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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

World Book Night: The Final Batch

When people suggest that memoirs should be written only by those who have lead wild, adventurous, or “interesting” lives, I say we point them in the direction of The Tender Bar. J.R. Moehringer is not a rock star or a mountain climber; he’s a writer, and really, those are the people who should be writing memoirs. Memoirists are writers who view the world (and thus their work) not through their characters but through memory and experience. Moehringer is not a special snowflake but he is a fine writer, and what he has written is a tale of the human condition. The joy in being just like everyone else, only better able to describe it, is that your stories are our stories. Moehringer’s search for love and acceptance, his youthful missteps, his triumphs and sorrows – they are all ours. It is through the detail of his life and his ability to extrapolate meaning from it that I am better able to understand my own life. The goal of memoirists, like that of novelists, is not to be interesting, it is to teach me who I am through their words, their story. Moehringer absolutely succeeds in that with The Tender Bar.

Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress was the hard mystery on this year’s list. Just as I was basically uninterested in Michael Connelly’s Blood Work last year so I was here. But Mosley’s book has another angle as well. It is very much a novel about race. Easy Rawlins is an African-American man living in 1950s Los Angeles, who struggles to float under the radar in a system that will not allow a black man to do so. Easy is exploited by both organized crime and the police but suffers most in the end for “wanting to be white” in the words of his friend Mouse. The idea of that, and the implications of it, blew me away. Being white is floating under the radar. Being white is fitting in. Being white is easy (see what I did there). Easy Rawlins finds trouble by avoiding it, for the sake of the color of his skin. This is a great novel for discussion, and I can imagine WBN givers having some great talks about it.

Who would have thought I would love a book about baseball and math? No one. But I absolutely loved Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. Lewis is fantastic at explaining both of these worlds and building characters around them to anchor the information in a story. Moneyball is about fighting the irrational mind – specifically when it comes to baseball and the problem of creating a great team with a small budget. Lewis uses Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics’ MLB team to get the reader (or at least this reader) thinking about problem solving outside of the accepted norms and what that really means. Such a great read especially paired with our recent book club book, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

And that’s it, the last three of this year’s World Book Night picks. It is still only April, yet I already am filled with anticipation over next year’s crop. Again, I am pleased to have filled some major reading gaps with these thirty books and to have touched upon some authors/genres I never delve into. This (now annual) reading trek is a great tradition. I begin the year with a fabulously curated reading list that culminates in passing out free books to people – what could be better?

I have been sick these last two weeks and was unable to go out with the rest of book world on the 23rd. I’m hoping to have a night this week to go out and throw books enthusiastically at people. I’ll let you know how it goes when I finally do.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

World Book Night: The Fourth Batch

This fourth batch of books was all over the spectrum not only of genre but of human emotion. I greatly enjoyed all five of these books, each of them in a different way and for a different reason

I’ve had trouble deciding what I want to write about The Handmaid’s Tale. I will never be able to do justice to Margaret Atwood’s genius. This was my second time around with Offred’s tale, and it ended up meaning even more to me than that first time (over ten years ago) when I read the entire novel in one evening while on vacation with my family. (I must interject here to say that I love that my family is one that reads on/for vacation. Thanks, Mom!) Reading The Handmaid’s Tale as an adult some twenty years after its publication made the novel all the more real and frightening. This is the best type of speculative fiction – this is a world we can imagine ours turning into and that is deeply disturbing. Even more than that, what makes this a good pick for World Book Night is how utterly absorbing it is. This is a book that is both difficult to read and impossible to put down.

On the opposite end of the spectrum we have Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens. I so loved every minute I spent with this book. It is riotously funny and irreverent and British. Things being British is always a plus. Good Omens tells us the story of an angel and a demon (best friends) who are sort of maybe trying to help the apocalypse along but they are really reluctant about it. Good Omens playfully upends religious conventions without ever being offensive or hateful – it’s all in good fun. And there are footnotes, really, who doesn’t love footnotes? Supremely fun read!

Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time by Michael Perry was the only other book on the WBN list that I hadn’t heard of (along with Glaciers) and I am so glad to have discovered it. Michael Perry is a writer, volunteer fireman, and first responder living in small town America. The stories he tells of his calls and partners introduce us not just to his town but to our world. This collection of short essays is perfect for WBN; the writing is solid, the characters are absolutely relatable, and the subject is simple – living life.

Paul Negri’s Favorite American Poems was a bit of a surprise when I first got
the World Book Night selection list. Suggesting poetry to reluctant readers? Good luck. But the more I thought about it as I read through this collection (reading a poem or two a day) the more I realized that there are people out there who are waiting for this book. Voltaire said that “poetry is the music of the soul.” Poetry moves us, it is passion and life’s blood. As reluctant as I would have been to choose this as my book to give out tonight, I have a feeling that of all the books on the list Favorite American Poems will be the one to rouse the most passion, rock the most souls, and change the most lives.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan is exactly what I am looking for in works of history. Egan has put a human face (or collection of faces) onto the tales of the dustbowl. So often with stories disseminated through textbooks we are too far removed from the humanity at the core of the history to care on a personal, human level. With books like this we are reminded that history is nothing but the collected and archived actions of simple humans. People like you and I, people who have not changed – not just since the 30s but since people began to be people. The Worst Hard Time tells the story of the individuals who chose to stay in the heart of the dustbowl and suffered through “the dirty thirties.” It is a sad story, a human story, a triumphant story of spirit, and an abiding warning of ecology.

Tonight is the night! I still have not settled on exactly where I will be passing out my copies of Bossypants, but I know I’ll find the right hands and minds wherever I go. So looking forward to it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

2013 Pulitzer Prize Winners Announced!

The Pulitzer Prize is administered every year by Columbia University as an award for excellence in journalism, letters, and music. The award began in 1917 at the behest of publisher Joseph Pulitzer. I look forward to the announcement of Pulitzer winners in the category of letters every year; however, it was with an excess of enthusiasm that I awaited the decision on the prize for fiction. Not only was one of my favorite books of last year, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, nominated for the award but there was a major controversy within this category last year. The judges decided not to award any of the three nominees in the fiction category with a prize. The literary world was up in arms! So, I have been waiting for this year's results anxiously. I was thrilled when I heard that Adam Johnson's book had won; having a book that I have championed and recommended to many customers win the prize was exciting.

Prize for Biography
Tom Reiss' The Black Count is a story that seems too fantastic to be real. Alex Dumas was born in Haiti from the union of a slave woman and a French nobleman on the run from the crown. He lived briefly as a slave but eventually travelled to Paris rising through the ranks of the military and joing the French aristocracy. The novels of his son, Alexandre Dumas, immortalized his life, but until Reiss work very little of the elder Dumas has been known. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo is peopled with the swashbuckling rogues we've come to expect in adventure novels, but it also tells a greater story of race, revolution, and fatherhood.

Prize for History
The body of literature surrounding the Vietnam war is huge, but Embers of War by Fredrik Logevall looks at the war differenly than most of the works we have seen by soldiers and historians. What surprised me most about Logevall's book is the fact that it studies the years 1919 to 1959. The American idea of the Vietnam War usually has it taking place between the years of 1955 to 1975, so it becomes clear immediately that Logevall wants to tell a different story. Logevall looks at historical records to determine the missteps and miscalculations that all culminated in the disaster of war.

Prize for Poetry
Marriage is, to me, the idea that you are everything to just one other person. To lose that person through death or divorce is a struggle that I cannot imagine. In Sharon Olds new collection, Stag's Leap, she writes of her husband leaving her for another woman after thirty years. Olds opening herself to pain, fear, and renewal makes for a powerful collection of poems.

Prize for Nonfiction
With many great historical figures their life as a whole tends to overshadow the independent aspects. That Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American Supreme Court Justice will forever be the first thing associated with his long and influencial life. In Devil in the Grove Gilbert King takes us years before that appointment and even before the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education to show Marshall fighting for the life of a young man accused of a murder he did not commit. A man like Thurgood Marshall is not greater than the sum of his parts; it is his striving toward greatness in all things that made him the man he was. It is the in our battles both large and small that we become who we are. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America is a story about one man's battle for life, another man's battle for justice, and the battle for equality in America.

Prize for Fiction
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson pulled me in so many directions. First there are the horrors of life in North Korea which are almost hard to believe. Then there is the truth of politics and fear mongering and the realization that no one is too far from this sort of life. And finally there is the will of the human spirit, the inevitability of death, and the question of just how much one can take. This novel is very well written and very, very intense. It was often hard to read but I could never put it down. I was completely invested in the lives of Jun Do and Sun Moon.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

PseudoReview: The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman

I have discovered the joy that is audio books. The fact that I want to read just about every book ever is a mystery to no one, but sometimes I have to stop reading and, you know, do things. This time spent away from books has always been a sad time for me. Until I met audiobooks. Doing laundry has never been better!

It all started a few weeks ago when I finally decided to conquer my grandmother's flower beds. The beginning of spring meant lots of weeding and the removal of great amounts of fallen leaves...this would take hours. I decided that the best way to go about it would be with a book. In some ways, I am a lot like a puppy (mostly in that I am adorable, but also because I have a short attention span) so I worried that I may not be able to focus my full attention on a book while working in the yard. For this very reason I chose a book that I hoped would be entertaining but would not be difficult to fall mentally in and out of. I listened to comedian Sarah Silverman's memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage,Redemption, and Pee.

Silverman is a comedian that is famous for a certain kind of humor that can only be described as “potty humor.” But what made me want to read her book is the way in which she uses her grossout, controversial jokes. Silverman is a smart woman and a savvy comedian – she attempts to build a greater narrative surrounding her bits. Using juvenile humor she introduces her audience to the the idiocy of racism or explains what it is like to be gay (in that it is the same as being straight – all relationships are weird). To the late night Comedy Central audience (where Silverman's television show ran for three seasons) these ideas were not the norm but were embraced by way of Silverman's style.

The best parts of the book were definitely when Silverman wrote about her intent behind her jokes. Especially when they failed by being misinterpreted. She writes about being young and naive and learning on the fly. It is a good read for anyone feeling lost or outranked in their profession. This was an entertaining memoir and while it is ultimately forgettable (like all celebrity memoirs) I am glad that I listened to it, and it made yard work a lot funnier.

I never read memoirs by celebrities, apparently unless they are by female comedians, but these books make perfect listening – they are easy to dip into and out of as I have time to listen and the authors reading their own words only make them more engaging. I loved Bossypants by Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me is the next book I'll be picking up on audio. I look forward to so many more audio books. It is a decidedly different reading experience, and I'm getting to the type of books that usually get pushed to the end of my TBR list (especially memoirs and genre fiction). I'm reading more, I'm doing more, it's perfect.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is the bookish answer to March Madness created by the daily news site The Morning News. Each March, sixteen books that were published in the previous year are pitted against one another to be voted on by authors, bloggers, and critics. It is all kinds of wonderful to watch. The books meet up in brackets and move on through finals. The two books that make it through ultimately compete in a Tournament Championship - the winner enjoys the honor of the Rooster award (rightly named after the younger brother of David Sedaris). I enjoy the ToB every year, but this year the championship round was especially exciting for me personally as two of my favorite books from last year made it into the final round.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson pulled me in so many directions. First there are the horrors of life in North Korea which are almost hard to believe. Then there is the truth of politics and fear mongering and the realization that no one is too far from this sort of life. And finally there is the will of the human spirit, the inevitability of death, and the question of just how much one can take. This novel is very well written and very, very intense. It was often hard to read but I could never put it down. I was completely invested in the lives of Jun Do and Sun Moon.

Then there is The Fault in Our Stars. There is no denying that I am a full on John Green convert after having read this novel. This is the third blog about him here in the last few months. The Fault in Our Stars in undoubtedly a great book. The writing is so great, the characters so clever and lovable. The romance is so absolutely believable because even the reader falls a little in love with Hazel and Augustus. Everyone worries that this is a “kids with cancer” book and in recommending it over the last year I have had to assure a few adult readers that it is so much more than that. TFiOS is a novel about life, what it is to be young and to fall in love, and what it means to be damaged. Not just a great YA novel but a great novel.

I can say with all honesty that I have no idea which of these novels I would have chosen as the winner of the Tournament of Books. What's so great about this tournament though is its transparency. Each bracket is accompanied by commentary by the judges so that followers know exactly why each book wins its bracket. Ultimately The Orphan Master's Son came out ahead of The Fault in Our Stars (14 to 3) and I found myself pleased by the results. What Johnson did in his novel was daring and tragic and ultimately beautiful. The scope and implications of what he wrote about life and fiction and the worlds we create for ourselves as well as those we are forced into has still got me thinking about my place months after turning the last page.


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