Saturday, November 22, 2014

What we're reading: Tana French

As The Secret Place, by Tana French, opens, it has been a year since a boy named Chris Harper was found murdered on the grounds of a girls' boarding school in Dublin. Detective Stephen Moran, an ambitious young man who would love to be part of the murder squad, is given a chance to prove himself when Holly Mackey, a student at the school (and the daughter of one of his mentors on the police force) brings him a clue that could reignite this almost-cold case. Instead of just handing it over to the Murder Squad to investigate, he makes a daring play to get Detective Antoinette Conway, a newbie outsider in the squad, to let him help her solve the crime.

The clues, however, keep leading back to Holly and her three friends, or perhaps to their hateful rival clique at St. Kilda's. The school is adamant about keeping this under wraps so as not to further spook parents into removing the students they have left after the previous year's murder investigation, and Moran knows that if the possible involvement of the daughter of Detective Frank Mackey gets out, careers will be on the line--mostly his.

I seem to be on a roll, ending up with boarding school books even when I'm not looking for them--what is the eternal fascination with the closed world of the boarding school? French has some characters in this one that could definitely go head to head with the sociopaths in Brutal Youth, by Anthony Breznican (previously reviewed here), and the slow, golden intimacy of the four girls at the forefront of the mystery reminded me weirdly of the relationships forged in the miniseries Brideshead Revisited. The hesitant creation of a working relationship between the two detectives, too, was poignant and engaging.

Tana French just gets better. To call her books "mysteries" or "thrillers" is to miss about 90 percent of the point, although they are indeed mysteries and they are so thrilling. To call them literary fiction, with the elite uppercrustness that implies, would do a disservice to them, although her writing is extremely literary. They are brilliant, thorough, and intimate character studies, they are rife with a burgeoning sense of place, and the story-telling is riveting. I have seen reviews by people who drowned in the reams of detail and just wanted to go read a mystery with some straightforward and simple guy--Spencer or Jack Reacher or Matthew Scudder--at the wheel, and I can see the appeal of those kinds of stories too…but for the days when you want to be breathlessly enthralled, unable to stop until you reach the end...Tana French.

Friday, November 21, 2014


After hours, under the stars...

Join us for the '80s classic
Bring a chair or blanket, a sweater, a snack! We will supply the coffee and hot chocolate. Trivia contest, prizes, a good time! It is INCONCEIVABLE that you would miss it!

Buena Vista Branch (outdoors in the park), starting at 6:30 sharp!


What We're Reading: New Fiction

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín

This novel is a nuanced and moving meditation on the nature of loss and grief, a story about how one woman moves in fits and starts through a traumatic sorrow and claims a new life. The novel is set at the end of the 1960s during the time of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, events that Nora feels at times to be analogues of her internal conflicts. Nora Webster has recently lost her husband Maurice to a premature death due to heart failure. She is in her mid-forties and is left with two daughters away at college and two younger sons still living at home. She has barely enough money to cover their living expenses, and is assisted by Maurice’s brother and sister, who help provide support for her children’s schooling. She returns to work at an unpleasant office job she held before she married. She must make necessary and practical decisions about her own life, deal with the troubling consequences of the loss of their father on the lives of her children (especially the two young boys), and learn to navigate a network of business, public, and familial relationships on her own.

Readers who are used to plot-driven novels may not appreciate what Tóibín has accomplished in this novel. This is a character-driven novel, which is to say that plot serves to delineate a psychological and interior portrait of the protagonist. It is crafted to create a sense of presence, to make us as intimate with a fictional character as we might be with someone we might know or meet in real life. This is a hallmark of Tóibín’s work. Here, as in his complex portrait of a young Irish immigrant woman in his novel Brooklyn, he writes in the Jamesean tradition. The reader must pay attention to the nuances of the dialogue, how these conversations impact Nora, and how her words reveal her feelings and the hidden movements of her thoughts. The “action” in Nora Webster takes place internally. But one of the great achievements of Tóibín’s writing is that in the process of drawing a portrait of an individual he also gives us a sense of a particular community and shows us how in a time of trouble we are pushed and pulled by the people in our immediate world---if we are lucky---and Nora is lucky.

We are apt, at first, to feel that Nora’s relatives, co-workers, and friends are intrusive elements in her grief. They all seem to know just what is best for her, what she must do to reconcile herself to her loss, and the course she must take to move through it to reclaim her life--even how long it should take. Nora sometimes accedes, sometimes resists. This is the quiet drama that goes on in this novel, Nora sorting through the advice of others while trying to listen to the voice of her own instincts and feelings and find a way to move on. We meet some extraordinary characters in the surrounding cast of Nora’s life here, prodding angels who enter the enclosed and entropic world of Nora’s grief. They provide the essential impetus to her slow-moving and evolving triumph, to her reemergence in the world. We come to realize they are not intruders and busybodies but that they push Nora motivated by their love and concern for her. Tóibín gracefully traces this dynamic and gives us a hopeful and moving novel about the nature of grief and its healing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Brown Bag Book Club is now reading...

For December and January, the Brown Bag Book Club will be reading An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser. Due to the length of the book (and the interruption of holidays), the club will read the first two books of the novel for its December discussion. The third book will be read for January, 2015.

Catalog links to use when checking for copies are here and here.
The classic depiction of the harsh realities of American life, the dark side of the American dream, and one man's doomed pursuit of love and success.
The Brown Bag Book Club meets at noon on the third Tuesday of the month, on the second floor of the Central Library. All members of the public are welcome to read and join the fun.

The next two meetings will be on December 16th and January 20th. End or start your reading year with a lively discussion of a classic work of American literature. Lunch (brown bag or otherwise) is up to you!

For those interested, here is an online study guide you could use.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

This week at the library...

Buena Vista branch (storytime room), 7:00 p.m.

(This club is for enrolled teens only.)

We will discuss Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld, and receive House of Secrets, by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini.

Buena Vista branch (storytime room), 7:00 p.m.

(This club is for enrolled teens only.)

We will discuss The Naturals, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, and receive Unspoken, by Sarah Rees Brennan.

And also that same night...

Buena Vista branch (auditorium), 7:00 p.m.

Burbank Public Library and Shakespeare at Play present...

A Staged Reading of
by Thornton Wilder

Buena Vista branch, 7:00 p.m.

A special screening of the documentary...

In November of 1963, a youth football team from Northern California has a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the President of the United States, but due to the tragic assassination on November 22nd, the entire team instead attends President Kennedy’s funeral instead. The film is based on the true story of the 1963 Pop Warner Champions, the Pittsburgh Mallards.

Producer/director John Chavez will discuss the making of the film.

That same evening, over at the Central Library, 7:00 p.m....

Burbank Public Library presents a free seminar...

with financial advisor Janelle Samples of Edward Jones.

Learn about:
  • the three types of income: variable, reliable, and rising
  • why an income stream is important
  • how to use the different types of income to build a sustainable and predictable income stream

Buena Vista branch, in the park!

98 minutes / PG
Don't miss an all-ages after-hours screening of the '80s classic!
See THE PRINCESS BRIDE in the PARK at Buena Vista Library on FRIDAY, NOV. 21. Enjoy the movie under the stars, starting at 6:30 p.m.! Bring a sweater, a picnic, and a blanket!

In the event of inclement weather (inconceivable!), the movie will be shown indoors.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What we're reading: New thriller

I just finished The Keeper, by John Lescroart, over the weekend. This is number 15 in his Dismas Hardy series, which I have been reading since #1 (Dead Irish), which released in 1990!

I have always been a big fan of Lescroart's legal thrillers, and have recommended him to many other readers over the years, but I feel like in some respects he has written himself into a corner in this series, and is now trying to write himself out of it, with varied success.

In his usual San Francisco law-and-order setting, litigators go from independent practice to big law firms, cops move from department to department, prosecutors have become defense attorneys and vice versa, detectives are forcibly retired and become private investigators--which I like. It's good to shake things up so they don't get stale. Nobody wants to read books with the identical dynamic in a series this long. But at the same time, if you have set up specific character traits for your protagonists that have become well known over an arc of multiple (or more than a dozen!) books, it just feels wrong to then make them work against character, which is what I believe Lescroart did in this book.

In a previous book in the series, the formidable Detective Abe Glitsky was pushed out of the homicide squad into early retirement, and in this one he is at loose ends--taking the kids to school and reading a lot--until his pal, defense attorney Dismas Hardy, asks him to do some investigating. The mystery is a compelling one--a young wife and mother has disappeared, and is presumed dead--but where's the body? Suspicion falls, as it often does, on the husband, who is Hardy's client. He is also a guard at the San Francisco County Jail, and the investigation of his wife's disappearance eventually leads to the revelation of a labyrinthine conspiracy within the jail, and to the examination of questionable deaths, with a hunt for those responsible. So--a compelling story.

But what Glitsky does in pursuit of tying up all these loose ends is so loose cannon of him that I found it hard to believe he was the same guy I've been following all these years. I just didn't buy that he would go quite that far off the reservation (and make so many illogical blunders), after maintaining a stern code of ethics (with a few spectacular exceptions that have weighed on him ever since) for so many years.

I also figured out who the murderer was with more than 75 pages to go, so it wasn't such a compelling read after that. More of a waiting for the revelation and a curiosity about how Lescroart would do that--which cemented my feelings about the out-of-character behavior of Glitsky! I'd love to sit down with the author to understand his thinking.
Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad book--I quite enjoyed it as a whole, particularly all the what ifs that led me hither and yon--but as a long-time fan, I was dismayed by the direction Lescroart took one of my favorite characters. We'll see what happens in the next one...

Monday, November 10, 2014

What We're Reading: New History

When Britain Burned the White House:
The 1814 Invasion of Washington,
by Peter Snow.

The War of 1812, in which the United States declared war on Great Britain, seems in retrospect largely a blunder or misadventure. All the death and chaos resulted in a peace settlement that left things pretty much as they were before the conflict began. The war features in American memory largely as a coming of age experience for the young republic, one in which the underdog showed some fight and perhaps emerged (at least in its own hemisphere) as a power to be reckoned with. The most unequivocal American victory of the war, the Battle of New Orleans, came two weeks after the United States and Great Britain had agreed to end the war at peace talks in Ghent. The news had not yet arrived across the Atlantic.

A modern depiction of the historic burning of the White House.

Two of the most memorable events of the war were, as Snow relates here, closely related: the burning of the U.S. government buildings, including the White House, in Washington, D.C., and the assault on Baltimore shortly following that victory. Having accomplished the first feat against the odds, the British were emboldened to essay yet another. Their bombardment of Fort McHenry, which guarded the entrance to the Baltimore harbor, was immortalized in a poem written by Francis Scott Key that celebrated the survival of the huge American flag (30 x 42 feet) that had been commissioned for the fort. Key set his poem to the tune of an old English song club favorite, "Anacreon in Heaven.” It became a popular song in America and, more than a century later in 1931, it became the official U.S. national anthem.

(top)  The Capitol building after the fire. There was no dome on the Capitol during this period.
The separate Senate and House buildings were connected by a long wooden ramp,
which was burnt away by the fire. These stark illustrations of the Capitol and
(below) White House in the immediate aftermath of the fire were drawn by George Munger.

Snow’s narrative is a straightforward and narrowly focused reconstruction of these events. The research and detail are admirable, and the pace of the narrative is not slowed down by the author trying to explore larger military or political issues or, as is typical in books that treat of military actions, second guessing strategy and imagining alternate scenarios about what might have been. Snow was drawn to this story--and we as readers are drawn to it as well--because the burning of Washington, D.C. seems to be an extraordinary event that calls out for explanation. How could a nation let its capitol, its seat of government, be captured and burned by an army of less than 4,500 British soldiers? It was a rather spectacular British military feat, one that as Snow explains has much to do with the character of the British troops and their commanders in the field as well as the superiority of the British Navy and its ability to command the waterways that surrounded Washington. In prelude to the attack on Washington, Admiral Cockburn and his British fleet had been debarking to make successful raids on plantations and towns surrounding the Chesapeake. With the completion of the Duke of Wellington’s successful campaign against Napoleon on the Spanish peninsula, British reinforcements were sent directly from Spain to America. These were well trained and experienced troops, remarkably disciplined, who had a record of success under professional and talented commanders. Transported part way up the Patuxent River from the Chesapeake Bay by the largely unopposed British fleet, the army made a long march north and then turned east toward Washington, confronting an American force of almost 6,000 and defeating it at the battle of Bladensburg in Maryland. The road to Washington, but a short distance away, was now open.

British Rear Admiral George Cockburn was the driving force
behind the sack of Washington. Although Major General Robert Ross
was in command of the land forces, Cockburn with a contingent of
marines accompanied him and urged the hesitant and doubtful
Ross on. When Cockburn had his portrait painted a few years
later, he wanted his triumph in Washington
memorialized in the background.
As Snow shows us, it was not merely the superior character of the British forces that made for this disaster. The Americans, although having a larger force and the advantage in artillery, relied on untested and, as it proved, unreliable bands of local militia, a chaotic command structure, and individual commanders who had poor military judgment. The Americans at Blandensburg, for the most part, look pretty absurd in Snow’s account: The Secretary of War visiting the battle front is reluctant to offer any advice to his commander; the Secretary of State, James Monroe, is riding around issuing orders and arranging deployments when it is very unclear that he has any authority to do so; and the scholarly and diminutive Madison is scampering about on his horse toward and away from the front, unable to impose any order on the chaos. Meanwhile, Dolly Madison is back at the White House deciding what should be loaded into a cart and hauled off, while the White House staff continues to prepare a large state dinner that had been planned for the evening, one that the British officers and soldiers eventually enjoyed when they entered the city as uninvited guests. The scenes of the British occupation of Washington and the account of the looting and burning of the White House are all memorable.


Left: A portrait of Major General Robert Ross who commanded the British forces in the attack on Washington. He was much beloved by his troops. Right:  He was killed during the British advance on Baltimore. 

The British justification for the burning of Washington was that it was done in retaliation for the Americans having burned York (modern Toronto), the capital of upper Canada, but their real motivation seems to have had more to do with the psychological effects of such an action on American morale and resolve. The British wanted to demonstrate overwhelming military superiority and also to humiliate the Madison administration, which had declared the war on Britain. They hoped, by this disgraceful debacle, to cost it popular support. This may have been a miscalculation. Even the British command and the Parliament (and perhaps the king as well, according to one witness) thought the act barbaric and uncivilized--that it was beneath Britain and its code of military conduct. Certainly the Madison administration had always had its critics, particularly in the New England states, and it received harsh criticism in the immediate aftermath of the burning of Washington. But the burning of Washington seems to have done more ultimately to unite America and stiffen its resistance than to have demoralized the nation.

Snow presents us with a military victory that was remarkable, but at the same time was something less than it seemed. Although Washington was the seat of the U.S. government, it was not a large town or one that was economically important, nor was it strategically important. The burning of Washington had more to do with the other war that accompanies the military maneuvers on the battlefield--the battle for hearts and minds--and on that count, as we are shown here, tactical competence and military glory may be more equivocal measures of victory than we might readily suppose.

When Britain Burned the White House has a large and well-captioned array of illustrations (although the source and credit list for them is nearly incomprehensible) and specially drawn maps that accompany Snow’s compelling and dramatic story.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

This week at the library...


All branches of Burbank Public Library are CLOSED on Tuesday, November 11, in observance of VETERANS' DAY. We are open Monday and the rest of the week, normal hours.

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

The GENRE-X Book Club meets to discuss Just Kids,
the award-winning memoir by Patti Smith.

A book club for Millennials and Gen-Xers. For more information, please email Jeff or Laura at

Central Library, 2:00 p.m.

Celebrating 50 years of the Beatles!
87 minutes

Central Library, 2:00 p.m.

Le Petit Cinema presents...

116 minutes / rated R

Jon Favreau (writer, director and producer) leads a hilarious all-star cast including Sofía Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr., and young actor Emjay Anthony in this deliciously entertaining comedy about starting from scratch. When gifted chef Carl Casper (Favreau) suddenly quits his demanding job at a trendy LA restaurant, he's on his own to pick up the pieces of his once promising career. Finding himself in Miami, he decides to team up with his successful ex-wife (Vergara), best friend (Leguizamo) and son (Anthony) to launch a no-frills food truck business. Taking to the road, Carl reignites his passion for the kitchen and, along the way, discovers a renewed zest for life and love.