Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Fiction | An Enticingly Meandering Mystery

If you’re having trouble choosing what to read next, if you just can’t seem to decide what kind of genre you’re in the mood for, CHOOSE THIS BOOK.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind is the strangest kind of book in the most satisfying of ways, because it’s many types of books, all rolled into one. It’s a love story; it’s historical fiction; it’s a crime thriller; it’s a mystery. And overall, I found it completely magical.

In Barcelona, 1945, wounds from the Spanish Civil War are still fresh. The city has a gothic fog hanging over it which creates the perfect aura of mystery and turmoil for Zafón’s tale. Daniel is the son of an antique bookseller. His mother has passed away, and he finds solace in a mysterious book found on a trip with his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The book in question is called The Shadow of the Wind by a little-known author named Julian Carax. As Daniel begins a quest to find other books by Carax, he stumbles upon a bit of a mystery—someone has been destroying every copy of every book by Carax.

I really can’t conclude this summary in a more gripping manner than the back cover blurb: 

“Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets – an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.”

The pacing of this story is slow…twisting and turning in a delightful, delectable manner. We’re learning as Daniel learns, growing as Daniel grows, discovering as Daniel discovers. We’re experiencing the story through Daniel’s eyes, but we’re also getting to know Daniel. That’s what this book is so good at—creating an intimacy with all the characters that you’re aching to know what happens next, how they end up. We have this main character, Daniel, whose life has become so entwined with Julian Carax, a character we (and Daniel) only know through stories. And as Daniel fords through adolescence and learns more about Julian, their lives begin to parallel until their stories reach the same moment of truth, asking a bigger question of all—will our next decision determine the outcome or is it only a matter of fate?

But on top of this character study, we also have this thriller, this gothic mystery, dragging us along and slowly unraveling. The mystery is never too convoluted to understand and the outcome never too outrageous to predict. You’re not just following one story; as I said earlier, this isn’t a straightforward novel, and the subplots engage while revealing clues to the main story.

I hesitate to go into too much depth about this story here, because I don’t want to give any spoilers to those of you who haven’t read it. Even I avoided my usual concurrent Google searches while reading, because I didn’t want to spoil a thing. Therefore, you’re just going to have to listen to my recommendation and take note of my enthusiasm. [However, if you’ve read and are itching to discuss, comment away!]

I don’t want to recommend this as a “beach read” because it has much more substance that what that label generally denotes. But in reality, it is the perfect beach read, because it’s easy and gratifying and you’ll be hooked to the blanket long enough to get a sweet tan.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Nonfiction | Oh, to Be a Farmer

My 16-year-old self would be so disappointed with my 26-year-old self.

When I was 16, I was aching to move to the big city. I dreamed of living “anywhere but here” (here being Tennessee) and my personal mission was to end up in New York because I just swore I was a city girl at heart.

Well, I did that. I am in New York now and have been for the past eight years. And what have I learned in those eight years? That maaaaybe I’m not as much of a city girl as my 16-year-old self would’ve thought. I still remember one of my first visits here as a high schooler, and I was astounded at how people’s intimate lives are forced together—that I could see into another person’s home through a window across the way; that I could hear their personal conversations without intentionally eavesdropping. I craved that kind of city living, being in the middle of it all, always encountering someone new.

And now, the thing I crave is quiet. And nature. And privacy. And not having to deal with strangers first thing in the morning. And sitting outside knowing that I am totally alone and no one can see me.

Ah, well. You can’t win them all, can you? It’s because of this recent affinity for rural settings that my interest was piqued by Jenna Woginrich’s memoir Barnheart: The Incurable Longing for a Farm of One’s Own back in March when I saw it on display at the PLA conference. And thanks to the lovely booth rep, I walked away with my very own copy.

Jenna had a similar craving to mine. As a twenty-something, she packed up and followed a new job to rural Vermont, determined to fulfill her dream of running a productive farm. This book is one of those blog-to-memoir examples, and Jenna has established an internet presence over the past few years at her blog Cold Antler Farm. Barnheart is told somewhat chronologically, but her chapters are structured more as vignettes, detailing a certain experience—like buying her first goat, attempting to become a shepherd, or making friends with the somewhat exclusive locals.

I did have some issues with Jenna’s attitude at certain times. She can come off as awfully judgmental of lifestyles other than her own. She expresses her disgust at city folk owning vacation homes in the country where the land “isn’t put to use;” she makes snide remarks about people who are uninformed about the food industry and who don’t buy local / buy organic / support or adopt a sustainable lifestyle. It somewhat blemished a narrative that otherwise seemed like it wanted to be so positive and encouraging, sharing stories about the transition to farm life. I hope that, in real life, Jenna would support others following a similar path with enthusiasm and not judge everyone else who isn’t.

I did enjoy hearing her story, though, and was inspired afterwards to read her blog. Being someone that lives a completely opposite lifestyle, Barnheart had the effect of taking me away to a life that part of me craves. As I sit in front of a computer all day every day, I can’t help but desire an active outdoor lifestyle that is so different from the one I am currently living. I can’t help it—I think I really am a country girl at heart (…or maybe more of a mix, but definitely not at 24/7 city girl).

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fiction | Why Thirteen Reasons Matter

If you are at all attune to the YA community, you’ve no doubt heard of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why—the story of a boy, Clay, who comes home one day to find a box of cassette tapes on his doorstep. When he starts to listen, he’s astounded to hear the voice of his classmate Hannah Baker, because Hannah committed suicide two weeks earlier. These tapes are essentially her suicide note, informing thirteen different people how they contributed to her eventual breakdown.

Unpopular opinion: I did not really like Thirteen Reasons Why.

I know that reading YA as an adult, you sometimes have to forget your grown-up cynicism and glaze over the stereotypical teen angst. Oftentimes, underneath all of that, there’s a really great story. I think Thirteen Reasons Why had the potential and has its merits, but there were just too many things about it that bothered me.

[Note: Spoilers ahead, so beware if you haven’t read it!]

  1. The angsty reactions of Clay, the thoughts in his head, that we read as he listened to the tapes made me just want to smack him. Yes, it is a very serious subject, but I just didn’t buy the gut-wrenching horror and pain that he felt, because…
  2. I didn’t think his immediate hatred of all these people on these tapes for the “horrible things” they did was justified. A lot of the stories that Hannah tells involve very small actions. I think Asher’s point that small actions can lead to big consequences is spot on, but I don’t think it’s fair for Clay to immediately judge all of these people for the small things they may not have even realized they were doing. Though some stories were worse than others and are judgment-worthy, many of them could just be chalked up to bratty teen behavior—something every teenager is guilty of. Clay’s immediate judgment and reactions toward other people, just because he knew the outcome for Hannah, was a lot of what led to reason A.
  3. Most importantly, I just couldn’t sympathize with Hannah. I understand the point of this story, and I think it is a wonderful point—the little things you do could affect someone else without you realizing it. Yes, TRUTH IN A BOTTLE. However, I thought Hannah incredibly selfish. I personally didn’t think any of the things that happened to her were awful enough to justify immediate feelings of suicide. To a strong, confident person, they would easily be brushed off and ignored with the knowledge that these classmates are just immature jerks. And I do understand that she may have had other issues and these little events just tipped the scales. But she didn’t acknowledge that. She just blamed others. She tries to make you think she wanted to get help, but she didn’t. She only went to the teacher to audio record their session to add him to her tapes. To add another person to her list of blame. Her decision was already made, and her cry for help was, to me, a total farce. And the fact that she’s just forcing people to listen to all these tapes of her post-mortum is pretty sadistic.

But as I said earlier, maybe it’s just my adult perspective that darkens my opinion. I apparently seemed to have gone to high school in some sort of magical convent of joy and friendship where there was little drama and the biggest scandal involved someone bringing vodka in a Gatorade bottle to Anatomy class.

That being said, though I found issues with this story, I am glad this book has gained the notoriety it has in the YA community. The idea that “your actions have consequences” cannot be stressed enough with this group, in my opinion, and maybe something in your face like this, no matter how trite I may find it, is what’s needed to get the message across. For this I commend Jay Asher, because I know that not all high school experiences are as simple and positive as mine was.

I’m sure many of you have read it—what did you think?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Joint Reading: Lions of the West, Chapter 9

Here we are on the final chapter of Aarti's and my joint reading of Robert Morgan's Lions of the West (except for the epilogue and final thoughts, which she'll post later this week!). This book looks at America's westward expansion by way of a few key figures that made a big impact during the era. Chapter 9 focuses on Nicholas Trist, a person I had never heard of and, frankly, didn't much impress me. However, the point of this joint reading was for Aarti and I to share our agreements, disagreements, and discover how our own personal experiences with history have shaped our opinions.

We hope these posts have been informative, enlightening, thought-provoking, or maybe inspired you a little bit to explore some history on your own. You can read up on the rest of the book both here and over at BookLust.

Nicholas Trist: The Search for a Father Voice

Kari: Nicholas Trist really seems to be the biggest pansy out of this group. I mean, look at him! He was basically a secretary, turned advisor, turned negotiator, strictly because of his political connections. He didn’t discover anything; he didn’t fight a war; he didn’t win an election. Overall, it was hard for me to figure out what on earth he did to earn him a chapter in this book. 

Aarti: Aw, I liked Trist! I actually thought Morgan gave him the short end of the stick. While he didn’t go conquer the Western states for America, he did bring a lot of diplomacy to the table, and I enjoyed learning about someone who did more of the grunt work. But I agree that he wasn’t particularly lovable. 🙂

Kari: Throughout his chapter, I just kept thinking that this is an unfortunate soul who could’ve done a lot more than he did. He was incredibly well-educated. He was well connected. He showed some fire and initiative by dropping out of West Point, despite Jefferson wanting him to go. But it’s like he just never really decided what he wanted to do with himself, and he stuck around Jefferson because he was in love with Jefferson’s granddaughter. He just sorta did what he did because people expected him or urged him to. He didn’t seem to make many decisions of his own, which is completely opposite of the Western mentality that has dominated the characters of this book.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Reading Roundup: YA Multicultural Picks

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I am reading a ton of children’s books for one of my library school classes, and I’m really enjoying these nice, easy breaks from my own, often heavier, reading. So technically, “Children’s Literature” covers the JUV section, ages 0-12. There’s a whole separate class for YA materials (which I will be taking in the fall!), but one of our most recent reading assignments had us reading books for the higher end of that range—two books that are classified by the library as Young Adult but could be read by your more advanced JUV reader.

We read these books during our week on multicultural literature (something I want to post more in depth on at a later date). I enjoyed them both, which, because I’m an adult, expands their “appropriate-for range” even further beyond YA classifications! (YA is so good at that, isn’t it?)

The first was Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples. This is the story of a 12-year-old Pakistani girl who is the younger sister in a family with two daughters and no sons. They live in the desert and raise camels, a lifestyle that is heavily dependent on what nature throws at them—they could pack up and move if rainy season comes late, and a windstorm could mean destruction. Shabanu would have it no other way, though; she loves the desert and calls it home. As two girls approaching womanhood, both Shabanu and her sister Phulan have already been promised to husbands and, when the time comes, will leave their childhood lives behind to become property of these men. While Phulan anxiously anticipates her wedding day, Shabanu has not quite bought into the norms of her culture. She’s fiesty and independent and is reluctant to live a life she has not chosen.

I feel the main purpose of this story is to enlighten readers (especially American ones) to a lifestyle so drastically different from their own. The author spent many years living and working abroad as a journalist and spent much time in Pakistan assessing the conditions of women for the US government. I did enjoy this book—it’s rich in detail—but once I finished, the plot seemed relatively…weak? It feels like a book in which setting/lifestyle/place was the first priority, and story came second. However, this is the first in a trilogy, so maybe it does develop. Overall, I think this is a good choice to enlighten young readers (or even adult readers!) on the lifestyle in this part of the world. And if you read it, report back with what era you thought this was set. You’ll be quite surprised late in the book when one little detail pops up that gives this story a concrete place in time!

The second book, and one that I’d been wanting to read for a while, was Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. Junior is a teenager living on the Spokane Indian Reservation and desperate to get off of it. He leaves his school on the rez and starts attending the all-white town school where he definitely stands out as the only Indian. Not only does he have to struggle as the minority in a semi-racist town, the rez (including his best friend) pretty much views his decision as a betrayal making his home life even more difficult. Junior is not one to mope or complain, though, and he throws all his energy into the two things he’s good at: basketball and comics.

I’ve read Alexie’s most famous short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, and the whole while I kept feeling that there could be more. This book is an answer to that wish—a complete story that focuses on one character, highlighting all the ups and downs of modern life on a reservation. I really loved this book because it was so simple and easy; it wasn’t in your face with a message of, “This is life; it’s hard,” and didn’t have any dramatic struggles. Rather, Junior is a likable guy and we can understand the intricacies and contradictions of his life and culture from the little things Alexie put in the story. You sense that life is much darker for some people on the rez, but that prevailing sense of hopelessness hasn’t set in for Junior yet. He’s the anomoly—optimistic, realistic, self-aware, and willing to take action. The writing and format of this book make it so enjoyable and accessible that I can understand why my professor simply summed this book up by saying, “Oh, everyone loves it.”

Friday, May 4, 2012

Joint Reading: Lions of the West, Chapter 7

As you may recall, Aarti and I have been reading Robert Morgan's Lions of the West for the past couple of weeks, delving into the history of key individuals who played a big role in America's expansion out west. We hope that you'll join in the discussion on the complexities and contradictions that have built this country's history.

You can also catch up on our previous discussions:

Chapter 1: Thomas Jefferson
Chapter 2: Andrew Jackson
Chapter 3: John Chapman
Chapter 4: David Crockett
Chapter 5: Sam Houston
Chapter 6: James K. Polk

Winfield Scott: Old Fuss and Feathers Goes to the Mountain

Kari: Winfield Scott is a person I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything about before reading this chapter. And thankfully, I enjoyed this chapter more than the last, probably because we learned more about Scott as a human and not just achievements in politics or on the battlefield. In fact, I was actually interested in the descriptions of war battles and strategy. The way Morgan described Winfield Scott and his strengths made me realize that there is actually a lot of strategy surrounding war. It’s not just charge and destroy; to Scott, it was an art, and one at which he excelled.

Aarti: Yes, I liked learning about Scott, too, because he sounds FASCINATING. I loved learning just how complicated he was. One theme throughout this book is that so many of the characters in it made up tall tales and stories about themselves, and I think Scott is totally one of those people who fell in love with his own stories. But he did what he loved, and he was good at what he loved.

Kari: This was also a chapter that made me dislike Polk even more. Where Polk can be described as a certain kind of jerk, Scott should be described as a certain kind of saint in comparison. This chapter on Scott relates a person that possesses that special something that makes him a man of this era of western expansion. He had the ingenuity, forethought, and dedication to actually train an army because he knew it would be beneficial to his country’s future. He continued to fight for his cause despite personal conflict with his superiors (Polk)—enough conflict to drive most men away from frustrations.

Mostly the difference between him and the leaders of his time was his humane mentality on war. He treated a battle as a match of wits where the most skill and ingenuity would prevail. He didn’t attack with a vendetta; he wasn’t trying to fuel his ego; he wasn’t out to kill. It’s like war was a game to him, and he treated the “losers” with respect, not like he was better than them. He was constantly applauded by enemies for his compassion, and at one point, Morgan notes that Scott has been called one of the “most capable soldiers this country has ever produced.” With such regards bestowed upon this one man from such a popular era of history, I am surprised I have never known nor heard much about him.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May 1: Next On the List

April was a pretty successful reading and blogging month for me. I was able to get through a nonfiction chunkster as part of a joint reading effort with Aarti, and I still worked in a few books that served as a nice distraction. We’ve both finished reading Lions of the West at this point, but we haven’t finished discussing it yet (oof, it did start to drag a bit), so you can read more on that later.

I’ve also (mostly) caught up on the blogging, which is a huge success!!

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I’ve been reading a ton of JUV fiction lately for my Children’s Lit class, and I’d like to do a reading roundup to summarize them. I actually read The Giver for the first time, and…well…I think it’s a book you need to read at a particular moment in your life. It’s the favorite book of one of my closest friends, but she read it as a child and loved it, while I just found it “meh”. Maybe reading it as an adult loses some of the magic. Speaking of dystopian, I also read The Hunger Games for the first time. Dystopian lit isn’t my thing, but I enjoyed it for the most part.
I’m currently reading Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why on my eReader. I know it was all the buzz a while back, but I’ve just come to the conclusion that if I want to be a YA librarian, I should probably read more young adult books. I went to a local school librarian conference for work last week, and one of the sessions I attended was about YA materials. Plus, I just got into my two classes for next semester which are YA Literature and Programs and Services for Young Adults. Hence my inspiration.
I don’t have anything on my upcoming reading schedule, and I’m still working on getting through what’s on my own shelves before I start acquiring a ton new things…
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And I speak of acquiring new books because we all know BEA is coming up in the very near future! I’m not sure exactly when I will be attending yet (gotta work it out with the work schedule) but it’s always enjoyable to attend, even if just for an afternoon. It’s much more fun to be an attendee than a booth rep!
Another exciting thing to come is that Emily St. John Mandel has a new book coming out this month, The Lola Quartet, just as I finally read Last Night in Montreal and I was hoping she’d write something new! Plus, she’s coming to WORD for the book’s launch party later this month.
In my own personal excitement, I’m finished with school for the summer in two weeks. I’d like to say this gives me more free time to read, but that’s probably not true; I read so much on my commute, that I’ll probably read less once I finish and spend time doing other things. However, summer is coming which means beach time and park time, never without a book in hand.
Happy May!