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Amazing Rare Things

[review pending]

And Their Children After Them

This was a hard book to read. Coming on the heels of reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, any shred of hope you had for the dignity of the people portrayed in the book, for them overcoming their situations of desparate poverty and lack of education, is dashed when you read about the next generations. Some people did quite well, a few. Most are sort of middling in the in-between areas, not quite desparate but definitely not someplace where they feel happy and settled. And some people -- most specifically one of the older daughters of one of the tenant farmers, who he took as his wife, confirming decades of bad stereotypes (or possibly starting them) -- are still miserable and wretched, having been passed by, both by advances in technology like plumbing and cost of basic goods, but also by advances in society where there is at least some of a social safety net in place for people who are destitute.

This book is a return to Alabama to see what happened to the 128 descendants of the three tenant families that were portrayed by James Agee and Walker Evans in 1936. We get to learn what they thought of the portrayal of themselves, how being written up in a book affected the lives of their grandparents, parents and themselves. We also get a less dashing view of Agee and Evans, who slickly call themselves spies and instigators in the list of characters in the original book but were really in some ways no more than subculture tourists. Evans spent no more than one or two nigths with the families and seemed to have a distaste for them mostly, while Agee romanticized them in the way writers do where he held them up as noble members of their class, but promptly forgot about them once he left Alabama (though to be fair he was embroiled in his own terrible life at the time).

The most poignant part of the story, though to be sure, there are many poignant parts, is the opening scene of the book where one of the women who was beloved and doted on by Agee when she was a little girl, commits suicide after a long hard life at the age of 54. One could see after reading just this introduction, that new writers nosing around the place might not stir up happy thoughts. It is helpful for people who were interested in the earlier book, to get follow-up on how the people did, what happened to them and how they fared and their childre and children’s children. Ironically Agee himself was the first to die, due to his own set of hard-luck lifestyles and circumstances. For anyone who read and appreciated Let Us Now Praise Famous Men this Pulitzer Prize winning book is necessary follow-up reading.

The Art Detective

My appreciation for this book as a whole was totally overrun byt the fact that one of the chapters takes place in my neighborhood about 20 years ago. Turns out there was an art collector, more of an art hoarder really, who had a disused church that was totally jam packed with old [and in some cases valuable] early American portraits. When the author was just starting out in his illustrious career, he made a trip to Vermont to check out this guy’s stash. This chapter made me all twitchy and jittery “Hey that happened HERE!” "Hey I want to know more about THAT"

I did manage to sit down and actually read the rest of the book, but it was a little tough to do. This book is totally enjoyable. Mould has a good writing style, an ear for a good story, and apparently an eye for seeing a diamond in the rough. This book talks about discovery. Paintings found in an old church, a picture bought on eBay for a song and restored to become a work of art that command a great price, the detective work, generally, that goes into figuring out whether a painting that looks like it might be by someone famous actually IS by that person. It’s a great set of stories complemented with photos that help you see what Mould is seeing.

Bookhunter

[review pending]

Content

If you like Cory Doctorow’s writing and general angle, you will love this book. I finished reading it as I was on a series of airplanes travelling to give my own talks to librarians about licensing, open source, technology and whatnot, and this was good food for thought. This book is only sort of a “book” which is part of the point Doctorow is trying to make. I got an actual print copy of it from his publisher [one of those “hey do you want to read this?” "yes I want to read it" exchanges] but I could have just as easily downloaded it from the web, legally and easily. In fact, thanks to the open licensing on the book’s “content” (again, this is the point) I can download a Braille version and RTF version, or even an audio version of a lot of the chapters. These aren’t created by Doctorow or his publisher, they’re created by fans. When we talk about user-generated content, and we do a lot, I don’t so much mean “you do work for us for free and in return we re-sell your freely given work for our own profit” what I mean is things like this.

Now, this sort of in your face free culture stuff really only works if you’re not living hand to mouth and if people like what you say enough to want to follow you around and remix your content. However, it does work. It doesn’t implode because authors don’t get paid -- a point that Doctorow makes frequently through this series of essays -- and it doesn’t fall apart because there’s no quality control of the sort that (allegedly) only top down business can give us. As librarians, we’re some of the original free cultists. Paying attention to what is going on in the world of copyright and the world of content licensing should be the most important part of our jobs moving forward as we watch more and more content become digital, redistributable, and literally uncontrollable. This collection of essays has advice, advocacy and a lot of useful metaphors all tied together with Doctorow’s oddly cheery dystopian predictions combined with a great grasp of both the language and the issues.

In a talk I gave to a bunch of Kansas librarians I used Cory’s cite of William Gibson’s quotation “The future is already here it’s just not very evenly distributed” to start talking about digital divide issues. We’re still loaning, and loving, print books while many people are getting digital books beamed directly to their portable devices with or without librarian assistance. Understanding the system is the minimum possible work we need to do to grok our role in the system. When I was done giving my talk someone asked me “What’s the name of that book again?” and I was able to just hand them the one from my backpack “Here, you can keep it.” and I was able to both give it away and keep it at the same time. That’s the future.

Dangerous Laughter

The only thing I did not like about this collection of short stories is that I’m a pretty serious an of Millhauser already so I had already read a few of these stories when they were originally published. Thus the book went by too fast and I was left at the end of it sooner than I would hav eliked. Millhauster is an amazing master of several types of stories -- the meticulous explanatory stories, the teen coming-of-age Bradbury-esque stories, the almost-normal-but-not-quite stories -- and it’s always a joy to see what he comes up with. Starting a story of his I’m always wondering just how he’s going to manage to turn the idea on its head just a little bit and I’m always surprised and delighted. Fun book, wish it had been longer.

Dark Matter

So weirdly complex and good! I rarely read thrillers that don’t feel somehow like they’re specifically making up a scenario to be as stressful as possible. This odd science-y tale about a guy who sort of figures out how to move around in time--or does he?--scratched an itch for a good “What the heck is happening here?” story that wasn’t also coy or frustrating. Sort of like the way watching Orphan Black took you along with it, giving you enough information to remain involved but not so much that you got bored. Do not want to give a lot away here but I really enjoyed the two nights I read this.

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

This book was great. Well-researched and outlines with a marvelous arc that you could only think you could get from fiction, Puelo has done an amazing job reconstructing what it was like in 1916-1925 Boston in order to explain the events leading up to the molasses flood which is a thing a lot of locals make jokes about but few really understand. I particularly enjoyed the extra outlining of the political climate of the time describing anarchist activity that was going on in the area and also describing how the tank owners tried to pin the blame on political rabble rousers instead of their own cost cutting measures.

The Dead Beat

This is one of my favorite books that I’ve read lately. I have to apologize to Johnson because she sent this to me graciously a long time ago and it’s been on my “to read” pile for an embarrassingly long time. It was worth the wait. Johnson’s look into obituaries and the culture that has grown up around writing and reading them is a wonderful well-researched look at a subculture that most of us probably know very little about. Her compassionate look at the touchy subject of death and dying and people who immerse themselves in it for a living is interesting and funny without being too funny. Johnson has just the right amount of stories about other people and self-reflection [she is a freelance obituary writer herself] to make this book captivating and compelling. The addition of an appendix of URLs and a photo section really takes it beyond what you’d expect in the standard “New York writer talks about weird things other people don’t know have a cult following” vein. As someone who enjoys those types of books but is frequently left wanting more details, less New Yorker anxiety and more depth, this book completely delivers. Can’t wait to read her next one, also on my nightstand.

Electric Michaelangelo

this was an amazingly poignant book about a boy who grows up under somewhat impoverished circumstances in that UK carries this with him his whole life, through a trip to the US and back again to the UK. It’s a very provocative and interesting set of stories within stories. Beautiful and sad.

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel

I’m always looking for big graphic novels because I read quickly and I want them to last. This was on the shelf at the library where I was working and now I want to read everything that Greenberg has done. It’s based on a storytelling sort of structure. Characters who are in a story and the stories they tell within the story. Maybe even one story in a story in a story, I wasn’t quite sure. There’s a calm at the center of this book that I found really appealing as well as all the other stuff that is good about it.

The Fall of the Year

Its hard sometimes for me to read Mosher because he’s got this sentimentality to his writing that pushes all of my buttons exactly right. So if I’m not in a place in my life where it’s okay to be transported somewhere else, I sometimes stay away from his stuff. But this was the right time for the right book and I enjoyed this collection of loosely connected vignettes from the people who inhabit Mosher’s just-barely-fictional Kingdom County.

The Food of a Younger Land

I was given a reader’s copy of this book by the publisher before its actual release date, fyi. That said, I loved this book and I’m not even a foodie. Kurlansky is someone who I know via his history books about the Basques and European Jewry. Apparently he’s also been a food writer for quite some time. He also makes decent woodcuts which this book is illustrated with. This book is a collection of food writing that was created for an ambitious WPA project called America Eats that was assembled, mostly, and never published. Kurlansky’s book both talks a lot about the project and also reproduces the essays, poems, stories and recipes from the files that have been languishing in the Library of Congress archives. Just the dscussion of poring through these files at LoC was enough to make my heart race. There is meta-discussion about the America Eats project and the WPA writers projects in general as well as some discussion about the individual regional food writing projects.

The fascinating part about reading these pieces is how much the world if food and eating has changed in the sixty-plus years since most of it was written. Regional differences in food and eating habits and food celebrations have been vanishing, supplanted by predictability and standardization. There is good news and bad news to what has changed, of course, but this book highlights the richness of regional food cultures in an almost poignant way. The fact that the book opened up with Vermont cuisine -- some of which is still around today like sugar-on-snow celebrations -- was probably the clincher for assuring I would read this book avidly from start to finish.

The Heart is a Little to the Left

Gosh this book was wonderful. I kept it on my nightstand well past the overdue date because I kept swearing to myself that I would re-read it and ultimately haven’t. On the other hand, I haven’t returned the book either...

Coffin has a way with words and in this small collection of sermons he manages to put togehter a lot of good words about justice, poverty, our societal obligations to one another and why there’s no decent biblical reason for anyone to be predjudiced against gay people. It’s a really life-affirming set of essays, all of them both humorous and weighty, accessible and yet learned. For anyone who is looking for inspirational reading that’s a little deeper than the standard love yourself" platitudes, this book is a good starter tome on getting to love each other. Read it.

Housekeeping

I love these spookyweird books with mysterious families and oddball children who live in these left-behind towns. This book is right up there with We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the “haunted isolated families” section. One of the things I liked about both books is that unlike what I perceive to be the general vibe of today, these families don’t all kill or rape each other. There’s no gore or sensationalism, just an unfolding set-apartness that seems to imbue the entire narrative. It’s a matter of fact retelling which occasionally drops little chestnuts like the parlor being floor-to-ceiling full of newspapers and cans. The narrator, the younger daughter is so matter of fact that these little revelations almost seem like an afterthought and you’re left thinking “gee, if I lived with thirten cats, I might have mentioned it sooner” and the odd feeling continues.

This book is about a few generations of odd women and a grandfather who dies in the water, and his daughter who follows suit. it mostly follows the awkward path of the two daughters as they return to the town to be raised by their quirky transient aunt in the house their grandfather built which is in the town that he died in, a town called Fingerbone. The tale unfolds like a fever dream as the sisters choose different paths and each tries to move forward in her own way.

How High We Go In The Dark

It’s been a long time since I’ve put a book in my Best In Show category but I really enjoyed this book despite the fact that it takes place mostly during a global pandemic (not this one, a different one). A perfect example of one of those “stories which overlap but you’re not quite sure how until much later” novels. It’s about people trying to do their best despite living through really extraordinary circumstances, in a few different time periods. Can sometimes be a trick to link all the stories together. Incredibly poignant in a few places and I’m sure it’s not for everyone. One of my favorite reads of the past 12 months.

In The Woods

This book was terrific. Tana French manages to put together a book that is part mystery and part... nostalgia bit without any of the parts really screwing up the other parts. The modern day part of the story is about a detective who has to investigate a child who was murdered in a local woods. The kicker is that this cop was himself the victim of a crime in the same area. He has a female partner who he has a super close relaitonship with and they have a sort of nice thing going. And then, as you’d expect, things fall apart. I loved the writing and I loved the story and unlike other books I’ve read this month, this one did not have a sadistic streak in it which meant that dealing with difficult topics [childrens' death, possible child abuse and child sexual abuse] was okay reading.

The Library Book

Oh this book! Saw it on a table during National Library Week and had to have it. I’d heard about it and wasn’t sure there would be anything in it for me... don’t I know all the librarian stories? I DO NOT. This was a great tale of the fire that gutted LAPL but also a history of the library itself, all lovingly told by Orlean who loves libraries. I enjoyed every minute I got to hold this book which was itself a nice work of art, great attention to detail spent on the binding, end pages and everything else. Made me want to go look things up. Such a great book. Best of this year.

The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg

I picked up this book because I heard a bit of trivia about it on a podcast. Did you know that eggs grow inside a bird the opposite way, in many species, from the way they come out? Truth! And no one is quite sure why, but they rotate right before they are laid. I learned that any many other fascinating things in this book which is written by a bird biologist, Birkhead, who just happens to also have a good sense of humor. Took a long time to read since it’s not all the time you’re looking for a good nature book about how eggshells get made, but when that is what you are looking for, no other thing will do.

On Kingdom Mountain

Best book I’ve read all year, a story of Old Vermont (1930’s) and the quirky folks who live in a small town in the Northeast Kingdom. This was one of those books that makes me wistful for a time and era I never really saw in Vermont in that sort of nostalgic way that people up here sometimes do. It tells the story of a woman who grew up on Kingdom Mountain. She’s a bit eccentric but isn’t everyone. One day a man in a biplane crash lands near her and she takes him home and the tale begins. He is looking for some lost treasure. She is sorting out family stuff and trying to fight the people who want to build a road over her mountain. The language and characters seem real and the pages turn easily. Recommended for anyone who has ever loved Vermont.

The Once and Future Witches

Another absolute delight of a book. Such a great story of a possible (and future) history of witchcraft and the (mostly) women who wield it. This turn of the last century long-form fable is a classic tale of good vs. evil but also a lot more than that. There are a lot of fun things to discover in this book under a close read but on its own it’s a very woman-centered tale of intrigue and problem solving.

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders

Lefèvre was a photojournalist how took a trip into Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders in 1986 during the Soviet War. This was in a pre-technological era where he carried all of his cameras and lenses over miles and miles of inhospitable terrain and through locations with inhospitable (and hospitable) people. His photographs, many of which weren’t published until this book originally came out in 2003, shows a part of the world that many of us know (or knew) almost nothing about. Lefèvre discusses the world that DWB do and explains in some detail how they manage to do the jobs that they do. This is a graphic novel (published in this country by the always awesome :01 and put together by Emmanuel Guibert) written around Lefèvre’s story and his photographs.

The Postal Age The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America

Why is this book so good? Hankin looks at the history of how we send and receive mail with an eye towards looking at whether certain postal regulations seem to have had effects on how we communicated and even how society works. He makes a case that lowering postal rates in the 1840s dramatically changed the way we interacted and the varying way newspapers were priced affected how we got our news. He has done a ton of research and you can look into the epistolary lives of people who lived over 150 years ago. Along the way he has illustrations and a lot of amusing reports of the way society worked or failed to work and how that was interwoven with the history of the postal system in the US.

Ready Player One

A kid told me to read this and it was great! Sort of like Daemon but without the overarching awfulness and war of all against all. I really enjoyed this book about a near future world where most people spend their time interacting in an online space, and then the guy who builds the online space--a fan of all things 80s--dies and there is a contest to see who will win his vast fortune. Just futuristic enough to be interesting but with enough pop culture references to seem really here and now, maybe it’s just because the setting for the quest covered a lot of the same spaces that I used to populate when I was a kid but it all felt so fun and familiar. The quest is quest-y enough, the characters are believable, good at games but sometimes bad at life, and there’s a lot of low level hackery and back and forth action. Loved it. You should read it.

The Shaker Image

There’s something about the Shakers that inspires almost an insta-nostalgia for me, some sort of road not taken. I grew up near Harvard MA, the site of one of the Shaker communities and remember learning about them when I was little. I’m not much into organized religion but I love their furniture and believe, sort of like they did, that there is attainable perfection in design. This book is full of photos of Shaker communities with stories about the people in them. The Shakers used to pretty much keeps themselves entirely separate from “the World” and at some point they decided to shift this approach somewhat. These photos are in some sense promotional materials and in some other sense sort of a glimpse into a world most of us know very little about. The research that has gone into this volume, from Pearson and his two co-authors, is impressive.

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction

Randomly picked this up at a library booksale. It’s fascinating to read this long and thorough analysis of both the birth of ecology and also the growing concerns about extinctions written for an age where if you didn’t go to Madagascar to see Tenerecs, you might not ever get to see them. Quammen travels to may remote locations in order to get a peek at niche populations of various animals and along the way gives you a primer on how we know what we know about evolution, biology, extinction and finally island biogeography or how animals evolve and/or go extinct in tightly bounded populations which can be islands or it can be isolated stands of rainforest if you happen to be an animal that gets around by going from tree to tree.

This was a hard book to keep going with. I must have started it six weeks ago. It has a lot of interesting (to me) expositions of different animal situations and Quammen going to inspect local populations and then less interesting (to me) discussions of the general field of evolutionary biology and various infighting and a lot of personality stuff that I was less interested in. Also I would get distracted looking up these animals on the internet to see what had happened to them in the last 15 years. Now that I’m done reading it, I may try to see if there is a companion site so I can see what happened to all of those animals. This is one of the best books I have read this decade. Quammen is an amazing writer and researcher as well as having a wry sense of humor that occasionally (but not too often) finds its way into the pages.

The Space Between Worlds

Such a fascinating multiverse book! Often multiverse books get too bogged down in paradox-resolving situations or explaining the sciencey science; but this is a really human story about power and class and a woman trying to figure out how to balance what she is with what she wants. There’s a lot going on but it doesn’t get overly confusing. The characters have depth and more is revealed over time, it’s such a well-written story.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

So good and not just because a lot of it takes place in Vermont. This is a fantasy story but only sort of. The basic conceit" what if there were doors to other worlds that you could get to but they were hard to find. What if some people wanted them closed? What if other people wanted them open? How could you move among and between them? There’s a LOT going on in this story which mostly happens through the eyes of a young, female protagonist. A nicely complex story that nonetheless both wraps up and leaves a door open for more story to come.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

This is the type of non-fiction I love to read. Very nature-bound, not so venerable as to be a little precious. Good stories, learning things I haven’t learned before and taking me places I haven’t been. I read this after getting Lost Words from a friend for my 50th and wanting to know more about Macfarlane who I know vaguely on Twitter. The book goes a lot of places that are hard to get to either because of geography (caves on the sea coast of Norway) or politics (the place they’re building to deposit Nuclear waste deeply underground). Macfarlane seems to show the proper reverence for these places and the people who inhabit the world around them. It was a joy to get to go to these places with him and I’ll definitely go check out his other works.

The Vermont Monster Guide

This was a gift from some friends, totally unexpected and I read it all almost immediately. One of the things that is great about Vermont generally is how the whole state can seem like a small town. Reading about all these real and possibly apocryphal monster reports and sightings in towns I’ve heard of and/or been to was super fun. I like Citro’s work generally and this combination of his research and humor combined with some great illustrations by talented illustrator Stephen Bissette made it a really fun read.

We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America

Such a great book about back to the landers who wound up in Vermont and what was their deal anyhow. Told by one of the children of the original back-to-landers, this well-researched and well-told story follows a group of people as they leave their comfortable lives for a decidedly less comfortable life (but much more free, or was it?) in rural Vermont where they made all their own food, built or rehabbed all their own houses and tried to build a new world. Daloz makes the compelling argument that freedom for some was not freedom for all (men would work til dinnertime while women would work til bedtime, as one basic example) and even though many of their experiments ultimately failed (the original communes are mostly not still working today) a lot of the values of the original folks are still imbued in Vermont and the rest of the country in very important ways. Institutions in Vermont such as food co-ops, organic food choices, and the community college system came out of the hard work of some of the original Summer of Love expats. This is a story beautifully told, a great read for anyone interested in hippies, the sixties, Vermont’s DIY culture or general permaculture ideals.

What It’s Like To Be a Bird

Sibley is a huge name in birding and this attractive book is a compendium of interesting bird facts as well as some details about various species. One of my favorite things about it besides the gorgeous illustrations is how much Sibley lets you know what the science says about birds and their behavior including some of the things we don’t know (why some birds do dust bathing) or can only guess at. You can either read the facts straight through in the front, or read them alongside lovely illustrations of birds that they reference. A great book for people who like bird facts.