Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Must-Have Books

This post is in honor of the books that I bought just because I can't count on the library's copy surviving dog-bite, immersion in bathtubs, and other occupational hazards of a library book.

Castles in the Air is the book I trot out every time we have any kind of "staff picks" display. In 1994 Judy Corbett and her then-boyfriend-now-husband decided to buy a ruined Tudor castle in Wales called Gwydir and restored it while operating it as a bed and breakfast. Corbett tells stories that make you want to invite her over to dinner and listen to her for hours (like the really creepy one about one of the resident ghosts, or the funny story involving Prince Charles).

Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. Yes, there was a movie, but it skipped all the fascinating details about horse racing and the Great Depression, and the lives of Seabiscuit's jockey and owner. The rivalry between War Admiral, Seabiscuit and their owners will suck you in.

Fiction I can't part with includes the previously blogged The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (because you always need a book about a teenager and her cousins on their own in rural England when World War III breaks out) and Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy, in which an untrained teenaged necromancer goes into the land of the dead to retrieve her father.

Do you have any books you must own even if you never get around to re-reading them?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Beach Reads

A beach read is any library book that gets returned with sand underneath its mylar jacket. No, really: a beach read is a book that is fun to read. It can be read anywhere, but only in the summertime. If you do not like your beach book, you must stop reading it immediately. I once read a bestseller about an unemployed investment banker who becomes a shrimp wholesaler, and have always regretted not staring out of the plane window for 2 hours instead.

Whether or not you are going down the shore for Memorial Day weekend, here are some lists with ideas for books to take with you:

NPR's series My Guilty Pleasure asks writers what books they love but are ashamed to be seen reading. You would think this was a list of Harlequin romances, but no, they're embarrassed about loving Eat, Pray, Love. Last July NPR also polled its listeners for the Best 100 Beach Books Ever.

Library Journal published lists of summer reads for men (ugh, another way to say action, thriller and mystery) and women (relationships & romance).

If you're looking for something more literary, one you can make your book group read later, try Oprah's list.

Amazon's list is pretty diverse. These books have been published in paperback, so they're old enough that most of them don't have a waiting list at the library.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Gardening at the Library

OK, we don't actually garden at the library, but we do direct people to all the many, many nifty gardening books in Dewey# 635. Vegetable gardening is all the rage now : it's good exercise for the whole family, it's the most "green" (ie: ecologically sound) of activities and fresh home-grown veggies are so much better tasting and pesticide-free than store-bought, or so we are told, and told... and ...told. What we aren't told is that it's basically easier to construct and launch your own personal space shuttle from your backyard as to bring one friggin' tomato to tomato adulthood. Faithful BHPL blog readers (all 5 of you) may recall the Six Bean Story from a year ago in which we meet a frustrated librarian/gardener whose obsessive tender-loving nurturing of seedlings on her windowsill over many anxious months (ok, the months weren't anxious, but the librarian/gardener was) resulted in a grand harvest of at least six beans, a few wilty lettuce leaves, weirdly skinny radishes and many happy neighborhood rabbits, slugs, aphids, deer and antelopes roaming through the garden.

So this year, not withstanding the stellar gardening role model that is Michelle Obama, First Lady Gardener in Chief, this gardener/librarian, (that would be moi, your friendly library blogger) just plunked some seeds in a raised bed I made from an old compost heap and didn't obsess at all, at least not as much as last spring. The seeds duly sprouted for the most part. However, no sooner did the beans sprout than something nibbled their tender little leaves. I'm convinced the critters sit in trees with little critter binoculars laughing and drinking little critter brewskis while watching the hapless librarian dig around in the dirt. Ha ha, they say in critterese, there she goes again and they call us dumb creatures! Another conspiracy I've cooked up is that only the worst seeds are sold to the home gardener market. Cunningly designed little packets with seductive illustrations of plump colorful veggies displayed on those spinning racks which make you so dizzy you end up just buying seeds because vertigo impairs your common sense. Then when the bad seeds fail to thrive, the home farmer buys lots of pesticides and fertilizers, and when that fails runs to the supermarket and buys those tasteless factory farm-grown veggies. So there you have it. Gardening 101.

Here's my considered advice re: gardening. To avoid the six bean heartbreak syndrome, check a gardening book out of the library, lie in your hammock with it tipped over your face to keep the afternoon sun out of your eyes and take a nap. Then, refreshed upon awakening, go to your friendly local farmstand to buy fruits and veggies that somebody who actually knew what they were doing grew just for you. And you can give those lurking opportunistic suburban critters the raspberry while you're at it. Not a real raspberry, they've already denuded my wild raspberry vines, give 'em the Bronx cheer.
Illus: Pencil sketch of Wiley Rabbit by Frustrated Gardener/Librarian, note, Rabbit is hiding his binoculars.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Highly Effective Detective Plays the Fool

Richard Yancey's third book in the Highly Effective Detective series features bumbling detective Teddy Ruzak who solves crimes in Knoxville, Tennessee. Teddy's distinctively meandering speaking style reflects his highly ethical, curious, but undisciplined mind and oblique approach to life and crime-solving. Despite the fact that Teddy keeps failing the P.I. licensing exam and the state tries to shut his business down, he keeps taking cases. He tells his beautiful secretary Felicia,"The ironic thing is...I actually believe I'm helping people, and the state is going to arrest me for it..but since reading somewhere that we live in a postironic age,I had taken on a personal mission to keep irony alive, at least within my miniscule sphere. Teddy Ruzak, researcher, analyst, master ironist."(p11-12)
Ruzak stumbles through his cases doggedly following leads, piecing together the anomalies that turn up and, despite the low expectations he inspires in everyone he meets, he does crack the case of the missing client.
The series is funny, but with a bittersweet, poignant undertone in Teddy's observations about human nature and his relationships with the secretary he loves but who does not return the feeling; his sensitivity about the victims of crime and even with his dog Archie, who sadly does not wish to bond with poor lonesome Teddy. The reader waits for the people in Teddy's life to realize he's one of the good guys and not just the fool he plays. The last scene gives some hope in that regard as Archie finally shows some canine devotion to his hapless master.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Classic Broadway

This is a conversation I hope to overhear a lot in the upcoming weeks:

Q: What are you doing on Sunday, June 27?

A: I'm going to hear Nina Deutsch (a graduate of Juilliard and Yale, a Carnegie Hall veteran, the first person to ever play all American music in concert in China, a correspondent of William F. Buckley from 1970 to 1979 & an occasional cruise ship performer, all rolled into one) bring the music & personalities of the great Broadway composers to life - including Gershwin, Rodgers, Kern, Berlin and Porter.

Yes, that's right, BHPL has gotten a grant. Classic Broadway is funded by The Horizons Speakers Bureau of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Whew.) Sing along to classic favorites such as Someone to Watch Over Me, Embraceable You, Always, and many others and learn biographical details about their composers.

This program is free and open to the public. The only catch is that this program is not going to be at the library. BHPL doesn't have a piano, so head over to the auditorium at the Berkeley Heights Nursing and Rehabilitation Center at 35 Cottage Street. The program is on Sunday, June 27 at 2 p.m. and should last an hour.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity

A funny Wired article called Diary of a Self-Help Dropout was my first introduction to Getting Things Done, or GTD to its followers, which is both a book by David Allen and a "time" management system. Time is in quotes here because Allen says you can only manage your actions, not time:
you don't manage five minutes and wind up with six; you don't manage information overload - otherwise you'd walk into a library and die . .. you don't manage priorities - you have them.
The Wired writer, Chris Hardwick, compared GTD's readability to a camera manual, and while it isn't that bad, I'm going to have to suggest listening to the audiobook. That way you can do other things at the same time (bonus points for getting things done!) and you won't fall asleep.

The goal of following the Getting Things Done system is to get everything off your mind, so you can relax and get into your most productive state (the chapter on having "a mind like water" was excellent). The premise of the book is that all the unfinished things that you need and want to do nag at you and cause stress, unless you put all of these things down in writing in one place where you know you will see them frequently.

Allen's other great idea is to make a list of next physical actions for each of the projects that you put on the list. When you find yourself with unscheduled time, you can work on whatever is most urgent or suitable for the length of time that you have. If the next step is something that can't be done right away, you put it on your calendar or on your list of things that require action from other people.

One of Allen's clients called her to-do list before she went to his seminar "an amorphous blob of undoability". So was mine, and it was only a third of the length of what has become my projects list. The sheer size of it means I'm going to have to decide what's really important to get done (note to self: get a medical directive before learning how to Rollerblade).

Friday, May 7, 2010

In the Shadow of the Cypress

Thomas Steinbeck's first novel, In the Shadow of the Cypress, is an historical/archaelogical mystery in three parts. Part one is the journal of an early 20th century marine biologist working in Monterey, California. He tells the story of the California earthquake of 1906 which uproots an ancient cypress tree and the treasure it has hidden for 400 years. The unearthed stone plaque and jade statue would seem to be evidence that Chinese explorers discovered the west coast of North America well before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

The second part of the book takes up the story as the local Chinese community in Monterey decide what to do about this evidence. Their actions cause the treasure to disappear again for another 100 years.

Fast forward to present day early 21st century, a young marine biologist at the same lab in Monterey featured in part one, discovers the journals describing the treasure and sets out to find the Chinese artifacts.

I wanted to review this book without mentioning that Thomas Steinbeck is John Steinbeck's son, but it was the author's name that prompted me to pick the book off the New Fiction shelf, so that wouldn't be quite honest. However, after reading and enjoying the book, I can recommend it, not only to fans of his father's work, but to anyone interested in California history, Chinese-American culture and Chinese history as well as to anyone looking for an absorbing mystery that solves an intriguing puzzle without violence or mayhem.

Related works:

Down to the Soundless Sea by Thomas Steinbeck

USA Today review of Under the Shadow of the Cypress

Monday, May 3, 2010

The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood

"This is a story about rogues" is the tantalizing first sentence of The House at Sugar Beach, New York Times journalist Helene Cooper's memoir about growing up in pre-civil war Liberia and the coup that forced her family to move to the United States when she was a teen. As descendants of Liberia's founders, the Coopers led a privileged life in Liberia - international school for Helene and her sister, trips to the U.S. to visit relatives and shop for shampoo, afternoons at the Relda cinema - but all that came to an abrupt end with the 1980 coup. Not only does the book appeal to all your senses, but you can't stop turning the pages knowing that a coup is coming, and then not knowing what happened to the Coopers' foster sister who had to stay behind.

The morning book group is discussing The House at Sugar Beach on Friday, May 7 at 10:30 a.m. Discussion questions are available here. Feel free to make the recipe for traditional Liberian peanut soup at the end of the questions! If you'd like to find out more about what Helene and her family have been up to, check out the Bookreporter interview.

If you're interested in reading more about Liberia, I recommend Polish war correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski's In the Shadow of the Sun. The chapter on his experience in Liberia can be read at the Guardian web site. On a happier note, Liberia now has Africa's first woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and her memoir, This Child Will Be Great, is currently available at BHPL (like every other book mentioned in this post). First person to the shelf wins. Go!