Monday, January 25, 2010

The towering intimidation of the "To Be Read" pile

Some advice given to those of us let go from the bookstore was to use the unexpected free time to work through our individual to-be-read piles. Working at a bookstore, you're reading amidst a constant tide of newly released books and upcoming releases, so it's easy to get distracted from a reading list in favor of the first new item that catches your attention. Add to that daily recommendations from different critical sources - New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, etc - plus recommendations from fellow booksellers, regular customers, and, if you're a fan of book blogs, a never-ending stream of books to consider.

Needless to say, any avid reader's to-be-read pile is going to be fairly staggering after a few months of working around those influences. In a way, not being under pressure to keep up with all the new releases, both kids' and adults, is a relief...

Sort of.

As nice as it is to be able to read freely, it's also time to face the to-be-read pile, and that's a daunting task. I coasted into my unexpected vacation about halfway through Street Gang, went on to devour Maureen recommendation, I am the Messenger (excellent), and then spent a few days hemming and hawing around a few recent issues of The New Yorker. Last Thursday and Friday were spent reading a total of forty pages of Denis Johnson's huge and National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke... but I stalled out. It's captivating, heavy stuff, but possibly just a wrong fit for my mood.

At home most of the day on Sunday, I decided to postpone Tree of Smoke in favor of another book at the top of my pile, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, the 2009 Man Booker Winner. The novel tells the story of the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII through the rise of Thomas Cromwell, Henry's historically maligned and vilified chief minister. At seventy-some pages in, I'm loving Mantel's careful balance of accuracy and intimate portrait and gossipy historical drama.

Still, my attention is a bit shot. I'm having trouble focusing on reading without a clear path to follow. Though the pile looms, it seems having so much to get through is stalling out my current progress. I'm having difficulty sticking with a single book when there are many to consider.

It seems that the pile is psyching me out. I need to mentally dismantle the to-be-read list - Sidebar question: Does anyone keep an actual written to-be-read list? If so, how do you prefer to keep yours? Written? Online database, such as LibraryThing? - if I want to proceed reading freely.

Or should I simply reevaluate the to-be-read pile? Perhaps dismantling is futile. There will always be books that pique my interest, and in doing so, they will get mentally added to waiting pile. No matter what I do, there will always be books in line. So trying to resist the urge to mentally take note of these would ultimately do no good.

I haven't come to any conclusion at the moment. Perhaps I am simply burned out a bit on all reading matters, and that the stress of starting and finishing new books should be left behind with my old job. I am not paid to keep up anymore. I should just read at my own pace and try to enjoy every moment of reading that I am doing for myself.

Keeping the television off also helps.

How do you handle your to-be-read pile?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Shelf Discovery Reading Challenge: Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

Two down. Four to go.

I got more than expected from my re-reading of A Wrinkle in Time, but truth be told, I wasn't prepared for the emotional pummeling I received from Summer of My German Soldier. Like I wrote when I picked it for my challenge line-up, I have read a fair amount of books this past year that were in someway linked - thematically, plot, era, etc - to this book, but for as much as I've heard of it over the years, I've never had much interest in picking it up.

But Lizzie Skurnick piqued my interest with her look at the novel. Also, I'm always interested in older books, especially YA books, and how they deal with their chosen historical period. Written in 1973, Summer of My German Soldier covers a summer amidst WWII, and it's interesting to see what further distance from a time period does to a particular era's perspective.

So how does Summer of My German Soldier hold up?

Wonderfully, and somewhat alarmingly, well. Wonderful, because Greene's Patty Bergen remains a fresh, interesting, lovable (even if frustrating) protagonist. The unlikely alliance between Jewish Patty and Frederick Anton Reiker, a Nazi POW imprisoned near Patty's town, stands for more than a simple message of tolerance. Or, rather, it complicates the issue of tolerance, in that it becomes not a question of "should have shown such tolerance in this situation" but "What should be intolerable?"

If you break it down, there's every reason that Patty would find herself allied with Anton. He shows her interest and humor and genuine appreciation. He is impressed with her intellectual acumen and not put off by rambling, hyperbolic conversation. She sympathizes with his backstory, even envies his close relationship with his family. His family seemed to value intellect and despise the Nazi regime, yet they are weak to its control. The Bergens, on the other hand, seem to value purely money and social status, and they are very much in-line with the problems rooted deep into their town's society, including both institutional and outward racism, sexism, and a dedication to purely surface understanding.

While Patty can forgive Anton's participation as a Nazi soldier for being a smart boy from a good family in the wrong circumstances, she cannot come to terms with the disappointment that is her parents. Her father's simmering rage covered by sneering indifference. Her mother's near constant verbal abuse and put-downs. It's no wonder that Patty lies as much as she does: She'd do almost anything to win their approval, and approval from any of the town's adults, and that includes telling self-inflating falsehoods.

With Anton, Patty doesn't have to lie or fear reprimands for being herself. For a moment after admitting to Anton that she is Jewish, she is convinced he is going to go cold with hatred, but he just laughs in disbelief. A Jewish-American girl helping a German POW. He marvels at the situation.

Greene could be faulted for not giving Patty a more conflicted conscience or by not having Patty challenge Anton's innocence - I mean, yes, he had to go, so despite his family's good standing and intellectual nature, he is still a boy making a choice to go along with the regime in power - but far enough into the novel is the realization that Anton will never be an absolute real person with real faults and difficult things to swallow. Patty is a twelve year old in desperate need of someone who can find the good in her. Anton, in doing so, allows Patty to find nothing but good in him. He is like the cheap glass "diamond" broach that he uses to bribe a guard to escape prison. His outward self is something unseemly and undesirable, but he becomes so much more valuable in his active, useful form. The Anton that Patty feeds and shelters and protects from harm is a more realized form of the Anton that is led off a train to a prison for being a German soldier.

Patty never gets to the next level of Anton, the one that exists in tandem and outside these circumstances, the one that has to account for all that he has done and not simply for the good, respectable parts. But his friendship is enough for her, and long after her actions are discovered, and she is sent to a reformatory school, she is reminded to hold onto the memories of his feelings for her. She found someone to value her for the very traits that her parents either dismissed or became enraged about, and that surpassed any preconceptions about him, that surpassed blind hatred and disgust.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A! L! A! Awards Awards Awards!

Have I told you lately that I love award season? Because I do. I'm a gambler by nature, and this year's bets were surprisingly on the mark. Let's go through the major categories, and I'll tell you what I predicted and the actual outcome. (No cheating by doctoring my bets, I promise.)

Caldecott Medal - The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney.

Whereas last year's winner, The House in the Night, was an utter surprise - and let me tell you, there is nothing like teachers and librarians desperately racing to grab copies of a book that has just won a prestigious award, but that they did not, at present time, carry, especially when that book goes into temporary back order because its publishing company didn't expect it to win said prestigious award either... but that's another story - this year's winner, The Lion and the Mouse, was a near shoo-in. What it lacks in dialogue, it makes up for in illustrations that transport you to the locale, pictures that draw the eyes in, reading illustration, reading lines of color and depth. I had this book on the "New Picture Books" display for months, because, with its striking gold-touched cover of the titular lion, it never failed to grab the passerby's attention.

My bet: Truly, this was one that I predicted, because the ALA love folk stories told anew, and when its done with caliber of artistry, there's really not much else in the way of competition. Not to say that other picture book authors haven't been doing a great job of giving folk tales and stories new contemporary life (my personal favorite is Rachel Isadora's The Ugly Duckling). But Pinkney has made a picture book that feels like it should have been around forever. And there's a reason why books like that are around forever - because they stick with you from childhood into adulthood into parenthood and the hands and eyes of more children.

However, Caldecott Honor book, All the World by Marla Frazee (illus.) and Liz Garton Scanlon, was another one of my top picks for this year. I love Frazee's illustrations, where every natural and non-natural thing in the world is brought into vibrant realization, and Scanlon's text ties it into such a pure, simply beauty. The JB Kids teams overall loved this book, and despite it being a difficult storytime read, we all tried to force it onto our audiences.

Michael L. Printz Award: Going Bovine by Libba Bray.

Let me say that I was underwhelmed with this one, but I'm still happy that it was selected for the Printz award. The Printz Award has been kind of dodgy in the past, and while I do really enjoy a lot of the books previously honored in this category, I've been largely disappointed by the standard set. Last year's winner, Jellicoe Road, really didn't deliver to expectations, and for every book they choose that is more than a coming-of-age story, they pick a book that is really just another coming-of-age story...

So I'm satisfied by Going Bovine, where a unrepentant slacker discovers that he has Mad Cow disease and goes on a crazy, mystical journey to find the cure and save the world. I felt uneasy about the book by the end - it felt kind of like stuffing your face with every kind of awesome food at once. There was so much stuff there, mostly appealing ideas, but it was difficult to keep it all straight while the book raced to its inevitable stark conclusion. I felt like it unraveled a bit, and what Bray needed to do was keep it as tight as possible.

But you have to give her proper credit that she didn't just write another paranormal, fantastical romance. She could have followed up the Gemma Doyle Trilogy with something along the same lines, but she stepped outside of her own box, and for that, I am glad that she has been properly recognized.

My Bet: I wasn't surprised to see two of the National Book Award for Young Readers nominees on the Honored list. Claudette Colvin and Charles and Emma both rightly deserved their places, and I admit that Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes has long been on my to-be-read pile. And I'm always glad to see Adam Rapp get some proper attention, even if I didn't care to immediately pick up Punkzilla.

Still, I read a lot of YA this year that will never get recognized by the Printz Award, especially since it seems to ignore anything too fantastic or in the realm of sci-fi. Kristin Cashore, Suzanne Collins, Scott Westerfield, etc... they all wrote fantastic YA novels this year, and yet no credit given to the fantasy kids.

Also, didn't anyone else read A Brief History of Montmaray?!?!? Why am I the seemingly sole champion of this book?

And finally...

The John Newbery Medal: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.

I'm happy with this.


Look, my girl, Jacqueline Kelly, got a Newbery Honors, and that's no slight matter.

She's a terrific debut author who will have many accolades coming her way in the future.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is bound to hit school reading lists, library reading lists, and be a longtime favorite of teachers, librarians, and fans of children's literature for decades to come.

So I'm not sad.

Although it would have been cool to have met the 2010 Newbery winner before she was the 2010 Newbery winner.

But enough of that. When You Reach Me is absolutely fantastic, and moreover, it's a book that kids are liable to want to read and read again. It's a coming-of-age story, a mystery, a time travel story, an ode to A Wrinkle in Time, and that rarest of era-specific novels, relevant and true for the kids it has been written for. In this slim novel, every word and character detail counts, from the seemingly tossaway dialogue between characters through the minute details of their streets and buildings and the beings that inhabit those surroundings. The nuance, the slight changes in voice and tone, and a narrator who is as full realized as she is likable.

Miranda's predicament is both absolutely common for kids her age - her best friend inexplicably stops talking to her, forcing her to find a new grounding amongst her sixth grade peers - and utterly fantastic - someone is sending her messages indicating that it is up to her to prevent a tragedy from happening, and that someone may or may not have traveled in time to do so. The book rewards its readers for their attention to detail, and on a second reading, the rewards are twice over.

I think it's a good step for the Newbery, and I'm glad that it has been given its due.

My Bet:

Oh, shut up.

Like I said, Newbery Honors! Come on! That's still fantastic!

On a personal note, I met Jacqueline Kelly last October, and she's fabulous. Her and her husband are the exact type of person I would like to be, once I've fully formed and gotten through this single-cell stage I seemed to be stagnated in. She was warm, funny, and her comments about her work were thought-provoking and introspective. It's wonderful to meet a fairly new author who has managed to strike gold in their own genius and talent.

Early on, when I had reviewed the book before it came out, I got a lovely email from her, thanking me for the kind words and offering to pay a visit to the store for an author event. If I could manage to get in touch with her now, I'd offer her my congratulations. Sadly, given the circumstances of my work redundancy, I did not have time to grab any of the email addresses for the wonderful array of authors, publishing reps, and children's book enthusiasts of all types that I had been fortunate to meet during my brief time running the Kids Department.

But, as multiple people have pointed out to me, there's no sense in crying over spilled milk or lost email addresses, especially not in a time where people are easy to access, through blogs, websites, other people's websites, professional profile websites, etc. And so, I will make a better effort.

But that does bring me to a greater point - It is high time we start interacting with our authors intellectually, and that is why I love the blogging community, because they seem to be dedicated to just that. Shortly before we were laid off, I had communicated to Maureen (our former marketing director) my wish to begin interviews for the Joseph-Beth blog and my own.

I need to begin this, because I do not wish my removal from bookstore life to mean that I am less engaged with the greater book life. I want the next stage of my life to be characterized by a proactive engagement with the books and authors that I adore.

And so... yeah... that's what I'm working on now.

For more information on the American Library Association 2010 Media Awards, just click the link.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

On my way to where the air is sweet...

I've been filling up my unemployed days with a mix of activities, ranging from job hunting to errands to sleeping late to listless empty staring at the walls. I received sound advice early on into this experience to set up a pile of books and set to work on it. Having a TBR pile that could roughly fill up a five shelf bookcase, that pile of time-consuming reading has been waiting for an opportunity like this.

What I was reading around the same time of my redundancy - I prefer the British term to "laid off" as I feel it is a closer approximation of an employer's perspective, therefore being just a tad less bullshit than other sugar-coated terms, such as "let go" - was Street Gang by Michael Davis, a really wonderful little history of Sesame Street. In the mid-60s, intellectual chatter at a social dinner gathering laid the foundation for the program that would become an absolute staple not only of children's television, but also of public television and the very idea of educational programming and family-friendly entertainment.

Forty years! Forty years this program has been on air. Davis not only follows the program from its social engagement conversational conception to the formation of the core team and through the high-profile, bumpy, but largely successful first two years, he also goes back to the first stirrings of children's television, examining in intriguing and often hilarious detail the career backgrounds of Joan Ganz Cooney, Jon Stone, Sam Gibbon, and, of course, Jim Henson and the many colorful members of what would become the Henson Muppet brands.

I tend to sink into these kind of histories. A couple of months ago, I fell head over heels in love with Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris, a similarly engrossing (if perhaps a bit more expansive) look at the 1968 Academy Award nominees for Best Picture and how they represented the division ranks and turning point for Hollywood. Street Gang makes its own fair share of larger points. The Sesame Street phenomenon was more than a calculated risk at proving television a viable option for providing a reaching education to kids (and specifically urban youth). It was a small revolution, or rather, a revolution for the small - a new vision of children's entertainment that blended a modern realism with brightly colored surreal fantasy. The use of the commercial form for teaching basic lessons, something that really did find its potential with the SS writers. The use of actors portraying fictional but realistic neighborhood characters interacting with different versions of children in the form of Henson's sometimes motley, sometimes outlandish, but always lovable Muppets. The songs and the sounds, the sights, the scene.

The people behind Sesame Street were a varied lot of entertainers, creatives, behind-the-scenes veterans, a few academics, and one woman with an extensive, but varied communications resume and little early childhood education. I finished this book in awe of everyone - and even with a renewed respect for Henson, one of my longtime heroes - but Davis made me fall in love with Joan Ganz Cooney a bit. Her ability to keep in line the varied creative forces that made the program the powerhouse that it became (and mostly remains), not to mention the fact that by showing how invaluable she was to the project from the start, she was able to secure her leadership position. Imagining the show spearheaded by anyone else is to imagine a failure in place of the success.

One more thought about Street Gang: I'm in constant envy when I read tales of any cultural entity's beginnings. How I wish I could go back forty years and find a place in the ground floor of Sesame Street and the Children's Television Workshop. I would happily write banter for Bert and Ernie, irritated monologues for Oscar, and wide-eyed expressions of wonder for Big Bird. If I had been in my twenties around the time of the creation of CTW, there would have been nothing stopping me from desperately trying to be a part of this promising new beginning for children's television.

Despite my envy, Street Gang was a very pleasurable way to spend my reading time and a nice way to melt away my real-life sorrows in exchange for the tale of a bunch of smart schemers and dreamers, and the plan that has blossomed from dinner talk to a forty-year-strong symbol of all that can be when creativity and intelligence marry the perspective and imagination of children.

Monday, January 11, 2010

the heart is an unemployed reader

Last Monday, I was laid off from my wonderful job at the bookstore.

My reading as of late has been fairly sporadic, but while filing for unemployment, job hunting, and just generally trying to accept fate, I've been thoroughly enjoying Street Gange, Michael Davis's well-researched, entertaining, and enlightening history of Sesame Street. Davis had spoken to our (former) marketing director about a month ago, and Penguin was nice enough to send over some copies for our perusal. I hope he still makes a stop in town. I'd love to meet him and hear what he has to say about this terrific little history of children's television and, in some ways, the growth of public television into a relevant force in the lives of everyday television watchers.

Before that, I had continued on my Shelf Discovery Reading Challenge quest by reading the excellent (and surprisingly relevant) Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene. I will say that the day I was let go, I had been espousing the joys of this book to my general manager and book manager, each seeming to be on opposite ends of opinion with the book. More on that soon.

I also recently read Kristin Cashore's phenomenal Graceling, a medieval tale set in a land of kingdoms where some people are born with inherent talents, or graces. Known as Gracelings, these people live in exulted, but often ostracized distance from the normal people. Katsa, graced with a talent for killing, is used by her uncle, King Randa, as no more than a menacing thug, performing acts of violence out of intimidation or vengeance. A mystery, an unlikely romance, an adventure story, this novel really has almost something for every reader. I found myself reading slower and slower, as if to savor every word. Speaking of Kristin Cashore...

In a post-firing haze this weekend, I found myself perusing the pickings at a local Waldenbooks that is going out of business. I have grown up to respect larger, infinitely better-stocked bookstore chains likes Barnes & Noble, only second to wonderful idiosyncratic independent bookstores, but I admit, there will always be a soft spot in my heart for Waldenbooks. Before the big stores came to my suburban area, there was B Dalton in one mall and a Waldens in the other, and if you wanted to buy a book - and I often, very often, did - you went to one of those bookstores in one of those malls.

The selection was fairly limited, and the layouts were uninspired, wretched mazes. Kids books were relegated to the very back shelves, usually with dismal inventory. Wanted specific volumes of a series you were reading? Tough. You took what you could get. The Bethel Park Public Library was where I would go for specific things - they had a kids' section that my heart aches for to this day - but Waldens was for stuff that you hadn't picked up yet.

This past Saturday, while my two friends browsed the leftovers of the adult books, I made a beeline to the kids' section and was richly rewarded. New release books were 50% off, and bargain books were 40% off their sticker price (for YA books, that's usually $3.99). I found, among other things:

- Kristin Cashore's follow-up to Graceling, Fire.

- Scott Westerfield's latest, the WWII-era steampunk Leviathan.

- David Levithan's The Realm of Possibility.

- Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande

- Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks of Gardam Street

- The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

- Rebecca Stead's first novel First Light - I loved When You Reach Me, so I can't wait to pick this one up

- Maureen's favorite Marcus Zusak's I Am the Messenger

I got most of these for almost nothing, which is quite nice, I suppose. Still, I am sorry to see Waldenbooks go. That mall now houses a Barnes & Noble, so I suppose the reading happy children of the South Hills area will still have a place to buy their books. So all is not lost...

But if they close the Borders down the street, I will probably cry. The last half of my high school years was spent in the same nightly routine - we'd go to Borders, kill as much time as possible, then go to the Eat'n'Park down the street for coffee, cigarettes, and occasionally food. Sometimes we would go to the E'n'P first, go to Borders, then back to the restaurant. Oh, the rituals of teenagers with nowhere better to be on any given night.