Now Departing for: Alaska

Hello Fellow Online Challenge Readers!

This month we’re heading north, to Alaska. Just the name conjures up images of a rugged, wild frontier. A land of extremes – in landscape, in weather, in individualism, in wildlife, this beautiful place is full of adventures great and small and has the stories to prove it.

You’ll find a wide range of titles to choose from this month. There are quite a few mysteries set in Alaska, including the Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabanow and the Maxie and Stretch series by Sue Henry. There are also a lot of romances, like, a lot. Maybe all that cold weather is good for snuggling? Check out Fire and Ice by Julie Garwood, Northern Lights by Nora Roberts or Darkness by Karen Robards.

For fiction, consider Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union about a (fictional) Jewish state that has been established in Sitka, Alaska after World War II. Protocol Zero by James Abel (also known as Clive Cussler), is a thriller that fans of Michael Crichton will appreciate. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey is historical fiction set in 1885, told through the letters of a young couple. Or try Jodi Picoult’s The Tenth Circle, a story of revenge set the in the Alaskan bush.

If you prefer non-fiction, you’ve got some great books to look at including Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer about a privileged young man who headed into the wilds of Alaska in an attempt to live off the land, or 81 Days Below Zero by Brian Murphy about a young Army pilot that survived brutal conditions after crash landing in the Arctic in 1943.

I am going to read Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey about a childless couple homesteading in Alaska who, after building a figure out of snow, find a little girl in their woods. It sounds like an intriguing mix of history and magical realism. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Now, what about you – what are you reading this month?

 

Now Arriving from: San Francisco

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

We’re back from the City by the Bay – how was your virtual visit? Did you find a book that gave you a taste of the city?

I hit the jackpot this month and read a great book – Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Set mostly in San Francisco, the story revolves around a mysterious bookstore that is open 24 hours a day and caters to a very particular clientele. More that that it’s an exploration of old vs new, of how pen and paper (and books) mesh with and clash with technology and new ideas.

Stephanie wrote a great review of this book for the blog a couple of years ago which I suggest you check out. It gives you a great description of what the book is about (without spoilers) and why it’s so good. It’s also pretty funny – Clay’s internal dialogue is often hilarious (and very relatable) and while San Francisco isn’t an integral part of the story, it does add a lot of character to the setting. Read it – it’s sooooo good!

Bonus: if you like to judge a book by it’s cover and mostly pick up a book because of its appearance rather than what the blurb says, then you have to check this one out because the cover glows in the dark! Yep. I tested it myself and it really does glow in the dark. Kinda super-awesome.

So, what about you – did you find anything super-awesome to read (or listen to or watch) this month? Tell us!

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

I just finished listening to John Darnielle read his book, Universal Harvester, on CD. I am left asking myself, “What just happened?” I liked it. I think I would like to re-read it, this time in print.

The book is about a young man named Jeremy Heldt who works at Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa in the mid-nineties. He is a down-to-earth guy, having lost his mother to a car accident six years prior. As a relatively responsible twentysomething adult, he isn’t sure what to do when he discovers that some videos have been returned with strange footage spliced into them. It is unclear to him whether the scenes are a goof, or if someone is getting hurt and sending out a cry for help. Also, his boss at the video store may or may not have become personally entangled in whatever it is.

I was first drawn to listen to this book because I read in a Booklist review that it is set in small-town Iowa. Not knowing anything about author John Darnielle, I thought, “I want to find out how he portrays an Iowan. I want to hear if he’s going to butcher the way we talk.”  I was admittedly skeptical that I wouldn’t find his portrayal of an Iowan to be silly, maybe a little bit insulting. Often it seems to me that nonnatives perceive us all to be rubes. Sometimes actors portray our manner of speaking in a way that more resembles a southern drawl than the intonation of an actual Iowan. I was pleased to find Darnielle’s main character sounding like some Iowans I know, albeit the ones who have also spent time living out west. This made more sense to me once I looked up a little more about Darnielle online and learned that he grew up in southern California and lived in Portland, Oregon briefly after high school. He did live in some of the Iowa towns where the events in Universal Harvester take place, though it is unclear when and how long.

My opinions of the writer/reader’s dialect aside, this book is a hard one to categorize. Some libraries in our system have classified it as fiction; others put it in the horror section. I am not usually a reader of horror books, and when I realized it was considered that, I thought “Uh oh. What am I getting myself into?” As I got further into the book, I kept bracing myself for something gory or horrifically disturbing. When I think horror, I think gore. However, there isn’t anything terribly gory in this book.

It turns out I was just as mistaken as the folks who think Iowans speak with a drawl. I came across this great article from The Horror Writers Association and learned that horror can take as many forms as the people who read it. After all, not everyone is horrified by the same things. I happen to find gore horrifying, some people are just as horrified by the unknown. Death is perhaps the biggest of the unknowns, but there are also a myriad of other unknowns throughout life.

There are many unknowns in Universal Harvester. If you like a plot that gets neatly tied up at the end, this book is not for you. However, if you appreciate great writing and a story well-told that makes you think and ask questions, then you should check this book out. It would be a great book club selection, because there is plenty here to explore and discuss. (In fact, if you know me, please read this book so we can talk about the details together! I’m still not sure what just happened.)

Next, I am going to check out some Mountain Goats CDs. The author of this book is in a band called the Mountain Goats, and he has been hailed as one of the best living lyricists. Judging by his novel writing ability, I’d say that’s likely a fair assessment. Happy reading and/or listening!

Question for You : Do You Still Use Traditional Travel Guides?

In this day and age, with technology so ubiquitous and most of us carrying a tiny super computer around in our pocket, is there still the need for paper editions of travel guides? Do you still check out the latest edition of Fodor’s or Rick Steve’s guide books for recommendations on hotels or tips for avoiding long lines?

There’s no doubt that technology has changed the way we gather information, including planning for a trip. GPS guides us, GoogleMaps shows us locations and nearbys, blogs and Instagram are full of inspiration and tips and pretty pictures, every tourist board and Chamber of Commerce has a website promoting their location and there are multiple apps for nearly every city, museum or activity. Why would you still need a more traditional paper guide?

Technology offers a lot of pros. It has the ability to update information quickly and frequently (although, just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s accurate – it pays to do your research!) I find Instagram a great source of reality by following people who live in the city/locations I’m interested in (Paris, London and Amsterdam are my current favorites) Unlike tourist boards who show only perfect pictures of amazing scenes, the people I follow show the less-than-perfect (although, who are we kidding, those cities are still pretty awesome!) – bad weather days, off-the-beaten-track sights, ordinary people, quiet details. They’ll often post about coffee shops or cafes that aren’t in the guidebooks, or tiny shops worth searching for, or street art and local events. I find a lot of creative photography inspiration in these posts and they help give me ideas on what to look for when visiting.

That said, I still like to carry a paper map, partly because I love just looking at them and studying them and partly because they give you an overview of the area – it helps me to get a grasp of the unique geography of where I’m at. And I still look at paper travel guides (my favorite are Rick Steves; they have never steered me wrong) – I do a lot of flipping back and forth through the book as I compare areas of the city/country and what’s available from eating to sleeping to transportation. Rick Steves (and most of the other travel guide companies) also has an active online presence; I take advantage of both. I think, for me, the question can be answered the same as it can be for ebooks vs paper – there’s room for both.

Now, what about you – do you still use paper travel guides? Or have you gone completely online?

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

 At the Water’s Edge is a glorious novel written by Sara Gruen, the author of Water for Elephants. Written in the same rich, historical style, At the Water’s Edge follows the life of Maddie and Ellis Hyde, as well as their friend Hank. Maddie, Ellis, and Hank have always been friends. They’re wealthy, beautiful, and carefree. Well, until all three go and muck their lives up royally of course. At a major high society event in Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie, Ellis, and Hank get together and have a rolling good time. Maddie thinks nothing happened out of sorts until the following morning when countless people call her mother-in-law’s house where she and Ellis are staying to tell her about the major embarrassment that Maddie, Ellis, and Hank caused. Devastating repercussions follow and Maddie and Ellis soon find themselves cut-off financially with no clue what to do. Enter in Hank with a master plan!

Hank proposes they head to Scotland in the middle of the war to look for the Loch Ness monster. This trip had always been thrown around as a somewhat joke given Ellis’ father’s infamous dealings with the monster, but given the fact that Maddie and Ellis have no money, it is their only option. Finding that monster will get all three back to the lifestyle that they are so accustomed to, as well as clear Ellis’ father’s name. Plus Hank is massively wealthy, so he’s going to bankroll it! Even better. Once decided, all three head off to Scotland in the middle of the war. Seemingly oblivious to the war and how it is affecting the city and the people they deal with every day, Hank and Ellis hunt the monster, leaving Maddie behind most everyday at their hotel to deal with everything. Left alone, Maddie is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about herself, her companions, and her way of life. Add in the fact that both Ellis and Hank both seem to be able-bodied men who are avoiding the war to hunt for a fictitious monster and this book is rife with conflict.

What I most enjoyed about this book was that readers can clearly see Maddie’s character develop into something more well-rounded as the book progresses. As soon as she leaves Philadelphia, she seems to awaken out of her privileged state where everything is glossy and perfect to see all the harsh realities that surround her. Maddie also starts connecting to more meaningful things, be they people, nature, or life in general, than she had previously in Philadelphia. Maddie’s metamorphosis hooked me into the book and kept me reading.

I listened to this book through OverDrive and greatly enjoyed it. The narrator did a fantastic job of giving each character their own separate voice. Given that the majority of this book takes place in a foreign country and also during war time, she was also able to give the necessary characters a very believable foreign accent.


This book is also available in the following formats:

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

I have been reading a lot of World War II fiction recently, purely by chance. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson fit so neatly into the timeline of a previous WWII book that I had read that I noticed myself mixing storylines. Once I realized, I paid more attention and started taking notes (Taking notes is more than okay to do! Even when you’re not in school.) This novel was enjoyable and I found myself connecting to most of the characters.

22 Britannia Road tells the story of a family’s rediscovery of each other after World War II. Silvana and Janusz were married right around the beginning of the war. Their marriage began sweet and full of promise with each other’s past left fully in the past. Silvana’s family was less than caring about her, while Janusz is very close to his. Silvana and Janusz settle in Warsaw where they work at keeping their marriage together. Janusz leaves Silvana and their young son to join the military. Years pass, both during the war and after the war, with Silvana and Janusz doing whatever they have to in order to survive.

Once reunited the family moves to England where they struggle to put the past behind them. Both Sylvana and Janusz have secrets though, plus the area where they are living brings its own issues to the surface. Janusz has very much adapted to the English way of life, while Sylvana and their son still mostly speak Polish and have troubles adapting to their new normal life. Settling into their new house, Sylvana and Janusz begin a tentative new life, rediscovering each other and their new home after the ravages of war. Each of them carry secrets that even before they are voiced begin to eat away at Silvana and Janusz inside. What did Janusz do those six years that he was gone? Where did Sylvana and their child end up? How did they survive?

This novel juxtaposes both the present day and the past to show what happened to Silvana, Janusz, and their son during the time when they all were separated from each other. I greatly enjoyed the flashbacks because it helped me to justify and see some of the reasons that each family member behaves the way that they do. This psychological fiction really had me thinking about the secrets we keep from the people we love and the secrets that we’ve become so accustomed to that they eventually feel like our normal life.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Photo Essay: Summer at Eastern

Even though it feels like summer has been here for more than a week already, as of 11:24pm last night it is now officially summer. And that means the prairie meadows at the Eastern library are coming to life.

The tall grass prairie (which originally encompassed Iowa) is incredibly beautiful and complex, full of life and surrounded by birdsong. Rainforest ecosystems get a lot of press and support to preserve and save and while I have no problem with protecting rainforests, don’t forget about the eco-system in our own backyard – the tall grass prairie, which is almost virtually extinct, is just as valuable, complex and beautiful.

Monday night, between rain showers and with dramatic clouds as a backdrop, I took a little time to enjoy these wild gardens along the edge of the Eastern library.

The purple flowers around Eastern’s sign are catmint which is not an Iowa native, but blends well with the wild garden beyond.
Dramatic rain clouds above the Eastern library
Purple coneflowers (echinacea) among the grasses.
As part of the Green City initiative, the city of Davenport has planted and maintains the prairies at Eastern.
Grasses and sky, the simplest definition of the prairie.
Butterfly weed  (asclepias) is popular with bees too.
Sunny black-eyed susan (rudbeckia)
The barn isn’t actually very old (about 3 years old) but fits perfectly in this setting. Living Lands and Water rents it from the city.
A stand of wild yarrow.
Milkweed, a favorite of Monarch butterflies, about to bloom.
A meadowlark visits the edge of the prairie. You’ll see – and hear – lots of birds including redwing blackbirds, plovers, song sparrows and red-tail hawks.
This is blue vervain, a member of the verbena family.
Prairies support lots of beneficial insects like this bumblebee.

Interested in learning more about tallgrass prairies? Check out Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie by Aimee Larrabee or Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: the Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkle. Or grab The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands by Sneed Collard which is about the efforts of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge which is located a few miles east of Des Moines.

I also highly recommend visiting the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge – they have a visitors center with excellent exhibits, offer educational programs about restoring the prairie (it’s much more complicated than throwing out a few seeds), have an easy walking trail for up-close views of flowers and grasses and a scenic drive where you’re likely to spot the Refuge’s bison and elk herds. Even though it’s located just a few miles from I-80, there are a few places in the Refuge where you can stop your car and, if you turn your back to the road, all you see is prairie and sky. No cars, no roads, to telephone wires. You can almost – almost – imagine what it was like before the first pioneers arrived.

All photos by Ann Hetzler, 6/19/2017

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff has a gorgeous cover. I have been wanting to read this book since it came out because I wanted to figure out if the blue on the cover was supposed to be waves or feathers. (It’s waves, guys!) I listened to this book through OverDrive and was very glad that I did. Fates and Furies is told from the point of view of two separate people and the audiobook has two separate people doing the narration! That allowed me to fully invest in each character’s life and imagine them more vividly. On to the explanation!

Fates and Furies is all about relationships and stories. Lauren Groff has woven a masterful novel about relationship dynamics and the representation of both sides of a story. Each story always has two sides, while each relationship always has two perspectives. The outside world only sees the relationship as one flat surface, while each person in the relationship is really only fully aware of their side of the relationship. It’s rare for people outside a relationship or even for people within the relationship to fully know the complete truth of what is happening in the relationship. Unless a letter is left after one person dies or one person in the relationship writes a memoir, little will be known. (And yes, I know there are those who swear that they don’t keep anything from their partners. Really? You tell them everything? Hmm.. This book examines the truth behind that principle perfectly.)

Fate and Furies tells the story of a marriage over twenty-four years. Lotto and Mathilde fell madly in love at the tender age of 22. At the very end of their senior year of college, Lotto spots Mathilde at a party, pushes through the crowd, falls to his knees and proposes marriage. She says yes on the spot. Two short weeks later, they’re married. Lotto and Mathilde are both glamorous and gorgeous people and separately are the envy of their friends. Put them together and their relationship is unstoppable. Lotto and Mathilde are destined for greatness. Years later, their friends are still in awe of their marriage, but through this book and the side conversations presented, we realize that their relationship has developed some intricate complexities that has twisted them. Lotto and Mathilde have grown over the years and their relationship has matured to encompass a number of layers that have mixed, mashed, and changed the foundation of their marriage and who they are as separate people.

This novel is told from the point of view of multiple people and flashes back to the past. These different viewpoints and histories allow readers to form a better understanding of Lotto and Mathilde as separate people and also as a whole. I enjoyed seeing Lotto and Mathilde’s dynamic change over the years. The examination of how both inside and outside factors can change a relationship was really insightful. The little and big truths and lies a person has can either make or break a relationship. Our past selves also influence how we present our current selves and then our future selves as well. Highly recommended.


This book is available in the following formats:

Halfway Home : San Francisco

Hello Fellow Readers!

How are you liking our trip to San Francisco so far? Do you have an overwhelming urge to eat Rice-a-Roni? (omg that aged me!) Have you managed to soak up some of the atmosphere and culture and history of this lovely city?

If you’re having trouble settling on a book, you might want to try a movie. Some great classics are set in San Francisco including Dirty Harry with Clint Eastwood and Vertigo with James Stewart. Or check out the award winning Milk starring Sean Penn (who won an Oscar for his performance) about the first openly gay man to hold an elected public office. Or try a TV series set in San Francisco such as Monk starring Tony Shalhoub as a private detective with OCD.

And don’t forget, we have lots of Books on CD, especially nice for a summer road trip. Or check out Overdrive which has both ebooks and audio books – your local library is never far away, no matter where you are in the world!

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