Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.
During an otherwise quiet evening on the desk, someone messaged my co-librarian on our library’s chat service with a specific, but not quite specific enough, request. She wanted the title and author of a book in a murder mystery series, published post-2000. She then provided a some 200-word synopsis of the plots and characters in the series, which involved a young girl in rural postwar England who solves crimes in her village “using her bicycle and chemistry skills.”
She’d tried book-related listservs and message boards, to no avail. Since our go-to fiction RA librarian was gone for the evening, we were on our own. But not quite alone: I jaunted over to NoveList Plus, that magical database beloved by librarians and bookish folks everywhere, and entered keywords from the patron’s description—and which serve as this post’s title.
Putting the same search terms into Google yields nothing close to what I was looking for. Google can do many other things well, but its wide generalist’s net can miss what a targeted niche search like NoveList will catch every time.
Which, of course, reminds me of the Neil Gaiman quote you can find on every corner of the librarian internet: “In a world where Google can bring you back 100,000 answers [or in this case 6 million], a librarian can bring you back the right one.”
Thanks to the life-changing magic of NoveList, we got it right tonight.
Standard operating procedure for making year-end culture lists says to rank your ten favorite films/albums/books, but I’ve recently soured against this convention. Choosing a pre-determined number of “the best” among many great works, as all award shows do, is great entertainment but entirely arbitrary. So this time around, I decided to institute my own arbitrary yet entertaining convention of naming the best 13 films, albums, and books from 2013 I encountered last year.
This omnilist honors the fact that consuming art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I don’t wait to watch a movie until I finish reading a book, or until I’ve listened all the way through an album. These things happen concurrently, swirling around my head and heart together like cultural stew. With that in mind, I heard, saw, and read a lot in 2013, but these are the ingredients (divided by form and alphabetized) that came together the best in 2013.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
I followed Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut and ISS commander, on Twitter during his mission last year. In addition to the beautiful ISS-view photos of cities he’d frequently post, Hadfield made several short videos documenting how quotidian tasks like cutting fingernails and using the toilet are accomplished in zero gravity. Likewise, his memoir brought his life as a pilot and astronaut down to earth, describing the lessons on leadership, work, and sacrifices he’s learned both on this earth and outside of it. Entertaining, informative, and very insightful, this book shows that Neil DeGrasse Tyson isn’t the only Space Publicist out there.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher
I heard about this book after I started reading Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative. At times memoir, biography, history, and cultural commentary, Little Way documents Dreher’s struggle to come to peace with the small Louisiana hometown he fled, and his saintly sister Ruthie, a schoolteacher who happily stayed put. When Ruthie gets terminal cancer, Dreher sees how the town he couldn’t wait to leave rally around his sister and her family, leading him on his own emotionally-fraught journey home. Dreher writes honestly, lovingly, and critically of his sister while pondering the true meaning of home.
The Ocean at the End of the Laneby Neil Gaiman
This was the first book I read in my nine-novel November marathon, and it ended up being one of my favorites. It also initiated me into the Gaiman oeuvre, something I’m keen on exploring more after reading this novel. The prose’s lean style allowed the fantastical elements of the story to interplay nicely with the more grounded parts, like the boy’s interactions with his father and the new woman in his life. I often forget how life could seem more terrifying as a child, but I forget just as often that we undervalue the strength that kids have to overcome that terror.
Unapologeticby Francis Spufford
I found this very much of a feather with N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, another whirlwind theology book I read this year. While I also enjoy the earnest, intellectual theological writings of C.S. Lewis and the like, books like this one breathe much-needed fresh air into the faith-based discourse that can often come off as stuffy and anticultural. This is a book of and for the heart. Spufford isn’t asking if we can believe the reality of God; he’s asking if we can feel it. The Message translation of the Bible set out to rewrite the scriptures in contemporary language to keep its message “current and fresh and understandable,” but I think Unapologetic does this far better.
12 Years A Slave
It’s hard to avoid the trap of talking about a film like this in award-season terms, judging its quality and worth by its viability as an award contender. This film is and will be an award-winner, but that descriptor in itself doesn’t say much about the tense, focused interpretation of Solomon Northup by Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Michael Fassbender’s typically immersive and impressive performance as a strident slaveowner. Two decades before the Civil War, Northup fought against the dehumanizing institution of slavery as an unwilling combatant, a Northern free man in a Southern slave’s shoes. If Abraham Lincoln became the biggest political lever of the Civil War, then Northup was the fulcrum. This film duly honors the pressure and pain Northup endured serving as the metaphorical fulcrum of the struggle against slavery’s destructive regime.
When I saw this with Jenny in Chicago this summer, we got to the showing a few minutes early and walked into the theater. The movie was already playing, which I found odd since I knew we were a bit early. But we sat down and watched what we soon figured out was the very last scene. Lightbulb: we were in the wrong screening room. We went to the correct room and watched it from the beginning, but I found this snafu altogether fitting: seeing the end of this film (and presumably of the all-time-great series) at the beginning echoed the start of the whole trilogy, which found Jesse trying to convince Celine, despite all the odds and circumstances, to take a chance on him. Kudos to Richard Linklater & Co for making this beautifully wrenching and wrenchingly beautiful series happen.
Though another (very fine) 2013 film already has this title, Gravity could have just as easily been named The Spectacular Now. For all its fireworks and heart-pounding brinksmanship and wide-eyed views of Earth and outer space, Gravity never departs from the now, the relentlessly present moment Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s astronauts are experiencing. Director Alfonso Cuarón grabs hold of us right away and says, Betterhold on… and we do, barely.But the spectacle of the ensuing ninety minutes, for me, wasn’t just a nonstop roller-coaster (which it pretty much was), but a series of beautiful images like the one at top: Bullock’s capsule, accompanied by flaming space debris, catapulting toward Earth like a chariot of fire.
In a year full of thoughtful, challenging films, this one has inspired the most post-viewing contemplation. It’s a kind of Rorschach test for the digital age: when you see this story of a broken, unsocial man who is befriended by, then falls in love with, a highly intelligent and customized operating system, do you think it’s a dream or a nightmare? Does this futuristic fable portend the end of human interaction, or does it show technology’s restorative promise? That the similarities between Her‘s near-future setting and the present day are so many—the constant connection to mobile devices, the self-imposed social isolation—suggests that we don’t have to wait for the future to answer that question.
Like Someone In Love
I don’t watch horror films because I don’t want to be haunted. Little did I know that Abbas Kiarostami’s follow-up to Certified Copy would be as haunting as anything I’ve seen in a while. There’s nothing paranormal in this Tokyo drama, but rather a fraught, mysterious air that permeates the simple story of an elderly widower connecting with a prostitute in unexpected ways. Like This Is Martin Bonner (below), the restraint Kiaronstami shows tightens everything on screen like a vice. No shot or line of dialogue is wasted. (This was released in 2012 but not in the U.S. until 2013).
Short Term 12
If Her is for the brain, then Short Term 12 is for the heart. This portrait of the staff and patrons of a short-term foster care facility for at-risk teens focuses on Brie Larson’s Grace, but moves around the facility’s sphere, capturing connections between Grace and the kids, and between the kids themselves. When Grace’s own troubled past starts hijacking her attempts to guide the teens through their own crises, her tough shell starts to crack. In addition to having young actors who can actually act, this movie sympathizes with the risk opening up requires.
This Is Martin Bonner
“I’m inclined to believe that director Chad Hartigan is some kind of superman when it comes to restraint.” That was critic Jeffrey Overstreet (who has been a particularly passionate supporter of this film) on Martin Bonner, which follows a pastor and a prisoner on their interweaving paths through life. Overstreet rightly praises the film’s restraint, which other faith-based films often lack. But the faith in This Is Martin Bonner isn’t didactic or caricatured; it’s real, which means it’s messy and imperfect but infused with love. This is currently available on Netflix, so see it while you can.
House of Cards
Like any good work of art, House of Cards rewards repeated viewings. Knowing the full trajectory of the first season allowed me, when rewatching it, to see all of Frank Underwood’s gears turning as his master plan progressed. It’s also a visual feast, taking the noir aesthetic from the David Fincher-directed pilot and propelling us further into the dark underworld of politics and power-wielding. Not sure if I have Valentine’s Day plans yet, but I hope season 2 will be part of them.
Lucius EP by Lucius & Days Are Gone by Haim
(I’m cheating here by listing two separate albums in one slot: my omnilist, my rules.) Wedding receptions are pretty much the only place I full-on dance. But when listening to Lucius and Haim, I can’t help myself. How can you not move and sing along to the Michael Jackson-flavored “Falling”? Or to Lucius’ “Turn It Around”? If women-powered dance rock groups is becoming a trend, consider this guy on the bandwagon.
Fiction usually isn’t my thing, but I want to get better at it. So I’m reading nine novels in November’s thirty days and writing about them here. I’ll update this post as I go along. Some spoilers, natch.Update: Just made it through the ninth book, with only hours to spare. I’m very glad to have deepened my exposure to and enjoyment of fiction in its many faces, but just a little bit gladder to be able to read nonfiction again. Thanks for joining me on this fictional escapade.
Reason number one I read yet another juvenile book: it was short and I was on a (self-enforced) deadline. Reason number two: ending my fictional month with the same author I started it seemed fitting. What a delightfully madcap yarn this one is. Beautifully illustrated too. I greatly appreciate in artists, specifically writers and filmmakers, the ability to tell different kinds of stories in different genres yet still retain their style throughout. That Gaiman can publish something as composed and heart-full as The Ocean at the End of the Lane (see Book 1 below) in the same year as something so zany as Fortunately, the Milk is a great testament to his durability and literary prowess. (Thanks to Jenny for loaning me the book.)
Continuing my accidental quest to read books most kids read in middle or high school, I was eager to pick this one up because I knew so little about it — the elderly bearded man on the cover being my only clue. (Bunny trail: I knew this was an unorthodox book choice for a twenty-something dude like me when a woman on the train asked me out of the blue why I was reading it. Turns out she was an eighth grade teacher who taught the book regularly to her students, so we got to talking about our love of dystopian stories and other great YA literature.) I was delighted to find in The Giver an excellent coming-of-age story sitting atop an undercurrent of dystopia and, as the book would call it, “stirrings.” While I’m not surprised it has been so frequently challenged in schools and libraries due to certain scenes, I’m glad adolescents are exposed to it because it meets them where they are in life. Like Jonas, tweens and teens approach junctions in their lives thinking they know everything, only to be challenged, sometimes painfully, when the curtain falls and real life reveals itself.
I’ve been searching, so far in vain, for a book or movie that accurately captures my high school experience. This isn’t it, but it’s closer than most other depictions I’ve seen. Where it diverges most distinctly is the protagonist; I don’t subscribe at all to the “real men don’t cry” machismo thing, but Charlie cries so much in this story, often for no discernible reason, that I started losing some sympathy for him. Pull it together! I often thought. The epistolary style was the right narrative choice, because it was refreshingly different, and the stream-of-consciousness diary-like model is an expository format that most teenagers can relate to.
A decade later, I’m still getting around to reading books I didn’t get a chance to read in high school. I’m a much bigger fan of Nineteen Eighty-Four (which I did read back then) than this one, but its focus on books and literacy is especially relevant to me after having gone to library school. The central theme seems at once antiquated and prescient, given that it was written in 1953 in response to the rise of television and McCarthy-era threats of censorship but also rings true with today’s book burnings and the dumbification of news. While the amount of and access to knowledge has never been greater thanks to the Internet, we’re losing something important in the increasing obsolescence of physical books. Books in reality aren’t being cast off out of fear, but disinterest. It’s fitting that the group of vagabonds at the end of the novel became books themselves, stand-in vessels for the knowledge being willfully destroyed. We ought to preserve as much knowledge as we can of whatever we can in whatever ways possible — through oral tradition, manuscript, digitization, or other means — and not take for granted the privilege of such knowledge. To do otherwise is folly.
This was like a fantasy thriller disguised as a high-school YA novel. Like the protagonist, I kept trying to figure out who, or what, Stargirl was, what she would do next, and why. Whether she had a grand life plan I can’t say, but what I did figure out pretty quickly was that she was a textbook example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, a proto-Zooey Deschanel for the adolescent crowd. The ukulele and friendship with a rat were especially in keeping with the MPDG’s propensity for quirk and kindness. While a little MPDG-ness goes a long way, the moral of Stargirl’s changing favors within her peer group is a good one for teens to hear: It’s hard to see it in the moment, but you’ll regret not being yourself. (Thanks to Jenny for the recommendation.)
I get a special thrill when a book I’m reading has a word in it that’s also on my cool-word list. (This time it was crepuscular.) While this book, perhaps purposely, meandered a bit, I found the diary narrative to be pleasant and redemptive. Ames was almost too likeable and saintly, and very self-aware. But perhaps the end-of-life letters he was writing to his son brought that out in him.
It felt like my opinion of this book changed every few pages. Just when its hippyish mysticism became too Oprah to be taken seriously, Coelho dropped a surprisingly deep thought nugget that kept me reading. For example, amid talk of “listening to your heart” and discovering the Soul of the World (eye roll), the titular character tells the boy on the quest that “the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” A bit trite, yes, but it rings true. The central fable, though anchored by a few strong key points, seems overly simplistic and eager to fit into any and every spiritual worldview. Perhaps this is an effect of the language translation from the original Portuguese, in which no doubt the story would be more beautiful. (Thanks to Nainita for the recommendation.)
Read this as a youngster but didn’t remember it, so in anticipation of the movie I thought I’d revisit it. The boy in me enjoyed the zero-gravity battleroom scenes, which seem like high-tech laser tag. The biggest hurdle to clear for me was how well-spoken the kids were. I suppose that since it’s set in the future, Card made the choice to make kids sound more adult (though I thought kids are getting dumber thanks to the Internet, or “nets” as Ender’s Game calls it), but it’s jarring nevertheless. I never really grokked Ender himself, but I cheered for his struggle against The Man and was happy with how things ended.
My entrance, beside seeing Coraline, into the Gaiman oeuvre. Since I’ve nothing to compare it to, I can only say that I really enjoyed this book’s lean, loving style and deep sense of wonder. A favorite passage:
“Do you still know everything, all the time?”
She shook her head. She didn’t smile. She said, “Be boring, knowing everything. You have to give all that stuff up if you’re going to muck about here.”
“So you used to know everything?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Everybody did. I told you. It’s nothing special, knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play.”
“To play what?”
“This,” she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars.
The pièce de résistance was the view I had when I finished reading: