Monday, July 29, 2013

Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

A few months ago the bookstore received and Advance Readers Copy of Simon Van Booy’s newest book, The Illusion of Separateness.  Fights broke out among several booksellers and, by some miracle, I was the second bookseller to get ahold of it (I swear I never threw a single punch). I read it in one sitting, as many of us did, not only because I couldn’t put it down, but because putting it down mid-story, thus disrupting the flow, would have been a crime.  A terrible, unspeakable crime.

Illusion of Separateness is an intimate look at the tiny choices that connect us all.  Readers get the story of multiple characters that are all seemingly connected in the present day through events that began during the Second World War.  Each chapter is written with a different voice, telling the story of a fully-realized character that you can't help but empathize with.  

I’m often skeptical of books that are told from different perspectives, because they almost never have independent voices the way real people do.  Oftentimes each character is too clearly written by the same writer.  This is not the case with Van Booy.  His characters have their own clear voice, but the writing still maintains its impeccable quality.  

Van Booy has a talent for bringing out the extraordinary in everyday circumstances.  There are few writers who create art with every word the way he does.  The Illusion of Separateness is no exception.  As much as I loved his previous books, this one is by far his best.  I must point out that I almost never read adult fiction, and when I do, it is classics.  Van Booy is the exception to my disinterest in contemporary fiction (well done, sir), so this recommendation should not be taken lightly.  

Monday, July 22, 2013

Hello again

Oh my little blog, I haven't forgotten about you.  I haven't stopped reading either.  But I have stopped having as much time to post.  I just started FOUR new reviews, so I should be able to start posting again next Monday. Busy, busy me.  So sorry.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Judge a book by its cover. Right now.

I do it.  I do it all the time.  Show me a book cover and I'll tell you how likely I am to enjoy it.  I know "they" say it shouldn't be done, but I'm here to tell you "they" are wrong.  Here's why:

No hidden meanings in these books...
1. Publishers chose covers, not authors:
Sometimes they even chose titles.  Why? Because they've been at it and they (hopefully) know what they're doing.  I've seen some author chosen covers and they are not good.  For example, Vanessa Sleeping Naked is Green.  But I like it.  It's funny.  It represents the book well, which is also funny.   Writers write and publishers market.  So go marketing team, you sold me a book.  See, not all marketing is bad.  Farquharson hated the cover of her book,

Political books often feature a photo of the author on the cover.  That's because publishers know that the readers who are going to pick that book up are doing it because they recognize the author and may want to read what they have to say.  Many of those authors may not have chosen to put themselves on the covers (or maybe they would.  Ugh, politicians).
About Beck's ego, not Washington

In some cases a cover can help give you an idea of the writing quality and how much faith a publisher has in the book to begin with.  I won't name any names because I'm not out to insult anyone, but some covers just look thrown together.  If little effort was put into creating an intriguing cover, it may be that the publisher was less excited about it.  All authors will want a high-quality, expensive-looking cover, but sometimes the books just don't merit one.  Don't worry too much about this though when shopping, because of the reasons below.

2. Demographics:
Publishers know their audience.  They know what age, gender, and interests they should target in their readers and will pick a cover that appeals to those people.  For example, when I look for a kids' book, I don't want anything that is too strongly male or female.  I like stories to be fantastical, but not strictly fantasy.  I also like things kind of creepy, but not scary.  No surprise that I picked up Gustav Gloom, The Girl who Circumnavigated, and also The Tell-Tale Start.  All of these books have gender neutral* covers and are a little mysterious-looking.  Loved them.  Harry Potter? Yep, you fit the bill.

I also hate reading books about young love, lust, or anything in between.  It's a no-brainer that I won't be reading Sarah Dessen this summer, as all of her covers are marketed to a female audience and have all kinds of hearts and frills on the covers.  I don't like violence either, so I won't be reading Department 19.  That doesn't mean these are bad books, it just means they were not marketed to my interests.

Personal copy #127
That's just kid's books.  I can go on and on about adult books, because they are a little less obvious with the covers.  However, it's safe to say that if you are drawn to a cover, it's probably because you were meant to be. (Hello, impulse purchase of Farewell My Subaru, a book I highly recommend.)

Sometimes a book gets a new cover to appeal to a newer audience.  Ursula Le Guin's books got new covers that appeal to a slightly younger audience than they did originally.  That makes sense because a YA reader could enjoy them just as much as a reader of adult fantasy.  Classic books often get neat classic, old-timey looking covers, to show off their timelessness.  (How many editions of Jane Eyre do I own, just because I loved the covers? I'll never tell.)
Yellow and about lights! Perfect!

3. Because you can:
You should pick up a book and be dazzled from the very start, meaning the cover.  You should be excited to open the book and get to reading.  Something about it should grab you and hold you.  A great cover is the first step to that.  Plus, you know best what looks prettiest in your home library.  I have a preference for yellow and orange books, myself.  No reason.  Just do.

*By gender neutral I mean that the book doesn't try to be a "boy book" or a "girl book."  You know, no fairies, gun, sports, or cleavage. Nothing that screams "I THINK GENDER IS IMPORTANT AND IN ORDER TO BE A PROPER GIRL/BOY YOU SHOULD LOVE THIS BOOK." It does not mean that there are no male or female characters on the cover.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Gulp by Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s books have been on my to-read list for a long time. However, when your job depends on knowing what’s new and great, reading an author’s backlist can be difficult to find time for. Naturally, when Roach’s newest book came out, I jumped at the chance to finally make time for this intriguing writer. Right now I’m kicking myself for not having read her other titles sooner. Everything they say about Mary Roach is true. She’s exactly what a great science author should be: easy to understand, incredibly interesting, and outrageously hilarious. Outrageously.

In a way, I’m glad I waited. Gulp is the perfect follow-up to Salt, Sugar, Fat; It details some of the science that Moss hinted at. Gulp is a scientific exploration of digestion, from start (the nose) to finish, (the toilet). It may sound as though the book could be disgusting, but I assure you, it isn’t. Roach makes her intentions clear from the start: she wants to fascinate the reader, not cause disgust (much). In this, she achieves her goal. From the first chapter I was completely engrossed, but never grossed-out.

One of my favorite things about this book were the footnotes she sprinkled liberally throughout the book. They are like little asides to the reader; not quite pertinent to the main subject, but too interesting to be left out. It’s as though I’m sitting next to her in biology class and she is passing me silly notes about the subject until the bell rings. I found them distracting at first, but soon started looking forward to them, as a great tool for sharing extraneous information, without derailing the whole book. Her humor rivals that of David Sedaris and her best jokes are in these little notes. Thankfully, I am not in biology class, so I can giggle freely while reading, which I think Roach probably did as well while writing.*

I do most of my reading during my lunch break at work, which can make reading about digestion and bowel movements less than desirable. However, true to her oath in the introduction, this book isn’t gross, it’s interesting. There is so much I never knew about the digestive system, or more importantly, so much I didn’t realize I wanted to know about the digestive system. Roach interviews scientists and professionals involved in everything from saliva, to flatulence, to Elvis Presley's doctor. It would seem that Roach has no limits to journalistic inquiry, even emailing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for more information about the possible history of holy water enemas being used in exorcisms.

I would recommend reading this book next to an internet-ready device, because in some cases, Roach can only begin to scratch the surface of the story. I spent a considerable amount of time reading about Horace Fletcher; one chapter simply isn’t enough to cover someone like him. The book isn’t about Fletcher, Komodo dragons, competitive eating, or any number of equally interesting things Roach talks about; it’s about the science and stories that make up the alimentary canal, thus prompting me to look further into many of the subjects Roach brings up. For someone with an endless appetite for information (example: people who look up one thing on Wikipedia, only to get sucked in for two hours), Roach’s writing style can be dangerous and time consuming, but also heavenly.

Now that I’ve finished Gulp, I can’t wait to dig into that backlist. If Roach can make digestion, gassiness, and saliva this interesting, imagine what she can do with cadavers and superstition. Irresistible!

*Her fascination with names that correspond to professions reached its peak with Dr. Crapo who coined the term “Dung Lung.”

Buy it indie!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Main Street Vegan by Victoria Moran

I saw Victoria Moran speak at Farm Sanctuary’s Annual Thanksgiving celebration for the Turkeys last year.  As I enjoyed my tasty vegan Thanksgiving dinner, she talked about her years of vegan experience and of helping others go vegan.  She is an amazing and positive person that one can’t help but immediately take a liking to and gravitate toward.  She explained that before going vegan she was overweight and miserable.  You’d never know it from seeing her now.  She is vibrant, fit, and radiating happiness.  She talked a little about her book and I made a mental note to order it the next day at work.  My boyfriend was also impressed by her and said he would like to read the book when I was done with it.   

After the first few chapters, which were the basic how-tos, I found myself getting sucked deeper and deeper into the book.  Moran offers new insights to long-time vegans as well as great advice for beginners.  There’s great information about nutrition, explaining the best ways to get all of the important nutrients we all need (yes, she explains where to get protein, please don’t ask that question ever again).  She even inspired me to take up homemade smoothies for breakfast, which have instantly become a huge hit (hello endless energy in the morning!).

Each chapter includes fantastic recipes at the end, usually related to the topic of the chapter.  There’s some comfort food in there, as well as some interesting new tastes to try.  I’ve made several of the recipes from that book, most of them are simple, but still amazing.  For a fast and easy treat I highly recommend Gena Hamshaw’s Collard Wraps (I used Swiss chard instead of collards because I like it better).  When I make them for dinner we can never get enough.  I’m going to refrain from listing all of the yummy recipes I tried from this book and just assure you that they’re delightful and easy to throw together at the end of a busy day.

Which brings me to my next point: this book is written for average people.  Veganism isn’t just for people with private chefs (as Oprah may have us believing), or people who can drop $500 on the weekly trip to the grocery store.  Veganism is for average people (like me!).  It helps if you have some knowledge of how to operate your kitchen, which Moran does point out.  On the bright side, cooking most of your meals from scratch won’t take as long as you think and will save you buckets of money, which is great for those of us on a budget.  She also includes great shopping resources for non-food items and explains why it’s important to take your shoes, as well your dinner, into account when making the switch to veganism.

Moran lays out the transition to veganism as an easy and gradual path.  She includes the usual information about why the meat and dairy industry are the most horrible things on the planet, but she also understands that most people can’t just drop all of their vices at once.  She explains that doing less harm, on your path to doing no harm, is perfectly acceptable and understandable.  For some people this transition may take a while, but that’s ok.  I dabbled in veganism for years before actually doing it.  However, once I jumped in, I stayed in.  I’ve never been happier.  And neither has Victoria Moran.

Buy it indie!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss

How do I even begin?  This book is huge.  Not physically huge, just a huge deal for your life.  You need to read it.  I could end with that, but you’ll probably want me to explain why.  Fine...

Salt, Sugar, Fat is mind-blowing.  Coming from me, that’s saying something.  I read a lot of books about food and I try to avoid processed foods like the plague.  We all know this stuff is bad for us, but we eat it anyway because it also tastes good.  This isn’t an accident.  Obviously food companies want their foods to taste good, but the extent to which they use salt, sugar, and fat to trick our bodies into eating more and more of it is criminal.  They manipulate the ingredients, knowing it will cause people to overconsume.  Any ideas of trying to manufacture healthier foods are immediately shot down by wall street and industry executives.

Each section of this book sucked me in even further and elicited even more shock.  In fact, they are presented in the order that would create more shock as you go.  We all know the dangers of sugar, though not a great deal about the science, so Moss starts with it.  It’s no surprise that fat is not great for us.  What I didn’t know is that putting fat in a food can raise your tolerance for sugar, which will allow you to eat a lot more before your body tells you to cut it out, if it ever does.  He ends with salt.  We know too much salt is bad.  We know it leads to high blood pressure.  But we have it under control.  We’ve made an effort to keep our hands off the salt shaker during meals.  Except, that doesn’t even matter.  Processed food is teeming with added salts and our tolerance for salt is so high, that we don’t even notice how much we’re consuming.  The most shocking part of the salt story is what happens to children raised with and without heavy loads of salt in their diet.  Children raised with high salt diets, crave it in unprecedented amounts.  Children raised with little salt, turn their noses up at salty foods.  We’ve been raised to crave foods that are bad for us, and in the case of salt, we’ve done it to ourselves.

Moss did years of research and interviews for this book.  It is not a science book, so any science in it is immediately easy to understand.  He’s a great journalist who understands his readers. The book is made up of stories and anecdotes about the food industry, so that by showing us the smaller, more personal picture, Moss can give his readers the much bigger one.  He shows us that the issue is not black and white.  The food industry is making us sick and they are well aware of it, however, they can not stop themselves.  Their customers are hooked on the food and now they will not settle for anything healthier.  In a way, the only way out of this situation is government regulation.  I’m not a huge fan of regulation, but prefer education.  However, in the case of our health, perhaps the slower moving education road, will not be enough.  We may have reached a point where the food giants can’t stop and education alone is not enough to have us stop ourselves.  

After everything I’ve learned, reading this book still kind of made me want an Oreo Cookie.

Well, more like a Newman’s O.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Gustav Gloom and the People Taker By Adam-Troy Castro

This book is a wonderful and frightful adventure like nothing I’ve ever read before.  I first noticed it while organizing middle reader series books at work.  There it was, all alone in the series section, with its promising grey cover of Gustav and his shadow.  I hadn’t heard anything about it at all, but I knew immediately that I wanted to love it.

Fernie What loves a good scare.  She dreams of living in a  creepy old house full of shadows.  So when she moves in across the street from Gusav Gloom, she is immediately drawn to his giant, black house, with its dark yard and blackened windows.  On her first night in her new home, her cat runs across the street and into Gustav’s house.  Fernie goes after it, not knowing the dangers (and adventures) that await her inside the big, black house.  She and Gustav are soon making a mad dash through the house to escape the People Taker, who has taken up residence there.  He plans to take Fernie and her family and drop them into The Pit that leads to the Shadow World.

The cover may have drawn me in, but the characters kept me reading.  Gustav and Fernie are at once loveable and admirable characters that made the book hard to put down.  Of course the action and plot were wonderful and I really, really wanted to know what would happen, but the thing that I loved more than anything else were those two.  Gustav, who is such a lonely little boy, starts to realize what it means to have a real friend.  He’s never even eaten real food before, or had a real hug.  The shadows that are his friends in the house hope that Fernie can change all of that, but first he has to save her from the People Taker.

Castro has a wonderful sense of humor.  It’s a kind of humor that is not always apparent in kid’s books.  It’s the kind of humor that kids, adults, and Krystas can appreciate.  Fernie’s Father is obsessed with safety and always paranoid that his kids will get hurt, but still fails to see that a maniac in a chef’s hat is not really going to feed him pancakes, but instead try and take his family.  Fernie is obviously upset that the People Taker is trying to hurt her family, but she’s deeply offended that he has no intention to feed them said pancakes.  Castro also has an appreciation and an understanding of the humorous, yet lovable, nature of cats, which is always a big hit with me.

Turns out I picked this book up just in time, as the second book in the series is due out in only a few days.  I can’t wait to get my hands on Gustav Gloom and the Nightmare Vault!  Maybe I’ll finally find out more about the mysterious Lord Obsidian, or perhap more about Gustav’s history.  Whatever is in the book, I’ll certainly be reading it under the covers by flashlight.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

September is a very bored little girl.  Her father has shipped off to war and her mother is raising her alone.  Her mother works all day repairing engines in a factory.  They live in Nebraska, where there is nothing for a little girl like September to do.  She wishes endlessly to be taken off to Fairyland like so many bored children before her.  One day, while she is washing teacups, that wish comes true and September gets a visit from the Green Wind, riding on the Leopard of Little Breezes. They take her away to Fairyland, where she has the most amazing adventures.

The characters in this book are so unavoidably likable, despite their faults.  September is repeatedly called heartless, but we know she isn’t.  She is sometimes said to be selfish, but she is nowhere near it.  Even the villain is likable in her ability to be such a fantastic fairy tale villain.  Sure, she’s an evil ruler, but she’s just a kid.  An angry one at that. Of course the friends September makes along the way are the most wonderful friends anyone could ever hope to make. There's A-through-L, a Wyvern and Saturday, a marid, and of course Gleam, a kind-hearted paper lantern.

Valente is an exceptional writer.  She creates a Fairyland that is both familiar and fantastically strange.  Her imagination has run wild all over the pages of this book, and it’s a really, really mind-blowing imagination.  It’s not often that a writer can create a world so complete and easy to visualize.  Her descriptions are lush and vivid, even describing colors in more depth than I thought was possible.  It helps that she loves some of the same things that I do, like autumn and pumpkins and green smoking jackets, which she spends extra time applying her loving pen to.  Her vocabulary is luscious and so needed in books for young readers.

It’s impossible for me to write this review without pointing out the obvious fact that female characters like September are so needed in children’s literature.  September is an amazing little girl.  She makes friends easily and defends them without a thought.  She literally travels to the ends of the earth (without shoes, no less) to save them, and she does it alone.  She is willing to sacrifice everything for them. There’s no annoying underlying romance to it, as there is in other popular kids books.

It also helps that September is being raised by wrench-wielding, do-it-yourself mother, though we get only get small pieces of the woman she is. September
doesn’t get her strength from anyone but herself, which, like most of us, she has to learn along the way." target="_new">Buy it indie!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk

I first heard of Paleofantasy when our rep from WW Norton, David Goldberg, came in to the bookstore to talk about some upcoming releases.  Naturally I snatched up the book as though everyone in the room would immediately lunge for it, but, as usual, my co-workers just stared at me.  It’s no secret that I love science, but this whole paleo-diet trend that’s been making the rounds has made me even more passionate about my desire to see science finally being taken into account before anyone jumps on the paleo-bandwagon.  

Paleo-dieters and lovers of the caveman lifestyle believe that homosapiens stopped evolving some time around moving into caves and that modern man is not fit for our current lifestyle.  They blame all manner of diseases on the idea that humans were not meant to live as we do now and that agriculture is killing us.  Marlene Zuk, a biologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, argues that evolution doesn’t stop and to argue that we were “meant” to do something is an argument that evolution has some kind of end goal, which is a little ridiculous. Zuk combines biology and anthropology to disprove many of the myths that paleo-lifestyles are based on.  Although we don't know exactly how early man lived, Zuk dispels the most common ideas through meticulous research and, best of all, science.

This book isn’t an attack on paleo-lovers, it’s a scientific answer to the believe that we’d all be better off as hunter-gatherers.  In many cases the arguments made about caveman lifestyle are not true to begin with, so there is no reason to believe that living that way now will be any healthier.  Zuk’s overall point was that there is no one way that cave-dwellers lived.  There were multiple societies, each with their own way of living and eating.  For example, Zuk explains how our ability to digest dairy and grains has been a recent(relatively speaking) product of evolution.  However, there is evidence to suggest that some groups of early-man did eat grains or dairy, while others didn’t.  Paleo-enthusiasts may be healthy because they make an effort to exercise and not eat processed foods, but not because they don’t eat grains or abstain from dairy.

Zuk isn’t on a mission to make paleo-people feel bad, or ruin their dreams of caveman rockstardom; her only desire is to shed some light on the science behind the the trends.  In some cases, there is scientific evidence to back up the healthfulness of paleo-lifestyles.  For example, barefoot runners run differently than those in sneakers and tend to suffer fewer injuries.  In terms of child-rearing, there seems to be a case for raising children with alloparenting, letting a newborn set it’s own eating and sleeping schedule, and keeping the child either in, or near the parents’ bed.  

Paleofantasy is a fascinating and accessible read that I had trouble putting down.  This book shows that while it’s no secret that many of our modern problems are caused by poor lifestyle choices, that doesn’t mean we all need to give up eyeglasses, stop eating quinoa, and give blood as often as possible to try and imitate the life we think (without any real scientific evidence) cavemen may have lived. 
Buy it indie!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Why I suck at blogging

So I guess you're expecting a blog post about an awesome new book I read.  Well, I did read an awesome new book and I was all set to write a post about it yesterday and have t up today.  The book is called Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk and I loved it.  I loved it so much my brain was filled with hearts and stars while I read it.  But, I didn't write a post about it.  I am now going to be super-lame and explain my day yesterday, chock full of First World Problems.

It all started at 9am, when I was getting ready to leave for work.  I like to leave about an hour early so I have time to settle into the day and gauge the mood of everyone around me.  I got all of my stuff together and was about to walk out the door, when I realized my keys were not where I usually leave them.  Normally, I put them on the table next to the door.  I checked my coat pockets.  I checked my pants pockets.  I checked my backpack, the couch, the floor under the couch, the grocery bag from the day before, I even checked inside the fridge.  Nope.

Let me just stop here and explain that I never lose my keys.  I'm one of those annoyingly responsible people that always puts things away the moment I'm done using them.  After 15 minutes of looking, I finally texted my boyfriend to ask if he had picked them up for some sleep-induced, pre-coffee reason.  I was then able to locate the spare set of keys I didn't know I had and be on my way.  The clicker on it doesn't work, so when I got to the bookstore, I left the car unlocked and the alarm in valet mode so that I wouldn't need the clicker to get in.  Great.  Work.  Barely on time, but here.

I was scheduled to be in the kid's department all day, most of it by myself because of some staffing conflicts with other members of the kid's crew.  It was pretty busy and the customers seemed determined to make a mess the second I thought I was finished picking up.  My manager came in on his day off to lend a hand and things were going smoothly.  Then he got called away and I was on my own again.  None of this is a big deal, it just meant that I couldn't draft out a review for the book.  I thought that might happen, so I figured I'd just write it when I got home last night.

Fast forward to 7:08pm when my co-workers and I were getting out to our cars.  I grabbed the door handle and pulled.  Shit.  The car had locked itself, like the glitchy, resentful, little beast that it is.  I used my key to unlock it and, sure enough, the alarm went off.  An uncontrolled string of swears escaped my mouth.  I tried to start the car anyway, but of course that didn't work.  I tried waiting for it to stop, then starting it, but that just set it off again.  I pulled out the manual and found the part about the emergency shut-off button for the alarm.  My co-worker gave me a flashlight and I rooted around under the steering wheel looking for it, when the police show up.  I then explained what the heck I was doing with a flashlight under the steering wheel of a car with the alarm going off.  Another co-worker gave me a screwdriver to open my clicker and see if any of us had the same battery.  No such luck.

I figured I'd just buy a new battery, but the radio shack and the drug store were closed, so that left gas stations and supermarkets.  Finally, after trying every open store in town (so maybe 5, tops) my boyfriend had to come to town with my car keys (which it turns out he did take by accident, because he hates me and wants to ruin my life. Except not at all and it was just a long day) and disarm the alarm so we could go home.  It was probably 9pm when we finally got home, so there was no way I was writing a book review.  Sorry.

That's my lame story.  The point is, if you're thinking about moving to a really small town in Vermont, don't.  At least not without a working spare set of car keys.