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Archive for the ‘Subculture’ Category

AbovetheEastChinaSea

Above the East China Sea is a profound statement about the sorrow of war. It is both an eerie ghost story and a story about the love in families, especially between two sets of sisters, alive seventy years apart and both torn from their closest sibling by war.

Modern day Luz is a military child, stationed on Okinawa and emotionally pummeled to the point of suicide by the recent death of her sister, Codie, in Afghanistan. Her family now consists only of her and her mother, who has left on a TDY (temporary duty). Luz is alone in a new place and has no family or friends around, a very plausible illustration of how isolated military families can be.

Parallel to Luz’s story is the wrenching tale of Okinawan Tamiko, who was a teenager at the time of the World War II battle of Okinawa. In the litany of horrors of World War II, the Battle of Okinawa isn’t well known, but it killed more people than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs combined and caused unimaginable destruction and deprivation for the Okinawan people and the permanent destruction of their traditional Okinawan way of life.

As the book starts Tamiko seems to be a hostile, even evil, ghost bent on Luz’s destruction for her own ends, but as Luz learns more about her past and forges a connection with local Jake, the reader receives hints about the mysterious connection between Tamiko and Luz. Okinawa is portrayed in its lush tropical beauty with its proud past, uneasy relationship with Japan and current heavy U.S. military presence.

Like Sarah Bird’s other book about U.S. military family life, The Yokota Officers Club, many details of military life ring true. For example: clothes from the BX are lame (a claim my children have made all their lives), “we’re not racists, but we are rankists,” and military kids have the “CGI ability to constantly splinter and then reconstitute on a spot halfway around the world” and even the claim that “military kids enlisted at birth.”  Like The Yokota Officers Club, Above the East China Sea emphasizes the importance of siblings for children who move every few years and can’t form lasting friendships — “the question that military kids hate the most…Where are you from? Where is your hometown?” Luz says,  “Codie was my hometown.”   She was “my sister who always took care of me” and “the only person on earth who really knew me, who would really, truly care if I vanished.”

Try Above the East China Sea if you like compelling historical novels about young women’s lives in a time of war like Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I also recommend it for people interested in the lives of contemporary military families, who may also be interested in a recent Association of Library Services to Children blog post about serving military families in the public library.

Check the WRL catalog for Above the East China Sea.

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SystemLooking at the cover of The System, you see a striking image of college football – an enormous stadium filled with cheering crowds awaiting the contest to begin on that emerald green field.  As you zoom in on that field, that crowd, that contest, the reality gets dirtier and dirtier, until it seems that field is the Astroturf covering the edge of an open grave. Benedict and Keteyian have climbed into that grave, and The System is the report they’ve sent back.

Football has long been the hallmark of college education in the United States. It is the rare institution of higher learning that doesn’t field a team. At the top of that pyramid, where iconic names like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Oregon reside, football is a big part of the college experience, and a successful program can seemingly make or break a school. And it shows in enrollments, donations, and construction.

Benedict and Keteyian seemingly had complete access to every aspect of the schools they covered. Meetings between coaches and players, athletic directors and boosters, students and inquisitors, victors and victims are recounted in incredible detail. And every detail seemed to come down to money.

The contrasts are staggering: a booster can give $185 million to support an entire program, but a player can be sanctioned for a $3.07 (yes, that’s three dollars and seven cents) accidental overpayment on a summer job. Coaches are routinely the highest paid state employees (even before the product endorsement deals and speaking engagements) when teachers, cops, and librarians are losing their jobs and pensions.  T-shirts, jerseys, hats, and memorabilia bring millions in revenues, while student athletes supposedly earn nothing. An athlete accused of criminal activity can get legal advice from top-tier law firms, while their victims must rely on poorly paid prosecutors, and face threats and shaming for jeopardizing the program. And over it all is the mantle of the NCAA, which screams about teams offering cream cheese on bagels but misses the flagrant violations of their arcane regulations.

The authors present each chapter as a story in and of itself, but the overall narrative is connected by the story of Mike Leach, the coach who created the stellar program at Texas Tech, but was fired for his tactics in disciplining a weak player. After an extended absence from football, he was hired by Washington State University, where he once again laid the foundations of a successful program, but also underwent another abuse investigation, in which he was exonerated. From the coach recruitment process to the creation of a team, through the discovery and recruitment of players to the relationship with the school administration, readers see Leach in every aspect of his professional life. We even get a glimpse of the difficulties Leach’s wife Sharon faces as a coach’s wife.

Even for people who don’t care anything about football (and I count myself among their number), The System is a penetrating look at a dominant part of American culture. Whatever you feel about the game, you are sure to come away rethinking your position. There’s a lot that needs to be scrapped, some things that can be fixed, and some profound positives that deserve highlighting. Let’s hope real change can come from the discussion The System ought to start.

Check the WRL catalogue for The System

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chewTony Chu is a detective for the Philadelphia Police Department. He’s skinny, but for good reason. Tony is a cibopathic: a person who can see the past of every food he eats. For fruits and vegetables, that’s not so bad, but for meat it is another matter. The only food he can eat without distraction is beets, so he eats a lot of them. In the alternative world he lives in, all poultry products have been banned after bird flu killed over 23 million people. Tony and his partner track down black market chicken distributors and buyers like our police forces go after drug lords.

While trying to do a major bust, Tony accidentally ingests some soup that the chef bled into while cutting the vegetables. His powers make him aware that the chef is actually a serial murderer with thirteen victims. In his quest to find out more information about the murdered girls, Tony is caught chewing on the body of the now dead chef, which understandably leads to his getting fired by the police department. But he gets noticed by agents of the now very powerful FDA, who are very interested in using his gifts to solve murders as part of their Special Crimes Unit.

Here’s the biggest part of the storyline you have to swallow (groan!): Tony must consume parts of the people who have been murdered in order to gain clues. And not all bodies are fresh (or human) either. If you can get past the disturbing nature of this item, the story continues in a lively manner, drawing you in before you realize it. It’s partly absurd comedy, partly cop procedural, partly adventure, partly horror, and all entertainment.

Winner of both Harvey and Eisner awards, this series is bizarre but compelling and enjoyable. It is recommended for readers of horror, humor, and graphic novels.

Search the catalog for CHEW.

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stuckDensely illustrated and narrated, Stuck Rubber Baby follows the life of Toland Polk, a white carpenter’s son living deep in the restless South during the 1960s. The story is introduced by the modern day Toland, who is gently amused as he recounts this stormy portion of his life. The ’60s were a time of electrifying change, both social and political, and it was an exhilarating time to be coming of age.

Toland has a deep love of music, which leads him to hang out at bars with other people from town around his age, black and white, male and female. Without really consciously intending to, Toland gets drawn into the fight for Civil Rights in his town, compelled by his friendships and his rejection of the inequality woven into the fabric of daily life in the South.

But Toland has a secret. His entire life he has known that he is attracted to men, but he also realizes how homosexuals get treated. He endeavors to either hide or convert his feelings if possible. He meets a girl named Ginger, who is even more forceful in her support of integration, and is able to nurture enough of a crush on her to start dating. The story draws an intricate parallel between society’s rejection of blacks and gays. Toland knows he’s lucky that he can appear to be part of the majority by putting up a false face and having a relationship with a woman, but his black friends don’t have that luxury. Those friends of his who are both black and gay face exponentially more animosity.

The adult Toland is unflinchingly honest about his past experiences. He knows how his battles against his personal demons caused him to be insincere to those around him, but he also realizes that he was forced into many of those deceptions by the expectations of a society that could not, would not accept him as he was. The story brings in a wide cast of characters as people come in and out of Toland’s life and shies away from caricatures. This makes for a rich world that believably portrays a turbulent time in our recent history without stooping to lecture or browbeat.

Recommended for readers of graphic novels, historical novels, and social history.

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“Dad carried a war in his skull.”

“His soul is still bleeding. That’s a lot harder to fix than a busted-up leg.”

ImpossibleKnifeMemoryHayley’s former soldier father has nightmares and rages. He drinks and he takes drugs. He can’t keep a job for more than a few days–all classic signs of PTSD.  He spent years dealing with his demons by staying constantly on the move as a long distance truck driver, with Hayley along being “unschooled.” Now they have settled in Hayley’s late grandmother’s house, and seventeen-year-old Hayley is attending high school for the first time.

This is a dramatic set up and The Impossible Knife of Memory lives up to it. Hayley has a strong voice–her depth and basic decency shine through until I was despairing at the traumas life threw at her. At high school she calls the teachers and the other kids “zombies”–lifeless apparitions with perfect exteriors who are only pretending to be human. Then she reconnects with Gracie, an old kindergarten classmate from when Hayley’s grandmother was alive. She also meets unique and funny Finn and starts to fall in love, but Hayley is terrified of trusting him. She slowly begins to learn that everyone carries their own burdens and might be able to help with hers.

Since Hayley is seventeen the war in Afghanistan has been running almost her entire life. Her earliest childhood memories are of seeing her father off to war, and welcoming him home. As her father’s physical and mental condition deteriorates she says about her early life, “My dad was a superhero who made the world safe” but she knows now that he himself is far from safe.

A heartrending but ultimately hopeful book, try The Impossible Knife of Memory if you read other wrenching teen novels like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green or if you’re interested in the effects of war on teens such as Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. There are also details of military lifestyles like her family’s struggles to find someone to mind Hayley after her mother dies, and the camaraderie from her father’s old soldier friends.

Check the WRL catalog for The Impossible Knife of Memory.

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CallTheMidwifeCall the Midwife is a fascinating mix of social history and medical memoir, as well as a vivid portrait of a time and place, but that description (glowing as it is) hardly does justice to a book that made me laugh out loud one minute and sob in sorrow the next, and even look forward to my commute so I could enter the book’s world and hear what happened next.

Jennifer Worth (known as Jenny) was a young nurse in the 1950s and she became a midwife with a order of nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Her memoir was published in 2002 so, from the distance of five decades she is in a good position to talk about how medicine and the world have changed. Some of the changes are bad, like the breakdown of families that she has seen among poor people in London, but so many things changed for the better, like medical knowledge and standard of living (plumbing for one thing!). When she started as a midwife most births were at home, attended only by a midwife and as a 23-year-old nurse who was often the only professional present. This was a great step up from no antenatal or birth care, which she says was common prior to 1950 for the poor people of London.  If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you: many births are described in detail. A glossary of medical terms is included at the end to help the uninitiated.

The humor throughout comes from the hijinks of young nurses and foibles of the nuns, several of whom had nursed through World War I. Worth expresses deep sorrow at the devastating conditions of the workhouse or the fourteen-year-old Irish runaway who is manipulated into working as a prostitute. Jennifer Worth is a memoirist who doesn’t put herself at the center of her story, but tells the stories of others who she came to as an outsider: a non-Catholic living with nuns and a middle-class woman among the Cockneys. She always strives to understand their lives on their terms, rather than imposing her views and even creates a 14-page appendix “On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect.” Her talent is capturing the diverse characters on the page, and making the reader care about them.

This book should appeal to watchers of Downton Abbey for the historical domestic British connection. For those like to hear about the lives of real and everyday people it will grab readers of Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell; Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming; or a new book, Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s Kitchen Maid, by Mollie Moran. I also recommend it for anyone who is interested in memoir, medical history, women’s lives or social problems.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife on CD read wonderfully by Nicola Barber.

I haven’t had a chance to view the BBC series adapted from the book, but it has great reviews, so it is on my list. Check the WRL catalog for the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife.

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Here, in the middle of the week, I’d like to address you middle-of-the-roaders about a book that ensures that veganism is not only for celebrities, that you mustn’t wait until you’re making big bucks to take the vegan plunge.

Victoria Moran gently instructs in the ways of being vegan, without judgment, without scolding those who claim to be vegans who eat fish (you either are or you aren’t a person who doesn’t eat animals), with only a subtle amount of coercion through the storytelling she feels obligated to impart, as a witness to the deaths of animals at slaughter and the horrific conditions of the dairy, poultry, pork, and other animal product industries. Some may have heard it all before—a lot of shocking videos circulate the internet—but for those of you who’ve been oblivious to this media outrage, her essays may cause you to pause before you order that next chicken sandwich.

Even if you’re already convinced that vegan is best, you feel handicapped by the outrageous price difference between organic, locally grown produce at the trendy farmers’ markets and the genetically modified, pesticide-coated, homogenous assortment in your supermarket and discount store grocery aisles! What to do???

Forty brief chapters with facts, personal stories, and guidelines introducing you to vegan concepts and cooking techniques each conclude with a recipe. It’s meant to make plant-based cuisine possible for every kind of eater with any kind of income, not just the elite many of us believe are the only folks who can actually afford to live a vegan, organic, eco-conscious, locavore’s lifestyle. Basically, the book is for those of us who live “main street” lives, not “Fifth Avenue” existences. Moran addresses the fact that wherever you are with these goals, it’s okay; you don’t have to do everything perfectly from the beginning.  Our heartstrings are often pulled by myriad causes. She nudges us in the most compassionate direction, and seems to want us to prioritize minimal impact on the animal world above concerns for our individual health if we truly wanna go vegan—are we okay with that? She challenges us to think about such things as we progress.

But you can only do what you can do, especially if you’re raising a family, and stretching paychecks has become an acrobatic feat.


For example, though we are encouraged to support the organic movement, which she says will become more affordable as demand increases (put your money where your mouth is), she’s realistic about such dilemmas as eating organic all the time being terribly more expensive. She helpfully elucidates a “dirty dozen” list of produce to avoid if not organic and a “clean 15″ list of more economical fruits and vegetables you can buy without worrying over the lack of an organic label (sourced from Environmental Working Group).

A very comprehensive collection of appendices provide additional resources and bibliographies for those who want to take things to the next level, from where to go online for further research to where to buy your clothes, shoes, and household cleaning supplies without harming animals. This book is worth picking up even if it’s just for the to-die-for-yet-guiltless Chocolate Mousse recipe—putting together the unexpected ingredients required a leap of faith but I was astounded by the results.

Check the WRL catalog for Main Street Vegan.

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Room237Have you watched The Shining? Did you notice the placement of cans of Calumet Baking Powder in the hotel pantry? The disappearing chair, the impossible window, the reversal of the hexagonal carpet pattern? Danny’s hand-knit Apollo 11 sweater? If you’re like me, you were too busy recoiling from scenes of ax murders and blood gushing from elevators to pay attention to the carpeting.  But for some obsessed fans, every piece of set decoration, every line of dialogue, every camera shot in The Shining is a potential clue to the film’s hidden meaning.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic, adapted from the Stephen King novel, is ostensibly about a family isolated in a haunted mountain hotel while the father (played by Jack Nicholson) gradually becomes murderously insane. But Kubrick included so many weird scenes and omens not found in the book that an entire subculture grew up around analyzing and interpreting the film. Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts is a documentary narrated by five members of that subculture who are convinced that they have cracked Kubrick’s secret code.

Is the Calumet baking powder can a reference to the massacre of American Indians? Are a German typewriter (which changes color!) and the number 42 signs that the film is about the Jewish Holocaust? Do you have to run the film backwards to find its true meaning? Or perhaps the whole thing is a cloaked confession by Kubrick that he was involved in faking the video of the moon landing.

Room 237’s director, Rodney Ascher, found an unusual and rather brilliant way to tell his story. We never see the five narrators; we just hear their voices expounding their various theories. The visuals consist almost entirely of thousands of movie clips—from The Shining, naturally, but also from Kubrick’s other movies as well as a huge number of familiar Hollywood films.

While the theories may sound loony when I describe them, actually they’re not. Most of the signs and portents that the narrators see in The Shining really are there—although I’m pretty sure that the guy who insists you can see Kubrick’s face in the clouds above the hotel is making it up. It’s not crazy to believe that every detail of the movie exists for a reason, since Kubrick was a legendary control freak. So there are no bad edits, no continuity errors, and you’re off down the rabbit hole, trying to find out what it all means. Maybe Kubrick had a secret message, or maybe he was just messing with your mind. Trying to interpret The Shining is like entering the haunted Room 237 in the movie’s Overlook Hotel: go there, and you are marked for life. If you love movies and pop culture, watch Room 237, but take warning from its tagline:  “Many ways in, no way out.”

Check the WRL catalog for Room 237

Check the catalog for The Shining

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Gone-Away WorldIf you like writers as diverse as Joseph Heller, Neal Stephenson, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, or Charles Dickens, you’ll want to run to the novels of John le Carre’s son, Nick Harkaway.  I can get away with that much name dropping in one sentence because Harkaway is that good.

His first novel, The Gone-Away World, takes place in a near future after some kind of event  has left only a narrow band of land habitable, protected by the mysterious chemicals from a pipeline.  In Harkaway’s tour de force first chapter, we discover that this pipeline has been breached and the refinery that fills it is aflame.  A misfit crew of mercenaries, including the unnamed narrator and his lifelong friend Gonzo Lubitsch, is asked by a powerful bureaucrat to fix the problem.

After that, the story alternates between exploring the narrator’s adventures in the present and the past.  Slowly, we discover the twisty story of how the world came to an end, how the narrator was rendered unreal, and how he attempts to recover his life.  This plot is impossible to condense, but the astonishing thing is that although this story is halfway in fantasy, halfway in reality, half serious and half parody, and loaded with characters like pirates, ninjas, and mimes, in the end it all makes a perfectly bizarre kind of sense.  There are plot twists you won’t see coming in a million years, enough eccentrics to populate a small country, and enough madcap but spot-on social observations to make every page an adventure.

This is a dense read.  Expect a challenge.  But whether you enjoy science fiction, literary fiction, or humor, I think you’ll find it truly rewarding, a book that’s worth the effort for vivid style, biting social commentary, audacious metaphors, and imaginative world building.  Don’t expect a standard post-apocalyptic dystopia, expect a weird, bumpy ride through a surreal landscape.  Strap in and enjoy!

Check the WRL catalog for The Gone-Away World

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“The Time Lord has met many aliens, cyborgs, robots, and humans on his journeys through history and across the universe.”

DoctorWhoDoctor Who has clocked  almost eight hundred episodes over thirty-three seasons. If you add in the fact that the Doctor can travel to any time in history and any place in infinity, then it isn’t surprising that it can be a little difficult to keep all the characters straight. That is where the Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia comes in very handy. With more than two hundred entries from Abzorbaloff, the greedy shape shifting humanoid to the Zygons who met the fourth Doctor, it can’t claim to cover all of time and space, but it comes close.

November marked the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who–an extremely exciting event for Whovians. Those of us without BBC America on cable would have been left waiting for the Fiftieth Anniversary Special to come out on DVD except that, for the first time I have encountered, the Fiftieth Anniversary Special was kindly shown at movie theaters. Our closest movie theater showed it on IMax 3D on a Monday night, which is not my preferred format or time, but I had to go anyway. I didn’t dress up–unlike dozens of other Whovians young and old. They varied from around ten years old to well into their fifties or even sixties which is a very mixed fan base, but is not surprising for a show that started running before the moon landing and continues to attract fans.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a well-organized book in which you can search for characters by name, or browse the Table of Contents where they are categorized by type such as “Alien,” “Companion,” “Cyborg,” or “Entity” with color coding matching their main entries. Each character gets a full page spread with a description, details about their origins, homeworld, which Doctors they met and how they fit into the stories. Sharp, bright photos, typical of Dorling Kindersley publishers clearly show the attributes of each character.

The BBC obviously saw publishing opportunity in the interest around the fiftieth anniversary and this is an official BBC publication. If this book is out, our library has other books of background for desperate Doctor Who fans, such as, Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler or Doctor Who Whology: The Official Miscellany, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a must-read (or a must-browse) for Doctor Who fans. If you are not a fan and are wondering what all the fuss is about try my review of the TV series of Doctor Who and check out some of the series on DVD.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia.

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heartI am the first to flee at the sight of blood. As such, I don’t watch boxing and I quickly switch the channel when watching football if the station decides there is a need to show slow motion replays of a player’s injury from EVERY ANGLE. But for whatever reason, I can stomach violence in graphic novels, as the images can be processed as art by my brain, conveniently disconnected from reality.

Browsing our shelves, I picked up a copy of Heart but almost put it back again when I realized that the story revolved around an MMA (mixed-martial arts) fighter. I ended up holding on to the volume, deciding that since I had been in a reading rut recently, something so far out of my normal comfort zone might be just what I needed.

The story throws you right into the middle of the octagon at the beginning of a fight between Oren “Rooster” Redmond and Mike “The Hooligan” Murphy. Glaring and tattooed with muscles tensed, they square off with the cheers, jeers, and bloodlust of the crowd in a roar around them. The story is narrated by Oren, and he baldly presents his adrenaline and bravado as well as his mistakes as he takes us through his journey from slightly overweight office worker to trained fighter. He’s inspired by his older brother, who started out as a college wrestler and progressed to MMA after graduation. From the drudgery of his data entry job, Oren enters a life that finally allows him to live life on his own terms.

It’s Oren’s honesty about how his fighting career progresses that really pulls the reader into the story. He’s not trying to fool anyone, not even himself. His frankness and honesty are refreshing yet surprising, since MMA promotion isn’t known for being austere or unembellished. Oren wryly confesses to prior unkind thoughts about “guys who wore too-tight t-shirts with shiny, metallic crap written on ‘em” before he entered and embraced the culture.

Heart is an engaging and powerful read. I would recommend it to sports fans, readers of graphic novels in general, or any reader who loves stories where the human element transcends the environment.

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OperationYesBo Whaley lives on an Air Force base in North Carolina. His father is the base commander, which just makes life complicated, especially when most of the kids in his class also live on base. To make life even more convoluted, his cousin Gari arrives from Seattle to live with him because her mother is being deployed to Iraq. They are assigned to the same class to help Gari fit in, but things go badly between them from the start.

The only good thing that is happening to Bo is his new teacher. Ms. Loupe, who is in her first year of teaching, has a tattoo and is young enough to have been taught by the principal. For Bo the best thing about her is her passion for theater. She engages the class in improv involving a beaten up couch, and Bo discovers in himself a talent for acting that previous teachers had seen as a propensity to talk and goof-off in class. His enthusiasm grows until he discovers that the big theater camp that the teacher is planning will be held next summer. He will be gone then, when his family is sent to their next military assignment, which makes Bo furious with the military lifestyle.

Ms. Loupe also gets the class working on a project to send supplies to her brother, who is stationed in Afghanistan. When her brother is declared missing in action, Ms. Loupe is understandably distraught, and Bo’s whole class want to help. In the most moving part of the book Bo, his cousin Gari, Ms. Loupe’s entire class and finally the whole community find a way to work together and, if not fix the unfixable, at least make things better. In the process they learn about each other, themselves, friendship and community.

In turn hilarious and heartbreaking, Operation Yes is aimed at middle grades, but has a lot to offer adults. As a librarian I love the literary profanity that the school librarian indulges in : “‘Frog and Toad!’ Miss Candy said. ‘Not again!'” or “Green Eggs and Ham!” I am doing a project on books featuring children with parents in U.S. military, and some of these books are impossible to get through without crying. Operation Yes is definitely in this category. Read it for a moving portrait of a community coming together or an accurate depiction of the military family lifestyle.

Check the WRL catalog for Operation Yes.

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MansSearchforMeaning

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”

If you feel your life is short on meaning, a book club might help. Book clubs are great. I trust the members of my book club to recommend books that sound wonderful— for example I realize I really like character-driven, women’s, historical fiction and I am always keen to hear about the new titles they suggest. But my book club may be even better for getting me off my chuff to read things that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that may have intrigued me enough to pick up in the library, but it would have sat unread on my bedside table for weeks if not for my upcoming book club meeting.

It is a dense and sometimes disturbing read, but my head was bursting with ideas after getting through it. And then after discussing it with my book club, my head and heart were even closer to bursting. The cover of the copy I have says that there are over 12 million copies in print, so it is a book that has spoken directly to millions of people.

The author, Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who attributed his survival in part to his abiding belief that, even in a concentration camp, his life had meaning. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945 and it is remarkably without bitterness for a book written so soon after the horrific events that he describes. Viktor Frankl developed a form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, which literally means the therapy of meaning. This is a book whose message can be interpreted in religious terms, but it is also extremely meaningful to people without a stated belief or formal religion. In modern times, perhaps more than ever in human existence, we are expected to be happy all the time, and increasingly if we are not happy, then we are seen as ill. To this idea Viktor Frankl said:

I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I recommend for everyone. At some time or another most of us suffer from some form of existential angst and this is a wonderful book to put things in perspective. It is dense and full of weighty philosophical insights, but it is very readable, and if you are lucky, you may even have a book club to discuss it with.

Check the WRL catalog for Man’s Search for Meaning.

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YearoftheJungle

Suzanne Collins achieved fame through her dark and dystopian Hunger Games series. Her latest offering is neither a dystopian tale nor a children’s fantasy series; instead she has written a picture book. Year of the Jungle is four-year-old child’s view of Suzanne Collins’s own experiences when her father was deployed to Vietnam in 1968.

Because Year of the Jungle is the newest book from a bestselling author, it has garnered a lot of attention. One review said that it would “bewilder” its intended audience of small children. Considering that over two million American children have had a parent deployed since 9/11, it must be a familiar story to many. Of course not all of them had exactly the same experience as Suzanne Collins, but many have had similar enough experiences that they will not be bewildered by this book.

Suzy hears that her father “has to go to something called a war,” leaving her not knowing “what anybody’s talking about.”  She also learns that he will be in a jungle. Suzy knows about jungles from cartoons so she pictures her father in a happy place among her favorite cartoon characters. In a strong portrayal of a small child’s misunderstanding of the passage of time, Suzy is confused about the length of the year he will be away. The book portrays Suzy’s growing unease as adults give her unlooked-for sympathy, showing how adults can make things worse, even though they are trying to be kind. Suzy loves getting her father’s postcards, but they start coming less frequently and start to change. But for a child about to turn five the most devastating thing is the realization that he sent a birthday greeting to the wrong sibling.  In the illustrations the cartoon jungle full of round and smiling animals changes into a far more sinister place with images of violence and fear.

It is hard not to speculate how Suzanne Collins’s early experiences influenced her imagination when writing her undoubtedly dark and violent Hunger Games series. As an excellent writer she has captured and condensed a world of childhood experiences into a very few words. James Proimos’ illustrations are of a rough cartoonish style that at first glance I didn’t find very attractive, but they do a great job of capturing Suzy’s innocence and her unusually early realization of the dangers of the world.

This is a picture book designed to be read aloud, and a parent or caregiver can judge if it is the right book for their child. I think it could be useful for young military children as it is ultimately comforting when her father returns safely, although it is so dark in places that an adult should read it first and decide if it is appropriate. I also recommend it for adults who are interested in Suzanne Collins, military children’s experience, or a darker picture book.

Check the WRL catalog for Year of the Jungle.

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PiperReedPiper Reed is irrepressible.  In the vein of children’s literature’s girl-heroes like Ramona Quimby or Pippi Longstocking she faces life with strong opinions and some crazy ideas, but a good heart.

As it says in the subtitle, Piper Reed is a Navy Brat. Her father is a Naval aviation mechanic and Piper has fully embraced the military family lifestyle, even referring to her father as “the Chief.”

At the beginning of the book, during her family’s weekly pizza night, her father announces that he has received new orders.  Piper adds, “Chief always says ‘we’ when he talked about being assigned somewhere even though he was really the only person in the family being assigned to a new base.  He would say, ‘When a man joins the Navy, his family joins the Navy.'”

In the Navy or not, Piper finds it difficult to pack up in San Diego and drive all the way to the other side of the country to Pensacola, Florida, especially as the middle child, with an increasingly moody older sister in middle school and an annoying younger sister who considers herself a genius.  When they first get to Pensacola, Piper is moved to write “My Why-I-Wish-We’d-Never-Moved List,” including things like “I had my own room in San Diego” and “I had a tree house in San Diego.”  But Piper can’t be held down for long and she soon cooks up a scheme to make new friends involving her sister pretending to be a fortune-teller.  As time passes she discovers the joys of Florida in the form of a new family dog, the nearby beach, and the Blue Angels demonstration planes.

Like Piper Reed, National Book Award winning author Kimberly Willis Holt says “I’m a Navy brat that lived all over the world, including Guam.”  There are many details of military family life here that ring true:

  • Piper hasn’t seen her extended family for two years, and when they visit her grandparents on their cross-country car trip, she can’t imagine living down the street from grandparents like her cousins do.
  • Piper’s little sister, Sam, is distraught when Annie the doll is inadvertently packed in a box during the move from San Diego to Florida.
  • The family’s new house in Florida is smaller than their old house and Piper asks “Why can’t we live in one of those big houses with the screen porches?” and her father replies “That’s the officers’ housing.”
  • The book ends as Piper’s family farewell’s her father for six-months, as he is regularly at sea for that long.

If you remember Ramona Quimby fondly (she first appeared in print in 1955) then stop in to visit Piper Reed and you’ll find her just as funny and character driven as Ramona.  Even if you don’t remember Ramona, read Piper Reed, Navy Brat for a portrait of a strong, resilient family weathering life’s ups and downs.

Check the WRL catalog for Piper Reed, Navy Brat

Follow Piper’s further adventures in:

2. Piper Reed, the Great Gypsy

3. Piper Reed Gets a Job

4. Piper Reed, Campfire Girl

5. Piper Reed, Rodeo Star

6. Piper Reed, Forever Friend

If you are interested in other books about military family lifestyles, look on my website Books for Military Children.

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YokotaOfficersClubThis compelling story of family, betrayal, and memory starts out in the late 1960s as 18-year-old Bernie is flying to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa to visit her family after her first year at college.  She grew up in an Air Force family, under the shadow of larger-than-life Major Mace Root, and popular and beautiful younger sister, Kit.  Now she has been “breathing civilian air” for a year and has joined a peace group, Damsels in Dissent.  Her large family are astonished at their first sight of her at the airport in tattered jeans with peace symbols and no bra.  She, in return, is astonished at how badly her family is dealing with their new assignment, from her teenage sister’s open rebellion to her younger sister’s anxiety to her mother’s cupboard full of Valium.

The story moves forwards and backwards in time from the 1960s to the 1940s, with poignant descriptions of the plight of Japanese civilians in the immediate aftermath of World War II when work, shelter, and food were in short supply. Slowly the picture is revealed of Bernie’s past and the book explores the nature of blame, responsibility, and human ties as Bernie comes to a wrenching realization about the triggers of her family’s disintegration eight years earlier during their posting to Yokota, Japan.

The Yokota Officers Club does a wonderful job at capturing a slice of military family life, especially the isolation of Bernie and all her siblings, except popular Kit.  A myriad of details of military life are scattered throughout, some of which are still pertinent for military families today, such as the frequent relocations. Bernie calls the souvenirs of bases where her family have lived “the spoils” of military life, particularly “the set of three framed fans that have hung of the wall in the hallways of all the houses we lived in since Fussa.”  My family lived in Europe rather than Asia so we lean more towards cuckoo clocks and wooden shoes than ornamental fans, although in North Dakota we had the same obscure brass Turkish camel wind chime as our neighbors.  Other details such as a family losing their jobs for not mowing the lawn are dated, as a base family will still get a notice about a messy yard, but the military is less strict.  And some things have completely changed: “Wives of majors who wish to make colonel wear heels and hose in public.”

In turns both funny and sad, The Yokota Officers Club is a story about loyalty – to family and to country, and to people who surround us.  It is based on Sarah Bird’s own childhood and she dedicates the book to her family – her Lieutenant Colonel father, nurse mother and three brothers and two sisters, just like Bernie’s family. But in the acknowledgements she adds, “to my family who… understood and accepted my capricious weaving of fiction through our shared past.”  Try The Yokota Officers Club for an emotional, character driven read about family relations.

Check the WRL catalog for The Yokota Officers Club.

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Good DogIvan is a Good Dog. He wants to do his job correctly, but he doesn’t have an owner, and without a boss he doesn’t know what job he should be doing. So he searches, sniffing out food and water to survive. There are occasional glimpses of hope that someone, anyone, will want him, like when a nice woman feeds him a sandwich from her picnic. The deceptive simplicity of Chaffee’s pen and ink drawings captures the optimism fading from Ivan’s face as she tells him she doesn’t have room in her house for a dog and gently, heartbreakingly, shoos him away.

Wherever he goes, Ivan always seems to be outside looking in. His pal Kirby has always had a master and is devoted to the man, despite his owner’s many imperfections. Ivan questions his friend about his living situation. Kirby contentedly describes himself as being in his correct place in the world; he has a master and a Good Dog is always loyal. Ivan isn’t certain this answer satisfies him, though it’s obviously good enough for Kirby.

Ivan then runs into a group of strays who not only don’t have masters, they don’t want them. They prefer to live in a pack as nature intended, led by their top dog, a Malamute named Sasha. The dogs work together to get food, each animal having his part to do in order for them to be successful. Humans, they say, are cruel and wicked, and dogs are better off taking care of themselves. Ivan has a crash course in the politics of the pack, still hunting for his place.

So much of the power of this narrative comes from the stark artwork, with emotions of the characters easily read in the perking of ears or the droop of a tail. There is something poignantly compelling about Ivan’s pursuit that goes beyond a tale of survival. His quest is greater, an allegory for the search we all make to find out where we belong, where we can feel secure, and where we are loved and valued. As one of the characters says: “Dog needs someplace to belong.” Don’t we all.

Recommended for animal lovers or anyone who can empathize with the desperate search for finding out where one fits in.

Search the WRL catalog for Good Dog.

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tomatoHow do some writers create compelling, even heroic, main characters that you wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes with in real life?  It’s a problem for some readers, but I admire the ability, and find that skill translates into forceful storylines.

Tomato Red is the story of four such characters.  Sammy Barlach tells the tale in an uncompromising voice; he does not hide anything from his audience, including his understanding that his whole life he’s been headed for prison or an early grave.  We first meet Sammy when he’s under the influence of crank and breaking into a McMansion to impress a girl. But the high runs out and he wakes to find himself in the company of two seemingly-sophisticated young people who want Sammy to help them with a project.

Turns out Sammy has come into the orbit of Jamalee and Jason Merridew, two of the inhabitants of the lowest life across-the-track neighborhood in West Table, Missouri.  West Table’s chief employer is a dog food factory, and Sammy can’t even keep a job there; Jamalee and Jason have bigger plans to escape West Table and go somewhere where people don’t treat them like the garbage on the bottom of their shoes.  That’s where Sammy comes in.

But there’s trouble with their plan, the kind that can’t be overcome no way nohow.  It seems their only choice is to put themselves into their own places – Jason at the local hair salon, Jamalee waiting tables at the country club, and Sammy doing whatever is left when the dog food factory doesn’t work out.  Even those efforts go awry, and the trio embarks on a cycle of revenge and retribution that destroys their plans once and for all.

The fourth person in the story is Bev Merridew, Jamalee and Jason’s mother.  She’s the kind of woman who learned long ago that for a pretty girl from across the tracks the best solution to life’s steamroller is to lay down.  So she lays down, either with a joint or with a guy who can put some money in her pocket, and lets the rest wash over her.  She even smokes, drinks, and sleeps with Sammy, which throws another sour note into his relationship with Jamalee.  When trouble hits too close to home, though, for once she decides to take action but finds what few assets she has are worth nothing to the important people of the town.

Woodrell’s characters are the very best thing about this book.  Sammy speaks in the cadence and language of a mostly unlettered culture that hasn’t yet succumbed to the uniformity of TV-speak.  Like the forebears who settled in the isolated Ozarks, he has a fierce independence, a fierce loyalty to the people he adopts as his, a fierce temper when crossed.  Jamalee barely contains her rage, knowing deep down that she doesn’t have the wherewithal to leave West Table.  Jason is learning about his sexuality, and it doesn’t look good for him among these rural alpha males.  Bev is earthy, practical, willing, which makes her a favorite among those same men.

I don’t know what it is about this setting, or the people who inhabit it, but it seems that I keep coming back to it, and with Tomato Red, I know I’m in good hands.  The author of the terrific Winter’s Bone (also made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Ree),  Woodrell’s writing is a reminder that an air of fatalism and a talent for stark storytelling seems to characterize the people of the Ozarks; maybe that’s what brings me back.

Check the WRL catalog for Tomato Red

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