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Archive for the ‘Readers’ advisory’ Category

surprisingly-lurid-thane-coverIf you’ve already read the Williamsburg series, you can have a good laugh at this cover, which has a very noir, “Philip Marlowe in Colonial Williamsburg” feel that is completely unlike the actual novels. (Let me take a moment to picture Humphrey Bogart in a tricorn hat… OK, moving on.)

Elswyth Thane’s old-fashioned family saga begins in our own home town of Williamsburg in 1771. Julian Day, a schoolmaster newly arrived from England, is a staunch defender of King George, but befriends St. John Sprague despite his views on colonial independence. As revolution approaches, Day’s loyalties conflict with his friendships, including one with Tabitha “Tibby” Mawes, a young girl he helps to raise from poverty to gentility. That’s right: they are enemies “even in love!”

May-December romances are a recurring theme of this series, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Tibby and Julian become the matriarch and patriarch of a family which the novels follow for generations. Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles, Ken Follett’s Century trilogy, and Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy seem to be leading a return of great, multigenerational sagas, those books with family trees on the endpapers to help you remember the cast of characters. Elswyth Thane was there first, and her seven-volume series follows the entangled Day, Sprague, Murray, and Campion families on both sides of the Atlantic, from the American Revolution to the early days of WWII. (At the time Thane was writing, this was recent history.)

Genteel, involving stories, these novels are gentle reads: there is love and war, but not sex or violence. Their age (or mine) shows in places; the Civil War-era episodes have a Margaret Mitchell-like nostalgia for Southern plantation life that is not concerned with the system of slavery on which it was based. My favorite, Ever After, takes place during the Spanish American War and covers every highlight of romance and melodrama that one might wish: War! Journalism! Malaria! A locket hiding a portrait of a forbidden love! When I picked it up after a decades-long gap, I expected to find it less readable, but hours later I was still sitting in the same armchair, caught up all over again in doomed romance and tearful deathbed goodbyes.

Check the WRL catalog for Dawn’s Early Light.

The series continues with Yankee Stranger, Ever After, The Light Heart, Kissing Kin , This Was Tomorrow, and Homing.

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3MinutesThis is a powerful history. It is a story of survival, loss, atrocity, renewal, guilt, luck, sadness, and hope. Three Minutes in Poland is a painstakingly-researched book that grew out of a home movie made by David Kurtz, the author’s grandfather. In 2009, Glenn Kurtz happened upon the movie in a family closet. Having emigrated to the United States years before, David, his wife, and friends toured Europe in 1938, just before the outbreak of World War II. David Kurtz, with his 16 mm movie camera, sporadically recorded the excursion, including three minutes documenting a small Polish town from which the family had come.

The significance of those three minutes in 1938 was immediately clear to the author. Within a year the Holocaust had started. By 1942 most of the 3000 Jews from the town had been murdered. This short record offered a rare pre-war snapshot of the Jews of Poland, happy and thriving. With unrelenting determination, Glenn Kurtz undertook a project to identify the faces captured in his grandfather’s home movie. He wanted to learn more about the small town, what it meant to his grandfather, his extended family, and the Jews who lived there. Kurtz’s book not only chronicles that research, it brings to life again some of the lost souls who died during the Holocaust.

In writing this book Kurtz traveled around the globe. He followed leads throughout North America and made friends and discoveries in Israel, Poland, and England. Despite how few people survived, Kurtz assembled an extensive network to identify and interview individuals with first-hand knowledge of the town and its people. He focused on the survivors to reconstruct this town documented in his grandfather’s home movie. In particular, the author spent many hours talking with Morry Chandler (whose granddaughter identified him as one of the waving children in the home movie).

Three Minutes in Poland is an intimate portrait of how many Jewish families were devastated, and yet some managed to survive. Throughout his well-crafted book, Kurtz weaves a story of past, present, and future that engages the reader. The personal element of reconstructing his heritage notwithstanding, much of Three Minutes in Poland also is a reminder to never forget the victims of the Holocaust. Through intelligence, perseverance, and skill, Kurtz presents a compassionate history that will move and inspire almost any reader.

Check the WRL catalog for Three Minutes in Poland

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heroRefreshing and reinventing old superheroes has become somewhat fashionable recently, with rather mixed results. Some characters, like Batman, have seen so many iterations that it is difficult to separate them all, or find new ground to cover without being completely repetitive or utterly discarding canon. One good thing that has come out of this trend is the resurrection of old characters that never caught on, but were worthwhile for one reason or another.

The Green Turtle was a World War II superhero with a very limited run. He was created by a cartoonist named Chu Hing, who was one of the first Asian-Americans to enter the American comic book industry, a business with limited diversity, especially back in 1944. Hing obscured the face of his protagonist so that, even if he was not allowed to make his character officially of Chinese descent, there is enough obfuscation for the reader to make their own decision about his heritage.

It is this character that has been brought back to life in The Shadow Hero. Living in Chinatown are two immigrants and their son, Hank. Each parent brings with them shadows of their old life and unfulfilled expectations from their new life. Hank is the reluctant heir to a melting pot of their issues. There certainly isn’t any early indication of his superhero future, as he is quite content to work in his father’s grocery store, nursing the hope to eventually pass it on to his own son someday. But no superhero comes to being without some trauma, and his parent’s legacies eventually, violently, come to alter their offspring’s future in unimagined ways.

Gene Luen Yang, author of the Printz Award winning American Born Chinese, brings a strong sense of time, place, and culture in this story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero story where family and cultural heritage is this central to the creation and continued development of the character. The people surrounding Hank encompass a wide range of types without sinking in to caricature. His mother is especially complicated, being infuriating and relatable in equal measure. Parents want what’s best for their child, but so often their view of what is best is founded on what they perceive to be missing from their own life.

Recommended for readers of graphic novels, superhero stories, and anyone with an interest in stories about family dynamics.

Check the WRL catalog for The Shadow Hero.

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giantsBarbara is a fifth-grader who lives with her big sister and her older brother. She sticks out from her peers for myriad reasons: she wears a different pair of animal ears every day; she is completely unable to interact with people in a normal manner; and she is obsessed with her quest to kill giants. She tells stories of many bloody, violent battles with the monsters, and sees signs of an impending attack that no one else notices. Armed with Coveleski, the Giant Slayer (the name she gave her war hammer), she is tough, smart, and in many ways completely unlikable. When finding herself cornered, either physically or emotionally, she lashes out with a vicious intensity.

Offsetting her brutal ferocity is Sophia, a sunny, gentle girl who is new to the neighborhood and is fascinated by Barbara’s stories of giants and the imminent war. As damaged as Barbara so obviously is, she cannot completely cast Sophia aside, and the reader gets glimpses of what looks like desperation for normalcy peeking through her façade. But Barbara is pretty expert in keeping people from hurting her emotionally, and even Mrs. Molle, the school psychologist, finds Barbara a tough case to figure out.

Heavy in the air is a secret, something so terrible that it is driving Barbara into a world of fantasy in order to find some solace. So strong is her emotional shutdown, that even people’s words are blacked out whenever the topic is mentioned. Bit by excruciating bit, her secret is revealed to the reader, as she finds herself unable to keep things contained and her raw pain is brought to the surface

Graphic novels can be a fantastic medium for delving into tough, sensitive topics, as the art can make a reader comprehend those quiet moments of complete emotional devastation better than any possible combination of words. The illustrations by JM Ken Niimura are subtle and explosive as appropriate. Joe Kelly’s writing is nuanced and tense. Recommended for readers of graphic novels, and anyone who likes journeys of self-awareness or coming-of-age stories.

Check the WRL catalog for I Kill Giants.

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mushAs someone once quipped, “they don’t have issues, they have an entire subscription.” Six dogs of varying breeds make up this sled dog team, and each has their own flavor of neurosis. Dolly is the lead dog, and is consumed with an existential crisis, constantly wondering why she was chosen to lead, and whether or not she has the skills to be successful. Winston is a purebred Samoyed, and bears the heavy burden of his blue blood with mounting desperation as his chances of passing on his valuable genes seem slimmer as each season passes. Buddy, a strong but not particularly bright wheel dog, has been used several times for mating, but this has confused him about his exact relationship with the mother of his pups. Venus, Buddy’s unwilling partner in puppy making, has to fend off his amorous advances and her increasing frustration with her lack of choice in these matters. Guy is determined to take over the lead position from Dolly and is willing to manipulate the other dogs into helping him. And finally there is Fiddler, part philosopher, part devil’s advocate; he seems to be able to figure out everything, except what he actually wants for himself. The owners of this motley crew are a man and a woman who intentionally moved far away from all other people, and are dealing with their enforced solitude with varying levels of success.

The dogs live to run, and it is only in their long stretches of down time that they are forced to turn to social drama as an antidote to boredom. Buddy flirts, Venus rebuffs, Dolly questions, Guy plots, Winston preens, and Fiddler philosophizes. For all the soap opera-like drama as they jockey for their rightful place in the world, either real or perceived, the dogs are relatable and quite often funny. Somewhat gloomier is the relationship between the humans, who each only have one other person they can interact with. For both parallel stories, nerves can only fray so much before something drastic will occur.

The story is an engaging, quick read. Some of the humor is more appropriate for an older crowd, especially Buddy’s repeated attempts to compliment Venus based on her litter-making skills. Recommended for readers of graphic novels and character-driven stories.

Check the WRL catalog for Mush! Sled Dogs with Issues

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legendA lot of admonishments are made about not judging a book by its cover. But as I was browsing our shelves, I came across this dark little volume and was immediately intrigued. Mimicking a dinged up, ink spattered journal, its rather grandiose title The Stuff of Legend was set above the drawing of a stuffed bear. Its face set with a sense of purpose, the bear steps towards the reader as if walking towards its destiny, glancing at the toys behind it with a look of either challenge or warning. It is an arresting image, but despite the ominous subtitle, The Dark, I picked up the book fully expecting the fluffy cuteness of the bear to be the reader’s companion through the story, juxtaposed against whatever low-level gloom the authors threw at the character. After just a few pages I realized I was entirely off base.

The story has some familiar elements: a young boy and some toys that come alive, but only when humans are not there to witness the transformation. One of the toys is even a piggy bank, but this book is definitely not a Toy Story knock-off. Set in 1941, with the boy’s father off fighting in the war, a great and unexpected evil is about to invade the world. Straight out of every child’s nightmares, the Boogeyman is in the closet. One night his nightmarish tentacles emerge from behind the door to snatch the boy, leaving the toys behind in shock. Should they venture in after him to save their owner? Or should they maintain their directive of non-interference?

Obviously, if all the toys decided that discretion is the better part of valor, this story would have ended after only a few pages. Instead we follow a few brave toys who volunteer (or get volunteered) to go into the darkness after the boy. The world on the other side of the door is truly transformational, and the long quest begins.

When I finished book 1, my only thought was that I needed to get book 2 as soon as possible. The story is gloomy, yet riveting and absorbing. The artwork is appropriately dingy in sepia with dark shadows staining every scene. So far, four books in the series have been published, and there is a promise of a fifth volume later this year. Recommended for readers of graphic novels, light horror, an adventure books.

Check the WRL catalog for The Stuff of Legends

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girlThroughout their 30-year history, the band Sonic Youth won critical acclaim for their distinctive dissonant, guitar-driven sound. Led by the husband and wife team of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, the band enjoyed commercial success in the early ‘90s with the release of Goo (1990), featuring the single “Kool Thing,” and as a headlining act with the 1995 Lollapalooza festival.

Sonic Youth continued to release records and tour until the announcement in 2011 that Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were divorcing after 27 years of marriage. Fans were shocked. How could a marriage and musical partnership that seemed solid dissolve so suddenly and publicly? Kim Gordon offers thoughtful, well-balanced insight into her career and personal life in her candid memoir, Girl in a Band.

Gordon opens with Sonic Youth’s final concert at the SWU Music and Arts Festival in Itu, São Paulo, Brazil. A month prior to the show, Sonic Youth’s record label issues a press release announcing Gordon and Moore’s divorce. While the band members try to remain professional as they complete their South American tour, the tension is evident. Gordon observes that for a couple and a band who embraced artistic and musical experimentation while maintaining a stable family unit, the end was “another cliché of middle-aged relationship failure—a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life.”

Gordon’s path to musical success was a bit unconventional. The daughter of a sociology and education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and a homemaker, she grew up interested in visual arts, eventually attending York University in Toronto, Canada and the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. She had one sibling, an older brother named Keller. Of all the relationships Gordon discusses in her memoir, her relationship with Keller is the most complex. Growing up, Gordon adored her brother, despite his constant teasing, which occasionally turned cruel. After a troubled adolescence, Gordon and her parents learned that Keller suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. According to Gordon, Keller and his mental illness “shaped who I was, and who I turned out to be.”

Gordon moved to New York in 1980, intending to become part of a thriving art scene that included Cindy Sherman and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’m more familiar with Kim Gordon’s music than her art, and I especially enjoyed reading her recollections of the New York art world in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Gordon was asked to write an article about music, and she chose to focus on the onstage interactions between men. Her article was well-received and inspired her to start making music herself. After meeting Thurston Moore, they formed a band that eventually became Sonic Youth. Their early years were a bit of a struggle as they balanced day jobs with the process of recording, touring, and developing an audience. From the beginning, Sonic Youth had a distinctive musical and artistic aesthetic that carried over into fashion in 1993 when Gordon co-founded the clothing line X-Girl with Daisy Cafritz.

Rather than delve into the minutiae of every Sonic Youth song or album, Gordon focuses her discussion of Sonic Youth’s music on songs and albums that are especially meaningful to her. Along the way, she includes fascinating stories and anecdotes about the musicians she toured or worked with, including Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.

Told in short, fast-paced chapters, Girl in a Band is an engaging memoir and an entertaining account of an influential period in American alternative music.

Check the WRL catalog for Girl in a Band.

 

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