The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

worldBook – What would happen if, one day, all the humans on Earth simply vanished? What would happen to the planet, and what would happen to all the stuff we left behind? As a practical question, it’s not a terribly important scenario. All humans on Earth are unlikely to vanish all at the same time. But as an exercise in understanding the processes of the natural world and the durability of human creation, it’s completely enthralling. Be amazed at how quickly New York City would crumble into dust! Be horrified at just how long the Gulf of Mexico would burn if a spark hit an oil rig in just the wrong way! And be utterly humbled by the idea of a world without humanity in it at all.

I first picked this up to research a post-apocalyptic story I wanted to write. I was not disappointed – there’s enough material here to fuel hundreds of post-apocalyptic stories, no zombies required. At seven years old and counting, some of the science is probably getting dated, but it’s still a great read. For advice on avoiding an end-of-the-world scenario, try Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz, or, for a larger-scale apocalypse, The Life and Death of Planet Earth by Donald Brownlee.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

goblinBook – Maia may have been an emperor’s son, but he never expected to amount to anything. His older brother was the heir, after all, and Maia had been exiled from court when his mother died, so the chances of Maia ever leaving the backwater estate he’s grown up in are small. But when the Emperor – along with all of his other heirs – die in an airship crash, Maia is the only one left, and he will have to learn everything there is to know about the court before he suffers the same fate as his father.

Katherine Addison is the new pen-name of Sarah Monette, who I’ve already written about as one of my favorite authors. With The Goblin Emperor she switches gears from the dark, emotionally fraught stories she’s known for to a more optimistic mood. Maia has a hard life, but he does well in it, gaining confidence by leaps and bounds as the story progresses. This is a coming-of-age story that starts where most leave off (usually becoming Emperor is the reward at the end of the quest) and it’s an extremely satisfying one. I’m happy to call this already one of the best fantasy books of the year.

Grayson by Lynne Cox

graysonBook – Our Summer Reading Program begins June 1st.  The theme is “Paws to Read”, which means that we will be highlighting and displaying animal themed books. We will be featuring animals not only with paws, but also fins, talons, hooves, etc. One of my favorite animal stories that I would like to share is Grayson by Lynne Cox. It’s a heart-warming quick read that will appeal to adults, teens, and even non-animal lovers.  Cox recounts her magical encounter with a baby whale that had become separated from its mother one March morning off the Southern California when she was only 17 years old and training for long distance swimming. In essence, the baby views Cox as his mother and she is determined to re-unite the whale with his real mother. She and the mammal form a very special bond and the narrative not only describes the expanse of the ocean and the exotic underwater life it holds, but it is also a spiritual reflection. The optimistic and courageous swimmer is almost hyper thermic – the water is only 55 degrees – and both Cox and the calf keep searching despite dehydration, hunger, and fatigue.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

discoveryBook – A Discovery of Witches begins in the heart of academia in Oxford’s Bodleian library, where a bright young scholar, Diana, is researching centuries-old manuscripts for a presentation on the origins of science. The author’s detailed descriptions of the atmospheric library and Oxford’s history laden campus set a very pleasant tone for this story of romance, magic, history, and suspense. Diana has suppressed all connections to her family’s involvement with magic and is therefore taken by surprise when her contact with an enchanted manuscript on alchemy in the Bodleian library attracts the unwanted attention of a diverse supernatural community. This community includes another professor, a vampire studying genetics, named Matthew. A tentative courtship between Diana and Matthew includes yoga classes, carefully planned meals, scholarly conversation, and the finest wines. The realistic details of these romantic engagements obviously draw deeply from the life of author Deborah Harkness, who is a history professor, recipient of numerous fellowships, and an award-winning wine blogger. Whether Matthew is trustworthy, or actually one of the numerous entities jeopardizing Diana, is a mystery to be revealed. The second book in the series, Shadow of Night, is even more a work of historical fiction, and reveals the author’s knowledge of Elizabethan England.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

tale forBook – Ruth is a writer in a rut. That is until she finds a Hello Kitty lunch box, wrapped carefully in plastic bags off the coast of British Colombia, thought to have been carried across the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 tsunami. Inside are letters, a decorative wrist watch, and a diary of a teenage girl named Nao.

Nao lives in Japan, and after years of bullying and not being accepted, she has decided to kill herself. But not before she tells the story of her great grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun who is over 100 years old.

Ruth’s life becomes engulfed with Naos. Questions arise: Is Nao still alive? Is Jiko still alive? Can Ruth do anything to help Nao and her family?

This novel allows the audience to read Nao’s journal with Ruth. We solve mysteries and gain new information together, which makes for a rather exciting read. A Tale for the Time Being has been nominated for various prizes and awards, and also won the LA Times Book Award for best fiction of 2013.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

astonishBook – Joan has been studying ballet since she was a young girl. Her best friend in high school, Jacob Bintz, is in love with her, but Joan is intent on following her dreams of a dance career. She travels to Paris and becomes entranced with a Russian dancer named Arslan Rusakov when he performs during a rehearsal. They have a brief, intense affair and Joan evaluates her life and ambitions. As the story moves ahead, Joan’s future becomes entangled with her past in surprising ways. We get to know Joan’s family and friends and witness the complicated way relationships evolve and shift during their lives. I enjoyed this story as I learned more about the demands of ballet, the choices that performers may face and the way that talent can emerge and impact lives.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

louisa may alcottMovie – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women is based on the biography of the same title written by Harriet Reisen. The docudrama gives us an intimate look at the great American author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). She was raised by transcendentalist parents and grew up living near many of the well-known intellectuals of the day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. The documentary uses dialog taken from diaries and letters, as well as interviews with scholars of American literature. Poverty made it necessary for her to go to work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, Civil War nurse and writer. It was the tremendous popularity of her most famous work Little Women that lifted the family out of poverty. Alcott became the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime, based on the astounding sales of her books. Most surprising is that she led, anonymously and under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life, not discovered until the 1940s. As Barnard, Alcott penned some thirty pulp fiction thrillers, with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts. The documentary is a remarkably detailed portrait of a strong-minded woman who was far ahead of her time and much more complex than the dainty lady others have presented.

Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea

ernestMovieErnest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea is the DVD for American Masters, a PBS documentary about the life of the Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway. The treatment is typical post-Ken Burns music/words over pictures montage. Obviously, you can’t pack Hemingway’s work and adventures or complex personality into 90 minutes, but the narrative does capture most of his life. It uses fragments of his fiction, diaries and letters plus interviews with his friends, relatives and various academics. More than 40 years after his death, Hemingway is one of the most widely read, and widely written about, American authors. In literally throwing himself into a variety of challenging and potentially life-threatening situations, Hemingway swayed public perception of writers from that of presumed privilege to that of bold action. He lived a “big” life but under the macho exterior beat the heart of a sensitive soul. The documentary, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, moves through his early life in Oak Park, IL, to his war injury in World War 1 Spain, to Paris in the ‘20s, to his home in Cuba, to his final days living in Ketchum, Idaho. It speaks to the difficult art of writing and the writer’s lonely life, as well as bullfighting, fishing, big-game hunting, gangsters, boxers, soldiers and, of course, his four wives.

Canada by Richard Ford

CanadaBook – This is the courageous and adventurous coming of age story of 15 year old Dell Parsons. The book opens with, “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” This is Dell’s reflection, 50 years later, as he retires from his teaching profession.

The novel begins with the Parsons family moving to Great Falls, Montana in 1956.  Dell has a twin sister, Berner, who is bigger and stronger than he is and while Berner contemplates running away with her boyfriend, Dell immerses himself in chess and dreams of beekeeping. Bev Parson decides to leave the Air Force at the age of 37 and attempts many jobs and schemes to support the family.   In desperation, he convinces his wife that he has a foolproof plan and that they should rob a bank in North Dakota.  The parents are jailed for the bank robbery and the twins are left to fend for themselves.

Berner runs away to West Coast and Dell is taken to Saskatchewan by a family friend and turned over to Arthur Remlinger, a mysterious Harvard educated American who is lawless and has violent tendencies. Dell is put to work and most of it is hard and unsavory. He finds himself living a very barren and lonely existence. This haunting work of psychological fiction shows how Dell adjusts to his new circumstances and makes the best the out of almost hopeless situation. This beautifully written story by Richard Ford is a must read.

 

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

quicksilBook – A vagabond, a natural philosopher, a mathematician, and a harem girl meet in London, in the late Baroque period (as early as 1661), and the result is one of the most epic, sprawling series of historical fiction you will ever read. Stephenson is better known for his cyberpunk novels like Snow Crash, but Quicksilver has more in common with his other work than you might first imagine. He started writing it during the composition of his award-winning Cryptonomicon, which is also a thriller about politics, money, and computers. (Yes, computers: Gottfried Liebnitz was trying to invent a computer as early as 1671.)

Stephenson has become rather famous for big books, but his three-volume Baroque Cycle is definitely his biggest. Although it’s hard to keep track of any given plot thread over the course of more than 2,700 pages, the well-drawn cast of characters from all walks of life will keep you engaged anyway. Fans of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy will enjoy the grand sweep of history and wealth of historical detail, and fans of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon owe it to themselves to give this series a try.