March Madness

March Madness beginsWith yesterday’s announcement of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament brackets, March Madness can officially begin. Have you got your bracket filled out yet? Most newspaper sports sections print a bracket, but there are also many online sites that allow you to join or create a group. My nephew has created a group on Yahoo’s Basketball Tournament Pick’em for the family for several years; after the lineups are announced on Sunday, he sends an invitation to each of us with a password. We pick our winners by the deadline (tip-off of the first game on Thursday); Yahoo takes care of keeping track of points and who’s leading in the group (our family has been continually amused by the fact that my sister-in-law beats out her sports-loving husband and sons almost every year)

College basketball has inspired some excellent books that bring the color and drama of the game to you. John Feinstein has written some of the best including Season on the Brink about Indiana and coach Bobby Knight’s run through the Big Ten schedule, The Last Amateurs about Division I basketball and A March to Madness about the Atlantic Coast Conference. Other books worth reading include To Hate Like This is to be Happy Forever by Will Blyth about the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, Cinderella: inside the Rise of Mid-Major College Basketball by Michael Litos and The Men of March: a Season Inside the Lives of College Basketball Coaches by Brian Curtis.

And don’t forget, the womens NCAA Tournament is also being held beginning March 22 and concluding April 8. More information, including schedules and results for all collegiate championships can be found at NCAA.com.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann

Three Bags Full by Leonie SwannWhen George doesn’t appear as usual, Miss Maple knows something is wrong. It’s not long before George is found dead with a spade in his chest and it’s left to Miss Maple and her collegues to find his killer. The problem is, Miss Maple and friends are sheep and George was their shepherd. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Miss Maple (considered the smartest sheep in Glennkill, Ireland) works on solving the mystery using observation and a keen understanding of human nature to track and find the killer. Laugh-out-loud funny, the flock never loses their sheepy personalities. This brilliant first novel will keep you laughing and might make you look at sheep a little differently.

The Armchair Traveler – New York Stories

New York storiesNew Yorkers by Cathleen Schine

The novel centers around the inhabitants of a block in New York. Dogs connect the protagonists and are nearly as well realized characters as their owners. You get real insight into urban, yet small town neighborhood life. Sad and funny and poignant.

Quality of Life Report by Meghan Daum

New York City tv producer moves to a midwest town to do a story and ends up staying. A reversal of the usual Midwesterner comes to New York theme.

Smith and Wetzon” mystery series by Annette Meyers

New York is a vital part of these books – the shops, neighborhoods and characters that make up the city, as well as the culture of Wall Street, where the two partners work as headhunters.

Gone to New York by Ian Frazier

Essays about leaving the Midwest and living in New York. “Out of Ohio” will resonate with Iowans, and “In the Stacks” will speak to library users. Stories about bags in trees, the history of typewriters and the Holland tunnel are fascinating in their accessible research.

Through the Children’s Gate by Adam Gopnik

Bittersweet and philosophical essays about how the city has changed and how it is adapting to families and children who make New York their home.

Tolstoy Lied by Rachel Kadish

Tracy is a professor at a New York university, working on a thesis that the literary establishment rejects positive themes. Academic politics and trends in literature are vividly brought to life. Elements of mystery and romance enliven what sounds like a dry plot.

Next time, The Armchair Traveler visits Florida.

Appetizing Displays

Cup of coffeeNeed a perk-me-up? Check out our current “Coffee” display at the Main Library. Just walking by will get those taste buds revved up and ready for some java. Well, okay, you can’t really taste it, but you can almost smell that familiar, flavorful aroma.

Learn how to roast your own coffee beans, how Starbucks got its start, or even how you can open up your own coffee bar.

Or, perhaps you’d be interested in these caffeinated titles? Let it Rain Coffee by Angie Cruz is a light fiction read, while Uncommon Grounds is a “history of coffee and how it transformed our world.”

And there’s more! We change our displays every month and often even more frequently then that. There’s always something new “brewing” at the library!

The Return of Jonah Gray by Heather Cochran

The Return of Jonah GrayEven tax auditors need love. Sasha Gardener has always been good at her job – strictly professional and attentive to detail, she has been an exemplary IRS employee. But then the unthinkable happens – she falls in love with one of the people she is scheduled to audit. From the strange phone calls at work to her “slightly OCD” boyfriend to her father’s terminal illness, this story is by turns funny, sad and poignant and is filled with quirky, likable characters. You’ll root for Sasha as she struggles with changes in her family and gathers the courage to make some changes in her own life.

The Book or the Movie?

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa GregoryIt’s a question without a simple answer – which is better, the book or the movie? With so many movies adapted from or “inspired by” a book, it’s a question that comes up often. I think it’s important to remember that books and movies are two very different experiences and it’s not reasonable to expect a movie to be an exact replica of a book. The best movie adaptations recreate the same impressions as the book did while offering a visual treat and sometimes a new perspective to the story.

The Other Boleyn Girl is now in theaters, starring Scarlet Johannsen, Natalie Portman and Eric Bana. It has been adapted from the book by the same title written by Philippa Gregory. This is the story of Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary and their lives in the court of King Henry VIII. The movie is beautifully photographed (the intricate costumes alone are worth seeing), but the timeline of the story has been compressed and many of the nuances found in the book – the discussions of power and ambition, the battle between politics and religion – which give the book so much richness and explain the motivations of so many of the characters is mostly lost. The book vividly recreates the grandeur and claustrophobia of court and is peopled with complex, believable characters that bring Tudor England to life. It is also can’t-put-down dramatic. Gregory has written a follow-up to this story called The Boleyn Inheritance which follows the fates of the rest of Henry’s queens. It is as good if not better than the first book.

In this case, although the movie is worth seeing, I think the book is better.

What do you think, what movies have you seen that were better than the book?

The Armchair Traveler – Italy

Armchair TravelerEscape with the Armchair Traveler to beautiful Italy. These are not all “travel” books per se, but they will transport you from the frigid Midwest to warmer climes.

Without Reservations: the Travels of An Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach

Steinbach immerses herself in the neighborhoods and culture of European cities she travels to, but she is at her best when describing the thrills, hardships and annoyances of traveling alone.

As the Romans Do: The Delights, Dramas, and Daily Diversions of Life in the Eternal City by Alan Epstein

Again, Europe is seen through the eyes of an American, so the smallest of details of daily life are recorded and celebrated. Epstein describes the communal lifestyle of Rome (hanging out in the piazzas and raising children as a community) He revels in the elegant and beautiful art of conversation and sense of style that is particular to Romans.

Italian Journey by Jean GionoVenice

Written right after WWII, this is an elegant and elegiac view of northern Italy, and Venice, in particular.

An Italian Affair by Laura Fraser

Suddenly single, the author decides to take a trip to Italy where she begins a romance and a journey through Italy. An unsentimental but sensuous memoir.

The Fall of the Sparrow by Robert Hellenga

This novel merges the midwest and Italy, as a classics professor travels to Italy to attend the trial of terrorists responsible for his daughter’s death. (the author teaches at Knox College in Galesburg).

The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones

Jones balances his love for Italy with the realities of political corruption, Italy’s obsession with soccer and beauty, and Silvio Berlusconi

Next week: the Armchair Traveler visits New York City.

In Defense of Food

In Defense of FoodIs your head spinning from all the conflicting studies about what you should or shouldn’t eat? Michael Pollan makes a case for eating simply in this, his follow up book to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He isn’t concerned with calorie counting or faddish lists of do’s and don’ts, but rather promotes a balanced, reasonable and pleasurable approach to food. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. With so many “edible foodlike substances” on the market, Pollan advocates eating whole foods our grandmothers would recognize rather than the processed foods that claim to be nutritious. Fellow foodies will find this a refreshing book by a man who clearly loves good, real food. This is a great read to inspire lots of shopping at the local Farmer’s Markets this spring.

Also check out Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life for more ideas about how to eat local and fresh.

Take a listen to Michael Pollan’s talk given in Iowa City on WSUI radio’s Live from Prairie Lights

The Last Great Race

Iditarod sled raceAlaska, with it’s stunning scenery and distance from the continental United States holds a romantic place in the minds of most American’s. There is still wildness there, and vast spaces and untamed land and its people are tough and maybe a bit eccentric. You expect things to be bigger and wilder and more spectacular in Alaska, and usually it delivers.

Today marks the beginning of one of sports more spectacular events, the running of the Iditarod sled dog race which opens with a ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage. Often called the Last Great Race, the Iditarod covers 1150 miles over snowy, rugged terrain across wild Alaska. It is held to commemorate the 1925 life-saving run made by sled dog to deliver serum to avert a diphtheria epidemic in Nome, Alaska. The official site of the race gives you a ringside seat to the spectacle offering streaming video, history of the race, up-to-the minute news, bios of mushers and dogs, an interactive map of the route, a tracker which lists each competitor and their position in the race and weather reports. From start to Red Lantern (the traditional award given to the last finisher) you can join in the excitement of the event from the warmth of your living room.

If you want to find out more about the Iditarod and it’s colorful history, the library has several books on the subject in the 798.8 call number area, including Gary Paulson’s lyrical Winterdance: the fine madness of running the Iditarod.

Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch

The Garden PrimerSpring is coming. Really, it is. And despite evidence to the contrary, it’s coming soon. Now is the perfect time to get serious about planning your garden – those juicy tomatoes and glorious flowers don’t plant themselves you know!

The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch has long been one of my favorites – there is something about her writing style that makes you think “Sure, I can grow that. No problem.” Encouraging and practical, she covers everything – from digging the garden bed to how to grow a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers and bulbs – without being overwhelming. Topics include composting, growing native plants, dealing with critters and essential garden tools. A new, revised edition has just been released with updated plant varieties and additional topics; recommended garden practices are now 100% organic.

And if you’re landless or just don’t have the time to garden but still love to eat well, the Davenport Farmer’s Markets open for the regular season on May 3! (Until then, winter markets will be held at the Freight House on March 1 and April 5)