Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Roaring Brook Press: Juniper's Christmas by Eoin Colfer

From My Shelf

Writing for Your Life

Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones (1986) started the obsession with books on writing.

With Bones, Goldberg gave amateur writers--in the true sense of the word, those writing for the love of it--permission to use notebooks and journals to doodle and draw, to dream pies in the sky, to crash and, quite literally, to burn. She encouraged us to use journals to exercise, practice, experiment, hone.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott told us not to leave the house without an index card and a pen in our back pockets--even to walk the dog. She shared E.L. Doctorow's observation that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." And, in a personal favorite, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland advises, "Work freely and rollickingly as though [you] were talking to a friend who loves you."

Natalie Goldberg says, in Writing Down the Bones, "One poem or story doesn't matter one way or the other. It's the process of writing and life that matters." The writers who resonate write about a life that matters. Each of her books builds on this idea. Wild Mind describes living the writer's life. Both Wild Mind and Bones begin with her seven rules for writing, from "1. Keep your hand moving" to "7. Go for the jugular." They can be summed up this way: Do not judge.

Long Quiet Highway describes Goldberg's path to enlightenment with her notebook as her companion. It's about getting the details down honestly and participating fully in the world around her. It's also about her teachers--all of them. So it's logical that her next book would be The True Secret of Writing, her blueprint for a meditative writing retreat between covers. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

BINC: Read Love Support Campaign

The Writer's Life

Natalie Goldberg: Shut Up and Write

photo: Kevin Moul

Natalie Goldberg is the author of Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (1986), which started a revolution in the way people practice writing. The book has sold more than 1.5 million copies and has been translated into 14 languages. Goldberg has written eight other books, including fiction and a memoir, and a book on writing memoir, Old Friend from Far Away. She has been teaching seminars on writing as a practice for the last 30 years. In her newest book, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language (Atria, $25), she focuses on the technique and outcomes of her silent writing retreats. See our review below.

You've been leading writing groups for 30 some years, including "silent retreats" based on sitting Zen. Do you see The True Secret of Writing as a "how-to" for reproducing your silent workshops?

Partially that. I wanted to record it because it's something wonderful. It's been incredible for every one who's done it. People who've done it never come back to my regular workshops. The silence has been tremendous for people. But also, I'm 65 now. I'm not going to live forever--so here it is, someplace you can find it if you want it. It's a legacy book--all of it rolled together

Explain the combination of spirituality and writing that's the core of your work in so many ways.

It's never been any other way. My great writing teacher was my Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi. Even though we never discussed writing, I learned about being present and I learned about the elements that you need as a writer through practicing Zen. I got to study my own mind. What are the tools of a writer but pen, paper and the human mind? The better you understand the human mind the better you can use it. Also, I think I understood that life isn't permanent, and at the same time we have an incredible urge to express our life. Not make it permanent, but to say "I was here, I did this, I exist." And really everything I teach is backed by 2,000 [Zen] years of watching the mind. That's true from Writing Down the Bones on. This is my 12th book and I've never veered from that.

I was dumbstruck when I read your advice to let go of the idea of the novel and spend two years on practice as a starting point.

Because it's America and we're all so ambitious, I say two years. I'd love to say 10. You know, when my students hear that, it's such a relief because then they're allowed to just write.

What I teach is a priori writing. A priori means before. Before you decide to be a novelist, or write fiction or nonfiction or memoir or essays or be a journalist, I teach you how to have a strong spine. To trust your mind. To have confidence in your experience--that it's valuable enough to write about. Once you have that and you understand the basics of writing, then you can choose whatever you want, wherever you want to go. My job is to build those spines.

Many of us have well-thumbed, marked-up copies of your books on our shelves that we go back to all the time. Do you have writing books you go back to?

No, I don't read writing books. I read literature. I read literature because those writers are my writing teachers. I study their minds while I'm reading their books. I just finished two novellas by Jane Smiley, Ordinary Love and Good Will. I read them slowly, and I watched how she unfolds the story--brilliant. In a sense I was studying Jane Smiley's mind.

The truth is that we all have the same principles of mind; we just have different details and inclinations. So you enrich your mind by studying other minds. And then of course, in writing you get to meet your own mind.

Tell us a little about the phrase "shut up and write."

Oh! It's everything. Shut up and eat. Shut up and live your life. Shut up and run. We have such a monkey mind that goes on and on. I'm having trouble writing; I should hire a psychiatrist to discuss it. I need a really nice studio. I need a comfortable café. Finally, stop all this. Just shut up, pick up the pen and get moving. And really, it's what I have said from the very beginning. That's really the only teaching you need.

Silence is the back of all the talk. And so we need to get more in the center. We're leaning too far forward. In a way, the silence for a week [in the workshops] is the antidote to all the talking all the time.

The idea isn't to be silent all the time: you call me and I don't say a word. The idea is to feel comfortable eventually with silence and non-silence and to move in and out of that. You're not afraid of the silence and you're not running from it. In the silence, you get to digest things. And really, you know what silence is? A relief. We don't shut up. I don't know about you, but I go to parties where I meet someone. They'll go on and on. I have not said a word for the entire conversation. They have no idea who I am. What happens is that isolates us. We want to communicate back and forth. Silence will teach you that.

You describe this book as a legacy. But what's next?

I have a painting book that came out in 1997 called Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World.... I just re-sold it to Abrams, which I'm very thrilled about. I'm working on adding chapters and adding paintings. Abrams asked me if I would include some painting exercises. And I didn't really want to because painting's my darling pleasure. I wanted something just for myself. Then I decided it would be fun. And it has been incredibly fun. That's what I'm working on now. And I'm also working on a collection of my essays. I've written a lot of essays. Not about writing; about other things. A bunch of them have been published in Shambala Sun. And I'm becoming an athlete in my later years. I'm hiking like a maniac and doing a lot of yoga. So this is a legacy, but it's not--

It's not the end. It ain't done yet.

--Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

Book Candy

Classic Travel Books; Authors' Fan Letters to Authors

Noting that "even before there were armchairs, voracious bookworms traveled the world just by reading," Smithsonian featured the "top ten most influential travel books."


Mental Floss suggested "7 Goosebumps books that would make amazing movies."


Fans' notes: Flavorwire collected "10 illuminating fan letters from famous authors, to famous authors."


Just so "you can proudly tell all your friends you were intellectually stimulated by reading 50 shades of gray," Mental Floss offered a literal rendition culled from Robert Ridgway's Color Standards and Color Nomenclature.


Just when you think you've "seen everything that could be done with LEGO, Blake Baer... goes and does something new" by creating a Mindstorms-operated LEGO bookshelf safe

Book Review


What the Family Needed

by Steven Amsterdam

A seemingly innocent question in the first chapter sets the plot of Steven Amsterdam's What the Family Needed in motion. Young Alek asks his teenaged cousin Giordana, "Okay, tell me which you want: to be able to fly or be invisible?" Giordana answers "Invisible," and within minutes, she is.

Each subsequent chapter, though linked by characters and setting, provides a distinct view of another family member: Natalie (Alek's mother), Ben (Giordana's brother), Ruth (the mother of Giordana and Ben), Sasha (Alek's brother), Peter (Alek and Sasha's father) and, finally, Alek himself. Over the course of three decades, family members discover that they, too, possess a supernatural gift, just when they need help.

Amsterdam (Things We Didn't See Coming) has chosen a particularly challenging theme for his novel, but manages to succeed in telling each family member's story with subtle honesty and--most importantly--absolute believability. Giordana's welcome invisibility comes just as her parents end their unhappy marriage; Ruth, a lonely and overworked nurse, can suddenly hear the thoughts of her dying patients. Peter, reeling after the death of his wife, finds he can make some of his unspoken desires come true.

As the family members age, move away or reconnect, their relationships with one another are shaped by time as well as by their supernatural gifts (and how they choose to use them). What The Family Needed is an extraordinary novel, and readers will be thinking about it long after they finish. --Roni K. Devlin, owner, Literary Life Bookstore

Discover: A thought-provoking novel about a family's discovery of individual supernatural powers that allow each member to navigate relationships and deal with challenging situations.

Riverhead, $26.95, hardcover, 9781594486395

The Afterlife of Emerson Tang

by Paula Champa

Can the engine of a car stand in as a metaphor for the immortality of the soul? That's the question at the heart of Paula Champa's debut novel, The Afterlife of Emerson Tang.

As a child, a near-death experience left Beth Corvid feeling out of synch with the rest of humanity. An archivist with a passion for cataloguing and collecting, Beth becomes the employee of wealthy Emerson Tang. But Beth's job becomes complicated when she finds out Emerson is dying.

Emerson entrusts Beth with a mission: to find the original engine of his precious Beacon racing car. In this quest, they have a rival: European artist Helene Moreau is also seeking to reunite the Beacon with its engine for mysterious reasons of her own.

Beth's search for the engine takes her from Emerson's Manhattan apartment to places as wide-ranging as Germany and California, and through research topics that include fascism during World War II and modern art movements. Emerson is a man about to lose his life far too early, while Helene is attempting to regain the vitality of her lost youth. In seeking immortality for Emerson, Beth must grapple with what it means to live a fully realized existence.

The Afterlife of Emerson Tang is cleverly written and constructed like a mind-bending puzzle. Champa's self-assured prose and character development--particularly the tormented character of Emerson--effectively move the story forward. The central conceit of the novel--the Beacon's body and engine as a metaphor for the human body and soul--is thought-provoking and integral to various plot threads. --Ilana Teitelbaum, book reviewer at the Huffington Post

Discover: Beth Corvid's quest to restore a classic racing car before her employer's death is both a cleverly written, complex mystery and a meditation on mortality.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, hardcover, 9780547792781

Mystery & Thriller

The Guilty One

by Lisa Ballantyne

Debut novelist Lisa Ballantyne writes like a practiced, polished veteran of the craft in The Guilty One. Daniel Hunter, a troubled youth who found his saving grace in an eccentric widow named Minnie, has grown up to become a successful solicitor, taking on the defense of Sebastian Croll, the 11-year-old "Angel Killer" accused of brutally murdering his eight-year-old neighbor. Daniel, seeing his younger self in Sebastian, is determined to keep him from a life of imprisonment; guilty or innocent, Daniel believes no child Seb's age can benefit from the London penal system. It will only destroy mind, body and spirit.

Meanwhile, Daniel receives news that Minnie, his adoptive mother, has died, and he reacts with mixed and confusing feelings. By alternating between the progression of Seb's trial and Daniel's youth, Ballantyne slowly unveils the mystery of Daniel and Minnie's estrangement over the last 15 years.

A story of redemption and regret, The Guilty One shows how prisons aren't always made of steel bars--and freedom isn't always what we perceive it to be. Readers will be as captivated by Ballantyne's unparalleled characters as they are by the intense, psychological plot. This haunting, heart wrenching psychological thriller is a highly emotional, addictive reading experience that will appeal to readers of all genres. With a debut this explosive, it's hard to imagine what Ballantyne's encore will bring. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: In Ballantyne's debut thriller, the murder trial of a young boy leads a London solicitor to come to terms with his own sordid, troubled past.

Morrow, $14.99, paperback, 9780062195517

Criminal Enterprise

by Owen Laukkanen

Owen Laukkanen reunites the team of FBI agent Carla Windermere and Kirk Stevens of Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (from 2012's The Professionals) in Criminal Enterprise. Windermere and her partner are tracking a gang of bank robbers whose crimes keep getting bigger; while her colleagues are investigating typical criminals, she suspects the main perpetrator is an accountant. Meanwhile, Stevens has taken a desk job investigating cold cases so that he can spend more time with his family. He's busy coaching his teenage daughter's basketball team, until he bumps into Windermere and realizes he has a strange connection to the robberies she's investigating.

Criminal Enterprise is a fast-paced thriller that keeps the reader guessing as Stevens and Windermere narrow in on the robbers' identities. Adding to the tension are alternating chapters told from the point of view of the main bank robber--detailing his transformation from an ordinary businessman into something much more deadly.

Laukkanen has done an excellent job creating an entirely plausible criminal--a man who would do anything to protect his family. The heightening tension of the escalating crimes keeps the pages turning, making the reader eager to see just how far things may go. Set in a vividly cold Minnesota winter, Criminal Enterprise offers a perfect escape into a freezing, suspenseful world. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm

Discover: Laukkanen's second Windermere and Stevens novel is a fast-paced, high-stakes heist thriller.

Putnam, $26.95, hardcover, 9780399157905


Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City

by Robin Nagle

The U.S. generates more waste than any other country in the world, and New York City alone creates more than 12,000 tons of solid waste and recyclables every day, all of which is then spirited away as though by magic. Of course, the only magic at work is an army of nearly 10,000 sanitation workers. In Picking Up, Robin Nagle takes readers on an unusual and enlightening journey into the heart of the City of New York's Department of Sanitation. 

With a military-like discipline, the DSNY relies on an intricate network of camaraderie and bureaucracy rarely glimpsed by outsiders. Nagle has spent 10 years observing the "garbage faeries" who devote hours of back-breaking labor to keeping New York's streets clean. She even took on the job herself, learning terms such as "garbage juice" and the less self-explanatory "mungo" the hard way. In her chronicle of life on the truck, Nagle lays out not only the cringe-inspiring details of the city's most dangerous job, but how the conditions have changed over the centuries, including streets full of dross and roaming livestock in the mid-1600s and a state of filth that threatened to create a public health crisis in the 1890s.

This frank and respectful look at a coterie of society's most unsung heroes will forever change the way you think about your neighborhood sanitation workers and compel you to consider where we would be without them. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager at Latah County Library District and blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: An anthropologist's perspective on how New York City cleans up after itself, based on a decade's study of the sanitation department.

Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $28, hardcover, 9780374299293

Biography & Memoir

The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild

by Hannah Rothschild

Sometime in the late 1940s, the baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter--a scion of the immensely wealthy Rothschild family--heard a recording of Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight" while visiting New York. "I'd never heard anything remotely like it," she said many years later. "I must have played it twenty times in a row. Missed my plane. In fact I never went home." According to legend, she was so transformed by that "mournful, lazy, sexy-sounding ballad" that she dedicated the rest of her life to jazz and jazz musicians.

She went by Nica, but she was also known as "the Jazz Baroness." For the next 40 years, she roared up to midtown clubs in her Rolls-Royce nearly every night, in pearls and furs, smoking and drinking and tapping to the music well into her 70s. She was not just a jazz fan, but a great patron and passionate devotee who became Thelonious Monk's steadfast friend and champion, once nearly sacrificing her own freedom to keep him out of jail.

The Baroness is a questing tribute to Nica by her great-niece, writer and documentarian Hannah Rothschild (who also did the documentary The Jazz Baroness). This truly fascinating investigation reveals Nica and Monk's enduring bond and the unlikely parallels between an unfathomably wealthy, Jewish, British heiress and a troubled but brilliant black man in mid-century America.

Drawing on a wealth of family archives and from interviews with the likes of Quincy Jones and Sonny Rollins, and aching with deeply personal connection, The Baroness is part biography, part study of a complex and tremendously influential family, and part crash course in the riotous history of jazz. --Hannah Calkins, blogger at Unpunished Vice

Discover: Hannah Rothschild's tribute to her great-aunt Nica, a wildly unconventional aristocrat who became Thelonious Monk's closest friend and patron.

Knopf, $26.95, hardcover, 9780307961983

Crapalachia: A Biography of a Place

by Scott McClanahan

Scott McClanahan centers Crapalachia on two characters of his West Virginia youth who rule over much of the narrative--his Grandma Ruby, an ornery, fantastical mother of 13 (or so) children who also photographed dead people, and his uncle Nathan, who had cerebral palsy and enjoyed listening to the radio preacher and having six-packs of beer poured down his feeding tube. We also meet his schoolboy friends, like Little Bill, an eventual roommate with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a destructive crush on a girl down the street.

Crapalachia is an unusual story told in an unusual fashion, peppered with second-person references, advice to the reader on how to live, how to remember and forget. The attentive reader will also appreciate McClanahan's "Appendix and Notes" for its revelation of where he's twisted the truth (as he remembers it) to suit the story he wanted to tell. Like many memoirists, McClanahan is concerned with the nature of memory, its credibility and value. He sometimes gets mired in the unpleasant, cringeworthy details of life, then pans out for grand, loving, hopeful statements. This is a gritty look at life--in Appalachia, yes, but also in a universal sense. Historical detail turns what looked to be a memoir of childhood into the subtitle's promised "biography of a place." In the end, despite various tragedies, this poetic, rambling series of remembrances is surprisingly optimistic. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: The author of Stories and its followups, Stories II and Stories V!, shares a memoir of Appalachian boyhood filled with the requisite hardships but ultimately redemptive.

Two Dollar Radio, $16, paperback, 9781937512033


Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses

by Gristwood Sara, Sarah Gristwood

In Blood Sisters, historian Sarah Gristwood (Arbella: England's Lost Queen) tells the familiar story of the Wars of the Roses, the so-called "Cousins' War" between the houses of Lancaster and York over the throne of England, from a new perspective. Most histories of the period, Gristwood says, echo the "patriarchial assumptions" of the time by focusing on its male protagonists; she puts the kings and kingmakers in the back seat, bringing forward their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

Some of Gristwood's subjects, like heiress Anne Neville, were passed from one royal family to another like pieces of property. Others were actively involved in the politics of the time, using husbands and sons as their path to power. Whether pawns or players, all were caught up in the web of changing alliances, family loyalties and political machinations that defined the war. Gristwood pieces together their stories from household accounts, occasional letters and appearances in the accounts of others.

At its heart, Blood Sisters is about relationships. Gristwood describes the events surrounding the Wars of the Roses and the resultant rise of the Tudor dynasty as a family saga whose protagonists were tied together in many ways. By focusing on the lives of the Plantagenet women, she illustrates the complexities of those ties--and in the process, creates a larger picture of the Wars of the Roses. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

Discover: The recent discovery of Richard III's bones adds a timely dimension to this look at the lives of seven women who helped shape the Wars of the Roses.

Basic, $29.99, hardcover, 9780465018314

Social Science

Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave

by Adam Alter

The title of Adam Alter's Drunk Tank Pink alludes to a 1979 study that revealed staring at the color pink dramatically decreased strength levels in men. This discovery led to a rash of pink prisons, doctors' offices and housing projects--even visiting teams' locker rooms. "This book," Alter states, "is an attempt to uncover the role of Drunk Tank Pink and dozens of other hidden forces as they shape how we think, feel, and behave."

Alter reframes familiar studies with more recent findings. Some observations may be familiar to readers of books like Freakonomics, such as the expectations we place on others based on their first names and the sharp decreases in New York City crime following the prompt removal of graffiti. Other findings will seem commonsensical: who hasn't experienced road rage sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the hottest day of the year or felt the debilitating effects of decreased sunlight in the bleakness of winter? There are surprises, however: Who knew observing daylight savings time, or living on the ground floor of an urban apartment complex, might make children dumber? 

"Your mind is the collective end point of a billion tiny butterfly effects," Alter concludes. "Your thoughts, feelings, and actions are the products of chaotic chain reactions, fueled in no small part by... our names, the labels and symbols that surround us, who surrounds us and what they look and act like, the culture in which we were raised, colors, locations, and weather." --Kristen Galles, blogger at Book Club Classics

Discover: Fans of Outliers, Freakonomics and The Righteous Mind will welcome this examination of why we do what we do and how little control we have over our perceptions.

Penguin Press, $25.95, hardcover, 9781594204548

Reference & Writing

The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language

by Natalie Goldberg

Aspiring writers have long turned to Natalie Goldberg's Zen-fueled guidebooks--most notably Writing Down the Bones--to help them find their way to the page, and some of the phrases she's coined have entered the wider vocabulary of creative writing: monkey mind, writing practice, wild mind.

By connecting her own life to language in The True Secret of Writing, Goldberg creates a work that is half memoir and half writing manifesto. She extends the concept of writing practice beyond the 10-minute timed writings that lie at the heart of her work to "all the time in which you also live outside the notebook." Much of the book focuses on the writing retreats she has taught for 35 years; she describes not just the nuts and bolts of the events themselves, but the way in which writing practice enriches and is enriched by the traditional meditation practices of sitting and slow-walking. Along the way, she offers more examples of the combination of innovative writing exercises and hard-nosed inspiration for which she is known. The final, most personal section, "Encounters and Teachers," pays tribute to the way writing and life bleed into each other.

At the very end, though, she introduces yet another phrase that seems destined to become a koan for a generation of writers: "Shut up and write." She is the first to admit this advice is both absolutely simple and unbelievably hard. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

Discover: New lessons from a lifetime of writing practice by the author of Writing Down the Bones.

Atria, $25, hardcover, 9781451641240

Children's & Young Adult

Hattie Ever After

by Kirby Larson

Kirby Larson gives readers an engaging and absorbing follow-up to her Newbery Honor book, Hattie Big Sky, as the heroine makes her way to the West Coast, in a story that stands on its own.

In Hattie Big Sky, orphan Hattie Brooks tried to make a go of the homestead in Montana that she'd inherited from her uncle. Although she worked hard, Hattie wasn't able to hang on to the property. In this new adventure, Hattie signs on as wardrobe mistress with the Venturing Varietals, an acting troupe that's traveling to San Francisco. Once there, she hopes to begin a career as a newspaper reporter. She knows it won't be easy, but Hattie is nothing if not determined. She takes a cleaning job at the San Francisco Chronicle just to get her foot in the door. Soon, she works her way up to researcher, and even wins a few writing assignments. But by following her dream, it seems that Hattie must leave behind all thoughts of becoming Mrs. Charlie Hawley.

Hattie Ever After reflects Larson's meticulous research, yet the historical details never overwhelm the story or the characters. Instead, all the elements combine to form a multilayered and colorful story. Readers will be thrilled to follow the trials and triumphs of Miss Hattie Inez Brooks in 1919 San Francisco. --Lynn Becker, host of Book Talk, the monthly online discussion of children's books for the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators

Discover: The engaging follow-up to the Newbery Honor book Hattie Big Sky, which follows the hardworking heroine to 1919 San Francisco.

Delacorte, $16.99, hardcover, 9780385737463

Who Done It?

by Jon Scieszka, editor

Herman Mildew may have been the most difficult infamous editor alive. The problem is, Mildew is dead. Now 83 young adult authors must provide their brief first-person alibis in the new anthology Who Done It? edited by Jon Scieszka (the Spaceheadz series). The stellar list of suspects (aka contributors) includes John Green, Maureen Johnson, Libba Bray, David Levithan, Rebecca Stead, Mo Willems and, of course, Lemony Snicket, as well as many others. All of the authors had motives. Some had the means (everything from chains to rat poison to frozen legs of lamb). A few, like Dave Eggers and Aimee Freedman, admit to thwarted plots. With a lively blend of self-incrimination and finger-pointing, Who Done It? will keep readers guessing to the end.

While such a premise, and lengthy list of contributors, runs the risk of redundancy, the unusual voices, humor and varied writing styles will keep readers engaged and entertained. Proceeds from the sales of Who Done It? benefit 826NYC. --Kyla Paterno, trade book buyer and blogger, Garfield Book Company at PLU

Discover: A pantheon of famous authors must provide alibis when their editor is murdered.

SoHo Teen, $17.99, hardcover, 374p., ages 12-up, 9781616951528

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