Tag Archives: #FridayReads

Friday Reads: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was banned or challenged in several communities. ALA’s Banned Book Spotlight quotes a complaint from one of the challengers, highlighting “shocking words of profanity, sexual innuendo and violence”. A reviewer on Goodreads recommends the book for older audiences because she is “all for letting kids enjoy their innocence for as long as possible”. This book does have adult themes, including alcoholism and child abuse, with the constant bitterness of death glaring between the pages.

Parents and schools can try to ban books and protect innocent minds. However, we cannot ban reservations to protect the innocent. For many kids living in these areas, life is not appropriate for a young adult audience. What is the alternative to life? We have a theme.

How do I know about reservation life? My dad is from the Bad River Band of Chippewa in Wisconsin. I grew up hearing the myths and legends of an amazing culture. The myths are better than the reality of that reservation. Poverty runs rampant, and alcohol and drugs are the strong thematic elements that propel many people through the day. The ones who leave the reservation are challenged to change their way of life. Reservations are often a small, tight-knit community. Leaving is traitorous. Leaving can mean you are no longer Indian. It’s like saying your skin changes color as soon as you cross the border. Not everyone thinks this way, and not every reservation is the same. But I’ve seen it often enough.

I didn’t grow up on the reservation. I grew up with the aftermath. That is another story. We’re here to talk about Junior, a Spokane Indian born with brain damage to alcoholic parents. He’s the protagonist of The Absolutely True Diary. This is the story of how he leaves the reservation by attending an all-white rural school, 22 miles from the reservation. He hitchhikes his way to school and back, catching fire and vitriol on both ends.

Yet he is determined to break free and make change happen. I’ve read the book, and concur that it is absolutely true. Change can be like raking over hot coals. The humor and cartoons make the pain bearable. Humor is the collection of small respites necessary to drive change to fruition. If you want to bear witness to the truth of life, laid bare by a teenage protagonist, please read this book. Read deeply, and take the wise words of a teenage Indian living through real, thematic elements: “Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community”.

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Friday Reads: The Little Book of Big Feelings: an Illustrated Exploration of Life’s Many Emotions by Maureen “Marzi” Wilson

Being the good reader that I am every holiday season I make sure to include books on my gift list. (Yes, my family still does Christmas lists but that’s a story for another time.) Sometimes I’ll ask for the latest hot fiction title, or I might want a larger coffee table book that I’ve had my eye on but couldn’t justify the price. This year though I went with something small enough to fit in my stocking.

The Little Book of Big Feelings is authored and illustrated by Marzi Wilson, creator of “Introvert Doodles”. If you’ve ever wondered about the care and feeding of your fellow introvert, or are one yourself, I highly recommend checking her out. She has a lovely little Instagram page, perfect material to scroll through when that party gets to be a bit to much and you’re taking a moment to yourself behind a potted plant. She has three other books, as well, including an activity book!

This latest book takes a look at those big feelings we all get, joy, sadness, anger and so on, how they may look different to an introvert and, greatest of all, how to deal with them. Reading this book is a great way to get perspective on those emotions and even to start processing and accepting them. Each section deals with one particular emotion in small cartoons as well as meatier parts dealing with they psychology behind them. This is a fun and easy to grasp little book that, while slightly geared towards adults, would totally be useful for those fun balls of emotions that are teens.

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Friday Reads: Nebraska During the New Deal–The Federal Writers’ Project in the Cornhusker State by Marilyn Irvin Holt

I don’t generally read a lot of non-fiction, but occasionally I come across a title that really catches my Nebraska history eye: Nebraska During the New Deal : the Federal Writers Project in the Cornhusker State. And for those not already familiar with the writing of Marilyn Irvin Holt (The Orphan Trains, Children Of the Western Plains, and others), her meticulous research and insightful writing never disappoints. I highly recommend her newest title as another excellent example of the history of Nebraska and the Nebraska spirit.

As a New Deal program, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) aimed to put unemployed writers, teachers, and librarians to work. The contributors were to collect information, write essays, conduct interviews, and edit material with the goal of producing guidebooks in each of the then forty-eight states and U.S. territories. Project administrators hoped that these guides, known as the American Guide Series, would promote a national appreciation for America’s history, culture, and diversity and preserve democracy at a time when militarism was on the rise and parts of the world were dominated by fascism.

Marilyn Irvin Holt focuses on the Nebraska project, which was one of the most prolific branches of the national program. Best remembered for its state guide and series of folklore and pioneer pamphlets, the project also produced town guides, published a volume on African Americans in Nebraska, and created an ethnic study of Italians in Omaha. In Nebraska during the New Deal Holt examines Nebraska’s contribution to the project, both in terms of its place within the national FWP as well as its operation in comparison to other state projects.  (University of Nebraska Press)

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Friday Reads: A Keeper by Graham Norton

I discovered Graham Norton watching his talk show on BBC America many years ago. I downloaded his latest novel, A Keeper, looking forward to another story set in Ireland where Norton was born and raised. A Keeper begins with Elizabeth Keene, a college professor living in New York City, separated from her husband, raising their 17-year-old son on her own. She returns to the house of her recently deceased mother in a small Irish village. While sorting, she discovers a group of letters that begin to reveal more questions than answers about Elizabeth’s uncertain paternity. The letters tell a story of Elizabeth’s mother Patricia, forty years earlier, communicating with a man named Edward Foley through a lonely-hearts ad in the Farmers’ Journal. When Elizabeth inherits a property that belonged to Edward Foley, she begins a journey to gather more information.

The novel weaves two stories labeled – NOW and THEN – with Elizabeth and Patricia respectively navigating their lives through difficult if not perilous circumstances. Elizabeth’s conversations with those who knew her mother and Edward Foley provide some never known information and with each new fact, there are more questions. A young Patricia arrives for a visit to meet Edward for a second date and his overbearing if not mentally deranged mother creates a scenario that is both unexpected and terrifying.

What Norton does so well in his books is reveal family secrets that are often difficult with deftness and humor. The inner thoughts of characters and dialog are strengths of his writing. Thinking I might be alone in my appreciation of his latest two fiction novels, I discovered A Keeper was shortlisted for in the fiction category for the National Book Awards and his first novel, Holding won an Irish Book Award for Popular Fiction. Graham Norton shows us his comic talent on his talk show but there is much more to him than witty banter. His writing and narration skills are also laudable.

Norton, Graham. A Keeper. Atria Books, 2019.

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Friday Reads: “Low Mountains or High Tea” by Steve Sieberson

A few years ago, I read and enjoyed Steve Sieberson’s book, The Naked Mountaineer: Misadventures of an Alpine Traveler (University of Nebraska Press). Sieberson renews his adventure writing with an equally delightful Low Mountains or High Tea: Misadventures in Britain’s National Parks. Sieberson explains how he and his wife – lovingly referred to throughout the book as the Italian Woman – found themselves spending a summer in Britain with intention for travel to Britain’s national parks. A rental car, road maps and guidebooks were among the tools for their adventure.

Sieberson grew up in northwest Iowa. A family trip one summer from his rural home in northwest Iowa to Colorado began his lifetime fascination with travel and with high elevations. From there he read books on mountaineering, books that he found at his local library. His boyhood fascination has endured through his adult years. His summer adventure in Britain included mountain experiences, visits to far-flung places, pubs, teahouses, B&Bs, and much, much more.

What I found admirable and especially enjoyable about Sieberson’s book is his wonderful humor. Here’s an example: in conversation with a local about nearby trails, he writes “I said that I wasn’t much interested in the three-peak circuit, but that I just wanted to get to the high point and back in the most direct way possible. The tilt of her head and the lift of an eyebrow suggested that perhaps my slam-bam approach to her magnificent hills did not meet her approval.” Throughout, he pokes fun at British ways and novelties. His characterizations of the many people encountered and interactions are especially memorable.

Sieberson’s book is keenly descriptive and rich in detail. His descriptions of hiking and climbing are nearly photographic in detail. I’d like to know how he captured those many impressions and recorded them with such precision. Sieberson’s commentary on the people, places, customs, and food are more than travel guide worthy.  

Sieberson’s law career provided opportunities for travel throughout the world. In recent years, he has added professor to his resume as a Creighton University Law School faculty member.

Sieberson, Steve. Low Mountains or High Tea. University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

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Friday Reads: ‘Komi Can’t Communicate’ by Tomohito Oda

A black and white manga, set to read from back to front, as is done in Japan, this is the first book in a new series. Komi is the ultimate student at the high school and others are afraid to talk to her because she is aloof and extraordinary. Tadano is just happy he is now going to Itan Private High School, and he is planning to blend in and not be noticed. When asked to introduce herself, as all the students in class were asked to do on the first day, she walked to the front of the room, picked up the chalk, and wrote Shoko Komi on the board, walked back to her desk and sat down without saying a word.

At the end of the class, Tadano finds himself alone in the classroom with Komi after all the students and teacher have left. There he discovers Komi is not aloof, she freezes whenever she tries to speak to someone. She writes what she feels on the chalkboard, letting him know that she wants to make friends and hopes he will help her. Tadano finds he has promised to help her make 100 friends, starting with him. Tadano is in trouble now because he doesn’t have any friends yet, aside from Komi, and so has no one to introduce to her. Then he encounters Osana, an old friend from junior high, and she knows everyone in the school. Maybe they are on the way to making 99 more friends for Komi.

The artwork showing Komi with huge eyes or frozen and trembling does a great job of conveying her level of discomfort and social anxiety.

There are three volumes out now, and volume four will be published in December. The entry on Amazon says there will be six volumes in this series, and I definitely want to read the titles that are available now.

Oda, Tomohito. Komi Can’t Communicate, Volume 1. VIZ Media, 2019.

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Friday Reads: ‘Mortal Engines’ by Philip Reeve

We’re back to the age old question: which was better, the book or the movie?

In the case of Mortal Engines, I would have to say they were both good! But, they are also quite different from each other. Like many books that have been made into films, the movie version of Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve, is not an entirely faithful adaptation of the book.

The general storyline is the same in both. In a post-apocalypic future, war has devastated most of the world. In order to survive, many cities have been put on wheels, driven by huge engines. Larger cities chase down smaller ones to capture them, tearing them apart to take their resources and citizens. London has become one of the largest Traction Cities, and some of its leadership are determined to destroy anyone who doesn’t believe that this is how the world should be run. Because there are still cities that work the old way, without wheels, staying in one place.

The book is a Young Adult novel, and it definitely has more of that feel to it than the movie. In the movie, the main characters are not teenagers, so it may appeal more to a different audience.

The endings of the book and the movie are also very different. I won’t give either of them away. But, I will say that they both ended on a hopeful note, looking forward to a potentially better future.

I enjoyed Mortal Engines, both as a book and as a movie. If you read and watch them, don’t expect the same experience. I’d recommend that you consider them two separate stories, based in the same universe. Don’t worry about the fact that the movie isn’t an exact copy of the book. They’re each good in their own way!

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Friday Reads: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

It’s a well known fact that sisters have complicated relationships, possibly none more so than Korede and her younger sister Ayoola. Nurse Korede is hardworking, practical, and reliable, while her beautiful little sister is anything but. Charming and sweet, but ultimately selfish and unmotivated, Ayoola surrounds herself with those that will take care of her: men, friends, and Korede.

While she resents Ayoola’s easy and fun-filled life, Korede nevertheless continues to bail her sister out of every mess she gets into… including murder. Ayoola has killed the last 3 men she dated, calling her big sister to help her hide the evidence. Now, Ayoola has attracted the attention of Korede’s boss (and crush), head doctor Tade. Korede must decide if blood really is thicker than water (or just harder to clean up).

Braitwaite, Oyinkan. My Sister the Serial Killer. Doubleday, 2018.

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Friday Reads: Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country & Other Stories

Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country by Chavisa Woods is a collection of short fiction. Weird Stories. Liminal Stories. Queer Stories.

In the first, “How to Stop Smoking in Nineteen Thousand Two Hundred and Eighty-Seven Seconds, Usama,” a young New York lesbian returns to her rural hometown and strange things start happening: eerie lights in the woods, and a terrifying sense that everything is connected. In “Revelations,” a grieving widow’s friends tip her world upside down in an attempt to save the church she founded. And in the titular story, the narrator provides a sample menu of what they recommend one ought to do when one is Goth and living in the country: including, but not limited to, “a nonconsensual, surprise Southern Baptist exorcism. There’s just nothing else that can compete” (215).

At their cores, these eight stories are about two things: Being, and Doing, and all the contradictions and complications and messes that comes with all of that. To be both stuck and free. To be Goth – to be Queer – to be Outsider – to be of a place, born and raised; simultaneously claimed and unclaimed, known and unknown, liminal and with one foot always lifted and pointed and stepping somewhere else. But the other foot – the other foot, the one we love and hate in equal measure ­– is still rooted down and planted in the homesoil from which we grew. Woods tells these stories not with melancholy, and not even really with nostalgia, but with a casual shrug of honesty, an unflinching bluntness, and a dry snap of humor. Importantly, her characters don’t just exist, they act — in human, sad, rough-edged, transgressive and get-by ways. And what unfolds is a commentary on the larger nowhere places and strange spaces between friends, strangers, lovers and enemies in the Middle of Nowhere; where the corn rustles in the haunting thick of dark and the bone-thin coyotes laugh as you double-guess the shiver-trick question of movement in your rearview and press the gas a littler harder.

“This is where you belong. There is much to be done” (221).

This book is for mature audiences.

Looking for other unsettling books like this in the chilly prelude to Halloween this season? Here is what this author recommends: https://electricliterature.com/10-books-for-country-goths/


Woods, Chavisa. Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country. Seven Stories Press, 2017.

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Friday Reads: The Chalk Man, by C.J. Tudor

The Chalk Man
by C.J. Tudor

The Chalk Man, by C. J. Tudor is a debut title in the mystery/thriller vein.

To get the full impact of the story, read the prologue, of course. But be prepared for some gruesomeness and violence. It is a murder mystery. But also, it’s about growing up in a small town in the mid 1980s, in England. But except for the definite English flavor, it was remarkably like growing up in a small town in the U.S. But one year, life goes horribly wrong, small actions have horribly large and deadly results, and the lives of a group of friends are changed. We meet the main character, Eddie, in 2016, as an adult, looking back on the incident, so he begins the reminiscing, and then the chapter changes, and the main character is 12, living at home with his dad, a struggling article writer and his mom, an “abortion” doctor. It’s the summer holiday, like our summer break, and the kids are out of school, the fair is in town and it’s the first year they are all allowed to go without adult supervision. Eddie loses his wallet, and while looking for it, sees for the first time, a new teacher, Mr. Halloran, an albino, and teacher. He also backtracks to a ride called a waltzer, and is staring at a beautiful girl, when a car on the ride flies off. In the mayhem, the girl is badly hurt, and Mr. Halloran needs Eddie’s help to keep her from bleeding too heavily until the paramedics arrive. Eddie wouldn’t have lost his wallet if he’d kept it in the fanny pack his parents had him wear, the first small action which leads to much bigger things. He and Mr. Halloran don’t become friends, but there is a kind of bond between them.

Back in 2016, adult Eddie, (42) is an English teacher at the school he graduated from. And we meet Chloe, his lodger, (20), in dyed black hair, who works at an “alternative rock/goth clothing store. Not his usual type of lodger, but his last prospective lodger didn’t show up, without explanation, and a friend knew someone who needed a room. A small action with larger consequences later. And he’s expecting a visit from a childhood friend, one closely associated with the really traumatic year they all went through. He’s come back and wants to write a book about what happened. Because, he says, he knows who really did it. And we all know, someone with that kind of knowledge never lasts long in a mystery!

In some ways, there are two stories going on, one in the 80s, and one in 2016. But they are tied together by small incidents, woven together in a very precise way. It also has a few shocks, that I should have seen coming, but still the one at the end is a big one. Let me know if you saw it coming.

Kirkus Reviews: The Chalk Man, murder, mayhem, and mystery in a sleepy English village.

The Chalk Man, by C. J. Tudor, Crown Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, ISBN 978-1-5247-6098-4

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Friday Reads: The Bookshop on the Corner

The Bookshop on the Corner book cover

This book strikes fear into the hearts of book-loving librarians everywhere. In The Bookshop on the Corner, Jenny Colgan captures the literary heart and soul of the true bibliophile. Nina Redmond is a heroine who lives for books. Her flat is filled with tumbling stacks of books she rescued from garage sales, countless rounds of weeding in the library, and bookshops. What’s there to be afraid of when you live with your head in a book?

Trigger Warning: A library closes and is taken over by a media resource center in this book. There. I said it. If you can’t handle that brand of pain, please don’t touch this book. In the first chapter of the book, the question is posed: “What would you do if you weren’t a librarian? What are your dreams?”. What if librarianship was no longer part of your identity? It is the kind of question that can make a heart stop beating mid-sentence.

However, if you can take it, there is a literary light at the end of the tunnel. This is the story of how Nina finds a way to strike out on her own to keep her love of books alive and well. By bringing books to a small Scottish town in the middle of nowhere, she maintains her book-loving sanity and discovers a new love for life. In many ways.

Read this book to uncover the state of libraries everywhere. This is set in England and Scotland, but the tides are shifting for libraries everywhere. Find out how libraries can maintain a bookish wonder while adapting to a computer and media-centered world.

I may be a technology librarian personally, but might I just say: long live books! My house is filled with stacks of books. It’s where I go when I don’t want to touch technology. It’s where I go to explore new worlds and see life from different perspectives.

Technology is awesome, but books are my first love. So please, go hug your favorite book. Flip through the well-worn pages and inhale the decadent fragrance known only to book-lovers. Then pick up a new book.

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Friday Reads: It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree By A.J. Jacobs

When I’m out of something to read, or just in a rut, memoirs are my go to genre. Something about peeking into the lives of others, and realizing even the biggest star has gone through many of the same things I do, gives me the feeling of being transported to another time and place like no other.

A.J. Jacobs is writer of a number of memoirs, a few of which I’ve also read, mostly centered on a big idea. In his book “The Know-It-All” he tackles every entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. In “The Year of Living Biblically” he does… well… just that by trying to follow the rules of the bible, and not just the big ones, as literally as possible. A.J. writes not only about his personal experience in each book but also how it affects his family, as well as the research and study surrounding each subject.

For this edition of “Friday Reads” I read “It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree”. It starts off with a seemingly innocuous email from the husband of A.J.s eighth cousin. This man’s work on his own family tree has become his life’s passion with over 80,000 relatives on it, including A.J. This sparks something in A.J. who, after some quick poking around on his own, decides that he’s going to throw the world’s largest family reunion.

This book isn’t only just about genealogy but touches on a myriad of subjects like the meaning of family, DNA, privacy, history, race, celebrity, and death. Broken down into a weekly countdown to the reunion the chapters are in bite size chunks which makes for a quick and enjoyable read. There’s also a guide in the back of the book where A.J. goes over how to start researching your own family tree.

Personally I’ve never been into researching my families past, the making of a boring list of names, but this quote from the book tugged at my heart strings enough that I may have to give it a shot…

“What affects me emotionally isn’t seeing the ground where my ancestors’ bones lie. It’s hearing their tales, seeing their images, reading their words. It’s learning about the nickels they strewed on the ground for loved ones… that’s what gets me.”

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Friday Reads: The Line Between by Tosca Lee

Cults, the impending apocalypse, and an ancient plague.

Wynter and her sister spent fifteen years within the walls of the New Earth doomsday cult compound under the charming leadership of Magnus, an ambassador to God himself. As Wynter’s sister, Jaclyn, seemed to thrive in this world, Wynter struggled.

After she’s cast out from her family and community, Wynter is forced into the outside world just in time for it to start ending. An ancient disease has been freed from the melting Alaskan permafrost and is sweeping across America causing victims to fall into madness (as well as general societal chaos and violence). Late one night, Jaclyn reappears with medical samples that might just hold the key. Now Wynter must find a way to get them to a research lab in Colorado before the world really does end as prophesied by Magnus.

The story alternates between past/present, through Wynter’s time living in the compound, to her banishment, as she connects with old family friends and tries to adjust to the outside world, then through the dangerous journey to save (and understand) the world with the help of former military, Chase Miller.

The sequel (A Single Light) comes out September 17th. (Don’t worry though, this first book doesn’t end with a big cliff-hanger.)

Don’t miss Tosca Lee tomorrow at the Book Festival!

Saturday, September 7th 1:00-2:30 p.m.

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Friday Reads & BookFace Friday: Bivouac by Kwame Dawes

I’m reading Bivouac by Kwame Dawes, and I’m reminded that the 1980s were more than a station on your satellite radio. (And does your 80s station play Burning Spear as well as Musical Youth?) The novel is set in Jamaica, and politics are tumultuous throughout the region, and the activist father of our protagonist has died. It could be murder, but that murder might be medical malpractice, or it might have been as assassination.

Dawes uses a notable structural technique in telling the book from more than one viewpoint, and it feels modern as storytelling, extratextual—and the structural choices in form suggest to the reader that they consider the structural forms of the novel, and of family, and of political organization.

The formal structure only helps the reader become more intimate with the characters, and there is much to know. I’m thinking about the problem of guilt for a person who does not have good luck, but has still better luck than people close to them. I’m thinking about how a person can lose a progenitor but have that family live on as a symbol of something important to them—and how that can create tension between the love they feel for family, and the reality they have to continue to live in without that family present. You can’t resolve anything with someone who is gone, except by resolving with yourself. And everyone who is left behind has their own grief, and not all grief gets along.

Review by Lynda Clause, Nebraska Library Commission employee

Dawes, Kwame S. N. Bivouac: A Novel. , 2019. Print.

Meet the author at the upcoming Nebraska Book Festival September 7th in Lincoln.

 

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Friday Reads: Heart Land by Kimberly Stuart

I read Heart Land to highlight this author’s visit to our upcoming Nebraska Book Festival September 7th in Lincoln.  I could have easily shared this book with my mom as it fits into the genre of authors she liked including Jan Karon and Rosamunde Pilcher.  This book follows the Hallmark movie recipe of an urban woman interrupting her hectic life to return to her rural hometown. Upon her arrival, she discovers love and a new appreciation for a slower pace of life.

Such is the case with Grace Kleren, who graduated top of her class from the Fashion Institute of Technology with dreams of being a successful clothing designer.  Having lost both of her parents in a car crash as a teen, she suffered a crisis of faith. Grace is fired from her job after pitching her clothing line to the boss, and unable to pay the bills, she returns to her Iowa hometown to live with her Grandma Gigi. On her first day job hunting, she almost runs over her high school boyfriend Tucker. Happily, there are no injuries but finding a way to earn a living requires some ingenuity.

Working with Gigi, the Church Sewing Club, and some vintage fabric, Grace finds a new and lucrative way to exhibit her design creativity. A few postings on Etsy prove that others also appreciate her design aesthetic. Soon she receives national attention in an online fashion magazine and an invitation to New York. As Grace navigates the conflicts between her head and her heart, her journey is about finding her own truth and what matters most. All of this happens with the encouragement of those who have always loved her in rural Iowa, where life is less exciting, but a good place to sort out Plan B.

Stuart, Kimberly. Heart Land. Howard Books (2018)

 

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Friday Reads: “Pretend I’m Dead” and “Vacuum in the Dark” by Jen Beagin

I read a review for Vacuum in the Dark and discovered that it was the sequel to Jen Beagin’s 2015 debut novel, Pretend I’m Dead. The latter tells the story of Mona, a 24-year-old cleaning woman in Lowell, Massachusetts, who just can’t seem to find her place in the world. Mona volunteers at a clean-needle exchange, collects vintage vacuum cleaners, and has an inner-dialogue with NPR’s Terry Gross (“This is Fresh Air!”). After a doomed relationship with a junkie, she moves to Taos, New Mexico.

The rest of the novel, and the next book, follow Mona as she builds her house cleaning business in Taos (getting to know her clients in person and through their belongings; if you ever thought your cleaning person didn’t snoop, you’d be wrong). She makes poor decisions and weird friends, follows a man to Bakersfield, California, and confronts her past… and her future.

Each book can be read as a stand-alone, but I’d suggest reading them in order. Neither is terribly long – about 240 pages each. If you enjoy gallows humor, quirky characters, and discussions of cleaning products, Mona is the anti-heroine you’ve been waiting for.

Beagin, Jen. Pretend I’m Dead. Northwestern University Press, 2015.
Beagin, Jen. Vacuum in the Dark. Scribner, 2019.

 

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Friday Reads: ‘Redshirts’ by John Scalzi

I’m going to start off my review of Redshirts with a bold statement. If you are a fan of Star Trek – you need to read this book! And if you are a fan of Star Trek, the title should probably have been an obvious clue.

For the uninitiated, ‘redshirt’ is the term that fans use to refer to the expendable crew members in the Star Trek universe. Whenever you see a landing party heading down to a planet, and a previously unknown character has been added to the team, you can almost guarantee that they are destined to die, in some horrific and/or ridiculous way. Typically these characters are security personnel, who wear red shirts as their uniform.

But, what if these particular crew members started noticing the trend, realizing that their friends and colleagues keep dying on away missions, more often than should be statistically possible. What would they do about it? Can they do anything about it? You’ll definitely be surprised by what they discover and how they try to save their own lives.

John Scalzi is a brilliant writer, and I think Redshirts is one of his best. It’s creative, funny, heart-wrenching, and thought provoking. I admit it, I literally laughed out loud many times while reading this book. If you like Star Trek, sci-fi parody, and yes, even time travel, I think you’ll really enjoy Redshirts.

And if you like audiobooks, this one is read by none other than Wil Wheaton. Yes, Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Perfect casting!

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Friday Reads: What Elephants Know by Eric Dinerstein

Set in the 1970s, Nandu (12) was found alone at about age 2, except for a pack of wild dogs protecting him, in the Nepalese Borderlands, having been abandoned by his parents.  He was unofficially adopted by the Subba-sahib, the head of an elephant stable in the Borderlands, a very southern part of Nepal.  The King of Nepal owns the stable and the elephants, but only rides once a year to hunt tigers in the area.  Nandu is learning to handle elephants and become a mahout (an elephant trainer) – his charge is an older female elephant called Devi Kali, and she is protective of him.

The beauty and danger of nature is explored and appreciated, as Nandu, Devi Kali, and other mahouts and elephants walk to the river for the elephants’ baths and sometimes must go into the jungle.  Orphan rhino calves are rescued by the boys and tended by Rita, the sister of Nandu’s friend, Dilly.  And sometimes the wild dogs provide unexpected assistance.

When Nandu is sent away to school, hopefully to learn things that will help the stable, he finds bullies and a couple of friends.  One teacher accepts his invitation to visit the stable, and Father Autry’s wisdom is very helpful to Nandu and the Subba-sahib.  The stable is threatened with closure, and at first the Subba-sahib takes no action, only waiting for the King’s reply to his request not to close.  Things are beginning to look dire when Rita suggests they change their focus to becoming a breeding stable.  It becomes Nandu’s job to travel to the elephant sale and buy a tusker worthy of their elephants, an event he has never attended and something he knows little about.   Will he be successful and will that keep the stable alive?

Books that contain a great story and some actual facts about animals have always appealed to me.  This title will appeal to middle grade readers (grades 4-7) who are likewise interested in animal stories.  I have not yet read the companion novel (listed below), but I am going to have to find myself a copy.

Awards include winning the 2017 South Asia Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, and being named a 2017 ALA Notable Children’s Book.

What Elephants Know is followed by A Circle of Elephants: A Companion Novel, which was published in January of 2019.

Dinerstein, Eric. What Elephants Know. Disney-Hyperion, 2016.

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Friday Reads: The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman CoverIn six months’ time, an asteroid is going to slam into the Earth, ending all life as everyone knows it, and Detective Hank Palace just wants to do his job.

Peter Zell – actuary, ordinary, quiet man, fellow-waiter-for-the-End – is found dead in a McDonald’s bathroom. Suicide, of course. It must be, because all over Concord, and all over the world, people are killing themselves in a preemptive epidemic – it’s the end of the world, and things are beginning to get bad, and they’re only going to get worse before – BAM! – so why not get it out of the way sooner rather than later?

Only Hank – who wanted to be a detective since he was a kid, now, finally, has the chance; all around him people are walking off their jobs, because who wants to clock in when death, confirmed in odds and orbit is hurtling on a direct and unstoppable path towards your species’ sole habitable planet? And those people happen to include detectives, which means rookie cops get promoted years early, making Hank the luckiest, unluckiest man in Concord, depending on your perspective; hey kid, you made it, sorry about the asteroid. Ain’t the just the old sting of existential dread that comes with being a Millennial? – Only Hank isn’t so sure Peter Zell killed himself. Hank, still mostly bright-eyed, still dedicated, with Farley and Leonard’s Criminal Investigation’s textbook memorized, is pretty sure that Peter Zell was murdered.

The Last Policeman is not your everyday detective novel. The elements of a typical mystery are there: the suspects, the clues, the red herrings and the twists, the suspense that moves quick enough to have your spine straightening and your eyes brightening with quickened interest; did we get ‘em, did we figure it out? Remove the asteroid and you have a standard detective story: was a man murdered, and for what? Depending on who the man was, maybe there’s less dragging of feet. Put back the asteroid. Now a man is dead. Maybe murdered, maybe not; does it matter?

To Hank, it matters. He wants to know the story (175). He wants to do his job; a man is dead and that matters, even though they’re all going to die.

I love a good detective story, and if there’s a good, solid human element mixed with a literary style, then I am sold. Winters crafted a doomed world but kept Hank’s chin up enough despite, as one character calls it, “the weight of all this unbearable immanence” (39). It’s a complicated, bittersweet novel that surprised me by having bright moments of humor. Since it is the first in its trilogy, it left some threads dangling, and I am curious to see how Winters develops those plotlines. It is interesting to start a series where the end is pretty much a given – and not a particularly, one must assume, happy end. There was an element of denial I found myself falling into as I read. Because I – like Hank, like everyone – don’t want it to end like that. 

Which creates a fascinating connection between the characters and the reader: to hope, in that ever-irrational, ever-human way, for an impossible way out; that somehow, someone failed to carry a one somewhere and threw the entire model off course; that at the last moment the asteroid is going to veer away and the disaster will be averted and we will all go on living.  

The Last Policeman is followed by Countdown City and World of Trouble.

Winters, Ben H. The Last Policeman. Quirk Books, 2012.

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Friday Reads: Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story by Jacob Tobia

Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story is a comic memoir by Jacob Tobia. I recommend the audiobook, read by the author, whose voice is a like a comfortable but sparkly sweater. Tobia is a vegetarian, gender-nonconforming, Syrian-American from North Carolina who got into (but didn’t go to) Harvard, and who grew up loving Sunday School; and if you don’t already know that you have a lot in common with our author, you will realize it quickly.

Tobia tells their story in an irreverent and authentic way, focusing on recognizing human needs, understanding human impulses, acknowledging human discomfort and pain, and just simply being a living and learning person. You might expect the book to be sad or “heavy,” and Tobia does not shy away from frank discussion and language about serious and emotional topics and events. But the book is funny, even while addressing all of that with respect (and did I mention frank language?). As Tobia told Salon in an interview about the book, “I don’t want to talk about what being trans means so much as I want to talk about how being trans feels.” Tobia is not trying to tell the one trans narrative that speaks for all trans people—they are telling one person’s story, their own, and we can all relate.

In the introduction, Tobia discusses gender identity in the context of physical and emotional health that’s especially illuminating. We all have a relationship with our bodies and our genders, relationships that are dynamic over our lifetimes. And we don’t stop growing and learning when we become adults. If anything, that’s when the truly informed growth and awareness can start. The book goes on to tell an engaging story that is far from being over.

Tobia, Jacob. Sissy : A Coming-of-Gender Story. Penguin Publishing Group, 2019.

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