assistant: Long after reading "Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid, I find myself thinking of Nadia and Saeed, whose fledgling love affair begins as their country finds itself on the brink of civil war. What struck me the most was the ease of it all. Gunfire and bombings startle at first, but slowly become the new normal. The characters worry as much about holding hands or kissing as they do about newly imposed curfews and checkpoints. It was downright chilling how naturally it all came to be, and yet the story is full of hope and magic and indelible beauty. Picking my favorite of the year was no easy task, but this one really stuck with me in a way that nothing else did.
William Ottens, cataloging and collection development coordinator: "This Book Is Not for You" by Daniel Hoyt: townies, last calls at the Replay, a plot to blow up Wescoe Hall — disregard the title, Lawrence, this book is for you. Maybe it was because of the familiar setting, maybe because it reminded me of the debauchery of my early twenties, or maybe because Dan Hoyt is a gritty but charmingly witty storyteller, but I could not stop reading this one. Short chapters make for an easily digestible but chaotic experience with as much clarity as a hangover. All the pieces eventually come together. And you’d best not read this on a digital device. Let's just say the protagonist would not approve.
Lauren Taylor, youth services assistant: I am a sucker for a good romance with an excellent meet-cute, and "When Dimple Met Rishi" does not disappoint. Paired together by their parents, the title characters meet outside a Starbucks, where Rishi jokes about being Dimple's future husband. The catch? Dimple has no idea who he is, throws her hot latte on him and runs away. This book has so much heart and encapsulates the immigrant experience while rolling out a romance worthy of young adult fame.
Jake Vail, information services assistant: Everybody’s favorite cantankerous hermit is the subject of — wait a minute! He wasn’t that cantankerous, and Henry Thoreau was certainly not a hermit! Laura Dassow Walls’ "Henry David Thoreau: A Life" is my choice for 2017 Book of the Year. In easy-to-read yet scholarly fashion, Walls peels back the layers heaped upon “Henerey Thorow” (as he was called) and takes a good look around, providing new cultural and natural context to Thoreau’s life and works. The result is a triumph in un-pigeonholing, a fascinating look at the rapidly changing world that moved around Thoreau and how he came to view it. An easy choice for book of the year, for Henry’s 200th birthday.
Meredith Wiggins, readers' services assistant: This year, I fell in love with three books that explored human connection in very different ways: "Lincoln in the Bardo," by George Saunders, which melded historical fiction about a well-known historical figure with ghost stories to gorgeous, devastating effect (my true #1); "Exit West," by Mohsin Hamid, which used magical realism to speak to the real effects of false boundaries on human lives; and "Anything is Possible," by Elizabeth Strout, which took us into the life of a town with a famous daughter, examining, in a series of short stories of one chapter each, how her life intersected with that of the other townspeople. Each of these books challenged me, delighted me and moved me to tears.
Cozy reads to get you through the endless night
It’s that time of year again! The ground is covered in leaves, the holiday lights are on, the heater is cranked all the way up and snow is imminent. You look outside one minute, and the sun is shining, and the world is like a gorgeously illustrated picture book, and then one minute later you look again, and suddenly the world is now made of darkness. Your body is all “what is happening?!” and your brain is like “but it’s only 5pm!” Winter has (almost) come.
The sudden weather change is discombobulating, and sometimes even a little disturbing when you manage to miss those few hours of sunlight, and your mood levels plummet. At times like these, I find it most comforting to try and embrace the season by cuddling up with a fuzzy blanket, maybe baking some scones and topping it all off by grabbing a cozy book.
The term “cozy” can differ for everyone — for some, a good mystery will hit the spot; for others, it might be Gothic novels or classics, or even children’s adventure books. What I personally mean by a “cozy read” is one that inspires you to really settle in and fully immerse yourself in a book that makes outside stressors just melt away. Lately, that has been an extremely specific type of book for me — Victorian alternative history, complete with steam gadgets, spunky heroines and mythical creatures come to life.
I’ve fallen completely in love with Gail Carriger and devoured her entire "Parasol Protectorate" series.The universe is steampunk Victorian where supernatural vampires and werewolves are fairly common, but preternatural “soulless” are quite rare. The main protagonist in the series is Alexia Tarabotti, an aforementioned preternatural, who can render any supernatural folk human with just one touch. Start with the first book, "Soulless," which introduces the extremely sassy and hilarious Alexia, who isn’t complete without a trusty parasol (so that she can whack people on the head when she gets angry or doesn’t get her way). Carriger has written other series set within the same universe, so once you finish Alexia’s story, there is still more to explore.
Along the same lines, I just finished the first book in the the "Memoirs of Lady Trent" series - "A Natural History of Dragons." Not exactly alternate history, because technically Marie Brennan has created an entirely new universe, but one that is directly inspired by the Victorian era. The books are set up and written like Victorian adventure memoirs, in which Lady Trent (Isabella) looks back on her life as a preeminent dragon naturalist. She is essentially the Jane Goodall of dragons, and, considering how obsessed with Jane Goodall I was as a child, I am thrilled with discovering this series.
This is no dragon-hunting fantasy epic — rather, it's a methodical exploration of dragons as creatures that exist within nature. Brennan is so utterly convincing that I found myself wanting to drop everything and go out and become a naturalist. While the books in the series focus heavily upon the scientific side of dragons, there is still plenty of adventure for those who like action in their fantasy books. Immediately after finishing the first book, I turned to my partner and said, “5 out of 5 stars — would definitely recommend!” and then picked up the second novel. So far, this series has helped to fill the void that finishing "The Parasol Protectorate" has left, so if you love one series, I can see you loving the other.
In general, now is the time to settle down and commit to a series. If you haven’t tried reading a series lately, I suggest you give it a try! Binge-read like you would binge-watch a Netflix series — or try binge-reading a favorite author. It seems like such an obvious thing to do, but it’s something I haven’t really tried until recently. That way, when day melts into night and night becomes unending, it doesn’t really matter. You’ve got yourself a mystery to solve or beloved characters to follow, and “it’s totally fine” that it’s only 12 degrees outside.
(Don’t forget — the library has Seasonal Affective Disorder lamps! They’ve been immensely helpful for days when I need a pick-me-up and a reminder that the sun still, in fact, exists and we are not living in one endless dark and cold night. We even have a few available to check out — it’s pretty neat.)
— Kimberly Lopez is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
Eight(ish) miraculous books
Taking place every year on the 25th of Kislev, Hanukkah commemorates the story of Jewish persecution at the hands of the Syrian despot Antiochus, who made observance of Judaism a capital offense, regularly slaughtered Jews and made it a point to desecrate the Temple.
A man named Mattathias and his sons formed a band of rebels called the Maccabees. After three years of fighting, they eventually ousted the Syrians.
When they saw the state of the Temple, the warriors openly wept and went about ritually cleaning it for use again. Tradition tells us there was enough oil to light the great Menorah for one night. Miraculously, it lasted eight days — enough time to manufacture more ritual oil. In celebration (and because of the holiday’s proximity to a larger American holiday), the holiday has grown in prominence.
We eat latkes, spin dreidels and put our menorah in the windows, quietly shining amid the more conspicuous holiday lights of our neighbors.
In honor of Hanukkah, it seemed fitting to address miracles, specifically the miracle of the right book, just as it is needed. Wouldn’t you consider it miraculous when the formation of a thought in a stranger’s head is written down, then survives the publishing process to be made into a book, which gets purchased by your local library, which a friendly librarian delivers to your hands at the right time to resonate with the deepest needs of your current life? Well, now. I certainly would.
With that in mind, I decided to visit books that were a miracle in my life. I’ve read a lot, even before I became a professional bookslinger, so there were oodles to choose from. This listing is not necessarily the best book ever written on a theme or a subject (though most are quite good), but they were miracles in that they came at just the right time in my life and made a lasting impact.
"Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder: Galvanized me as a reader with a focus on a spunky girl my age who liked to be out in nature; plus, I watched this show often with my beloved grandparents. I also think this was the start of my love of series fiction.
"Savage Inequalities" by Jonathan Kozol: I read this in college, and it changed the course of my studies and my career interests. (See also: "The Measure of our Success," by Marian Wright Edelman who helped with my career path, but also with the raising of my own children later in life. When people compliment me on having great kids, this is the book I want to hand them.)
"Our Bodies, Ourselves": Everything I ever wanted to know about my body — and how the patriarchy would work to control it — but was afraid to ask.
I include the "Hip Mama Survival Guide" (which the library sadly doesn’t own) because Ariel Gore writes about motherhood, and she saved me when I was floundering and trying to figure out how to do parenthood differently from how it was done to me. I’m still grateful to her.
"Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon was the first “real” book I read after spending several years reading sociology texts, and pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and parenting books. It was a much needed respite after all the wee people who needed me were kissed and tucked into bed.
Protagonists Jamie and Claire became the cause of many of sleepless night, sometimes in tandem with a nursing a baby. However, loving this book taught me it was okay to take care of myself when I needed it and that self-care might be as simple as a tale, well-told, in a quiet moment.
"The Big Orange Splot" by Daniel Pinkwater: Mr. Plumbean lived on a neat street … until the big orange splot came along. This simple children’s book (along with anything Mr. Rogers has ever said) gave me a roadmap for raising kids. Search for your true self, love who you turn out to be and gently help those around you feel comfortable finding themselves, too.
"Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life" by Amy Krouse Rosenthal: I wrote about this book before, so I won’t go on about it. But this book opened a path for me when I really needed it, and I hold Rosenthal in my heart daily.
"Heating and Cooling" by Beth Ann Fennelly: Fifty-two finely tuned micro-memoirs, which is about all I have time for some days. Fennelly writes prose as poetry. Each memoir, whether one sentence or a few pages, packs a punch. Sneaking peeks into her beautiful brain has affirmed my own midlife reality, as well as the journey it took to get here.
(OK, if you were counting, that’s actually nine books. But I decided I could give you nine books because there are nine candles in the hanukiah, as the shamash “helper” makes nine.)
Dear readers, my holiday wish for you is that you’ll always find the books that are a light at your darkest times, just like the winter holidays themselves. Happy reading.
-Polli Kenn is the readers’ services coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.