Wednesday at the West: More Tea and Books

literateaThe first week of the month means that once again lovers of tea and books gather at the West Branch to indulge in these two passions for an hour.

This month’s tea was pomegranate green, which was served iced.

For a full list of books and news discussed by library staff, check out the July Literatea Newsletter.  Of course, things really got interesting when the ladies of Literatea started discussing their recent book recommendations.

In the world of book news, one of the hot tidbits is still the upcoming release of Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman (released in 7 days… but who’s counting?).  One participant suggested that book lovers may want to check out the new American Masters biography about Harper Lee that will be on PBS this coming Friday, July 10th.

Meanwhile, until you can get your hands on Lee’s new offering, you may want to check out these other titles suggested by the voracious readers at Literatea:

beautiful ruinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walters

 

 

 

savingfishSaving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

 

 

 

suprememacaroniThe Supreme Macaroni Company by Adriana Trigiani

 

 

 

lovelossLove, Loss and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman

(This novel was adopted into a play with Nora Ephron)

 

touchofstardustA Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott

 

 

 

claraandmrtiffanyClara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

 

 

 

deadwakeDead Wake by Erik Larson

 

 

 

icecreamqueenThe Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

 

 

outlanderOutlander by Diana Gabaldon

(also recommended was the TV adaptation of this book series)

 

 

haroldfryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

(If you have read or read this one and enjoy it, note that the sequel was just released: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy)

 

brokenharborBroken Harbor and other novels by Tana French

 

 

 

soulsatnightOur Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

 

 

 

hedgehogElegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

 

 

 

fifthgospelThe Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

 

 

 

zookeepersThe Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

 

 

 

invisiblecityInvisible City and Run You Down by Julia Dahl

 

 

 

underordersUnder Orders and other novels by Dick Francis

 

 

And that fellow bibliophiles, should keep you happily reading until the first of August when we return with more books and tea that you won’t want to miss.

Wonder Woman and Nancy Drew: How I Spent My Holiday Weekend

wonderwomanimage

This past holiday weekend, your Blog-Manager Fairy Princess was in Savannah, as part of the World History Association annual conference.  It was a terrific–if unnecessarily humid–trip, full of fascinating talks and interesting conversations, and lots and lots of book recommendations.  There were a number of fascinating talks given about using alternative texts and materials in the classroom; my favorite was on the use of comic books as history text.

As literacy tools, comics are invaluable.  They engage both the linguistic and the visual aspects of the brain, making connections between the two in ways that traditional texts and textbooks don’t. But they can also teach about aspects of culture that textbooks can’t, or won’t.  One of the best examples of this, is the iconic heroine Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman, made her debut in DC Comics in January 1942.  She was the brain-child of psychologist William Marston (who, incidentally, invented the modern polygraph machine).  Marston believed that women were more inherently honest than men, and generally more capable in stressful or dangerous situations.  His goal in creating Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman), was to present a heroine who was strong, confident, and successful as both a superhero and as a professional in a male dominated world.  Under Marston’s guidance, Wonder Woman not only defended America from Nazis, evil monopolies, and corporate inequality, she also taught young people–young women especially–to stand up for themselves and believe in their own strength.

ww2

 

Marston, like his heroine, had to battle to convince DC Comics of Wonder Woman’s viability, despite high readership among both boys and girls.  When DC formed the Justice League of America under Gardner Fox, Wonder Woman was made an honorary member…and the group secretary, who kept notes while the men went off to save the world.  When Marston realized what was going on, he wrested back control of his character, and proceeded to write comics about what Wonder Woman actually did while acting as secretary–turns out she wasn’t behind the desk most of the time!

wonder-woman-secretary-c1702

Following Marston’s death in 1947, the Wonder Woman franchise passed into the hands of Robert Kanigher, who began transforming Wonder Woman into the more sexualized, less assertive figure that we think of today.  But it’s clear that studying the origins of Wonder Woman can help us tell a different story about contemporary social and gender issues in America than traditional textbooks permit.

This led to a discussion about another pop heroine of the same era–Nancy Drew.  Nancy Drew was the brain child of Edward Stratemeyer, who created the Hardy Boys Series in 1926.  The series was so popular that Stratemeyer decided to extend the franchise to girls–even though he believed a woman’s place was in the home.  However, the series’ first primary author, Midred Benson, created a woman far different from Stratemeyer’s original idea.

Mildred Benson with her Nancy Drew books
Mildred Benson with her Nancy Drew books

The original Nancy Drew was sassy and feisty; she carried a gun, knew how to protect herself, and she did it well.  Like Wonder Woman in many ways, Nancy lived in a kind of utopia where the Depression didn’t hurt, where war was far away, and where you could always have clean clothes and dinner.  But she also provided a model for young girls that was wildly different from the woman she became.  By the 1950’s, Nancy had a boyfriend to whom she deferred regularly, and learned to hold her tongue rather than speak her mind.  Though the books were shortened in order make writing and reading a faster process, they also omitted a great deal of the power that Nancy originally had.

Learning about these heroines and their history was fascinating, and I love the idea that kids get to read these texts in their classroom.  That discussion has led me through our catalog to learn more about them both, so I thought I would share my findings with you!

3565459The Secret History of Wonder Woman: Jill Lepore’s book has been hailed as a landmark in pop culture history, and in the history of comic books as a genre.  She details, in wonderfully accessible prose, the early years of Wonder Woman, as well as her emphatically unique creator, William Marston.  Prominent in this story is Marston’s wives….yes, both of them.  Though he was only legally married to Elizabeth, they both welcomed Olive Byrne into their home, and Elizabeth and Olive remained together after Marston’s death.  These two women were critical to the creation of Wonder Woman (and Marston’s other inventions), and Lepore gives them their due in her fascinating work.

3551789Wonder Woman unbound : the curious history of the world’s most famous heroine: Tim Hanley’s book covers the same time period as Lepore’s book, though in less depth, but also looks at her evolution over the course of the twentieth century, and the ways in which she challenged and conformed to expectations of the day.  He also confronts some of Marston’s atypical themes of bondage that appear throughout the Wonder Woman comics; she is repeatedly tied up, chained up, or laced into a straightjacket, but escapes them all (and teaches other women how to break the bonds that hold them) because those who are keeping them captive are not worthy.  It’s an interesting theme that is far more complex than many authors have considered–up until now.

51VVVVysRdL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The mysterious case of Nancy Drew & the Hardy boys: Authors Carole Kismaric & Marvin Heiferman trace not only the origins of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but also consider their creators and authors, uncovering a story about social issues, feminism, and capitalism in America.  They talk about the feuds inside Grosset and Dunlap over Nancy’s temper, the treatment of racial minorities in the books, and the need to keep up with growing readers who were increasingly fascinated by television.  This is a book that will make you rethink what you know about quintessential American literature, but also the publishing market and commercialism in general.  And that cover is just too good for words.

2319779Girl sleuth : Nancy Drew and the women who created her Melanie Rehak discusses the origins of Nancy Drew, with a focus on the two women who were responsible for her: Mildren Benson, and Stratemeyer’s daughter, Harriet, who took over the franchise when he died.  What emerges is a story about one fictional character, and how the expectations of generations were tied up in her adventures.  This is a fun, perceptive read that makes each contributor to the Nancy Drew cannon a fully-realized character in their own right.

 

Saturdays @ the South: Go Fourth and Grill

4th of julymoney saving tipsIndependence Day means many things to many people. Clearly, there is the patriotism celebrating the birth of our nation that comes with this holiday. For some people it means the spectacular fireworks displays or the opportunity to get away for a long weekend. There are many more possibilities, but for me and my family, the 4th of July meant one thing: grilling.

I have the fondest memories about our 4th of July barbecues: the sun, the conversations, the running into the house with the food when it downpoured. (There was always at least a 60% chance that we would be rained on; it never stopped us.) Each year was met with anticipation. It was a chance to get the “good rolls” from the bakery in the next town, an excuse for my mom and grandmother to unearth the pizzelle makers to make dessert and an opportunity to have steak (if it was on sale and my grandfather liked the way the meat looked). My grandfather would helm the grill while I hovered by him. I watched as he turned the meat and waited for him to slip little tastes to me and our dog who was hovering just as eagerly on the other side of him. He taught me grill safety, how to clean it and as I got old enough, how to grill the food as well.

Despite all of these food-associated memories, these celebrations weren’t really about the food. This was partly because it was good, quality time spent with family and friends and party because the food just wasn’t that great. In my eyes, my grandfather was a god among men; he just wasn’t one that was handy on the grill. Every year, we treated ourselves to charred sausages (it was only until much, much later after I had taken over the grilling to let him relax at these shindigs that we learned to parboil the sausages to prevent the outer coating of char), tough, well-done steak and dry burgers. Our backyard barbecues were great, but they were definitely not about the food. As I got older, the roles shifted and my grandfather stood by and chatted with me while I did the grilling and slipped him and the dog a few tastes. But I also learned to make the food tastier. I taught myself to marinate and grill chicken, the aforementioned parboiling sausages trick and how to grill for vegetarians. The barbecues weren’t any less about the company, but they did become somewhat more about the food.

Part of how I learned to improve my grilling skills was through cookbooks and we have a bunch of books here at the South Branch that I can only wish had been available to me when I started grilling. To say that the world of grilling has changed for the better would be a gross understatement. People are paying more attention to meat, and even more attention to the non-meat entities that can become immensely tasty when hit with a bit of flame. One of the best ways that grilling books have improved is that they focus on the whole meal, not necessarily just what’s hitting the grill. They accompany main dishes with off-grill items that can compliment the flavor of the meat (or meat alternatives in some cases). Here are a few of my new favorites that are on our shelves right now:

Fresh Grilling: 200 Delicious good-for-you seasonal recipes3541913

This Better Homes and Garden tome is packed with mouth-watering illustrations for nearly every recipe, an introduction to grills, fuel options and an at-a-glance grilled vegetable guide that blew my mind. (Can you really put strawberries or fennel on the grill? Yes, yes indeed.) It’s not comprehensive, but that’s just makes it wonderfully manageable. This book has great, non-traditional ideas in addition to the expected fare, so you’re likely to find a new favorite recipe here.

The Essential New York Times Grilling Cookbook

3521785What this book lacks in photos and illustrations it more than makes up for in content. There are hundreds of recipes here that cover the usual, the unusual and the downright surprising from all around the world. Each section is broken down by meat type, plus sections on starters, veggies, marinades and rubs, and desserts. Brief essays with enticing titles like “Happy Birthday, Hamburger!” and “A Dessert that Dances on the Grill” start off each section and there are some great “Looking Back” recipes pulled from the NYT archives. Don’t let this one intimidate you. There’s a lot there, but it’s there to pick and choose as you please.

The Big-Flavor Grill: No-Marinade, No-Hassle Recipes

3522463Chris Schlesinger and John Willougby, both Massachusetts residents, have created a relaxed, no-nonsense attitude to grilling in this book that can be very appealing for anyone who doesn’t have a lot of time or just wants good, grilled food with minimal effort. The book’s sections cover different meats plus vegetables (“Vegetables love the grill, too”) and drinks (because everyone needs a delicious wash-down after a good, grilled meal). Each section starts off with a “Super-Basic” recipe that pares grilling down to the utter essentials (usually the meat, oil, salt and pepper and that’s it) and they tell you how to cook it without killing it. If you get more comfortable, you can always try out some of the amazing flavors they have featured here in recipes that are only slightly more complicated than their basics.

Cook’s Illustrated Meat Book

3577550I’m not going to lie; local institution America’s Test Kitchen and their accompanying magazine Cook’s Illustrated have always intimidated me a bit. There is an underlying sense expecting perfection because once you’ve controlled all the elements and gotten the best ingredients, how can you not achieve greatness? My messy kitchen experiments rarely follow their expectations but there’s no denying their recipes are tried-and-true. This book doesn’t focus solely on grilling, but it does focus solely on meat. (Vegetarians will want to steer clear of this one.) The recipes include many classic restaurant dishes like Chicken Saltimbocca and Porl Lo Mein. Plus with recipe titles like “perfect poach chicken” and Cook’s Illustrated signature illustrations, it’s hard not to be tempted.

Smoke & Spice: Cooking with Smoke, the Real Way to Barbecue

3561145I haven’t talked much about traditional barbecue because it is really a tradition of its own and aside from a slow-cooker pulled pork, isn’t really in my cooking repertoire. But I couldn’t have a grilling blog entry without at least addressing the sauce-covered elephant in the room. If you want a solid introduction to classic barbecue and smoke techniques, this book is a great place to start. Not only will Cheryl and Bill Jamison give you a solid introduction to using smoke both outdoors and indoors, but they’ve compiled a collection of great, accessible recipes with tantalizing photos. With a laid-back tone, this revised James Beard Award-winner may just make you want to spend this weekend building a smoker in your backyard.

Till next Saturday, dear patrons, have a happy, safe Independence Day, however you celebrate.

The Romance Garden!

Here is the monthly update from the Romance Readers of your library staff, bringing our love of romance into the light of day, and reveling in that dirt that so helps our minds to grow….

index

Bridget:

Made for You by Lauren Layne3583385

Did you ever read a book that was so good, so pitch-perfect and on-point and fun that you wish you could discover it all over again?  This second book in Layne’s Best Mistake series is just that kind of book for me.  Here, we meet Brynne, who was billed in the series opener as the heroine’s “perfect older sister”, who succeeds at everything she undertakes.

In this book, however, we learn that life for Brynn is no picnic.  She grew up feeling awkward and heavy and ugly, and has never gotten over those feelings, or the pain of being overlooked because she was smart without being clever.  As a result, Brynn spends all her time being everyone else’s version of perfection.  The only time she rebelled was the night she spent with Will Thatcher, her sister’s best friend.  On the outside, Will is the definition of a ‘bad boy’, with a devil-may-care attitude that he uses as a shield to hide the fact that he’s been in love with Brynn for as long as he can remember.  But he knows that, unless she can learn to live on her own terms, there is no hope of winning her heart.  So he does what any good romance hero would do–he moves in next door to Brynn.
However, from this point, this book veers wildly from the expected trope.  Will doesn’t hound Brynn, or try and come over and hang out, or try and make her change in any way.  Instead, he gives her the space to be herself, to come to her own conclusions, and to make her own mistakes. I loved that the primary message of this book wasn’t that the love of a good man (or woman) will magically make everything better; it’s a personal and ongoing journey (see Brynn’s impulsive tattoo for more details!). Additionally, Will and Brynn’s sister can be platonic friends who genuinely care about each other, which is not something you see in romances every day.

 

Kelley:

3578590Outlander by Diana Gabaldon:

Due to the new Starz TV series you might be familiar with this title, but as is true in most cases, I promise you the book is better. First published 24 years ago, Outlander is a winning mix of romance, time travel and adventure that takes place in a mix of post-World War II Scotland and Scotland at the time of the Jacobite uprising. After years separated by the war, English nurse Claire Randall and her husband, Frank, embark on a trip Scotland in an effort to reconnect with each other. While there, Claire finds herself whisked back in time through the mythic stone circle of Craigh na Dun. The world of the 1700s is vastly different than that of the 1940’s, and Claire must quickly learn what it takes to survive as an Englishwoman in Scotland in this earlier incarnation of her world where the English are at war with the Scots. Luckily, she has the help of Jamie Fraser, a young and charismatic Scottish landowner, who will not only save her life many times over, but will show her love like none she has ever known.

Jamie and Claire are complex characters, each with strengths and flaws that make them utterly human, and utterly sympathetic to readers. Despite their love for each other, outside forces make happiness hard-won for the Frasers. They have many enemies, the most threatening of which is Black Jack Randall, an ancestor of Frank’s who suspects Claire is a spy and who has a history of violent encounters with Jamie and his family. What makes this book so powerful is the way that Jamie and Claire look out for and take care of each other in the face of these dangerous and difficult circumstances. Jamie and Claire are each brave, strong, and admirable individuals but, as is true of the best romances, they are stronger and better together. Readers will root for these characters every step of the way, but bring a box of tissues for the journey. This is a romance riddled with darkness and sadness, not a Regency romp, so be prepared.

 

Melissa:

A Widow’s Hope by Mary Ellis3199778 (1)

I certainly do enjoy discovering new authors of Amish fiction romance.  Mary Ellis has been writing Amish romances since at least 2009, but she’s still new-to-me.  After reading A Widow’s Hope, I will definitely be checking out some of her other titles (Never Far from Home, Abigail’s New Hope, A Family Reunion, A Little Bit of Charm).

Widows and widowers finding love again, even when they don’t think they want it, is a common theme in Amish romances and Ellis has taken that plotline and created a sweet story from it.  Hannah Brown (the widow of the titles) sells the farm she and her husband ran before his death and moves in with her sister’s family.  She brings with her a large and slightly unweilding flock of sheep.  Hannah hopes this move with both allow her to help her sister, who suffers from arthritis, and to put some distance between herself and a scandal she caused in her home church district.  Somehow, however, Hannah keeps getting on the wrong side of her brother-in-law, who is a strict deacon in her new church.  The deacon strongly disapproves of his sister-in-law’s opinions, her sheep and his wife’s desire to play matchmaker between Hannah and his widower brother.  Hannah and the deacon’s brother-in-law, Seth, are intrigued by each other, but face a string of misunderstandings that plague almost all potential couples in romance novels.  Meanwhile, Hannah again finds herself in hot water with the church leadership, while she also tries to help Seth’s daughter, who remains grief stricken over the death of her mother.

It’s Hannah’s believability as a character that really shines in this novel.  Unlike so many romantic heroines, Hannah is far from perfect.  While it first appears that it is her willingness to flout Amish convention that lands her trouble with her church’s leaders, it eventually becomes clear that Hannah’s real problem is her knee-jerk tendency to run away at the first sign of a conflict rather than attempting to work things out.  Her sister eventually calls her on this and Hannah must decide between fleeing from her problems yet again or facing them and taking a chance on finding love.  Ellis manages to create in Hannah a character who is overall very likable, but flawed enough to cause flashes of irritation in readers who cheer when her sister finally calls her out.

Summer Reading, off the list

We’ve had a number of readers come in looking to fulfill their summer reading lists lately, and it got me to thinking…..When I was in school, I hated summer reading lists.  Loathed them with a passion it is difficult to put into words.  This is mostly because I refused to be told what to read, and under what time restrictions.

But now that I am…well, older than I was then…the problem is that there are so many books to choose, and so many lists and suggestions and conversations going on about them that sometimes the decision is just impossible!

More than anything, in the summer, I want to read a book that I’ve never heard of previously; that is completely different from what I read normally; that is surprising and challenging and will make my summer thoroughly memorable.  And it turns out that there are those of you out there who feel the same way (This is why I love my job, in case you were wondering)!

So here, without further ado, is a list of off-the-beaten track suggestions for your summer reading list.  Stay tuned to this list for updates and opinions to follow!

CarterCarter Beats the Devil 

Glen David Gold wanted to write a biography of Carter the Magnificent (aka Charles Carter), but was unable to assemble enough information, and so he turned his sights on an historic thriller.  I don’t want to give away too much, but the reader gets to follow Carter from his first performance to his last, from his show for Warren Harding to his acquaintance with Houdini, from the development of his stagecraft to his lifelong search for his true love, who was foreshadowed by a gypsy during his early vaudeville days.  If you enjoyed this heartbreaking, redemptive, and constantly surprising novel, be sure to check out Gold’s mind-bending Sunnyside, featuring Charlie Chaplin, too!


2616459How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone

I heard Sasa Stanisic speak at the Harvard Book Store when this book was released, and it remains one of the absolute highlights of my linguistic existence.  He got up to read, looked at everyone and said, “I can’t wait to read this!  I haven’t seen this translation before, so I’ll be reading it for the first time with you!”  And his eagerness, his sheer delight, is evident in every page of this book.  Stanisic’s book is a loosely biographical tale about a child refugee from Bosnia, named Alexander, growing up in Germany, whose Grandmother makes him promise to “remember when everything was all right and the time when nothing’s all right”.  But Alexander is also a story-teller, so you never quite know where his memories end and his fantasies begin.  Stanisic is one of those writers who can break your heart and make you giggle hysterically in the same breath and his book is pure magic.  And he made a collection of things his readers had forgot.  And my contribution made the list. Woot.


2313323The Vesuvius Club

Dr. Who screenwriter and general all-around genius Mark Gatiss has crafted quite possibly one of the greatest series ever written in this spy-spoof and general send-up of Victorian literature, featuring the irresistible Lucifer Box of 9 Downing Street.  In this installment, we learn of his adventures in 1890’s Italy and London, and his illicit affairs across the continent while investigating the strange goings-on around Pompeii.  The second installment is set  in Switzerland following the First World War and made me weep openly on a bus, but more about that some other time…


jacketRelic & Reliquary

This series by the dynamic duo of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child has been making the rounds of the staff and patrons this summer, because they are insanely suspenseful and wonderfully, deviously creative, and scary and utterly ridiculous, all at the same time.  These first two books feature monsters in t
he New York Museum of Natural History, the subway, and a gloriously magnetic, enigmatic FBI Agent named A.X.L. Pendergast who arrives to save the day.  These aren’t books that are easy to describe (mostly because you end up feeling very silly saying “I’m reading about about monsters in the New York Subway), but I promise you will have no trouble diving in for more Pendergast!


2608134I, Lucifer

Glen Duncan offers the Prince of Darkness a chance to speak for himself in this unsettling, thought-provoking, and fascinating work.  Somewhat guilty over their centuries-long sparring, God has offered Lucifer something of a do-over.  He gets the chance to inhabit a human body and try to redeem its soul.  They agree on a trial period, and down goes Lucifer into the form of writer Declan Gunn (hardy har har).  What follows is an account of Gunn/Lucifer’s reawakening that is sometimes a little-overenthusiastic in its extremes, but also full of some remarkably interesting insights into humanity and the real nature of Good and Evil.  There’s no way the book can end without feeling somewhat predictable, but the final scene between Lucifer and Raphael makes the entire book worth every minute.  For a debut, this is, ahem, one hell of a novel.

Hope this list gives you some inspiration for the upcoming holiday weekend, and be sure to keep the recommendations coming!

Poldark!

Poldark

Rather than venture out to the movies this week, I thought instead we could take a ‘staycation’, as they are called, and flip on the TV instead to watch what is promising to be a stellar mini-series event: Poldark on Masterpiece Theater.

In my family, historic dramas such as this are measured on the ‘Hornblower Scale’, developed one stultifyingly hot week in the summer when everyone was too sweaty and tired to argue with me when I said we should all go sit in the cool basement and watch the Horatio Hornblower mini-series (which, naturally, I took out from the library).  My parents, who, up until then, supported my love of costume dramas, but didn’t necessarily enjoy them, were shocked to realize how much this series not only caught their interest, but kept it through every battle, every duel, and every cry of “black, bloody mutiny!”.  To this day, all period pieces are measured against Hornblower, and it is because Poldark rated so high on that scale that I bore you now with this tale.

After watching the first episode last Sunday, my father declared that this new adaptation, starring Irishman Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson (who appeared in the stellar series Death Comes to Pemberley), is “like Hornblower…with horses”.  Essentially, though this series takes place on land, and thus features neither warships nor fears of mutiny, the characters are exceptionally compelling, the drama is relatively fast-paced and engaging, and the end of each episode leaves you hungry for a little more.

TV-Programme-Poldark-Ross-played-by-Robin-Ellis-and-Demelza-Played-By-the-devine-Angharad-ReesLongtime fans of British drama may remember the first Poldark adaptation, which first aired on the BBC in the in 1975, starred Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross Poldark and Demelza (compare their photos at left to the modern adaptation above…the tradition is similar, but there is no doubt in my mind that that hair has more 1970’s than 1780 in it).  The series was wildly successful, making stars out of its lead actors, and earning some 14 million viewers a week; some pastors were even rumored to have canceled Sunday services so as not to clash with the airing of the episode, in those dark days before DVRs and the internet.  Considering the success of the original series, it’s understandable why it took so long to remake Poldark, but, thus far, the results seem quite promising.

2881327Both the 1970’s and the 2015 miniseries take their inspiration from Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, which begin with the return of Ross Poldark to his native Cornwall in 1783.  Ross was a soldier in the British Army during the American Revolution, and considered dead by many at home–including his beloved Elizabeth, whom he had expected to marry upon his return.  Instead, Ross finds his estate in utter disrepair, his fortunes depleted, and Elizabeth engaged to Ross’ wealthy cousin.  Furious, but undaunted, he focuses on restoring his name and his fortunes alone, and though he marries and has children, a part of his heart always belongs to Elizabeth.  Their tortured love affair is at the heart of many books in this series.

1157522Like C.S. Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower series (which is told out of chronological order, so start with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower), Winston Graham lived during the Second World War, writing at a time when the present seemed horribly dark, frightening, and alien.  Both authors attempted in their books to re-create a lost world and a time when human beings were…human; flawed and passionate and courageous in a way that they both missed terribly.  Forester had attended the Royal Naval College, and thus his hero was sent to sea.  Graham lived in Cornwall for some thirty years, and thus, Ross Poldark and his family inhabit that same area, and make it their own.  Both series stand the test of time, grabbing readers attention and forcing their heroes and heroines to confront tests, trials, heartbreak, and danger, without providing easy answers, and letting them make mistakes in a way that isn’t common in contemporary literature.

Though Forester stopped publishing books about Hornblower in 1967 (with The Last Encounter), Graham continued publishing stories about the Poldarks up until 2002, finishing the twelve-book series with Bella Poldark, a tale of Ross and Demelza’s headstrong younger daughter, set in 1820.  Along the way, he tackled some of the most noteworthy events in European history, including the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the epic Battle of Waterloo, which has a tragic effect on the Poldark family.  Each novel is stirring, and makes for fantastic summer reading, so come by and take Ross Poldark (and Horatio Hornblower) with you on your next getaway–I promise they will make your journey that much more memorable!

Saturdays @ the South: Children’s Books Revisited

dont-pigeon-hole-meAs I am an adult (in theory, anyway), I hadn’t read children’s books in quite some time. But having worked here at the South Branch for over a year now, I’ve found myself reacquainted with the art of the kids’ book. Talking to kids about what they like, reading the new books as they come in, finding new options for story times are part of what makes my job so amazing. In terms of the kids’ books, quite frankly, I’ve been enchanted and in a much different way then when I was reading those books as a kid. There is an enormous amount of talent out there from new authors who not only “get” kids, but can appeal to adults, too. Many modern children’s book authors seem to be able to give the adult, who will often be reading to the child, a quick “wink, wink” in a joke, or break the fourth wall or do something that little kids won’t always notice, simply because they don’t have the life experience to do so yet. This is what made shows like the Looney Tunes cartoons or The Muppet Show so successful. Adults and kids could enjoy them, and still do. (If you’ve ever searched Netflix to see if Bugs Bunny or Garfield cartoons are available, you know exactly what I’m talking about.) Kids’ books can have that same appeal.

The sheer variety of different types of kids’ books out there is staggering and this is a good thing! (Well, maybe not for those of us who have to pare down the list of truly great books to fit within our budget, but for readers it’s a good thing.) I’m a staunch proponent of letting kids read whatever they want. As long as they’re spending time enjoying reading, that’s what’s most important. The variety of kids’ books allows kids the opportunity to express themselves as readers and increases the likelihood that something will be there for them to connect with. Authors seem to be recognizing this more and more and are engaging kids in creative, genuinely fun ways.

But why on earth, on a blog that’s largely going be be read by adults, would I be touting the appeal of children’s books? Don’t I have any sense of who this audience is? What I think is that the people who come to this blog are open-minded readers, regardless of age. Having rediscovered the art of the picture book and the joyful simplicity of a kids’ story, I’ve come to realize that kids’ books should not be limited only to children (or only to those adults who have children) and here are a few reasons why:

1) Kids books are fun to read! Not only are children’s books broaching an incredible variety of topics, but they are designed to engage a reader. It doesn’t matter if your 5, 50 or 105; a good story is a good story. At least once a year, the Classics book group revisits a children’s classic (Charlotte’s Web and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe are among the titles we’ve discussed) and we always find these discussions to be lively and meaningful. Not only that, but we often find interpretations we couldn’t possibly have picked up on as kids, but are there nonetheless. It brings these books to a whole new level. Had we just left them in our childhood memories, we would never have discovered the pleasure and new themes that revisiting a kids’ book can bring.

2) Kids’ books are easy to read! Let’s face it, we all have those times when we want to read something about as challenging as a catalog. Children’s books are a great way to shift gears from an intense read or just to take a break from adulthood for a bit. (There’s a good reason why Classics schedules the children’s read for December, during the peak of holiday madness.) Silly stories are often the best for this type of a break and if there’s one thing that kids’ books know how to do well, it’s make someone laugh. The best ones will make you laugh while making you just a little uncomfortable for laughing at such a thing. Plus there’s no pressure to write a book report when you’ve finished.

3) Kids books are art! Children’s literature is not written or illustrated by kids (usually). Children’s literature is created by adults: adults who have sophisticated views of the world and who are talented enough to crystallize complexity into something simple and meaningful. Illustrators are artists, many of whom have higher education to achieve such skills. If your starting to second-guess me on this one, please feel free to check out The Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Western MA. Named after picture book creator and legend Eric Carle, this museum celebrates picture books not only as literature that can engage children (and adults- lest we forget the point of this post) but as honest-to-goodness art that deserves to be put in such a location and admired both in and out of it’s picture book context. Need more proof? Celebrated picture book creator Mo Willems (and all-round, utter genius, at least in my humble opinion) has had exhibits of his work at the R. Michelson Galleries (also in Western MA) and is currently on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. As a matter of fact, not all of his art on display is even related to picture books, further supporting my statement that illustrators are artists in their own right. If you still don’t believe me, check out Don’t Pigeonhole Me: Two Decades of the Mo Willems Sketchbook, a brilliant book of Willems’ art designed for adults and definitely not suitable for children, but has all of the qualities that make his children’s books so amazing.

If I’ve convinced you to try a children’s title or two, here are a few places you can start; and if I haven’t convinced you, here are a few books that I think adults can easily enjoy:

 

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

3246428Pearls before Swine cartoonist Stephan Pastis wrote a book (actually a series of books) and just like his comic strip, they are hilarious. Timmy Failure (yes, that’s his last name) is just trying to make his private detective business be the most successful ever, but things like school, his mom and his friends seem to keep getting in the way. His best friend is a polar bear named Total (yup, Total Failure). Is he an imaginary friend? Does Timmy really tame and befriend a polar bear? These are things that kids may not pick up on, but adults probably will. Regardless of the polar bear’s status, he’s my favorite character in the book. It got me laughing out loud and as far as I’m concerned, that makes it a good read at any age.

 

I Totally Funniest by James Patterson

3583107Love him or hate him for his adult fiction, James Patterson actually writes some pretty decent kids’ fiction. It’s funny, it’s charming, it covers problems kids may actually have to deal with in there lives, but there’s a certain level of an adult perspective here that is appealing. There’s also a certain level of fantasy that keeps the problems from hitting too close to home. It’s a well-crafted book and worth giving a a try.

 

That Is Not a Good Idea by Mo Willems

3320283This is a lesser known work of Willems’s but like all of his books, it’s written with a rare combination of glee, sophistication, silliness and surprise. Where else can you find a silent film style picture book with fairy tale-like critters and a punchline that will leave even the most jaded adult cracking up. Whatever the book might tell you, Mo Willems is ALWAYS a good idea.

 

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klaussen

3132745This book and its similar but not-quite-a-sequel This Is Not My Hat are amazingly sophisticated works. Funny, poignant and with great artwork, these books will also leave adults doing a bit of a double take wondering: “That didn’t really just happen in a kids book, did it?” Do I have you intrigued? Good! Go read it.

 

One of the best things about libraries is that you can read whatever you want in a judgment-free zone. So go forth this weekend and experiment. Read a chapter book, laugh at wacky picture book antics and indulge in a bit of nostalgia. You’ll be glad you did.

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass