Saturday, December 19, 2009

Review: Horns by Joe Hill

I'm not usually one to get swept up in a frenzy bandwagon read, but the last time I followed the recommendations of my fellow TLs at the bookstore, I ended up reading the terrific (and now critically overlooked) The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

The six of us have fairly diverse tastes, and because we're always picking up new stuff, it's rare for any two of us to be reading the same thing around the same time, let alone three or four of us. Sure, there's always new books we're talking up, and each of us is almost always lobbying the others to read something so fantastic, so well-written, so thrilling, so entertaining, so funny.... etc. When a book takes the manager staff by storm, it deserves a little attention.

When Chris, our general manager, received several advanced copies of the upcoming Joe Hill book, she was ecstatic to hand them out to us. I took a copy not because I'm a huge Joe Hill fan - I haven't read Heart-Shaped Box, though I have enjoyed the few of his short stories I've read - but because I'm almost always willing to read anything having to do with the Devil. Also, I figured I might want to read it before Hill's appearance at our store in March. And Chris couldn't stop raving about it, so I thought it was worth having a copy on hand if the buzz continued to build.

And it did. But truthfully, being as awash in the upcoming 2010 kids' books coming out, I never would have been able to get to this book before March had it not been for one very priming factor:

I'm burned out on kids' books.

Sad but true. Finishing up the must-reads of 2009 while simultaneously tackling the first of the must-reads for 2010, as well as trying to keep up with the reading for my store-sponsored kids' book clubs and the ever pressing Shelf Awareness Reading Challenge, I've been covered in an avalanche of kids and young adult reading... and I'm still nowhere near where I want to be.

I've read so many terrific kids' books. Books entertaining, silly, sad, moving, thrilling, even frightening. I've had moments of reading this past year that have remained with me since their conception. Even now, reading a little piece of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate or When You Reach Me or Catching Fire will send my body into pulses of goosebumps. The other day, while pitching the positives of Kate DiCamillo's latest, The Magician's Elephant, I realized that every element I attributed to the text - beauty, profound and lovely, but also equally comprised of cold and of loneliness - was absolutely true, and that this was truly a book that any reader could fall in love with.

But trying to keep up with an ever-growing supply of new, hot titles to read has numbed me a bit to the subtle charms of the recent kids' books I've picked up, and that has made me hesitant to start new reads until I recharge my enthusiasm.

I also suffer a little bit of deprivation having to do with the lack of darkness in so much of kids' lit. Every once in a while, a YA book can surprise you with its demons - The Hunger Games or The Chaos Walking Trilogy or The Graveyard Book - but mostly it steers clear of really dangerous ideas and plotlines. Sometimes what I want to read is the literary equivalent of a punch to the gut, and that doesn't happen to often in books meant for a younger audience.

Hence, Horns. Now that you've read my life story, you're probably wondering why I'd bother going into such detail about the whys of reading this fantastic new book.

Well, if I wanted a punch to the gut, I received it and more. A promising first chapter got me thinking that this would be one of those "you've just got to read this" books, in the effect that Hill could pull off a premise whose directions could vary wildly in scope, tone, and quality.

Ig Perrish wakes up with a raging hangover and a pair of horns growing out of his head. A night of hard drinking to console himself about the anniversary of his girlfriend's unsolved murder remains a mystery, as does the appearance of the horns and his sudden strange effect ont he people he comes into contact with. After a series of odd interactions where complete strangers tell him the deepest and darkest of their secret actions and desires, Ig makes a trip to his parents' house where he encounters surprising and unexpected truths from his family, including the identity of his girlfriend's murderer.

Just as every culture has their own way of understanding and interpreting "The Devil," Hill creates his own version, this one with a compassionate streak, an affinity and affection for the serpents who seek him out, a snarky sense of humor and rock'n'roll soundtrack. Hill also effectively withholds actually coming to the devil conclusion until long after his readers have made that decision for themselves, which is nice because it doesn't make the issue a forgone conclusion - after a while it would be easy to take for granted Ig's condition, but Hill's a better author than that.

What he does give us is a complex main character whose previous virtues as a human being were both innate and coincidental. It's a conclusion that doesn't come up much in high concept mysteries and thrillers - how people are as much defined by the evil they don't do, and how the line between what a person is capable of doing is never fixed, never permanent, and almost always dissolving in the murky waters of doubt, confusion and anger.

Hill pulls off his big concept, although not without faults. The book is divided into sections each following their own narrative thought - a section telling the story of Ig as a fifteen year-old, meeting his best friend, Lee, and his future girlfriend, Merrin, as well as exploring the relationship between him and his older brother, Terry. A later section changes course entirely, inhabiting the mind and memories of another character, and it is in this section that Hill gets some of his best and slowest moments - while it is key to telling the story, the section drags, especially as placed so close to the concluding action of the primary plot. I found myself fighting the urge to skim longer paragraphs of description, as if they represented walls of distraction obstructing the course to the answers and actions I wanted most to reach.

Of course this is, truly, a minor complaint. If a storyteller has so captivated you to the point of irritation in not being delivered answers straight away, then he's obviously doing many, many things right. Hill gets points for using explicit violence and language effectively, naturally enough to be the part of everyday vernacular and extraordinary circumstances, but not so much as to be distractingly crass or off-puttingly vulgar. One could be off put by the rampant misogyny, but in a tale exploring the hidden natures of good and evil lying within everyone, issues between genders are inevitably going to occur, and in volatile expressions of hate, disgust, and desire.

It's a relief to read a thriller about morality that doesn't pretend to fully comprehend or espouse its theories. Notions of good and evil are just that - elements of thought, some layered one upon another upon another, roughly resembling something like religion, spirituality, morality, evilness or goodness.

While my co-worker, Maureen, said it gave her nightmares, I didn't find the text dauntingly frightening. It messes with you, certainly - any good fantastical tale of good and evil really should screw with your mind - but I see this more as a potboiler with thriller elements than a straightforward horror. Or perhaps a horror for mystery lovers. Or a horror for those who love religious metaphors and themes.

Whether it's a horror, mystery, thriller, religious parable, I like mine dark humored, violent, and more than a little gritty. I needed to get my reading hands a little dirty, and this novel did the trick.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Heart is a Lazy Blogger

To any and all loyal readers, please excuse my recent blog negligence. To explain:
1. I work in retail at a large independent bookseller.
2. I manage the children's department of said bookstore. In addition to the wide array of books we carry, we also feature a huge variety of toys and merchandise for babies to teenagers.
3. It's the holiday season.

So please forgive me if I'm a bit slow to update the page. I promise, I'll be adding a bunch of posts late this week/early next week, especially as things slow down at work.

But right now, I admit, I'm a little booked out. I need to recharge my reading buzz, refuel my writing tanks, then I'll be back full blast. Hopefully my metaphors will improve as well!

Read recently:
- Lips Touch:Three Times by Laini Taylor
-Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
- Horns by Joe Hill (long awaiting follow-up to Heart-Shaped Box, out in February)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It's hard to turn the page when your fingers are frozen...

We have held off turning our heat on, fearing overwhelming gas bills in addition to the large electricity tab running every month. But the cold has proved itself a constant, and our efforts to stave off the chill in our apartment have gone largely unrewarded. This morning, the space heater, which I have taken to snuggling like a romantic partner, broke down.

So it's me, a heating pad, a sea of blankets, and an effort to read without exposing my fingers. Maybe the Snuggie people have it right - I am having trouble moving my arms without losing some of the blanket's protection. Still, I will not pay twenty bucks to wear a robe backwards, even if it means reading underneath the blanket... and missing out on a cool and useful complimentary booklight.

This week has been a fairly good one for reading. I finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go last weekend, followed it up with the surprising The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, Francisco Stork's follow-up to this year's acclaimed Marcelo in the Real World. I'm now a bit more than halfway through Michael Adams' funny and brisk year-long quest to find the worst movie ever made, Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies. Adams' doesn't have the innate charm of other year chroniclers, notably AJ Jacobs, and the heart of the text doesn't completely make-up for the format's limitations, but still, it's an easygoing, even compelling study of what makes a "bad" film and what makes a truly terrible film, told with enthusiasm by the likable Adams.

If I don't freeze to death, I'll finish that one today. Then it's back on kids' upcoming releases. There's a new one coming out by Esperanza Rising author Pam Munoz Ryan that I've got to check out, and several from Random House that look great. I also might give Scott Westerfield's Leviathan a shot. I've been in a bit of a steampunk mood, ever since discovering this fantastic Etsy shop, but because I'd have to finish The Court of the Air to read its just released follow-up, maybe I'll stick with the new Westerfield.

And of course, there's always book #2 in the Shelf Discovery Reading Challenge. Oh, and I have to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid before Mother-Daughter Book Club on Thursday.

So much to read, so little time, so little heat. Let's hope that gets fixed soon.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: Split by Swati Avasthi

No matter how much young adult literature I read, it's still sometimes difficult to deal with the matter of expectations. I'm not of the mindset that you have to lower your expectations when reading children's literature. Actually, I often experience the opposite: I appreciate a well written adult book, but when a work of literature intended for a young audience really works, I find myself even more inspired by it than its possible adult counterparts.

Maybe it's because so many people underestimate the intelligence of young readers, underestimate their abilities to discern quality from what they read, that when a children's book holds such complexities and depth of story and character, I'm relieved that not only was the writer talented and creative enough of a storyteller to give a young audience something it really deserves, something it really needs, but that there was a publisher that saw the potential in the book, that there were other people behind the book, pushing it forward, paving the road to its eventual audience. I'm relieved that there are people out there that really give a damn about what children are reading and want to provide them with the very best that kids' lit can offer.

But expectations... they can still be trouble. Whereas my expectations as far as quality of writing hardly ever differ between literature intended for adults or literature intended for children, sometimes I have to accept that the way information is conveyed to an audience may depend on the age of the target demographic. When young adult books focus on a serious topic, there must be some acceptance of the fact that this will probably be handled in a way that is going to teach a lesson. It's just a matter of fact in YA lit. But serious topics are usually met with eventual preachiness or life-building, lesson learning coming-of-age.

There are sophisticated ways that this is done, of course. I recently had the joy of reading Sherman Alexie's excellent, National Book Award - winning YA book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and I was really impressed by how well Alexie works in the life lessons learned by Arnold Spirit. The way the book weaves flooring moments of crushing reality with exuberant bursts of friendship, love, hope, and humor, so much humor, often all of it within pages of another, and yet, nothing feels disconnected or haltingly incongruous. And yes, the main character learns life lessons. A lot of them, actually. But the novel doesn't seem to screech to halt every time Arnold has an epiphany of one kind or another.

Split by Swati Avasthi is not quite as skillfully handled. The story of two brothers, reconnecting after years of separation due to the physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon them by their father, never goes into full on After-School Special mode, but it also falls flat on its mild attempts at wryness or humor. Jace, the younger brother, is kicked out of his house after physically challenging his father, and he gets into his car and drives thousands of miles to his brother's apartment in Albuquerque. He's carrying with him almost nothing except the address to his brother's place, the little bit of money his mother could sneak him, and the revolving wheel of tormenting memories, recollections of his father's abuse on him, his mother, his older brother, and Jace's subsequent destructive relationship with his high school girlfriend, Lauren.

Jace's older brother hesitantly welcomes him, and from then on, it's the slow-moving transformation between an almost-man, desperately trying to ignore what he ran away from, and his teenage brother who can't shake lose what he only just left behind.

To the credit of the author: So many YA books about abuse border on exploitive. It's something I deplore so much about these books that purport to be doing something cautionary, even important, but are simultaneously reveling in the "how bad it can be" scenario. Split never gets overly graphic or needlessly specific. It doesn't overwhelm with the dirty details. Avasthi allows the small details to compensate in the large spans where there are no major revelations, and this allows the reader to process the information gradually, in the same way Jace reluctantly allows himself to remember or dwell on the memories of his life back in Chicago. His brother is even slower to admit to certain details, but as the siblings go beyond living civilly together, they allow themselves to divulge long-hidden details of the abuse and subsequent escapes.

Avasthi also does well in examining how a family's tradition of abuse can lead to long-term problems with physical violence and aggression in the children of the abusers. Jace is running from this violence, but it lives within him, and the prospect of him becoming his father is even more terrifying than the original monster himself.

What drags the novel down are stretches of stiff dialogue. The awkward tension between Jace and his brother is understandable, expected, and natural in its restrictiveness... but it makes for some fairly dull passages. The problem recurs in almost every conversation in the book, whether it's between Jace and his brother, Jace and his brother's girlfriend, social worker/teacher/den mother Miriam, or Jace and his would-be love interest, Dakota. Whether he's talking through his problems, actively avoiding talking about his problems, or even flirting with a girl he likes, Avasthi never really gives Jace a credible voice. For how interesting his inner thought process can be, Jace, personality-wise, is a bit flat. He's good at soccer. He's naturally charming with girls. He's intelligent, seemingly, likes to take photos... He's a lot of details with a big backstory, something overbearingly awful to overcome. As much as find out about the character, he never quite comes alive.

Because these characters never quite go beyond the archetypes they're inhabiting - victim, survivor, caretaker, motivating beautiful girl -any emotional catharsis is reached in a series of almost maddeningly stiff dialogue. It seems to be Avasthi's limitation as a storyteller and not necessarily the limitations of the story chosen to tell - there is a wealth of interest in Split, but it's mishandled in a series of slight ways, all of which add up to an imperfect, but readable, piece of debut YA fiction.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shelf Discovery Reading Challenge - Five to Go!

Well, that's one down. Two weeks ago, I spent a few pleasurable days with Madeline L'Engle's classic A Wrinkle in Time. Now comes the question - how does one write about these books for the Shelf Discovery Challenge? Whereas this one was an easy read because I a) have already read through it once, and b) already own it, I feel like it's the more challenging to write about because my opinions on it are already well formed, not to mention that Ms. Skurnick does a really fine job of writing A Wrinkle in Time, so good and spunky and true that it's almost a disservice to try to add anything to the topic, at least as far as Shelf Discovery goes...

The other books I chose deliberately because I had not read them, but in one way or another, I've always felt compelled to, either because they are long-staying YA classics or because their impact can be felt in great YA books of today or because there was something about them that sticks out so sharply, I could not ignore my interest (I'm looking at you, My Darling, My Hamburger). But A Wrinkle in Time I picked for a different reason, mostly out of sentiment, but not for the book itself. Rather, what the book has always reminded me of, what it has always been a symbol of, other than what is actually contained in the story, has been my mother's continual support and interest in my love of reading.

I've always been an avid reader - cliched, out-of-date slang insults for me could include bookworm, booknerd, etc. - but not necessarily of particularly distinguished taste. A lot of the stuff I read as an intermediate-level reader - ages six through 10 - were your common variety kids' junk read, maybe with some Boxcar Children or Roald Dahl or Lowis Lowry mixed in. I read a lot of The Babysitters Club. I read thin little paperbacks with sixth grade kids getting into mild trouble with their friends/family/school but nothing dire, nothing tragic, nothing impactful. I read some mysteries, mostly pointless stuff. I'm not completely deriding what I read at that age, but I didn't have an emphasis in anything classic. My mother tried to get me interested in Nancy Drew, but it seemed too old fashioned. I read the same first half of Little Women in the same green, hardbacked copy from the library, but never moved beyond the "little women's" childhood. I read a lot of books twice, three times, four times over. I thought about what I was reading, but not really beyond what I thought of the main character, what I thought of her/his family, what I thought of his/her friends. I was a greedy reader, but superficial in my understanding.

I don't look at my reading from then and think totally dismissively, or even that "ugh, look at all the crap I read then compared to the stuff I read now!" - if I'm honest, my taste has never been to pure classics or the upper echelon of literary fiction or the driest and most researched of contemporary non-fiction. I have certain basic requirements in what I read as an adult, and I hold these standards to everything I read, whether it be the children's books that are my professional life, or the occasional adult read that I use as valued breaks from the sometimes monotony of reading for the same demographics over and over again. But my basic requirements are just that - basic: I don't like stuff that is preachy, or wears its morals as some kind of necessary endorsement for the value of the book. I can't read books with stilted or unnatural dialogue, unless there is virtually none in the book. I don't like heavyhanded metaphors or blown up simile. I tend not to read too many books about beautiful women having trouble finding "Prince Charming" because there's only so much of that I can stomach. Etc.

But I digress. Anyway, from the start, my mother was really, really happy that I was a reader. She's a reader. She reads fairly mainstream stuff, mostly mystery stuff (usually of the Janet Evanovich variation), but she reads a lot. It was her who influenced me to never go anywhere without something to read - which is why I've ended up in Disney World ride queues, nose-deep in a book while slowly making the way to the top of the line for Splash Mountain, and which is why if I ever finish a book midway through my commute home, I'm at a loss with what to do with myself on public transportation. She was one of those parents who never hesitated to buy me a book (still doesn't, if we're in a bookstore together, although that has fallen off considerably since I've worked at a bookstore). She was one of those parents that didn't mind that sometimes I was caught reading a book in class, when I should have been doing something - probably anything - else. When I got older, and she didn't have an audio book for long car rides, I'd read aloud to her.

She was very proud of my love of reading, and of that fact that I was a fairly advanced reader for my age, but I think she always had a little trouble with what I was reading. Scratch that - Maybe it was just that she wanted to share books with me, but I was resistant. Like with Nancy Drew - At nine, her smoothness and old fashioned propriety seemed to be exceptionally counter to the rough-hewn kidness that was me at that age. It seemed like Nancy Drew went alongside of my mother's concern that I didn't play with enough girls, or that I wasn't girly enough. It seemed like Nancy Drew was just another plot in trying to get me to act a certain way, and who wants to act to their mom's preference at nine years old?

So stubborn was I that I failed even to admit a resemblance to the main character of A Wrinkle in Time, another read my mother consistently championed to me. If I had read it then, I would have learned exactly what I know now - that Meg Murry, in her stubborn, mousy, outcast glory, was the best side of what could have been commonly perceived as the worst traits in a young woman. And [spoiler alert] she saves the day! She's a heroine, but not in attractive blouses and skirts, not ladylike, really, at all. Her strength lies beyond posturing, outward appearance, beyond superficial notions of being a girl.

Her strength lies in the vulnerability that makes her so susceptible to fits of rage toward her teachers and peers. The fierce protectiveness of those that she loves prompts her to hit a boy for insulting her brother, Charles Wallace, but it also prompts her to face the strongest of evils, the overwhelming darkness. It allows her to walk into the face of danger itself and succeed where the "stronger" males around her failed.

On the simplest level, my mother wanted me to read a book that she knew and cared for, and hoped that her book-happy daughter would feel the same. If I were to go a bit deeper, and who knows, there might not be any truth to this, but let's give my mom bigger interests for the sake of a good story, maybe what my mother really wanted to do was give me a book that told me that deep down inside, she wanted me to be who I was, be the child and the girl and the young woman that I was. Maybe her pushing this book on me was an easier way for her say to her only daughter, "I love you as you are."

That's conjecture, of course. But she was so right to want me to read this book, that how could I ever look back on my childhood and not think that my mother understood me perfectly?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Yep, it's giveaway time again!

This time, I'm giving away a little pair of books that would be a great gift for the young or young-at-heart in your life. They were both kindly donated by Workman Publishing, who other than being top-notch at publishing fun and offbeat kids items, are also high in the promotional package ranking. When a Workman box comes in, it's all grabby hands and exclamations.


Up for grabs: Rufus Seder's "Scanimation" titles Gallop and Wallop. For those of you who aren't familiar, "Scanimation" is an animated book page. As you flip through the book, the pictures on the page move in near continuous flow. Both Gallop and Waddle are about the way animals move, so there is a moving animal to accompany the text.

It's kind of hard to explain. How about Mr. Seder explains his craft:

Clear things up? Basically these books are really, really neat, and super fun to read to children.

How to win this awesome pair? Simple:
1. Enter by December 10th
2. Enter by leaving a comment on this post with your email and the answer to this question: If you could be any animal (other than human) what would you be and why.

Okay, you only have until December 10th, so enter now!

As to the question at hand, I'd be a domesticated bear. Like being a dog, but with better perks.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Not a review: Stitches by David Small

Since it was announced as a National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature, Stitches has undergone excessive scrutinizing, mostly from the people best at scrutinizing children's literature: teachers and librarians. And believe me, no one dissects a book's "appropriateness" like this group. It's not because they're conservatives or prudes or have a collective stick up their collected behinds (although some of them do). Unlike critics, who can rest soundly on their superiority-stuffed pillows, teachers and librarians have to answer for the critical decisions they make. You give a sixth grader a book that causes them to ask certain questions or stay up all night terrified or even commit a particular indiscretion, and you're not going to be able to fall back on the argument, "But it's a good book!" Parents are always going to be concerned with what their kids are reading, even if they're simply thankful that their kids are reading in the first place. And teachers and librarians are the primary sources of said reading material.

The NBA for young readers isn't as susceptible to contradiction from this group as say, the Newberry Award, which has always seem to play it safe for this very reason. As many librarians that support the Newberrys getting a bit edgier with their choices, there are parents ready to complain that despite a book being an award-winning, critically merited, valued piece of children's literature, it is just not age-appropriate for a child. A Newberry medal sticker on a book gives it a certain elevated presence that makes it acceptable in classrooms, libraries, booklists, etc, which makes those paying the most attention all the more careful about what might get the attention of parents and children.

The NBA doesn't have the exact same problem, because 1) it usually concerns reading material for young adults, not intermediate-level readers, and 2) because it's a fairly green award (it's only been around since 1996). Also, the National Book Awards are not typically thought of as an academic award, meaning that while readers of all types (casual, academic, otherwise) should take note of this specific piece of literature, the books don't often make an easy case for themselves as classroom curriculum.

Still, any award that specifically classifies itself as for "Young People's Literature" is going to come under some scrutiny when it comes to age-appropriate finalists. David Small's Stitches was never going to pass through unscathed.

There is little negative I can say about this work, aside from that I desperately wish there was more of his story. David Small grew up in a tension-filled household filled with people desperately repressing the anger that seemed to define their relationships to each other. His remote mother would quickly go from steely silence to banging cabinet doors in the kitchen, seemingly possessed by rage while unable to communicate her feelings to her family. His father and brother each had their own respective outlets, but Small's only display of vulnerability was in a near constant stream of sickness, tracing from birth to sinus problems in his early childhood. His father, a radiologist, treated them with home X-Rays.

Even as a very young child, Small's outlet lay in the rich imaginary life that both fulfilled and haunted him. Dressing up as the titular character of Alice in Wonderland, obsessing over the fetus in a jar that he came across at his father's hospital, ceaselessly escaping into his drawing (something often portrayed literally in the book).

There's endless dysfunction to the household: his mother's erratic behavior is eclipsed by her mother's even more abusive and dangerous reactions to childish imperfection and inquisitiveness. His father willfully endangers his son's life without thought to the consequences of his action, not to mention remaining oblivious to inner turmoil of his wife and sons. Then a growth is discovered on David's neck, and his parents take considerable time to have it dealt with (nearly four years) keeping the cancer a secret until well after the surgeries that would leave their son with a large scar running up his neck and without the ability to speak.

The graphic novel works as a slow burn to what becomes a fairly quick redemption, but that is not to say that it wraps up neatly or in any half-cocked fashion. Small, a gifted picture book author, knows how to layout a story to achieve the best momentum. Odd as it might seem, there's so much tension in the first half of the book, that by the time David undergoes the surgeries, loses his voice, and finds out that he had cancer all along, it's almost a relief to have these very deep family problems come to the surface, albeit in a horrifying way.

Panel after panel, page after page, the rendering is pitch perfect. Some panels are crystal clear, but most are drawn in a slightly distorted perspective, the marriage of the child's perspective and the man's uneven memories. The voiceless extension of pain and confusion echoes in the pages-long spreads of wordless visuals.

In theme and tone, Stitches inhabits a place shared by Fun Home and Persepolis - not simply graphic memoirs, but graphic memoirs of such specific, private tragedy, intimate in how closely the reader is brought into the story, but universal in the themes of pain, disillusionment, alienation, and the deepest cuts of family ties. Also like its kin works, Stitches is about a young man's redemption through art, through the ability to express what one may not be able to say, to give sound into the void, sight into the dark. Art allowed Small to free his anger, free his confusion and hurt, and free himself from the toxic environment that was his reality and pervaded into his dreamlife.

No question, this is one of the best books I've read this year. So the real the concern: Should this book be eligible for an award meant to celebrate "Young People's Literature." First off, I'll say that everywhere I've been, Stitches can be found in the adult section. We have a kids' graphic novel collection at my store, but this book can be found on display in the adult comics/graphic novel section. Would it appeal to a young audience?

Yes, it is mostly about an adolescent, but the family history is dark, painful and darkly confusing. And while the intended demographic of YA literature is teenagers, most kids regularly shopping the YA section are under the age of sixteen. Avid readers above a certain age are going to leave the YA section behind (unfortunate, but true) in favor of adult reading, which means that most kids browsing in the YA section are probably too young for Stitches. I would gladly hand this book to an avid reader seventeen and up, if I knew enough about their reading history. But to the average young shopper in my section, I'd probably sooner hand over Persepolis, because as heavy as Sartrapi's story is, a culture's history is explained in its impact on the young life of a one woman is going to be less terrifying than plain childhood abuse and negligence. Also, Small's visual exploration can be quite graphic and disturbing. I wouldn't hand this to the average young reader, just as I wouldn't hand a dozen classic contemporary titles to the average young reader. But not just because of what their parents might say - my mother let me have free run on what I read, and I still believe that was mostly the right strategy - but because I wouldn't expect a young reader to fully enjoy the depth and nuance of this story. If a teen were to ask for a graphic novel suggestion in my YA department, something specifically offbeat, I would offer them Shaun Tan's The Arrival or Tales From Outer Suburbia. They aren't better than Stitches, just possibly more accessible.

The real problem I have with Stitches being among the finalists for this award is that it renders meaningless the categorical separation between what is meant for adult readers and what is meant for young readers. There are a ton of adult books that would well serve older teenage readers, but the importance of awards for children's literature is how well it publicize worthy literature that has been strictly categorized as for "children." Among finalists that are actually children's lit, Stitches has the undeniable advantage of being the more sophisticated read. It's a challenge for a young reader, a worthy challenge, but not necessarily fair competition.

The book is starting to make appearances on "Best of 2009" lists, and every one of them has placed it squarely in the adult books category. This is true enough - while this book can, and most certainly will, be enjoyed by older teenage readers, this is undoubtedly a book that adults are going to gravitate to: the dark subject matter, no matter how much redemption lie at the end, will surely alienate many teens used to reading the lighter graphic novels meant for young readers.

If winning the National Book Award for Young People's Literature will help bring Stitches to a young audience, that's fantastic. But there are other worthy children's books that deserve the same attention.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Friday Finds!

Not too many finds this week. My roommate keeps making Half-Price Books runs without me, so he's been doing far better than I in the "finds" area. Still, it seems like I can't get through a week without my shelves bulging just a bit more. Here's the few books that I rounded up this week:

- Stolen by Lucy Christopher
An upcoming Spring release from Scholastic, this one came wrapped in black paper with a orange butterfly sticker, mimicking the simple, stark cover design. I don't know what to expect with this one - a story written as a letter from a kidnapped girl to her captor, these kind of books can be really engrossing, but also borderline exploitative and titillating. There will always be this trend in YA literature, as girls never seem to tire of stories that both demonstrate extreme survival and the ultimate lesson of "some girls have it way worse."

And I received two very nice paperbacks from the wonderful people at Harper Perennial:

-More of This World or Maybe Another by Barb Johnson
I have a galley of this book that I read last May, but I'm so glad to have a published copy. I loved this book - the craftsman-like detailing that Johnson does really creates this vivid community that serves as the focus of these interwoven stories. A multi-character portrait of a rundown New Orleans community, this is a great book for people who don't usually read short story collections because it works as both story collection and collective novel.

- Girl Trouble by Holly Goddard Jones
Of the short story collections I've devoured this past year, I've yet to dig into a collection lengthy or dense, but I think Girl Trouble might fill that void. Another sure to be wonderful collection of stories from Harper Perennial, this one came out this past September. Also, this is another Southern-touched collection, and it seems that there is no end to my fascination with the landscape and character described from the various perspectives of Midwest and Southern culture. I plan on getting into this one as soon as I can make room for an adult read.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Shelf Discovery Challenge!

You can't throw a stone in blogville without hitting a reading challenge, but I finally stumbled upon one that I think I can manage. Courtesy Booking Mama, the "Shelf Discovery Challenge" asks its readers to choose six books featured in the the book Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick, read them in the next six months, a report on each one.

About Shelf Discovery:
Launched from her regular feature column Fines Lines for, this spastically composed, frequently hilarious omnibus of meditations on favorite YA novels dwells mostly among the old-school titles from the late '60s to the early '80s much beloved by now grown-up ladies. This was the era, notes the bibliomaniacal Skurnick in her brief introduction, when books for young girls moved from being wholesome and entertaining (e.g., The Secret Garden and the Nancy Drew series) to dealing with real-life, painful issues affecting adolescence as depicted by Beverly Cleary, Lois Duncan, Judy Blume, Madeleine L'Engle and Norma Klein. Skurnick groups her eruptive essays around themes, for example, books that feature a particularly memorable, fun or challenging narrator (e.g., Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy); girls on the verge, such as Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret or danger girls such as Duncan's Daughters of Eve; novels that deal with dying protagonists and other tragedies like child abuse (Willo Davis Roberts's Don't Hurt Laurie!); and, unavoidably, heroines gifted with a paranormal penchant, among other categories. Skurnick is particularly effective at spotlighting an undervalued classic (e.g., Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) and offers titles featuring troubled boys as well. Her suggestions will prove superhelpful (not to mention wildly entertaining) for educators, librarians and parents.

Maureen, the lovely marketing director at my bookstore, was nice enough to hand me a galley copy of this book last Spring, and I have periodically read through bits and pieces of it. It's that perfect kind of browsing book - you can pick it up, read a few entries, put it down, and repeat.

The real joy of Shelf Discovery is discovering and re-discovering books that, while ultimately intended for young readers, continue to leave lasting impressions on women who later went to create lasting works of writing themselves. Nothing quite like authors gushing about books to pique my interest.

As an excuse to read some vintage YA literature, this challenge is perfect for me, but it's also going to be fun to re-explore books that I read at the proper demographic, ones that I may remember fondly or unhappily or hardly at all.

The challenge asks you to read six of the books featured in the text in six months, but I'm thinking about attempting to double that number. We'll see how I fare. For now, here are my six books:

- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle
Why: This was the book that my mom kept insisting that I try as a kid, but I never bothered to follow her advice... until I randomly picked this up the summer before college. Having read When You Reach Me this past summer, I've been wanting to re-read this classic that I only embraced late into my teens.

-Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green
Why: This past year, I've read two books that have been cited as inspired by this 1973 work by Bette Green, concerning a Jewish girl who harbors a Nazi escapee from a POW labor camp during the close of World War II. But I've never read this one, so now's the time.

-The Grounding of Group 6 Julian F. Thompson
Why: I have never heard of this book, but it's from the tail end of the first YA wave, and its premise - six teenagers are sent to an academy where there parents have paid for them to be "poisoned and thrown into deep crevasses" - sounds promising enough. Skurnick, writing about this book, calls into focus the prevalence of bad parents in this wave of young adult fiction, something that, while not completely absent from today's YA, has long since been the trend. "So, as ascends Gilmore Girls, so dies a golden YA trope - the parent who deserves to die."

-My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel
Why: Because 1)It's Paul Zindel, and I still consider The Pigman one of my all-time favorites, 2) I've known of this book for a long time but never even knew what it was about, and 3)Um... the title. Yeah, I'm that simple.

-The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Spears
Why: One of those books that seems fundamental to a YA reading history, and yet, I haven't read it. I had many, many friends who read it, so I suppose I never felt it necessary to read it too, a mindset I'm all to liable to fall into still.

-Blubber by Judy Blume
Why: Judy Blume is the Queen of YA. The first wave would never have broken quite as hard without her books. As a teenager, I didn't read most of the Blume classics. I read Summer Sisters, her comeback, for adults title while I was in high school, but I haven't read any Blume since then. This one's a short fix, so I should be able to get to it in an afternoon. Mean girl politics, especially those at a pre-teen age, are nothing like what you commonly see on television now.

Okay... fingers crossed that I stay with this one. I'll be making periodic updates to my progress. If you're interested in joining the challenge, check out Booking Mama for more information.

A New Winner!

Congratulations to Pricilla! She has won a copy of Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.

Make sure to visit Pricilla's excellent blog Broken Teepee and send her congratulations.

No worries, friends - If you didn't win this time, I'll be posting another giveaway soon. Thanks to all who entered and special thanks to West of Mars for posting this giveaway and helping to get this fun book into welcoming hands.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: If You Follow Me

While I was really underwhelmed by the one upcoming Perennial title, Everything Here is the Best Ever, that I picked up at Pub Rep several weeks back, my time has been redeemed: the wasted hour and a half spent with the short story collection has been exchanged by the splendid several hours of reading I had with Malena Watrous's upcoming debut novel, If You Follow Me. So, Harper Perennial, good work. You're still my favorite paperback line from one of my favorite publishers.

A year after her father's suicide, following graduation from college, Marina follows her girlfriend, Carolyn, to Japan to teach English to the students of Shika, a rural Japanese town. Expecting the cliches of urban Japanese life, the two women are surprised by the positives and negatives of living in a Japanese small town. Much of the book is framed around Marina (and Carolyn) consistently failing to follow gomi law, or Japanese garbage law. After each garbage slight against their neighborhood, Marina receives notes from her supervisor, Hiro Miyoshi, who despite his disappointment in her failure to quickly acclimate to the rules of the village, understands her need for defiance and companionship. As the relationship between Marina and Caroyln evolves, collapses, and falls apart, the forces of a foreign land lay their claims to both women, and the culture that was locked out of their two-person house encampment becomes a refuge for Marina, a chance to come to terms with the recent past, the troubling present, and the unknown future.

Whenever I pick up a book about Westerners in Japan, I am usually prepared to put it back down. These "fish out of water" stories are so often flimsy excuses for cultural prejudice and gleaning laughs out of foreign cliche. Japan is the biggest target of them all - it seems that the more vivid a culture, the more likely it is to be skewered and parodied by the Western world. There is, of course, nasty historical reasons why the Japanese have so often been caricatured for American and European nations: mean-spirited propaganda dressed up in a Bugs Bunny cartoon was considered a point scored for Uncle Sam.

I get the historical reasons why such horrible representations exist, but the fact that it so often appears in present day Western pop culture is abhorrent. I was not the only one made uncomfortable by the race relations of Lost in Translation, where one of the protagonists is a recently graduated intellectual American girl, in Japan for an extended stay while her photographer husband travels around for work. Marina and Charlotte (of the movie) have a bit in common - they are similar strangers in similar strange land, except that Marina's perspective on Japan is of a small, rural village, while Lost in Translation bombards its characters with all that is bright and strange and frenzied of Tokyo urban life. I suppose encountering an after-school karaoke club and learning the many terms of gomi law is not quite as an exuberant as what urban Japan would offer, but the real difference between perspectives is that Marina, while striving to do better and frustrated when she does worse, lacks the malaised contempt that seems to drive the characters in Lost in Translastion. While they are careful to be separate entities - the Westerners in Tokyo, Americans traveling abroad - Marina and Carolyn face a a cultural challenge with a genuine attempt at fitting in.

The novel doesn't make easy jokes of its foreign subjects. Marina, quietly giggling at a superior's English pronunciation, still reminds herself that after all the time she's spent in Japan, "I shouldn't still think this is funny."

Gomi law becomes much more than an obstacle for Marina to overcome. It becomes the overwhelming point of her year in Japan - What is to be thrown away? What is to be kept? Where do you put your discarded things? Why do we put them there? What should we do with what is no longer of use to us?

I can recommend If You Follow Me for both its coming of age story and its cultural fairness. I don't strive to make political correctness a requirement in what I read, but in this case, being fair helps to elevate what could have been an episodic tale of Americans in Japan into a heartfelt document of a young woman attempting to get the most out of the new world around her.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Yes, I'm Behind the Times.
Anyhoo, National Book Award Finalists!

Here in Lonely Reader land, news comes through so frequently, that often times, I'm unable to report on it till the perfect storm of updates dies down. And this being award season, it's difficult to keep up with all the award winners, nominees, finalists, lifetime achievement awards, pie eating contests, etc.

But I'm trying, because as I've written before, I'm a nut for awards stuff. If I can really get to know this year's kids contenders, I would like to start some kind of gambling ring around the Newberry and Caldicott awards. Any librarians/ booksellers/ children's lit enthusiasts out there? Let's start betting now! We don't even have to bet money. Let's bet baked goods. I bet a dozen brownies that
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly is at least a Newberry Honors book. Anyone want to take me on?

The National Book Award Finalists have been announced and, surprise surprise, I haven't read any of the nominated books. Bummer. Not that I read a lot of prestige adult books, but I had read most of last year's finalists for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Unlike the somewhat predictable, somewhat mundane choices of the Printz awards and the unreliable quality of the Newberrys - they have to be commended for recognizing Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book last year, but they've made a lot of sketchy choices in the past - the National Book Award for Young People's Literature consistently pays focus to books that get ignored elsewhere. Of course, this is really just a personal preference for the award's track record. If you compare last year's National Book Award finalists with this past year's Printz Award finalists, you'll see that both awards have token categories that need to be filled.

These were the 2008 finalists:
- What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell (winner)
- The Underneath by Kathi Appelt
- Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
- The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp
- The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks E. Lockhart

Printz 2009 finalists:
- Jellicoe Road by Malina Marchetta (winner
- The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume II by MT Anderson
- The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
- Nation by Terry Pratchett
- Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Each award seems to reserve a spot for a slave narrative, a book focused on black history, or a story of contemporary black culture. There is usually at least one coming of age book. There's usually a survivor tale. There's usually one book written in a non-contemporary time period.

I just think that the National Book Award for Young People's LIterature makes more ecclectic choices, especially with the winner. The Printz nominees from this year were all well, but I don't understand how you pass up four of those contenders for Jellicoe Road, an okay coming-of-age with a distorted narrative that just doesn't work.

In comparison, the NBA from 2008, What I Saw and How I Lied, is that rare WWII book that brings new wealth to an exhausted topic and setting. Blundell was an underdog, due to both her use of period slang and vernacular within text and because this was her first book published under her own name. She had done her time writing Star Wars series novels for kids, and then with the first book that she could really call her own, she wins the National Book Award. You kind of have to love a story like that.

Here is the complete list of National Book Award Finalists - all of them. Believe it or not, I do care about adult literature. I just never have time to read the big books of each year. I'm able to pick up story collections here and there, the odd bit of non-fiction, and occasionally a full novel, but to sit down with expansive, award-geared lit asks too much time than I am capable of giving.

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alfred A. Knopf)

Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)
Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Viking Penguin)
Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)

Young People’s Literature
Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt)
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David Small, Stitches (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen/HarperCollins)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Old Giveaway Winner! New Giveaway! Yay!

My work schedule has been crazy, so I have not been able to regularly post. I'm trying to squish blogging time into each day, but it's been difficult, what with being tired and being at work and then being tired and then being at work and tired... But I've still been reading! When I can, which is mostly on public transportation to and from work, on the treadmill at the gym, a little bit in between bites of lunch/dinner, and for the few minutes before my eyes slam shut at night.

Not a whole lot of time to devote, really, which is a shame because there are a ton of great recently released and upcoming books. This morning, I got up early to finish Michelle Cooper's excellent A Brief History of Montmaray, which, given my exhausted self, should tell you something about this book. It's fantastic, perfect for any age - really, I probably say that a lot, and as a devoted reader of children's lit, my credibility is questionable as to recommendations for adult readers, but this one is seriously that good. It's another one of those children's titles that feels instantly classic, like something I would have read in school or from my aimless wanderings through the stacks of my local library. This is a book I would have sprawled with on the library floor or tucked away in one of the cool reading boxes they had in the kids/YA area. Anyway, it made me feel like a twelve year old reader again, and that's a really good feeling.

Anyhoo, the real heart of this post: The winner for the first "Heart is a Lonely Reader" Giveaway. Haley Mathiot has won a copy of Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline and a copy of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau. Congratulations, Haley!

They will be sent to her by chariot pulled by a quartet of handsome stallions.

...Or, you know, by padded envelope via the US Postal Service.

And thus ends the first giveaway. But don't despair, those who did not win, because I have an all-new giveaway.

Announcing the second Heart is a Lonely Giveaway! Because it's only for one book, this one will run just until the start of November. As of Nov. 1, there will be a winner declared.

Okay, so up for grabs:

Rhoda Janzen's thoughtful and hilarious Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. This hardback copy was generously donated by Melissa Weisberg of Macmillan. (As stated in the pub rep edition of my Friday Finds, I love Melissa and think she's just the bee's knees.)

About Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, from Publisher's Weekly:
At first, the worst week of Janzen's life—she gets into a debilitating car wreck right after her husband leaves her for a guy he met on the Internet and saddles her with a mortgage she can't afford—seems to come out of nowhere, but the disaster's long buildup becomes clearer as she opens herself up. Her 15-year relationship with Nick had always been punctuated by manic outbursts and verbally abusive behavior, so recognizing her co-dependent role in their marriage becomes an important part of Janzen's recovery (even as she tweaks the 12 steps just a bit). The healing is further assisted by her decision to move back in with her Mennonite parents, prompting her to look at her childhood religion with fresh, twinkling eyes. (She provides an appendix for those unfamiliar with Mennonite culture, as well as a list of “shame-based foods” from hot potato salad to borscht.) Janzen is always ready to gently turn the humor back on herself, though, and women will immediately warm to the self-deprecating honesty with which she describes the efforts of friends and family to help her re-establish her emotional well-being.

As a side note, several booksellers at the store have read this one, and they have all been similarly engaged with the book. Mainly it's been described for fans of Elizabeth Gilber, Jen Lancaster, etc. That's not much my thing, but this one is a standout in the crowd.

Rules: Just leave a comment, by November 1st, with your name and an email address.

Enter now!

Thanks to West of Mars for helping to promote this giveaway. She's hip, she's cool, and she's local (well, my area local), so check out her site if you haven't already.

Review: A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

Preface: I don't usually gush like this, but I am a) a bit sleep deprived, and b) totally and completely in love with this book.

I’m trying to be literate about this book, but it’s very difficult. My enthusiasm keeps reducing me to babble. Suffice to say, I loved A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper. Rather, I fell in love with the book. Last night, with about thirty pages to go, I inadvertently fell asleep mid-page. When my early alarm went off, I sprung awake and instantly grabbed for the book to finish. I was late leaving for work, but it was absolutely worth it.

It’s the kind of book that seems so effortless, it could have only come from an immense writing talent. Sophie’s voice is rendered in such exquisite simplicity – she is both incredibly naïve and extremely observant, and the reader is rewarded for following her train of thought by moments of pure epiphany, when the truth of things is suddenly apparent to her young mind.

The evolving adolescent mind is the center of this novel. Sophie starts off the novel a romantic, reading Bronte and Austen and Shakespeare, quick to take to flights of fancy, dramatic and, at times, contradictory. She confesses her crush on the housekeeper’s son, Simon, while also reminding herself that he is not of royal class, and therefore, she should not feel so intimidated being around him. The dynamic between Sophie and her intellectual cousin, Veronica, is the perfect propulsive binary – Sophie’s open minded naïveté mixes well with Veronica’s weary academic perspective as the story has important uses for both mindsets. While it is Sophie’s coming-of-age, every character is shaped by the turn of events, and by the end of the book, no character is left formed quite the same that they were at the beginning of Sophie’s chronicles.

The mysteries of the novel unfold with such remarkable timing – minor details return as echoes in major revelations. A muddled family history becomes less confusing, but much, much more complicated. At times, the book read as a true history of a royal family, complete with betrayals, disappearances, love affairs, and even murder. How these factors tie into the present-day context of the book is the true revelation – somehow events that have long been in the shadows reveal their true significance in the face of present dangers, deepening the truth of both the now and the then.

I wanted to follow the book right off the page and into the world of the characters. What will become of their beloved island? Who will ascend to the throne, and does that even matter? What will become of Veronica and her brilliant mind? And Sophie, dear Sophie, whose voice became like a sister’s in my mind. I read so much, it is unusual to really absorb the thoughts of a character, even when that character is the narrator and protagonist. But I liked her so much, and Cooper instills so much intimacy in the way Sophie writes to her journal and, by extension, us, the readers, that what can we do but claim her as our own?

Nancy Siscoe, who sent me A Brief History of Montmaray, called the book “a gift” to us booksellers, and I cannot disagree. I feel incredibly rewarded having been given this book to read, to spend time with, to absorb, to wake up with by my side, and of course, to lend (with caution, of course, as I naturally do not want to lose my copy) to other book lovers who I know will have all the same feelings for this book that I felt.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday Finds - Pub Rep Edition!

Oh, the magic of entry settings. A post written late Tuesday/ early Wednesday can appear to have been there since mid-day Friday. I need to start logging these "Find" posts as the week progresses and scheduling them to post on the actual Friday of intention... Otherwise, I will always be playing a week-long game of catch-up.

Anyway, this past week was a great week for finds, mostly due to the pub rep breakfast we had Wednesday morning at work. Twice a year, several reps from major publishers come to our store armed with handouts, information on upcoming books, and many copies of released and to-be-released books. It's an early morning (starts at 8:00 am), but in exchange for a time and caffeinated, bleary-eyed attention, we are given the skinny on the prominent new and upcoming books and given copious amounts of free titles.

The free books are a nice incentive, but we really do LOVE our reps. We have a core three: I heard wonderful upon wonderful things about our HarperCollins rep, Kate McCune, months before I actually had the pleasure of meeting her. Kate could sell me a blank book, she's that persuasive. Melissa Weisburg from Macmillan is another personal favorite, because she's super enthusiastic and specializes in Macmillan's children's titles. Mary Ann Buehler, from Penguin, always has a ton of information for us and really makes an effort to remember individual tastes and interests.

Eileen and Randy (from Random House and Hachette, respectively) were great additions to this recent breakfast, and I hope we will see more of them. I'd feel like this was all kissing up to the reps, but honestly, they deserve it. Spending time with the publishing reps, you really get an understanding as to why they have the jobs that they do. They are tirelessly enthusiastic about books, know everything there is to know about the titles they are promoting, and really attempt to put the books into the hands of people who will want to read them. The ultimate kids in the candy store, you can tell they love their jobs... or at least, they're so good at their jobs, they've got to love what they do.

We have a Fall breakfast and a Spring breakfast, but the Fall one usually emphasizes titles that have either come out recently or will come out very soon - mostly to promote titles that are being pushed for the Christmas buying season. Fine by me - last year, I was pleasantly rewarded with a copy of Prince's then-recently released book 21 Nights, among other fantastic freebies.

This year didn't feature any "big ticket" books, but a lot of high quality books in hardback copies and a smattering of galleys for exciting Winter titles. Of the lot, I'm most excited about what I picked up from Harper and Macmillan. I'll go on about that in a bit.

The finds!

From the lovely Melissa at Macmillan:

- Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou; With art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna
A graphic novel about Bertrand Russell, described as "a historical novel and an accessible introduction to some of the biggest ideas of mathematics and modern philosophy." There's a great series of books that put philosophers and ideologies into graphic novel forms, but this is a cut above those in quality and scope. Next day off I have, I plan to devour this one.

-Justice by Michael J. Sandel
A book form of Sandel's acclaimed Harvard course, this has been one of the big buzz titles floating around for the past several weeks. My reading attention is usually absorbed by children's titles, but when I'm really hungry for some intellectual stimulation, this is bound to blow my mind. I can't wait to pass this along to my law school friends.

-Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children's Book edited by Anita Silvey
The kind of coffee table book that you would find in my apartment, this is a compendium of essays from famous people (writers, politicians, rich people, actors, etc.) about the classic children's titles that inspired them. That alone would be interesting enough, but maybe not the stuff of an oversized hardback volume, but wait, there's also sidebars of the book's history, and full-page excerpts from the works themselves. It's lovingly laid out and presented, and I find myself paging through it everytime I need a little pick me up.

From the mighty Kate McCune at HarperCollins

- To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardner
Oh, I'm a sucker for Wild West stories and get-the-bad-guy stories, so this is right up my alley. The story of the "epic chase" of Billy the Kid.

-The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
I loved Walter's Citizen Vince. This one, following the week-long exploits of a man trying to repair his career, marriage, and financial state, is perfectly apt for the times. I'm just wondering how its timeliness is going to affect its lasting factors and vice versa. Hopefully, I will find out sooner rather than later.

I swear by the Harper Perennial line - two of their 2009 releases, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and More of This World or Maybe Another are in my top reads of the year - and I managed to get two upcoming release galleys from Kate:
- If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous
Marina travels to Japan to learn the language and culture of another country, but also to escape from her grief over of her father's suicide. I'm normally wary of fish-out-of-water stories (especially ones having to do with Americans in Asian cultures, as they so often devolve into explorations of Westerner misconceptions and Eastern culture hijinks), but like I said before, Kate can sell me on just about anything, and if it has her seal of approval, I'll give it a try.

- Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor
An author's debut short story collection, I'm about three-fourths through this one, and admittedly, it's leaving me a bit cold. The problem isn't the writing - the prose is spare, but introspective, - but in the character building. Taylor's emphasized the detachment of his characters without giving the reader much to hook onto, and little character evolutions go a long way in short stories. I may end up completely rethinking this one... I'll let this go for now, update on the rest later. It's not bad, by any means, just... underwhelming from what I was expecting.

Thanks Eileen from Random House!
- That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
Despite hearing nothing but great things about all of his titles, I've only read the hilarious and disarmingly affecting Straight Man. This is another intellectual in crisis, but Russo is so good at crafting that voice, as well as dysfunctionally functional family and personal relations, and I'm fairly sure I will enjoy this one.

Thank you Randy from Hachette!
Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr
I've heard lots of great things about Zarr, but I haven't gotten around to either Sweethearts or Story of a Girl. She's making an appearance at the JB in Cincinnati, so it seemed like a good idea to grab the new book. There are several YA titles coming out this winter that have to do with religion in a family and social context, used in a variety of ways, from coming of age to murder mystery. I'm interested in what Zarr is going to do with the subject matter. Sam is a pastor's daughter, but after her mother enters rehab and a young girl from her town is kidnapped, she begins to have a crisis of faith.

Wag by Patrick McDonnell
The creator of Mutts releases another picture book, about a dog's favorite thing - his tail. What makes Earl's tail wag?

Connected by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler
Two scientists interrogate the connections between people, in both social and technological ways, and lay out their theory of the "Three Degrees of Influence Rule: we influence and are influenced by people up to three degrees removed from us, most of whom we do not even know." I enjoy these social theory in motion type books, at least as much as the average reader (yes, I read Gladwell, and while you can't always swear by his theories, you have to admit, he's a great writer with a real understanding of how to relate sometimes difficult ideas in an accessible, digestible way), and if this is half as interesting as its jacket blurb is, it will be time well spent.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Guess who came to the bookstore last night...

Yep, that's me and Michael Chabon.

The Michael Chabon. Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon, at Joseph-Beth Booksellers to promote the release of his newest book, Manhood for Amateurs

Ha, yes, well I can assure you it was quite the event-filled night of hobnobbing with a famous author. Not really. A few of us were called in to help out with the event, so I mostly stood at the front of the signing line taking line tickets and making awkward conversation with a variety of Chabon enthusiasts, from the older intellectual couples to the lit. majors with baby faces and serious chips on their shoulders.

Ah, college. Being an English major means going to author signings and asking things like, "While you admit to providing a form of literary escapism, do you attempt to provoke social change with your work?" and "While [insert early work long out of print] was clearly written from a post-modern perspective, your later work seems to hold much in debt to early modernism. What elements in your work really mark that turning point?" It's intellectual curiosity... sort of. It's also a way to show off how much you really get the author, how much you really get literature in general. Basically, you're a smarty pants when it comes to literature, and you don't mind letting everyone know, especially any author you would bother going to see.

This is the second time Michael Chabon has made an appearance here at JB's, and as much of a fan of his work I am, I am even fonder of his occasional appearances in Pittsburgh and this bookstore specifically. I've begun to think of the author somewhat sentimentally, which is never how I choose to read an author, but in this case, the sentiment is somewhat deserved.

The last time Michael Chabon came to the store, I had just started at the bookstore as a bookseller. I mean just started. It was the end of my second week that I experienced what a big author signing is like at our store, and it at first blew my mind.

First of all, right there, in my store, was going to be an author whose work had profoundly affected me as a reader, writer, thinker. It affected the way I interacted with other readers and with the educators who put books into my hands. My mind is both bigger and fuller because of this author. And there he/she is.

Second, there's a ton of people. I was still getting used to basic register functions at this point, and I've never really been known for my grace under fire. But I'm the new girl, and I desperately want to make a decent impression. But you can see the terror right under the surface. Eyes widened toward a sea of enthusiastic readers with a purpose, books curled under arms, bags full of backlist titles, vouchers out to claim books reserved, money out to acquire others... I played it as cool as possible, but it would have been obvious to even the most obtuse observer that I was slightly in over my head.

Third, there's the careful balancing of being a worker and spectator. I know how to do this now, but then? Not so much. I'm listening in more than I'm paying attention. Instead of steadily watching for new customers entering the store, I'm craning my neck to catch a glimpse of Michael Chabon at the podium. It was my luck not to get caught gawking by my bosses. It would have been unfortunate to prove myself unreliable only a second week into the job, and for something fairly ridiculous, like trying to watch an author read.

This is not to undersell the lure of an author appearance, but there is not really anything inherently interesting in going to listen to an author read from his/her new work. A few are very entertaining readers, most are adequate, and some are just terrible (although my personal experience with this third group has been minimal), but what most, if not all, attendees are coming for is the after-reading Q&A, a barbaric literary ritual where audience members grasp for something to say to someone whose work they've spent considerable time with. I say barbaric only because these sessions often make or break the whole event. A good mixed crowd can yield a fantastic Q&A, as long as the author gets into the ritual and tries as hard as his/her audience is, but sometimes, not even the best questions can save a tongue-tied author whose strong point isn't answering direct, impromptu questions.

Barbaric, also, since most post-signing Q&As go on with little to no organizational methods aside from hand-raising. The author, confronted with a sea of hands, must do his/her best to pick from the avid nameless, and it's a crapshoot as to whether or not he picks worthwhile questioners with worthwhile questions. Last night, for example, there were several thoughtful questions, some mediocre redundant inquiries (some authors are magnets for the same questions over and over again, and that's just the nature of being known for your creative work and the obvious details of your personal life), and maybe only two or three clunkers. Early on in the Q&A, an older lady asked Mr. Chabon what he thought of the events of G20 and it being set here in Pittsburgh.

A somewhat confused Chabon asked her to clarify what she was asking, and she replied, "Well, our town was overrun with fascists!" She went on, but she kind of lost me there, as well as most people in the audience. The author, to his credit, was very kind and deftly navigated a tricky question that was, in a way, a guaranteed ideological trap.

Anyway... I'm much more adept at author appearances than I used to be. As starstruck as I can get, I rarely lose my cool in front of the author anymore, or at least I keep wrapped under a slightly awkward, but not-as-awkward-as-babbling veneer of silence. And it works out for both of us - awesome author gets to remain relatively unscathed, and I usually get a book signed and/or a photograph. [See above.]

What do you think of author appearances? Any particular favorites or memorable experiences stick out in your mind? What's the best and worst author event you've ever been to?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Friday Finds!

Hey there, gloomy Friday! So rainy and gray and cold... A great way to usher in October, wouldn't you say?

I can't stop yawning. This weather makes it nearly impossible for me to do anything but cuddle up on the couch and read. Lucky for me, I've had a fairly good week of finds. Most of these were purchased from my store, via the bargain kids section (we have a fabulous and tough to beat kids bargain section).

Why I keep buying picture books, I don't understand. I need my close friends to start having children so I can put these books to good use.

- Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct by Mo Willems
Anything Mo Willems that goes on bargain, I'm quick to grab. This one is cute, admittedly not in my top tier favorites, but still, I love Willems' play on true and false, real and imaginary, and what can happen when a character calls another character out on being fictional. He's not afraid to go meta with his kids books, but they're so funny and fun, kids don't even notice the ironic humor adults so love about his books.

John, Paul, George and Benby Lane Smith
History lessons were never funnier. A really clever picture book about the Founding Fathers, Smith goes from funny, but true to funny and not true to funny and maybe true, to just plain and absolute funny. Smith's illustrative style really works here, as the historical characters are simplified enough to echo the appearance of their young readers.

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brownby Cressida Cowell, illus. by Neal Layton
Emily Brown has an extraordinary rabbit, so perfect a companion that the selfish Queen Gloriana first offers (hopelessly) to buy the rabbit, then resorts to stealing it for herself. Emily must save her bunnywunny and possibly teach the Queen how to get the most out of her own playthings. The illustrations and sly humor are terrific. This makes a great storytime companion to Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny.

As far as non-picture book finds...

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin
I loved her latest book, Impossible, so when I saw the hardback of one of her older titles, and for $3.50 nonetheless, I snatched it up immediately. Judging from its online presence, this is her most popular title - an abuse story written in the form of a letter from a boy to his younger sister. Because it's a backlist, I probably won't get to it for a while, but I'm glad to add more of Werlin to my library.

Monster and Amiri and Odette by Walter Dean Myers
Myers won a Printz Award and was a National Book Award finalist for Monster, about a boy being charged as an accomplice to a murder. To process and control his fears about his situation, he imagines the trial as a movie script.

Amiri and Odette is a Romeo and Juliet-esque tale, told in equal parts illustrations and texts. Got both of these in the bargain section, before the teachers came in and wiped out the stock.

How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
After reading the Boston Bibliophile's review, I'm fairly certain I wasted my money. Oh well, wouldn't be the first time. At least now I can lend it out to serious-minded friends who want to try it out. I'm still fairly curious about it, so I may still try to give it a go.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray
For those unfamiliar, Libba Bray is the author of the Gemma Doyle trilogy, a popular fantasy series whose last book, The Sweet Far Thing, came out in paperback last Spring. This is Bray's first book outside the series, a madcap road adventure with a sixteen year old boy suffering from Mad Cow's disease, a dwarf, and a lawn gnome. Not sure how this is going to do with the teen reading audience, as both the title and the cover are not exactly the type of thing that lures Bray's typical demographic. I'm considering it currently being read, but really, it just lies unopened in my bag while I polish off Pictures at a Revolution.