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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

2014 National Book Award Winners

This year's National Book Award winners have been announced! The National Book Award is given for excellence in American Literature in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature.
Here are this year's winners:

 The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Winner in Fiction - Fleeing his violent master at the side of abolitionist John Brown at the height of the slavery debate in mid-nineteenth-century Kansas Territory, Henry pretends to be a girl to hide his identity throughout the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.
The Unwinding by George Packer
Winner in Nonfiction - A riveting examination of a nation in crisis, from one of the finest political journalists of our generation. Packer journeys through the lives of several Americans including a son of a tobacco farmer, a factory worker in the Rust Belt, a Washington insider, a Silicon Valley billionaire, and others.
Incarnadine by Mary Szybist
Winner in Poetry - In "Incarnadine," Mary Szybist restlessly seeks out places where meaning might take on new color. One poem is presented as a diagrammed sentence. Another is an abecedarium made of lines of dialogue spoken by girls overheard while assembling a puzzle. Several poems arrive as a series of Annunciations, while others purport to give an update on Mary, who must finish the dishes before she will open herself to God. One poem appears on the page as spokes radiating from a wheel, or as a sunburst, or as the cycle around which all times and all tenses are alive in this moment. Szybist's formal innovations are matched by her musical lines, by her poetry's insistence on singing as a lure toward the unknowable. Inside these poems is a deep yearning--for love, motherhood, the will to see things as they are and to speak. Beautiful and inventive, "Incarnadine" is the new collection by one of America's most ambitious poets.
The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata and Julia Kuo
Winner in Young People's Literature - Just when 12-year-old Summer thinks nothing else can possibly go wrong in a year of bad luck, an emergency takes her parents to Japan, leaving Summer to care for her little brother while helping her grandmother cook and do laundry for harvest workers.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

World Book Night - Those I've Read

I was so excited to get next year’s World Book Night picks! This will be my third year as a WBN giver and my third year to read through all of the picks from January to April 23rd. This year there are thirty-five picks, five more than in previous years. I better get started! I am excited to be filling more gaps in my reading life (Agatha Christie! Joseph Heller!) as well as being introduced to books that were not previously on my radar. Reading these picks has absolutely helped me out as a bookseller. I used to believe that I was a broad reader and to some extent I have been, but I rarely approach genre fiction out of a lack of knowledge. World Book Night is giving me a mini crash course in genre fiction (especially mystery and romance) and I am loving it.

There are only three books on this list that I have read previously this time around.

I read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia in the fifth grade. And I absolutely loathed it! I think twenty years is enough time between us and I will definitely be rereading this one to discover my feelings about it as an adult.

I was in high school the first time I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. And the second time, third time, fourth time. I’m no longer sure how many times I read this brilliant epistolary tale of a young man lost in the world and finding himself through words and friends. I reread Chbosky’s book for the first time as an adult when the film version was released in 2012. It still resonated with me even as it struck me in different places in my head and my heart than it did when I was a teen. I wrote about my reread here.

It was college when I read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Specifically, it was the summer of 2008 while I was on a three month long road trip to Alaska with my grandparents. Kitchen Confidential was my companion as we travelled up through the Badlands. I regaled my driving companions with (slightly cleaned up) stories of Bourdain’s wild adventures. I shared with my grandfather his rants against vegetarians (I was one at the time) and celebrity chefs (Food Network is a favorite of my grandmother’s). It was a perfect travel book. An interesting World Book Night pick; it will definitely keep new readers interested.

And that’s it! I’ve got thirty-two great looking books ahead of me and I cannot wait to read and write about them.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: The Bone Lady by Mary Manhein

The first ever Livingston Parish Book Festival is due to be held on Saturday, November 16th. Tons of local authors will be in attendance and there will be presentations by Julie Cantrell, Cyril Vetter, and Mary Manhein. I am so excited about this event. The folks behind the scenes at the Livingston Parish library are working to build the literary presence throughout the parish and we couldn’t be happier about that here at CHB.

One thing that I may be almost as excited about though is the opportunity to meet Mary Manhein. I first heard of Manhein and her FACES lab when they helped the Louisiana Art and Science Museum to uncover the mysteries surrounding the museum’s mummy (AKA my favorite thing ever). I have always been drawn to this mummy. Indeed, as morbid as it sounds, I think death and the dead are our most prominent connection to history. Viewing this mummy that has been an unchanging presence for my entire life has become something close to a religious experience for me, so the opportunity to meet one of the people responsible for the recent anthropological study of my mummy is beyond thrilling.

I decided to pick up Mary Manhein’s 1999 book, The Bone Lady: Life as a ForensicAnthropologist in preparation of meeting her. I am so glad that I did. Manhein’s book is a great read for those with an interest forensic anthology. For those who do not yet have that interest, I will explain that forensic anthropology is essentially the study and analysis of human remains to be used (typically) in the legal setting. Basically, Manhein’s job is to help solve crimes in which the body of the deceased has reached a great state of decay. As I stated earlier, I believe that there is a lot to the shell we leave behind after death so the life of someone who makes a study of that is definitely one I would be interested in.

Each chapter of The Bone Lady is the story of one of the cases Manhein has worked. There is very little glamour here. The first case she describes is that of a hunt for a body that had been unceremoniously buried on the banks of the Mississippi River. Amongst the mud, reptiles, and bugs Manhein and co. do eventually find the body…then the real work begins as the FACES lab (Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services) attempts to discover the identity of the deceased. Over the course of her book Manhein explains many of the techniques used in order to identify the bodies that come into FACES. She ends the book by her passion project, a database of missing people created by the FACES lab. Profiles and dental records are loaded into the database in the hopes that they can solve the mystery of “those who wait.”

The Bone Lady was written with a lay audience in mind. The reader never feels that they are being spoken down to and the jargon is always very clearly explained. The main focus of the book is on individual human history. Manhein interest and enthusiasm in her cases translates exceptionally well to the reader, especially when she rounds her stories of strangers out with those from her own life. Manhein’s book is about forensic anthropology and hard science, but it is also about human connection. It is just what I was hoping for and I cannot wait to hear her speak about her writings and work on the 16th.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I rarely read “scary books.” I did enough flashlight under the covers reading as a young teen to maintain my paranoia and neurosis for life. Yet every October the feeling to read something spooky strikes. This year I finally delved into a book that has been on my TBR list for almost a decade – Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. This book was huge when it was released in 2005, and it has been in my mind since then. This story of a multigenerational search for Dracula throughout Eastern Europe seemed to have just the right creep factor for this year’s Halloween pick.

The Historian is rather a difficult novel to pin down. It is about Dracula, so it’s a horror story. But it is about Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, the actual historical figure upon whom Count Dracula is based, so it’s a historical novel. And it is about good and evil and how religion plays into that so it’s a philosophical novel. And it’s about family, how we are connected and disconnected from our own history and each other so it’s a multigenerational family saga. Basically, this novel is a postmodern, epistolary mish mash of adventure, mystery, family, history, tragedy, and philosophy. And it’s great.

The novel hinges on a young woman, daughter of a historian, finding an old book that kicks off a series of adventures in various libraries throughout Europe. She eventually discovers that her father, Paul, has been searching for the tomb of Dracula since his college mentor and fellow historian went missing decades prior. Paul’s mentor, Professor Rossi, had also been searching for the tomb for years before his disappearance. Kostova delivers her history in an epistolary form that allows for great amounts of detail. The atmosphere created within the novel is dark and exciting. The salacious side of history is always more interesting than the sunshine and light stories of the past. 

This aspect of evil in history is a large part of what Kostova seems to be grappling with in this novel. The whole of humanity is stained by a dark past of which Vlad Dracula is a king. Dracula has come to stand for everything that is seductive about evil. We are drawn to the darkness in our history as we are in our own lives. Kostova writes about the historical figure of Vlad Tepes in a way that questions our willingness to surrender to great evil. She draws comparisons from Tepes to Stalin as well historical figures before and beyond.

The Historian is a thriller of dark rooms and dusty libraries. It is also a novel that questions convention. This is not life changing literature, but it is a lot of fun. The story of Dracula plays out with a surprising lack of the supernatural and a welcome lack of cliché. The suspense and overall eerie feeling of the novel are perfect for this time of year. The right book at exactly the right time.


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