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Archive for the ‘Jessica’s Picks’ Category

A note from Jessica: I’ve been with BFGB since its inception 4.5 years ago. This will be my last review, since I’m leaving for a new job in a new state. Writing about books has been my favorite part of working at WRL. Thank you for the good times, readers.

They call it a cure for death, but that’s misleading. You can still drown or starve or fall out a window. It is merely a cure for aging, it is completely illegal, and it can be had for seven thousand dollars on the black market. That’s not a bad deal in the year 2019.

John Farrow decides to get the cure at age 29. He can afford it on his income as a lawyer, especially now that he’s changing his specialty to divorce law. (“‘Til Death Do Us Part” has taken on new meaning.) He does not struggle with the decision. He is not Catholic, so he can’t be excommunicated. He is not worried about potential societal consequences of pollution, scarce resources, or violence. He is normally a logical and conscionable thinker, but, he realizes, “no argument could be made against my profound interest in not dying.”

After a few years of indecision, the United States legalizes the cure. This sharply-decelerated death rate provides a fallow playground for debut novelist Magary, who imagines all sorts of unintended consequences. There are the Peter Pan cases, young children whose mothers illegally suspend aging in their infants. There are the hyper-violent trolls who forswear the cure and instead seek to maim, but not kill, people who might live forever. There are the viruses that now have decades to perfect their attacks against individuals. And there are new career opportunities, even as the planet bulges with people. Our hero John eventually takes a job as an End Specialist, a government employee who grants death to people who no longer want to be cured of aging.

John is a shrewd narrator with a strong streak of resilience, imperative for people trying to survive in a post-aging world. The novel starts out as a quirky thought-piece, filled with speculative “What-if?” scenarios of the near future, but it gets progressively deeper as the years go by. The ranks of the homeless swell. Cars are abandoned when worldwide gasoline reserves are tapped dry. Transportation grinds to a halt.  Some nations use nuclear weapons to control their populations, while other nations employ ageless armies as career pillagers.

Though playful at first, Magary’s book transforms into a bleak vision of the future. Let us hope it is not prophetic.

Check the WRL catalog for The Postmortal

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When Barbara Ehrenreich spent a year undercover working in minimum-wage jobs in Nickel and Dimed, she was trying to make a political point about class, labor, and fair wages. Gabriel Thompson didn’t have a political agenda underpinning his year in crappy jobs. He just wanted to see if he could do it.

Specifically, Thompson wants to see if a young educated white guy from Brooklyn can hack it in jobs normally filled by immigrants. His first stop is Yuma, Arizona, where he convinces a skeptical foreman to give him a job picking lettuce.

He barely makes it through the day. Between the heat, the sweat, the hard labor, and the physical pain that comes from bending, twisting, and hoisting lettuces for hours on end, Thompson only just manages to get through his shift without collapsing. And yet, to the astonishment of the other lettuce-pickers, he drags himself back to work the next day, and the next, and the next, through the whole three months.

Remarkably, despite the chronic pain and severe working conditions, Thompson remains cheerful during his agricultural stint. (This same cheerfulness gets him fired from a flower shop later in the year, when he remains positive despite earning less than minimum wage and getting no lunch breaks; the shop owners prefer employees who are properly downtrodden).  He remains sanguine in the face of blatant anti-black and anti-Latino racism while tearing apart chicken breasts in an Alabama poultry plant. He stoically accepts the condescending barbs of the New Yorkers to whom he delivers food by bike.

Thompson mostly focuses on describing his work and his fellow laborers, though you can’t help noticing the heavy themes underpinning the surface story. Thompson is a reporter, not a pedantic, but it’s impossible to ignore the issues of class, race, nationality, and immigration. His book will resonate with anyone who has ever worked in physically-demanding, low-paying jobs, and it will open the eyes of anyone who hasn’t.

Check the WRL catalog for Working in the Shadows

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Joe Hill impressed a lot of critics (though not me) with his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, and he impressed a lot of critics (including me) with his second novel, Horns. Unfortunately, Hill’s graphic novel series Locke & Key is not impressing the critics. It’s not even registering with them.

Or rather, the critics in the niche world of comics are taking note; the series has picked up some Eisner Awards and nominations and a British Fantasy Award in the category of Best Comic/Graphic Novel. This is wonderful, but it would be great if the mainstream folks would pay attention. Oh well. While the critics snooze on the job, Hill is quietly creating his best work yet.

As the story opens, we meet the Locke family: children Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode; mother Nina; and father Rendell– but don’t get too attached to Rendell, as he gets killed off a few pages later. A disturbed young man named Sam brutally murders his former teacher, and nearly succeeds in slaughtering the rest of the family. Sam escapes, and the grieving survivors escape across the country to Lovecraft, Massachusetts.

Which is dumb. Characters in horror novels ought to flee away from towns called Lovecraft, not toward them.

Lovecraft is home to the Locke family estate, Keyhouse, where the recently-deceased Rendell spent his childhood. Nina is too busy drowning her sorrows in a bottle to see that something is profoundly off-kilter in Keyhouse. High school senior Tyler is too haunted by guilt over his father’s death to notice the strangeness, and Kinsey is too busy trying to blend in at her new high school. But six-year-old Bode has discovered the keys that, when inserted in the right locks, deliver marvelous results; one of them, for instance, allows Bode’s spirit to fly around untethered to his body. And Bode has made a new friend here at Keyhouse. Too young to have seen The Ring, Bode does not realize that you must never, never make friends with ghost-girls who haunt wells.

Hill’s ongoing comic series (now up to four collected volumes and counting) is doing fresh and creative things. Hill started his career as a novelist with two perfectly respectable books, a ghost-story and a devil-story, but this is where his imagination is really taking off. The supernatural keys just keep getting cooler and cooler as the story progresses, and the malevolent shape-changing ghost haunting Keyhouse just keeps getting nastier and nastier. The characters are superb, the in-jokes are geeky (there are references to Arkham Asylum! and to Bone! and to Calvin and Hobbes!), and Gabriel Rodriguez’s art is lovely. These books are the best-kept secret in the horror and dark fantasy genres.

Check the WRL catalog for Locke & Key

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The early campaigning for the 2012 presidential election is well underway, which is impossible. We only just finished the 2008 election season. Hillary vs. Obama, then McCain and Palin vs. Obama and Whatshisname– all that drama took place, like, last week.

So why read a book about it? We all lived through it. We were there. We were active at the polls; we were engaged in discussions about race and gender and politics. We voted in primaries, for crying out loud, primaries. We already know what it was like.

Or do we? Television and the internet deluged us with election info in 2008, but mostly with “sloppy synopses and cartoonish characters at a rat-a-tat pace,” recalls Salon writer Rebecca Traister, whose prose is disgustingly quotable. “Many of us, struggling to keep up, were happy to just get the Cliffs Notes version. But in the ceaseless cycle of revelation and analysis we lost depth, clarity and perspective on the story that was unfolding around us, as well as on how that story was itself changing and reshaping itself.”

Traister delivers on the depth, clarity, and perspective in a book that is compulsively readable. If you thought you had a firm grasp on the events and personalities of the 2008 presidential campaigns, prepare to be taken down a peg. Traister has rummaged through the glut of information from America’s recent history and emerged with a narrative that will enthrall anyone who cares about sex, power, gender, or the media.

Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Sarah Palin all feature prominently in the book, but this story is not just about them. It is about Katie Couric and Rachel Maddow, Gloria Steinem and Tina Fey. It is about the older feminists who flocked to Clinton and the younger women who flocked to Obama, and the young men who loathed Hillary but who swore they weren’t sexist. It is about understanding feminism as it related to a vice-presidential candidate who balanced marriage, five children, and a powerful political career while remaining staunchly anti-choice. It is about the eighteen million pro-Clinton voters whom Clinton so eloquently thanked in her concession speech: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it’s got about eighteen million cracks in it.”

I hope you remember that line– it still makes me tear up to read it– but you can be forgiven if you don’t. The mainstream media spent most of their time focused on the other part of Clinton’s concession speech, the not-news that she would be endorsing Obama. That decision to focus on Clinton’s capitulation, rather than on her astounding feminist success, speaks to the subtle sexism in the media and at large. This is where Traister truly shines. It is easy to cry sexism when newscasters criticize a candidate for her ankles or the pitch of her laugh rather than her policies. (Not that many people did cry sexism when that happened, alas.) It is harder to perceive sexism when it is nuanced and subtle, but Traister recognizes it for what it is and cries foul.

Does this sound like feminist screed? It’s not. Traister is in her thirties. She identifies less with the trailblazing feminists of her mother’s generation and more with younger women, many of whom felt uncomfortable at even considering gender when evaluating a candidate (because that sort of thing would be sexist, right?). Instead, Traister teases out the subtleties of feminisms old and new, creating her own fiery perspective.

Check the WRL catalog for Big Girls Don’t Cry

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Le Cirque du Rêves does not publicize its tour destinations. Its arrival goes unannounced in the local papers. Its dusk-til-dawn schedule is inhospitable to families. But no matter: there is no need for publicity or fanfare or convenient operation hours. The mere reputation of The Night Circus is enough to draw the crowds.

This is no county fair, with face-painting and ring-toss booths, nor even a normal three-ring traveling circus. There are no barkers, no hucksters, no carnies from a Tom Waits song. The Night Circus elevates the concept of the carnival to a lush, luminous, sensuous feast for the senses. Some acts are familiar– the fortune teller, the lion tamers, the acrobats– but others are strange and new and wonderful. There is a cloud maze, a wishing tree, an ice garden that never melts. It is magical.

Literally. The circus is magical. Most of the performers are just ordinary people with a professional passion for entertaining, but Celia and Marco are magicians. Celia, an illusionist, and Marco, a circus assistant, are unknown to one another. They do, however, know that they have trained their whole lives to compete in a duel with a magical opponent.

Naturally, Celia and Marco complicate matters by falling in love with each other.

Erin Morgenstern’s debut is getting a lot of positive press. It is being touted as a fantasy novel that will appeal to people who don’t normally read fantasy. The only magic here is of the stage-magician variety; there’s not even a struggle between good and evil, much less a whomping willow or a ring of power. Lovers of literary fiction will appreciate Morgenstern’s luscious descriptions, and fans of historical fiction will like the carefully-crafted atmosphere of a traveling circus in the late Victorian era.

Check the WRL catalog for The Night Circus

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Caveat reader: The links contained in this review, possibly excepting the one for Zombie Harmony, lead to content that many will find offensive.

Dear Matthew Inman:

Hi, this is Jessica. I’m a librarian in Virginia, and I’m a longtime fan of your work. For years I’ve satisfied my social needs with your website Zombie Harmony (“One of the Best Free Dating Sites for Zombies”). More recently I’ve been following the comics you’ve posted at The Oatmeal; it’s not a good place for people offended by strong language, sophomoric humor, or sexual innuendos, but I personally have loved every single comic you’ve published online. (I did finally find a comic that was appropriate for all ages– that one you did about Seattle’s weather, remember?– but it took a lot of digging.)

So I was thrilled when you published 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth. It was just like reading your web comics, only with the added tactile pleasure of glossy pages! Some of the content was stuff I’d already seen before, but that’s okay. Your comics crack me up every single time.

But of course there was new material, too. That strip about Nikola Tesla was both entertaining and informative– sort of like Randall Munroe does things over at xkcd. Though, and I hope the internet gods don’t strike me down for my blasphemy, I’ve come to think that you’re even funnier than Randall. I think you’re funnier than The Onion, and way funnier than that guy who drew the picture of the spider. (I tried reading his book, The Internet Is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius, but it couldn’t hold a candle to yours.)

Now that your comics are collected in convenient book form, my life is much easier, since I’m always foisting your work on other people. It’s nice to see them laughing to the point where it becomes physically painful. I also hold out faint hope that people will learn from your educational comics. If you can’t save the English language from the scourge of the comma splice, no one can.

Given that you’ve made me laugh harder than any other comic artist except Gary Larson (I think maybe you guys are tied), I’m just about ready to bear your children, especially since the people I’ve met through Zombie Harmony have turned out to be dead ends. I’ll see about getting a dowry prepared.

Cheers, and thanks for writing the book!

Check the WRL catalog for 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth

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Frank Ross, a fair-minded farmer living in Arkansas in the 1870s, tries to intervene when a barroom fight breaks out one day in Fort Smith. One of the fighters, Ross’s own farmhand Tom Chaney, takes the opportunity to kill and rob the farmer. Chaney then flees on horseback to Indian Territory.

Ross’s fourteen-year-old daughter Mattie is angry. She is beyond angry. She wants blood and she wants justice. She is going to hunt down the man what done kilt her pa.

Mattie is not stupid. She is stubborn, impatient, and unforgiving, but she is not stupid. She knows she can’t go blazing off into the frontier without help, so she goes in search of a man with enough grit to get the job done. The man who matches that description is the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, technically on the side of the law– he is a U.S. marshal– but of very questionable repute. You don’t kill twenty-three men in four years without getting some rough edges.

Slightly more respectable is a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who has his own reasons for tracking Tom Chaney, but Mattie doesn’t want him interfering with her search– and LaBoeuf doesn’t want a teenaged girl interfering with his search. It is under a very uneasy truce that the girl, the ranger, and the marshal agree to pursue the outlaw together.

If you’ve seen the John Wayne movie adaptation (1969) or the Coen brothers adaptation (2010), you know what’s coming: adventure, and lots of it. There are bandits. There are fight scenes. There are more fight scenes. There are galloping horses and perilous injuries and there are snakes, lots and lots of snakes, all conveniently gathered into the pit that Mattie falls into.

I have no idea if True Grit is typical of its genre– I’ve never read another Western except for Brokeback Mountain, which probably doesn’t count– but you don’t have to be a fan of Westerns to like it. It’s an easy and fast read with tons of action. There is a lot of subtle humor that comes by way of Mattie’s contrary disposition and her colorful idioms. Children and squeamish readers would find the violence to be too intense, but it’s a great read for teenagers and adults who love a good story and who aren’t bothered by a few rattlesnakes.

Check the WRL catalog for True Grit (the 1968 book), True Grit (the 1969 John Wayne movie), or True Grit (the 2010 Coen brothers movie)

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