Saturday, December 26, 2015

Love & Hate: Adverse Opinions on YA Adventures

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My days and reading habits are so often filled with middle school level that it's rare I move above and beyond into the realm of YA. Recently, though, I read two more titles that I ultimately found to be similar but of which I had COMPLETELY different opinions!

I grabbed a copy of David Arnold's Mosquitoland at a local librarian event late last spring, a title I'd been eyeing from internet buzz. The cover, I think, is just phenomenal, and its discovery road-trip premise seemed promising. Mim Malone's life has recently been thrown out of whack, what with the separation of her parents and being dragged against her will to live in middle-of-nowhere Mississippi with her dad and new stepmom. Once she finds out her mom is sick back home in Ohio, Mim hops on a bus and heads north, back to her real home. Naturally, the trip doesn't go as smoothly as she plans, and quirky, dubious characters ensue.

I am going to be blunt—I really did not like this book. I found it banally, cloyingly predictable. It was like Swamplandia in YA format (which I end up disliking more as time passes), with its absurdist plot that drowns in its own assertions of self-awareness. I think I would've been okay with the general premise and characters, but the purposeful disinterest of the narrator's voice and the excessive use of Writer's Workshop metaphor had me rolling my eyes at every chapter end. I keep seeing non-fans of this book use the term "special snowflake" to describe it, and YES. Why is this such a trend in YA fiction? Look, I get everyone is unique and needs to find confidence in their own sense of self, but not every teen is such a complicated anomaly that will magically find one person who just "gets" 100% of their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Whatever happened to stories of people that deal with serious issues but not EVERY serious issue? (Seriously: divorce & remarriage, moving, substance abuse, mental illness & medication, suicide, tragic accidents, child molestation, assault, abandonment issues, AND mental handicap...ALL OF THAT IS IN THIS.) It frustrates me that these snarky attempts at mature adolescent voices are often praised for their "realism," because I think they are anything but.

On the contrary, though..

I recently hosted an 8th grade lunch time book club in my library, and we read John Green's Paper Towns. High school senior Quentin has been in love with his childhood friend and neighbor, Margo, for as long as he can remember, but they don't exactly run around in the same crowd anymore. One night, though, she climbs in through his bedroom window and enlists his help for a night of adventure to complete 11 tasks of revenge. He thinks everything will be different at school the next day, but it turns out, Margo has disappeared. With the help of his two loyal best friends, Q embarks on his own journey to find the clues he believes Margo has left behind that will lead him to her.

My 8th graders loved this book, and I have to admit that I was also completely sucked into it. There is a great mix of action and introspection here. The only other John Green book I've read up to this point was The Fault in Our Stars, which was okay but a bit sappy for my jaded tastes. Paper Towns, though, I thought possessed an important variety of perspective. High school is, obviously, complicated, and most of the drama comes from the way different people read and react to the same situation. Green reminds his readers that people are not always only what they appear on the surface; there may be another side to everyone's story and experience.

The most considerable difference between these two books is, without a doubt, the narrator's voice. Q is a Ted Mosby-esque character, and he'd probably be written off as an insufferable, whiny wimp by many a reader. Unlike Ted Mosby, though, Q is still just a kid, so we'll cut him some slack. Through his narration, we hear and feel an adolescent male's uncertain introspection, and that perspective is often lacking in any form of literature or pop culture. It's a total gender stereotype, but usually it's teen girls credited with the dramatic internal monologues. It's refreshing to hear a similar male voice, because it's does a great discredit to a whole gender (not to mention is pretty unrealistic) to believe that perspective simply doesn't exist.

The other greatest difference between the two is the ending to each, specifically how the author decided to handle this manic pixie dream girl character to which the novels' pages have been dedicated. To be slightly *spoiler-y* without giving away too much, it's the difference between a "happy" ending and a realistic one. When my 8th graders finished Paper Towns, they were, as a whole, disappointed that there was no "happily ever after." And that, I told them, is exactly why I loved it, because Green's whole point was that this fearless, eccentric, unobtainable character of Margo is entirely a persona—and what Q realizes is that, no matter the image she has cultivated or how people perceive her, she is simply, entirely, just a girl. There is validity, authenticity, celebration, even, in ordinariness and normalcy, and that is a perspective that, when done well, is rare and valuable in YA literature.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Power of Reading What You Want!

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I encounter a lot of hilarious, incredible, ridiculous situations and interactions as a middle school librarian, but sometimes there's a really poignant one mixed in that stops you in your tracks and begs to be shared (or at least remembered). Today I'm going to share a story about an 8th grade boy named Chris*.

Chris is a jock, popular, and a pretty smooth talker. He's likable, polite and respectful, but not super academically inclined. He's frequently frustrated by school—his reading level is a whole handful of grade levels below where it should be.

All of our 7th and 8th graders were assigned an independent novel study each quarter this semester. They were to choose their own book, appealing to their own interests, that was to be approved by the teacher (basically, not way below their reading level; and no Diary of a Wimpy Kid). Teachers brought their classes to the library so we could work one-on-one to help kids find something they liked. They then had a list of projects to complete (of which they could choose) within a 4-6 week time period.

Chris has told his English teacher he's "not a reader." This quarter, he went with a sports book by Mike Lupica and has been working on it diligently, way before this mad rush to finish as the deadline approaches. He came in the library this morning to check out another book and grabbed another sports title by Tim Green. He told me the cover looked like it’d be good. I asked how his project was going, and he said he’s almost done, and that he “really liked the book—it was really good!” I went back later and checked his records; he didn’t check out a single item all of last year. Or his 6th grade year. Here’s a kid who’s “not a reader” and probably doesn’t read very well anyway, but he WILLINGLY CAME TO GET ANOTHER BOOK and was EXCITED about it.

If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.

I can't say enough good things about this assignment and how it has positively affected our students' reading habits. Most simply, it has drastically increased checkouts! We're two weeks away from the end of the first semester and nearly have as many checkouts already as we did for the entirety of last year. Students are coming in to check out other titles in the series they picked up or other similar stories. More impressively, they're learning how to specify what they like and want to read. Instead of saying they want something "interesting"—which is the generic answer of all middle schoolers when you ask what they want to read—they're learning to describe what genres they like, what kind of story or character appeals to them.

I'm not saying it's as easy as just assigning this project and watching it inspire reluctant readers. It requires specialized attention on each student to find a good fit—and a certain amount of trial and error with finding that right book. It requires project options students will find relevant and demands accountability for completion (sometimes utterly impossible). And cooperation with the library and librarian strengthens the connection to reading beyond a classroom assignment and reinforces the importance of finding the right book for the right reader.

I try and make sure my students know that every book is not for every reader; there are a lot of boring books out there, but if you find one that appeals to your own unique tastes, reading becomes less of a chore and more of a way to explore your interests and expand your curiosity.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Fiction | A Pushover's Revenge

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"There's no great dividing line between being a kid and an adult. We're not all Catapillar's turning into butterflies. You are what you are. When you grow up, you may be more careful than when you were a kid. You don't say what you think as much as you once did. You learn to play nice. But you're still the same person who did good things or rotten things when you were young. Whether you feel good about them or bad...whether you regret them. Well, that's a different thing. But it's not like they disappear forever."

In my last post, I mentioned my neglect of adult fiction during the school year, and around Thanksgiving, it really starts to get to me, despite the aforementioned reading plan. So when I found myself downtown wandering around our beautiful public library a couple weeks ago, even with my vow to save all adult reading for breaks, instinct took over and I hungrily scanned the NEW BOOKS section for something to take home.

I ended up with Matthew Dicks' The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, which I devoured in one day over Thanksgiving Break. The titular character, Caroline, has lived her 40(ish) years so far as a total pushover. She has her thoughts and opinions, like anyone else, but they are rarely voiced as she prefers the background to the foreground and avoids any form of confrontation.

So when during a PTO meeting, Caroline angrily hurls the four-letter word at the PTO President, it is very out of character. This one rash outburst ignites a flame of introspection that leads Caroline back to her own high school days and one particularly lasting incident. Inspired by her own outspokenness, Caroline decides to head back home, daughter in tow, with a plan to confront her former best friend, the one who ruined her life 25 years earlier.

This is one of those books that has fairly heavy issues masked behind a lighter, enjoyable story. There are familiar themes of friendship, bullying, guilt, and making peace with the past—concepts that have the potential to bring negative memories and recollections to light for many adults. Caroline is like many who find ourselves hung up on particular encounters or experiences that were instrumental in defining who we are. And like many, she looks back on her own monumental experience with regret at her own response (or lack thereof) and a big lingering question as to whether things could've ended up differently. Caroline's story is told with humor and hope for eventual redemption, even if things don't go according to plan.

I feel like this story will resonate with many adults—at least ones the ones like me who maintain a pretty deep connection with personal history! Through Caroline's story, the author addresses these essential questions that have no easy answer: Can (or should) we be blamed for the mistakes of our youth? Are we the same person now as we were then? It's likely that everyone will have a different response to these questions, but Dicks succeeds with this novel in entertaining us with one perspective and getting us thinking about our own answers.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Fiction | Observations of Womanhood

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"There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up til now is their connection with men. All we have had. No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals."

While reading Alice Munro's The Lives of Girls and Women, I made a new vow regarding my reading habits: I'm going to have to save reading any adult books for fall break, winter break, spring break, and summer break! As a middle school librarian, I'm able to give better recommendations by having read more middle grade books...and that's about all I have an attention span for during the school year. It causes me to do a great injustice to the more complex literature I very much want to read; I can rarely read 10 pages before falling asleep, causing my time spent reading a particular title to be at least 3 times longer than normal. I definitely can't keep track off the nuance or appreciate the subtleties by reading in such short spurts.

This is my big offense to a Nobel Prize-winning author and her book that speaks in small and subtle observations of human lives and emotions.

The Lives of Girls and Women centers around a young narrator named Del Jordan living in a small Canadian town in the 1940s and 50s. The world is consumed by a global war, but you don't really feel the immediacy of it in this rural atmosphere. She spends most of her time with her mother. Though she has a father and younger brother, the men of Del's life are very much in the background; they spend more time at the family-owned fox farm, and Del is surrounded, for the most part, by the women of Jubilee. It feels very much like a novel composed of short stories. Each chapter essentially serves as some musing on a monumental experience of Del's--her exploration of religion, her discovery of boys, her academic aspirations, her sexual awakening.

Del is a product of a particular time, setting, and situation. Her mother is a modern woman who is forced to find her own intellectual stimulation in a small rural town. She has a job selling encyclopedias; she doesn't depend on her husband. And though she dismisses God and rallies around birth control, she doesn't go quite so far as to believing fulfillment to be possible as an independent, childless woman. Del is very much a product of her feminist mother but, as the same time, somewhat terrified to follow in her footsteps.

"Her concern about my life, which I needed and took for granted, I could not bear to have expressed. Also I felt that it was not so different from all the other advice handed out to women, to girls, advice that assumed being female made you damageable, that a certain amount of carefulness and solemn fuss and self-protection were called for, whereas men were supposed to be able to go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what they didn't want and come back proud. Without even thinking about it, I had decided to do the same."

Del lives an adolescence atypical of women in her time and place; she follows an academic route and experiences a certain amount of exclusion from peers based more on experiences than feelings. We get the sense Del is somewhat of an outsider in Jubilee based on her intellect and interests, but she never begrudges the town or its people as lacking. In fact, she discovers that Jubilee is very much a part of her, as much as it is to any of its other residents. The experiences it gave created Del as a person, no better or worse or different than any one else--just entirely individual. They led her toward the truth and understanding of what it means to be human and, essentially, to just be.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Fiction | A Vision Quest Through Time

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When I saw the Read Harder challenge required a book "that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture," I knew immediately that I'd be picking a Sherman Alexie book. American Indian history, culture, & society is one of my favorite nonfiction topics, but I don't often read the fiction that represents this group. My only other encounters with Alexie have been either YA (The Absolutely True Diary...) or short stories (The Lone Ranger and Tonto...), so I decided to experience just some general fiction through one of his more recent titles, Flight.

Flight is a small little book that packs some wallop quite quickly. Chapter One, sentence one introduces us to Zits, a half-Irish, half-Indian 15-year-old boy whose nickname, unfortunately, comes from the state of his face. His dad left before he can even remember. His mom died of cancer when he was six. He's been living in foster homes ever since, usually with people who care more about the welfare check he brings than providing a stable, loving home. Zits often gets in trouble with the law, but things get worse once he meets a white kid called Justice who inspires all sorts of query and rebellion, including a particularly hostile act of open fire in a bank that leaves several dead, including Zits.

It's not the end of Zits, though. When he wakes up, he finds himself in the body of a racist FBI agent in the 1970s in Red River, Idaho, the epicenter of the Indigenous Rights Now! movement and ensuing conflict.

And then it's another day, another new world—this time as a young boy living on an actual Indian settlement on the cusp of obliteration by US Calvary forces at Little Bighorn. And next time, on the opposite side of battle, as an old man tasked with wiping out the Indians.

Zits continues through a journey into the past, seeing different sides to history and the varying perspectives of its people. It's an easy story, though one that's actually pretty layered with theme and deep in allegory. It doesn't take much analysis or heavy thinking, but it still feels substantial. It's commendable to the author that though the story flows through time and into different people, the voice remains the same. It's Zits that guides us through the story, and we never lose our grip on him.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Revisiting Potter, Part 7: The Deathly Hallows

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Well, I finally finished my re-read of the Harry Potter. Yes, that one I started over two years ago and intended to complete in just a couple of months. Somehow, time has dragged while also slipping through my fingers. It's annoying how that works.

Anyway, I was so excited to finally finish reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, because Colin and I had also been doing a simultaneous movie re-watch. I wouldn't allow the movie version to be viewed again before I had finished the book, so you can probably understand, knowing how long ago I read the 6th book, my husband's impatience. This final installment was particularly fun to get into, because I distinctly remember my life exactly when this book came out in 2007. Unlike the earlier books that are relegated in my mind to generic high school memories, I remember devouring this book while spending a month babysitting in Maine--after the kids had finished it, of course. But despite remembering the minute details of my life at this point, I still would not have been able to give you a plot synopsis of Harry Potter's final chapter.

After this time around, I hope to remember it better.

When book 7 opens, Harry is lost. He's uncertain of his next move. He's grasping for a solution without the guidance of his brilliant, fearless leader. The confidence he's had for the past 6 years is gone; essentially, his whole world is rocked.

But the reason Harry Potter is a great character, a great hero, is that he forges on. He is tasked with the impossible--conquering the most powerful, dangerous wizard in history. It's a task that may not end well (remember, "neither can live while the other survives"), but Harry is a noble leader--it is his duty to see this fight to the end.

The tale of the Deathly Hallows provides a new twist to Harry Potter's seemingly endless quest. There are three infamous, rumored artifacts that have the power to conquer death, and Harry figures Voldemort is after them. Much of the story follows Harry, Hermione, and Ron on their quest around the world for the Elder Wand and Resurrection Stone, avoiding the Death Eaters that are anxious to find them. The pressure to find answers and avoid capture exacerbates the tension that is felt by our main characters, even amongst these three that are closer than most. In this highly anxious environment, the reader is reminded that these characters are human, with scattered emotions and potentially volatile behaviors. I think, during these moments, Rowling shows us some of the truest, realest characterizations, and we love them even more for their arguments and outbursts.

Essentially, this book ties up all the many loose ends that have been lingering throughout the previous six books. And though Deathly Hallows gives us a new piece to the puzzle, those pieces are finally fitting together as Harry Potter's world is explained. Naturally, it must end with a battle, and that battle is the penultimate culminating scene; textbooks can point to the Battle of Hogwarts as the very definition of climax.

When the smoke has cleared and it's all over and done with, we're left with a reassured sense of satisfaction, as if we can finally exhale with the trust that all is well.

There are few stories with as much renown as Harry Potter, few with such heart. I truly believe there is nothing else like it. I'm lucky to have been around to experience firsthand as the story unfolded, and I'm thankful that these stories exist to inspire, intrigue, and invigorate readers as generations pass.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Fiction | Drowning in Eternity

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Having a penchant for both sweeping sagas and New York City history, I have kept my husband's copy of Pete Hamill's Forever on my actual, physical to-read shelf through multiple moves across states and storage units. It's always been one of those "I'll get to it eventually" books, so when I had to read a book written by a male author ("a book by a person whose gender is different than yours") for the Read Harder Challenge, this was finally the opportunity.

To sum it up briefly, Forever is the story of an Irishman named Cormac O'Connor who gains immortality to avenge the death of his parents by ending the family line of his father's murderer. But Forever goes into a bit more detail than that and spreads the story out over about 600 pages.

The first 100 or so of them take place in Ireland, setting the stage for Cormac's eventual move to America. Our protagonist is a young man growing up under English rule but secretly learning historic Gaelic religion and myth under his father's tutelage. The pivotal year is 1741 when Cormac's father is thoughtlessly murdered by thugs of the Earl of Warren—a man with no regard for the lives and troubles of others. Cormac had already lost his mother, and this same man was kind of to blame; it was the wheels of the Earl's carriage that ran her over in the streets. So basically, Cormac has a serious vendetta against the Earl of Warren, and, lucky for Cormac, a man from those secret Gaelic rituals bestows upon him the gift of immortality—and with it the opportunity to get revenge.

This quest for revenge brings Cormac to New York City as he follows the Earl to this settlement that is barely a town. —Oh, and that's a criterion of his immortality; he lives forever as long as he doesn't leave the island of Manhattan.— During this quest, we see New York grow from a tiny settlement to a turbulent city torn by war (twice), and a booming metropolis run by questionable characters like Boss Tweed.

I've been excited to read this book for so long because I expected a story that was deeply intertwined with NYC history. In Edward Rutherfurd's New York: The Novel, the city is certainly the main character; we see its evolution through the characters, but they're really secondary to the setting. In Forever, we started with a strong character heavily driven by plot and conflict; then he becomes enmeshed with this other huge character, the city; and once that happens, it loses focus. The timeline jumps around with such huge gaps that it's too inconsistent to be a story about New York; yet it also mostly abandons the main character's initial conflict and motivations, so it loses that thread as well.

The most annoying part of this book is the final section that occurs around 9/11. I've read this tidbit several times, and my husband heard the same from the author himself during a college class visit: The story basically goes that Hamill completed his manuscript, and then 9/11 happened, inspiring him to go back and edit to include this event that would clearly be a defining, monumental piece of the city's history. Valid point, but that's exactly how it feels in reading this book—like a section tagged on at the end that never meshes with the rest of the story and its concept.

Ultimately, I think Forever suffers from a lack of focus; it's trying to do too many things at once, to tell too many stories, when the author needed to just pick a direction and stick with it. I finished this book with the belief that Cormac's story was incomplete and the portrait of the evolving city Hamill was trying to paint, using this theme of immortality, was disappointingly inadequate.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Fiction | Highly Unlikely & Utterly Unbelievable

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When I heard early in the spring that Judy Blume was releasing a new adult book this year, I immediately decided it would be my "book published this year" for the Read Harder Challenge. And I'm not even a die-hard Judy Blume fan. Sure, I read lots of her stuff as a kid and enjoyed it, but I like her even more for her nonstop devotion to the library and literacy cause. Truth be told, I forgot she wrote an adult book once, because I never read it.

It was fated, then, that a friend works for Knopf, and one day this summer I found In the Unlikely Event sitting on my doorstop. I got to enjoy this puppy while soaking up sun on my pizza-shaped pool float and in between cat naps. (This school-schedule summer vacation really is the best.)

The premise of In the Unlikely Event is awesome, in a bit of a sadistic kind of way. Though the narrative alternates its focus between several characters, our main point of contact in this story is Miri Ammerman, a teenager in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the early 1950s. This particular winter, when Miri is fifteen and first finding herself in love, a series of plane crashes, in very short succession, rocks her town and everyone in it. This setting is based on Blume's own experiences as a teenager in shoes very similar to Miri's—at least in terms of time and place. These three plane crashes are actual events from the winter of 1951 that nearly closed Newark Airport for good. Sixty years later, it's still an unbelievable sequence of events.

That's about all the summary I need to share about this book, because that's really what the story hinges on. It's about particular people, yes, but these aren't people that are universal, able to exist in any time or place. This novel is their story in relation to these monumental, unfathomable events happening around them. At some points it feels like life is completely different for them than from before crash number one or number two; at other points, it feels like these crashes are events they witness from a distance and barely internalize, as if it happened in another place to other people. In this regard, it's difficult to really pinpoint what exactly the message is here that Blume is trying to share. Not that it needs a message, per se—perhaps it's just a portrait of an experience; but can we go so far as to call it Miri's coming-of-age, or is it just a snapshot of her life, along with so many others?

What the author was good at here was immersing the reader in the setting with details and ambiance. You can sense Blume's personal connection with the time and place, because she writes with a sense of nostalgia. The story itself opens and closes 30+ years later than the plane crashes, when characters are reuniting to commemorate the events of that terrible winter; and perhaps this contributes to the nostalgic tone—the story, within itself, is somewhat being told as a recollection. I very much enjoyed that we did get to see this peek into the future, to see how these characters turned out. It lent a "full-circle" theme to this story that ultimately just reminds us that life goes on. And while I don't believe this book is a monumental achievement, it's easy and enjoyable enough—with a unique premise that will probably inspire much Google searching—to entertain for an afternoon or two.

Disclaimer: Readers with a fear of flying should perhaps avoid this one.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fiction | The Many Pieces & Parts of Cameron Post

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I don't know where I found the suggestion to read The Miseducation of Cameron Post as the LGBT title for my Read Harder Challenge, but emily m. danforth's debut YA novel certainly surpassed any expectations I had of it. I guess I assumed it would be just a generic YA novel, but I found it to be so much more; it immediately became my favorite read of the whole year, in fact.

The story opens in 1989 when Cameron Post is a twelve-year-old living in rural Montana. It's summer, and she's spending it, as usual, with her best friend, Irene. They spend the long, broiling hot days swimming, riding bikes, and sleeping over at each others' houses. They are your typical middle school best friend duo, joined at the hip, where the line between each others' life is blurred.

All of this we learn from Cam's recollections as she paints the picture of her life as it was on the day her parents died in a car crash. Cam struggles with the death of her parents, as any preteen would, but mostly she's grateful that her parents will now never find out that she had been kissing Irene on the day of their death.

What follows is the next five years in Cameron Post's life as she deals with both devastating loss and confusion surrounding her own sexuality. To Cam, the two are inextricably linked, and though it's only by sheer coincidence, the perceived cause and effect quietly wreak havoc on her developing belief system and identity. We follow as Cam escapes one type of debilitating emotion by careening forward into another that is precariously uncertain. Life as she knew it with her undemanding, though old-fashioned, grandmother is thrown out of balance with the arrival of her over-involved conservative aunt Ruth. In an era devoid of today's prevalent LGBT movement, in a conservative town that lacks any diversity (social or otherwise), in a household run by a born-again Christian, Cam is trapped, unsure as to whether her feelings are right or wrong.

But this isn't a story about a girl who is torn apart with a lot of introspective debate on whether what she feels is enlightenment or shame. Cam just does. She test boundaries; she follows her instincts and desires. The greater her doubt and uncertainty weigh, the more reckless her behavior becomes until eventually, predictably, it all comes crashing down. At the behest of Aunt Ruth, and with no audible objection from grandma, Cam is sent to a Christian camp to "fix" her gay problem.

What astounded me about this book was its maturity of language. It never reads like standard YA-level stuff. Not only is the phrasing itself beautifully evocative, Cam's voice is written with a sort of detached sense of awareness and understanding. Though written in the first person, never does her voice become passionate one way or another—it's very matter of fact, as though she already understands the significance of her actions and feelings. This character's development is a compelling portrayal of action and consequence; the story's details are often brutal and frank, lending an honesty to Cam's experience that neither sensationalizes nor sugarcoats it. I love how we are taken through several years of Cam's life and can see how both external events and her own adolescent development play pivotal roles in the creation of Cameron Post as a person, as a woman. She is a character we want to see succeed, or prevail, or just figure it out. And though the book obviously can't continue on forever, we are shown enough to believe, at the end, that she will be okay. Despite its hot-button and potentially heavy-handed subject matter, The Miseducation of Cameron Post presents a viewpoint that leans neither one way nor the other; instead, it shares one girl's story with great candor and sincerity. It is a story very much worth experiencing that I hardly feel I am doing justice.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Reading Roundup: More Middle Grade Graphica

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As I mentioned a couple posts ago, my middle schoolers love graphic novels, and truth be told, they got me wanting to read many of them! Once last school year ended, I had a list of titles I wanted to read on my own over break, and that's just what I did at the start of summer. Raina Telgemeier's books were on that list, as well as these three:

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson came out towards the end of last year, and I rarely saw it returned long enough to actually be shelved. In it, twelve-year-old Astrid Vasquez has hit that awkward point where you suddenly seem to no longer click with your life-long best friend. Astrid has done everything with Nicole since early elementary school, including suffering through Ms. Vasquez's Evenings of Cultural Enlightenment (ECEs for short, and a small detail of this story I absolutely love), the most recent of which was a roller derby match. Astrid becomes enchanted with this sport, and assumes Nicole will be right beside her at the roller derby camp Ms. Vasquez suggests attending, but now Nicole is more into ballet and is actually friendly with their one-time sworn enemy, Rachel.

Astrid masks her hurt with a little bit of anger and extra determination, attending the camp on her own. It's hard, and she fails miserably at first, but Astrid is the kind of girl that is fueled by those failures; she's no quitter. She's realistically bratty but is also tough and resilient, which are good character traits I don't find as often in realistic middle grade fiction. This is a great story that touches on a very common part of adolescence and adolescent friendships—that people and relationships often change, and that a great deal can be learned by leaving our comfort zones.

The Jellaby series by Kean Soo has absolutely the most adorable artwork of all the graphic novels on my shelves. In the self-titled series opener, Portia has just moved into a new neighborhood and school where she doesn't really fit in. She's quiet and keeps to herself; no one makes an effort to befriend her. And at home, her father is suddenly absent, and she's adjusting to life without him. One late night, she takes a walk in the nearby woods and is followed home by a shy, gentle purple monster she names Jellaby. Life becomes much more exciting, knowing she is the sole keeper of this great secret. She also unintentionally befriends another equally shy boy named Jason, and together they begin a quest to find out where Jellaby belongs.

The story continues with Jellaby: Monster in the City, when the quest to find Jellaby's home takes the three on the train into the city. As they follow the clues, it starts to appear as though there's a rather sinister background to Jellaby's story...and somehow, Portia's dad may be involved!

These stories fall a bit into the magical realism realm. There are no identifying places or references to really ground them in a particular time or place; they exist in an entirely generic world. And truthfully, as an adult, I think they may depend on a greater degree of childhood imagination/suspension-of-belief than I possess. Each book contains such a SNIPPET of story that it's going to take several more volumes before it actually feels complete and satisfying (my same complaint with the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series). Though I loved the artwork, the story itself left me a bit clueless as to the point or where it is going.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Fiction | Lost in Love, Lost in Time

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Last spring, I was giving a historical fiction-loving friend the hard sell for Rosamunde Pilcher books when she recommended I try Diana Gabaldon's infamous Outlander series. Somewhere in the discussion we discerned that while Pilcher books look romance-y and are not, Outlander looks more historical but is very romance-y. If that makes any kind of sense.

Regardless, a chunkster time travel historical fiction romance-or-not saga seemed promising. And after, no joke, a year-long wait on the library's eBook hold list, I finally read it earlier this summer.

Outlander is old news at this point, thanks to both its recent TV adaptation and the fact that it's actually over two decades old. In the story, it's 1945 in England, and the war has just ended. Claire was a combat nurse during the way and has just been reunited with her husband Frank, a history professor. They are taking a sort of second honeymoon up in the Highlands—a spot to relax and research family history—when Claire unwittingly strolls through a circle of ancient standing stones and wakes up in the 18th century.

Thrown into the past for reasons she can't understand, Claire is met (naturally) with suspicion in an environment already plagued with conflict and deceit; the Highlands are on the cusp of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, when "Bonnie Prince Charles" tried to regain the British throne after the Stuarts' exile during the Glorious Revolution. (Whew, that took a lot of Googling to refresh my memories from AP European History.) Claire immediately encounters the story's "bad guys"—which unfortunately happen to be her present-day husband's ancestors—and is soon saved by the "good guys," a clan of proud Scottish warriors. In particular, there's the young and handsome Jamie Fraser, who is of course going to be an inconvenient love interest. (What about Frank??)

So this is the setup for a nearly-900 page saga of both historical and romantic conflict. My thoughts are going to be as brief as my summary because this book is so well-known, I don't feel it warrants an in-depth synopsis nor complicated opinions. I felt that a lot of the drama just kept repeating...many many times. There's an issue, there's some action, it gets resolved; wash, rinse, repeat.

And what my friend about its romance status is true—hellooooo steamy/explicit love scenes! I also can't really say it's the good kind, because it's pretty far in the direction of "powerless woman, conquering man" at times.

While I enjoyed the details of history, and especially the time travel component, I didn't love it. While it was an action-filled easy read, I haven't been super motivated to continue on in the series.

And also, I may or may not have Googled summaries of the sequels to save myself 8000 more pages. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Reading Roundup: The Raina Telgemeier Collection

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The kids at my school love graphic novels. I mean love. Our graphic novel collection was pretty sparse when I entered the school last year, and I spent a good chuck of money buying any graphic novel that seemed appropriate for middle school aged kids—anything and everything just to fill those shelves. What I found was that when the kids find one they like, they want 17 more just like it. It was the series the were incredibly popular, and those award-winning standalone books notable in the adult/librarian community, like Anya's Ghost and American Born Chinese, did not get nearly the same attention as action/fantasy series like Maximum Ride, Bone, Amulet, Artemis Fowl, Zita the Spacegirl, The Elsewhere Chronicles...I could go on.

The exception I found was with Raina Telgemeier's three titles: Smile, Sisters, and Drama. These three stories, though each a standalone in terms of story, are so similar in style that kids view them as a set--and chances are if they like one, they will like the others.

  • Telgemeier's first published graphic novel, Smile, is a memoir of her own awkward middle school years when an injury to her two front teeth leaves her dealing with an excessive amount of painful, annoying dentistry for most of her adolescent years—as if being 13 wasn't hard enough!  
  • Drama tells the story of theater tech nerd Callie, who has always preferred being on stage crew to being center stage. It's the story of a girl who blossoms in a typically-outsider group, a reminder that everyone can find their own place and community. 
  • In the recently-published Sisters, the author returns to her own life to chronicle the seemingly-never-ending conflict between herself and her sister, Amara. They're totally opposite and never get along, but knowing they are sisters, after all, they know they're going to have to make it work.

In a genre/style that seems to have few stories based in true middle school reality, Telgemeier fills this much needed gap in the graphic novel genre. These are stories to which girls can relate with everyday problems and dramas, same as they would enjoy other realistic series like Dork Diaries or Dear Dumb Diary. The plots are simple; the interactions are common; the humor is level-appropriate; and the art is colorful and appealing. One of my proudest moment last year was watching an 8th grade girl, the only student in her class to not read a single book during our month-long reading incentive program, sit and read Sisters in one sitting then tell me all about it.

I think these are great books to grab a reluctant female reader, especially the older ones, to prove that reading doesn't always have to be a long-winded chapter book; it can be light and enjoyable, and Telgemeier's books are a great entryway into a new format of story they may find they love.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Fiction | Secrets of a Life Well-Lived

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In following the theme of my last post, Rosamunde Pilcher is another author to whom I should apologize, because The Shell Seekers is another book I read long ago that has just been sitting quietly since, waiting to be doted upon. I've written several times before about my love for Ms. Pilcher's cozy, light-hearted family dramas, but somehow my first few encounters with this author never included her most well-known, popular work. This I finally amended several months ago.

Pilcher had written several novels before The Shell Seekers was published in 1987, but this was the one that propelled her name to notoriety amongst women readers in the 80s and 90s. I can imagine, at the time, she was a staple of grocery store book aisles, because the only versions I ever see of Pilcher titles are mass market paperbacks with flowery covers that currently cost between 10 and 20 cents at a local used bookstore—my good fortune!

The Shell Seekers centers around the life of Penelope Keeling. In present-day, she's an older woman that has recently suffered a mild heart attack, leaving her three children in various states of concern. Though the reader is quickly taken with this strong, witty, independent woman, the same cannot be said of this woman's progeny. The children differ from each other as much as they differ from their mother. The eldest, Nancy, comes off as a selfish but needy woman who seeks validation in appearance and status. Noel, the only son, is helplessly immature and generally self-serving in all actions and motivations. Olivia, the youngest, is the only redeeming one; she dutifully handles her siblings with a watchful and wary eye and is the only one that does not treat Penelope as though some great injustice was suffered in childhood that demands some sort of present-day retribution.

The main source of conflict in this story spawns from Penelope's prized possession, a painting called The Shell Seekers, painted by her posthumously famous father. All the memories and stories of her unconventional life, from a bohemian childhood to a young adulthood transformed by WWII, are captured in the essence of this seminal work of art. Naturally, with their grandfather's paintings now fetching so much at the auction houses, Nancy and Noel are eager for their mother to reap the rewards—rewards they will eventually reap as well through their assumed inheritance. The meat of this book, though, takes us through Penelope's expansive life and the pieces that define her as a woman, separate from any version familiar to her children.

Like all my encounters with Pilcher, this was a reading experience I didn't want to end. The worlds she creates are full of characters you want to really know (and some you unfortunately have to know), and she reminds you that it's the people that can bring the most joy and meaning to a life. I particularly enjoyed the character of Penelope, because it seems easy to forget—as a child—that a woman has more to her than the side her children see. Penelope, to me, was a reminder that people carry more history, more stories than the parts you know or see. 

Pilcher is a nostalgic, sentimental softy whose stories appeal to those like me who can curl up in the comfort of memories. I think I will love her books more the older I get, but I'm pretty sure I would've loved them as a teenager, too. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fiction | Ebbs and Flows of Small-Town Lives

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To Nickolas Butler, I must apologize.

I read his bestselling novel debut Shotgun Lovesongs too, too long ago (erm, Spring Break?). I loved it; I recommended it to others; and I never wrote about it beyond a two-sentence comment on Goodreads. So much time has now passed that I feel I will inevitably do this book a great injustice with my comments/review, now at this late date. It has, after all, somewhat faded from memory over the past five months.

I do apologize, but this I do promise: in the following review, I have researched and refreshed my memory as much as possible to give a fair representation of my feelings immediately after my initial reading of this book.

And so...

The story centers around one small Wisconsin town, Little Wing, and a group of four men that have shared their lives together since adolescence. Ronny was the local boy destined for big things; he found fame and success on the rodeo circuit for a while, but alcohol ultimately led to his downfall, and an accident under the influence left him a little more simple in the brain than he once was. Kip left for big-city Chicago, but returned to Little Wing after nearly a decade's success in business. He's returning home with big ideas and big dollars to revitalize the little town that gave him life, but the lifestyle he learned in Chicago has put a wall between him and his more modestly earning friends that never left. Lee is the famed son of Little Wing, a world-famous musician that has never lost his country roots. Little Wing remains his hideout from the chaos of fame—the one place he never has to use a stage name.

At the center of this story is Henry—the every man who enjoys a simple life with his family, good beer, and good friends. Henry is the solid rock, mirroring Little Wing itself—steady and consistent, almost traditional, as others around him move out, move on, and evolve. He and Lee have the closest bond, and it's probably thanks to the stability of Henry and Little Wing that Lee is able to survive in a world so unlike the one he is used to; Henry is grounding.

And then there is Beth, Henry's wife, the woman who has been there for it all from carefree underage days of sneaking booze to the rigor and routine of adulthood. Beth is the powerful force in this story, able to hold together the pieces of tumultuous lives and relationships to keep them all from crumbling.

These characters are so vastly different from one another, but their shared history is a bond that doesn't seem to break; it keeps their lives, though usually contrasting from one another, deeply interwoven. Butler manages to create very real conflict without any sense of melodrama, and because of this, there's a huge sense of relatability and universality. To maintain this plain-spoken tone throughout, despite a beautiful sometimes-lyrical style of writing, is a testament to the author's skilled and purposeful use of language.

I find Shotgun Lovesongs to be a very American novel at its core. The world of these characters and their relationships are a quintessential local experience, reflecting strong traditional values of community and family. I loved learning what made these characters tick, how their lives would unfold as information was revealed. Ultimately, what I loved about this book was how beautifully it described the universal experience of everyday living.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 8

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As I write this, I am enjoying my very last weekend of summer vacation. I can't really complain that school is about to start again; I have enjoyed over 9 solid weeks of vacation already, and that's nothing to scoff at!

Last school year was spent working my way through our 20-title Battle of the Books list, along with any other random popular middle grade reads that caught my eye. And though I do really love the middle grade collection, I was starting to feel trapped in a pre-teen world. Summer, then, has been a great opportunity to finally make some headway on my Read Harder Challenge list, enjoying some adult books once again! I've already posted a few of those, and I have a few more in the works, but for now, enjoy this concluding (for now) chapter of middle grade titles!

Title: How They Choked: Failures, Flops, and Flaws of the Awfully Famous
Author: Georgia Bragg
Genre: History, Biography
Read If You Like...: Brief history lessons, stories told with snark, and hearing about other people's flaws
Three-Sentence Thoughts: The lives and mishaps of famous figures in history such as Marco Polo, Isaac Newton, and Amelia Earhart are shared in this collection of short biographies. Written with a light-hearted, sometimes scathing sense of humor, this book ultimately aims to remind readers that these mythic figures were, ultimately, entirely human. As an adult, I am certain these fairly unflattering brief bios leave out many details, but they may appeal to history fans or readers with short attention spans.

Title: Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Author: Julie T. Lamana
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Read If You Like...: Stories of disaster, stories of survival, stories of family
Three-Sentence Thoughts: All Armani can think about is her 10th birthday party, but, unfortunately, a hurricane named Katrina is going to shake up her 10th year, changing Armani's life in ways she never would have expected. This is probably the darkest, most serious middle grade book I've encountered, heavy with themes of loss, survival, family, and hope. Despite its 10-year-old protagonist, I would probably recommend it to an older middle schooler or teen reader.

Title: The Witch's Boy
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Genre: Fantasy
Read If You Like...: Fairy tales, the conflicted duo dynamic, and stories about young heroes
Three-Sentence Thoughts: After Ned's identical brother drowns in a rafting accident that could've killed both of them, Ned grows up retreating into silence as the community languishes the fact that perhaps the wrong twin lived. Ned learns, though, that he has been fated to protect a powerful magic, and his only hope may lie with the daughter of the very bandit trying to steal it. This book wasn't totally my cup of tea, but fairy tale or fantasy fans may find it adventurously endearing.

Title: The Penderwicks in Spring
Author: Jeanne Birdsall
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Read If You Like...: Stories about siblings, daily dramas, and innocent childhood fun
Three-Sentence Thoughts: This fourth installment in the Penderwick series jumps a few years later, putting the once-baby Batty and Ben in center stage. With half the Penderwick sisters off at college, this story is told through the eyes of Batty as she works to earn money for singing lessons, her voice being a newfound talent. Definitely darker in theme, handling more serious topics as the youngest Penderwick comes into her own, this is another delightful book in the series, though it lacks the complete Penderwick sister dynamic present in the previous three.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Nonfiction | Tales from the Road

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My first encounter with travel writer William Least Heat-Moon was through his well-known Blue Highways, a travelogue covering the backroads of America in the late 1970s. I never knew until recently just how well-known that book actually is. I thought he was some obscure writer I had uncovered by happenstance.

What I've learned since is that Heat-Moon has been doing this kind of exploring his whole life. He's made a career out of it, actually (essentially my dream job, should this whole librarian thing not work out). The more-recently published (2013) Here, There, Elsewhere: Stories from the Road is a collection of essays he's compiled from his life on the road over the past 30+ years. They range in topic from persons to places to events to abstract ramblings, but this is Heat-Moon's life, told 2,500 words at a time.

For an author like Heat-Moon, this has got to be an ideal, dream project. It's an opportunity to share all your work in your own forum, freeing the writing of any unwanted constraints placed by editors, with the space available to reflect or share context previously unknown. Heat-Moon is not a writer for the masses; his experiences are not dumbed down for a general audience. He writes with an intricate use of language, preferring big words over small to the point that sometimes a dictionary is a necessary accompaniment to his writing. But I don't get the sense that he's thumbing through a thesaurus for words with more syllables; rather, if he doesn't just naturally use such sophisticated language, I imagine he's actually doing semi-extensive research to find the very best word to capture exactly what he means. And when language is used in such a way, it's quite powerful and quite beautiful.

Few, if any, of these essays felt arduous to finish. I did, though, find several worthy enough to highlight and share:

"A Glass of Handmade" chronicles a search for quality beer in a time when large corporations had nearly completely absorbed small American breweries. The piece is originally from the mid-1980s when Lite beer was being forced upon consumers, changing the face of the beer industry. Heat-Moon and his companion, "the Venerable Tashmoo," embarked on a quest to find microbreweries that still reflected local traditions and culture in beer brewing. This is a fascinating piece, especially considering the massive trend back towards craft beer since its original publication. [Available online here.]

"A Little Tour in Yoknapatawpha County" shares an early experience with exploration when Heat-Moon journeyed through northern Mississippi—Oxford, to be precise—to find William Faulkner. This was back in 1961, when Faulkner was still alive and living at his famed Rowan Oak. Heat-Moon's hunt for the story behind the story man inspired my own visit to Rowan Oak during a recent roadtrip through Mississippi's Delta region.

"Wandering Yosemite" highlights the conflicting nature of our most majestic public spaces—at the same time, presenting an uninhibited, untouched depiction of the great scope of our local nature while providing the familiar modern comforts to the park's visitors. Can you truly experience the unbelievable without leaving your car? A great thought-provoking piece.

"Into the Antipodes" takes Heat-Moon on an all-expenses-paid trip to New Zealand where he discovers the local culture and wildlife. He captures the vastness of diversity—in landscape, wildlife, and custom—that is remarkably housed in such a small spread of land. Having recently been to New Zealand myself, this was particularly relatable and enjoyable.

And finally, "Not Far Out of Tullahoma" is an ode to the open road, sharing the American passion for the road and how it's ingrained in our blood and our national identity. Sharing the beginning of his own love affair with exploration, Heat-Moon highlights the growing trend in American vacations—where destinations draw tourists, veering away from the journeys that inspire travelers. This is an amazing piece that demonstrates the connection between us and transportation, and how this connection has evolved to change our habits and culture.

To me, Heat-Moon represents arm-chair travel at its very best, where it's not just about taking the snapshot to capture what you've seen but to capture the entire experience—to see and do and learn and think and reflect—and determine what it means.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Nonfiction | Agonizing Over Adulthood

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In case you haven't noticed, my year has been filled with a lot of middle grade reading—fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, anything. When the next on my reading challenge list was a graphic novel, any graphic novel, it would've been easy to just pick up one of the gazillion young titles on my library shelves, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to enjoy a graphic story from a more adult voice.

The book I chose is Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz. She's the creator of The Fart Party, which the back of the book tells me is a cult-hit comic. Drinking at the Movies is her first full-length memoir, which chronicles the year she left her home in San Francisco and moved to New York.

There are a lot of such stories out there. Twenty-somethings move to the big city for an experience, or some kind of personal test, and it's so unlike any other experience that they, of course, document it. So there's that kind of story—first adventures/disasters/disillusions with New York City. Then there's the stories of just 20-somethings themselves—lost in life, often trying to find themselves by losing a familiar geographic sense of comfort. I guess you could consider Drinking at the Movies both of these things, but Wertz doesn't strike me as a narrator that a) takes herself too seriously, b) takes what she says too seriously, and c) ponders these experiences as big, serious life-defining moments.

In a sense, her attitude was very refreshing. In another sense, her attitude reeked of a lackadaisical "I can screw up because I'm 24, so I won't worry about my choices." Like most folks of her age and situation, Wertz drinks too much; she doesn't feel like an adult and scoffs at the idea with humor, rather than trying to evolve into it; she doesn't think of her future in a serious sort of way—it's more an immediate future worrying, not long-term thinking. It's unclear whether New York was her long-term plan or just a whim, but it was her first important step towards a more grown-up future. There are so many similar stories of people around this age doing just this, because this step outside of one's comfort zone is so developmentally significant, and can be equally as life-affirming.

Regardless of whether it's a new story or one told a thousand times before, I thought Wertz was hilarious. The structure of this book is very much short, anecdotal comics thrown together to tell a complete story. In that sense, it's a great one to read in brief spurts, though I read it basically in one sitting. She's self-critical while avoiding the self-critique that requires loads of self-reflection. Whether she's telling stories of encounters with the homeless, the days she's lost jobs, the excessive amount of junk she eats, or her drug-addicted brother's bouts in and out of rehab, Wertz writes about her life with a "HERE IT IS" attitude—and she does it with such wit that you figure she must be that great kind of sardonic storyteller in real life. Or at least that friend you can count on for a great one-liner, said under her breath, at the best moment of any situation.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Fiction | Finding Identity in a War-Torn Spain

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I recognized it too: it was Virginia's dog. "Haven't you got old, Oki!" I exclaimed. When I looked at the hills, time seemed not to have passed; when I looked at my mother or my face in the mirror, it seemed to be passing only slowly; but the message written on the dog left no room for illusions. Time was inflicting terrible damage, it was destroying life.

The Accordionist's Son by Bernardo Atxaga is my translated pick for the Read Harder Challenge. The author was born in the Basque country and continues to write in his native language. Though I am familiar with its designation as a language, I don't know much about what "Basque" actually entails, geographically, culturally, or linguistically. From what I can gather, it is a rural language unrelated to neighboring Spanish or French. It is technically defined as an ethnic group, existing as regions in a handful of countries. Politically, they seem to enjoy some level of autonomy in their home countries, though, without going into extensive research, I get the sense it's a history peppered with frequent conflict surrounding political rights and cultural identities.

Anyway, back to the book.

It's 1999, and a fifty-something-year-old Joseba is recalling the first day of school back in 1957 when his friend David, the accordionist's son, is corralled by the new teacher into playing a tune during introductions. David, though, is now dead, and his wife Mary Ann presents Joseba with a small book written by David in his native Basque language—his memoirs, published with a 3-copy print run. Once Joseba reads it, these stories and memories of their native land, he is inspired to write his own book based on David's words, rewritten and expanded. It's a project born of love and shared experience, and especially the need to bring these stories to light, freed from the constraints of a dying language.

David's memoirs begin with his adolescence in Obaba, a rural village in Spain that, in the 1960s and 1970s, felt other-wordly; it had not yet caught up with the modernization of the rest of the country and rest of the world. David had a penchant for the rural life—a life of land and animals. It conflicted with the life being forced upon him—school in the city with other local boys, accordion lessons to preserve traditions. He much prefers life with rural friends and the horses at the country house often inhabited by his uncle Juan.

This escape to the country mirrors David's escape from the conflicts of real life, of the knowledge and realism that comes with growing up. It gets harder to ignore as he gets older, and in his later adolescence, David finds himself drawn into the residual conflict from the Spanish Civil War. Their town is very near Guernica, and the death and destruction that happened there is a memory still fresh on the minds of the locals. When a friend shares some found letters that involve David's father and his dubious role in the war, David struggles with the idea that his father was, and remains, one of the bad guys, causing the loss of innocence that he so desperately longs for. Once his eyes are open to the presence of these political sides—the us vs. them, or good vs. bad—still present in his community, it's all David can see, all he can think about. This intoxication leads him to declare allies and enemies and guides his actions and decisions that ultimately define his entire young adult life.

It is an interesting concept and structure—an individual's memoir written with another person's words. We have no way of knowing the "true" David, or how much of himself Joseba inserted in David's original stories. We can only rely on the words we can see and must trust that Joseba remained true to David's original work and voice. The book's actual author, Atxaga, depends greatly on environment to define his characters—landscape, history, individual experience. Much of the growth we see in David is dependent on his interaction with others, but not just those isolated interactions—how they connect to the larger world, informing or enlightening. The plot itself goes in unexpected places, though I'm not sure I could define any expectations I had in the first place. Though it certainly has a specific historical presence, grounded in the conflict and aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, I think it's ultimately the story of what shaped this one man, the things that defined him and constructed his identity.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 7

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Title: The Night Gardener
Author: Jonathan Auxier
Genre: Fantasy, Horror
Read If You Like...: A creepy Victorian-era setting, Edgar Allen Poe, and old episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Molly and Kip are two Irish orphans that have taken up employment and residence at the creepy Windsor house in unfamiliar England. It becomes very clear that something isn't right when the strange family that lives there appears more sickly by the day, strange noises are heard from upstairs, and an unwelcome guest seems to be lurking throughout the house at night. Peppered with magic and mystery, this creepy gothic tale is both a nail-biting mystery and a harrowing lesson on the power of greed.

Title: A Snicker of Magic
Author: Natalie Lloyd
Genre: Magical Realism
Read If You Like...: Quirky small-town settings, stories sprinkled with a bit of the unbelievable (ie: Mary Poppins), and eccentric words
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Felicity Juniper Pickle (yes, that is her name) has moved nearly every year of her life, thanks to a mother with a "wandering heart," but landing in Midnight Gulch finally feels like home for the first time in quite a while. Felicity soon discovers that the once-magical Midnight Gulch has a colorful history, and, with the town's cast of eccentric characters, she sets about unlocking the mystery and bringing the magic back. This book just ooooozes saccharine sweetness that will be cloying to some and endearing to others.

Title: Saving Lucas Biggs
Author: Marisa de los Santos
Genre: Adventure
Read If You Like...: Time travel adventures, stories told through multiple perspectives, and quests for justice
Three-Sentence Thoughts: In 2014, Margaret's father is unjustly sentenced to death by one crotchety old Mr. Biggs. Blessed (or cursed?) with an inherited ability to time travel, Margaret elicits the help of her friend Charlie to embark on an adventure back to the pivotal days of Judge Biggs' youth in 1938 to prevent the chain of events that led to his eventual corruption. A strong example of storytelling, adventure, and moral dilemma, this story reminds readers that every one has a story and actions have the power to change history.

Title: Boys of Blur
Author: N.D. Wilson
Genre: Fantasy (??)
Read If You Like...: Family drama, small-town football culture, and zombie attacks (??)
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Charlie moves with his mom, step-dad, and sister to Taper, Florida, the kind of small town where the football team gets practice by chasing rabbits through the swamp as the sugarcane fields burn. It seems like a weird place, but then Charlie and his cousin Mack start to discover some dangerous secrets about the muck and the town that are nearly as old as time itself. I'm really trying to do this book some justice, but to be honest, it was really confusing and apparently based on Beowulf, which would explain my feelings because I also hated that when I read it in high school, but you can always just try it for yourself because it has a lot of serious fans on Goodreads.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Nonfiction | How to Be Happy, in 22 Easy Steps!

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The Read Harder Challenge lists a "self-improvement" book as one of its categories. Erm, self-help? Not really my cup of tea. Self-reflection is great and all, but I'm certain there are more theories on how to live than there are people who are living. When it comes to advice, everyone's got an opinion. How can one generic way of living work for everyone when we are all so uniquely individual?

I understand that is probably not the point of self-help books. I understand the advice shared by all these "expert" authors is adaptable and may not be 100% applicable to every life. But, I still just try and figure things out for myself and base my life's direction on experience or the experiences of my nearest and dearest. I thought the quest for a book to fit this category would be difficult, but I was pleasantly surprised in stumbling upon Linda Leaming's A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up.

Happiness is probably the number one thing I strive for—the attribute at the top of my "values" list. The same apparently goes for Linda Leaming. She pared down her cluttered, stressful, American life and embraced a rugged, simplistic one up in the Himalayas. In Bhutan, there is less stuff, fewer stressors, and a general positive vibe; it is the place, after all, that puts a higher premium on its Gross National Happiness than its Gross National Product.

Leaming shares with the reader 22 short snippets of advice—the answers she has found through her experiences in Bhutan that will, if followed, leave us healthy, relaxed, and appreciative. Ultimately, these things are necessary for happiness! Simple formula, yes? 

The author's list spawns from experience and is shared through anecdotes. The inefficiency (by American standards) of bank transactions forced the author to "Calm Down;" "Kindness Will Save Us" and our patience when dealing with customer service during infuriating situations; additional contributions from strangers in a store after purchasing a homeless man clothing proves that "Generosity is Contagious." 

The good thing about Leaming's advice is that it's not so much a specific way of doing things; each chapter highlights a small shift in thinking that Leaming believes will balance one's mental state and lead to a happier state of being. It's clear her experiences in Bhutan were real eye openers. To be out of one's comfort zone and away from the usual way of doing things—whether it be in a new office environment or overseas in an entirely different culture—is to experience life with fresh eyes; it often takes such a jolt to recognize those norms we take for granted. While Leaming's advice is based on the lifestyle differences she noticed living in Bhutan, ones deeply tied to the country's Buddhist mindset, they are universal. Once recognized, you can take them anywhere.

I have to say, I really enjoyed this jaunt into the "self-help" realm. I've found myself referring to the counsel Leaming preaches, not only in my own musings but in real-life situations that have arisen. I imagine a cynic could read this as an ostentatious statement on how we're all "doing it wrong" over here in Western culture, but that angle is one of arrogance (Chapter 21: "Check Your Ego"). The whole point of this book is that we can learn from each other, our neighbors near and far. And if we remove ourselves, however temporarily, from our normal way of thinking, we may discover something new that can change us for the better.

Other than the small pieces of advice I briefly mentioned above, I decided to jot down my biggest takeaways, because great power lies in awareness. (And maybe if they're summarized, they'll be easier to remember.)

Kari's Abbreviated Guide to Happiness:
  1. Think about the unthinkable; embrace your fears and move beyond them.
  2. Never stop; let it flow.
  3. Embrace equanimity; move to the middle path.
  4. Wake up; see things as they really are.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 6

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Despite their wildly different format, these three books from our city-wide Battle of the Books list each tell the story of boys who are growing up, gaining a better understanding of themselves and the world around them. Potentially enjoyed by all, but especially geared towards a male audience!

Title: The Dumbest Idea Ever
Author: Jimmy Gownley
Genre: Graphic Novel, Memoir
Read If You Like...: A flawed protagonist, underdog stories, and realistic boy humor
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Thirteen-year-old Jimmy is rockin' middle school until a bout of the chicken pox and pneumonia forces him to miss his championship basketball game. Everything—his academic and social life—goes in a downward spiral after that, but a burgeoning love of comic books may be just the thing that saves him from teenage disaster. This humorous story of how Jimmy went from basketball star to comic book artist will especially appeal to boys.

Title: The Madman of Piney Woods
Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
Genre: Historical Fiction
Read If You Like...: Adventure tales, unlikely duos, and heartfelt friendships
Three-Sentence Thoughts: A chance encounter between Benji and Red, two exceedingly different boys, leads to an adventure neither of them could have expected. The two are on a mission to discover the true story behind the "Madman of Piney Woods," but the real story is in their growing friendship despite very different lives. This story is a good reminder of the various issues that have affected different groups of people throughout history and how people are often more similar than different.

Title: The Crossover
Author: Kwame Alexander
Genre: Sports (Realistic), Poetry
Read If You Like...: Stories about siblings, competitive sports, and the magic of words
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Josh and Jordan are twins that have always been a duo on the court and off, but Josh is starting to notice that things are changing...and he may not be ready for it. Jordan is chasing girls and crushing it on the court, and Josh is just trying to deal with feeling like second fiddle. Beautifully told through a creative verse format, The Crossover broaches significant subject matter with considerable style—highly appealing to the most reluctant of boy readers.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Nonfiction | Hodgepodged Humor from a Comedy Queen

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Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Category: An audiobook

The Read Harder challenge I am undertaking (ha, remember that? Back in February??) lists an audiobook as one of its categories. Frankly, I'm not really an audiobook fan. The couple that I've listened to have just bored me stiff; I keep thinking, "I could be reading this myself WAY faster," and I generally end up falling asleep. I know, I know... It just means I'm not the greatest listener, and I fully admit that. It requires practice, and I'll work on that.

For this challenge, though, I figured that I'd better at least choose an audiobook with an interesting narrator (because I know that can make or break it), so Amy Poehler's Yes Please, narrated by the author herself, seemed like the perfect choice.

Yes Please is diverse little book. It's sort of like a memoir, mixed with some grand advice, peppered with humorous lists, and with a few guest authors (and narrators) thrown in. She covers her first forays into acting and improv, details how to apologize from your heart instead of your ego, chronicles the drastic changes parenthood brings to life (including an especially funny letter about a birth plan), recollects favorite career moments, and offers sound advice for aging—among other things. Of course, because it's Poehler, it's all generally told with a sense of humor, but it never feels like it was written just to be funny. It's a little bit all over the place, so it's hard, ultimately, to see what exactly its purpose is. It's like she was presented with the opportunity to write to a mass audience...and this book is the hodgepodge result of all the things she wanted to say. Is it comedy? Is it a memoir? Is it self-help? Does it matter?

I'm still up in the air as to whether the audiobook made my experience with this book better or worse. On the one hand, I love Poehler on the stage (err, screen). I love her as a performer, so there's a good chance that hearing her talk was going to entertain me. Plus, the smorgasbord format of this book also lent itself to a very casual narration that was really enhanced by special guests. On the other hand, I've shared how quickly memoirs are falling out of my favor...and at times I was a little bit squeamish just hearing the author talk about herself. But, there's a good chance that's just me and my extreme tendency towards self-effacement. [It hits that same nerve as watching a talent show; it just makes me so uncomfortable.]

The hard part of listening to an audiobook for me, a visual learner, is that I can't make the physical references to words on a page—and if there's a part I want to remember, it's much harder to make it stick because I don't know where to go back for a second look. [Interesting note, though: I listened to half of this while running, and I could remember where exactly on the trail I was at certain spots in the narration. Fascinating new kind of mental referencing.]

Anyway, here is the takeaway that I remembered to come back and find online because I thought it was a good nugget to keep.

Advice from the future 90-year-old Amy Poehler to her current self:

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 5

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Title: Revolution
Author: Deborah Wiles
Genre: Historical fiction
Read If You Like...: Stories told from various perspectives, narratives on the Civil Rights movement, books with a unique format
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Revolution tells the story of Freedom Summer as hundreds of people flood the town of Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1964 to help register voters, and to twelve-year-old Sunny, these "invaders" just add chaos to her already crazy life with a new step-mom and siblings. When a chance encounter pitches Sunny to the forefront of small-town race relations, she shows the reader what it's like to finally understand what's happening around you and how it's not always easy to stand up for what's right. This story shares an important moment in history using a creative format of text and image that can be highly impactful to the right reader.

Title: Dangerous
Author: Shannon Hale
Genre: Sci-fi
Read If You Like...: Quick-paced action stories, superhero squads, and sci-fi space odysseys
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Science-nerd Maisie's dream comes true when she wins a trip to Astronaut Camp from a cereal box contest. Unfortunately, camp gets more complicated when Maisie's team unintentionally absorbs alien superpowers and find themselves in grave danger--both from these alien parasites and the bad guys trying to take these powers for themselves. I found this book just TOO ABSURDLY RIDICULOUS to follow with any level of enjoyment, but several boys at my school were I guess it does have an audience.

Title: Loot
Author: Jude Watson
Genre: Action/Adventure
Read If You Like...: Ocean's 11-esque adventures, international capers, stories about kids leading lives that seem much more adult than adolescent
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Loot opens like an old Hitchcock movie (think To Catch a Thief...) as a notorious jewel thief falls from a rooftop and imparts some cryptic dying words to the person below. That person just happened to be his son, March, who then embarks on his own adventurous heist, following his father's clues, where the outcome is either riches and freedom or certain death. An often-funny, entertaining read with enjoyable characters that will surely keep kids wrapped up in the adventure.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Revisiting Potter, Part 6: The Half-Blood Prince

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Hey, remember back when I was on a roll re-reading all the Harry Potter books? (Yea, I barely do too.) After a long hiatus and only two left in the series, I picked back up with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, another doozy of a novel clocking in at over 600 pages.

This sixth installment opens with a terribly ominous tone. You can feel it in the air. And the first thing we see is an odd interaction between Snape and some Death Eaters, during which he makes an Unbreakable Vow to protect Draco Malfoy as he carries out his mission from Voldemort... whatever that may be.

We finally meet up with Harry when Dumbledore collects him from Privet Drive and takes him on a visit to an old friend, Horace Slughorn, with the objective of getting Slughorn on staff at Hogwarts. We learn that Slughorn is a piece of the Tom Riddle/Voldemort puzzle, and Dumbledore believes it absolutely essential to learn whatever memories Slughorn is hiding.

And that's how the rest of The Half-Blood Prince plays out. It's an increasingly difficult puzzle that we must solve. Rowling advances the story by leaps and bounds with this novel by providing essential pieces of backstory that give explanation and by establishing the plot of where Harry's story needs to go from here. I don't think any of the other books have contained so much as this one, or been as necessary to the overall story.

I remember, when reading this book for the very first time, that this was the one that blew my mind, that made me really trust Rowling as an author who has a story to tell and is telling it in a very smart, calculated way. At this point, I had no doubt that Rowling knew how she was going to end Harry's story, and she was using her pages wisely to build up to it. It's like with good television, when they're writing with an end in mind and everything matters. Because the opposite is bad television, where they've been unnecessarily renewed and suddenly have to add episodes and plot points and, as a whole, it feels neither smart nor consistent nor necessary. The whole concept of the Horcruxes just clicked so hard with me that I felt like everything Rowling had written so far had been leading up to this, and she knew how it was all going to work out, and I still had this wonderful puzzle of a plot left to enjoy.

The characters, though always growing and evolving, really mature in Half-Blood Prince. Emotions are not only heightened by the dire situation at hand, but also because we're still dealing with kids—really, adolescents—who are still figuring out themselves and their relationships with others. Rowling never lets us forget that, and in this one we see it especially through the relationships of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny. Our characters are also figuring out the world around them, and this entire plot, with Harry investigating Voldemort's past, helps him understand that many facets build a person; no person is simple, and every one is entirely human.

Note: I've been watching the movies alongside reading the books—several of them I had never actually seen—and it's doing wonders with helping me remember the details of each book--something I had previously forgotten entirely! Also, I have literally been trying to type this review for at least 2 weeks. Let's just cheer that today, on the second-to-last day of school, I finally finished it! So much more reading and writing to come! Finally!