Category: Staff Blog (Page 1 of 32)

“The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown

“…those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift a crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow became one thing—a thing that could not quite be defined, a thing that was so in tune with the water and the earth and the sky above that, as they rowed, effort was replaced by ecstasy.” 

JacketThe New York Times bestselling The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown is about the Washington University rowing team that won the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Through newspaper articles, journals, interviews, and the like, Brown weaves his research into an engaging tale of overcoming odds and pushing toward success.

While the story involves the journey of nine crew students at Washington, it focuses on Joe Rantz, a talented boy forced to grow up too fast. You get a glimpse of the heartache and struggle he had to endure at a young age that ultimately gave him the fight and determination he needed to excel on the Washington crew.

It’s amazing how these boys were not only a part of a highly-competitive rowing team, but they also had to attend class and do school work, as well as take on jobs to pay their way through college. The demands placed upon that generation and their perseverance through it all are truly inspirational. It was their resolve that transferred into rowing and led them to become Olympic champions.

I never really knew how both physically and mentally demanding rowing is. The details about each stroke, the technique, and how the body is effected left me feeling exhausted in some sections. It also amazed me how in-sync they had to be: “The movements of each rower are so intimately intertwined, so precisely synchronized with the movements of all the others, that any one rower’s mistake or subpar performance can throw off the temp of the stroke, the balance of the boat, and ultimately the success of the whole crew.”

After reading about how much the sport tested the team and how their coaches pushed them, it really made me appreciate rowing, and I think it is one of the most challenging sports of all time.

Not only is this a story about rowing, but Brown also paints a picture of the world during the 1930s. The Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the rise of Hitler all set the backdrop to the primary story of collegiate rowing. The reader gets a better understanding of the political scene during the games and just how influential the American victory in Berlin was on an international level.

I also loved reading about how the team bonded together, not just because of rowing, but because of who they were—the sons of farmers and miners, just trying to survive and working for a better future. The 1936 Olympics wasn’t just a victory for the University of Washington, but for all Americans during a dark time. It’s no wonder that those nine boys in the boat still inspire people today.

Overall, it was an excellent read, and I’m excited to see how it will translate onto the Big Screen in the next year or so.

Isn’t There Supposed to be a Mad Scientist in This Story?!

Original to the Clarion-Ledger 

WFES062252111-2What is there to do when a picture book has been canceled? Pencil is the narrator and director in this story. The crayons are getting ready to act out their parts. Frankencrayon is sent to page 22 to make his grand entrance. He is, as his name suggests, a crayon towering over the rest, a mix of green, orange, and purple broken crayons held together by masking tape.

When the lights go out, there is a horrible screeching noise. And worse yet, when the lights come on, there is a terrible scribble all the way across the page! As Teal crayon says, “A scribble can ruin a picture book!”

The mystery scribble just keeps getting bigger and bigger…where could it be coming from?

The pencil (director of the story) gets a notice that the picture book has been canceled.

1. No one likes the scribble thing.

2. The characters are gone.

3. Isn’t there supposed to be a mad scientist in this story?

But the pencil forgets to tell Frankencrayon that the picture book has been canceled, and on page 22, Frankencrayon makes his grand entrance onto the page with the scribble! But the lights are off, and where has everyone gone, and most of all, WHO IS SCRIBBLING IN THIS BOOK??

Frankencrayon is clever, funny, and teaches kids to make a creation out of what other people might perceive as a mess. Bring the kids to meet the author and illustrator, Michael Hall, and join us for a FRANKENCRAYON story time on Thursday, January 28th, at 3:00 p.m. at Lemuria Bookstore.

Call 601-366-7619 with questions.

Morrison’s “God Help the Child” Deserves a Second Look

MorrisonSince it will be coming out in paperback later this month, I feel it’s appropriate to bring back into the conversation my favorite fictional release from 2015, Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. After Morrison announced the imminent publication of her latest novel just over a year ago, it quickly became one of the most anticipated books of 2015; however, it was published in late April to somewhat mixed reviews.

God Help the Child tells the story of Lula Ann Bridewell, a blue-black girl born to light-skinned parents who view the darkness of her skin as an insult to their respectable family. Unable to feel anything but shame for his only child, Lula Ann’s father soon deserts the family, leaving her mother Sweetness to care for the unwanted girl. Sweetness assumes the responsibility of preparing Lula Ann for a harsh world that will undoubtedly punish her for having dark skin by withholding affection for her daughter entirely. The only departure from this loveless childhood comes after Lula Ann testifies against an elementary school teacher for sexual abuse. The thumbs up she gets from fathers and hugs she gets from mothers do not compare to the tender grasp of Sweetness’ hand as they walk down the street away from the courtroom.

Fast forward some fifteen years, and Lula Ann has become Bride, a strikingly beautiful woman behind a successful cosmetics line based in Los Angeles. Dressing always and only in white, Bride has changed her name and transformed her dark skin into her most valuable asset. Although she turns the head of every man and woman she passes, black and white, she has recently been abruptly abandoned by her enigmatic boyfriend Booker, an event that she not-so-convincingly attempts to downplay. Hoping to restore some of her self-worth that disappeared along with Booker, Bride goes in search of Sophia Huxley, the very teacher whom she helped imprison with her testimony and who was released on parole earlier that month.

These events and those that follow are told through chapters of rotating narrators: Sweetness, Bride, Brooklyn (Bride’s best friend and coworker), and Booker. Though Sweetness’ and Brooklyn’s chapters are shorter and mostly revolve around Bride, Booker’s chapter is long and details his own complicated childhood. Here we learn that Booker’s older brother Adam was abducted and murdered when he was young, an event that Booker, unlike his family, can never accept and move past. Consequently, Booker isolates himself emotionally and quietly nurtures his anger. Booker’s past, along with Bride’s, highlight the underlying theme of the novel, that “what you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”

In the wise words of my coworker Lisa, God Help the Child doesn’t quite pack the punch of some of Morrison’s most successful novels, but frankly, it doesn’t have to be her best work for me to call it my favorite book of last year. Stylistically, Morrison is a master, and her prose is as lyrical as ever. In one of my favorite paragraphs of the novel, Booker recalls a memory of Adam skateboarding, the last time he saw his brother before his disappearance.

“It was early September and nothing anywhere had begun to die. Maple leaves behaved as though their green was immortal. Ash trees were still climbing toward a cloudless sky. The sun began turning aggressively alive in the process of setting. Down the sidewalk between hedges and towering trees Adam floated, a spot of gold moving down a shadowy tunnel toward the mouth of a living sun.”

Toni Morrison – Home

Morrison is without question one of the most important authors in the world today, and, at age 84, she doesn’t seem to have lost her touch. We are lucky to still have her around, publishing a novel every three to five years. It is a truly special experience to read a literary giant during her own lifetime.

God Help the Child will be out in paperback on January 26. Also, if you enjoy being read to, check out the audiobook read by the author in her signature mesmerizing voice.

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

Jacket (2)“Wolf wilders are almost impossible to spot. A wolf wilder is not like a lion tamer nor a circus ringmaster: Wolf Wilders can go their whole lives without laying eyes on a sequin. They look, more or less, like ordinary people. There are clues: More than half are missing a piece of finger, the lobe of an ear, a toe or two. They go through clean bandages the way other people go through socks. They smell very faintly of raw meat.”

So begins Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, a story that envelops readers in words, taking them on a journey into the dark of the snowy Russian forests and into the heart of St. Petersburg. It is a story that wraps around the reader much like the red coat the protagonist wears.

In The Wolf Wilder, the nobility of Russia purchase wolf pups to bring their families good fortune. The wolves wear gold chains and are taught to be tame. Once the wolf begins to act, well, like a wolf, they are sent back into the wilderness. This is where the wolf wilder comes in to help “untame” the wolf and teach it to run and hunt and survive in the wilderness where it belongs. Feodora, described as a “dark and stormy girl” and her mother, Marina, are wolf wilders in the deepest forests of Russia, far away from St. Petersburg, where they turn the wolves wild in an abandoned chapel.

When Marina is arrested by the cruel General Rakov for defiance against the tsar for “wilding” the wolves instead of shooting them outright, Feodora embarks on a dangerous journey to St. Petersburg to rescue her mother. She is accompanied by three wolves named White, Gray, and Black, and by Ilya, a boy her own age who used to be an imperial soldier but whose lightness of foot is much like the wolves.

With motifs from Little Red Riding Hood, Rundell spins her own fairytale that, much like the Grimms, goes into the darkest part of the forest, with little hope of escape. Rundell has a way with words and language, as seen in her previous two middle grade novels, Rooftoppers and Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, and The Wolf Wilder does not disappoint. Feo, a little girl who might be too small to notice, outsmarts the imperial soldiers with her wits, her wolves, and the help of friends she makes along the way. A beautifully enchanting story to read this winter, The Wolf Wilder shows that there is glittering undercurrent even in the darkest of moments, and even the smallest of golden moments can illuminate the darkness.

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger.

The Strangeness on My Shelf

Jacket (4)Imagine you’re broke (if you aren’t already), and you’ve just shown up to your successful cousin’s wedding. You’re without a gift, but even worse, you’re without a date. Old relatives are walking by and pinching your cheek asking when they’ll be able to come to your wedding.

You’ve just opened a bottle of vodka and are drinking from under the table as you watch family endow the newlyweds with lavish gifts. Then it happens: a moment so powerful, your life changes irreparably. Someone is looking your way. They make direct contact with you; with eyes that inspire such transformative romance, you spend the following years waxing poetic and sending love letters.

This is precisely what happened to the hapless protagonist, Mevlut, in Orhan Pamuk’s newest novel A Strangeness in My Mind.

Mevlut is a classic Pamuk protagonist, helplessly unaware, frustratingly stubborn, almost detestable, but eerily familiar, as if somehow at any moment you could lose focus and become the Mevlut of your own story. Unbeknownst to him, Mevlut finds himself as the groundzero for a massive tug-of-war much larger than his life, much larger than Istanbul, even larger than Turkey itself.

The story is centered around Mevlut’s move to Istanbul from a rural, more conservative Turkish village. Mevlut is a struggling street vendor, trying to catch the wave of new capital and European currency flowing in the streets. He’s attempting to make a living plying a trade that is on the brink of non-existence. But, it is what his father taught him to do, and he never finished school so he’s compelled to continue doing the one thing that he knows well.

Istanbul becomes the subtle protagonist as it begins to throb with life around Mevlut. Streets once empty are filled with chatter. Women walk without veils and bars serve Raki, a strong, Turkish liquor. Mevlut doesn’t despise the new Istanbul, but he’s rather like our moms and dads trying to use an iPhone—he gets frustrated seeing the things he’s comfortable with being replaced by new things that operate in new ways.

The neighborhoods of Istanbul are segregated in profound complexities. In so many moments, these mixed communities explode with violence between nationalists and communists, east and west, north and south, Islamist and secularist, and Turks and Kurds. But Istanbul, in all of its ambition and old-world mystique, will overcome all challenges and remain smack dab in the middle of the world.

Photograph of Orhan Pamuk by Jerry Bauer

Photograph of Orhan Pamuk by Jerry Bauer

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that A Strangeness in My Mind is an adrenaline rush for news junkies. The novel covers a vast period of Istanbul’s history, from adolescence to maturity. It won’t skip over hardship, car bombs, thugs, and systemic corruption in order to romanticize the city. Rather, it provides an unheard history attuned to a Western audience.

As a personal note, I began reading A Strangeness in My Mind, ironically, over turkey during thanksgiving. Irony aside, the climate is no laughing matter, and the political situation involving Erdogan’s contested election and the subsequent attack on Russian aircraft, then the assassination of the most powerful Kurdish lobbyist cannot be correctly understood via western media sources. A Strangeness in My Mind is a conduit to understanding Turkey, Pamuk’s guiding hand will provide an eager reader with a powerful emotional connection to the myriad of communities coexisting there.

“SPQR” Lives Up to the Hype

Jacket (1)I love reading about pretty much any historical period. But I really love reading about Rome! I memorized toga styles once- it’s kind of an obsession. So I was excited that a Roman history book has been flying off the shelf this past month. I decided to try it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Remitto!

SPQR is short for “senatus populusque romanus” which means the “Senate and People of Rome”. It was a symbol that appeared often on Roman literature and legal documents, and refers to the governing body of the Roman Republic and its people. Beard chose a really apt title here, because I could actually divide this book in half. Half focuses on Roman life and culture. This was definitely the most fun part of the book. It is like a collection of stories that make the past come alive.

There are stories about pirates and Spartacus and his army fighting with kitchenware for weapons, and that strange tale about Plautus and Terence. There are also stories that challenge some of the famous annals of Rome. For example, do you remember that legend that Caligula declared war on Poseidon and commanded his armies to gather seashells from the ocean as war spoils? Beard tells us there may have been some confusion over the Latin word musculi, which can mean “shells” or “military huts”. His soldiers may have been destroying a military camp, not hunting for seashells.

The other half of the book explores the Senatus and all of Rome’s leaders. The way they constructed their government was a source of inspiration for America’s founding fathers, so this is a pretty interesting read regarding the earliest seeds of a republic. Many of the questions that people like Polybius and the Forum struggled with are still things we debate today. Dealing with “terrorists” outside the due process of the law is not just an issue that the US is struggling with. It’s really interesting to find that many political and social beliefs have been attempted before, and it very often offers insight to see how things may or may not have worked in the past. Beard doesn’t lean too hard on any real bias, a lot of the questions she poses are given with the historical evidence we have, and then the reader is free to make of it what they will.

I absolutely recommend this book to anybody wanting a more in-depth look at Rome. The writing isn’t too dry, or too romantic. The book feels very conversational; there isn’t a strict chronological order to it, so it feels like you sat down with a historian over drinks and asked them about some of the interesting bits of ancient Rome. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anybody that doesn’t have some knowledge going in. But it’s a little treasure trove, and definitely lives up to the hype.

Falling Out of Reality

a671ed81-422b-4872-aa0e-0a8982a46530Eleanor was not what I expected.

When I read “Eleanor has been ripped out of time…” on the front cover of this novel, I expected there to be quite a bit of time travel; but that’s not quite what happened here. Turns out, it isn’t necessarily different times that Eleanor is traveling to; it is different realities. In fact, it is different people’s realities.

In 1985, Eleanor’s identical twin sister, Esmerelda, is torn from her life in a horrible accident. Esmerelda’s death pulls the family apart and Eleanor becomes a source of resentment to her own mother. Her parents separate and her mother begins to heavily rely on alcohol to help her get through the days she spends seeing her dead daughter’s face on Eleanor. Eleanor spends her days just trying to keep her mother alive.

The first time it happens, Eleanor is fourteen. She walks through a simple door at school, and vanishes. Again and again, against her will, she falls out of her reality and into other ones. Sometimes only an hour has gone by, sometimes days or even months have passed before she returns to her own reality. Again and again she leaves behind empty rooms and worried loved ones.

One day, Eleanor is removed from her world altogether and meets a stranger who reveals to her that the death of her sister is not the only grief that plagues her family. She realizes then that if she can harness her curious ability, she may be able to save and heal her family from generations of grief and pain.

This is a story I fully expected to be magical, yet I didn’t expect to be so raw and to dive beautifully into the depths of grief and depression. Author Jason Gurley does a great job of pulling you into worlds inside of worlds and takes you into someone’s reality who is grieving. I was so surprised by this book, and Gurley’s writing was delightful; I’ve never read a novel that really made me understand and experience grief like this book has. This is a story about the beauty of healing, and Gurley definitely made it beautiful.

Welcome to English Special Topics

Jacket (3)Over the break, I finally had some time to immerse myself in reading for fun! Did I ignore my impending final exams? Yes, I did! I read a couple of books during this time, but the one that really stood out to me was Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer. When I first picked up Belzhar, I thought it would be a quick and fun read, just what I needed to get me back into reading for pleasure, but it surprised me. I’m not saying that it wasn’t a quick and easy read; rather, that it was deeper and had a much more serious tone than I expected.

This novel approaches grief and tragedy in a way I never thought of before. It tackles these serious themes fully and is careful not to make light of them or belittle the suffering and struggles of the characters. It has the right amount of teenage humor and angst to keep the reading light and fun while still making the reader truly think about the effects of tragedy and grief on a person. It addresses how different people process and deal with grief in different ways without saying one way is the best, or the only way to process life’s terrible moments. Using a magical twist, Meg Wolitzer explores these themes in a way that is easier for the reader without taking away from the seriousness of the topic; through the interesting world of Belzhar, into which a group of students has been forced.

The story follows Jam Gallahue who has lost her boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She has been sent to a therapeutic boarding school out in the country for students with delicate emotions. (In Jam’s opinion, this is a nice way of saying she is two steps away from being tossed into the loony bin). Once there, she is placed into Mrs. Quenell’s English Special Topics class, a class in which only a seemingly random few are chosen. There have been rumors and talk about past students of this class; each year is different, one year they create their own language, another they hide out in the woods; and they all act as if they have a secret that no one else would understand.

At first the class isn’t all that weird. They’re reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and keeping journals. However, the journal assignment seems a bit strange. The journals have the power to take them back to a happier time just before their lives were overtaken by tragedy. Unfortunately, the students soon find there’s a catch. The journal only has so many pages. What will they do when the pages run out? How can they move past their own tragedies and start truly living again?

The Darker Side of Party Planning

 

I have to bake cookies for the board, so I’ll leave the blood for later.

Jacket (1)I am rendered a bit speechless in trying to describe what makes Helen Ellis’s new collection of short stories, American Housewife, so sharp and delectable. It is an homage of sorts (equal parts tender and piercing) to the oft-scoffed at domesticity that some women have chosen to take up, despite so many loud voices claiming that staying home is synonymous with giving up.

The settings are so familiar, just women doing simple hausfrau things like introducing new book club members to a circle of readers, supporting young and burgeoning artists, or gossiping with the bellboys about building residents. And then,

AND THEN,

The dynamic shifts, ever so subtly, and there is an itch in the back of your brain telling you that something about all of this is strange. Sometimes, that feeling is because there is definitely a dead body somewhere in the apartment. Sometimes, it is because the women in several of these stories full of vacuuming and meal planning are happy. Not a cynical, eye-rolling “happy”, but truly content. (What does it say about us as readers that when reading a story about a housewife, we expect to be thrilled by some outside catalyst- as if a story simply about a woman in her home could never be truly enough?) In a sparse, two page story titled “What I Do All Day”, the narrator wakes up, makes coffee, throws a party, and goes to bed flawed and at peace.

I see everyone out and face the cold hard truth that no one will ever load my dishwasher right. I scroll through iPhone photos and see that if I delete pictures of myself with a double chin, I will erase all proof of my glorious life. I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is a gateway drug to reading. I think I couldn’t love my husband more, and then he vacuums all the glitter.

Not all of the stories in this collection are home runs (very, very few collections can boast such a thing), and at times the narratives drag just the tiniest bit; but the parts of this book that shine are absolutely stunning. In “Hello! Welcome to Book Club”, the needling feeling of dread that came from the slowly unfolding purpose of said book club was thrilling, to say the least.

The women in American Housewife are forces to be reckoned with. They bake, they plan parties, they are patrons of the arts, they grocery shop, they murder building committee members, and then they clean up the blood with organic, non-toxic kitchen sprays. Their experiences range from the every day to the utterly extraordinary and bizarre, and I cannot stop thinking about them. That is, I suppose, one of the best things you can say about a book.

 

Alligator Roadtrips: “Carrying Albert Home” by Homer Hickam

JacketWell folks, I just finished my favorite literary adventure of 2015 with Homer Hickam, Jr.’s new novel, Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator. Hickam is the New York Times bestselling author of Rocket Boys which was made into the film “October Sky”. I read Rocket Boys when I was attending community college in Western Kentucky and thoroughly enjoyed it; so when I realized that the new novel with the cute alligator on the cover was by the same author, I knew it was for me. Part old school Clark Gable-esque romance and part Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy’s frolicking adventure, it is everything I love (that doesn’t actually exist in reality). (My mother recently referred to me as her hopeless “romanticist,” and she knows me well.)

Carrying Albert Home is written as a prequel to Rocket Boys. Hickam tells of the grim living conditions for his parents, Elsie and Homer Hickam, Sr. in a coalfield town of West Virginia where his father was content and his mother was not; because as the story goes, she’d been to Florida. (As a born and raised Floridian, I understand her discontentment completely). Upon Homer and Elsie’s marriage, Elsie is given an alligator named Albert as a wedding present from an old celebrity fling in Florida, whom she doesn’t seem to exactly be over. The alligator is an object of tension until one day Albert disposes of Homer’s pants while he is doing his business in the bathroom. Elsie is given an ultimatum: Albert, or….her husband. So begins the adventure of carrying Albert Home to Florida.

elsiereads

The adventures of Homer, Elsie, Albert, and a rooster (of unknown origin and significance) encompass a run-in with communist radicals, (who might actually only be Democrat Progressive Socialists) meeting John Steinbeck, and Elsie riding the “Thunder Road” as an illegal booze transporter. In addition, Homer becomes a professional baseball player and Elsie a nurse, and Homer and Albert become sailors in need of rescue by smugglers and then forced under duress to join the Coast Guard… The tales go on and on, including a visit to Key West where they meet Ernest Hemingway, but the stories signify so much more, which I leave for you to discover in your own reading of this incredibly enjoyable adventure book.

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