Saturday, February 27, 2010

Book Review: The View From Saturday [1996]

I'm pretty sure that it's been over twenty years since I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, and I honestly can't remember that much about it other than a general feeling of approval. So when a friend recommended that I read Newbery Medal-Winning The View from Saturday, I was not averse to the suggestion.

The book focuses on four sixth-grade members of an Academic Bowl team, Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian, and their paraplegic teacher, Mrs. Olinski. The narrative alternates between the children's first-person perspective (of past events) and that of Mrs. Olinski (in the present day, at the state finals). Utilizing a format similar to Q & A (the book that formed the basis of Slumdog Millionaire), in which questions at the competition lead to stories about each child's experiences, Konigsburg crafts a humorous and heartfelt tale. As the narrative threads circle around and twine with each other, we get a better and better picture of the group and how they became "The Souls," the adults with whom they interact, and the small New York town, Epiphany, that they call home. Unlike many of the books I've read recently, almost all of the characters are sympathetic (aside from some delightfully skewered school officials), even the ones who aren't as endearing when we first meet them. A delightful treat.

Grade: A-

Random Thoughts:

I chose to listen to in on audio CD rather than try to make the time to read it, and the narrators (one for each of the children, one for Mrs. Olinski) were of variable quality, so I would recommend the print version over the audio. It was also quite startling to hear Aasif Mandvi of Daily Show fame performing as Julian Singh.

I especially enjoyed the part at the end where we got to hear fifteen trivia questions and their answers.

I know that the Newbery medal is named after a real person, but that never stops me from wanting to put another "r" in it.

I want to have a group of people with whom I take tea every Saturday. Any takers?

Dead Mother: Y
Book Review Index

Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Review: Very LeFreak [2010]

I saw a pre-pub copy of Very LeFreak at ALA Midwinter and thought the premise was interesting: A technology-addicted Columbia freshman finds relief from her hedonistic party-girl lifestyle at ESCAPE (Emergency Services for Computer-Addicted Persons Everywhere). I've never read anything written (or co-written--the cover gives a shout-out to Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist) by Rachel Cohn, so I didn't have any preconceived notions, other than what I read in this SLJ article (thanks to Cassandra), which had me scratching my head. She waited until the book was finished to see what it would be like to cut herself off from technology? Nevertheless, I plunged in.

For the first half of the book, Very (aka Veronica) is Addicted to Technology (brand and product names and song titles dropped madly), which makes her treat most people, especially her sweet and caring roommate Jennifer (whom Very insists on calling Lavinia), like shit. She also maintains an obsessive and secret online relationship with a mysterious persona known only as "El Virus," whose disappearance from the online world serves as a catalyst to her breakdown and exile to ESCAPE. In the second half: therapy, self-awareness, love, redemption. There are several reasons for Very's technology obsession, primarily a globe-trotting childhood with her (now dead) pyromaniac mother, and Cohn doesn't shy away from tackling difficult issues such as intimacy and sexuality.

I had several problems with the way this book was written. Not the premise, because technology addiction is certainly a very current and realistic topic, especially for the demographic at which this book is aimed. I have lately been considering my own level of addiction (which is fairly high, but not yet smartphone-enabled) and whether or not I should take a periodic break. Nevertheless, the way Cohn handles it is not very subtle, involving Very coming to a series of realizations with her therapist that spell out the message in technicolor letters.
In therapy, Very had made the connection that perhaps her overdependence on technology had been her way of not dealing with other, deeper pains. It wasn't about the technology so much as it was about something to do, to stay busy all the time, and to not connect to what was really in her heart.
I feel like most readers are intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions along this line, given the numerous illustrations of the way Very uses technology to avoid deeper interaction. This is not to say that Cohn paints a picture in which technology = bad, the discussion is certainly more nuanced.

In addition, I felt that the writing itself was often trying too hard to be hip, or cutesy, or edgy, and usually just ended up being over the top. For example, this character introduction:
Jean-Wayne's parents, a French-Canadian artist mother and Vancouver-based Chinese businessman father, were both Francophiles and cowboy movie aficionados; they'd met in a Montreal patisserie next door to a revival house cinema where they'd both been to see a matinee showing of Stagecoach, starring John Wayne. They'd named their hybrid boy in tribute to their hybrid passions.
Trying too hard. And the last sentence is unnecessary, since the reader could have gathered that from the previous information.

Yet somehow, despite not liking the writing style, or Very, or the fact that the action was agonizingly slow until Very made it to ESCAPE, I still ended up liking this book. Why? Because, like Very [spoiler alert!], I fell in love with Jennifer/Lavinia.1 I am a sucker for a sweet romance.

Grade: B-

Random Thoughts:

On the scale of books that deal with the topic of sexuality and bisexuality, I do rate this highly. While not explicitly about these things, the description of Very's introduction to sex, her self-labeling as a "slut," and her view of oral sex as "a way for the giver to maintain control over the receiver's pleasure while simultaneously allowing the receiver to feel satisfied and grateful, but not attached" all have a realistic and touching quality. For me this, not the technology mumbo-jumbo, was the real meat of the book.

It seems like I've been reading a ton of books lately that feature dead mothers (despite my great dislike of that trope), so I'm making that statistic an official part of my book reviews for 2010. At the end of the year, we'll see if I managed to read more books with living mothers than dead.

Youtube videos from user Very LeFreak ("Technology Detox with Rachel Cohn"). This seems to be connected to some sweepstakes that Random House is running.

Dead Mother: Y
Book Review Index

1This is exactly what happened when I read An Abundance of Katherines and just goes to show you that love interests, unsurprisingly, can be a lot more attractive than the main character.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sports I Love: Figure Skating

Seeing as this blog is, in theory, not solely about books and libraries (shocking, I know), I decided I would write a little bit from the perspective of my evil twin, the unabashed sports fan. I collect sports teams the way that other people collect . . . books. I will watch a sport obsessively until I figure out all of its rules. I will buy team-related merchandise that I absolutely have no use for. And, as the Winter Olympics are currently underway in Vancouver, I thought I would begin with a sport that I have loved for a very long time: figure skating.1 Thankfully, I am lucky enough to have married someone who shares my love of skating and also indulges my need to watch a variety of sports.

For as far back as I can remember, my mother and I had a standing date to watch Olympics coverage. It was a special time when the usual limits on TV watching were lifted (not that they were all that strict to begin with) and I had full license to be glued to the sporting action. For us, figure skating was the marquee event of the Winter Olympics (gymnastics being the equivalent for the summer). The first figure skating I actually really paid attention to was during the 1988 Olympics. I remember watching the Battle of the Brians, developing what was probably one of my first crushes on Katarina Witt, and cursing those darn Russians Gordeeva and Grinkov.2 I am pretty sure I still have some of these routines preserved on VHS at home. It is hard to believe that over twenty years have gone by since then.

There have been many Olympic skaters in my life in the intervening years. Some particularly dear to me: Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Torvill & Dean. Some Eastern European: Irina Slutskaya, Oksana Baiul. Some just plain odd (and French): Surya Bonaly, Philippe Candeloro. Some Canadian: Kurt Browning, Elvis Stojko. Don't even get me started on Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. They are all part of my internal continuum of figure skating to which I can refer at any moment in time, especially when attempting to identify the participants of Smucker's Stars on Ice.

Things I love most about competitive figure skating:

1. The degree of difficulty. I can't help but be in awe of people who have the ability to move at great speeds and jump around in a coordinated way on a sheet of ice with sharp things attached to their feet, most of the time without looking where they're going. And some of them have to do it synchronized with another person. Trying to combine the athletic part of figure skating with the artistic part (i.e., making it look extra pretty and matching it to music) is one of the great challenges that skaters face, so I am even more in awe of those skaters that can create a seamless performance that delivers in both areas.

2. The drama. There's dramatic music, tense waiting for scores with your coach at hand (less tense with the new scoring system, since the scores won't be intelligible to the general public anyway), and critical remarks from skaters and commentators alike.

3. The costumes. Blades of Glory was really not far off when it put John Heder in that ridiculous bird outfit. Look at some of the things Johnny Weir has been wearing. Much like gown-watching during the Miss America Pageant, costume-watching during an ice skating event is one of the primary reasons to tune in.3

I would have loved to make it home for the Salt Lake Olympics to actually see live Olympic skating with my mother (or at least watch it with her and know that we were within spitting distance of the venues), but unfortunately that didn't happen. When 2006 rolled around, none of us knew in February that it would be the last year of her life, but I guess I had better things to do than watch the world compete, because all I have are vague memories of Sasha Cohen. This year I have rediscovered the magic of the Winter Olympics in general and figure skating in particular, and I am watching and remembering and wishing I had the opportunity to dissect the routines with her. I am appreciating the artistry, the pageantry, and the sheer fun of figure skating.

1 Please don't bother taking the time to argue with me about whether figure skating is a sport. It is because I say it is. Also, figure skating was the first winter sport to be contested at any Olympic competition (London 1908). Interesting side note: The 1908 Olympics were supposed to be held in Rome, but Italy indicated it wouldn't be ready to host, perhaps because of the 1906 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

2 Poor Grinkov.

3 And watching the figure skating events with people on Twitter is even more fun. It's like being in a room with all of your most witty friends at the same time, each of whom is as interested in the outcome as you are.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Book Review: Of All the Stupid Things [2010]

I picked up Of All the Stupid Things, by Alexandra Diaz, on a recommendation from one of the blogs that I follow. I'm always looking for new and interesting GLBT teen fiction, and recently I've been harping on the lack of gay characters in more mainstream books, so it seemed like this might be just the ticket.

The book has three main characters: Pinkie, who lost her mother at a young age and is unable to restrain her own mother-hen instinct; Whitney Blaire, a beautiful and wealthy (but manipulative) girl who is always referred to by her first and last names; and Tara, who uses running to distance herself from her emotions, and the disturbing rumor that her boyfriend might be getting it on with another guy. These three lifelong friends are thrown into chaos by the arrival on the scene of the new girl, Riley. Whitney Blaire is convinced that Riley is out to steal Tara's now-ex-boyfriend, while Tara finds herself fascinated by Riley and her beautiful hair. Pinkie, caught in the middle, also finds herself caught up in a serious flirtation with a student teacher. Can their friendship survive when everyone starts taking sides?

This definitely had a "first novel" feel to it, in that it sometimes felt like Diaz had bitten off more than she could chew in the space allotted. Written in alternating chapters from each of the girls' perspectives, I often found myself wishing for more depth or perhaps fewer plotlines (each girl has several). The book addressed a whirlwind of issues: friendship, sexuality, communication, death, marriage, body image, class, etc, to the point where I wondered what was being left out. The issue of Tara's (ex)boyfriend and his possible dalliance with a male cheerleader was an intriguing catalyst for the action. I did like the fact that instead of being a coming-out book, in which the lesbian romance was the focus of the story, Tara's attraction to Riley was just one of several ongoing plots (albeit one that triggers a series of subplots). I also enjoyed the hints at character development that appeared throughout the course of the book. I'm not sure a whole lot of new ground was broken, but I found it an enjoyable and easy read.

Grade: B-

Random Thoughts: I had to get this book through the Virtual Catalog from Watertown because it wasn't available in western or central Massachusetts. I'm not sure if that means it wasn't widely reviewed, not that many copies were printed, it was too recently published, or there is still some reluctance to buy GLBT-oriented books for teens. I am hoping for an innocuous reason, but in any case this would be a decent addition to any YA collection looking to expand in that direction.

ETA: I'm also not sure about the cover, which was nicely designed but seemed pretty heavy-handed, given the careful treatment of subject matter in the book. Also, it was strangely sensationalizing (in a misleading way): "Three Friends, One Forbidden Love Affair" . . . Also, I didn't "get" the title. Nit. Pick.

The author's website.

Dead Mother: Y

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book Review: An Abundance of Katherines [2006]

First, a disclaimer: This is my first time reading anything by John Green. I haven't read Looking for Alaska. I don't have a crush on Mr. Green due to his YouTube celebrity. In fact, looking at his biography and seeing that he was born (like me) in 1977 kind of makes me depressed, in the same way that Olympic athletes make me depressed, because a) I haven't managed to publish any books, let alone three critically acclaimed books, and b) I will never qualify for the Olympics in any sport, because I am now officially too old to be anything but a spectator. Except maybe in archery? I also see that he went to Kenyon College, which explains some things. Anyway, An Abundance of Katherines is the point at which my dear friend Cassandra recommended that I begin my Green exposure. On to the review.

Colin Singleton is a former child prodigy (specialty: anagramming) who, after being dumped post-high school graduation for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine, escapes from Chicago on a road trip with best friend Hassan. At the purported final resting place of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Gutshot, Tennessee, Colin realizes that his chance at "mattering" (both in the world and to Katherine the 19th) lie in completing his Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, a mathematical equation that will be able to predict the outcome of a relationship between any two people. Colin is, to put it bluntly, a socially awkward young man who remembers everything he's ever read and is (thankfully) balanced by Hassan's easygoing good humor and laissez-faire attitude. The relationship between the two is one of the best parts of the book, although sometimes Green perhaps a little too frequently reminds the reader that Hassan is a Muslim. Specifically, a fat Muslim. One also often wonders how it is that Colin has found so many girls willing to date him. I guess Chicago is a big city. The third major character, Lindsey Lee Wells, is struggling, like Colin and Hassan, to find a purpose in life despite being the most popular girl in her small, southern town. Over a summer spent in Gutshot interviewing town members for an oral history project, Hassan, Colin, and Lindsey each take steps toward adulthood, together and separately. A thoroughly enjoyable book stuffed full of factual asides, well-developed primary and secondary characters, math, and, of course, romance.

Grade: A-

Random Thoughts: This was another book that I listened to, rather than read. Overall, the narrator was good at distinguishing between voices and giving characters a variety of southern drawls (not that I would know if his Tennessee accents were accurate, but they sounded fine to me). Upon reviewing the written copy, however, I saw that the downside was threefold: 1) The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, in all its manifestations, is awfully hard to communicate orally, especially the graphs; 2) a lot of the facts so relentlessly communicated by Colin are done so through footnotes, which were sometimes hard to distinguish from dialogue; and 3) there is an author's note and an appendix that were not reproduced in audio format. The appendix discusses the math behind Colin's Theorem, and reading it kind of hurt my brain. If I hadn't listened to the book in the car, though, I doubt I would have gotten around to reading it at all. It seems that in order to be completely thorough, one should listen to the audio version and keep the written copy on hand for clarification (or CD failure). Thank goodness I am thorough.

I also have this vague feeling that I was supposed to fall in love a little with Colin in all his misunderstood nerdiness. I assure you, I didn't, although I managed to enjoy the book despite his various character flaws. Lindsey, on the other hand . . .

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Meditation on Audiobooks

One of my devoted readers (i.e., my father) asked me, after reading my 2009 Reading Recap, why I counted listening to books in audio format as "reading" for the purposes of statistical record-keeping. This prompts the question: Is listening to a book being read the same as reading a book? To which I say immediately, YES/NO. Yes, it is also "reading," but it is not quite the same in terms of reading experience. In my opinion, listening to a book should have the same cultural value as reading a book. I am definitely not going to be the one to tell patrons who check out books in audio format (not just the elderly, though that is how my grandmother continued to consume books after she lost her sight) that they're not actually reading. If your parents have a tradition of reading a certain book aloud every holiday season, I would argue that you have "read" that book, even if you never actually looked at the pages. The part where the audience accesses the text (in this case, aurally) and constructs meaning is more important than the way that it happens. I firmly believe, however, that there is a significant difference between abridged and unabridged audio versions. What is read aloud should ideally be an exact replicate of what was printed on the page. The problem with an abridged version is that you never know exactly what has been excised, which meddles with the author's vision in an unfortunate way.

The audiobook* format does have limitations:
1. Some written wordplay intended by an author (e.g., the "their/there/they're" distinction) loses its power in audio format.

2. The success of an audiobook relies heavily on its narrator (or cast, in the case of a full-cast production). A good narrator will create specific, consistent voices for characters that match up (if not exactly, at least well enough) with how you feel the each one should sound. This is why it is a riskier proposition to listen to something on audio that you have first had the pleasure of reading, just as most books-to-movies suffer from the transition in the eyes of their fans: you've already created a mental image, or voice, that can be difficult to reconcile with the recorded version. Also, let's face it, there are some terrible narrators out there.

3. Just as a driver cannot pay 100% attention to the road while talking on a cell phone, a driver cannot pay 100% attention to a book on CD while in transit. It sometimes seems easier to become distracted when listening to a book. However, in my experience the brain is usually able to fill in the missing information with the help of current context. Plus, there's that handy "rewind" feature.

4. Sure, a book can end up missing some pages, but CDs (on which I listen to most of my audiobooks) are fragile, and coming from a multiple-use source like the library, are all the more likely to be scratched, dinged, and otherwise rendered unreadable by a media player.
However, these limitations are all outweighed by the positives:
1. Audiobooks make it possible for those who cannot or do not physically read, for whatever reason, to have the experience (in a variety of formats: see below). This includes people for whom English is not a first language; I've had several patrons who request items on audiobook because they can understand the spoken version more easily than the written. In addition, some people are visual learners, but some people aren't. Audiobooks create the space for a different kind of experience.

2. Just as a poor narrator can totally ruin an audiobook, a great narrator delivers a satisfying experience that is akin to settling in on the couch to watch a favorite movie or staying up all night to finish a book. You will realize this is happening when you don't want to leave the car because you're in the middle of "a good part."

3. Listening to a good book in the car. Instead of wondering why traffic isn't moving fast enough. With audiobooks and a longish commute, it is possible to almost double the amount of books you read. 'Nuff said.

4. Audiobooks can be an awesomely fun group activity, especially on long road trips. Yes, you could create the experience yourself by reading your favorite book aloud, but let's face it: you're not a professional actor, and after a while your voice gets hoarse and it's not as much fun anymore. Listening to books in a grouop with other people opens up a space for immediate discussion, like an instant book club.
[ETA: One of the best examples of some items on this pro/con list is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which, if you read the print version, has cool little drawings that enhance the text. However, if you listen to it, you get an unabridged version performed by the author himself, which is absolutely not to be missed. Ideally one would do both.]

In terms of format, audiobooks have come a long way since 1931, when the talking-book program was established. They are now available not just on cassette tape (currently being phased out at most libraries) and CD, but via MP3 players, streaming on the internet, and on Playaways.

To conclude: I heartily recommend listening to books in audio format. My advice to people who have never tried it before is to pick a book you've been interested in reading, maybe something out of your comfort zone, and listen to it instead. Ask someone who is enthusiastic about audiobooks to recommend something, or at least to recommend a good narrator. And as always, GO TO YOUR LIBRARY to get audiobooks. They are wicked expensive to buy as an individual, and (much like the majority of books) you don't end up listening to them more than once.

Side Note: This all leads to larger questions about e-books, digital technology, etc., that I may or may not address in a future post. In case anyone wants to know my position: reading a book on the computer screen, or a Kindle, or a Nook, or an iPad counts as reading, too. Even if it was never published in "book" form.

*I prefer the one-word term "audiobook" over "audio book," for some reason.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Meme: Five Questions About Books

What’s a book you most want to read again for the first time?:
To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. Yes, this is my favorite book of all time. However, it was never recommended to me; I picked it up in hardcover off the shelf at Sam Weller's days before a trip to Kansas with my mother. I'm not sure that I even read the jacket or really understood what it was about. This would have been when I was a sophomore in high school. But what a delightful surprise! I can still vividly remember actually reading in the car (despite my tendency toward carsickness) and laughing out loud, trying to explain to my mom the intricacies of time-traveling historians, séance-rigging, cat-rescuing, and jumble sales. It made me feel as if there was finally an author who was writing a book just for me.

What was one of your favorite childhood books?:
For younger childhood, this would be The Monster at the End of this Book (starring lovable, furry old Grover). I can't tell you how many times I've enjoyed getting to the end and discovering (SPOILER ALERT) that the monster is really Grover. It still gets me every time, even now when I am reading it to someone else. As an older child, I really enjoyed the characters and the puzzle aspect of The Westing Game, which is the kind of book that wouldn't play well in the age of Google, but which a younger me found absolutely fascinating.

What’s a book that you were assigned in school that you were expecting to be bad, but that turned out to be really good?:
I vaguely remember enjoying Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, which I had to read early on in my high school career. I don't think I expected the humor. Mostly I experienced the reverse--I expected the books my teachers assigned to be good, and some of them turned out to be pretty bad.

What’s your “guilty pleasure” read?:
Like Amanda, the person from whom I am borrowing this meme, I don't really feel guilty about reading much, and I try to read pretty widely. However, there are certain really, really terrible lesbian romance novels that I wish I could get my wasted time back from. The kind that make you think "Hey, I could write something better than this," but then for some reason you keep reading, and the minute you finish you forget everything about the book except the giant number of typos.

What’s a book you feel you should read, but haven’t yet?:
This is a pretty long list. I could say Ulysses, but then I would be lying. At the moment I guess it would be The Catcher in the Rye, or anything else by J.D. Salinger.

Thanks to @amandamcneil for posting her version of this meme and inspiring me to do the same.