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Todd

A native Midwesterner, Todd has lived in the Baltimore area for over seven years, and has quickly taken to Maryland's local history and cuisine. His reading interests are varied, though he has a soft spot for books for teens. From his desk in the Collection Development department, he sees many more titles and reviews of books than he is able to read, but tries to focus on some of his other favored topics: graphic novels, science & nature, history, and travel memoirs.

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What Are You Reading?

What Are You Reading?

posted by:
November 1, 2012 - 6:01am

 

The End of Your Life Book ClubA wonderful accolade to literature and a memorial to his incredibly gifted and generous mother, Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club combines the two gracefully. From the title, it is clear that this book club eventually comes to a close. However, this is not a maudlin tale, but instead a celebration of a mother and son’s love.The book’s table of contents gives an immediate impression of some of what the book club covered; each chapter carries the title of the book that was discussed between the group’s two members. Schwalbe, a former editor at Hyperion, immediately sets the stage in the Sloan-Kettering care center where his mother, Mary Anne, receives chemotherapy for her advanced pancreatic cancer, and where many of their book discussions took place. Mary Anne has always been a dynamo, from her teaching days to doing aid work overseas (her passion is getting a national library built in Afghanistan), to the uncanny way she remembers everything. Each family member is well-described, from his younger sister, torn about moving to Geneva when she learns of her mother’s diagnosis, to Will’s older brother, a rock of support for the family. While the family has the means that many others may not, their situation, suffering, and grief is universal.

 

Books certainly play a major role in the text, and while there are many discussions about fictional works (titles by Wallace Stegner, Steig Larsson, and Alice Munro, among others), the most memorable passages come from books of poetry, self-help, and spirituality. Mary Anne and Will have differing views on matters of faith, but it is clear that each of them respects the other. This is a title that will resonate with many readers, especially those who were moved by memoirs such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home

 

Todd

 
 

Drawing Our Nation’s Capital

District ComicsOur neighbor to the southwest is examined chronologically in District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC. Edited by Matt Dembicki, founder of a comic creators’ collaborative called D.C. Conspiracy, this graphic anthology looks both at the familiar, and especially, the less well-known events that has shaped the culture and history of the city. Each vignette, some no more than ten pages, is written and/or illustrated by a different person, which makes for a great variety of tone and artistic style.

 

More commonly known aspects of DC history are covered, such as L’Enfant’s design of the city; Dolley Madison’s rescue of priceless items from the White House as the British burned the building during the War of 1812; and the foiled assassination attempt on Harry Truman by Puerto Rican nationalists. Two particularly moving pieces deal with Washington’s role as a focal point of the grief of the nation. One focuses on the work that Walt Whitman did volunteering to help wounded Union troops at Washington hospitals during the Civil War. The other is the story of the man who played Taps at Arlington Cemetery following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Another important historical event that gets its due is what was known as the Bonus Expeditionary Force, or B.E.F., which “occupied” DC after World War I. This group of veterans did not feel they received appropriate benefits after the war, converged on the city, and were later forcibly removed from their protest area in a fashion that seems eerily similar to the Occupy movement of today. Personal stories are featured as well, including that of janitor James Hampton, who built an incredible altar to his spiritual beliefs in a rented garage – so amazing it later made its way to the Smithsonian. Lawmakers, spies, journalists and athletes, too, take their places among the many stories in this handsome collection.

 

Todd

 
 

First Regrets

First Regrets

posted by:
October 24, 2012 - 7:01am

Each KindnessJacqueline Woodson successfully teams up once again with illustrator E.B. Lewis in Each Kindness, a picture book that tells a difficult, haunting, but vital story about passive bullying, an all-too-common form of persecution among children. In the style of a person looking back on life, Woodson instantly grabs the reader’s attention: “That winter, snow fell on everything…” When Maya, a young girl, arrives at her new school in tattered clothes and damaged shoes, she shyly greets her new classmates. However, the narrator, one of Maya’s classmates, shuns the new student for her appearance. Despite Maya’s varied attempts to break down the walls put up by her fellow pupils, they refuse her each time. One day, when it is clear that the new student has left and is not coming back, the narrator realizes her mistake and laments her unkindness toward Maya.

 

Lewis’ slice-of-life pastel watercolors enhance the poignancy of the story. Expressions on the faces of the children are precisely defined, and the beautiful pastoral setting stands in counterpoint to the cruelty exhibited by Maya’s peers. One double-page spread showing Maya’s now-empty desk is gripping, as are Woodson’s word choices as the narrator contemplates her actions at the conclusion: “…the chance of a kindness with Maya / becoming more and more / forever gone.” Readers who savoured E.B. Lewis’ illustrations when he paired with Woodson on The Other Side will recognize his brilliance here as well. Each Kindness is a natural companion to Eleanor Estes’ classic The Hundred Dresses and, for slightly older readers, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, previously reviewed.

Todd

 
 

Dreamboat Ann - and Nancy

Kicking and DreamingHeart has been around for decades, breaking into the largely male world of rock music earlier than most female performers. In Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll, Ann and Nancy Wilson alternately describe their extraordinary lives in the music industry. Picking up stories that the other starts, the format reads smoothly, and indicates the strong ties these sisters have shared all these years. Beginning with the childhoods they experienced as daughters of a major in the Marines, Ann, Nancy, their older sister Lynn and their mother moved constantly, finding it hard to put down roots. Because of this, their family (known as “The Big Five”) focused inwardly. Ann, a classic middle child, dealt with body image and stuttering problems that vanished when she found her voice. Later, Nancy, the youngest, found comfort in relationships with her band mates.

 

The story of the band’s genesis and first big break is vividly recounted, along with the bumps along the way. Their first hit “Magic Man” was released while they were briefly living in Vancouver, and they became stars in Canada before in their native country. This period brought success after classics like “Dog and Butterfly” and “Barracuda” became showstoppers. After some rough times and disappointing album sales in the cocaine-fueled early 80s, Heart’s second-act rebirth came with hits like “What About Love”, “These Dreams” and “Alone”. Included, too, is the interesting story of how Ann, to this day, refuses to sing their controversial 1989 hit “All I Want to Do is Make Love to You”. Full of tidbits about musicians the women have come to know over the years, including Stevie Nicks, Elton John, John Mellencamp, and many in the Seattle rock scene, this is a strong memoir about a life on the road, but also the story of two sisters who broke through a glass ceiling and came out on top.

Todd

 
 

Quiet Strength

Quiet Strength

posted by:
October 10, 2012 - 7:01am

HomerBear Has a Story to TellLIttle BirdThree picture books recently published use the power of simplicity and silence to communicate strong messages of warmth, friendship, and love. Homer, written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper, is a sweet story of an older dog who prefers to spend his days just watching the world go by. When asked to join the others on a frolic on the beach, or a romp through the field, Homer is content to witness the proceedings from the comfort of the porch. Cooper’s illustrations are pitch-perfect, using watercolors in warm sunset tones to capture the satisfaction of a life well-lived.

 

Bear Has a Story to Tell, by the husband-and-wife Caldecott-winning team of Philip and Erin Stead, is an autumnal tale of a bear and his forest friends. When Bear wants to tell his story, his friends Mouse, Duck, and Frog each politely decline, as all have preparations they must finalize before winter sets in. With Bear’s help, each of them gratefully attain their goals. When Bear wakes from his hibernation, will he remember the story he wanted to tell months earlier? The Steads once again bring elegance and charm to each page. The illustrated expressions of the sleepy inhabitants of the woods are captured beautifully.

 

The Swiss import Little Bird is a fable of sorts. A man drives deep into a desert landscape to release the birds he carries in the back of his truck. All of them fly away, except for a little black bird. No amount of coaxing by the man seems to get this small bird to fly. With minimal text, a cinematic feel is portrayed. While having a very different tone and feel to most American picture books, this unusual but ultimately gratifying tale sends a message that should resonate with both kids and adults.

Todd

 
 

Is the Grass Always Greener?

Is the Grass Always Greener?

posted by:
October 3, 2012 - 7:01am

The Town Mouse and the Country MouseOne of Aesop’s simplest and most well-known fables is The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. This retelling by award-winning English illustrator Helen Ward begins with the Country Mouse and follows his serene, pastoral life as each season passes. His cousin, the worldly Town Mouse, comes to visit Country Mouse, and the city-dweller encounters life at a slower pace. Town Mouse voices his concerns about various differences from the life he knows, including mud and “dangerous” wild animals (in the form of a sleeping fawn). In a double-paged spread that evokes both pining and doubt, Country Mouse rethinks the pleasures of his home, and decides to visit the big city to see what Town Mouse’s grand life is like. As expected, while there are sumptuous treats to enjoy and amazing sights to behold, Country Mouse longs for the simple life he left behind.

 

The real treat is Helen Ward’s pen-and-watercolor illustrations. Flowers, fruits, trees, and animals are depicted in a stunning, naturalistic manner. The city portion of the tale takes place in 1930s New York at Christmas, with all the decorations and trimmings. The mice’s quick escape from a pug on a dessert table adds a touch of suspense. Each mouse’s personality is smartly represented in his actions and tiny changes in facial expression. Many pages have supplemental columns of artwork that add to the already splendid visuals. This is a wonder-filled version of the long-told tale.

Todd

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Reciprocal Awareness

Reciprocal Awareness

posted by:
September 6, 2012 - 6:05am

Gifts of the CrowSeattle wildlife scientist John Marzluff partners with illustrator-naturalist Tony Angell to create Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans. While absorbing and fascinating, this is not the usual natural history of another species that shares our environment. Instead, the authors take an approach that delves deep into the neurological similarities between crows and humans, and look at numerous studies of the birds’ behavior that show how our noisy neighbors have adapted to our lives.

 

These birds share many characteristics of humans. In a chapter that discusses the emotional lives of crows and ravens, anecdotes describe these birds’ approaches to injured comrades, and particularly their grieving rituals. While crows often eat the dead of other species, they rarely if ever even touch their own, but instead come close and linger in a sort of respect-paying process. Also considered in great detail is the way that crows approach play. Scientists consider species that have incorporated play into their lives as highly advanced. The “social brain network” of these evolved mammals and birds is shown to be complex, and indicates multifaceted consideration of decision and realization. Crows have been observed playing “ring-around-the-rosy” with themselves and with unwitting humans who suddenly realize they too are part of the bird’s game.

 

Humans and crows have been watching each other for generations: cultures that laud crows as our forebears are plentiful worldwide, from India, to the American Southwest, and most famously the Canadian Pacific coast.  While we have learned much about crows and their relatives through scientific and neurological study, there is still much more to understand. Our mutual ecologies and simultaneous evolution will continue to shape both our species moving forward.

Todd

 
 

Yes We Canada!

Yes We Canada!

posted by:
August 23, 2012 - 6:03am

America, But BetterIn these days of political polarization in the United States, an unlikely party has come to the rescue of our fractured populous. In America, But Better: The Canada Party Manifesto, humorists Chris Cannon and Brian Calvert lay out an “intervention from your continental BFF”. With the scantest of seriousness, the authors skewer American stereotypes on issues such as illegal immigration, gun control, obesity, and marriage equality. Starting with a cheeky foreword by none other than Abraham Lincoln, the witty and pointed observations about the direction of America are by turns hilarious and mildly shaming.

 

This is a quick read, peppered with sidebar promises of what will change if the Canada Party is elected to run the US: “We will continue building oil pipelines, but they will carry maple syrup. If there’s a spill, at least the animals will be tasty.” One chapter describes the benefits of combining similar cities within the two countries as a cost-saving measure, including Van Francisco, Queboston (two places where no visitors can understand the locals), and Dalgary. Another takes on corporations as people, use of the metric system, and of course, a primer on hockey. Wry, silly, and smart, America, But Better is a not-so-gentle nudge that pokes fun at American Exceptionalism, and the way the rest of the world views us as a nation.

Todd

 
 

Take a Moment

Take a Moment

posted by:
August 6, 2012 - 8:01am

WaitFrank Partnoy’s Wait: the Art and Science of Delay is a fascinating look into the various ways decisions are made. According to the author, the crux of delay is not only in deciding what we should do or how it should be done, but as importantly, when. This provides the thesis of this groundbreaking look into the timing of our decisions.

 

Partnoy frames the studies by first looking at decisions that must be made in a split-second, and as the book goes on, he looks at decisions that take longer and longer to make--some that could be termed procrastinations. Starting with athletes who must perform in what he calls “superfast sports”, the author breaks down the manner in which baseball and tennis players must react to a pitch or serve. These decisions are made in a matter of milliseconds. As fast as a tennis serve is hit, the returner’s preconscious skills kick in, combining visual and muscle acuity. The player who is able to wait the longest and still effectively return the serve has the greatest chance of success.

 

The decision-making of animals is also discussed. It was long thought that only humans could make future decisions. But recent studies have shown that many animals, including dogs, pigeons, monkeys, and rats have all shown that considering the future is within their abilities. Retaining a small bit of food knowing that they can trade it in for more in the future, storing food where it will be found later, and building tools not instantly needed are examples of how animals are aware of delay, and use it to their benefit. Wait is a thought-provoking yet accessible read, and is certain to be of interest to fans of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Dan Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.    

Todd

 
 

Is all publicity good publicity?

This Bright RiverThe CradleWithin the book industry, having a review of one's work published by the New York Times is a huge benefit that likely will increase any author's sales. It certainly adds to the author's visibility. That is, if the reviewer has fully understood the book published. Take, for example, the recent fiasco that befell novelist Patrick Somerville and his new work of fiction, This Bright River. A couple years back, his debut novel, The Cradle, was plucked from near-obscurity with glowing praise by well-respected Times book reviewer Janet Maslin. Lightning struck twice for Somerville, or so it seemed, when Maslin chose to review his current follow-up. But then the problems started.

 

Unfortunately, Maslin misread a crucial event in the prologue of the new novel that Somerville purposely left ambiguous. Because of her error, Maslin read the novel through the wrong lens, and her generally middling review refers to the book as having a "lack of focus" and is "sometimes foggy". The author's wife read the review aloud to Somerville, who "pressed [his] head deeper into the couch, trying to get to its springs and asphyxiate". This, among much more, he describes in a Salon essay published last week titled Thank You for Killing my Novel. Within it, we learn of the process that resulted in the Times publishing a correction, including the long, amusing email back-and-forth between the author and Ed Marks of the Times' Culture Desk.

 

All this leaves readers with an obvious conundrum. How much can we trust reviewers? When even someone as well-regarded as Janet Maslin can botch an assignment, it can be tricky. One solution is simply to take even the most well-read reviewer's opinion as simply that. Just one person's opinion.

Todd