Friday, October 29, 2010

Two Halloween Treats!

Happy Halloween to all! We are just about to hand out candy for the Tiny Tots Halloween walk through downtown. (We just might have some candy left over, if you stop by later.) In honor of the holiday, I've got two things of interest for you. First, have you heard of All Hallow's Read? It's a tradition that Neil Gaiman, he of the spooky Graveyard Book fame, is trying to start. In short, for Halloween, what's better than giving a scary book to a friend? It lasts longer than candy and isn't as fattening.

Next, a trick from our friends at Bookpeople:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Science Fiction's New Hero

Where do I even begin to describe the heights of my enthusiasm for Paolo Bacigalupi and his work? It turns out that not only is he a fantastic guy, full of wit and intelligence, but those qualities also translate to his writing. Well, the intelligence does at the very least. While seldom funny, his books are unnervingly astute when describing the direction we, as a people, are going, as well as what makes us at our core human.

Bacigalupi’s young adult book, Ship Breaker, took me to a place so horrifying and raw that it could only be rooted in truth. The story, which follows a boy named Nailer, sucked me into a world of a grimy, poverty stricken, future. And while that future was bleak and alien it was also familiar, which was why it was able to touch me the way it did. Chronicling the plight of a poor boy that makes his living stripping wires out of the air vents of huge beached ships could have been dull. Or worse, unbelievable. But I never doubted the world Nailer lived in, nor his motivations. When the book becomes part adventure and part an exploration of family and friendship I found myself unable to pull myself away. It is rare that I devour a book as swiftly as I did this one.

Bacigalupi’s debut novel, The Windup Girl, is no less stunning. While I found the book taking a while to get moving, it was easy to stay on board just to find out more about the world being revealed. As well conceived and insightful as Gibson was when he introduced us to the Sprawl back in the 80s, and as thought provoking as Dick was when he caused us to examine our humanity through Replicants. This is a book that forges ahead into a new direction, indicative of our current times. Critics are calling it Biopunk. I’m calling it terrifying and brilliant. I would tell you what the book is about, but part of the beauty of the book is figuring that out for yourself.

So here it is in short: If you like science fiction, read these books. If you want to examine where we might be heading, read these books. If you want to think about the world we live in, and what makes us human, read these books. If you want to look at the world in a different way, read these books. And heck, if you just want to get lost in a good, well written book, read these books. I’m going to follow my own advice and pick up a copy of his short story anthology, Pump 6, next time I’m at work.

Old Firehouse Books currently has signed copies of all of Paolo Bacigalupi’s books. Get your copy before they are gone.

- t

Friday, October 15, 2010

What the Cool Kids Are Reading These Days

At some point, I’m not certain precisely when, the adult population decided to take teen literature seriously. More than that, teen lit became the hot new thing. My initial impulse is to point the finger at J.K. Rowling. After all, the Harry Potter phenomenon was larger than anyone could have anticipated. Suddenly people old and young were rushing to bookstores, lining up around the block like the Beatles were back on tour.

Still, at some point adults had to pluck copies of Sorcerer’s Stone from their kids’ hands and take their stolen tomes to the beach or the dentist’s office. And this happened in mass. And then those people owned up to the fact they were reading “kid stuff” to their friends and got them to try it. And so on, and so forth. But the question remains: why did so many adults turn to teen lit? Or perhaps the question could be rephrased like this: why did so many adults turn away from traditional adult lit?

I have a friend who theorizes that the boom in teen lit is just symptomatic of the dumbing down of society. I might have lent this theory more credit if I wasn’t in the thick of it. Teen lit readers aren’t stupid. In fact, they may just be on to something.

For a long time teen lit was ignored and a lot of edgy cutting edge stuff squeaked in that might not have made it years ago. While contemporary fiction continued to crank out yet another book about divorce or racial strife, teen lit was digging into universal questions like how to belong, be happy, or survive in a changing world. The appeal is broad and the audience broadened to match. And the genre is currently exploding. If you can’t find something in teen lit that appeals to you then you simply aren’t looking. I’m speaking now from experience.

Sure, I read Harry Potter. And I tried to read Twilight to see what the big fuss was about. I try to keep up as much as I can with lit pop culture, but I never really took teen lit that seriously. It wasn’t until I started reading through things in the teen section that I made a surprising discovery. There’s some dang fine stuff in there!

While I still read plenty of “adult” books I now have a healthy stack of teen lit at home as well. I dare say I’ve brought home more teen books this past year than I did when I actually was a teenager. Right now I’m hip-deep in Paolo Bacigalupi’s teen book Ship Breaker, and it’s easily the rawest, grittiest book I’ve read all year. (Which will likely change once I read Windup Girl as I understand it, but the statement stands.)

If you already read teen lit then none of this is news. But if you don’t I’m here to let you in on the secret. Don’t count teen books out because they are marketed differently. And don’t cheat yourself by dismissing them. The next time a friend, or a friendly bookseller, hands you a teen book do yourself a favor and consider the possibilities. You may be happily surprised.

Teen Read Week is October 17th through the 23rd.

- t

Monday, October 11, 2010

Calvin & Hobbes Makes You a Better Person.

It's scientific. 100% scientific.

It is rare anymore to find a syndicated comic strip--that is, one in wide publication with a consistent audience--that has the depth and soul of Calvin and Hobbes. I don't know what it is, really; perhaps the slow confinement of the Funnies page between the police-blotter and the Sudoku that author/artist Bill Waterson was so fervently against. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that no syndicated author has the courage anymore to draw stunning full-color vistas with twigs the way Waterson was wont to do.
Regardless of the reason, Calvin and Hobbes still has the ability to astound me, even as (especially as?) an adult.
We recently ran across all of our old copies of the books as my family was cleaning out the house for a garage sale. Flipping through them, noting as I did my old green-crayon signature on their covers, I began to skim a few strips.
One in particular I remembered from when I was a child: Calvin, playing with his transmografyer--no, of course I don't remember how to spell it--turns himself into an elephant. 'Oho!' says Young-Keller, 'He's turned himself into an elephant! And now he and Hobbes are playing in the mud! How droll.'
Adult-Keller reads the strip. As Calvin (an elephant) and Hobbes (a tiger) are playing in the mud, Suzie--Calvin's female nemesis--comes up. Calvin shouts "Guess what we are, Suzie!" After a pause, he continues: "The Republican Party and Tammany Hall!"
Adult-Keller stops, stunned.
'What?' he thinks. 'Was that just a reference to the corrupt political society that was run by William M. "Boss" Tweed in mid-nineteenth century New York?'
'... Yes. Yes it was.'

See, no other syndicated strip that I've personally encountered has the guts (or, frankly, the brains) to write a joke centered around obscure American-history trivia and make it funny (believe me: I don't do it justice.) Especially a strip written about a six-year-old and his stuffed tiger.

But don't lose heart! There are inheritors of the Calvin and Hobbes tradition!
Though comics in the newspaper may be dying out, standalone comics are just beginning to hit their stride. Check out The Best American Comics 2010 collection (edited by Neil Gaiman!) for a start. Depending on your tastes, move on to Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw or Blankets by Craig Thompson. Both are excellent! Or, if you're in the mood for something a bit more (maybe a lot more) fantastic, read Watchmen by Alan Moore and see what all that movie nonsense was about.

There is no reason to languish in the land of Family Circus! The universe of good comics awaits!


(P.S. Sorry, Family Circus fans. I didn't mean it.)
(P.P.S. Yes I did.)
(P.P.P.S. At least it's not Marmaduke.)

At Home

Bill Bryson bought a Victorian parsonage in Norfolk England in which he lives. In this book, he uses the rooms in the house as a platform to jump into descriptions of life in Britain from Roman to modern times. Perhaps this is a trend. Toby Lester in The Fourth Part of the World uses an ancient map as a platform in a similar way. Each room in the house is a chapter in At Home and each chapter describes a wide range of history appropriate to the room. For example, The Kitchen describes the economic impact of the rarity of sources of spices for Europe and its influence on European exploration. That may sound like dull reading but it isn't. Bryson spices up (pun intended) the text with clever turns of phrase and funny, or should I say spicy, anecdotes. I was charmed. Try this book and if you're not yet a Bryson fan, you're likely to become one. Also a great Christmas present for a father or Bryson fan.

~ Dick Sommerfeld

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Literature for Adolescents in a Post-Columbine World

I return to you again, with more news from the world of Adolescent Literature novels (see my post from September 27th if you don't know what I'm talking about.) The last one I completed was After by Francine Prose, which I chose as my book to revisit, a requirement of the curriculum. Again, I was surprised at how quickly I became enveloped in the novel. I was also surprised to find that I was a much darker 13-year-old than I seem to remember.

After takes place in a fictional reality (oxymoron, I know) where another school shooting takes place after Columbine. This massacre, however, occurs in Pleasant Valley, Maine and the consequences quickly become more drastic. Under the guise of "helping students cope" with the disaster, the government begins sending "grief and crisis counselors" to every high school. These counselors are there to serve a much darker purpose, however, and quickly begin implementing rules that are much more severe than necessary. Before long, the high schools begin looking much more like police states and students are being shipped away from home indefinitely for even the most minor infractions. Tom and his friends find no one to turn to for help, since their parents seem to have changed overnight into brainwashed robots. It is up to them to find a way to escape their high school without losing everything, including their lives.

Now this book may seem incredibly bleak, especially for a young susceptible teenager, but do not underestimate the abilities of the young. If you read Tara's blog below about banned books, adults are consistently trying to protect teens from the "big bad books" out there. Teens know what is going on, no matter how hard we try to protect them. Allowing teens to read books like After will make them feel empowered and more than likely spark the bibliophile within them.

I would also recommend After to many adults. Eleven years later, it is easy to forget about the effect Columbine has had on schools and students alike. Most of today's high schoolers were only 3 to 6 years old when Columbine happened, so those tragic events that effect their lives daily seem as real as anything out of a history book to them. While it is important to honor the memories of those lost or permanently scarred from the Columbine massacre, it is even more important to consider what steps schools are taking to prevent these events from happening again. After provides a narrative for what high school felt like for those students who were not directly involved. The plot may be exaggerated and overly dramatic, but then what in high school isn't?

Adults interested in After by Francine Prose should also consider Columbine by Dave Cullen as a non-fiction supplemental text. Both can be found at Old Firehouse Books.