Saturday, December 17, 2011

So this guy walks into a publisher's office...

"Under the Rug"
Two weeks passed and it happened again.
Yeah sounds like the beginning of a joke, I know. 1954, Harris Burdick walked into a publisher's office, handed him 14 illustrations paired with a title and caption and told the publisher "I have stories to accompany these. Are you interested in publishing them?" The publisher looked at the drawings and was astounded. They were all unrelated to one another and would be great stories. He agreed to see the stories Burdick would bring in the next day. The next day came and Burdick didn't show. He never showed and thus began the mystery of Harris Burdick.

No one knows what happened and if this was the man's real name, if he actually had stories, or if something tragic happened to him. What is left, however, are brilliantly inspiring images and captions for creative writers. Chris Van Allsburg put the images together in a book, so anyone may view them and might I suggest you do so...IMMEDIATELY! As a middle school girl, we were assigned to write a story about one of the images. They were all so thrilling and held so much potential. Since then I have loved the pictures. Who doesn't love a good mystery? All I wanted were the stories that accompanied them. Luckily, Van Allsburg put together 14 well known writers to write their versions of the stories in The Chronicles of Harris Burdick from Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux) to Stephen King.




"The Harp"
So it's true he thought, it's really true.
I must say that after years of waiting and forming story lines in my head, I was disappointed by many of the stories. They were not fantastical enough for my liking or I didn't think some of them really paired with the picture or caption. But isn't that what always happens when someone takes something you love and plays with it? From a more objective point of view, the stories were all different. Well written and always with some fantastical or sci-fi underlining. There is such a variety here, that it's hard not to find one story you liked. This is a great children's book, but remember that these are not the real stories...just another writers interpretations. The drawings are still a mystery and perhaps that's exactly what Burdick was going for. He wanted to inspire young writers (in age and at heart) to write! So do! Get absorbed in the images and the mystery and create your own adventures and inspire young ones around you to do the same. What a great way to get people using those creative juices.  Maybe you can do it better than the famous writers themselves.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Alice + Dorothy=Septmeber

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne Valente. Wow what a title!! Have fun tripping over that one. I love fairy stories and fantasies, so when I heard about this novel and saw the cover art, I knew I had to read it.

September is a young girl from Omaha who one day gets swept up by the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes and brought to Fairyland. Once there, she meets a variety of creatures and sets off on adventures to retrieve a spoon for Goodbye the witch. She meets her beloved Wyvern and together they make their way to Pandemonium, Fairyland's capital. September learns about the Marquess, the ruler of this land who has made all sorts of rules and brought bureaucracy to the land. In an instant, the girl September is supposed to detest, the Marquess, sends September on a quest to the Autumn lands to retrieve a sword. From here, September discovers more about the land and things living here. She loses and gains alliances and gets altogether wrapped up in the politics and happenings.

The writing reminded me a lot of Alice in Wonderland with language being played with and corrected and all sorts of things that are silly in our world being taken seriously in Fairyland. The adventure is much like The Wizard of Oz with a little girl getting caught up in the happenings of a world she knows nothing about and forming friendships along the way. But September is her own character. A well meaning girl trying to help those around her. I thought this was going to be a light and fluffy read. Although it's about Fairyland, there are some deep moments and the plot is not as happy and frolicsome as expected. Nothing in the story is dark or ominous, but there is a lot more going on under the surface than a sweet little fairy story. The main themes in this novel have to do with friendship and responsibility. Although September is young, she is a mature girl. She knows how to take care of herself and she knows what is right to do even when there's an easy way out.

As with Alice in Wonderland, I found myself getting a bit bored at times. There's a good amount of talking and wondering about what's happening, which can be a bit tiresome after a while. Things must be explained, but that is normal with world-building books. The first in the series must lay the land for the upcoming books. This is the first in a planned series of books.

I would put this in the young adult section. Although the name and subject matter speak to a juvenile audience, I think it would be difficult for a young crowd to understand all the talk and stay attentive to the story. Certainly a good read, but for those who are open to more descriptive writing. Fairyland will stick in my mind for a while, and I see myself picking up the next book in the series whenever it makes its way to shelves.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Broken Axel, Dead Oxen...O the Oregon Trail

Who hasn't played Oregon Trail? Trying to get your wagon across the country to the great beyond while not getting typhoid, avoiding rattle snakes, and not letting your damn oxen die. The great migration west is a solely American event. Never before has something like this happened and it was such a climatic, engaging era. The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt was recommended to me by my Materials for Youth teacher as a good juvenile/YA historical fiction book. I love the pioneering point in our history, so I was excited for this book. 

Amos is the son of a dowser, a person who can find water with a stick. Jake, his father, rejected his gift of dowsing and instead pursued his love of trapping leaving his infant son with his brother and his sister-in-law. Amos grows up with these two and gets to see Jake once a year, but always dreads Jake might take him from his adopted mother. Tragedy strikes and eventually Jake comes for Amos, but with him he has a new wife, Blue Owl, a Shoshone woman. Amos and his little family move around a lot, but eventually decide to join one of Jake's friends to work on a wagon train going to Oregon City. The trail is an adventure with new experiences, new people, and tragedy. It is on this journey that Amos goes from being a boy to becoming a man.

This book begins before the birth of the main character, Amos. It is an epic of sorts, showing the growth and main events of Amos and other characters' lives. It is hard to give a brief summary of this book because so much happens and it's the story of family and a boy's life. I was surprised because I expected this to be mainly about the Oregon Trail journey, but it was about Amos and his growth. It was really well done. The story about the Oregon Trail was more about the everyday: what they did, how they found their way, and the people in the train. I don't feel I can do justice to the story.

Amos is a creative boy. He has gifts, he is kind, and even though he has seen hard times, he has prospered. He is a great main character and the other characters carry a lot of weight too. They are tangible and add to the tale. Every character is important and has a very defined personality from Jake, the gentle overly talkative mountain man to Blue Owl, a quiet, earthy, wise woman to Amos's Aunt and Uncle, two people who make a brilliantly happy pair, and all the characters met on the Trail.

The Oregon Trail part of the story did not begin until about half way through the book. I kept waiting for that part to start because this novel was marketed to me as an Oregon Trail book. I thought it was a great detailed and well put together story, but I was thrown off by the amount of non-Oregon writing. Still a book I would certainly recommend and that was a great story.

If you are into the Oregon Trail, this era, or pioneering then try the Laura Ingles Wilder Little House on the Prairie series. I loved these books as a child and they're a great source for what life was like at that time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I DO NOT Want to Read You!

In school, reading books that you don't want to is normal. You're forced to read the same stale classics that your parents read because they're "so relevant and important for our lives!" or at least that's what they tell us. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy most books were force fed to me in school, but recently I got an assignment I dreaded. Read Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

NOOOOOOOOO!!!!! I knew this was a book that was dark and depressing about the end of the world and cannibals. Sounds like a romp in the park, right? It sounded so difficult to read (from an emotional standpoint) that I avoided it like the plague, not even wanting to watch the movie trailer for the film adaptation.

Well I couldn't avoid it any longer. It was for an assignment and, as a soon to be librarian, I need a wide berth in the literary sphere. When I bought it from the book store, one of the workers looked at it and went "O that book. You're going to want something really cheery afterwards." Thanks. That made me feel better. But I picked it up and hesitantly began reading.

The Road is about a father and son traveling across the devastated United States. A catastrophic event occurred and the whole country, maybe the world, is dying. The book starts about five to eight years after the event and it's never explained what happened. The man and his son make their way across roads and highways that are covered in ash trying to survive and avoid the bad guys: cannibals. It is a fight to find food and the pair has to be cautious on the open road and avoid other people. They can't trust anybody. Not that there are many people left anyway. This is a story about a father and son surviving. The boy is young, I pictured him to be about seven. It's about a father doing the best for a son who is an alien in a world that no longer exists.

The writing is brilliant. Simple, yet surreal at points. When something happened, it just happened without drama before and whatever needed to be done was done. In this way it felt realistic. Just like in real life, there's not always a warning before something happens and you just have to deal with it.

There are no chapters, but the text is broken up into paragraphs, which were typically about half a page. It read quickly and was compelling. Although not much changes throughout the book, you're always on the edge of your seat waiting to see what will happen. The tone is devastating and haunting.

I finished this book and threw it across my room. I felt anxious, frustrated, and depressed. I couldn't concentrate on anything and had to call a friend and talk out my problems before I felt able to move on with my life. When asked if I liked it, I didn't know what to say. It was difficult to read because of the depressing content, but it was so well written and I wanted to continue reading when I started. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how good it really was. If a book can elicit this kind of emotional reaction from me, then it's doing something right. Being able to draw out strong emotions from an audience through literary writing is not an easy task. For me to feel a cornucopia of emotions after reading is quite a feat and I tip my cap to Mr. McCarthy.

A coworker told me that forums he's read about this book usually have men praising it, while women have my reaction or just plain hate it. This is an interesting point and something to ponder about the difference between the man and woman mentality and the controversies surrounding this book.

Another great thing about the book is that there is so much the audience doesn't know. It leaves much to the imagination and it has given people things to talk about and argue over. What does the characters' road map look like? Where did they start and where are they heading? What happened to the world? What do you think the father did? McCarthy knows what he's doing by leaving out information.

My challenge to you is to read The Road. It is a book that sticks. Maybe you'll hate it, but it will stay with you and I promise you will react to this one.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Runaway Princess

So I like princess stories. Sue me. Isn't fiction about living out your fantasies through a secondary resource?

The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs is a juvenile/young adult title about...a princess that runs away. Meg hates embroidery and fancy dresses. She wishes for a life of adventure and swash buckling encounters. Her father, the King of Greeve, has another idea, however. He decides to take action against the dragon, witch, and bandits that call Greeve home and offer his daughter as a prize for the prince willing to defeat these villains. So Meg gets thrown up in a tower (for effect and tradition) and a heap of princes come from the surrounding lands to try their hand at winning the princess and half the kingdom. But Meg hates the idea of being a damsel in distress and decides to warn the "villains" about the princes. Who says their evil anyway? Stereotypes and looks can be deceiving as we soon find out. What follows is Meg's adventures trying to warn the victims of her father's plan and stop any princes from winning the contest and her hand in marriage. Her friends Dilly, a castle servant, and Cam, a royal gardener, aid and abet this royal delinquent throughout the novel.

This story has a lot of twists and turns. It's not a simple adventure where she has three tasks and completes them. Along the way lots of other problems arise. The story keeps you engaged and wanting to find out what new twist is around the corner. Meg is a tomboy ready to prove herself and help those who need it. The added plague of princes adds a fun competitive aspect to the story. The typical "evil doers" are flipped. Meg is a modern girl in a fairy tale world and she aims to prove that she does not need to be the typical princess to be happy. The secondary characters are also fun and, although I wouldn't say they have depth, they are still relevant and distinguishable. This is a great read for anyone who likes princess stories, fairy tales, or fairy tale twists.

Kate Coombs came out with a sequel to this book called The Runaway Dragon, so there are more adventures with Meg. Ella Enchanted is similar to Coombs' book as well within a fairy tale feel, odd creatures and princes, however, it also has a romantic aspect that The Runaway Princess does not.

Monday, November 14, 2011

In a Sunburned Country

I love travel. If I were able, I'd spend months at a time in a country getting to know the people, culture, going to local markets, and traveling around the country. I hate the idea of being a tourist, which is why everytime my mom wanted to go to some tourist trap, I'd become evil, moody me (do not ensnare this she-devil). But since I can't travel all over right now, I love to read other people's travel experiences. Travel non-fiction is one of my favorite genres. Well, I've finally gotten around to reading a noted author and traveler: Bill Bryson. I listened to Bryson's In a Sunburned Country, his novel about his travels through Australia.

Bryson starts the novel by confessing that he knows little about Australia. As a matter of fact most of the world outside of Australia knows nothing about what's going on there. Sure we've all heard of the outback, Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, but what are Australians like, what is most of the enviornment and animal life like, and what is its history. Bryson is a brilliant writer, being both humorous and enlightening. He presents facts and his experiences in a way that makes the reader want to continue reading. In this book Bryson talks about a couple of trips he made to Australia with the mission of seeing the whole country. As I learned, that's impossible. A large majority of Austrailia has never been surveyed or explored. It's ginormous and most of it is unliveable for humans. Even so, Bryson did what most outsiders or Australians rarely do, he traveled across the country. Through these travels the audience gets to see what the country looks like and feels like. He discusses tales of poisonous and deadly animals and the encounters that most Australians just shrug there shoulders at, but you and I would wet our pants over.

Bryson presents the laid back, sometimes too much so, personality of Australians, which is such a juxtaposition to the enviornment they live in. Perhaps because of the harsh conditions and jurassic animals that will not change, the best approach is a laid back one, instead of always being paranoid.

This is a great travel non-fiction book. Austrailia is so interesting and Bryson does his best to cover all sorts of aspects of the country, but one of the points taken out of this piece is that there's so much that is unknown about Austrailia. Bryson's voice makes this book, even in the sometimes dull parts, compelling and often entertaining. I'm excited to move to his other books, A Walk in the Woods, The Lost Continent, and many, many more.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Hollow Kingdom

Secret Confession time:
I cannot believe I'm about to admit this because it goes against all of my feminist sensibilities, but maybe that's the point. I love a story with a "captured bride". You know the ones where the "hero" kidnaps or tricks the girl into romance. That's terrible, I know, but it's the extreme version of sweeping a woman off her feet (and then running away with her kicking and screaming). Judge me, it's fine. I judge myself. I do feel better for getting that weight off my shoulders though.

While browsing a certain website for books based on fairy tales/myths, I found The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle under the heading Persephone and Hades. I was immediately intrigued. This is the root of the captured bride story. Poor Persephone was kidnapped by the Greek God Hades in order to be his bride and remain in the underworld for eternity save for Spring/Summer when she could visit her mother again. Although this book is not wholly based on the myth, you can definitely draw comparisons.

The Hollow Kingdom is the first book in a trilogy. Kate and Emily are sisters whose parents have died and they have come to live at the estate they will inherit once Kate turns eighteen, Hollow Hill. Their cousin currently occupies the main house and is none too pleased to have the girls there who are, he claims, not actually related because their grandmother was adopted. Instead, they stay with their two aunts in the cottage house. Kate loves the forest and stars and quickly finds refuge in the surrounding lands. Soon, however, she begins to feel uneasy. Something is watching her. Then one night, when the girls get lost and cannot seem to find the right path home, they meet a band of gypsies. One of them, Marak, says he'll take the girls home, but Kate is uneasy about this arrangement. While Emily gets along splendidly with the strange man, Kate is apprehensive about him and soon she finds out why.

Once home, he finally reveals himself as the Goblin King to Kate and she is shocked. What ensues is the story of how the King tries to capture Kate, to be his goblin bride, and she resists, how her cousin paints her as a lunatic, and the history of a family that goes deeper than the family ever imagined.

It was an entertaining and compelling read. You want to figure out more and see how or if Kate gets away from Marak. Kate is a well mannered girl, but she is no push over. She can protect herself and she uses her intelligence to do so. The characters are well developed and you get a good sense of place. The storyline is really what drew me in and kept me reading. Highly recommended for fairytale or romance lovers. A good romance is supposed to draw you in and make you feel the feelings that the character feels and this book certainly reached that goal.

If you were/are a fan of Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, then you'll probably also like this one.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Persepolis

Remember the Islamic Revolution? Yes? No? Ummmmm....

Well, whether you know what happened or just nod your head in public, but cannot seem to recall when, where, why or how this happened (the Middle East, right?), Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi provides some background and first hand perspective on what went down.

Marjane writes/draws her memoir of what happened to her and her family during the Islamic Revolution in Iran in the late 1970s/early '80s. Her parents are revolutionaries, her father is a Marxist, and her mother demonstrates against the Shah, who is in power at the beginning of the novel. Marjane is a bright girl and she latches onto her parents beliefs, reading up on the movement, Marx, and all sorts of other social theory. The country goes from a somewhat publicly rigid place to a hugely rigid Islamic run country once the revolution is over. Suddenly, being a rebellious, free-thinking girl is dangerous. Head scarfs must be worn in public and women who wear modern-ish clothing are whores. Satrapi's parents must watch who they speak to and what they say about their beliefs because the wrong viewpoint can land them in jail as political prisoners or worse. At the end of this novel, Satrapi is fourteen and her parents decide it is best to get her out of the country, which is in turmoil, so they send her to school in Austria.

The novel is humorous, especially when Satrapi, as a young girl, claims to have unique perspective, but only repeats what she hears from her parents. This is a tactic used throughout the novel. Satrapi, as an adult author, is aware that she was heavily influenced by others, but so are all children when their young. Parents and family member's beliefs are iron clad to kids, and the reader is made aware of this fact in a clever way throughout the novel. At the same time this is a very serious graphic novel dealing with war, political beliefs, death, and imprisonment. Satrapi's voice rings clear through both the writing and the cartoons. The drawings are all in black and white, which you can interpret whichever way you please.

Although I usually see this book applied to the young adult audience, it is a perfect crossover book for adults as well. Graphic novels are a fantastic medium for some stories and this is a great example of that.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Parrotfish

Angela is a boy living in a girl's body. She's transgendered and right in the middle of hir (hir is a combination of him and her) Junior year, she decides it's time to stop hiding who she really is and come out of the shadows. She has cut hir hair, bound hir breasts, and is going by the name Grady. This is a bold move for anyone, but for a high schooler, it is risky and causes all sorts of uproar.

Grady's family has its quirks, and hir mother and sister especially find it hard to accept Grady's change. The principle at school refuses to change hir name on transcripts because he believes she's just seeking attention and this will pass. Even hir best friend, Eve, abandons hir in hir time of need because she doesn't know how to deal with this change. Luckily, Grady becomes close with Sebastian, a rather geeky kid who doesn't seem to care what anyone else thinks. During this difficult period of adjustment, Sebastian becomes just the person Grady needs as a support and friend. Grady also develops a crush on Kita, a beautiful and extremely hip girl who is dating one of Grady's classmates. The whole novel isn't heavy, however. One of the most amusing parts of the novel is Grady's dad's love of Christmas and the lengths this family goes to to keep up their father's traditions of having a fully decorated (and gaudy) exterior, along with an interior that looks like something out of the Victorian era, on display for the neighborhood to view.

Through this story, we meet a strong willed person who knows hirself well enough to go against the grain in order to finally be happy with who she is, even if no one else understands. Although Grady doubts hir coming out at points because of other's reactions, she is also able to ask difficult questions and weighty subjects are discussed throughout the novel in an accessible and conversational manner. Sebastian and Grady bring up points about gender and if it is a stable characteristic that people should be judged on, if there is a gender scale where would people fall on it, and do people try too hard to act like the prototype of the gender they are labeled as? This is a well written story that is not too dramatic or heavy, but which deals with a subject that is not often addressed in young adult literature.


If you are interested in stories like this one or this issue I suggest reading Luna by Julie Anne Peters or Kate Bernstein's My Gender Workbook.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Wow. I finished this book and just thought how good it was. Humorous, heartbreaking, hopeful. You think you got it bad? Read about Junior's life and think again.

Junior is an Indian living on the reservation with his father, mother, loving grandma and sister. Although his family is a bit dysfunctional, his dad is an alcoholic, his sister hardly ever emerges from the basement, and he's a pretty strange kid himself, they love each other. Being an Indian on the reservation is a hard life. Booze hold sway over a lot of the people, and life is difficult and everyone is poor. Junior is a smart kid though and at the high school on the rez that he has just started freshman year at, he's not getting the education he wants. That's when he decides to transfer to the local town's high school that's twenty-two miles away. This decision throws all sorts of screws into his life. His best friend, Rowdy, who used to protect him against bigger guys on the rez now hates him, he's the only Indian at an all white racist school in the country, the rest of the tribe thinks he's a traitor, and getting to school is always an issue.

Just when things start looking up, Junior makes the basketball team and kids at his school are starting to notice him, all sorts of problems occur. Death is a part of Junior's life, but it hits way too close to home now.

Interspersed throughout the novel are cartoons that Junior drew. These add some life and humor to the story. Although a lot of this novel is dark, philosophical, and deals with heavy depressing issues, it maintains its humor and hopeful spirit the entire time. Junior is a kid that most can relate to and his story is inspirational and engaging.

Sherman Alexie won the National Book Award for this novel and he deserved it. I would recommend this to anyone 13+. There is profanity and some talk about the male anatomy...to put it lightly. Junior is a kid with courage and enough sense to make the best of terrible situations. We can all learn something from his attitude and this story.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Classic Science-Fiction

Isaac Asimov is a prevalent name in science-fiction. He was one of the first sci-fi writers who was actually respected and paid well for his craft, and today he is still a force in and outside of his genre. He deserves to be read because his ideas are at play today.

The three laws of robotics say that a robot cannot harm a human or through inaction cause a human harm, they must obey humans, and they must keep themselves out of harms way. "I, Robot" deals with these laws and the history of robotics through an episodic retelling by Susan Calvin to a reporter. Susan is the leading robopsychologist as US Robotics in the mid 21st century, but she is retiring. Through short stories the audience hears tell of robots from early on who could not speak to robots in the mid 21st century who run the economy. Each chapter is a new story of how a problem arouse with a robot and how the three laws can explain any flukes the robots may have. Each story is linked together with familiar characters and the fact that this is all connected back to Susan who is relaying this story. Because each story is about a robot who has gone wrong, or something weird that has happened, they are mini-mysteries or puzzles. Each error needs to be corrected, but first the scientists must figure out why and how the mistake happened. This is not all set in a lab, however, but some are on Earth, others are in space, or on other planets.

The book is not like the movie...at all. I think the movie is actually based off of the first novel in the robot series, "The Caves of Steel". Originally Asimov published each story in sci-fi magazines and then put them all together in the book with the connective tissue being Susan Calvin's memoir. They work as a whole, but you can tell they are meant as individual pieces. As I think is typically the case with a lot of sci-fi, characters come second to plot and ideas. The characters are dimensional, but they are not the focus of the novel. Instead it's really about robotics, and the speculative future.

Personally this book wasn't for me. I'm not a futuristic, technology, space person, and there is some technical language in here that my anti-science brain didn't like. It was not over zealous on tech language and it's nothing the average reader should be afraid of, but it just doesn't appeal to me. On top of that I thought the pace of each story was a bit more leisurely and longer than I would like, especially when I'm already turned off by the setting and plot line. I am not saying this was a bad novel. On the contrary it was good. Asimov is able to write well and he set up a nice world for more books about robot/human interaction and artificial intelligence. I will not be reading them though.

If you like sci-fi, or if you want to diversify yourself and step outside of your boundaries, you should try giving Asimov a read. If not this novel, try The Caves of Steel. It is a mystery and the pace is compelling, but it still holds the sci-fi elements that are important and it is a part of the "I, Robot" universe.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

Graphic novels are the new hot thing. In the last five years I've heard more and more about these books and I must admit I'm a bit prejudice. How can a comic book be taken seriously? They're just about superheroes and misogynistic men. Well there's a reason graphic novels have had a comeback. Graphic novels capture stories that are deep, heavy, emotional, action-packed, etc. etc. This is the perfect medium for certain stories and kids and adults alike are jumping at the chance to read in this style. Graphic novels have been a heaven send for parents and teachers with reluctant readers.

In this young adult graphic novel, Hereville, the young Mirka wants to go on quests to kill dragons and other monsters. The only problem is she lives in an orthodox Jewish town. Mirka helps her little brother escape bullies, but must run from them herself. While fleeing, she stumbles across a strange house she's never seen and a witch. After stealing a grape from the garden, the witch's pig, who Mirka thinks is a monster because their village doesn't have pigs, terrorizes her until she saves it. The witch grants her a wish for saving the pig and decides Mirka needs to get a sword to fight dragons, but in order to get the sword, Mirka must defeat a troll. But Mirka is not just a troll fighting, dragon slayer, she's an Orthodox Jew. That means doing housework, going to school, and celebrating Shabbat.

This book took me about 30-45 minutes to read. I thought it was great! A perfect mix of fantasy, which draws many readers in, i.e. me, and fact. Mirka is a tom boy who doesn't want to learn how to knit or think about marriage. A lot of the novel deals with orthodox Jewish culture and happenings. Some of the vocabulary is in Yiddish, but on the bottom of the page there's always a translation. I learned a lot about the culture through this format and enjoyed the story.

Although Mirka's dreams may be childish, the story deals with some serious topics as well. Religion isn't exactly a topic that's paired with fantasy and as far as young adult fiction goes, it's typically not something touched on or the book is considered an 'inspirational' or 'religious' book, which often deters many from reading it. Here the Jewish community is important to the story and it's not just used as a setting, but it's an essential element that is talked about and explained. Mirka's mother has died and her family has been combined with her stepmother's. Bullies, popularity, obedience, and rebellion are all topics that are dealt with.

Thank you Mirka for reminding me that graphic novels are not flippant or a cheap form of literature. This was a fun, fascinating read.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Crossing Lines

Football and Homosexuals. Ahh...yes that sounds about right. Wait...well somehow writer Paul Volponi marries these two ideas. The ideas not the football players!

Adonis is a senior Varsity football player. He's excited for his final season to start, but the new school year starts with more drama than anyone anticipated. Alan, a new student at school, is a flamboyant gay man who is not afraid to stand up for himself and be himself. Adonis wants nothing more than to avoid Alan, but Ethan, the football team captain, has a problem with Alan's sexuality and the way he presents himself. Along with that, the fashion club, whose vice president is Adonis's sister, has made Alan their president. Adonis cannot escape Alan's presence or keep out of the issues. The girl he's dating is a good friend to Alan, and thinks that Adonis is the only football player with the balls to think for himself and do the right thing. As the drama and homophobia in school heighten, the football players plan a prank that will hurt and embarrass Alan. Where does Adonis stand on the line? He's unsure whether to be safe with his friends, or to cross the line and do the right thing.

This novel is a young adult title. It approaches some hard issues like bullying, homosexuality, homophobia, and peer pressure. Unfortunately I didn't think it really delved into these issues. Volponi certainly gets the homophobia point across. There are lots of slurs toward Alan and it hurts to see petitions going around school to try and get him kicked out. Although Adonis is uncomfortable with all of this, he never says anything to anyone and then he lies to the girl he's interested in by telling her he's totally against what the guys are doing. He backs up his friends and their hurtful opinions through most of the novel. I didn't like him. I understand what a difficult place he was in, choosing between whether to remain one of the guys or to do the right thing and become an outcast.

The ideas were too black and white. At the end it became here was the right thing you should have done, and here is the wrong thing that was done. Also, the climax came at the last 40 or so pages of the book. Volponi didn't dig into the afterward of what happens to Adonis and how he deals with having stood up for the gay guy. It felt like the end of the novel should be the middle of it. There was so much more to be  probed and I wish he would have looked into the opinions in this novel more. A lot of points were brought up that felt useless. Alan's family dynamic is brought up, but it feels like it's thrown away a bit. There were details that are stuck in there that are pointless because they don't go anywhere.

All in all I was thankful that this novel looked at issues that are rife throughout high schools and the world. However, the main character was a guy who thought he was an individual, but gave into peer pressure by remaining silent. Maybe he is supposed to represent the more prominent figure of the person who enables by being quiet. I just wish these ideas were more looked at. There's so much depth there that could have taken this novel to a different level.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Hunger Games

Every time I turn a corner I hear people talking about "The Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Most people have continuously told me to read the book! "It's so good". "You can't put it down". "You'll love it!" Sometimes that annoys me, especially when it's a bestseller. I want to go against the grain and not like it. Not this time though. All the talkers were right. This is an excellent book!

Set in the future, North America has become one country named Panem, and is ruled over by The Capitol. Katniss is a teenager who lives in District 12 of Panem with her mother and sister. In order to remind the districts of their disobedience from a long past rebellion, the Capitol puts people from each district in a sport called the Hunger Games. A girl and boy between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen in a raffle to go to the games, but these are not normal games. An arena is chosen where 24 kids from the twelve districts are sent. The point of the game is to survive and kill the other players. Katniss is taken from her district, so must use the skills she possess to stay alive or die at the hands of another.

Think of the games as a gladiator/survivor challenge and you have the right idea. I'm personally turned off by futuristic settings because I think of space and aliens and all sorts of weird technology. It's not futuristic in those terms. The people who live in this place are monitored and their food is divided, kind of like communism, but they live a very difficult lifestyle devoid of most conveniences. I thought the setting of the games was also great. It takes place in a foresty area, so it made for a nice, natural backdrop and reading about Katniss and her survival skills was fun and interesting. I couldn't stop reading and when I wasn't reading I was wondering what would happen next.

There is a lot going on in this book. Survival games, love stories, loss, rebellion, killing, and a future world that does not pity the poor and weak. This book was great and Collins created a great set up for the rest of the novels. It is not terribly bloody, but I would caution against young kids reading this. Stick with the 12+ crowd and I think it is fitting. I'm an adult and still thought it worked for me as well. Many of the themes are not adolescent, but Collins writes in an engaging way that is not overly serious or dramatic so as not to adhere this book to one age group. Katniss is a character who is firm and takes on more responsibility than a sixteen year old should, and although she's not the most sentimental or sensitive, she has layers that have yet to be delved into and her personality keeps you on your toes.

I would highly suggest reading this book. It has a great plot and is an easy read. Plus then you can finally join in on the conversations about it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Thief Lord

Reading Machine here at your service.

Today a Juvenile novel is my subject. The Thief Lord is a book I've wanted to read for quite awhile. It's about a gang of street children who live in an abandoned movie theatre and live off of the thievery of the Thief Lord, as he calls himself.

Prosper and Bo are two brothers who have run away from their Aunt and Uncle who threatened to split them up after their mother's death. Bo is a young boy of 5 or 6 years who has angelic features and Prosper loves him dearly and will not have the two of them seperated, so he runs away to Venice where they meet the others. In Venice, the boys discover the city that their mother told them so much about. Soon, however, a detective is on the boys' trail because their Aunt wants to find them. They must juggle the snooping detective, a man who cheats them out of money, a mysterious Conte who wants them to steal a precious item, a wonderful woman, and a magical object.

This is a tale about wanting to grow up and not being taken seriously as a child, among other things. Here is a story about kids who have no where else to go, but to each other. The world is both delightful and frightening to these children. How could a child whose father ignores him and believes everything he does is silly and childish not want to prove him wrong? Prosper most certainly would love to be older to be able to take legal possession of Bo and help them along in the world.

I was not drawn into this novel until at least half way through its pages. Although Venice provides a beautiful backdrop, I did not find the story as engaging or adventurous as I originally thought it would be. It wasn't until a mystical element was thrown into the pot that I felt the story took on a more lively and intriguing feel. Overall I did think it was good and relatively fast-paced. I would recommend it to those of middle school age. I certainly see many children enjoying this one.

Monday, September 12, 2011

My First Romance...

I've read a few romances before, but I've never read a full blown romance novel. Well the fates decided it was time to end that. As part of a project I read a romance novel. Well I found one that sounded good and was secretly excited to read it, so I did something unheard of...I finished the assignment about a month in advance!

Anywho, the novel I chose was The Bride and the Beast by Teresa Medeiros. It is a take on Beauty and the Beast, but it's definitely it's own adaption of that. I would say that Teresa was lightly inspired by the general storyline of the fairytale, but it's not a the same old Disney tale we've all seen. Gwendolyn is a rational, intelligent, virtuous woman in a Scottish Highland village where almost no one else is. She's one of the few women who hasn't thrown her skirts over her head and allowed any man to enter. Unfortunately her rationality is about to be tested. The village was cursed by the Laird upon his death. Someone in the town betrayed the Clan and gave the MacCullough family, the leaders, up to the English. The Clan leader died and his son was thought to be dead with him. Now the curse is reigning down on them in the form of a mysterious dragon who has taken refuge in the castle. At the request for the money the traitor received for betraying his Clan, the villagers don't know what to do, so being superstitious folk, they decide the dragon might satiate his appetite with innocent blood i.e. a virgin. Gwendolyn is left for the dragon to gobble up, but soon she discovers that the dragon is no mythical creature, but a man struggling with his beastly side and his humanity. The Dragon, as he calls himself, must keep Gwendolyn at the castle for fear she will tell the villagers his secret. But soon he discovers that having her there may be more a threat to his passions than he thinks...

This was an easy read. It took me a day to get through it and I found myself always drawn back to the novel after I had put it down. It's fast-paced, steamy, and mysterious. The heroine is no twit and the hero is of course a hunky man with a mysterious past, and lots of dark thoughts. Cliché? Well yeah, it's a romance! I was surprised and delighted that *spoiler* Gwendolyn and the Dragon were married before they went full out steamy romance on each other. That was a nice change from what I think of when I think of romance.

So I've discovered a new genre and I completely understand why many people get caught up in these books. They're fun, imaginative, and mind-numbing (in a good way). It's easy to sit down with one of these books and get lost in it, which is wonderful if you are stressed or just need to get out of the world you live in for a while. Romances awaken all those fantasies that my cynical 21st century self has pushed aside. Men in kilts? Order me up one! Flowing dresses? In the French fashion if you please! A romance that defies the ages? I think we could all use one of those.

So if you're a judger, like I am, maybe you should stop judging people who are reading books with half naked men and women on the cover and see what the rage is all about. You might actually like it. But hey, it'll be our little secret.

Monday, September 5, 2011

H-A-DOUBLE L-O-W-DOUBLE E-N....

Halloween is magical, at least to me. There's a spellbinding aspect about this holiday that gets me giddy as a school girl. Walking into homegoods stores and seeing the bounty of spooky ceramics, dolls, trinkets, and wall hangings brightens my round little face. The chill in the air and the crisp leaves falling from the skeleton boughs above them are timeless. The change of season is my favorite of the year, but there's one main component that adds to my adoration of this season. Halloween.

Other holidays have lost a lot of their appeal to me. Christmas is taken over by consumerism, St. Patty's by mass alcohol consumption, Easter way too much pastel! But Halloween still retains its age old magic, traditions, and mystery. There's a communion with nature, magic, mystery, terror, spirituality, and the unknown that can never be explained fully or taken away from my love. That doesn't mean I don't want to figure out why I feel this way for my beloved season, so I turn to books.

Lesley Pratt Bannatyne, wrote Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History and gave a well written, concise history of where Halloween came from and how it transformed into the holiday we know and love in contemporary times. The Celts were the first to celebrate what we envision as Halloween. Their Festival of Samhain, lord of the dead, was a late autumn festival during which the Celts celebrated the dead and the beginning of winter, the spirit season. Villagers offered sweets to appease mischievous spirits, or for more harmful, evil spirits, villagers dressed up as ghouls and led a parade out of the village to trick the spirits into leaving. See some similarities? Of course, witches are a major part of the holiday because practitioners were able to practice their craft at a higher level during this spiritual season. Once Christianity came, the leaders of the church put in new holy days where the old pagan celebrations originally set. Thus began All Saints and All Souls Day. People made soul cakes for these days and gave them to the poor. Soon boys and the poor began going door from door begging for soul cakes.

Come colonial times, the pagan traditions were set aside, at least in their out and out format, but harvest festivities and Guy Fawkes day were passable. As religious fervor calmed, the traditions came back and new ones were born. Halloween took on romantic aspects. Girls used superstitions and divination to learn who their future husband would be. Ghost stories were told and came from regional tales and cultural backgrounds.

During the 20th century, Halloween became a national holiday, but the trick part of trick-or-treat became a little too mischievous for communities. In an effort to divert trickster children causing property damage on this night, communities began holding parties for kids. From here, our Halloween parties, trick-or-treating, and the treats, tricks, and costumes all fell in place from the old world, to the new traditions.

Lesley's book was informative without being overly detailed about everything. She didn't use scholarly terms that are such a turn off unless you're doing heavy research. I thought this book was a great source for my Halloween history. I'm still ever so curious about the pagan routes of the holiday. Witches, bats, black cats, fairies, ghouls, and ghosts are the eerie, mysterious part of the season that haunt me and leave me wanting more. It may be a bit early to be thinking about Halloween, but I like to live up the season while it's still around.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Children's Books Extravaganza!!

I have two fall projects courtesy of my professors. Typically homework makes me cringe, but say HELLLOOO to my favorite classes: Materials for Youth, and Adult Reader's Advisory. As a library science student I need to be able to assist patrons with book suggestions, whether I know anything about the genres/authors/titles they're interested in or not, so classes like these are vital to boost my knowledge base and confidence. Well time to tell you about my projects...READ BOOKS!!! For my children's class my on going project is to read at least 70 children's and YA's books (40 picture books & 30 novels). For my adult's class I need to read 3 novels from different genres.

Well I've taken on my children's project head on. So now to share with you some of my favorite titles thus far.

"I Stink" by Kate and Jim McMullan is a fun, short picture book. Catchy title right?? I saw it and giggled, so just think what a kid would think. They'd love it! The pictures are cartoonish with lots of color. This is a book about...no not me!...about a garbage truck and what he does, so not only is it a fun read, with lots of noises and a talking dump truck, but it's informative. Here's a great book for a little one and a book I see being a favorite of many children. Great for young kids 2+.


"Scarecrow Pete" by Mark Kimball Moulton. The drawings are reminiscent of autumn, which is why I was originally drawn to this book. It's a well illustrated picture book about one of my favorite subjects, BOOKS! A boy finds a talking scarecrow in his family's vegetable patch and Pete, the scarecrow, helps him discover that books are a great way to learn, travel the world, and have fun. Pete and the boy have a good old time reading classics like "Moby Dick", "Peter Pan" and "The Wizard of Oz". The text rhymes, so it's a fun read-out-loud book for parents and their children. I think this one is good for kids who are reading or starting to read.

"You and Me and Home Sweet Home" by George Ella Lyon is such a sweet and time appropriate book. The girl and her mother in this book do not have a home and are forced to live in a relative's back room until neighbors and friends build them a home. In the current social climate with tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes taking down homes and communities left and right, this is a book that resonates with plenty of people across our nation. I was touched by the building efforts and thought the book was tasteful and well written. This is a great book to show kids that not everyone has what they have and to be thankful along with showing that helping others is important. Good for 4+ kids.


Well that's all for now. I'll get to some big kid reads soon enough, and hopefully I'll still be able to keep up with my own leisure reading, but I'm not complaining about my "homework". Silly teachers must have forgotten that homework is supposed to be miserable. Me=1, Professors=0.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Wind in the Willows

I have been reading this book in spurts for quite some time. That is some of the beauty of Kenneth Grahame's little piece. Sure you can read it in one fell swoop, but it's also easy to put it down and pick it back up whenever. It's as relaxed and easy a read as the river by which it takes place.

As a girl, my parent's read me a few of the stories from The Wind and the Willows. They were in story book form, however, instead of the novel form I've read. There were beautiful drawings of Rat and Mole, the Wild Woods, and the Riverbank. I thought it was magical as a child. How I wished for those woods and waterways, the ambling lifestyle of the characters, and the beauty of nature that they lived in harmony with.  The four main characters of the stories are Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger. They live in England in the country in the early 20th century. As an adult going back to those first stories and then reading through the entire book, I wondered why this book is a classic? Why is it for adults and children? I enjoyed reading it and still had the longings of my childhood, but I was trying to understand the meaning, if there is one, behind the concept for the stories. Upon asking my father, the ever wise patriarch of my family, he said that The Wind in the Willows is about life and lifestyles. The four characters represent different characteristics and lifestyles.

Toad is the easiest to place. He is conceited, wealthy, extravagant. He has few redeeming characteristics, but does love his friends, however he gets in loads of trouble because he is unable to see the fault in his actions.

Water Rat is friendly, outgoing, clever, intelligent, and always ready with a helping paw. He tries to set Toad right when he needs it, and he befriends Mole and shows him the world. He loves his River and the people on it and is happy with floating down it with a picnic basket and a good buddy.

Mole is sensible, patient, kind-hearted, and a good listener. He too cares about his friends and shyly makes new ones, but is ready for his new adventures in the River world.

Badger is wise, stern, speaks softly, but carries a big stick, he is fond of solitude, but generous when he is around others.

The stories are good for a languid afternoon or a drowsy evening. The whole book encompasses a year. My favorites are "The Riverbank", "The Wild Wood" (which leads into "Mr. Badger"), and "Dulce Domum". Pretty much the stories involving Mole and Rat. Whether these sophisticated creatures are getting lost in the woods, reeking havoc on the road, or enjoying evenings together, it's a testament to how one can enjoy life in several different ways. This is not a moral that screams at you, but you'll find yourself dreaming about such lifestyles for years to come. I can't wait to read these stories to my nieces and nephews (once one of my siblings has a kid) and have them dreaming of streams and wooded adventures.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education

When does education mean the difference between life and death? Well...in life or death situations. The education system has its problems at all different levels and factions, but sans formal education, the learning curve is a lot steeper when you're holding another's life in your hands. At the same time there's no equivalent to hands on experience. The big question becomes how much can formal education prepare you before experience takes its toll?

Throughout his memoir, Craig Mullaney explores the education he received to become a U.S. Army Captain and lead an infantry platoon. The book is split into three sections: (1) student (2) soldier (3) veteran. Mullaney is a West Point graduate. His recap of his college years is quite different than the 'traditional' university education. 6am runs followed by class, wrestling, drills, being harassed by upperclassmen, studying, target practice, etc., etc., etc. This is a system strictly meant for vocational work i.e. soldiering (yes, I may have invented a verb). The critical thinking skills Mullaney learns in his history classes and as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford help him have a more critical mind and analyze at a deeper level. Although given test after test in school, in field training, and in Ranger school, Mullaney unfortunately learns that when the unforgiving minute comes and the bullets are real, training only goes so far.

As a soldier, Mullaney is sent to Afghanistan to lead a platoon. There he fights boredom, sand, routine, and chaos. While sweeping an area, Mullaney's men land upon surprised terrorists. It is in this instance that all the education and training should assist him, but in his first battle, Mullaney freezes for a bit. What do you do? How do you react when the blood is real? When you're not firing at a piece of paper, but at a person? It's on Losano Ridge that Mullaney loses a soldier. At this point, Craig begins to question what his training has done for him and what mistakes he made. In the end he figures out that maybe there was nothing he could have done and fate took hold. One of the lessons the war teaches him is "combat was both the ultimate test of courage and its classroom".

As a veteran, Mullaney begins teaching at the Naval Academy. Here he hopes to impart the critical thinking skills that aided him in the battlefield and eventually he uses his own experience to try and teach his students how to help themselves when their moment comes.

This book is a pleasure to read. Craig Mullaney is both a warrior and a scholar. His story is well written and easily accessible. It marries personal details with his upbringing as a soldier. I enjoyed the vulnerability that Craig showed throughout the book. Soldiers are viewed as men-men (another term coined by yours truly) across the world, so it's nice to see that under the Kevlar vests there are emotions, fears, doubts, and regrets. Here is a great glimpse into the making of a soldier and the memoir of a man's toughest story to tell.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Walk Across America

In the early 1970s at the tail end of the peace and love hippie movement, with turmoil bubbling up around the country, Peter Jenkins decides he needs a life changing journey. Peter is a recent college graduate and divorcee who wants to leave the US because he believes it is in shambles until an older friend tells him, "if you want to leave, go right ahead, but first you sure as shootin' ought to give this country a chance!". That's when Peter decides to take his Alaskan Malamute, Cooper, and himself on a soul searching quest for what America and Americans are really like by walking across America.

The journey starts in Alfred, NY and the book ends when he reaches the Gulf of Mexico, so the title is a bit misleading. I guess "A Walk Down the Eastern Part of the United States" doesn't sell as well. He eventually finishes by walking to California, but we do not hear about it in this book. A journey that begins with Peter trying to figure out if America has any heart quickly becomes introverted. Peter begins to feel this whole journey is a spiritual and religious quest. In the end aren't we all looking for God or at least his replacement?

Peter finds both a spiritual answer for himself and discovers that Americans are warm and welcoming from West Virginia to Alabama. We meet some fun characters throughout the book including a mountain man and a soulful black family who adopt Peter as one of their own. Cooper was perhaps my favorite character in the book. A dog is always a great way to add fun and heart to any story, but *warning* like in most books with dogs, he dies! Tragic.

Although the writing is amateur, the story is compelling. It often feels like Peter lightly taps places and people on the shoulder without fully embracing his experience with them in his writing. He often says how thankful he is to people and how great places are, but I often wish he'd give more than just a passing nod. Even when he devoted chapters to one place or person he stayed with, his writing felt like it was lacking feeling and depth. I wanted more meat.

The first half of the book I felt was equal parts about the hiking/camping and the people/places he went. Towards the end of the book, however, it changed to be more about the people. They were both interesting, but personally I was more interested in the hike, nature, and Cooper.

This book does speak to more than just the lost hippie child. I loved that he seriously used phrases like 'groovy' in his writing, but even with those tacked on, this reaches more than just the flower child generation. It's a fun read and a true story of a man learning about his American routes and discovering that his suppositions about Americans were wrong.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Grief and Loss Fall Flat...You win again July

It has not been a good month for books in the Miss Elizabeth household. I've been traveling recently, so I decided to stir it up with a book on CD. I chose "The Year of Pleasures" by Elizabeth Berg. I'm a sucker for a cover (damn you shallowness!), and thought the book sounded sweet plus it was a short listen. Well I liked this better than some books, but still it did not phase me.

The book is about a grieving widow in her early 50s. She just lost her husband who was the love of her life and has now uprooted herself and moved to...Illinois? Anywho, she makes new friends, finds old friends, grieves her husband, and struggles with how to move on. The title is mentioned within the book by a character who says when she lost her daughter, she spent a year finding one thing a day that made her happy, something she enjoyed doing no matter how small. I love that idea, but I don't think the book earned this title.

What I think the author was going for was one of those, 'we just lost something dear, girls stick together, best friend, women' books. In my opinion, it didn't hit the mark.

The author tried too hard to describe simplicities like trees, shops, topography and after a while, it just felt phony like the writing of any student trying to be poetic. Stop with the figurative language and get to the meat! God knows I'm guilty of some of this behavior in my own writing, but I expect more from an author.

Something that annoyed me throughout the book was the main character, Betta's, attitude towards today's generations and technology. She stuck her nose up and was exasperated with any form of new fangeled technology. Whenever this was mentioned, she usually associated younger generations with the inability to love life beyond the internet. As a twenty-something, I resent the implication that I'm unable to socialize, enjoy just sitting, or the beauty of nature. I understand the point she makes about many people being dependant on technology and children missing out on activities because they're stuck in front of a screen, but sweeping generalizations are annoying and never apply to all.

The subject of the book, loss, grief, loneliness, is one that many can relate to and will resonate with most audiences, but I didn't feel it went anywhere new. It felt cliche. I did appreciate the underlying values of friendship and life even if I wasn't overly thrilled with the delivery. One line that hit home with me was, "how necessary the near presence of others in keeping me civilized and sane". For anyone who has ever lived alone or holed themself up for a period of time I think they can relate.

Again, this book did not strike a chord in me. The characters were underdeveloped and the plot points fell through. The author tried for deep and meaningful, Steel Magnolias-esque, but it didn't reach that level because I never felt a connection with the main character. There's not much more to be said about this book. Find something with more heart.

More Ordinary than Curious

I recently attended the American Library Association's annual conference in New Orleans where I had the pleasure of meeting and receiving complimentary copies of authors' books. One such book was "The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno" by Ellen Bryson. This is a book I saw on a B&N shelf not too long ago and thought it looked interesting. Well what with me thinking the book looked good, and having met the author, I was all ready to enjoy this novel....Anytime now...Crap.

I didn't.

The novel is about Barnum's Museum of Curiosities in New York City post Civil War (1865+ for you Canadians). The main character, Bartholomew Fortuno, is the world's thinnest man. We meet and see the daily lives of several other "curiosities", such as the fat lady, the elastic man, and a strong man, but one day a mysterious woman is added to the museum and Barty's world is tipped upside down. I applaud Ms Bryson for getting her first novel published. The idea is original and interesting, but it fell flat, like her characters.

The characters and plot were 2-D. They didn't jump off the page at you and I didn't feel there was anything or anyone to grab onto. The author made attempts at going beyond surface level, but I'm sorry to say her attempts failed. The main character, Barty, is annoying. He's like that whinny kid in class with no backbone. He knows all the rules by heart and isn't afraid to let everyone know it. I never warmed up to him and found his personality agitating.

The "mysteries" within the novel were not riveting. To say the least I was not turning the pages to figure out what happened. Had I not felt obligated to finish the book I would have put it down ages ago and been better for it. Nothing in the book moved me. Pieces of the plot felt loosely strung together and the "great reveals" were lacking. I wasn't surprised or intrigued.

I found nothing transforming about Bartholomew Fortuno. The author should have explored her characters more, made their relationships deeper, and their perspectives more pronounced and weighty. The curiosities are people who are outcast by the rest of society, but find a home in the Museum among others like them. This is a perspective that reaches all of us in one way or another, but I felt alienated from her characters and I don't feel Bryson tried to make the connection between her audience and the characters. Bryson tried to probe Barty's philosophy on the curiosities and how their presence in the world was a tool, but she never fully latched on to it.

After reading this book, I've decided to take Nancy Pearl's advice: if after 30-50 pages the book doesn't grab or interest you, just put it down. The world is full of books worth reading and life is too short to waste your time on an uninteresting read.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Underdogs and Evolution in Football

I'm not much of a sports person. Sure I enjoy watching football, basketball, baseball when I'm at a bar or at an actual game, but it's not something I seek out and it's not an area I have a lot of knowledge of. My parents shoved me into sports, so I've played most major sports and still enjoy playing when I get the chance. Well I didn't know what to think when my boyfriend told me that "The Blind Side", the book, was more about the football market and economy of the NFL than the gooshy underdog story. That sounds...out of my comfort level. But I thought, heck why not!

Well if you've seen the movie, then you understand the gist of the book. Poor, unrecognized, unloved, black high school boy gets recognized and finds his place in the world. It's a great story. Well that's what about half to two thirds of this book is about. I loved reading about Michael Oher and his adopted family the Tuohys. The writing in this book is accessible and the story is anything but dry, which (I must admit) I often find non-fiction to be. For the most part, that part of the book and the movie are very similar with a few differences spotted throughout.

The other half to two thirds of the book are about football. How the game has changed the role of the players and strategies for drafting and playing. The subtitle of the book is "evolution of a game", so Michael's story is only part of the book. It just happens that he lives up to the role of the elusive right side offensive tackle (yes this book taught me some football lingo though I really didn't retain much of it), which happens to be the position that Michael Lewis places emphasis on in the book. The first chapter of the book had my head spinning. What is all this jargon? Where does which player play? There is strategy to this brute of a sport? After those ten pages or so I almost put it down, but I'm happy I continued with it. I was naive and I confess this book helped me see that there's a reason these men get paid as much as they do. There lives are often cut short due to the mass amounts of physical damage they do to their bodies during their years playing the game. These are people who were born to play the sport because of their physical make up and their athletic ability. The offensive tackle cannot just be some sumo wrestler sized man, he must also be light on his feet and fast. Those are rare qualities in so large a man.

A point in the story that somewhat bothers me is the adopting of an underprivileged child for his athletic ability. The Tuohy family did not adopt Michael merely for his skills in sports, I know that, but they do discuss taking on the task again. I am all for helping people get educated and rise up to their full potential, but it seemed like the Tuohys became interested in only helping those with athletic ability. What about the others? Sure sports are great, but what about those kids who are intelligent and can make a good life for themselves, but they're stuck in the wrong circumstances? Ok maybe that is cutting off more than they can chew. At least they are trying to help those who need it instead of just overlooking the issue. There are programs out there that only want to help kids with certain grade point averages, so why not have programs that want to help student athletes. I still have some quandaries with it, but it's better than nothing.

Lewis did an eloquent job of telling an 'against all odds' story along with exploring the evolution of the game of football. I'll admit I enjoyed Michael's story more than the chapters about how strategy changed and reassessing the importance of certain positions. For the most part I thought the story read more like a novel than a non-fiction. I'm happy I stepped out of my comfort zone for this book. If you're into football, even slightly, you should consider giving this book a read. Michael Oher and the Tuohy family are lovable and Lewis does a fine job of explaining the game of football and presenting a number of view points and sources for his story. He made it accessible to the avid football fan along with the novice. Cheers to you Mr. Lewis for bringing outsiders into the world of football and going beyond just the dark horse story to create a near seamless conglomerate.

Monday, June 13, 2011

I Vant to see BLOOD!!

Hello, my name is Miss Elizabeth, and I am addicted to the Sookie Stackhouse series. It all started a couple summers ago when I decided to give the first one a shot after seeing True Blood, the HBO series that's based off of Charlaine Harris's books. After that first sinful taste of the Southern vampire series, I was hooked. Soon I was making weekly runs to Target to pick up the next book in the series and finally making frenzied requests at the library for the newest addition. Then they ran out. Where did all the Stackhouse books go? That's when I went cold turkey. But Harris finally published another one! I jumped off that wagon pretty quick, let me tell you!

"Dead Reckoning" is the 11th book in the Southern Vamp series and yet again, Miss Stackhouse has enemies trying to kill her and secrets to be revealed. I cannot tell you anymore than that or risk giving away all sorts of plots in the other books if you haven't read them. I gotta say, Sookie is not one of my favorite characters, but I do love these books. There's always something happening and more supernatural creatures waiting around the corner. Her telepathy makes her an asset to the supes around her, but her network of vampire "friends" and other protectors keeps her safe, or so she thinks. She is a woman who can handle her problems and tries her damnedest to keep her life under control while exterior forces push her into the line of fire. I appreciate her independence and her no-nonsense attitude, but when I think of her, I think of Anna Paquin (the actress who plays Sookie in True Blood) and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I know that's silly, but I just can't help it. The other characters in these books are just as fun as Sookie, if not more so. Pam, a vampire and right hand woman of Eric the viking vampire (yum), is one of my favorite characters. She's an oxymoron in the way she dresses and the way she acts. She's a bad ass Alice in Wonderland who thinks nothing of killing and has a dry, black sense of humor. Then of course Eric, viking vampire, is a hot piece who is a vampire through and through. He is typically very cold, pun intended, and keeps his hand close to his chest, but that impenetrable personality paired with his charm makes him irresistible.

Sure this is not a masterpiece of literature, but it is a FUN read!! One of the nice things about this series is that each book leads right into the next without any hassle. It's assumed you know the past stories, so chapters aren't spent catching the reader up on what's been going down. There are always new developments, but plot lines run over between books, or even come back a few books later. When I think of traditional summer reading, I think of mindless, easy books and I must say this one fits the ticket. Sure you may have to recall details from past books in the series, but there's no thinking involved. The only problem is you may find yourself becoming antisocial because all you want to do is read. Who needs friends anyways?

I truly love this series. It's my guilty reading pleasure. Admitting the problem is one step closer to recovery, right? Well if reading about vampires, fairies, werewolves, and a telepath is wrong, then I don't want to be right! Cut me a line of that and keep that wagon away. Mama's on a high.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Antisocial Never Looked So Good

I gave into the buzz. After at least a year of hearing how awesome the books in the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium series are I relented and picked up the first book "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". As silly as it is, I usually hesitate when it comes to bestsellers. My snobby bibliophile comes out and up goes my nose. "These plebeians don't know what good writing really is. They're all just drawn to the latest sexed book, thrown together in a rush and hardly edited [all said in my Brahman accent]." Who is this monster? O yeah, it's me. Time to set aside my ugly self and try this international bestseller.

Well if you're one of the few who have yet to read this book, let me give you a drive-by summary. Mikael Blomkvist, a financial investigatory journalist, was recently convicted of libel. Lisbeth Salandar is a misunderstood, antisocial young woman who has a penchant for investigating/researching people and a desire to solve her own problems. Mikael is hired by the old CEO of a huge corporation to solve a mystery and soon Salandar and Mikael partner up to figure this thing out. There is so much more to the story and so many other angles, but I don't want to give anything away. The weaving together of stories is intricate. The main characters are interesting, especially Salandar, a girl so unlike anyone I've ever met or would even look twice at.

Overall it was a fun book. Fantastic beach read! The writing is good, and the story is rich. Again, Salandar is a compelling character, who I want to see more from. You never know what this character will do or if you'll ever hear her full story, which makes me want to see more from her. After all the hype, I was a smidgen disappointed. Let me stress, ONLY A SMIDGEN. Still a great read, especially as far as 'who done its' go. I guess I just expected a lot because I heard so much about the book. It's not a book I will rave about to others or name as a favorite, but I see why people really like it and all in all I liked the book and will probably end up reading the remaining two in the series. Who knows, maybe I will write love blogs to "The Girl Who Played with Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest". Only time will tell.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Foreign-ness of Simplicity

Dolce far niente, sweet to do nothing. What an Italian saying. How sweet it is to do nothing. This is the lifestyle that Frances Mayes immerses herself in in her book, "Under the Tuscan Sun". Italians live in a way that is so foreign to we Americans. Three hour breaks in the middle of the day? Only having seasonal ingredients? Workers who don't show up when they say they will? Having a mini farm in your backyard? What are all these strange concepts? Foreign, yes perhaps, but after reading Mayes book, I can't think of anything that sounds better.

If you have seen the movie, "Under the Tuscan Sun", please put it out of your mind. Yes there are similarities, but the movie is a different beast from the book. The book is a work of travel nonfiction about Mayes and her current husband buying and refurbishing an old, neglected house and the few acres that come along with it. Mayes is a lover of food and cooking, so there are also chapters about her favorite recipes and she talks about the exquisite meals and wines she makes and eats. The book is not a romance, unless you consider the love of a house and place romantic.

I enjoyed the first half of the book describing the work done on the house. It was invigorating to hear about how it went from point A to point B and all of the time and love that Frances and her hubby put into this project. But it was not only the house that had to be updated. The land had olive, fig, and pear trees on it, a wall that needed to be finished, and pruning and planting to be done. This is a lifestyle where living is encouraged, and simplicity has never seemed so complicated. All you do is sit and eat for three hours? Pears and gorgonzola are a stunning combination? It's so simple! I found myself getting bored after about the first half of the book once most of the work on the house was complete. After that, many of the chapters were about places that Frances and her husband visited. Sure some of it was interesting, but I was into the lifestyle of the house and the locals.

Overall, this book made me long for Italy, for a country house in a foreign land where I can make friends with locals, grow food that I can pick off the trees and eat, take on a house and win. It made me want to rediscover life. Frances talks about how different her life is in San Francisco, where she lives most of the year, and Tuscany, where she spends her winter and summer breaks. She talks about how going to Bramasole, the Tuscan house, is like going home. It is like becoming the better version of yourself. I want that.

This is a good read for the most part. It makes you want to get up and do things, rediscover life, cooking, gardening, renovate something, anything! I loved the culture that was unfurled throughout Frances's book, but there were places that I felt she blathered on, and I lost interest. If you love traveling and different cultures, give it a read. Don't get too carried away, however. You wouldn't want to end up with a house in a foreign countryside, or would you?

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Meaning Behind Words

Nazi Germany1939-1943. We all know what was happening at that time and in that location. A nation who had previously been squelched and left in the gutter in a past war finally found a leader to pull it up by the boot straps. Unfortunately, in order to bolster the German spirit, it was deemed necessary to find a target, an outlet for resentment and bitterness. But just because one man's words struck the Germans dumb doesn't mean that every German was taken in by his hateful words.

"The Book Thief" is about words. Liesel Meminger is a young girl who becomes the foster child of Hans and Rosa Hubermann. While dealing with her own past haunts, Liesle discovers the love of a silver-eyed man, a wooden spoon wielding woman, a lemon haired boy, and a boxing Jew. The struggle and success she finds through learning to read and becoming a bibliophile turns into her true love. In order to cultivate her passion for reading, Liesel begins stealing books. Liesel discovers that although the words in her books transport her to better places, the words spoken and written in Hitler's Germany decimate the lives of thousands. The dual nature of written and spoken words are examined throughout this novel.

Death narrates this novel, which creates a unique aspect. 'Well that's morbid', you may think, but it's WWII, so death surrounds everything, and it is an inspired idea in this novel. Death is not portrayed as a cold or heartless being in the writing. Instead, his narrating encompasses Liesel's story and that of the other characters and happenings throughout the war.

"The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak is an easy, touching, emotional read for young adults and adults alike. The story is compelling with many different aspects and characters to learn to love. I've heard many people speak of this book fondly and I must agree. It is a good read and gives a different side to the war than other novels.

Monday, May 2, 2011

You Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming

Never date a military man. That is the lesson "You Know When the Men are Gone" by Siobhan Fallon taught me. The book is a collection of short, loosely tied together stories. They are all about the relationships of military personnel and the families of these persons. Perspectives change from story to story, but the themes run deep from frustration, fear, hurt, heartbreak, hope, loss, disappointment, love, and longing as individuals make their way through their deployment or that of a loved one in Iraq.

The stories circle around Fort Hood, a military base in Texas, where wives wait for their men to return from war. The men overseas dream about the women who they believe are yearning for them. Here is a book that opens your eyes to the complications of living an army life and the strain it puts on personal relationships. How fragile relationships are and how even the strongest men have weaknesses. The one thing you think you can rely on, your love and family, become twisted and complicated. It's not just the distance affecting the relationship and sometimes love isn't enough to make it work.

This is a fascinating read. Fallon held my attention from page to page, story to story. One of my worries was having to get to know each new narrator, but I found myself drawn into each character. The stories are captivating. Since the author is a woman, I expected all the stories to be from the female perspective, but was happily surprised to find many stories from the male point of view as well. However, you could tell that this is a woman writing because the stories got into the emotional world of each character in a way that I rarely see men tap into. You won't want to put this one down. I highly suggest reading it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Getting Squirrely with Sedaris (oh puns)

David Sedaris. If you don't already know this name, I highly suggest you acclimate yourself with it. Admittedly, I have not read much of his work, but what I have read, or heard from him always intrigues me and usually makes me giggle.

In "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk", Sedaris takes social issues and puts them in animal terms. No one likes being preached at. Lord knows I've had to sit through too many boring sermons by people who don't know how to write or engage an audience, so I REALLY don't want to read something of that sort. Sedaris, however, has a fun way of getting social commentary out there without slapping you across the face with it. Only fun little taps and maybe some light slapping. In this book of short (o so short) stories, he talks about those annoying habits people have, the strange things we do, snobbishness, and so much more. He observes the actions of society and individuals and writes about it in an eye-opening, dark, and humorous way. The best part is, he doesn't use humans! O the brilliance! This method takes a step back from the formality and somewhat harshness of dealing with a reflection of yourself in a character and instead transfers it to sheep, owls, squirrels, etc. Who can resist a good animal tale?

Think about 'Aesop's Fabels'. Teaching lessons or commenting on life through cute and cuddly animals is sometimes a better approach to certain issues. Although Sedaris is bringing up different perceptions, life choices, and morals/values, he does not end his stories with 'here's what you should learn from this'. They're cheeky, darkly humorous, and poignant. I could use another read through the stories to fully comprehend the meanings, but they are not difficult to capture where Sedaris is going with each tale.

Pick up "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" and give it a read. It will take you maybe a couple hours to get through, so why not? It is short and entertaining with those pesky little messages peeping through the pages. On top of all that, there are pictures! Who doesn't love a book with pictures? This was the perfect break book for me. Nothing fluffy, but a nice pause from all that long and tedious reading. Good for an upcoming pool/beach day.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

*I must preface this post with the fact that I have yet to finish Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse". I know naughty, naughty, but Ms Woolf is a lot for me to handle and I need to write/move on to a lighter read. I promise I will finish this book once I get all of my projects, research, and papers out of the way. *

Virginia Woolf is not for everybody. I understand that. Even as a student of literature and a proclaimed lover of books, I struggle with her writing. Every time I pick up a piece of her work, I feel a weight settle in on my shoulders. It's like homework a lot of the time. I have to concentrate on every sentence in order to catch the meaning, subtle digs, and thoughts that are pulsing beneath the surface. But like a well thought out assignment, one may start it reluctantly, but in the end, it broadens your horizons, teaches you something, and, God forbid, you may actually enjoy it.

Woolf is a challenge to me. "To the Lighthouse" is a book that sat on my shelf for years collecting dust. I'll tell anyone who asks that I am fascinated and reverent of Woolf. She wrote one of my favorite books/series of essays, but the truth of the matter is I struggle just picking up her work. "To the Lighthouse" is quintessential Woolf. There isn't much of a plot and you skip from one character's thoughts to the next. This is frustrating. It's hard to follow and often semi-boring. So why read her? Let me tell you my thoughts on the subject....

Woolf will not drive you through her novel with captivating plot points or even characters you fall in love with. But Woolf is a bloody good writer! She's a literature lover's wet dream. Each sentence carries weight and often times it's not what's said that matters, it's the space between. Woolf does what I've noticed most of my favorite authors do, she breaks people down. This book is not about going to the lighthouse, it's about the journey or non-journey there. She makes one average day into an existential interior dialog. The brilliance of Woolf is that she sees genius in the everyday, average people as deep thinkers. One does not need a catastrophic event to make them think about life. Everyday offers the opportunity for realization, philosophy, contemplation of life, the meaning of it all, God, and existence. Woolf is a master at her craft because you can read her words over and over again and find new meaning each time. She writes beautifully and it feels effortless.

My sister and I discussed the characters in Woolf's novels and how they all seem egocentric. I must agree that for the most part they are selfish and egotistic. But let's consider that we are invading their private thoughts. Who of us isn't almost always thinking of our self? Mrs. Ramsay, one of the main characters in this book, has many thoughts about not being understood. She is a woman with nine children who gives her time, love, and devotion to them everyday. I don't think Woolf is trying to separate the characters from one another, but bring them closer to their audience. Many of Woolf's readers are women of a certain age who perhaps feel like Mrs. Ramsay, which is to say unseen as an individual, and can relate to her in many ways. Their personal thoughts are meant to enrich our own lives and show us we are not alone in our struggles.

"To the Lighthouse" is a good Woolf read, though I think "Mrs. Dalloway" offers a better variety and I preferred the stories in "Mrs. Dalloway". I enjoyed the scenery in "TtL". The Scottish coast gives a relaxed, yet contemplative atmosphere to the novel. One of my favorite characters is Charles Tansley, the one character whose thoughts are not as deep and meaningful as he thinks they are.

Here's my suggestion: if you're into Woolf, give it a try. If you've read Woolf and think she's brilliant, but perhaps not someone you want to continue reading, understandable. If you are of neither of these opinions, then just leave her be. It is worth reading at least an extract of her work, to see why she is still relevant, but you don't have to torture yourself. Unless you're into masochism. Just don't tell me about it.