Leaf Through a Good Book This Autumn

I wonder if Salman Rushdie and Colson Whitehead thought about asking their publishers to put their most recent novels into a drawer for a few months when they learned that Margaret Atwood was releasing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale? The fall publishing season is always so competitive plus they have that upstart, previously sticking with non-fiction, Georgia-born Delia Owens sitting on the NY Times bestseller list for over 50 weeks, and now Mags has more to say about the Republic of Gilead. Poor guys looking at their sales numbers, just feeling glum.

Well, they have a lot more competition on the way. So much more. And it’s all great news for readers! There is an absolute rush of wonderful material coming into the library every week and it’s almost too hard to keep up. Even better news for us – we don’t have to buy any of them. We just place holds, come into the library to ask for suggestions, or browse the shelf and marvel at the treasures. It could not be easier to find something to read this fall.

With her 10th book Emma Donoghue has created a novel that is once again completely different from anything she has written before (and she has written so many good things). A childless widower, Noah, almost 80 years old, agrees to take in his 11-year old great-nephew just as he is planning a trip to Nice. It seems as if it might be a story about an unlikely friendship but becomes something entirely different. Their relationship is surprisingly funny and takes the reader deep into Noah’s family history while he is learning about the future through 11-year old Michael. Akin is a vacation novel that you won’t easily forget.

Usually when reviewers say that a book is ‘ambitious’ I worry they are hinting an author has bitten off more than they can chew with the scope of a novel but with Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) I think a demanding storyline is not a concern. In The Water Dancer the main character, Hiram Walker, is born with a mysterious power he doesn’t fully understand but is able to use in guiding escapees from plantations in the South to freedom in the North. Magical realism combine with historical fact in a novel that is sure to be one of the highlights of this season and we also have it in recorded book format so you can just let the story wash over you.

Author Ami McKay has been sharing tidbits about her memoir Daughter of Family G through posts on her website and recently said that she had recorded an interview with Shelagh Rogers for CBC’s The Next Chapter but I just want to read it. I want to cuddle up in a chair and learn – in the tone that we have all come to love – her family’s story. When I learned that she was publishing this memoir it reminded me of other similar books; The Juggler’s Children and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but they were written after the fact. Ami McKay is researching her family’s legacy of hereditary cancer with the full knowledge that it will have an impact on her health and that of her children. It will be an absolutely fascinating read from a favourite author.

There are other big names publishing this season who just might make Salman and Colson worry a bit before they fall asleep each night. Ann Patchett will be giving us the gift of The Dutch House this fall, Jeanette Winterson has reimagined the Mary Shelley story with Frankissstein, and Elizabeth Strout has written Olive, Again (although maybe we are all thinking of it as ‘Olive, Again!!!’ as we are so happy to see her on the shelves). Perhaps not in the running for a Booker, a Giller (wrong country, I know), or a Pulitzer Stephen King has published another full-length novel called The Institute. It begins in a very small town with the reader falling for a no-nonsense ex-cop named Tim before the action abruptly switches to the workings of a frightening institute. Children are being kidnapped from their homes and tested by scientists in an attempt to learn more about their unusual abilities. Some of the children have telekinetic powers, others can read minds, but they are united in their desire to escape the compound and the horrifying tests. Everything, including the reason for the Institute’s existence, is untwisted at the end (you will see Tim again) but not before you find yourself wishing you had read this book during daylight hours only.

Even if I just leave it on my kitchen table to impress people when they come over I am looking forward to From the Oven to the Table. Just look at that cover. Doesn’t that look like a book someone would check out if they were an incredibly impressive home cook? In 2018 the author published the absolutely sublime How to Eat a Peach which I was sure I would use for more than the deserts (I never did) but I loved checking it out of the library more than once just to allow myself to imagine I could cook fish that way (instead of the same three ways I always do it). This new cookbook promises quick recipes for dinner after work and substantial dishes we can use to charm our friends. I like to do both of these things! Friends and food sound so good to me when the weather starts to get colder. This is one of the many new cookbooks that will be on the shelves to tempt me this fall. Keep them coming, I am ready.

Keep all of the gorgeous books coming, I really can’t wait.

— Penny M.

Tea With Our Bloggers

Meet some of our More Books Please bloggers for tea at the Harper Branch and join in fun discussions about books and more.

John M. Harper Branch
2:00pm to 3:00pm
Registration opens one week before each program

September 30

Tea with Lesley L. Learn about books that are “not just for kids.” Junior/Teen books are great for adults too. Online registration opens September 23.

October 28

Tea with Penny M. She’s sharing her favourite thrillers and horror novels in celebration of the season of fright. Online registration opens October 21.

November 11

Tea with WPL Blogger Sandy W. We’re discussing novels and stories about war and remembrance that you won’t be able to put down. Online registration opens November 4.

December 2

Tea with Jenna H. Discover how to read like a writer. Online registration opens November 25.

When “Back to School” Means “Off to University”

We started preparing for the start of the new school year in a very different way than any year before because one of our kids was making a bigger change than normal – with a school year that involved moving out of the house and into a university residence – so some of the things we usually fit into our new school year planning had to be adjusted.

It turns out that packing your first child up to send them off to university is a lot more involved than I first thought and I was relieved to use the resources of WPL to get it done more easily (some of the research could even be done from the comfort of my own dining room table when I used our Digital Library – super cozy). It’s far too early to say whether or not things have gone well but I feel like we’ve done our best. Here are some of the best things we used to get ‘ready’.

It was helpful to read both fiction and non-fiction about this topic because any time I found myself thinking back to what my university years were like I would realize things like my own cell phone had been the same size as a men’s dress shoe and textbooks back then were still made of paper so I really needed to get some idea of the kind of pressure a modern university student is under. I can recommend Jean Hanff Korelitz’ Admission, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, and My Oxford Year which gave me an idea of what contemporary university life is like. An unexpected bonus came our way through the memoir by American disability rights advocate Haben Girma which is absolutely non-fiction but reads so beautifully it is like a witty, best friend novel. She is just telling you her captivating story of growing up in California, attending a small college in Oregon, and deciding to go to law school, and it’s as good as any YA novel out there. A wonderful picture of college life.

We also found many solid resources that focused on student mental health, finances, academic success, making new friends, choosing a career path, separating from home and family, potential romantic difficulties… I almost can’t keep typing… it’s really too much. Each year Maclean’s publishes their guide to universities in Canada with a survey of almost 50 schools and over 24 thousand students – it’s a great source and we receive the updated guide every year here at the library. My absolute favourite (I quoted it a few times, read it aloud at mealtimes, it became a bit of a ‘thing’ for the kids to tease me about but it really helped) among the books that I read was called Letting Go : a parents’ guide to understanding the college years because it included anecdotes from students, university staff, and parents. It was written by two college advisors in the U.S. and I found myself thinking about sections in this book often. I’m sure that it saved me from making some unwise choices during the weeks leading up to our last days of summer.

In school years past we would usually hit the cookbooks and find new meals to try in the first weeks of September but this year we were looking at food in a different way. We were helping our university-aged student prepare for the co-op term that will arrive in four very short months. Although we started with very elaborate ideas of what a university student’s perfect meal will look like (what were we thinking?) in the end we decided that it is more realistic to choose meals that are tasty and easy to prepare. We had success with a few cookbooks and have even added some of their recipes to the family rotation – Kevin Curry’s Fit Men Cook : 100 meal-prep recipes for men and women and The 5-minute Salad Lunchbox were our top two for realistic ingredients and flavour. In Kevin Curry’s book he provides a whole plan for approaching food and meal prep and, despite the use of the word ‘men’ in the title, we all found it useful.

During the last days of prep for her final move in day all I could focus on was reading cozy mysteries and I’m so pleased that I found a really good series on the shelves that had absolutely nothing to do with universities, children, packing, or choosing a career. It was all about two women who run a gingerbread cookie-baking business in a small murder-filled town outside of Washington, D.C. It’s so much fun (other than the murders) and it included a few lovely recipes to try. Just distracting enough. Now all I am thinking is “I can’t wait for Thanksgiving” and reading week. Who’s with me?

— Penny M.

Crowing About “Hollow Kingdom”

I’m not wishing for the end of the world any more than I long for a murder to happen but I do love reading about both of them.  So many interesting things happen in novels about the apocalypse.  Remember R.E.M‘s song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”?  It’s a checklist of perfectly terrifying elements that make a captivating story – “Birds and snakes and an aeroplane”, “Governments for hire” and the “Furies breathing down. your neck” – all the best parts of great Apocalyptic fiction.  I don’t want the end of the world to happen but when the writing is so good well, I do feel fine.  Thank you, Michael Stipe.

So many books featuring a possible apocalypse stand out when I think of my ‘best ever’ books, starting with Stephen King’s The Stand (which I first read way back in high school).  We get to meet the characters in these books when they are at their weakest, when everything is stripped away, so we really get to know them.  I still remember conversations between Stu and Franny in Stephen King’s book more vividly than I do the actual content of any class I took in high school.  It’s also fascinating to see how authors like Emily St. John MandelEdan Lepucki and Neal Stephenson choose to end our world – what exactly are the  catastrophic mistakes that they see our society making that takes us to destruction?  How do they imagine our society will rebuild?  These are the nitty gritty details that I love about this type of book.  If an advance review mentions genetic engineering gone wrong, pandemics-getting-out-of-hand, any instance where the CDC makes a mistake and tries to cover it up then I place my hold right away.  At least they will be an entertaining read and the really beautiful ones give me a chance to ponder what we value in our civilization – what would we miss if it all starts to fall apart?

I knew that I would read this debut novel about the apocalypse seen through the eyes of a domesticated crow (these were the keywords thrown around for the last few months when Hollow Kingdom was being chatted about online) but I didn’t know if it would just be a quirky read or one that rises above ‘book about a crow’.  I also wondered who I might share it with. How many other readers would like to read a book written from the perspective of a crow? From the first chapter I knew that it was a book for everyone.  Everyone!

The story begins with S.T., his human friend Big Jim, and their dog, Dennis, enjoying a fine day outside their home near Seattle. Looking back S.T. realizes that there might have been other indications that Big Jim’s health was declining but when one of Big Jim’s eyeballs falls out and rolls across the lawn he knows that things are starting to get serious. S.T. is a clever bird. Crows are, of course. He thoughtfully scoops it up and puts it into one of the cookie jars in the kitchen in case it can be used by Jim later and then spends the next few days trying to cure Jim of this terrifying illness. He tries everything – brings him the keys to his truck, tries feeding him Cheetos, carries him their favourite photographs from the fridge door, brings some medication from the local Walgreens – but nothing works.   With Dennis by his side (he attaches Dennis’s collar to a leash and leads him away from their home) they go on a mission to see if there are any uninfected humans who can help Big Jim.

It’s horrifying like all good infection-turns-humans-into-zombies novels but it’s wonderfully different because it’s all told through the language of animals and how they see us.  Author Kira Jane Buxton must have enjoyed books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down when she was a kid because she has the natural world built to perfection.  If the violence level weren’t so high I would be tempted to share this book with junior readers because there was so much to love and her passion for animals is evident throughout.

S.T. is the main voice but he is joined by Dennis and they meet other crows and dogs throughout their adventure.  We see some of the adventure from the perspective of moles, a poodle, a seagull, an armadillo, a polar bear and an octopus and it is all bewitching.   Their travels take them across the state, through a university campus, into abandoned neighbourhoods, a large zoo, an aquarium, forests and to the beach and it leads to a wide variety of discoveries about humans.  Some work out well for our team of crow and dog and some really do not.

I’m trying not to spoil the plot of the story (or the ending) but with many of the remaining humans preoccupied with their zombie thoughts this leaves an opportunity for the natural world to take over and it is all beautifully described by Buxton.  Seeing the destruction of the human world through S.T.’s opinionated eyes is the very best view. He was perfectly content being a crow who felt like he was almost human.  He has more enemies than friends among animal kind so the challenges that he and Dennis face together are doubly hard.  It becomes an opportunity for the reader to fall hard for both of them; especially as the author describes them as “a rejected crow with an identity crisis partnering a bloodhound with the IQ of boiled pudding.”

There are some moments in this book that were a little scary to read and had to be returned to – if I could have read them with my eyes partially covered like you watch a horror film, I might have done so.  I read this book quickly because I almost couldn’t believe how clever it was, how she was able to make her crow’s voice seem authentic, and yet I didn’t want to finish it because the time spent with S.T. and Dennis seems far too short.  It’s the classic problem with a book that you love – reading it fast because it is perfection but just not wanting it to end.

Yes, Hollow Kingdom can also be described as a zombie novel, and it is narrated by a Cheetos-eating crow with a name that is so profane I can only share the initials in this blog post, but there were moments in this book that moved me to tears and caused me to want to write down quotations from Buxton’s beautiful text.  I could needlepoint them on a pillow with a cute little crow and dog image maybe?  The author might be trying to send us a message about the environment or the dangers of relying on technology.  She might be saying all or none of this and wants to remind us of the importance of animal welfare.  It’s an unforgettable book about the end of world as we know it and you really should read it – Cheetos optional.

— Penny M.

Books About Books

I find it hard to resist a novel that features a librarian or bookseller as the main character. Part of the thrill of reading these books is in finding out whether or not the author has been successful in getting the nitty gritty of working with books exactly right. It’s entirely possible that I won’t identify with the character in the same way that all chefs don’t feel an instant sense of kinship in reading about other chefs. I might not feel like the bibliophile at the centre of the story is someone I could be friends with but I really like seeing similarities in their work life and mine. If the author has done their homework and put some time into making sure that the details are top notch then I love this kind of book more than any other. And I love to put these in the hands of co-workers and library customers. Books about people who love books!? It’s the best kind of reading, I’m certain.

I try to never miss any “books about books” that come across our desks (even those that focus a little less on actual library work like The Librarian and the Spy by Susan Mann, a fun book but not so much cataloguing or reference work) but this summer there were two spectacular choices that rose above many of the other books I read this summer. Both novels were choices that I enjoyed so much I kept talking about them weeks after I read them and purchased copies to give as gifts.

If an author has created a character with a personality and sense of humour that makes me long to have them come alive and join me for lunch then I think they’ve gone beyond crafting a good story, they have created a world that I wish I could inhabit. Not for the rest of my life – I’m not logging off and buying a plane ticket out of here – just a book that is so good I know I’ll read it again and think of those characters when something reminds me of them.

With both of the main characters in these books I felt as if their life choices, friendships, families and work environments were entirely believable and that isn’t something that happens often in ‘domestic fiction’ and even less so if the books are sold with a romantic arc involved. The vibrant colours on the covers and spine and the snappy text chosen by their marketing department might scare you away but I’m telling you that the women inside of these novels are like flesh and blood humans that you will be so glad you got a chance to meet – oh yes.

In the case of The Overdue Life of Amy Byler we encounter our book-loving character just as she has finally gotten into the groove of being a single parent and full-time teacher-librarian in the same school her two children attend in rural Pennsylvania. Her daughter Cori is fifteen and son Joe is eleven and it takes everything she has to get them to school, activities, maintain their aging house and try to make acceptable meals – her social life takes a back seat but she knows she should make it a priority ‘someday’. At least when she isn’t wondering why her husband left them to find himself in Hong Kong several years before (this is how her life becomes ‘overdue’, a truly great pun). When that long absent father/husband decides to reinsert himself into their lives to get to know the kids again she thinks her best plan is to head out of town for a while and, practical person that she is, she finds a library conference in New York City. She will accumulate some professional development hours while she takes a break from the routine at home and visit an old friend at the same time. Amy is so sensible in her choices! Her college friend, Talia, edits a successful fashion magazine and thinks using Amy as a makeover candidate will help rejuvenate her brand. Win-win? This leads to some super Devil Wears Prada fashion montages and great jokes about uncomfortable shoes and outfits. Initially Amy is reluctant to make changes in her clothing, hair, and makeup but agrees to give it a try when Talia and her assistant start sending her out on blind dates as part of their unfortunately named ‘momspringa’ feature articles on the magazine’s website. Author Kelly Harms uses romance in this novel with a light touch and it is more the story of a person trying to decide the direction that their life should go.

With The Bookish Life of Nina Hill the setting could not be more different than Amy Byler’s. Instead of rural Pennsylvania Nina lives in Larchmont, California, a small neighbourhood that she has never wanted to leave (I looked it up – you would never want to leave either) where she works in a small independent bookshop. Nina’s life has been carefully crafted around her interests and the anxiety she has managed since childhood. She plans her day carefully each morning in her planner and knows what will happen today, tomorrow and the days that follow. She is not a spontaneous person but she is always ready for a touch of fun and has an inner monologue of observations about herself and the world around her. She lives with a charming and remarkably funny cat named Phil. One of her weekly activities is a trivia competition with her team named “Book ‘em, Danno” and they have been kicked out of several bars – not for being rowdy – but for winning too often. Her passion and knowledge for literature is prized on the team and through this group of supportive friends she meets her love interest, Tom (I won’t spoil it and tell you what his occupation is – you must read to the end).

Like Kelly Harms does in her novel, author Abbi Waxman doesn’t make Tom the most important part of this story. Nina discovers that she has a large extended family beyond her single mother, a substantial and mysterious inheritance, she learns that the bookstore she loves is in jeopardy, and everything triggers her anxiety – the possibility of romance is often the last thing on her mind. Nina has priorities and reading is often first on the list, or in her planner, she devotes entire Thursday nights to it. Although she is at a much different stage of life from Amy Byler she is also trying to decide on her direction in life and you can’t help but be inspired by the way that finds a way that is right for her quirky, lovable personality.

Books, authors and literary quotes are sprinkled throughout both novels (in the case of Nina’s life it is a weekly occurrence because of her extremely competitive trivia team) and the characters of teacher-librarian and bookseller are letter perfect. When Nina describes the customer who walked up to the counter and asks for a refund on a copy of Pride and Prejudice because she didn’t like it and Nina has to refuse (the customer had read it all the way through before coming to back to the store) I was reminded of a similar experience from my own working days in a bookstore. Nina’s bookstore world, and her sarcastic bookstore manager/owner, are so true to real life. It’s a delight.

Amy Byler is an absolute treat of a bibliophile, as well as a gem of a devoted teacher-librarian, and the experience in that book is multi-layered because her daughter Cori is spending the summer with ‘assigned’ reading from her own mother and her comments (in letter form) are included, so we see the book-loving relationship from all sides. When Amy attends the library conference in New York City she is required to make a presentation about an ongoing project in her school library and the details about this effort are quite interesting, the conversations she has with other professional librarians 100% credible and the books they are discussing absolutely relevant. If I met Amy at a conference I would love to sit down and talk to her – I’d probably have asked for her business card and checked in with her a few weeks later. I’m almost sad that she doesn’t exist. Same thing with Nina but her trivia skills are intimidating… maybe she would let me feed her cat.

Books about librarians and booksellers are always being published – across all genres – vampire librarians, librarian spies, booksellers who solve mysteries, and I read them all with great happiness. This summer has been a particularly good one for newly published titles but I have other favourites from years past that I take from the shelves over and over as a part of my comfort reading. I turn to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore when I want a dash of fantasy, I look up Jenny Colgan when I want to be transported to Scotland and I can read about A. J. Fikry and his wonderful shop on Alice Island on any day. The story of how his life changes is absolute perfection and I’m a little nervous to hear that an actor and director have been assigned to the film based on the book – what if they don’t get the details right? What if they are not able to evoke Fikry’s love of Roald Dahl on screen the same way it exists in the novel? Sometimes a book is perfect just the way it is, especially when it is a book about books.

— Penny M.

Failure Is Not An Option

In the library we see publishers responding quickly to events in the hope that they will capitalize on reader interest and sell more books. In some cases their rush to get a book on the shelves can result in books that meet a need but won’t find their way into your top ten list. With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing publishers, authors, illustrators, scientists and astronauts had ample time to pull together every resource to make their products top-notch and it has been an absolute thrill to see these book treasures arrive on our shelves. It seems like I have been taking home a book or two a month to read or share with my space-loving family and we have learned some wonderful new facts, sneaky behind-the-scenes tidbits or relived the details we already read.

coderWhen we look back at those blurry images on the moon it’s hard to comprehend that it was only fifty years ago that engineers and technicians (almost entirely men) huddled over the desks to wait and see if decades of work would pay off. It seems like much more than fifty years because advances in technology have reached an absolutely dizzying pace. The computers used to provide guidance for the Apollo mission were so big that they took up entire rooms but are known to have been no more powerful than a calculator used by today’s high school student. It’s astounding to realize that the code was fed into the guidance computer using punch cards. You can actually see the code listing on the Caltech archive and imagine the incredible amount of work that went into just one part of the mission. Or you don’t have to imagine it. Here is a photograph of Margaret Hamilton, an MIT computer programmer working at NASA during the Apollo missions, standing next to a stack of some of the Apollo guidance computer source code.

Landing on the moon is the anniversary being celebrated on July 20th but there could have been hundreds of thousands of individual anniversaries celebrated before that day. An estimated number of about 400,000 people worked to make it possible for three men to safely travel to the moon and two men to walk upon it. The dedication, the incredible risks, the scientific advances and the decades of research and development since the Apollo mission have culminated in a publishing surge and it’s making for some fabulous reading.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy shared his goal that the United States put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and put into motion his plan to conquer space and the world at the same time. Historian Douglas Brinkley (a professor at Rice University where Kennedy gave his famous “we choose to go to the moon speech”) has done well in tying together the story of Kennedy’s family, that of engineer Wernher von Braun, NASA’s role in American politics and the space program’s future following the president’s assassination. He successfully blends politics, history and the thrill of the space race into one compelling narrative in American Moonshot : John F. Kennedy and the great space race. It’s a must read for anyone interested in the Kennedy story or someone who wants to get a feel for all of the forces that came together to make Apollo 11 happen.

Another 2019 book that has far fewer pages but held me captivated for hours was a gorgeous picture book by Dean Robbins and Sean Rubin. The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon is not about the Apollo 11 mission but about the mission that follows and the images are so beautiful. It’s a sweet choice to take home to read aloud but a reader of any age could learn from this one. Alan Bean was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 12 and was the fourth person to walk on the moon but is also known as the only artist to have ever seen the moon up close. What a perfect chance to use your art to communicate a unique experience! This picture book is a wonderful opportunity to learn a little more about his life as a navy pilot and his work at NASA but focuses more on his work as an artist. The author was able to collaborate on this story with the astronaut before his death and the illustrations share some of Bean’s own bold use of line and shape. It’s a little more STEAM than STEM and it’s perfect. Read more about Alan Bean on his own website or through the NASA website.

Alan Bean was a part of the group known as Astronaut Group 3 which included Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins. But in the early days at NASA all of the astronauts worked closely together by backing each other up at mission control, training together, testing equipment, flying together and helping each other to learn the dense material required to make each mission a success. We have so many fantastic books on the shelves about these fascinating days – some old and some new – but Neil Armstrong’s authorized biography (the one that the Ryan Gosling biopic was based on) is one that stands out in my mind because it is so clearly written. It reads like a textbook because it is free of extra emotion but filled with incredible fly-on-the-wall detail. The chapters that cover his time as a test pilot are so explicit that I am sure I will remember the types of the planes he flew longer than I will remember the names of the people in his family or the town he was born in (Wapaknoeta, Ohio). If you read one book about the Apollo 11 mission then I suggest you set aside a few evenings and spend some time with First Man : the life of Neil A. Armstrong. It’s the closest you will ever get to feeling like you have experienced the life of an astronaut.

For another perspective on the Apollo 11 mission we have a newly reissued copy of Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire here on the shelves. As a member of the crew, he followed a similar astronaut career path to many of the other pilots with a graduation from West Point, time spent as a test pilot and a spacewalk on Gemini 10. Where his story becomes interesting is that with Apollo 11 he had the unique worry of being the man who might have to fly home and leave Buzz and Neil behind. He was concerned that they might crash on the moon, that there might be a failure to launch from the moon or any one of a number of other catastrophes. He writes about this weighty knowledge in his memoir. Mike had time to think about this as he piloted the command module and listened to his crewmates make their historic first steps onto the lunar surface. So much of the spotlight has focused on their actions in those days on the moon but his story – and his feeling of being truly alone out there – make this a fascinating memoir.

We have also been experiencing an increase in other material focusing on the Apollo 11 anniversary so if you haven’t satisfied your curiosity through shiny, new books you can view a documentary like the one that features newly discovered 65mm footage of mission control and the astronauts on the moon. It’s a truly unbelievable viewing experience. You can also check out one of the many magazines that have featured the moon landing – Make, National Geographic, Popular Mechanics and Sky & Telescope are a few of the periodicals that I’ve been reading lately – the photographs and features have been a great way to augment my reading about the anniversary.

We have some of the classic books about space flight on the shelves like NASA flight director Gene Kranz’s Failure is Not an Option and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (many contemporary astronauts say that this book was an early inspiration for their career choice) and your options for fiction about astronauts are endless. We have so many great books to suggest that you could be reading until we return to the moon. I know I’ll be on the holds list for the book about that mission.

— Penny M.

NOTE: if your children are into space, check out the Moon Lander (see below) in the Children’s Department at the Main Library. And don’t forget to register for the super-fun, space-themed Summer Reading Club. Activities, events, challenges and prizes all summer long.

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Mind & Matter

Beach read, smeach read. I think that we should all read anything we want in the summer – spin the wheel and pick a genre, any genre. The New Yorker (available to us online, 24-hours a day, through RBdigital) published an article which unveiled the truth behind the summer reading season.

It turns out that the whole summer reading phenomenon is a put-up job created by the publishing industry at the turn of the last century. Those clever marketing people just wanted to sell more books! When vacation getaways became popular, thanks to railways and steamships, they got to work and made sure that their product would be ready for packing into stylish suitcases. They repackaged older titles as “summer” editions (I know that I would be fooled by this – I can easily be taken in by a book with a straw hat on the cover), encouraged their authors to write novels set on campsites and summer resorts and poof, made the summer novel an important part of the publishing market. Well, it all worked out well for them, didn’t it?

Now it seems like every newspaper and magazine we receive here in the library runs a feature on summer reads, beach reads, resort reads or cottage reads. Men’s Health magazine (available on the shelf and through RBdigital) has even promoted books that are ‘unsung beach reads’ in their July/August issue. I’m in favour of this, wholeheartedly. Let’s all read more!

I recently fell so hard for a book that didn’t have a straw hat on the cover and looks more like a back-to-school title than anything else but I encourage you to rush out and grab a copy. Mind and Matter, the memoir by former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel is not your typical NFL story. It’s really not like any book I’ve ever read before. The subtitle of his book is “a life in math and football” because at the time his book was published John was working towards his PhD in math at MIT. Not something might expect to read about a former NFL player and maybe that is what makes this book a fantastic read. I read it, one of my daughters read it and then my husband picked it up and we all have not stopped talking about it whenever we can move conversation towards the topic of John Urschel. If we have talked to you in the last few weeks we have probably mentioned him.

Although he was born in Winnipeg, Urschel had moved to Buffalo by the time he attended high school. He began to play football because he was inspired by his father’s college career and saw it as a way to be popular. Urschel enjoyed the sport and loved being on a team right away but it wasn’t easy. He worked hard, practiced at home and had extra coaching from his father so that he could catch up with kids who were far stronger players. But something that did come easy to him, even at a very young age, were puzzles and math.

When John Urschel was just 13 his mother arranged for him to audit a college-level Calculus course because she knew that he would enjoy it so much. They played a little game where she would let him have the change from their shopping trips if he could calculate the tax before the cashier finished tallying their purchases. She had to stop that quickly as his mental work was so quick.

Everything Urschel writes in this autobiography is very matter of fact, partially because he wants to tell a convincing story about following the path that feels right to you, even when people around you are telling you it isn’t the right one, and all of the little glimpses he shares about his younger grades just jump off the page.

He wrote this book with the assistance of his partner, author Louisa Thomas, and it is honest and inspiring (even when he gets down to the nitty gritty of explaining a multi-step logic problem). Urschel made the choice to accept a scholarship to Penn State in 2010 although his mother was pressuring him to attend Stanford because he felt like their football team would be the best fit for him. When he arrives on their campus it’s the first step in a long journey to the NFL and this half of his life story is filled with exactly what you would expect – grueling workouts, games out of town, making lifelong friendships with other players and fighting to keep his spot on the roster. Learning about his time at Penn State is particularly interesting as he was there during the time that football players were sanctioned for the acts of their former coach Jerry Sandusky. It’s the first of many moments in John’s life that the reader feels like they have that “fly on the wall” experience.

When Urschel was selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2014 draft he had completed his master’s degree and even published a paper in an academic journal. At this time in his football career he was starting to feel the pull of his academic interests but still wanted to stay with the team. Incredibly he was able to balance both his school world and the life of an NFL player. It’s wonderful to read the story of his management saying that now that he is signed to a big football contract it’s time to do something about the horrible car he has been driving. Urschel had been driving the same car for years so he agreed to this and asked that they order him a Nissan Versa. A new one, certainly, but not the type of car you would expect of someone who has just signed an NFL contract. And definitely a slightly smaller car than would comfortably fit an offensive lineman. It’s a story that is constantly fascinating.

Something you would expect in a memoir about a football player is for it to discuss concussions. He talks about the possibility of injury, brain and body, throughout his career and the part they play in his life. Each time he considers whether he will continue on in the sport this is something that is on his mind and he spends time in the book discussing how he is able to compartmentalize his feelings about injuries. He is aware of the chance he could develop CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and addresses his concerns. He is honest about how it might change the direction of his career as a mathematician but he continues to work at both math and football with equal passion despite experiencing a concussion during Ravens training camp in August of 2015.

His love of football and mathematics are interwoven perfectly throughout the book and that is one of the things that make it such a pleasure to read – the balance. He gives equal weight to both and as you read you can see why he devotes so much to making both parts of his life a success. This isn’t an autobiography that gives much detail outside of those two pursuits but this helps you to see why he does so well in both vocations. He occasionally mentions other players on his teams, shares details about the mentors he has at the universities or says how much he enjoys the campus where he lives but there are very few incidental moments shared about how he spent his life. At the end of the book you realize the reason for this is because it’s likely he didn’t have much extra time between playing a competitive sport and his academic life. Well, he does mention wanting to take a break at one point, and this is when he takes up chess in a more serious way. He had enjoyed it off and on throughout his life but when he decides he needs it for a change of pace he orders specialized books, studies the most famous games, and finds himself spending hours contemplating a particular position on the board.

Finally Urschel does find that his life at MIT is the more appealing one. He acknowledges that either football or mathematics would benefit from his full-time attention and he knows that he is looking forward to going back to school more than being at ‘work’ on the football field. It isn’t a decision that he makes easily (and in an interview I read he says that he does miss his NFL pay cheque) and he notes that his fiancé and their daughter factor into his retirement from the NFL.

At a young age John Urschel decided that he wanted to choose an unexpected career path and put everything he could into making his unlikely future happen. In Mind and Matter he has written an inspiring, enjoyable memoir that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages – whether they enjoy math or football or neither of those things – his story is so compelling. And, if you want to, skip ahead to the logic puzzle it is on pages 8 through 12 (yes, it takes 5 pages to describe this puzzle and the solution, he is the real deal).

— Penny M.

My Summer Reading Preview

A few months ago I read a magazine article featuring Crazy Rich Asian-worthy leather bags with the hottest spring novels poking out of them.  I’m pretty sure they were capitalizing on the idea that in the last year or so every celebrity has started a book club and many are choosing to be photographed with book in hand.  It looks like books are a go-to accessory.  Well, we always knew that in the library!

Of course a sturdy, stylish bag is required to carry these important items.  I approved of their thinking until I checked out the prices on the suggested handbags! One carried the caption “price available upon request” which is never a good sign if you are budget-minded.  Now if you are the Duchess of Sussex then any bag is a possible purchase.  Her bags will need to be roomy and practical for a while and the books she is more likely to carry will be board books.  Or maybe she could look into reading Weird Parenting Wins?  Perhaps she will be able to enjoy a novel once in a while if Harry shares the parenting.  I do hope so.

If you are looking for some fabulous summer reads to carry around in your beach tote, here you go (they are also gorgeous so you will look extra snazzy just in case you happen to be caught by Waterloo paparazzi):

81Z2hxtqlYLRoselle Lim’s debut novel is going to check several boxes for delightful summer reading because she is from Scarborough (let’s celebrate reading a Canadian author), and the book takes place in Montreal AND in San Francisco so it feels like taking a book vacation.  Also, her main character struggles with some mother-daughter-grandmother guilt and then falls in love giving us a prize at the end of all of that painful family reflection. In Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, Natalie has to return to the apartment she shared with her mother to tidy up, plan her mother’s funeral and decide what she will do with her legacy – the family restaurant.  There is a love story in this book, the grief of losing her mother, and the excitement of lots of cooking (the author includes recipes) all set in a cozy San Francisco neighbourhood.  I can’t think of anything more delicious – just look at that cover.

811i2lI31-LThe last book that Blake Crouch wrote was so much fun to read that I am planning to pop some popcorn before I sit down with this one.  Reading Dark Matter felt like watching a film with a full on thriller plot plus a touch of romance for balance and it looks like Recursion shares some of that same mix.  Crouch has a neuroscientist researching false memory syndrome as a way to help Alzheimer patients but the wealthy tech guru who is funding her project might not have the best motives.  Fantastic! In combination with this plot we have a NY detective investigating crimes that are linked to false memory syndrome and the thrills just keep piling on.  It might be worth popping two bags of popcorn (or use any manner of snack preparation you feel is appropriate in your home) because with a story like this you will not want to leave the couch for a moment.

the-stationery-shop-9781982129866_hrRoya and Bahman meet at the stationery shop in 1953 Tehran and slowly fall in love after an introduction by the owner, Mr. Fakhri.  They start meeting weekly and agree to marry despite the protests of Bahman’s mother.  One night he doesn’t appear at their agreed time and after several attempts to contact him Roya must eventually give up and move on with her life.  Sixty years later they meet in Boston and she is able to find answers to the questions she has carried with her for decades.  It’s a vibrant, lush story by Marjan Kamali of a young woman’s life and how she tries to move on from heartbreak.  You can’t help but wonder what their first conversation will be like after those years apart.

91Q73aHp3PLAnd in the category of books I would have wished to be written if I knew that I should have been wishing for them is Evvie Drake Starts Over.  This novel about an unlikely friendship between a grieving widow and a former Major League pitcher who has lost the ability to throw a baseball is going to be the highlight of my summer (even though I didn’t know that I could have been wishing for it).  Baseball novels and summer go together like peanuts and Cracker Jack and their unlikely friendship turns into a romance.  How do these people become friends and possibly more?  They are introduced to each other by a mutual friend because Dean (the pitcher) needs somewhere to hide away from the New York media and a small town in Maine seems like the place.  The best part of this remarkable summer read is that this is the first novel from NPR Host Linda Holmes so we know it is going to be warm, quirky and filled with authentic baseball references as she is known to frequent sports podcasts as a guest.  Batter up!  Evvie and I are going to be such good friends – I just know it.

downloadWho wouldn’t want to read a thriller about a book club where too many bottles of wine are enjoyed and a game of never-have-I-ever goes too far?  In the hands of Joshilyn Jackson I know that I am going to be invested in her characters but also a little bit tense because I will constantly worrying about them.  This is the perfect book recipe for a summer afternoon read on a porch, dock or extra-long soccer practice.  According to early reviews the main character, Amy Whey, is the perfect hostess, the kind of person who bakes cookies for new neighbours, and gets along with everyone (she is also a part-time diving instructor which is surely going create scenes which terrify me at some point) but finds herself on edge when a new book club member obviously knows too much about her secrets.  Yes!  How will it end?  I couldn’t possibly guess but the publisher used the words “betrayal, deception & temptation” so you know it’s going to be great.  I just hope it doesn’t cause me to worry when new people join our book club.  Maybe I’ll just discourage everyone from playing ‘never have I ever’ after we talk about the book.

You might not be thinking like Emma or SJP and carrying books around strategically or basing your next project on a novel like Reese does but you still need something wonderful to fill your book bag.  We have shelves filled with the latest choices for summer reading and would also be happy to help you out with a bargain of a stylish bag.  For just $3.00 you can carry one that proudly says “Waterloo Public Library” and holds at least eight hardcovers and twice as many paperbacks.  Come on summer – we are ready for you.

— Penny M.

In a Reading Slump

Reading slumps are the worst. People come to WPL staff to ask for help with these every week and they can happen to anyone. For so many reasons. Sometimes the books you have been enjoying just aren’t cutting it anymore. In other situations, life is making it difficult to enjoy reading as you normally might or there might be a time when you can’t pinpoint the reason but you just need help getting out of a rough spot.

I have been smack in the middle of one of a reading slump since my mother died. I used to turn to books for comfort and it’s not working as it used to. I take shiny books home and read them but they aren’t giving me the same happiness. I find it difficult to retain anything beyond the bare bones of the plot even with books from my favourite series. Flavia’s last adventure involved her sister’s wedding but the rest is a blur. What to do?

Well, we don’t give up around here. Have you ever seen a group of library staff trying to find an answer to a really tough question? We LOVE to answer the hard questions. I’m very sure that the term “leave no stone unturned” originated in a library. My theory is that it’s likely that a group of librarians* were trying to find the answer to a question about something like properties of bricks and masonry in European buildings of the early 1900s and someone said “…leave no stone unturned.” because it was a clever pun.

When someone experiencing a downturn in reading happiness comes to the desk it has been my habit to ask what they read in the past. If they are open to reading “anything” then I might to suggest that they dip into some recently published non-fiction. The treat of a well-written non-fiction book is that you can set it down easily after a chapter or two and feel like you have accomplished something. Reading non-fiction is satisfying and can also help you to easily channel your reading towards a particular topic and steer clear of others.

Often customers who are caught in the middle of a slump know that they need to avoid certain topics. In my case I know that I will not enjoy reading anything about health care, aging parents, mother-daughter relationships or well, I guess anything about hair care, cooking, and shopping. The non-fiction shelves at WPL have been good to me recently. Matt Haig’s recent book was an opportunity to rethink some less healthy habits like focusing on the bad news in the newspaper each morning and trying on some new ones like spending more time outside and connecting with friends. Small goals. Notes on a Nervous Planet was the kind of book that was fun to fall into every time I picked it up. I felt like I was getting to spend time with the author and see the world through his eyes each time. It’s memoir with and a dash of self-help and a soupçon of technology advice. I found it to be very useful, it passed the time and it can be enjoyed by any reader.

If we are fighting a reading slump then we need a book or series that is truly good. Not a by-the-numbers thriller or standard romance. A great book can break through a downtrend in reading pleasure and help to return a reader to that place where books can be pulled from the shelf with abandon. I have a list of authors that I keep to give to someone who is suffering from the “yips” in their reading habits. These must have enough story to keep you turning the pages, can’t be about a serious health issue or death, about coping with a family crisis or the aftermath of one, and should not be about a topic that is too light-hearted. If a book character’s life is so perfect then it can be a bit hard to take. No thank you. Favourites from our shelves include books by Nina George (oh, The Little Paris Bookshop), Julia Stuart, Rainbow Rowell, Jenny Colgan, and Louis De Bernières.

Take home two or three books, put one or more on hold, and be ready to try again. Curing a reading slump doesn’t happen easily and sometimes it takes more than one attempt. Often the remedy isn’t found on the new books shelf and will come from a trusted back-list novel that has been sitting on the shelf, just waiting to go home and perform a reading rescue. I once passed along Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore to someone and had them return to say that it kept them going through a difficult weekend.

I’m thrilled to say that I was pulled from my funk by Elinor Lipman’s most recent book. It’s so bright and unexpected with characters who are absolutely charming. I’m still thinking of them and will be reading her past books as well. Can’t wait. In Good Riddance Daphne Maritch inherits her mother’s yearbook and is at the mercy of an annoying neighbour who finds the yearbook after she recycles it in their apartment building. Why do their paths cross? This horrible neighbour thinks the 1968 yearbook would be a great subject for her next documentary and will not return it. She absolutely will not. Even worse, she wants Daphne to help her with the documentary. Horrible neighbour. Daphne spends the rest of the book trying to sort out her life, her feelings about her family, and prevent this film project from ever happening. She does this with the support of her part-time professional dog walking father and a terrific across-the-hall neighbour who is a part of the “Riverdale” cast. It’s tremendously fun, despite the difficulties surrounding the yearbook debacle, and Daphne is trying her best throughout. It is quirky, lovely and was just the thing to brighten my reading mood. I didn’t know I would love it before I picked it up. Actually, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t like it. I hadn’t really liked reading anything for months. That’s how it is with getting rid of the dreaded reading slump. The cure comes in surprising forms. So, come to the desk and ask us to help you find one. It’s what we do.

— Penny M.

*There is quite a debate online about the collective noun for a group of librarians. You know, like a group of crows is called a “murder” of crows and a group of ants is a “colony”. I have seen postings which say a group of librarians could be called a “stack of librarians” or a “volume of librarians”. I think my very favourite of them all was “a collection of librarians” but in the end the very best answer was from someone who just said “Ask us.”

Celebrating Mothers

Mother’s Day is May 12th. You could just go out and celebrate your mother or mother-like figure with books this year (and I have such a good suggestion for you) but why not give them what they really really want… what every parent wants – the gift of spending time together!

With my last few Mother’s Day celebrations we realized that was what we liked best about the day. It didn’t matter where we got together or what we did – it was the amount of time that we were able to spend together that really meant the most. The library is the first place to come to for valuable tools you can use to make the most of your time to be together and possibly find extra time in your day.

Your first step is not wasting your time on cleaning and tidying. Why would you? Stop spending hours on things that don’t matter so that you can hang out with your Mom and relax. In a recent shipment of books we received several copies of a gem of a book from Reader’s Digest called Home Hacks which contains all the tips you need to make home care faster and easier. Just flipping through this book made me feel energized and ready to attack several home projects that had been languishing for months – papers that needed to be filed and a guest room that needs to be more guest room and less storage space. Reader’s Digest Home Hacks is so comprehensive that they include sections which suggest when you can “save time”, use an “insider’s hack” and “save money”. I am also a big fan of the paragraphs when their editors tell the truth and say that there is no way around it and you simply have to call in an expert to fix a particular problem. It saves me the worry and time I might have spent researching something to know that I should have just called in a specialist in the first place.

The next step in your plan for time saving is to pull together some simple meals and stay out of the kitchen. I used to call these easy meals “one pot meals” when our kids were small because I really didn’t like to wash dishes so using just one pot was fantastic. This works as a search term or you can also try one pan or one sheet when you are searching through the WPL catalogue. The key is to find a meal that is quick and delicious so that you get out of the kitchen and can just be cozy. Although it is possible to hang out and chat in the kitchen as well, so maybe speed isn’t the key for you and your Mom. You could always bake or cook something side by side? A gorgeous cookbook that came in with some spring books includes several clever options for chicken and a four-page spread for stuffed peppers. You will find something to suit every appetite with Betty Crocker Make It In One and it will be cooked in time for you to do something else like head out for dessert that someone else baked.

Now that you can care for your home more efficiently and cook up a super-quick meal, you will have so much more time to spend with the fam. How about going for a walk using a WPL pedometer kits which include a pedometer, tips for safe walking and a walking/cycling map of Waterloo. Or you could check out one of our museum passes – we have them for THEMUSEUM and the Region of Waterloo Museums – and plan a fabulous, free outing in our community. As the weather gets warmer these passes will be in high demand so you might have to place a hold but it will be so worth it and an absolute treat to look forward to. Plan to spend more time together.

And… if you just want to stay home and read (or possibly share a great book with someone) then a recent favourite of mine will absolutely beguile you. Steven Rowley is back with The Editor. He took the publishing world by storm in 2016 with his semi-autobiographical novel Lily and the Octopus and I was so excited to read this one. In The Editor his main character, James, has had the extreme good fortune of having his first novel selected for publication by a Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Meetings with Jackie! Just imagine. To make this even more special for James (if it is possible to have this become even more spectacular) his mother is an enormous Kennedy family fan and he knows she will be thrilled to hear his news. He hopes that working with her might smooth over some of the rough spots in their relationship. Mothers, right? The friendship and working relationship between Jackie and James is one half of this wonderful book and the other half is his relationship with his mother. It’s not as quirky as his first novel but leaves you with the sense that you have been right there beside the character every step of the way. And you will be thrilled you were there.

We really do have you covered with time saving hacks, recipes, suggestions for activities in the community and an absolutely wonderful book. If these don’t work for your Mother’s Day plans then go with flowers – my mother was partial to the smell of carnations. Enjoy your day!

— Penny M.