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In the Spotlight

Eight(ish) Miraculous Books

Taking place every year on the 25th of Kislev, Hanukkah commemorates the story of Jewish persecution at the hands of the Syrian despot Antiochus, who made observance of Judaism a capital offense, regularly slaughtered Jews, and made it a point to desecrate the Temple.

A man named Mattathias and his sons formed a band of rebels, the Maccabees, and after three years of fighting they eventually ousted the Syrians.

When they saw the state of the Temple, the warriors openly wept and went about ritually cleaning it for use again. Tradition tells us there was enough oil to light the great Menorah for one night, but miraculously, it lasted eight days – enough time to manufacture more ritual oil. In celebration (and because of the holiday’s proximity to a larger American holiday) the holiday has grown in prominence.

We eat latkes, spin dreidels, and put our menorah in the windows, quietly shining amid the more conspicuous holiday lights of our neighbors.

In honor of Hanukkah starting this evening, it seemed fitting to address miracles, specifically the miracle of the right book, just as it is needed. Wouldn’t you consider it miraculous when the formation of a thought in a stranger’s head is written down, then survives the publishing process to be made into a book, which gets purchased by your local library, which a friendly librarian delivers to your hands at the right time to resonate with the deepest needs of your current life? Well, now. I certainly would.

With that in mind, I decided to visit books that were a miracle in my life.  I’ve read a lot, even before I became a professional bookslinger, so there were oodles to choose from. This listing is not necessarily the best book ever written on a theme or a subject (though most are quite good), but they were miracles in that they came at just the right time in my life and made a lasting impact. Read More..

Women of the Star Wars Expanded Universe

The newest Star Wars movie is days away from release, and there’s an electricity in the air surrounding this excitement that I’m forced to refer to as the Force. With the new trilogy and Expanded Universe movies all abuzz, it’s become clear that women have taken a firm hold of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Characters like Rey and Jyn Erso are proving to be even more popular than their male counterparts.

Recently, I happily discovered that the amount of female writers contributing to the fiction of the Expanded Universe (EU), and the totally kick-butt stories that have come from them. The reading level of these stories ranges, which is perfect for fostering a long-term love for the EU in young readers. They’re complex, fascinating, and cover all of the backstory that would’ve turned each of the existing movies into 6-hour features—something that I’m not at all opposed to, for the record. Read More..

Manhattan Beach: A Mob Drama for the Rest of Us

About a month ago I tweeted with 100% sincerity, “I zone out as soon as a TV show description uses the words, ‘crime boss.’” Although in my tweet I was referring to a synopsis I had seen on Netflix, believe me when I say this is true for books as well.

I have no capacity for paying attention to a story where macho men brandish guns while calling women “broads” or where the word “capeesh” is used as a replacement for a question mark. I am not so arrogant to think that just because these stories don’t appeal to me, it means they’re bad, but nevertheless, whenever I say I don’t like this genre someone usually mentions The Godfather or something similar as if I’ve been living under the biggest and most soundproof rock in creation.

“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GODFATHER?” “I’ve seen it!” “But did you like it?” “No!” Anyway, one week after my tweet (and its now obvious foreshadowing), I was cracking open Jennifer Egan’s newest novel, Manhattan Beach, to find the story centered around what can best described as… sigh… a crime boss. Or, more accurately, a woman whose life is deeply affected by a crime boss. I broke out into a cold sweat as I became increasingly aware of what I was getting myself into. I’d already planned to write a review of Egan’s new book because two of her previous novels,The Keep and A Visit From the Goon Squad, are some of my personal favorites. I didn’t feel like I could back out now. Besides, what would I write about if not this?

Time was of the essence and, frankly, I hadn’t expected Jennifer Egan to do this to me. Despite my trepidation, I took the plunge and read it… and as much as I hate to admit when I’m wrong, I guess I like crime fiction now. Read More..

November Look Play Listen Round Up

Hi Lawrence!

Look Play Listen is the library’s team of AV appreciators.

Each month we’ll round up some of our favorite music, film/TV, and video game reviews from our staff and put them in one easy to read, easy to locate blog post. Read More..

One Place, Many Voices: Local Authors Share Connections to Place

Cover image: downstream view of Kansas River; photo courtesy of Kansas Geological Survey.

Writing by our local authors is rich and diverse in both mood and voice. My current focus is on such writing that provides a sense of place. This is an invitation to explore outside spaces with local authors in a series of events aptly titled Local Authors Outside.

I also want to encourage you to check out their books and hopefully be inspired to deepen your connection to this place—from the lush woodlands of Douglas County State Fishing Lake to Delaware Indian landmarks in North Lawrence, the fertile prairie at Prairie Park, and the wide expanse of diverse flora and fauna throughout our area— I hope you’ll join us! Read More..

The Stages of Finding a New Favorite Author

This post was inspired by my binge-reading of the collected works of Mohsin Hamid, my (new) favorite author currently writing. Read More..

Luaka Bop and the World Psychedelic Classics

Almost 30 years ago, David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) founded a record label “to turn people onto stuff [he] liked.” Because he’s David Byrne, and because he’s eminently cooler than you or me, the stuff he liked was Brazilian pop music.

In January of ‘89 Byrne released his first compilation, Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical. Three other Brazil Classics followed. From there, Luaka Bop–a record label name Byrne nicked off some tea packaging– and along with its eyeballed, “rather obscure Masonic” logo started to jump all over the globe. Cuba, England, India, West Africa, Japan, etc.

I wish I could claim to be a lifetime follower of Luaka Bop, but the truth is I’m a new convert. I hadn’t heard of the label until I stumbled upon the fifth of its World Psychedelic Classics series, Who is William Onyeabor? a year or two back. Read More..

Coal and Thoreau: The Essays of Practice Resurrection

Not long ago I took a trip across the High Plains, and in addition to seeing more pronghorn and prairie dogs than I’ve ever seen, I also witnessed the landscape of Wyoming’s Thunder Basin for the first time. While much of it is drop-dead beautiful, one gets the feeling that something ominous is brewing there – roads are being repaved, railroads are new or well-maintained, and, of course, trucks are many, big, and well-used.

One soon finds out why. Thunder Basin is where about 40% of America’s coal is mined, though a traveler gets only an occasional glimpse of the massive dark pits uprooting acre after acre of prairie. It’s kind of the opposite of the mountain top removal mining tearing down places like Kentucky.

Serendipitously, upon my return to Lawrence I discovered Kentucky author Erik Reece, who recently published a wonderful new book, Practice Resurrection.  It turns out his previous work, entitled Lost Mountain, is what poet and fellow Kentuckian Wendell Berry calls “by far the best accounting of mountain top removal and its effects.” In it Reece describes a year on a particular promontory, “thinking like a mountain,” in ecologist Aldo Leopold’s words, before said mountain’s head is blown off for the coal beneath. Read More..

Where the Beefalo Roam

As an animal lover growing up in Kansas, our annual grade school field trip to the University of Kansas Natural History Museum was always a high point. I adored the famous Panorama of taxidermy, and the working, cutaway beehive, but what I looked forward to most was the chance to gaze upon a real jackalope.

We adults require our animals to be just what they are, but I often think the world would be a better place if we hadn’t lost whatever it is about kids that allows them to accept the possibility of crazy animal hybrids. I’m as big a stick in the mud as any when it comes to combining species. After all, it recently took 30 minutes of bickering and this Wikipedia entry to convince me that cattle and buffalo had been crossed to produce an animal called a beefalo.

If there is one place such a creature could roam free, it’s in the children’s collection at the library.  In fact, there are so many weird animals to be found here, I sometimes think of it as a warmer, fuzzier Island of Dr. Moreau, with the sociopathic, mad scientist of that title replaced by a maniacal Lisa Frank, fresh off a post-doc fellowship in genetics at Johns Hopkins, flush with grant money, and ready to combine as many cute animals as she can get her hands on.

Most remember the Gryphon, a lion and eagle mash-up immortalized by Victorian illustrator John Tenniel in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But there are so many other wondrous species within the pages of books, I’ve compiled them over the years into a sort of children’s literature bestiary. Without further ado, here are my five favorites: Read More..

Season of the Witch

Magician, wizard, practicer of magic, whatever you want to call that person, I bet some of the first examples that pop into your head are male: Harry Potter, Merlin, Gandalf. The greats of the fantasy genre are usually males with women in support roles. They are the wife, jealous lover, or know-it-all, and sometimes in a world full of men practicing magic, they have no magical ability at all; they are a foil for their wizard counterpart.

Growing up enamored with the fantasy genre and novels filled with magic, I found my favorites: Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet, Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series and of course the biggie, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. But for every Alanna and Sabriel there were dozens of Harrys and Eragons. YA and Juvenile fiction have been quick to turn around, but it can be pretty difficult when browsing the Adult Fantasy shelves to find a novel centered on a well rounded female character. Fantasy has long been reigned over by male protagonists, but there are female writers like Ami McKay and Kat Howard who are daring to go where only Robert Jordan and  J. R. R. Tolkien had gone before. Let me talk to you about witches in America. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Read More..