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Archive for the ‘Abby’s Picks’ Category

Cover of The Eternal SmileOur last book this week is a collection of three short stories told in graphic novel form. In the last couple of years I have discovered how much I enjoy graphic novels. This format contains stories that run the gamut of literature, with the benefit of interesting, beautiful, and funny illustrations. In the same way that the illustrations in a children’s picture book contribute to the story so that the effect is greater than the sum of its parts, graphic novels do the same thing for more complicated storylines. The shorts in The Eternal Smile are all about escape, in one way or another.

The first, “Duncan’s Kingdom,” begins with a classic fantasy gambit—a knight of the realm is sent off to kill a great enemy of the kingdom, but he is plagued by a mysterious dream. In his dream, which is told without text, we see the back of a woman, sitting at a table, an old-fashioned glass soda bottle sits next to her. In the realm of the enemy, Duncan discovers a bottle that looks the same, bearing the label “Snappy Cola;” he’s mystified by this bottle and what it might mean. The artistic style of this story is fairly realistic, but with some stylized elements. The colors in the day time scenes are warm, tones of red and dark yellow predominate; but the scenes that take place in the evening are cool, in grays and purples. I especially like the way that Duncan is drawn in classic hero style, with a small dimple in his chin.

The next story is drawn in a style reminiscent of the old Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck adventures. “Gran’Pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile” features a money-grubbing frog, his two equally greedy granddaughters, and his hapless assistant, Filbert, who does all the real work despite his pronounced stutter and obvious fear of his employer. Greenbax’s goal is to have a golden pool, filled with money, so deep that he can dive into it without hitting his head. Filbert is his ideas man, relentless in his search to find Gran’pa Greenbax his next “get rich quick scheme.” At the end of his rope, Filbert brings them all to the desert to view “the eternal smile,” the name he has given to the smile-shaped anomaly in the sky. Greenbax is furious, but then decides to build a “Church of the Eternal Smile” to solicit donations from parishioners to fuel his greed. The church, however, does not operate as smoothly as he expects.

The final story in this collection is “Urgent Request”; the characters are very stylized, rounded figures rendered in shades of black and grey on yellow paper. Janet is a low-level programmer for CommTech and her shyness is evident. The text is spare, but the story unfolds with details added by the illustrations. Shortly after Janet is turned down for a promotion and humiliated by her boss, she receives an urgent request from Prince Henry Alembu of the Royal Family of Nigeria, asking for her banking information so he can send through a wire transfer of funds. Readers will recognize this as one of the classic email “phishing” scams to bilk people out of their hard earned money. What Janet does in response is as surprising as it is fascinating.

Just as words combined with pictures make a whole greater than the sum of their parts, these three disparate stories work together to create a thought-provoking book. The Eternal Smile is a quick read and readers who have read Gene Luen Yang’s Prinz award-winning young adult novel American Born Chinese will recognize both the drawing style and exploration of identity. Derek Kirk Kim is the author of Good as Lily, which is also in our collection.

Check the WRL catalog for The Eternal Smile.

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Cover of Food Rules: An Eater's Manual Michael Pollan is one of my favorite non-fiction writers. He usually writes about food, with a firm grasp of science and sociology, but with a journalist’s eye towards readability. Imagine my delight when his latest book arrived. Technically it’s not a short story collection (my theme for the week), but it is a collection of short writings.

Food Rules is a bit of departure from Pollan’s usual dense writing. It’s easily readable and less scientific, containing a series of rules, guidelines, and common sense realities to help the modern eater guide her eating. The 64 rules are broken down into three sections: What Should I Eat?, What Kind of Food Should I Eat?, and How Should I Eat? These questions are answered very simply in the introduction:

  • Eat food.
  • Mostly plants.
  • Not too much.

A longer discussion of these ideas, backed by in-depth study of nutrition and its intricacies can be found in Pollan’s previous book, In Defense of Food. Think of Food Rules as almost a Cliff’s Notes version of In Defense of Food.

Most of the “rules” have a short explanation behind them, but the vast majority of scientific jargon is left out. For those readers who are already familiar with Pollan’s work, or with the Slow Food Movement, this book will seem like a clever repackaging of the same old ideas. Food Rules, however, offers appeal in its simplicity. It’s a quick read and many of the rules are taken from quirky phrases mothers or grandmothers may have said in regards to eating. For readers who have never explored our Western diet and eating patterns, this book may provide some surprising advice.

One of my favorite rules is #13: Eat only foods that will eventually rot. Not every household has the unfortunate issue of things shoved to the back of the fridge and forgotten; mine does. Yes, to my chagrin, I have had to pull out cucumbers from the back of the drawer that have gone from beyond limp to squishy. But imagine my surprise when cleaning out my fridge I found an English muffin, completely untouched by the ravages of time. I couldn’t remember when it was purchased, but I do recall the sinking feeling I felt: “If it didn’t mold after having been back there for months, was it even ‘food’ to being with?” I think Pollan is absolutely correct and his ultra-simple definition makes for an easy-to-remember rule. Other rules along this line are #18: Don’t ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap; #19: If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t; and #20 It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.

I also like #39: Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself. Pollan’s point is that in the past, junk food was difficult to prepare, so home cooks were less likely to make it on a daily basis. One of the things this rule illustrates is that Pollan’s “food rules” are not a restrictive diet that will “help you lose weight fast” or some such claim. This book is more about changing the philosophy of our eating in the Western world to something that is closer to traditional (and healthier) diets of the past. And any “expert” that tells me it’s okay to eat French fries is a good one in my book.

Food Rules is a great entrée into In Defense of Food, but it also works as a good re-cap. Read them together in order to get the dual perspective of scientific, in-depth discussion with talking points.

Check the WRL catalog for Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual

Check the WRL catalog for In Defense of Food.

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Cover of Small Crimes in an Age of AbundanceThis series of short stories takes the reader around the globe, to a diversity of places, but all are set in our modern era and each deals with a morally ambiguous situation in some way. This is not, however, some kind of dry, didactic series of fairy tales for adults; each story is fully realized with fascinating, complicated characters. Matthew Kneale does a good job leaving judgment out of the story, for the most part. Some of these “small crimes” seem large: a suicide bomber has doubts as he goes to carry out his mission in “White.” Others seem more benign: a struggling writer finds himself supported by a rich patroness who controls him in subtle ways in “Sunlight.” By juxtaposing these tales, Kneale seems to be asking whether one “crime” is worse than another, leaving the reader to decide.

Most of these stories are short, driven by the machinations of the plot, rather than the development of the characters. Most of the stories unfold in a leisurely pace, leaving the reader to make conjectures. But throughout, there is an overwhelming sense that in each story the characters are locked into a fated series of events, doomed to play out their role making decisions that hurt themselves or others in small or large ways. Kneale’s subjects are not stereotypes, but they have a certain simplicity about them; the author focuses on the aspects of their personalities that make the most sense in the context of the story. By setting each story in a vastly different location, however, setting works together with the other story elements to create reading that makes you want to finish each section, just to see what will happen.

Some vignettes stood out: in “Powder” a middle-aged solicitor finds a bag full of illegal drugs under a park bench one day. His career is stalled and he and his family seem to have money problems every time they turn around. “Taste” finds a disaffected socialite who discovers that her maid is stealing expensive food from her pantry. In “Sound,” a young man is being followed at night by a sinister character in a hooded sweatshirt. What do they do? They react in ways that seem logical, certainly as they’ve justified it to themselves. How does it all turn out? You’ll have to read this collection to see.

Check the WRL catalog for Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance.

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Cover of Pretty MonstersThis terrific anthology of short stories caught my eye in our Young Adult collection the other day. Equal parts fantasy and horror genre, I was impressed with how complicated and mature these stories are. Each has a young adult main character and the stories are told through their eyes, but this is definitely a collection that adults will enjoy as well. As always, it’s hard to describe the whole of a collection of short stories when the author has done her job to make them unique and interesting, but there are some larger themes and motifs that emerged when I read through this book:

Bad Poetry- who knew that it could be such a force for evil? “Magic For Beginners” has a character whose poetry is so bad, you’ll die if you hear it. (An homage to the Vogon poetry from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, no doubt.)

Places That No One Has Ever Heard Of- fantasy locations are pretty common for fantasy stories, but these are places that even the characters in the stories themselves think may be made up. Genevieve’s grandmother Zofia Swink is a little strange. Of course, this is because she still clings tightly to the traditions of the old country, Baldeziwurlekistan. Genevieve has never seen it on a map, never heard anyone mention it, but she begins to think it might be real as the story unfolds in “The Faery Handbag.”

Death- most of these stories feature main characters who have had loved ones die. Teenagers with deceased, absent, or neglectful parents are common in young adult fiction, but “The Wrong Grave” deals with the issue of a loved one’s death in a novel way that is equal parts funny and terrifying.

Libraries or Librarians- an easy sell for someone working in a library. Yes, it’s common knowledge that us library types love books about our favorite place or ourselves, but maybe you do too. In the chilling tale “The Specialist’s Hat,” Claire and Samantha’s father spends so much time in the library at their old and haunted house, that he doesn’t notice the new babysitter, a young woman he didn’t hire for the job.

A Story Within a Story- sometimes a little confusing, but Link uses the idea of a story within a story to heighten the fantasy. Clementine’s story of unrequited love is read by Lee as she and her friends plan an initiation “Ordeal” for one of their classmates from their all-girls boarding school in “Pretty Monsters.” The two stories seem unrelated, but weave together at the end as the “Ordeal” goes sour. There’s also a plot twist which will leave you hoping that Kelly Link will write another series of stories as compelling as these.

Most of these stories seemed a little longer than the average short story, but not without reason. Kelly Link’s plots are more complicated than the average short and she also spends more time developing character backgrounds. All in all, a great read, for teens or adults who are ready to be scared or at least a little creeped out.

Check the WRL catalog for Pretty Monsters.

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Bring on the Shorts! It may still be too chilly to wear shorts outside, but this week I’m sharing some great collections of short stories, in honor of springtime.

Cover of Black JuiceThe short stories in Lanagan’s Black Juice have some of the best qualities of a fantasy short story—everything is contained within the few pages of the tale, which means that the author can’t waste time with explication. Though these stories are written for a young adult audience, there is plenty here to entertain adult readers. I found them on the whole to be very complex, with settings both fantastical and mundane, American and impossibly foreign. Each story is almost like a puzzle, with different pieces to work out in order to understand the whole.

It’s difficult to talk about what these stories are about, because it takes away something from the experience of reading them. As a reader, you might not figure out what each one is actually about until the ending. “Red Nose Day” is a great example of this; as the story opens, two young hit men are setting up their rifle on a rooftop. They have a hit list, but they’re targeting their enemies at random too; body count seems to be their goal. Interspersed with lighthearted comments about their assassinations, it seems almost as if they’re clowning around; but the killings are real and the assassins are deadly in their accuracy.

“The House of Many” is a coming-of-age story. Dot is a young boy raised in a religious community that relies on austerity and the musical revelation of The House of Three, which contains three aspects of the world: father, mother, and child. As he reaches puberty he travels to the city and is awestricken by The House of Many displayed in a shop window. What happens when he travels home after many years away will surprise you.

Other stories use point-of-view with great success. “Sweet Pippit” is told from the perspective of an elephant in an elephant-ride park. The elephants, with their long names, slow gait, and far-sighted worldview, are perfectly described in this story that moves forward slowly, with the pacing of an elephant’s walk.

“Earthly Uses” is one of the most creative stories I have ever read about a fantasy subject that has been written to death. The main character, a young boy who is never named, lives with his grandparents. His Nan is sick and his Gran-Pa sends him to the angels with an offering in the hopes that they will heal her. But these angels are unlike any I’ve ever heard about before. Their eyes are “red and rheumy as a drunk’s, brainy as a priest’s or showman’s.” You’ll have to read the story to find out the twist.

Lanagan is fiercely creative and writes with real authority about the worlds that she creates. Her laser-beam focus on the heart of the story makes each one shine like a gem.

It’s also worth mentioning that this collection is a Printz award honor book. The American Library Association gives the Michael L. Printz award every year for excellence in Young Adult Literature.

Check the WRL catalog for Black Juice.

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mason

Mason Dixon Knitting is another book born out of a blog. The two authors met on a chat group for Rowan yarns and developed a friendship, despite living on opposite ends of the U.S. The friendship blossomed into daily emails and eventually into a shared blog, Mason Dixon Knitting. As you might imagine, they do live on opposite sides of the Mason/Dixon line; Kay lives in Manhattan and Ann lives in Nashville.

Despite their geographic distance, these ladies share a passion for fairly free-form, personalized knitting. As the cover says, the book is “created for knitters everywhere who share the give ‘em hell spirit of just picking up the needles and making stuff.” This attitude comes out in their encouragement to use general skills, like log cabin knitting, to create your own projects and designs. There are “regular” patterns in here too, but there are also some interesting techniques and lots of encouragement to design your own.

The thirty-four patterns are laid out in an easy-to-read fashion that shows several lovely photographs for each. (This is crucial for me to figure out if “I’m doing it right”—if I am, what I have on my needles might look something like what’s in the picture. If not, well, something probably went awry.) I’ve only knitted a few things from here (the Baby Bib O’ Love and the Baby Genius Burp Cloth) but both patterns were straightforward, easily adaptable, free of errors, and written with a certain humor. There is a section on “giant knitting” with various types of found yarns and, as seems to be a theme in the pattern books I read, a section on encouraging kids to knit. There’s even a project for adult and child knitters to knit together, the Circle-of-Fun Rug. The adult knitter knits the pinwheel center with short-row decreases and the child knitter knits the long strip that goes on the outside of the rug. This pattern also has my favorite instruction, “Knit in garter stitch for approximately three years, or until strip fits outside of pinwheelish pie.” As anyone who has knit garter stitch over a long distance knows—it takes forever!

Mason Dixon Knitting has patterns for all levels of knitters and definitely encourages a “jump right in” attitude. The authors have a preference for natural fibers, but encourage yarn substitutions. In addition to patterns, this book is filled with stories, interviews, jokes, random photos of knitting and knitting projects, and other fun things to read. It’s a little like a scrap book or a knitting variety show in book form. For example, a listing of “novelty yarn we’re working on” includes: “Zolofty: tangles a lot, but it doesn’t really bother you anymore”; “Navigator: sport utility weight. 1 stitch=1 foot”; and my favorite, the “Pound of Woe: 50% burlap/50% fiberglass.” These ladies have blended two of my favorite types of reading to create a terrific pattern book with prose writing about knitting and its foibles.

Check the WRL Catalog for Mason Dixon Knitting

Have a look at the latest from Kay and Ann, Mason Dixon Knitting Outside the Lines

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skein1I have a condition that many knitters suffer from: knitting ADD. No sooner do I knit a few inches on a big project than I get itchy to start an entirely new one. The excitement of starting something new is of more interest to me than the satisfaction of finishing something that has taken a long time. Most of the time, at any rate. So imagine my delight when I discovered One-Skein Wonders. It’s filled with, as the title says, 101 patterns for projects that only take one skein of yarn. Wow! I thought, perfect for little ol’ ADD-me!

This is a pretty straight-forward pattern book, with glossy photos of the projects grouped together in a utilitarian way in the middle of the book. The focus is on cramming as many projects into a book cover as possible. I have knit several of the pieces in this book, which were all written very clearly, without errors. Each pattern is designed by a different knitter from yarn shops around the country. Obviously, your tastes will vary, but with 101 patterns to choose from, there’s definitely something here for everyone.

The best part about One-Skein Wonders is that it is a perfect solution for orphaned balls of yarn in your stash, or a great way to get into knitting without breaking the bank. It’s also useful for stash-busting (for those of you who don’t knit, that’s the process of trimming down the giant mountain of yarn you might own). Of course, my hope that all of these projects would be quick-to-knit is a little silly. It takes a lot longer to knit up 1093 yards of silk, lace-weight yarn than 58 yards of cashmere super-bulky. But at least all of these projects can be easily carried in a handbag, so I can knit whenever the moment strikes.

Check out the WRL Catalog for One-Skein Wonders and its companion book, 101 Designer One-Skein Wonders. Same premise, but the patterns are provided by professional designers.

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thingsilearnedStephanie Pearl-McPhee, otherwise known as the Yarn Harlot, is well-known in the world of Knitters. She started with a blog, the Yarn Harlot, which features her tongue-in-cheek musings about knitting, marriage, parenting, and life in general. Pearl-McPhee has written several books like this one, with short snippets on knitting and life. Her tireless efforts to advocate for knitting as a worthwhile pursuit and knitters as worthy of praise have shed light on the fact that knitting is not just for “grannies” anymore. (Though there are lots of grandmothers who knit, Pearl-McPhee’s point is that everyone could knit, but only a select, superiorly-skilled few choose to—grandmothers and others alike.)

Things I Learned from Knitting is a pocket-sized little book filled with 45 “lessons” that knitting has taught the author. Each lesson has a short vignette to explain how knitting might have instructed a knitter. Some of her points seem fairly straightforward: “the 13th thing: Practice Makes Perfect” is a pretty obvious lesson learned from a handcraft that builds whole garments out of two stitches, knit and purl. As does“the 37th thing: Knitting teaches generosity.” (Anyone who has every known a knitter probably has a knitted gift from them somewhere.)

Some of these short essays are pretty funny, like “the 19th thing: Two heads are better than one,” in which she discusses a rancher in Cuba who has bred vacas de patio, or tiny, “patio-sized” cows for home milk production. Pearl-McPhee spring-boards off this idea to talk about how great tiny, patio-sized sheep, llamas, and angora goats would be for knitters. Some of her points are poignant: “the 42nd thing: All’s well that ends well” compares knitting to parenting. You can’t really see what you’re doing until the end, but if you follow your best intuition, all the information you can find, and what you were taught, things should turn out pretty well. But mostly this book is in defense of knitting, however one might pursue it.

Pearl-McPhee promotes the hobby not only as worthwhile, but as being intellectually and spiritually beneficial. I think she makes a great spokesperson for the world of knitters. If you knit already, this book will give you plenty of fodder to defend your passion and raise your self-esteem about your chosen craft. And if you don’t knit, this book just might inspire you to pick up some needles and try. At the very least, it’s a quick read and an entertaining look into the life of a knitter.

Check the WRL Catalog for Things I Learned from Knitting

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knittingcircleMary Baxter’s life has fallen apart. Her five-year-old daughter Stella has died from meningitis and it is as if all hope and happiness has flown out of Mary’s life. She can’t work; she and her husband Dylan drift through their days like zombies; and everywhere she goes she hears Stella’s voice: Mary Baxter is drowning in her sorrow. In the midst of this, her absentee mother calls with a simple directive: you should learn to knit.

The book starts with Mary finding herself in the doorway of Big Alice’s Sit and Knit. What unfolds through the chapters is a beautiful story about the way that knitting can help you grieve, give you a goal when you’re depressed, and generally provide an anchor when your whole world has washed away. Mary reluctantly joins the knitting circle at the Sit and Knit and discovers that each of the women (and one lone male knitter) there have their own griefs, past and present. She learns that the simple act of knitting may be one loop after another on the path towards healing.

I came across The Knitting Circle while looking for knitting-inspired fiction that was not in the murder mystery genre. When I picked up this story I had no idea what I was getting into. I tend to read light-hearted, funny stories or quirky memoirs; this is neither of those. Though the tone is generally somber, I was pulled through the story as Ann Hood unfolded the secrets of each character in a way that felt both natural and compelling. As Mary’s world expands from the black pin-point of her despair, so the story fills with characters that gain nuance and personality as it progresses. Though I may have teared up at certain points, the overall tone was not one of unending sadness, but rather one of hope– that small, incremental steps can pull you out of whatever darkness life has thrown you into.

The premise of this story, using knitting for therapy, is well-known in the knitting community. On days when you’re feeling blue, sometimes the small accomplishment of completing a row of stitching can give you a boost. The act of knitting itself is very meditative; the hands perform the same motions over and over, yarn flowing smoothly through the needles to create fabric. It is an action that can calm a troubled mind. For die-hard knitters, this novel contains only one pattern, a brief notation for “textured rib.” But this book can be enjoyed by both knitters and non-knitters, the characters’ stories and the intertwining of their lives make for compelling fiction reading.

Check the WRL Catalog for The Knitting Circle

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knittingforpeace

Though my reading tastes vary widely, I thought I would review some of my favorite knitting books this week. Some are good reads, some have great patterns, some have beautiful pictures, and some have all three.

I have knitted for about six years, off and on, and consider myself fairly knitting-oriented; I like to have a project around, I start way more projects than I finish, and I have a giant, coffin-sized box of yarn in my basement. I have not, however, reached the point where my yarn has exceeded the number of yards I could knit in a lifetime. I suppose within the knitting community, this means I’m not really serious, but I do like to knit. And, like most people who have a crafty hobby, I like to share my knitting. Once you’ve knit for a while, your circle of friends and family reach a saturation point for hats, scarves, washcloths, and knitted hand warmers. When I reached this point I had two obvious options: start knitting some bigger things, or get new friends. Knitting for Peace introduces a wonderful third solution: knit for charity.

This book is a great blend of knitting writing, patterns, and personal narrative. Christiansen begins by exploring the historical nature of charity knitting, and highlights the Red Cross’s “Knit your Bit” program. After introducing the various modern charity projects, usually with some words from the organizers themselves, Christiansen provides fifteen patterns; most are specially designed to the donation specifications of the charities featured. These include a vest pattern for Afghans for Afghans (a program that provides hand-knitted wool items for warmth to Afghani orphanages, clinics, and children’s centers); a blanket pattern for Project Linus (which provides comfort blankets to critically ill and traumatized children); and a teddy bear pattern for the Mother Bear Project (which provides hand-knitted teddy bears to children orphaned by or infected with HIV/AIDS).

These project sections are interspersed with wonderful stories about people knitting for charity all over the world. Christiansen talks about knitting groups, motivated individuals, and established organizations in a way that is both heart-warming and inspiring. One of the more interesting sections highlights charity knitting and crochet done by prison inmates.

Knitting for Peace is what I would call an episodic read; it’s almost like a series of articles in a knitting magazine. It has enough story in it that you can read it all the way through, or you can flip to the projects that sound most interesting to you. I also found it to be the perfect book to pick up at an odd moment. The skill level for the projects ranges from basic to moderate and there is even a section on techniques for encouraging children to knit for charity.

Check the WRL Catalog for Knitting for Peace

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