Have You Met The Durrells?

You know how bookstores have ‘Staff Picks”?  Well I think we should have ‘WPL Customer Picks’.  Or maybe when customers return a popular DVD or book we could keep a tally of who is reporting that it is good/bad/worth the trouble and then post it at the returns desk with a little image of a thumbs up or thumbs down.  The opinions of our neighbours should be more important than the reviews we read in the Globe & Mail or the New York Times, and I would rather watch a DVD that a WPL customer recommends rather than one that gets a high rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  In fact, I find that material suggested to me by WPL customers is a guaranteed good read or good watch.  Thumbs up!

A favourite customer ‘gifted’ me with the television miniseries The Durrells in Corfu recently and I was as smitten with the series as she so confidently said I would be.  In fact, when I placed my hold on Season One she told me that I should place a hold on season two right away as I would be sure to want to watch Season Two as well.  She was right – it was that good (I have since thanked her for her sage advice, not to worry).  The miniseries originally aired on the British television network ITV and was picked up by PBS as part of their Masterpiece series.  We are fortunate to have both seasons at WPL and when the third season is encased in plastic on our shelves I will be faithfully waiting for it to arrive.  I will have a cup of tea ready to go and might even break out a festive meal in celebration.

The television show is an adaptation of the trilogy of books that Gerald Durrell wrote about the years his family spent on the island of Corfu.  He is at the centre of the books My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods but the screenwriters have chosen to make his mother, Louisa, the focus of their stories.  This was a great decision on their part – it gives the series a bit of snap that might be missing if the stories all centred on a young boy.  I’m sure that it would have been lovely but not quite the masterpiece we now have to enjoy.  It is fabulous.

After struggling to raise four willful children alone on a widow’s pension in gloomy England, Louisa decides to move them to a sunny Greek paradise.  Well, Louisa decides with the enthusiastic prompting of her eldest, Larry, who is determined to be a successful novelist (and becomes one – renowned author Lawrence Durrell ). The reaction of the other three is mixed at best. The chemistry between the family members is just magical.

When Louisa, Larry, next oldest son Leslie, only daughter Margo and young Gerald arrive on the island they are warmly welcomed by a taxi driver named Spiros who becomes their interpreter, protector and negotiator for everything – a villa, furniture, and the release of their funds from the bank.  While the family waits for their money to arrive they must ‘forage’ for something to eat and this is the first of many opportunities to see the different ways that the Durrells cope with adversity.  Larry flat out refuses to help, saying that he is busy writing.  Margo says that she is looking for a job and does so by sitting on their sundrenched patio in a bikini.  Leslie, always keen to help his mother, goes out with one of his many rifles and shoots some of the local wildlife while Gerald hunts for berries but ends up eating many, feeding some to their dog, and letting the remainder spoil while he is distracted by a neighbour who offers him a puppy.  Oh, the glorious little puppies.

Gerald Durrell’s passion for animals started when began keeping local wildlife as pets. They pile up so quickly that I can’t remember them all.  He had many species of birds, several types of mice, a number of insects, plus scorpions (!), turtles, otters, tortoises, snakes. In one lovely episode he wanted a goat so, so much.  The classic W. C. Fields quote about not working with children or animals does not apply in this series because actor Milo Parker, who plays Gerald, is top-notch and the furry and feathery supporting actors are sublime.  Animals and children are everywhere and make the show that much more enjoyable.  If you were to play this series without sound you would enjoy watching it for the visuals alone.

The three older children of the Durrell family also play their parts to perfection.  Larry is an aspiring novelist who spends every day wearing his underclothes and a polka-dotted robe while he types away in his room and when forced to provide encouragement or advice to his siblings he grudgingly does so but there is love behind the snide remarks.  Poor Leslie stomps about trying to find his place in their family, on the island, in the world and says “maybe I’m not the sort who is meant to be happy” but when Larry wonders if it might be time for him to return to England and they have a real brotherly conversation it is as if the two actors have really grown up together.  There is great chemistry there.  And Margo is sublime.  I’m sure that this young actor, Daisy Waterstone, is meant for great things.  She delivers every line – comic or dramatic – with such flair.  When she confesses to a local countess, played by the exquisite Leslie Caron, “I’m a bit dim”, there is really nothing more delightful.  It is so hard to choose a favourite among this cast of wonderful actors.

Each episode finds the family getting to know their new neighbours, the culture of the island, and finding their way to a happiness that they did not have in England.  It’s not an easy journey for them, thankfully, or the series would end and it would seem far too effortless.  It’s because life is a struggle for Louisa and her children that you keep watching, you become invested in their success, whether it be in Leslie’s love life, Margo’s quest for employment, or Larry’s constant pecking away at the typewriter.  And they are doing all of this while the sun is shining, they are wearing the most colourful clothes (well, Larry is usually wearing a dressing gown) and eating glorious meals on their patio which overlooks the Ionian Sea.  What more can you ask of a miniseries?  I read some terrific news online (there are spoilers about Louisa’s romantic prospects in this article so tread carefully) which tells us that ITV has committed to making a fourth season of The Durrells and that many key figures are returning to produce, direct and act in the show.

Besides Season One and Season Two on DVD,  we have many, many books written by Gerald and Lawrence in the collection.  Rosy is My Relative is a fabulous pick if you wanted something to read aloud on a car journey – it is sure to please everyone in your family.   You will find endless information about all of the Durrells on the Internet including wonderful content about Gerald’s conservation efforts and his Wildlife Conservation Trust.

It’s possible that after enjoying this miniseries you might be inspired to cook like Louisa, dress like Margo or plan a trip of your own to Greece.  The Durrells will keep you busy all through the summer with the help of the staff here at WPL.  And, if you are inspired to adopt a goat or a turtle then that’s entirely on Gerald.

— Penny M.

Shhh…A Quiet Place

We received a movie at WPL this week that has been worth waiting for. I don’t always think this. I place my holds early and often for books but don’t really follow the same plan for movies. I know that a new book is coming months, sometimes years, before it is published and it’s so exciting. With movies, it’s a so-so feeling. Many movies are good, many movies have captivating performances, gorgeous sets, wonderful costumes, sensational soundtracks but very few will actually knock my socks off. Well, this is the one. Socks are off. This is the one you must see. A movie that should rise to the top of every list this year. It’s John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place.

Initially it was billed as a horror film and then the tide seemed to swing towards marketing it as a thriller but I would say it is more like a classic suspense film with a few monsters thrown in to spice things up. The monsters are definitely scary. A bird flew past our kitchen window the day after we saw this movie and I was sure it was one of those monsters in our backyard. That feeling has finally worn off now.

This is John Krasinski’s film because he is the director, co-writer and star of this film. You might be thinking to yourself “Hey, isn’t he Jim from the American version of The Office?” when you see his face on screen. Yes, yes, he IS Jim from The Office and he is just as spectacular as a father who is leading his family through a post-apocalyptic world where monsters are hunting them using the sounds that they make as he was when he played Jim. And these monsters, they are hunting for any sounds. This family is so careful about not making noise that they use American Sign Language to communicate, play Monopoly with felt pieces, and spread this wonderful white sand on the walkways of their farm to muffle their footsteps. Now, about that sand. Where did it all come from? I was really not sure about this as we were watching the film but I could not even bring myself to lean over and ask anyone in my family because I was so compelled to stay silent throughout the whole thing. I’m sure that you have heard this from other people who have seen the film or even seen some of the jokes online.

quiet

But after you see the movie you can’t stop talking about every last detail. I think it’s been our top film for post-movie chatting for the whole year. Maybe it was because we felt like we had to stay silent through the whole thing or maybe it was because of the outstanding performances of the cast, the beauty of the landscape and the sheer terror we felt while we were watching. Other than Krasinski the cast is small which works very well and adds to the sense of isolation on screen as you realize that so few people survived the apocalypse. It’s just eerie. Emily Blunt plays his wife in a role that is half earth-mother, half warrior and they have cast some wonderful actors as their children, including a young woman who also had a lead role in 2017’s Wonderstruck.

This is a challenging film for all of the actors as so much of the emotion is conveyed entirely through gestures and facial expression – there is no room for error in their parts and it is done well. You can find some wonderful interviews online with the actors as they describe the work that they did to prepare for these roles and the guidance they received from young Millicent Simmonds with using ASL on film.

And, I know it’s a horror/thriller film, but I did really think it was a beautiful film. It might not make it to any Oscar lists for costumes or set design but there was a distinct look to this movie. They cared. Really, if they hadn’t been facing a constant struggle to stay alive I think it might not have been a bad way to live. The lovely photographs on their walls, the jam jars and quilts. Like Country Living but dingy. I did catch myself thinking that the absolute silence of their home life was appealing. Their kids were playing Monopoly without arguing over who got which piece or who had the next turn. I know, I know, they are living in the constant shadow of an ever present danger that will swoop in and eat them if they even knock a knife off of the table. But the sense of calm and all of the cozy sweater wearing? I could go for that. Monsters – no. More whispering while we play board games after dinner – yes.

The Blu-ray + DVD copies that we have here at the library come with glamorous special features which I am so very excited about. Director John Krasinski will give us a special behind the scenes look in Creating The Quiet and they have also included The Sound of Darkness and something called A Reason For Silence : the art of unforgettable visual effects. I look forward to watching all of these and I am going to watch the entire film one more time. I’m going to watch it again because I know that I am going to love being terrified again, because those children are absolutely amazing, because Emily Blunt gives an incredible performance as the strongest onscreen mother I have ever seen and because this time I’ll be able to eat popcorn while I watch.

— Penny M.

Weddings: read all about them

Each week the CBC Toronto afternoon drive show does a feature where they pick a topic and request that listeners call in to suggest songs along that theme.  Gill Deacon – the host – reads an email or plays a listener voicemail that introduces the song and it is one of the highlights of my week each day as I drive home from the library.  It’s called “Gill’s Jukebox” and they post complete song lists on Spotify.

Recently the Jukebox theme was “Songs That You Would Play at a Wedding” and it got me thinking about the fabulous weddings I have attended and the endless great books we have at WPL about weddings.  We have so many as they come out every year at this time to take advantage of our passion for the wedding season.  I like to read wedding books throughout the year, just as I will read a Christmas-themed murder mystery on a blazing hot summer afternoon, but if you have a wedding in your future then I have some glorious books to help get you in the mood for a spin around the dance floor.

downloadGrant Ginder’s 2017 novel, The People We Hate at the Wedding, could have been a little bit more like that scene from Steel Magnolias where one character says to the other, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anyone then come sit by me.” but other than that small criticism I loved this book.  It was a solid drama with several members of one family traveling to London to attend the wedding of perfect, elegant, well-educated Eloise in a small town in the southwest of England.  Memories of Four Weddings and a Funeral were flooding into my mind as I read some of the scenes of the pre-wedding preparations.  The actual wedding day is filled with extravagant touches which is so much fun to read about but members of Eloise’s extended family have some longstanding grudges to work out before they can make their way to the celebration.  It’s a bit of an outrageous journey, certainly, but one that works for a book with this title and cover.  You pick up this book expecting some chaos and can’t help but be pleased when things work out.

If you would like your wedding reading to seem like it was lifted directly from a movie you might see on the W Network then you have got to read The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory. This book was pure entertainment reading – great for a dock or hammock.  Alexa meets Drew in a hotel elevator when she goes to LA to celebrate her sister’s promotion.  Of course the elevator gets stuck and they are forced into a lengthy conversation while they share snacks from Alexa’s stylish purse.  Naturally they are attracted to each other and Drew (you must suspend disbelief here) asks her to come with him to the wedding of his ex-girlfriend the very next day because he just can’t imagine walking into the room alone.  Their single date turns into a second date and they find themselves carving out time to be together in the following weekends.  He is a pediatric surgeon and she is the chief of staff for the Mayor of Berkley so it isn’t easy to find moments that match up in their busy schedules.  They make it work.  This is a fake romance that turns into something real and it all began in a stalled elevator – an overused romance novel trope but author makes it fresh and believable.

Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements is a wonderful summer read with a wedding at the centre – bonus points.  Right from the start you feel like you are on a vacation because you are traveling to a gorgeous family retreat on a fictional New England island called Waskeke.  You feel the sunshine, smell the breeze, almost want to dip your toes into the water and also feel a tiny bit smug that you aren’t involved in the kind of shenanigans that some of these people are dealing with or considering that they might become involved in.  Family patriarch Winn Van Meter has a good marriage, wonderful children, and a life of privilege. Although he should be enjoying the wedding of one of his daughters, he is obsessed with outward shows of status (like being accepted in a country club) and what people think of him.  His wife – Biddy! – has the wedding weekend planned down to the last minute. Daughters Daphne and Livia don’t really seem like they deserve the kind of devotion their mother shows them.  If the author didn’t have such a way of making the situation funny it might be impossible to like many of the characters in this novel but it is enjoyable to watch them all – talking about their Ivy League educations and wearing their preppy clothes – until this unique celebratory weekend comes to an end.

There are scads of wonderful YA books where weddings are featured so please come to the desk and we will tell you about some of our favourites.  Come to think of it there are a several solid junior titles as well, I can suggest the Penderwicks series and dear Richard Peck’s The Best Man.  Weddings are such an integral part of life that they feature prominently in many novels and are a natural fit for any list of favourite books.  One of my top teen titles, Always and Forever Lara Jean, by the incredible Jenny Han, is actually the third in her series which features three sisters – Margo, Kitty and Lara Jean – and their widowed father.  He has decided that he can start to consider a romantic future with someone again and finds love with their wonderful neighbour Ms. Rothschild.  This book is a window into Lara Jean’s senior year as she makes decisions about where she wants to go to college and what her future will bring but the strength of these books has always been their family unit.  It’s the lure of the sisters and how they relate to their father that sets this series apart from others on the YA bookshelves.  Jenny Han’s first book has just been made into a film for Netflex (you can see all kinds of behind-the-scenes details on Twitter @jennyhan) and I’m excited to see it. I just really hope that they stay true to the wonderful family scenes that Han depicts in her books.  That is part of what made the wedding in this book so meaningful as the sisters have worked hard to be kind to each other, to take care of their father after the death of their mother, and welcoming Ms. Rothschild into their lives is a big step. This YA book is worth a read and includes a sweet wedding that will make you cry.

And finally, if you are in the market for a wedding shower gift then you must have a look at the latest offering from the editors of Martha Stewart Living.  They have pulled together valuable tips and tricks and gorgeously photographed recipes in Martha Stewart’s Newlywed Kitchen and it is a superb resource.  The book is divided into three stellar sections.  The first one helps the new couple get organized by sorting out their pantry, buying supplies, and choosing spiffy new tools.  The second section includes recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner for two people, and then the third section is all about entertaining.  That final section is called “Gather Round” and is divided into events that a couple might find themselves hosting, including the dreaded Thanksgiving meal.  Really, this could be considered a welcome resource for any cookbook shelf and not just those recently wed.  You could give it a try first for three weeks – just borrow it from your friendly neighbourhood library.

As for Gill’s Jukebox, I didn’t get a chance to call in and make a request but in case you wondered, the song that I always choose at weddings is Jim Croce’s Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.  A classic since 1973 – just try not to dance when you hear it.

— Penny M.

 

 

Circe : Is It A “Must Read”?

You know how friends get together and participate in those fantasy sports leagues by choosing their favourite players in a particular sport, each person putting in a wager, tracking the statistics throughout a season, and then determining the winner at the end based on who amassed the greatest number of points? I’ve known people to do this for hockey, baseball, and basketball. Even for a period of time the TV show The League was very popular at our house with six Chicago high school friends who ran an incredibly competitive – and completely absurd – fantasy football league.

It’s fun. I get it. I can see how the thrill of trash talking about your favourite sports and players is a blast but it has always left me feeling cold. I watch sports, have played on a few adult rec teams, and certainly drive my kids to arenas and fields all year long but participating in one of these fantasy leagues has just never held any thrill for me.

Until recently when I was thinking that it could be possible to set something similar up for a publishing season. A group of friends could choose 5-10 authors who are publishing books that season and see how their books do in a set period of time with the markers for success being agreed upon ahead of time (as we wouldn’t be able to use the typical scoring stats available through runs, points scored or touchdowns). We could say that a starred review in Publishers Weekly or Kirkus was worth one point and a front page review in the New York Times Book Review with a colour illustration would be worth two points. If the author was interviewed on a major television network they would get three points and if they got a radio interview it would be two and on from there. The wager would be, of course, each person putting a gift certificate from Words Worth Books into the pot. At the end of the season we would tally up how well authors did and the first place winner would get all of the gift certificates. I think it would be so much fun to predict how well a book would do and take a risk on a debut author. Don’t you think?

51eaZ1mO9ML._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_I was musing over this because I recently read a book that I had refused to read – stubbornly – because every reviewer said that I had to read it. It was a ‘must read’ on every possible list. Madeleine Miller’s Circe was lauded by Kirkus, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly with starred reviews and glowing words of praise. NPR, Esquire, Cosmopolitan (!), The Boston Globe, The Millions and Book Riot all said it was on their list of books that you had to read for this year and The Guardian said it was “…unmissable culture for 2018.” I felt that every time I heard or read another thing about this witch’s tale I was more unlikely to read it. I felt like a toddler being led to steamed vegetables. No can do.

And then I heard an interview with author Madeline Miller where she read aloud from her book and shared a moment from the character’s first days as a new mother. She is walking with her infant and says that her son doesn’t like the sun, doesn’t like the wind, is unhappy on his back, is unhappy when placed on his stomach and doesn’t even cease to cry when she carries him but at least when he cries she has the consolation that he is still alive. I’m just remembering the bare bones of the words she used to share these feelings but it was so moving that it took me back to those early days when you have your first child and you hover outside the door after the baby is asleep – relieved that they are asleep but terrified that the silence means that they might have stopped breathing instead. I knew that this Madeleine Miller was someone I wanted to get to know through her writing.

Circe’s story is one you might have heard before as she is the daughter of the Greek sun-god Helios who grows into the powerful witch who can turn passing sailors into pigs. A useful skill. The author has given us a chance to meet Circe as a young girl who is unloved by her parents, shunned by everyone in the golden court and banished to live alone on an island where she starts to develop her skills with herbs and witchcraft. Her determined spirit and uncompromising nature make her a character to love and when she starts to finds her footing on the island you are completely won over. Through the book Circe meets Daedallus, the Minotaur, Athena, Medea, Odysseus, Zeus, turns so many men into pigs, performs an emergency C-section, casts spells, welcomes thieves and worse into her home, finds love and has her own beautiful son.

Sure, it’s a lot to fit into a lifetime, even for a goddess like Circe, but the moments in the book that seemed most beautiful were the ones where she seemed like someone we all know right now. In 2018. A powerful, thoughtful woman who is struggling to do what is right. At the end of the novel it really did seem like she would fit in with other wonderful female characters I’d read lately – as if she were from An American Marriage or That Kind of Mother. Her friends and lovers were just as real and present for me. All of those reviewers were right this time. I’m adding my voice to their chorus. This is the book that you have to read.

So, I’m just letting you know that in the fantasy authors league that I’m thinking of running, Madeleine Miller will be my first draft pick.

— Penny M.

Eat A Little Better

When a book promises a behind-the-scenes look at something I find it irresistible. If the author is telling me that the secrets they will provide will be about 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue then I never miss reading that book. It’s a tempting mix – the White House and secrets. One of my favourite cozy mysteries is top of this list partially due to the way that the author made her series seem authentically set in an atmosphere that is notoriously hard to get any information about. It’s just too good.

The White House Chef series by Julie Hyzy is one of the most enjoyable cozy mysteries on our shelves. Her books are action-packed, funny, with a supporting cast of sous chefs, fussy West Wing staffers, and gruff secret service agents who make the White House feel like a real community you want to return to in each book, despite constant murders and kitchen chaos. Hyzy includes recipes for a “complete Presidential menu” at the end of each book and the details about the high pressure life serving the First Family make this one of my favourite choices to read or recommend.

However, I was truly thrilled when I read that a real White House chef for the Obamas, Sam Kass, was publishing his own cookbook. A chance to really learn about the daily work life of one of the White House chefs? Sign me up!

This cookbook, Eat a Little Better, is more than just recipes – it is inspirational. Sam Kass is gently encouraging us to try and eat better, adjust the way we shop for food, arrange our pantry and think about how this will change our world. And the very best part of his message is that he writes the whole book without using guilt or making it seem like his suggestions are easy to accomplish. I was relieved that Kass acknowledges that very few families can quit eating brownies altogether and that he, as a former advisor to the First Family, couldn’t make that happen. Even Michelle Obama wasn’t able to make her kids listen to her so how can we be expected to make magic happen when people walk into the house after school and work, claiming that they are ‘starving’? Instead Kass suggests that there be a balance between the healthy choices and less healthy choices for everyone and outlines how that can happen in his book. It’s the idea that we can all eat a little better that is so appealing.

t1larg.elmoThe recipes in the book vary in difficulty but there weren’t many that seemed overly daunting. Kass is realistic in his expectations of us. I like Sam Kass. He even spent time with the gang from Sesame Street – you can look this up. He did forget to include a chapter on desserts in Eat a Little Better which I found disappointing. He mentioned that Barack Obama was a fan of pie but neglected to include many stellar recipes for that favoured choice. Do you remember how Barack’s performance in the first presidential debate in 2012 was a little lackluster but in the second he seemed to turn up the heat on Mitt Romney? It seems that it wasn’t the days of reported prep work in Virginia that gave him the extra fire. According to the story in this book, Kass asked Obama what he wanted to eat (and he was ready for anything, having packed a variety of ingredients to take along and cook in a tiny kitchen on Air Force One) and made him exactly the right meal for crushing the competition. He liked it so much that he cooked it for him again on election night making it “lucky pasta”. If there is one recipe you try from this cookbook it has to be this one – not to mention it is chock-a-block full of wonderful stuff – garlic, spinach, basil, pine nuts, chicken – and then it will be your family’s lucky pasta. It also makes a tasty leftover so you can take it to work the next day and impress your friends by saying you are eating President Obama’s favourite pasta.

The real highlight of the recipes for me was the last grouping, where he organized beans and grains into different seasons in an attempt to encourage families to add them into every meal of the year. His inventive suggestions for using up pantry staples will make so many busy weeknight meals (and lunches!) easier. I know that I am going to be checking this practical cookbook out so many times over the next few months and will love it even more when September hits.

Sam Kass began cooking for the Obama family long before they moved into the White House. It’s really hard to say which is a more challenging meal to cook – one for a family with a parent who is the leader of the free world or a meal for one who is working 24-7 trying to get that job. This cookbook is actually an opportunity to learn a bit about how the food that they ate and how they connected over meals was a part of what kept that family strong during challenging times. He started on the journey of being more conscious of the impact of food when he worked as a senior policy advisor for nutrition in the White House and as the executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative and he includes that journey in this book making it a little bit like an autobiography.

Kass was an important part of the work that Michelle Obama did when she created a kitchen garden on the South Lawn. This was a controversial decision at the time but it allowed them to invite thousands of children and adults into the space and let them see how food is grown instead of seeing it come in glossy packages from the local supermarket. They chose to go even further by using that produce in state dinners, advancing to add honey production to the garden and eventually creating more than one White House beer while they were in office. Since leaving the White House Kass has continued to work on initiatives with Michelle and Barack Obama. If you wanted to fall into an inspiring Internet rabbit hole you could check out what he is up to now – he is hard to keep up with.

We might not all have kitchens with the same accoutrements as Sam Kass, have the opportunity to entertain heads of state (or Elmo) but we can all try some of his recipes, learn from his research, and enjoy reading about the real life of a White House Chef.

— Penny M.

The Royal We

Guilty pleasures – we all have them. We all need them. A harmless indulgence to turn to when the evening’s pile of dishes is too high or it seems like you simply cannot fill the day’s school and work lunch bags one more time.

WPL has been helping to feed mine for years with the subscriptions to the simply magical Royalty-watching magazines Majesty and Hello! Canada. Occasionally I augment my magazine reading with something from the non-fiction shelves by Penny Junor or Sally Bedell Smith. And, in the early spring of 2015, I was thrilled to read that two fashion bloggers were writing a fictionalized tell-all based on the romance of Will and Kate. After being captivated by this splendid romance I regularly turn to the website from authors Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan often as they publish a weekly “Royals Round Up” with a collection of royalty news from around the world and share sweet little nuggets of silliness about the families they cover. I highly recommend it. They make me smile every weekend with their comments about sweet Royal babies, tiaras and glamorous dresses and have added a tagline to their website that says “Will the Prince marry an American? We wrote the book on that.” because they did and it is spot on.

The idea behind the novel The Royal We is that they have used the facts of Will and Kate’s love story and written a novel entirely about them, just slightly adjusting their names, and adding in some fun details where they couldn’t dig up the facts. Their Kate is ‘Bex’ and Will is ‘Nick’ and his brother is a rakish red-haired ‘Freddie’ but the timelines match and you can perfectly imagine every step that they are taking if you have seen the photographs of Will and Kate on the campus of St. Andrews. Conveniently for these two bloggers they added a twist that their future queen is actually an American who comes to England to spend a year studying and meets her future husband/prince. She didn’t even come with the idea of romance in mind – she just wanted to sketch and paint. It’s always that way in the best romance novels, isn’t it?

In their swoon-worthy story Nick/Will is prime royalty so there are glitzy parties and museum openings with paparazzi chases but the real connection begins with a friendship built over binge watching American vampire TV shows in their dorm rooms. His brother Freddie is everything you would want him to be – charming, hilarious, a new girl on his arm every night – adding a light touch to balance the tension of Bex getting to know Nick’s very formal extended family. Poor Bex faces British tabloids, critical society snobs and personal demons in the years before Nick proposes (it’s based on their life story, you know how it ends, so I am not spoiling anything for anyone here) and I enjoyed reading it the first time and have recently re-read in my excitement over Harry’s (or Freddie’s?) wedding. The supporting cast of minor royals and friends who attend university with Nick and Bex do a wonderful job of hanging about and it ends perfectly but with enough suspense that it keeps you turning the pages. It’s just delightful reading for anyone wrapped up in the excitement of watching Harry and Meghan’s wedding unfold.

I know that any book written by two American fashion bloggers will be more of a vacation read – perfect for the beach or the airplane – for many and, because it is written with the young royal family as the main focus there is more of an emphasis on the fun side of things than the historical beauty of St. George’s Chapel, but it ends with Bex/Kate trying on endless wedding dresses and isn’t that what we look forward to in a romance novel? This is a book you read for diversion or entertainment – not so that you can bring it up at the next party you attend, unless it is a party to celebrate the Royal Wedding. And, did you know you can even download it from Overdrive and read it on your eReader so your family doesn’t have to know that you are enjoying it a second time? Perfection!

If you want to relive the formal thrills of Kate and Will’s April 2011 wedding or look forward to the casual beauty of Harry and Meghan’s May 2018 wedding you really cannot go wrong with The Royal We. You should brew a whole pot of tea for this one.

— Penny M.

The Rule of Stephens

I heard a radio interview recently with a fascinating Canadian author named Timothy Taylor and wondered why I hadn’t read his books before. Then, when I checked on his previous books in the WPL catalogue, I saw that he had been shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2002 and I sussed out the reason for this gap in my knowledge. Kids.

My kids were the problem. Timothy Taylor wrote his first two books when our children were very small and I was too busy taking them to the library or reading them the book Maisy Goes to the Library over and over. There is a whole pocket of things every parent misses when their children are young and then, when they reach their teen years, that time slowly comes back in bits and bobs. Often my time comes to me when I am waiting for them outside of practices and rehearsals so recently I enjoyed reading The Rule of Stephens.

Oh, how I enjoyed reading this book. And yet, I feel horrible writing that I enjoyed reading this book because it is partially about a terrifying airplane crash with only a handful of the passengers surviving. The novel begins with the author describing the life of one of the survivors, named Catherine. She is a doctor who has left her practice behind to begin a groovy medical start-up (her office is in a warehouse filled with computer geniuses and analysts who bring their dogs to work, leave their bikes next to their desks, experiment with any type of food and have a teepee in the middle of their workspace) and carries a print out of the airplane seats with a notation of the people who survived the crash.

The author’s incredible attention to detail – outstanding and unusual details – is part of what makes this novel one that will stay in my memory for a long time and become one that I suggest to friends and customers who like an unusual story but also one that has wonderful moments of humanity.

Catherine is struggling with the kind of emotion that you would expect from someone who survives a plane crash over the ocean and she relives those horrifying moments when the plane starts to split apart, sharing them with her co-workers and others who are close to her. As she explores huge questions about how she lives her life she is managing her start up, possibly beginning a romantic relationship for the first time since the crash, negotiating with the horrible man who loaned her the capital for her company, and getting to know one of the other survivors from the flight. Really, this doesn’t sound like a book that would take on a page-turning pace but it does because of the unexpected turn that Timothy Taylor takes in the second half of the book. It almost makes you second-guess reality and that’s where the title comes into play.

Catherine has a wonderful sister and, when they were younger, they would reference the rule of the two ‘Stephens’ – one is Stephen King and the other is Stephen Hawking. Being a physician, she much prefers the scientific world of Hawking but there are moments in the book where it seems like the events Catherine is experiencing might be more at home in a plot written by the man from Bangor, Maine. I was just thrilled to see the book unfold and can’t imagine how Timothy Taylor didn’t constantly pat himself on the back and say “good job” after he finished a chapter. It was such an incredibly interesting read – different from anything I had read before.

So, as I do with many of the books I love, I stayed up far too late reading this one. When I was finished I looked at the clock, berated myself for being so foolish (in staying up late) and then turned back to the beginning so that I could ‘meet’ Catherine again for the first time. She was just as fascinating the second time. When common sense finally took hold I was able to console myself with two things – we have several of Timothy Taylor’s other books here at WPL for my reading enjoyment and he is a prolific writer in other forms so his website is a treasure trove of wonderful material to explore. Now I just have to wait for those pesky kids to move out so I have time to read everything.

— Penny M.

It’s All About Pi(e)

We live in a great city for celebrating Pi Day (March 14). I’m not entirely sure when the idea to full-on celebrate the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter began but any celebration is a good thing and I love this one.

Each year we are surrounded by celebrations of 3.14. The University of Waterloo marks the occasion in multiple faculties as do groups at Wilfrid Laurier University, Conestoga College and our Main Library’s neighbours, the Perimeter Institute. It’s everywhere and it’s so much fun.

There’s no shortage of people in Waterloo who might feel inclined to get involved in the classic “How many digits of Pi can you recite?” contest and I’m sure that they don’t need to be convinced to enjoy sweet or savoury pies in a tribute to the day.

When I think of Pi I must confess that I think of pie and this in turn gets me thinking of some of my very favourite music. On the WPL shelves we have one of the most beautiful CDs from American singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. It’s full of gorgeous songs that she created for the 2015 Broadway musical, Waitress. Just put it on repeat. Once you get started you won’t be able to stop singing along and thinking about friendship, family, love, heartache and baking. Great news too! The Mirvish theatre schedule includes a production of Waitress for summer 2019.

You can also borrow the 2007 movie that the musical is based on. The film has a fabulous cast – Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion – and seems like a standard Southern rom-com (one character is even named ‘Earl’) but it has so much more depth. Treat yourself to a generous slice of pie and some time watching The Waitress.

Should you actually want to learn how to bake your own delicious pie, we have many books to offer you recipes and guidance. You could select a classic cookbook like Joy of Cooking or pick something a little more modern like Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli’s The Home Cook: recipes to know by heart. I have read that she includes a personal favourite in there called “dark chocolate rum pie”. Oh. Yum.

So, whether you want to sing, eat, bake, or learn more about the magic of Pi, we will be happy to help you celebrate – and maybe we’ll sing you a song too.

— Penny M.

Mockingbird Songs

I was introduced to Harper Lee by my mother. She was in the habit of handing me books when I was bored and apples when I was hungry. I was the last of five kids and she had parenting down to a science by the time I arrived. She knew exactly what to do when one of us was underfoot – distract us with a book or give us something to eat. She had loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird and thought it was a good way to get me out of the kitchen, probably away from the cookie jar, for a few hours and she was right. Her book suggestions were always good even though I was usually disappointed by her ‘eat an apple’ idea.

Looking back on my first reading of To Kill a Mockingbird now I wonder if I processed everything that was going on in the book when I first read it. I think that I focused more on the adventures of the kids, wished for a tree house, and wondered what it might be like to have someone like Calpurnia in my life. It was a surprise to find out that there weren’t more books by the same author when I went to look on our local library shelves but it wasn’t until my university years that I thought more about the author’s life.

Following the 1960 publication of her novel and the 1962 film based on it she gave several interviews and was photographed for LIFE magazine and several other publications. In many of these interviews Harper Lee suggested that she was writing another novel (which we can now read as Go Set a Watchman, published in 2015) but as she found it increasingly hard to complete this new work the requests for further interviews were declined and she became known as the ‘reclusive’ author.

The pressure to produce a follow up novel is one theory about why she stayed out of the spotlight but it’s hard to say what really was going on in Harper Lee’s mind because she chose to keep her cards close to her chest where personal details were concerned. The success of To Kill a Mockingbird allowed her the means to do exactly as she wished. Just think about it, a New York Times article published after her death said that over 40 million copies of the book had been sold and she lived frugally throughout her life with one small home she shared with her sister Alice in Monroeville and the same small Manhattan apartment she rented first in 1949 and kept until her death in 2016. It’s clear from her writing that she loved her small town and the people who lived there so why would she ever choose to leave it unless absolutely necessary.

Untitled-1When I read that Wayne Flynt, a history professor from Auburn University, was going to publish letters from his years of friendship with the author I had my name on that holds list as soon as I could. I was checking my library account daily when I knew that the book, Mockingbird Songs : my friendship with Harper Lee, would arrive and I couldn’t wait to get the book home.

Wayne Flynt is well known for his previous books about Southern history, religion and politics and was one of the early editors of the online Encyclopedia of Alabama where you can find a wonderful entry about Harper Lee, members of her family, the area where she grew up and the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. You can check it out online.

Flynt and Nelle (as she signed her letters to him) talked about his work and the early days of the Encyclopedia of Alabama in their letters because they shared so much of their lives through their correspondence. He and his wife became friends with Harper Lee’s sister Louise first and then got to know the author better when Flynt was asked to introduce the author’s achievements at an award’s ceremony. In those written conversations a friendship grows and from 1983 to her death. She and Flynt send news about their health, the things that they are reading, how they feel about politics and world events, and tidbits about family. One of Flynt’s grandchildren is named Harper and Lee is delighted to hear about this little girl’s life in each letter.

Flynt and his family visit with Nelle many times throughout their friendship, in Monroeville and in New York, and each time their relationship deepens. In every chapter of the book he prefaces the letters with some information about how they have been connecting, sometimes through formal events and at other times in her home or at restaurants in town. Their correspondence is lengthy and she is enthusiastic about his publishing efforts but always very humble about the legacy of her own. Although she is constantly aware of her advancing age, and discusses visits to the doctor for health concerns relating to her eyes, her letters are consistently upbeat and filled with paragraphs about what she is reading and looking forward to doing next. If Harper Lee were ever a isolated person it does not come across in these letters, she is busy and happy, she just didn’t choose to share her life with the press.

In 2006 Flynt was asked to write a tribute to his friend for an event in Birmingham to celebrate her lifetime of work on behalf of racial reconciliation. He accepted the assignment and read a speech he had written that he called “Atticus’s Vision of Ourselves” that so captivated Nelle she asked him to read it at her eventual memorial service. His eulogy is included in his book just before the author’s acknowledgements and we can read it with the reassurance that it has Harper Lee’s absolute approval.

Now, it’s the late spring of 2017 and we know that Harper Lee died in Monroeville at age 89 in February of 2016 and she had her wish granted with Wayne Flynt’s reading of that tribute at her funeral. As articles about her life and the importance of her writing poured into newspapers, magazines and online worldwide following her death, I spent some time thinking about Scout, Jem and Atticus. If an author is going to leave us with stories of just one family then I think Harper Lee made the right decision in writing about this one. Maybe we can set aside all of the stories of the ‘reclusive author’ and spend some time instead reading Wayne Flynt’s Mockingbird Songs: my friendship with Harper Lee. You just might find yourself buying a nice pen and sending a letter to someone you care about.

— Penny M.

Embracing Change

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You have to embrace change if you work in a public library.  We see change every day – new books on the shelves through weekly deliveries, daily updates to the magazine and newspaper shelves and wonderful new faces coming in to sign up for library cards.  It’s one of the best parts of working here.  I also like that we rely on routine and I do gravitate towards that.  I enjoy the observance of tradition as much as the next gal.  I so look forward to the reappearance of holidays like Canada Day, Oktoberfest and our neighbour’s festive Fourth of July – parades, I just love parades.   Somehow though, I just can’t seem to muster much enthusiasm for the upcoming U.S. inauguration day.  I am regretting this because they put on a great show with opera singers, fabulous musicians, that nice walk down Pennsylvania Avenue with cheering crowds and many waving flags.  So, to make up for what I will be missing this year I have put the Waterloo Public Library’s catalogue to work for me on a list of books and music.

So, first I thought of some inspiring tunes I would want to listen to.  I started with the classics.  I went with the original “JT” and found James Taylor’s 1970 album Sweet Baby James so that I could enjoy a little bit of “Carolina on my mind”, “Country road” and “Fire and rain”.  Nothing better really.  Knowing that I would be feeling a little low after those soulful tunes I decided to play myself something uplifting like Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin.  We have a fantastic CD called The essential Aretha Franklin which is a double disc with all of the most beautiful tracks, just clicking from one to the next is a treat, and it can really get you up out of your chair and dancing.

I also felt like I needed a bit of pomp and circumstance in planning my own inaugural music list and decided to step away from R&B and folk singers.  I went with Copland’s “Appalachian spring” and I hit search and found that we have so many lovely versions of this on our shelves.  In fact, we have a great recording by the Lincoln Centre’s own Chamber Music Society that they recorded in a historic site in Kentucky.  According to their web site they trek out to this barn every year at Memorial Day and play a few concerts there.  I don’t have a ‘bucket list’ exactly but this just might go on my list of things to attend someday.  How cool must that be to catch?  Seeing all of those world-class musicians in a Shaker barn?  Count me in.

All of the best celebrations in the U.S. capitol involve some military melodies and I was aching to hear a bit of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or something like that so with a quick search on our faithful catalogue I found my best hit so far.  A CD called God bless America which has the Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler conducting, Leontyne Price, Kate Smith, Harry Belafonte and Perry Como!  It’s just like diving into my mother’s record collection all at once and if you take a glance at the list of songs on this CD it is jam-packed with U.S. patriotic tunes perfect for my home-based inaugural celebration or any other day I just feel like singing along.

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I didn’t want to just listen to music with my personal inauguration celebration so I did a little poking around for something to read.  An easy pick for me was to re-read Barack Obama’s book Dreams from my father: a story of race and inheritance.  Following his farewell speech I felt like I wanted to remember the early years when he worked so hard as a community organizer.  When he asked people to “show up, dive in, stay at it” it made me think I should read those pages again for inspiration.  President Obama was a big fan of reading himself and was called the “Reader-in-Chief” for all that he did to support literacy during his eight years; he published his own reading lists, visited local bookstores, read to thousands of kids and quoted To kill a mockingbird in his farewell speech.  How cool is that?  I’ll definitely return to some favourite chapters while I listen to my music.

For one more reading choice it seemed like it might be worth it to return to the beginning of U.S. presidential history and check out Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of George Washington to get a feel for how the first president approached his time in office.  Surely in 904 pages there has to be more to learn than what I absorbed in my high school American history classes.  In Washington : a life he presents a portrait of a man who is a “celebrated horseman, elegant dancer and tireless hunter”.  I wonder if those words are on a plaque somewhere in Mount Veronn?   If nothing else reading this book will allow me to listen to some of my favourite songs from the Broadway musical Hamilton where they reference George Washington.  It might be hard to listen to a few of those songs right now, especially “One last time”.  If you haven’t heard Chris Jackson’s voice as he sings about his last moments as America’s first president it is so worth a listen.

I’m not sure what I will choose for the last song of my little inaugural party but I will definitely lift my teacup and wish our neighbours well.  After that I will click on the WPL catalogue and plan my next book celebration – maybe Valentine’s Day?  Groundhog day?  I know that the WPL catalogue will provide me with great options.  Maybe I will expand my search this time and include recipes.  Delicious.

– Penny M.