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 Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Book – An undeniably alien communication is received on Earth. While governments bicker and argue about what to do next, the Jesuits quietly fund their own miniature space program, designed to send one small group of scientists and missionaries to the signal’s source, to see what they can find. It goes…about as well as first contacts with Jesuit missionaries traditionally goes: fine, until it isn’t, and then it’s horrible.

This is the story of Father Emilio Sandoz, priest and scientist, heretic and – perhaps – saint, who went to another world to meet the people there and suffered terribly for his mistakes. The story is told largely in flashback, as Sandoz is interviewed by the Vatican to determine exactly what went wrong with the mission and who is to blame. So even though large portions of the book are really very happy and cheerful, there’s an ominous cloud hanging over the whole as we wait to find out just what went so terribly wrong. It’s also a story about good intentions: how much having them can and can’t make a difference, and how we apportion blame for things we wish had never happened.

7th Sigma by Steven Gould

7th sigmaBook – I had so much fun with 7th Sigma. I love crossover genres, books that combine a little bit of everything to get something new, and I think this might be one of the most ambitious I’ve ever seen – science-fictional post-apocalyptic Western spy-fi. Wait, that doesn’t get the aikido in there. And the characters are great. Kimble starts out as a street kid who gets pretty much adopted by Ruth, a divorced aikido master who’s heading out to start a new dojo in the territory. This is definitely Kimble’s story – by the end of the book he’ll be heading off to college – but I loved Ruth from the moment she walked into town. She’s determined to make for herself the kind of life she wants, and she isn’t going to let anything get in her way. I admire that.

I think my favorite part was the serial nature of the story; aside from the last two adventures, each of the chapters is pretty much self-contained.  It gave the book the feel of an old Western TV show. Heck, I’d love to see this universe as a TV show. SyFy, I’m looking at you.

A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley

mind for numbersBook – I read this book as a companion to the Coursera course “Learning How to Learn,” which is taught by the author and is, in fact, nearly identical to the book. But for once I wouldn’t brush it off as unnecessarily repetitive; in fact, I’d recommend both the video lecture-based course and the book together. Reading the book really helped drive home some of the key points from the lectures by actually putting them into practice. Spaced repetition and recall – reviewing material some time after you’ve learned it – are easy to do when the book and lectures are covering the exact same material, but you’re a little behind in the book where you are in the lectures, and vice versa. Oakley also recommends trying to recall the material in a different setting than you originally learned it, to build flexibility into your understanding – easy to do when I was watching the lectures at home on my computer and reading the book at work over lunch.

I’m not in school any more, but I’ve been trying to improve my math skills (I got good grades in school by avoiding math wherever possible), and this book & course have offered me some useful techniques for learning, partially just by making it clear what I was already doing instinctively to learn things that come easily to me. Now that I know what those things are, it should be easier to apply them in situations where I have to stretch myself a little more.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

Book – What if everything we know about science were wrong, just a side-effect of a particularly orderly-minded god who is just the last in a long line of forces controlling the universe? And what would happen then if that god were dethroned? That’s the central premise of The Library at Mount Char, one of the most original fantasy novels I’ve read in years, but it’s not the central focus. The focus of the book is on Carolyn, one of several orphans who were raised and trained in the mysterious, convoluted Library, who is now fighting for her life and her independence after her father – the orderly force holding the universe together – has been murdered.

Part fantasy, part thriller, part – well, I don’t know what it is, but it’s a fascinating, fast-paced story. There’s time travel, so some things don’t make a lot of sense to start with, but Carolyn’s narration is so confident that it’s easy to trust her. It is a very violent book, with several scenes of graphic torture, which I’m not usually sensitive about, but the first thing I told people about it when they asked was, “It’s so violent!” It’s got a great payoff, though – and although it doesn’t need a sequel, I’d love to read one anyway.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Book – It is a truth universally acknowledged that a mad scientist in possession of an evil plan must be in want of a minion. Ballister Blackheart is a mad scientist. Nimona is a teenage girl who can turn into a shark. Obviously they’re made for each other.

Okay, Ballister’s plan isn’t really evil so much as it’s subversive – turns out the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics maybe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all. And he’s a scientist, and yes he does invent giant lasers, but he’s not terribly mad. Nimona can turn into a shark, though. That’s pretty cool.

Nimona starts out full of wacky hijinks, but it has a very powerful story at its core, about friendships that have suffered unbearable things and about figuring out how to belong somewhere when you’ve never belonged anywhere before. The final chapters are heart-wrenching in the best way. If you’re sad at the end, be sure to check out the author’s tumblr, where she regularly posts little sketches of the characters being happy and adorable (as they should be). And, of course, check out her series Lumberjanes, which is also utterly fantastic.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Book – I admit it, I have watched Hoarders. It’s fascinating and horrifying all at once, and even while I felt like a bad person for watching these people’s lives splashed all over TV, I couldn’t look away. But what’s really going on when someone hoards? What are they thinking, and when they’re putting themselves in danger, how can we help them? Randy Frost is one of the few psychologists studying hoarding and its treatments – most therapists and psychiatrists say that it can’t be treated at all – and Stuff is his explanation, for a popular audience, of exactly what’s going on here.

According to Frost, hoarding happens on a spectrum, and a lot of things that are pathological in hoarders are things we all do – using our things as a way to express our identity, for instance, or using our things as a kind of security blanket. This is a little unsettling to read, to be honest, because you can see just how short the distance is from “I am most comfortable when surrounded by my own things” to “I can’t cope with my things going away.” He explains why dramatic clean-outs like they do on TV almost never work, and why they’re sometimes dangerous. I found the whole thing fascinating, and it certainly prompted me to re-think of my own relationship to my stuff.

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Book – Even in the modern age, marriage is the defining question of a woman’s life – even if she decides not to marry, it’s an important decision, sometimes the most important. Through a lens of her own experiences and the stories of women writers she’s found inspiring through her life, Kate Bolick examines ways women have pushed back against this question, carving out lives for themselves in spite of society’s expectations for them.

I wasn’t terribly familiar with most of the women Bolick discusses – Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton – although I did know some of their work, so I was fascinated to learn more about their lives. Bolick is using a broad definition of “spinster” here. Many of these women did marry, but, she argues, they found marriage to be stultifying and damaging to their work, and so they also divorced or lived separately from their husbands rather than sacrifice their lives to something that didn’t work for them. Bolick compares their solitary lives with her own, where even though she’s never married, she dates compulsively throughout her twenties and thirties.

I enjoyed the historical parts of the book more than Bolick’s memoirs, but I think the personal story is important to the book as a whole. We get to learn not only from famous women writers but from Bolick herself, who struggles with modern expectations in an entirely different way from her heroines.

The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien

Book – Although his epic trilogy gave rise to the modern fantasy genre, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote dozens of stories simply for the entertainment of his children, John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla. (The spiders in The Hobbit were reportedly there specifically to scare Michael.) Between 1920, when John was three, and 1942, when Priscilla was 13, he wrote letters from Father Christmas to the children (presumably in answer to their own letters). They arrived in envelopes with stamps and a North Pole postage mark, fully illustrated, and told of all the adventures of Father Christmas, his elves and the North Polar Bear. (In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Father Christmas writes that they have been battling goblins.)

While nothing like Lord of the Rings, The Father Christmas Letters (and the second edition, Letters from Father Christmas, with slightly different content) are charming stories, and a wonderful addition to your seasonal celebrations. And maybe they’ll inspire a Christmas tradition for your own family. After all, what could be better than writing a letter to Santa and actually getting one in reply?

Hamilton: The Original Broadway Cast Recording

Music – If you’re into musical theater (or, indeed, if you watch late-night talk shows), surely by now you’ve heard of Hamilton, the outrageously popular hip-hop musical about Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. If you haven’t: It’s a hip-hop musical. About Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. It is, in a word, amazing.

The story follows Hamilton (played by writer & composer Lin-Manuel Miranda) from his arrival in New York City in 1776 through the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s presidency, and to his death in a duel with Aaron Burr (spoilers!) in 1804. Burr, played by Leslie Odom, Jr., narrates, offering a little distance from Hamilton’s own relentless enthusiasm. The music is a brilliant mashup of theatrical flair and the past several decades of hip-hop, quoting both lyrically and musically from sources as diverse as Les Miserables, Beyoncé, Company, Kanye West, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Biggie Smalls.

This show is so dense, complex, and uniformly strong it’s hard to pick out favorite pieces. General Lafayette’s (Daveed Diggs) rap in “Guns and Ships” is a huge amount of fun; Burr’s statement of purpose in “Wait for It” is outstanding; Thomas Jefferson (also Daveed Diggs, in a great piece of double casting) never gets his own showstopper, but he steals every piece he’s in anyway. When it comes down to it, though, it’s Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsbury) and Eliza Schuyler (Philippa Soo) I love best – their songs, particularly “Satisfied” and “Burn,” are some of the best depictions I’ve ever seen of strong women constrained by their place in history.

If you get hooked, there’s plenty of American history to keep you busy, from Ron Chernow’s biography that formed the basis of the show to new titles like War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Book – Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal, is having a rough time of it. England’s magicians are torn by internal strife at the same time the country is demanding their assistance in the war against Napoleon, and Zacharias’s own reform ideas are being shoved to the side. And the rumors surrounding his own ascension to the post after his mentor’s death are stirring. As the first African Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias is none too popular among England’s magical elite.

Meanwhile, Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race orphaned daughter of a mysterious wandering magician who has been raised by the mistress of a School for Magical Ladies, is growing frustrated with her lot. Ladies, after all, are not supposed to be magical, and those who are unfortunate enough to suffer the affliction have to be carefully trained to avoid using it at any cost. Prunella, on the other hand, is sure she could do something great with her life, if only she were given the chance.

The collision of these two – Zacharias who desperately wants to keep the peace, and Prunella who is determined to fend for herself no matter what society thinks – provides the largest part of the enjoyment of Cho’s first novel. Despite the cover, this is a Regency fantasy of the best kind, featuring dignified English magicians, grasping English politicians, and, uniquely, powerful and fascinating main characters from the underside of the empire. Fans of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Mary Robinette Kowall’s Glamourist Histories should love this.