index-aspxEver find yourself in a situation where you have to talk to strangers? Not good at small talk? Want to feel more up to snuff watching the pundits on the news? Just like stuffing your head with bits and pieces of information that might be useful or interesting? Have I got a book for you! The Intelligent Conversationalist: 31 Cheat Sheets that will Show You How to Talk to Anyone About Anything, Anytime by Imogen Lloyd Webber has it all covered. Nearly  400 pages chock a block with info from language to math to religion to politics, history and more. Need a gloss on major religions of the world? Got it. Refresher on American history and presidents? Right there. Who were the Axis and Allied powers in World War II? Oh, yeah, them. And what’s up with the Electoral College, anyway?

Each cheat sheet begins with either a few paragraphs or pages on the subject or a handy grid with terms and explications of the terms and ends with how to argue the point covered, a “crisp fact” (a neat bit of trivia on the subject) and a “pivot” (a handy question or statement to move things away from the current discussion). Some cheat sheets have Red Flags to watch out for, like things that are just either way too controversial or way too well known. Nothing like a nice batch of eye rolls from your audience when you spout off with something that “everybody knows.”  There’s a nice little section on British slang (the author’s a Brit, which helps explain Chapter 15, which consists entirely of a huge grid of the kings and queens of England since 1066, covering 27 pages. Here’s an entry on Edward II to show the sort of info (and writing style) you’ll find: “Qualifications—Son of Edward I. He was created the first Prince of Wales in 1301. Quirks—Edward II was deposed by his wife Isabella (Phillip IV of France’s daughter) and her amour Roger Mortimer. Edward II gave up his crown to Edward III. Edward II was later murdered at Berkeley Castle. Notable Feats/Fiascos—Into favorites, most famously Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser. Edward II was inept. Cue the barons getting very irritated. He also was defeated by Scot Robert the Bruce in 1314 at Bannockburn, which did nothing for his popularity.”

For readers more interested in modern history, there’s a cheat sheet on Middle Eastern history, twenty-odd pages of info about the most unsettled part of the globe and how it got that way. The Pivot question on this section, by the way, is “Qatar won the bid to be the first Arab country to host the FIFA World Cup in 2020. Are you a soccer fan?” How’s that for a change of subject?

Feeling a little uninformed about culture? Have a gander at cheat sheets 27 (authors you need to know about), 28 (artists), and 29 (composers) while Chapter 30 gets you a smattering of theater information.

The writing is all most definitely in the snarky British humor vein, and the politics are noticeably left-leaning. If you like that, it’s a big winner. If not, maybe you can overlook that and just enjoy buffing up for your next trivia contest or become a couch champion watching Jeopardy.

Maybe idarkt’s all the “Quantum Leap” I’ve been watching on Netflix. Maybe I just like weird sci-fi stories. Maybe I’m easily swayed by the dozens of positive reviews I saw on social media. But “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch is probably my favorite read of 2016 so far.

Jason Dessen is married to the love of his life, Daniela, and they have a wonderful teenage son, Charlie. Their home in Chicago is comfortable, though not terribly fancy. Jason teaches undergraduate physics classes at Lakemont College. He’s never won awards, never made any groundbreaking discoveries, but Jason Dessen is, overall, pretty happy.

One night, on the way home from congratulating a friend on winning a Pavia Prize (Crouch’s version of a Nobel Prize), Jason is kidnapped by a masked man who seems familiar somehow. This man knows everything about Jason, down to the passcode on his phone. The man forces Jason to an abandoned building in the middle of nowhere, then injects himself and Jason with a mysterious drug. Confused and afraid, Jason passes out.

When Jason wakes, he is in a world that is not his own. The people around him are strangers, but they seem to know him. They tell Jason he’s been missing for 18 months; much longer than the few hours from the night before. Jason begins to realize the horrifying truth: he’s no longer in the universe he’s always known. He’s jumped – or been forced – into a parallel universe. And the man who pushed him there? None other than an alternate version of himself.

This Jason (whom I’ll call Jason2) is an award-winning scientist. He’s won the Pavia, done the rounds as a guest lecturer at places like Harvard and Princeton, and works at Velocity Laboratories, a jet propulsion laboratory. He never married Daniela, never fathered Charlie, never spent time teaching community college. But like so many, Jason2 is plagued by the question of “what if?”

So Jason2 builds a machine, a cube that can manipulate quantum mechanics and allow him to travel to parallel dimensions. Which leads him to Jason’s world, where all those “what ifs” have been answered. And having shoved Jason into his own world, Jason2 takes over Jason’s life.

Jason could stay and take over Jason2’s life, become the scientist he chose not to be. But more than anything, he wants to be at home with his wife and son and the life they’ve made together. With help from a Velocity Laboratories scientist, Jason escapes into the quantum cube and hopes he’ll be able to leap back home.

To avoid giving away too much, I’ll just say this: quantum world-hopping is messy business. More than two roads diverged in this metaphorical wood and the results are both heartbreaking and frightening. Since I’m not an expert in quantum physics, I can’t speak to how accurate the science is in “Dark Matter,” but I’m willing to play along and agree to the rules Crouch lays out. And it’s certainly a good read. “Dark Matter” is a fun way to explore what you – or some version of yourself – might do if you got the chance to live through the “what ifs” of life.

It’s been a long time coming. When I arrived at Joplin Public Library to become director in 2010, I had no idea this project was even started, let alone that it needed finished. When a board member asked me the status, I had to research to even figure out what they were asking about.

The project to which I refer is the “Bob Phillips Files” project. In Phillips’ own words, “Back in 1983, I was asked to prepare a feature story for television about a Joplin firm that repaired department store mannequins. I didn’t know it then, but from that beginning I went on to do over 460 TV features, which were called the Phillips Files. Done in the four state area, they aired between 1983 and 1997. Along with some talented photographers, we covered a lot of ground – traveling interstate highways and country lanes – up mountains and down hollers – to document the people places and things that make up this many-faceted area.”

In an October 2003 press conference then-Joplin Public Library Director Carolyn Trout announced the acquisition of Phillips’ archived tape files. Carolyn said, “Bob Phillips had a 3-decade career in television broadcasting in Joplin, and when he retired in 1998, Joplin audiences missed that very distinctive voice. Now, with the donation to the Library by KODE and Nexstar Broadcasting of the taped archive of Bob’s work, that voice will be familiar to generations to come.”

The taped segments were filmed on what was an industry standard for that time – ¾” broadcast tapes. However, as the years progressed, this technology became obsolete, the tapes began to disintegrate and machines able to play the tapes became scarcer.

Joplin Public Library began to digitize these programs to make them available to the public. However, equipment failure of the old machines stymied further progress.

Enter MSSU’s KGCS-TV. Their Director of Creative Services, Bill Hunt, is a former colleague of Phillips. Bill had the skill and the equipment to be able to complete converting the tapes to a digital format. Recognizing the importance of these vignettes in protecting this bit of Joplin history, he completed the conversion process.

Joplin Public Library has just received a complete set of the Phillips files on DVD, which are now available for public check-out. This set of 30 DVDs reflects interesting people, places and industries of the four-state area as reported by Phillips.

While this project was in process, I took the time to watch several episodes and thought, “Wow. I’d like to visit that place!”, “I never knew that!” or “How interesting!” But, many of the people and places he reported on are no longer around, their history and memory preserved in Phillips’ reporting.

There is something of interest to everyone in these DVDs: animals, cars, art, industry, antiques – the list goes on. There are also profiles of area businesses — some who are still in business, but others who have closed.

These are a slice of life in the four-states in the ’80s and ’90s. Check them out and remember some of our not-so-distant history. They’ll bring back people and places you’ve not thought of in years.

It seems like television and film have turned more and more to literature for inspiration. One of last season’s book spin-offs was MTV’s “The Chronicles of Shannara,” which was based off of “The Elfstones of Shannara” by Terry Brooks. After seeing the show and complaining to my family about the multitude of differences from the book, I had to re-read the books to remind myself of how much I always enjoyed them.

I’ve been a fan of Terry Brooks’ fantasy novels since the late 1980s when I discovered them in middle school. (Don’t do the math, let’s just go with me as a child prodigy and being incredibly young for middle school.) The series were eagerly devoured and I’ve read the books a few times over the years. While the show on MTV is very violent and sexual at times, the books were more innocent, appropriate for a wider audience.

The Shannara books are very similar to the “Lord of the Rings” books, with dwarves, elves, magic, and quests filling both. Terry Brooks was heavily influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien and you can see it in the vivid descriptions and struggle of good against evil. There have been a multitude of entries in the Shannara world over the years, with prequels and sequels galore. Suggestions for reading order vary but I have to admit I’m old school and prefer to read the books in the order that the author wrote them. As such, I’ll always start off with “The Sword of Shannara,” which was written in 1977 but still stands as a solid fantasy read.

The last Druid, Allanon, comes to quiet Shady Vale looking for Shea Ohmsford, the last true heir of Shannara. Only Shea can wield the Sword of Shannara against the dark forces threatening their land. Shea must flee the Skull Bearers chasing him, find the sword and face the Warlock Lord to save not only himself but the world. The book is filled with adventure, magic, and creatures that leap off the page. The following books, “The Elfstones of Shannara” and “The Wishsong of Shannara” finish out the trilogy.

But unlike Tolkien, Terry Brooks has continued to write many more books. I’ve already worked my way through the original trilogy and I’m almost done with the next Shannara series in my latest read through. The Heritage of Shannara books are “The Scions of Shannara”, “The Druid of Shannara”, “The Elf Queen of Shannara”, and “The Talismans of Shannara,” all of which take place over a century after the first trilogy.

There are also several prequel series that fill in missing history along with other fantasy books by Terry Brooks. For fans of fantasy and/or “The Lord of the Rings,” the Shannara books are a great read that will keep you entertained for many pages. Hopefully the television show will continue to attract new readers to this outstanding author and his wonderful books.

Unlike my luckier friends and colleagues, I’ve had no opportunity to indulge in travel this summer. Consequently, I’ve been feeling pretty burned out lately, weary of the Missouri heat and humidity, and more than a little envious of people’s vacation photos and stories on Facebook. Then, last week I read my way through a handful of books by illustrator and writer Lucy Knisley and found myself transported.

French Milk

This charming graphic novel, peppered with actual photographs, details Knisley and her mother’s sojourn in Paris. Using their rented apartment as a home base, the duo indulge in leisurely sight-seeing, tasty French food and vintage flea-market shopping. Imagine six weeks of celebrating New Year’s Eve with fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, stopping to enjoy buskers as you stroll the streets of Paris, exploring the exquisite grounds of Versailles or taking in priceless works of art in the city’s many museums.

Food plays a starring role in this French adventure. Mother and daughter linger in cafes for meals of French onion soup, oysters and wine, or throw together simple yet tasty repasts of croissants, cheese and pickles. Knisley becomes obsessed with decadent hot chocolate and can’t seem to stop drinking the rich, creamy French milk – hence the book’s title. When their time in Paris comes to an end, she loads up on good mustard and condensed milk, both sold in tubes, and cans of foie gras to tote home. (As someone who hoards Kinder Bueno candy bars when she travels overseas, I get it.)

But “French Milk” is about much more than getting to know a foreign city. It’s about the relationship between mother and daughter, as well as the uncertainty Knisley faces as she nears the end of her college career and must officially enter adulthood.

An Age of License: A Travelogue

“Some trips are more than distance traveled in miles,” Knisley writes on the first page of “An Age of License.” “Sometimes travel can show us how our life is … or give us a glimpse of how it can be …”

Reeling from a break-up, Knisley fortuitously finds opportunities to travel – a comics convention in Norway; a side trip to Sweden to visit a new lover; a stopover in Berlin to congratulate newlywed friends; and a return to France to see her vacationing mother.

As she hopscotches across Europe, Knisley maintains a leisurely, spontaneous pace, truly exploring her surroundings, from local French wineries to relics from Cold War Berlin. “An Age of License” is a joyful experience as Knisley luxuriates in the freedom that travel, youth and her unattached status bring.

Curious about the title? In France, the author encounters an American who claims that “the French have a saying for the time when people are young and experimenting with their lives and careers. They call it: l’age license. As in: License to experience, mess up, license to fail, license to do … whatever, before you’re settled.”

Displacement: A Travelogue

Although “Displacement” is a travelogue like “An Age of License,” it’s a much more poignant one. The book depicts a trip that Knisley takes with her aging grandparents, when she accompanies them on a Caribbean cruise as their caregiver. The journey becomes an exercise in patience and compassion, as well as in coming to terms with her elders’ mortality.

The cruise is no vacation for Knisley, as she deals with everything from her grandmother’s dementia to her grandfather’s incontinence, and all the resulting complications. She dispenses medications, seeks out lost items, and spends nights laundering her grandfather’s pants. There is little time for shore excursions or walks on the beach.

Interspersed with the daily travel diary are excerpts from a memoir that Knisley’s grandfather, a World War II veteran, wrote about his war-time experiences. Every night she reads further, seeing her now-frail grandfather in a new light. The contrast between his older and younger self is bittersweet.

On a side note, the sometimes unpleasant realities of cruise vacation that Knisley highlights are spot-on: goofy entertainment, rude passengers, the constant cleaning and sanitizing to avoid the spread of norovirus, a gastro-intestinal illness. As a veteran passenger, I can admit that, while fun, cruises do have elements of the absurd.

So if you haven’t been able to travel this summer, don’t despair. Journeys – of a sort – await you at the Joplin Public Library.

el chapoAuthor/Illustrator Cece Bell has penned a delightful semi-autobiographical graphic novel about her experiences growing up with hearing loss.  After losing her hearing as a result of a childhood illness, Cece has to learn to adjust to living in a non-hearing world.

Cece soon learns about having ear molds made and ends up with wires coming out of her ears!  Being able to hear again only mildly makes up for how different she looks compared to other children her age.  She worries about going to school and the reaction of her classmates, not realizing she will have more indignity to come in the form of the enormous, “Phonic Ear,” which must be worn under her clothes.

Having the Phonic Ear does help Cece hear everything in school which in turn helps her concentrate and improves her grades.  Suddenly school is easy for Cece.  She also learns the Phonic Ear is powerful enough to hear the bathroom habits of her teachers!

As Cece progresses through grade school, she learns to be choosy in making friends and also that her hearing loss doesn’t need to dictate her friendships.  She finds a best friend in a neighbor who treats her like she’s “normal,” meaning her friend refrains from stereotypical behaviors including speaking loudly, slowly, or using exaggerated sign language, despite knowing about Cece’s hearing aids.

When a very cute boy named Mike moves in next door, Cece is awe-struck.  Her reaction is very typically portrayed for a young girl her age, helping the reader understand she truly is just another child who happens to have lost her hearing.

One day, Cece decides to trust Mike with the knowledge she can hear their teacher everywhere she is in the building.  Mike is fascinated with the power of the Sonic Ear and decides to put the device to good use.  When the teacher leaves the room, Cece listens for the class while they engage in all the things children do when the teacher is out of the room, without and of the consequences.  Cece is suddenly the class hero.

The author’s notes provide insight into the world of non-hearing individuals and communicate some of the differences among individuals with hearing loss.  This book handles the subject matter in a fresh way, making for an enjoyable reading experience.

I’ve been reading through the series “Home Repair is Homicide” by Sarah Graves. The series is about a former money manager, Jacobia Tiptree, who moves to Eastport Maine to rehabilitate an old house. If you like murder mysteries with good characters I recommend it.

The series has been around awhile which is good in that I can read it at my pace but bad for a review of new library material. So I headed to the library’s new book shelf. As I scanned for an interesting title Louisiana Saves the Library by Emily Beck Cogburn caught my eye.

LouisianaI picked it up because it sounds like it belongs in the children’s department plus it has library in the title. After reading the cover I decided it wasn’t in the wrong place and might be a fun read.

Louisiana Richardson is a divorced mother of preschoolers Max and Zoe. Before the divorce she was a stay at home mom with a PhD who wrote articles on the history of public libraries. With an ex-husband who pays child support on his schedule writing articles wouldn’t pay the rent.

Her job search resulted in an offer from Louisiana A&M to be a professor in their library science department. Finding a friend in fellow professor Sylvia has helped, but a year later the culture and climate shock of the move from Iowa has not completely worn off. And now her job is in jeopardy. The state has cut funding for the university by 20% and the library science program is one that may be eliminated.

When the program is cut Louisiana, who is using the nickname Louise after one too many incredulous reactions to her full name, is in a panic. Sylvia however has come up with a solution to their joblessness. The Alligator Bayou Parish Library is in desperate need of two librarians.

Even though it will be less pay it seems like a godsend but Louise is less than thrilled. She visited this library while doing research for a book on the history of Louisiana public libraries. The collection was old and ugly and the library almost empty at a time when it should have been busy with moms and kids.

She can’t imagine working daily in such a depressing place. But with no unemployment benefits for public employees, the ex-husband who still can’t send child support in a timely manner and academic jobs unavailable for at least 6 months, Alligator Bayou is it.

It doesn’t take long for Louise and Sylvia to settle in and begin making changes. Despite the reluctance of the library director hours are extended into the evening.  Programs for teens are added as well as a book club and cooking classes for adults.  The weekly Zumba class is a big hit and new materials are getting on the shelf faster and checking out.

But not everyone is happy with the changes. Library Director Foley wants his old library back and the most powerful member of the police jury, Mrs. Gunderson, thinks libraries are obsolete. She sees no need to waste funds on a library when everyone has the internet.

The police jury, similar to our county commissioners, approves funds for the library. They also must approve placing a levy increase for the library on the ballot. When Mrs. Gunderson’s influence puts both things in jeopardy the future of the library, along with Louise and Sylvia’s jobs, is on the line.

When the situation goes from bad to worse Louise and Sylvia need help. It will take all of Alligator Bayou if the library is to be saved.

This is a light entertaining read with a little humor, family drama, and a hunky strawberry farmer thrown in the mix. If you are looking for a great piece of literature that will pass the test of time, I’d skip this title. However if you love libraries and stories with good characters I recommend you give it a try.