Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Reading Journal is Full

Twenty years ago, when I moved to New Jersey, my book group in Washington, D.C. gave me a reading journal to keep track of the books I read. I just finished my last book of 2011 and have come to the last page of my journal. There were years when I didn't keep track very well of what I read, or added titles in misremembered batches later, but for the last five or so years, I've been pretty good at keeping up to date. The trick, I think, is to just put the author, title and date read. Don't expect to review the book or you will just avoid writing in the journal at all. You can also save your receipts from the library to refresh your memory if you return a book before entering it in the journal. I have also kept track of my reading on You can see my list on the rights side of this blog. Sometimes I write a brief review or description of the book for this blog or or GoodReads. A friend recently noted that I don't give many stars to my GoodReads reviews. I'm a hard grader, I guess. So if you look at that list, just consider three stars to be four and four to be five and that will probably be more in line with other raters on the website. I try not to give negative reviews on this blog, because the idea, in my mind at least, is to find good things for our library patrons to read. I do try to tell who I think the book will appeal to, ie: "if you like this, then try that" - linking what are sometimes called "read-a-likes."
In the next few posts, I will write about my favorite books of 2011 and some of the memorable books I've read in the last twenty years.
Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

The Leftovers: Left Behind, only funny

The last book I read in 2011 is a weird one and memorable. With The Leftovers, New Jersey author Tom Perrotta imagines how the world would react if suddenly millions of people just disappeared. Poof, like the Rapture, only maybe it isn't really the Rapture. Exactly what happened and why is never clear to the reader or to the millions of people left behind on earth: the 'Leftovers.' The author is funny and sad, nostalgic and hopeful, all in the same sentence. I think this may be Perrotta's trademark emotional style. The premise is depressing, but with humorous observations about suburban New Jersey life to balance out the overall tone of the book. Who was taken out (up?): the Pope, TV chefs and various pop stars. Who was left behind?: the good and the bad and most of all the ordinary, common man and woman. Cults arise to deal with the worldwide tragedy and the authors satire of cults is also funny but sad. The 'Guilty Remnant' cult followers wear white, take a vow of silence, smoke cigarettes and follow and watch people, all the while staring and blowing smoke at them. The Holy Waynes follow a charismatic leader who starts out with good intentions to heal the bereft,  but then becomes an amoral egomaniac. The Barefoot People are like hippies with an eye painted on their foreheads who go the opposite way from the Guilty Remnants, they are the hedonists to their stoics.
Definitely a book to think about long after turning the last page.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Jesuits in Outer Space

Mary Doria Russell now mostly writes historical fiction, but her first and wonderful novel, The Sparrow, is science fiction. The Sparrow is about a Jesuit mission (more scientific than religious) to a planet inhabited by alien species. However, most of the novel takes place on Earth, alternating between 2019 when the music radio broadcasts from the planet Rakhat are intercepted, and 2060, when the sole survivor, Father Emilio Sandoz, returns and is unwilling to talk about what happened. This may sound depressing, but the prospect of finding out what happened, and the wonderfully developed characters - a doctor, an artificial intelligence analyst, an engineer, and an astronomer, among others - kept me reading. The author is a Catholic who converted to Judaism, and the main characters are Jesuit priests and a Sephardic Jew, so The Sparrow will be more interesting to readers who are interested in Judaism and Christianity. The Sparrow won the 1998 Arthur Clarke Award (the best science fiction novel published in the UK that year).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Some Staff Favorites This Year

I asked my coworkers which book, out of all the ones they read this year, was their favorite. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth since librarians don't like to choose just one book, but after some prodding I got these titles:

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo. "Put that it scared me simple."

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

I'll Walk Alone by Mary Higgins Clark

Lady Susan by Jane Austen. Finding a Jane Austen novel you haven't read before is great, isn't it?

Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin. Yours truly's choice. The movie is good too.

Monday, December 19, 2011

ListenNJ is now eLibraryNJ

Once upon a time (OK - in 2006), a group of libraries joined together to lend free downloadable audiobooks to their patrons via has been renamed to reflect the fact that it has been lending eBooks as well as audiobooks since 2010. As a bonus, the web site has been newly redesigned too.

Although most of the titles available at eLibraryNJ are shared with all libraries, some titles are reserved for Berkeley Heights library cardholders. Log in with your library card before you search in order to find these books.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Did You Know You Can Listen to Audiobooks on Your Kindle?

I'm not talking about the uninflected robotic voice that can read your Kindle eBooks out loud. I mean the real deal, the kind narrated by an actor or actors in a studio. Here's how it works:

Get an audiobook in MP3 format, either one of the MP3 CD audiobooks that BHPL lends, or one from (free if you have a BH library card). You will need to download the Overdrive Media Console. Select an audiobook that has an "MP3" icon and download the title. Plug your Kindle into your PC. In Overdrive Media Console, click the title you downloaded and then click Transfer.

Go to My Computer and browse to the Kindle drive. Drag the MP3 files from the Kindle folder to the "audible" folder of your Kindle. The audiobook's tracks will show up on the Home page beside your eBooks with a little label that says "Music" to the left. If you have a Kindle Fire, the audiobook tracks show up on your Music tab.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How to Listen and Understand Great Music

Yes, I'm going to explain how to do that in one blog post. Just kidding.

New Jersey's own Robert Greenberg is the entertaining lecturer of the music appreciation course with that name. That is, How to Listen and Understand Great Music, which BHPL has in its nonfiction audiobook collection. New Jersey comes up during a discussion of Lorenzo Da Ponte, the Venetian who wrote the libretti (a.k.a. the lyrics) for Mozart's operas. In 1805 Da Ponte ran a grocery store in Elizabeth of all places, before becoming Columbia University's first professor of Italian literature.

Dr. Greenberg tells funny and illuminating stories about composers, but what I liked best was learning about A) opera - which I thought I would have to suffer through - and B) the various forms of pieces (for example, concertos, oratorios, fugues), and how they came about. You get to hear a little of each selection, which is a good way to figure out what you'd enjoy listening to on your own in full later.

This audiobook course is located at BHPL at CD AUDIO 780.9 GRE - scan the walls for a pink flamingo to find the nonfiction audiobooks. Robert Greenberg has also put a version of the course in printed form with the book "How to Listen to Great Music: a Guide to Its History, Culture and Heart". For more reviews of Teaching Company courses that you can borrow from the library: Museum Masterpieces: the Met; The Story of Human Language; and a list of courses that BHPL owns.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Once Upon a Time . . .

The artist Bea Tobolewski is putting the finishing touches on the children's room.

The official reopening was on November 19. This dog from the Mount Pleasant Animal Shelter was one of the guests present.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

If you like hard-boiled mysteries...

I took a sharp detour from reading my usual cozy mystery genre to venture into the dark underbelly of crime, violent characters, urban decay and deceitful treachery of the noir genre. The 39th installment in the Spenser series by the late Robert B. Parker,  Sixkill introduces Zebulon Sixkill, an American Indian whom Spenser takes on as an apprentice. Parker's Spenser series is always dependably engrossing and well-written and Sixkill will not disappoint fans.
Next, I read George Pelecanos' The Cut, the first in a new series featuring investigator Spero Lucas. Spero is an Iraq vet and D.C. native who works for a local lawyer and takes his own cases recovering lost property. Fans of TV's the Wire and Treme, written by Pelecanos, will know to expect a very dark view of humanity and lots of heart-wrenching violence.  Despite the fact that I don't generally read or particularly like violent novels, The Cut held my attention and I finished it despite an incredibly graphic and disturbing murder scene which made me want to quit reading altogether. Fans of Michael Connelly will like Pelecanos' books. Washington, DC natives will recognize the local landmarks, schools, restaurants and haunts that only natives are familiar with. This is not the DC of people who live in Georgetown and the northwest section of Northwest and who come and go with political jobs. It's the DC of rabid Redskins fans and people who know how to get around without ever using the Beltway.
Related websites:
George Pelecanos
Robert B. Parker

Friday, December 2, 2011

Born on a Blue Day

The Friday Morning Book Group just discussed Daniel Tammet's Born on a Blue Day, inside the extraordinary mind of an autistic savant, a memoir which I reviewed on this blog when I first read it in 2007.
Mr. Tammet begins his memoir,
"I was born on January 31, 1979 -- a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing."..." I have a rare condition known as savant syndrome, little known before its portrayal by actor Dustin Hoffman in the Oscar-winning 1988 film Rain Man. Like Hoffman's character, Raymond Babbitt, I have an almost obsessive need for order and routine which affects virtually every aspect of my life."
The author's condition has been studied by autism experts world wide and because he is able to fully express what it feels like to be him, his participation in research studies is especially valuable and likewise, his memoir gives a rare glimpse into the mind of a person with synesthesia, Aspergers and savant syndrome.
The book led to a very lively discussion about normal brain function,  and cases like Daniel's which resulted in the ability to learn a new language in a week, recite Pi for hours on end to the umpty-umpth (22,514) digit, and do complex mathematical calculations quickly in his head. We discussed whether he might be a fraud, or just memorizing things by using mnemonic tricks as described in Moonwalking with Einstein, the art and science of remembering everything by Joshua Foer. Having seen Tammet on video clips of his TV appearances, most agreed that he did not appear autistic at all, but felt that his condition is genuine.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Museum Masterpieces: the Met

The library has a wonderful Teaching Company course on DVD that you can borrow called Museum Masterpieces: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are 24 half hour lectures, but you can skip around if you like.

My favorite part was learning about the historical connections between works of art in the Museum. An amazing engraved helmet, the "burgonet with falling buffe" (above) is on display in the Department of Arms and Armor. The helmet was given to the Medici court in Florence sometime in the 16th century. The helmet appears in a portrait of Cosimo II de Medici, which the Met web site says is not on display - another reason to check out the DVDs. The lectures will also give you a peek at famous prints, photographs and costumes usually not on display.

The period rooms you can wander around in (like the bedroom from the Sagredo Palace in Venice, above) have always been my favorite part of the Met. The DVDs showed me several rooms I had never come across before, including the Verplanck Room in the American Wing. The Verplanck Room's furniture is from the home Daniel Verplanck grew up in. Daniel's childhood portrait by John Singleton Copley is also at the Met, and the view in the background is that of his family's home in Fishkill-on-Hudson. The walls and cornice of the room were taken from another house in the Hudson River Valley, so the portrait's background gives you an idea of what the view through the room's windows may have been like.