Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hands-on philosophy that's anything but dry

Being in the World
by Tao Ruspoli and Hubert Dreyfus

While working in the adult nonfiction DVD collection one day last week, I happened upon a documentary titled Being in the World and thought "Hmm . . . pretty broad topic; I wonder what it's really about."

Turns out it's about philosophy, specifically that of 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger. The thrust of Heidegger's argument is that philosophers have had it all wrong from Plato on down. Heidegger argues that the traditional distinctions of Real v. Ideal, subject v. object, mind v. body, etc. miss the point. Any philosophy that overlooks or denies the fundamentally physical nature of human existence and understanding is fatally flawed. Dry-sounding stuff, I know.

But it's not. Professor Hubert Dreyfus is the genial host of Being in the World, and he explains that we "know" reality as much with our bodies as with our minds. Visualize an Olympic gymnast doing a balance beam routine and you're on the right track. Human beings are more than disembodied brains or unfeeling machines. To make its case, the film juxtaposes surprisingly engaging contemporary philosophers and amazing real world exemplars of authentic existence. Musicians, a Creole chef, a Japanese carpentereven a jugglerall perform and discuss their crafts.

If Being in the World doesn't leave you itching to get your hands dirty doing whatever it is that you do best and love most, nothing will. Watch it and see.

To request this item click the title or cover above.

Review by Don Beistle

Monday, March 25, 2013

A dream so close he could hardly fail to grasp it

America America
by Ethan Canin

America America is a familiar story. Set in the Nixon-era 1970s, it's a kind of latter-day Great Gatsby with a Teddy Kennedy-like senator and presidential candidate named Henry Bonwiller playing the part of Gatsby. Noble intentions, hubris, overreach, girl trouble, dirty politics, unforgivable ethical lapses, and something like a family curse: it's all here, and in spades. You already know more or less what's going to happen, but what will keep you reading is a blend of queasy fascination and a fading hope that history (even fictional history) cannot keep repeating itself endlessly.

The novel's narrator and moral compass is Corey Sifter, a Nick Carraway-esque outsider, a working-class kid with more brains than money. Knowing his family lacks the resources to send him to college, Corey's father helps him land a grounds keeping job on the estate of their town's unofficial ruling family, the vastly wealthy and politically well-connected Metarey clan. The gambit works, and before long the Metarey patriarch has bankrolled the young Sifter's education and pressed him into service as a low level political operative and errand boy to Senator Bonwiller.

The story unfolds chronologically, though in retrospect from the vantage point of the narrator's middle age. News of the senator's death jars Sifter, prompting him to reexamine in detail the period when their paths crossed 35 years earlier and to discern what exactly he himself was complicit in. Like Gatsby, America America is the kind of mystery that cries out to be disclosed rather than to be solved. In other words, a tragedy. And a uniquely American tragedy at that.

To request this book click the title or cover above.

Review by Don Beistle

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Atmospheric British Mysteries

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton
By Elizabeth Speller

Meet detective Laurence Bartram. Only he's not really a detective. He's more of an expert on English churches. Bartram accepts an invitation to an estate house called Easton Deadall, which is an ominous name if ever there was one, to help an architect friend with his knowledge of church history. Bartram arrives to discover the Easton family inhabiting a crumbling estate which they aim to renovate along with the cottages of the nearby village. But even with the Eastons looking to the future, it's not long before he learns that more than a decade ago five-year-old Kitty Easton disappeared without a trace. Her absence is still felt. Despite the thorough searching that went on at the time, everyone is keenly aware that with the new renovations that they could stumble upon a small set of bones at any moment. Would this be a blessing or a curse? Some members of the family prefer to think that Kitty's still alive somewhere and confirmation of her death would put an end to that fantasy.

A large part of Bartram's character derives from the fact that he is a veteran of the first World War. The traumas affecting those who fought, and the consequences for the national psyche, factor heavily in both of the Bartram stories to date. But while that philosophical inquiry informs the characters, there is a mystery at the heart of the book. More than one, really.

The best part of this story is the atmosphere the author creates. As characters explore the grounds, which include an ancient church with curious carvings, a black-watered pond, and a hedge maze the family is in the process of building, you feel like you are exploring with them. The estate is as much of a character as anyone else in the book, and that's not a bad thing.

To learn more about Laurence Bartram you might want to start with the first book featuring him, The Return of Captain John Emmet. But that book gives much more focus to his experiences during the war, forcing the mystery to take a back seat.

To request the books mentioned in this post click the titles or covers above.

Review by Danny Hanbery

Monday, March 18, 2013

Last Call 
The Rise and Fall of Prohibition 
 By Daniel Okrent

If you're like me, you haven't spent much time thinking about Prohibition-era politics. When you think about the 1920s you may have vague notions of speakeasies and flappers and organized crime. But how did Prohibition become the law of the land? And just what was it like to live in America in this time of a booming economy and a thriving black market in booze?

Reading this book is a wild ride. You'll learn about Rum Row, which was a line of ships sitting three miles off shore just out of the law's reach. These ships were floating liquor warehouses that folks would visit after dark. You'll also hear the story of a road between Michigan and Canada that was lined with wrecked cars because of the sheer number of alcohol runs to the northern border. Later on you'll discover that many words we use today come from the Prohibition-era lexicon. "Powder room," for instance, was the term for the women's restrooms that many formerly all-male saloons had to add when they became speakeasies. "Scofflaw" was the word for someone who blatantly disregarded anti-liquor laws.

Throughout you'll hear about the big personalities involved. Whether politician, activist, or gangster everyone was vying for a slice of control. Or at least a cut of the profits. More than just interesting trivia, this book provides insight into another era in American history.

To request this book click the title or cover above.

Review by Danny Hanbery

Thursday, March 14, 2013

One of a Kind Read by Well Established Author

Alice Hoffman’s The Dove Keepers is the tale of the lives of 4 women of ancient Israel in the time of the battle of Masada.  It is a bit long but well worth the journey!  The book has been meticulously researched and was 5 years in the making.  It has been called her literary masterpiece.  I’ll let you decide about that but it really is a page turner.  More than a story of action it is a family saga of 4 complex women full of character development and also the story of a time and a place.

The book jacket puts it rather succinctly, “The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege.  All are dove keepers, and all are also keeping secrets—about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love.”
The story centers around Shirah, often referred to as the Witch of Moab because she keeps the outlawed ancient arts and goddess worship that has been outlawed by her people alive, but always in secret.  She is a healer and has talismans and potions to heal and keep her loved one safe.  She also serves as the city’s midwife.  She is the lover of the leader of the army.  Shirah is the head Dove keeper and the doves are important to the fertile valley in the Judean valley where these ancient zealots are holed up waiting for the strike that they know will one day come from the Roman soldiers as they seek total domination of the holy lands.  The doves fertilize the abundant plants that feed their people so caring for their health is important work.  All four of the women have come from Jerusalem at different times, for different reasons, and their 
lives become intertwined. 

The book takes you through great highs and lows including two illegitimate births.  A large part of the book is centered around Yael, whose mother died giving birth to her.  Her father despises her and treats her like a dog throughout most of the story because he can’t move on in his life, he keeps grieving for his lost wife.  He is the top assassin of the zealots and has trained Yael’s brother in the ways of stealth.  The book is full of the magical in everyday life.  It is said that Yael’s father has a cloak of invisibility and wearing it helps Yael through desperate spots in the story.  Her family has traveled in the desert for a very long time until stumbling on this mountain oasis, former home of King Herod, where Yael’s brother has saved them accommodations.  Yael befriends a prisoner from the north who is sent to work in the dovecotes.  The women dove keepers all have an overwhelming and fierce humanity in the way they treat others including the slave.  It is a touching part of the narrative.  Revka was a village baker’s wife before coming to the mountain.  She takes Yael in when her father throws her out when it becomes obvious that she is with child.  Hoffman shows how ethics and actions are often circumstantial, especially in dire circumstances.  Revka relies on magic to help her grandchildren learn to speak again.  They have witnessed the atrocities of war and are rendered mute.  Revka loses her daughter and comes to think of Yael as her replacement.  The book is by turn a sensual tale and the recounting of desperate times and journeys but it is never dull.  There is betrayal, bloodshed, and loss but it is an uplifting story as well.  Just as you think you've figured everything out another mystery develops so there’s never a lull in the story.

There is bravery of the greatest order here and always a solidarity and loyalty of the women to each other and their families.  The witch looses a daughter to the Essene sect and mourns, again, Yael becomes the replacement for this fierce woman.  The Dovekeepers is a story that has rarely been told, even in non-fiction, so it makes for a remarkable read.  The library has many copies of this moving book.  Give yourself a treat and put a copy of it on hold for yourself today!

You can request this title by clicking the name at the top.

Book review by Kathleen Richardson

Monday, March 11, 2013

Don't Have Much Time for Reading? Short Stories!

This Cake Is for the Party  by Sarah Selecky is a collection of ten short stories set in Canada.  The stories have some aspect of food in them, either characters prepping or sharing a meal. Despite their short story status, the main characters are sketched deftly, and you have a birds eye view into their thoughts and world. Marital, familial, and friendship bonds are introduced, strained, and tested. 

If you are looking for the short story, This Cake Is For The Party, you will not find it in this collection, which is an interesting choice made by the author. I'm not a big fan of short stories, but this collection spoke to me. My one complaint is that the last story was quite heavy to end the collection. This is perfect for a literary fix during lunch or if you do not have much time for reading. 

This collection was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller prize, which is Canada's most distinguished literary prize for a Canadian novel or short story collection published in English. It was established in 1994 by Toronto businessman Jack Rabinovich in honor of his late wife, Doris Giller.  It was also a finalist for the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book in Canada and the Caribbean. 

This is a recommended read for any book club. A reader's guide complete with discussion questions is provided.

Click the title or cover above to request. 

Review by Cara 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

by Jenny Erpenbeck

In its original German Visitation is titled Heimsuchung, which means something like "home search" or "looking for home." The title is apt; Visitation focuses on the occupants of an idyllic parcel of land on a lake in Brandenburg, outside Berlin, over the course of a century, from the Bismarck era to the post-Reunification 1990s.

From that description you might think you already know the story, but you would be only half right. Except briefly, the wars and horrors of the 20th century appear only in the distance, like heat lightning on an ominously calm summer's evening.

Reading Visitation is like going for a walk with a nature buff who can't help pointing out features you never would notice otherwise: the gently rolling hills left by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age, the sandstone outcropping that once was the floor of some ancient sea, the ferns older than dinosaurs. But here the features are human: the villagers, the family scattered and driven into exile, the quarter-Jewish architect, the communist artist, the yuppies, and the gardeneralways the gardener from one generation to the next.

Erpenbeck writes beautifully; even in translation her prose dazzles. Her eye for telling details, for images that capture a whole story at a glance, is amazing. Read Visitation, then read it again. It's that good.

To request this book click on the title or the cover above.

Review by Don Beistle

Monday, March 4, 2013

Five Forks Branch Staff Picks

This month we hear from the staff at Five Forks. They're recommending books they enjoyed in the hope that you'll enjoy them too.

By Olaf Olafsson

Why you should read it: I was initially drawn to this book by the beautiful cover, but it is the story, combining three of my favorite reading interests--art and restoration, stories of World War II, and Italy--that really intrigued me. In a remote village in Tuscany an Englishwoman is determined to restore her husband's family estate. However, when war and its attendant refugees arrive on her doorstep, layers of secrets, like paint on a canvas, are revealed.

A Brief History of Montmaray
Book One in The Montmaray Journals
By Michelle Cooper

Why you should read it: I was enchanted right from the start of the wonderful novel set on the fictional island nation of Montmaray. In the years of rising Fascism in Europe, Sophie FitzOsborne, Princess Royal of the tiny kingdom of Montmaray, tells in diary narrative of her charmingly beleaguered and eccentric family. Suddenly, after dwelling in glorious isolation for many years, the FitzOsbornes are faced with uncertainties and danger as the outside world gathers the forces of war. Although written for a teen audience, Cooper's trilogy deserves a wide readership.

Nightwoods: A Novel
By Charles Frazier

Why you should read it: Set in the early 1960s, this latest novel by Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons, is a story of suspense and love about a young woman living in a small town in North Carolina who inherits the young twins of her murdered sister. Until the children arrive, Luce has lived a solitary life without emotional attachments. She must learn to love, protect, and communicate with the traumatized children who trust only each other. Frazier's gifts for writing beautiful prose, creating unforgettable characters, and storytelling are clearly evident in this gripping Appalachian tale. Will Patton, also the reader of Frazier's earlier books, narrates the audio version of Nightwoods with his award-winning talent in bringing the story and characters to life. Whether you read or listen to the story, it's one you won't soon forget.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
By Jonathan L. Howard

Why you should read it: After making a foolish deal with the Devil, Johannes Cabal becomes the proprietor of a diabolical carnival and has one year to convince 100 people to sign their souls over to the Devil or lose his own soul forever.

Hello, Gorgeous
Becoming Barbra Streisand
By William J. Mann

Why you should read it: This book is for die hard Streisand fans. If you’re like me, expecting everything from Funny Girl to Yentl, (and you’re particularly eager to get the goods on Babs and Robert Redford in The Way We Were), you might be a bit disappointed. The book chronicles four years: from 1960 when Streisand first started to sing in clubs in New York City to 1964 when she was a Broadway sensation in Funny Girl and was well on her way to becoming a tremendous success. Fans may enjoy the peek into Barbra’s humble beginnings, the reasons for her controlling ways, and her various idiosyncrasies. At over 500 pages, it is very detailed, meticulously researched, and a little long; but overall, I would recommend this very interesting book for Barbra Streisand lovers!

We hope you found something to like here, but don't worry if you didn't. There will be another branch next month with another round of favorite reads.