Monday, March 2, 2015

The Indian Lawyer by James Welch

Sylvester Yellow Calf is a promising young lawyer with a prestigious Helena legal firm in James Welch's novel, The Indian Lawyer.  Having grown up in Browning, Yellow Calf had been a high school and University of Montana basketball star, later graduating from Stanford Law School.

He serves on the state parole board and is somewhat well-known because of his sports accomplishments and his being a minority in a predominately white profession.  Approached about considering a run for Congress, Yellow Calf is caught between two worlds as he contemplates his future but retains ties to his Blackfeet heritage.

His confused love life leads him into dangerous territory when a romantic encounter turns disastrous.  A client he begins dating is really the wife of a Montana State Prison inmate to whom Yellow Calf has denied parole.  The woman and her husband entangle the young lawyer in a blackmail scheme that threatens to derail his political aspirations.

The late James Welch wrote about what he knew well; he was born in Browning, studied at the University of Montana, and served on the state parole board like his protagonist in the story.  The novel reads smoothly, the story is compelling, and the characters and dialogue are entirely believable.

The Indian Lawyer is the One Book Billings selection for March.  -MS

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After the book discussion groups taking place this week, the Library and One Book Billings will present a special talk about James Welch on Saturday, March 7th, at 1:00 PM in the Community Room.  Here's a link to our March newsletter for more details on this presentation.  Hope to see you there!  

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck by Amy Alkon

Amy Alkon is an award winning newspaper columnist who has written three books. These titles include: Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck , I See Rude People, and Free Advice. In Good Manners, Alkon addresses the rudeness she has encountered in modern society. In the first chapter, Alkon states clearly the book isn’t about etiquette. Instead, she reminds her readers how to treat others with respect and gently stresses commonplace courtesy that is sometimes forgotten in our busy, impatient society. Her book is written with humor and wit; it’s far from preachy advice. Highlights of Alkon’s book include chapters on email and dating.

In Chapter 6, Alkon gives common-sense advice on many aspects of the internet. She talks about email reminders on brevity, including a subject line, and not sending three messages when you can send one. Alkon also explains the concept of responding to a message with a small amount of information when it’s not possible to give a full reply. These are all good suggestions that many of us forget to put into practice.

In a matter-of-fact, humorous manner, Alkon describes some of her own dating experiences as well as those of her colleagues in Chapter 7. As an advice columnist, she also writes about some of the individuals who have contacted her over the years.  Alkon begins the chapter by writing about how a male admirer had been watching her at a local coffee shop and left a creepy note on the windshield of her car which stated, “I bet you look great naked.” In a light-hearted manner, she shakes off the incident, but is unnerved at the prospect of being watched by a possible “creeper” and by the unwanted attention she received. Further into the chapter, Alkon explains, “In dating, a good bit of the hurt and anger people feel is caused not by rude behavior but misconceptions about the opposite sex and the way things ‘should’ work as opposed to the ways they actually do.” Through the ages, Alkon emphasizes much heartache has occurred due to the differences between the way in which men and women perceive one another.

Overall, Alkon paints a witty, down-to-earth picture of rudeness in our society. We have all encountered many of the situations she describes in her book, as recipients of rude behavior and as offenders. Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck is a good read for anyone who likes to laugh and be entertained. It also serves as a humorous commentary on the level of rudeness that exists in our modern society. --JK

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Butler by Wil Haygood

In this book we are offered a rare glimpse of life inside the White House through the eyes of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents in his 34-year career.

His quiet dignity through the turmoil of the civil rights movement and the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations is truly remarkable.  In spite of probably having strong personal views, Allen came to be highly regarded for his professional discretion, given all that he saw and heard.  His son, Charles, served in Vietnam, but father Eugene showed exceptional restraint with his employer at the time, LBJ, in never expressing his personal anguish as the war dragged on.

Only the first part of the book is about Allen; the rest describes the making of the recent movie based on his story and a review of African Americans' role in cinema over the past century.  The last part summarizes how five presidents for whom Allen worked dealt with race relations, segregation issues, and civil rights violence.  Scenes from the film and photos of Allen and his wife with some of the powerful people they knew are included.

It is noteworthy that Allen was born in 1919 when lynchings took place in the South, that he went on to work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which was built using slave labor, and that he lived long enough to vote for a black president in 2008.  Aging and in ill health, Allen was thrilled to attend the Obama inauguration in January 2009, one of the most significant events of his life.

The Butler is brief but well worth reading.  Billings Public Library has copies of both the book and the movie available for checkout.  -MS

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

I know what you're thinking. Do we have to talk about this?  Do you really believe that someone other than "The Man from Stratford" wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare?

Over the last one hundred years, this question has been treated with varying degrees of seriousness among academics, historians, conspiracy theorists, and the general public.  Books and articles have proposed one candidate or another, the most prominent among these (besides the Bard himself) being Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.  Movies and novels have taken up the cause as well;   the recent film "Anonymous" pleads Oxford's case, while "Shakespeare in Love" toys with fictionalized accounts of Will Shakespeare taking inspiration for "Romeo and Juliet" and other plays from his own life.  Recent novels like Elise Broach's "Shakespeare's Secret" and Charles C. Lovett's "The Bookman's Tale" base their plots on characters investigating authorship claims.  Even Jim Jarmusch's vampire romance "Only Lovers Left Alive" touches on the authorship question, with one of its immortals revealed as Christopher Marlowe, and the true author of the plays.

At this time in Shakespeare scholarship, the question cannot be avoided.  As Shapiro points out, people as prominent as Mark Twain, Henry James and Sigmund Freud believed that Shakespeare was a fraud.  I myself have read biographies from the likes of Bill Bryson (who dismissed out of hand the claims of Delia Bacon, one of Francis Bacon's leading proponents, labeling her a crackpot with delusions of familial grandeur) and Stephen Greenblatt (whose "Will in the World" attempts to prove Shakespeare's claim to the plays through a textual analysis of their origins and imagery) in which the biographers take up Shakespeare's cause with vigor, and sometimes with surmises as wild as those who have made the case for other "true authors."  Regardless of how much or little we as readers and movie- and theater-goers enjoy the works, the question is an intriguing riddle.  It raises issues of how we view the past, and how our modern perspectives and expectations alter the way we read works like the Shakespeare canon.

This is Shapiro's starting point in this entertaining and informative book.  His goal is not to promote a particular candidate as the "true author", though he states early in the work that he believes Shakespeare did write the plays, but rather to illuminate the history of the debate, focusing on Bacon and Oxford before making the case for Shakespeare's authenticity.  Most interesting to me is his assertion that the authorship controversy has its roots in the assumption that all literature by necessity has an autobiographical basis, in which the author inevitably reveals him or herself.  Much of the issue with Shakespeare lies in an inability to reconcile the middle-class and money-conscious William with an idealized Shakespeare, the creator of fine art.  Yet this autobiographical bias, Shapiro argues, is a relatively new concept with Victorian roots, and runs contrary to how Elizabethan audiences would have understood the plays.  I feel I've gained a new understanding myself on how I read from this book, and I recommend it for this reason as much as for the author's balanced and fascinating approach to his subject.   -BR

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Divorced-Barren-Alcoholic. Devoid of any purpose, Rachel spends her days riding the train into London. Back and forth, back and forth. Every day, the train travels past a stretch of suburban homes that remind her of the life she once had, and stops in front of Number Fifteen, a house occupied by a young couple. This allows her the opportunity to daydream about the life they lead. She has even named them: Jason and Jess, the seemingly perfect couple. Jason must be a doctor, working for an overseas organization. And Jess must work in fashion, art or the music industry. Rachel’s daydreams become so real that she begins to really believe she knows them. Then one day she sees something shocking, and in that brief moment her life completely changes. Obsessed with this couple, she feels it is her duty as a “friend” to go to the police. But she is immediately deemed an unreliable witness. Unable to let it go, she immerses herself into the investigation and into the lives of those involved. 

This book is being touted as the next “Gone Girl”, and I can definitely see why. It has a reminiscent style of writing, in that the story is told through the narration of several characters. Also, each of the characters is pretty despicable. It begs the question, “what is with our obsession with reading/watching stories about horrible people?” Hawkins begins the story with Rachel in the present, then quickly shifts to “Jess” a year in the past. Slowly, their timelines begin to converge. This thriller is so compelling, I finished it in one day. I couldn’t put it down. About halfway through I started coming up with my own theories, and couldn’t wait to find out if I was right. In the end I was halfway right. Hawkins throws in a lot of red herrings to make you think one thing, while another thing is really going on. I’ve been thinking about this book since I finished it, which to me is the sign of a good book. If you are a fan of thrillers, mysteries, and especially anything by Gillian Flynn, check this book out immediately. You will not be disappointed.-LT

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

I've been told that I read too many depressing novels.  Sometimes I try to argue the point and then sometimes I read Cormac McCarthy.  Yes, his novels are stark and brutal, but they are also eloquent and powerful.  The Crossing is all of these things and more.  It is the second part of a trilogy of novels, the first being All the Pretty Horses.  This is not a sequel, however.  The only connection between The Crossing and All the Pretty Horses is one of theme.  The characters and stories aren't directly related until the last book, Cities of the Plain (which I haven't read, but will soon). 

The story revolves around a young boy and his journey to lead a female wolf out of his family's land in America and into the Mexican wilderness.  Simple, straightforward, but full of tragic happenings and often earth-shaking prose.  With that said, I felt that this novel had some highs and lows.  The novel seemed to oscillate between moments of incredibly evocative lucidity and moments that just can't help but be seen as mundane in comparison. There are moments here that are quite simply some of the best writing I've ever read, with the opening scene in particular coming to mind.  When compared to All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing falls a little short when it comes to sheer story, but if you were to take the best parts of each book and compare them I think The Crossing would come out on top. 

I know I've talked a lot about how this book compares with All the Pretty Horses, but in reality you can read The Crossing by itself and be just fine.  I went into it with high expectations and knowing that it was part of a trilogy, so I couldn't help but think about it that way and compare it to its predecessor.  Regardless of all that, though, I highly recommend The Crossing.  There are parts of this book that will stick with me for a long time (possibly, even, the rest of my life), and it's a book that I look forward to reading again.  I can't think of any higher praise to give a book than that.--CA

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom by Jennifer Holland

If you're like me, romance novels and mushy movies make you cringe a little, so in honor of Valentine's Day I wanted to select a book that wasn't about sappy, romantic liaisons.  Instead, I chose a book about friendship and companionship among the animal kingdom.

Many people view animals as non-entities, or may even believe animals are incapable of feelings or emotion.  Although modern research has since debunked some of these beliefs, nothing can change a person's mind quite like the old "see it to believe it".  Enter in Jennifer Holland's beautiful photographic documentary of animals who have bonded.

Accompanying each photograph is the story behind how each pair came together.  Some animal pairings seem like they would be a logical occurrence, such as a mother ape who has lost a baby and is given a kitten to care for, but others such as a lonely polar bear having a friendly tussle with a sled husky, are more unusual.

My personal favorite story is that of Owen, a hippo baby who was orphaned after a monsoon killed his family.  Owen was rescued and relocated to a zoo where he was adopted by Mzee, a solitary Galapagos tortoise who had, up to the point of meeting Owen, preferred not to be around other animals.

Let this book change some of the perceptions you may harbor toward certain animals in our world. -JW

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