Sunday, October 16, 2016

Staff Audiobook Review: The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
I don't know why it has taken me almost twenty years to notice the essay collection The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard and read (or, rather, listen to) it. First published in 1998 to a loud chorus of high praise, the book led to Beard's being awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Award.

The collection constitutes a patchwork memoir. At the time of its publication, it drew most attention for one piece, previously published in the The New Yorker. That essay, "The Fourth State of Matter," is a meticulous and heartbreaking narrative of the 1991 mass shooting at the University of Iowa by a disturbed physics graduate student, which claimed six lives, including the shooter's, and left another victim paralyzed from the neck down. The narrative of that horrific event is woven into finely-grained depictions of the author's own domestic woes: a dying dog and dissolving marriage. It makes for a poignant weave that in no way diminishes the relative magnitude of the shooting.

Jo Ann Beard, a graduate of the University of Iowa and of Iowa's MFA writing program, was an editor of the physics department's academic journal at the time of the shootings and very close to several of the victims. She had left the office early that day to tend to her old, ailing pet. At home, her phone soon began ringing off the hook. In her essay, which, like all the essays in the book, is precisely detailed, wryly but not inappropriately funny, and strikingly well-written, Beard conjures the tragedy in such a vividly authentic way that I listened, heart in throat, grieved for the victims, and glimpsed the scale of the incident's extensive collateral damage.

Other essays breathe life into Beard's early childhood, adolescence, high school and college beaus, and her ultimately failed marriage. She presents her life in a non-linear way, each essay forming its own discrete story. Beard is a master of the exquisite detail and one has to wonder at her powers of recollection and suspect some poetic license in the telling. Usually I'm pretty particular about strict truth in the memoirs I read, but this book is so artfully written and profoundly affecting that I was willing to park my skepticism at the door.

Her masterful handling of a seemingly infinite number of precise details results in one stunning piece after another. Her mother, especially, is finely-wrought and we see exactly where Beard gets her cleverness and wry humor, which are powerful mechanisms in a book that depicts so much dysfunction, disorder, death, and divorce. As I listened, my heart's pangs were frequently accompanied by my laughter. I've rarely experienced such a seamless blend of humor and sorrow.

The author reads this audiobook and does a serviceable job. She sounds a little hypnotized, but she has written a hypnotic book so maybe it's fitting. And her deadpan delivery of very funny material only accentuates the humor. Jo Ann Beard is one sharp woman and I highly recommend this audiobook.

~Ann, Adult Services 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Let the Mind Games Begin

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is the latest psychological thriller to make its way from page to screen.  Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is in a deep depression after going through a divorce and turns a little to often to alcohol to numb her pain.  Everyday on the train she sees this perfect couple, a couple she feels is the embodiment of true love.  Then the woman disappears and Rachel was seen in the area.  The thing is, Rachel can't remember what happened due to blacking out and losing time after drinking too much.  If you are a fan of psychological thrillers, this one has quite a twist at the end.

For more dark and twisty stories here are a few books and movies you should try.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
Five-year-old Jacob is killed in a hit and run, an event that sends the police in search of the driver. Jenna Gray flees to Wales to mourn the loss of her son and recover from her past. As the anniversary of Jacob’s still unsolved death approaches, a tip to police results in an arrest and a very different picture emerges. This self-assured debut combines jaw-dropping moments with complex, believable characters and an ending that is hard to see coming. (Jennifer Winberry for LibraryReads)

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (also a feature film)
When Amy Dunne disappears from her Missouri home, it looks like her husband, Nick, is to blame. He claims he is innocent, but he doesn't seem truthful.  But this isn't just a simple case of a husband killing his wife to free himself from a bad marriage.  There is something more sinister going on.  Told in first person narratives with multiple perspectives, Gone Girl is a truly frightening glimpse into a souring marriage. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike play Nick and Amy in the 2014 feature film.

The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford
What is a pocket wife? It is a wife whose husband barely gives her the time of day. This describes Dana Catrell perfectly. One day Dana drunkenly argues with her neighbor, Celia and then Celia turns up dead.  Dana can't remember what happened, did she kill Celia?  Even her husband thinks she had something to do with the murder. The Pocket Wife is a gripping, character-driven mystery.

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison
Jodi and Todd have been married for 20 years, theirs is the perfect marriage.  Unless of course you count Todd's many infidelities and Jodi turning a blind eye.  Then one of Todd's indiscretions turns serious and he tells Jodi he is leaving her, but Jodi isn't going to let Todd go that easily.  Canadian author Harrison delivers a smart, gripping debut novel.  (According to IMDB the movie based on this book is "in development").

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
An intruder in the middle of the night leaves Lo Blacklock feeling vulnerable. Trying to shake off her fears, she hopes her big break of covering the maiden voyage of the luxury cruise ship, the Aurora, will help. The first night of the voyage changes everything. What did she really see in the water and who was the woman in the cabin next door? The claustrophobic feeling of being on a ship and the twists and turns of who, and what, to believe keep you on the edge of your seat. (Joseph Jones for LibraryReads)


Gone Baby Gone (2007) 
Adapted from the novel Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is an intense look at the inside an ongoing investigation into the kidnapping of a little girl in Boston.  As the detectives get closer to finding her, nothing is as it seems and the danger intensifies.  Starring Morgan Freeman, Michelle Monaghan, and Casey Afflek.

Zodiac (2007, based on the book by Robert Graysmith)
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downy, Jr., this thriller follows investigators and reporters as the hunt for the Zodiac serial killer who has been terrifying San Francisco Bay area and taunting police with letters and ciphers.

Side Effects (2013)
Emily Taylor, despite being reunited with her husband from prison, becomes severely depressed with emotional episodes and suicide attempts. Her psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks, after conferring with her previous doctor, eventually prescribes an experimental new medication called Ablixa. The plot thickens when the drug has chilling and deadly side effects.  Starring Channing Tatum, Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones
Shutter Island (2010, based on the book by Dennis Lehane)
Leonardo DiCaprio and director Martin Scorsese team up in this psychologial thriller about a U.S. Marshal investigating the asylum for the criminally insane on Shutter Island.  As the investigation unfolds, the marshal, Teddy Daniels, uncovers shocking and terrifying truths about the island. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009 or 2011 Also a book by Stieg Larsson)
A journalist is aided by a young computer hacker as they search for a woman who has been missing, or dead, for the past 40 years.  The original Swedish version (2009) and the English language adaptation (2011) are both supremely chilling thrillers, not for the faint of heart. 

Lock your doors and let the mind games begin.

~ Amy, Adult Services

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Staff Review: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Anyone who has read one of Sarah Vowell's books knows how funny she is. Laugh-out-loud funny at times. But when it comes to American history, she knows her stuff. Hers is a fresh take on what we all learned in school: the Puritans on the Mayflower, our past presidents, the Salem witch trials, the Civil War. Sometimes she goes farther afield: in one book, Unfamiliar Fishes, she explores the events leading up to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii. Vowell is snarky, irreverent, and a whole lot of fun. Always droll, never dull, often remarkably astute, she breathes new life into old stories.

In Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, her most recent book, she really shows off her chops. I can't imagine how much reading, research, and travel must have gone in to writing this book. Vowell seems at ease with all the major battles of the Revolutionary War, which went on for eight long years, and with all the key players, from military leaders like George Washington and Benedict Arnold to members of the Continental Congress. Her focus is on Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette, a 19-year-old French aristocrat who crossed the ocean in 1776 to take up the cause of American liberty. Swashbuckling and debonair, he became not only a highly capable general but a sort of surrogate son to Washington, who was crazy about him.

The book opens with Lafayette's return to the U.S. in 1824, at age 67, for a grand tour of all (by then) 24 states. Americans still adored him for his contributions to the cause of freedom and he was greeted by cheering crowds everywhere he went. By that time, he had not only survived the American Revolution (he was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine) but also emerged neck intact from "the Terror" -- the bloody chaos of the French Revolution, with its flames, pitchforks, and flashing guillotine. Vowell then turns back in time to the trajectory of the American Revolution, interspersing her own clever assessment of historical events with anecdotes about people she meets and sites she visits while conducting her extensive research.

She is so amiable in her snarkiness that I always finish her books wishing I could hang out with her. I also laugh and learn a lot along the way. By the close of this one, I understood for the very first time just how much the French helped us win the War of Independence (something we might have done well to remember during the Freedom-fries fiasco of 2003) and I had a much better appreciation of the reason so many American cities, towns, counties, hills, rivers, bridges, parks, schools, boats, and buildings were named in honor of Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette.

Cautionary Note: I better add a note about the audio version. When you hear Vowell for the first time (she narrates her own books), you may well be a bit turned off, especially if you're just coming off a super-fine audiobook narrator. For all that Vowell's such a big radio personality and has done so much voice and acting work, her high-pitched, lispy, little-kid voice can be dismaying, but I promise if you power through the first chapter or two, you'll cease to notice. It won't bother you at all. You may even come to find it endearing.

~Ann, Adult Services 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Staff Review: Space Brothers

If you wanted to be an astronaut when you were a kid, you need to check out Space Brothers. If you find Neil deGrasse Tyson's enthusiasm for space exploration inspiring, you need to check out Space Brothers. If you loved the near-future realism of The Martian, you need to check out Space Brothers.
I will warn you right here that this anime is only available with English subtitles, which I know is not an option for some people. However, the fact that this is an animated series should not stop you from checking this series out. While there are a handful of cartoony moments in the series, it is, by and large, very grounded in real life. Every element is either based on the realities of current space exploration technology, or on well-researched potential technology.

Seriously space nerds, this series is for us. Guys, JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide recorded dialog for this series while on the International Space Station. The live-action version (which the library does not own) features a cameo by Buzz Aldrin.

Space Brothers follows two brothers, Mutta and Hibito Nanba, who decided as children that they wanted to be astronauts. Older brother Mutta abandoned that dream, and instead became a mechanical engineer. Hibito followed through and is now an astronaut in training for a moon mission scheduled for next year (2026). Mutta's feelings of inadequacy in the face of his brother's success are only complicated when he's fired. Hibito though, never doubted his brother and secretly submits an application on Mutta's behalf to Japan's highly competitive astronaut training program.

This is a slower-paced series. While parts are fairly intense, the real focus is on the characters and the entire step-by-step process for astronaut selection and training. The characters are interesting, varied, and have distinct personalities. Obviously, my favorite character is the pug dog Apo (short for Apollo).
The whole series is a commitment at 99 episodes, but if you want a heartwarming, optimistic series about the future of space exploration this is a series you need to check out.

~Sarah, Adult Services

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Staff Review: Free Men by Katy Simpson Smith

Free Men by Katy Simpson Smith is a fine tale, though not one I would normally patronize. In this book, there were no ghastly hauntings, no demonic possessions, no black blood trickling down macabre halls, no gallivanting knights riding down dissidents, no rampaging Vikings, and there was certainly a marked absence of marauding mercenaries, bloodthirsty space pirates, and buxom maidens awaiting a daring rescue. That being said, this story piqued my interest. I think it was the cover. Despite what you may have learned in school, one can sometimes judge a book by its cover. Take a peek at the screenshot of the cover that I assume is portrayed right next to this missive. You can see thick, leafy foliage providing shelter to what appears to be a dry creek bed scattered with leaves and with an air of tranquility descending over all of the above. In fact the whole narrative is infused with picturesque scenery that makes one yearn for a virgin forest and an open schedule. But I digress.
 Free Men unfurls shortly after our great nation won its independence and tells the story of an escaped slave, a white simpleton, and an American Indian seeking allies who stumble upon one another while on their individual paths to freedom. Upon meeting on their separate roads to redemption, this unlikely trio forges an instantaneous bond that transcends each of their individual prejudices and throws them into a situation where they are faced with a difficult decision. When an opportunity to seize an unimaginable amount of wealth from men who are certainly affluent enough presents itself, these men struggle to ascertain whether the ends justify the means. Is it a sin for these wronged individuals to seize what has long been denied to them or do they tread the dark path toward both their damnation and their salvation? 
The three protagonists’ journey is stalked from its inauguration by a bloodhound of a Frenchman with a sense of justice as well as an encompassing need to understand the motivations of these three disparate men. His need to bring a group of wrongdoers to justice becomes increasingly sidetracked by his fascination with his prey and his need to scrutinize the spirit of freedom these men present.  

This novel was an unexpected treat that, as I unwrapped it, presented layer after layer of depth and complexity. From the point of view of either the predator or the prey, this story vividly portrays the grey areas of life and makes the reader ponder what it truly means to be free.   

~Ryan, Circulation Department