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What to Read While You Wait for Gray Mountain

December 12, 2014

Book cover for Gray Mountain by John GrishamOne extremely popular title on the New York Times best seller list this fall is the legal thriller “Gray Mountain” by John Grisham. Like in all great thrillers, there is a hero pitted against a villain. Grisham’s hero is Samantha Kofer, third year associate with the prestigious Lehman Brothers law firm in New York until the financial crisis of 2008 upends her life and transplants her to the Appalachian coal country of Brandy, Virginia. There she works as an intern for the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic. While defending the citizens of the county and meeting the handsome litigator, Donovan Gary, she stumbles onto deadly secrets surrounding Big Coal mining!

This highly sought after title has created a rather lengthy waiting list at the library. So, if you are currently on this list, you might like to try these titles! (Publisher’s descriptions included)

Raylan” by Elmore Leonard
When Federal Marshall Raylan Givens squares off against a known offender, he will warn the man, “If I have to pull my gun I’ll shoot to kill.” Except this time he finds the offender naked in a bathtub, doped up and missing his kidneys. Raylan knows there’s big money in body parts, but by the time he finds out who is making the cuts, he is lying naked in a bathtub himself, Layla, the cool transplant nurse, about to go for his kidneys. It turns out all the bad guys Raylan is after are girls this time.

Book cover for Stand Up That MountainStand Up that Mountain” by Jay Erskine Leutze
This is the true story of an outdoorsman living alone in Western North Carolina who teams up with his neighbors and environmental lawyers to save a treasured mountain peak from the mining company. One day the author got a call from a young woman, Ashley, and her Aunt Ollie. Ashley and Ollie said they had evidence that Clark Stone Company was violating the Mining Act of 1971 up on Belview Mountain, one of the most remote and wildest places in the eastern United States. They wanted Jay, a non-practicing attorney, to sue the company to put a stop to their mining operation. This is an underdog David vs. Goliath story with lots of good guys you love, and bad guys you love to hate. Not only did the case against the Clark Stone Company set groundbreaking legal precedent, but also the good guys won a complete victory. How they did it is chronicled in this book.

Book cover for The Perfect Witness by Iris JohansenThe Perfect Witness” by Iris Johansen
She had the perfect life. She had the perfect cover. She was the perfect witness, until they found her. From the blockbuster bestselling author of the Eve Duncan novels comes a new, stand-alone thriller about a woman with a photographic memory who has lived her life in the Witness Protection Program. What she once saw put her entire family in jeopardy and now, years later, her cover is blown. She’s on the run, and the lives of those she holds dear hang in the balance.

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Classics for Everyone: Starring “Ulysses” as “The Most Dangerous Book”

December 10, 2014

Book cover for The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin BirminghamThe Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses” by Kevin Birmingham tells the story of how one of the great novels of the 20th century almost didn’t come to be. Birmingham provides a look at Joyce’s life and work in the larger social context of the early 1900s. Though the contents of “Ulysses” would hardly cause an eye to bat in the present day, during the time the Irish author was writing the book censorship was thriving in the United States and Europe. In the U.S., the Comstock Act prohibited the circulation of obscene materials through the mail. Only a small handful of men were charged with defining obscenity, and their definitions tended to be broad.  In addition, “Ulysses” was challenged under the Sedition Act, with the accusation that it promoted anarchy.

Book cover for Ulysses by James JoycePortions of “Ulysses” first appeared in a Chicago-based literary magazine, The Little Review. The periodical was publishing the book in installments, right up until the editors were arrested for doing so. Fortunately for literature, Joyce had many supporters who were determined to make his novel available to the world. Ezra Pound, who called Joyce “probably the most significant prose writer of my generation,” coordinated efforts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Your Classics Maven admits that “Ulysses” can be a difficult work of literature. But she urges interested parties not to shy away from the book without at least trying. She herself has enjoyed it in the way you might enjoy being around an eccentric relative you don’t always understand, yet who supplies enough golden moments to make the occasional confusion worthwhile.

Everyone who reads fiction should know why “Ulysses” is considered important. Birmingham says the book “changed people’s ideas about what a novel is and what it can do.”  The title is taken from the main character in Homer’s ancient Greek classic “The Odyssey,” and different sections of the story mirror bits of that epic. But instead of taking place over a period of decades, all of the action happens in one day. This was a new idea at the time, although it’s a familiar framing device today. Also new was Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness narration, reflecting the way people actually think, instead of tidy summations. Some passages aren’t intended to be understood so much as experienced; the Sirens’ song from Homer is represented by a string of words chosen for sound rather than meaning.

Even if you only read about Joyce’s “Ulysses” instead of working your way through its text, you’ll see its influence in other novels. Some contemporary authors dispense with quotations marks. Joyce has been there, done that.  David Mitchell experiments with structure in a Joycean way. Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” changes format several times as scenes shift, which we completely accept because Joyce first showed it could be done. So even if you haven’t read “Ulysses,” by reading contemporary fiction, you’ve read “Ulysses.”

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Remembering Author Kent Haruf (1943-2014)

December 8, 2014

Book cover for Plainsong by Kent HarufIn 2002, the Daniel Boone Regional Library decided to start the community-wide reading program we now know as One Read. I was excited when it was announced that the first book selection was “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf. Kent Haruf was a former teacher of mine. This connection allowed me the opportunity to interview him for the library and to chauffeur him between readings and other events. Essentially, I was paid to spend time with the man. It was the best job I’ve been given in my time working for the library.

Photo of Kent HarufIn every class I had with him he’d start the semester with a short speech to give the class an idea of the kind of writing he did. He told us about the town of Holt, Colorado, which existed only in his books. He said Holt was the kind of small town where everyone knew each other, “from the town drunk to the town mayor.” When he said that before a One Read event in Columbia, he got a little flustered. Columbia’s mayor at the time, Darwin Hindman, was there. Kent said he realized this was the first time he’d delivered that line with an actual mayor in the audience. Before a reading in Fulton, an elderly farmer and his wife approached Kent to tell him how much they liked his book. The farmer could especially relate to a scene where a cow gallops into the character Bobby and knocks the wind out of him. He’d had that exact experience many times himself.

Now I understand the true feat Kent accomplished in the classroom. We’re talking about short stories written by people in their late teens and early twenties. (I hope I’ve burned all evidence of mine.) Class after class. And he never seemed tired of us. He never made us feel like we didn’t have the potential, and he never made us think it could be easy.

For one of his classes we read Melville’s “Bartleby The Scrivener.” After we had all shared our impressions, he told us his. He told us about a former student at another college who was very isolated. The character Bartleby reminded him of that student. The last time he had heard about the student he was working at a bakery, living in an apartment above it, and spending very little time outside of those two places. I don’t know how many years it had been since he’d had that student in class, but you could hear the concern in his voice. You could tell he felt some regret that he wasn’t able to help the young man more.

That capacity for empathy made him such a good teacher, and a great writer. He cared about all his characters deeply, and he worked hard to bring them to life. Holt was based on the different small towns in Eastern Colorado he’d grown up in. Reading his books you can tell he had a real affection for the people in those towns. His writing focused on the small moments, the ordinary. His prose was spare but illuminated the moments he described. I think reading one of his novels makes our ordinary lives feel as significant as the lives in an epic or fantastic story. Maybe more so, for their being so familiar to us.

I was a little surprised by my reaction when I found out he had died. I admire him. I value the time I got to be around him, but I had only been in touch a handful of times since I graduated, and the last time was almost seven years ago. I haven’t become a published writer. I don’t teach English. I thought he was a part of my life that had passed. But the news was a real gut punch. Despite the lack of contact, I felt this sudden hole where he used to be. I realized the lasting impression he made. Then I felt sadder for not being able to tell him that. These kinds of common experiences – unexpected loss, small regrets – are what he wrote about so eloquently. I can’t help thinking as I try to put them into words, “Kent could have said it better.”

Kent Haruf wrote his seventh novel, “Our Souls At Night” before he passed away. It’s scheduled to be published in June.

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Ask the Author: An Interview With Marlene Lee

December 5, 2014

Book cover for Limestone Wall by Marlene LeeRemember those good old childhood days of playing card games in a pretty old house while drinking hot chocolate and looking out the window at the limestone wall of a prison? Well, that might not be a typical childhood memory, but it gave local author Marlene Lee plenty of inspiration for her latest book, aptly titled “Limestone Wall.” The house that overlooked the prison, which happens to be the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, belonged to one of Lee’s father’s patients, and he would take her with him to visit the woman who lived there. In “Limestone Wall,” the main character, Evelyn Grant, moves into this very house in Jefferson City.

DBRL: Your most recent book, “Limestone Wall,” is about a recently widowed woman who goes to find her estranged mother, who is in jail for murdering twin babies. It seems like there are some pretty heavy themes in this book. Could you talk about your inspiration? I know that before becoming a full-time writer you worked as a court room reporter. Did that influence your work?

Photo of the Missouri State PenitentiaryML: I should make clear that my mother never killed anyone or went to prison!  When I was a girl in Jefferson City, however, she died, and I’ve always wished I could see her again. This novel was a fictional way to think about what it is like to remember the past and to bring someone back to life and then to find firm footing between reality and wish-fulfillment.

My 30 years as a court reporter no doubt influenced the novel. The scene with Evelyn in the courtroom was easy to write because I’ve been in so many courtrooms. I also sat in that empty courtroom in the Cole County Courthouse so that I could describe it accurately and better imagine what it felt like for Evelyn to sit there, lost in thought about her mother’s trial.

DBRL: The excerpt from the book on your website describes a prison waiting room in vivid detail. Did you visit any prisons as research?

ML: The prison waiting room is not based on a real waiting room. I took a private tour of the Missouri State Prison with two people who are knowledgeable about the old penitentiary and life behind the walls. At the time it was being emptied out because the prison was moving to its new site; thus, the prison in “Limestone Wall” is nearly empty of inmates because that was its condition when I saw it. I’ve visited several other prisons in other locations. Once in the state of Washington I reported the deposition of a prisoner who was going through an appeal process. I don’t pretend to know very much about prisons. I used the setting of the Missouri State Penitentiary to help build my story rather than to inform readers about the prison.

Photo of a latteDBRL: I heard that you’re a regular at Lakota Coffee. Do you have a favorite drink there?

ML: My drink at the Lakota is the same every morning: a single-shot, skim-milk latte.  It never fails to satisfy!

DBRL: Have you read any good books recently which you would like to recommend to our readers?

ML: I love the writing of Edward St. Aubyn. His semi-autobiographical novels about the character Patrick Melrose are magnificent. He has mastered the ability to make the reader feel as if she or he is living the life of the main character, both in the small details and the large events. Patrick’s life is troubled, courageous, and he fights the good fight for self-control and self-knowledge. I love Marilynne Robinson‘s wise and compassionate novels.  William Styron has always been a favorite of mine. All three of these writers have a sensitive, insightful writing style that I admire. There are too many wonderful writers to include in one short list!

Marlene Lee, along with other local authors, will be speaking on a panel at the Columbia Public Library on December 13th at 1 p.m. in the Friends Room. These authors (including David Collins, Ida Fogle, Elaine Stewart, Lori Younker, Nidhi Khosla, William A. Wolff and Wayne Anderson) will be talking about their contributions to the recently published anthology of fiction and non-fiction, “Uncertain Promise.” To check out Marlene’s other events and to keep up-to-date on  her writing, please visit her website.

photo credits
Missouri State Penitentiary: Spanish Dilettante via photopin cc
Cup of coffee: Infomastern via photopin cc

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Chocolate Chip Cookies: New Ideas for an Old Favorite

December 3, 2014

Book cover for Chocolate Chip Cookies by Carey JonesI love chocolate chip cookies, especially fresh out of the oven. Two of my younger sisters remember baking cookies with me when they were kids. When I got married 34 years ago, they (ages 14 and 16) gave me and my husband a cookie jar shaped like Noah’s Ark to remind me of all the times I had baked cookies with them. Two years ago my older son said, “Mom, I remember baking cookies with you every Christmas. Will you continue the tradition with my son?” That year he and his wife gave me a Disney Cinderella cookie jar. (I am a Disney princess fan.) Since then my grandson and I have baked cookies together twice, and I look forward to doing it more often as he gets older. (He’s only 2 years old.) When I asked my younger son if he remembered baking cookies as a child he said, “Sure. I think that was the beginning of my enjoyment of cooking.” He now cooks for himself and loves to invite friends to his home for meals.

I always used the recipe on the back of the bag of chocolate chips until I discovered “Chocolate Chip Cookies: Dozens of Recipes for Reinterpreted Favorites” by Carey Jones. My goal is to try them all. It’s going to take some time (there are more than 40 recipes), but I don’t think my coworkers will mind being tasters!

My niece discovered a recipe that adds bacon to the cookie dough. Bacon! The cookies have a salty, sweet flavor. Just cook up 12 ounces of bacon, dice it, and add it to your favorite recipe. Or do a Google search for “Chocolate Chip Bacon Cookies.” There are many variations.

For a summer reading program one year I served chocolate chip cookies with mealworms. You freeze the mealworms (you can get them at a bait shop or pet store – they are food for some animals), then you toast them in the oven, like nuts. The majority of kids at the program were willing to taste them – the cookies were surprisingly good. The mealworms add a texture to the cookies that is similar to Rice Krispies. The University of Kentucky has an article about insects as food if you’d like to learn more.

My daughter-in-law loves chocolate chip cookie dough. I discovered a great recipe for cookie dough bonbons. Use the recipe on the back of the chocolate chip bag. Omit the leavening agent (baking soda) and instead of using eggs in your recipe, use sweetened condensed milk to get the right consistency. Roll the dough into balls, freeze for about 15 minutes, then dip the balls in melted chocolate. “The Cookie Dough Lovers Cookbook” by Lindsay Landis has a wide variety of ways to make and use edible, safe (egg-free) dough. The “Chocolate Chip Cookies” book I’m baking my way through also has an edible cookie dough recipe.

For more cookie ideas check out:

I am looking forward to filling up at least one cookie jar with cookies this weekend. Happy baking!

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Roll and Press and Bake

December 1, 2014

Photo of cookie cuttersI’m happy to report that the first week of December has been designated National Cookie Cutter Week – who knew? It makes perfect sense to claim this week as such since the winter holidays are approaching and so many folks take up baking. Okay, and who knew there was a museum housing a collection of cookie cutters in Missouri? Well, if you didn’t, I can fill you in – I just found out recently myself. It’s in Joplin, and it’s officially called the National Cookie Cutter Historical Museum.

Santa Cookie CutterMaybe you’ve guessed that I’m a little partial to cookie cutters. I’ve amassed my own small collection over the years, including an aluminum Santa Claus from my early childhood. It’s a sweet relic from a past life in which my mother baked a huge assortment of holiday cookies – between eight and 10 mouth-watering kinds. I don’t know how she did that year after year between singlehandedly raising four children and working full time. (The homemade, rum-spiked eggnog must have helped!)

I could never keep up with my mother’s high gear production, but I do like to crank out a few batches to enjoy with friends and family during this time. There is a little more work involved in making rolled cookies, but it’s worth the effort, whether you have kids involved (most love doing this) or not. Depending on your time and inclination, you can decorate them simply, extravagantly or not at all. One of the all-time easiest recipes to make is Scottish shortbread, with just three ingredients. I like to make this recipe, roll the dough rather thickly and use my heart-shaped cutter to make lots of little hearts, stack them in jars or boxes and give them as gifts. No one has ever complained.

Photo of cookie cuttersBy the way, you don’t have to have a rolling pin to roll out dough. You can actually roll it out with a round, quart-sized glass jar (e.g., a mayonnaise jar). I know because I’ve done this in a pinch when finding myself in someone else’s kitchen without the real tool. A nice wooden rolling pin, though, feels good in the hands and speeds the whole process. I have a beautiful one, a gift from my father, made of pecan wood. I’ve also seen them made from marble, aluminum and hand-blown glass (functional art, yes!).

Book cover for Holiday Cookies cookbookWe are ready here at DBRL to assist you in your holiday cookie making with an ample collection of cookie recipe books from which to choose. For those folks dealing with gluten intolerance, we also have some gluten-free cookie baking books.  With a little pre-planning you can make the cookie baking a time of relaxed enjoyment, perhaps selecting just a few recipes and not overdoing it (quality, not quantity). It’s a satisfying feeling to store freshly baked cookies away in jars and tins, but it’s even more satisfying to share them while drinking coffee, tea or hot chocolate and visiting with family and friends.

If you feel sorry that your cookie cutters languish unused too much of the year, take a gander at these alternative uses for them. You might just find new ways to employ them year round, and that will surely make your life more fun and interesting.

Wishing you good cheer this holiday season!

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Reader Review: Wild

November 28, 2014

Editor’s note: This review was submitted by a library patron during the 2014 Adult Summer Reading program. We will continue to periodically share some of these reviews throughout the year. We thought the timing was right to share this particular review since the film adaptation of “Wild” hits theaters next week.

Book cover for Wild by Cheryl StrayedWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” was an engaging autobiography about the author’s time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The topic was well thought out and never got boring. Reading a book with a setting that constantly changes really gets you involved in the character, and the way the writing flowed actually made me feel like I was befriending Cheryl Strayed throughout her journey. This was a charming read for the summertime!

Three words that describe this book: Wilderness for Dummies

You might want to pick this book up if: you are in the mood for a emotional, yet charming read.

-Anonymous

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Researching Family Histories: Resources for Adoptees

November 26, 2014

 A Handbook for Adoptees and BirthparentsMany library users take advantage of DBRL’s online tools, classes and reference collections to research their family trees. Creating a family history takes a lot of time and effort for anyone, but it can be particularly challenging for those who were adopted. In honor of National Adoption Month, we have gathered some tips and resources for adoptees.

  • Start with yourself and your adoptive family. Write down everything that you already know about your adoption, and ask questions of your adoptive family, including information they might have about birth parents’ health, education, background and interests.
  • Request adoption records. Laws for obtaining information about birth families vary by state. In the State of Missouri, nonidentifying information is available to adoptive parents, a child’s legal guardians or an adult adoptee. This can include the physical description, nationality, religious background and medical history of the birth parents or siblings. See www.childwelfare.gov for a summary of laws by state.
  • Here in mid-Missouri, the Adoption Triad Connection helps adoptees find their biological roots. They generally meet every other month at the Columbia Public Library and provide search help and support for adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents, as well as adoption professionals. I know of several people this organization has been able to help. Visit their website (www.atcofmidmo.com) for more information and for contact information.
  • Register with state and national registries that assist in reuniting birth parents and adoptees when both parties consent. The International Soundex Reunion Registry is a good place to start. The State of Missouri also has an adoption information registry.

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‘Tis the Season

November 24, 2014

Yes, it’s the holiday season, but it is also awards season. Each fall we are treated to not only best-of-the-year book lists but also the Man Booker prize-winner and National Book Award titles, among others. If you have readers on your holiday shopping list, consider giving them one of these excellent books. (Book descriptions provided by their publishers.)

Book cover for RedeploymentRedeployment” by Phil Klay
Winner of the National Book Award for fiction
This collection of stories takes readers to the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned. Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos. These stories reveal the intricate combination of monotony, bureaucracy, comradeship and violence that make up a soldier’s daily life at war, and the isolation, remorse and despair that can accompany a soldier’s homecoming.

Book cover for Age of Ambition by Evan OsnosAge of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China” by Evan Osnos
Winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction
From abroad, we often see China as a caricature: a nation of pragmatic plutocrats and ruthlessly dedicated students destined to rule the global economy – or an addled Goliath, riddled with corruption and on the edge of stagnation. What we don’t see is how both powerful and ordinary people are remaking their lives as their country dramatically changes. As the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, Evan Osnos was on the ground in China for years, witness to profound political, economic and cultural upheaval. In Age of Ambition, he describes the greatest collision taking place in that country: the clash between the rise of the individual and the Communist Party’s struggle to retain control.

Book cover for The Storied Life of A. J. FikryThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin
LibraryReads favorite title of 2014
A.J. Fikry’s life is not what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is failing, and his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. He is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island and from Amelia, the Knightley Press sales rep who refuses to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude. And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore that gives A.J. the ability to see everything anew. It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.’s world.

Book cover for The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan
Winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction
A magisterial novel of love and war that traces the life of one man from World War II to the present. In 1943, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. His life, in a brutal Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway, is a daily struggle to save the men under his command until he receives a letter that will change him forever. This is a savagely beautiful novel about the many forms of good and evil, of truth and transcendence, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.

Book cover for Ordinary Grace by Williams KruegerOrdinary Grace” by William Krueger
Winner of the Edgar Award for best mystery fiction
Looking back at a tragic event that occurred during his thirteenth year, Frank Drum explores how a complicated web of secrets, adultery and betrayal shattered his Methodist family and their small 1961 Minnesota community.

For more inspiration, check out the awards lists in your library’s catalog!

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2014 Winter Program Preview

November 21, 2014

Promotional photos of library programsThe weather outside is frightful, but our library programs are delightful! Here are just a few highlights for the month of December.

Movie Maker
Wednesday, December 3, 2014 › 3-4:30 p.m.
Columbia Public Library, Training Center
Learn how to create your own movie using Windows Movie Maker. We’ll go over how to make a movie and use transitions, sounds and special effects. Please bring a small collection of digital videos and/or images to work with. Adults. Call 573-443-3161 to register.

Coping With Holiday Stress
Thursday, December 4, 2014 › 6:30-7:30 p.m.
Callaway County Public Library (FULTON), Friends Room
LaDonna Zimmerman, team leader for the New Outlook Program for Behavior and Mood Self-Management at the Fulton State Hospital, will give you insights on what stress triggers to watch for during the busy holiday season and how to cope with stress levels. Call 573-642-7261 to register.

Google Toolbox
Thursday, December 4, 2014 › 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Columbia Public Library, Training Center
This class is a survey of the numerous tools Google provides to enhance your online experience. Learn how to optimize your web searches, improve your productivity with Gmail and Google Calendar, explore the world with Google Maps/Earth and Google Translate, and enjoy the arts through Google Books, the Play Store and YouTube. Call 573-443-3161 to register.

Facebook Friday Reading Recommendations
Friday, December 5, 2014 › 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
www.facebook.com/yourdbrl
Get a personalized reading suggestion through Facebook one Friday a month. Just look for our reading recommendations post, leave a comment sharing two or three books or authors you like, and we’ll recommend your next great read.

Holiday Crafts
Saturday, December 6, 2014 › 12:30-2 p.m.
Southern Boone County Public Library (ASHLAND)
Craft an ornament from a design created by the Ashland Artist Group. Members will be on hand to demonstrate the steps as you create your own keepsake. Space is limited. Registration begins Monday, November 24. Call 573-657-7378.

Checking Out Digital Materials
Tuesday, December 9, 2014 › 2:30-4:30 p.m.
Columbia Public Library, Training Center
Learn about the library’s digital services for borrowing eBooks, audiobooks, magazines, music, movies and TV shows. Bring your mobile device or laptop. Register for a 45-minute session. An active library card and email account are required. Adults. Registration begins Tuesday, November 25.

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Ask the Author: An Interview With Eric Praschan

November 19, 2014

Book cover for Blind Evil by Eric PraschanI am excited to introduce a new series here at DBRL Next: Ask the Author. In these posts we will interview writers in our library community. Do you know of a local author from whom you’re dying to hear? E-mail us and we’ll see what we can do!

Our first interview is with author Eric Praschan. Praschan launched his writing career after suffering from a reoccurring illness that left him temporarily mute and unable to feel his extremities. In order to process this traumatic event, Praschan decided to turn this experience into research for his writing. Three years later, he self-published his first full-length novel, “Therapy for Ghosts,” which he later turned into a trilogy following protagonist Cindy James on her quest to uncover her past and reconcile with her family’s dark secrets. The author has now sold over 16,000 books. His latest book, “Blind Evil,” was published earlier this year.

DBRL: One of your first books, “Therapy for Ghosts,” was inspired by your battle with mute paralysis, as well as your experience with cognitive behavioral therapy. Your latest book, “Blind Evil,” is a psychological thriller about a police detective whose best friend is a primary subject in a double homicide. Can you talk about some of your inspirations for this book?

EP: Strangely enough, the initial idea for “Blind Evil came to me almost eight years ago on my honeymoon. My wife and I booked an inexpensive “beachside cottage” in Florida, but when we arrived at night, we discovered that the cottage was several miles into the woods surrounded by head-high grass. The cottage didn’t have window curtains and the cottages next door didn’t have curtains, either. There were cars parked nearby, but no lights were on, and no one was around. The moonlight trickled in through the trees, and it was dead silent. It was very creepy. My wife and I looked at each other and said, “I don’t think so.” We got out of there like our pants were on fire and drove back into town to stay in a resort. After we were safe in a room fully furnished with curtains and working lights, we laughed about it and said that that cottage was the kind of place from a horror movie “where people go to die.”  Lesson learned – don’t go cheap on your honeymoon.

The image of that creepy cottage stayed with me, and over the years, the story started to emerge.

I could still envision that chilling moonlight, the eerie stillness and our skin crawling. Then the characters began to come to life. In terms of the psychological aspects of “Blind Evil,” the subject of psychology is fascinating to me – how the human mind works, how we react to each other and how we respond in difficult circumstances. I wanted to see what would happen if three close friends, whose lives had been entangled in a complicated manner while growing up, were placed in a psychological pressure cooker.  John, a police detective, doesn’t know if he can trust his best friend, David, who is now the prime suspect in a double homicide. Emily, the woman they both have loved, is caught in the middle, and the tension rises. My motto for writing is: the more conflict, the better!

DBRL: All of your published books, with the exception of your short story “The Furrowed Brow,” are set in Missouri. As a local Columbia, Missourian, you understand the advantages and limitations of living in mid-Missouri. What are some things you like most about living here?

EP: I love the geography of Missouri.  The forests, hills and rivers provide rich texture to the landscape, and I’ve always found great story inspiration from nature. There’s haunting allure and mystery hidden in the picturesque Missouri scenery. I enjoy the close proximity of rural and urban territories in Missouri. If you’re in a city, just drive 10 or 15 minutes in any direction and you’ll probably end up in the country surrounded by farms, fields and majestic horizon lines. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Devil's Icebox - photo by Mike Tigas via photopinColumbia, Missouri is particularly inspiring for me because it is located near Rock Bridge Memorial State Park  and other natural landmarks that can fuel the imagination. For my most recent novel, I actually hiked one of the trails and descended into the Devil’s Icebox cave at Rock Bridge State Park to do some research for a scene. The experience was thrilling, and I took pictures and notes in the darkness of the cave with only the light of my cell phone, all the while trying to keep my feet steady on the slippery, wet rocks. The people around me probably thought I was crazy, but I just smiled. Authors do crazy things for their stories, I suppose!

I also enjoy living in Columbia because it offers a great artistic community. There are so many wonderful writers I’ve had the opportunity to meet and become friends with, and it’s been invaluable to share stories, resources and experiences with them. Writing can often feel like a solitary journey, so it’s encouraging to have a writing family around you, and Columbia certainly provides that sort of environment.

DBRL: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers in our area? Are there local resources they should consider taking advantage of?

EP: The best piece of advice I have is simply this: don’t give up. Everyone has an idea for a book, but the difference between an idea and an actual book is the willingness to commit to your idea, to shut out distractions, to dedicate yourself to developing your craft and to sit in the chair and pound out the pages until the story is done. Discouragement, self-doubt, fear of failure, fear of rejection and fear of negative criticism will loom like a dark cloud threatening rain, but it’s your job to ignore the cloud and keep those words coming, even writing through the rain, if you must. The only person who can make you stop writing is you, so never give up and never stop growing as a writer.

For writers in Columbia, I would recommend taking advantage of several local resources:

DBRL: Have you read any good books lately that you would like to recommend to our readers?

EP: Recently, I’ve read and would highly recommend Laura McHugh’s “The Weight of Blood,” which is set in the Ozark Mountains. With deeply developed characters, a rich atmospheric setting and a barn burner of a plot, it’s a literary thriller you won’t want to miss. I also recently finished Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone,” which is set in the Ozarks as well. Woodrell’s novel showcases the landscape of Missouri in an unforgettable manner, and his main character, Ree Dolly, is a heroine for the ages.

More information about Eric Praschan can be found on his website. Check out “Blind Evil” or “Therapy for Ghosts” from the library today! His other books are available from Amazon.

photo credit: mtigas via photopin cc

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The Gentleman Recommends: John Darnielle

November 17, 2014

Book cover for Wolf in White Van by John DarnielleThese days many people like to do more than one thing with their lives. The results are often generously deemed unspectacular. For every brilliant acting performance by political savant Arnold Schwarzenegger, there are three ill-advised folk or jazz albums by some actor who found the time to buy a guitar or piano and grow a beard on the downtime from his day job. For everybody that grimaces at the idea of Stephen King directing a movie, or Wolf Blitzer babysitting their kids, or catching a glimpse of Terry Bradshaw, there is understandable trepidation caused by a novel by an acclaimed rock and roller. But John Darnielle is not your typical song and dance man. His acclaim hasn’t been generated by facial paints or scandalous dance moves but by the quality of his songcraft. Indeed, the author bio on the back flap of the magnificent “Wolf in White Van” proclaims he’s “widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation.” Now granted, not everyone that can pen pretty lyrics can craft a decent novel. But consider this: Darnielle’s acumen for fiction is made evident by the fact that his band is called “The Mountain Goats” when in fact it is comprised often times by only a single human, Darnielle himself, and never by any non-human mammals. Also, a big hat tip to the interns here at the Next Blog for pointing out the band’s inability to scale the sheerest rock faces.

Wolf in White Van” is a powerful book, dense with pretty sentences you can imagine Darnielle setting to music. Darnielle, in addition to shaming Sir Elton John’s tennis game, has written the sort of page-turner character study that most novelists don’t have in them. It’s a melancholy and sometimes grim look at the early life of a damaged man. While a teenager, the narrator survived a gunshot that left his face radically deformed. The novel flashes between Sean’s present and his past, eventually coming all the way back to the night when a bullet changed his future. To deal with living inside his head during his hospital stay, and with the loneliness that sticks with him indefinitely, Sean has created a mail-in role playing game. There are frequent asides from inside the post-apocalyptic world its players must navigate. Completing the game is impossible, which, given its subscription based nature, is just good business sense. This perhaps hints at a third talent Darnielle could unleash; I’m sure Pat Sajak is somewhere gritting his teeth right now.

John Darnielle will write and perform more songs. It seems likely he’ll write more novels. Here’s hoping he has plenty of time to do both and that fewer athletes open restaurants.

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Best Books of 2014

November 14, 2014

This time of year is a list-lovers dream. 2014 won’t be over for weeks, but lists naming the year’s best books are already cropping up, just like Christmas trees appearing in department stores well before Thanksgiving.

Last week Library Journal weighed in with their top 10 titles, as did Publisher’s Weekly.  “Only 10 books?” scoffs Amazon.com. How about 100?

These lists have some sleepers and some surprises, but there is something here for every reader. Below are just a few books receiving rave reviews, along with their publishers’ descriptions.

book cover for A Brief History of Seven KillingsA Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James
A lyrical, masterfully written epic that explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s. Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters – assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts – “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is the fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time and its bloody aftermath, from the streets and slums of Kingston in the ‘70s, to the crack wars in ‘80s New York, to a radically altered Jamaica in the ‘90s.

Book cover for Everything I Never Told YouEverything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee – their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue – in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party. When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart.

Book cover for On ImmunityOn Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss
Upon becoming a new mother, Eula Biss addresses a chronic condition of fear: fear of the government, the medical establishment, and what is in children’s food, mattresses, medicines and vaccines. Biss investigates the metaphors and myths surrounding the conception of immunity and its implications for the individual and the social body. As she hears more and more fears about vaccines, Biss researches what they mean for her own child, her immediate community, America and the world.

Book cover for Station ElevenStation Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel
An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse. One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time – from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains – this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

Book cover for Thirteen Days in SeptemberThirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David” by Lawrence Wright
A gripping day-by-day account of the 1978 Camp David conference, when President Jimmy Carter persuaded Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to sign the first peace treaty in the modern Middle East, one which endures to this day. With his hallmark insight into the forces at play in the Middle East and his acclaimed journalistic skill, Lawrence Wright illuminates the issues that have made the problems of the region so intractable, as well as exploring the scriptural narratives that continue to frame the conflict.

And if you are anti-best-of-book-lists, you might try some titles that appear on Kirkus Reviews’ list of most overlooked books (so far) of 2014.

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Thanksgiving, Happiness and Gratitude

November 12, 2014

Book cover for One of my favorite holidays is Thanksgiving.  There is something invigorating about the crisp Missouri air during this time of year.  Also, the holiday is primarily about family and food and generally devoid of consumerism, which is refreshing in the hyper-marketed world that we live in. However, the celebration of food and family is only part of the Thanksgiving equation for me. I often ponder happiness, gratitude and peace during the holiday.

I often refer to my well-thumbed copy of the “Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James when I think of Thanksgiving. Starting with lectures IV and V, James writes: “If we were to ask the question: ‘What is human life’s chief concern?’ one of the answers we should receive would be: ‘It is happiness.’  How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness . . .”  Perhaps Thanksgiving is a good time to reflect on what has made us joyful during the year, in addition to giving thanks for the many blessings we have received.

About this time last year, my then three-year-old daughter gave me a “Daddy present.” “Daddy presents” are often crumpled pieces of paper with incredibly cute drawings on them stuffed into small envelopes. With a flying pony sticker on the front. This gift, though, was a purple bracelet with “Complaint Free World” engraved on the side. It was bought for 5 cents at a garage sale. DBRL has several books associated with the “Complaint Free World” movement, including the popular “Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Enjoy Life.” The movement was started by Will Bowen, who is relatively local (based in Kansas City), and the book is a gratitude-based look at life in the modern world. His motto is: “if you feel you must complain about something, try to change what it is in your life that is causing you to complain.” The most updated version was published in 2013.

In the same vein, look no further than Victor Frankls’ book “Man’s Search for Meaning.”   Frankl lost all of his family during the Holocaust and is himself a survivor of the Nazi death camps. He emerged from the experience with tremendous insight into the human condition, and indeed, into the very heart of what makes us grateful, successful and happy creatures. The main premise of “Man’s Search for Meaning” is that happiness and gratitude come from working toward something greater than oneself. “Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

Thanksgiving time is also usually still lovely in Mid-Missouri. The trees still hold some color, the weather can be warm, and Thanksgiving Day hikes are a favorite in our family. For a celebration of trees and nature, one might pick up a copy of Jane Goodall’s recent “Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From Plants.” In this book, Goodall discusses a variety of issues surrounding ecology, plants and agriculture. She asks us to strive for a transformational appreciation of the natural world as a source of societal renewal.

Finally, philosophy aside, Thanksgiving is perhaps most importantly a celebration of all that is important about food: it’s sustaining properties, cultural significance and seasonal variety (the pilgrims probably would not have survived without some of the common foods celebrated during the holiday, such as corn introduced to them by local Indians). A recent anthology of poems about food was published in 2013: “The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink” edited by Kevin Young. “Food transports us to another place” writes Young. Even if it’s just to the couch after Thanksgiving turkey.

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Recommending YAFA (Young Adult Books for Adults)

November 10, 2014

Photo of a readerThere’s been a lot of controversy lately about adults reading young adult fiction (YA). Many argue that adults should be ashamed for reading books written for children, while others say it shouldn’t matter. If you enjoy reading YA, that’s all that’s important. I have to agree with the latter argument. Telling adults they should be ashamed to read YA is absurd, but then again, telling anyone they should be ashamed to read ANYTHING is absurd!

Sure, YA books are novels aimed at readers aged 12 to 19, but YA is more than that. Many books for teens are written in a style meant to keep these readers engaged, and thus much of YA is full of more direct language, faster pacing, action scenes and emotional turmoil. These features appeal to many people (not just teens!!) because of the other media they love with similar plots or pacing – movies, TV shows, Twitter and Instagram.

Enjoying this style of book isn’t just something teens can do. Everyone can.

Now, that being said, I don’t think the classics are dead, or adults should read only YA. That’s also crazy talk. Everything has its place and time. Everything is important to someone. But should an adult feel ashamed for not wanting to be bogged down with what they might see as superfluous language or ambiguous endings? Hardly. Everyone has their preferences.

If you have read YA fiction and thought it was immature, then maybe you haven’t read enough YA. Just like in any genre or category of books, there is the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. You can’t judge an entire type of book based on one work, or even two.

My series of YAFA posts will suggest YA books that will, I hope, appeal more to adult readers. And they won’t be books already enjoying big buzz like “The Hunger Games” or “The Fault in Our Stars.” Here is my first recommendation.

Book cover for Grave Mercy by Robin LaFeversGrave Mercy” by Robin LaFevers

“Grave Mercy” is a historical fantasy. It follows Ismae, a daughter of Death, as she trains to become an assassin. When the Duchess is killed, Ismae must pretend to be Gavriel Duval’s mistress and hope to find the truth behind what happened. Used to always having Death on her side, Ismae must question everything she’s learned and save the soon-to-be Duchess Anne’s life.

Full of political intrigue, historical references and a mature love interest, “Grave Mercy” has more adult elements than teen ones. Ismae sounds like a narrator above her years, and LaFevers’ language is beautifully balanced, descriptive yet direct. Longer than the average YA, “Grave Mercy” is the first in a trilogy. Each book follows a different daughter of Death. “Dark Triumph” is book two (also amazing!), and book three is yet to be released, titled “Mortal Heart.” (I have it on hold!)

No matter what anyone says, if you enjoy reading something, no matter what it is, be happy and READ!

photo credit: Cayusa via photopin cc

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From Humble Beginnings to the Nobel Prize: Marie Curie

November 7, 2014

Photo used under a Creative Commons license, photo by Tekniska museet via FlickrOn November 7, 1867, two teachers in Poland welcomed a daughter into the world. They were poor but managed to nurture within her a love of learning. In a day and age where most women did not consider higher education, the girl found herself fascinated by math and science. It was this fascination that lead the girl – Maria Salomea Sklodowska, better known as Marie Curie – on a journey to the University of Paris in 1891. This journey changed not only her life but also directly influenced the future of science and medicine.

In Paris, Marie met Pierre Curie, a physics and chemistry instructor. Pierre was the love of her life, as well as  her scientific partner in Nobel Prize-winning research on radioactivity. Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and she was the first person (and only woman so far) to be awarded a second Nobel Prize, which she won in 1911 for the discovery of radium and polonium. Marie’s life was marked by these great successes but also by great tragedy. Both her mother and husband died far too early in their lives. Despite these losses, she persevered. Marie Curie was an unassuming woman who saw herself as simply a wife, mother and scientist. She probably never imagined her role as such an important pioneer for women and science. If you’re interested in learning more about her, the library owns several fascinating books that explore Marie’s life, family and legacy.

  • Madame Curie: A Biography” by Eve Curie. Marie Curie’s daughter, Eve, recounts Marie’s scientific successes, examining how her mother’s Polish childhood ultimately shaped her into a superstar of the scientific world.

  • Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie” by Barbara Goldsmith. Pulling from diaries, letters and family interviews, author Barbara Goldsmith explores Curie’s challenge of living the conflicting roles of wife, mother and scientist.
  • Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs” by Andrew Robinson. Author Andrew Robinson explores 10 creative geniuses, including Marie Curie, looking for what they have in common that may have directed the paths their lives took and shaped the breakthroughs they made in their work.

photo credit: Tekniska museet via photopin cc

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November is National Adoption Month

November 5, 2014

Book cover for November is National Adoption month. More than 100,000 children and youth in the U.S. foster care system are awaiting permanent families. National Adoption Month is a time to raise awareness about the adoption of children and youth from foster care, and we wanted to share with you some informational resources about adoption, books available from your library and a publication put out by the Missouri Attorney General called “Welcome Home,” a step-by-step guide to the adoptive process.

A newly updated resource on adoption topics is located on our library’s website. In this adoption subject guide, you will learn current information about the adoption process, including local adoption resources, national and international services, post adoption support and, of course, financial and legal resources.

Adoption Display at the Columbia Public LibrarySeveral books written on the adoption process are available for check-out from DBRL. Here is just a sampling (and some of these books are on display at the Columbia Public Library).

“Welcome Home,” the adoption process publication put out by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, is available online and at the reference desk at the Columbia Public Library. It provides a nice overview for anyone wanting to learn more about the process in Missouri and covers everything from types of adoptions and frequently asked questions to forms, legal terms and available resources.

Adoption is a very large subject with many sub categories, and each one is worthy of more in-depth exploration. Some related topics of interest might include orphan trains, adoption laws state-by-state and reunions.

Genealogy and adoption is another topic of great interest, and next week we’ll share information here on DBRL Next about the challenges and some resources related to adoption and researching family histories.

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Better Know a Genre: Weird Fiction

November 3, 2014

Stacks of books by Thomas GalvezOur first Better Know a Genre post was in the realm of nonfiction. In this installment, we turn our attention to fiction. Earlier this year, I read “Annihilation,” the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s wonderfully unsettling Southern Reach Trilogy. At just over 200 pages, it was a slight book, but it lingered in my mind for many weeks. I did a little research and discovered that this book was in a genre known as “weird fiction.” I was excited to learn that not only did this genre have a name, but also that it contained some of my favorite authors. I liked weird fiction and hadn’t even known it!

So what is weird fiction? As one would guess from its name, it is unusual. Before we (society) had genres, we just had stories, and some of these stories had ghosts and vampires and swamps and mysterious deaths, but they were still just stories. Later, we (publishers) had to make it easier for readers to distinguish among all the possible books to purchase, and genres became established.

H.P. Lovecraft, a famous and early writer of weird fiction, wrote that these stories have a “certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread.” These are not traditional ghost stories, but they do have a supernatural element. The stories can be horrific, but they are often psychologically terrifying instead of gory or violent. The stories are different from science fiction because they do not contain the world building that is present in much of sci-fi. The setting is often our world (or something very close to it). There might be a tentacle or two.

If you are like me, you probably have read some weird fiction and not even realized it. Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne du Maurier, Franz Kafka, Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury have all contributed unsettling tales to the genre. The aforementioned Jeff VanderMeer is considered one of the foremost writers of the New Weird – a recent resurgence in weird fiction. He and his wife, Ann VanderMeer, are editors of “The New Weird,” an anthology containing some of the most recognized authors of the genre. You could start there, or you could jump in with a single author. Pick up a novel by China Mieville, or take our gentleman’s recommendation and check out Kelly Link’s short story collections. As Jeff and Ann VanderMeer write in the introduction to the anthology, “Because The Weird is as much a sensation as it is a mode of writing, the mostly keenly attuned among us will say ‘I know it when I see it,’ by which they mean ‘I know when I feel it.’”

photo credit: ToGa Wanderings via photopin cc

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Prepare Yourself for NaNoWriMo

October 31, 2014

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing MonthNovember is NaNoWriMo. If you’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, and yes, it’s as daunting and hard as it sounds – 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s an average of 1,600 words a day, including Thanksgiving. Easy? Definitely not.

Lots of writers participate in NaNo, using it as motivation to write that book they’ve been thinking about or to finish their current work in progress. But NaNo isn’t just for writers; it’s for anyone creative who has been procrastinating and needs inspiration (or peer pressure!) to accomplish their creative goals. Maybe that goal is drawing one illustration a day, painting for 10 hours a week or posting two blog posts each weekend.

Use November as the month to set your goals and meet them. (And sometimes even beat them!)

The books I’m suggesting are ones meant to inspire you creatively and to help you through those phases where you think, I simply can’t go on. When you meet your goal at the end of November (because I know you will), you’re going to feel very accomplished.

Book cover for Steal Like an Artist by Austin KleonSteal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative” by Austin Kleon

Austin speaks from his own experiences in “Steal Like an Artist,” breaking the creative process down into 10 major ideas. Full of humor and wit, this compact book will give you suggestions on how to keep going and new ways to develop your creative self. Easy to read and full of cartoons and pictures, “Steal Like an Artist” is a must read for all artists, not just writers.

Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity” by Hugh Macleod

I discovered Hugh Macleod while searching for books on creative thinking. I’d never heard of him before, but this book is amazing. Between the text and Macleod’s quirky business card cartoons, you’ll be amused and intrigued. Hugh focuses on the hard aspects of a creative life that no one wants to hear but everyone needs to understand. After reading “Ignore Everybody,” you’ll understand yourself and your process better. I know I did.

Book cover for 3 a.m. EpiphanyThe 3 A.M. Epiphany” by Brian Kiteley

This book is specific to writing, but I think many of the prompts could easily be altered to fit other arts. “The 3 A.M. Epiphany” is meant to get your creative juices flowing when you’re feeling stumped or unable to move forward. With over a hundred writing prompts, it will be impossible not to find something to write about (or draw about), and after you get going, hopefully it will be easier for you to return to your original work.

Finish This Book” by Keri  Smith

“Finish This Book” is similar to “The 3 A.M. Epiphany,” but instead of writing prompts, this book is full of questions awaiting answers. Smith will ask you to finish drawings, to make observations, to write ideas or go “hunting” with your camera.  No matter which activity from this book you choose, it will get your brain moving. Just promise you won’t write directly in the library’s copy – use a your own journal, please!

And don’t worry that you’ll be on your own; I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo this month, too. My goal is to finish my current work in progress.

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Terrifying “Funny Books” for Halloween

October 29, 2014

Book cover for Just as a vampire needs the blood of the living to sustain it, or a zombie needs brains, comic books might have faded from existence without the chewy, pulpy sustenance of horror stories. This same subject matter was also almost their undoing, but such are the risks when you dabble in the dark arts.

For a look at the early days of horror comics check out “The Horror! The Horror!” This collection contains numerous covers and complete horror comics from the pre-code 1950s, (before such comics were censored). Commentary and informative text provide some context for the stories.

Action! Mystery! Thrills!” is a great look at the weird world of old comic book covers. Most of these depict scenes intended to simultaneously shock and entice you.

The Weird World of Eerie Publications” is another fine collection of old horror comics and a history of the industry. It tells the story of the eccentric, ethically challenged and at times scary owner of Eerie Publications.

Book cover for If you don’t know what a pre-code comic is, you should check out David Haju’s “The Ten-Cent Plague.” This book explores the censorship campaign against comics like those in the collections above. That campaign led to the Comics Code Authority, which many people feel hamstrung creativity in comics for decades. Even after reading some of the horror comics of the time, it’s shocking the lengths people went to stop them. This book is both a fascinating history of a moment in American pop culture and a frightening look at hysteria.

Not all horror stories are held in low esteem. More than a few are now considered classics. If you’d like to look a little more highbrow while scaring yourself with comics, pick up a graphic novel adaptation of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” or the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Richard Sala’s style shows the influence of classic illustrators of the macabre Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. Sala has a knack for drawing grotesque caricatures that are just cartoonish and humorous enough. His stories maintain an eerie mood but still wink at the reader letting them know it’s just a comic book, right? “Delphine” is a retelling of the story of Snow White from Prince Charming’s perspective. This is based on the original fairy tale and not the Disney film, so it’s a darker story told by a master of them.

Book cover for Scott Snyder currently writes Batman, but his strongest work is another series about a bat-human hybrid. “American Vampire” tells the story of a new breed of Vampire (originating in America) that can not only walk in daylight, but also is made stronger by the sun. He’s a particularly viscous vampire too. Not only does he fight with the requisite vampire hunting organization, but he also doesn’t get along well with the old-school vampires either. The series is an ongoing epic that starts in the late 19th century and sets each story arc in a different period of the 20th. It’s a new take on a classic horror trope.

Baltimore” is another fresh take on the vampire story by novelist Christopher Golden and comic book artist and writer Mike Mignola (best known for “Hellboy“). Originally a novel co-written by the two with illustrated pages by Mignola, the character of Lord Henry Baltimore has found continued life in comics. This alternate history tells the story of an ancient race of vampires brought back to life by the blood soaked battlefields of WWI. Lord Henry Baltimore is a soldier who has a confrontation with one of these vampires during the war, which sets his life on a course for revenge.

Dylan Dog” is Italy’s most popular comic book. It describes the adventures of the eponymous “Nightmare Investigator.” Dylan is a former Scotland Yard detective who lives with his sidekick Groucho (who looks exactly like Groucho marks and loves puns). He is also a penniless, poetry quoting hopeless romantic who can only play one song on the clarinet. In this collection of interconnected stories, Dylan deals with zombies, mad scientists and an axe murderer. It’s a quirky combination of surrealism, humor and horror, but the story is executed in a way that is sure to appeal to many.

Have you heard of “The Walking Dead“? I’ll bet you have. It’s a hugely popular television show that got its start as a comic book. If you like the show and haven’t read the comics, you should check them out. If you don’t like the show but like stories of surviving a zombie apocalypse, you should still check out the books.

Afterlife With Archie” is indeed about the famous Archie and his hometown of Riverdale. When Jughead’s dog is hit by a car, he calls on Sabrina to bring the dog back. As is always the case (Will we never learn?!) the dog comes back wrong. Zombie contagion ensues. A lot of people would turn this idea into an easy joke or a way to mock Archie Comics. Instead, the creators take the subject seriously and use the familiarity of the characters as a way to make the story more frightening and emotionally affecting.

Book cover for Perhaps all the monsters, darkness, terror and gloom have got you down at this point? Then let me end with a story of romance. This being a list for Halloween, it’s a romance involving a sea creature. In much the way John Gardner’s novel “Grendel” took the epic poem Beowulf and told the story from the monster’s point of view, “Dear Creature” takes the classic “sea monster terrorizes beach goers” story and tells it from the sea monster’s point of view. The sea monster, Grue, has been finding bottles stuffed with Shakespeare’s writings. This subdues his appetite for beach goers and kindles his romantic interest in the source of the bottles. How could anything go wrong?

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