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Book Review Monday: The View From Saturday August 4, 2010

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I have been on a Young Adult book kick lately. I borrowed a whole pile of books for the summer from a nearby middle school. I happen to be on good terms with the librarian – so I had no limit and no late fees!

It was fun exploring the shelves, remembering books I loved when I was a kid and finding new books by beloved authors, such as the one reviewed today. E.L. Konigsburg is the author of one of my most favorite YA books. I was so excited when I found her other books, that I borrowed 3 of them!

The View From Saturday is a Newbury Medal winning story about a group of students who form an Academic competition team and how they came together as a group on their own terms. They each have their own story, but in that “what a small world” kind of way, their stories intertwine with each other through extended relatives, new marriages, new jobs, and school bullies on the bus. One of the young boys takes the initiative to recognize there is something special about each of them, and knows just how to appeal to each one in a way that starts the group on its way to becoming the close friends club they call The Souls. They are each incredibly intelligent, eccentric individuals with just the right life experience to facilitate excellence in academic competition. Like any well-crafted novel, you get the feeling their whole lives have prepared them for this one moment, and what a moment! It’s no spoiler to point out that you know the whole time they must win the competition – but the climax of the story coincides with that moment, at which they win not only the competition, but also the hearts of their audience, their teachers, the reader, and each other. They may be an odd bunch, but they are odd together and you will love them for it!

Monday Book Review: The Cheese Monkeys April 20, 2010

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Chip Kidd is a multi-faceted graphic designer who has turned his talents from designing the art around a text into designing and writing the text itself. The Cheese Monkeys is Kidd’s first novel, and a spectacular one at that. As if worked in paints or pencils, the characters are vividly drawn, and love ‘em or hate ‘em, you know exactly what makes ‘em tick.

The novel has been accurately described as a coming-of-age tale, as our protagonist, Happy, has left the nest for his first year of college to major in Art. He quickly learns how to deal with roommates, professors, friends and dive bars, while struggling with where and how he fits into this new life.

I found the novel to be unique, witty and thoroughly enjoyable until the last few events which while fitting for the disingenuous Cheese Monkey universe, were just a tad too outrageous for my taste. This was a fascinating glimpse into the kind of friendships I imagine the competitively “artsy” people in college might have had, each day trying to be more creative than the last, no matter how off-the-wall they might seem. The kind of insincere creativity that is outrageous just for the sake of being more “artistic” than the others, and ends up being more phony than anything else.

Monday Book Review: Wait Till Next Year April 6, 2010

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Springtime is a wonderful time of year for lots of reasons, but one of the best things about Spring is the return of BASEBALL! In honor of the opening of baseball season this week, I’m reviewing a book I read a number of years ago, but think about each year at this time. Wait Till Next Year, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, is a memoir focused on a young girl’s life growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s, her relationships with her friends, mother and especially her father with whom she shared a special bond of love for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ms. Goodwin is a presidential historian, author of numerous accounts of historical events, and is a frequent guest on a variety of political and current event news and commentary programs. Her father taught her how to score a game when she was only 6, and she can still recount games she heard on the radio that summer. The tale focuses on a time when even Brooklyn was a small town, and families and communities were brought together around radios or new-fangled televisions to watch and hear about current events – things that were changing and shaping our country in the tumultuous post-World War II era. But the best memories of this girl’s childhood center on her obsession with the Brooklyn Dodgers, (even forsaking all other teams and players, including greats like Mickey Mantle who dared to play for the Yankees!) and the whole neighborhood’s hopes that the Dodgers would win the pennant, maybe next year.

The memoir is incredibly well-written, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in 1950’s suburbia, family relationships, father-daughter relationships, and most of all, baseball.

Monday Book Review: Alan Moore’s Top Ten March 29, 2010

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The book being reviewed for this week’s book review is a little different from our usual picks: it’s a graphic novel. I happen to love graphic novels, and have a modest collection of both series and stand alone stories. Although I occasionally pick up a Batman or Spiderman comic if I’m interested in the writer or artist for that particular issue, I generally don’t normally choose the comics about superheroes. I can’t tell you anything about the mythology of Superman or the X-Men.

Anyway, despite my aversion to superhero stories, upon a recommendation, I picked up Volume 1 of Alan Moore‘s Top Ten, a graphic novel about Neopolis, a city full of “science heroes” – people or beings having enhanced or supernatural abilities. Even though the premise is about what life would be like in a city where everyone is a superhero – the story and plot unfolds like any other dramatic comedy. To be more specific, the “Top Ten” of the title refers to the nickname of the Police Precinct that enforces the law in Neopolis, and the story is told in a Law and Order style Police Procedural, following a few subplots based upon the investigations and personal lives of a group of science-hero police.

The art was great, lots of details in each drawing, filling in bits of story to support the dialogue balloons. Volume 1 collects about 8 series comics, the complete set of the first story arc. Volume 2 is shorter, and tells another story. There has been at least one spin off, a prequel about some of the earlier science-hero cops in Neopolis, when the city was still new.

I’d recommend these graphic novels to just about anyone. Good stories, great characters, tight plots with plenty of clues and details, and pretty good artwork. These are very well-done, and I hope there will be more!

Monday Book Review: Crossworld: One Man’s Journey into America’s Crossword Obsession March 15, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in Book Reviews, Book vs. Movie.
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In my opinion, crossword puzzles are a fun diversion from the stresses of every day life. I first started doing the New York Times Daily crossword puzzles during high school, when, through some newspaper readership program, stacks of NY Times were delivered to the school for students’ use. Always a lover of games and puzzles, I was instantly attracted to the Times’ crossword, a perfect balance of challenge and the satisfaction of achievement. Over the years, my obsession with the NY Times puzzle waxed and waned, depending on the availability of the newspaper (and whether I could get a copy for free!).

In 2005, I found Marc Romano’s book, Crossworld: One Man’s Journey into America’s Crossword Obsession in the “New and Interesting” Display at my local library, and immediately upset the composition of the display by borrowing it – and though I felt bad about leaving the empty space, I knew the librarian would be happy someone was interested in what she had put out. I didn’t get a chance to read the book before its due date, so I dutifully returned it for the next reader, and stopped at the bookstore to buy my own copy – which in the last 5 years, I have picked up and put down at least a dozen times.

I kept giving the book another chance, because I truly love doing crossword puzzles, and there were more than a few bits about the history of puzzles in America, Will Shortz’ personal puzzle ephemera collection, and tips about crossword puzzle construction and solving. I was also curious to read about the author’s first-hand account of a rookie’s experience at the American Crossword Tournament, for which he had trained by doing over 2,000 puzzles. Unfortunately, I despised the tone of the author, and could only handle reading his extremely arrogant yet still somehow self-loathing babble for so long. He brags about how cool it is of him to take his Thomas Pynchon novel down to the bar rather than make conversation with any of the introverted tournament competitors, and drinks a neat scotch and soda while awaiting the “cool kids” to arrive in the bar. Oh – and let me not forget to mention, the “cool kids” crowd, or “Cru” (a take on crew, from “cruciverbalist”, a designer or aficionado of crossword puzzles) is headed up by one of the author’s favorite young constructors, Brendan Emmett Quigley, upon whom Romano can barely conceal his massive man-crush. The entire section of the book about the tournament itself was spent either noting what a bad idea it was to take so many anti-anxiety pills and thus be floating around in a cloud, or mooning over where is Brendan now, and how is Brendan scoring and look at all the groupies Brendan has, and on and on.

Several years ago, I learned that Will Shortz, editor of the NY Times Crossword Puzzle, has been coordinating the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament since 1978. The 33rd annual tournament was held just a few weeks ago in Brooklyn, NY, and the event has grown to be a weekend-long expo-like extravaganza, with vendors hawking all kinds of crossword-themed paraphernalia, game-related activities, receptions and ceremonies. The Tournament was the focus of a 2006 documentary, Wordplay, which undoubtedly led to the increase in the tournament’s popularity which precipitated a move from the Stamford Marriott venue which had hosted the tournament for 30 years, to the larger Brooklyn Bridge Marriott. A solid documentary, Wordplay was an intriguing peek into the world of crossword constructors and solvers, though possibly, only because I was already interested!

Even if you are interested in Crossword Puzzles, or the Tournament, you ought to skip this book and rent the movie. Wordplay was a great documentary that covered substantially the same ground, minus the attitude.

Monday Book Review: Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal February 22, 2010

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Christopher Moore is hands-down one of the funniest writers of fiction I have ever read. His books are truly unclassifiable, mixing elements of science fiction and fantasy while dealing with realistic drama and tragedy in an absolutely hysterically comical way. I have read several of his novels, and in each one, the main characters react in a completely realistic way to utterly unrealistic situations. As I have said before, when I find a book I enjoy, I recommend it to my fellow readers, and this is one I have recommended countless times.

LAMB: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, is a hilarious take on what Jesus might have been like, as viewed by a contemporary friend. One of my favorite scenes is from the very beginning, when Biff first encounters Joshua (as Jesus was called by his family and friends) while Joshua is playing with his younger brother (apparently the Bible left out all kinds of details about Jesus’ everyday life, including his brothers). Anyway, Josh’s brother plays with a lizard until the lizard is about to bite him, and then, instead of getting bit, he smashes the lizard’s head with a rock, and hands the smooshed lizard to Josh. Josh put’s the lizard in his mouth, and a moment later takes a wriggling, and very-much alive lizard out of his mouth and hands it back to his brother. The brother plays with and smashes the lizard’s head, and again gives it to Joshua to be brought back to life. Not exactly the kind of game you’d imagine Christ playing, but exactly what a kid with Christ’s powers would do! Biff is fascinated while he watches the lizard live and die over and over, and soon, they are best friends.

Biff accompanies Joshua on his metaphorical journey through childhood and adolescence, and on a literal journey to find God’s purpose for him, through difficult areas and meeting incredible characters and having exciting and frightening adventures along the way.

I cannot repeat enough, this book was laugh-out-loud funny. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy this story, except maybe a member of the clergy – but even then… if they have any sense of humor at all, they can appreciate this story for what it is: a tongue-in-cheek take on what happened during all the gaps in Jesus’ life that are not covered by the Bible (and a few alternate theories on how those stories happened too!)

Monday Book Review: them January 25, 2010

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Last year when we posted about the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards, I was surprised at how few of the winners I had read. Since then, I read and reviewed the novella The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty, and now I have finally finished and will review them, by Joyce Carol Oates, National Book Award winner in 1970.

them (note: the title is intentionally not capitalized) is a novel about 3 main characters, a mother and 2 of her children during the 3 decades following World War II and their pursuit of the American Dream. Loretta, the mother, begins the novel as a beautiful young teenager, full of hope for a life of fortune, leisure and happiness. Of course, if that was how her life had turned out, the story would barely be worth writing, and so it’s no spoiler to tell you that instead, she ends up pregnant, married to a dirty cop and living in her in-laws house until her husband gets in trouble and they all move out to the country. The cop-husband leaves them all to fight in the war, leaving Loretta with 2 young children and another on the way. After some time of putting up with her in-laws, Loretta packs up all the kids and moves back to the city (Detroit) where her kids grow up as street urchins. She shuffles them from one dirty apartment to another, always trying to make a step up, but never quite making it. As the kids get older, their father returns, and both parents are unhappy drunks. The older 2 children, Jules and Maureen, take on more and more responsibility, while dreaming of how their futures will be so much better than their parents’. They will move out, make money, get married and have real lives. The novel continues as Jules and Maureen get older and follows their attempts to make it out of poverty, to escape their roots and to make something better of themselves. I can’t say whether or not they are successful, but when the novel ends, each of the characters is exactly where I would expect them to be.

I found this quote about Ms. Oates’ writing for this novel on the National Book Award Blog, and can’t say it better:

Her style allows the reader to focus on story without the intrusion of unfamiliar language, so artfully done, an exercise in event, an adventure in domestic darkness.

Hugo Cabret Coming to the Silver Screen January 22, 2010

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This morning, I came across a bit of pretty cool news: Martin Scorsese is adapting a movie based upon the absolutely amazing Caldecott-winning Young Adult novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.

This book is fabulous, and is described on the book’s website:

This 526-page book is told in both words and pictures. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is not exactly a novel, and it’s not quite a picture book, and it’s not really a graphic novel, or a flip book, or a movie, but a combination of all these things. Each picture (there are nearly three hundred pages of pictures!) takes up an entire double page spread, and the story moves forward because you turn the pages to see the next moment unfold in front of you.

I heard about the book when it first came out, and read it right away, instantly falling in love with the story, the pictures and the characters, especially Hugo. What worked so well for me in the book was the way the pictures advanced the story, and sometimes gave the feeling of viewing a film the way each picture so perfectly led to the next.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, perhaps deserves a place on our Monday Book Review list, but the Scorsese announcement is just too sweet to save. And to top it off, the website for the book is spectacular! I’m so glad I heard about the possibility of a movie, or I might never have looked for the site, and it’s worth exploring.

Monday Book Review: Final Theory January 11, 2010

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I am still plugging along, reading my latest endeavor into “literature” and thus, do not have anything new to review this week. This is not a problem however, since it gives me a chance to discuss books I have read and enjoyed in the past that readers of this blog may have missed.

About a year and a half ago, my father brought to my attention a New York Times Book Review for a new release. The review itself was intriguing and quirky, starting off by asking what Leonardo da Vinci has in common with Albert Einstein. The answer was “many things” including, “genius” and “usefulness as thriller bait”. Since I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, and I love thrillers and am fascinated by Einstein, Final Theory, by Mark Alpert sounded like a thoroughly enjoyable perfect storm of words.

Final Theory is a suspense novel that can only be described as The DaVinci Code a la Einstein. The story kicks off with the villain torturing an old man almost to death in an attempt to discover a secret that Einstein had hidden long ago – the Holy Grail of Physics, or, the Theory of Everything. The old man dies, but only after he passes the key to the secret theory to a former student of his own. The villain AND the FBI want to find this student, and will stop at nothing to find him and Einstein’s Theory. They all set off on a nationwide manhunt, while the student tries to piece together Einstein’s Theory of Everything, in the hope that it will save him, his family, and the world.

The novel is a well-written debut, with interesting and fully developed characters, a plot that twists and turns to keep the reader flipping pages, and of course, the requisite unpredictable final spectacular reveal. It’s the kind of book that would make a great movie with something for everyone: lighthearted and likeable leading man on an intense journey to save his family and the world, with layman-friendly science and gadgets, a sexually-tense relationship with an old female friend, gunfights and villains and car chases. If it sounds a little formulaic, that’s because it is – but in my opinion, it’s a great formula!

Monday Book Review: The Road December 21, 2009

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I recently had the life-altering experience of listening to The Road, written by Cormac McCarthy, and read by Tom Stechschulte. I say this in all seriousness. While the plot of The Road could be summarized in a few short sentences, its key scenes revolving around the search for supplies and discussions of death, that does not stop it from being a great read. In fact, it is these devices that shape and reinforce the barren world McCarthy creates.  Though the book might not be chock full of action, it lures in the reader with heart-pounding trepidation, suspense, and love for the protagonists. Because McCarthy creates such sympathetic characters, concerns and dialogue that might have seemed trite coming from another author gain power throughout the text, as we become one with the small family, living their fears and fighting their struggles.

The majesty of this book lies in two accomplishments: the description of the father-son bond and the setting. Clearly, the setting is integral to the plot as this is a post-Apocalyptic novel (no spoilers there, I believe). While the setting is the reason the father and son are traversing the road alone, struggling for survival, McCarthy’s depiction of the leaden sky and the sunless ashy world to which these two are helplessly tethered is both subtle and highly developed. McCarthy does not beat us over the head with descriptions of the surroundings, yet this is the bulk of the book. His true genius lies in the way he ties it to the action, to the emotions, to the memories, and to the dreams of the main characters. Perhaps McCarthy’s most successful (dare I say, unprecedented?) contrivance is his alluding to, but never explicitly stating, the reasons or the nature of the Apocalyptic event that is the impetus for the characters’ journey. In a way, this increases the suspense, as the reader struggles to understand why certain things have happened or continue to happen.

The bond between the father and the son (referred to as the Man and the Boy) is beautiful, tender, and realistic. McCarthy states early on that “each [is] the other one’s world entire.” It is this premise that shapes their relationship and much of the action in the book. The Boy is a boy in many ways, fearing the world, not wanting to hurt anyone, hoping for a brighter future; while the Man is a man in many ways, fighting for the life of himself and his progeny no matter the cost; differences that are the source of their conversation, disagreements, and shared respect for one another. Though the two are set in an unlikely, otherworldly setting, the relationship is believable and (not to sound maudlin) heart-touching.

This book continues to haunt me with its realistic depiction of death, hunger, fear, the unknowable future, and most of all love. A must read for all.

As a side note (realizing you know my love of audiobooks): I have to say that Stechschulte does a truly amazing job. He should absolutely win a Grammy for this one.

Also, check out The Millions review of the movie here.

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