The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Character-driven versus plot-driven stories: Readers of literary fiction often claim the former while just about everyone else stakes the latter. (Just look at the bestseller lists.) But they are not mutually exclusive, of course. You can have both. One fairly recent example where varied readers said, “You have to read this,” to other readers would be “Gone Girl,” the plot a bucking bronco of she said/he said. Twin this with its strong character development, and you can count literary fiction readers among the beguiled.

I’ll add to that an example from this very year, fittingly titled “The Plot” by Jean Hanff Korelitz. The novel centers around Jacob Finch Bonner, a literary novelist who peaked early in his career. His first book actually made it into “The New York Times Book Review.” But his second — and then his third — book tanked, leaving this once “young and upcoming” novelist neither young, nor upcoming. He doesn’t even have a literary agent anymore.

Still “theoretically (as opposed to actually) working on’’ a current novel, he agrees to teach (strictly for money, doubtless) a writing workshop at some never-heard-of MFA school (Ripley). Anyone can sign up, and anyone does. Even the most earnest of students run the gamut, as in “the guy who’d wanted to correct Victor Hugo’s ‘mistakes’ in a new version of ‘Les Misérables’ and the woman who’d conjured the indelible non-word ‘honeymelons.’”

Then there is Evan Parker, a student who appears to have never read a story, let alone aspired to write one. He’s a flat-out jerk who clearly doesn’t want Bonner’s advice. He’s there, he finally discloses to Bonner, to make connections that will lead to his finding a literary agent who will then, in turn, help him secure a book deal on the novel he’s writing. Bonner, in disbelief of all this, tries to convey how unlikely this is, especially since he won’t share any of his writing.

Parker’s unfazed, because the plot of his novel is a “sure thing.” He reluctantly acquiesces and allows a few pages to be read. Bonner inwardly concedes that this guy can write. It’s not great, but neither is it hackneyed. Then Parker unpacks the plot, and Bonner is stunned: The plot is amazing.

The workshop ends and Bonner moves on to other side gigs that are becoming less “side” than “main” because he has all but ceased writing. He creates a website “touting his editorial skills,” and it does not go well. “The writing he encountered in this new role of online editor, coach, and consultant (that marvelously malleable word) made the least of his Ripley students seem like Hemingway.”

A few years pass and Bonner wonders what became of Parker and his “sure thing.” After some online investigating, he learns that not only does the novel remain unpublished, but that Parker has died. And this is the moment, the crossroads. This amazing plot is now authorless. You can almost feel the rush of euphoria surge through Bonner as he justifies his decision. How can he deny a plot that needs a writer? Ignoring it is not an option; it would forever gnaw at him, at any true writer. And are not new stories mere retellings anyway? “’Miss Saigon’ from ‘Madame Butterfly.’ ‘The Hours’ from ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’ ‘The Lion King’ from ‘Hamlet,’ for goodness’ sake!” He was given an “urgent, shimmering thing,” so he, the literary writer, must write it.

Once published, Bonner’s book becomes every bit the success he hoped. Straight to the top of the bestseller list. Oprah blesses it. His appearances and readings now fill auditoriums. (He no longer has to suffer through the indignity — as he did during his earlier books — of having only his parents show up at a reading.)

He’s living the successful writerly life he has always wanted. Yet he’s terrified. At any moment someone could stand up during a reading and yell out that he is a fraud. And come it does, the allegation, via an anonymous email: “You are a thief.”

To say any more about what happens next would be criminal. (I will say: It’s engaging.) Stephen King has a blurb on the jacket calling it “Insanely readable.” I’m not quite sure what he means by that, but I’ll agree. And it’s more than the plot. Korelitz made Bonner a curious joy to spend time with. He’s pleasant enough on the outside but sardonic on the inside. To wit: Before his fame — and while teaching — he expresses to a colleague who teaches poetry that he wished he read more poetry. In reality: “He didn’t, actually, but he wished he wished he read more poetry, which ought to count for something.” After he’s famous, and after yet another bloke says to him, “My wife read your book,” Bonner thinks, “Five monosyllabic words, speaking volumes.”

Bonner’s genial affect belies his inner turmoil. But even if there wasn’t something weighing on his conscience during the height of his book’s success, I can’t see that he would be much happier. Not as stressed, sure. But adulation only goes so far. An old cliché fits Bonner perfectly: Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.

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“Antoni: Let’s Do Dinner” by Antoni Porowski; “Everyone’s Table” by Gregory Gourdet

Summer’s intensely hot, humid days are on the way out, much to my relief. I’m an autumn person; I live for cooler temperatures, gentler sunlight, and the changing colors of leaves. Yet I find it bittersweet that the bountiful growing season is winding down. Still, there are goodies to be found at area farmer’s markets, which is convenient because I’m continuing to seek inspiration from the cookbooks that grace the shelves of the Joplin Public Library.

As a fan of the Netflix series “Queer Eye,” I was excited to see that the show’s food and wine expert, Antoni Porowski, has released a new book. “Antoni: let’s do dinner” is the second cookbook by the author. It’s brimming with dishes that come together easily, a handy trait during these busy fall days.

The chapter titles are fun – “Swim Team” is devoted to seafood – and contain recipes that appeal to an array of tastes.

My favorite chapter was “Break an Egg.” I tagged almost everything in it to try at some point. Cheesy Polenta with Eggs, Mushrooms and Thyme would make for a satisfying, fast dinner. The Masala Spinach Omelette intrigued me, with its use of mustard seeds and mango chutney. And who doesn’t love pizza? You might consider the Breakfast-for-dinner Pizza with Eggs, Zucchini and Spicy Salami.

Being a fan of pasta, I also gravitated toward the “Carb Comas” section. There was a Rigatoni alla Vodka dish that uses Greek yogurt instead of heavy cream for a healthier touch. And if you can find decent tomatoes this time of year, I’d give the Penne with Fresh Tomato Sauce, Burrata and Herbs a whirl; personally, I love a raw tomato sauce, and I’m crazy for burrata.

Craving meatier fare? Sink your teeth into the Strip Steak with Harissa Butter & Parsley Salad. Or try this spin on a classic dish, Lamb Lollies with Mint Gremolata. If poultry is more your thing, turn on the oven and throw together the Sheet Pan Chicken with Rosemary & Grapes.

I enjoyed flipping through “Antoni: let’s do dinner.” I appreciate the approachable nature of the recipes, which rely on easily acquired fresh ingredients and pantry staples. And the author pulls in flavors from other countries, from Vietnam to Turkey to Poland, so you have an opportunity to expand your palate.

But if you’re looking for a cookbook with a bit more depth, might I recommend “Everyone’s Table” by Gregory Gourdet?

I realized this was a deeply personal work for “Top Chef” star Gourdet when I read the introduction, entitled “A Recipe for Change.” Across several emotional pages, he shares with readers his Haitian roots, details his battles with addiction and describes his journey to better health through diet and exercise.

This cookbook’s subtitle is “Global Recipes for Modern Health,” which clues you in to the fact that the author has created dishes free of gluten, dairy, soy, legumes and grains. Wait – don’t run away! You’re in for a treat, I promise. Within the pages of “Everyone’s Table” are tempting recipes. Whether you are vegan or follow a paleo diet, there is something here for you.

I consider myself well-versed in meatless, dairy-free cooking, but Gregory Gourdet taught me a few things. As a long-time vegetarian, I miss a classic Caesar salad, so I’m always on the hunt for flavorful, anchovy-free versions. Gourdet features a Power Greens and Herbs with Caesar-Style Pine Nut Dressing. Pine nuts! I never would have considered that! And I love the use of leafy greens such as spinach, collards, chard and kale.

Tomato soup is my jam, one of my favorite comfort foods. I have my old faithful recipe, but I’m forever on the lookout for new versions. “A Recipe for Change” offers up Tomato-Hazelnut Milk Soup with Garam Masala. I’m all about hazelnuts but had not thought of using hazelnut milk. And I love the addition of garam masala, which jazzes up a traditional soup.

Are you a snacker? Put down the Cheez-Its and try the Creamy Cashew Dip with Jalapeno and Seedy Seaweed Crackers. These homemade crackers feature such powerhouse seeds as chia and flax, along with sunflower seeds.

But, wait, I promised there was something for everyone here. Step away from the vegan dishes and get carnivorous, if you like. There are chapters that feature recipes such as Spicy Sauteed Shrimp with Scallions, Cashews and Pineapple; Chicken Roasted over Root Vegetables with Ginger and Rosemary; and Spice-Crusted Pork Chops with Cherries and Oregano.

I can’t say enough good things about “A Recipe for Change.” It’s inclusive, encompassing many types of diets, and contains diverse, healthy recipes that are far from boring. I admire the author’s honesty and willingness to share his personal story. And the photographs are gorgeous – beautifully framed, colorful, and appetizing.

Joplin Public Library has an amazing cookbook collection, with something for everyone. “Atoni: let’s do dinner” and “Everyone’s Table” are but a couple of the newer additions. Come by and explore what we have to offer!

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Random Road by Thomas Kies

Geneva Chase is a really good reporter. She writes well, has great instincts and her resume includes jobs at major newspapers, magazines and even Fox News. But Geneva, the person, is a mess. Her poor choices and drinking has cost her all those resume filling jobs.

In Thomas Kies’ debut novel, Random Road, Geneva finds herself on probation at the only job she could get, crime beat reporter for the Sheffield Post. Sheffield, Connecticut is where she grew up and where hopefully she can start over.

The start over has not gone well. Out with Frank, her married lover, she encounters his wife and in the ensuing drunken brawl Geneva punches an off-duty cop. Hence her probation and mandated AA meetings.

Okay before I go further, you are probably asking yourself why I picked this title. I’m a mystery reader and I like character-driven novels. However, I usually like those characters, if flawed, to at least be striving for something better. But Geneva is likeable and her self-destructive tendencies are revealed over time. Plus I was hooked on the whodunit.

And who can resist a novel with the opening line ‘Last night Hieronymus Bosch met the rich and famous’? The scene this line describes may be the career remake Geneva needs. She has an exclusive on a multiple homicide in the gated community of Connor’s Landing. Six bodies, hacked to death, in the beautiful Queen Anne home of a multi-million dollar estate. The police aren’t giving much away other than the brutality of the crime and that there are at least 2 perpetrators.

She has other stories to follow as well. One is Jimmy Fitzgerald. Jimmy has been in trouble and gotten off lots of times thanks to his rich father. But this time he killed a mother of three in a hit and run. Another is the Home Alone Gang, burglars targeting the very affluent in Fairfield and West Chester counties.

But her story on the murders is picked up nationally and she has drawn the attention of a possible tipster.  A message in her voice mail says “I know who killed those people”. The male caller states he knows who and why but cannot go to the police. Geneva has no way to trace the call and doesn’t know if it’s legitimate or a crackpot. So as she waits for another call, she starts digging for her own clues.

On the personal front, she reconnects with Kevin Bell after seeing him at an AA meeting. Kevin, widowed with a teen daughter, was her best friend in school. Their reunion soon leads to deeper feelings but Frank is proving hard to dump.

There is a lot going on in this novel and Geneva’s personal relationships seem to go at the same speed as her breaking news stories. As tragedy strikes at home, her different news stories coalesce. Geneva’s search for the killers takes her unexpected places and exposes the sometimes lethal results of too much money and privilege.

This story has the potential to restart her career if she can stay sober, keep her job, work out her personal relationships, and not get killed in her search for suspects.

This is an older title and the first in the Geneva Chase Mystery series. The following titles are “Darkness Lane”, “Graveyard Bay”, and “Shadow Hill”.  “Shadow Hill” published this summer to some really good reviews. It is also a recommended title for fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. Other series read-alike are the Jane Ryland mysteries by Hank Phillippi Ryan and the Hollows novels by Lisa Unger.


Mend! : A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto by Kate Sekules

Over the last couple of years there has been a movement back toward mending. Rather than getting rid of old clothes, you can grab a needle and thread and give them a new life with a few simple techniques. And if the techniques are simple, they can be made complicated – that is where visible mending comes in.

Rather than mending to hide holes and tears, visible mending seeks to celebrate them. Using contrasting fabrics for patches and bold thread colors for seams and darns, visible menders draw attention to their work. They also turn their mass-produced wardrobe into a collection of one-of-a-kind pieces.

Have you ever had to throw out your favorite sweater just because it had a small hole? Visible mending may be for you!

At Joplin Public Library, we have a few books about visible mending – in fact, three have been added in the past year – but my favorite is MEND! : A REFASHIONING MANUAL AND MANIFESTO by KATE SEKULES.

Kate Sekules is a writer, clothes historian, mender, and mending educator; and in Mend! she brings all of these skills to the table. Her book delves into the history of mending worldwide, and into the current renaissance it is having today.

The book is organized into seven chapters that tell the story of mending: What, Why, When, Who, Where, How, and Which. “What” provides a brief introduction to the concept of visible mending.

In “Why,” Sekules talks about the cost of manufactured clothing on the planet, from poor working conditions in factories to the piles of clothing that end up in our landfills.

“When” examines the history of visible mending – starting with the Copper Age patchwork fur pants of Otzi the Iceman and ending with the psychedelic color palettes of 1970s hippie couture.

Sekules showcases the other artists currently making waves in the visible mending movement in the fourth chapter, “Who.”

“Where” discusses storage of your mending materials and organization plans for your wardrobe. Just because you haven’t worn an old skirt in the past year doesn’t mean it needs to be thrown out. Maybe you should add some embellishments and give it a whole new style!

Mend! turns its attention to methods in chapter six, “How.” This chapter provides new menders with a vocabulary to get started, as well as illustrated techniques for basic stitches. Sekules also offers advice for dealing with specific fabric, and finding time for mending.

“Which” follows up with project examples. Since every tear is different, Sekules does not give step-by-step instructions for a project. She gives examples of damage and provides readers with a suggestion for a mending technique.

This book is not a craft project book. There are not any patterns to cut out or numbered instructions to follow. It is a book of ideas; a place to find inspiration. Flip through it just out of curiosity, and when you splatter paint on your best jeans, check this book out again to remember how you do a satin stitch, or what kind of patch fabric works best with denim.

Mend! is full of useful graphs and charts, but it also has its fair share of photographs. And don’t forget that Kate Sekules is a clothes historian – she has a picture of King Tut’s 3,350-year-old mended kerchief, and lots of stories to tell about clothing.

My favorite anecdote from this book has to do with what Sekules calls “the opposite of mending.” In the late 1300s, people were shredding their clothes on purpose. Hoods, gowns, and doublets all received intricate, decorative slashes – probably to mimic the way a knight’s clothes would become slashed in battle.

So whether you’re wearing a punk rock shirt with the sleeves torn off, or pre-ripped jeans you bought at the store, you have these fashion rebels from the 1300s to thank.

As the pages of this book will tell you, visible mending is nothing new. It used to be a necessity to look after the few clothes you were able to afford. Although clothing is much easier to come by these days, we can still choose to be more careful with the clothes we have.

With inspiration from Mend!, and a few basic tools, you can revolutionize your wardrobe and make it as individual as you. But be careful, you may find yourself starting to wish that your clothes would fall apart!

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Project Hail Mary by Anthony Weir

“PROJECT HAIL MARY‘s” main character Ryland Grace is on a mission to save Earth; however, when he wakes up aboard a spacecraft in outer space, he has no idea where he is, much less why he is there. He cannot even remember his own name. Quickly, he manages to figure out that he has been sleeping for a long time and is still alive thanks to being cared for by a highly specialized robotics system.

As he begins to explore the ship, he discovers that he was not always alone. His two roommates did not make it through the voyage, they are mere husks in their sleeping chambers. Also, as he explores, parts of his memory slowly return, but only in bits and pieces. He soon realizes he has been left to deal with a monumental task — figuring out how to save Earth from a parasite species that is killing the sun.

As he gets to work on this problem, he continues to regain some of his memory, but more importantly, he realizes that he might not have to solve this problem alone.

Technically, “Project Hail Mary” is science fiction, but it reads more like an adventure story. Fiction lovers will almost certainly enjoy it. The author does a great job telling the story in alternating scenes from the present-day action to flashbacks. Bit by bit, the history of the main character is revealed — just the right amount per page. Readers will not have a full picture of how or why Ryland Grace ended up in space until toward the end of the novel, but they will know just enough to make them want to keep turning the pages.

This is not author ANDY WEIR‘s first time writing a compelling and believable science fiction story. In fact, he’s the bestselling author who rose to fame in 2014 for penning “The Martian,” which was later turned into a blockbuster movie.

I was so impressed with Weir’s “The Martian” that I thought he might have a hard time creating something just as good. After reading it, I am happy to say that my fears were completely unfounded. His latest offering is just as good as the first, maybe even better. Weir is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.

Readers will be left in awe of his grasp of physics, engineering, mechanics and outer space. It is mind blowing how much math and scientific knowledge is packed into this one book. More impressive is his ability to create a story using all these technical elements and still make it interesting for a broad readership.

Weir creates an engaging and compelling plot by including unique and entertaining elements and he has great storytelling timing. He knows how to share a story and build suspense, all while making readers identify and empathize with the characters. Thanks to the excellent character development I periodically find myself thinking about “my friend” Ryland Grace and his quest to save planet Earth. I highly recommend this one.

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Our Team: the Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series that Changed Baseball by Luke Epplin

When thinking of historic moments or teams in Major League Baseball, the 1948 Cleveland Indians did not leap to mind. That changed when I read Luke Epplin’s new book, Our Team: the Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series that Changed Baseball.

A very good friend recommended that I read “Our Team”. He said I would like it and, as is often the case, he was right. It is in turns biography, social history, sports history, and a recap of the crucial games in Cleveland’s 1948 season and World Series win.

Epplin focuses on four people: owner Bill Veeck, fielder Larry Doby, and pitchers Bob Feller and Satchel Paige. He introduces each man while telling us about the time in which they were living. If you didn’t already know, you’ll find out how very different it was to play baseball professionally if you were Black.

Bob Feller was a pitching phenom. His dad recognized and nurtured his talent. From his home field to high school and semi-professional baseball, crowds showed up to watch Feller pitch. He drew the attention of the Cleveland Indians and was signed to a contract in 1935, his junior year in high school.

Originally set to start in the minor leagues he pitched against the Cardinals in an exhibition game and skipped straight to the majors. Feller worked 3 innings and struck out 8 batters – sending him to the minors didn’t make sense.

In contrast Satchel Paige’s path to the Majors was long and arduous. He didn’t have a father to nurture his talent. He worked from a young age and actually learned to pitch at the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Lawbreakers. When he was released at 17 he signed with a Black semi-professional team to study the game and hone his talents.

He soon learned that people would pay to watch him pitch. Like Feller he was a phenomenal pitcher but Paige was also a showman. He was good at gauging the crowd and keeping them entertained. He played in the Negro League during the season and then, as many League players did, went south to keep playing to make a living.

To earn some extra money Major Leaguers also played after the season was over. Barnstorming games often pitted Negro Leaguers against Major Leaguers. In October 1936 Paige and Feller met for the first of many games they would pitch against each other. Neither allowed a run with Feller striking out 8 and Paige 7.

Paige was such a dominant pitcher and had so much success against Major League players that League executives deemed a white player that could hit off Paige ready to play in the Majors. Despite this, he would not get his chance in the Major Leagues until the summer of 1948 when he was 42 years old.

Larry Doby was born in the south but his family moved north to find work. With his father was mostly absent and his mother working as a live-in domestic, he lived with his grandmother in Camden, NJ. He spent his free time playing stickball. Before high school his mother moved him to Paterson, NJ so he could attend an integrated school. A natural gifted athlete he was a 3 sport star and welcome to socialize with all his teammates.

Unlike Paige, Doby never aspired to play in the Major Leagues. He had his pick of sports but wanted to play Negro League baseball. He signed with the Newark Eagles and was an instant success. World War II interrupted his stint with the Eagles but after the war he resigned and continued to improve.

His talent drew the eye of both the Dodgers and the Indians with the Indians buying his contract from the Eagles in the summer of 1947. Unlike what the Dodgers did with Jackie Robinson, Doby did not go into the Minor League system. He went straight to the Majors.

The man who brought Feller, Paige and Doby together for that championship year was Bill Veeck. Bill loved baseball. His father was team president of the Chicago Cubs and Bill worked for the Cubs himself until he had the opportunity to buy the Milwaukee Brewers. In Milwaukee he perfected what he would eventually bring to the Indians. He roamed the crowds during the games talking to people, he gave away prizes, and had firework shows.

He wanted to win almost as badly as he wanted to fill the stands and make sure the fans had a good time. He also wanted to integrate baseball. He did it with personnel and eventually his Indians became the first American League team to sign a Black player.

There is so much more about each of these men that Epplin explores – how World War II affected each man, Feller’s quest to secure his financial future, Paige’s style and remarkable longevity, Veeck’s energy, and Doby’s ability to excel amid the isolation and injustices he endured integrating the game while living in a segregated society.

Then of course there is the season. The ups and downs in the race for the pennant against the Yankees and the Red Sox. The season came down to a one game playoff against the Sox to determine who would face the Boston Braves in the series. Even though we know the result, Epplin keeps you turning the pages to see what happens next.

Epplin did his research and brought to life these four remarkable men and the time in which they lived. It is both an entertaining and sobering book you don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy.

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Almost American Girl, written and illustrated by Robin Ha

Area schools have been in session for a week or so now, and the air around the Library’s Teen Department has been filled with equal parts excitement and trepidation all month.  There have been a lot of butterflies, whether it’s the start of band camp or sports practice or middle school or senior year.

Middle school is usually a fraught topic every August–people going there for the first time, people hoping to start over in a new grade, people leaving it to navigate the uncharted waters of high school.  There’s a lot at stake in middle school even in the best of circumstances.

Now imagine the shock of going back to middle school then heading out on a family vacation at semester break only to discover that the “vacation” means starting over at a new school in a new country where you don’t speak the language or understand the culture and the only people you know are the surprise step-relatives you’ve just been introduced to.  Plus, you weren’t able to say goodbye to your friends and they (along with all of your clothes and possessions) are half a world away.

That’s exactly what happened to Robin Ha, author and illustrator of Almost American Girl.

Ha is now a cartoonist based in Washington, D.C.  When she was in eighth grade, her mother took her on a short trip to Alabama which turned out to be a permanent move to a house full of strangers.  Ha’s mother married a divorced father of two saddled with a failing fish market, living with his brother’s family (including their traditional Korean mother).  It was a far cry from the life Robin and her mom had carved out for themselves in Seoul, South Korea–except for many of the conventions and attitudes embraced by their new family.

The book follows Robin’s experiences navigating the challenges of middle school, of learning a new language on the fly, and of unexpected, seemingly arbitrary relationships.  Robin’s eighth grade year unfolds chronologically with interspersed flashbacks to her life growing up in South Korea.  Narrative tension isn’t compromised because the memories are connected to experiences after the move.  Prompted by Robin’s meltdown after chafing under the in-laws’ treatment, the chapter “The Leap of Faith” unfolds the difficulties Robin and her single mother endured trying to thrive in a rigid society; the chapter ends with her mother convinced that “Whatever America is like, it will be better…” even if that translates to racism, poverty, and exclusion.

Almost American Girl follows its author’s inner and outer journeys.  It’s a beautifully drawn coming of age story that’s honest and real.  It embraces the pain and delight of adolescence, bringing readers along on the emotional roller coaster ride without being heavy-handed–a meaningful, immersive experience told in a muted palette of blues and tans and purples and reds that grows brighter and deeper as Robin’s wisdom and inner strength grow.

The book is also a love letter to comics fans, celebrating teens who draw and doodle and color and who recognize the transformative power of art.  It’s for everyone who survived adolescence (in whole or in part) thanks to comic books, manga, art supplies, and pads of paper.  Find your niche, and chances are good that you’ll find friends; with any luck, you’ll find some very good ones.

Read Almost American Girl even if you aren’t an adolescent.  (Especially if you aren’t!)  Give it to a teen who’s interested in contemporary, coming of age stories or manga and anime or Korean culture beyond K-pop or who could use a gentle affirmation.  Read it because it’s lovely and because (spoiler alert) stories can have happy endings.

You can find this title in the graphic novel section of the Teen Department or as an ebook through the Library’s OverDrive service.

Houseplants for All: How to Fill Any Home with Happy Plants by Danae Horst

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve impulsively purchased houseplants only to get them home and realize that perhaps I’m not able to provide an environment in which they’ll thrive. Yet I try. As of this writing, I have about 30, most of which do well enough alongside a few that sort of languish. A languishing plant is a sad sight to behold, so I sought a solution and found it in Danae Horst’s Houseplants for All: How to Fill Any Home with Happy Plants.

In her introduction, Horst admits, “Unfortunately, enjoying plants and keeping them happy do not always have a direct correlation” and she discusses her experience with collecting houseplants, unknowingly making mistakes, and watching them struggle or die. Like many of us who’ve watched our houseplants die slow deaths, Horst began questioning her plant-parenting abilities. After making a move with a handful of houseplants that she managed to keep alive, she continued caring for them and learning more about them, eventually having the “Aha” moment that she needed: “When I began to choose plants based on what they needed rather than just how I wanted my home to look, I found my plants seemed happier and healthier.” Aha, indeed!

In Houseplants for All, Horst debunks what she calls the “back thumb myth” and shares with us the essentials we must understand to be able to choose plants based on their needs rather than just our preferences. Also, she teaches us how to assess our space and what we’re able to provide, as well as advice for creating environments in which plants will thrive. Plus, she includes design tips and plant profiles throughout the book, which are accompanied by bright, beautiful photographs. Although a lot of information is packed into fewer than 200 pages, its arranged and presented in an approachable manner.

In section one, “the right plants for you,” we learn about the misconceptions and truths of light and humidity and how they impact the health and happiness of plants. Particularly helpful is the explanation of how light comes in through our windows and the definitions of the different types of light we’ll find within our homes. Also, Horst further defines the light terms we encounter on plant care cards. For example, “partial shade or mixed shade” for outdoor plants is equivalent to “a mix of direct sun and bright indirect light” in houseplants. Suggestions for how to measure light within your home, whether by observation, with a light meter, or an app on your phone, are included. Section one concludes with humidity and light strength “quizzes” that are less like quizzes and more like questionnaires with flow charts to help us measure and determine how much of each we do (or do not) have in our homes so we may plant accordingly.

Section two, “environment profiles,” is my favorite section of the book, as it breaks them down into five easily understood profiles: bright and sunny space, lower light space, humid space, indoor-outdoor space, and shifting light. Each profile begins with the pros and cons of having that type of space. For example, a pro of a bright space is that you’ll have more plant options, but you’ll need to water more often because they’ll dry out quicker. Each environment profile goes on to include the different types of light you might encounter within that profile, as well as specific suggestions for which plants will do well in that type of space. Detailed plant profiles, care, placement, and styling tips are also a part of each environment profile, as well as other tidbits.

Section three, the final section of the book, is applicable to caring for plants in all environment types, as it covers the “plant care essentials,” from the basics of choosing healthy plants at the store to various methods of watering and propagating them. “Plant Problems” and “Pets and Plants” are great subsections within this section.

Horst concludes her title with a list of further resources and a reminder that “plant care is a journey” and that we’ll no doubt make, as well as learn from, the mistakes we make along the way. In the 20 years that I’ve kept houseplants, I’ve made mistakes aplenty and learned a lot. I wish that I would’ve had a book like this back when I started my journey, but I’m glad to have it now. I recommend it to houseplant aficionados and beginners alike.

As always, happy reading.

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Beginning Reader Titles in the Children’s Department.

Summer Reading 2021 has come to a close at the Joplin Public Library. With over 1,300 participants, it is safe to say that it was a successful summer. Of course, the end of summer means a new school year, and we are all full of anxious excitement about what the new season will bring. In my own household, we are eagerly anticipating kindergarten. Starting kindergarten means a lot of changes, both big and small: meeting new friends and a new teacher, learning a new routine, losing a tooth, learning to tie your shoes and learning to read.

In the children’s department, we frequently work with parents and caregivers to identify the best books for these burgeoning readers. With the variety of reading levels and options, it can be difficult to know where to start. I have identified a few series for a variety of readers, both in regards to interest and reading levels. Most of the titles are focused on sight words, letter blends and word sounds, as well as entertaining stories, engaging illustrations and diverse perspectives.

My favorite beginning reader books are part of the BRIGHT OWL BOOKS imprint by MOLLY COXE. Each book focuses on a different vowel sound or blend. My favorite part of these books, however, is the visual aspect. Each book features hand-felted creatures photographed in realistic nature scenes. “Greedy Beetle” includes a family of felted beetles, replete with tiny scarves and handkerchiefs, eating a meal in the forest. They may be the cutest beetles I have ever seen. In addition, the story has a plot and a conflict, all within the confines of the “long E” sound and no more than three- or four-word sentences.

Books for beginning readers can sometimes heavily favor individual words over engaging illustrations or plot, but Coxe’s books are a delightful exception. Other titles in this series include “Go Home,” “Goat,” “Blues for Unicorn” and “Cubs in a Tub.”

Find these titles in our catalog. 

Another series I enjoy is Holiday House Publishing’s I LIKE TO READ imprint. Each book in the series is illustrated by a bevy of excellent and well-known artists. The back cover of each book also includes a letter indicating reading level, and explanations for their leveling system are included on the back cover. I recognize that reading levels should not be the sole determinant for any child, but they can be a helpful guide for parents of beginning readers who may be intimidated by too many words on a page. (It is also important to note that actual reading levels can vary widely from book to book. While one “Level 1” may be appropriate for a child just learning to sound out words, a “Level 1” from another company may be more appropriate for an already independent reader comfortable with more complex sentences.)

The “I Like to Read” books range from two word sentences to 3-4 sentences per page, which makes them a helpful tool to utilize regardless of your new reader’s skill level. Award-winning illustrator Joe Cepeda wrote and illustrated several books for the earliest readers; these include titles, such as “I See” and “Up,” that feature simple sentences and nature themes. Paul Meisel, another award-winning artist, has written several dog-themed books that subvert the repetitive Dick and Jane titles with fun art and even funnier stories. Though most of the sentences rely on Dick and Jane-esque refrains (“See me run,” etc.) they all end with the dogs in silly situations that will guarantee a belly laugh from your child.

Find these titles in our catalog. 

Finally, I highly recommend the DIVE INTO READING imprint by publishing company Lee and Low. Started in 2015, Lee and Low primarily focuses on sharing books by and about people of color. The beginning reader series focuses on a diverse group of students (the “Confetti Kids”) engaging in a range of activities, from playing music to gardening to participating in a parade. The story includes a beginning, middle and end with active participation from the characters. In other words, we aren’t just getting a bland play-by-play of characters’ actions. Currently, Joplin Public Library only offers three of these titles (“Music Time,” “The Protest” and “Rafi y Rosa”), though we have plans to purchase more.

I appreciate the reading guide explanation on the back cover of these books. Levels range from “early emergent,” “emergent,” “early fluent,” and “fluent,” with a discreet color-coded system.

Find these titles in our catalog. 

All of the aforementioned titles can be found in the Easy Fiction section of the Children’s Department. As always, children’s department staff are more than happy to help identify these or other titles. With any new reader, we will often provide a few options while pointing out the level structure to the caregiver, and encourage them to work together to determine which book is the best fit for the child.

Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Andrea Pitzer

Tales of polar expeditions haunt because we know how they end. In the early 20th century, pack ice crushed Ernest Shackleton’s ship, dashing his race to trek Antarctica. Even this is a relative success as all crew members survived. Not so for John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage. He and his crew were never heard from again. (The British government subsequently investigated their disappearance. Perhaps they should’ve left well enough alone lest unpleasant answers surface, such as those told via eyewitness Inuits: The shipwrecked crew cannibalized each other. News of this scandalized England.)
In “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of World,” Andrea Pitzer takes us back even further, to William Barents’ 1596 quest to find a northeastern route to China. Brisk and informative, it’s also stress-laden from bow to stern. Precariously, we sail up and around Nova Zembla, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean just north of Russia. Storms threaten to snap our mast. Polar bears prowl and then attack. It’s constant tacking to slip evermoving sea ice, some akin to floating mountains. On one occasion, we pass through an ice canyon, which is equal parts mesmeric and terrifying. (“Snow and hail lacquered the ships white, turning them into ghost ships.”) We’re sailing into the unknown. And Barents attempts this journey three times.
A Dutchman, Barents manifested his country’s spirit of the day: capitalize on Far East trade. Spain and Portugal had already made numerous entries into the Southern Hemisphere, so the Dutch looked for a way to expedite trade that avoided the arduous journey around the Cape of Good Hope and awaiting pirates. Of course the Dutch knew that there was a reason no northern route yet existed. But they also were hoping to underscore a long-standing argument that if one could make it past the ice, there’s a chance conditions would moderate. The idea of a temperate North Pole was something that respected cartographers took seriously. As Pitzer notes, Barents and Dutch merchants chose to believe this “lethal delusion.”
Barents didn’t command these voyages; he navigated. While he was in high standing among the crew, his singular goal to complete a voyage often collided with the crew’s singular goal to survive. Most of the book surrounds the third voyage and the sea ice’s eventual victory. Barents and crew must winter on Nova Zembla, and Pitzer’s telling of their ordeal is as harrowing as you can imagine. Without trapping arctic foxes, it’s hard to see how they would have survived. Scurvy had weakened them to the point they could barely function, not that they could do much outside anyway. Often, the structure they built was completely buried in snow during the long polar night.
And then, of course, the polar bears. Pitzer writes of their “lethal magnificence,” and that “each bear offered the same fusion of the mundane and the mythic as the Arctic itself.” Even a felled polar bear almost killed the crew. Desperate for sustenance, but loathing polar bear meat, they devoured the bear’s liver. This almost killed them because a polar bear’s liver contains a lethal dose of Vitamin A.
The asides that Pitzer offers throughout the book are welcome relief from reading of the sailors’ miseries. I learned that most European sailors of the time didn’t know how to swim. And even though we are in the nascent stages of the scientific revolution, superstition still often carried the day. Dutch sailors crossing the equator for the first time had to pay a fine in honor of Poseidon, god of the sea. Also, seeing a parhelion (where ice crystals in the atmosphere refract the illusion of two or three suns) was a good omen to sailors. (Of course, superstition and sailing seem forever entwined.)
Pitzer states that, in terms of making preparations, it’s somewhat perplexing that Barents didn’t learn from his two erstwhile attempts. It’s a good point because he was almost snared by ice during those voyages as well. Perhaps it can be attributed to European hubris of the era: The rest of the world is to be conquered, and we are the ones who will do it. On one of the earlier expeditions, the crew, sailing Russia’s northern coast, came across an indigenous man. Instead of inquiring how he and others survived in this unforgiving climate, they asked him if the territory they were on belonged to “the grand duke of Moscow.” The Nenets man had no idea whom they were talking about. No matter. They tried to kidnap him nonetheless. The same applied to animals. See a walrus? Kill it and take only the tusks. Tragi-comically, on their first expedition they thought they could catch and actually hold a live polar bear aboard the ship. They were quickly disabused of that notion.
Escape from what they called Ice Harbor did not happen until June 1597. Barents did not survive the return, dying next to the sea that would bear his name. (Sailors would also call the sea “the devil’s dance floor.”) He and his crew had discovered Spitsbergen, sailing farther north than any known human. But it’s their story of survival that captivated. A handful of years later, Shakespeare made mention of it in “Twelfth Night”: “where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard.”
Barents’ voyages changed how polar regions were seen. They became destinations to be explored, not thoroughfares to other lands. According to Pitzer, Barents “launched another identity for explorers: the beleaguered polar hero.” These new explorers would be less concerned with linking known lands than with exploring the unknown as the end itself. And their hallmarks were suffering and endurance.
Pitzer eventually discusses what most readers will be thinking throughout the book: Barents sailed 400 years too soon. Disappearing sea ice is a fraught subject, and Pitzer’s book shows us what’s being lost. The polar wild now includes emaciated polar bears clinging to melting floes. In writing the book, Pitzer made a trip to behold Ice Harbor. The current that sent driftwood to the shores—thus providing life-saving fuel for Barents and crew to burn—now sends plastic trash. As I said, this book is stressful.

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