Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Podcast Obsession: The Planet Money Podcast

Lest you think I’m responsible citizen of the world, just saying the words “global economy” pretty much puts me to sleep.  I had one measly economics class in college, and it was the only course I took pass/ fail.  Usually thinking about the economy makes me a little confused and a lot scared.  So, I’m not exactly the target audience for this NPR podcast.  

However, after hearing a plug for the show on the Slate Culture Gabfest (another podcast favorite), I checked out Planet Money and it has since become one of my favorite podcasts.  The show has a unique perspective on the global economy, and always finds unique and quirky ways to highlight different economic issues. For instance, they recently had a show on cattle theft in Oklahoma and the special agent who tracks down the thieves (Episode 583: Cow Noir).  Another recent show (Episode 575: The Fondue Conspiracy) described how fondue’s popularity was actually caused by the dominance of the Swiss Cheese Union in Switzerland during the early part of 20th century.  

The show’s various hosts and reporters are good at explaining economic theories and principles while still being interesting and fun; so even economic neophytes like myself understand and remain entertained.  The podcasts are always enjoyable and are sometimes very funny.  While I certainly haven’t become an economic genius from listening to show, I do have a better grasp of world issues and can occasionally make smart chatter at dinner parties.  Fans of Freakonomics would probably enjoy the show. Although, I personally like Planet Money quite bit more than those books.  It’s worth a listen whether or not economic issues are something you are super interested in.  The show is a spin off the NPR juggernaut, This American Life, so fan of that show may enjoy it as well.

For more information on Planet Money check out their blog on NPR, or listen to the podcast.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Recommend Reads: Recent Releases

 Contrary to popular belief, librarians are paid to read all day (I wish!).  Instead we have to fit reading in when we aren't working.  Meaning we pretty much have endless "To Read" lists.  Luckily, I had the opportunity to take a couple trips recently, so I had time to catch up with a few good recent titles:

The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai (2014).

Makkai's previous book The Borrower was one of my favorite reads of 2011.  So I was super excited to see that she had a book coming out this year. The Hundred Year House is set in a large mansion in the northern suburbs of Chicago (::cough:: Lake Forest ::cough::) that used to be an artist colony called Laurelfield.  The first part of the book takes place in 1999, when the house is on the verge of its centennial, and then the book works back through the house's history.

In 1999, we follow the saga of Marxist English professor Zee and her unemployed academic husband Doug.  Zee was raised at Laurelfield, and she and Doug move into the coach house when the couple falls on hard times. Doug is purportedly working an a career making tome about a poet Edwin Parfitt, who once stayed at Laurelfield.  However, he spends more of his time writing for a Baby Sitter's Club like series and flirting with Miriam, the artist wife of Zee's brother-in-law Chad with whom they share the coach house. When Dough starts asking questions about the artist colony and looking around for papers, he's surprised to find Zee's mom, Gracie, oddly standoffish and protective of the topic.  Is she hiding something?  This section is very funny and works as both an academic satire and a very shaggy mystery novel.

The book then cuts to earlier history of the mansion.  In 1950s, the artist's colony is shut down, so Grace DeVohr (Zee's mom) can move their with her abusive, alcoholic husband.  Separated from her family and without a friend nearby, Grace finds her situation increasingly desperate.  We also glimpses of Laurelfield in the 1920s, as an active artist colony, including when Edwin Parfitt stayed there.  Finally, the book ends were the house began, with the original owners, including Zee's ancestor, a beautiful woman who committed suicide and supposedly "haunts" the mansion.

The Hundred Year House is a great read  There are various connections between all of the stories taking place at Laurelfield throughout the decades.  Once you finish the book, you'll probably want to reread it to catch all the links.  Makkai has a lot of fun filling the book with made-up cultural references.  I googled a lot of the artists and celebrities she created for this book, thinking they might actually be real.  The Hundred Year House has occasional dark moments, but it is definitely a lot of fun.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell (2014).

Rainbow Rowell is a staff favorite.  I highly recommend reading any book by her.  Landline is her latest release, which focuses on the struggling marriage between the hard-working TV writer, Georgie McCool, and her stay-at-home husband, Neal.  Two days before Georgie is set to go with Neal and their two daughters to Neal's childhood home in Nebraska, she and her writing partner Seth get the opportunity to write their dream pilot.  Unfortunately that means staying in L.A. and working over Christmas.  Neal is not so thrilled with the idea, and takes his two daughters to Omaha without Georgie.

Meanwhile, Georgie is left fretting over the state of her marriage.  Did Neal leave for vacation or her all together?  Rather than be alone in their house, Georgie stays temporarily at her mom's house with her sarcastic sister Heather.  While staying there, she makes an interesting discovery, the landline phone in her bedroom allows her to call back into the past, and she begins talking to Neal from a time shortly before they became engaged.  Will the phone time travel save her marriage, or prevent it from ever happening?

The premise for the book sounds a little bit unusual (certainly much more Sci-Fi than Rowell's other work), but don't let it sway you from checking out the book.  Rowell is able to write really funny characters and dialogues.  The interactions between Georgie, her free-spirited mom, and her sister Heather are often laugh out loud funny, and were one of my favorite parts of the book.  It was also refreshing to read a story where the romantic arc is between a long married couple, rather two people just falling in love.  Rowell does a great job of showing how external strains can really affect the relationship between two people who genuinely love each other. 

Station-Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014).

Sci-Fi books and dystopias usually aren't my cup of tea, but something stood out about this book by Canadian author Mandel.  It takes place in the recent future and begins at a Toronto production of King Lear starring famous Hollywood actor Arthur Leander.  During the production, Leander suffers a fatal heart attack on stage.  Soon Georgian flu sweeps across the world wiping out 99 percent of the population.

The plot then pick ups twenty years later when civilization no longer exists as we know it.  There is no longer air planes, telephones or even electricity.  Kirsten, one of the child actors playing Lear's daughter, is now a woman who is part of a traveling theater company known as the "Traveling Symphony."  The symphony travels from ram shack town to town performing plays (Kirsten prefers Shakespeare) and music.  While journeying through the ruins of the Midwest, the symphony encounters a dangerous man called the "prophet."

The book also follows several other people connected to Leander: the paramedic who tried to save his life, his first wife, Miranda, and his best friend.  Most of these plots take place before the Georgian flu epidemic, but don't be too surprised to see some of the characters pop up later on in the book.

I really enjoyed Mandel's inventive descriptions of how towns and society functioned in a post-apocalyptic environment.  Mandel also slips in some nice satire about current society, mostly delivered by Arthur's best friend.    The book is incredibly dark at times, but also moving or lightly funny.  It definitely is an absorbing read. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

It's National Candy Day!

Sweet candy facts:

  • The first commercial solid eating chocolate was produced by Fry & Sons in Bristol, England, in 1847
  • M&M’s (packaged in cardboard tubes) were first manufactured for soldiers during World War II. Forrest Mars got the idea for M&M’s when he visited Spain during the Spanish Civil War and saw how soldiers kept chocolates from melting by rolling them in sugary coating.
  • When peanut M&M's were first introduced in 1954, they were only available in the color brown
  • Milton S. Hershey, the founder of Hershey, owned a caramel manufacturing company before he focused on chocolate
  • The M's in M&M's stand for Mars & Murrie: Forrest Mars (son of Frank Mars) entered into a partnership with Bruce Murrie, son of William Murrie (president of Hershey). Hershey provided the chocolate for M&M’s.
  • A Milky Way bar is known as a Mars bar in the United Kingdom

Here are some recommendations if you are looking for some candy-centric books to celebrate National Candy Day:

* For even more fascinating history behind the Mars and Hershey candy companies, and the people who started them:

The Emperors of Chocolate:
Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars
by Joël Glenn Brenner
338.766 BRE
Find it in the catalog!

Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams
by Michael D'Antonio 
Find it in the catalog!
* If you have bags of leftover Halloween candy and would like a fun way to use it all up:

Candy Construction:
How to Build Edible Race Cars, Castles, and Other Cool Stuff Out of Store-Bought Candy!
by Sharon Bowers
641.86 BOW
Find it in the catalog!
* If you want to take on the challenge of making your own candy:

Field Guide to Candy:
How to Identify and Make Virtually Every Candy Imaginable
by Anita Chu
641.853 CHU
Find it in the catalog!

The Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook:
How to Make Truly Scrumptious Candy in Your Own Kitchen!
by Liz Gutman
641.853 GUT
Find it in the catalog!
* If you want to give homemade candy as presents for the holidays:

Sweet Christmas:
Homemade Peppermints, Sugar Cake, Chocolate-Almond Toffee, Eggnog Fudge, and Other Sweet Treats and Decorations
by Sharon Bowers
641.568 BOW
Find it in the catalog!

Delicious Gifts:
Edible Creations to Make and Give
by Jess McCloskey
641.5 MCC
Find it in the catalog!