Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, November 6, 2012
From My Shelf
Fall is the cookbook season--the big guns (e.g., Ina Garten) come out with new books, and others toss their toques into the mixing bowl, too. In this issue, you can read about our collective experience with one book, CookFight, and we'll do all all-cookbook issue on December 7. Still, we will have made only a dent in the 2012 offerings. Here are a few others:
Roots by Diane Morgan (Chronicle Books, $40)
Any cookbook with 11 recipes for radishes, and the same number for wasabi, has got to be pretty complete. How about Roasted Turnip Ghanoush? Three-layer Parsnip Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting? Microbrew-braised rutabagas? Or dishes made with unfamiliar roots like crosne, malanga or arrowhead? It makes us happy that autumn is finally here.
The Cracker Book: Artisanal Crackers for Every Occasion by Lee Cart (Burford Books, $12.95)
Lee Cart is one our reviewers, and a good cook, if these cracker recipes are any indication: black olive crackers, graham crackers, whole wheat crackers with cardamom and black pepper. She also uses brown rice, oatmeal, wheat germ and gluten-free flour, and includes recipes for more than a dozen delicious dips and spreads.
True Blood: Eats, Drinks, and Bites from Bon Temps by Gianna Sobol, Alan Ball et al. (Chronicle, $29.95)
It's not all vampires in Sookie Stackhouse's world--shapeshifters have to eat, as do the humans, and with all the stress in the True Blood world, comfort food (and protein) is a must: Up-in-Arms Biscuits and Gravy, Burning Love BLT, Gumbo Ya-Ya, Last Rites Pecan Pie, along with drinks (Reviver) and plenty of stills from the series. Our guilty pleasure cookbook.
Modernist Cuisine at Home by Nathan Myhrvold with Maxime Bilet (The Cooking Lab, $140)
Last year's Modernist Cuisine (six volumes, $625) quickly became the definitive guide to modern gastronomy, and now the Cooking Lab has collected essential information, techniques and 400 recipes on waterproof, tear-resistant paper. Sound intimidating? Not with recipes for mac and cheese, fresh corn tamales, panna cotta and chicken noodle soup. --Marilyn Dahl, book review editor, Shelf Awareness
Fifty Shades of Chicken Trailer; Authors' First Author Photos
Things are getting all hot and bothered in the kitchen in this book trailer for the book Fifty Shades of Chicken by F.L. Fowler (Clarkson Potter, November 13). Entertainment Weekly asked: "Does that make you feel all hot and buttered, erm, bothered just listening to it?"
Write first, then smile. Flavorwire found "12 famous authors' very first author photos."
Tatts of the day. Neatorama found "10 beautiful tattoos inspired by Watership Down."
Everything About Secret Bookcase Doors Tumblr that "does exactly what it says on the tin. This is pure awesome," Boing Boing wrote.
A Reader's Life
Iron Shelf: CookFight
New York Times food writers Julia Moskin and Kim Severson were friends, working wives and, obviously, food-obsessed. One day former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni challenged them to a duel--not with him, but with each other--and turned them into kitchen rivals. The dare: with just $50 each, they were to prepare a full meal for six, which he would then judge. They evidently had a great time, because it turned into a yearlong kitchen "war"--and led to CookFight: 2 Cooks, 12 Challenges, 125 Recipes, An Epic Battle for Kitchen Dominance by Julia Moskin and Kim Severson (Ecco, $29.99).
We decided on an easier challenge: arm seven reviewers with the book, and find out what they thought. They decided to concentrate on desserts and, really, there was little competition because they all produced winning food. As one reviewer stated, "The banter of the cooks' 'fights' is as entertaining as the years' worth of creative, easy-to-follow recipes are delicious. I'd invite Julia and Kim to my kitchen any time." Another reviewer said, "Moskin and Severson may be competing against one another, but the results of their challenges--witty prose and an arsenal of delicious recipes--make their readers the real winners."
The memoir angle grabbed Cheryl Krocker when she found Julia Moskin's Bacon-Fat Gingersnaps, cookies that were a tradition in Coshocton, Ohio, in Amish country, close to where Cheryl was born. "Bacon fat? A classic 'waste-not-want not' ingredient among the thrifty farm families of the heartland. Yummy, a taste of home!" But Cheryl is in California now, without her mom's bacon grease can. So she asked a Texas-born friend: "Can I borrow a cup of bacon fat?" (she bakes bacon on a rack, then strains the fat and refrigerates it) and was offered a choice: maple-cured or regular. "Grease procured, the rest was a snap: Moskin offers clear, specific ingredient lists and directions. Forming balls of chilled dough was easy, and the gingersnaps baked into perfectly shaped crispy-chewy rounds. None of the tasters recoiled in horror when they learned the secret ingredient. 'I thought it tasted smoky,' one said. 'An aroma like a warm hug' and 'creamy,' others thought."
Jessica Howard chose to make "the scrumptious Chocolate Log." Considering that the ingredients consist largely of heavy cream and dark chocolate, she was sure she had a winner on her hands. "My trusty stand mixer and I got to work: whipping egg whites, beating cream, and stirring in oodles of melted chocolate. After the cake baked, sweetened whipped cream was spread thickly across it. Now came the tricky part: rolling up the log, jelly-roll style. I am a novice roller, and it started cracking at first, much to my alarm. The title of CookFight Champion was at stake! But things came together; the log was rolled, and set to chill." Jessica could not wait for the requisite few hours' cooling time, so cut into it after only 45 minutes. The verdict? "Heavenly chocolate perfection. And it's grain free--which is nice for the gluten-free among us."
A fair amount of dirty dishes were created while making Julia Moskin's Chocolate Chiffon Cake, but Lee Cart said it was worth it: "The fluffy, airy, reddish-brown chocolaty goodness would be a perfect ending to a light afternoon tea of cucumber sandwiches, buttered scones, and pots of black tea. Not being super-rich in chocolate flavor or density makes this dessert ideal for those who want to indulge in chocolate cake without any of the guilt found in darker, more concentrated layer cakes. Confectioner's sugar sprinkled on top of a single layer offers a touch of sweetness; a drizzle of raspberry jam or chocolate syrup would add a little more zing and moistness to this semi-dry dessert." She noted that one difference between this cake and many other recipes is the lack of butter, cream or milk in the ingredients. Vegetable oil, cocoa, water and eggs provide the necessary moisture, making this cake great for those who are lactose-intolerant. And, "If you can refrain from indulging, this cake holds up to the taste test even after two days have passed--but it will be hard to make it last that long."
Roni Devlin is a sucker for soft, chewy molasses cookies, so when she found the recipe for Dark Molasses Gingerbread, she was ready. Found in the section of the book called "The Budget Challenge," the gingerbread followed Kim Severson's economically savvy meal of tacos de carnitas with homemade tortillas, fresh salsa and poblano-cabbage slaw. "Though I'd never considered gingerbread as a complement to a Mexican meal before, the pairing is actually brilliant. And the cake was delicious: rich without being too dense, perfectly spiced, and just slightly decadent when eaten alongside whipped cream and dulce de leche." (Slightly decadent?)
Katie Noah Gibson, amid a sea of sweets in the "Bake-Off Challenge" chapter, chose a fun, tart autumnal twist on upside-down cake: Julia's Cranberry Right Side Up Cake. "Because the recipe comes from Nantucket, only fresh cranberries will do. Mix them with walnuts, brown sugar and orange zest and press them into the bottom of a cake pan, then whip up a creamy batter involving flour, sugar, butter and (surprise!) sour cream. Pour the batter over the cranberries, slide into the oven and watch anxiously lest it overflow its smallish pan in the ensuing hour. The bottom of the cake will remain golden, with a few cranberries poking through. But when you take it out of the oven and flip it, you get a surprise: a rich, caramelized brown top studded with rich red berries and crunchy walnuts. It's the perfect layer of tart and crunch to balance the sweet base. This was a hit at an October church potluck, with yellow leaves outside the windows and the tang of fall in the air."
Kim Severson's Peach Cake from the July chapter's "Picnic Challenge" is perfect take-along dessert fare, according to Jaclyn Fulwood: simple, filling and easily portable. "We tested the recipe when our local farmer's market offered peaches at the height of golden, juicy perfection." Severson's recipe calls for all the common ingredients a baker would expect to pair with peaches, notably brown sugar and vanilla. However, "it's the addition of lime zest that gives the cake its je ne sais quoi, a tiny bite of exotic citrus to set off the dripping sweetness of the peaches. Between the inclusion of sour cream and the juices released by the baking fruit, the cake comes out with a moist, dense texture similar to that of a pudding." Should you--no, when you--make this delicious cake, a word of advice: "Have patience when spreading the batter around the peach slices, as its thickness makes the job go slowly. We also found that cutting the peaches into eighths creates a sliced-side-up effect like that of the cake pictured in the book, while using quarters as advised in the recipe may leave skin showing instead. Either way, the finished cake is delicious whether eaten on a picnic or a comfy couch."
Kerry McHugh broke ranks in favor of a non-sweet entry: cheese gougères. "According to CookFight, traditional French cheese gougères (a wonderfully fancy way to say "puffs") are made with Gruyère cheese, but it turns out these soft puff pastries are just as impressive made with cheddar cheese--yes, even the pre-shredded cheese at your local grocery store. The beauty of cheese gougères is their simplicity. They contain only eight ingredients--one of which is water, so who counts that?--and the rest are general kitchen staples. The preparation is remarkably simple: the ingredients are combined, slowly, over heat--the hardest part of the entire recipe is continuing to stir after your arm gets tired--and then spooned onto a baking sheet. The more ambitious among you may choose to pipe them with a pastry bag neatly onto baking sheets, but now you're just showing off. After 25 minutes in the oven, your tired arm is rewarded with light, fluffy, cheesy and delightfully impressive puffed pastry bites. Make sure to eat them while they are still warm, as egg-based pastry doughs aren't nearly as good cold and don't keep well. Luckily, if you are making these for a party or event, they can be held in a warm oven for up to an hour--or, as I was forced to discover, reheated in a slightly warmed toaster oven if your guests show up later, earlier or drunker than expected."
The winners in the first Iron Shelf? All the reviewers, and everyone who purchases CookFight. --Marilyn Dahl, book review editor, Shelf Awareness
The Writer's Life
Book Brahmin: Peter Joseph
Peter Joseph is the author of the recipe guide Boozy Brunch: The Quintessential Guide to Daytime Drinking, just published by Taylor Trade. He has written about cocktails and pop culture for Flavorwire, Lost magazine and Pop Matters. A senior editor at Thomas Dunne Books, he lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
On your nightstand now:
Magic Hours by Tom Bissell, Tubes by Andrew Blum, Savages by Don Winslow and a teetering stack of Atlantic, Imbibe, New York, New Yorker, One Story and Time Out New York. A slightly dated American Heritage dictionary--its back cover boasts "new entries for such terms as barrio, E-mail, fiber optics, T-cell, and wetland"--remains a permanent fixture. Most recently I had to look up "hegira," thanks to Bissell.
Favorite book when you were a child:
I loved Roald Dahl's books, but I read C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader more times than any other book. It seemed barely related to the other Narnia novels and more just a good sea adventure, along the lines of Heyerdahl or, well, Homer.
Your top five authors:
I don't really have "top" authors--there are just so many good books--but some of my long-time favorites include Douglas Adams, Billy Collins, Lorrie Moore, Mary Roach and Kurt Vonnegut. These days I've been talking a lot about China Mieville and Bissell. And David Wondrich holds the position of best cocktail writer working today, though really he could probably write about anything and stand out.
Book you've faked reading:
In high school I faked reading J.B. by Archibald MacLeish and then mispronounced "Job" (rhyming it with "lob" instead of "lobe") when asked to read in class. It might not seem like a big thing, but at a Catholic high school my classmates noticed. I'd like to think I learned something from that embarrassment and made sure to actually do the work in the years following.
For those of us working in publishing, it's too easy to talk about books of which you've read reviews, commentary and sales copy but never actually picked up the work itself. That's a trap I try to avoid, with occasional success.
Book you're an evangelist for:
For years I gave people copies of Mary Roach's Stiff and Robert Sullivan's Rats as examples of good, popular nonfiction writing. More recently I've been telling people to read Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by Hal Herzog. Whether you're vegetarian and fretting about going vegan or you're a carnivore considering getting on the tofu wagon, this book examines a lot of the inconsistencies and contradictions that come with our relationships with animals. (There's also a memorable explanation of why the popularity of both the Beatles and Golden Retrievers can be chalked up to random drift.)
Book you've bought for the cover:
While living on an editorial assistant's salary, I bought complete sets of Georges Simenon and Leonardo Sciascia from New York Review Books. It was a very expensive impulse purchase, to say the least, but I love NYRB's packaging--I wish more publishers could follow such a simple, uniform style.
Book that changed your life:
Finding Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series in my middle school library--a private Catholic school library presided over by a nun, no less--probably affected my worldview more than anything else.
Favorite line from a book:
Not a line, but a scene from Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett. It's a passionate rant about the "sensual experience of reading" and the memories of those moments. She captured that nostalgia for specific times in a reading life--the book read under the covers, or at the beach, or late one night in a 24-hour diner--that most of us possess.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
It's impossible, but I often wish I could read the books that I've edited as a reader. Instead, whenever I look at them I can remember all the revisions, cuts, and additions that have happened along the way to publication. So my experience reading them will always be different from that of someone with looking at them with fresh eyes.
The best book to read that combines publishing and cocktail history:
Not a large category, I admit, but if you want to read about the publishing world during Prohibition, then find yourself a copy of Firebrand: The Life of Horace Liveright by Tom Dardis. He's a much livelier character than the more often remembered "editor of genius" Max Perkins. Liveright was a bon vivant who established his publishing house on a street notorious for its speakeasies, which should tell you something about his behavior. His life story is a good counterpoint to his former partner Bennett Cerf's tale of success in At Random, and should be read by every young person in publishing as a caution against over-imbibing and selling off the rights to your backlist.
Books for Watching Elections; Authors to Stop Categorizing
What to read while you're waiting for the returns to come in: NPR suggested "6 book stories that'll cast the election in new light."
Citing Ursula K. Le Guin as one of the writers "who have found themselves neatly boxed and categorized by the collective consciousness," Flavorwire recommended "10 great authors we should all stop pigeonholing."
Ronald Frame, author of Havisham, shared his "top 10 reimagined classics" in the Guardian.
For NPR's Three Books Series, Amy Wilson, author of When Did I Get Like This?, offered a trio of "books with (in)credible narrators."
by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue's Astray contains 14 stories inspired by events and personages of the past, most drawn from the 1800s. Fans of Room will recognize the same imaginative flexibility and ventriloquism in Astray. As befits their period, the fictionalized accounts have a stereoscopic, peering perspective, yet they do not read as stiff or fixed. Donoghue's close focus on her characters' yearnings and her respect for pivotal consequences transcend old-timey reenactment. She also avoids research-larding in spite of what appears to be a deep fluency with matters as arcane as Yukon gold miner libations (hootchinoo, anyone?) and the laws concerning body-snatching in 19th-century Illinois. At the end of each story, Donoghue appends a précis that makes clear what she borrowed and what she invented.
Conjuring period slang and attitudes to animate characters as diverse as a 1630s Puritan snitch and a 1960s retired Ontario sculptress is a tough exercise, and Donoghue's interior monologues and verbal exchanges enhance the immersive effect. The first story is an imagined transcription of Jumbo's London trainer coaxing the famous elephant through some hard transitions; it's as tender a bro-pachymance as you'll find in words. Many of the stories reveal the moral ambiguities of survival and reinvention; others remind the reader of how precarious travel and communication were in pre-digital times.
Though the stories are arranged under thematic headings ("Departures," "In Transit," "Arrivals and Aftermaths"), Astray is a refreshing break from the trend of linked collections; each story is entirely discrete, and strong enough to be read in isolation. --Holloway McCandless, blogger at Litagogo: A Guide to Free Literary Podcasts
Discover: A pithy collection of short stories from the author of Room, inspired by unusual real-world events from the past.
by Jill Dawson
Queenie Dove has been stealing since she was a child: she even stole her first name. Born in London's East End during the Depression, she learned to fend for herself when her mother was institutionalized. A group of women shoplifters known as the Green Bottles adopted Queenie as a protégée, pampering her with stolen goodies while they applauded her skills. Even when she got caught and sent to a girls' reform school, she escaped rather than repenting. After lying low for a while, she and her best friend, Stella, use their arsenal of tricks to fashion a glamorous life for themselves in postwar London. Although Queenie relishes the adventure of her lifestyle, becoming a mother finally compels her to go straight. But when she's offered one last (big) job, will she be able to resist?
Jill Dawson (Fred & Edie) creates a captivating voice for Queenie in Lucky Bunny: scrappy, matter-of-fact, unrepentant. Practical to a fault, she spends little time grieving for what might have been, but she does sometimes wonder if she could have had a different life. Was she born wicked, or did her childhood steer her toward the career she chose? Has fate helped shape her story, or has she built her life entirely through willpower and a taste for both glamour and danger?
Fast-paced and enthralling, Lucky Bunny provides a dark snapshot of life among London's working class, and a striking portrait of an unusual heroine and her sheer determination to not only survive, but thrive. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: A dark snapshot of life in London's East End, with a striking heroine who hasn't quite put her past behind her.
by Hélène Grémillon , trans. by Alison Anderson
Hélène Grémillon's debut, The Confidant, is a mystery full of passion and heartbreak underscored by the fearful uncertainty of life in Nazi-occupied France.
1975: Camille receives a flood of condolence letters following her mother's death in Paris. Among them is a handwritten story with no salutation. At first, Camille believes she has received it by mistake, but further segments of the story arrive every Tuesday, and Camille slowly learns the history of a stranger named Louie and Annie, his beautiful childhood friend and first love. In the days leading up to the Second World War, Annie began spending her free time with Madame M., a wealthy, barren wife obsessed with having a child, and eventually disappeared with her.
After the war Louis found Annie and learned the truth, that she had offered to bear the child of Madame M.'s husband. According to Annie, Madame M. eventually turned against her out of jealousy over the child. However, Annie fails to account for five months of her absence, and Louis has reason to wonder: Was Annie the victim of a deranged kidnapper, or a devious seductress who destroyed a woman's life? As the truth unfolds, Camille eventually realizes the secrets contained in the letters may intersect with her own life in a surprising way.
Alison Anderson's seamless translation allows the terse voices of Grémillon's characters to shine through with all their passion, envy and betrayal. This promising beginning from a new talent will keep readers guessing until its startling finale. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger, Infinite Reads
Discover: A mystery full of passion and heartbreak, underscored by the fearful uncertainty of life in Nazi-occupied France.
by Miljenko Jergovic , trans. by David Williams
Miljenko Jergovic is no sooner born in Mama Leone than he's raising philosophical issues about God's existence. With surreal, self-reflective twists, the Croatian author's chain of linked stories delights in a child's misinterpretation of the world. From little Miljenko's conclusion that a suckling roast is a cooked naughty baby to his fear of pooping out his soul, Jergovic's perfectly child-size skewed vision of life is constantly in play.
Startling, irrepressibly droll, Mama Leone is brimming over with character-rich moments. Jergovic's narrative voice bubbles with childlike invention. "The river stunk like a million people had forgotten to flush a million toilets," he writes. Or "I love the llama because he spits at his visitors. Running away from his spit is the best time you can have in the whole zoo."
The second half of Mama Leone offers sadder tales about Bosnians living in exile in other countries, separated from their loved ones by the war--old women deteriorating in unfamiliar cities; a married woman trying to start over in a wheelchair; a man in a tram station with no papers, no money and nowhere to sleep. The final tale, however, is one of Jergovic's best, the story of Lotar, the strongest man in Bosnia, and his intemperate, consuming love for the woman who could break every man's heart but one.
Elliptical and frequently poignant, packed with swiftly sketched vignettes of Croatian life, Mama Leone is constantly surprising and always compassionate in its portrayal of the victims and survivors of Jergovic's war-torn homeland. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle
Discover: A delightful chain of linked Croatian childhood memories told with a child's comic misunderstanding, followed by sad, independent tales of displaced Bosnian survivors.
Biography & Memoir
by Peter Ames Carlin
Peter Ames Carlin's Bruce is a panoramic account of the life of the intensely gifted artist and charismatic performer Bruce Springsteen that takes readers on a rambling road trip, beginning with the musician's unremarkable childhood in Freehold, N.J., and passing through the many fits and starts, which were frequently mirrored in his personal life, up the hill to superstardom.
The often balladic tales surrounding the history of the legendary E Street Band are included with a perfect balance of fact and flourish. Carlin notes that some of the stories--such as the dramatic account of the late Clarence Clemons's arrival--seem somewhat far-fetched, but serve to underscore the almost spiritual transition from dissonance to harmony achieved in the band's coming together. That harmony was not constant, however, and Carlin draws heavily on exclusive interviews with Springsteen and his band members, who speak candidly about the strain caused by their break with Springsteen in 1989 and their subsequent reunion nearly a decade later.
Carlin's painstaking research into Springsteen's life and career is so vividly detailed that if the reader listens closely, he can almost hear the music pouring out of every page. Carlin shows us how, for more than 40 years, Springsteen's brilliant lyrics have not only told the story of his life, but also marked the time in American culture. Such depth and reverence for his subject matter make this earnest profile a must read. --Sarah Borders, librarian at Houston Public Library
Discover: A critically acclaimed music writer delivers an extensive biography sure to satisfy fans of Springsteen and pop culture enthusiasts alike.
Elsewhere: A Memoir
by Richard Russo
Richard Russo's memoir, Elsewhere, is pretty much populated by one person, his mom. This "stylish woman" was difficult, demanding and complaining, but she loved her "Ricko-Mio" and he loved her. This is more her story than Russo's. And more than anything else, it's a love story.
Russo grew up with his mom in the upstate New York mill town of Gloversville; his divorced dad wasn't around much. When it was time to go to college in Tucson, Ariz., he wanted to buy a car, which was fine with her, "because she was coming with me"--she considered the two of them "one entity." And so the pattern begins: every time Russo moves, mom moves too, and there's always something wrong with her apartment. She complains, is disappointed, frustrated. It's hard to love a mom who is a constant source of pain. They were never really here, or there; they were always elsewhere.
Eventually, Russo was able to turn his mother's obsessions "to his advantage." Writing novels is "a line of work that suited my temperament and played to my strengths," especially obstinacy. When his own daughter is diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Russo has his epiphany: Mom had suffered with it for years. (Why hadn't he realized it?) One might wish for more about Russo and his books and characters and his writing process, but this poignant, beautifully told tale of small town life, love and sorrow is one he had to write. We can hope for more later. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: A Pulitzer-winning novelist's powerful, beautifully written homage to his mother.
Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life
by Daniel Klein
Philosopher/humorist Daniel Klein has written about humor (Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar) and life and death (Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates). In Travels with Epicurus, he offers a thoughtful and witty meditation on old age. When Klein's dentist tells him he should choose between extensive dental work or dentures that would greatly affect what he could eat, he says hold on--then goes to the Greek island of Hydra to think it over. He takes us on a journey of this island and its people via his favorite philosophers--Aristotle, Aeschylus, Nietzsche, Sartre, even Frank Sinatra--to explore what it means to be old, to age. At 74, he wants to "figure out the most satisfying way to live this stage of my life."
Klein meets the elderly Tasso, who he watches eating and drinking and conversing with his elderly friends, all of them enjoying themselves. It puts him in mind of Epicurus: "Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitute our abundance." So Klein enjoys himself as he searches, as he talks to people, eats great food, observes beautiful scenery, smokes and gradually realizes this search for a fulfilling old age is really his way of coming to terms with a genuine death. He's not just a "befuddled old geezer barking at the moon," rather, to quote Cicero: "Old age is the consummation of life." --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: An old philosopher's poignant story of his search for what it means to age gracefully.
Children's & Young Adult
Little White Duck: A Childhood in China
by Na Liu , illus. by Andrés Vera Martínez
This extraordinary memoir offers readers a close-up picture of life in 1970s China.
Called "Da Qin" ("Big Piano"), Na Liu was born near Wuhan, China, in 1973. The book opens as four-year-old Da Qin wakes up next to her younger sister. Thinking she'll be late for school, she grabs a cup, and heads outside to a spigot to brush her teeth. But there is no school today. It is September 6, 1976, and Chairman Mao has died. Unlike many books written by Chinese-born Americans about life under Mao, Na Liu's demonstrates the benefits of the regime to her family, especially to her mother who, paralyzed by polio as a girl, was able to walk again. Andrés Vera Martínez (Babe Ruth), Na Liu's husband, co-author and the artist of the book, uses the graphic novel format to perfection, zeroing in on young Da Qin's face when she sees her parents' sorrow, and conveying the chairman's importance through wide-angle views of Mao's likeness on street murals and banners.
In the last and most moving chapter, "Little White Duck," Da Qin insists on wearing her coat with a velvet white duck to her Baba's rural village. By the close of the book, Da Qin has learned firsthand of the disparities that her mother and father told her about, and gained compassion because of it. Liu and Martínez find the universal moments in the details of an exotic land, inviting readers to see themselves in Da Qin's experiences of friendship, family and country. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: An extraordinary graphic novel-memoir by a husband-and-wife team offering a rare view of 1970s China.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
by Catherynne M. Valente , illus. by Ana Juan
In The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, September made an impulsive and heartfelt decision to remove her own shadow, and it seemed to be a fine reflection on her character and little more. In this sequel, however, Valente forces September to grapple with the consequences of this choice after she finds her way back into Fairyland.
September is one of the best heroines to enter the worlds of fantasy in the last few years, and it is a pleasure to see her return. Though only a year has passed in the real world, life has altered in Fairyland. September's shadow, called Halloween, who also serves as the Hollow Queen, has convinced Fairyland-Below to take back their shadows and thus stop sending their magic Above. September heads Below to try to convince the Hollow Queen to make things the way they used to be, but soon finds it's not as simple as she'd thought to make a change--or even to know if the change is right to make.
Between both books, Valente has created a new world on par with the other fine realms of modern fantasy, and given us an admirable and relatable guide to that world in September. Valente's settings and characters will delight readers, with strong writing that will appeal to adults as much as children, making this an ideal choice for both reading aloud and also under the covers. --Stephanie Anderson, readers' advisor at Darien Library and blogger
Discover: A fantastic sequel that marks the continued presence of a refreshing new voice in children's fantasy.
Rockin' a Hard Place: Flats, Sharps & Other Notes from a Misfit Club Owner
by John Jeter
The story of the Handlebar Listening Room, a nightclub in Greenville, S.C., is one of continual hassle, financial risk and a revolving door of musicians, promoters and the businesspeople. John Jeter's Rockin a Hard Place illuminates a time when musicians still primarily made money from record sales, before digital technologies changed both the recording and the promotional industries for good. It's a fascinating historical read with a cast ranging from relatively unknown performers to legendary musicians like Joan Baez, Dar Williams and John Hiatt.
Jeter may have written Rockin' a Hard Place too soon, however. It seems he's still in a hard place; in his self-portrayal, he apparently lacks the experience, business acumen or people skills to succeed as a music promoter. Health issues continually get in the way; over and over again, he suggests that if it weren't for the "other guy," things would have gone swimmingly.
If readers can get past the tone of self-pity, though, they'll find a compelling inside look at the music business from a perspective that's typically overlooked: the venue owner and promoter. Jeter admits to all his mistakes and failures, and is unflinching in his assessment of the Handlebar's long-term viability. Jeter uses his book to redeem himself from the self-pitying tone with a fascinating insider's look at the side of the music business that isn't about the performers or the recording industry. --Rob LeFebvre, freelance writer and editor
Discover: Even "successful" music venues can be a living hell for their owners; the business is often less about the music than most fans would like to believe.
Writers Writing Dying
by C.K. Williams
Like most people, when poets get older their thoughts often turn to death, dying and the past. C.K. Williams is no exception, as the title of Writers Writing Dying indicates. Since the publication of his first collection of poems in 1968, he has had a long and distinguished career, winning the Pulitzer and National Book Award, and continues to excel well into his late 70s.
He's a political poet, an emotional one too: "Are there songs of the soul yet unsung to calm our doubt and despair?" Or, "it can seem only the torturers and tyrants, the venal demagogues and the/ qualmless deceivers,/ stand firm gazing out over the hapless rest of us to decide which will be next... which flash and which yearning will be dragged down and submerged in their political puke." (The long line has always been a stylistic feature of his poetry.)
In "Newark Noir," he writes about the "finally hardly recognizable city; storms of dereliction, of evasion, had all but swept it away." The mood tends to be somber, sad, throughout. In "Cancer," he refers to himself as a "shivering sack of / blood to be spilled," fear "scaling the ice-rungs of my spine." But Williams won't be going gently into a good night anytime soon; he'll be railing and fighting. In his own words: "Keep dying! Keep writing it down!" --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: A new collection, part angry, part sad, part somber, from one of America's most thoughtful and caring poets.
Maybe the Saddest Thing: Poems
by Marcus Wicker
Marcus Wicker is part of the newest generation of African American poets; his debut collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing, was published as part of the prestigious National Poetry Series. The apt description of the collection by D.A. Powell, the selecting judge, echoes the poems themselves: "Action painting meets the pop of hip-hop. Here is a dashing figure of speech and preach, a lovepoet to the stars... lyric wizardry astound the ears."
Riff, pop, hip-hop, preach, lyric: Wicker's is a new poetry for the 21st century. A glance at the titles reveals some of the key figures who are part of his world and his poetry: Richard Pryor, Pam Grier, Bruce Leroy, Dave Chappelle, J-Live. RuPaul is "fierce / in the way only a 6'7" black drag queen could be." At times, he addresses these icons directly: "[You] were not Public Enemy's sidekick," he tells Flavor Flav. "You hosed down whole crowds / in loudmouth flame-retardant spit."
Wicker's poetry grabs onto the world around him and reels it in, from pop culture and music to harsher realities of drugs and violence. Maybe the Saddest Thing oozes with the poet's love of language and life, all kinds of life. Amidst the sadness are love poems ("Because your mouth/ is the nectar & squish of a peach. Because your lips are the color/ of a flowering quince") and even an aubade: "Could I call this poem an aubade if I wrapped it/ in fragrant tissue paper?" Wicker writes. "Yes. I meant to say/ Write it. And please, don't stop." --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: Marcus Wicker shows what's happening with new Black poetry, dripping with hip-hop, with rap, with raw power and love and sadness.