Monday, October 5, 2015

Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is one of my favorite books, one of the few ghost stories I have read several times;  her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle also left its mark on me due to its unforgettable narrator, Merricat, and its intertwining of the gothic with the everyday.  So I was excited to hear that her children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt, had edited a new collection of her stories, essays and lectures which they culled from the author's papers at the Library of Congress.

The new collection pulls together unpublished or uncollected stories, including a fascinating subsection called "When this War is Over:  Early Short Stories."  These were written in the 1940's, and delve into Home Front relationships under the pressure of war.   Other sections feature what I think of as classic Jackson stories:  vivid characters described with precise and telling details whose stories often end ambiguously.  While some follow the war section's pattern, cutting out little slices of characters' lives through their author's sharp wit, others are dark or humorous fantasy stories steeped in folklore.  Among these, "Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons" is a standout.  Mrs. Spencer is a 1950's housewife who believes, above all else, in orderliness.  When a strange, unruly, and suddenly popular family moves into her town and starts using her name as their introduction to her neighbors, she finds all of her careful control slipping out of her hands. 

The best surprise of the book, for me, is its inclusion of some of Jackson's humorous depictions of her family, her own foibles, and her writing process.  She wrote extensively for women's magazines about raising her family, and a great cross section of these writings were previously collected in the non-fiction compilation, Life Among the Savages.  The pieces in the new book often had me laughing out loud.  Even more intriguing is her depiction of herself, whimsically telling herself stories about her kitchen-ware to get through the day, sleepwalking and visiting with ghosts (maybe), hiding protective charms in her husband's coat pockets like a real-life Merricat in the essay called "The Ghosts of Loiret."  In their afterward, her children assure us that these stories and those about their childhoods, while based in reality, were often "wonderfully embellished."

As I greatly enjoyed meeting Shirley Jackson through these essays, I just hope they weren't too embellished.  In either case, I'm betting you will enjoy meeting her, too!   -BR

Reserve this book.  If you are interested in more of Jackson's work, please look here!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Northern Lights: The Science, Myth, and Wonder of Aurora Borealis

Photography by Calvin Hall and Daryl Pederson
Essay by George Bryson

Most of us are fascinated by the northern lights, those rippling curtains of brilliant, changing color also known as the aurora borealis.  Continuously present near the Arctic Circle, the auroras are often not visible due to cloud cover and daylight.  Sightings as far south as Montana are infrequent, but they do occur.  The lights are best viewed late at night in winter and are seen much more often in Alaska and Canada than in Europe or Asia.

Mysterious natural phenomena like the auroras have spawned myths throughout the ages, as people attempted to explain the unknown.  The lights have been both feared and revered for centuries.  For example, Athabascans of Fort Yukon, Alaska, once thought that the lights foretold deaths.  The Eskimos of Greenland and Labrador believed they were spirits of the departed, and Scandinavians said that the northern lights were the souls of beautiful women floating and dancing above the earth.  Observers of rare, red auroras sometimes mistook them for huge, distant fires.

Bryson's essay accompanying the spectacular photography in this book is just right.  It is informative without being too scientific or lengthy, and it answers questions people often have about this wondrous, natural light show.  With more photos than text, the authors have created a marvelous visual treat, something I call a dessert book.  -MS

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer's Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing

Alison Freer is a costume designer who lives and works in Hollywood. She is also the fashion editor of, an online women’s magazine that covers topics such as love, beauty, and fashion. Inspired by her work as a costume designer, she wrote How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing. As a costume designer, Freer has learned practical solutions to every problem and shares her knowledge with her readers in a down-to-earth writing style.  Freer has composed thirteen enlightening chapters that address everything from the basics of achieving great style through fit to shoe care for all of types of footwear. Along with the chapters on a variety of topics, Freer includes glossaries for stain removal and fabric care.

Two especially helpful chapters include Chapters 6 and 10. In Chapter 6, Wardrobe Tools to Keep Your Look Together, Freer describes the many uses for the common safety pin. According to Freer, a safety pin can be used in a variety of ways. In an emergency, a safety pin can double as a zipper pull, and in a pinch, can serve as a replacement for a button. If a string has worked itself through a hoodie, a safety pin can also be used to pull the string back through.

Another tool from Freer’s bag of costume designer tricks is mole skin. This item can be used to make problematic shoes more comfortable by being adhered directly to the inside of the shoes rather than your feet. Mole skin can also be used to protect one’s skin from scratchy seems and uncomfortable underwire bras.

In Chapter 10, Freer talks about the basics of laundry including how to sort clothing, maintain your washing machine, and save money on dry cleaning by determining what items can be safely hand washed or laundered in the machine on a delicate cycle. A little-known fact is that many items can be washed rather than dry cleaned. Instead of testing fabrics, clothing manufacturers often times state that items are dry clean only when they are constructed with polyester, nylon, cotton or other blends. These types of fabrics can be laundered safely without causing shrinkage or otherwise destroying the garment. In addition, Freer recommends buying a steamer rather than spending countless hours ironing.

Overall, How to Get Dressed is well-written with practical information from a knowledgeable source. The book stands out from other fashion guides due to the number of helpful tips and tricks. – JK

Friday, September 18, 2015

Cauldron of Ghosts (Honorverse: Wages of Sin #3) - by David Weber, Eric Flint

Really long summary (slightly modified from Goodreads):  In this 3rd book in the Honorverse Crown of Slaves subseries, secret agents Anton Zilwicki and Victor Cachat return to wreak more havoc on Mesa.
The Mesan Alignment is a centuries-old cabal that seeks to impose its vision of genetic supermen ruling the human race.  With the conspiracy exposed by spies Anton Zilwicki and Victor Cachat - one an agent of Honor Harrington’s Star Kingdom of Manticore, the other a Havenite operative - outing the Alignment has turned the galaxy’s political framework topsy-turvy.  Old coalitions have disintegrated. New alliances have been born.
For starters, the long and hard-fought war between the Republic of Haven and the Star Empire of Manticore is not only over, but these formerly bitter enemies have formed a new alliance against the Mesan Alignment.  Zilwicki and Cachat return to Mesa for additional information, and soon they are on the run in Mesa’s underworld, not only hunted by the Alignment but threatened by the exploding conflict on the planet between Mesa's overlords and the brutalized slaves and descendants of slaves who have suffered under their rule for so long. 
My review:  Weber and Flint are an excellent combination, as usual. I really enjoyed the first two books in this sub-series, and this one is a great topper. Cachat and Zilwicki make a charming pair of deadly super-spies, Cachat as the loose cannon and Zilwicki as the sort-of-moderating influence, except when things don't need moderated. When the fecal matter hits the rotary impeller, Cachat and Zilwicki are the best cleaner-uppers you can have, as long as you want a really clean sweep and no questions asked. Add in Thandi Palane for sheer carnage and the trio is like a buzz-saw. (I'm trying really hard to avoid spoilers, here, but it's hard). When the three of them go to Mesa to get more details about the Mesan Alignment, things turn out completely unexpectedly, for the most part, especially for the official government of Mesa (not the Alignment, who are turning out to be really nasty people, as though them being slavers weren't enough to tell you that already). This is an excellent addition to an outstanding series.    -LP 

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Squirrels by Brian Wildsmith

Last night we had a very special guest visit our library.  At about 5:40PM a young squirrel wandered in!  Staff spent a rigorous evening herding, chasing, and cornering our furry little guest who found many places to hide in the Children’s Department.  She was finally caught by Billings Animal Control and a staff member at about 7:20PM and escorted to a safe garden in the county where she was returned to the wild, unharmed.

In honor of our visitor who led us a merry chase throughout the Children’s area, I’d like to share one of my favorite picture books:  Squirrels by Brian Wildsmith.  I won’t tell you what it’s about…because you can probably guess…but it’s a gentle, easy read, and the watercolor illustrations really do justice to one of nature’s sweetest little critters.  -JW

See if you can find Squirrels in the library by following its Call Number: E 599 Wildsmith

If you have young ones in your family, make sure you stop by Story Time next week - we're showcasing squirrels!  View Children's Events and Activities.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

"We read to know we're not alone.  We read because we are alone.  We read and we are not alone.  We are not alone." 

A.J. Fikry is a widowed bookseller who maintains a hermit's existence on an island off the coast of Massachusetts at the beginning of this appealing novel.  After his wife's death in a car crash, A.J. withdraws to his office and his upstairs apartment, dreaming of selling his rare copy of Poe's Tamerlane and quitting his life entirely.  In short order, however, his existence is upturned by the theft of the book and then the arrival of an abandoned baby in the small children's section of his store.  A.J. surprises everyone, including himself, by adopting the little girl, and subsequently re-awakening his interest in books, his store, and his life.  The store, Island Books, becomes a focal point of activity for the islanders touched by A.J. and his new daughter. 

From the description, you might guess that this is a warm-hearted, soft sort of book, and you would not be wrong.  Zevin borrows a bit from other sentimental works, like George Eliot's Silas Marner, both in her character development and plot points.  The real charm here, though, is in her use of books and her contemplation of "book people" and reading in general.  This is primarily a book about lives lived through books, and the author makes the point that, no matter what we prefer to read, books and stories both inform our lives and make them richer.  Also, as A.J. notes towards the close of the story, when we read, "We have to believe.  We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and then."  I know of no better summation of why readers find such pleasure in books.  -BR

Reserve this book.   I listened to the audiobook narrated by Scott Brick, and I recommed this version as well.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Summary (modified from Goodreads):  Using objects that Americans have saved through the centuries and stories they have passed along, as well as histories teased from documents, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich chronicles the production of cloth--and of history--in early America. Under the singular lens that Ulrich brings to this study, ordinary household goods--Indian baskets, spinning wheels, a chimneypiece (among others) - provide the key to a transformed understanding of cultural encounter, frontier war, Revolutionary politics, international commerce, and early industrialization in America. We discover how ideas about cloth and clothing affected relations between English settlers and their Algonkian neighbors. We see how an English production system based on a clear division of labor—men doing the weaving and women the spinning--broke down in the colonial setting, becoming first marginalized, then feminized, then politicized, and how the new system both prepared the way for and was sustained by machine-powered spinning.

Ulrich demonstrates how ordinary objects reveal larger economic and social structures, and, in particular, how early Americans and their descendants made, used, sold, and saved textiles in order to assert identities, shape relationships, and create history.

My review:  This book has a lot of good information, but it's very slow going. Ulrich ties the existence of various handmade/homespun objects into regional and national history, but sometimes gets carried away with tangents. I found her explanations of what women could own vs what men could own in colonial times very interesting, but some of her explanations of the laws got to be a bit much. I'm glad I read it, though, because I did learn a lot about early cloth manufacturing and fiber arts, which was very interesting for someone who embroiders and crochets.  -LP