Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Frankenstein & Bride of Frankenstein

 Reviewed by Jeanne

When one of the library’s wonderful volunteers mentioned that Tinseltown was showing the original 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, I toyed with the idea of going.  After all, everyone’s seen those movies over and over, so it would just be the novelty of seeing it on the big screen, right?

Only the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that I had ever actually seen the movies. Oh, sure, I’d seen clips galore of the iconic Karloff monster, and the Jack Pierce makeup was so distinctive that the square-head and bolts look has been copied and parodied endlessly on everything from “The Munsters” to Frankenberry cereal.  But had I ever seen the entire movie all the way through?  I wasn’t sure I had.

The 1931 Frankenstein image is even used for the cover of a book of essays on the original novel.

So off to the movies I went.  It turned out this was another limited “Fathom Event,” which I note because earlier in the year I’d gone to see two versions of a stage play of Frankenstein. In times past, feature movies were usually shown as part of an evening’s entertainment which would include cartoons and newsreels in addition to previews, so the movies themselves were relatively short—about 70 minutes or so. To pad the running for this special event showing, there were interviews with Bela Lugosi, Jr., Sara Karloff, and modern master make-up artist Rick Baker.  Sara Karloff was a delight, very outgoing and funny, while Lugosi was more reserved.

Now for the main attractions:  what surprised me more was not what I saw but the amount I hadn’t seen or at least didn’t remember seeing.  Some of the sets were obviously on a back lot but that didn’t stop me from enjoying.  I didn’t remember any of the romantic back story with Elizabeth, and I’ll add parenthetically that had I been Elizabeth I would have taken off with Victor.  Not only was he more handsome, he actually seemed interested in Elizabeth.  Henry was more preoccupied with his great experiment than with his fiancé.  (Yes, the names are switched:  in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, the main character is Victor Frankenstein who has a friend named Henry.  In the movie, it’s Henry Frankenstein who has a friend named Victor.)  Of course, being me I was very concerned about the kitten but it seemed to have had a lucky escape as did the hounds hunting the Monster. 

As I sat in the theatre, I tried to imagine what it would have been like back in 1931, waiting to see what would happen. It really was pretty creepy and Karloff did a great job with a role that limited his opportunities to act.  Watching it also disabused me of at least one misconception:  Henry’s assistant is Fritz, not Igor.  There were some bits of humor in the movie, but my favorite was the crediting of the novel to Mrs. Percy B. Shelley. (For the sequel, Mrs. Shelley did get her first name back as having suggested the story.) Highlights for me were the first stirrings of the Monster and, of course, Henry’s scream, ”It’s alive!  It’s alive!”

I was much less familiar with Bride of Frankenstein, so I was a bit bemused by the frame story in which Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron discuss her book and are at great pains to point out how very wicked it is to even think about tampering with life.  (The first film had been censored in part because of the line from Henry, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”)  There was a brief recap of the first film, complete with clips of characters played by other actors in the sequel. In keeping with the slightly altered tone, this time Henry has to be drawn back into creating a bride for the original Monster via a sinister former professor and the kidnapping of Elizabeth (now played by a different actress entirely.) This film had the Monster’s first words; according to Sara Karloff, her father was reluctant to have the Monster talk and had to be persuaded that it was right for the character.  This is the source of the oft quoted “Fire—bad!”  Also the film used quite a bit more humor to break the tension, most originating with Minnie the Maid who made pronouncements and mugged her way through the movie.  This film was smoother than the first, but whether that was due to the original vision or due to heavy editing, I don’t know.

If you ever have a chance to see these films on the big screen, do it.  The audience all seemed to enjoy it and I was pleased to find that the movies still had a certain amount of power.  As someone pointed out, this was before they knew how to blow things up so they had to rely on more character and plot.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Halloween Treasures You May Have Missed

 Comments by Jeanne

There are lots of lists of classic horror tales, of the newest horror tales, of best-selling horror tales, but there are still some good books by well-known authors which don’t show up on the usual lists. Here are some that deserve to have a wider audience:

Legend of Hell House by Richard Matheson is also known simply as Hell House or Richard Matheson’s Hell House. A wealthy man on his deathbed wants proof of life after death. He sends a group of people including two mediums and a physicist to Belasko House, a place rumored to be haunted by the malevolent spirit of its former owner. This book kept me up for nights after I read it back in high school. I don’t know if it would scare me quite so much today but I’m not willing to take the chance. I need my sleep.

(Matheson is also the author of the cult classic vampire novel I Am Legend and the time travel fantasy Somewhere In Time. He also wrote a number of scripts for shows like Twilight Zone, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” which to this day keeps airline passengers peeking at the plane’s wings, hoping NOT to see a gremlin.)

Thanks to the HBO series, George R.R. Martin is reaching a whole new audience who come to the library for his epic fantasy novels. What many don’t realize is that Martin was writing long before Game of Thrones and has other wonderful novels. One of these is Fevre Dream. Set in 1857, a steamboat captain is contacted by a gentleman who offers him the dream of a lifetime: construction of a steamboat which will be the greatest on the Mississippi: larger, faster, and more luxurious than any other. The boat is duly built, but questions soon arise about the gentleman and his unusual assortment of friends—none of whom seem to venture out in daylight. (A quick plug for another Martin book: Tuf Voyaging, about a space-going environmental engineer who specializes in collecting animal species and genetic engineering. Tuf is a bit of a rare creature himself: an honest man.) While you wait for Winds of Winter, give these a try!

Barbara Hambly has written in a number of genres, including mystery, historical, science fiction and fantasy. She’s best known for her Benjamin January mystery series set in Louisiana in the 1830s, but she’s also the author of the James Asher series of vampire novels. Asher is a professor and former secret agent who is contacted by Simon Ysidro who wants Asher to investigate the murders of several London vampires. He encourages Asher’s cooperation by threatening Asher’s wife. The first book in the series is Those Who Hunt the Night, followed by Traveling with the Dead, Blood Maidens, and Magistrates of Hell. Hamby does a superb job of evoking places and time as well creating exciting stories with memorable characters.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties

Comments by Jeanne

"From ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord deliver us."
variously attributed as a Cornish, Scottish or Irish prayer

There’s something about the chill in the air, the falling leaves, and the ever-early evenings that makes people want to read something spooky. Here are some true creepy classics:

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs was written in 1902 but a hundred and ten years later it can still chill. A couple is given a charm which will grant them three wishes. . . but each wish comes with a cost.

“The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe gives me the screaming meemies. I can’t tell you much about it because I really just don’t like to think about it. Most anything by Poe is a good read this time of year.

“The Screaming Skull” by F. Marion Crawford is a first person narration by a man who has an unusual little souvenir, the skull of an acquaintance. He may also have given someone the idea for a murder.

H. P. Lovecraft shows up on a lot of lists of seminal horror authors, having influenced folk from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. Try “Rats in the Walls” or “The Dunwich Horror” to get an idea of his work.

He doesn’t sparkle and he’s not exactly high school age, but Dracula by Bram Stoker really started something. His book wasn’t the first tale to feature a vampire, but somehow Stoker’s Count from Transylvania captured the public’s imagination. There have been innumerable sequels, retellings and crossovers with other characters (Sherlock Holmes in particular) which just goes to show you can’t really keep a good vampire down. As sequels go, a personal favorite is Fred Saberhagen’s An Old Friend of the Family.

Of course, the other great influential classic is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  People tend to forget it's named for the scientist and not for his creation, which begs the question as to who is the real monster.  This story too is still going strong in films like Frankenweenie, on stage, and in books by authors like Dean Koontz.

Finally, if I had time to curl up and reread some good books before All Saints’ Day, here’s what I’d choose:

• It’s dark. The wind shakes the dead leaves and causes the bare branches to wave. Two young boys heading home after school come upon a carnival that seems not quite right. . . . Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

• A young lawyer is sent to settle an estate in an isolated English village. He doesn’t believe in ghosts. He will by the time he leaves. And no, the movie ending isn’t the same. Try The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.

• At a Halloween party, a young girl brags that she once saw a murder. Most people don’t believe her, but apparently one person does: the girl is found drowned in the apple-bobbing tub. Clearly, this is a case for Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Christy's Picks for Halloween

Christy Herndon is one of our most faithful volunteers.  Here are her recommendations for a spirited Halloween!

Autumn is my favorite time of year. Oddly enough, I feel almost guilty admitting that because my birthday isn’t even until winter, and a little part of me thinks birthdays should trump all. But autumn has changing leaves, pumpkin carving, corn mazes, hot apple cider, cozy piles of blankets, and the best thing of all: Halloween. Yes, winter has some of those things too but autumn is where it all begins. After suffering in the sweltering Tennessee heat, autumn offers relief with cool breezes and crisp air. But by the time December rolls around hot beverages and blankets are old news. And to stack the odds even higher, winter does not have Halloween.

Fellow Halloween enthusiasts may take this time to indulge in some creepy reading or horror movie viewing or both! This year I seem to have taken on the classics. I’m currently reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is much more melancholy than I anticipated but quite beautiful. (Fun fact: Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only 19!)

In a similar vein, I highly recommend Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Written in 1897 and still genuinely creepy, it is one of my favorite books of any genre.

Modern Books

Carrie by Stephen King: If you’ve never read this King classic now is the perfect time to get acquainted with the source material before the remake is released next spring.

The Shining by Stephen King : The book is so different from Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation that they almost shouldn’t even be compared – except to say that they are both very good.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: Quite a bit of an undertaking, this creepy mammoth of a novel broke new ground with traditional storytelling and book formatting. Very interesting read.

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk: Told as a series of stories, this is not horror in the traditional supernatural sense but rather the horrors to which humanity can sink. Fun fact: Some editions have glow-in-the-dark covers!

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz: A childhood staple of many millennials, this series was the most challenged book series from 1990-1999, according to the American Library Association, due to its violence. While the stories are fun, and generally aimed towards children, the original macabre illustrations by Stephen Gammell are really what make this series memorable.

Check out the Bristol Public Library for some of these titles and more!

 Film Recommendations
But what’s Halloween without some good old fashioned horror movies? Sticking with my classic theme, so far this month I’ve watched the Universal monster movies The Invisible Man and Dracula. (Enjoyed the latter much more than the former.)

As for modern horror, I’m a little bit obsessed with The Cabin in the Woods right now. Described by the director as a “love letter to horror movies”, this film takes classic horror tropes and satires them on a new, crazy-fun level. Reactions to this movie seem to go to either extreme - you either love it or hate it. But I think for any horror fan it’s definitely worth checking out.

John Carpenter’s The Thing: If you’re fan of practical effects, creature gore, or Kurt Russell with a tremendous beard you might want to check out this 1982 classic.

Insidious: While it received mixed reviews I really enjoyed this “haunted house” movie. Three dimensional characters and delightfully creepy imagery set it apart from the recent torture trend in horror.

The House of the Devil: This slow-burner was shot in 2009 but effectively styled as an early 1980s horror film. The plot is simple and familiar – a babysitter alone in a big, old house – but the escalating tension and resulting pay-off make it one of the best horror movies in recent years. (Fun fact: As a promo, this movie was released on VHS like the ones of the early ‘80s would have been. It is the final film to be released in that format.)

Frozen: Thanks to absent-minded operators, three friends get stuck high up on a ski lift and must survive the freezing cold night. A nice change of pace from supernatural horror.

Slither: This underrated gem is extremely funny, extremely gross, and a perfect mood-lightener for your horror movie marathon.

With the exception of The Cabin in the Woods, all these movies are available on instant Netflix! (And some at our library too!)

If you like your spooky fun a little bit more interactive there are plenty of activities around the Tri-Cities to get you in the spirit. Whether you’re in the mood for something haunted (house, forest, corn maze or otherwise) or want something more kid-friendly like pumpkin painting, WXBQ’s website ( has a great list of Halloween fun to choose from.

However you decide to celebrate Halloween just remember to have fun, be safe, and eat LOTS of candy. (But save me a Kit Kat or three.)  
Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Joy of Drinking by Barbara Holland

Reviewed by Nancy

In her book, The Joy of Drinking, author Barbara Holland traces the history of fermentation from its earliest beginnings to the present. She relates the manner in which people in various parts of the world discovered that if they allowed certain organic substances to ferment, and then drank the liquid that was produced, it made them forget their troubles for a while.

According to Ms. Holland, ancient people were motivated to stop roaming and cluster together in tribes so that they could grow crops for fermentation. Apparently it was more fun to ferment things and dance around together than it was to throw rocks at other families and forage for tidbits.

Apples, peaches, cashews, sugarcane, barley, rice, berries, honey, grapes, potatoes, milk, cactus, coconuts - there is a long list of organic substances that can be fermented, and mankind seems to have tried them all.

The milk mentioned in the previous sentence is mare’s milk (yes, as in horses) fermented by nomadic Mongolians in Central Asia into a beverage called airag. Fermentation was achieved by sewing the mare’s milk up tightly in a horsehide and beating it or tying it to a trotting horse. In modern times airag is made in vats which are stirred frequently by jolly family members and friends.

Marco Polo tried this beverage and maintained that it possessed “the quality and flavor of white wine;” however, a more recent traveler reported that it tasted like “warm sake filtered through a dirty horsehair sock.” I think maybe I don’t need to know the real truth on this one, and will not be traveling to Mongolia to find out.

The author, a resident of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, leads us through the evolution of brews and the settings for consuming them, with descriptions of taverns, pubs, speakeasies, home beer brewing, Chinese rituals centered on the drinking of wine, Greek dinner parties and feudal mead halls.

Ms. Holland's musings on taverns and public houses in England made me sad that we live in a time in which many of us are so engrossed in our use of electronic devices that we barely need to look at one another, much less go to the tavern and get to know the neighbors. But, way back in the way back when that’s what people did. After a day of labor they flocked to the neighborhood tavern or pub to enjoy good companionship and beverages. Ms. Holland speculates that it was the need for companionship, rather than the desire for drink, that drove these individuals out into the night and across the empty countryside since they brewed beer at home and probably had plenty of it there.

We learn about the consumption of beer soup for breakfast in Germany; beer soup was the standard breakfast for German families until the end of the eighteenth century. I include here a summation of the beer soup recipe in case you want to try it at home. What a great way to fortify yourself before a taxing day. Say you have a job interview, or a court case; have double portions so you’ll be especially smart and strong, as well as relaxed.

Beat two eggs in a saucepan. Warm some beer in a separate sauce pan, adding a chunk of butter to the beer. Then pour cold beer into the warm beer to cool the warm beer (?) and add a small amount of salt. Next pour the beer mixture into the eggs and whisk again. Then pour that mess over bread or rolls or whatever starchy thing you have. The recipe states that you should use “a roll, white bread, or other good bread.”  I question the “good bread” part. Considering what you’re pouring over the bread, I don’t see how it could possibly matter whether or not the bread is good. At the final stage the whole affair can be sweetened with sugar to taste. Maybe the addition of the sugar is what pulls it into focus.                   

There is a chapter in the book, appropriately titled “The Following Day,” that covers various hangover cures, and also explains how the body metabolizes alcohol. Most of the hangover cures sounded pretty wicked to me. I offer one now, for your perusal. It was the favorite hangover cure of the English novelist, Evelyn Waugh. “Take a large lump of sugar, soak in Angostura (bitters) and roll in cayenne pepper, then drop into a generous glass and fill with champagne.”

I believe I would die if anyone ever made me drink this concoction.

I am sure most of us are familiar with the theory of hangover cure that involves “hair of the dog that bit you,” meaning, of course, “drink some more booze.” The National Insistutes of Health refer to this as re-administration, and do not recommend it. The next time you drink a bloody mary on the morning after, remember: you’re not just throwing down some more booze. You’re re-administrating!

Two handy appendices follow the text. Appendix A gives a few recipes for fruit wine, and Appendix B offers rudimentary instructions on how to build a still, just in case you want to make the stuff for yourself.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Doc Watson by Kent Gustavson

Reviewed by Jeanne

I grew up listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and The Brothers Four with the occasional Kingston Trio song thrown in for good measure. My mother liked many kinds of music from Big Band to pop, but she had a soft spot for the folkies because she grew up hearing the traditional ballads sung. She taught me her versions of a few, despite my near-total lack of musicality. I favored pop and rock, shunning that dreadful bluegrass stuff and whiny country. (When you grow up in the country, you want to be seen as sophisticated and edgy. Rural areas often have an unspoken rule of sorts: if it’s local, it can’t be good. So when Ralph Stanley’s festival took place about five miles away over the mountains but acoustically sounded as if it was in my front yard, I went inside and shut the windows.)

As the years went by and what I knew as rock started turning up on radio stations as easy listening and then country, I began to re-evaluate what kind of music I liked. It turned out that I did like some of that bluegrass stuff when it wasn’t being sung in a falsetto voice, and I did like some country. I paid to hear Ralph Stanley sing and laughed to think I’d ever disdained listening. I rediscovered old artists and found new ones.

Among those “new to me” artists was Doc Watson who actually had been around for decades. I was fascinated by the way he fused traditional music with more contemporary sounds without sacrificing the integrity of the original. I began to accumulate cds and read several articles about Doc. I listened to “Legacies” with David Holt, a cd in which songs were interspersed with stories of Doc’s life.

Then I learned there was a biography about Doc. At first I was delighted, but then I began to have my doubts. Blind But Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson by Kent Gustavson is long on interviews with people around Doc but short on personal interaction with the man himself or close family members. I began to wonder if this was something I wanted to read. Sometimes it’s a difficult decision for a fan whether or not to read a biography not authorized by the subject. Some authorized biographies only present what the subject wants known and will cast events in the most favorable light possible; on the other hand, some unauthorized tomes are more concerned with presenting (or perhaps even manufacturing) controversies in order to sell more copies than in presenting an honest portrayal. I decided to read the author’s introduction. Gustavson wrote, “Doc doesn’t want to be put on a pedestal, and this book, though reverent, aims to fulfill his wish.”

I decided to hope he was sincere with that “reverent” and started reading. He interviewed many of Doc’s friends, acquaintances and especially fellow musicians; he quotes well known personalities such as Jean Ritchie, Marty Stuart, and Ricky Skaggs, but also gives non-famous people a chance to express their views. For family stories and quotations from Doc, he relied on numerous published interviews, all of which he notes by chapter. The writing is smooth, easily integrating the stories and using direct quotes when possible.
The book seems thorough and thoughtful; it begins with the courtship of Doc’s parents, which is an absolutely wonderful story. I can imagine it being told and retold among the family. The book continues through Doc’s childhood, marriage and career. The sections on Doc’s childhood were fascinating and much more detailed than what I’d read before, as were the chapters on his early career years. The most tragic incident and the one that I suspect caused consternation as far as the book was concerned, was the death of Doc’s son, Merle. I’d read a couple of accounts, and had noticed that some of the details were a bit different. Gustavson recounts different versions and offers some theories. To my mind, he didn’t sensationalize, but with any loss such as this those most concerned are more sensitive to nuances. Merle’s death was devastating and had an enormous impact, not the least of which is the annual festival in his memory, Merlefest.
Gustavson, a professor and musician, writes with sensitivity and compassion, without being condescending or fawning. Not everything in the book is positive but the negatives are mild and certainly understandable. I felt the book was honest but respectful, and that Gustavson’s admiration for Watson shone through. For me, the test is how it affected me as a reader, and I can truthfully say that after the book I had a much better sense of how Doc had overcome all obstacles, controlled his own destiny, and become an absolute giant in the field of traditional music. He struggled to be gracious while trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life, when traveling musicians would just “drop by” and then spend days or weeks with the family, stretching their resources to the breaking point.

I began the book admiring Doc Watson. I finished it with a feeling of awe.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Nevermore Nonfiction: Dickens, Ink, Rock & Death

2012 is the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth, so it’s no surprise that there have been a number of new books out about the great author. Jud has been quite taken by the era because it was a world in which books made a difference and authors were put on pedestals. Dickens’ celebrity was incredible. The World of Charles Dickens by Martin Fido helps us understand a bit more about just the sort of world it was, with the tremendous gaps between the rich and poor. Simon Callow’s book Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World emphasizes how much theatre influenced Dickens, who also gave dramatic readings of his own works. He could see how a book would “play” to an audience. The book itself is conversationally written and focuses on the idea of authors as performers.

Red Ink: Inside the High Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget was called a “must read” for every person planning to vote in the upcoming election. Author David Wessel tries to explain exactly where the money comes from and where it goes, and he does say in a way that the general public can understand. It’s a complex subject, no matter what the sound bites indicate.

While in Tibet, geologist David Montgomery heard a story about a great flood rather like the Biblical description of Noah’s flood. He decided to examine the historic record, both that written by humans and the geologic record. Rocks Don’t Lie chronicles his search and conclusions, while explaining the history of the field of geology and how approaches to science have changed. It’s a wide-ranging book which even manages to work in mentions of libraries and Agatha Christie. (Her husband was an archaeologist.) It’s written for popular audiences.

Last but not least, This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust examines the effect that the loss of so many lives in the Civil War had on the nation as a whole. Letters written or dictated by wounded or dying men would assure their loved ones that they were with friends, at peace, and had done their duty. Entire industries grew up around the need for people to commemorate their lost loved ones. Publishers Weekly called it “an insightful, often moving portrait of a people torn by grief.”

Monday, October 15, 2012

Garment of Shadows by Laurie King

Reviewed by Doris

There seems to be a great revival of interest in Sherlock Holmes. The new TV series Elementary and the remarkable BBC series Sherlock along with a couple of authors writing new Holmes stories have fueled the imaginations of a whole new Holmes audience. There is a series of books of Holmes stories done by author Laurie R. King that I have particularly enjoyed over the years. These Holmes stories do have Sherlock in all his glory, but the main character is Mary Russell Holmes, Sherlock’s much younger apprentice and eventual wife.
Beginning in the spring of 1915 with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice King takes Mary Russell from her teen age years as acolyte to the great detective who has retired to the English countryside into the 1920’s with all the changes in the world brought about by World War I. A most unusual young woman, Mary Russell shows the same intrepid behavior one expects from Holmes. A combination of crime stories—after all Holmes must have a mystery to solve—historical fiction, and a bit of romance, Russell and Holmes travel the world during a time of much upheaval. King brings into her stories themes of women’s’ rights, politics, oppressions by governments, and religious freedom and expression in a way that shows both how far we have come and how little things have not changed for many places in the world.

The just published Garment of Shadows is the twelfth books in the Mary Russell Holmes series and is set in Morocco. Russell wakes up one day unsure of her whereabouts, wearing native garb, blood on her hands, and no clue who she is. Just to keep things interesting there seems to be a war going on and French soldiers may be hunting for her. Meanwhile Holmes is roaming the Atlas Mountains dodging bullets and visiting with a relative, happily unaware his wife is missing and an amnesiac. Using the unsettled and often brutal history of Morocco as a core element of the story, King writes to her strengths in this book. The characters of Russell and Holmes are well-drawn. The settings with their exotic locales and strife set a stage for action and intrigue. The relationship between Holmes and Russell is both tender and prickly and often amusing. A couple of old friends from Palestine turn up to add to the drama and to a final twist in the plot.

As with any series there are some books better than others. Kings says of her first book in the series, “The Beekeeper's Apprentice was intended as a coming-of-age novel, in which a brilliant young mind grows into its own under the guidance of an equally brilliant, if unlikely, tutor: one Sherlock Holmes. That book set the stage for a life (and a relationship) that has circled the globe both physically and metaphorically,and over the decade of their adventures, she has definitely evolved.” Most of the books in the series have been best sellers and acclaimed, but books nine, ten, and eleven veered way off course and the books were not worth the effort. With Garment of Shadows King does return to her strengths and the novel is a lovely read.

“The great marvel of King’s series is that she’s managed to preserve the integrity of Holmes’s character and yet somehow conjure up a woman astute, edgy, and compelling enough to be the partner of his mind as well as his heart.”—The Washington Post Book World

Friday, October 12, 2012

Fred Thompson's Southern Sides

Reviewed by Jeanne

First of all, the author isn’t THAT Fred Thompson. While the former senator and actor is a man of many talents, this book is by a different Fred Thompson. This Fred Thompson is a travel, food, and wine writer who also does a food column for the Raleigh News and Observer.

When I was growing up, the traditional meal was “meat and three,” meaning a main meat dish and then three side vegetable dishes plus bread and dessert. The vegetables were just as important as the main dish and just as delicious. In fact, I tended to prefer the sides, so Fred Thompson’s Southern Sides could have been written just for me. Not only is it chock full of delicious sounding recipes featuring ingredients I love, but a lot of them are variations on familiar recipes that I already know I like. Even better, Thompson is a cook who encourages people to tweak recipes and adjust them according to taste and occasion. And they’re easy! This is the real selling point for me, because I know I’m not going to attempt a 37-step casserole, no matter how good it sounds. Fred says, “While I try to eat logically, locally, and sustainably, canned mushroom soup, Velveeta cheese, and Miracle Whip cannot be ignored when it comes to the great dishes of the South.”

This is my kind of cook.

Fred does say that while Southern food tends to favor bacon, bacon grease and bacon drippings, he does occasionally offer alternatives. He also admits to having had a heart attack. Some of the recipes are similar to ones I know, but with intriguing little tweaks. For example, there’s a deviled egg recipe which calls for sweet pickle juice to notch up the flavor and for baked potatoes he suggests greasing the outside with Crisco, lard or bacon fat and rolling it in salt and pepper before baking. Best of all, many are staple recipes, from baked beans to mashed potatoes to red beans and rice. And the additions seem like no-brainers. I think my favorite is the roasted acorn squash which he’s simplified and uplifted: he gives you instructions for microwaving the squash and then broiling it for about four minutes with pecans and raisins. Is this not brilliant?

There are some that just sound like winners, such as sweet potato biscuits, and others that sound –well, odd—but Fred knows that and will reassure you. (Really, pimento cheese and buttermilk in mashed potatoes? I can’t decide if that sounds delicious or just weird. I may have to make this dish just to find out. Purely in the interest of science, of course.) Fred is generous with credit, listing his source for the recipe. Many are just ordinary folk, not professional cooks, though I did recognize the name of ETSU’s Fred Sauceman. Some recipes do come from restaurants, such as the Bean Soup from Greeneville’s Bean Barn.

Fred also has a sense of humor and he knows how to use it. In the comments on “Nick’s Squash Casserole,” which calls for a can of cream of mushroom soup, he says, “I’m sorry, but there’s just no way to make a good southern casserole without a can of soup, so swallow your pride and eat well.” (For some reason he has Roy Blount’s voice when he says that, but that’s probably because I’ve been hearing Mr. Blount on the radio lately.)
I’ve shown this book to two excellent cooks of my acquaintance and both times there have been exclamations of “Why didn’t I think of that!” or “Ooo, that sounds good!” or “That was my secret ingredient!” galore. I think it’s safe to say that we all three highly recommend this cookbook.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

How to Tail a Cat by Rebecca Hale

Reviewed by Jeanne

When Uncle Oscar passes away unexpectedly, his niece inherits his antique shop. Soon she realizes that things are not all as they seem. Almost before she knows it, she’s drawn into an elaborate treasure hunt, complete with obscure clues, exotic poisons, disguises, secret compartments and all manner of old fashioned derring-do. There are also cats. And frogs. And, in this installment, an albino alligator.

This is one of those series that is hard to sum up in just a few words. It’s more convoluted than that. I’ll freely admit that I wasn’t sold on the first book in the series, but subsequent books have caused me to revise my opinion. Sometimes, it’s all in how you look at things and I was taking the series entirely too seriously. It’s meant to be a romp through California history with some rather peculiar companions, both human and non-human, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It’s bigger than life.

I also think that Hale is a very visual writer. I tend to skim through books, without taking time to sit and picture a scene in my mind; otherwise I think I might have caught on to the humor sooner. The books are movie-like, long on visual descriptions and action. Some of the things that troubled me in the earlier books are related to this: like a movie director, Hale likes to clue the audience in before the characters sometimes. In previous books, the main character –who, like Bill Pronzini’s creation, has no given name--narrated all or part of the book, so she would describe things the reader knew to be important but for story purposes, the narrator couldn’t respond at the time. This had an unfortunate side effect of making the narrator look dense. The books have a sort of old-time charm to them, sort of like the early serials but updated a bit to suit modern sensibilities.

Hale has a good eye for detail matched with an imaginative way of describing things. For example, the way the albino alligator’s scales peak along its back are compared to the meringue on the top of a custard pie, certainly not something I would have thought about on my own. She also has a knack for making somewhat unlovable characters attractive. Like the frogs before him, Clive the alligator turned into quite the charmer as he realized how lucky he was to have a nice safe place to live in and a nice heated rock. He’s also rather fond of his turtles, even though his poor vision means he can’t really see them. Being a cat person, I’m especially fond of the way she uses Rupert and Isabelle, the narrator’s two cats. Rupert is chicken obsessed, especially the fried variety that Uncle Oscar provided, and mostly concerned with his own comforts. He’s very annoyed when his human inconveniences him in any way, such as moving him off a pile of papers. Isabelle, on the other hand, seems to be in on the Great Game and will sometimes prod her human in the right direction. She’s rather condescending toward “the human help,” but tries to be tolerant. The cats don’t talk directly, by the way: we’re told what’s going on in those fuzzy little heads.

The human characters are similarly off-beat, from Sam the “Frog Whisperer” to Montgomery Carmichael the Life Coach who can almost match Rupert for self-absorption.

Most of all, the books demonstrate a deep love for California and its history, especially the offbeat history. Much of the background in How to Tail a Cat revolves around the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences, which is a story in itself. A little poking around on the internet showed some wonderful photos of some of the things described at the Aquarium—and the information that they do indeed have an albino alligator named Claude. If you’re in the market for a book that’s a blend of history, humor, and high jinks with some fantasy thrown in for good measure, this may be just the book for you.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Nevermore Talks (Mostly) Fiction

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and its sequel, World Without End, were deemed hackneyed but exciting. The first is set in 12th century England and centers around the building of a cathedral. The second picks up in the same location two centuries later, but you don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy the second.

 Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War when a young man’s search for books by a favorite author reveals that someone is destroying all copies of the author. This is one of those books which is difficult to describe, but which the New York Times Book Review called “Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges.”

 The Good Father by Noah Hawley was described as both beautifully written and thought provoking. The plot concerns a doctor whose life is turned upside down when his adult son from a previous marriage is accused of murdering a presidential candidate. The book asks hard questions about love, responsibility and biological inheritance.

The other observation was about books that are most meaningful and have the most appeal for young adults and adolescents. These are books that can have a profound effect on outlook and thinking at a crucial time, but may or may not be meaningful when re-read years later. Among the titles cited were Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Atlas Shrugged, and Red Badge of Courage.

However, some books evoking adolescence can still evoke strong emotional responses in adults. According to our reader, a case in point is Stitches: A Memoir by award-winning children’s artist David Small. He tells his story in graphic novel format, and it’s a harrowing one: his parents were cold and unsympathetic, giving little affection. The story covers his life from about age six to sixteen, but it’s a harrowing decade—and our reviewer thought it best viewed from an adult perspective.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher

Reviewed by Christy Herndon
I have the unfortunate, although probably not uncommon, habit of buying books upon books before I’ve given myself a chance to read the ones that are already gathering dust on my shelf. I also still have a soft spot for Young Adult literature even though I’m long past the age of the target demographic. So when I learned Jay Asher was stopping by our library as part of our Discovery Series last August it seemed like a perfect opportunity to check his novel Thirteen Reasons Why off my to-read list.
            Thirteen Reasons Why begins with a high school student named Clay finding a box of cassette tapes on his front porch when he comes home one afternoon. He soon discovers that the tapes were recorded and sent by his classmate Hannah, who recently committed suicide. The instructions are simple. Each tape tells the story of one person and how their actions played a part in her decision to end her life. After Clay listens to the tapes, he must send them to the next person on the list.  The book was written in 2007 but has steadily gained popularity by word of mouth, and even has a movie due out in 2013 starring Selena Gomez.
            While I did enjoy the book as a whole, I can’t say I liked Hannah’s character very much. She seemed spiteful and petty and at times a bit hypocritical. (One of her tapes is sent to a boy because he allowed a horrible act to happen; though she was in a position to stop the act as well.) The book has also left some critics uneasy with its portrayal of a suicidal teen, claiming that those who contemplate suicide do so for reasons probably deeper and less superficial than what Hannah experiences. Some also take issue with how Hannah’s death almost seems like her last act of revenge as well – which is not how most suicidal teens feel.
That being said, this book was a quick and interesting read. It does deal with some pretty heavy issues (suicide, drunk driving, etc.) but they are important ones, especially in regards to teenagers. But don’t let the YA label fool you. The general message is one with an even broader appeal: be aware of how you treat others. Hannah refers to it in the book as “the snowball effect” – little, seemingly insignificant things that pile up on top of each other before creating an avalanche. Perhaps an offhand comment made by someone without a second thought can be absolutely devastating to someone else.  With teen bullying a mainstay in news outlets for the past couple of months, this book certainly hasn’t fallen on deaf ears.
Any book that advocates for kindness as hard as this one does is a book I would definitely recommend.

Note:  Christy is one of our volunteers.  She's a wonderful help to us and we appreciate her very much.  Thanks, Christy!