Ask anyone the question “What is your favorite book?” and you have the beginning of an interesting conversation. But twist that question just a bit, and you get a glimpse into that person’s psyche. Editor Bethanne Patrick does just that in the essay collection The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People. She surveyed a broad range of interesting people, imploring them to share the titles that affected their existence in an important way.
From the poignant to the profound, these two to three page contemplations are fascinating; and just reading them makes you feel an immediate connection to that person. Singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, names Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder as her life-changing book. Ma and Pa Ingalls demonstrated the day-to-day routines of a loving, dependable family, making Little House a comfortable reprieve for the modern-day Cash, raised in a spotlight of fame, instability and chaos.
R.L. Stine, known for the popular Goosebumps series of scary novels for kids, reminds us that the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi was the stuff of childhood nightmares and not the charming Disneyfied version. Many of the other essayists also chose a book from their childhood, including such classics as Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Margaret Atwood), The Little Prince (Jacob Hemphill) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Vu Tran).
Others name coming-of-age adult fiction they read as teens, from Gone with the Wind (Jodi Picoult), to The Bell Jar (Meg Wolitzer). Science fiction writer John Scalzi was a precocious reader who discovered The People’s Almanac when he was just 6. The book ignited his love for trivia and curating facts of all kinds, whether or not he understood them.
The Washington Post BookWorld editor Ron Charles’ choice, Straight Man by Richard Russo, was a literal life changer. Then a prep school English teacher, Charles picked up the novel from a table of newly published fiction at a local bookstore and decided to write a review, his first ever. He submitted it to The Christian Science Monitor, with more critiques to follow. He ultimately gave up teaching to become their full time reviewer, ultimately landing at The Washington Post. Charles says that newspaper readers “overwhelmingly prefer to read positive reviews...Of course, they want to know which books they should read instead of books they should not read — because they’re not going to read most books anyhow.” Consider this an overwhelmingly positive review of The Books That Changed My Life. What book changed yours?
Entomologist Justin O. Schmidt shares his lifelong passion for pain-inducing insects in The Sting of the Wild, recently published by Johns Hopkins Press. According to Schmidt, despite a universal, innate fear of stinging insects, only about 50 people a year die from the combined sting of all stinging insects, including wasps, honey bees and fire ants. The first half of this surprisingly entertaining book provides scientific theory and background, while the second gives in-depth looks at particular groups of insects. Schmidt encourages readers to skip around as they read; each chapter can be read as a stand-alone essay.
As a piece of anatomy, the stinger itself evolved from the ovipositor, or egg-laying tube, of the sawfly. Its ingenious three-part design — two sliding channels inside a third immobile tube — allow a tiny insect to impart a wallop of pain to its much larger victim. The addition of venomous fluid provides an additional layer of defense for most species, although sometimes that venom is used for capturing prey. If you understand that the stinger was once an egg-laying tube, you’ll know why only female insects sting. But Schmidt is quick to point out that while male bees and wasps lack stingers, they feature hardened genitalia which they use to “pseudo-sting” would-be threats.
Schmidt has a particular passion for harvester ants, and lucky for him his wife is also a zoologist who helps to collect them by the bucket load so they can study their venom. You really don’t want to be stung by a harvester ant. There are five things that make harvester stings unique: 1) delayed reaction to the sting, 2) sweating around the sting site, 3) hairs in the sting area stand up, 4) the lymph nodes nearest your sting become hard and tender and 5) the pain is excruciating, coming in waves that can last from four to 12 hours.
One of the most enjoyable features of the book is the inclusion of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, developed by the author himself. Schmidt allowed himself to be stung by 78 species of hymenoptera so that he could record the nature of the pain and rate it on a scale of zero to four. Don’t let anyone tell you that entomologists don’t have a sense of humor. The sting of the club-horned wasp, for example, is described as a .5 — “Disappointing. A paperclip falls on your bare foot.” While the warrior wasp rates a 4 for a sting that is “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano.” Readers who share my fascination with the natural world, and particularly those who revel in unusual animal facts, will love The Sting of the Wild.
Travel with Bill Bryson through this green and pleasant land known as England in The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain. An unabashed Anglophile, Bryson takes us on a tour via an imaginary line he has drawn from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north, which he declares the Bryson Line. According to the author, if you are asked the southernmost and northernmost locations on the island for the citizenship exam, the British government gets it wrong. Bryson then sets out to prove the greatest gulf between Americans and Brits is the bond of a common language.
Bryson mourns the passing of stately old homes and dedicated gardeners while rejoicing in the new respect for the British landscape. We visit sites as famous as Stonehenge and as obscure as Grimsby’s Fishing Heritage Center. Bryson fumbles with the foibles of the National Trust, tangles with the terror of cow attacks and notes the depletion of his funds for everything from parking to admission tickets. Regardless of the occasional rudeness, lack of garbage facilities and the proliferation of slouchy hats and baggy pants, it’s Bryson’s wit and wisdom that shines through. We are introduced to the uniqueness that is England while reminded that, at the end of the day, we all share our humanness.
Bryson is the author of The New York Times bestseller A Walk in the Woods. His earlier works include Notes from a Small Island, Neither Here Nor There and The Lost Continent. The author and his family lived in England for 20 years. He now resides in Hanover, New Hampshire, and retains dual citizenship.
Looking to hang out with some amazing women? Then you must check out A Few of the Girls by the late, talented Maeve Binchy. A collection of both engaging and entertaining slice of life short stories, showcasing her storytelling prowess.
Each story is short enough to enjoy while waiting for an appointment, yet compelling enough to make you want to devour the next one. All told from the female perspective, subjects include love, marriage, friends, enemies and holidays. Marriages are ending, relationships are beginning, holidays are taken, life is lived. She focuses on true-to-life characters experiencing emotions that we have all felt at one time or another. Who hasn’t had to cope with a cheating boyfriend? Falling out with friends? Facing a milestone birthday? Being hurt by someone you love? Many of the stories include a twist — and sometimes a moral. My favorites include a cat searching for a new owner and a woman losing her meticulously packed luggage on a trip abroad. Her unique telling of a child custody dispute through a 7-year-old’s eyes will stay with you long after you read the last word. You will also learn why you should never hang a mirror in the dining room, no matter how priceless. Trust me, it is eye opening!
Don’t waste this opportunity to read previously unpublished Binchy stories! Fans will relish meeting more of her wonderful characters while newbies will be introduced to storytelling at its best. Are you participating in the BCPL 2016 Reading Challenge? All of her stories take place in another country. Want more Binchy? Read or reread one of her novels, such as Circle of Friends or Evening Class, two of my favorites. Reserve your copy now. A Few of the Girls are waiting for you!
On March 28, 1968 in Memphis, shop windows broke and mace-triggered tears flowed when African American sanitation workers marched to protest dangerous and inhumane working conditions; within days, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel kicked off a period of riots and mourning nationwide. Forty years later, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. So, we’re all good now, right? In his newest novel Grant Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr. looks at the complicated dance of race relations as played out by two aging Chicago journalists whose lives intersected in 1968.
On the eve of the 2008 election, African American syndicated columnist Malcolm Toussaint, a man showered with professional accolades and prizes, enjoying the trappings of the upper middle class, has written a final piece in which he declares he is “sick and tired of white folks’ bullshit.” And, everyone knows Malcolm is tired of white folks because despite his white editor, Bob Carson, telling him this column cannot run, Malcolm sneaks onto the office computers and inserts it into the Chicago Post’s front page. Fall-out is swift; Malcolm is now jobless and the newspaper management team also fires Bob. An angry Bob sets out to find Malcolm, who has disappeared. Instead of hiding from everyone’s wrath, Malcolm’s been abducted by a Frick and Frack pair of suicidal white supremacists who intend to strap Malcolm to the front of their explosive-filled van like a hood ornament and blow them all to kingdom come at Grant Park as the first black POTUS makes his election night speech.
Pitts jumps from Malcolm’s and Bob’s pivotal experiences in the civil rights movement as it moved away from King’s nonviolent preaching to finding both men on the cusp of retirement, their discouraged, sometimes jaded, voices reflecting frustration born of lack of progress. Often farcically funny, Pitts manages to humanize the worst of us while pointing out that we, black and white, have no choice but to work together for change. Meet Leonard Pitts Jr. as he reads from Grant Park and discusses race relations in America today at the Towson Branch on April 23 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the BC Reads: Rise Up! month of events.
David Kushner’s early childhood was near idyllic. Born in 1968 to observant Jewish parents with liberal ideals, Kushner and his two older brothers Jon and Andy had license to roam free in their Tampa suburb. Days were filled with bike rides, games and exploration of the natural world that surrounded both their home and school. But one October afternoon, Jon took a solo ride to the 7-Eleven to buy Snappy Gator Gum for David and himself. He never returned. Alligator Candy: A Memoir is the story of the tragedy that affected not only the Kushner family, but the entire community.
David, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, a journalism professor at Princeton and an author of several nonfiction titles, tells this deeply personal story with candor and generosity. What does he remember about the last time he saw his brother alive, and can he trust that memory? Would Jon be alive today if almost-5-year-old David hadn’t asked for that gum? The rest of his life from that point forward, was marked by having a brother who had been abducted and murdered. Childhood was no longer safe; his bogeyman was real. Actually, he had two bogeymen — the men who had confessed to treating his brother in a way that was far worse than anything he’d heard from his old edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
How does a family move on? Kushner credits his parents for allowing him and his older brother the freedom to move beyond the fear, to continue to have as normal a childhood as possible. He acknowledges his Jewish faith, but most importantly the community that came forward to support his family from the moment Jon went missing. As he got older, he knew his memories of his brother’s murder were incomplete, and much of what he thought he knew was based on a combination of overheard conversations, conjecture and rumors. And although he craved answers to what was a mystery to him, he didn’t want to subject his parents to painful recollections.
At 13, he went to the library to request microfilm of The Tampa Tribune from October 1973. What he read satisfied his need for more information, but also led to further questions. One fact remained: He was becoming a man, a bar mitzvah, while Jon would forever remain a boy. Kushner talks about other famous cases involving missing and brutalized children, explaining how laws have come into being as a result. An existing legal loophole allowed for a parole hearing for one of Jon’s killers, compelling David and Andy to testify. The thought of this man possibly getting out into the world was stupefying. The family found justice and some solace in knowing the mastermind of the crime had been executed under the death penalty.
Alligator Candy is a memoir that marks a lifetime of remembering, searching and gathering. The processing will always continue. Kushner's evocative prose took me back to my own early '70s childhood, with just the right period details and nostalgia. Despite its difficult topic, Alligator Candy is compulsively readable and highly recommended.
Immigrating to a new country is hard enough, but when your (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal) ghosts travel with you, you need someone who will protect and ward your community from those with malevolent intentions. In The Girl with Ghost Eyes, author M. H. Boroson mixes fantasy, martial arts and Chinese culture to create a thought-provoking tale with a resilient heroine.
Xian Li-lin is a priestess and exorcist of the Maoshan tradition of Daoism living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1898. After a fellow exorcist attacks her, Li-lin plots to confront her enemy in order to restore honor to herself and to her father, the only family she has left after the death of her husband. She cannot afford to lose any more face since she is already considered something of an outcast due to her widowhood status, and she’s cursed with yin eyes — the ability to see the spirit world. In her quest, she has to navigate not only the power struggles of the rival tongs of male-dominated Chinatown, but also the avenues of the spirit world, home to demons and monsters of all shapes. Unbeknownst to Li-lin and her allies, there is a horrifying plot to unleash a monstrous abomination that exists only to destroy everything in its path. Li-lin will have to challenge both the world of spirits and of men if she is to stop the monster.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes is refreshing because not one character is a stereotype or a caricature. Boroson treats the culture and history from which he draws his fictional Chinatown with respect and honesty, keeping the depictions of Chinese and Chinese immigrants’ culture and Maoshan tradition as close to reality as possible. Li-lin is a fantastic reluctant hero struggling through an almost impossible task simply because no one else will. She’s not the only person who can succeed in stopping the plotters, but she is the only person who keeps trying to do so.
This book reads like a detective noir crossed with the best kung fu movies, with lots of action and characters that are well-rounded, conflicted and complex. Li-lin will resonate with fans of Garth Nix’s Sabriel. This is also the first book in her series, promising lots of future ghost adventures to come.
Yann Martel hit superstardom in 2001 when Life of Pi was published. Soon thereafter, in 2002, won The Man Booker Prize. In this year’s The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel seeks the surreal in order to make better sense of the sorrows of life.
The High Mountains of Portugal is actually three loosely interrelated novellas, the longest of which is the first: “Homeless.” Set in Portugal, 1904, “Homeless” stars Tomas, a man who has lost his child, his lover and his father over a fairly short time. For obvious reasons, he feels betrayed by the world and by God, so betrayed in fact, that he has decided to walk backward for the rest of his life. This causes his uncle great consternation when he tries to show Tomas how to drive one of those new-fangled automobiles. It’s all fun and games until Tomas runs into his greatest tragedy and finds exactly what he thought he was looking for.
In part two, “Homeward,” Eusebio is a pathologist, and his town is in the shadows of the mountains of Portugal. Over the dying hours of the last day of 1938, Eusebio has a deep conversation with his wife regarding how Agatha Christie’s novels relate to the mysteries of the Bible. And then things take a turn for the weird. Magical realism sneaks into the office in the guise of a dead man and his wife. What Eusebio finds within and what he does thereafter must be read to be believed.
Finally, in “Home,” Peter, a member of the Canadian Senate, has a breakdown. His wife is sick. His son is going through a bitter divorce. What better time to quit and run to his ancestral home in the mountains of Portugal with an ape named Odo?
How do all of these things fit together? What is Yann Martel trying to say? What’s with all the animals? How are humans to deal with such grief? It is not until the very end, until the final story ties all of the stories together, that the ultimate epiphany is realized by the reader.
Readers who enjoyed Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil will derive even greater enjoyment from this journey through humility, hubris and the examination of what it might mean to be human.
Two words. Quentin. Tarantino. He is an Oscar Award-winning screenwriter responsible for writing and directing hit movies, such as Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. His most recent project is The Hateful Eight. The film version premiered in late 2015, but readers can get their hands on the 165-page screenplay clothed in book form. If you have not seen the movie, then read the screenplay first, or vice or versa to compare the two mediums and see how they differ.
The Hateful Eight takes place post-Civil War in the middle of a winter storm in Wyoming. A bounty hunter by the name of John Ruth travels in a stagecoach to a town called Red Rock, handcuffed to his prisoner, Daisy Domergue. John Ruth wants two things. One, he wants to deliver Daisy to the Red Rock sheriff so that she can hang for her crimes. Two, he wants to collect the $10,000 fee for turning her in. However, sabotage may be looming around the corner. On his way to Red Rock, he spots a familiar face. It is Major Warren, the bounty hunter, sitting on three dead frozen bodies in the middle of a snowy road. John Ruth's stagecoach driver, O.B., pulls over. Major Warren wants a ride to Red Rock to turn in the three dead men he uses as a seat cushion. Skeptically, John Ruth obliges. O.B. takes off in the stagecoach and they come across another loner stuck in the snow storm, Chris Mannix, who claims to be the new sheriff in Red Rock. Chris adds that he needs to be present in Red Rock if the bounty hunters expect to be paid for their services. Although John Ruth finds Chris' sheriff story fabricated, he allows Chris inside his stagecoach just in case he is speaking the truth. Due to harsh weather conditions, the stagecoach detours at a very convenient place called Minnie's Haberdashery that provides food and drinks. What is odd is that Minnie, the owner, is nowhere to be found. A man called “Bob” welcomes them and mentions that he is looking after the place until Minnie gets back from her "trip." John Ruth and the others quickly discover that there are four suspicious looking strangers inside Minnie’s Haberdashery and most of them provide stories that they are heading to Red Rock when the weather settles down. Despite what they say, John Ruth believes that one or all of the strangers are there to sabotage his plan to get Daisy to Red Rock to hang. Who inside Minnie's Haberdashery aren't who they say they are? Who will make it to Red Rock when the weather clears? You'll find the answers to these questions inside Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.
For those who are not familiar with Quentin Tarantino's work, I want to inform readers that The Hateful Eight contains profanity, violence and gore. With that said, Quentin Tarantino's screenplay was easy to follow and I had no problem visualizing the story. The Hateful Eight has a nice mixture of mystery, western, drama and comedy.
The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a bildungsroman legend coming out of the often overlooked Baltic country of Estonia. It is set during an awkward and mysterious period of time in Medieval Europe — late in the age of Vikings but early in the times of Christian colonization. Author Andrus Kivirähk describes the conflicts of peace — when people are forced to navigate societies in which different languages, beliefs and ways of living intermingle and cross-pollinate. The book's narrator, Leemet, is a member of a society that has learned the tongue of serpents, and with this, gained the power to communicate and control other animal species. But that society's way of life is threatened from within as its people change their ways. Their assimilation to an agrarian lifestyle means that they are renouncing the ways of their forest home and forgetting the ancient language. Will Leemet be able to pass his knowledge of Snakish down to the next generation?
While it does resemble Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear in some respects, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is not a story with any qualms about historical accuracy. It stands out for its wry use of anachronistic language and the ease with which it can be imagined by modern readers. In fact, many of the characters seem like stereotypes from a modern neighborhood — the hippies living on the edge of town, modish young people obsessed with the latest fads and ultraconservative religious fanatics. While the appellation “barbarian” hovers throughout the text, it never alights to describe a particular culture or character. Instead, there is an unrelenting, Darwinian conviction that change is inevitable, unrelenting and often times totally irrational. In the end, is Leemet more of a Grendel or a Beowulf?