Thursday, August 17, 2017

What we're reading: Flower Power

Although flowers and other plants have had symbolic significance for centuries, and had previously been used in Persia and the Middle East to convey messages, the full blossoming, if you will, of the use of flowers as symbols for emotions was in the approximate 75-year span known as the Victorian Era in England. Restrictive conventions in Victorian England prohibited a more direct expression through conversation between those whose interests were loverlike, so whatever was deemed unacceptable by etiquette to share openly was encoded in the giving of particular flowers or combinations of flowers to convey specific meanings. This practice became so commonplace that the language of flowers was christened "floriography." The practice has also captured the imagination of various authors, who have used it as a vehicle to tell their stories. Among them:

The Language of Flowers,
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh  

From the title, you'd think this book would be soft and romantic, but it's not at all. The main character, Victoria, is an 18-year-old who has just aged out of the foster care system. She has no friends, no family, no history, no prospects, and no skills, and soon she is homeless. The thing that saves her is, once she had a foster parent who taught her the meaning/language of flowers (i.e., asters = patience, red roses = love, etc.), and since she left that home, she has pursued her knowledge further. Based on this, she finds a florist willing to give her some under-the-table work, and creates for herself a small, regular life--for awhile. The book is told in alternating chapters between the one good foster home she was in at age 10 and her present existence, and the level of tension maintained as you wait to find out what happened keeps you eagerly reading. The character is engaging despite herself, and you don't know whether you feel sorry for her or want to shake her. It's a poignant story, and although Victoria isn't always a likeable character, her courage is inspiring. Adult fiction.  

Forget-Her-Nots, by Amy Brecount White

While researching the Victorian language of flowers for a school project, 14-year-old Laurel discovers that the bouquets she creates have peculiar effects on people. Her mother, who also went to Avondale Boarding School, had an ancient family secret, and Laurel suspects it has something to do with her new-found talent, but her mom was never able to share either the gift or its use with Laurel. Unfortunately, Laurel uses this talent to meddle, and a string of incidents that involve the misuse of flowers threaten to mess significantly with everyone's prom night experience. Clever, fun, and informative, too. Young Adult fiction.

The Art of Arranging Flowers, by Lynne Branard

Ruby Jewell grew up in a harsh environment, her only comfort being her close relationship with her sister, Daisy. Daisy’s death when Ruby was in her early 20s was devastating as well as life altering. Instead of pursuing her studies to become a lawyer, Ruby just wanted to curl up and die, too. It was the flowers that saved her. For 20 years now, Ruby has created floral arrangements at her shop in the small town of Creekside. With a few words from a customer, she knows just what flowers to use to help kindle a romance or heal a broken heart. However, Ruby has a wall around her own heart and is determined that she will not allow it to be broken. It takes an extraordinary group of people to bring Ruby out from behind her wall.

If reading any or all of these causes you to be intrigued by the background these authors used to create their floral fantasies, you can read about the Victorian identification in...

Kate Greenaway's Language of Flowers   

This is a charming reproduction of a rare volume by a 19th-century illustrator that includes a full-color illustrated list of more than 200 plants and their supposed meanings: tulip = fame; blue violet = faithfulness, etc.

And if you feel further inspired, you can read some germane nonfiction delving into the scientific significance of blooms:

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World,
by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan has a vision in his garden that leads him to question the interrelationship between humans and plants. He postulates that the plant species humans have nurtured over the past 10,000 years may have benefited as much from their association with us as we have from ours with them. He decides to investigate four plants--apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana--and he digs into history, anecdote, and personal revelation to do so. It's entertaining, philosophical, and smart.

The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives,
by Stephen L. Buchmann  

This is a comprehensive examination of the roles flowers play in the production of our foods, spices, medicines, and perfumes. Buchmann also goes into the cultural history of flowers, examining everything from myths and legends, decor, poetry, and esthetics to their basis for various global industries. It's a research-based narrative that illuminates all the reasons for flowers.

Here's hoping your next tussy-mussy conveys the emotions you desire!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What we're reading: Old Man's War (finally!)

As previously mentioned here, I have been wanting for some time to read John Scalzi's series that begins with Old Man's War. I finally managed to find a copy of the first book (our library's copy was missing, and a new one is being cataloged), and have now embarked on the series.

The premise is that humans have made it out into interstellar space, but are having trouble getting a toehold, for two reasons: One, the available planets that are conducive to human needs are few and far between; and two, there's a lot of competition out there--alien races who dispute every patch of real estate. And the really bad part is that, for the most part, they are not nice aliens, and have superior technology. So the Colonial Defense Force is out there fighting for humanity's place in the universe.

As you can imagine, with wars taking place on multiple worlds in multiple systems, recruits are in short supply. So the CDF has come up with an innovative way to get new ones: "recycle" the old. People on Earth can enlist in the military at age 75, with the expectation that they will do their tour of duty, thus earning a place on a homestead planet. But how can a bunch of 75-year-olds fight off a horde of aggressive aliens? Well, that's the mystery of rejuvenation that the CDF holds close to its chest, and the only way you find out is by signing up; which is what John Perry is about to do. 

This is great sci fi. Scalzi gives a nod to Robert Heinlein on his thanks page, and I can see the influence of, for instance, Starship Troopers, in the philosophy, the ethics, and the take-no-prisoners training that the recruits receive. But beyond that, I really enjoyed that he structured it so that the regular recruits were only allowed to sign up when they turned 75 and then got "rejuvenated." It's a great premise, and John Perry, the protagonist, is a wonderfully nuanced character. Of course, I probably particularly appreciate this because I am getting older and have various and sundry aches and pains! But it goes beyond that to the fact that these are mature human beings who suddenly become young again, but with all their emotions and life knowledge intact. Who hasn't wished for that? So...great adventure, interesting philosophical meanderings, and wish fulfillment, all in the same book.

I'm going on to read the sequels. Next up: The Ghost Brigades, and then The Last Colony. These make up the trilogy, but I understand that there are also other books set in this same universe--can't wait!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

This week at the library...

Central Library, 6:30 p.m.

Le Petit Cinema presents...
Are you getting ready for the solar eclipse next Monday? Join us for a lighthearted Bing Crosby flick, with a solar eclipse included! Crosby stars in this light and lively musical version of Mark Twain's timeless comedy. A bump on the head sends Hank Martin, 1912 mechanic, to Arthurian Britain, 528 A.D. But thanks to some American know-how, the crooner is quickly hailed as a wiz of a wizard and granted the right to teach the King's fetching niece (Rhonda Fleming) some decidedly contemporary romantic tricks. Alas, there's trouble afoot when Bing locks "magical" horns with the all-powerful Merlin and is challenged to a joust by Sir Lancelot for the hand of the beautiful princess!

106 minutes / not rated

Central Library, 12:00 noon

The club has read and will discuss The Truth According to Us, from the co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Annie Barrows. You are welcome to join us--bring a lunch! Please call Naomi at 818 238-5620 with questions.

Buena Vista Branch, 6:15 p.m.

Pajama Story Time presents...
Grab the family and some sheets & blankets, and get ready for a night of fun. Build a blanket fort for the whole family to enjoy, and once it’s built, grab a book and read together. Plus: Camping Stories! Campfire Songs! S’mores!

Buena Vista Branch, 7:00 p.m.

The club has read and will discuss Six Passengers, Five Parachutes (A Hollywood Thriller—Book 2 of The Quintana Adventures). For more information, call Naomi at 818 238-5620.

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

GENRE-X BOOK CLUB (not your mother's book club)
The club has read and will discuss A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Genre-X is a book club for Millennials and Gen-Xers to hang out, drink coffee, and read short, interesting books. For more information, call Jeff at 818 238-5580.

Central Library, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

You can be part of this great program. Call 818-238-5577 for more information.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

What we're reading: Peter Heller

Since I first discovered one of the novels of Peter Heller, I have watched impatiently for others to be published, and this week I was rewarded by discovering he has a new book out. It's called Celine, and it paradoxically shares something with his two other novels; it's nothing like them. That's what I enjoyed when I first discovered him, because I read The Painter first, and then backtracked to his first book, The Dog Stars, and, while I loved them equally, they were so different in theme one from the other that it was hard to imagine they had been written by the same person. Celine likewise takes a different direction.

The Painter is narrated by a "manly man" who fly fishes and goes camping and gets into brawls...and also paints Expressionist masterpieces. The writing style reminded me of Cormac McCarthy; it was both spare and lush, if you can put both of those words in the same descriptive sentence. Heller breaks a lot of writing "rules," which irritates some people, with his incomplete sentences and phrases strung together in staccato lines. But his prose in this case perfectly delineates his subject, settings and events, and the book is a weird but totally workable marriage of musings about life's tragedies paired with action scenes worthy of the latest blockbuster thriller.

The Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic tale about one man who survives a flu pandemic that kills everyone else he knows and loves. He lives with his dog, Jasper, and a curmudgeonly survivalist guy in the hangar of a small abandoned airport. I almost didn't pick it up, because I'm so sick of dystopic and post-apocalyptic tales after the surfeit of them published for young adults in the past five years. But I'm so glad I did; despite the horrifying nature of the world after the pandemic, the story is all about grace, hope, and love, in the midst of despair, fatalism, and uncertainty. Both the writing and the story honestly left me breathless.

His new novel, Celine, goes off on yet another tangent. First of all, the protagonist this time is a woman, who comes from the absolute upper crust of American society, but who has not let that baggage deter her from creating an unusual life for herself. Celine Watkins is in her late sixties, suffers from emphysema from long years of too much smoking, and is married to Pete, a laconic guy from Maine with unexpected depths. Celine is a private investigator who specializes in finding lost family, especially focusing on cold cases, and her success rate exceeds that of the FBI. A young woman named Gabriela comes to her with a request to determine for sure whether her father, a famous photographer who disappeared from Yellowstone about 20 years ago, is really dead. There were several anomalies surrounding his disappearance and also with the investigation into it afterward, and Gabriela has a feeling that she doesn't know everything there is to know. So Celine and Pete borrow an RV from Celine's son, Hank, and take off for the wilds of Montana/Wyoming to solve the case.

This book's affect is more mystery than literary fiction, and yet all the assets that Heller brings to the table are there: the lyrical, evocative descriptions of nature, and the solid, quirky characterizations that made his other books such compelling reads. I also liked the gradual (and riveting) revelation of the back stories and the present day situations of both the protagonist and her client. If you like a book with characters that have both heft and depth, Celine is for you.

Before Heller started writing novels, he was an award-winning adventure writer. His nonfiction titles include The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest MammalsHell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River; and Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave. He is also is a contributing editor at Outside magazine, Men's Journal, and National Geographic Adventure, and a regular contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek. If his nonfiction is as compellingly and beautifully written as his fiction, I may be tempted!

Sunday, August 06, 2017

This week at the library...

Central Library, 4:00 p.m.
Buena Vista Branch, 4:00 p.m.

Family Films presents...
The story of a new baby's arrival, told from the point of view of a delightfully unreliable narrator -- a wildly imaginative 7-year-old named Tim. The unusual Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin) arrives at Tim's home in a taxi, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. The instant sibling rivalry must soon be put aside when Tim discovers that Boss Baby is actually a spy on a secret mission, and only he can help thwart a dastardly plot that involves an epic battle between puppies and babies.

97 minutes / rated PG

Buena Vista Branch, 6:30 p.m.

Twilight Cinema presents...
Empires fall, love survives. When Michael (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant medical student, meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), their shared Armenian heritage sparks an attraction that explodes into a romantic rivalry between Michael and Ana’s boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale), a famous American photojournalist dedicated to exposing political truth. As the Ottoman Empire crumbles into war-torn chaos, their conflicting passions must be deferred while they join forces to get their people to safety and survive themselves.

134 minutes / rated PG-13

Central Library, 5:30 p.m.


Central Library, 6:00 p.m.

Burbank Public Library has provided literacy services since 1992. We offer FREE one-to-one tutoring to adults, 18 or older, who speak and understand English, but read and write below 8th grade level. Call 818 238 5577 to sign up to attend this orientation to learn more about becoming a tutor. Note: The orientation is a prerequisite for taking the tutor training on Saturday.

Buena Vista Branch, 7:00 p.m.

Burbank Public Library is thrilled to welcome author Cory Doctorow to discuss his latest novel, Walkaway. Part sci-fi thriller, part polemic from an activist blogger, this novel explores the momentous changes coming during the next 100 years. It is an epic tale of revolution, love, war, and the end of death.

Cory is co-editor of the popular weblog BoingBoing, which receives more than three million visitors a month, and a columnist for The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, and Locus. His science fiction has won numerous awards, and his young adult novel Little Brother spent seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Books will be available for purchase and signing.

Northwest Branch, 7:30 p.m.

Outdoor screening of...

Burbank Public Library and Walt Disney Pictures are pleased to present a special screening in the park (behind the Northwest Branch) of Beauty and the Beast. Bring a flashlight and a jacket, a blanket or a beach chair, and join the fun!

129 minutes / Rated PG

Central Library, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

You must attend the orientation on Thursday night in order to be part of this workshop on Saturday. Call 818 238-5577 for more information about this life-changing program.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

The first gay detective?

A Goodreads friend intrigued me with his recommendation of author Joseph Hansen's 12 classic mysteries featuring Dave Brandstetter, who is perhaps the genre's first openly gay detective. The first book, Fadeout, was written in 1970, when most detectives on the page were hard-boiled macho guys with dames on their arms, so the fact that Brandstetter's love life featured prominently in these books was unusual (and quite daring) for the times.

Brandstetter is not exactly a detective, but his job as an insurance investigator ends up serving the same purpose for mystery fans. In the first book, radio personality Fox Olson has presumably died; his car plunged off a bridge in the middle of a violent storm, but while the car has been found, the body wasn't in it. His widow (backed up by local law enforcement) insists that the body must have been thrown free and will inevitably be discovered down-river once the run-off subsides; but Dave's not so sure. He is reluctant to pay out the life insurance premium with no body, so before he makes his final recommendation, he decides to do a little investigating of his own. Before you know it, past relationships and present rivalries in Olson's life lead Brandstetter to believe that Olson may have faked his death and fled to make a new start.

The side story to this investigation is Dave's personal life. His long-time lover has just died of cancer, and Dave has returned to work on this case after a period of being immobilized by the pain and heartache of this loss. His struggles to do his job in the midst of his grief are poignant.

I liked the personality and inner thoughts of Brandstetter in this novel, but I also enjoyed the quirky personalities of the minor characters he brings in for a few moments of play, including Dave's father (an aging Lothario on wife number four), and his best friend, Madge. I also enjoyed the setting (he is based in Los Angeles and wanders outwards from there)--it has sort of a west coast noir feel, and of course it's always fun to read something set in your own town. But most of all, I liked the writing. This isn't a long book (under 200 pages), but while the style is spare, it is also profound and evocative of tightly held but deeply felt emotions. And lest I forget, the mystery itself is intriguing, especially in the way that Brandstetter moves from one personality or clue to another and cobbles it all together in his mind. Given that it was written in 1970, there are inevitably a few anachronisms and clichés; but the book is surprisingly fresh, given that it's 47 years old! Having read the first, I feel compelled to read the rest, which is always the test, isn't it?

(The library owns #s 5, 7, 9, and 12, but the rest are still in publication. Looks like my Kindle is going to get a workout.)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

This week at the library...

Central Library, 6:30 p.m.

The club has read and will discuss Vieux, râleur et suicidaire : la vie selon Ove, by Fredrik Backman. For more information, call Isabelle at 818 238-5620.

All branches

It's a coloring day for the whole family! Stop by and drop in at any
Burbank Public Library branch; all materials will be provided.

Burbank Central Library:
CHILDREN 1-6:00 p.m. (Children's Room)
TEENS 2-6:00 p.m. (Teen Area)
ADULTS 4-8:00 p.m. (Auditorium)

Buena Vista Branch Library:
CHILDREN 1-6:00 p.m. (Children's Room)
TEENS 2-6:00 p.m. (Reference Area)

Northwest Branch Library:
CHILDREN 1-6:00 p.m. (Children's Area)
TEENS 2-6:00 p.m. (Teen Area)

Central Library, 10:00 a.m.

Stop in between 10 a.m. and noon to build and create. Thousands of Legos are available for you to use. For children ages 2-14 and their families. Children under 9 must be accompanied by an adult.

While you're at the Central Library, check out the display in the glass case in the lobby. Our teens had fun two weeks ago building some structures for "LEGOtopia," and they'll be on display through August.