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Tens of thousands of books find their way through The Library Store in a given year. This blog is dedicated to highlighting some of the hidden gems among them. All books reviewed here will be available for purchase in The Library Store – but don’t procrastinate – we usually only have one copy!

All blog entries are submitted by FFRPL volunteers. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library, its trustees and employees, or the Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County and its trustees and employees. FFRPL raises funds, presents programs, supports special projects, and purchases supplemental materials and equipment for the Rochester Public Library.


The Orient-Express: Seats Still Available!

Venice Simplon- Orient-Express: the return of the world’s most celebrated train, Shirley Sherwood (1983) HC, 160 pages, fully illustrated, $1
Do you love trains, Art Deco or simply the story of a man fighting for his dream? If you do, this is, oh, so the book for you.
The first trains offered only a cover over your head and a seat to sit on. Later trains became sturdier and safer. They also became more luxurious, with electricity, bathrooms, sleeping cars, and dining areas. The 1920s may have been the golden days for luxury train travel, but even in the 1950s heads of state still took the train, at least sometimes. By the 1960s, trains were just too slow and too expensive to compete with planes. In 1977 the great Orient-Express made its last trip from Cairo to London. All its cars and goods went to auction. And that was that.
Except James Sherwood, owner of a shipping company, had the dream of resurrecting his beloved Orient Express. First he located and bought some old cars, most in really, really bad shape. Then he restored them. Most of the interiors, including the mosaics and marquetry, had to be repaired. (Amazingly the son of one of the original marquetry craftsmen was still in business!) The cars themselves had to be brought up to code, which meant fire retardant on the walls, safety glass for the windows, new wiring and of course better brakes. New silver, china and fabrics needed to be designed and manufactured. Finally, and most importantly, Sherwood needed passengers to buy tickets to ride his train. Was he crazy to think anyone would be interested?
What a task Sherwood took on. Remember this was not simply a historic restoration. He had to both bring these antique cars up to modern safety codes, as well as make them durable enough for long term commercial use.
Thirty four years later the “new” Orient-Express is still running.  Who wants to go with me?

Submitted by KB Jan. 3, 2018


Edward Gorey – Unique, or Just Plain Weird?

The Iron Tonic, or a Winter Afternoon in Lonely Valley, Edward Gorey (1969)

No one writes or draws like Edward Gorey. He depicts very properly dressed Victorians, but they never speak or do anything but walk or stand around. They exist in a world filled with stark, lonely buildings and landscapes. The settings in Iron Tonic are even starker because it is winter and the days overcast. The ground is covered with snow, so it’s supremely quiet. Add to all this the items scattered about or falling from the sky – clocks, bundles of eels, tombstones, massive threatening birds, even dead babies….

Well now do you know why people call his art “unique”?

Gorey’s art is described as both Surrealist and Gothic. His prim and proper Victorians share their gloomy, silent space with objects that don’t belong. His detailed drawings are usually in black and white, their dark areas made by slashes of a pen. Like in dreams, the real sits next to the unreal.

Gorey felt shy and insecure even after he was famous. He was brilliant, graduating from Harvard in 1950. He loved literature, art, dance, music and even television commercials. When he died he owned 25,000 books. Oddly, Gorey saw himself as primarily an author, drawing only to illustrate his writing. He also designed stage costumes and scenery, winning a Tony in 1978 for “Dracula.” Of course he also did the art for the introduction to PBS’s Masterpiece Theater. What an amazing creative genius.

Some of his drawings leave me puzzled, but most leave me nervous, insecure and very unsettled. I want to flee, but I am trapped, stuck with my fear and anxiety… at least until I turn the page.

Submitted by KB on May 25, 2017


“The Angel of the West” Was Born a Slave

One More Valley, One More Hill: The Story of Aunt Clara Brown, Linda Lowery (2002)

Clara Brown was born a slave in 1802. She was sold twice, once when she was three, and once as an adult when she had to watch her husband and children sold to other people. She was strong, and so was her religious faith, and so she managed to survive.

Her new master sometimes beat her, but when she was 56 he died and left her money in his will. In addition, his daughters decided to buy her freedom. Moving west to St. Louis she was able to find work as a cook and laundress. By the time the family she worked for moved away Clara had earned enough money to set up her own business.

When gold was found in Colorado, Aunt Clara decided to move further west. She got free passage on a wagon train by working as a cook and laundress for 26 men. Since she was black she couldn’t ride, but had to walk the entire two month journey.

In Denver she started a new life. As a laundress, cook, mid-wife and healer she earned a LOT of money. She invested quietly in property and mining claims, which only increased her wealth. She was always generous with her money. She used her wealth to start churches, pay for ex-slaves to immigrate to her community, and provide food and shelter for the destitute miners and freed slaves already there. She also paid for women to go to college. Everybody knew and respected her, even the white community leaders. People called her “The Angel of the West.”

By age 80, Clara’s health and investments had both deteriorated. She had been swindled out of money by a real estate manager, and spent most of the rest helping others. Her one great fear was that she would die without finding her lost family.

Lowery tells in detail the story of the first black pioneer woman in Colorado. Clara Brown- what an amazing woman.

Submitted by KB on May 22, 2017


The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (2013)

This book’s beginning is stark. The main character, never named, wrote, “Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.” His mother had games, cake and 15 chairs ready. But no one came. The child ate some cake and then went to his room to read. “I liked that”, he shared. “Books were safer than other people anyway.” Ouch, most of us remember a time as a child when we were disappointed, though hopefully not as badly. 


Later the boy becomes friends with three farm women at end of his road. His experiences with them start out fine, but quickly turn into a nightmare. The women try to protect him, but are even they powerful enough? 


These happenings are retold when the boy, now middle aged, comes home for a funeral. Whose funeral? We are never told. What a strange book, and not one I would have thought I’d like. How do I describe it? Is it a fairy tale? A paranormal experience? Or a story of a mentally unstable boy trying desperately to cope with reality? Was the pond at the end of the lane ever an ocean? Or was it always only a pond? I like to categorize things, but this story refuses to be categorized. After much thought I’ve realized, at least in this case, that it doesn’t matter what kind of book this is. It only matters that it is magical. Its story swept me up and took me to strange places – some sweet and comforting, some dark, ugly and evil. It’s been three weeks since I read this book, but whether real or fairy tale, I still remain haunted by the ocean at the end of the lane. 


Submitted by KB on May 15, 2017

Napoleon Bonaparte, the Inspiration for Tony Hillerman

Bony and the Mouse (1959), and Madman’s Bend (1963)

Tony Hillerman was inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte- no not the French general but Arthur Upfield’s police detective. Upfield was not someone you would expect to be a mystery writer. He had lived for years in the Australian outback, doing just about every job there was- cattle driving, cook, opal miner and so many more. He wasn’t a very good writer. There wasn’t even any sex! Neither critics nor readers liked his writings. Strangely it was WWII American soldiers arriving in Australia that discovered his books. When they couldn’t find enough copies in Australia an American publisher came to the rescue. These cheap paperback editions were banned in Australia, but his American readers bought enough to make him famous.

His unusual hero was a half cast Aborigine, raised by missionaries, who went on to grad school and a distinguished police career. Because of his brilliance he could observe obscure clues. He was a strategic planner, a result of his upbringing in the white world. He was also spiritually in tune with the land, patient, humble, and a good tracker, traits inherited from his mother. When undercover he could blend in no matter where he was. Sadly, being of mixed races he never really fit in. At times he was torn when his two heritages were at odds.

After reading these books I became interested enough to research Aboriginal history. Till 1967 they couldn’t vote, and their children were still brutally removed from parents even up to the 1970s. I can’t imagine the horror of those experiences. I also doubt, that in reality, a half caste would ever be given the power to arrest a white person, much less to become a detective inspector. So, sadly, these books are all rather a fantasy.

These books are still great reads. I love the descriptions of outback life and of the harsh and beautiful land. I love how Bony methodically figures out “who done it”. My favorite book is Mouse, but you will enjoy them both.

Submitted by KB on 2/16/2017.


Soldier Bear

Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero, Aileen Orr, author (2014)

This is the true story of a brown bear, named Wojtek (pronounced Voy-check), bought by Polish political prisoners just released from a Siberian prison. These men walked to Africa with the bear cub they had purchased with a can of meat. After the war when they went to a Scottish Resettlement Camp the bear went with them.

Normal male brown bears are aggressive and loners. Needless to say they don’t like to be touched. But no one had ever told Wojtek he was a bear, so he and his soldier friends had to figure things out as they went along. Wojtek turned out to be friendly, gentle, patient, playful and oh so very mischievous. He loved to be touched, and he loved to touch. He especially loved to wrestle. He also loved to eat. Finding enough food for him was a problem. In wartime food was highly rationed, yet daily he still needed 20,000 calories. Somehow food was found, and without the loss of local livestock. Wojtek might play with them, but he never hurt them.

One day, after watching his friends move artillery shells, he decided to help. He went over to a truck, picked up a shell, and walked it to the storage area. For him, walking on two legs carrying an artillery shell seemed to be the right thing to do. He continued to do this until he decided it was time for a nap. No wonder the army made him a private!

Wojtek made friends wherever he went, both with soldiers and local civilians. In particular he brought joy and laughter to his Polish soldier friends, men with neither families nor a country. Most were illiterate, and didn’t speak English. They were all alone in a strange land, but they had Wojtek and he had them.

As the camp emptied, it became obvious a home for Wojtek had to be found. With tears all around he was transferred to a Scottish zoo. His story would make the news again in 2005 when a statue was made to remember him.

This is the best story I have read all year. Buy it and you won’t be sorry.

Submitted by KB on February 1, 2017


Paper Graffiti Art- Art or Graffiti?

Sticker City, paper graffiti art, Claudia Walde (2007)

Alright, I’ll be honest. I expected to dislike this book. I hate the whole idea of graffiti, a form of what I consider vandalism. Little did I know there are differences between paper graffiti art and graffiti. Mainly, paper graffiti is not permanent. Paper artists create their messages using different materials like posters, stencils, or stickers. The art, if it is art, never lasts more than a few years. Some lasts less than a month.

This way of expression started in the 1950s when the advertising industry began taking over public spaces. Later, as costs of creating art rose, and with less exhibition space available, fewer people could display their work. Even art that was exhibited would be seen by only a few. Paper graffiti artists rebelled, creating art on walls. (Or maybe they just liked decorating walls?)

Who does this stuff? Unlike teenage graffiti artists, these people are usually older. Some of them probably switched from graffiti when they became tired of jail time. This form is freer, with less rules than graffiti. Yep, graffiti has rules. As printing, adhesives, photocopying, and computer software improved, so did the ease and cost of paper art, but you still have to know which paper, glue and kind of wall surface works best.

Did this book change my mind about paper art? Both yes and no. This form of art is still vandalism of private property, but it also produces a wonderfully unique personal expression or message. Some of the works have profound social themes. Some are simple, some just weird. Many are mischievous, and made me laugh. Swoon’s work, using life-sized cut-out figures, is elegantly beautiful. I would dearly like to see her work, and even some of the other artists’. Yet I have questions. Is this really art? What do the owners of the buildings think of this “art”? How would I feel if it happened to my property? The answers aren’t as simple as I thought.

Submitted by KB on January 27, 2017


Rowing across the Atlantic – A new world sport

Salt, Sweat, Tears- The Men Who Rowed the Oceans, by Adam Rackley

No one even considered rowing across the Atlantic till 1896 when George Harbo, an immigrant to America, wanted a way to become famous and rich.  He knew he would do just fine as long as he could find a boat, a rowing partner and the Gulf Stream current. Of course there were those 2,500 miles of open water to navigate. These amazing two men took on wet clothing, lack of sleep, capsizing, thirst, hunger, salt water sores, rogue waves, ice bergs, a hurricane and even a fire. They became really good rowers. They also became really, really good at bailing. Somehow he and his partner reached Ireland, and in only 55 day! Unfortunately few people paid to hear their story. So much for dreams of fame and fortune.

Eventually in 1966 someone tried again. David Johnstone decided to deal with his depression by making another cross-Atlantic attempt. He made detailed plans, found a partner, and had a boat made. Learning that someone else was going to do the same thing, he decided to start out immediately, even without the planned physical preparation, or his boat’s sea trials. At first life wasn’t too bad. Each man rowed 8 hours a day. This left them lots of time to eat well, talk and more importantly, to sleep. Eventually, though, they began to doubt their abilities.

The other rowers, Ridgeway and Blyth, had problems of their own. They had only 10 weeks to get ready, no boat and no experience. Blyth had never even been to sea. What they did have was discipline and tenacity. Each rowed 16 hours a day, in bad weather and good, even after they lost a third of their food. Physically they were always in rough shape, but still they kept going, reaching Ireland after 91 days. Unfortunately Johnstone and Hoare never did.

Rackley’s book mostly describes his own 2010 experiences. I admit to being more interested in those earlier tales of 1896 and 1966.  Later rowers, with their bilge pumps, sliding seats, solar panels and GPS, have an easier time of it. Now more than 300 boats have made it across some ocean or another. Having a bilge pump or not, crazy a little (or a lot), these men are true athletes. Hats off to them all.

 Submitted by KB on January 24, 2017


365 (minus 15) Cars, Old and New, But Mostly Old

  Roadside America, 365 Days, by Lucinda Lewis (2003)

I always thought the male fascination with cars was silly. Cars are just things that take us where we want to go. After I bought my first car, though, a 1979 Datsun 210, I realized that loving your own car might not be so silly after all. Then one day I was invited to ride in a souped up 1964 GTO with a massive racing stripe down its hood.  It was love at first sight. I still get excited when I see a classic car, especially if I can poke my head inside.

Most of the cars in this book, and the occasional truck, are old, but a few are newer. Most photos are in color, but strangely the few black and white ones affected me more. I love the hood ornaments, the tail fins, and the front grilles. I even love those vinyl seats, so blazing hot in the summer. I love the Route 66 diners and filling stations. I love this book, even if 15 of the photos are “missing”.

When it comes to my favorites, I’d have to mention both the weird 1938 Phantom Corsair and its plane cockpit instrumentation (including an altimeter), and the 1937 air conditioned Airmobile prototype that looks like a goldfish!

Did I mention I love this book? It’s for sale in the Rundel Library Bookstore, and only for $1.

Submitted by KB on January 13, 2017