Armchair Travels: What the Board is Reading

The board members of the Friends of the Seattle Public Library seem to be doing a lot of armchair traveling these days, even if it’s exploring what it means to be an outsider here in America.  Here’s a sample of what they’re reading in case you’re looking for recommendations:

Tall Man : The Death of Doomadgee, by Chloe Hooper.  This true-crime story explores the death of an Australian Aborigine who was arrested for swearing at a white police officer and then died in jail within an hour.  While the book follows the manslaughter trial, Hooper also explores Aboriginal life and the long history of institutional racism in Australia.  Board member Connie found the story tragic, exhausting, and worth reading.  Critics have compared the novel favorably to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.



Nomad’s Hotel : Travels in Time and Space, by Cees Nooteboom; translated from the Dutch by Ann Kelland.  Nooteboom is a Dutch novelist and travel writer, and this series of travel essays covers trips made from the 1970s through 2002.  The Booklist review notes that “descriptive travelogue ranks second to considerations of the destinations as repositories of the past. Whether in Venice, Isfahan, or Timbuktu, Nooteboom sees a place through its physical relics and literary associations. The traveler’s innate foreignness, however well informed before arrival in a new place, burgeons with significance for Nooteboom. A traveler arrives, sees, and departs, not likely to return.”


Gertrude Bell : Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, by Georgina Howell.   Board member Mary enjoyed this biography of Gertrude Bell, an extraordinary woman who took the world by storm in the early 1900s.   The starred review in Booklist by Donna Seaman notes that “Born to British industrial wealth and civic prominence during the Victorian era, [Gertrude Bell] possessed boundless self-confidence, courage, and vitality. The first woman to earn top honors in history at Oxford, Bell was fluent in six languages, and became an intrepid traveler and celebrated mountaineer. Tragically unlucky in love, she romanced the world instead. Discovering her spiritual home in the Middle East, Bell transformed herself into a cartographer, archaeologist, writer, and photographer as she undertook perilous journeys to fabled desert outposts, commanding the respect of powerful Bedouin sheikhs. During World War I, Bell became the expert on Mesopotamia for British military intelligence, and a more crucial force in the forming of modern Iraq than that of her friend, T. E. Lawrence. From Cairo to Basra to Baghdad, Bell, against fierce adversity, devoted herself to justice.”

Digging to America, by Anne Tyler (e-book read by Blair Brown).  This novel follows two families who meet by chance at the airport to greet their newly adopted baby girls from Korea.  One family is very “American,” while the other family has more recent immigrant roots.  As the two families get to know each other, the Iranian-born narrator grandmother explores impressions of American, and what it means to try to fit in . . . . or not.  Board member Joan especially enjoyed listening to Blair Brown’s reading of the book, so the link above is to the Books on Tape version, which can be downloaded electronically.  It is of course also available in hardback and in large print.





Need Help Keeping Track of What’s on Your “To Read” List?

At the Columbia City Book Fest last October we met a woman who keeps a small book (like an address book) with a list of all the books on her “to read” list.  That way, she has her list ready when she wanders into a library branch or a book sale. 

I clip out book reviews and scribble down recommendations from friends, and then log onto the Seattle Public Library website to put those books on reserve.  Or if I’m in a rush I’ll email myself a reminder or create a note on my Blackberry.

Did you know that if you log into your account on the Library website you can create your own list of books you want to read or have read?  Click here if you want instructions on setting up and managing your list. 

And if you’re looking for suggestions on what to read, consider these book recommendations from members of the Friends’ Board.  You can click on the links below to get to the SPL site to reserve copies.

Spooner, by Pete Dexter.  Daniel Kraus’ review on Booklist Online  notes that “Dexter’s sprawling account of the life of Warren Spooner may be classified as fiction, but it incorporates plenty from the author’s own history. True, false, it doesn’t much matter—this gregarious curriculum vitae is just the ticket for those who like their comic realism served up with a side of Garpian absurdity. . . .  The emotional core, however, is Spooner’s relationship with his cautious yet luckless stepfather, Calmer. A once-promising ship commander whose botching of a sea burial began his slide toward mediocrity, Calmer is the steady path that forever eludes Spooner. But as both men grow older, their emotional fumbling toward each other becomes downright moving. A big, satisfying maybe-memoir.”

Justice:  What’s the Right Thing to Do?, by Michael Sandel.    Professor Michael Sandel teaches a popular course at Harvard about the every day moral decisions we face.  Although our board member hasn’t read Sandel’s book, she enjoyed watching the PBS DVD of some of Sandel’s actual classes at Harvard, in which he uses hypotheticals to help his students and (the viewer!) think critically about issues such as affirmative action, same-sex marriage, surrogate motherhood,  and how to determine how much a life is worth.  Watching students stake out and defend their positions and the logical consequences of those positions, is touching, maddening, and ultimately inspiring.

Read My Pins : Stories From a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, by Madeleine Albright, with Elaine Shocas, Vivienne Becker, and Bill Woodward.  Our board member enjoyed this memoir by Madeleine Albright, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who used her jewelry to make both personal and political statements.  “Before long, and without intending it, I found that jewelry had become part of my personal diplomatic arsenal. Former president George H. W. Bush had been known for saying “Read my lips.” I began urging colleagues and reporters to “Read my pins.” ” The book includes over 200 photos of pins from Albright’s collection, as well as many of the political figures and celebrities she met while wearing them.

Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities, by Amy Stewart.     “They may look sweet and innocent, but anyone who has ever broken out in a rash after picking a hyacinth blossom or burst into violent sneezing after sniffing a chrysanthemum knows that often the most beautiful flowers can pack the nastiest punch. . . . . There are plants that can kill with a drop of nectar, paralyze with the brush of a petal. From bucolic woodland streams choked by invasive purple loosestrife to languid southern fields overrun by kudzu, some plants are just more trouble than they’re worth. Culling legend and citing science, Stewart’s fact-filled, A–Z compendium of nature’s worst offenders offers practical and tantalizing composite views of toxic, irritating, prickly, and all-around ill-mannered plants.”  —From Carol Haggas’ review on Booklist Online.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See.  Here’s Kristin Huntley’s assessment from her Booklist Online review:  “Mystery writer See, author of The Interior (1999) and Dragon Bones (2003), takes readers to nineteenth-century China to explore a complex friendship between two women. Lily is the daughter of a farmer in Puwei Village, and Snow Flower is the daughter of a respectable family from Tongkou, and though the two girls have very different backgrounds, Madame Wang pairs the two as laotong, or “old sames,” a bond that will last them a lifetime. . . .  . Their friendship is cemented during their youth and then put to the test when the girls prepare for marriage and Lily discovers a startling secret about Snow Flower’s family. . . .  See’s writing is intricate and graceful, and her attention to detail never wavers, making for a lush, involving reading experience. This beautiful tale should have wide appeal.” 

Reviews from Booklist Online are excerpted with permission.

Liberate Your Books!

Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses of books yearning to breathe free in the hands of a new reader! That’s right, folks, although the Fall Book Sale isn’t until September 25 – 27, the Friends accept book donations year-round (except for the 2-week period before and after each sale). We’re looking for the following:



 -Hardback and paperback books
-Audio books
-CDs and DVDs
-Computer software
-Sheet music
-Art prints and posters (framed or unframed)

Click here for more information about donating these materials.  You can get a charitable donation AND feel good about supporting the Library.

And if you are looking for something fun to read, consider the book recommendations below from the Friends’ Board meeting in July. You can click on the links below to get to the SPL site to reserve a copy of these books.

What Was Lost: A Novel, by Catherine O’Flynn. O’Flynn’s first novel opens with 10-year old Kate Meaney, who acts as a detective of possible criminal activities in her neighborhood. “Crime was out there. Undetected, unseen. She hoped she wouldn’t be too late.” Twenty years later, the novel traces the repercussions of Kate’s haunting disappearance on her friends and acquaintances. Received a starred review by Publisher’s Weekly.

Inside Inside, by James Lipton. James Lipton is the host of the TV-show Inside the Actor’s Studio, where he conducts in-depth (and often parodied) interviews with famous actors and directors. This autobiography includes excerpts from interviews with luminaries such as Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Steven Spielberg, but also traces Lipton’s career and insights.

Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way, by Ruth Reichl. “Irreverently immortalized as the klutzy cook who renounced edibility in favor of creativity, Reichl’s mother, and her quirky kitchen habits, provided frivolous fodder for Reichl’s previous culinary memoirs. But in this keenly felt retrospective, Reichl reveals another side of her mother, whose life seemed a shining example of what not to do.  .  .  .   Only upon discovering a hidden trove of diaries and letters after Miriam’s death was Reichl able to understand the full extent of her mother’s sacrifices. Candid and insightful, Reichl’s intensely personal and fiercely loving tribute acknowledges her mother as both the source and inspiration behind her success.” — Carol Haggas

Quoted book review excerpts are reprinted with permission from Booklist.

Public Library Renaissance

Have you been checking out more books lately? Seattle Public Library’s circulation has been on a steady increase since 2004. In fact, since 2007, circulation and library visits increased rapidly.  This isn’t just a local experience. Libraries all over the country are experiencing spikes in use and borrowing. The Freakonomics blog (from the authors of the 2005 book by the same name)  sees a connection between double digit increases in library use nationwide and declining sales of books, CD’s and DVD’s.

Seattle Public Library is a great way to save money in your budget.  According to blogger responses to the Freakonomics post, checking out library books is also a good solution for clutter, a motivation for actually reading a book, and, a passageway to a world of related ideas.

What the board was reading in August

Flower Hunters by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin  Checked in at SPL


This book chronicles the adventures of 11 intrepid explorers who searched the world for extraordinary plants.  Details of their trips and the impact their findings had on science and our yards are told in a way that very much impressed one board member.


King Jesus by Robert Graves


Robert Graves uses his superb narrative powers, his painstaking scholarship, his wit and unsurpassed ability to recreate the past, to produce a magnificent portrayal of the life of Christ on earth. Long out of print, SPL does not have a copy.  (Description adapted from the publisherʼs note on Powellʼs Books which also says that it is a controversial book.)


The Mitford Years (Series) by Jan Karon  All but The Wedding Story are checked in at SPL


This is a series of novels about folks including Father Tim in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina.  It is so popular that there is a cookbook with recipes from this mythical town.  The first novel is At Home in Mitford others include A Light in the Window, A New Song, The Wedding Story, and Shepherds Abiding.  (Note that the SPL list of suggested books includes The Mitford Sisters written by Nancy Mitford.  These sisters are not like the residents of Mitford, N. C. but The Mitford Sisters is a good book.)


The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson Checked in at SPL


This is a lively social history of London and environs in the very hot summer of King George Vʼs coronation and labor strikes. Ms. Nicolson makes good use of papers and diaries of notable individuals including Queen Mary and Winston Churchill and also gives details of the life of the poor such as detailing the cost of a childʼs funeral.


The Redheaded Princess by Ann Rinaldi  Checked in at SPL


The author has written a number of other historical fiction novels for children, young adults and adults. This one tells the story of Queen Elizabeth starting when she was only 9 and a long way from next in line for the throne.  The story primarily concentrates on her time in exile. 


The Twilight Saga (series) by Stephenie Meyer


This series consists of four novels Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn.  A teenage girl moves to Forks, WA and falls in love with a vampire.  The fourth book completes the story.  The series is extremely popular with all 4 books having many holds at SPL.


Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin  Checked in at SPL


The author is known for her excellent American histories.  In this memoir, her focus is on childhood summers spent following the Boston Red Sox on the radio.  She tells how her love of the team facilitated a special connection to her father who was also a fan.





What the board was reading in July

Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton c. 2007  checked-in at SPL

This is a wonderful description of an idealistic US librarian who goes to Kenya to start a bookmobile serving semi-nomadic groups.  There are serious issues of tradition vs the modern world and eager outsider bumping up against Kenyan bureaucracy.  Lots for a book group to discuss.

The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America by David Domke and Kevin Koe  c 2008  A few holds at SPL

The title give a good idea of the topic but does not convey how readible the book is.  From FDR to Bush II this book chronicles how polititians have used religion to appeal to voters.  This work is especially helpful as we hear from the current crop of candidates.

Quicksilver by Neil Stephenson c 2003  a few holds at SPL

Set in 17th c England, this novel involves three main characters:  a conflicted Puritan, a street urchin who became an adventurer and a spy who was rescued from a Turkish harem.  Sounds like a good one for the plane or the beach.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln  by Doris Kearns Goodwin  c 2003 checked-in at SPL

This very readable history tells how Lincoln brought his opponants together to form the most unusual cabinet in the history of the US.  By involving men who were not his cronies, Lincoln got a team that did much to win the Civil War.

Stay Cool!

Latest Reads From The Friends….

Hello Earthlings,

Rain, rain, rain! Enough already. Below we share our booklist from this week’s Friends meeting –

camel.gif The Camel Bookmobile: A Novel by Masha HamiltonAbout a librarian going to the African bush…raises a lot of philosophical questions, very enjoyable read. Raises the issues of written versus oral traditions and brings to light a very real issue of how to bridge cultural divides.
worst.gif The worst hard time : the untold story of those who survived the great American dust bowl by Timothy Egan.BeautifulTerrible, very educational… a striking account of how the great, grassy plains turned to dust, and how the winds created storms as bad as a biblical plague. But it was all man-made, the plains weren’t conducive to farming. Throw in the economic disaster of the Depression, top it with eight years of drought and you have a decade where you wish you had just not gotten out of bed. Egan’s interviews with survivors produce tales of courage and suffering: Hazel Lucas, for instance, dared to give birth in the midst of the blight only to see her baby die of “dust pneumonia” when her lungs clogged with the airborne dirt. With characters who seem to have sprung from a novel by Sinclair Lewis or Steinbeck, and Egan’s powerful writing, this account will long remain in readers’ minds.
omni.gif The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals by Michael PollanReally fascinating. I just finished the fast food part. I had no idea how ruled we all are by corn! Pollan coins the phrase and examines what he calls “our national eating disorder” (the Atkins craze, the precipitous rise in obesity) taking us up and down the food chain. “The way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world.” Pollan takes four meals and traces their roots. With the exception of Stephen King, I’ve never been so freaked out about corn before…
index.gif Three cups of tea : one man’s mission to fight terrorism and build nations– one school at a time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver RelinOne kind act leads to another and develops into a school system in the Pakistan region when an American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain. Gravely ill, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.
hardy.gif Thomas Hardy : the guarded life by Ralph PiteLots of history, very enjoyable read. Hardy in society, his troubled marriage. In death, his wife turned into his greatest muse…. “The wounds inflicted by life never quite healed over in Hardy,” writes Tomalin, although she avows she cannot completely fathom the underlying cause of his acute sensitivity to humiliation.

Just click on the links in this post and it will take you to the SPL site to reserve your copies today!