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.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

PEN USA 2009 Literary Award Winners

I'm a nut for award season. I don't really care all that much about reading the big award books - it is especially the case in kids' lit that a lot of the best stuff never gets recognized by the established, prestigious award groups - but, like one would keep track of the general top teams of the a current sports season, I like to stay aware of what's making the grade and getting those classy gold stickers.

The PEN USA Literary Awards are little more expansive than your run-of-the-mill accolades. Of course, they have major winners for fiction, two distinct lines of non-fiction, poetry, childrens, etc. But they also name winners for teleplay and screenplay, both categories delivering wins to very deserving works this time around
[though, of the two AMC programs, Mad Men is my favored].

Visit the website for more information on the 2009 Lit Awards.

PEN USA 2009 Winners:
Fiction - KIM BARNES • A Country Called Home (Alfred A. Knopf)
Creative Nonfiction - STEVE LOPEZ • The Soloist (G.P. Putnam's Sons)
Research Nonfiction - LESLIE T. CHANG • Factory Girls (Spiegel & Grau)
Poetry - SEIDO RAY RONCI • The Skeleton of the Crow (Ausable Press)
Children’s Literature - KATHI APPELT • The Underneath (Atheneum Books for Young
Translation - MAXINE CHERNOFF & PAUL HOOVER • Selected Poems of
Friedrich Hölderlin
(Omnidawn Publishing)
Journalism - KAREN OLSSON • Before and After (Texas Monthly)
Drama - MARISELA TREVINO ORTA • Braided Sorrow (El Centro Su

Teleplay - GEORGE MASTRAS • Breaking Bad: "Crazy Handful of Nothin’"
(Sony/Gran Via/Highbridge)
Screenplay - DUSTIN LANCE BLACK • Milk (Newmarket Press)

As far as awards go, my quick favorites are the Man Booker, Newberry, the Pen/Faulkner, and the Hugo. I also look forward to hearing about the Printz Award every year, but mostly to debate and disagree with their choices. They play it too safe.

Do you have any award favorites? Ones you look forward to hearing about as soon as award season starts?