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May 2013

Still drawn to downer books.

Evidently I can't fight my own personality: most of the books I want to read seem to be downer books.

A case in point: I can't wait to get my hands on this one. That review is long, but should definitely give you a sense of whether or not you want to read it. Any book that makes a novel on the zombie apocalypse (World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War)* look optimistic is clearly a book for me.

*Over the weekend I saw the movie The Great Gatsby (I didn't enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Moulin Rouge, but it was still a lot of fun, and Leonardo DiCaprio? That guy's a super-talent), and there was a preview for the movie version of World War Z. My friend and I wondered, how is it possible that Brad Pitt just doesn't age? Wow, does he continue to look good.

Back in the reading saddle.

I realized the other day that I have a different book going in every room of the house (and one in my backpack), and it feels really, really...good. It feels like I am getting back to myself again, reading-wise.

So what's going on where? Details to follow, but in the bathroom I have a novel by a British author I've always enjoyed, in the bedroom is a book on how Generation Y is getting royally screwed, economically speaking (nice light bedtime reading, dontcha know), in my bag is a memoir that I'm not quite sure about but am going to stick with anyway, in the living room is a somewhat depressing book (book info toward the bottom of that post) that I've had to take a small pause from, and in the kitchen waits a book I started a few weeks back and really must get back to, because it is fascinating. Oh, and how could I forget a book about books, which, interestingly enough, has a chapter about being in the middle of too many books (and which roves around as I carry it from room to room and outside)? Add to that some books on gardening (every year in spring I read about gardening, rather than actually gardening) and some on toilet training (although, sadly, neither CRjr nor I are too interested), and you have a full reading slate.

It's lovely.

A surprise favorite.

Whenever I index books, it is always a real bonus when they turn out to be readable, fascinating books (they don't always, particularly when I'm indexing literary criticism). Particularly because when I index a book I end up reading it at least twice.

One of the titles I've most enjoyed indexing was one I did last year: Northern Slave Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey, by Walt Bachman. It's a history/biography of a man named Joseph Godfrey, who was born into slavery in Minnesota in the 1830s, and his role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

Wait a second. Did you say born into Minnesota? That's right, I did. And that's just one of the fascinating aspects of this book. Godfrey was born to a woman who was held in slavery by a U.S. Army officer in Minnesota--which, it turns out, was pretty common in the army. It was common enough, in fact, that a healthy (well, not so healthy, if you were one of the slaves) slave trade went on at all sorts of military posts in states that have traditionally been considered free territories.

But there's much more to the story. Joseph Godfrey eventually made his way into the Native American community in the area (details are a bit fuzzy on how he escaped indentured servitude, because of course there aren't many primary sources documenting his life early on) and married a Dakota woman. When a group of Dakota Indians banded together and decided to declare war on German-American Minnesota settlers in 1862 (I need to read more about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 in general, since I'd never heard of it before), primary accounts refer to one massacre in particular: an ambush after which it was reported that "it was, as I am informed, Wabashaw's band, a negro leading them, who committed the murders." (p. xvii.) After the war, when many Dakotas and other Native Americans were taken into captivity and put on trial, it transpired that Joseph Godfrey had taken part in the massacres, but the question became: did he take part willingly, or was he forced to by his adopted community?

Add in some strangely compelling accounts of the rushed trials of the Dakotas, and a fascinating dash of information about Abraham Lincoln*, and the end result is a really, really great book. It's put out by a small independent publisher, the Pond Dakota Press (part of the Pond Dakota Heritage Society), but it should certainly be sought out and made a part of every public library collection (as well as more academic libraries, and of course, individuals looking for a good book to add to their TBR piles).**

*That guy was incredible. In the middle of everything else he had to do as president, he personally looked through trial transcripts (and assigned others to help him) to make sure the Dakota warriors sentenced to execution were not sentenced just because they happened to be in the general area.

**And of course, I can promise you that it is as extensively indexed as I could make it.

Are blogs over?

Lately I've been hearing from many people whose taste and advice I trust that blogs are somewhat "over."

My question(s) for you are: Are you still reading blogs? If blogs are over, what has taken their place on our wasting-time-on-the-Internet agenda? Shopping? Are you spending more time on Twitter or Tumblr? I only ask because, frankly, other than BBC productions I have already seen and SHOULD NOT BE WATCHING AGAIN on YouTube, I really don't find all that much I have to look at on the Internet, other than the blogs I read and love (and which you can find in my sidebar--pretty much all favorites of mine).

Except for John Green giving a commencement address. I only watched a few minutes, but gosh, John Green is cute. It was worth wasting the time. And I'm so touched he told grads not to worry about their lawns. This makes me feel better, as my front lawn is a wasteland after last year's drought and like-living-on-the-surface-of-the-sun temperatures, and I just can't get myself to worry about it.

History that left me cold.

There are many shortcomings in my nonfiction reading (and in me personally, frankly!), and one of them is that I don't read enough straightforward history books. For the most part, I like to get my history more contextually--I love it when historical bits come up in investigative writing, for instance, and I really enjoy reading historical biographies. But for some reason I don't often read or love more stereotypical history books.

The latest such history to leave me cold (pun intended) was William K. Klingaman's and Nicholas P. Klingaman's The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History. I first saw it reviewed over at RickLibrarian, and thought it sounded interesting.

Unfortunately, it was more interesting to read about than it was to read.

This is not to say it was a bad book. The authors actually do quite a good job of putting together a bunch of disparate story lines: in the aftermath of a huge volcanic explosion in Indonesia in 1815, people across the globe had to react to an almost immediate (and quite severe) change in the climate. The authors relate stories of how agriculture in particular was disrupted in Indonesia, the United States, in Switzerland, in Great Britain, and across Europe, and how those climate and agricultural changes affected and shaped culture and historical events. Of course, I found the British and Irish history most interesting--how rising food prices led to riots among workers in Great Britain, in particular--but really, the writing's solid enough.

I'd have to say I skimmed this one more than read it, and I wasn't the only one: Mr. CR reported having the same reaction. For a better review of the book from someone who gave it a closer read than I did, try this one from Maclean's.

*Rick does a much better job than me of reading and describing history books.

Genreflecting 7 is here!

It feels like it's been a long time coming, but the newest (7th) edition of Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests is finally here!

Gf7For those of you not familiar with Genreflecting as a reference book, it's the mother volume in the series, including information and title lists for a ton of genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Thrillers, Westerns, Romance, Women's Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Mainstream Fiction, Christian Fiction, Urban Fiction, Graphic Novels, and...for the first time ever...TA-DA...a chapter on NONFICTION!*

You may wonder what a chapter on nonfiction is doing in a book on genre fictions, but I say, it's about time. If we truly want to consider all the genres or types of books that people read, particularly for recreation, then I think we have to consider nonfiction. I was very honored to ask to be included, and I look forward to using the other chapters to expand my own genre title and author knowledge.

Of particular note in this volume are editor Cindy Orr's** fantastic introductory chapters. She provides information on reading as a social activity, a "toolbox" for expanding your readers' advisory knowledge, solid tips for providing good RA service, and much more. In my favorite segment, she even describes "Difficult Situations, Difficult People," which includes tips on how to help patrons who don't communicate well ("the Clam"); people who are looking for books for someone else ("the Proxy"); picky readers ("the Fuss-Budget"); and my personal favorite, parents who won't let their teens talk with you alone about what they want to read ("the Double Whammy"). And of course, because she's Cindy, she describes all these situations with gentle and understanding humor, and then provides concrete and practical solutions.

It's a gorgeous volume, chock-full of chapters by library staff and experts much more knowledgeable in their genres than I am (although I gave it my best shot, as always). Do check it out.

*Written by yours truly!

**Yes, the same Cindy Orr who edits the Reader's Advisor Online blog (among many other jobs and talents). There's nothing she can't do!

Fiction Interlude: Crocodile on the Sandbank

Crocodile on the Sandbank
by Elizabeth Peters

It seemed only fitting, after posting about mystery author extraordinaire Agatha Christie, that I talk about another mystery that I just read (during my period of floundering to find good nonfiction).

If I'm going to read fiction, largely, I prefer it to be of the mainstream-y, Anne Tyler-ish variety. Not quite literary fiction, but not quite women's fiction a la Jodi Picoult, either. But every now and then I will make forays further afield, into genre, and if I do, that genre tends to be mystery. Although I do not currently work in a library, it's always in the back of my mind that I should develop better knowledge of some genres and their authors, so when I read mysteries, at least I can feel that I am somehow "keeping up with my profession." If that makes any sense.

One author I'd always wanted to try was Elizabeth Peters, best known for her Amelia Peabody mysteries. I read the first one in the series, Crocodile on the Sandbank, which was published in 1975 (while the nineteenth book in the series, Tomb of the Golden Bird, was published in 2006). One lovely thing about any kind of historical fiction is that the publication date doesn't seem to matter as much. Set in the late Victorian period, the book features the feisty heroine Amelia Peabody, who, at 32, is considered to be an old maid--but she doesn't let that stop her, once she inherits her father's fortune, from going off to see the world. She ends up in Egypt, traveling with a new friend, and embroiled in an archaeological mystery (which just happens to include a stubborn bachelor archaeologist--gee, what happens?). I suppose I could describe the plot further, but I don't think the plot is the point, really. If you like feisty heroines, and have any interest whatsoever in Egyptology, then you might enjoy this:

"I was left, then, to be the prop of my father's declining years. As I have said, the life suited me. It allowed me to develop my talents for scholarship. But let not the Gentle Reader suppose that I was ill equipped for the practical necessities of life...

It came as no surprise to anyone to discover that he [the father] had left his property to me, the aforesaid prop, and the only one of his children who had not an income of its own. My brothers accepted this tolerantly, as they had accepted my devoted service to Papa. They did not explode until they learned that the property was not a paltry sum, but a forture of half a million pounds. They had made a common mistake in assuming that an absentminded scholar is necessarily a fool..." (p. 3.)

So yeah, I liked old Amelia. And I enjoyed the book. I don't know that I need to read eighteen more of them, and I don't think she's up to the caliber of Agatha Christie, but you could do a lot worse if you're looking for a historical mystery with an exotic setting and just a dash of romance.

Who doesn't enjoy Dame Agatha Christie?

No one, that's who.

Recently I plowed through the travel diary The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery, in which Christie's grandson Matthew Prichard has gathered together her travel diary entries, letters, photographs, and snippets from her autobiography in order to re-create her 1922 world tour. Then a mother of a young toddler (Rosalind, who stayed home with Christie's mother), Christie and her first husband, Archie Christie, were invited to "join a trade mission to promote the British Empire Exhibition."

Even after reading the book, I'm not really sure what the deal was with the British Empire Exhibition. Don't you just love the early twentieth century? Trade missions! Empire Exhibitions! World's Fairs! Sure they didn't yet have antibiotics, but it sure seemed like people in those times knew how to enjoy themselves.

Anyhoo, the long and short of the matter is that Agatha got to accompany her husband on an around-the-world tour to various locations in the British Empire (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada among them, with time for a side trip vacation to Hawaii), along with various other British dignitary/bureacrat types, in order to finish planning for the British Empire Exhibition. And the lively accounts she gives of her travels, both in her letters and in her autobiography, should not disappoint fans of Christie's mysteries. In fact, particularly while in Africa, you can see how she was already honing her descriptive style of her surroundings, which is a facet of her mysteries I think I always underestimated. And the chapter on Hawaii, when she's obsessed with surfing? Awesome:

"First you have to recognize the proper wave when it comes, and secondly, even more important, you have to know the wrong wave when it comes, because if that catches you and forces you down to the bottom. Heaven help you!" (p. 266.)

Of course she goes on to describe how she once caught the wrong wave. Scrappy gal.

The pictures of Christie herself are a lot of fun, particularly in her surfing get-ups, but most of the other snapshots are of people (mostly other bureaucrats and ex-pats) she met along the way, and are not that exciting. It's a fun book, if you're looking for something a little different in the travel line. (And if you're looking for something a little different in the review line, consider RickLibrarian's.)

A quick word of thanks.

As we head into another weekend (and I'm so glad that weekend will not include a foot of snow for me, as it already has for my neighbors to the north), I thought I'd take a quick moment to say THANK YOU.

It's now been a little more than six months that I have been an Amazon associate, and a bit more than two and a half years that I have been a Powell's bookstore associate. In that time, many of you have made some of your book and other purchases through this site (my Powell's link is at right and all of the book titles here link there as well; my "Shop Amazon" link is also at the right, as the Amazon graphic which leads you right to them). When you do that, I get a small kickback from your purchases. Your generosity and willingness to stop here first while shopping has made it possible for me to continue hosting on this domain and using the TypePad service, and I really, REALLY appreciate it. Thank you, so much.

That is all. Now go enjoy your weekend, and hopefully it doesn't involve any more winter.

What my book choices say about me I don't know.

I still continue to feel as though I am not finding much reading that is setting me on fire, but as I sat down to consider the nonfiction titles I've read in the past few weeks, I'm seeing a pattern emerge.

First I read Charlie LeDuff's Detroit: An American Autopsy, which was fantastic but not exactly cheerful. Just lately I've also read books titled The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don't Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line and Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession (reviews to come) both of which were interesting, but again, not exactly light. And then today I stopped by the library and there was only one title waiting for me, which I didn't even remember placing on hold: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.*

It was totally inappropriate but I actually laughed when I saw that title, particularly in light of the other downer books I've been reading. It just goes to show that I clearly must be drawn to the dark and the depressing (as I find the majority of my nonfiction, when you get right down to it, simply by trolling the "new nonfiction" lists in my library's catalog, and picking most things based on their titles).

But just now perhaps I could use something a tad less, shall we say, "depressing as hell"? Any suggestions for good, thoughtful** nonfiction that also doesn't make me want to crawl under a rock and cry? Many thanks in advance.

*It looks like a good book, actually, but so help me, I just don't know if I can handle it right now.

**Please nothing that includes the words "inspirational" or "sentimental" on the cover or in reviews. To quote the wonderful author Jim Knipfel: "when I hear the word 'spiritual,' I reach for my revolver."