Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November 2014 Book Recommendations


November 18, 2014

Murder 101: A Decker/Lazarus Novel 
By Faye Kellerman &

Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot 
By Reed Farrel Coleman 

If you are a fan of Faye Kellerman and have followed Rina Lazarus and Peter Decker throughout the years, nothing I say is likely to stop you from reading Murder 101, the latest installment in the series. Nonetheless, I would recommend skipping this title. 

Why? In a word: bor-ing. Kellerman has moved Rina and Peter to a fictitious upstate NY hamlet from the mean streets of LA, which is a bummer. Part of the magic of the Decker/Lazarus team was the contrast of Peter’s gritty work requirements contrasted with Rina’s cozy domesticity. Further, the plot centers on the theft of Tiffany glass panels from a mausoleum. Yawn. A few murders ensue but rather than this picking up the pace, the author gets bogged down in minutiae about Russian art, etc. I don’t know about you but when I read a mystery novel, I’m just in it for the sheer entertainment of a whodunit. Brain candy, take me away. 

Which brings us to Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot, the latest in the Jesse Stone mysteries, a far more satisfying read, despite the fact that the author is dead. Well, Robert B. Parker is dead, but his ghost writer, so to speak, has picked up the pen right where Parker left off without sacrificing anything in tone, character development or plot. Jesse Stone, a detective transplanted from LA like Decker, faces a demon from his past when an old rival in both baseball and love comes back to town at the same time a local rich kid is kidnapped and his girlfriend murdered. Unlike Decker, Stone is a lone wolf still trying to figure out how to get along with others, despite his full roster of female companions. Although this story also plays out in a sleepy hamlet, discovering how all the pieces fit together engages the reader enough to make even the characters’ forays into Lowell intriguing. 

If you’re a mystery reader, Robert B. Parker, dead or alive, rarely disappoints, but stick to Faye Kellerman’s less recent work for page-turning fun. 

--Christina

November 10, 2014 

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
By Margaret Atwood 


Short stories. I know a lot of avid fiction readers scan right past short story collections on their way to novels. This would be a mistake, though, in the case of Margaret Atwood’s latest offering Stone Mattress. Every tale reveals Atwood at the height of her powers, seemingly effortlessly spinning yarns with confidence and self-assurance. You can almost sense cockiness amid the darkly humorous prose. After publishing over fifty novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, and non-fiction works, this writer knows what she’s doing. 

The first three stories of the nine feature the interior lives of different participants involved in a multi-faceted love triangle, at least fifty years after its painful unraveling. The conclusion of this drama is simple, sweet, and profound. While the rest of the stories all contain elements of the macabre, Atwood’s keen insights into human nature are just as present. “Lusus Naturae” was written for Michael Chabon’s project McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories; “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth” provides a phantom-filled follow-up to Atwood’s 1994 novel The Robber Bride; “The Dead Hand Loves You” is a spooky tale about fate, and “The Freeze-Dried Groom” leaves you wondering where the next body will turn up. The title story, to me, was the most interesting, as it methodically outlines how to cover up a murder on a cruise ship in a truly engaging tale of well-deserved payback. “Torching the Dusties,” while disturbing in its premise of young radicals terrorizing nursing homes in a misguided effort to balance the environmental scales, is a fine finale. 

Short stories don’t get much press, but as writer Neil Gaiman says, “The short story is a very underrated art form.” If ever there was a reason to read short stories, Atwood gives you nine of them here. 

--Christina

November 3, 2014 

John Singer Sargent and His Muse: Painting Love and Loss
By Karen Corsano and Daniel Williman 

In the end, this is three stories: a love story, a war story, and an art story. The cast in this story are famous, in some cases, and wealthy, educated, and talented in most other cases. John Singer Sargent, the famous American painter, was raised in Europe, and constantly crisscrossed the European continent as did most of his extended family. Sargent made his mark early as a great painter. He often summered in the Swiss Alps and invited family members to join him and he would paint and use family members as models dressing them in Asian and Middle Eastern fashions which reflected Western artistic interest in those cultures in the early 20th century. 

His favorite model was his niece Rose-Marie, an educated, vivacious, and attractive young woman. She is the lead model in many of his famous watercolors from those vacations in paintings such as The Brook, Simplon Pass: Reading and The Pink Dress, which is reproduced on the cover of the book. Rose-Marie met and fell in love with Robert Michel, a young and rising historian, and the son of famous French art historian, Andre Michel, whom Sargent knew. The background of these families is explored in detail to demonstrate the idealism of the young couple as they united. The authors follow their lives and reactions to the war once it breaks out. Robert is activated and is an officer. He writes letters and entries in his journal which reflect incredible idealism, which did not seem to diminish even after he experiences the carnage of some of the war’s battles. We as readers know in advance what will ultimately happen. That does not, however, reduce the terribly tragic impact of his fate. Rose-Marie decides to serve as a nurse in a rehabilitation unit for blinded soldiers. We know what will happen to her, too. That tragic impact is not reduced either. 

The author’s chapter, “The Paris Gun”, reads almost like a technical bulletin in describing the weapon that the Krupp foundry created to fire long-range into Paris. It is harrowing to read knowing what its firing mission will do. As mentioned earlier, this is a war story and war stories are tragic. It is also a love story, and in this case, a very moving one. The apt subtitle, Painting Love and Loss, perfectly describes, in a poignant and profound way, the rest of the book, a story about art and how a work of art came to be painted. 

--Bill

Thursday, November 13, 2014

LearningExpress Library

Need to brush up your math, grammar or science skills? Eager to practice for the HiSET, SAT, GRE or LSAT exam? Preparing to become a U.S citizen? Need information about a career? Try LearningExpress Library! This online database provides a wide variety of career and educational resources that will help you build the necessary skills to achieve your goals. 

Here you will find practice tests, ebooks, interactive tools, strategies, advice and much much more, all designed by experts. 
Take a practice test, and review the results to see how you did. You can also create a personal portfolio page to review your progress. 

Check out the entire list of featured resources here: 
http://www.learningexpresshub.com/featured-resources

For convenience the database is broken into several centers depending on the topic of interest.




  • Adult Learning Center – Math, Grammar, Writing, Citizenship Exam 
  • Career Center – Occupation Exams, Entrance Exams, Information about careers 
  • College Center – Advanced Placement, TOEFL, PSAT, SAT 
  • High School Equivalency Center – Basic Skills, HiSET, GED 
  • College Preparation Center – College Placement Exams, Graduate School Exams, Reading, Math and Science Skills 
  • Recursos Para Hispanohablantes – Resources in Spanish 
  • School Center – Elementary, Middle and High school skills 


For more assistance, you can navigate through the helpful User Guides section. Instructional videos are available here, if you are interested in learning more about the database.



Access: Go to our homepage, click on Online Databases, then select Education, K-12 & Test Prep. Click on LearningExpress Library. Create your free account with a Worcester Public Library card and email address. It's as easy as that!

Monday, November 3, 2014

October 2014 Staff Book Recommendations


October 28, 2014
 

Consumed : A Novel
By David Cronenburg 


If you're a fan of director David Cronenberg’s horror films from the 1980s, you will not be disappointed by his debut novel. Never seen any of his movies? Here's a sampling: 1981's "Scanners" is about a new race of humans with telekenetic powers, reminiscent of X-Men; 1983's "Videodrome" follows the president of an underground TV station who discovers an international broadcast of snuff films with subliminal messaging that cause strong hallucinations and lead him to coin the phrase "long live the new flesh!"; 1986's "Dead Ringers" is about experimental twin gynecologists, both played by Jeremy Irons. Consumed delves into the most bizarre of human behaviors, including graphic depictions of auto-cannibalism and self inflicted amputations. This means that, like his movies, it is not for the faint of heart.

In addition to being a great gross-out horror novel, Consumed is a brilliant depiction of "the way we live now" in the Digital Age. The main characters, poly-amorous Naomi and Nathan, are journalists who spend their time Google/Youtube/Wikipedia'ing everything around them as they also record it with the best equipment money can buy. Their experience of this mediated reality is told in striking detail. Naomi is investigating a French man under investigation for the murder of his wife, a famous intellectual, and it leads her through a shadowy network to Tokyo, where he both seduces and confides in her. It turns out he has an acquaintance in common with Nathan's current investigation, of a decertified doctor in Budapest who practices an experimental form of mastectomy on movie stars. The couple keeps in close touch with each other as they follow these stories around the world. If you can stomach what these characters can, you will follow them with baited breath and you won't be able to put this book down. Recommended for fans of David Lynch, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon and others who show us a secret world hidden in plain sight. 

--Katie

October 14, 2014

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife 
By Mary Roach 

Mary Roach once again tackles weird science with her trademark hilarity and attention to detail. In Spookwe encounter families brought together by reincarnation, scientists obsessed with measuring the physical dimensions of the soul, fraudulent mediums and much more. Roach explores the various ways that science has attempted to explain the afterlife throughout history. After reading this book you may have an alternate answer to that famous question, “Who you gonna call?” Perhaps a university researcher and author of peer-reviewed literature on paranormal phenomena.*

While the author is clearly a skeptic, her curiosity and open-mindedness prevent the book from feeling condescending towards its subject matter. Roach pokes fun at the paltry tricks employed by early mediums (including swallowing lengths of gauze for later regurgitation as “ectoplasm”), but at the same time she is genuinely interested in research on reincarnation and out of body experiences. Her book is a fascinating journey through historic scientific approaches to abstract concepts like the soul, ghosts and the afterlife. Whereas these days it is more common to think of something like the soul as existing outside the laws of science, at the turn of the century this was not the case. Scientists attempted to measure, capture, and observe the unknown in order to prove its existence. 

Roach’s anecdotal style entertains while her meticulous research provides substance and reliability. Like all of Roach’s books, Spook is divided into chapters which can stand alone, as each one deals with a different aspect of the larger subject. Though Roach doesn’t provide a cut-and-dried conclusion on the existence of paranormal phenomena, she does state that after a year of research she believes that not everything we experience in life can be explained by science. And, if you really want to push the subject, “The debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with. What the hell. I believe in ghosts.” 

*N.B. Actually, Dr. Venkman of Ghostbusters is a Ph. D. in “parapsychology and psychology” and has published work on the paranormal, though this writer doubts any of it was peer-reviewed. 

 --Chelsea


October 6, 2014

Adultery
 

By Paul Coelho

In a recent article, the Wall Street Journal  refers to the Brazilian-born Coelho as a “66-year-old writer, a self-styled spiritual guide who has sold more than 165 million books in some 80 languages”. He also handles his own publicity and maintains a very active and large social media presence with over 25.6 million fans on Facebook and nine million followers on Twitter. Mr. Coelho is a busy man. If you are curious about just how busy, you can read all about it at this link http://online.wsj.com/articles/paulo-coelho-digital-juggernaut-1408055080.
Adultery is a novel about a female journalist, Linda, married with two children, and her financier husband who are well off and live in Geneva, Switzerland. Coelho does a nice job of describing and creating Geneva's atmosphere. Linda is a respected journalist and is prone to philosophical bouts of introspection, especially about her marriage and her life. As part of her profession, she receives an assignment to interview a rising politician, Jacob, who was a former boyfriend of hers. This meeting, as one would guess, ignites old passions and sets of a chain of events between Linda, her spouse, and Jacob and his spouse, that pushes Linda onto a very dangerous marital ledge. I do not want to say much more…that might give something away in a story of quick turns and twists of plot. The story is a rather quick read with often very short chapters or sections. Coelho writes very lucidly and philosophically. Linda, and others, can be very annoying or liberating characters depending on how you interpret their motives. Interpretation, reader interpretation, is, in the end, what will determine the rise or fall of this novel. It is an interesting novel and one in which the reader cannot help but be judge and jury.
--Bill

Saturday, September 27, 2014

September 2014 Book Recommendations

September 29, 2014 

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 
By Haruki Murakami 

The latest and much anticipated novel by Haruki Murakami (1Q84, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle) has hit the shelves, sold more than a million copies in Japan within its first week post-publication, and has been residing on The New York Times Bestsellers List for seven weeks and counting. I have personally fielded several requests for this popular title at the Welcome Desk. Does it live up to the hype? Well, in this librarian’s opinion, yes and no. 

Filed under YES, Murakami dreams up an engaging plot, seemingly without breaking a sweat. The titular Colorless Tsukuru is 36-year-old train station designer living alone in Tokyo. He suffered a devastating loss of friendship when his high school clique dismissed him with no explanation back in his early 20s. But, as life is wont to unfold, sixteen years later, he is forced to confront his grief and find some answers before he can move on to cultivate meaningful relationships anew. Readers will be intrigued by the mystery: Why did his friends shut him out so completely? This question alone kept me engaged. 

However, there exists much “telling” and not enough “showing” throughout the narrative. The author mentions many times that Tsukuru feels like he has no personality (hence the “colorless’ modifier), but never delivers evidence of that idea. I would argue that anyone who feels loss as deeply as this character is likely to be anything but boring. Further, it is the friends who rejected him so callously that are portrayed in a one-dimensional light, i.e., the “athlete”, the “brain”, the “artist”, and the “comedian”. Also, Sarah, the current girlfriend who issues him the ultimatum to deal with whatever is making him emotionally distant or else, comes across as calculating, aloof and in no way the type of person to either intuit a person’s dark past or inspire said person to wrestle with his demons for the privilege of loving her. 

In summary, the plot and prose will keep likely keep you flipping pages. Lingering questions, antiseptic characters and way too much detail about designing trains keep me from recommending this book wholeheartedly. But give it try! 

--Christina

September 22, 2014 

Nordic Art: The Modern Breakthrough 1860-1920
Edited by David Jackson 

The cover, a detail of Finland’s noted artist Askeli Gallen-Kallela’s 1901 painting Lake View, pulsing with colors of Finland and the Nordic regions, is a perfect choice to represent this catalog of the 2012-13 exhibit of the same name at the Groninger Museum in Munich. The title refers to a cultural movement, Modernism, which affected all areas of northern culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jackson’s opening essay about the movement is extraordinary in its breadth and depth as he explores its impact on Nordic art, French and Paris influences on Nordic painters, and the nationalistic sense many artists developed “…without degenerating into insular chauvinism or xenophobia.” The essays are heady, educational, analytical, informative, and exciting to read. The book is large format and the reproductions – and there are many - are beautiful and inspiring to view. 

The format of the book incorporates a timeline to put world events, the world art scene, Nordic events, and the Nordic art scene in a rich contextual environment that helps to make sense of the flow of the movement. There is also a biographical section for each artist represented in the book, with each painting reproduction and page number listed. When all is said and done, it is the paintings that “talk”: landscapes, portraits, scenes from life, and fantasies. If you do not know a great deal about Nordic art – as I did not – then this book is a rich, rich reward of discovery. Some names you may know of, such as Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson. But many may be new and open up possibilities.


--Bill

September 15, 2014 

Outlander
By Diana Gabaldon 

Diana Gabaldon’s classic time-traveling adventure defies categorization. While it’s billed as romance, it could also be called fantasy, sci-fi, or historical fiction. Outlander contains elements of all of these genres. The book follows Claire Randall (or Beauchamp) a World War II nurse who is transported back in time when she steps through a ring of standing stones in the Scottish Highlands. She falls 200 years into the past landing in 1744, where she confronts her husband’s villainous ancestor, Black Jack Randall, and connects with dashing highlander, Jamie Fraser. Claire uses her spotty memory of history to help her survive, while desperately clinging to the memory of her husband and trying to resist Jamie’s muscles and charm. 

So, a little corny—but great escapist literature. Since the Starz adaptation started airing last month a lot of people have hailed Outlander as a feminist version of Game of Thrones. While I don’t think we can compare Gabaldon’s series with Martin’s (they’re completely different things), I agree with the assertion that Claire is a feminist heroine. Claire is transported into a highly misogynistic time and society. Almost immediately after arriving she is assaulted and then kidnapped. Rape is a real and constant threat throughout her ordeal. Despite these trials she is intelligent, funny, and able to adapt. What I love about Claire is that she is a real strong female character (as opposed to the Strong Female Character) yet she’s allowed to be sensual and fall in love and have doubts and make mistakes, and that doesn’t compromise her as an independent and powerful person. 

Gabaldon’s story is engrossing and thrilling, and her writing is lovely, if a little flowery. 

--Chelsea

September 8, 2014 

California 
By Edan Lepucki 

 If you enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy and/or conjecturing what post-apocalyptic existence in America would look like, consider reading Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California. Protagonists Frida and Cal, a Los Angeles couple who have escaped the looted, burned-out, pirate- patrolled metropolis, eschew what passes for community and head into the wilderness by themselves. Having fallen in love when Cal was enrolled at an elite avant-garde school for survivalists with Frida’s dangerously charismatic brother Micah as a roommate and best friend, the spouses believe they can endure loneliness, hunger, and extreme deprivation relying only on each other. And so they do, in an abandoned shack, largely relying on Cal’s farming and hunting skills. Until Frida becomes pregnant. 

Suddenly, their isolation seems less romantic than ominous. The rumor of other mavericks living in a secret, possibly violent community a few days’ hike away, brought to them by mysterious trader August, peaks their interest as the reality of bearing and raising a child becomes clearer. Although cautious Cal is reluctant to approach the well-guarded community, Frida’s adventurous spirit prevails and off they go. While some answers from their shared past are answered upon their arrival in this cloistered society, far more questions arise and their idyllic union threatens to become extinct. 

This novel starts off very strong. Told in a back-and-forth style, providing the reader pertinent background as the plot progresses, main story is set against a backdrop of world-changing events. According to Lepucki’s imagination, it’s the weather that’s ultimately going to do us in, i.e., an uber-blizzard that permanently takes out the Northeast. Although this reviewer felt the story’s latter half to be a bit tedious and predictable, many reviewers disagree. For sure, Lepucki is definitely an author to watch. 

--Christina


September 4, 2014

(Milan: Skira, 2012. ISBN 9788857213736) 

This is actually a catalog of an exhibition held at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, Oct. 11, 2011-Jan. 8, 2012. There are multiple contributors to this book which includes essays by various scholars and is to an extent an attempt to contextualize what is known in Soviet art history not as an aesthetic movement but rather a reflection of totalitarianism. The book has beautiful reproductions of Russian art but most of the paintings discussed have political underpinnings and are analyzed with that theme in mind. It is dense writing, as this long quotation from the publisher foreshadows:

"Socialist Realism was and remains an exceptional phenomenon in twentieth century art. It bore the challenge of promoting realist figuration on a scale without parallel in the rest of the world, employing the talents of thousands of artists over decades and spreading over an immense and varied empire. By glorifying the social role of art, affirming the primary value of content as opposed to form and restoring the central role of traditional practices, socialist Realism was the declared opponent of the modern movement, and in fact represented the only completely alternative artistic system. Socialist Realism. Soviet painting 1920-1970 is the most exhaustive exhibition on Soviet realist painting ever shown outside Russia and follows the movement's development over fifty years through a selection of works from the country's leading museums. Created by the great Russian artists (Deineka, Malevic, Adlivankin, Laktionov, Plastov, Brodskij, Korzhev) the works present a multiplicity of questions, themes and formal approaches to art spanning from the last phases of the civil war to the beginnings of the Brezhnev era, stopping at the early 1970s when trends in official Soviet art took on varied and inconsistent directions such that the cultural supremacy of the socialist-realist current faded definitively. A non monolithic view emerges, in which the movement does not originate exclusively as the product of totalitarian control and political pressures but as an evolving organism that reflected internal issues and echoed the great historic events of the twentieth century."

The book provides an important and critical look at the impact of Russian policies on artists and the influences on artistic development. One very interesting interview is Zoya Katashinskaya’s of the artist Geli Korshev about his life as an art student before and during World War II. Best known for his mammoth work Scorched by the Fires of War, Korshev answers his interview questions in telling detail and humanity. The fact that art students were able to function at the level they did is amazing.  A separate essay on Scorched by the Fires of War by Michael Brown is another “must read” part of this fascinating book.


--Bill