Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summer Audio Book

Sometimes I find that when I listen to a book I tend to phase out or go through tollbooths and miss something vital.  However, I’ve always been fond of rereading books, and will often listen to books I’ve enjoyed reading.  I recently picked up an audio copy of my favorite summer book, Beauty Queens.  The author, Libba Bray, narrates the audio and does an incredible job at differentiating dialogue with accents, tone, and pitch. 

Beauty Queens begins with the Miss Team Dream pageant, a beauty competition run by the Corporation.   The breaking news: A plane full of Teen Dream contestants crash-lands on a deserted island.  Gowns, make-up, and bodies litter the ground.  The surviving contestants may be beautiful and talented, but can their collective abilities help them to survive? 

From frank discussions of racism to the issues faced by a transsexual candidate, from girls who want to bring down the competition from the inside to ones suffering under pressures from parents and repressed feelings of sexuality, Beauty Queens covers quite the spectrum of topics facing teens today. But what really sets Beauty Queens apart from any other book trying to explore these issues is the humor and social critique Libba expertly employs. Any mention of the Corporation is hysterical, yet also terrifyingly realistic.  Exploring social, economic, cultural, and political issues with humor, Libba creates a book that transcends its targeted teen audience.  Teens and adults, women and men, will find a variety of discussion topics in the social satire and blunt look at stereotypes, making Beauty Queens a strong choice for book clubs.  Issues, tempered by humor, combine with action-paced sequences and a dollop of all varieties of romance to create a summer blockbuster of a book. 

During the summer, I often put off things like cleaning the house in favor of reading.  But the truly great thing about audio books?  Multi-tasking.  This is an audio book that will have me finding more things to clean as an excuse to continue listening. 

What audio books have you sitting in the driveway or refusing to remove your headphones?  


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Book Review: The Sweetness of Tears

The Sweetness of Tears by Nafisa Haji

  In her second novel, Haji gave me all of the emotional involvement that I was looking for in The Submission but didn't find, so it was very interesting reading these two books back to back.  This paperback original is a three generational family saga that spans the globe from California to Africa to the Middle East and back again, and like The Submission, religion and politics are the very heart of the novel.  It's a story of both cultural prejudice and curiosity, family betrayals and forgiveness, and learning how to re-see your world when the truths you've always taken for granted are not just disrupted but completely uprooted. 

Haji, who wrote the wonderful book The Writing on my Forehead, is a good writer who can get to the very heart of the matter--I never have trouble emotionally identifying with her characters and I trust her to take me on a ride that starts off difficultly but ends with redemption and satisfaction.  I also love how much I learn when reading her books, whether it's food customs in Pakistan or religious traditions in Bangladesh. 

In this book in particular I was also much drawn to some of her truisms about language and religion.  Here are a few that I dogeared:

In an observation during the Shia Muslim holy time of Muharram and Safar, commemoratingKarbala: "Later, louder voices intruded on the quiet scenes of anticipation that the older women had set, as younger women, for whom the call of piety was of less immediate concern than the social need to be seen as pious…"  Lawd, how many churchgoers did I grow up with who would have fit that definition to a T?!

A missionary exasperated with questions about how many souls she has saved when she's more concerned with the lives she has saved: "I guess [language] says something about the importance of family in some cultures.  Something we could all stand to emulate  Instead of just talking all the time, about family values--only thing I ever saw being valued when I've heard those two words getting thrown around is the act of not minding your own business."

And the same character, later: "Real faith is an action--a verb.  It's truth unfolding…you can't drown it out, covering your ears while you shout out declarations of belief.  That's not faith.  that's cowardice--a fear of truth, which is only scary when you're fighting to keep yourself from knowing it."

On learning a second language: "Of course, the real test of proficiency comes when you get to the stage of poetry...Poetry touches on truth beyond words. Almost impossible, really, to ever fully understand poetry in a foreign language.  Almost. It's too difficult to translate, you see, because there's so much more to it than the definition of words. In poetry, words are meant to bypass our normal ways of understanding--to skip the mind altogether."

This book was published by William Morrow earlier this month and I received a free ARC of it from my wonderful Harper sales rep, Anne DeCourcey.  It also happens to qualify as my second book this year for the South Asian challenge.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

June is Audio Book Month, part deux

Most of the audio books that I listen to on my daily commute (and longer drives, too, when I take them) are fiction.  I need a strong narrative to pull me in and keep me interested, but as with so many other things in my life, Bill Bryson is an exception to that rule.  Bill Bryson is my hero.  I adore his books, to be sure, but I adore his audio books even more.  (If you'd like to read about the wonderful day that I got to meet Mr. Bryson himself, check out this blog post from last fall.)  My first encounter with his books was the audio version of A Walk in the Woods, his wondrously engaging tale of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and after that I was smitten enough to seek out the rest of his published works. 

Bryson happens to read his own audiobooks.  I do not usually condone the author's reading of his or her own work, as I find it more often than not disastrous (cue: Toni Morrison reading anything).  But he is simply wonderful--he hits all the right notes ranging from wry humor to righteous outrage and everything in between.  Moreover, he is as enlightening as he is entertaining.  I'm constantly amazed at the random factual tidbits that I am able to work into conversation, of which his books are the source of my knowledge.

For longer trips, I tend to prefer Bryson's material that has a stronger internal narrative, which would be all of his travel books, but his most recent work, At Home, is great for shorter drives like my daily commute.  I'm hard-pressed to choose between the aforementioned Walk and his book about Australia called In a Sunburned Country, as my favorite.  I've listened to both of them multiple times and am, in fact, currently listening to Sunburned again this week. 

I think if there were one writer whose style I'd most like to emulate, it would be Bryson's.  It's the perfect blend of humor, information, and personal anecdote, with both understatement and overstatement used to great effect.  His audio books are even better.  You come away smarter and more thoughtful about the world than you were before, and you feel as if you've somehow made a friend along the way.  

New Picturebooks

Picturebooks are  my favorite books to leaf through when they come into the store.  These three books came in this week and it's impossible for me to pick a favorite.  

If Rocks Could Sing: A Discovered Alphabet

by Leslie McGuirk
Tricycle Press, Random House Kids
I'm often surprised at how literal some young children an be. If Rocks Could Sing: A Discovered Alphabet, will challenge these children, asking them to see subjects in seemingly abstract rocks. If the alphabet rocks were spotted on the beach, some might pass them by, but Leslie McGurik places them with text, and their purpose is immediately apparent. Other found rocks, which she uses in the illustrations for each letter, might be overlooked if not for the props and text McGuirk uses to hint at their role. Some children see subjects in rocks, leaves, and clouds already- If a Rock Could Sing will validate their creativity. For less visual children, If Rocks Could Sing will encourage them to really look at the abstract, and challenge their preconceptions. Ages 4-8

Edwin Speaks Up
by April Stevens illustrated by Sophie Blackwell
Schwartz & Wade Books, Random House Kids:
I'll admit it, I have to pick up every Sophie Blackwell bo
ok I see. Her combination of pencil and watercolor is soft, yet her colors are strong, her quirky and odd with fun details. The candy palette of Edwin Speaks Up is a mix of bright funky colors and softer shades that brings flair to her 50s inspired costumes and cars. The story, written by April Stevens, follows an absent-minded mother and her brood of children as they trek to the supermarket. The children, all but little Edwin, roll and tumble, wrestling about, while the mother forgets one thing after another- and no one listens to little Edwin's babble. But astute young readers will quickly decipher Edwin's messages, bringing laughter with each line.Ages 4-8

Blackout by John Rocco
When the city experiences a blackout, one family, and eventually the entire neighborhood, learns the importance of unplugging and participating. From seeing the stars to having a party on the street with the entire neighborhood, Blackout celebrates friends and family. And one family learns that you don’t need a blackout to enjoy time together.
John Rocco tells his story in a comic-panel format. His illustrations, and even the font, reference Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, though his illustrations certainly have their own flair. Ages 5-10
-Marika McCoola

Monday, June 13, 2011

June is Audio Book Month!

Unusually for me, I did not do a single post in May for National Short Story Month, but now that my coworker, Marika McCoola, has alerted me to this month's national book affiliation, I will blog my little heart out.  Like Marika, I am another Odyssey staffer who lives for audio books, and I've got some great recommendations for you.  

Unlike a conventional book, with an audio book, it's the performer who makes or breaks the book.  I don't care how wonderful a novel is when you curl up in bed to read it, if it has bad or even just a mediocre audio performance, it's difficult for the story to rise above the performance.  Conversely, a great audio performance will enhance poor or mediocre book, disguising its flaws and keeping you on the edge of your car seat (or wherever you happen to be listening). 

Here is my first of a few solid recommendations for GREAT audio performances that you can take to the bank.  Check 'em out of your local library or pop in to your nearest brick & mortar bookstore to pick 'em up.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, read by Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Jenna Lemia, with one "journalistic" chapter read by Cassandra Campbell. These women represent Aibileen, Minnie, and Skeeter, respectively.  Aibileen and Minnie are two black maids working in Jackson, MS, in the early 1960s and Skeeter is the young white woman who wants to tell their story.  Much of the narration and dialogue is written in quasi-dialect, which might challenge some readers of the conventional book, but with these three outstanding performances, you'll soon melt into their voices and picture yourself in the Deep South.  I grew up in Mississippi and spent much of my adult life living in Jackson in particular, and I have to say that these folks do an outstanding job with the Southern accent.  You'll laugh and cry along with these unforgettable women and the stories they have to tell, some shocking, some painful, and even a few that are heartwarming, but you won't easily forget them.  I listened to this audio book three times over the last two years.  Unabridged, this audio runs just over 18 hours.  (Incidentally, I think this might be one of those instances where the audio version eclipses the written one!)


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Some New Graphic Novels

I love graphic novels, even though they often take me longer to read than normal novels.  With graphic novels, I get caught up in the illustrations, examining them panel by panel and then as a complete page.  I check the backgrounds for clues, hints of back story, and little secrets.  If you're confused by the format of a graphic novel, or would like to know the difference between Manga, comics, and graphic novels, or are really interested in form, I'd suggest picking up a copy of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.  This book, itself a graphic novel, explains the terms, conventions, and history of the comic form and is an interesting and engaging read.  For any student having difficulty convincing a teacher of the merits and importance of graphic novels, this is a book to add to your arsenal.  But whether you've yet to pick up a graphic novel or are looking for something new, here are some graphic novels to try. 

Page by Paige
by Laura Lee Gulledge
Amulet, Abrams (on shelves now)
When Paige Turner (her parents are writers) moves from Virginia to Brooklyn, she feels lost and alone. Her first companion in this new place is her sketchbook. It is through her relationship with her sketchbook, and the drawings, doodles, and messes she makes, that she comes to learn about herself. With the support of her new friends (and boyfriend) Paige begins to define her identity and her home, while learning how to support her friends in turn. Ages 14+

Super Amoeba No. 1: Squish
By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm
Random House (on shelves now)
Let me just start off by saying my favorite graphic novel series for the 2nd-3rd grade crowd is Lunch Lady- hands down. But what do you give the kids who have exhausted that series? Squish is a great option, especially for teachers. Setting: a world much like our own, where kids read comic books, dream of being super heroes, and there’s always a class bully. The Catch: this world is populated entirely by amoebas. That’s right, our protagonist is a single-celled organism. The opening pages introduce amoebas, giving basic scientific facts that the narrator warns, “You’ll be tested on this someday so you’d better be paying attention.” And, most kids will be tested on this someday. So, fun graphic novel with a side dish of biology facts, what’s not to like? Arrows throughout the book contain snarky narrator comments for some additional humor. Ages 8+

Around the World
by Matt Phelan
Candlewick, October 11, 2011
Many local teachers have been using graphic novelizations of classic stories in their classrooms. Phelan's Around the World, though fiction, is grounded in historical fact and quotes from primary sources, proving an exciting base for history lessons or a path to the exploration of non-fiction. Phelan's book presents three famous individuals who each circumnavigated in the world in his or own way: Thomas Steves by bicycle, Nellie Bly by ship and rail, and Joshua Slocum by sail boat. The pacing and speed of each journey are captured by the graphic novel lay-out, which serves to combine writing, image, maps, and other materials, each adding a layer to the reader's understanding of the journey. Sprightly line drawings and colorful washes capture the emotion and drive of each character, bringing a rush of thrilling speed to each adventure. Ages 10+

Patrick in A Teddy Bear’s Picnic & other stories
by Geoffrey Hayes
Toon Books, Candlewick (on shelves now)
Toon Books are leveled beginning readers that use a comic book format. Comics, like true picturebooks, rely on both words and pictures in tandem to tell a story, allowing strength in one to foster comprehension in the other. Beginning readers will bond with Patrick, a little bear who knows that life is much too interesting for naps. Patrick’s adventures, run-ins with the frightening Big Bear, and family life are similar to the experiences of many children, yet hold many delightfully silly moments. Geoffrey Hayes packs Patrick with four stories- call the last three a sweet reward for making it all the way through the first one! Ages 4+

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
First Second (on shelves now)
One day while Zita and her friend Joseph are walking, they come across a small crater. Inside is a strange device, and Zita, being an adventurous button-pusher, hits it. A vortex opens and something reaches out to grab Joseph. Luckily, Zita is a good friend, so she hits the button again and disappears into the vortex after Joseph, only to land in an alien world. What follows are the adventures of Zita as she tries to find Joseph and return to Earth- before an asteroid destroys the planet she’s on, that is.

Though characterization can sometimes suffer in plot-driven graphic novels, Ben Hatke has managed to create a number of multi-faceted, dimensional characters. The Piper, who initially helps Zita, is not good or bad, rather self-protecting. Zita, too, isn’t without her flaws. Though she is brave, she is also stubborn and impulsive, yet stilling caring enough to draw helpful misfits to her.

We find a resolution at the end, but I can’t help but wish the next installment of Zita’s fabulous adventures were waiting on a shelf for me today. Middle grade readers, especially those who love Bone will fall in love with Zita the Spacegirl. Me? I'm happy to see a strong young female on character join the graphic novel shelf. Ages 8+

Anya’s Ghost 
by Vera Brosgol
First Second (on shelves now) 
Anya's Ghost is a wonderful coming of age graphic novel. The twists and the turns of the story pulled me in for a one-sitting read. Anya's experiences of frustration, both because of her immigrant background and the usual difficulties of not fitting in at school, are accessible to all YA readers- for who hasn't felt alienated at one point or another? However, the layer of Anya's familial background adds depth to the story. Each twist and turn of the story is adeptly foreshadowed, creating a richly spooky story that will have readers frantically turning pages (unless, like me, you have to stop and remark about how beautifully composed certain panels are). Ages 14+

by Barry Lyga  
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, November 2011
A Manga boy falls from his fictional world into the world of a realistic high school graphic novel.  What follows is an unlikely romance and an exploration of the differences between graphic styles.  My favorite parts of this novel are the more metafictive elements- being hurt by motion lines, having thoughts actually appear over Mangaman's head, and movement between frames.  Teen manga lovers will enjoy the comics-geeks-only humor. With its exploration of eastern versus western storytelling techniques the book also has a place in classrooms, perhaps as a visual example of portions of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Ages 14+

-Marika McCoola

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

May I confess something?  I only picked this book up last month for three reasons: (1) it was published by Algonquin, one of my favorite publishing houses, and (2) it looked short enough for me to read while on the train to BEA, thus bumping my monthly reading up by one notch, and (3) it's non fiction, and I like to make sure I read at least one nonfiction book each month.  So yeah, basically I was reading this book to make my stats look better.  I'm a little bit ashamed because it was *really* good, and despite all of my cunning, I did not finish it in the month of May, so it's going towards my June stats anyway.  Since June is the month I take my summer vacation, it's the last month in the year in which my reading stats need any boosting whatsoever.  So I reckon it just serves me right.

Anyway, this delightful bit of nonfiction by Elisabeth Tova Bailey was far more interesting than I bargained for.  On a vacation in Italy, the author encounters a virulent strain of influenza that wreaks havoc on her body and her immune system.  Very soon after returning home she becomes bedridden, then hospitalized.  Somehow her mitochondria become compromised (I'm sure I'm not the only reader who envisioned Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door at this point) and she needs to move out of her farmhouse and into a studio apartment where she needs extensive daily care, if not quite round-the-clock care.  

It's at this point in her life that a friend brings her a snail she found when rambling in the woods, and against all odds, this snail becomes Bailey's constant companion.  She follows its movements avidly and researches with just as much gusto what the proper care and feeding of a snail might entail.  I was surprised just how engaging this narrative would be--just as surprised, in fact, as I was about how interesting these molluscs, these gastropods (from the Latin for mouth-foot) could be. 

As Bailey learns to deal with her circumscribed life, she observes this single snail, eventually  creating a terrarium for it.  The snail is frequently her only diversion in the long hours of daylight she spends alone, and at night she devotes countless hours to imagining its inner life.  Each chapter is punctuated with excerpts from naturalists like E. O. Wilson, and poets like Elizabeth Bishop, who were all fascinated by the common snail.  Along the way I learned a lot of natural history, such as found on page 87: 
"Three and a half billion years ago, when life on earth began, the snail and I shared a common ancestor, some kind of simple worm that over time evolved into two animal groups.  The protostomes, which in the embryotic stage develop a mouth first and then an anus, branched off into gastropods...And the Deuterostomes, which develop the same characteristics, though somewhat embarrassingly in reverse order, anus first and then a mouth, branched off into mammals, including Homo sapiens."
Other interesting facts I gleaned include the new development in colonoscopies, which mimics the movement of the snail to increase the patient's comfort, to develop a  small robot that "can travel snail-like through the mucus-coated intestines of humans."  And did you know that snails have over 2,500 teeth?  (Tell me you didn't know-this was the first fact in the book that completely astonished me!)  Yes, they have 80 or more rows of teeth with 33 teeth per row.  With that many teeth, it's no wonder how Bailey came up with the title of this book!

And yet sometimes the narrative would take a poignant turn.  It's easy to forget that Bailey was an invalid during the course of this book, unable to leave her bed even to walk to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water.  It's a wonder she didn't become more melancholy that she did.  One of her thoughts that rather pierced my heart: 
There is a certain depth of illness that is piercing in its isolation; the only rule of existence is uncertainty, and the only movement is the passage of time.  One cannot bear to live through another loss of function, and sometimes friends and family cannot bear to watch.  An unspoken, unbridgeable divide may widen.  Even if you are still who you were, you cannot actually fully be who you are.  Sometimes the people you know well withdraw, and then even the person you know as yourself begins to change (131).
If that is not a clear reason for despair, I do not know what is, and yet I never got the feeling that Bailey despaired of much.  Her fortitude, derived almost entirely from the snail, according to this narrative, is something to behold.  Clearly there is far more to this book than I initially imagined.   I would encourage anyone with an interest in good, literary narrative non-fiction to take a look at it, too.

NB: The publisher sent me a finished hardcover copy of this book last year when it was published, but I am just now getting around to reading it. As of this writing I do not know when it is slated for a paperback release. 

~Emily Crowe

Thursday, June 2, 2011

All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go...except for my books!

I'm at T-minus 12 days, 12 hours until my summer vacation begins, not that I am counting or anything...but if you know me at all, you know that picking my summer vacation reading is almost as much fun as picking my destination.  I'll be heading for tropical climes, which meanslots of lounging, eating, snorkeling, swimming, reading.  Rinse & repeat.  And with long travel days bookending my trip (two planes and one boat transfer--ugh!), I will have plenty of time to read.  I figure with 14 days, I'll need at least 16 books to take.  My stack of possible titles is now around 30, so I'm spending my weekend winnowing that list.  Who wants to help me decide?

Tom Perrotta writing about the Rapture?  Yes, please!  I loved Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher and I look forward to reading this one, too, in galley form.

Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers.  Literary word on the street is that this is her most literary and ambitious novel yet.  She switched publishers for this one, too, so I'm happy to have an ARC of it. 

Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost made my list for a couple of reasons.  I loved his travel memoirs set in the South Pacific AND his middle name is the name of one of the islands I have to travel to in order to get to my destination.

The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant is one of the few books guaranteed a spot in my backpack 'cause it's the book my husband asked me to read for Christmas.  Every year as a gift to each other we read one book by the other's choosing.  Isn't that a great tradition?  It started when I wanted him to read Harry Potter and he was reluctant to do so.  One year he asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I replied, "I want you to read Harry Potter."  Not much he could do in the face of that request, eh?  (He ended up *loving* Harry Potter, btw.)

What else should I take?  Let me know what books you're looking forward to reading this summer and maybe I'll read 'em, too!