Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tales from a First-Year Middle School Librarian

| No comments:
This past weekend, I was unpacking boxes of books in the house that Colin and I now own and I was hit with this desperate longing.

I miss reading.

[And I also miss writing about it!]

It's ironic that my job title is "Librarian" and I've barely read a book in the past three months. I work with books every day, but my own interaction with them is different than it used to be. I no longer have subway commutes nor lunch breaks to bury myself in a story. My after work hours have been filled with new homeowner tasks, pep-talking my first-year teacher husband, and unwinding with mindless TV shows or movies (because, currently, my attention span matches that of my middle schoolers). I've read a couple books here and there but mostly titles from my library's collection—gotta connect with the kids and all that.

But as I unpacked and shelved books from our old life, I was overwhelmed with that familiar all-consuming desire to read as much as humanly possible. All of my shelves—physical and virtual—are lined with so many stories that have piqued my interest that I don't even know where to I haven't. That night I made a vow to veg out with books rather than HGTV, and with Thanksgiving and winter holidays just around the corner, I'm excited to spend cold days curled up on my couch with a cup of tea on the table and a book on my lap.

But enough about my longings for books, I also wanted to share some tidbits about my first year as a school librarian, since part of the motivation for re-branding this blog was to share these experiences.

In a nutshell, I absolutely love it. My school is a perfect fit, and the kids have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Our middle schools are grades 5-8, and you always hear that teachers either love or hate middle school. Well I love it. There are such a range of personalities and maturity levels. I've got wide-eyed 5th graders who give you a hug every chance they get, 8th grade girls that want to impress the high school boys next door, and everything else in between.

My Library Ambassadors, "swearing-in" to their duties on Harry Potter Book 7

I'm under the impression that the former library wasn't so energetic. There were a lot of rules and its accessibility was more limited. I am fortunate this year to have a full-time clerk with me, which the previous librarian didn't have, so perhaps that was part of it, but I've been working really hard to get students involved and excited in something they have overlooked in the past. My 5th and 6th graders are absurdly enthusiastic, but it's been harder to reach the 7th and 8th grades who have already dismissed the library from their radar. 

The most fun thing to happen so far is the launch of a Library Ambassador program to get students involved in what's happening in here. I had several kids ask me how they could help out in the library (which is awesome for generally apathetic preteens), so this was a solution to get kids helping out but also doing outreach to their peers that may not come in so often. I now have 22 kids from all four grades spending one class period a week in here checking in and shelving books, creating displays and recommendations, helping with collection development, going to classes as a "mobile library" to give book talks and collect returns, and helping plan events and activities. I'm actually having to limit them to only one day a week, because they keep trying to sneak in more often and I don't have room for them—all in all, not a bad problem to have!

Sorry for the ramble of updates, but I just wanted to check in and say that this blog hasn't had the plug pulled on it yet. There is still more to come!

Happy fall!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Tour: How to Build a Girl

| 1 comment:
In case my limited posting over the past couple of months isn't indicative enough, I'm here to tell you that actually being a librarian has, ironically, seriously hindered my reading habits. Without these book tour commitments, I wouldn't be posting at all, because I have barely been reading at all. The most I've read is a couple middle school books here and there, which are enjoyable and very relevant to my life right now, but I also really miss the frequent Kobo use I practiced earlier this year. Browsing the public library's eBook offerings, exploring an array of genres, crossing things off my 'to-read' list...ahhh, the life. That's one that has disappeared until May 27th.

Anyway, my most recent non-middle-grade book was Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl. And it was just the breath of funny, slightly crude, witty air to snap me out of middle school and back into the slightly vulgar adult world. [This is the hardest part of being an educator—censoring my language, stories, and references for a preteen audience. I'm not a very explicit person to begin with, but this is much harder than you'd think!]

This is the story of Johanna Morrigan in 1990, living in Wolverhampton, England (a boring industrial town, the opposite of cosmopolitan), and constantly embarrassing herself. Johanna has a sharp, mature sense of humor, but no one seems to appreciate it. She just doesn't seem to fit in in her world, so she decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde—embodiment of the hip counterculture movement, appreciated by peers, expert on underground music, and sex connoisseur. What follows are the ups and downs as Johanna navigates her youth with a vision of who she wants to be and a reality that doesn't always live up to it. It's the story of the constant reassessing and reinvention that you hope will eventually get you there.

My advanced reader's copy opened with a letter from Moran:

"As with all books ever, I've written it not so much hoping you like it...No—I hope you remember it, all over again. Being a teenager—those years where you veer wildly between believing you are a terrible nuclear accident, and thinking you might actually be here to save the world. How you don't know how to kiss, how you try to walk in a cool way. How you talk to yourself in the mirror—hoping your reflection is somehow wiser than you are. And it never is. How you build yourself—for the first time, but not the last."

One thing I am constantly reminded of/put in my place about in working with adolescents is that even if you're an adult that still feels like a kid, you are not still a kid. Just by virtue of having "been through it" already, our emotions and rationale and decision-making skills are so far ahead of actual adolescents. Every day I see the way middle schoolers process information and handle situations and how they deal with conflict and solve problems. And it is so much harder for them, because they don't have the experience doing it—-that's experience we've built by trial and error over a decade or more, and though you may not always learn from your mistakes, you're always learning from the situations. If you're almost 30 and you don't feel like an adult yet, hang out with some 14-year-olds, and you'll feel like one real quick.

And that's what this book does. As a teenager, I was pretty much completely opposite the main character of this book, but the little ways in which Johanna tried to find her way were so relatable. She does things out of character just to do them—it's a self diagnostic to see what, if anything, is revealed. I found this a really enjoyable character to follow and a very funny, entertaining read.

This post is a stop on How to Build a Girl's TLC Book Tour! [And regretfully, perhaps my last post until a major school holiday!] Visit the tour page to read more about the book and its author. This book's tour is almost over, so be sure to also catch up on what other bloggers are saying about it!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Book Tour: Ballroom

Here's what's unique about Alice Simpson's debut novel Ballroom: it almost feels like we're reading a collection of short stories. We're introduced to a group of characters, loosely connected by one commonality—Sunday nights at the Ballroom. We experience their lives in small doses, in particular moments that reveal their past and present and identify just who they are.

But instead of sharing only brief but detailed snippets of our characters' lives, Simpson continues beyond the limits usually imposed by the short story. In a novel-length narrative, with short chapters switching focus from one character to the next, we are given a complete look at several lives and the one thing they all share—a love of dance.

The time period is supposedly the late 1990s (according to the book jacket!), though with all the jumping back and forth between past and present, it's difficult to stay put in this particular moment. It's easy to see, though, that this is a moment in the past when times weren't so different from the present, but modern customs of communication haven't yet entered the picture—cell phones, emails, and texts aren't a social norm. The story revolves around six very different individuals who each find comfort in the weekly dances at the Ballroom. For each of these characters, dance represents everything they're looking for in life—love and excitement, a future of happiness.

Their lives all seem rather drab. Harry Korn is a crotchety old man, living with a fantasy of his young neighbor, Maria. Maria longs to be accepted as a professional dancer, hungry for the excitement it will add to her life. Angel, Maria's dance partner, has big dreams for his life, and the Ballroom provides the control and certainty that he's often lacking. Joseph longs for a wife but some serious mommy commitment issues always stand in the way. Sarah is desperate for the glamorous life found in old Hollywood films, and especially desperate for the passionate love story part of it. Gabe is the suave, sexy one that always seems to be in the distance—the one whose attention you desire because it means you are worth looking at. But beneath his aloof persona, he's got a troubled marriage and declining parents.

I say this book is like an extended short story because, ultimately, there is no real plot. The Ballroom is what brings all of these people together, but it's more of a backdrop to their lives than a backdrop to the story's action. There is no real action. I enjoyed the style of this book, because I do like the detailed character portraits that short stories often do so well. Despite my lack of sympathy for any of these characters (they had few redeeming qualities), I was drawn into their lives and curious as to how they ended up. Ballroom reminds us that an unremarkable plot doesn't mean that nothing is happening; it may be quiet on the surface, but individual lives are rarely so uncomplicated.

This post is a stop on the TLC Book Tour of Ballroom! You can visit the tour page to learn more about the book, its author, and find a list of the other tour stops. This tour is almost over, so if you're intrigued, be sure to read through the many great responses so far!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Tour: Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy

When TLC Book Tours approached me late this summer with some fall book suggestions, I was immediately drawn to Karen Abbott's new hefty piece of nonfiction called Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. Though the catchy title is at first an obvious play on the already-well-known Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I was happy to discover that it's also a completely relevant and accurate description of the four women she introduces in her 500+ pages.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy shares the stories of four women who refused to sit on the sidelines of the Civil War. On the Southern side, we have Belle Boyd who embroils herself in the rebel cause as a spy after shooting a Union soldier in her own home, and we meet Rose O'Neal Greenhow, the temptress of the set, who draws elicit information from her affairs with powerful Union men. Fighting for the North, we have Emma Edmonds who has disguised herself as a man named Frank Thompson and enlisted in the army, and then there's Elizabeth Van Lew—every bit Emma's opposite—who uses her wealthy Richmond upbringing to gain access to Confederate secrets that will help the abolitionist cause.

It's thrilling to read such detailed accounts of an event and era that is usually so simplified and abbreviated in our minds, a consequence of the 150 years that have passed, causing summation to replace specifics. Abbott tells the story of these women in such a vivid way that feels more like a fictional narrative than historical fact. The author states in the beginning that none of the dialogue is fabricated; any quotes can be found in the historical record—journals, letters, documents, and such. Abbott's use of them really adds a lot to the story, creating excitement and tension rather than presenting dry fact.

The book is divided into five parts, each covering a year of the war from 1861-1865. We follow the journey of each of these women, from their initial agitation through the development of the pivotal role they eventually play. It's interesting to see each of their perspectives and personal motivations. I found myself sympathizing with our Union heroines, and I was left wondering if that was a sentiment subtly weaved into Abbott's words or if it's just a consequence of their position on the meritorious side of history. At no point does the narrative feel particularly partisan; the focus is on the women themselves and the risks they took, not whether they were "right" or "wrong" in taking them. I was most surprised—though I shouldn't have been—at the horrors of war that existed on BOTH sides. War never seems an inculpable conflict.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is a deceptively fast read that by no means feels bogged down with detail. It's an entertaining look at overlooked figures in history that feels more much like storytelling than 500 pages of nonfiction.

This post is a stop on the TLC Book Tour of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy! You can visit the tour page to learn more about the book, its author, and find a list of the other tour stops. If you're intrigued, be sure to check out all the other blogger opinions, continuing through October 2nd!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Book Tour: The Story of Land and Sea

Katy Simpson Smith's debut novel, The Story of Land and Sea, features a fascinating time period that I was excited to experience. It spans the last two decades of the 18th century when the Revolutionary War is sputtering out and uncertain newly-coined "Americans" are trying to figure out where they belong. This story is set on the coast of North Carolina in a small town that sees war action simply because of its location on the water.

It's a quiet novel with succinct, often poetic, phrases and interactions that leave much unsaid. There are three main narratives going on here. The first, a 10-year-old girl Tabitha drawn to the sea from the stories of her father's, John's, voyages with the mother she never met; the second, that mother's, Helen's, coming-of-age with a slave companion and protective father, Asa; the third, John and Asa's reconciliations of life and loss in a changing world.

"If this is punishment, if God is looking down on her and witnessing her turned heart, then he will surely let her sink; the ocean is the space below the hand he pulls away, into which her body will drop."

The parts to this book aren't told sequentially but intend to provide perspective to, essentially, the same story. It's a present-past-future time frame that demonstrates the multitude of ways events and situations affect the people involved.

Looking at The Story of Land and Sea as a whole, I end up feeling rather confused as to the whole point of it all—the connections of the pieces and what Smith is trying to say. On a small level, it's about identity and finding your place, compared to the world around you and the people in your life. It oozes with religious influence and how it shapes responses and opinions. We can read about duty and family and sacrifice and freedom and expectation. It's about the relationships between spouses and between parent and child.

"This is what parents do: shape the emotions that will color memory."

With all these overlapping themes, it's hard to walk away with a clear takeaway. It's the reason I haven't shared much of the plot or the details of the characters and their situations—these things seem secondary. There's an overarching sadness to this story about things that can bring such joy. Mostly, to me, it seems to be about the holes, the places of emptiness—in your heart, in your soul, in your life—created by the people that usually fill them. While this wasn't a story that hinged entirely on its historical setting (the point that drew me to it in the first place!), it does demonstrate the universality of emotions and relationships, the experiences that draw mankind together from century to century.

This post is a stop on the TLC Book Tour of The Story of Land and Sea! You can visit the tour page to learn more about the book, its author, and find a list of the other tour stops. If you're intrigued, be sure to check out all the other blogger opinions, continuing through the end of this month!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Book Tour: Flings

| No comments:
I am so happy that Justin Taylor's newest collection of short stories, Flings, came my way. It has been FOREVER since I read any short stories, and they were a welcome retreat back into books while also considering my now-limited attention span.

My one-time blog collaborator Sal read Taylor's debut short story collection and posted about it on this site. I never read it and thus can't make comparisons between that collection and this one, but Flings certainly feels like a more thorough, second glance at fleeting interactions; Taylor manages to move beyond mere introduction, to provide a great deal of insight into his characters, in the short time we spend with them. That, for me, is exactly the job of a short story—to leave the reader feeling satisfied with brevity, without a novel-long conclusion.

The collection opens with its eponymous story and a quick rundown of the shifting post-college relationships in a group of friends. Percy breaks up with Kat and Kat bemoans to Danny while Danny has a fling with Rachel. And Ellen and Scott are practically married until Scott leaves Ellen, and only Danny can find Rachel to comfort Ellen, and then somehow, years down the road, Danny and Ellen find themselves together, living in Hong Kong, hosting their old friend Rachel in town for a visit.

'Sungold' follows a minimum-wage, organic pizza franchise employee living a cushy life in a crap job with a terrible boss who finds inspiration in the store's most atypical employee. In 'Adon Olam,' a young man is reminded of his childhood friendship with twin brothers years after one of the boys died of cancer. A father considers the life he's given his children and their consequential relationship while at a Phish concert in 'Mike's Song.' And in 'Carol, Alone' a seventy-two year old woman in a Florida retirement community examines the life that brought her here.

I loved this collection because I didn't need to love the characters to understand their conflict. These characters are flawed; there's plenty of deep-seated emotional constraints like selfishness and immaturity, but Taylor's characters are also littered with surface issues like cheating, dishonesty, and excessive drug use. Faults like these are all but guaranteed in Taylor's characters, but it's not the character he's trying to get you, the reader, to sympathize with—it's the situation, and how its a product of these characters, that Taylor illustrates. These stories are by no means concluded—it is a short story, not a novel, after all—but they are wrapped up enough to satisfy the reader while also leaving an aura of uncertainty. We have no idea how these lives will end up, and neither do the individuals living them—and that is the point.

A thoughtful and enjoyable collection.

This post is a stop on the TLC Book Tour of Justin Taylor's Flings: Stories! You can visit the tour page to learn more about the book, its author, and find a list of the other tour stops. If you're intrigued, be sure to check out all the other blogger opinions, continuing through mid-September!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fiction | One Life, Many Stories

| No comments:
The Forrests by Emily Perkins is another novel by a New Zealand author I added to my 'to-read' shelf back when we were in NZ, and once again (like with Tamar), it wasn't really what I expected.

But this time was better!

The Forrests follows one family recently transplanted to New Zealand from New York. There are four children: Evelyn, Dorothy, Michael, and Ruth; and their parents, Lee and Frank—upon whom the names "Mom" and "Dad" were never bestowed by the Forrest children. This family is sort of odd, and you realize they probably came to New Zealand to escape utter failure by American standards. They spend some time on a commune; they all-but-officially adopt a young neighbor, Daniel. You get the impression that Lee and Frank aren't exactly the most doting or involved parents, but somehow the four Forrest kids survive into adulthood.

That's what The Forrests does—it spans this family through the decades, mostly though the eyes of Dorothy. As a child, Dorothy has a strong sensory awareness of the world; these feelings build her memories and are later her tools of nostalgia as the years progress. We follow Dorothy through adolescent relationships, marriage, kids, and the slow passage into old age, and family is the constant that ties the loose ends of her life together—that bridges one extreme to another.

I think the most spectacular thing about this book is the way the story is told; it's really a series of short vignettes, and it takes a while to realize that Dorothy is our main connection to the lives we're seeing. The chapters generally cover a single incident or occurrence; sometimes it's years spanning between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, sometimes it's hours. With this loose timeline, it's easy to lose yourself in the characters and their lives. It feels rather symbolic of real life experiences; some are monumental and alter time and place, while some slip by subtly. Suddenly, you find yourself years down the road with a life you never expected, that you may not recognize, about which you may wonder, "How did I get here?"

While at times, this family is frustratingly dysfunctional, that's ultimately not the point of the story at all. And the fact that it takes place in New Zealand is really inconsequential—it could be anytime and anywhere. (Here's where it defied my expectations, as mentioned in the beginning; not really a New Zealand story!) I found myself drawn to the characters in this family, wondering what happened in those gaps of time left out between chapters. I think it's a wonderful portrait of how lives and opinions and situations can change drastically over the years, and I think its beauty and message lies in this, between the lines of the actions that take place on the page.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Reading Notes: The Evolution of God, Part 4

| No comments:
Ok, it's a little bit pathetic that it's taken me so long to get through this book and finish up the posts on it. It took me literally all summer—I checked it out from the library over Memorial Day weekend, and I returned it on July 30th, the day before I started back to work for the new school year. However, that's not indicative of my feelings for it; I was fascinated, but my priorities shifted over the summer and this book ended up taking a back seat.

The fifth and final section of The Evolution of God is ambiguously titled "God Goes Global (Or Doesn't)." And though its purpose must be a sort of concluding summation and application of the ideas he's presented in the previous four be honest, it was definitely the most confusing section of all. There was some game theory thrown in and a lot of repetitions about non-zero-sum. But mostly, I think the point Wright is trying to get across is that though religions may differ in belief, they all have the same foundation. They are all born from the same human needs, and their histories are all colorful, sometimes contradictory, and always a product of their times.

Wright contends that "...religions that reach great stature have a tendency to rewrite their history in the process. They cast themselves as distinctive from the get-go, rather than growing organically out of their milieu. They find an epoch-marking figure—a Moses, a Jesus, a Muhammad—and turn him into an epoch-making figure. They depict his message as contrasting sharply with a backdrop that, in fact, his message was infused with." In short, they all find themselves unique when, in fact, their existence largely depends on all that came before. And certain aspects of human nature make us inclined to find answers in religion--thus, for the religions to develop in the first place.

  • Everyone seeks salvation on a personal level simply by driving human needs: good health and good spirit.
  • Either we understand motivations because we relate to them, or we don't relate to them and find them illegitimate. (We like what we know and understand; we fear or dislike what we don't.)
  • And people want to control their environment. Minds are open to explanations that give them such control.

Mostly, though, during this final section, Wright goes heavy on the connection between religion and social behavior...and how, really, we should all just get along, because we're all from the same stock. It's kind of the same argument he had for religions being similar; people are similar and have the same universal needs and struggles.

"To say that other people are people, too, may sound like an unremarkable insight. But it is one that is often ignored, and one that is in some sense unnatural. After all, any organism created by natural selection is, by default, under the illusion that it is special...Obviously, we can't all be right in any objective sense. The truth must be otherwise. The extension of moral imagination brings us closer to that truth."

If he ever makes an argument for the existence of God, it's here. To Wright, the Abrahamic scriptures show that there is a moral truth that's imposed on us; and cultural evolution has shown us that it makes sense to progress morally or else there are consequences. For the author, this is evidence in favor of the god hypothesis. Basically, religion can essentially be the belief in an unseen order: [it] "consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto" (William James). Wright is always vague on his own beliefs. They may not include a literal world-ruling, omniscient figure; but he seems to believe in a sense of order that exists in the world, and if you, personally, want to credit this order to a higher power God figure, then by all means you can.

The final chapter in this book is aptly titled "Well, Aren't We Special?" and I hope you can see how applicable that is to all the arguments Wright has raised in this book. Whether it's an entire religion, a population, or an individual, your way is always the right way; you're the chosen one; you are special. Back to that point of fearing or vilifying what we don't understand, this is just a part of human nature. But Wright finds proof of God in the fact that we can recognize and resist this innate fault to create a more harmonious existence. Evolution created beings so smart that they spawned another kind of evolution—cultural evolution—that forged a new connection between the growth of social organization and the progress toward moral truth. Basically, cause and effect guide us towards moral truth.

"As interdependence, and hence social structure, grew beyond the bounds of family—and then beyond the bounds of hunter-gatherer band, of chiefdom, of state—the way was paved by extensions of sympathy. This sympathy didn't have to involve its initial sponsor, love; you don't have to love someone to trade with them or even to consider them compatriots. But there has to be enough moral imagination, enough sympathetic consideration, to keep them out of the cognitive category of enemy; you have to consider them, in some sense, one of you."

You may be thinking that this book ended with a lot more philosophical ponderings than anticipated...and you're not alone. I feel somewhat like Wright just used a lot of history as a prelude to a big, theoretically-inspired hug; he's giving us a pep talk, not only on why it's beneficial for us all to just get along, but hey, it's going to be easy—because someone or something out there is making sure mankind makes the right choices, because it's our destiny. Well...thank god (or maybe God) for that.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Reading Roundup: The End of Summer Reading, Part 2

| No comments:
Well I certainly didn't intend to go 10 days in between my "End of Summer Reading" compilation posts. This was supposed to be a quick catch-up before school started, and now we're two weeks in and it has CONSUMED MY LIFE. I've got several book tours on the lineup for the next couple of months, which I am very excited about, but other than that, expect many compilation posts...particularly on middle school books! I can't even believe how busy the days seem, but at least it's finally doing something I love. And surely it will calm down into a routine where I can socialize and stay up past 10pm soon...right?

Bloodroot by Amy Greene is an example of how great storytelling can make even the most depressing of lives enjoyable to read. The book follows a number of voices as they weave together the story of one Appalachian family living on Bloodroot Mountain. Mostly, it's the story of Myra Lamb, a wild and spirited young girl who captivates the attention of our several storytellers. We hear from the grandmother that raised her and passed down the special "touch" that enchants; her neighbor and childhood friend who loves her with all his heart (though, sadly, the feeling isn't mutual); the husband who wrongfully tried to tame her; and the children who must endure the hardships and consequences of her decisions.

Overall, I found this book haunting. Its structure, with its alternating perspectives and nonlinear sequence, could be confusing, but it isn't; without distinguished chapters, it could drag on, but it doesn't. Bloodroot is steeped in the mysticism and folklore of Appalachia, and though its a universal story of history, tragedy, and family, it's also one so inextricably tied to this particular setting, on the top of an isolated mountain barely touched by modernity. I think there is a lot that could be delved into here, but it's also simply an engrossing story about people and how their choices affect their lives. Particularly recommended for book groups.

And now a light, fun one: Dying in the Wool is the first in Frances Brody's "Kate Shackleton" mystery series. If it reminds you an awful lot of the "Maisie Dobbs" series, in both subject and book design, then I'm glad I'm not the only one.

Our narrator is Kate, a young woman with a recent knack for finding missing people—whether they be dead or just didn't want to be found. This is sort of a hobby she's taken up in the years since her husband went missing himself, presumed dead during WWI. Now an old friend has come to Kate with another missing-persons case; Joshua Braithwaite, a wealthy and successful businessman, the owner of the local wool mill in Bridgestead, has been missing for the past seven years, and Tabitha is convinced her father is alive...and she wants to find him before her own wedding. With a delightful male sidekick (a sort of buddy cop scenario), Kate begins her very first professional investigation, digging up long-forgotten secrets that someone in the town would rather remain buried.

This book is just fun. Kate is an unconventional character for her time, displaying a level of confidence on par with her male colleagues, despite the anxieties nagging below the surface. She's never fully accepted the presumed death of her own husband, but she's found her own way and values her independence...and this ambiguity certainly has the potential to develop further as the series progresses. A fun mystery with a strong protagonist and enjoyable setting.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Reading Roundup: The End of Summer Reading*, Part 1

| No comments:
It has happened—after a nice seven month vacation, I've gone back to work with the new school year. I can't even describe how full my head is with new tasks and to-do lists. In an effort to whittle my "to-post-about" queue down before the chaos really begins, I'm going to be quick in talking about what I've read as my vacation neared its end.

I took a picture of Deborah Challinor's Tamar on a "New Zealand Authors" shelf back when we were in New Zealand, and I was looking forward to reading it when we got home. A trilogy of historical fiction sounded right up my alley. And because my public library didn't have it, nor would they get it through Inter-library Loan, it became my inaugural eBook purchase as well.

Tamar chronicles the journey of the eponymous main character, a young woman who emigrates from England to New Zealand near the end of the 19th century. Initially seeming rather meek and naive, Tamar surprises the reader as her strength and resilience are revealed during a long, arduous journey across oceans and as she navigates her way through a rough new home. An unconventional friendship is what gives Tamar much of her strength—on the passage from England she befriends Myrna MacTaggart who is moving to Auckland to establish the finest brothel in New Zealand. Myrna provides comfort and guidance to Tamar as she finds herself a place to live and work, settles into a new homeland, and eventually escapes from a disastrous marriage.

So, I was really looking forward to this sweeping trilogy of historical fiction on a place I recently visited. But truth be told, it was so much more ROMANCE-Y than I had expected. Like, I sort of felt duped. If we're classifying by genre, this is definitely Romance and definitely not Historical Fiction. Tamar is a sympathetic character, and the plot of this is definitely detailed enough to provide some level of substance. Overall, though, I was expecting and hoping to read a series that was dependent on its physical and historical setting, and this ended up being much more about characters who could've existed anywhere. I'm not criticizing the book itself, and I would recommend it to a reader that seems interested, but it disappointed me based on my own expectations.

Ok, I won't lie. I put Tom Drury's Pacific on my 'to-read' list because I really just liked the cover and title. Simple. Brief. It gave me a good vibe. And overall, I can't totally contradict that, though my final opinion is a little lacking.

The story follows (somewhat) a 14-year-old named Micah who is moving across the country to Los Angeles to live with his long-absent mother. But the narrative doesn't just focus on Micah. In fact, it doesn't actually focus on him more than any other character. Instead, it gives brief snippets on all these other people connected to Micah—his impetuous actress mother; his petty thief of a father back home; his half-sister; an ex-con antique salesman; a troubled mystic; and the retired sheriff turned detective. Their stories barely overlap, yet they're all still connected and they all exist; Drury has fleshed them each out with enough of a life that the reader can imagine how they will each proceed. They're a rather pathetic lot with their own flaws, but they all have hope of something good coming down the road towards them.

Drury's writing is solid—descriptive, engaging, succinct. The characters are all interesting, and I was invested in them. But ultimately, this is a snapshot of lives and...that's it; they fade after your encounter with this book, because you didn't know enough or see enough about each of them to really remember them. It's a brief collection of unique lives, brief encounters with people you'll never hear about again. Though I was invested while reading, for a reader like me that wants a deeper connection, it ultimately felt incomplete.

* Just because my summer vacation is over doesn't actually mean it's the end of summer. We've still got plenty of days of heat and sun, and I've still got plenty of Pilcher to get me through days by the pool!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fiction | Epic Adventures with Percy Jackson

| No comments:
Back when I announced my upcoming gig as a middle school librarian, I asked for recommendations on must-read middle grade books. My first recommendation was Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, which I immediately picked up—it was almost shameful I hadn't read it before!

So in this immediate reading, I made it through the first two of the five book series: The Lightning Thief and The Sea of Monsters. Our hero is 12-year-old Percy Jackson who, at the opening of The Lightning Thief, is just about to be kicked out of yet another boarding school. He's not really a bad kid, but things just never really go his way. He's not the smartest; he doesn't really fit in anywhere; and now he's starting to witness some weird occurrences. Like, teachers-turning-into-big-demonic-birds-and-attacking-him kind of weird.

Percy learns pretty soon after that his life isn't very normal. All those weird things have much different explanations than he would've thought—his best friend isn't even human; he's been sent to boarding school for protection; and the reason his dad has never been around is because his dad is a god. The mythological kind. Which makes Percy half human and half god—a demi-god. 

Much of The Lightning Thief establishes Percy's world for the reader; we learn about the camp for other kids like Percy, Camp Half Blood; we learn the warring history between the gods and the titans; and we learn of the scandal that's caused lingering tension between Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades—the most powerful gods, known as The Big Three. Naturally, Percy discovers the truth about his identity and embarks on a quest to find Zeus' stolen lightning bolt in an effort to ease tensions between the feuding three.

Riordan does a good job of pacing the story and increasing its plot complexity, deepening Percy's world, as the series continues. In The Sea of Monsters, Camp Half Blood is threatened, and his best friend Grover may be in trouble. Percy sets out to find the fabled Golden Fleece before his newfound world is destroyed.

The brilliance in the series lies in its creativity. I found Edith Hamilton's Mythology to be the most boring thing I ever read in grade school; but Riordan rethinks what already exists and creates a new fictional world that is built with these timeless stories. Because the scope of mythology is so great, there is plenty of material to explore. As the story progresses, both in a single book and along the series, there are more twists revealed in the history and relationships that build this world. So though each book is somewhat episodic, you also recognize it's just a piece in the bigger picture and that more will be revealed as you read; the stage is continuously being set for what's to come.

There is a lot of talk in reading forums about the merit of Percy Jackson in comparison to Harry Potter. Some avid HP fans find it a rip-off, and in some sense, that could be valid: sidekicks of a brain and a lovable doof, his camp where similar kids are trained, a villain trying to return to power, etc. I'm not going to go into a deep comparison or even deem one better or worse than the other because ultimately, they are both series about young adolescents that face obstacles, must overcome challenges, and find their own skill and confidence. Fans of one series may be fans of the other, or one may hold appeal for a reader that the other doesn't. Either way, there is plenty to grab onto here. I was very entertained by Percy's adventures in the first two, and I will most definitely be finishing the series.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A New Book Club & a Yonahlossee Author Encounter

| No comments:
Aside from leaving friends and family, my greatest sadness in moving out of New York has been the loss of my beloved Idlewild book club. For four years, I met monthly with a group of one-time strangers in the most perfect indie bookstore on W 19th St. We were all so wildly different—in terms of age, background, experience, and taste—but we developed a great rapport, exploring such a wide variety of books that forced us to read outside our comfort zone. I have always been so grateful to have found that little literary niche.

Upon landing in Nashville, I decided to investigate our own indie bookstore's book club, which is how I found myself in Parnassus Books for the first time last Wednesday night to discuss Anton DiSclafani's debut bestseller, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.

It's 1930, just as the Great Depression is starting to bare its fangs. Thea Atwell, our fifteen-year-old narrator, has been cast out of her Florida home and shipped to a girls' camp in the mountains of North Carolina. We know from the beginning that Thea is somehow to blame for a recent family tragedy, but just exactly what she did is a mystery the author slowly draws out over the novel's 300+ pages. As the narration cuts back and forth, from new experiences to ones in the past, we are shown pieces of Thea's puzzle that illuminate her world and situation.

We quickly get the impression that Thea is much more something than the other girls her age. At Yonahlossee, social status is a tricky web of money, heritage, personality, and skill on the back of a horse. Thea is sharp and shrewd and understands how to navigate such a complex social strata. She knows who to befriend and who to avoid, and she has a mature sense of tact and awareness that puts her in a powerful position. Thea is independent and fearless, but she's also brazen and reckless, unaware or unconcerned of the damage her behaviors can inflict.

When I perused this book on Goodreads, I was highly surprised by the number of 1 star reviews it garnered. Many complaints seem to be of the "whiny" or "selfish" narrator, but this quality hardly seems one that could elicit such vitriol from readers. Thea's level of "selfishness" is found often in narrators, especially teen ones, and though her behavior is somewhat shocking, the more interesting aspect of this story is the environment that leads to her feelings and actions. I think dismissing this character as selfish and the plot as empty does a disservice to the author and the quiet portrait she paints on Thea's world as influenced by her times and circumstance.

Yonahlossee puts Thea in an environment totally opposite of what she has known. She's been isolated in the remote citrus fields of Florida with only her twin brother and cousin for young companions, and now she's surrounded by many young women with little idea on how to interact with them. She's facing a whole new world of interactions and relationships that tests her developing sense of morals and self. On top of that, she's growing into womanhood in a time when women are regarded as unimportant. And being surrounded by young women whose futures seem to be inconsequential, Thea asserts her power the only ways she can: by taking what she wants and being the best on a horse. In regard to certain critics, I am left wondering if it's just the nature of Thea's behavior that colors opinions, and if these readers are wrongly attributing the source of their discomfort.

With Yonahlossee author Anton DiSclafani
The great perk of last week's meeting at Parnassus was that the book's author, Anton DiSclafani, was there to join the circle. I was curious (and also somewhat skeptical) as to how open a discussion would actually be if the author of the book was sitting there with us. I am happy to report, though, that she was just wonderful and added so much to the conversation. I am always interested in the inspirations that lead to a book and how the ideas develop. Anton walked us through her transition from short stories to a novel and how difficult it was to fully flesh out a novel-sized idea.

Further, she described the motivations behind particular scenes and why she told the story the way she did. Prior to the meeting, I had noticed the subtleties through which the author seems to make her statement; Thea's actions are very large, but the reasons behind her actions are much quieter on paper. When I mentioned this during the meeting, Anton explained that she is telling the story through Thea's eyes, so because Thea lacks this mature awareness of the world, we as the reader also see it through hazy goggles; Thea is figuring out her situation on a larger scale, without a complete understanding of it, so we see them as smaller pieces of the puzzle as well. While many readers seemed to hate Thea, I pitied her more than anything. She's a young woman isolated by her living arrangements and disregarded because of her gender. She doesn't need to be liked, and I'm not agreeing with or justifying her behavior, but I think, as a character, she deserves a great deal of consideration. This book ended up being great for discussion—there are enough gray areas of behavior and morality that keep the conversation lively!

In hearing articulate explanations and rationales like this, I gained an even bigger appreciation for this story and what the author was saying with it. Anton was incredibly personal, very well-spoken, and graciously thick-skinned, so no side-stepping or tip-toeing was necessary! I enjoyed hearing about her experiences in writing a second novel, and I look forward to reading future works from her.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Fiction | Uncertain Questions, Uncertain Answers

| No comments:
At a late night birthday party, I took The Magus by John Fowles off a friend's shelf, and her quick review and summary was something along the lines of: "This book is weird, like Natalie Wood drowning on a boat and her husband doesn't seem innocent and why was Christopher Walken there too? It all creeps me out."

Now, neither of us are really too sure where the Natalie Wood reference came from (it may have been fueled by other things that night) but that general gist is still kinda accurate: this book is weird. And it's a little bit creepy. And something doesn't seem right. And you don't really know what to believe.

There's no real easy way to artfully describe the intricacies of the plot, so brevity will have to take precedence. The premise follows Nicholas Urfe, a fairly wayward young Englishman bored with the lifelessness he finds in England. Hungry for stimulation, he accepts a teaching position on a remote Greek island. There, Nicolas becomes entangled in the game of a millionaire recluse, Mr. Conchis. As Conchis shares with Nicholas his ponderings on life and philosophy, he also manipulates reality, creating a sort of theatrical show—a series of masques—that causes Nicholas to question what's real and what's part of the game.

There is so much to this book.

Right off, the writing is fantastic. It's quick-witted and sarcastic. Throughout a novel that gets increasingly complex and philosophical, the writing keeps it fanciful so that its 600+ pages fly by much faster than you'd expect. Nicholas isn't the most likable character, but we're drawn into his mind and depend on his actions and reactions to tell us what's real and what's not. He's clearly a distinct product of his time and situation, which brings me to another notable part of this book: the setting. It's entirely contingent on the time period. World War II has ended, and now it's far enough in the past for the aftermath to have materialized. It's past immediate recovery; now we see the change in the way people think and do, the way society reorganizes itself and gets moving again. And this is perhaps what Fowles attempts to explore the deepest with The Magus.

"He had simply guessed that for me freedom meant the freedom to satisfy personal desire, private ambition. Against that he set a freedom that must be responsible for its actions; something much older than the existentialist freedom, I suspected - a moral imperative, an almost Christian concept, certainly not a political or democratic one. I thought back over the last few years of my life, the striving for individuality that had obsessed all my generation after the limiting and conforming years of the war, our retreat from society, nation, into self."

Conchis' psychoanalysis of Nicholas has some sort of goal, we must believe, but what that goal is constantly eludes both Nicholas and us, the reader. On the surface, The Magus is a deliciously seductive thriller, steeped in mystery. Deeper, it's a poignant statement of human emotion and psyche, an exploration of freedom, identity, modernity, and society.

I feel, after writing this much, that there is nothing left to say as a summary and initial review, but that I've also barely scratched the surface. There is so much here, so much to uncover, that The Magus is worth many re-readings.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Reading Notes: The Evolution of God, Part 3

| No comments:
So far in Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, we've covered the evolution of religion from polytheism to monotheism, the development of a dominant monotheistic religion called Judaism, and the emergence from that of another major religion called Christianity. In Section 4, Wright introduces another major world religion to the mix: Islam.

As you may remember, the author's focus in this book is on the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and how they came to be as products of their places and times. Now, focusing on the birth of Islam, Wright begins detailing its evolution as a religion and its relationship with the already existing ones.

Wright's history of Islam goes like this (and I don't know enough to deem it factual or interpretive): Islam was born after Judaism and Christianity when a man named Muhammad claimed to be a prophet of God. God shared his word with Muhammad directly, and this is what's contained in the Koran. Being the literal "word of God," the Koran is a much more straightforward text than the Hebrew or Christian Bibles—less history, fewer stories. Muslims believe that the higher power (in this case, "Allah") existed before Islam became a religion, and he also evolved independently of other religions. And though Islam is not the same as Judaism and Christianity, Muhammad united them by deeming the Islamic God to be the same Abrahamic God shared by the other two religions, because he (Muhammad) placed himself on the same level as Moses—as one who has been contacted directly by God. This is the distinguishing point: Islam was its own movement; it didn't descend from the other religions. 

I think this is semi-accurate. Ignore the atheism website.

Muhammad is a fascinating figure, and this is ultimately what Wright tries to prove throughout this section. He was a prophet promoting an apocalyptic reversal of fortunes to amass followers, much like Jesus. And he was a politician, building an empire by making a "foreign" God local and eventually using force to demonstrate power. He preached tolerance to gain followers but once his Islamic State grew, his ties with Judaism and Christianity began to dwindle.

It seems here that Muhammad now wanted Christians and Jews to accept Islam and recognize their texts as precursors to the Koran. More problems arose with his desire for them to embrace a new religion that contradicted their own. [Islam recognizes Jesus as a person but not as the "Son" of God.] Basically, he was trying to become a leader, but others weren't accepting it. The way it played out next is sort of unclear. The big disagreement involves Jerusalem and who "took it back." Was it Muslims? Was it a Jewish-Muslim alliance? It's clear that Islam also had a break with Judaism but was that at this point or was it later added by authors of the Koran after Muhammad's time? This is where I'm hazy on religious history, and there are probably a ton of perspectives to read and consider. We're not going any further into that now.

What Wright does next is explore how Islam developed into what it is today—or, to be fair, how it is perceived in the Western world. Here he takes a scholarly, historical look at the concept of "jihad" and how it evolved into a controversial piece of modern world politics.

Apparently, "jihad" is mentioned only four times in the Koran and more times in the hadith (the oral tradition), and it refers to a constant struggle. There is, and always has been, a continuous argument about how exactly "jihad" is defined. Does it mean an internal, emotional struggle? A literal, external one? As with many religious concepts, it's up to interpretation, and one man named Sayyid Qutb decided in the mid-20th century that "jihad" should be an aggression in the name of Islam, not just a defense. This can be considered the birth of modern radical/extremist/fundamentalist/whatever-you-want-to-call-it Islam.

Wright argues that it's unlikely "jihad" was ever intended strictly as aggressive foreign policy. Violence against nonbelievers wouldn't always, historically, have benefited Islam—think about when Muhammad was trying to gain followers. But his point is that words are always interpreted to one's own benefit; you can always justify war in the name of religion. All religions have their moments of war and peace.

The author does quite a bit in the last chapter of this section to demonstrate how religions are adaptive; they may argue on a theological level, but globalization has and will continue to bring them to a peaceful coexistence based on social and economic benefit. Muhammad represents, as one man, all the highlights of Abrahamic history and religious evolution. Wright continues to argue that the Koran happens to be, theologically-speaking, the most modern text; it's evolutionary in nature, highlighting existing wonders of nature rather than miracles; these signs of nature are evidence in themselves of God's existence. If the world was created, by God, as a physical system with a purpose, then we naturally move towards "functional integration" (ie: working together and getting along), and human behavior is directly connected to both circumstance and moral consciousness. And Wright argues that the Koran, more than any other religious text, explicitly shares these ideas.

I mentioned this in my last post. Unbelievable!

I think Wright dedicates an entire section to Islam to demonstrate how connected these three religions really are, despite the assertions that each are independent of one another. I know there are years and years of further incident that drive the religions apart, but my takeaway from these sections is that these conflicts are cyclical, and Religions (with a capital R) do (or can) eventually find their way back to a cooperative, peaceful relationship with each other. Perhaps we'll find out if this is proving true in the 21st-century in the book's final section.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Incidents in the Library: What to Do?

| No comments:
I was going to continue on today with my in-depth reading notes from The Evolution of God, but something happened to me a few hours ago that is filling my mind with thoughts and questions. I want to hear from both librarians and non-librarians on how you think these situations should be handled while also considering, "Is there a right answer?"

Here's what happened: I've been volunteering twice a week for the past four weeks for an enhanced summer reading library program. This public library branch is in a low-income neighborhood, and the kids that use the library—ranging from Kindergarten to late high school—spend all day there, everyday. They're latchkey kids to the extreme; every day of their summer is spent in the "homework room" where there are computers, board games, craft projects, movies, etc. At any given time, there can be over 30 kids in this room with maybe one or two adults in there with them.

Usually, in my experience, they behave very well. They tend to self-regulate and have a good rapport with the children's librarian. Today, though, two of the older boys (aged 13 or 14) got in a heated argument and started threatening to fight. It never escalated too far (a couple shoves back and forth), and another boy broke between them, laughing because they were literally throwing insults about each other's mother. Everyone thought the confrontation had dissipated and returned to what they were doing. One kid, though, must've wanted the proverbial last hit and chucked his phone at the other kid, only he missed and it hit me straight in the head.

Me. A volunteer, in the wrong place at the wrong time, leaving my post with a bleeding head and a black eye.

The result of this incident: This phone-thrower and accomplice, whose names are known and are regular patrons, are banned from the library for a year (though they probably don't know it yet because they bolted). I was questioned/treated by paramedics, declining a hospital visit, and questioned by the police, where I also declined to press charges against a 13-year-old kid who wrongly, but accidentally, hit me in the head with an iPhone.

The questions an incident such as this raises are numerous, and the issues and problems are far from easy to solve. One question, the more minor one, is: What responsibility does the library have to its volunteers in terms of workplace safety? Any? [For me, I signed a waiver agreeing to the following language: "I acknowledge and agree that as consideration for the Library allowing me to serve as a volunteer I waive any rights or claims that I may have against the Library, its employees and volunteers and the [redacted], and release the Library, its employees and volunteers and the [redacted] from any potential liability arising during my volunteer activities." Does this cover such a situation? Should it?]

The more important question, though, is: What power do we have as librarians to handle non-library issues with or about our patrons? The "latchkey kid" issue is a huge one for many public libraries, and many have policies in place that establish zero liability for the library regarding unsupervised children; the library does not provide full- or part-time childcare. Of course, kids still come to the library without their parents, because it's probably safer than other options. Without the level of responsibility that's inherent in schools, how can a public library provide a level of structure, discipline, and consequence that prevents an incident like today along with other behavioral problems?

This library system's behavioral policy states a 1- to 5-year ban for an incident of assault, but there is no specific policy regarding unsupervised children. The Brooklyn Public Library will attempt to contact a parent or guardian in the case of incident (or other city agencies of the parent/guardian is unreachable) but there is nothing else in regards to specific consequence. Same goes for the Chicago Public Library; children may be asked to leave, but no more severe consequences are listed.

In the recent classes I've been taking for my teaching license on classroom management, I've learned how important it is to establish a strict set of rules, procedures, expectations, and consequences to handle behavior. The public library is not a classroom, but does that mean, for its young patrons and especially its latchkey kids, it should be run without these things? After all, the library isn't really responsible for any of them. Is a behavior plan necessary? Realistic? What do you think?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Fiction | A V. Disappointing Jonesy Reunion

Helen Fielding reboots the saga of her famous Bridget Jones with a third installment called Mad About the Boy. It's been quite a while since we've heard from Bridget; The Edge of Reason (the second installment) was published 15 years ago, though we've seen her more recently thanks to the 2004 movie adaptation.

Bridget's story doesn't just pick up where it last left off; instead, Mad About the Boy starts with just about as much time having passed in Bridget's world as in ours. She's no longer a 30-something hot mess navigating life as a single lady. Now, she's a 51-year-old hot mess, once again looking for love but this time with two kids in tow.

Now, my last few posts have been pretty verbose, so I'm just going to sum this one up as succinctly and bluntly as possible.

Our beloved 30-something Bridget was generally a ridiculous human being in the most lovably flawed way. She was constantly trying to figure out how to succeed at work and how to succeed with relationships—the pressures to be your age, as a real grownup, though it's just not happening for you so you keep on drinking the cheap wine of your youth. She was entertaining and mostly relatable.

Now the 50-something Bridget has the money and luxuries of someone who has matured personally and professionally over the past 15 years...but she is still as laughably immature, only now it's not very funny. Now, Bridget just needs a good kick in the pants and be told to GROW UP, because she's not living or dealing the way someone with her responsibility should be. It's like she's holding on to the poor decisions of her youth when she should really know better. And with the annoyingly excessive references to Twitter and other pieces of "young and modern" technology and society, everything about this book just feels like it was trying too hard to do something that didn't need to be done in the first place. Like really, this is how you revive your most beloved character, Fielding??

I will leave you with my own modified haiku:

Like Sex and the City 2
I find this book
Wholly unnecessary.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fiction | Romance vs. Realism in a Story of Young Love

| No comments:
Rainbow Rowell's bestseller Eleanor and Park strikes me as one of those YA romances like The Fault in Our Stars that is sure to be a hit with the teen crowd...while the realistic cynical adults like myself are entertained but also kind of roll our eyes and say, "Yeah, OK."

Or that may just be me, so I'll start with a summary, share my praise and grievances, and then let you be the judge.

The year is 1986, and Eleanor is the new girl in school. She wears weird clothes and doesn't talk much and nobody really wants to find themselves associated with her. But that's what happens to Park; he finds himself stuck next to her on the bus, and while he feels a certain amount of pity for Eleanor as the "weird new girl," it's not enough for him to outwardly befriend her.

But Park and Eleanor are slowly drawn together on their short bus rides in the morning and afternoon—linked by music and comics, eventually forming a quiet friendship...until one day when they find they can't live without each other. They love each other despite their quirks, and usually because of them; they love each other because they provide for each other new and unfamiliar worlds unlike their own background; and they love each other because they each feel such surprise that anyone could love them back.

The real meat of the plot here is Eleanor and Park's developing relationship and how it responds to all of the outside factors that come its way—how they're treated at school, how they handle it within their families, and, more seriously, Eleanor's own impoverished home environment with an abusive parent. Just as real teenagers have to do every day, our protagonists have to navigate their own ever-changing emotions and new grown-up experiences in the already-chaotic world around them.

Here's where I'll digress into my post-adolescent cynicism just a bit...

I felt that Eleanor and Park, as often happens in young adult entertainment, had an extra injection of emotion and melodrama, of angst and romance, that authors and screenwriters and lyricists pump into their works to reflect how affecting adolescence is. But, though teens certainly feel a huge range of emotion, and though they do deal with many many serious issues, everyone is just not this affected. These authors pen characters and behaviors and actions that would rarely, if ever, actually happen...but yet it's the stuff that teens may want to happen, because they want to be more and feel more than they are.

It's a poignant time in terms of emotional development, but I don't always find stories like this very realistic. Usually it's a particular action of a character, as it was in this book, that puts me over the edge and draws the line between contrived and realistic; because, whether its my adulthood or my realism, I just don't believe these actions would happen. And worst of all, I think they perpetuate this incomprehensible reality of "teenagedom" that terrifies adults when it's really a very comprehensible, relatable thing—we've all been through it. Which I guess is my point. Sometimes it just seems unrealistic when maybe it shouldn't.

But, ultimately, who said books have to be realistic? A romance is a romance; it doesn't always have to perfectly mirror reality. If this will connect with a teen because they want and need that deep emotional impact, more power to this book and its message. And I especially praise the author for an uncensored version of high school relationships, good and bad. [Read more about censorship of this book and Rainbow Rowell's response.] This level of reality is what really connects with teens; you don't need to sugarcoat the harsh realities, and they want the down and dirty nitty-gritty. I would without a doubt recommend Eleanor and Park to my teen readers, and then probably play the devil's advocate part of a cold, heartless, unaffected grownup to inspire a great discussion with them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Reading Roundup: Youthful Nostalgia in Graphic Memoirs

For some people, it's a song that can trigger a memory. For some, a taste or a smell. For Lucy Knisley, it's food (a taste and smell person by default). In her second graphic memoir, Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, the artist connects with some of her most poignant memories as they revolve around food.

As the daughter of bonafide foodies, Knisley was taught to dine with passion from an early age. Her illustrations take us to her adolescent episodes of shucking oysters and slaughtering fowl to devouring candy in Mexico and enjoying illicit Big Macs in Rome, sharing stories of her life in relation to the foods she associates with them—her own personal form of nostalgia. But just because she was raised with a bit more of an advanced taste palate doesn't mean Lucy's a food snob. She dedicates one whole chapter to the glories of fast food and how sometimes it's just exactly what you need. A girl I can relate to!

I enjoyed Lucy's style of storytelling just as much as I did in French Milk. She is full of expression and humor, and this book, in particular, demonstrates an infectious enthusiasm that comes from the heart; these are people she loves and memories she treasures. She is excellent at pulling from many places—fact, experience, nostalgia—to tell a story. She even peppers the chapters with some of her most favorite recipes, illustrated, like the rest of her story, in bright, energetic colors—a wonderfully creative way to add an even higher level of personalization and a fun resource for readers to test in their own kitchens! Overall, Relish is a really great celebration of food and an enjoyable reflection on our personal connection with it.


Michel Rabagliati takes us on another trip down memory lane with Paul Has a Summer Job, his first graphic novel in a series featuring a Quebec teenager named Paul, loosely based on the author's own life (and originally published in French). It's 1979 and Paul is apprenticing in a print shop. After a stint of rebellion that included dropping out of school, this print shop is Paul's long-term plan for life, though it's uninspired work. Fate intervenes when a friend offers him a job as a counselor at a small summer camp for underprivileged kids. Paul quits the print shop, hops on a bus, and barely looks back.

The summer that follows is one of those life-changing experiences contingent on adolescence; you'll never be so impressionable, so wayward, so passionate, so free again. Entering the job with zero related experience, Paul finds his way as an authority figure and friend to his campers while finding a group of like-minded individuals that help shape the summer as one that would stick out in his mind forever. Along the way, he learns new ways to channel his creative energies and how to break out of the protective bubble he's created for himself—and it wouldn't be a coming-of-age story without that first-love romance component.

Rabagliati manages to tell, yes, a coming-of-age story without any sense of triteness or excessive sentimentality. It's sweet, in the way you would look back on your own stories of being seventeen and maybe chuckle and shake your head but ultimately relish in those memories and how they changed your perspective. The author is frank with Paul's (or his own?) flaws and doesn't censor his mistakes or naiveity in experiences, which lends a sense of honesty to his voice. The drawings are swift and crisp, and the figures full of expression. Rabagliati's voice in Paul Has a Summer Job is one of nostalgia but beyond that of simple episodes; he captures an entire sense of being, a sense of yourself, that is encapsulated in certain memories—one that may have disappeared without you ever realizing it. There are several other stories in the author's series on Paul, and I am anxious to get my hands on them.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Library Support from High-Profile Sources, The Demise of a Controversial Plan, and the Reunion of a Cult Classic

| No comments:
Just some mention-worthy news stories that may be of interest to kindred spirits and like-minded souls...

The Nashville Public Library's motto has been, since my days of working there in high school, "A City With a Great Library is a Great City." And now I think a city with high-profile celebrity residents that support the library and its public programs is an even better one! Last week the NPL Foundation kicked off publicity for a new fundraising program with Nicole Kidman as one of its supporters. Kidman has been a Nashville resident for several years with husband Keith Urban and calls the public library "a community hangout—with a meaning."

"Write the Next Chapter" is the campaign hoping to raise $15 million for the Nashville Public Library Foundation, a nonprofit separate from the library itself that raises additional money for the system. So far, $13 million have been pledged, mostly from deep-pocketed donors (it's unclear whether Kidman is one). The organization is not usually funded by small gifts from patrons, but that's where they're looking for the remaining $2 million. Kidman's involvement is textbook PR, but if this city's celebrities are aware of and engaged with institutions like the library—and if PR like this is going to help fund programs that benefit the whole community—then I am all for it!

Read the full article here: Nicole Kidman backs fundraiser for Nashville Public Library


Did anyone ever hear about the controversial plan for the New York Public Library's famous 42nd St building? For the past couple of years, they've been planning a massive overhaul of the building, sending many of the research archives offsite, getting rid of the famed underground stacks, and turning the building into a lending library. To pay for it, they'd be selling the buildings of two current libraries (including the current lending library that exists right across the street)...and I'm not sure where they were supposed to go, if anywhere.

This plan legit broke my heart. And infuriated me. The purpose of the Schwarzman Building has always been the portal to access all of that information—it's the system's main research branch, the gateway to all these amazing resources that the library holds. (And that's a fundamental role of the/any library!) However, it's also where the tourists visit and where the crowd-gathering programs are held. To me, this plan indicated that the NYPL's priorities had shifted away from providing resources for its patrons and instead to getting their main physical symbol, this 42nd St building, in the news.

I mean, really. This is a system that has eliminated YA librarians from its workforce. Where Children's Librarian positions are decreasing as they generalize the position of "librarian"—if they even have qualified MLS-holding librarians in the positions and not just Library Clerks. I've been to branches where the children's desk is manned by security guards, because there's no one qualified on staff to cover it. I've been on the waitlist for books so long that my hold was cancelled because a year and passed—the default "cancel by" deadline. So instead of funding more resources and qualified employees and accessible operating hours, the NYPL is saying, with this plan, that their public image at 42nd Street is more important than the services it provides to the everyday NYC-resident public. INFURIATING.

But this story does have a happy ending. As of early May, the NYPL has abandoned this plan! The Nation did a wonderful, eye-opening follow-up article in light of this news that goes into all the complexities of the NYPL, funding, politics, and transparency. I highly recommend you read both of Scott Sherman's articles and consider what "library" means to you.

Read the full article here: The Battle of 42nd Street


And last but not least, a bit of fun! Are there any Roswell fans in the house?? You may remember this sci-fi-ish teen drama from the WB in its heyday of teen dramas. It was the one about aliens that had really dedicated fans—ones that mailed bottles of Tabasco sauce to the WB in a united front against cancellation.

The ATX TV Fesitval hosted a 15-year reunion of the cast last week, and I swear there must've been something in the water at those WB studios around this time; no one ages! After seeing this update, my inner fan-girl wants to totally watch the series from the beginning...again. Like the character-driven fan favorite Friday Night Lights and/or Parenthood? You may be more inclined to watch Roswell knowing that the creator of these two shows, Jason Katims, is the brains behind Roswell, as well. My fandoms are all making sense to me now...

Read more and see the reunion over at Variety.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Nonfiction | The Road to Making It, After All

| No comments:
My favorite Nick At Nite shows from my youth (when Nick at Nite syndicated comedies that hadn't aired within the last decade):

I Love Lucy.
Laverne & Shirley.
Mary Tyler Moore.

There's a theme here, and it's groundbreaking. These were monumental women in comedy, the ones that could hold their own in an era when women in comedy were rather rare. Lucy paved the way back in the 1950s with her flawless comic timing and brilliant business acumen; but nothing symbolizes the rise of feminism in television quite like The Mary Tyler Moore Show—and this is the subject of Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic.

Several years ago, I wrote some in-depth posts on an amazing book called When Everything Changed that chronicled the feminist movement from the 1960s to the present, and The MTM Show was featured as the embodiment of feminism of the 1970s. In the decades prior, it was rare for a woman to have a career, and it was rare for her to be single—and happy—well into her thirties. And look at how television had portrayed women before Mary Richards! It was the Donna Reed generation where women stayed at home and supported their husbands, and they were usually just the straight man (er, woman) to a male lead.

By 1970, television was still mirroring a reality that was quickly disappearing. The MTM Show was the anecdote to the false reality of women and their world being portrayed on the small screen. Finally, here was someone the modern woman could relate to! But as Armstrong shares in her book, the road to success was often a difficult one.

To say this show was a hard sell to the television industry is an understatement. Starting at the very beginning, Armstrong chronicles the many successes, failures, and compromises of getting MTM on air. And once it's on, she covers just how it all came about, how all the pieces fell into place—the writers, the scripts, the actors. She delves into the stories behind monumental episodes, how the characters were created and fleshed out, and how groundbreaking it really was both on screen and behind the scenes. While The MTM Show was certainly trailblazing in its on-screen portrayal of women and their lives, it was also creating a breeding ground for women writers in an industry dominated by men. With all this in mind, then, it's no surprise that modern-day comic queen Tina Fey cites MTM as a big influence.

I really enjoyed Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. It was an enjoyable history of the show that never got too bogged down in detail, nor did it drone on as many entertainment bios tend to do. Its focus was diverse, approaching the story from many angles to tell it in context. MTM was an important show in TV history, and you finish Armstrong's book with that understanding. In the case of most entertainment-focused nonfiction I think you need to have a foundation of interest in the book's specific subject—the figure or feature at hand. But in this case, I think an interest in pop culture or feminism or 20th-century history, or especially how they connect and reflect, is all you need.

Time to start the series from the beginning...again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

New Format, New Focus

| 1 comment:

Hello! If you're visiting this blog at its URL (as opposed to a feed reader) and you've been here before, you may be noticing some big changes! I mentioned these changes a couple months ago, but I've just now found the inspiration to make those plans a reality. So welcome to the new face of The Five Borough Book Review!

Actually, truth be told, The Five Borough Book Review is dead.

But its content isn't! Over the past five years, I've amassed an amazing collection of book recommendations! They're a wonderful resource for anyone in need of a new read or curious about a specific title (and for me to go back and remember what I've read!). The best way to encourage readers is to create excitement, and that's what I hope many of these posts have done—and this will never change!

Now though, in addition to posts about books, I'll be sharing movies, music, TV shows, podcasts—any cultural product that piques my interest. And, because I will soon be entering a new phase in my lifelong bookish career (now as a middle school librarian!), this blog will also be a space to highlight some of the things I encounter and learn along the way. Call it a professional makeover as I move from 20-something sideline bookworm to late-20-something enthusiastic educator.

For a bit more information on this blog transformation, you can check out the revamped About page. I will eventually be changing the URL (if I can figure out how to do that with Google and Blogger), so keep an eye out for that information as well.

Most of all, thank you for reading! This will continue to be a space to share a passion for books, inspire exploration, and incite discussion as we consume the oodles of culture at our fingertips. I hope you'll stick around for the ride.

Friday, June 6, 2014

What's ACTUALLY on the Shelves...

| No comments:

Yup. Seems about accurate.

Living in a small NYC apartment, I used to purge my shelves frequently and mostly kept books I'd file as either "Intending to Read" or "Loved Enough to Share With Someone Else." Now that I will (eventually) have more space, I imagine my collection won't be as discerning.

What takes up the most space on your shelves?

Cartoon by Tom Gauld as found on the Picador Book Room.