Online Reading Club – Mid-Month Check In

Hello Readers!

How is your reading going this month? Have you found something good, or are you still searching? If you’re short on time, here are a couple of movie suggestions that fit into our Education theme!

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark with Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. Remember? Indiana is a professor of archaeology! Granted, there aren’t a lot of classroom/professor scenes but nevertheless, beyond the bullwhip and fedora and deathly fear of snakes, he was a teacher. It does beg the question though – how come none of my college professors looked like Harrison Ford?

Dead Poet’s Society with Robin Williams. When a new English professor shakes up the established teaching curriculum at a strict boarding school he changes the lives of his students forever. A homage to the beloved teachers that do so much to inspire and motivate us.

Mr Hollands Opus starring Richard Dreyfuss. A frustrated composer learns that his true calling is teaching others and his legacy becomes not a piece of music but the generations of students he has taught.

Legally Blonde with Reese Witherspoon. Blonde and beautiful does not equal dumb and unmotivated. When El is dumped by her boyfriend, she follows him to law school where she finds out that she has a brilliant legal mind and that she doesn’t need a loser boyfriend to succeed. Fun and light.

Travel Talk – Armchair Traveler

This month in Travel Talk we’re going to explore travel books. I’m not talking about those giant coffee table books that are filled with artsy, professional photography (although those can be fun too). I’m talking about the books that you can settle down with and read, follow someone into a different culture or country and vicariously experience their adventures. These are the kind of books that will give you travel fever, all from the comfort of your armchair. Here are a few of my favorites.

Miles from Nowhere by Barbara Savage. This is the book that really hit me with the travel bug, not only to see new places, but that you didn’t have to be rich and fancy to go places. Barbara and her husband go on an around-the-world bicycle trip that is full of highs, lows and some scary moments. The writing style is fun and engaging and you’ll find it nearly impossible to put down. A great eye-opener into many different cultures and attitudes. Highly recommended. (Just don’t read the back of the book until after you finish)

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Is there anyone that hasn’t read this book yet? Come on – it’s easily one of the funniest books I’ve ever read! Although the chapter on bears might scare you into never camping (or walking in the woods)! Bryson and his friend Katz undertake hiking the Appalachian Trail, underestimating it’s difficulty and the commitment required. Katz is extremely casual in his approach; Bryson is his usual keenly observant, riotously irreverent self and comes away from his experience with a new appreciation of the land and nature. Highly recommended.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. After making several poor life decisions, Strayed gets the crazy idea to walk the Pacific Crest Trail which runs from Mexico to Canada. It’s a long, rigorous hike and Cheryl is not prepared, but she sticks with it and along the way she finds herself. The long days of isolation and forced self-reliance help her find a reserve of strength within herself that she had never known, cleared her mind, settled her emotions and helped set her priorities. An inspiring story of growth and renewal.

These are all memoirs, but a great armchair travel books doesn’t have to be non-fiction. Any novel that sets you in a different place can give you wanderlust; for me that’s just about anything set in Paris or London or on the prairies and mountains of America.

What about you – what have you read that makes you want to dust off your suitcase? Let us know in the comments!

The Biggest Little Farm on DVD

guest post from Laura V

The Biggest Little Farm documentary follows John and Molly Chester as they transition from L.A. apartment dwellers with cool jobs to organic and biodynamic agriculture farmers. He is a filmmaker and she was a personal chef and food blogger. Molly continues to blog and has written a traditional foods cookbook. This beautifully touching story unfolds in a captivating manner and has breathtaking camera shots that had me wondering how John achieved them.

The story’s main characters include John, Molly, a rescued dog named Todd, a regenerative agriculture guru named Alan York, Emma the pig, their son Beauden, and the living, breathing, 210 acre farm north of Los Angeles. The film opens with a wildfire quickly approaching the farm. We come to realize how utterly catastrophic this would be as we view footage of hundreds of animals and thousands of fruit trees. They close the film by bringing the story back to the fire as we find out what happened.

I’m guessing that much acreage near Los Angeles had to have cost more than they personally invested or garnered in contributions from their friends but financial details weren’t addressed. Alan guided them through the steps necessary to regenerate the overused, unhealthy soil to basically build a thriving ecosystem that could be somewhat self-sustaining. Somewhat is the operative word. It was heart wrenching to see one problem after another crop up after so much effort. It was equally heartwarming to see them find a solution to a problem right before them, like using existing organisms as natural control for a pest infestation with some modifications in their structure or practices.

I felt the young couple’s exhaustion and thrills along with them since I’m trying to use regenerative practices (no till, composting, rain garden, using predatory insects for pest control) in my gardens and yard with difficulties that now seem almost trivial. It was honestly difficult to understand how they tackled such a large project in such a short amount of time. I can’t imagine they slept much for a few years. Although they didn’t mention the name of the organization from which the volunteers were recruited, I believe they may have been from WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

This documentary is as honest as one can get within the short span of a film. The adorable opening animated sequence highlights Molly’s optimistic outlook on what she pictures the farm to be. The reality is much harsher but the rewards are literally life-changing for them, their employees and volunteers, vegetation, soil microbes, and carbon sequestration for the planet’s overall health. I know they’ll continue to experience problems with pests, predators, weather, and climate change but it looks like they’ll be able to handle whatever comes their way.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow

guest post by Lexie R

I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that when I need a break from the serious news of the day, I turn to celebrity gossip. I love reading about the secret inner-workings of the entertainment industry, the behind-the-scenes machinations that make the celebrity machine look so effortless, and the blind items about who is misbehaving. So when journalists like Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow broke the news about accusations of producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of abusing women, I thought to myself, “I’ve read about this on blind items sites a hundred times, how is it that none of these people knew about this?” Well, as is made clear in Ronan Farrow’s gripping new book Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, it sure seems like a whole lot of people did, in fact, know.

Catch and Kill takes the reader through the process of how Farrow investigated what was previously only whispered about: claims that mega-producer Harvey Weinstein routinely harassed and abused women for decades. If you were a “Friend of Harvey”, you made it in the entertainment industry; if you weren’t, you didn’t. For a non-fiction work that everyone knows the ending to, I found Farrow’s account to be breathless, fast-pasted, and engaging. Though I had read Farrow’s reporting of the accusations against Weinstein, there was a lot I didn’t know about how the story was investigated and all the hurdles Farrow faced in trying to report it. What was most startling was Farrow’s account of NBC executives who, after months of reporting and collecting firsthand accounts and even an audio recording of Weinstein admitting to an assault, suddenly wanted him to stop talking to sources and drop the story. This part of the story is still ongoing, with NBC disputing Farrow’s claims and alleging that he had no story until he went to The New Yorker and published it a month later.

One of the more thriller-esque parts of the book was the way he weaved in details about Weinstein apparently hiring an Israeli intelligence agency to follow Farrow and gather information on him in an effort to smear his reputation. Every few chapters or so we get a glimpse of two men sitting outside Farrow’s home in a silver Nissan or just so happening to be at the same restaurant as him, and later the precautions Farrow had to take when it because clear that he was in fact being followed and his phone was being targeted. But even in such serious parts of the book Farrow managed to include some levity; my favorite of these such moments was the revelation that the private investigators assigned to tail Farrow’s boyfriend Jon Lovett (of podcasts Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It) gave up because Lovett’s routine was too boring (to which Jon replied “I’m interesting!…I went to an escape room!”)

All throughout the book, Farrow makes it clear that though he received many acclaims for bringing this information to light, the real heroes of story are the women who risked everything to come forward and speak up about what had been done to them. Many of these women held onto their stories for years because they had seen others lose their careers after trying to speak up; for them to do so at this time was courageous and Farrow is quick to point that out at every turn.

This is a great read if you’re interested in the incredibly thorough process of reporting, real-life espionage, and demolishing institutions that empower and encourage abusers. Highly recommended.

Dead Cells Video Game

guest post by Wesley B

Although I’ve been playing video games for well over two decades, on the historical scale, gaming is a relatively young medium. As such, it’s not surprising that it has undergone many changes – growing pains, one could say – as it struggles to come into its own as an artform. Over the past decade, big budget AAA games have settled into a fairly rigid formula; fortunately, at the same time there has been an indie game renaissance, with brilliantly creative developers putting new spins on classic genres.

Two of the most popular genres in indie gaming today, despite formerly being rather niche, are roguelites and metroidvanias. The primary feature of roguelites is permadeath; when you die, that’s it. While some progress, such as items or skills, might persist between deaths, each run starts over from the beginning, giving you just one life to make it to the final boss. Metroidvanias (a portmanteau of the two franchises that cemented and popularized the genre, Metroid and Castlevania), on the other hand, are (typically 2D) platformers with an emphasis on exploring large, interconnected maps. Usually you acquire power-ups throughout the game, which then allow you to reach previously inaccessible areas.

Dead Cells, one of my most-played games on my Switch, is a hybrid of these two genres: a roguelitevania, if you will. While its genre might be an awkward mouthful, the game itself is a masterclass in elegant simplicity. You play as a headless prisoner brought back to life in a ruined kingdom. Using a combination of two weapons (which you choose from a huge assortment of swords, daggers, hammers, whips, shields, bows, spells, and more) and two skills (chosen from various grenades, traps, and abilities), you fight your way out of the prison, then through different areas of the kingdom. The art style is gorgeous, with each region looking dramatically different with radically varied color palettes, and the animation is tight and fluid, important in a game where twitch combat is of the utmost importance.

The game is hard, and when you inevitably die, you’re brought back to life in the prison to try, try again. Fortunately, as you fight you collect cells, which you can invest in various upgrades that carry over between runs. While the game is never easy, you can at least give yourself progressively more of a fighting chance, so you never feel like you wasted your time when a run is cut short. Even when (if) you finally beat the game, there is a hard mode for even more of a challenge, plus new daily challenges each day, where you play a region with various modifiers, competing with other players for the high score. Dead Cells is hard to master, but even harder to put down.

Online Reading Challenge – November

Readers! It’s November! That means it’s time for our new topic for the Online Reading Challenge and this month it’s – Education!

Education is a topic that affects all of us, whether we barely made it through high school or have several advanced degrees. Plus, I’m a big believer in “never stop learning” – exploring and finding out about new interests and topics should never stop.

When I was putting together this month’s list of books, I found a lot fewer books on education and schooling than I expected, so I’ve supplemented with books about books (some of which you may remember from our month of Reading!) Of course, you’re free to read whatever you’d like. Maybe you’ll picked up a new hobby and would like to learn more about it or you’re suddenly fascinated with the economic growth of Iceland. Dive in! Enjoy! Here are a few more standard titles to get you started.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. I loved this book, not only for the setting (Paris!) but for the way Anna grew from a self-conscious, frightened girl into a confident young woman. When her parents send her to Paris for her final year of high school, Anna is angry and defiant but gradually her reluctance changes to acceptance and happiness as she learns how to rely on herself. A fun and charming book.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. One small miscalculation, wholly accidental and unintentional, changes the lives of two college baseball players and those around them forever. Lots of baseball and heartbreak.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Richardson. Based on true stories, this book follows Cussy Mary Carter as she travels by horseback in the Appalachian Mountains delivering books to isolated farms on her route during the Great Depression. She encounters danger (not everyone approves of the books she delivers), prejudice (Cussy’s unusual skin color causes many to fear and shun her) and hazardous conditions but remains resolute. Cussy is a great character – brave, determined and moral.

I’m planning on reading Looking for Alaska by John Green which takes place at a prep school in Alabama. It is described as wrenching and joyful coming-of-age story. As a huge fan of Green’s A Fault in Their Stars, I have high hopes for this one!

Now it’s your turn. What will read in November?

 

Online Reading Challenge – October Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

How did your October Challenge reading go this month? The topic of Nature gave us a lot of options – I hope you found one you liked!

I had a good month; I read (and am now hooked on) the Joe Pickett mystery series by C.J. Box. I’ve actually read several in the series (there are 19 so far with number 20 coming out early next year), but I’ll just talk about the first in the series, Open Season.

Joe Pickett is the new game warden in Twelve Sleep, Wyoming near the Bighorn Mountains. It’s beautiful country, teeming with wildlife and natural resources, but it also seems to attract some people who prefer to live outside the law. Unlike his predecessor, Joe refuses to look the other way or accept bribes and that makes him unpopular with the hunters and fishermen who don’t follow the rules. When two outfitters are murdered and a third man dies in Joe’s backyard, the local sheriff decides that the third man killed the first two, them committed suicide and declares the case closed.

However, this just doesn’t add up for Joe and he begins poking around, looking for clues. The secrets and conspiracies he begins to unravel could be catastrophic for some – including himself and his family. Box navigates the various political issues that are part of modern Wyoming (economic, ecological, environmental) with a delicate touch, showing that each viewpoint has valid concerns, but also has radicals that won’t allow compromise. Joe is a man of few words and often gets himself in trouble by his refusal to back down or look away. He adores his wife and daughters and loves the beauty and wildness of the countryside. He isn’t bigger-than-life heroic, but is determined and observant and able to find solutions that others don’t – or won’t – see.

I especially enjoyed Box’s writing style. Descriptive without being flowery, the harsh but beautiful landscape, unforgiving weather and wildlife of Wyoming comes to life vividly – you can almost smell the sagebrush or see the flow of a pronghorn herd racing across the plateau. This ability to put the reader into the physical story reminds me a lot of Tony Hillerman and his mysteries set in the Southwest. I highly recommend the Joe Pickett mystery series – but be careful, you’ll likely get hooked!

Now it’s your turn – what did you read this month? Let us know in the comments!

Downsizing on DVD

guest post by Wesley B

Without a doubt, the best part of working at the library is the people. If it weren’t for one of our regular patrons recommending it to me, I probably would never have watched Downsizing. I’m not a huge fan of Matt Damon, and the art on the DVD label made it seem like a slapstick fish out of water comedy, which isn’t really my thing. As it turns out, books aren’t the only things that shouldn’t be judged by their covers. Not only was Downsizing not what I expected, it turned out to be almost tailor-made to suit my tastes: a science-fiction satire with a healthy mix of both comedy and drama.

The film opens with Rolf Lassgård’s scientist character, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen, making a scientific breakthrough: he has finally mastered the titular procedure, through which he can shrink humans to a size of five inches. His motivation is ecological in nature – someone downsized to one-thirteenth of their original size will only require one-thirteenth the amount of resources they would have otherwise needed. However, many people undergo the procedure for economic reasons – since you only need one-thirteenth the amount of resources, your money goes thirteen times further – in addition to the unspoken reason that has always led humans to make major changes: the belief that it will solve their problems (it’s not a spoiler to say this belief is more often than not mistaken).

Enter Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig’s married couple, Paul and Audrey Safranek. At Paul’s high school reunion, they run into his old friend Dave Johnson (played by a sadly underutilized Jason Sudeikis) who has undergone downsizing with his family. Dave makes a compelling case for downsizing, and it’s not long before we see the Safraneks buying a home in Leisureland, one of the most popular settlements for small people, as society has come to call those who have downsized. On the surface, Leisureland appears to be an idyllic realization of the American Dream, finally made attainable for more than the 1%. Of course, as is so often the case with these Stepfordian communities, all is not what it seems. As it turns out, class divisions still exist in small settlements, and in fact are thrown into even sharper relief via contrast with the utopic appearances.

And of course, conflict still exists on the interpersonal level as well. Paul has problems with Audrey (that I would be remiss to spoil), as well as with his gregarious neighbor Dušan (played by Christoph Waltz with his usual scene-stealing gusto). He also gets into a complicated relationship with the political activist Ngoc Lan Tran (played by Hong Chau in a starmaking performance). Downsizing raises questions about class conflict, climate change, and human nature; and while it doesn’t always have satisfactory answers, the brilliant acting and lively cinematography make this breezy film well worth a watch.

Greedfall Video Game

guest post by Wesley B

To gamers of a certain age, the name BioWare is synonymous with excellence in roleplaying games. The mere mention of the iconic Canadian developer conjures memories of epic single player journeys filled with impactful, morally ambiguous decisions and memorable companions. Deep theorycrafting – stats and attributes, traits and talents, skill trees and loot tables – rounds out the typical BioWare playthrough. While this may make their games sound formulaic, each of their franchises manages to feel fresh and distinct, ranging thematically from high fantasy to kung-fu mysticism to space opera. From Baldur’s Gate to Jade Empire to Mass Effect, a new BioWare release has always been an experience.

Their most recent release, however, is a radical departure from the usual formula. Anthem is an always-online, squad-based looter shooter set on a post-apocalyptic planet littered with the ruins of ancient civilizations. The main hook is that your character pilots a Javelin, a powered exosuit (think Tony Stark’s Iron Man suits). Although I’m generally not a fan of shooters or multiplayer games, BioWare’s track record was stellar enough for me to give them benefit of the doubt. And besides, who doesn’t want to fly around stunning alien environments?

The foundation of a good game is there: flying around in your javelin feels great, the world is gorgeous, there are tantalizing scraps of lore. However, none of it is able to cohere into a satisfying whole, and there’s plenty lacking. It’s evident that BioWare had never made a game like this before. Compared to other genre staples, like The Division and Borderlands, the amount of content is severely lacking – and what is present quickly grows repetitive. Most egregiously for a BioWare game, the story and characters are dull (and mostly relegated to the background). That being said, these flaws make Anthem the perfect candidate for checking out from the library. Get it for free, spend a few days living out your Iron Man fantasies, and bring it back when you’ve had your fill.

If, like me, you find yourself craving a more authentically BioWare-like experience after putting down Anthem, I cannot recommend Greedfall highly enough. French developer Spiders has much less labor-power and a significantly smaller budget to work with than BioWare, so don’t expect the same level of polish found in BioWare classics like Dragon Age, but Spiders nails what’s important: writing, characters, world-building, and mechanical depth. And while the graphics aren’t top-notch, the uniquely beautiful art direction more than makes up for that fact.

Speaking of art, Greedfall starts with your character sitting for a portrait, a rather clever presentation for character creation, as well as immediately signposting what kind of world you’re entering – in this case, a baroque fantasy world inspired by the historic Age of Exploration. Appropriate, as you soon set sail for Teer Fradee, a “new world” of sorts where there is said to be a cure for the mysterious illness plaguing your home town. Of course, much like the “new world” in our own history, there are already people living on Teer Fradee. In addition to the natives, there are three main factions vying for control of the island and its resources, and as a senior diplomat, it’s up to you to balance their conflicting interests, all while uncovering the island’s many mysterious secrets. Greedfall gives you immense freedom in building your character, not just mechanically, but from a roleplaying perspective as well. Unlike Anthem, this is a game I see myself coming back to check out again and again.

Greedfall is available at the library in both X-Box and PlayStation 4 formats.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

Evvie Drake has packed her suitcase and stashed all of her cash in the glove compartment of her car and is about to pull out of the driveway to leave her emotionally abusive husband when her cell phone rings. Her husband has just died in a car accident and Evvie is now a widow. A widow who hated her husband.

Dean Tenney had a golden arm that brought him to the pinnacle of Major League Baseball fame and success until one day he can’t pitch anymore. No amount of therapy (mental or physical) helps and, embarrassed and shamed, Dean walks away from the game.

Dean escapes from the chaos of New York City and moves to a small town in coastal Maine where an old buddy lives, seeking peace and quiet and time to heal. Evvie, weighted down by her guilt and lack of sadness over the death of her husband, rents a small apartment to Dean and slowly, cautiously, these two worn, damaged people find strength in each other.

This is a fun, quick read that also manages to be thoughtful. There is a lot of humor, but there is also real pain that needs to be dealt with. There’s romance and healing, but it isn’t quick and it doesn’t come without vulnerability and hard work and compromise. It’s great to read something where the characters grow and develop, take some missteps but find their way in the end. Recommended.