Sunday, November 12, 2017

Staff Review: The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr,204,203,200_.jpg
I know, I know, you've been wondering when a book about writing was finally going to be featured. Well, your long wait is over! The Art of Memoir, by poet and memoirist Mary Karr, is so engaging, it deserves a little time in the spotlight.

Who better to write a book about the memoir genre than the author of The Liar's Club, Cherry, and Lit, a trio of memoirs published between 1995 and 2009 that are said to have re-ignited the genre's popularity, though I imagine The Glass Castle had a little something to do with that as well.

Born into a dysfunctional circus of a family in what she calls the ringworm belt of Texas, Mary Karr's gritty, funny, lively, and irreverent. She's been teaching memoir-writing in Syracuse's MFA program for years. Her book on the craft, The Art of Memoir, will appeal not only to those who want to write a memoir but to those who enjoy reading them as well.

Karr begins each chapter with an intriguing quote and then tackles some aspect of crafting a memoir, from how to approach writing about loved ones to the importance of enlivening your story with lots of sensory detail. I particularly enjoyed her frequent -- and vehement -- insistence that memoirists tell the truth, even if that truth is, by necessity, somewhat subjective.

Karr provides concrete examples of effective technique from a wide variety of fine memoirs, all of which sound so good you'll intend to read every one just as soon as you finish reading her book. Karr kindly includes a handy, six-page Required Reading list of these titles and many more at the end of the book.

If you're in the mood to read even more about the crafts of writing and editing, check out our November display of writing guides, set up by the first-floor Recommendations Desk. The display features dozens of titles, including some of the classics: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, and On Writing Well by William Zinsser. 'Cause the next best thing to writing is reading about it, right?

~Ann, Adult Services

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

#ComicsWednesday: The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O'Neill

Greta is a young girl learning the art of blacksmiths. She finds a wounded tea dragon on her way home one day and befriends its owner. Throughout the story, she learns more about tea dragons from Hesekial and Erik.

She becomes close to their ward, Minette, a girl with a mysterious past. The story deals with loss, disability, love, and kindness. The illustrations are gorgeous, with pastel colors and soft lines. This short graphic novel is perfect to read in one sitting.

With whimsical illustrations and a charming story, The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O'Neill is a great fall read. It gently explores themes of growing up, caring for others, and doing what you love. This graphic novel was originally published as a webcomic, which is free to read online, and it made the transition to print beautifully.

- Libby, Youth Services

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Staff Review: The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn

As the temperature drops, what better way to spend your leisure time than with a gripping true-crime story? The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn is a true-crime story for those who need more than a sensationalized re-telling of the crime itself. The Jonestown massacre looms in our country’s collective consciousness as one of the great disasters of the 20th century. The horrendous nature of the event leads us to look at the characters involved with equal parts fascination and contempt. This book brings the reader into the environment in which the massacre's instigator, Jim Jones, grew up, the people around him who believed in him and his cause, and his rise to power and gradual corruption. Guinn, a former journalist, uses his investigative skills to tell this nuanced story with gripping prose.

In the first part of the book, there are surprisingly few red flags foretelling of looming disaster. Jones had a tendency toward unusual behavior, but didn’t appear to be a complete sociopath early on. We do see a child who takes an unusual interest in religion (neither of his parents were religious) and who has the desire and ability to control people. Jones discovers he has a talent for preaching and manipulating people and he creates congregations to effect social change. 

Peoples Temple, which Jones established in his twenties, had the positive mission of helping the disenfranchised. In the eyes of his wife, Marceline, who stayed by his side until the very end, Jones’s mission was akin to Christ’s and even though she didn’t approve of his means, she witnessed the positive change he was making in the world. In the first half of the book, the Peoples Temple appears to be a force for good. According to Guinn, the Temple played a large part in integrating blacks and whites in the Jim Crow Indianapolis of the 50s. They opened nursing homes and created social outreach programs to help troubled youth. As Jones brings in the disenfranchised by helping them, he gradually unveils his primary objective: the creation of a socialist utopia where everyone gives up their personal property and takes care of each other. It appears that Jones believed in his mission and that he was fighting for equality. He wanted everyone to live as he said God intended—to resist the material temptations of our capitalist society, which glorify the individual, and to take care of each other.

As the story goes on and gets darker, Guinn remains objective and never claims to know Jones’s intentions. Whether or not his heart was in the right place early on, it becomes difficult to believe Jones is fighting for a better world as his cruel and deceitful behavior starts to add up. Physical punishment and humiliation, sexually abusing members, keeping members’ income, selling and taking the property of members, stashing away his fortune in foreign accounts, indulging himself in comforts he denies other members, threatening blackmail for those who try to leave—these are just a few of the acts we find Jones guilty of. Guinn remains objective in his exposition so that the reader can almost understand why Jones's paranoia, grasp of reality, and ego get out of control. A large percentage of his members remain committed to his socialist utopia and want to be examples to the world. They demonstrate, well before the disaster, that they are willing to die for the cause. Their unwavering devotion, mixed with Jones's belief that he is destined to make history, create a toxic cocktail.

Jones started the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, set up another location in San Francisco, and, spurred by his paranoia of nuclear war, ultimately set up a colony in Guyana. When the media finally caught on to Jim Jones’s misdeeds, he hid in the Guyana camp, Jonestown. The final harrowing chapters in Guyana where a senator and members of the media are murdered and nearly 1,000 people commit mass suicide (whether willingly or not) are equally heartbreaking and allegorical. The Road to Jonestown is a demonstrative story, not as much about fanaticism as about power. Guinn points out that Jones was a demagogue “who ultimately betrayed his followers whether he always intended to or not.” Guinn doesn’t glorify or sensationalize any of the dirty details; instead he treats Jones and the Temple members fairly, revealing Jones as a person gradually corrupted and divorced from reality. With Jones as their infallible leader, most members followed his alternate reality. Guinn handles all these themes and asks the big questions with an eye for the telling detail, bringing both the characters and their setting to life.

~Ben, Adult Services

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

#ComicsWednesday: "O Human Star" by Blue Delliquanti

Mystery, romance, interesting characters, and fun world-building details combine to make O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti one of my top 10 favorite ongoing series. The story is set in a near future where science and technology have advanced to make robots and artificial intelligence a part of everyday life. This is neither a grim dark dystopia nor a naive utopia; rather Delliquanti imagines something believably optimistic. Plus, it's just plain fun to see Minneapolis as the center of the cool robot future. How often do us Midwesterners get to be at the cutting edge?

The story starts when Alastair Sterling wakes up nearly twenty years after his last memory to learn that his work in robotics and artificial intelligence has served as the basis for the fantastically advanced robot future, thanks to the efforts of his former partner, Brendan. I don't want to spoil things too much here, but everything rapidly becomes more complicated and Delliquanti flips the perspective between the disorienting future and the dramas of the past. This story provides a great exploration of questions of identity and humanity, and it's no surprise that it made it onto NPR's list of 100 Favorite Comics and Graphic Novels.

Probably the best part of this series for those of us in the Dubuque area is that we'll have the chance to meet the creator when Blue Delliquanti is the Guest of Honor at Carnegie-Stout's Cabin Fever Mini Con on Saturday, January 27. This means that you have plenty of time to read both print volumes of O Human Star and check out the latest updates online.

~Sarah, Adult Services

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

#ComicsWednesday: The Ancient Magus' Bride by Kore Yamazaki

It's been a while since a manga series caught my eye, but when The Ancient Magus' Bride by Kore Yamazaki came across my desk, I was intrigued. I'm a sucker for strange romances, and this seemed right up my alley.

Chise Hatori hasn't had the best life. Orphaned and then abandoned multiple times, she is approached with an opportunity to make something of her life. Unfortunately, it ends with her being sold to a powerful and frightening magus. The titular magus, Elias Ainsworth, immediately frees Chise, but offers to take her on as his apprentice. He casually mentions his intention to eventually marry her. Chise has powerful magic of her own that has been dormant most of her life, and she accepts Elias's offer to train her. In spite of the title, this romance/engagement thing isn't really mentioned much after the first volume, as the series becomes more about Chise learning about magic and how to use it.

The art in this story is fantastic. Yamazaki's drawings lend an otherworldly air to the story, which I found fascinating. The world she has created is rich and beautiful, while still being creepy. This is a great read for October! You can find the first four volumes in the Teen Zone here at Carnegie-Stout. I suggest you check them out!

- Libby, Youth Services.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

#ComicsWednesday: The Mighty Thor by Walter Simonson

Continuity is both the best and the worst thing about superhero comics. It’s a huge part of what fans love about these stories, but it’s an even bigger part of what leaves new readers confused and annoyed. In fact, “continuity,” as I’m using the word here, is an obscure enough idea that I should probably back up and define it a bit.
thor #365.jpg

In comics and other long-running serialized stories, continuity is the history of the world and its characters, the idea that everything that’s come before is still true and still matters. This isn’t fundamentally different from what we see in a long-running TV show -- ideally the folks writing season 14 of Grey’s Anatomy remember what happened in season 1. If they write in some sort of callback to the early stuff, like an old character showing up, longtime viewers get a thrill of recognition and feel rewarded for the time they’ve invested. But, on the other hand, 14 seasons is a lot to keep up with and new viewers might be put off by the fear that they won’t know or remember everything they need to really appreciate a story.

Now let’s return to comics and take Marvel’s Thor as an example. Thor’s been in comics since 1962, which is a long time during which to accumulate a fictional history of friends, enemies, battles, and life changes. He’s had a few different love interests and secret identities. He had a robot arm for a while, turned into a frog once, and died (but not for long). Sometimes writers have misremembered things and contradicted each other about how something happened or what Thor’s magic hammer can do. Sometimes they’ve written “imaginary stories” that share details with the “actual” continuity of Thor but aren’t meant to connect with or change it. It’s a big thorny mess, but it’s full of really great stories, and, just like with the Grey’s Anatomy fan we imagined above, there’s a special joy in reading something that you understand is building off of a shared creative universe decades in the making.
frog thor.jpg

I picked Thor as my example here not because his history is especially old or complicated (in the grand scheme of things, he’s pretty average in terms of continuity baggage). But he’s got a movie coming out soon, Thor: Ragnarok, that looks like it will be pretty fun, and a good superhero movie usually leaves folks asking which comics they should read to follow up on a character they’re newly excited about. This can be a hard question to answer, but for Thor it’s easy.

Walter Simonson’s time as the writer on The Mighty Thor lasted from 1983 to 1987 and his is widely considered one of the all-time best collections of superhero stories. Carnegie-Stout owns them in a nice five-volume reprint from a few year ago.

Simonson’s stories are grand, heroic, and mythic. He shows us fearsome dragons, unstoppable fire demons, and armies of frost giants. He clearly knows and loves both Norse mythology and all the Thor comics that came before him, but peppers in these references with a deft touch that won’t alienate readers who don’t share his background.
Through most of his time as writer, Simonson also drew his comics (which is pretty uncommon in mainstream superhero books). He’s got a great eye for design and an obvious love for the ornate techno-fantasy aesthetic that’s been central to Thor since the character was introduced. This may seem an odd detail, but he’s especially great at enormous and improbable hats that somehow manage to look great on the page even though they clearly would never work in real life.
These five volumes contain multiple smaller storylines that build together to a grand and satisfying conclusion. It’s dashing, exciting, and optimistic in a way that’s not always been fashionable for superhero comics. The good guys face long odds and terrible trials, but they succeed through determination, teamwork, and the strength of their ideals. These comics are fun, fast-paced, and thrilling.

Now, I know I wrote above about how you can enjoy these comics without knowing every bit of background. But I also know that having some of that background can make these things more fun. Maybe more importantly, I know plenty of folks who have a hard time letting go of the fear that they’re missing something important, even after they’ve been assured otherwise. So to go along with these comics I’ve got a special extra-credit podcast recommendation: Thor: The Lightning and the Storm.

This 14-episode podcast came out over the summer of 2017. Hosts Miles Stokes and Elisabeth Allie read and discussed their way through Simonson’s whole Thor run. Each episode covers a few issues of the comic and provides some recap and explanation and a whole lot of background, lore, and critical analysis. It’s like being in a very small book club with two fun and knowledgeable friends who are super-excited to tell you the abbreviated history of each little minor character who pops up or to explain how any given plot point relates back to things that happened in the comic twenty years before. Miles has read these comics over and over since childhood and brings boundless enthusiasm. Elisabeth is new to Thor (though not to comics as a whole) and brings a fresh pair of eyes, catching and remarking on things that Miles has lost to familiarity. It’s a really good format and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to dig into background info and comics trivia.

And if you enjoy The Lightning and the Storm and want to dig even deeper into a truly tangled web of superhero history, then you can move on to the other podcast Miles co-hosts, Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, but that’s a whole other can of worms we’ll need to open in a later blog post . . . .

~Andrew, Adult Services