The Armchair Traveler – the American Southwest

American SouthwestLonging for immersion in the fragrant, dry heat of the desert southwest? Give one of these a try.

Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman

The Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee series is set in the rugged canyons and high country of the Four Corners area. Hillerman’s attention to the small details of the desert landscape and immersion in Navajo culture are what make these enjoyable, as well as the evolving relationship of the two lawmen.

Desert Heat by J.A. Jance

Set in the Arizona desert, this series really gives you a feel for the small town and family life of Joanna Brady. The first in the series starts off with a shock – Joanna’s husband, a sheriff’s deputy, is shot and her comfortable life begins to crumble.

Blackening Song by Aimee and David Thurlo

Ella Clah works as a Navajo Nation’s Special Investigator on the Shiprock, New Mexico reservation. She personifies the conflict between Navajo culture and Western capitalism. The series gives an insider’s look into this unique law enforcement entity.

Open Season by C.J. Box

Game warden Joe Pickett patrols the stunning Wyoming wilderness – where there is a constant struggle between development and environmentalists. Pickett’s day-to-day work is always related to those larger issues. According to the author, Pickett “works hard and tries, sincerely, to do the ‘right thing.’ He doesn’t talk much. He’s human and real which means he sometimes screws up.”

This is How it Happened by Jo Barrett

This is How it Happened by Jo BarrettSometimes the only way to get over a guy is through revenge. And the more painful the ending of a relationship, the more elaborate the revenge. Madelaine spent four years with Carlton, financing his education, creating the ideas and energy behind their business, devoting everything to their relationship. When he dumped (and fired) her the only thing she could think about was getting back at him. This is How it Happened by Jo Barrett will have you laughing out loud as Maddy experiments with poisoned brownies, voodoo spells and hiring a hitman. Don’t worry, no blood is spilled, but everyone gets their due in the very satisfying end.

Things I Learned from Knitting (Whether I Wanted to or Not) by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee

Things I Learned from Knitting (Whether I Wanted to or Not) by Stephanie Pearl-McPheeThis little book is filled with essays on life lessons, often learned the hard way, as shown through the craft and art of knitting. Things I Learned from Knitting is sharp and funny, written with a dry sense of humor and underlined with truth and generosity. Stephanie, a self-described knitting humorist and philosopher, has been a long-time presence on the internet with her very popular blog where she’s known as the Yarn Harlot.

Examples of Stephanie’s observations that are true in life as well as knitting include:

-Babys grow

-Beginning is easy, continuing is hard

-Everything is better so long as it’s happening to someone else

-Idle hands are the devil’s workshop

She also includes a list of the health benefits of knitting, what to do if the airline won’t let you fly with your knitting needles and 5 reasons why knitting is better than video games, all delivered with tongue firmly in cheek.

Hardy Succulents by Gwen Kelaidis

Hardy SucculentsWant to try something a little different in your garden? Take a look at plants like cactus, yucca, sedums and echieverias; many of these low maintenance, exotic-seeming plants are surprisingly at home in our Zone 5 weather. It’s very likely that you’re already growing sedums – the ubiquitous “Autumn Joy” is lovely in the perennial garden year-round and the lowly hen-and-chicks make charming ground covers (they also make ideal house-warming presents; in some parts of Europe it was believed that when planted on the roof they would ward off lightening strikes) And you may be surprised to learn that Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) is native to Iowa.

Gwen Kelaidis’ Hardy Succulents will open your eyes to the many forms, varieties and colors succulents come in, and will show you how to integrate them in your existing landscape. She also offers tips for how best to grow them, the best varieties for cold regions, and combinations for container gardens. Many gorgeous photos spotlight their graphic shapes which are both modern and timeless. Succulents are showing up more and more in nurseries; be sure to try a few – you may get hooked!

The Armchair Traveler – Oh, to be in England, Now That Spring is Here

EnglandThe land where Chick Lit was born is the next stop for AT.

The Goddess Rules by Clare Naylor

Kate Disney is an artist who lives in a garden shed. She begins to stand up for herself after becoming friends with an outrageous and funny actress/icon who lives in the main house. Kate herself is self-deprecating, but very honest and direct. She alternates, romantically, between scumbag Jake and the perfect Louis.

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

Through an hilarious series of misunderstandings and mis-communications, attorney Samantha Sweeting tries to pass herself off as a housekeeper for a nouveau riche couple in the country. She is as inept a cook as she was brilliant as a lawyer, but she transforms herself and finds romance with the gardener, who has aspirations of his own.

Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married by Marian Keyes

Singleton Lucy and where mates live it up in London, while looking for Mr. Right. In typical Keyes fashion, their blunt honesty is witty and true, yet she doesn’t shy away from darker issues like alcoholism.

Weekend in Paris by Robyn Sisman

Molly is sympathetically innocent and guileless. Fired from her first job, she takes a planned trip to Paris anyway, and undergoes complete immersion in French culture.

The English American by Alison Larkin

Pippa Dunn, born in the United States, was adopted by an upper class English couple. She never felt that she fit in; she is sloppy, creative and emotional and her aristocratically reserved parents are very different. She finds her birth mother in New York and discovers they are both artistic and similar in many ways. After living in the U.S. and meeting her birth parents and siblings, she comes to know herself, England and her adopted family in new ways.

Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz dvdA classical English village becomes the unlikely setting for this hilarious buddy cop movie. Nicholas Angel is too good at his job; he’s making the rest of the London police force look bad. So he’s shuttled off to a quiet country village, far from any action. Or is it? Angel puts his big city training to use and soon discovers that all is not as it seems in this idyllic setting. Hampered by bumbling local cops, a cast of eccentric characters and brick walls at every turn, Angel persists in doing his job.

Loaded with cultural references and poking fun at films of all genres including westerns, action and cop movies (the subtitles on the dvd will clue you in on a lot of them), you don’t need to “get” any of them to enjoy Hot Fuzz which stands on it’s own as fresh, surprising and funny. (Please note that this film has an R rating for language and some violence)

The Davenport library has movies – and television shows – of all kinds available for checkout. Be sure to stop by and browse through our dvd section soon!

Knitalong by Larissa Brown

Knitalong by Larissa BrownMost everyone that knits learned the skill from someone – a grandmother or beloved aunt, a friend or a helpful clerk at the local yarn store. Knitting seems to invite gathering together. Knitalong: celebrating the tradition of knitting together by Larissa Brown shows the many ways that knitters (and crocheters and spinners) connect from meeting at a local coffee shop for an hour to creating lively online communities.

(And by the way, if you’re a knitter (or crocheter or spinner) and you’re not on Ravelry yet, why? Stop whatever you’re doing right now and get your name on the invitation list. It’s an amazing database/community/resource for fiber enthusiasts. If you’re already a member, you understand my enthusiasm)

Some of the wide-ranging examples of community knitting shown in Knitalong include the Knitting Olympics, an online knitting challenge held during the Winter Olympics, knit cafes (cafes that encourage people to bring their knitting), Stitch n’ Pitch, where knitters knit during major league baseball games (the White Sox host knitters on August 6, the Cardinals on May 28), World Wide Knit in Public Day which is just what it sounds like (and is on June 14 this year) and knitting for charities (afghans for Afghans is just one example). Knitalongs also take the form of a group of people knitting the same pattern (called KALs); everyone shares tips and progress reports and cheer you along. The internet has been a boon to this simple craft; besides the phenomenon of Ravelry, there has been an explosion of knitting blogs where people share their craft and develop friendships from around the world.

Interested in joining other knitters for camaraderie and encouragement? Local knitters meet every Tuesday evening at 6:30pm at the Fairmount Street Library, next to the fireplace. Newcomers are always welcome!

On the Wing by Alan Tennant

On the Wing by Alan TennantPart naturalist exploration, part adventure story, On the Wing follows Alan Tennant in his pursuit of the peregrine falcon. One falcon in particular, to be precise, named Amelia. Teaming up with George, a World War II vet and his beat up Cessna, Alan follows Amelia via radio signal from the Texas barrier islands, north to the Arctic and back south again through Mexico, Belize and the Caribbean. Alan and George run into their fair share of trouble and excitement, both moving and funny in a story that will quickly make you part of the experience.

Peregrine falcons can travel faster than any other animal on earth, reaching speeds of up to 200 mph when making steep dives. They are prodigious migrators (the subject of Alan’s research) sometimes traveling thousands of miles, and can be found on every continent on earth except for Antarctica or in deserts, high mountaintops, polar regions and, interestingly, New Zealand.

The most common prey for falcons is small birds such as pigeons and ducks, caught by disabling their victim in mid-flight (that speedy dive aims for a wing of the bird they’re pursuing). Mating for life, they nest on steep cliffs and, fairly commonly now, on skyscrapers. Peregrine falcons nearly disappeared from North America in the 50s and 60s because of pesticide use, but have made a strong recovery with the help of protections provided by the Endangered Species Act.

You can see these incredible birds right here in the Quad Cities; a nesting pair – Scorpio and P/D – are occupying a specially built nesting box located on the Mid American building in downtown Davenport (our own version of a skyscraper) If you’re not lucky enough to spot them in flight, check out WQAD-TV’s Falcon Cam for some live, up-close shots of the happy couple as well as links to more information about peregrine falcons and this pair in particular.

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

BananaThe banana is the perfect food! A snack with it’s own handle that comes in a biodegradable wrapper, it’s the ultimate convenience food. This unassuming, soft, sweet fruit has a fascinating and treacherous history. In Banana: the fate of the fruit that changed the world, Koeppel sets out to explore the scientific, economic, political, and historical aspects of the lowly banana. For good measure he even throws in a dose of banana humor.

While the history of how the banana spanned the globe makes for good reading, the real drama begins when the fruit was domesticated by shrewd American businessmen in the late 1800s. They realized the economic potential of the tropical fruit and set out to make it available to the masses. Through marketing and advertising, U.S. banana importers were able to make a product grown thousands of miles away cheap enough that it became a daily snack for many Americans. This was not without cost though to the fruit itself and those directly involved with production and harvest.

It’s not exaggeration to say that the banana has shaped and toppled nations. In Central and South America, workers who attempted to unionize were squelched by the influential banana industry which was backed by the U.S. government. Thousands of workers died in these insurrections.

The human toll in the banana industry parallels the destruction of the fruit itself. Only one variety of banana was commercially cultivated because it was transportable and long-lasting. This proved to be fatal when in the 1950s it was wiped out by a soil fungus. A replacement species was introduced, but it too is susceptible to the same fungus. Every banana we buy is a genetic duplicate of the next, and this lack of biodiversity is threatening to totally eradicate the fruit.

While the book can be very somber, it also provides many fun facts that you can use at your next party. Did you know:

  • some scholars believe the “forbidden fruit” in Genesis was a banana, not an apple?
  • the banana split MAY have been invented in Davenport, Iowa? (see page 65)?
  • the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas” originated in 1950 when Panama Disease wiped out an earlier variety of banana?
  • the first bananas sold in the U.S. came peeled, sliced, and wrapped in foil to prevent the fruit’s suggestive shape from offending Victorian sensibilities?

The Armchair Traveler – Life (and death) in the Twin Cities

Mary Richards

Minneapolis is the site of the Public Library Association’s national conference this week. Hope those librarians can stay out of trouble…

Pretty Girl Gone by David Housewright

Ex St. Paul cop Rushmore McKenzie spends time doing favors for friends and getting drawn into messy murder cases. In the third book in the series, he ventures into rural Minnesota. It’s a chilling look at small towns in the Midwest where racism and methamphetamine use are prevalent. McKenzie is a self-deprecating and funny narrator – often too out-spoken for his own good.

Snow-Blind by P.J. Tracy

The story begins in the Cities (with the murder of two policemen) It moves to a fictional northern Minnesota county, when two Minneapolis detectives help a newbie female sheriff with a murder that may be connected to their case. This is part of the Monkeewrench gang series which features a group of computer geeks for hire.

Eyes of Prey by John Sandford

IMHO, this is the best of the “Prey” series which star a tough, Porsche-driving Minneapolis cop. In this book, Lucas Davenport is suffering from depression brought on by a previous case, while he investigates the brutal murder of a doctor’s wife. The ending really was a surprise – to me, anyway.

Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen mysteries

These cozy mysteries always have excellent dessert recipes and a cast of wacky characters. The reader can exercise some wish fulfillment through Hannah and her coffee shop/bakery in small town Minnesota. Can you resist the Cherry Cheesecake, Fudge Cupcake, or Sugar Cookie Murders?