Saturday, December 24, 2016

The JUV FIC Corner Presents "Tom's Midnight Garden"

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Remember back when I used to do children's chapter book features called The JUV FIC Corner? Yeah, I barely do either - my last one was technically in June of 2013! I say "technically" because I think my overall reading habits have become a lot more juvenile in the past two years thanks to my job, so it's not such a rarity that I focus on children's lit anymore.

More to the point, I started doing those posts several years ago to feature some of my childhood favorites after re-reading them as an adult. It's always a lovely connection to check in with the beloved stories that were such monumental pieces of my reading history. It's difficult, as an adult, to recollect the kind of innocent wonder, intrigue, and impact that is an inherent part of childhood. Re-reading these favorite stories, I think, gives us back a piece of that feeling for just a moment.

I remember discovering Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce while lying in my grandparents' floor watching Reading Rainbow. After hearing a teaser, I just had to read it. And I must have, at the time, but that time is so long ago, probably 20 years ago at this point, that I can't actually remember much beyond that random day in front of their floor console television set. Something suddenly inspired me to find this book again, and luckily the Nashville Public Library had an original copy available in their annex.

In this lesser-known story (at least to modern American audiences), Tom is sent to spend the summer with his aunt and uncle after his brother contracts the measles. Now living in an upstairs apartment with no garden in which to run around and play, Tom immediately bemoans his lost summer of adventure with his brother Peter. One sleepless night, though, he hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike a thirteenth hour, and when he goes to investigate, Tom discovers the backdoor now opens into a huge, beautiful garden that definitely wasn't there before... Now, every night when the clock strikes thirteen, Tom escapes to this magical Victoria-era world where he befriends a girl named Hatty who becomes his steadfast companion and playmate.

It's so different from modern stories, yet so alike many classic stories in children's literature where fantasies are actualized. A boy steps outside when the clock strikes a mysterious hour and the whole world is different. The explanation doesn't matter, not yet at least; it's the discovery and exploration that cause the mind-racing, can't sleep kind of anticipation and excitement. This must be where I first fell in love with a time travel story, because the concept is so much a part of the best imaginings - a safe kind of adventure of discovery.

And like many childhood classics, the language is complex, never simplified for an adolescent audience. Pearce jumps a scene to different time, character, or perspective without any warning, in a way that feels apt to scene cuts on film, not narrative in a novel. It's surprising, and delightful, especially to an adult reader like myself, but I wonder about its 21st-century accessibility to young readers. (Most of my technology-dependent modern preteens, sadly, would probably not appreciate the simple imagination of this story.)

To me, though, it's wonderful storytelling and perfectly magical.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Nonfiction | Striving for Success in China's Factories

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With only two (!!) categories remaining on my seemingly never-ending quest to finish the Read Harder Challenge I began in 2015, I was finally able to pull a title off my existing to-read list for the "book that takes place in Asia." Leslie T. Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China is a nonfiction exposé on the life of China's numerous (130 million, to be exact) migrant workers. The story is neither thrilling nor uncommon; instead, Chang chronicles the everyday existence of these millions of people that live a life entirely unrelatable to our Western ideals.

Set primarily in the industrial town of Dongguan, Factory Girls tells a common story - that of millions of girls who leave their rural towns for a life and job in the city. As the older generation stays planted in these small, rural towns, continuing a familial tradition of agriculture, the younger generation's future has changed due to China's modern industrialization. Children, particularly the girls, leave for the factories, becoming their families' primary breadwinners. With their migration comes a new sense of freedom and opportunity in a society where education is valued but legitimacy is not (necessarily), where success depends on street smarts, and where, it seems, anything is possible if you work hard enough and smart enough for it.

Chang is a former Wall Street Journal correspondent of Chinese descent. Unfamiliar with, and a bit wary of, her own ancestry, she explores this facet of modern Chinese society from a voyeuristic perspective through select women she follows over the course of three years. She chronicles their move from job to job, always on the lookout for something better, with little loyalty or regard to particular employers; she observes friendships and relationships that seem superficial at best, entirely artificial at worst. It's a world where better jobs often come after lying on your resume, where pyramid schemes and scams run rampant to prey on hopeful ambition, and where relationships can disappear entirely with the simple loss of a cell phone.

The strength of this book lies in Chang's straightforward way of reporting the story. It's not a dastardly tale of sweatshop work. The impression I get, in fact, is that the sweatshop horrors is the stereotype of yesteryear. Though the work is certainly more monotonous and demanding of time (6-day work weeks, for example) than we are used to, the conditions, based on Chang's telling, don't seem harsh or cruel. In this sense, it's not a story of drama and hardship; it's the story of how these migrant women are constantly working for betterment. There is no passive acceptance of life; these women strive to educate themselves for better jobs and new opportunities.

A factory run by TAL Group that makes US-brand apparel for such companies as
J. Crew and Hugo Boss; Photo via New York Times

Interspersed with the present-lives of Chang's migrant subjects is Chang's own family history as migrants to the U.S. after China's Cultural Revolution. Despite providing some context of 20th-century Chinese history, particularly in relation to Communism, this part of the narrative seemed superfluous to me; the intrigue really lies in the everyday lives of these women who have such different lifestyles and values. I am more curious about the future of these women, living in a city populated by people under 30. Do they eventually return to their rural towns? Or do they continue to live in these industrial cities, creating a new tier of the labor force, the "self-made women?" Perhaps China's industrial society still continues to evolve.

What's most remarkable about this story, as a Western reader, is our very real and legitimate connection to it. This is not a lifestyle or job contained within China's borders; rather, it's entirely a product of worldwide, and particularly U.S., demand for cheaply manufactured consumer products. These factories, and therefore these women and their choices and their lives, can attribute their very existence to our want of new iPhones. Or Nikes. Or 50" TVs. And how utterly distressing and perplexing is this?

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fiction | A Logical Guide to Finding Love

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November's book club selection was a lighter tome—The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I binge-read the entire book the Sunday before our meeting, and my ability to do that—the fact that it was such a light and quick read—made me question what kind of discussion we'd be able to pull out of this book!

Our main character is Don Tillman, a genetics professor with a slightly odd personality. His life is ruled by organization and structure; he follows the same routines daily and weekly, and he approaches life from an analytical, straightforward perspective. Unfortunately for his love life, this same perspective has never been very successful with women. When a departing friend leaves him a letter that contends he'd make a wonderful husband, Don decides it's time to find a partner. Why couldn't he find a wife using the same methodical approach as a research project?

Thus Don launches The Wife Project. By designing a thoroughly detailed 16-page questionnaire, Don figures he has created the perfect methodology to weed out the incompatible and find his perfect partner. It's a surprise to him, then, when one potential applicant named Rosie fails his compatibility test miserably...because she's the one that he can't seem to stop thinking about.

When, early in the story, his friend and fellow professor, Gene, has Don cover a lecture for him on the topic of Asperger's syndrome, it suddenly becomes very clear to the reader that this, essentially, is describing Don. [But whether Don picks up on these pointed similarities, we remain uncertain.] Though we, the reader, did not have much time with him prior to this revelation, establishing that Don is a narrator with a different way of thinking immediately changes our experience with his story. He's not your typical narrator; he tells his tale almost entirely devoid of emotion. It's a refreshing and entertaining perspective because it's such an uncommon one. In many instances, Don's logic does seem to make complete sense—and don't emotions tend to over-complicate most situations anyway??

This character that is so unused to emotional interactions, though, is in for a world of change as he builds a relationship with Rosie. Uncertain from the beginning of the nature of their relationship, Don distracts himself from such a looming question by delving into her own project of figuring out the identity of her real father. It's just the kind of study that absorbs Don's attention, using a standard method, substantive data, deductions and conclusions. In the meantime, though, Don's way of thinking begins to shift; he's loosening his hold on his routines, and his life is becoming increasingly unpredictable, almost without him realizing it.

Fortunately for the sake of our group discussion, we have an outgoing, agreeable group, so conversation was never an issue, despite this story being lighter fare. In the pop culture realm of stories of autism, we decided this was one told from a more comedic, character perspective as opposed to a dramatic, situational one. [We determined The Big Bang Theory employs this perspective as well.] Having established that we all enjoyed the story, our group was able to delve deeper into specific scenes that chronicle Don's story, discussing the author's storytelling choices and critique all the other pieces that make the story tick. It turned out to be a lively, engaging conversation, and though the story itself lacks any heavy, heady discussion points, it still has plenty to, enjoyably, consider.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Fiction | Falling for a Dead Man

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As I've been reading broadly for the past two years for the (2015) Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, I've had to tackle some genres that I read rarely, if ever. That is, after all, the whole point of such a challenge—to read outside your comfort zone! One of my remaining categories has been the "romance novel," not because I have anything against romance novels but rather because I had a hard time deciding which sub-genre I wanted to read. Historical? Chick-lit? Do I look for personal plot appeal or go for a true classic of the genre?

I opted for the classic—something that is, according to pop culture & literature, truly representative of the romance genre. Having shelved books for years at the public library, I'm familiar with names, so I picked one from the depths of my memory - Jude Deveraux - and consulted Goodreads for what is considered her pinnacle work.

And that's how I got to A Knight in Shining Armor, Deveraux's 1989 bestseller that tells the story of the lovelorn Dougless Montgomery.

Our heroine is vacationing in England on what was supposed to be a romantic getaway with her surgeon boyfriend, Robert. Forever failing at love, Dougless has convinced herself that he's a good catch, worthy of her love, though it is painfully clear to us, the reader, that Robert is entirely the wrong guy; he is manipulative, controlling, patronizing—so much so that the romantic vacation, during which Dougless was hoping for a marriage proposal, has unexpectedly turned into a family one that includes Robert's brat of a teenager daughter. Any sense of romance dies swiftly when, after a nonsensical argument, Robert jilts and abandons Dougless at a rural church where she's left wallowing in yet another romantic failure, praying for a knight in shining armor to save her from the despair.

Imagine the surprise when a handsome man suddenly, miraculously appears and introduces himself as Nicholas Stafford, Earl of Thornwyck, the very name on the statue against which Dougless shed her plentiful tears. (Naturally; this is a romance!)

It's questionable who is more confused in this scenario—Dougless, whose heartbreak and frustration turn her romantic sensibilities into practical ones, assuming there's a perfectly rational explanation for this strange man suddenly appearing and claiming to be an Earl who died in the 16th century; or Nicholas, a man who heard a desperate plea for help and now finds himself in an unfamiliar world that is centuries more modern than his own.

Dougless learns of Nicholas' tragic backstory—one involving betrayal, treason, and premature death—as she helps this 16th-century earl navigate the 20th-century world. Naturally, she figures out that this impossible man is exactly who she has been praying for, and the two are inexplicably drawn together by forces that defy logical explanation and are more powerful than either can comprehend. Deveraux isn't easy on either of her main characters, forcing each of them into the time period opposite their own to continue the story and learn more of the puzzle surrounding Nicholas' sudden appearance and his tragic future. This juxtaposition of time ultimately highlights the depth of these two characters—their strengths and weaknesses. At the novel's opening, I very much found Dougless to be a major pushover but with pluck hidden somewhere underneath. As the story evolves, though, so does her character as circumstance demands a more bold, independent woman. (Though, I mean, she could still use a lot of work on the feminist front.)

So what we've got here is not only a love story but a time-traveling one—and I love time travel stories! In terms of the steamy scenes, this is definitely a romance low on that spectrum, so though yes, it's totally a romance, it feels more like an adventure based around a love story. Super fun to breeze through.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Nonfiction | A Secret Town, A Secret Mission

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For my most recent book club meeting, I got to delve into some nonfiction for the first time in a while! The book was Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan. This one has some local appeal; Oak Ridge, located just north of Knoxville, is a familiar locale to Tennesseans and, in the decades since WWII, has earned some tourist notoriety for its one-time secret status. Plus, the book group I joined skews older, so many of our readers had personal memories attached to this story, as well.

Imagine this scenario: You're living in 1943 in a nation embroiled in war, which permeates every piece of daily life. You've just finished high school or college, and with your brothers overseas fighting for your country, you have few options but to stay close to home and get a job. Then, you get this job offer with a description that could not be more vague. It seems too good to be true—the pay is outstanding and it's supposed to help win the war. Once you've secured the job, you follow the mysterious instructions you were given to take a specific train to a location you've never heard of. And once you arrive to this strange community called Oak Ridge, you settle into a new life, making new friends and doing your best every day at the job you were given. You're not really sure what's going on at Oak Ridge, but it's run by the military and therefore secretive and therefore must be helping the war cause.

This was the reality for the many women Kiernan profiles in this book. The story of Oak Ridge is a fascinating—and multi-faceted—one. This complex created by the US military, originally designed to house 17,000 workers, ultimately became home to over 62,000 individuals. These people all came to Oak Ridge for a job. From them grew friendships, relationships, a town, a community. These people became experts at their job, whatever they were, but only a fraction of 1% of Oak Ridge's residents actually knew their ultimate purpose. It was masked in secrecy, and there were constant reminders that "loose lips sink ships."

It wouldn't be until August 6, 1945, that they would figure out they had spent the last two years building the world's first deployed atomic bomb.

Perhaps now you understand why I said this story is a "multi-faceted" one. Kiernan opted to tell a particular piece of the Oak Ridge story, to view it from one perspective—that of the women whose lives were changed by this incredible reality. In this, I think Kiernan did an excellent job. She uses a handful of women to recollect the Oak Ridge experience; the reader gets to know these women as individuals—their backstories, their motivations, their fears. Through them, we understand how thousands of people united behind a common cause, despite their knowing little about it in the first place!

This is where it gets tricky for me. Naturally, my 2016 perspective is vastly different than the 1943 one of these women. And when viewed through the modern lens to which I am accustomed, this story of Oak Ridge is terrifying!

Kiernan tells this nice, patriotic, feminist story of women doing important work, but can you imagine if we heard this story in present-day terms from some country across the globe?? "Thousands Build Nuclear Weapon in Secrecy!" "Community Brain-Washed Into Building Atomic Bomb!" I understand that times were different. The war was so all-encompassing that "helping to win the war" was justifiable enough reasoning; there was little to question. Further, the mentality was different than it is today—less thirst and desire for constant information, less skepticism, fewer questions. Plus, the mere existence of these opportunities for the women of 1943, when their norms and expectations were so vastly different than today, probably fostered more excitement than suspicion.

And we haven't even touched on the debate surrounding the moral implications of dropping the atomic bomb. That's a whole other part of the story!

For what it is, I think Kiernan's book is an excellent piece of story-telling. She humanizes a piece of history while using plenty of research to create context for the reader. And she is not (and should not be) obligated to, nor responsible for, telling the whole story of Oak Ridge. But having never deeply encountered this particular piece of history myself, it opened up a can of worms

Extra: It's worth noting that our book club discussion was a pretty engaging one. Reactions and opinions seemed to run the gamut. Some women felt the same as me and had many more questions about this whole scenario; others just accepted it for what it was without much questioning. I think it's so interesting, and fosters such great discussion, because the themes go beyond this one historical scenario; it brings into question bigger ideas such as trust and fear, patriotism, society and individualism. A great one for discussion!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Fiction | Old Money, New South

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I wrote two months ago of my plan to blog only on what inspired—to not feel pressured to reflect on every single book I read, struggling to muster up a passionate response for a reaction I did not have or feel. But for one book in particular I read last May, it's that exact passionate reaction that has left my mind blank of words. Isn't it the worst when you have so much to say but don't know how to start?

Well, it's finally gotten to the point where it's actually stressing me out to have this still lingering on my mental check-list. The very thought of composing the first words and sentences has felt too daunting to tackle. How do you convey the beauty and brilliance of one author's words when you know your own will be sub-par, unable to do it justice? Usual descriptions fall short, feeling trite and inadequate, trying too hard to emulate the power and precision of the very words you're trying to praise.

(Can you tell I'm stalling here?

Okay, okay; I'll just dive in.)

Wilton Barnhardt's Lookaway, Lookaway is the saga of one positioned, old-money, North Carolinian family. The matriarch of the Johnston clan, Jerene Jarvis, basically considers the family legacy her top priority and manages it by means only common to the old Southern elite. Her husband, Duke, is heir to a Confederate general's legacy, an All-American golden-boy turned politician whose career has floundered and has become a near-caricature Civil War re-enactor. The four kids—Annie, Bo, Joshua, and Jerilyn—are as different as they could come, almost comically so, considering the image and stature Jerene tries so hard to maintain. They're almost like a omnipresent curse on Jerene's perpetual PR campaign of the Johnston name, put in this world to make her job more complicated as they constantly threaten to shame the family name. Oh, but then there's Jerene's brother Gaston, the very definition of boozy, weird uncle—a local author renowned for his fluffy historical sagas, constantly using the stereotype of "eccentric uncle" to mask his embarrassing escapades.

So at the foundation of this novel's structure, you have this family that constantly seems to be falling apart, saved only by the influence, persuasion, and social rank of Jerene. But further up, Lookaway, Lookaway profoundly reveals the tenuous society in which the Johntson clan lives and reigns. The Antebellum period has long left North Carolina's history, but its claws dug into certain parts of society and refuse to let go. The Johnstons live in a world in which old southern ideals, money, and status still play a huge role in creating and defining the social hierarchy. But 150 years have passed since the "glory days" of the Old South, and money and power are no longer determined by a family name. The nouveau riche and opportunists threaten the Johnston position of preeminence, one they have earned by maintaining a certain way of life for decades prior. As their fortunes falter, so, it seems, does the hierarchy that defines their very identity.

It's as if, thought Annie, some wicked masculine committee in charge of Life had known the women would worry their pretty little heads over all this rigmarole and thereby leave the running of the big important world to the men, who would look upon all the flounces and frills, tears and hysteria, with a knowing wink, a nudge in the side, Told you that'd keep 'em occupied.

What I loved about this book is how brilliantly Barnhardt captures this weird, complex, complicated entity known as "the South." I found my breath nearly taken away by certain passages that just—YES!—perfectly capture its world of contradictions. In most modern cities and towns, particularly in the South but really anywhere, it's easy for history to be pushed to the background, often nearly forgotten as the present continuously redefines; people evolve, as do the places they live.

But in some pockets of the South, the relationship with history is ever-present, so deeply ingrained in a place's identity that one cannot exist without the other. Nashville is a bustling, modern metropolis that takes great pride in its history, yes. But take a drive through Mississippi's Delta region, where two-lane highways pass through towns nearly forgotten if not already abandoned, and it's so clearly obvious that the present is a direct result of the past—that this area is still defined by its Civil War way of life, that no modern influences have shifted its story in a new direction.

I don't think Barnhardt's setting is quite so dismal and dire as this but it does successfully illustrate the social complexities existing in this lower region of the country with a dark past, complexities that are often simplified or stereotyped in fiction and culture. Combined with an intriguing cast of characters, each of whom we follow closely through that alternating-perspectives format, these observations paint a dynamic portrait of a place and people holding on tight to an identity, despite its extravagant flaws.

Southerners. Such literate, civilized folk, such charm and cleverness and passion for living, such genuine interest in people, all people, high and low, white and black, and yet how often it had come to, came to, was still coming to vicious incomprehension, usually over race but other things too—religion, class, money. How often the lowest elements had burst out of the shadows and hollers, guns and torches blazing, galloping past the educated and tolerant as nightriders, how often the despicable had run riot over the better Christian often cities had burned, people had been strung up in trees, atrocities had been permitted to occur and then, in the seeking of justice for those outrages, how slippery justice had proven, how delayed its triumph. Oh you expect such easily obtained violence in the Balkans or among Asian or African tribal peoples centuries-deep in blood feuds, but how was there such brutality and wickedness in this place of church and good intention, a place of immense friendliness and charity and fondness for the rituals of family and socializing, amid the nation's best cooking and best could one place contain the other place?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Fiction | Behold the Power of Books

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Let me tell you how hard it is to find a good book club.

I had a four-year run with the Idlewild Book Club back in New York that was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my post-college adult life in NYC and definitely one of the things I miss the most. Since moving back to Nashville, I've looked on and off for a new book club and tried a couple. My first experience was at our most prolific indie bookstore and while the meeting was enjoyable, the store is in the MOST annoying part of town, traffic-wise, and, being owned by an author, I'm not totally trusting on the motive behind the book choices. (The month I attended, the book just "happened" to also be released in paperback.) I'd give it another shot, but really, I just hate driving to and from that side of town.

Last month I tried one hosted by my local public library branch. It's close, which is a perk, and I've liked their book selections--less typical "book club" picks, a little more literary. My first meeting was last month for Astronaut Wives' Club, and this month we read Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. I'm still not totally loving the vibe and setting (we sit in a semi-circle around a projector screen, which makes it feel more like a lecture than discussion, and the questions are on a PowerPoint, which totally stilts the casual/natural flow of discussion, though I understand it's to help the harder of hearing), but I guess I'll keep at it for now, as long as the books are good!

Anyway, about the book...

A.J. Fikry owns and runs Alice Island's only independent bookstore, Island Books. He's a total curmudgeon and book snob. He hates bestsellers, genre fiction, and cloying memoirs; he loves literary fiction and short stories. A lot of his attitude comes from the death of his wife. She grew up on the island and they ran the bookstore together. She was the yin to his yang, but since her death, he's been in a downward spiral of negativity where he drinks, judges, and complains too much. He's mostly shut out life, but living on a small island is much like living in a small town; you see the same people every day, and everyone knows your business. It's hard to isolate yourself when people won't leave you alone.

Life is about to change for A.J. Fikry, though, and a series of seemingly unrelated events sets the change in motion. A lovely new sales rep comes to the island, persistently pushing her publisher's most sentimental titles despite the bookstore owner's rude response; A.J.'s most prized possession, a rare copy of Edgar Allen Poe poems, is stolen during one of his drunken black-outs; and then, most significant, an abandoned child appears in the bookstore with a note asking the proprietor to take care of her. Maya is a bright, loving child who quickly falls for A.J. and who quickly warms his heart as well.

So actually, reflecting on this book, it's not all that literary in nature. It's sentimental and a bit emotionally cloying. But it's also very evident that the author is writing this, essentially, as an ode to books. It avoids some of the predictable, trope-y plot twists common in narratives, and it seems pretty self-aware about that intent (meaning, it actually has successful plot twists and not just standard, predictable ones).

At the start of book club, we listened to an NPR interview with the author in which she stated her opinion that someone who says they're not a reader just hasn't found the right book yet. In her story, A.J. is such a book snob, believing certain types of books are superior to others. But the changes in his life, and the people that enter it, inspire a new open-mindedness that not only affects his opinions on books but extends beyond the page into his interactions with and opinions of the world around him. Zevin obviously believes that books have power, and I agree. Connect the right book with the right reader, and lives can be changed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fiction | How to Build an Intergalactic Hero

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It's taken nearly two years (pathetic), but I'm closing in on completion of the Read Harder Challenge I began back in 2015. Naturally, the categories I have remaining are the ones I looked least forward to tackling, and among those was science fiction because mehhh, just not my thing.

I was reminded of Ender's Game this past spring when a student checked it out for his independent novel study project. I decided to use Orson Scott Card's classic as my sci-fi novel because a) it is a classic, and b) since I have it in my school library, it'd give me an advantage to know how to recommend it to my readers! Once chosen, though, I pretty much dreaded reading it based entirely on its genre. I rarely, if ever, read sci-fi, and I really didn't like the last one I did read. Also, I had no idea what the story was actually about; no doubt unfairly, I just lumped it into a genre I didn't care for, regardless of the details.

The story is about a 6-year-old boy named Ender Wiggin. He's the third child in his family, his family's third try at producing the commander who can defeat the alien army. Neither his brother nor sister proved to be "the one"—Peter has a sadistic streak, and Ender is pretty sure Peter'd kill him if he had the chance; Valentine is brilliant but an emotional liability. She is Ender's only source of comfort and protection from his older brother. Ender, though, is tough, masks his emotions, and brilliantly manages to get himself out of any scuffle in which he finds himself entangled. After one particularly brutal but triumphant encounter with a bully, Ender is recruited and sent to Battle School where he will train to become the hero the military needs in the next phase of the bugger war.

Ender thrives at Battle School and quickly proves himself to be leagues above his peers. He is able to see what's before him from a different perspective, throwing out the rules as they have been assumed. This trait does him well in the battle arena and at 10, skipping years of training, he is moved to Command School. Ender's leaders, though, increasingly isolate him and throw out seemingly impossible tasks to see how well he will handle each situation. The thing about Ender, though, is that his actions always surprise him. Strategically, he's brilliant, but the swiftness and almost ruthlessness with which he handles threats are never fully intended. To Ender, it makes him a monster, no better than Peter; to the military, he's a weapon and the best shot they have against the buggers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the successful balance of plot and character in Ender's story. As an adventure, the story is engrossing and easy to follow. Ender's world is definitely unlike our own, but the narrative never bogs down with description and reasoning; things simply are the way they are, and as a reader, you don't feel the need to question them. Ender is a character we care to follow. We meet him at such a young age, only six, which seems entirely implausible based on the complexity of the situations and conversations he encounters. But then again, it's Ender's world, and while Card does concede that Ender and his siblings are exceptional, it's mostly just a fact we accept without argument or coercion.

I never expected to like this book, but I ended up really enjoying it. It's an engrossing, accessible adventure for middle school and up kids. And beyond that, it's conceptually complex and full of content and commentary that can be read on a much deeper level—definitely a good one for literary analysis. I'm sure it is and has been analyzed to death by scholars and sci-fi fans, but it can easily be read and enjoyed at surface level, too.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 14

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Title: Crown of Three
Author: J.D. Rinehart
Genre: Fantasy
Read If You Like...: medieval magic, royal conflicts, Game of Thrones
Three-Sentence Summary: In a land ruled by a brutal king and wracked with Civil War, a prophecy brings hope of peace when illegitimate triplets of the king overthrow his reign and assume the throne. Separated at birth, the three must leave their separate lives behind and come together to save the kingdom of Toronia. The author of this must be a Game of Thrones fan because it was exceedingly complex and excessively violent for a middle grade novel.

Title: Serafina and the Black Cloak
Author: Robert Beatty
Genre: Fantasy
Read If You Like...: Historical settings, spine-tingling mysteries, Stranger Things-esque monsters
Three-Sentence Summary: Serafina and her father live secretly in the basement of the extravagant Biltmore Mansion, he as the estate's maintenance man and she as a stowaway no one knows even exists. When children begin to disappear from the estate, Serafina decides she must break her father's rule of never leaving the Biltmore's grounds and venture into the fearsome forest to investigate a mysterious man in a black cloak she believes is linked to the disappearances. The twists in this story are unexpected, and Beatty has created an unpredictable world of mystery and magic that its readers will investigate with anticipation.

Title: Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans
Author: Don Brown
Genre: Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction (yes, and ewww, 2005 is historical to middle schoolers)
Read If You Like...: Survival stories, "based on a true story" stories
Three-Sentence Summary: This graphic novel telling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is simple in scope, void of individual stories and experiences. Instead, it relies on simple text and straightforward facts and numbers to convey the chaos, heroism, and racism surrounding this natural disaster. Perhaps it's intended to be a concise but thorough introduction, one that touches on all the major issues and themes, to an audience that wasn't even born in 2005, but to me it felt too simple a telling (and conclusion) of such a complex event that still has repercussions.

Title: Nightmares!
Author: Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller
Genre: Horror
Read If You Like...: light-hearted horror (aka: the not-too-scary kind), Goosebumps, Jason Segel (obviously)
Three-Sentence Summary: Charlie's life would be okay if it was just the creepy new house and creepy new stepmom (who he's convinced is actually a witch), but when his nightmares become real, he's got a whole new problem on his hands. The line between the real world and dream world should never be crossed, and it seems up to Charlie and friends to make sure the door between the two is closed for good. The story features creepy elements but, overall, is pretty mild, serving its purpose as a light adventure read.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Reading Roundup: History Lesson

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Ingrid Betancourt's The Blue Line is a story that oozes history—that deep-set kind, full of action, consequence, and complexity kind. It'a unavoidable, you realize, when you take a look at the author's biography; Betancourt is a Colombian politician and activist, kidnapped and held hostage for six years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It is clear that she has drawn on her own experiences for The Blue Line, to tell the story of a passionate young woman named Julia, embroiled in the political chaos of a 1970s Argentina.

As an impressionable teenager, finding and defining her sexual and social identities, Julia falls for a revolutionary, Theo, who pulls her down a path of political idealism that becomes increasingly dangerous as the country's military dictatorship gains power. Julia and Theo's lives lose stability as trust becomes an uncertainty and safety is not guaranteed.

Amidst the growing chaos in Julia's life, she continues to live with a strange gift inherited from her grandmother—visions of the future, seen through the eyes of others. Accustomed to these apparitions, Julia has spent much of her young life fearing what she will see, beholden to the responsibility of intervening to prevent whatever horrific event she witnesses.

If this book were just all one part or the other, all politics or magical realism, it wouldn't have the appeal that it does; it would be too bogged down by its genre, producing a one-track story, narrow in its scope of storytelling. Instead, Betancourt has crafted an awesomely outlandish premise that creatively adds a different kind of excitement to the story of a dark moment in history. Though inextricably linked to its time and place, The Blue Line goes beyond historical narrative to illustrate an individual experience beyond the pages of history books.

I didn't actually realize that Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club was nonfiction until I started reading it. Using a vintage photo as cover art falls in line with the branding of a certain style of women's fiction—√† la Rebecca Wells, Lorna Landvik, Laurie Graham. So needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered this was in fact nonfiction about actual astronauts' wives during the the sixties.

Koppel has pulled together stories of the women who experienced the space race alongside their husbands in their journeys to the moon. It was a very much male-centric environment; the men were the heroes, risking their lives in a quest for glory, as their wives supported them at home. LIFE magazine was paying the families for exclusive photos and stories, chronicling the space race from the homefront, but the pressure to appear as your quintessential American family put more pressure on the women than the men. It was the 1960s after all, an era when women remained in the domestic background and outspoken feminism was frowned upon.

As a feminist women in 2016, it's quite infuriating to read about such a lifestyle and environment. Women in that era seem homogeneously lumped together as one, perpetuating this image of the perfect wife with little individuality allowed to shine through. Meanwhile, the husbands get the notoriety and recognition, not to mention the extramarital company of the "Cape Cookies" to quell their loneliness during the weeks spent at NASA's Florida base, away from their Houston homes and wives. It seems that every piece of pop culture that takes place during this era (ie: Mad Men) is filled with cheating, drinking men and submissive women, and, having not lived during the era myself, I'm beginning to believe more and more that theme is actually a realistic representation!

While Koppel tries to tell the story that existed behind the photoshoots staged for the American public, I thought that, ultimately, the story didn't delve deep enough. I don't feel as though I learned much about the women as actual people with thoughts and feelings, which should've been the purpose of this book. They still sort of seem like that homogeneous group, and whether it's because it's hard to shake the image or they actually were the subservient, voiceless wives of the era, I didn't gain any newfound respect for them.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Reading Notes: Gotham, Part 1

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I am fairly certain I mentioned by goal of reading Gotham months ago. I even started reading it months ago. And at one point in 2016, I know had the goal of finishing the entire 1236 page book by the end of the 2015-2016 school year.

Well, now I'm three weeks into the 2016-2017 school year, and I'm still on page 75. Back during our January snow days, I breezed through Part One of the book—"Lenape Country and New Amsterdam to 1664"—and I made notes and tagged pages and then I never got around to writing about them and my continuation of reading has just been held up ever since. I've been breezing through a lot of random books lately, though, and decided that now, with my newfound motivation to read and write, is the time to move along actually get started.

New York City is one of my favorite topics to study. For one, its centuries of transformation are amplified, more magnificently illustrated, because of its small geographic size. Tracking development as it spreads—the buildings as they rise and fall—appears grand and drastic when the area feels so contained and so easy to observe. Secondly, and related to that point, I am a witness of the city's history. I walked its streets and inhabited its buildings for a decade. I know how the traffic flows and how cultures and communities occupy neighborhoods. Knowing what came before is what inspires history nerds like me to keep reading and keep searching for clues from another time.

"The city's well-merited reputation as a perpetual work-in-progress helps explain why Washington Irving's day New Yorkers were famous for being uninterested in their own past. 'New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities,' wrote Harper's Monthly in 1856. 'Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.'"

Because there is so much historical fact in this book that is impossible to record and remember, I think I'll focus my reading and summarizing on the state of things at any given moment in the city's history. Who was in charge? How did people live? What were the talking points, the stressors, the norms? New York is a dynamic city that changes with its population; the people are key to understanding the city's history.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Fiction | Life Turned Upside-Down

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We all have those movies or TV shows we love to watch because they're easy entertainment—relaxing, mindless, superficial drama that we get sucked into for however long and forget about immediately after. These "guilty pleasures" aren't things we go around sharing details about [Do I really want to brag about a 3-hour Top Model binge?], but it is culture to consume, and it is enjoyable!

I find it hard to have the same "guilty pleasure" connection to books, because I view any reading as good reading! And maybe it's something about the effort that goes into creating the product—even the most formulaic of novels has taken hours for an author to craft, with re-reads, edits, and re-writes. There's a purposeful effort behind it, more than just pointing a camera to see what happens.

So when I came to the "guilty pleasure" category of the Read Harder Challenge, I had to just pick something more entertaining than literary, something I read for fun rather than enlightenment. Ergo, I chose a Sarah Dessen novel I hadn't yet read, Just Listen.

In it, Annabel is beginning her junior year, but it's off to a rough start. Her ex-best friend Sophie will no longer speak to her—she's a social outcast now; and at home, Annabel is afraid of breaking her mother's heart by quitting her modeling career, and her older sister is struggling with anorexia, no doubt brought on by her own modeling career. We, the reader, discover that Annabel can trace all her bad juju to one night at the end of last school year. It was the night her life took a one-eighty and Sophie became her bully instead of her friend.

Annabel's only school savior is Owen, a boy she certainly would've never noticed before. He's tall, dark, and mysterious. He has a bad-boy reputation. Mostly he's just a music-obsessed outsider that doesn't care a thing about high school politics. Their burgeoning friendship gives Annabel the confidence to confront the issues that plague her and make peace with the events and people that turned her life around.

Dessen's books are wonderful—maybe one could say in that "guilty pleasure" way—because they're too serious to be fluff but too lighthearted to be heavy. They feature the everyday, realistic issues that teen girls face, and though each situation is entirely unique (as is every teenage girl), the resulting emotions are universal. Just Listen is actually probably the heaviest of Dessen's I've read, dealing with issues like sexual assault and slut shaming, though in a quieter, less upfront way than other teen novels covering the same topics. In my opinion, these are issues important for middle schoolers to read about, because they do, unfortunately, exist in their worlds. This book is a good entry into heavier talking points.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An Update on Chris*

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Several months ago, I wrote a little bit about an 8th grade student named Chris* who began checking out books from the library after finding sports-themed titles for an independent novel study project.

Remember, he was an 8th grader that hadn't checked out a single book since his 5th grade year.

By year's end, he had checked out a total of 44 books and his reading level had jumped four grade levels.

I created a whole award category during our academic awards banquet at the end of the school year just to give him serious praise.

This kid is the proudest story of my career as a librarian so far.

*not his real name

Monday, August 15, 2016

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 13

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Title: Skink No Surrender
Author: Carl Hiaasen
Genre: Mystery
Read If You Like...: Courageous rule-breakers, absurdist plots, the rest of the Skink series (apparently it's not just YA!)
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Fourteen-year-old Richard knows there's more to the story when his cousin Malley runs away (yet again), so he decides to take matters into his own hands and find her (or save her?) and bring her home. As the mystery carries him across rural Florida, he finds a partner in a weird eccentric old guy named Skink whose background is questionable, to say the least. Apparently Skink is a well-known Hiaasen character with his own entire mystery series, but for young readers, this will serve as its own self-contained humorous kooky mystery adventure just fine.

Title: The War That Saved My Life
Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Genre: Historical Fiction
Read If You Like...: World War II era, underdog stories, Number the Stars
Three-Sentence Thoughts: In all of her nine years, Ada has never left her one-room apartment because she's got a club foot of which her mother is cruelly ashamed. When London's children begin to flee to the country because of the encroaching war, Ada recognizes an opportunity to escape with her brother Jamie and find a better life. I almost feel you need an adult-level understanding of emotion to get the full impact of Ada's story, but middle schoolers should also recognize the pathos and lend empathy and support to Ada and Jamie's struggle for survival.

Title: Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary
Author: Gail Jarrow
Genre: Nonfiction
Read If You Like...: Science mysteries, New York City history, epidemic thrillers
Three-Sentence Thoughts: In the early years of the 20th century, a fatal fever swept communities in New York City and state, but its origin was a total mystery until a team of groundbreaking scientists and health officials pinpointed the source—a lone woman, an innocent cook named Mary Mallon. Chronicling the outbreak and spread of an epidemic in a society that suffered from the the lack of modern scientific knowledge, Fatal Fever paints a fascinatingly vivid picture of a world that young readers will find entirely foreign and extremely eye-opening. Jarrow has penned a work of nonfiction with plenty of companion images and primary sources to satisfy reader curiosity, and the narrative is marvelously organized to provide a thorough history told in wonderfully complete context. (Note: The Bowery Boys did a podcast episode on Typhoid Mary, and I thought Jarrow's narrative structure in this book was SOOOOOOOOO much better!)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Silence Interrupted

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It's been a minute since I've updated this here blog. For whatever reason, my motivation has waned, and it's felt more of a chore to keep up, one intensified by the backlog of books that keeps piling up, creating a stress that further drains said already-diminishing motivation. It's a vicious cycle, really. And the past few months, I've let it sit on the back burner, out of sight and out of mind.

However, it's an effort I think I would ultimately regret abandoning. I began this blog as an outlet to talk about what I and others read. And though at this point, I may have an audience of about four readers, it has long been a dedicated personal practice in thinking and responding to books more critically while also inspiring a broadening of my reading horizons. Both of these things, in turn, have helped me remember and recommend books in far greater detail than I ever used to. For that individual accomplishment, if for nothing else, I think it's a practice worth continuing.

I've reached a point in my reading life where I am finally able to "quit" on a book if I'm not enjoying it. (It only took 30 years!) So perhaps I will start treating this blog the same. I don't promise to speak to every single book I read—maybe only the ones I feel motivated enough to reflect upon. I would like to delve deeper into purposeful reading projects—longer ones, like the Lions of the West discussion, Evolution of God musings, and People's History exploration from years past. And finally, though they sometimes feel more like clutter than substantial content, the musings on middle grade [hey, I like that!] titles are perhaps actually the most relevant and helpful to me (since my every-day target audience has shifted down a couple decades), so I plan to continue with them.

I never feel 100% confident or accurate with what I call this blog or what its purpose and coverage is supposed to be, especially as compared to what it ends up being. Regardless, I hope to continue with it and just needed the universe to know.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Nonfiction | To Be a Kid in the '90s

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"From the perspective of an adult, everything's a blip that'll be forgotten tomorrow. But to a kid, everything is so big, and we wanted to fill these stories with big energy."

It is no secret that I am more nostalgic than most; I relish in reminiscences on youth. I'm sure there's some psychological evidence that credits the way our adolescent brains develop, but I've always had this strong belief that the details of our lives during those times stick around in memory longer—deeper—than most.

For a kid growing up in the 1990s—a particular group on the cusp of both Generations X and Y, belonging fully to neither—there is nothing that defines our childhood quite like America Online and Nickelodeon. We were enticed by the possibility of immediate world wide connectivity AND the chance to scale the Aggro Crag in all its multi-colored, glitter-spewing glory. Maybe it's a moment in history no more unique than any other generation's adolescent years [though this article refutes that idea, and I most definitely agree!] but 1990s Nickelodeon embodied an independent, outspoken, quirky celebration of childhood that was unique, magical, and incredibly rare—one that I am very grateful to have experienced.

Mathew Klickstein must be a child of the '90s, to share this recognition of such a special moment in pop culture history. I can only imagine that Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age is his own passion project, intended for all the other nostalgic Nick devotees.


Well, further research indicates he's brought upon himself quite a lot of controversy by making very asinine statements (a summary) regarding women and minorities, so maybe we'll just ignore the author and talk about Nick Nostalgia from here on out...


Klickstein structures Slimed! in the same fashion as the exposition on the movie Clueless I recently read—it's a history culled from interviews with key players, an "oral history" loosely organized around theme or topic with no guiding narrative voice. Focusing mostly on early Nickelodeon shows (You Can't Do That on Television, Clarissa Explains it All, Hey Dude, Salute Your Shorts, Double Dare, Rugrats, Doug, and Ren & Stimpy), Slimed! shares the stories that inspired the shows and got them on air. We hear anecdotes and explanations from network heads, show creators, producers, actors, and crew revealing all the roadblocks and backstage drama (or lack thereof) along the way. Mostly, we learn about the mindset, the creativity, and the decisions that created an identity and defined Nickelodeon as this network we (okay, some of us) remember so distinctly twenty years later.

"It was the first time I realized there was a Nickelodeon generation of kids coming of age that were going to bring to whatever they were doing professionally a sense of humor or a look at the world that was shaped in part by Nick."

I've always thought the story of classic Nickelodeon to be a fascinating one. Its history is so vague, so empty, so devoid of a comprehensive archive that plagues all parts of the entertainment industry these days! I remember in late high school (in the early 2000s), it seemed that these shows and this era had all but disappeared; they never re-ran on the network, and you couldn't find anything about them online except note of their one-time existence. With the maturing of my age group, though, and the eventual collective demand for Nickelodeon nostalgia, that has begun to change.

Slimed! is by no means a comprehensive history. In fact, it is frustratingly bereft of basic history on the network, its early years, and the people involved with it. (Seriously, when/where/why did it even start?) There is still a lot of the story I want to hear, and, considering this is pretty much the first volume to even broach the topic, a basic history would've added a great deal of important context to the story (and been greatly appreciated so I didn't have to Google search it for hours). However, I do think it's a story that's just beginning to be told, one that developed so organically that there may not be some definitive history there just waiting to be written down and shared.

The story of Nickelodeon's "Golden Age" is kind of a heart-warming one. It's a story of creative people who ended up together to make something new, something authentic, that defied commercial norms and truly captured—in the most refreshingly simplistic way—the offbeat whimsy and excitement of childhood.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Reading Roundup: Sassy Sleuths

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From its back-cover synopsis, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc by Jennifer Kincheloe has got some promising components. It's a mystery set in Los Angeles during the early 1900s, and its protagonist is a spirited socialist-turned-sleuth. Anna is stifled, naturally, as a wealthy woman in this time. Her father prevents her from doing anything remotely independent and is basically trying to marry her off. Her impulsive behaviors have always seemed to be merely a flash of rebellion, spurred by boredom and frustration, but she catches wind of some mysterious deaths surrounding prostitutes and decides it's worth investigating because the police seem to just be sweeping it under the rug. Of course, she must do all of this without her father or fiance finding out about it...

This was a random book I picked up off the NEW shelf at the library, and it didn't totally disappoint. I'm not a frequent reader of mysteries, but I enjoy the ones that have precocious or spunky sleuths, especially female ones. This fits into that category; the story itself was entertaining enough, and I especially enjoyed the setting. Something about the writing, though, just seemed a little off throughout. Though this doesn't come from a typically "religious" publisher, it had some really...strange...phrasing/commentary, particularly on prostitutes and religion—not enough to be preachy but enough to catch me off guard and, on reflection, seem forced. It was a writing "style" (that may be too definitive of a word) that I felt would've been squelched and smoothed by a strong editor. Regardless, this is one of those books—like most mysteries to me—that serves its purpose as entertainment during the reading process but doesn't stick around once the last words are read.

Though I adore Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series, its status as a mystery series automatically designates it into that "enjoy while reading, most likely forget afterwards" category. (What I'm saying is I don't mean that as a cruel comment; different types of stories serve different purposes, rightly so!) As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is the seventh book in the series, launching Flavia into a new chapter after the definitive close at the end of the sixth. Flavia has been sent away from her home of Buckshaw, across the ocean to Miss Bodycote's Female Academy in Toronto. Flavia's mother attended Miss Bodycote's, and with the almost immediate discovery of a body stuffed in the chimney of her room, Flavia determines there's definitely more than meets the eye to her new environs.

It's easy to read each book in the Flavia series as a simple episodic mystery, but book six, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, definitely seemed to set the series on a path with deeper character development for Flavia. Bradley developed backstory to Flavia and her family and triggered a move outside her comfort zone, the familiar settings of Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacey. It's almost like when a TV cast transitions from high school to college, and the setting, characters, and conflict suddenly change; sometimes it's successful, and sometimes it's not. I've read comments from readers who finished Chimney Sweepers with a sour taste in their mouths, because it prompts the debate as to whether it's a necessary transition or not—is Flavia's story an episodic one or a long-form drama? Is the mystery the main focus or is the character? I don't know, and I'm not sure the author does either. Flavia is a character that I bet many readers are curious to see developed, but the indecisive focus on the narrative may weaken future stories. It's a tenuous line to tow, I'm sure. For current and future Flavia stories, though, I'll just continue to accept as is, with no expectation of direction, because she is such an enjoyable character to encounter.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 12

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Title: Fuzzy Mud
Author: Louis Sachar
Genre: Adventure, Sci-fi
Read If You Like...: Varied text features, realistic stories with unrealistic components, The Secret World of Alex Mack
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Marshall and Tamaya follow the same route every day to and from school, but when a bully forces them off path on a long route of avoidance, they make a startling scientific discovery. There's a weird kind of "fuzzy" mud in the woods that causes a super scary rash that spreads quickly, has no known cure, and quickly gets authorities and scientists drawn into this eco-horror story. I found the narrative pretty disjointed and the characters lacking any amount of depth to draw in a reader, but maybe a reader who doesn't want a long reading commitment will enjoy it.

Title: Nimona
Author: Noelle Stevenson
Genre: Adventure/Fantasy, Graphic Novel
Read If You Like...: Epic adventures with heroes and villains, graphic novels (MSers aren't too discerning on genre with these)
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Nimona is a high-energy young shape-shifter who worms her way into a position as villainous Lord Blackheart's sidekick. Blackheart's nemesis in the kingdom is an old friend, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, and Blackheart is determined to prove the hero isn't so heroic after all. My graphic novel fans really like this one, but, though I love the art, I just never really connected with its scattered story and irreverent sense of humor.

Title: The Jumbies
Author: Tracey Baptiste
Genre: Adventure/Fantasy
Read If You Like...: Folk tales, fairy tales, stories with a unique setting
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Jumbies are the dark creatures of the forest feared by all, but Corinne, unafraid of anything, doesn't believe they actually exist. When a beautiful stranger suddenly shows up in town and bewitches Corinne's father, she must face the magic she's always doubted and figure out how to save her island home. Based on Caribbean folklore, this fills a great gap in children's literature by sharing the fairy tales from underrepresented cultures. [In her author's note at the end, Baptiste adds, “I grew up reading European fairy tales that were nothing like the Caribbean jumbie stories I listened to on my island of Trinidad. There were no jumbie fairy-tale books, though I wished there were. This story is my attempt at filling that gap in fairy-tale lore."]

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Nonfiction | Everyday Words on Everyday Moments

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Poetry, historically, is not my thing. I think I can trace it back to my senior year of high school. I was spending a weekend at a state university as part of an Honors Program interview, and we had a seminar session on analyzing a poem. After much lengthy discussion and debate on the poet's motives, meaning, word choice, etc., our discussion leader informed us that the poem in question was not, in fact, actually a real poem but merely an amalgamation of lines from various Dr. Seuss books. Which then prompted further debate on what does constitute a poem. Needless to say, I found this exercise infuriating, and the interpretation of poetry from this analytical perspective turned me off the whole genre for years.

I've since begun, bit by bit, to appreciate poetry on a more personal level. In academic discourse, we're generally taught to approach poetry with a critical eye. We dissect poems into small pieces of words and patterns and use this analysis to speculate on the author's purpose and meaning. And to me, that kind of close reading is MISERABLE. I like to just accept poetry as is, without any interpreted attribution of the author's words. It was written with meaning by the author; it may or may not connect with each reader.

Despite my own problematic history with poetry, it's a genre I try to promote to my middle schoolers to broaden their reading. For the Read Harder Challenge's "collection of poetry" category, I chose a title I'd recently purchased for my school library, Gary Soto's A Fire in My Hands.

THIS collection I can get behind. Soto writes on small moments and memories from his childhood and adolescence in Fresno, California. The most well-known poem from this collection, "Oranges," captures the awkward, nervous elation of a first date on an ordinary gray December day. "How You Gave Up Root Beer" describes the most embarrassing moment around "the girl you like more than your own life." Soto explains the complex way of the world in juvenile terms in "How Things Work." And "Hitchhiking with a Friend" details the briefest of young adventures with a friend, feeling the exhilaration of being far from home, eyes open to "the notion of beauty" in small, unfamiliar sights.

My favorite, though, is "That Girl," a beautiful reminiscence on those early days of lust.

The public library was saying things
In so many books
And I, a Catholic boy
In a green sweater,
Was reading the same page
A hundred times...

Soto's poems lack a commanding rhythm or rhyme scheme, and they rarely feature such simile or metaphor. The words never devolve into poetic descriptors or illustrative adjectives. But they have a soothing rhythm and use simple words to evoke simple experiences. I found the best part of this collection (the revised and expanded edition, specifically) to be the inclusion of an introduction by the author as well as very brief anecdotes that precede each poem. In the introduction, Soto shares his background with poetry and his connection with the place and environment that inspired these poems. The anecdotes at the beginning of each individual poem add context that contributes to the personal appeal of the poem--which, as I stated earlier, is exactly what I'm looking for in a poem! I think this collection is easily accessible, especially to young readers and reluctant [poetry] readers, because it's the kind of poetry that makes you feel like your own small moments are unique and worthy of mention and memory.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Fiction | Love & Race in a Modern World

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah has been on my reading queue since all its buzz during the early days of its release in 2013. Recently, though, while relaxing on the beach for Spring Break, was the perfect time to settle in with it for the "book by an author from Africa" category for the Read Harder Challenge.

Americanah tells the story of two ambitious young people, Ifemelu and Obinze, from their adolescent lives together in Lagos to their independent journeys as adults across oceans and away from their home and their shared lives.

Ifemelu is a headstrong, independent young woman. She's beautiful, yes, but she's full of ambition and has a thoughtful way of looking at the world and how it works. She has strong opinions and a stoic, sometimes judgmental, way of coping and conversing. Her way of thinking provides the meat of this story and the experiences, but she's certainly not someone you'll feel warm and fuzzy about. (To be honest, I feel like she might be a person who, in real life, would come off as a bit standoffish.)

"They looked at the world with an impractical, luminous earnestness that moved her, but never convinced her."

Obinze is a bit more quiet, though a bit more gregarious than Ifemelu—and no less ambitious. From an early age, he's been fascinated with the United States—the books, the movies, the music—and always planned to move there. Together as teenagers and young adults, Obinze and Ifemelu discover a relationship that challenges each to be informed and outspoken, passionate and determined. When Ifemelu takes an opportunity to study and New York, she and Obinze make plans for their future together with him joining her in America. However, the insecurity of the post-9/11 world disrupts their plans, and Obinze is sent back across the Atlantic. Ifemelu builds a life in New York that becomes plagued with insecurities and uncertainties; Obinze settles for a time as an undocumented immigrant in London before being shipped back again to Nigeria. Years later, after years of silence and unanswered questions, Ifemelu and Obinze have both returned to their homeland where their lives have the potential to collide once again.

The most talked-about aspect of this book has consistently been its observations on race in America. Ifemelu is a character with an observant perspective, as an African coming to America where her identity is suddenly more defined by the color of her skin. She's learning how being black in America, specifically, seems to have its own identity—its own set of rules, stereotypes, and expectations. Coupled with this, Ifemelu and Obinze are both faced with new challenges as immigrants in a modern world.

Ifemelu finds reprieve from her personal struggles in a digital forum, authoring a blog called "Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) By A Non-American Black." It is through these blog posts that the reader is best able to experience American society through Ifemelu's foreign eyes. She is observant on the intricacies of race, noting societal norms that are often unwritten or unspoken.

"At least online they could ignore the awareness of how inconsequential they had become."

Despite all of this, and despite the notoriety the book has received for these themes, I actually found the overall story to be much more deeply rooted in the relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze. It is one that is deeply affected by larger society, yes, but one that I think serves as the foundation to the story itself. In this regard, I read Americanah as a very contemporary, universal story of a modern romance. It is increasingly rare that a relationship will exist and evolve in isolation. Jobs change; people migrate; distances are shrinking as the world gets smaller and more connected. Americanah reflects those relationship challenges inherent in modernity.

This is the first work I've read by Adichie, and I found her to have an amazingly adept way with words when describing those intricate workings of the world.

"...the familiarity strangers adopt with each other after sharing in the disappointment of a public service."

I think this must have been a daunting book to write, because it's obvious the author has much to say—but how to say those things without devolving into strictly a discourse? She deftly injects commentary into strong characters, arousing passion in the reader for both the person and the message. This is a book that will inspire thoughtful reflection and consideration—a powerful voice for our modern world.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Fiction | Stories of Horror & Magic

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When I decided to read a collection of short stories for the Read Harder Challenge, I was happy to find I already had a couple collections waiting in my to-read queue. I chose Kelly Link's recently published (2015) collection called Get in Trouble. The blurb spoke its praise by authors such as Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon, and it piqued my interest noting this was her first collection for adults in a decade—did I already know this author as a librarian without even realizing it?? (The answer was no.)

Turns out that Get in Trouble was very different from what I expected! I guess I'm one of those people who just assumes a default about most things that can be labelled. For instance, I just assume a book is going to be realistic in story unless obviously indicated otherwise. And initially, Get in Trouble affirmed my assumptions. The collection's opening story, "The Summer People," introduces us to an adolescent named Fran who pretty much takes care of herself. Her father leaves home for undetermined amounts of time for indiscriminate reasons—seeking out a prayer meeting he found online or avoiding some trouble he started while out drinking too much. Seems like a normal, basic, realistic-enough premise. Until we begin to follow Fran's day-to-day as she cares for some mysterious people up in a mysterious house. They're called the "summer people," and their care has been handed down to Fran from her mother. They're rarely seen, but they make things and provide things their caretaker wants. It's like a fairy tale, but you're never certain if it's good magic or dark.

So what I learned quickly from this first story what that Get in Trouble was not going to be based firmly in reality. And to be honest, that scared me off a bit. Because the thing is, though my favorite kinds of stories have always been the ones that felt the most real, the ones to which I can easily relate or understand, I can get behind fantastical worlds if the characters are vivid and developed with real reactions and emotions.

Magical realism, though, this blending the two kinds of worlds, I just cannot seem to get behind. Throughout the following eight stories in this collection, I never knew how to read it—should I focus on the characters? Or is it the unbelievable plot points and details that actually matter the most? I've tried several times, but I always end up finding magical realism to be too distracting for me. That's especially the case here, with short stories, where you have less word-count to get invested in the characters or story, and it's unclear what the "big picture" is trying to say.

I "got" some of the stories more than others. I think "The New Boyfriend" was deliciously creepy enough to make most of my middle schoolers squirm with good-horror-story pleasure. But then "Valley of the Girls," the story of what I think is some Egyptian mystic dystopia, had me so confuzzled by the premise that I could hardly follow the action and dialogue. I believe this will have its audience, but that audience is not me.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Nonfiction | Buggin', Wiggin', and Keepin' it Real

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Back when we lived in New York, I hated Spring. HATED it! March was always the absolute WORST. As other, more southern parts of the country were quickly thawing, New York felt stuck in some never-ending purgatory of 50-degrees and a looming potential for one last snow storm.

As the weather started to warm up in April, though, I always got a great amount of joy from walking to my local Greenpoint branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and browsing the shelves for my next reads. It hearkened back to my high school days at the library, when I'd read whatever looked enticing (so yes, a lot of judging by the cover!). It's an entirely different approach to reading than selecting titles from my "to-read" queue to check them off the list; instead of planned, it's an opportunity to embrace the unexpected—and perhaps stumble upon a fortuitous discovery.

The temperatures have already begun to climb here in Nashville, inspiring these Springtime visits to my new neighborhood library. It was under this influence that I found on the "new" shelf Jen Chaney's As If: The Oral History of Clueless as Told By Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew and brought it home (and chose it as the "microhistory" for my never-ending Read Harder Challenge!).

Clueless is one of those rare, few movies that occupies a spot in both my AND Colin's top 10 list. We're always in the mood to watch it, and its quotes are a frequent part of our lexicon. Not only is it a witty, creative, self-aware teen film, it was also totally monumental in bringing back the "teen movie" to us, the kids of the 90s. Eighties kids had John Hughes to define their era; and though I was a tad young when Clueless was released in 1996 (a mere preteen at 11, to be exact), one can't deny its influence in ushering in my generation's teen movie glory days. Clueless paved the way for a resurgence in teen movies that brought dozens, from 1998's Can't Hardly Wait all the way to 2004's Mean Girls. (Any issue of the now-defunct Teen People Magazine was substantiated proof of the importance and infiltration of teen movies at the turn of the millennium.)

Chaney's history of Clueless is not your typical author-narrated history. Instead, she compiles soundbites from hundreds of interviews with Clueless's pertinent players to tell the story through the eyes of the people that experienced it firsthand. Not only do we hear from the obvious sources (writers, directors, actors), Chaney includes anecdotes from crew members, studio employees, extras, musicians, critics, professors—anyone who could share a small piece of the Clueless story.

It would be easy for this book to simply be a helter-skelter work of chaos—an onslaught of stories that serve only as reminiscence. Chaney succeeds, though, in establishing a structure, and thus significance, to this history by organizing it into chronological, themed chapters and sections. "When Emma Met Cher: Clueless and the Spirit of Jane Austen" discusses the inspiration behind the story, especially its literary roots. "The Language of Clueless" investigates the research behind its unique dialogue—much of the reason for its lasting status as an era-defining piece of pop culture. Other chapters cover the search for a cast, location scouting, wardrobe curation, music compilation, premier and press, critical response, merchandising, and ultimately, most significantly, the magnificent impact of Clueless—on its cast, its filmmakers, and on the audience that flocked to theaters to see it.

As If! is an entertaining read for fans of Clueless, but it's also a well-curated reflection on a piece of pop culture that had a significant impact on the world in which my Oregon Trail Generation grew up and consumed culture.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Fiction | Celebrating Truth in a World of Lies

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It would've been easy to count any one of my random reads as the YA title in the Read Harder Challenge. I'm constantly reading books from my school library, after all. I decided to be purposeful with this choice, though, so I depended on my Goodreads "want to read" queue to provide a YA book I had probably long forgotten I wanted to read.

The one I settled upon was The Truth Commission by Susan Juby. It's organized as a book within a book (so meta)--the final Spring Special Project authored by 11th grader Normandy Pale. In this project, she relays the stories surrounding the formation of the Truth Commission, an informal group begun by Normandy and her two best friends that seeks truths from their peers.

But before I jump into that part of the story, let me give you the background...

Normandy attends Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, a total hippie art school where students are encouraged to find their voice and express them as loudly as possible. Normandy is actually one of the quieter, less showy students there; she's exploring writing as her avenue of focus, as demonstrated by this final project of narrative nonfiction. She's also used to being secondary to her sister, the legendary Kiera Pale, a best-selling graphic novelist whose familial inspiration unfortunately doesn't portray Normandy and her parents in the best light.

So Normandy is used to the background, and she's created quite a nice little world for herself with her best friends Neil and Dusk. But one random conversation starts to shift Normandy's world off-kilter. When Neil breaks the unwritten code against directness and asks a fellow student about her very obvious plastic surgery (and it's not a totally offensive disaster), the Truth Commission is born with the mission to discourage hearsay and celebrate the beauty of openness. Normandy, though, is more hesitant to jump into the truth than her friends, especially when her truth mission involves a very touchy target—the infamous Kiera herself, who has suddenly returned home from college, seemingly traumatized by some unknown incident.

This was a really odd book. I think most readers will have strong reactions to it, one way or another, and I can't say mine was totally positive. Often, if I have a negative reaction to a book, it's the characters that prevented my enjoyment. This time, it was the less common opposite—I didn't mind the main character so much; I just found the story to be lacking. And not even the story itself, because I like this premise of a "truth commission." Maybe there were too many other small factors that bothered me. Like Normandy's sister who, with her whole ridiculous story is a total UGH, like one of those terrible people you know must exist in the world but is so absurd she seems unbelievable. And her parents who are total doormats. And also the fact that the ENTIRE BOOK is littered with FOOTNOTES, which is basically the most annoying text feature ever, especially when coming from the brain of a 16ish-year-old AND when you're reading it on a Kindle and have to click back and forth and back and forth.

I don't know. I think my adulthood cynicism comes out most often with YA books. Some I love, some I hate, and I think my more negative reactions usually stem from kitschy teen tropes that I know aren't geared towards my 30-year-old self anyways but that I can't get past because I hate teens being defined and pigeonholed any certain way in the first place.

I didn't mean for this to be a whole diatribe of negativity, because really this book isn't bad, and though YA is a genre, really it's just a target demographic, and there are—and should be!—as many different styles and voices for this audience as for any other. So maybe I should just end my commentary here with a 100% personal opinion-based verdict of "good concept, didn't like the execution." But by all means, give it a try—it's got some rave reviews on Goodreads!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 11

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Title: Masterminds
Author: Gordon Korman
Genre: Adventure
Read If You Like...: Fast-paced plots, ensemble casts, and a Stepford Wives-level mystery
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Serenity, New Mexico, is the most perfect place to live in the country—at least, that's what Eli and his friends have been told their entire life. But the perfect houses, perfect lawns, perfect everything in this tiny idyllic town are starting to seem suspicious to Eli, and when a freak occurrence during a lightning storm gives a glimpse of life outside Serenity, Eli begins a quest for the truth. This conspiracy adventure is totally engrossing and just plain fun for all readers—and luckily its sequel just came out, which I can't wait to get my hands on!

Title: Goodbye Stranger
Author: Rebecca Stead
Genre: Realistic
Read If You Like...: Alternating point of view, quirky characters, and friendship sagas
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Three points of view tell the story of Bridge, her best friends Tabitha and Emily, wallflower Sherm, and an unnamed high school girl struggling with the betrayal of a best friend. Seventh grade is proving tougher than expected as friendships change, new relationships emerge, and the cast of characters struggles with individual identity. The style of storytelling may be unappealing for some readers [I've gotten mixed reviews from my students], but Stead gives us a real story about finding yourself and finding your place.

Title: The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...on Schindler's List
Author: Leon Leyson
Genre: Memoir
Read If You Like...: Child survivors, WWII/Holocaust stories, historical settings
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Leon Leyson credits his life to one man, Oskar Schindler, and in this middle-grade memoir he chronicles the collapse of his 12-year-old world when the Nazis invaded his homeland of Poland and his fight for survival through four years of horror. As an adult well-versed in Holocaust stories, I feel it's a story that is the same no matter how many times it has been told, simply because, at this point in my life, I've read so many of them that I know how things were, how they ended. For young readers, though, who are encountering historical moments like this for the first time, this is a welcome new perspective that introduces the gray-area definitions of people—that individuals are often more than a label.