Tag Archives: best of

2020: A Hellacious Year Can’t Keep a Good Reader Down

23 Dec

The list of all that I missed thanks to this godawful year is lengthy, but who wants to dwell on all that? One of (several) silver linings it brought was extra time for reading. I’ve become a voracious reader over the past several years – prompted by a fear that I was losing my ability to concentrate as I grew older. Working at home for months, followed by a return to a sparsely-staffed library, meant I found myself with uninterrupted time more often than usual. At first, I found it boring, but then took advantage and I put aside tasks that I was working on, from time to time, and read some great books about scholarly communications, about measuring the impact of research, about data – all things related to my work – along with LOTS of things I just thoroughly enjoyed. I hope you’ve found some treasures to absorb yourself in this year, too. And thanks to the many authors who gave them to us. Here are a bunch that I read:

Work Stuff

I discovered Cassidy Sugimoto via a conference that I attended (virtually, of course) and really enjoyed her keynote. It prompted me to seek out two works she’s involved with on the topic of bibliometrics and measuring the impact of research. I recommend both for those who work in scholarly communications. Speaking of, Rick Anderson’s little primer on scholarly communication is one I could refer to friends and/or family who never really understand what I do as a librarian. Not that they’d find it all that interesting, but…

Stephen Few gave the world one of his usual big books this year. (Literally. He has a thing for large-sized books. The 2020 gift is his work, Signal.) I also found myself tracking down a couple of his “little books.” All involve looking at “big data” with a skeptical eye, something that I find myself doing often. We have certainly seen countless benefits of big data and open science during the global fight against COVID, as well as in vaccine development. We’ve also seen more than a few cautionary tales of the troubles of big data as big noise. A longtime key figure in the data discussion, Few steps up to say “hold on” just a bit. Good wisdom.

Georgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec’s fun companion to their wonderful, Dear Data, from a few years back is good fun. I throw this one in my bag at least every other week to work on one or two of the “assignments.” Data Feminism and Calling Bullshit are two excellent accessible academic reads. They prompt a thousand thoughts and ideas for action.

I’ve read (actually, I own) all of Alberto Cairo’s books on data visualization. His latest was a nice companion to others that I read, in terms of getting better at cutting through all of the noise, the falsehoods, the trivial, the bias thrown at us daily via news bits and misleading graphics. These are all skills we need to have – and that we need to teach – in the current world.

Finally, I read Matt Shipman’s book on scientific writing. Matt works in research communications and media relations at North Carolina State University. True story – our Twitter paths crossed someday, somehow, and in doing so we discovered that we both grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, and spent many, many happy years as kids at the Rodof Sholom branch of the Petersburg Public Library. We’ve become twitter friends over the years and I enjoyed reading this really insightful and handy reference book about the work he does. I learned some things for my own work, too.


If you’re a fan of the Talking Heads, Chris Frantz’s story of love and music will not disappoint. He and Tina Weymouth have remained together through all of the years of art school, of being in a groundbreaking band, of founding their own terrific group, and mentoring/fostering the careers of many others. Great love story.

I’m not sure what led me to Jimmy Webb’s memoir. I’ve long loved his work as a songwriter. After reading his memoir, I honestly think I’ll stick to listening to his songs alone. I’m not sure that I like him much as a person.

Natasha Trethewey and Allison Moorer have written two of the most powerful memoirs you can find. I don’t recommend reading them back-to-back, as I did. They are stories of domestic violence that ends in the worst way, and the long, arduous struggle it takes to rise from such circumstances. Both are brilliant wordsmiths and their stories will last with me for some time.

Book Club

I’m part of a truly great book club. We are a really diverse bunch of readers and it results in me reading lots of things (science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction) that I would never choose on my own. These are a few that quickly popped to mind this morning as I snapped photos from the shelves.

In a word, I LOVED A Gentleman in Moscow. We started it last December and I read it through the darkest weeks of the year. It was the best snuggle-into-bed-and-read-book. A beautiful story. I will read it again. I know I will.

Sy Montgomery’s, The Soul of an Octopus, brought me to tears. Really. It’s such an eye-opening adventure into the world of one of our most amazing creatures. Who knew? There are also dozens of fascinating YouTube videos about octopuses, as well as the beautiful Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher. Year of the Octopus.

We recently read Agatha Christie’s introduction to Hercule Poirot. It was only the second Christie mystery that I’ve ever read (Murder on the Orient Express being the other) and it was pure delight.

The Great Believers is our current pick. I’ll finish it in January, but about a quarter of the way through, highly recommend it. The characters are ones easy to follow. I look forward to how it all comes together.

Re-Reads and More

Allie Brosh returned in 2020 with Solutions and Other Problems. I pre-ordered it, read it the day it arrived, and then had to re-read Hyperbole and a Half. I laughed, I snorted, I cried, I shook my head at her talent. And perseverance.

Another election year and all of the social upheaval we’re experiencing these days (a good bit of it long overdue), found me re-reading Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland, as a means of keeping faith in the people of the “fly over” states. It’s also so much better a book than that Hillbilly Elegy. Smarsh is heads and shoulders above J.D. Vance when it comes to both telling a story and understanding humanity.

We are currently reading and discussing Ibram Kendi’s, How to be an Antiracist, as a library staff. It was chosen as the UMMS all-campus read. It is a 2020 read and act book.

The bird lover in me read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s, Mozart’s Starling (perhaps the book that I most enjoyed reading this year) and Jennifer Ackerman’s, The Bird Way. Both of these authors have authored multiple books on nature in general and birds, specifically. And they are always excellent.

And I re-read the Ravenmaster’s lovely memoir while on a camping trip in October. I liked it just as much the second time around.

Finally, I was missing my old friend, Kinsey Millhone, the other evening and I pulled G is for Gumshoe off my shelf. I own A to … sigh … Y in Sue Grafton’s alphabet mystery series. RIP, Sue. I may re-read all of them next year. So good.

So, there you have it. As I said at the start, no shortage of good stuff this year. A few good listens, too:

  • Michael J. Fox, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality
  • Anthony Boudain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2nd time through)
  • Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef
  • Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave: The Arthurian Saga, Book 1 (book club pick)
  • James Taylor, Break Shot: My First 21 Years
  • Jill Lepore, This America: The Case for the Nation
  • Blair Braverman, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North (I combo-read and listened to this one.)
  • Ani Difranco, No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir (I want to read this, i.e. turn the pages, in 2021.)

What a year it’s been! I wish you all a very happy holiday season and a 2021 filled with good health, good friends, good work, good music, and good reading!

~ Sally

Favorites of 2017 – Music / The Fab Five

27 Dec

I wrote in my first post of this series that my list of favorites wasn’t ranked in any order and/or that I can’t really produce the “5, 4, 3, 2, this is my very favorite” kind of list that most year-end “Best of” lists are. That said, after reviewing my listening habits, my purchasing trends, and my iTunes playlists I can say that these five records probably rise to the top as my favorites of 2017. A couple I listed in previous posts:

David Rawlings, Poor David’s Almanack

Valerie June, The Order of Time

Tyminski, Southern Gothic

Dan Tyminski is best known as the leader of Union Station, Alison Krauss’ band. He’s released solo records before, but Southern Gothic is something different. For an accomplished bluegrass picker, these songs rock. They’re also the kind of songs with catchy tunes that make you not really hear the words until the third or fourth listen and then … they go to a whole other place. This record has a lot to say.

Deb Talan, Lucky Girl

Deb Talan started out as a solo artist, making the rounds of the familiar singer-songwriter spots in Boston and throughout New England. Then she met Steve Talan. They would marry, form the greatly popular duo, The Weepies, and start and raise a family. And then, in 2013-2014, Deb was dealt and dealt with breast cancer. During her treatments, Deb and Steve wrote, produced, and promoted the record Sirens (2015). As I imagine happens to anyone after a life-threatening event, Talan says that after a whirlwind couple of years, she was forced to address some issues and feelings that needed to be expressed personally, i.e. as herself, solo, not part of The Weepies. Lucky Girl is the result. I pre-ordered it and, had it actually been an LP and not a digital recording, I’d have worn it straight out during the first week that I owned it.

Aimee Mann, Mental Illness

Okay! Okay! If you pinned me to the floor until I cried “Uncle!” to give you my favorite of the year, I’d cry, “AIMEE MANN!!” Start to finish, this is a magnificent work from an artist that, if you’re a fan, you expect magnificence. Maybe it was my year, but these songs so resonated with me. I bought the digital copy. I bought the LP. I bought the fun activity cards. This record will stick to my “Tops” list for many, many years to come. I’m sure of it.

So that’s it for my year, in terms of music. I’ll think about books and television next. Still got a few days left (and a few days off) before the New Year. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments.

Favorites of 2017 – Music / Those Who Do Not Disappoint

27 Dec

Part 3 of my Favorites list for the year includes artists I know fairly well and who produced records in 2017 that did not disappoint in the least. You can easily like an artist without liking every one of his/her/their offerings. It happens. But when it comes to these recordings, it didn’t happen for me:

Iron & Wine, Beast Epic

Sam Beam can write a beautiful song, filled with sparse melodies and layered lyrics. His 2009 record, Around the Well, is a favorite in my collection. When I first heard Beast Epic, I thought to myself, “This is just as good.” His label, Sub Pop, makes the entire album available via YouTube. 

Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway

Giddens first caught my attention in her work with the fabulous Carolina Chocolate Drops. As a group, they are an American treasure and a very important link to our country’s musical heritage. As a solo artist, her EP Factory Girlher participation in The New Basement Tapes project, and her work on the soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davisall demonstrate her abilities as both collaborator and singular performer. It’s no wonder she’s a recent recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Award. This is a beautiful and essential recording. Give it a careful listen.

Rodney Crowell, Close Ties

An offering from one of America’s finest songwriters and musicians, Rodney Crowell’sClose Ties, is a wonderful, reflective collection of songs from one who knows full well that he has more years behind him than ahead on the horizon. He shares the experiences and feelings of aging with humor, a little melancholy, and just enough “I’m too old to give a damn” to strike a chord with any of us past a certain age – physically, mentally, or emotionally. And of course, he recruits some of him many amazingly talented friends to accompany him through the songs. “It Ain’t Over Yet” is one of my favorite songs of the year. I’ve listened to it many, many, many times.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound

Whether solo, with his band, or with his wife (an artist who can easily stand on her own), Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell stands comfortably among the greatest of our contemporary singer-songwriters. His music is perfect for any Saturday afternoon or any road trip. It’s just got that kind of “sit back and enjoy it” vibe. 

Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters, self-titled

I first became a fan of The Honeycutters a few years back at MerleFest. They were one of those Asheville, NC treasures you find at such events. Amanda Anne Platt has always been the lead voice of the band, but this year’s record placed her fully front-and-center as they opted to rename themselves, Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters. The name change seems to have given the group a boost, putting them back in touch with the groove of their earlier releases. I was personally delighted. 

Rose Cousins, Natural Conclusion

My favorites list rarely coincides with the lists that I read from music critics or others in the music business, but I notice that I’m not alone in putting Rose Cousins on my “Best of” list this year. I’ve been a fan since seeing her open for Mary Chapin Carpenter in Lowell, MA last summer. She was an incredible performer with terrific stage presence. She is no less the songwriter. This record is tops. And by golly … she’s from Prince Edward Island! What’s not to love about that?!

Ruthie Foster, Joy Comes Back

Another necessity for a difficult year, Ruthie Foster’s, Joy Comes Back could not have come at a better time. Her voice! Her incredible guitar playing! Her absolutely beautiful spirit! They all shine through in these songs. If you ever need a lift, see her live. You will feel better. You will!

Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, Not Dark Yet

I’ve followed Allison Moorer over the years more closely than Shelby Lynne, but the sisters together give us that magical harmony that really only comes from siblings. This collection of covers and one original tune will not disappoint for a long time to come. It was a nice gift from the sisters to their fans. 

The Sweetback Sisters, King of Killing Time

It seems like it took forever for this record to be released, but once out it immediately zoomed to the top of my “repeat” list in my iTunes. One of my absolute favorite live acts, if you live in New England and get the chance to see their annual sing-along Christmas show, treat yourself. With King of Killing Time, the gals (and guys) give us the harmonies and swingin’/stompin’/rockin’ music to love. Woohoooo!! 


Two singles that came out this year that received much play in my iTunes came from Bob Schneider (an artist that I have loved, loved, loved forever) and David Myles (another Canadian jewel). I can’t put them in my favorites list, per se, since they didn’t release full albums, but it doesn’t mean that these aren’t worthy of a shout-out.

Bob Schneider, Lake Michigan

David Myles, Night & Day (will be included in 2018 release, Real Love)

Next post … my five favorites of 2017. A couple I’ve already revealed, but the rest are next.