Jen

About Jen

I'm an Adult Services Librarian at the Warrenville Public Library. I'll read just about anything you put in front of me, but I've always been a science fiction & fantasy fan. I'm also fond of history, true crime, thrillers, and popular anthropology that isn't written by Jared Diamond. When I'm not reading, I'm painting, watching movies from the 1930s and 40s, working on my novel, or out at the archery range playing with pointy sticks.

The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris

Book – You can absolutely judge a book by its cover, because I knew as soon as I saw this one that it was going to 1) be incredibly grotesque, 2) talk about one of my favorite historical topics (strange things people used to believe about the human body), and 3) contain exploding teeth. I’m horrified by the very thought, I had to read it.

This is a delightful collection of grotesque and horrifying stories about the strange things people used to believe about the human body, including, yes, exploding teeth. (Maybe. The author suggests some possible alternative explanations.) It covers everything from heroic and unlikely surgeries (saving lives by pinching blood vessels closed with bare hands!) to unlikely and undoubtedly worthless inventions (the tapeworm trap, which you were supposed to bait with cheese, swallow, and then pull out of your throat using the included string). This book is not for the weak of stomach, but if you’ve ever wanted to be enjoyably grossed out by medical history for a while, it’s a fun option. If you’d prefer to be grossed out by medical history in audio form, try the podcast Sawbones, which covers many of the same topics, hosted by a husband-and-wife comedian-and-doctor team.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Book – Gyre is determined to get off the mining planet she grew up on and to find her mother, who disappeared years ago. The easiest way to do that is as a caver, exploring the depths of the planet to find new sites for the mining companies that run the world. But caving is dangerous, so rather than take the time to build up a proper career and risk dying before she gets a chance to get out, Gyre’s faked her CV and signed on to one big job that should pay her enough to get offworld as soon as she’s done. Of course, there’s a reason this job pays so much, and it’s certainly not because it’s a normal caving expedition.

I never expected a novel about one person alone in a cave, sometimes talking with one person on the surface but sometimes not, to be so emotional. Gyre is a terrific character, stubborn and foolhardy and paranoid, and I was cheering her on even as I was cursing her terrible decisions. While the novel starts out almost like a horror novel, the deeper Gyre goes into the mystery of why she’s been sent into this particular cave and what happened there, the more the broader universe of mining corporations and alien predators – not to mention Gyre’s developing relationship with her handler, the woman who hired her for this expedition – comes into play. I adored The Luminous Dead and I can’t wait to see what Caitlin Starling does next.

The Favourite (2018)

Movie – In the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), early 18th century England, the physically and emotionally frail queen rules with the support of Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), her oldest and closest friend. When a cousin of Lady Sarah’s arrives at court, fallen on hard times and happy to take a job as a servant, Lady Sarah takes her under her wing, giving cousin Abigail a chance to regain her aristocratic status. War rages in France, Abigail (Emma Stone) takes advantage of Lady Sarah’s distraction to insinuate herself into the queen’s affections, and soon the war between the two women is as fierce as anything being fought on the Continent.

This is often described as a sex comedy, and while there’s quite a bit of sex and any number of funny moments, I wouldn’t call it a comedy – it’s far too bittersweet. The Favourite is a political story, full of backstabbing and dirty dealing, as nasty as anything out of House of Cards. It’s also a story about love and loyalty, including broken loyalties and broken hearts, and the particularly messy space occupied by women who love women in a time and social class when everyone must be married and produce heirs. This is a multi-layered film, and dismissing it as a sex comedy with good costumes (although the costumes are exceptional) is a great disservice.

The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

Book – Kyle Murchison Booth is an archivist at the Samuel Mathers Parrington Museum, and it causes him no end of trouble. He would very much like to be left alone with his books and his artifacts, but there are…things that won’t leave him alone. Things like an old school friend with a passion for necromancy, a necklace that carries more than memories of its old owner with it and a hidden tomb in his very own museum basement. Even a vacation won’t save him, if the hotel he winds up at is any indication.

Booth is the kind of character who really needs a hug, except if you did hug him he’d probably end up shaking from the trauma for days. He’s an immensely Lovecraftian character, more so than anyone else in these stories; in fact, I think he’s the only character who knows what kind of universe he’s in. Monette does a stellar job of building eerie tension without resorting to graphic violence or shock tactics — these are classy ghost stories.

As horror, the first few stories in this collection didn’t work so well for me, but the last two or three did. (Oooh, that hotel. *shudder*) As a modern take on Lovecraft, M.R. James and the early twentieth century ghost story, they’re all quite good. And as stories about Kyle Murchison Booth, they’re fantastic.

WPLD’s 40th Anniversary: Open House, Trivia Contest and More

It’s not every day a community gathering place turns 40. We want to show off a bit and take you for a walk down memory lane with photos, trivia and activities. On Sunday, April 7 we’ll be hosting an open house. Take a tour to see how far we’ve come in 40 years. Staff members will show off our spaces, features and amenities in our public areas and behind the scenes. Our tech gadgets and science kits will be on display. And we’ll have cake, too!

All week long, from April 7 through the 13th (that’s National Library Week!) we’ll run a trivia contest in the Library and on social media. Think you know literary events and pop culture through the past four decades? Give the correct answer to our daily trivia question and be entered to win a fun t-shirt and other prizes.

 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Book – Sylvie and her family are taking a holiday to live as ancient Britons. Her father is obsessed with ancient ways of life, from traditional knowledge like hunting and foraging to ancient religion and the bodies found in the bogs. (Sylvie is named after an ancient goddess.) They’re joining a class of experimental archaeologists, students who are much less committed to the reenactment than Sylvie’s father. The longer the trip goes on, the further the students are drawn in to the environment of the Iron Age – just as Sylvie, inspired by the students’ stories, begins to dream of a different future for herself. And then the professor suggests that they build a ghost wall – a barricade topped with skulls the Iron Age Britons used to use in war – and things begin to get very serious very quickly.

Ghost Wall packs a hefty punch in less than 150 pages. Sylvie isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator (she knows perfectly well that her father is obsessive and abusive) but the things she accepts without question make for a very particular point of view. Her father’s obsession with a “pure” British history raises questions of immigration and identity, and the directions he takes his obsession raise even more questions about what virtues there are in knowing your own history.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Book – It’s the fundamental question of the biological and social sciences — why do humans do the things they do? Every discipline has its own answers, from the complex chemical interactions of neurobiology to the deep history of evolution. In Behave, Sapolsky pulls together all of these and more to explore the causes and meanings of human behavior, with an eye toward the most important question of all: How can we be better people?

This book is long, hard going, but it’s well worth it – it’s one of the only books on neuroscience I’ve ever read where the author doesn’t treat the core biological mechanics of neurochemicals and genes as though that provides a meaningful answer to any question. Rather, Sapolsky goes into detail about the interaction between genes, hormones, biochemistry, environment, and long-lasting biological change, making it clear that while there’s a biological explanation for everything, there are so many variables involved that saying we can identify a single source of any given human behavior is laughable at best. The book really gets good in the second half, when he starts to apply all this to the things we’re really concerned about – compassion and generosity, violence and aggression. Sapolsky is optimistic overall, but he makes it clear that improving society is going to mean fighting our biology in some ways (or, more effectively, learning how to trick it).

In Pieces by Sally Field

Book – Many times while reading In Pieces I couldn’t help but think about Sally Field’s famous remark after accepting her second Academy Award “…you like me, right now, you like me!” I was struck by the fact that throughout most of her life, as described it in this book, she didn’t much like herself.

Many of the choices Ms. Field made in her life were because she was lonely, angry, and easily intimidated. She reveals a good deal about herself, which is often unflattering and sometimes disturbing. Her parents divorced when she was very young, her stepfather abused her, and others passed through her life, coming when they needed something from her, then leaving after. While her mother was present during the time Ms. Field was raising her own children, she didn’t step up for Sally when she needed her the most. Bit by bit, the mother-daughter relationship came together. This book is aptly titled in that her life was lived in pieces.

If you’re looking for a quick, “Oh, I want to hear more about Gidget and what Burt Reynolds were like,” feel-good story, this is not the book for you. If you like exploring the forces in peoples’ lives, particularly celebrities, and the choices they make, you might just like In Pieces.

My Own Devices: Essays from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love by Dessa

Book – Minneapolis-based rapper and musician Dessa started out as a poet, so it is not surprising that she would eventually write a book. Like her songs, it’s personal and universal all at once, engaging and easy to read.  Every once in a while there’s a punchline that really feels like a punch and makes you put the book down, causing you to take a moment to fully absorb what you just read.

The common thread through the book is her on-again, off-again, tumultuous romantic entanglement with a man she calls X (who you could probably identify if you really wanted to). They fall in love, break up, get back together, hurt each other. Along the way, Dessa considers taking out insurance on her romantic disaster (as a writer of heartbreak songs, she might be out of work without it), shadows her little brother on a day’s work as an artisanal cannabis salesman, tells the story of the airplane her father built, and explores what neuroscience has to say about where love lives in the brain.

Even if you have never listened to one of Dessa’s albums, there is plenty of joy to get out of this book, particularly for the heartbroken and stubborn. Once you have read My Own Devices, you will have a richer experience of listening to her records. Two of her best albums are currently available on Hoopla.

A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

Book – The night her father died, Alice Kingston was attacked by a Nightmare from another world. A year later she’s almost done with her training as a Dreamwalker, someone who stops the Nightmares from coming into our world where they grow even more powerful and dangerous. But Alice isn’t sure she wants to be a Dreamwalker. Sure, it’s great having superpowers and getting to fight monsters with magical weapons, and her mentor Hatta is gorgeous and wonderful, but it’s dangerous work. A girl was killed by police at a high school football game, and ever since Alice’s mom has gotten more and more protective. The choice might be taken away from her, though, when a mysterious knight appears and attacks Alice and Hatta, and may have designs on the whole of reality.

A combination of Alice in Wonderland, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and #BlackGirlMagic, this was by far the most fun I’ve had with a book in ages. Alice is a delight, and it’s great to see Black girls get to be heroes in urban fantasy. I’m not a huge Alice in Wonderland fan, but I loved the way A Blade So Black takes elements from that story – the Red and White Queens, the vorpal blade, Hatta as the Mad Hatter – and incorporates them into a fresh new fantasy. My one complaint is that this is the first book in a series, and now I’m gonna have to wait at least a year to find out what happens next!