Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Reading Roundup: Youthful Nostalgia in Graphic Memoirs

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

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

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


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

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

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

Saturday, June 21, 2014

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

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Just some mention-worthy news stories that may be of interest to kindred spirits and like-minded souls…

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Read more and see the reunion over at Variety.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Nonfiction | The Road to Making It, After All

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My favorite Nick At Nite shows from my youth (when Nick at Nite syndicated comedies that hadn’t aired within the last decade):

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to start the series from the beginning…again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

New Format, New Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 6, 2014

What’s ACTUALLY on the Shelves…

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Yup. Seems about accurate.

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

What takes up the most space on your shelves?

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

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Fiction | An Amateur Sleuth Grows Up

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The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is Alan Bradley’s sixth installment in the Flavia de Luce mystery series…and yet can you believe that only about a year has passed in Flavia’s world? What a year for Flavia at boring ol’ Buckshaw! She’s found a dead man in the cucumber patch, an electrocuted puppeteer, a bludgeoned fortune teller, an actor strangled to death by a length of film, and a dead church organist hidden in an old tomb. Flavia has solved all those mysteries, but now she’s faced with the biggest of all…the case of her missing mother, Harriet.

When The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches opens, the de Luce family is waiting at the train station for the return of their long-lost matriarch, but naturally things don’t go as smoothly as planned. As the train approaches, a stranger whispers into Harriet’s ear and shortly after ends up dead on the tracks, pushed under the train by someone in the crowd. Wait, and why is Winston Churchill there, and what did he mean when he asked Flavia about pheasant sandwiches? The mystery that unravels for Flavia is personal this time, and it will take more than her chemical expertise and super-sleuth prowess to solve this one.

Despite our reader’s history with the de Luce clan, they remain quite elusive; Flavia has always been our portal into Buckshaw, but we’ve usually been distracted by her 11-year-old perspective. Father is kind but distant; Daffy and Feely are just tormenting older sisters; Dogger has a troubled past but is steadfastly loyal. This is what we know, and this is all we need to know as Flavia ventures outside her inner circle to the thrills of crime in Bishop’s Lacey. I think this installment was Bradley’s chance to develop a story for all the little questions he’s hinted at so steadily throughout the series, forcing Flavia to look inward instead of outward and answer the questions she’s never asked.

It seemed only natural for Bradley to take Flavia’s story further, as too much of similar plot and tone could start to feel formulaic. However, I have to admit that this is probably my least favorite in the series. Flavia is the same playful narrator, but the story is suddenly more serious. It’s like an episodic TV show that suddenly turns serial; to read this one, you actually do need the background from the previous novels. This seems such an unexpected and unusual reaction, but I find Flavia more fun when the mystery has nothing to do with her; the added personal dimension adds a great deal more heft to stories that have always been witty and droll.

This is certainly a turning point in the story of Flavia de Luce. I’ve read this was supposedly the last in Bradley’s planned six-book series on Flavia, but with another four rumored to be in the works, it sets the stage for more Flavia adventures with a new direction. I look forward to seeing what’s in store for our clever young crime-solver.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Reading Notes: The Evolution of God, Part 2

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After a couple of weeks’ break, I started back on Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, picking up where I left off. This time, though, I had a hardcover version on my hands instead of an eBook, and it made all the difference in the world. Remember how I said I was sort of lost in Section II? Well it’s my own fault; I broke my own promise to myself—never read nonfiction in eBook format. After breezing through one chapter of Section III, I decided to go back and re-read those sections that had given me so much trouble before. And armed with printed pages, a pen, a notebook, and sticky notes, it made all the sense in the world.

Wright’s biggest mission in Section II, “The Emergence of Abrahamic Monotheism,” was to demonstrate just how and why the God familiar in today’s religions emerged from the vengeful god(s) of polytheism. And while I hinted at this in my first post on this book, I really got it after re-reading these chapters; the dates and places and people were way less confusing the second time around!

To quickly summarize it in bullet points, here’s what Wright says happened (or, if not happened, here are the factors that led to the present):

  • National religion became part of national identity; King Josiah made Yahweh the “official” God of Israel, in turn centralizing power and centralizing worship.
  • When Babylon conquered Israel, religion was a way to make sense of disaster. If Israel’s God was defeated, it meant defeat for their national identity as well. Instead, massive destruction just meant God was more powerful than they believed, and everything that happened to Israel was just God’s will.
  • Now there was a new religious mission for trauma-suffering Israelites—non-believers were no longer enemies; they were potential converts. 
  • Philo, a Jewish philosopher, is largely responsible for the moral development of God. He interpreted God as tolerant and, fluent in Greek, translated the Bible accordingly. Here, Wright illustrates just how important semantics have been in religious history; ambiguity, creative interpretation, and selective retention shape belief systems. 
  • And further with Philo: his most important contribution is the invention of metaphor and allegory, which he often used to justify stories in the Bible that didn’t fit his own idea of a loving, compassionate God. This reconciliation of Jewish and Greek thought is the basis for modern theology.
  • And more with Philo: he came up with the idea of the “Logos”—the natural law for men and matter. These are the rules that govern the world, like the laws of physics or nature, created by God as a sort of plan for the world. Wright uses the analogy of the video game designer creating the world, the rules, and the players. Wisdom, then, is the way of understanding the logos.
When I mentioned in my last post that Wright is a refreshing, unargumentative voice on the subject of religion, that perspective is illustrated best by his discussion on the evolution of morality. In his words:

“If the human conception of god features moral growth, and if this reflects corresponding moral growth on the part of humanity itself, and if humanity’s moral growth flows from basic dynamics underlying history, and if we conclude that this growth is therefore evidence of ‘higher purpose,’ does this amount to evidence of an actual god?”

I included this not-so-brief summary on a section I’ve already sort of written about because it’s important to know where religion came from and what purpose it served as we begin Section III, “The Invention of Christianity.”
Wright begins this chapter with an introduction to Jesus, though one that may be very foreign to today’s Christians—what Wright labels “Historical Jesus.” In comparing the Jesus from the four gospels of the New Testament, each written an increasing amount of time after Jesus’ death, Wright contends that historical accuracy diminishes and the stories are embellished to make a point (whatever point it is the authors are trying to make). Jesus from Mark had only love for his Israelite neighbor, but by the time Luke was written, Jesus showed universal love for all. Here’s where the Bible is its most interesting—its roles as a religious text and a historical record are conflicting!

Image credit

But this story of Jesus is just an example of the interpretations I mentioned above, and there was much more that led to the eventual rise of Christianity that also contributed to the present-day God. And this was done mostly by Paul. Paul, like Philo, believed in brotherly love while also believing Jesus died to atone for our sins. It was this idea of interethic tolerance that eventually spawned Christianity in a society that, Wright argues, already had the pieces in place.
The growth of the Roman Empire made interethnic tolerance more valuable in terms of economic transactions. Plus, the Empire already had social clubs and groups that played an important role in society—creating kinship and familial bonds in an increasingly populous world. Christianity offered unconditional love to its followers, and by Paul deeming there is “neither Jew nor Greek,” he built a bridge to the Gentile world, abandoning strict Jewish custom and increasing the accessibility to God. Paul himself was ambitious, and tolerance was the key to gaining followers and expanding his empire. 
Though there were several version of early Christianity, Paul’s version was the one that became mainstream, because it built off of Judaism rather than immediately renouncing it. Paul used Jewish beliefs as the foundation of his new religion, even recruiting from Jewish believers. It wasn’t until Paul’s followers needed to undermine Judaism as the heir to Hebrew tradition [to practice one’s own religion in the Roman Empire, it must be demonstrated that the religion predates the Empire] that Christianity severed its ties with Judaism and really came into its own. Here the Christians claimed that the Jews had forsaken God by killing his son, and now the two diverged in opinion and belief. 
Wright’s distinction between Historical Jesus and Biblical Jesus becomes clear in the section’s last chapter, “How Jesus Became a Savior.” In one sentence: New Testament authors believed Jesus to be the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy about the appearance from the skies of a “Son of Man.” Wright continues on the theme of salvation to tie everything we’ve learned so far together: how the emergence of monotheism and the birth of Christianity have led to a moral God. To sum it up, because this has gotten REALLY long:

  • This “Son of Man” offers an eternal heaven to good Christian souls; basically, a pleasant afterlife is a perk of Christianity, which gives it an edge on other religions.
  • Paul decides to explicitly define sin to help people reach heaven. This definition helps people avoid certain behaviors, which causes a group cohesiveness. Suddenly, people are nicer to each other because they know that moral behavior leads to eternal happiness.
And here is the answer as to how religion became linked with morality: Wright argues that religions develop from their ability to meet basic human psychological needs, and at this particular moment in history, Christianity was able to do just that. It provided rules to live by; it answered questions about the unknown, particularly what happens after death; it gave ways to atone for the sin of mankind (because apparently at this time, mankind had very poor self-esteem); it was a social movement providing shared a forum for shared belief systems. And most importantly, it provided a way to save the individual soul. By linking salvation to social behavior, it provided individuals a sure-fire way to a blissful afterlife. 

I have seriously learned so so much from this book so far. I grew up as a reluctant churchgoer, but I realize my knowledge base is incredibly weak. I was astounded to learn that the four gospels of the New Testament have entirely conflicting information, but I was never taught that because we learned about stories in Sunday School, not history. I never even knew these were four perspectives on the same story! Wright is doing in this book exactly what I strive for in my own spiritual questioning—he is sharing context, showing how one thing came from another, explaining how things evolve based on many factors.
One of the hardest things to remember so far is that the society we’re reading about in so much depth is actually only one very distinct part of the world. We’re reading about Israel and, yes, the development of major world religions, but there are whole other cultures around the world developing their own theologies and religions. Wright did establish that this book focuses on only the three Abrahamic religions, and the next section will veer us away from the Jewish and Christian Middle East and into Islam.