Thursday, August 25, 2016

What we're reading: Philosophy, sci fi mingle

Last week, with great excitement, I checked out Necessity, by Jo Walton. It's the third in her series about the establishment of Plato's Republic by the goddess Athene, a science fiction mash-up of classical philosophy with speculative fiction that delighted me in its first two volumes. The first book, The Just City, was also thoroughly discussed and dissected (and mostly enjoyed) by the high school book club in May, once we were able to buy the book in paperback; I reviewed the second here.

The first two books were fascinating explorations of the concept of society--what is acceptable, what is preferable, what is required, what is taboo--and how to go about setting one up from scratch, with the premise that the one you are creating (in this case Plato's Republic) is better than what you had before, for whatever reasons. In the first book, the goddess Athene brought together all the people from down through the centuries who had prayed in her name for a different life, and made them the masters, and then collected a horde of children, all aged 10, to be "raised right" by the masters in the pure ways of Plato, and placed them all in a time anomaly on an island destined to be destroyed by a volcano.

In the second book, some of the results, both positive and negative, were explored, taking into account the complexities of individuals versus the society, the tensions and differences, and the striving for excellence that is at the root of Plato's vision. At the end of book two, there is a mind-blowing twist that, while it initially isolates the people of the Just City (and all the cities that evolved out of it) from the rest of the universe, also puts the society back into regular time and space and sets up the probability for eventual contact with other human (and nonhuman) societies.

In the first few chapters, it looked like that was the direction the book was going to play out--other humans and other species initiate contact, new gods take an interest in this society created by Athene and Apollo, and it's up to the members of Plato's New Republic to convince them that their particular brand of excellence is worthy of continuation and even adoption.

But turned into another book. Athene goes missing "outside of time," and the book becomes a scavenger hunt by Apollo (back to being a god after his sojourn as the human Pytheas), Hermes (or is it Hermes?), the resurrected Pico (Idakaros), and Socrates, who has been retrieved from gadfly status and restored to his "family." It seems Athene went outside of time on purpose, to explore Chaos and study Necessity, and left clues to help them retrieve her if she remained missing for too long (although since time is purely subjective to gods, this didn't quite make sense).

This twist took the reader on such a segue away from the expected conclusion of the series that it became, for me, a disappointment, despite being an entertaining book in and of itself. The first contact with aliens and other humans is not dealt with in any significant way; the aliens melded right into Platonic society, and the new humans look like they won't fit in at all, but these issues aren't addressed beyond a few rather shallow moments. And what happened to the great exploration of social issues with which this series so elegantly and excitingly began? The new society seems to have evolved into a fairly pedestrian place, despite all its unique elements, and the focus here is more on the gods than on the humans.

Having said that, the people who read the previous books and want to know what happened to the characters and their descendents will probably enjoy what's here. There are some wonderful, poignant moments, including giving one narration track to Crocus, the Worker who became sentient in Book One, and the epilogue grabs the romantic who invested in this world and these people and makes him or her happy.'s not the book I was expecting or wanting.

This is always the peril of series fiction--while the reader has only the previous books on which to base expectations, the writer, meanwhile, has perhaps grown or changed focus and takes his or her writing along a different road. It may be an interesting route...if you're willing to give up on the one you had anticipated. Jo Walton is still an amazing writer; but for me, the end of this series didn't satisfy.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

What we're reading: Another British mystery series

I've been reading Elizabeth George's mystery series about Inspector Thomas Lynley (the eighth earl of Asherton) and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers of Scotland Yard since the beginning, which was her book A Great Deliverance. The dynamic between the two--the elegant, gracious, kindly upper-class inspector and the suspicious, resentful, working-class plod with whom he is partnered--is the best part of her books, but she is also a master at scene-setting, atmosphere, and plot twists.

My interest flagged for a while, however; after she wrote the book What Came Before He Shot Her, which was a radical, albeit brilliant and captivating, departure from the Lynley series (although it was connected in one respect), it seemed like she lost her way. The subsequent three books seemed a bit lackluster--all the elements were there, but to me, they just didn't have the same chemistry or sparkle.

She more than redeemed herself with the last book in the series, though--Just One Evil Act was one of her best, in my opinion, particularly because it took the focus off the depressed and depressing Lynley (I won't tell you the reason for his mood, because it's a major spoiler for the series, but those three books were downers) and instead featured a mystery that evolved from the personal life of Barbara Havers and took us on a trip to a charming walled town in Italy, as a travel bonus. So I was encouraged to keep going when I saw that #19 in the series was out (it actually released back in October of last year, but I guess I wasn't paying attention!), and I wasn't disappointed.

The plot of A Banquet of Consequences was so interesting. The book starts out with the suicide of a troubled young man. Then it jumps to a look at Havers, back in London trying to recover from the major gaffes she committed while in Italy and struggling not to be transferred to the back of beyond by her irate "guv" (boss). A chance encounter brings her together with a feminist author whose dogsbody assistant turns out to be the mother of the suicidal youth. Then another death occurs, and when it is eventually determined that it's murder, Barbara sees her inadvertent connection as the perfect opportunity to redeem herself and prove she has what it takes to stay at Scotland Yard.

I haven't read many mysteries in which the author managed to obscure for such a major part of the book who the murderer actually was, but the most impressive part was the back-and-forth of who might have been the intended victim(s). That was truly intriguing. We got to see more of Barbara Havers doing her thing, which is always fun, and we received more insight into characters who have previously been not much more than caricature, like department secretary Dorothea Harriman. I'm looking forward to the next in this series again. Burbank Public Library owns this last book in large print, as a sound recording (audio book), and as an e-book.

Also, for those who are interested, Masterpiece Mysteries on the BBC made a television series, called the Inspector Lynley Mysteries, from 2001 to 2008, some of which you can borrow from Burbank Public Library. The rest you can still find online on and other online streaming services. Although Tommy Lynley is a brunette in the series (he's blond in the books) and Sharon Small never seemed obnoxious enough to me to play the redoubtable Barbara Havers, they're very well done and there are 23 episodes, some based on the books and some only using the characters but developing original plotlines.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

This week at the library...

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

In this workshop, blogger, journalist, and writer Scott Holleran offers a comprehensive tutorial on social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

Join us for another session with instructor Noah Fontana.

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

You're invited to attend a special launch party for our NEW digital library of historical Burbank images, Burbank In Focus.

For more details, please look here.

Central Library, 2:00 p.m.

Friday Matinee presents...
Based on the incredible true story of the Beam family. When Christy (Jennifer Garner) discovers her 10-year-old daughter Anna (Kylie Rogers) has a rare, incurable disease, she becomes a ferocious advocate for her daughter's healing as she searches for a solution. After Anna has a freak accident, an extraordinary miracle unfolds in the wake of her dramatic rescue that leaves medical specialists mystified, her family restored and their community inspired.
109 minutes / rated PG

Central Library, 10:00 a.m.

For children ages 2-14 and their families. CHILDREN UNDER 9 MUST BE ACCOMPANIED BY AN ADULT.

Buena Vista Branch, 10:30 a.m.

Music Workshop with
Charged Particles
TEENS! Learn about the Building Blocks of Jazz:
Get the groove, find the funk, add melody and harmony, and then...improvise! Taught by Charged Particles, a high-energy Bay Area jazz trio that performs around the world. BONUS: Burbank teen musicians may be "sitting in" on a number or two!

This program is for TEENS in grades 6-12 ONLY.

Later that same day...

Buena Vista Branch, 3:30 p.m.

Plugged-in Jazz with a Spark! Celebrating their 25th anniversary, Charged Particles has been playing high-energy jazz around the world and getting more and more attention from critics and fans. The band features the Bay Area’s favorite Afro-Latin jazz keyboardist, Murray Low, along with the inventive and sophisticated acoustic and electric bassist, Aaron German, and fiery drummer Jon Krosnick (who performed with Chick Corea). All are welcome at this program.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Launch party next week

BURBANK IN FOCUS is Burbank Public Library's brand-new digital photo collection. The librarians in charge of the collection scan historical photos that represent Burbank's heritage, and put them on the internet at The photos have come from city departments, local organizations and the public; and there are currently more than 800 photographs online.

The collection is browsable and keyword searchable, and the photos have whatever information we have been able to obtain attached to them. This is where the library could use help from the public, however; if you are browsing the collection and see a photo with incomplete information (i.e., the people in the photo or the buildings and locations are not identified, or the year is not noted but you know when the photo was taken), please share your knowledge with us! We want to get all the underlying descriptions as complete as possible for the collection.

‘Marine Day,’ April 21, 1968, on Burbank's Golden Mall. Four hundred Marines
from Camp Pendleton were the guests of the City of Burbank
in a day-long celebration topped by a trip to Disneyland.

Can people donate photos?
Yes. We actually scan your photo and then return it to you, along with a digital copy of the scan on a flash drive for you to keep. We do need donors to sign a release form in order for us to put their photos on our website.

What kind of photos are you looking for?
Pretty much anything that depicts life in Burbank!

How do I donate?
You can come to one of our periodic scanning events, or you can make an appointment by sending an email to, or by calling 818 238-5580. Ask for Jeff or Kristin.

Although the website is already live, the library is having an official launch party for the Burbank in Focus collection on Thursday, August 25 at 7:00 p.m. at the Central Library. There will be presentations, a website tour, and light refreshments. We invite you to join us!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What We're Reading: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” by Philippe Sands

This is a remarkable book. More than any other book I have read recently, it demonstrates why history is so important if we are to develop an understanding of human affairs and know how to act morally and do good in the world.  It tells us what we need to do if we are to change anything. East West Street introduces us to two lawyers whose contribution to international law has gone largely unrecognized, and explains the origin of their ideas and the debt we owe them. History is powerful when it allows us to trace the nature and character of the world in which we live back to events that have occurred in the past, when we make those kinds of connections. It becomes particularly powerful when we can trace those connections back not only collectively but personally, when we explore events that occurred in recent history, the events that occurred in our own lifetime or that happened in the years just before we were born. History of that kind can evoke depths of understanding and empathy that may elude us when we read about the more distant past.

Hersch Lauterpacht, who argued for the concept of "crimes
against humanity" to be incorporated into international law
Sands has written an historical account of the individuals who created our contemporary ideas about “ genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” the two men who coined the terms, who named the crimes that have found their way into international law. In the process of doing this he also traces the genealogy and suffering of his own family back to the same place (and time) where his two principal subjects, international lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, lived before they emigrated to England and the United States. All lived in the city in Eastern Europe today known as Lviv in the Ukraine. The city changed national hands eight times between 1914 and 1945, and depending on which country owned it at the time, was variously known as Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov, or Lwow. We learn that the culture and intellectual traditions of this city, and the terrible things that happened there, had much to do with the ideas about international order that found their forceful expression in the advocacy of Lautherpacht and Lemkin. Sands's grandparents and great-grandmother also lived in this city and in the nearby town of Zhovkva, and shared the experiences and fate of the Lautherpacht and Lemkin families. 

Rafael Lemkin who created the word "genocide" to describe
the Nazi persecution and murder of Jews and other minorities
in Europe and Eastern Europe
Sands weaves together the history of his grandparents and his mother during World War II with the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin. These connections take on special power not only because World War II was the most catastrophic and violent event in human history, but also because of what lies at the dark heart of that conflict, that event we continue to find so hard to fully comprehend: the Holocaust. Sands takes us along with him as he attempts to uncover mysteries in the lives of his mother and grandparents. He worked for more than six years trying to discover what lay behind their silence, starting with his grandfather’s cryptic memorabilia, tracing down leads in archives in Europe, Eastern Europe and the Ukraine, interviewing relatives and individuals who were a part of his ancestor’s lives, and uncovering unexpected and indeed astonishing connections among his family, historical events, and the two lawyers who are the focus of his book. The result is something whole, historically illuminating, personally felt, and immediate, a book that demonstrates that the best history books can make you feel that they are not really talking about history anymore, that the past has somehow, in some profound way, visited the present. 

The pogrom in Lviv, 1941
East West Street comes to its powerful conclusion--and full circle--at the Nazi war crimes trial in Nuremberg. Hersch Lauterpacht was at the trial as part of the British prosecution team, and he wrote a portion of the British closing arguments. Rafael Lemkin was there too, with a U.S. War Department pass, but in a mostly unofficial capacity, trying to convince the Soviet, French, American, and British prosecution teams to make “genocide” a crime in the prosecution at Nuremberg. Lemkin had escaped Eastern Europe in the early years of the war, and came to teach in America. He wrote a book called Axis Rule, in which he identified the stages of genocide, the methodical steps taken on the road to murder in the Nazi-occupied territories. Unknown to both international lawyers, while they were working on issues of crimes against humanity and genocide during the war years, their families were being murdered by the Nazis in Poland and Galicia. Lauterpacht only learned about the fate of his family around the time of the conclusion of the Nuremberg trial, and Lemkin was uncertain about what had happened to his family until some years later. In his discussion of the trial, Sands turns his attention in particular to Hans Frank (convicted and hung for his crimes), the Nazi official who was in charge of the German-occupied department comprising Poland and some of the surrounding territories where many of the extermination camps were located, and Otto von Wächter, a classmate of Lauterpacht and the Nazi who was in charge of Galicia, the district that included Lviv and the surrounding towns where the Latherpacht, Lemkin, and Sands families lived when they were rounded up and disappeared into the camps. Some of the most interesting passages of the book relate to Sands's meetings with the sons of these two war criminals, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter. Sands produced a documentary film with both of them that was released last year, A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did.

Hans Frank on trial at Nuremberg
Hersch Lauterpacht was critical of Lemkin’s concept of “genocide” as an international crime. He felt that crimes against the individual should be the focus of international law, and he placed these crimes at the center of his idea of “crimes against humanity.” He feared that Lemkin’s focus on crimes against “groups” would make crimes against individuals seem less important in the court of international justice but, more importantly, he thought that prosecuting crimes against groups would only foster animosity between groups, that it would perpetuate the kind of thinking about races and ethnicity that gave rise to genocide in the first place. As Sands points out, this debate is still with us, as he concludes this moving story of how personal experience and bitter tragedy lay at the center of two men’s quest for a new code of international justice, one in which states would no longer be able to act against the lives and the rights of their own citizens with sovereign impunity and would have to answer for those crimes to all mankind.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

What we're reading: British mystery series

You know that phrase, "Damning with faint praise?" This book review is going to be the opposite: Praising with faint damnation.

I absolutely love the Bill Slider mystery series by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. A friend of mine suggested the first one, and I have eagerly awaited the next one ever since. And if you are just starting out on this series, there is a lot to love--there have so far been 18 books! Looking back at my Goodreads ratings and notes, none of them has received fewer than three stars out of five, and the majority have received four or five.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles writes beautifully, with a wonderful use of language. Her characters are extremely likeable, and the mysteries--police procedurals--are interesting without portraying gratuitous violence. But the best part of the Bill Slider series is the sly humor exhibited in the titles of each chapter, and the use of bungled aphorisms by Slider's boss, the hapless Mr. Porson. Occasionally, as an American, I don't get a joke here or there, but mostly I am periodically snickering out loud as I read.

Having said all that...I just read Star Fall. I thought when I picked it up that it was brand new, but it's actually #17 and precedes the latest, which I apparently already read!

The story, in brief: Television personality and antiques expert Rowland Egerton has been murdered in his own home. He was found by his business partner, who seems to have no motive but who was the most available to do the deed. But as Slider and his team look into the victim, they discover that the charming Mr. Egerton was actually a rather nasty piece of work, and perhaps there are many with motive, if not opportunity.

I liked the book well enough; there was nothing wrong with it, and much to entertain. But it seemed a little lackluster compared to some of the previous books in the series. One of the things I like the best about the series--the interjection of the personal lives of Slider and his cohorts--was mostly missing from this book. Additionally, there was not a truly exciting turn of events in the mystery; it was a bit of a plod, to be British about it. It was really the first time I felt the term "procedural" fit one of Harrod-Eagles's books to a T, because it seemed completely according to procedure, with little to enliven it.

There was an interesting twist on almost the last page, though, that may bode well for the next few books in the series, whenever they appear.

Meanwhile, if you have never read any of these books, start with the first--Orchestrated Death. I envy you the opportunity to discover this series from book one!

Also, if you are looking to read more mysteries, this month's meeting of our Scene of the Crime Book Club (tomorrow night at Buena Vista) is for you--each member will be presenting a different favorite mystery. Come to the meeting and take notes for your "to read" list!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

This week at the library...

It's Book Club week!

Central Library, 6:30 p.m.

Burbank Public Library and the
Burbank Recycle Center present...
A "Live and Learn" Documentary:

Just Eat It is a 74-minute documentary film about food waste and food rescue. Filmmakers and food lovers Jen and Grant dive into the issue of waste from farm, through retail, all the way to the back of their own fridge. Just Eat It brings farmers, retailers, inspiring organizations, and consumers to the table in a cinematic story that is equal parts education and delicious entertainment.

Following the documentary, there will be a discussion led by Clare Fox, Executive Director, LA Food Policy Council.

Central Library, 12:00 noon

The club has read and will discuss A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. Bring your lunch along, and join in the book-talking!

Buena Vista Branch, 7:00 p.m.

Here's your chance to present YOUR favorite or new mystery book to the book club. All are welcome.

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

The three teen book clubs (6+7, 8+9, and 10-12) will have a joint meeting at which club members will promote up to the next club (grades 5 into 6, 7 to 8, and 9 to 10), new club members will be introduced and can get acquainted, and all clubs will select the books they will read and discuss for the first official book club meetings in September.

Two of the three clubs are already full, but things do change, so if teens wish to become members, they should contact to have their names added to the waiting lists.

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

(not your mother's book club)

The club has read and will discuss The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery.