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Review Policy

March 15, 2012

I am particularly interested in books in the following categories:

  • Historical fiction
  • Foodie lit or foodie memoir
  • Historical mystery or forensic-based mystery
  • Extremely well-written YA  genre fiction (no vampire romance or dystopia, please!)

If I request a specific title, I will do my best to review it in a timely manner. I will review books outside of the above criteria at my discretion.

Thank you so much for keeping me Surrounded By Books

– Elizabeth

Book Review: The Language of Baklava

December 7, 2016

TheLanguageofBaklavaDianaAbuJaber.jpgThe Language of Baklava: A Memoir
Diana Abu-Jaber
Penguin Random House
Library Book

Just a few pages in, I could tell I was going to love this book. And I did. Family memories, especially a larger-than-life father, recipes and lovingly described family meals, trying to figure out a sense of identity and belonging, between America and Jordan, and just the stuff of growing up and capturing the interior life. All beautifully rendered in the kind of well-constructed, lovely prose where I kept wanting to read sentences aloud.

I continued to love reading this book, all the way through.

The only flaw was that I wasn’t eating the foods I was reading about. I want Bud, Diana’s father, to cook for me.

The story is organized and interwoven around food, using food as a focal point for emotions, for creating a sense of home and foreignness, anchor for family memory. Bud, Diana Abu-Jaber’s father, is focal as well: the recipes are his and his family’s, and he is always in the kitchen… Reading about all the food made me so hungry. Both to eat the foods themselves (kebabs, grape leaves, meze spreads, hummus and on and on) and to have someone like Bud and his family, plying me with dishes lovingly created. There are recipes for most of the foods, and I’m going to have to work up my courage (and conquer a bit of inherent culinary laziness, I admit) before I tackle these.

Maybe I’ll just take myself out to a restaurant…Or go shopping for bits and pieces to make myself my own meze feast.

I got The Language of Baklava from the library, and I can tell it’s going to be a book I need to own. And to give copies to others, for the lovingly rendered descriptions of food, the warmth that comes through even in the midst of family upheaval, Diana’s interior life. Any number of reasons that I want to put this book in the hands of as many people as possible, because they’re going to love it.

All of which I was already thinking about, when I read this passage right here:


Transcribed below:

“Who am I?” she snaps. “I am America, Israel, England! What am I doing?” She waits another long moment, her eyes shining. “I’m shutting up and listening.” She draws the last word out so it hisses through the air. “I am the presidents, the kings, the prime ministers, the highs and the mighties—L-I-S-T-E-N!” She spells the word in the air. “The woman who made the baklava has something to say to you! Voilà! You see? Now what am I doing?” She picks up an imaginary plate, lifts something from it, and takes an invisible bite. Then she closes her eyes and says, “Mmm… That is such delicious Arabic-Jordanian-Lebanese-Palestinian baklawa. Thank you so much for sharing it with us! Please will you come to our home now and have some of our food?” She puts down the plate and brushes imaginary crumbs from her fingers. “So now what did I just do?
“You ate some baklawa?”
She curls her hand as if making a point so essential, it can be held only in the tips of the fingers. “I looked, I tasted, I spoke kindly and truthfully. I invited. You know what else? I keep doing it. I don’t stop if it doesn’t work on the first or the second or the third try. And like that!” She snaps the apron from the chair into the air, leaving a poof of flour like a wish. “There is your peace.”


Yes! That, right there!

I want as many people as possible to read this scene in particular, to think about it. Especially:

“I looked, I tasted, I spoke kindly and truthfully. I invited. You know what else? I keep doing it. I don’t stop if it doesn’t work on the first or the second or the third try. And like that!” She snaps the apron from the chair into the air, leaving a poof of flour like a wish. “There is your peace.”

Words to live by: Look, taste, speak kindly and truthfully. Keep doing it. There is your peace.

One shared meal at a time.

Book Review: The Sword of Summer

November 30, 2016

Magnus Chase.JPGThe Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase, Book 1)
Rick Riordan
Disney Publishing Worldwide
(library book)

Rick Riordan writes fun books. Magic, mythology and gods, adventure, and a great cast of characters teaming up as found-family. I’ve had fun with all of his series that I’ve read so far. Percy Jackson starting it all with a world where kids are descended from Greek Gods, weaving into Roman gods and mythology, with Jason Grace and friends. Egyptian mythology gets its due in the Kane Chronicles, a series I particularly like for its back-and-forth narration between brother and sister, as well as the interesting magic. I’m (ahem) a few years older than his target middle-grade demographic of readers, but every time I read a Rick Riordan book, I’m happy. I was curious how Riordan would put his stamp on the world of Norse mythology.

The Sword of Summer is great fun. Magnus Chase is living on the streets of Boston, as he starts to tell his story:

Excerpt from the first chapter of The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

Magnus is on his own, and as the action gets started, we start to piece together his story: his mother was killed in his house, and he’s on the run, knowing that nobody would believe what he saw… wolves with glowing eyes. As the story gets going, it emerges that truth is much, much stranger than Magnus suspected. He’s the child of a Norse God, there’s a sword that is his birthright, and a prophecy has Magnus and the sword maybe playing a central role in when Ragnarok is going to happen.

Which means that a lot of people are after him. With various godly and magical allegiances, bargains to strike, and side-quests to insist on. And plans to eat him and his friends, knock them off the World-Tree, and various other deadly goals.

Fortunately, Magnus has the two friends he made on the street, Blitz and Hearth. Who are, this being a Rick Riordan tale, definitely more mythological than they seem. There’s also Sam, the Valkyrie responsible for bringing Magnus to Valhalla. Who may be in disgrace, as Loki’s daughter, and the Valkyrie who brought Magnus to Valhalla. It’s complicated. I like Sam. Sam might be my favorite character in the ensemble. (Though it’s hard to pick.)

It’s a fun adventure that stands on its own as an entry point into Riordan’s demigod tales, with a few links to characters to make fans smile. (And enticing crossover possibilities, hooray!) And a solidly promising start to a new series of Riordan’s excellent blend of riffing on mythology with magic, intrigue and humor. Another aspect I enjoyed was the evolution of teamwork and friendship over the adventure. That, even more than the goofy humor, was what made me smile about this book. Definitely putting it on the comfort-reads list. (And reminding myself to re-read other demigods books when I need a mood boost.)

Book Review: Salsa Nocturna

November 23, 2016

SNcover-front-1000.jpgSalsa Nocturna
Daniel José Older
Crossed Genres Publications
(Library Book)

A half-dead smartass, grumbling about having to chase down ghost pachyderms, fend off possessed dolls,  and deal with the bureaucracy of the afterlife. A 300-year-old story collector, steeped in memory and making her first foray into online dating. An old Cubano keeps watch over lonely children and ghosts, harmonizing with the music that seeps from the spirit world.

Funny and ghoulish and beautiful and loving. This is a celebration of city life, in all its grimy, glorious multicultural and heartfelt messiness… especially New York, as much as it is a collection of ghostly adventures and interconnected characters.The stories with Gordo were my favorites, especially the title story, which deserves five stars of its own. I’ve said this before about reading Older, I love his imaginative approach to magic, the way he grounds it a sense of place and in the thriving blend of history and culture that makes up the city, using that to build a magic and dreamscape that’s something new and surprising in every story. His magical New York is a character in its own right.

But, even more importantly, the characters have heart, and respect for each other, even when swearing and arguing. Sometimes terrified, sometimes angry and jumping to conclusions, sometimes getting in each other’s way and their own, yes. But, ultimately, each person has a core of trying to be human, to do the right, respectful, heartfelt thing. Even in the midst of reading about scary ghost dolls and death and monsters, there’s a feeling of love, and of hope. Reading these stories when I did, I started to feel better, when I really needed that. Especially the stories with Gordo.

Every time I read something by Daniel José Older, I love it as much for the prose and turns of phrase as I do for the story. I kept reading passages out loud or copying them into texts, to send my friends. Even just a quick description, a chance line of banter that made me laugh. But, especially, the turns of phrase that speak to something deeper.

“They simmer in that sweet, in-between rhythm section rattling along all the while.”

Just lovely to read aloud. (It was hard to pick just one to use as an example.)

So yes, this is a good, fast, important read. It works as an introduction to his stories, or a complement to reading Shadowshaper or Half-Resurrection Blues. Which you should also read. Because pretty much everything I’ve said about Salsa Nocturna is true for those books too.



Hodgepodge 11/18/16

November 18, 2016

Been thinking about things like books, self care, and how to get through harrowing times. Thinking, also, about the role of libraries and librarians. Prefacing today’s Hodgepodge with a promise: this blog is and always will be a safe space. I’ll do my best to keep it a positive place, for wordy delights, openness and curiosity, and above all respect and warmth. Even hope.

And book reviews.

Anyway: links.

A Thanksgiving story of serendipity and goodness (via CNN)

Statement on Libraries, Diversity and Inclusion from the American Library Association:

During times like these, our nation’s 120,000 public, academic, school, and special libraries are invaluable allies inspiring understanding and community healing. Libraries provide a safe place for individuals of all ages and backgrounds and for difficult discussions on social issues. Our nation’s libraries serve all community members, including people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and the most vulnerable in our communities, offering services and educational resources that transform communities, open minds, and promote inclusion and diversity.

“A library is a rainbow in the clouds.” Lovely meditation from Maya Angelou (via BrainPickings)

I’m all kinds of delighted by the news that OCLC has won a Knight News Award to Promote Collaboration between public libraries and Wikipedia. I want in on this. I really, really want in on this. #dreamjob

Fanfic Tropes (via Medium)…  Might seem like an odd juxtaposition with library-tastic links. But I think it fits. Fanfic can be goofy and strange… but, when you think of it, the ability to explore characters in different genres and just write for the sheer pleasure of it in a shared space… that can take its own stance for keeping imaginations, creativity, and information free.

Like the author of “How the Baby-Sitter’s Club Reflected Our Dreams of Safety,” I grew up with Ann M. Martin’s books. I’m delighted by this combination of a chance for nostalgia about a favorite series… with really cogent analysis that encourages deeper thinking.

Mathematically, we are 30 years from sunny afternoons in Stoneybrook, exploring hidden passageways and analyzing the handwriting on letters from secret admirers. Emotionally, however, we are eons away. Even if, statistically, there’s never been a safer time to be a child in America, we don’t feel that way. The Baby-Sitters Club isn’t just the fantasy children today will never experience; it’s the fantasy they could have experienced, if the world were just a little bit better, but missed out on.

Thinking about the shifts in attitude that have colored both the fictional landscape of middle grade and young adult literature, and the real-life state of the world, honestly. Hoping there is still refuge and joy in books, and in a community of readers and booklovers. Needed now, more than ever.

Gorgeous book sculptures (via Days Fall Like Leaves.)

Hodgepodge 11/8/16

November 8, 2016

This is my attempt to distract myself on a fraught, stressful day for U.S. politics.

Here’s why elections are held on Tuesdays (via mentalfloss)

And that’s all the politics I’m posting tonight.

For those needing fluff: ZooBorns  (baby zoo beasties)

For those who like their cuteness more surreal: Zoo Portraits

Deep neural network learns to judge books by their covers. What the mistakes say about genres’ overlap is fascinating from a Readers Advisory point of view. (via MIT Technology Review h/t to Russ.)

A library that brings books by sailboat to Indonesian islands. The ingenuity and sheer delight of this made me smile. (via BBC Travel.)

Science experiments with leftover Halloween candy (via NPR). I brought all of mine to the library, so I can’t do these, but they look like fun.

With poetry on my mind, and Veteran’s Day coming up, a Spotlight on War Poets from My Poetic Side, including many who were new to me. (Thanks to Julian for tipping me off to these.)

Gillian Anderson is writing a feminist tome to help mentor teen girls. Now, all I need is a time-traveling alien to go back in time to give this to my X-Files-obsessed 15-year-old self. Yes, I realize time-traveling aliens are from the wrong franchise. Don’t care.

Bookstore owner discovers grumpy reviews inside donated books. 



Customizing NaNoWriMo 2016

November 1, 2016

nano_logo-830912ef5e38104709bcc38f44d20a0dFirst of all, congratulations and good luck to any and all who have chosen to attempt National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year!

Of course, also, a special shout-out to libraries and librarians supporting writers, with cool book displays, meetup activities and the like.

Am I going to write a novel in a month? Nah. No. Definitely not. While I’ve had story ideas kicking around in my head forever, what I lack is structure and drive, especially where plot is concerned, never mind 50K deadline-driven words of it.

What I want to do is poetry. I’ve written poetry off and on my whole life. Scribbles in notebooks, poetry classes, even publications in tiny little literary magazines. Poems collecting (dust) in a folder marked “chapbook?” and filed under “Someday.”

Reading poetry has fallen by the wayside, too. I’ve gotten out of the habit of more than a cursory glance at daily poetry mailing lists.

How to make a challenge that dusts off my poetry brain, while tapping into the zany, pressurized energy of a month-long deadline?

Step 1: See all the exciting, invigorated posts by my fiction-writing friends on blogs and Twitter, diving bravely into the challenge of churning out 50 thousand words.

Step 2: Whine on Twitter to said friends, dithering about whether to do any kind of NaNoWriMo.

Before I got too deep into the whining, thankfully,  Gomez had some excellent ideas:

  • Start with a poetry reading challenge.
  • Read one poem a day/night. (Length doesn’t matter.)
  • Really dig into it and read it, as critically as possible.
  • If possible, discuss the poem with someone else because it’s hard to do critical thinking in a vacuum.
  • Once a week, you have to attempt one new poem. You don’t have to show it to anyone. The poem attempt is allowed to suck as much as it needs to.
  • Try to read one poem a week by a poet you’ve neglected previously.

Hm. Okay. That sounds… like a decent combination of doable yet frantic on deadline.

Ideally, it will help me do the main thing I want… start reading and thinking about poetry, to dust off my poetry writing tendencies.

Not sure if/how much I’ll blog the process, though I may keep a running list of poems.

And I also don’t want to neglect my fiction and nonfiction reading and reviewing, and various other sorts of blogging. Plus, of course, the work of library life, and the upcoming holidays.

To that end, I think I’ll pad this experiment a bit… I’m going to give myself until December 17th.Because, let’s face it, Thanksgiving and the impending end of the library semester will rattle even the most well-intended routine.

What shall I read to start off?


Dispatches from #LibraryLife: Part 4

October 27, 2016

I’ve been a librarian for over a year. (Kind of mindblowing!) I’ve seen new students come in. I’ve seen students hand in projects,  crow about their grades, graduate.  I’ve been getting to meet new students and greet students as they return. Still terrible with names, but I’m very good with faces and remembering the projects they were working on. A saving grace for a gap in memory.

Checked in with a student poring over a test prep book, who was looking more than a little frantic. “I’ll never learn this!” she wailed. ” I can’t believe it took me until I’m 24 to get started with this, I’m so far behind.” I sat with her for a few minutes, trying to help talk her around to the idea that it’s sort of like the SAT, she has plenty of time to study, and she’ll see the pattern eventually. Might also have set her straight on the idea of 24 being too old to start a dream career, as an [ahem] late blooming librarian, myself.

I asked a student browsing in the stacks whether she needed help. She told me she was looking to learn medical vocabulary. No problem: there’s a medical terminology class, there’s medical dictionaries, it’s a familiar request. She asked about ways to learn better pronunciation, as an English language learner. We set up a time to meet to dig into some resources after she was done with finals. (I needed the prep time to pull things together.) It was great fun! I showed her some streaming video the nursing students use to learn about procedures, where she found the Closed Caption option all on her own. She led with a great question: “Why is Google showing up in [my native language?]” So I got a chance to teach her about how Google is a business, not an unbiased search engine, and being signed into Google will shape how the algorithm offers up search results based on past history. Then we explored YouTube and some searches I’d prepared for patient education videos, and science/bio tutorial videos, continuing the conversation about authority on the web, reputable sources, and how sometimes what looks like information is really marketing. Given how many students the college has who are new learners of English, I wonder if the “Google in my native language?” surprise can be used as an object lesson in a class setting. She asked about audio resources as well, which I didn’t have prepped, but I remembered iTunes U, and showed her how to use that on her phone. (Note to self: explore iTunes U properly for lectures that will support what my students are learning.) Also MIT courses online. She asked about TED talks, which she’d watched some of, and I pointed her to my favorite, about Google filters and information silos. We had fun. And she’s gotten a head start with her info lit class as well as her other classes. Every time she sees me, we grin at each other.

A student who’d checked out the reserve Applied Psychology textbook came to show me a picture in her book: “There’s this picture of a guy yawning, and it’s making me yawn!” she laughed. I gave her a piece of scrap paper to cover his yawning face so she could concentrate. (Not sure what it says about me that I thought the picture was of a guy yelling, not yawning.)

A favorite student from last semester is an older student from the Ukraine, who had a rough time with a big term paper last semester. He was getting discouraged by being in his 40’s and being in classes with people half his age. He’s studying massage therapy after a career in dance. I gave him a few pep talks about being an older student (the kind of pep talks I needed during grad school, surrounded by earnest tiny recent college grads). He got an A on the big paper from last semester. Hooray! This semester’s big project is to come up with a massage business plan, starting with a brand name. We talked about brand names, and how they’re selling an identity and an ideal customer image. (Who knew my past experience with business books would come in so handy?) And then I set him to doing some Google searches to find local massage spa businesses… And one of the first links he clicked on was (yikes!) a salacious sort of massage business. Shall we say. Complete with graphics. Lots of graphic graphics. So many graphics.  (I’d have thought the filters on the school computers would’ve caught that and blocked it. I’ve seen all sort of benign sites get blocked on school computers. But no.) Student and I both looked horrified, I blushed, we laughed, and regrouped. Someday, he’ll have a great business, drawing on his professional dance background and the massage practice he’s learning. We’ll see what it gets named. But apparently, certain kinds of brand research need to be done… carefully. With safe-search on.

Two students came by the library to show me their respective wedding pictures. I made high-pitched noises of glee, hopefully not too disruptive to other students. But…. yaaaay! Two different happy couples launching out into the world. And one of them was Medical Terminology Girl. (See above!)

Student said “I want to read about forensics, and the real stuff. I’m sick of the novels. And I want to read some good true crime.” To which the only possible response is a grin and “Cool! Let’s go look in the catalog.” Off we go, and it evolves that the collection has a bunch of videos on things like bugs and fingerprinting and crime. Cool. And a book I also really want to read but can’t find: The Anatomy of Deception. I showed her vaguely where the crime section was, and then went hunting for the novel, which appears to be quite MIA. On the plus side, she found a book to read about forensic psychology. And I pulled a couple of books for her for later, and let her know by email. To which she replied that she is enjoying the book she found and: “Did you know criminals travel far only if the crime will compensate them good enough?” Score one for ladies reading about crime!

I’ve got “What to read in a journal article” down to a 2 minute explanation: “The Abstract and the Discussion for sure. Skim the Literature review, study the Methods (steal them if possible), and you’re pretty set.” It is generally well-received.

Been trying to dabble in English literature  instruction by telling students to think of it as gossip about characters, and to back up their gossip about why the characters do things with notes from the story. Sometimes, I miss English classes. Not enough to read Catcher in the Rye ever again, but I’m having some fun living vicariously and browsing the short stories in the class anthology.

I’ve heard that some of the athletes on campus refer to me as “the cool librarian.” One of the new students who came to see me let this slip. This might be the proudest professional achievement of my career. Might be impossible to live up to, but I’m going to try.

Dispatches from #LibraryLife Part 1

Dispatches from #LibraryLife Part 2

Dispatches from #LibraryLife Finals Edition

Dispatches from #LibraryLife Part 3