Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, January 16, 2015


Shadow Mountain: Christmas Jars Collector's Edition by Jason F. Wright

From My Shelf

Tarcherperigee: Holiday Must-Haves!

Thunder Bay Press: The Greatest Brick Builds: Amazing Creations in Lego by Nathan Sawaya

In Memoriam: Robert Stone, 1937-2015

Robert Stone, who won the National Book Award for Dog Soldiers in 1975, died on January 10 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the New York Times wrote. He was 77.

Besides Dog Soldiers--which was made into the movie Who'll Stop the Rain starring Nick Nolte (and featuring the Creedence Clearwater Revival song)--his works include A Hall of Mirrors, A Flag for Sunrise, Outerbridge Reach, Damascus Gate, Fun with Problems and Death of the Black-Haired Girl. He also wrote a memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties about his time with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. He was a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Noting that Stone lived for a time in an orphanage and was a "rebellious teenager" who was kicked out of high school before joining the Navy, the Times wrote that Stone "drew on his hardscrabble upbringing in his work, where war served as a principal metaphor for human life. A two-month stint in Vietnam for a British journal in 1971 served as the inspiration for Dog Soldiers, and A Flag for Sunrise focused on characters whose lives collided in a Central American republic modeled on Nicaragua."

In a remembrance in the New Yorker, author Madison Smartt Bell wrote in part, "Stone never took anything for granted, in life or in art. The dark side of American dreaming always focussed his attention; a Stone character has to take a long walk through the valley of the shadow in order to earn a return to the light."

Robert Stone won a special place in our hearts at an event in the mid-1970s when, after reading from Dog Soldiers, he deftly and amusingly handled some needling questions from a member of the audience. At one point, the questioner suggested that in his work, Stone hadn't quite grasped "the bull by the horns." Stone gazed at him and, after a lovely pause, said, "It's your bull." --John Mutter


Da Capo Lifelong Books: Veganomicon, 10th Anniversary Edition: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero


Book Candy

Happy Birthday, A.A. Milne; Cat Book Club

Sunday is A.A. Milne's birthday as well as Winnie the Pooh Day, so Mental Floss celebrated by considering "10 fun facts about Winnie the Pooh."

---

Ever wonder what it would be like to actually visit some of the bookstores and libraries you see on all those "best in the world" lists? Emily Wilson knows, and shared her bookish travel experiences at Books, the Universe, and Everything.

---

"The Cat Book Club is the greatest book club you could have dreamed up," Bustle reported.

---

"What age did the greatest authors publish their most famous works?" asked Blinkbox Books before answering with an amazing, interactive guide.

---

How much do you know about T.S. Eliot? The Guardian featured a quiz.
 
---

Flavorwire revealed "7 book dedications that basically say 'screw you.' "


Bonhomie Press: The Murderer's Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel by Erika Mallman


The Writer's Life

James McWilliams: Ethical Eating

James McWilliams is a historian, professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little, Brown) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press). His new book is Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals (Thomas Dunne Books; reviewed below). He contributes to many publications, including the Paris Review, the New York Times and Harper's.

In the conclusion of The Modern Savage, you state, "Most ethically inclined consumers [will be persuaded by] 'the data of experience'... hard information that, as it accumulates, appeals to common sense...." Do you think most people need a personal experience of animal suffering to change their eating habits? Why do you think we often struggle to make decisions based purely on principle, rather than on self-interest?

Disembodied principles--by which I mean, principles not grounded in personal experience--are less powerful moral guides due to their abstraction from the ebb and flow of daily life. When it comes to animals and animal products, modern agriculture does a remarkable job of reinforcing this abstraction through what the anthropologist Timothy Pachirat calls "the politics of sight." Not only are we not allowed to see precisely how the sausage is made, but we're subjected to grossly fabricated narratives aimed to convince us that the animals we're eating did not suffer, led a good life and were killed lovingly. The more these narratives sink in, the harder it becomes for our principles to break through the rhetorical fog and shake our conscience back to the hard reality of slaughter and suffering. The harder it becomes, in other words, for our principles to merge with experience.

You propose we should value a creature's life based on the ability to feel, perceive or experience subjectively: "the claim that animals, like us, are living creatures that have an immense capacity to suffer--has been left off the table while the animals we claim to care so much about remain very much on it." Why do you think the pet industry is a multibillion-dollar business, yet we are willing to eat cows, pigs or chickens? 

I'd actually argue that companion animals are commoditized and, to an extent, not seen as fundamentally different from animals in conventional agriculture. Pet breeding is [an industry that] obscures victims who are even less visible than the billions of farm animals reared for food. About three million potential pets are "euthanized" every year. They live horrible lives of great suffering. They never find homes because breeders reduce demand for them. It's a tragedy. That said, what's instructive is the contradiction between how we treat companion animals (the ones that find an "owner") and how we treat farm animals. One kind of animal we love and the other we eat. To my knowledge, there's no consistent moral justification for this double standard. Perhaps one reason we don't address it is that, on some level, we fear the conclusion that we'll reach and the consequences it will entail: not eating sentient animals. Humans can live with a lot of cognitive dissonance when the pleasure of the palate is at stake. 

You state: "I'm not writing as a vegan zealot delivering a sermon from on high." Why do you hope to avoid this characterization?

Honestly, and I'll probably be vilified for saying this, but purity vegans who preach an uncompromising message drive me nuts. The tone of self-righteousness that permeates a lot of vegan discourse is more than off-putting. It's counter-productive. Too often, vegans forget that they were once non-vegans. They forget that we have inherited a culture in which eating animals is perceived to be as natural as breathing air and that, as a result, it's not as simple as declaring it wrong to eat animals and expecting people to go "oh, right, okay, I'll now stop eating animals." To seek change, you have to lead by charismatic example; you have to persuade with love; you have to accept gradual progress; you need patience; you have to not be an a**hole. Vegan zealots delivering sermons from on high aren't very good at these things. I simply want my readers to know that, in condemning the consumption of animals, I'm not condemning the people who eat animals. We are human, and we have limited moral resources. I just want some of those resources to be spent on this basic behavior that we rarely take time to morally evaluate. But I don't want to be seen as jerk because nobody listens to jerks and I want to be listened to.

You assert that the food reform movement is not only ineffective and intellectually dishonest, but may exacerbate the problem since 99% of the animals consumed derive from industrial sources, and non-industrial farms support the behavior that makes CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) possible. You take three prominent food writers to task--Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer and Mark Bittman. How do you hope The Modern Savage will persuade them to rethink their loyalty to their carnivorous readers?

These are super-smart guys. My only hope is that, as the food movement evolves, we will have a serious discussion about animal ethics. I'm not even saying veganism has to be the law of the land for the movement to be just. I just want to have the discussion. What's remarkable to me is that the food movement purports to examine every link in the food chain, except slaughter. What about the ethics of slaughter? What about the ethics of slaughter when you claim to care and even love the animal you kill? What's ironic here is that there are serious philosophical justifications that have been put forth to support the consumption of animals. I'm not saying these justifications are even remotely as convincing as the philosophical arguments against eating animals. I'm just saying there's material out there to initiate and frame a serious debate--material that goes well beyond the transformative work of Peter Singer. Typically, though, the leaders of the food movement will say things like "well, death is [only] one day" and leave it at that. That's lame.

You conclude that "[people] do not want to be conquered by logic or ideology so much as provided realistic options to explore through the exercise of free will." Why do you believe most people do not want both?

I don't dismiss the idea of moral logic and free will working together. It's just that they rarely do. One should be wary about making sweeping assessments about human behavior, but--when it comes to eating animals, at least--I've observed that humans place a premium on choice. Consumers (especially in the United States) are instinctively opposed to having their decisions aggressively shaped by external entities, especially governments. We're leery of the "nanny state." So when there's a significant ethical question at the core of a common behavior, consumers do not want to be bullied into making what someone else insists is the right choice. They want to come to their own conclusions on their own terms. Without getting too Chomsky-ish about it, this overestimation of our right to free will is one of the more insidious accomplishments of consumer capitalism, which has a way of instilling the perception of choice while directing our desires into increasingly narrow and amoral channels. We murder animals to eat them. Why should that choice be left to free will? Well, many think it should be. That's a persistent reality that, when it comes to my activism, I have no choice but to admit. All this said, I'm well aware that my book is sort of telling people what to do, even though I know they don't want to be told what to do.

The Modern Savage is very persuasive. For readers who decide to eliminate animal products from their diets, where should they begin? Do you have any favorite cookbooks or websites?

A lot of vegans say, "veganism is easy." It's not. There is no doubt that making the transition to a vegan (or even "veganish") diet--not to mention sticking to it--comes with challenges. A lot of people do it wrong, end up not feeling well, and revert back to the standard American diet, or however it was they ate beforehand. But others do it right and the personal consequences---not to mention the impact on the food system and the lives of animals---are incredible. Doing it right generally means eating whole foods, avoiding processed junk, getting B-12 from supplemented nutritional yeast or standard supplements, and eating as diversely as possible. I'm not a nutritionist, but I feel safe in saying that it's hard to go wrong when your diet is a fine balance of many different fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. My own transition was buttressed and sustained by nothing more than access to a decent grocery store, a nearby vegan restaurant for inspiration, a community of supportive vegans and vegetarians, and knowledge of educational resources such as relevant cookbooks and vegan dietitian websites. For me, I find Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian to be like a culinary bible and the websites of Jack Norris and Ginny Messina---vegan nutritionists/dieticians--to be chock full of soberly and judiciously presented information. --Kristen Galles, blogger at Book Club Classics


Lion Forge: Generations by Flavia Biondi


Book Review

Fiction

The First Bad Man

by Miranda July


The compulsive narrator of Miranda July's The First Bad Man, Cheryl Glickman is a single woman in her 40s working for a women's self-defense nonprofit called Open Palm. With erotic fantasies about an older man on the company's board, meticulous housekeeping habits preening her one-bedroom California bungalow, a strange fixation on a toddler from her past whom she calls Kubelko Bondy, and a recurrent psychosomatic "globus hystericus," Cheryl can barely keep it together. When the couple who manage Open Palm ask her to take in their 20-year-old daughter, Clee, as a temporary houseguest, Cheryl's obsessions kick into overdrive: "I laid out towels with the sugarless mint... dumped some baking soda down the garbage disposal." But Clee is a knock-out ("she had a blond, tan largeness of scale... [and wore] tight magenta sweatpants low on her hips and several tank tops, or maybe a purple bra and two tank tops--there was an accumulation of straps on her shoulders"), and Cheryl dumps her older-man fantasy for a mad affair with Clee. When Clee mysteriously becomes pregnant, Cheryl becomes not just a lover, but also midwife, breast pump timekeeper and legal guardian of the baby boy.

The First Bad Man's eccentric narrator, raucous scenes and through-the-looking-glass plot are no surprise given July's own eclectic creative output. An independent filmmaker (The Future), actress, short story writer (No One Belongs Here More Than You), performance artist and participatory e-mail curator (We Think Alone), July is a force to be reckoned with. As wacky as her first novel might sound, it cleverly unfolds to tell an almost traditional story of love, friendship, fortitude and motherhood. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: The first novel from artist, filmmaker, and writer Miranda July features the fresh voice of a middle-aged California woman sorting things out.

Scribner, $25, hardcover, 9781439172568

Storey Publishing: Baking Class: 50 Fun Recipes Kids Will Love to Bake! by Deanna F. Cook


Amnesia

by Peter Carey


In Amnesia, Peter Carey (The True History of the Kelly Gang) plumbs the fractured political past of his homeland, Australia, to tell a story of identity in the 21st century. Beginning with the controversial Constitutional Crisis of 1975, Carey examines political lethargy in modern Australian life and those who seek to upend the status quo. As members of opposing generations, hacker Gaby Baillieux and journalist Felix Moore react to the corruption of their government in vastly different ways. But when Gaby hacks the United States' prison system and Felix begins to write a book about her, their lives and families are threatened by the powers they aim to undermine.

Amnesia accomplishes the remarkable task of being a family drama, a brief history of hacking in the late 20th century, and an exposé on Australian politics post-1975. Beginning in the present day, Carey jumps backward, uncovering a series of personal conflicts in Gaby's life that led to her cyber-attack. As the political and personal begin to meld, he expertly shows the crushing weight of large-scale institutions on people, both with power and without. Even with Amnesia's rather philosophical considerations, the book remains propulsive, its narrative gripping as the tension mounts for Gaby, Felix and their families. While Carey never lauds Gaby's illegal activities or Felix's unscrupulous muckraking, he forcefully portrays the Australian government, and its populace, as idle in the face of genuine assaults on freedom. Amnesia means to instigate and outrage, and it is hugely successful at both. --Noah Cruickshank, marketing manager, Open Books, Chicago, Ill.

Discover: A taut literary thriller from two-time Booker Prize-winning Australian author Peter Carey.

Knopf, $25.95, hardcover, 9780385352772

The Seventh Day

by Yu Hua, trans. by Allan H. Barr


With this book, Yu Hua (Boy in the Twilight) and his translator Allan H. Barr offer English-speaking readers a glimpse into two foreign lands--the life of the lower class in modern China and a vision of an afterlife in which class continues to determine one's destiny.

Yang Fei wakes up dead at age 41, marked by untended wounds and with his facial features out of alignment. Invisible to the living, he walks through a heavy fog to keep his appointment at the funeral parlor, where the dead await their turn to be cremated. He quickly realizes he doesn't belong among the VIPs, with their grandly named urns, and has no place even among the commoners, whose families provided for them in death. Alone in the world, Fei had no one to prepare him for cremation, and without an urn or gravesite, his ashes will have nowhere to go, so he sets out on two quests: first, to find the cause of his own death and then to find his deceased father. Along the way, Fei runs across several deceased people from his past, connections both intimate and tangential. Although these somewhat disparate encounters and flashbacks give the novel an episodic quality, the story of Fei's assimilation into the afterlife gradually emerges.

Working from a rather morbid premise, Yu manages to make death seem like another phase of life, show the better side of human nature and get in a few digs at politicians and inequality along the way. Readers with a taste for the bittersweet will find that Yang Fei's week among the dead hits the spot. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: A lower-class Chinese man navigates his afterlife in search of answers and comrades.

Pantheon, $25, hardcover, 9780804197861

Hall of Small Mammals

by Thomas Pierce


There are writers content to mine existing human experiences, and then there are writers who populate their stories with miniature mammoths and parallel dream-universes. Thomas Pierce, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and the Atlantic, certainly fits into the latter category. To call the stories in Hall of Small Mammals magical would be like comparing a sleight-of-hand trick to the parting of the Red Sea--these stories don't just incorporate magic. They're infused with it.

While the overt fantasy in pieces like "Shirley Temple Three" (which features the aforementioned mammoth, resurrected via cloning) adds an interesting wrinkle to his characters' conflicts, Pierce's best stories are those that feature a subtler brand of alchemy, one that imbues normal, human relationships with the rosy glow of the magical. "Felix Not Arriving," which follows a comedian on a trip to his baby's mother's wedding, tugs at the heartstrings like any difficult, truthful thing, uncovered and laid bare. Felix's love for his child and the child's mother is mitigated only by his own inability to grow up, but even as he fails, repeatedly, to rise to the occasion, Pierce peppers the story with talismans and fantasies: a message scratched into a tree house; a pair of footie pajamas that make his child look like a rumpled superhero; the persistent hope that maybe, this time, he'll change.

The real magic is in the collection's exploration of people of all sorts, be they quotidian or fantastical, a dogged optimism that even mid-level comics or retirees can tap the wells of their inner lives and return surprised or startled at what's there. Beneath the whimsical is the truthful, and it packs a prodigious punch. --Linnie Greene, freelance writer

Discover: A winsome and whimsical collection of short stories as far-fetched as they are delightful by New Yorker writer Thomas Pierce.

Riverhead, $27.95, hardcover, 9781594632525

Biography & Memoir

Publishing: A Writer's Memoir

by Gail Godwin


Gail Godwin is the author of 14 novels, as well as story collections, nonfiction and memoir, now including Publishing: A Writer's Memoir, which she calls a "meditation on publishing." In vaguely chronological fashion, she recounts her experiences with the industry; toward the end, she reflects upon earlier times.

Godwin begins with her years as an aspiring writer; she is plagued by a hunger for publication and success (which presumably come together). She addresses her failed marriages, fiction workshops and teachers who were encouraging and helpful (as well as those who weren't), rejection and, finally, the book that sold: The Perfectionists, published in 1970. Several poignant chapters cover the "dance" between an author and an editor, with vignettes of each of Godwin's dance partners over the years, several of whom she lost to unexpected deaths.

At points, her tone becomes elegiac, but Publishing is often funny as well. She profiles wonderful, helpful, joy-bringing people, and though she humorously describes the less-pleasant people she has encountered, she graciously avoids naming names. These entertaining, elegant, knowing recollections are accompanied by beautifully simple and appropriate black-and-white line drawings by Godwin's friend Frances Halsband, which subtly add to the reader's experience.

While her accounts of writing and publishing are fascinating and amusing, Godwin's central strength is in her utterly charming personality: wise, occasionally self-deprecating and quietly playful. As promised, Publishing is not a history of the industry nor an instructive manual for the next generation of aspiring writers. It's simply one woman's well-told memories, peopled by appealing characters, sketched with wit. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: Novelist Gail Godwin's winning, humorous, moving experiences in publishing.

Bloomsbury, $25, hardcover, 9781620408247

Social Science

The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals

by James McWilliams


Texas State University professor James McWilliams (Just Food) was motivated to write The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals because "this fundamental... claim that animals, like us, are living creatures that have an immense capacity to suffer... has been left off the table while the animals we claim to care so much about remain very much on it." In McWilliams's view, if animals have intrinsic worth that warrants moral consideration and decent standards of living, then our decision to kill and eat those same animals is wrong. Recent outrage at the cruelty of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) has provided a more humane existence for the animals we consume, but McWilliams believes we must also critically examine how the bucolic imagery of free-range farming lulls consumers into believing animals are no longer mere commodities: "To end a sentient animal's life is to suddenly objectify the animal after previously treating him as a subject worthy of moral consideration."

Modern Savage examines why backyard slaughter is often inhumane, how free-range chickens are not happier, safer or healthier (for the consumer and the chicken), why Joel Salatin's theory of rotational grazing can never become a realistic answer to global warming and why Americans' love of bacon is no excuse for the mutilation and abuse pigs must endure on CAFOs and small farms alike. McWilliams argues that although the cycle of compassion began with human consumers seeking morally responsible choices for animal welfare, ultimately the only way to improve the lives of farm animals and challenge our dysfunctional food system is to stop eating hunted and domesticated animals altogether. --Kristen Galles from Book Club Classics

Discover: The hypocrisy of the food-reform movement and one man's exhortation to stop consuming animals.

Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, hardcover, 9781250031198

Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die

by Amy Fusselman


As a visitor from New York City with her husband and two young sons, Amy Fusselman was startled, a little frightened and deeply fascinated by Tokyo's Hanegi playpark. "Play freely at your own risk" says the sign at the entrance to "Savage Park." Open fires burn and families toast marshmallows while children climb on ropes in the trees and undertake construction projects with scraps of building materials and available tools. While Hanegi playpark is in some ways reminiscent of the vacant lots where earlier generations of American children played with whatever was at hand, the setting--and the message--are unlike anything Fusselman had ever encountered. Savage Park is a document of Fusselman's fascination with this strange playground, which drew her back to Toyko a year later to spend a week working alongside its lead "play worker."

Fussleman's musings on cultural differences in the perceptions of "play" and "risk" lead to observations about how we engage with the space around us... and how we don't. The brief history of "adventure playgrounds" like Hanegi offered in Savage Park reveals that they are far more common in Europe and Japan than in the United States, and Fusselman suggests that the carefully constructed, padded structures in our play areas function at least as much in the interest of parents' psychological safety as for the physical safety of our children.

Illustrated with many black-and-white photographs of the place that inspired it, Savage Park blends Fusselman's thoughtful reflections with her passionate arguments for Americans to reevaluate our concepts of fear, space and creativity, much as her time in Tokyo's "Savage Park" caused her to reevaluate her own. --Florinda Pendley Vasquez, blogger at The 3 R's Blog: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

Discover: How a strange, "savage" Tokyo playground inspired a young American mother to form new ideas about play, space and risk.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $21, hardcover, 9780544303003

Science

Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others

by David Sloan Wilson


The answer to the titular question of Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others may seem obvious initially, even after David Sloan Wilson, president of the Evolution Institute and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at the University of Binghamton, defines altruism as "a concern for the welfare of others as an end itself." However, Wilson reminds readers that for years, philosophical, political, economic and biological thinkers argued that though seemingly altruistic acts occur on a regular basis, the motivation for the acts may not be truly altruistic at all.

Wilson uses evolutionary theory to explore his subject--starting with Darwin's fascination with the apparent incompatibility of altruism and natural selection. Keeping this in mind, Wilson analyzes the difference between altruistic acts and thoughts and feelings, as well as the drawbacks of true altruism. Members of a functionally organized society must coordinate their actions for mutually beneficial purpose--which is somewhat self-serving, as opposed to pure public good--in what is called common-pool resource (CPR) groups. To illustrate how these groups function, Wilson provides a variety of examples (such as bees in a hive or hunter-gatherer societies).

While natural selection is based on a single entity's relative fitness, behaving for the good of the group typically does not maximize an individual's relative fitness within the group. A redefinition is necessary: "When altruism is defined in terms of action and in terms of relative fitness within and between groups, it exists whenever there is group-level functional organization." Wilson's clear prose and concrete examples make this work accessible to the novice and still compelling to the expert. --Kristen Galles from Book Club Classics

Discover: Why altruism is more important at this point in history than it has ever been.

Yale University Press, $27.50, hardcover, 9780300189490

Children's & Young Adult

Earmuffs for Everyone! How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs

by Meghan McCarthy


Meghan McCarthy (Daredevil) explains patents while also making a distinction between "invention" and "improvement" in this true story of teenage entrepreneur Chester Greenwood who made improvements to earmuffs.

The author-artist deconstructs the patenting process from start to finish. First, she explains that the word "muff" began with hand mufflers in the 1700s, and shows the improvements upon them (as a fashion accessory as well as warmer) in the 1800s. Next, she chronicles--alongside spot art illustrations--early earmuffs by William Ware (1858), M. Isidor (1873) and I.B. Kleinert (1875), noting that Kleinert's is still in business today. Chester Greenwood's patent on "improvement in ear-mufflers" dated March 13, 1877, postdates all of those. "But the guy everyone knows as the inventor of earmuffs is Chester Greenwood," McCarthy emphasizes. She goes on to explain patents, using well-known brands such as Coca-Cola, Band-Aids, the Apple computer and more. McCarthy poses some theories about why Greenwood is best known among those who dabbled with earmuffs, and compares him with Thomas Edison, who made improvements to previous inventions, including the lightbulb. She also points to marketing as a factor: in his hometown of Farmington, Maine, residents dedicate a day in December to hailing Chester Greenwood.

With this accessible example of an invention for which a teenager made improvements, McCarthy stresses the importance of science, ever changing and advancing and affecting our daily lives--and that young people's ideas are every bit as valid as those of adults. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: The story of inventive teen Chester Greenwood, famous for earmuffs, and an exploration of the patenting process.

Paula Wiseman/S&S, $17.99, hardcover, 48p., ages 4-8, 9781481406376

The Terrible Two

by Mac Barnett, Jory John, illus. by Kevin Cornell


Does the title refer to the prankster heroes or to author duo Mac Barnett (Extra Yarn) and Jory John (All My Friends Are Dead)? Kids will lap up this liberally illustrated novel of two competitors who team up for a winning April Fool's Day joke.

Formerly the best prankster at his old school, Miles Murphy goes "to bed with a sense of dread" the night before starting at his new school, Yawnee Vallee Science and Letters Academy (in a town with "cows as far as the eye can see"). His worst fear greets him on his first day: a brilliant prankster has parked Principal Barkin's car at the top of the school steps, blocking the path to the entrance. The principal orders the students to climb through his pride-and-joy in order to avoid canceling school. Miles has met his prankster match, and as the new guy, Miles is the prime suspect. Principal Barkin is the fifth-generation Barkin to run the school, with the prospective sixth in Miles's class: Josh Barkin. Josh doubles as class president--and class bully. Making things worse is Miles's "school buddy," Niles Sparks, assigned to him by Principal Barkin, along with the book 1,346 Interesting Cow Facts.

Barnett and John cook up a string of comical twists as they weave in cow trivia and plenty of clever surprises. Kevin Cornell's full-page and spot illustrations build empathy for Miles (and even Principal Barkin) while raising the comedy. The prankster pair's successful combination of planner and quick-thinker makes readers the benefit of their joint efforts. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A liberally illustrated novel about two competitors who team up for a winning April Fool's Day joke.

Amulet/Abrams, $13.95, hardcover, 224p., ages 8-12, 9781419714917

The Darkest Part of the Forest

by Holly Black


Holly Black (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown; the Curse Workers series) makes a triumphant return to the world of the fey in this stand-alone romantic fantasy. In Fairfold, the mystical and mundane coexist, and siblings Hazel and Ben battle the fey ruler the Alderking and his creatures to save their hometown.

Sixteen-year-old Hazel is "running toward trouble, leaving no stone unturned, no boy unkissed, no crush abandoned, and no bad idea unembraced." In exchange for a blessing from the Alderking, Hazel paid with seven years of her life, so she's determined to live fully what's left. Hazel and Ben outgrew their childhoods playing at knighthood. But Fairfold remained full of magic, a town known for a horned fairy prince forever sleeping, enchanted, in a glass coffin. However, when he is mysteriously awakened, the balance between the magic and mortal worlds shifts--endangering the whole town. Hazel and Ben partner with their best friend, Jack, a changeling, to fight the Alderking and the fearsome horned creature at the heart of the forest. Their hero's journey is fraught with danger. Swords are again unsheathed, lives risked and hearts won. Hazel finds out who she really is, maybe always was, and that Jack knows her better than she knows herself.

Black creates richly fleshed-out characters in an immersive world that will draw in readers young and old. She sensitively portrays both gay and straight relationships in an age-appropriate manner. Themes of sexuality and violence push this toward more mature teens. --Jessica Bushore, former public librarian and freelance writer

Discover: In this dark romantic fantasy, siblings Hazel and Ben fight the fey to save their hometown.

Little, Brown, $18, hardcover, 336p., ages 12-up, 9780316213073

Education

The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing--But You Don't Have to Be

by Anya Kamenetz


Standardized tests have become one of the most prevalent methods of measuring the education system in the United States, but what is the result of this increasingly singular focus? In The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing--But You Don't Have to Be, Anya Kamenetz (Generation Debt) reveals how detrimental these exams are to students and teachers, and how damaging they have become to American society as a whole.

What began as a measure to ensure schools were educating their students properly has since become a multibillion-dollar industry that puts students' needs last. Kamenetz argues that high-stakes standardized tests have created an environment in which teachers are no longer authorized to teach a well-rounded curriculum. Since these assessments are unable to measure much beyond of a limited set of math and reading skills, individual students' learning requirements go unaddressed as teachers are forced to "teach to the test." Students end up regurgitating uncomplicated, rote information in order to achieve high scores, which Kamenetz believes is harmful to their eventual success in life. We are sending our children into the world with the ability to answer multiple-choice questions, she notes, but real life requires creativity and critical thought. Kamenetz also highlights how standardized tests blatantly discriminate against minority groups: poor results mean schools lose financial assistance, further punishing society's most vulnerable populations, including immigrants, ESL learners and the learning disabled.

The Test provides a vivid portrait of the damage this system causes, on both personal and professional levels. While Kamenetz speaks directly to parents, her argument and suggestions for improvement deserve a broad audience. --Justus Joseph, bookseller at Elliott Bay Book Company

Discover: The complex problem of high-stakes scholastic testing and some immediate solutions to the abusive cycle.

PublicAffairs, $25.99, hardcover, 9781610394413

The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America

by Lani Guinier


In her powerful, accessible and slim The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America, civil rights attorney and Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier (The Miner's Canary) argues that United States society is not so much a "meritocracy" as a "testocracy" that defines merit in terms of grades and test scores. This redefinition has created an elite that feels entitled to power and immune from criticism. Institutions of higher education claim they exist to educate future leaders and creative critical thinkers, but in practice they mostly collect a type of student that Guinier calls "Adonis with a pimple"--high-scoring privileged students who need very little from a college education and tend to pursue personal wealth and status after graduation.

Guinier explains how we got to this point and proposes a new definition of merit founded on democratic values and service to the common good. She advocates uniformly high academic standards for all, supported by focused mentoring and educational approaches that promote collaboration, creative thinking and perseverance, giving students the tools to solve complex problems in their workplaces, communities and governments. Guinier has spent years refining her ideas on this subject, and she supports her notions with extensive research, case studies and interviews. She builds a strong case for the genuine practical value of diversity, and for increased opportunity across the spectrum of wealth and class. This is an important contribution to the ongoing discussion about education, opportunity and democracy in the U.S. --Sara Catterall

Discover: A timely call to redefine merit and adopt proven educational methods rooted in democratic values.

Beacon Press, $24.95, hardcover, 9780807006276

Powered by: Xtenit