1 2 3 4 5

Staff Picks Reviewer: Ben

The Dispossessed: A Novel by Ursula K Le Guin []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

Shevek is born in a world created by anarchists. This world, a moon in fact, is home to a planned society in which the concept of property does not exist and the language has been designed to discourage selfish thought. The people there have very little contact with the world from whence they came—the capitalist planet of Urras. Shevek is a brilliant physicist whose groundbreaking work is too advanced to be understood by his colleagues. If he wishes to continue his research he must, therefore, visit Urras and work with the scientists there.

Le Guin’s writing is excellent. In telling the story of Shevek, of his research, and of his journey, she also subtly explores some very interesting ideas about culture, language, government, and psychology. This imaginative work, like most of Le Guin’s science fiction, stands alone, and if you have never read any Le Guin this would be an excellent place to start. And if you like it you will find that Le Guin has written many more excellent books set in the same universe.

Tagged: , , ,

Lives Worth Living []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

When I went to the Northampton Senior Center for a special Northampton Commission on Disability screening of Lives Worth Living I didn’t know anything about the film or its subject the disability rights movements. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film was not just informative, but a well-crafted and incredibly moving introduction to the subject that left me eager to learn more.

At just 54 minutes in length, Lives Worth Living is too short to be more than an introduction to the story of disability rights (which it traces from the polio epidemics of the early twentieth century and the treatment of disabled veterans up to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990), but it makes excellent use of the time it has. We briefly learn about the discrimination and negative attitudes faced by the people with disabilities who were too often assumed to be without potential or worth. We briefly learn about the shocking maltreatment of people with mental disorders and about the Willowbrook State School and the abuses that occurred there and at similar institutions throughout the country. We learn about the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and other early legislation, but more importantly we learn about the advocates who pushed to expand protections for the disabled, unifying diverse groups (associations for the blind, the physically handicapped, mental patients and others), and how disability rights became recognized as civil rights. And we learn about the protesters—the individuals who occupied buildings, locked themselves to bus shelters, and even crawled and pulled their way up the capitol steps to make their message heard.

Lives Worth Moving is a powerful film, well worth watching and relevant to us all. I cannot recommend it enough.

Tagged: , , , ,

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

In Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Daticat tells a number of stories, each of which interconnects with and is enhanced by the others. The stories are all set in the fictional Haitian town of Ville Rose, a fishing community where fishing is no longer profitable, the lighthouse no longer possesses a lantern, the few wealthy residents worry that their homes will be washed away, and the town mayor is also the undertaker.

The protagonists of these stories are sympathetic, well meaning, good people, but life is not particularly good to them. Neither education nor wealth is enough to escape from the misfortunes of Ville Rose, and few are lucky enough to have either. There are many tragedies in these stories—deaths, crimes, and injustices—and yet I don’t think it is a book about sadness or tragedy. Instead it is about a place and the interconnections between the people there. It is about the connections between a radio announcer and her listeners, a teacher and his pupils, parents and children, and also about the inner lives of them all, and how each one effects the others. It is a beautiful book with stories worthy of contemplation, recollection, and rereading.

Tagged: , ,

Crosstalk by Connie Willis []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

Crosstalk is a near-future science-fiction romance which explores our always-connected, always-on culture, and like so many of Connie Willis’s stories it is almost-but-not-quite too complicated, a bit neurotic, and wonderfully entertaining. The story centers on a couple of employees at a small smartphone company that is trying to outdo Apple, but one of them has a secret and fears that they might succeed all too well.

Connie Willis is great at witty dialogue, improbable situations, and fun, unexpected plots. She’s one of our favorite authors here at Forbes Library, and this, her newest offering, is a very fun read (even if it doesn’t have time travelling Oxford historians!)

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

Dandelion Wine is Ray Bradbury’s novel of a child’s summer in a small Illinois town. In the first few pages of the novel Douglas Spaulding, the twelve-year-old protagonist, is stuck by the alarming thought that he is alive, “I’m really alive! he thought. I never knew it before, or if I did I don’t remember!”

This is the first of many revelations Douglas will have over the course of the summer. Douglas’s summer is a time of brightness and joy to be cherished, but still, by its end he has transformed himself, having struggled with issues of identity, age, fear, and mortality.

Like so many of Ray Bradbury’s novels, Dandelion Wine is episodic, essentially a collection of stories many of which can stand alone. Douglas features in many of these stories, but several stories feature other characters, among them: Leo Auffmann, who attempts to build a happiness machine; Helen Loomis, who is 95 and never married, but shares a mutual admiration with the much younger Bill Forester; and Mr. Jonas, the maybe magical and certainly mysterious town junkman who heals Douglas when he is ill.

Dandelion Wine reads quickly but offers much worth dwelling on. The stories are memorable, the setting and characters are both characterful and yet sufficiently loosely described so as to seem universal, and the writing is engagingly snappy and colorful. Forbes Library’s Afternoon Book Discussion discussed Dandelion Wine in August and we had a very lively, enjoyable discussion. Very much recommended.

Ball of Fire by Howard Hawks []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

In this delightful romantic comedy Gary Cooper plays Bertram Potts, the youngest of eight professors who have lived together for years, devoting their time to the production of a new encyclopedia. When a trash collector asks the professors for help answering questions for a trivia contestd Bertram is baffled by the garbageman’s language and realizes his article on American on slang is badly out of date. In order to correct this he must leave his reference books behind in order to do some research in the field.

Bertram’s field research brings him in contact with Sugarpuss O’Shea, a witty and jocular nightclub performer portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck. Sugarpuss has no interest in helping Bertram with his research until her mob-boss boyfriend gets in trouble and she needs a place to hide from the police. What better place to hide than among these quiet and respectable professors?

Having taken refuge with the encyclopedists, Sugarpuss delights in teasing the stodgy Bertram and soon makes friends with the other professors (who, unlike Bertram, enjoy her company from the beginning). Bertram, however, worries that her presence will interfere with progress on the encyclopedia. “Now, when the Foundation launched our vessel”, he proclaims, “it very wisely followed an old rule of the sea, no women aboard. It chose a crew of single men with nothing to distract them from the course they were to sail.” Sugarpuss recognizes this as nonsense, but can’t risk a fight under the circumstances. Still, it is with evident sarcasm that she offers “to sit on her legs”.

Bertram almost redeems himself when he replies, “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind”. However, he continues with, “unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”, a statement which comes across as almost redeeming—Bertram wasn’t concerned for the sake of the other professors, but for himself. Fate will, however, keep Sugarpuss and the professor together, and despite flying wisecracks and bullets (remember the mob-boss boyfriend?) they soon grow to enjoy each other’s company.

Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss is refreshingly strong, independent, and easily the most complex character in the film. Gary Cooper’s Bertram is understated and reserved. Many of the characters come across as cartoonish, which is just what you want from the supporting characters in a screwball comedy. The dialogue is fast and witty and, of course, full of period slang, familiar and not.

By the way, Ball of FIre would later be remade as the musical A Song is Born starring Danny Kaye. The dialogue in the two films is in large parts identical, despite the different scenario and very different portrayals. Folks who have seen A Song is Born will be relieved to know that in Ball of Fire the dialogue actually makes sense!

Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Raffles: Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman by E. W. Hornung []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

Did you know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law E. W Hornung was also a successful author? Hornung’s hero, A. J. Raffles is a “debonair, witty and cricket-loving gentleman thief” too selfish to be a Robin Hood, but too noble to steal from those he feels can ill-afford it, and patriotic enough that he goes to war for his country and once, after making suitable precautions to avoid self-incrimination, he arranges for the spoils of a particularly splendid heist to be a gift to the queen.

Like those of Sherlock Holmes, the exploits of A. J. Raffles are told from the perspective of a devoted friend and accomplice. In place of Doctor Watson, Raffles has Harry Manders, more usually known, at least to his criminal friend, as Bunny. Bunny Manders is a struggling journalist and surprisingly innocent given his enthusiasm for his scofflaw friend. At the beginning of Raffles: Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman, Bunny has recently been released from jail, and Raffles is presumed dead. Of course, we soon learn that they both have plenty more adventures ahead of them.

Hornung dedicated his first set of Raffles stories to his brother-in-law, and Doyle was suitably impressed, writing that “there are few finer examples of short-story writing in our language than these.” He did not however, approve Hornung’s choice of subject, however: “You must not make the criminal a hero.” Readers, however did not seem to mind: Raffles was the second most popular fictional character in the early twentieth century, second only to Sherlock Holmes.

Tagged: , , ,

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

This is a fun book, the kind that pulls you in and keeps you turning the pages. If you read it in a public place, however, you are likely to be interrupted by fans of the book who cannot help themselves and are eager to share their enthusiasm. Once I was even told, “I’m so jealous that you are reading it for the first time! I will never get to do that again!”

The Name of the Wind is a fantasy novel, and, to tell the truth, much of its plot sticks close to the cliches of the genre. A young boy discovers an aptitude for magic, learns all he can those around him, overcomes many obstacles, is accepted into a university where he excels beyond expectation, and goes on to do great things. And the hero, Kvothe, must, of course, confront a great evil, one that he takes seriously while those around him consider it only a fairy tale. Unlike most such stories, however, Kvothe, is a musician, and his changing relationship to his music is important throughout the book.

The world is richly built, full of detail, and the mechanics of its magic feel far more convincing than those in many other fantasies. The story is told from the perspective of an older Kvothe, now an innkeeper, who has done much since the events of the story he tells, but who has much more to do and learn as well. (This is the first book in a trilogy, after all.) Upon finishing the book you are left hungering for two stories—what happened to the young Kvothe in the stories, and what will happen to the innkeeper Kvothe, who you sense has much, much more in store for him.

Tagged:

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

This is a detailed biography of Catherine II, from her childhood as a minor princess in a small German principality to her long reign as empress and autocrat of all the Russias and one of the most powerful women in Europe. My favorite part: when Catherine donned a uniform and the led the army to arrest her husband and seize his throne! And what lover of books and libraries can resist the story of how Catherine made Denis Diderot her personal librarian? When Catherine heard that the great encyclopedist had run into financial difficulties and wished to sell his library, Catherine bought the entire collection for more than his asking price, insisted that the books stay with Diderot in Paris, and paid him a handsome salary so he could continue his work.

Catherine’s life was full of court politics, international intrigues, subtle power struggles, and secret plots, but also scholarly pursuits, intimate correspondences, lavish parties, extravagant gifts, and love affairs, secret and private. Massie pays great attention to Catherine’s personal life—the excerpts from her love letters are wonderful to read.

Massie’s approach is direct and readable, with chapters based upon subject matter more than chronology.In this book he provides an interesting slice of European and Russian history, a fascinating glimpse of 18th century politics and the influence of Enlightenment thought on a powerful monarch, and an appealing tale of personal struggle and transformation.

Tagged: , ,

Dodger by Terry Pratchett []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

Dodger is the latest novel by Sir Terry Pratchett, best known for his satirical Discworld series of fantasy novels. Pratchett’s usual wit and love of language shine through in this historical piece set in Victorian London and with a cast of characters that includes Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Angela Burdett-Coutts, and Queen Victoria.

Dodger takes place above and below London, with the city’s ancient Roman sewers playing a prominent part. Much of the drama comes from the meeting of the upper and lower classes, the rich and poor, and the politics of the street vs. the politics of the state.

Pratchett has, very consciously, taken liberties with the setting and refers to the work as a historical fantasy, not a historical novel. The most obvious example is the inclusion of the almost certainly fictional Sweeney Todd. Less noticeable to most readers will be the the adjustment to the lives of Sir Robert Peel and John Tenniel whose careers did not, in fact, overlap as suggested in the novel. These changes may bother some, but if you take them in stride you will find Dodger to be a very enjoyable adventure story brought to life by its rich setting and colorful language.

Tagged: , , , ,

Midnight in Peking by Paul French []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

In 1937 foreigners and native Beijinger’s alike were shocked when the mutilated body of a young woman was found just outside of of Beijing’s Legation Quarter. Clearly, a terrible crime had been committed, but what had happened? The investigation was complicated by the bureaucratic system that made it difficult for law enforcement in the Legation Quarter and in Chinese Beijing to work together and the detectives in charge of the case struggled with a lack of information and communication—and what seemed all too often to be pure obstructionism from above. Paul French’s Midnight in Peking offers a fascinating glimpse of China at beginning of the Second World War, a time when powerful Europeans were leaving China, and many refugees were arriving in Beijing and nearby cities, fleeing from the USSR and Nazi Germany, and from the increasingly hostile and militaristic presence of the Japanese within China.

French’s narrative follows both the official investigations, and the unofficial investigation conducted by the victim’s father. There are some surprising twists along the way, and French takes advantage of them to keep the reader on her toes. An engaging read, but not for the squeamish or those who prefer to read stories in which justice is fulfilled.

Tagged: , , ,

How Music Works by David Byrne []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

“I think I managed to give a sense that the world of music is wider than my personal experience, but my experience figures in here too”, David Byrne writes about his recent book How Music Works, and this statement gives you a very good idea of what you will find in this very enjoyable book. How Music Works explores the world of music through the experience of one musician’s experiences and wide ranging thoughts. As a result, it is neither a comprehensive book on the nature of music nor a complete biography of its author, though it combines elements of both. Byrne explores the history of music and musical thought, the influence of technology and economics on music, the role of music in society, and the future of the music industry. Along the way we learn much of Byrne’s career, his own approach to music, art, and performance in general.

Byrne is an excellent writer, and a man with wide ranging and interesting ideas. Reading How Music Works is a pleasure, and left me with an increased urge not only to explore more of his music and to read more of his writing (Forbes Library also owns his Bicylce Diaries), but most of all, to make more music of my own. It is, above all, David Byrne’s unending enthusiasm for everyday creativity and for the participation of everyday people in the world of music that will make the greatest impression on you. A great book which will be enjoyed by music lovers of all types.

Tagged: , ,