Wednesday, December 26, 2007


by John van de Ruit

Somewhere on the cover it says this book is "South Africa's Catcher in the Rye." I don't get the comparison. This book is so much better than Catcher. (Disclaimer: I think I waited too long to read CitR; I was nearly 30 by the time I read it, and all I heard was a spoiled brat whining about his rich-kid problems.)

Spud's about a 13-going-on-14-year-old who goes to boarding school on scholarship. (Younger and poorer than Salinger's protagonist; also, this is the story of him actually going to school rather than the story of him getting expelled and/or running away.) This book is funny; I laughed out loud several times. (Still not getting that comparison.)

Since it's set at an all-boys boarding school, you get a bit of implied/suspected homosexual shenanigans (not really involving the main characters), as well as a bit of the homophobia standard among boys of a certain age (not so much as to be offensive or discomfiting).

The story takes place in 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the South African government began the process of repealing apartheid laws. These facts don't affect the plot terribly much, but you get a good sense of how political events were often on people's minds during this time. Without being preachy, it's simply taken for granted that apartheid is wrong and it's days are numbered.

Bottom line, I loved this book and I'm anxious to read the next installment. I may have to ILL it, though — which I can't even do until the new year. It's on the thicker side for a young-adult novel, but the diary format makes it a quick read. I'm not sure how to recommend this one; I almost think girls would like it more than boys would. Well, boys would like it, but they'd be embarassed about it at the same time. And actually, now that I think about it, there's a bunch of stuff that would totally gross out the young ladies.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Book of Lost Things

by John Connolly

From an author who's previously written mysteries and thrillers, we now have this abso-freaking-lutely awesome fairy tale for adults. I loved this book, tore through it in less than three days, and have already verbally recommended it to at least five people.

It's a coming-of-age story with a young boy/man whose mother has died after a long illness and whose father rather swiftly remarried and produced a baby brother. (Step-mom was a nurse at the institution where the dead mum was receiving hospice care, which gives you an idea of the timeline.) The story begins in the suburbs of London during WWII. Boy has conflicts with step-monster, but she's not evil; everyone's having tough times, and once we cross Narnia-style into the alternate reality we'll see that all the characters are imbued with complexity and ambiguity.

The coolest thing about this book is the way it retells the fairy tales you thought you knew. For example, Little Red Riding Hood wasn't a girl who was nearly eaten by a wolf, she was woman who fell in love with and seduced a wolf, giving birth to a race of half-wolf, half-human creatures that embody the struggle between instinct and intellect.

This book also gets bonus points for having a gay knight (disowned prince, in fact) searching for his lost lover, and for managing to encourage acceptance and diversity while acknowledging that those ideals don't mean that people won't sometimes have negative reactions and that those reactions don't necessarily indicate their deeper feelings.

I'm putting this book in my Top 10. (There are actually only two other books that are definitely in my Top 10: The End of Faith, which I've already blogged, and Cloud Atlas, which I haven't yet, although I have written up another of the author's books, Black Swan Green. Building my Top 10 is one of the things I hope to accomplish through writing this blog.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sloppy Firsts
Second Helpings

by Megan McCafferty

A friend of mine who also reads quite a bit of teen fiction turned me on to this series. It's kind of racy, in that it doesn't shy away from sexual topics or language, and yet it's totally not explicit at all. In fact, it's frustratingly inexplicit if, like me, you actually want to read the sex bits. Oddly, my library has these books cataloged in adult fiction, but I just checked three other library systems that, with the exception of a single branch, have it cataloged in young adult.

So what's so great about another series about the dating/sex-life woes and family travails of a suburban teenager? Partly it's that flirting-with-the-edge-of-naughtiness aspect, but I also appreciated that the protagonist is (academically) smart without being the stereotypical geeky girl who gets a makeover. Best of all is the boy she falls for — cuz, honey, I fell for him too! He's also smart, but he's a bad boy too. Is there anything hotter?

I'm a little wary going into the third book, since high school is over and the star-crossed lovers are going to different colleges. It took two whole books to bag the hot bad boy, and I don't know if I'm ready to move on. We shall see. Yes. We shall. (That's an inside joke that you'll only get after you read Second Helpings.)

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Glacial Period

by Nicolas de Crecy

When I first read about this graphic novel, it was supposed to have been the first in a series of GNs commissioned by/in cooperation with the musée du Louvre, but I haven't seen hide nor hair of any others. (Could just be my library's not getting them.) The author/illustrator is well-known in Europe, apparently, but close to unknown here across the pond.

It tells the story of archaeologists far in the future, during a glacial period, searching across the frozen wastes for evidence of a fabled lost civilization (us). The part that threw me was the talking dogs, who also have the ability to smell traces of the past, brought along on the expedition not quite as equals but certainly not as servants either. (My advice is just to pretend they're not dogs.) Anway, they manage to get into the ruins of the Louvre, where the paintings and what they depict mystify the explorers, who make many bizarre assumptions and speculations about the people who created them. Meanwhile, a bunch of ancient artifacts depicting gods/goddesses of various cultures start talking to each other and one of the talking dogs. And from there it just gets weirder...

Left me a little cold (ha ha), but one of my friends really dug it. (I know, the puns have got to stop.)

Rin! 1
Rin! 2

by Satoru Kannagi

This is a really cute three-book series (and of course my library doesn't have the third book!!!!) about a kid on the high school archery team with a weird sort of crush on his older brother's best friend. See, he gets really nervous and afraid and can't shoot well unless he gets a hug from this older boy, who acts peeved about it but harbors romantic feelings he won't admit to — at least not until another suitor comes a-courtin'. There's some boy-on-boy kissing, but nothing sexier than that. Definitely one of the better non-explicit yaois I've read.

I just ILL'd the third volume.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Corrections to My Memoirs

by Michael Kun

A collection of very-short short stories, most humorous — occasionally laugh-out-loud, other times wince-inducing. I'd probably only recommend it to a connoisseur of the form. It would also make a good toilet book, as the book itself is small and the stories are easily digestible.

Worst things about it are the mock publisher's introductions to each story detailing the fictitious awards not really bestowed upon the author's work. Kind of amusing at first... then cute... then precious... then just plain irritating (rather like an infant).

Best thing about it is the cover, which, along with the title, is a jab at James Frey's A Million Little Pieces:

Oh the Glory of It All

by Sean Wilsey

I don't recall where I heard of this book, but it was pitched as "if you liked Running with Scissors...", and it's by an author who's written for McSweeney's. It lives up to that pitch, having the requisite self-absorbed mother, quirky and precocious child, and distant father, adding an evil step-mother, a series of boarding schools, a dash of juvenile delinquency, and actual verifiable facts. (The author's wealthy and well-known parents went through a drawn-out divorce even after which their relationship laundry regularly was aired on the society pages of San Francisco newspapers.) It isn't as funny as Running with Scissors, but makes up for that with the emotional depth and real pathos that was lacking from Augusten Burroughs' memoir. It could have used a touch more editing, though; I was skimming a bit toward the end.

The Nature of Monsters

by Clare Clark

Another book I read because of reviews. I was intrigued at first, but didn't actually put the book on my list until after a second or third review. It's good, but not great, but definitely good enough to recommend for historical fiction junkies. Reminded me a little of Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson.

I'd like to say there's a strong feminist undercurrent, but the author's handling of it is uneven — a matter of opportunities missed, perhaps. There's a reference to midwifery being supplanted (undermined and sabotaged, in point of fact) by medical "science" at a time when the science was plagued by all sorts of bizarre and mistaken theories, such as the idea that certain experiences or emotions during pregnancy could result in monstrous babies (with dog heads or monkey tails, harelips, birthmarks and the like). But the story ultimately skates over the issues of the vilification and persecution of midwives and the loss of herb lore and "folk remedies" to pin the shortcomings of the emerging culture of male physicians/doctors on the opium-fueled delusions and resentments of a frustrated (and himself disfigured) apothecary.

Ultimately I think this book is more about the way each of us is utterly alone, the challenges of taking care of someone else while struggling with the question of whether anyone will ever take care of us. Rather bleak stuff, but not quite on the level of a Thomas Hardy.

The Baby Jesus Butt Plug: a fairy tale

by Carlton Mellick III

There isn't much I can say about this book. I stumbled across the title somewhere, put a hold on it so I could look at it, wound up reading it just cuz it's pretty short and weird enough to captivate even while it disgusts. (Tries to disgust, I guess, it was too dumb to be truly disgusting.)

It's a punk (not my definition) fairy tale about a future (?) world where people are slaves to corporations run by children, people are copied at Kinko's instead of being born; a world in which some people keep Baby Jesuses as pets (here's a mental image for you: a Baby Jesus with six swollen teats giving suck to a litter of baby Baby Jesuses) and some people use Baby Jesuses as "marital aids" (i.e., sex toys).

I'd recommend this book only to three types of people:
  1. those who like to look at blobs of who-knows-what and/or festering wounds
  2. those who frequently say, "Omigod, this is so gross — taste it"
  3. those who enjoy the smell of their own farts

Just in Case
How I Live Now

by Meg Rosoff

I am an Anglophile. I read young adult fiction. I love Meg Rosoff!

The main character in How I Live Now is a 15- or 16-year-old girl with an eating disorder (which I totally don't remember, but it's in the subject headings) who leaves New York to stay with her auntie and cousins in England. Some sort of unspecified terrorist attack or outbreak of war leaves the kids home alone and auntie stuck wherever she went on some kind of business trip or something. So there's a bit of Swiss Family Robinson element, with the kids trying to feed themselves from the garden and survive without electricity; some Lord of the Flies conflict among them, and some bad stuff that goes down when they leave the relative safety of home to try to find out what's happening only to encounter a band of crazy Mad Max types gone nuts in the seeming apocalypse; and a dash of Blue Lagoon romance. (The anorexic girl bangs her slightly younger cousin, which caused a bit of a stir when the book won the Printz award in 2005, because technically it's incest or something, but, like, whatever, they're cousins, who cares?)

[a few hours later...] Looking back at what I wrote, it doesn't sound like a good book. I don't know why I compared it to so many books/movies when it isn't even very much like any of them. I guess it's hard to explain why it's good. The story is told in retrospect and concludes with the narrator/protagonist returning to see her cousin who was scarred — literally and figuratively — by the same experience from which she emerged more or less unscathed. I don't know what else to say, except that I really liked this book. It's relatively short, so it'd be a good one for teens not that into reading. The shortness also lends itself well to urgent book report needs, and the whole terrorism/apocalypse theme should make it that much easier.

Just in Case is also pretty good. It's a similar teen-friendly length and tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who changes his name and his image in order to try to escape Fate. Not just lower-case fate, and more than his fate per se, because Fate is a character in the book. It's a bizarre conceit to have Fate interjecting threats and heckles here and there, and it's a little annoying, but not too bad because there isn't that much of it. Much more effective and interesting are the parts of the story narrated by Justin's pre-verbal toddler brother, wise beyond his years in a very Zen sort of way. His parents are useless and nearly absent in the way parents often are in young adult books, but Justin gets by with a little help from his friends. More proof that teenagers are temporarily insane.

American Purgatorio

by John Haskell

Reviewers loved this book. Even so, I didn't bite until I'd read several of the glowing reviews. It's been a while since I read it, so maybe that's why I'm having trouble thinking of what to say; but I also remember being a little bored and frustrated with the book, but not enough to stop reading. (At least one review calls the book "mesmerizing," but last time I checked that's not what the word means.) It's kind of gimmicky too.

It must be lifted from the jacket, because several reviews refer to the main character walking out of a gas station convenience store to find that "his life has vanished." Really, it's his wife who's vanished. To the extent that his life vanishes, it's because he can't accept her disappearance and goes off on a cross-country odyssey to find her — a goose chase, in chapters corresponding to the seven deadly sins, on which he ultimately finds himself, so to speak.

******SPOILER ALERT*******
Don't read any more if you think you might read this book, I'm about to ruin the ending...

Alls I got to say is, this guy must have really liked The Sixth Sense.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

M or F?
by Lisa Papademetriou and Christopher Tebbetts

Cyrano de Bergerac meets instant messaging — hilarity ensues. That's what was supposed to happen, I guess. Also, this whole gay-boy-and-his-fag-hag-are-into-the-same-guy-and-they-don't-know-if-he's-gay-or-straight thing is getting a little tired. I wanted to like this book, I really did. And it does have a surprise twist at the end. If you haven't read as many gay-themed young adult novels as I have, you might enjoy it, cuz it's not actually that bad.

Let Us Be Perfectly Clear

by Paul Hornschemeier

This is a weirdly constructed book — really two books (Let Us Be and Perfectly Clear) back-to-back and bound together so that it has no back cover but two front covers from which one reads toward the middle of the book. It's a collection of short comic (as in strip, not as in funny) pieces which occasionally overlap but don't have an overarching theme. Some are great, some are stupid, some are very short and deeply unsatisfying, one of them will make you feel a bit nauseated. To some extent these are "art comics" that will be most appreciated by other graphic artists and illustrators. For the rest of us, it might be worth flipping through but it's not really something you'd want to read straight through.

The Invisible

by Mats Wahl

Now a Major Motion Picture! Gosh, I hate when they put that on the cover. In fact, just as this is the English translation of a book written in Sweden, the American movie is remake of a Swedish movie, and of course the American version ups the ante by adding a second invisible character because, as we all know, most Americans are incapable of detecting subtlety or paying attention to a tragedy that isn't also a romance.

As to the book, subtlety is not in the plot but in the excruciatingly slow unfolding of events. I'm not giving anything away by telling you there's an invisible character — the title does that well enough, and his invisibility becomes apparent early in the story. Really, much of the plot is rather predictable, but, thanks to excellent writing, that doesn't diminish the tense, strangled urgency or the crushing sense of tragedy that permeate the book. It's a pretty quick read, a good recommendation for "reluctant reader" teens and those with a book report due tomorrow.

Also, spend a few moments pondering the book jacket. I didn't see it until I held the book open and looked at the whole image that wraps around from front to back cover.

I Love Led Zeppelin: panty-dropping comics
Monkey Food: the complete I was seven in '75 collection

by Ellen Forney

Hilarious and highly recommended if you like comics. (These are definitely comics, not graphic novels.) Forney's drawing style is well-suited to both the comedic and the erotic themes.

I Love LZ is mostly one-page, one-off comics in the how-to vein: how to be a fag hag, as explained by Margaret Cho; how not to get caught using drugs; how to reattach severed fingers; how to twirl the tassels on your pasties — all a little dirty, subversive, sexy, etc. It also includes a few longer comics, including one written by a gay male friend and illustrated by Forney. Not that everything else is oppressively gynocentric, I just found that one extra interesting, for reasons you should be able to imagine.

Monkey Food is the episodic narrative of the author-illustrator's wonder years. I was only two in '75, but I'm still old enough to appreciate the way bell-bottoms and loud colors can turn the screw on ordinary human foibles.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Happiness: a history

by Darrin M. McMahon

A survey of the evolving definitions of "happiness" in Western thought — not, as you might expect, dealing with psychology, but rather in terms of mythology/religion, philosophy, sociology, a touch of linguistics, and even a bit of zoology (happiness being one of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals). Some examples: in ancient Greece, happiness was a matter of fate or luck; the spread of Judeo-Christian values gave rise to the notion that happiness could be achieved through virtuous living; in modern times people think happiness is mankind's natural state, that we are entitled to happiness, that we simply need to eliminate the physical and/or psychic barriers that are keeping us from being happy.

I found this book intensely interesting, but it was slow reading. I got about halfway through, took a break and read some fluffy teen fiction, then went back and finished. I'd only recommend this book to someone who's certain s/he wants to read philosophy and intellectual history; dabblers should look elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Children of Hurin

by J.R.R. Tolkien

Unless you're a nut-case, skip the introductory stuff, which will be especially confusing for those who haven't read The Silmarillion. Otherwise, this is a nice stand-alone novella of Middle Earth. The action takes place well before anything in the trilogy, and it won't add much to the experience if you're planning to read or re-read the trilogy. But like I said, it's a fine story, worth reading even if you're not a hardcore Rings fanatic.

P.S.: Sorry I haven't posted in so long. Busy with other stuff, yadda-yadda-yadda. I'll try harder.

Call Me by Your Name

by André Aciman

The first review of this book that I read made it sound really boring — and I am totally OK with books in which not much happens, so it must have sounded re-e-eally boring. I don't recall what tipped me over the edge, but it may have been the sexy cover:

Interesting, isn't it, how an image can be non-explicit and yet somehow sexier than if it were? But I digress...

I really didn't want to read another book about a teenage queer boy and the older (but not much older) man who changed his life. But I'm glad I did. The writing is just lovely, and the emotions are rendered with an intensity and realism that overshadow the plot's un-originality. The book is mostly about the build-up, the excruciating anticipation; then the short-lived explosiveness of the thing itself; and ultimately the book tries be original by tacking on a completely unnecessary chapter showing how one of the lovers never totally gets over it.

I was about to say the book is slim, so the unnecessary epilogue-y bit doesn't ruin it, but I checked online and it's 248 pages. It sure didn't seem that long, which means I must have been reading it quickly, which is kind of odd for a book that's mostly about anticipation — but maybe it isn't. The author writes about one's sense of time being affected by feelings of anticipation and desire, and I must have had an experience similar to the character's. I guess this book is more original (in quality, if not in content) than I thought. (Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure one of the reviews said something to that effect, which means I'm not being original. It's a vicious, vicious circle, isn't it?)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Twinkie, Deconstructed: my journey to discover how the ingredients found in processed foods are grown, mined (yes, mined), and manipulated into what America eats

by Steve Ettlinger

I'm behind on my reading -- again. Luckily I've just cracked Twinkie, Deconstructed, which is nonfiction but reads really fast. It's all about the origins of the ingredients of Twinkies, including a lot of stuff you probably never thought of as "food." Although not as disgusting as Fast Food Nation, it'll still make you think twice before snacking. Also a good recommendation if you enjoyed Garbage Land.

Only thing I'm going to add here is that the author isn't the greatest writer (not a lot of flair), but in a book such as this that isn't a bad thing. The writing is solid, organized, and easily understandable without sacrificing interesting details.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

How Language Works: how babies babble, words change meaning, and languages live or die

by David Crystal

This is what happens when one doesn't write one's reviews right away: of course I remember what the book is about, but my initial reaction is lost and I'm having trouble organizing my thoughts about it. So, this'll be kind of a short one.

I wound up having to skim parts of this book, especially at the end. I'm really interested in cognitive linguistics, neurophysiology, semiotics... so the creation of language, learning of language, the biology and psychology of language are all subjects I'm jazzed about. Heck, I already knew about Noam Chomsky's universal grammar theory. How Language Works covers a lot of ground, including some stuff I found rather boring, but the parts I liked were super.

It's hard to find nonfiction that strikes the right tone between professional/academic and popular/readable. This particular book was a tad to "approachable" for me, in part because I'm already acquainted with some of the material. Overall, I'd say this book is an OK introduction to a broad range of subjects loosely gathered under the banner of Linguistics, but it's too broad and loose to satisfy more than a passing fancy.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Point to Point Navigation: a Memoir, 1964 to 2006
Palimpsest: a Memoir

by Gore Vidal

Unless you already have some familiarity with Gore Vidal, don't read Point to Point Navigation until you've read Palimpsest, which covers the earlier part of his life. Even having read the earlier memoir, as well as some of his fiction and essays, I still found this latest book a bit erratic and at times full-on confusing. (Give the guy a break, he's getting pretty old.) Anyone who enjoys reading memoirs will enjoy Palimpsest, but P to P is probably only going to appeal to hardcore Vidal-ophiles.

I read Palimpsest ages ago, at a time when I had zero interest in nonfiction. I really only picked it up because it had a picture of G.V.'s extremely handsome boarding-school boyfriend. Turns out Vidal's life is a fascinating mix of politics, old money, and show business. It helps, too, that he has a very sharp wit and isn't shy about speaking his mind. He was also, in his own way, a gay rights pioneer: he wasn't an activist, and he didn't "come out" publicly the way the famous do these days; he simply always was, unapologetically, who he was, one facet of which happened to be that he's gay.

Other books by Vidal that I've read include Myra Breckenridge and The Smithsonian Institution, both trashy-fun fiction (the latter actually has a paperback edition with a romance-style cover); I also read a collection of his essays, Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta. I wanna read more of his fiction, but there's so much other stuff to read too. Sigh.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Effect of Living Backwards

by Heidi Julavits

Although I read it maybe five years ago, this is a book I frequently recommend — in part because it's frequently on the shelf in my library, unlike a lot of other titles I'd like to recommend. Plus it's just a really interesting, weird book with flavors of Douglas Coupland and Haruki Murakami, and even a little Tom Clancy.

What does that get you? Surreal... familial... terrorism... with laughs. Two sisters who hate each other are on a hijacked plane, where they start competing for the romantic attention of their blind captor. Doesn't sound like the kind of story that's capable of providing insight into the human condition, does it? And yet somehow it works, but it's difficult to explain; you just have to trust me. The convoluted plot and psychological screw-turning are kind of reminiscent of an M.C. Escher drawing: there's that quality of convincing realism at war with the subtle (but obvious once you see it) impossibility of it all.

Still not sounding like much of a recommendation? What can I say, it's a tough sell. Best for adventurous readers and risk-takers.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Zine roundup

Yay zines! I've been reading tons, and I just don't have the energy to blog them all individually, so here are a few quick and dirty zine reviews.

The Secret Files of Captain Sissy, No. 5
Kind of a journal-y storytelling zine written by a guy who:
1. Got a real bad concussion when he crashed on his skateboard (sexy)
2. Did an internship with the United Steelworkers (righteous)
3. Traveled with a mobile zine exhibit (kewl)
4. Witnessed the Great West Philadelphia Food Co-op Strike of 2002 (my homie!)
5. Suggested changing the Flaming Hot Cheetos mascot to a flaming hot queer boy (delicious)

Camp Mania
Hilarious recollections from a summer-camp counselor. Occasionally creepy, as summer camp should be. The typos only make it funnier.

Go Fuck Yourself : a mini-zine devoted to D.I.Y. sex toys and gender-bending devices
I only flipped through this one. Like a cookbook, it's not the kind of the thing you read cover to cover. Lots of great ideas if you're crafty and horny.

28 Pages Lovingly Bound with Twine #13
Another journal-y zine with stories about getting a new hybrid car and peeing on campfires after drinking lots and lots of Reed's Extra Ginger Brew. Very well put together — they're not kidding about the "lovingly."

Pictures of '70s-era graduate students with phrases culled from their faculty evaluations. Who knew professors were so cruel? And yet it's funny... funny like when people fall down.

Sugar Needle #29
Amusing reviews of strange candies from around the world, reminiscent of McSweeney's Reviews of New Food. Ooh, and the cover is hand-colored!

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Tale of Love and Darkness

by Amos Oz

Here's a book I read a few years ago that came to mind recently when I found out the author is on the shortlist for the 2007 Man Booker International Prize. I must have a read a review in the NYT Book Review, because I read it at a time when I wasn't doing much nonfiction; it's actually one of the books that got me interested in reading more nonfiction.

Oz is known for his controversial views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and this memoir recounts his childhood and young-adulthood before, during, and after the creation of the Israeli state and the many wars and skirmishes (military, political, and otherwise) that entailed. While the backdrop is certainly interesting, the author isn't taking sides, expressing opinions, or directly confronting any of those issues. What's really compelling is the author's personal emotional and intellectual journey. It's damn well written (and translated), very moving (I got a little verklempt), and definitely one for posterity (for literary merit and historical value).

I'm not quite ready to put this in my Top 10, but if I had a Top 100 it'd be a shoe-in.

Monday, April 09, 2007

All of the Above

by Shelley Pearsall

Yet another based-on-a-true-story tale of inner-city kids overcoming adversity with the help of an inspiring teacher — but I don't mean that in a bad way. The concept has been over-used in movies, but the author, a former teacher herself, makes it work on a kid-friendly level in this cute, heartwarming book. (We're talking upper end of the J-fiction age range.) The kids form a sort of math club to try and build the world's largest tetrahedron, but the story is all about the kids and doesn't dwell on the math long enough to become nerdy.

Rotating chapters through different characters' points of view is risky in a book of this length, but it's pulled off fairly well. From the junior thug with a heart of gold to the frustrated white math teacher, most of the characters display a basic goodness, but not without flaws. The range of characters ensures most young readers will find one with whom to identify. (All the characters are black except the teacher.) The ending is positive and upbeat without being overly triumphant; it's realistic because you can see the kids' problems aren't all magically fixed by this one success story.

I would definitely recommend this book for average middle-school readers and younger kids reading above grade level. Although the story and the characters would probably appeal to a reluctant or struggling readers, the length might be an obstacle for them.

[Note to readers: I promise I'll do some grown-up stuff soon.]

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Left Hand Dreams of Him

(Only the Ring Finger Knows, vol. 2)

by Satoru Kannagi

I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH. I was giddy most of the time I was reading it — picture this: me, on the bus, reading a lavender book with pretty boys and flowers on the cover, giggling every few minutes. If you know me, you know I'm just about impossible to embarrass, but this nearly did the trick.

First, the plot: "Passion builds and tempers flare in The Left Hand Dreams of Him. Wataru and Yuichi may think the biggest challenges of their new love are far behind them, but no one said they'd be left alone for good! Even a private vacation getaway is full of meddling intruders who seem to have their sights on disrupting the careful lovers. Their matching rings unite them in heart and spirit ... will the men trust in this special bond enough to weather the storms of controversy?"

Wataru, the younger half of this couple, starts off as his usual wimpy self, but with the mentorship of a new friend — who at first has the ominous aura of a dangerous liaison — he finds an unexpected inner strength. Yuichi, who's always been Wataru's rock, stumbles when confronted with a formidable familial foe. (Sorry for the alliteration; I couldn't help it.) It's not a complete role reversal, but it's an interesting new dynamic that has me excited to read the third book. (But I'm also a little scared, because volume 3's title is The Ring Finger Falls Silentaieee!)

This second installment in the series also turns up the heat between the sheets, if you know what I mean. There's nothing explicit; this isn't erotica or porn, it's Harlequin-style romance. But there are a number of stirring scenes, like this one: "While sweetly biting his earlobe, Yuichi spoke in a thrillingly romantic voice. Wataru reflexively stiffened his body, but his lips were accustomed enough to this to patiently melt that away. Each time Yuichi moved his kisses bit by bit from earlobe to neck, then to left and right collarbones, a light giddiness attacked Wataru. In the afternoon sun-filled room, only the sense of rubbing skin and the timbre of kisses stretched out just like an ephemeral ripple." I'm not sure what "the timbre of kisses" is, but I want some!

See also The Lonely Ring Finger.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A note to readers

Blame my moon in Virgo, but I'm going to be re-publishing some more stuff today that isn't really new but just has tweaked formatting and/or labels. Apologies for the annoyance.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A note to readers

I'm trying to finish a bit of re-formatting and tagging of older posts, which involves re-publishing, so they may show up in your blog reader as new items even though they are not new. Thank you for your understanding and support. (Now, how about some more comments?!)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

American Born Chinese

by Gene Luen Yang

It's the first graphic novel to win the Printz Award. While it's certainly worthy, I can't help feeling that the format is what put it over the top, that the librarian judges wanted to seem progressive and hip. (The immigration/diversity theme can't have hurt either.) That said, I don't think the story would work very well without the pictures.

Myth, reality, and fantasy converge from three separate storylines that turn out to be threads of the same narrative. Although the conclusion is a tad abrupt, it's satisfying as well as surprising, and it combines the three elements without seeming forced or unreal — despite the essential unreality of two of the stories. There are some obvious lessons about cultural and personal identity, but it manages not to be too preachy, which might actually be a function of the obviousness. The lesson is explicit, so it doesn't have to be dwelled upon or reiterated.

As far as graphic novels go, this one's easy to read. It uses a straightforward square-panel design, and the illustrations are clean and simple with bright, engaging colors. I tore through it in about an hour.

The format, the humor, and the brevity make this book a good recommendation for "reluctant readers," but I can't help feeling a little disappointed that an award winner doesn't demand a bit more of the reader.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The "God" Part of the Brain: a scientific interpretation of human spirituality and god

by Matthew Alper

I was really intrigued by this book — that is, until I read it. (Well, some of it anyway. I couldn't finish.) I'm really interested in neuroscience and neurophysiology, and I've been thinking about god and religion lately, so I was pretty excited to read this book.

Where to begin? Title, subtitle, and... what the heck is that? Off to the side of the cover, vertical rather than horizontal, there's a sub-subtitle: "a personal journey." So our author is neither scientist nor theologian. He is widely, but not deeply, read. As a result, some of his ideas and interpretations are over-simplified, and the superficiality tends to undermine the cross-discipline synthesis he's attempting.

That said, the underlying concept is pretty interesting. Just as our capacity for language, for example, is tied to certain physiological sites and structures within our brains, and these sites and structures have developed through evolutionary processes, perhaps we have also evolved a capacity to think and to experience the world in spiritual terms. (Now I'm simplifying. This part of the argument takes up a number of chapters.)

OK. Fine so far. So what's the evolutionary advantage of our spiritual capacity? (The author sometimes calls it a "tendency.") The author suggests that as our time consciousness evolved and combined with our awareness of our own mortality, we would have been paralyzed by fear of our inevitable death. And this is where he loses me. I don't get why the fear of death would be so great that proto-humans (or whatever) would be unable to perform the tasks of day to day survival. The author's analogy of a bunny confronted by a mountain lion does not compute. Fear of imminent, violent death is not equal to fear of theoretical, potential, eventual death. (Yeah, any of us could die in the next two seconds, but probably not.) Dragging in our ability to conceptualize infinity (and therefore to recognize our personal insignificance) does not, for me, enhance the fear — or the thesis. Ditto for fear of losing loved ones; it's just not scary enough to make me stop eating.

I soldiered on a bit, but it only got worse. Next the author tries to explain the range of spirituality and religiosity with the bell curve: most people fall somewhere in the middle, but some people are at the extremes. Atheism is the side of the curve where folks have little to no spiritual capacity/tendency. So why aren't atheists acting like terrified bunnies? Why aren't they dying because they're too scared to live? This incongruity further destabilizes the already shaky theory.

And then I quit reading.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


by David Almond

Another young adult book that I checked out ages ago and only recently got around to reading. Although the author is popular — at least with librarians and award-givers — I had no problem renewing the book repeatedly, so the kids weren't exactly champing at the bit.

It's a bit of an odd story. It borrows heavily from Jewish folklore (the legend of the golem) without ever mentioning Judaism, and it's set in what seems like the '50s or '60s against a background of Catholic versus Protestant animosity without being in Northern Ireland (rather, it's in northwestern England). Even setting all that strangeness aside, I'm not sure for whom the author is writing, cuz I don't think too many teens are going to connect with this story. It manages to seem old-fashioned without actually dating itself very clearly. (Unlike Black Swan Green, a book by another English author that is set in the indirectly specified recent past but manages to seem timeless. Also unlike Almond's Printz award runner-up Skellig, which was weird and supernatural in a positive way.) It also does that thing where it jumps right in to the story and the reader is supposed to figure out the setting and get oriented by picking up little clues and cues; authors seem to think this terribly clever, but the technique is rarely deployed effectively, in my experience. No offense meant to teens, but if I found it hard to assimilate the dialect and social context, it won't be easy or fun for young adults.

Anyway, it isn't horrible (mercifully short, more like it), but I wouldn't recommend it. The ending is kinda slapdash, and the themes are much more effectively explored in Skellig.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Burn Journals

by Brent Runyon

It's kind of weird, given the subject matter, to say I was excited about this book — but I was. I first heard this young man a year or two earlier on "This American Life" talking, with surprising humor, about how he had attempted suicide by self-immolation, survived, and recovered (as much as one can from something like that).

The book, as you might guess, is based on the journals he kept during the many months he spent in hospital, chronicling his physical and emotional recovery process. While I give the book high marks overall — it's very readable, even for teens who don't read a lot, despite appearing to be kinda thick — I was a bit disappointed in the pre-burn portion of the book. I mean, I realize it's difficult to put intense emotions into words, but I just wasn't feeling it in the lead up to the actual suicide attempt. Not to be harsh or anything, but it sounded like a bit of a lark: got in trouble at school again, parents'll be mad, maybe I'll just set myself on fire. (See this earlier post for more evidence of my inability to empathize.)

Good nonfiction recommendation for teens, especially those who like to read true-crime and/or true-trauma books in the vein of A Child Called "It". Another sort of similar book I'll be blogging at some point is Sickened: the Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Life and Fate

by Vasily Grossman

Long story short, this is the World War II version of War and Peace. It's a sweeping narrative following the fortunes — personal, political, military — of an extended family during the battle for Stalingrad (though most of them aren't actually in Stalingrad at the time); it's 870 pages, plus eight pages of character names (not even including the many nicknames Russians use).

It's also a really fantastic book, well worth reading. Special interest in Russian lit is not required, but it would help. Also not for the faint-hearted; you'll be mired in the tragedy of war, the tragedy of the human condition, the tragedy — and tragic ironies — of post-revolutionary Russia. (An example of the latter: "The soul of wartime Stalingrad was freedom. ... Here, ten years later, was constructed a vast dam, one of the largest hydro-electric power stations in the world — the product of the forced labour of thousands of prisoners.")

On top of all that tragedy, I found other reasons to almost cry. (I seem to be almost crying more often as I get older. I get all verklempt every time I think about Jimmy Carter.) This book is about a war in the '40s, was written in the '50s and published in the U.S. in the '80s, and the world is still effed up in the same exact ways. I know I shouldn't find that surprising, yet somehow it's devastating. Won't we ever learn?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys

by Eric Garcia

This is one that I read ages ago, and I've selected it as my first "blast from the past" review because it's also one of the suggestions I came up with the other day when a patron asked for fun, light reading and for the first time I ACTUALLY USED MY BLOG AS A READERS ADVISORY TOOL!!!!!!!

Anyway, it's absolute fluff — and absolutely delicious. It's a bonbon of a book in which our protagonist, frustrated with dating and disappointed yet again by a man, refuses to roll over and take it like a woman. Instead she ties him up in her basement and begins training him to become a better man, the kind of man a modern young(-ish) woman would be proud to date, perhaps even marry. As you might imagine, hilarity ensues.

It's chick lit — written by a man. It's a beach book — although I cannot condone reading in the presence of large amounts of sand and/or water.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Dear Myself

by Eiki Eiki

What a disappointment. A great idea that didn't deliver. Teenage boy loses two years of memories (car accident gave him amnesia, but when the amnesia went away he forgot what happened during the years he had amnesia) and has to come to terms with the gay relationship he began during the amnesia years, with the help of his precocious younger sister and a letter (hence the title) that he wrote to himself before regaining/losing his memory. Not really cute or sweet, not sexy, and I read the whole thing in about half and hour.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Doing Our Own Thing: the degradation of language and music and why we should, like, care

by John McWhorter

First of all, I didn't finish this book. I didn't even get to the part about music. I first noticed this book on the shelf when I started working at the library six and a half years ago, but I didn't check it out until about a year and a half ago. Then it sat on my shelf, getting renewed again and again, for almost a year before I actually picked it up and started to read it.

I've been accused of being a grammar geek, a purist, too conservative when it comes to language — and worse. But I'm really not as conservative as some have made me out to be; I'm more than willing to allow for casual usage, new terminology, and the like. What I cannot abide are changes in language that are nothing more than accommodations of lazy, careless, sloppy usage. Yes, rules are made to be broken, but one ought to know the rules first.

That said, I'm absolutely thrilled by this book. The author is not insisting on correct grammar at all times; indeed, he has many positive things to say about the richness and usefulness of casual expression. The point of the book is that we're losing out when we fail to take advantage, in appropriate situations, of the rhetorical power of formal speaking.

A perfect example is President George W. Bush, whose choppy sound-bite style of speaking actually appeals to many people, in part because it doesn't sound like a speech; it sounds like he's just talking. On the other hand we have the endangered breed of speakers, such as Al Gore, whose speeches are more like written words read aloud (which they essentially are) and therefore can use structures, styles, and rhetorical techniques that are difficult to employ spontaneously.

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, this dumbing-down is a very recent trend. Used to be that people of all education levels could appreciate and understand oratory in a style that seems to most people today to be old-fashioned, baroque, snobbish, brainy, etc.

Now, I really need to just wrap this up. It took me forever to read the book, and I didn't even finish, and somehow I've gotten bogged down in writing this. I haven't been adding to my blog nearly as much as I'd like, so I need to move on!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Vernon God Little

by D.B.C. Pierre

This is another one of those books that I passed up when I first heard about it. Reviews were pretty good but not raving, and the whole school shooting theme turned me off. Then I read another review, where the reviewer decided that instead of writing about his top ten of 2006, he'd rather talk about this book, which was published in 2003.

I wish I had saved the link to that review, because what hooked me was the description of the protagonist's unique voice. Books in which the hero is of a certain age inevitably invite comparisons to Catcher in the Rye; but where Catcher is all angst and omphaloskepsis, Vernon God Little is satire at it's best: at once hysterically funny and deeply philosophical in its critique of the "reality show" that passes for culture in the '00s. Consumerism, therapy, consumerism as therapy; media, celebrity, and "info-tainment"; fatness, fast food, and irritable bowel syndrome; porn, perversion, and punishment — nothing escapes the searing sarcasm of a young man world-weary and wise before his time and on the run from inept law enforcement and the court of popular opinion.

There were so many quotes I wanted to use here as an example of the character's voice, or just to keep for posterity, but I was reading the book poolside with a pina colada in one hand, and I absolutely abhor dog-earing, so I was only able to mark one:

"There's the learning, O Partner: that you're cursed when you realize true things, because then you can't act with the full confidence of dumbness anymore."

Pithy, man, pithy.

P.S., I've always thought Holden Caulfield is a whiny bitch.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Don't Worry Mama

by Narise Konohara

As I did in one of my earliest posts, also for a yaoi book, I'll let the book speak for itself. From the back cover:

"Hey, I'm not a chubby chaser." His head was filled with dangerous thoughts. Was he insane? Who did he think this man was? This was Imakura. The obese monster Imakura. How could he even think about lusting after him?

How can you not read a book with that on the cover? I enjoyed this book very much — which is saying quite a bit, really, since most of the time I was reading it I was gravely ill. (Alright, maybe not gravely, but it certainly felt grave; I did hallucinate, and I did wonder if I were dying.) In any case, the gripping storyline and the realistic portrayal of emotions certainly took my mind off the pain and dizziness.

Since this is a novel with some illustrations (as opposed to an actual graphic novel) it's not as sexually explicit as some other yaoi. On the other hand, it spells things out quite a bit more than Only the Ring Finger Knows, and the very last illustration is more risque than it appears at first glance. Guess that's why the Ring Finger series is cataloged as young adult fiction and this one's adult fiction.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Black Swan Green

by David Mitchell

Mitchell is a freakin' genius. His last book before this one was Cloud Atlas, which is firmly in my Top 10 Best Books Ever. Critics gushed over it too, and it was a finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize.

This, his latest, did not fare so well with the reviewers. Not one of the reviews I read, however, actually reviewed the book on its own merits. The critics seemed blinded by disappointment that Black Swan Green isn't as bold and complex and breathtaking as Cloud Atlas — which really surprised me. Normally it's the public who feel betrayed when an artist doesn't copy himself. Usually the critics have enough experience to realize that artists must be allowed to grow and experiment and change. I guess they were annoyed he hadn't already done his compulsory semi-autobiographical, first-person-narrative coming of age novel. (Every novelist is allowed one, but most get it out of the way earlier in their careers.)

In any case, Black Swan Green is a charming and funny tale of boyhood adventures and travails, navigating social hierarchies and familial decay. It's easy and comfortable to slip into the protagonist's world, which is, in a way, simpler than Mitchell's other work, but possesses a subtlety and intricacy of its own — a different, more intimate type of complexity. I really enjoyed reading it, and I laughed out loud several times. It's sort of a "beach book" for those who normally disdain such things, and accessible enough to be enjoyed by teens.

[Disclaimer: I am an Anglophile, which no doubt contributed to my enjoyment of this book. In fact, it inspired one of my new year's resolutions: to incorporate more Britishisms into my speech. Cheers, then!]