Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Tick Past the Ides of January....

Well, the awards and notables are all out there now. As mentioned in every corner of the K-sphere - some likelies, some shockers, and some just rights. My thought about the matter? Thank heaven these are not the writers who are out on strike!! (Particularly since my wanna read list has bloated to nearly 200 titles in the wake of all the upcoming Spring & Summer release lists!)

I had an odd patch of being drawn to non-fiction after the first of the year - picked up the biography Can't Buy Me Love and enjoyed reading about the lives and the global effects of the Fab Four. I was particularly amused by the sections where Gould discusses the songs on an album in detail and I found I was hearing the tunes from memory as I read - an internal soundtrack of sorts! It was intriguing to think back about my own life and its touchpoints with various songs and events connected to the Beatles -- I had forgotten my strong visceral reaction to the car radio news of John Lennon's murder until I was reading that section -- as well as the jockeying for position at parties before the endless possibilities of slow-dancing to "Hey Jude." A packed and fascinating biography of four unlikely boys who turned the music world on its edge.

Unintentionally following an entertainment theme, I also got my hands on Steve Martin's biography Born Standing Up in which he chronicles his years as a stand-up comedian. Tagging along as he moved from a 10 year old guidebook salesman at Disneyland to an arena-filling solo act is quite exhilarating -- particularly because of his reticence to reveal much about himself publicly. I was intrigued by his decision to focus his introspection on just one aspect of his career - and it is clear the book was written as a personal quest rather than to satisfy fan curiosity. I will always remember the book's photo of him on stage at Knott's Berry Farm and now have King Tut in rotation on my I-Pod Shuffle....

The cover of Punching In caught my eye on the new non-fiction shelves, too. After getting over the "Why didn't I think about doing this book myself?" reaction, I enjoyed the infiltrating-the-enemy feel of the piece and the opinions the author formed of the various companies that unwittingly employed him. The online psychological testing for several of the companies was new to me and a fascinating method for winnowing an applicant pool. And the author's vehement dislike of Starbuck's false company culture is in fascinating contrast to his boundless regard for the rock solid company culture of UPS. An interesting peek inside American commerce.

A couple of the novels I read in this last batch brought similar books to mind -- Gone mines the same territory as Boy Toy, but without the detail and involving character studies; The Very Ordered Existence of Merliee Marvelous recalled other misfit friends books, but never completely won me over. Maybelle in the Soup was a hoot and continues the leading actor streak of cockroaches and their friends in recent films like Ratatouille and Enchanted.

A better time was had with Gordon Korman's Schooled - also reminiscent of Stargirl in its portrayal of a granola-hippie homeschooler being plunked down in the midst of the hell that is a suburban high school - but done with a winning eye and flair. Both Capricorn and the student body are changed by their interactions and the reader is also given some good food for thought, but in a totally entertaining wrapper. I really need to give a general shout-out to Gordon Korman here -- he writes very fine books with excellent male characters that never fail to deliver: Son of the Mob, No More Dead Dogs, and my personal favorite Born to Rock. Props to you, GK.

Traveling through time and across the world, I spent a year with Leela, who at twelve, is experiencing the pain and superstition that surround her as a child widow in Ghandi-era India in Kashmira Sheth's lovely book Keeping Corner. It brought to mind Koly in Homeless Bird - another book about a young widow who is abandoned by her mother-in-law - but somehow the traditional restraints and superstitions binding Leela in her own home felt more wrenching. The additional threads of Ghandi's nonviolent protest movement and the notion of education as a way out of the darkness of blind submission to tradition make this a rich and involving story.

And what of Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat? I could not put this one down once I started it and thoroughly enjoyed the sinister nanny and her evil scientist swain, the lonely orphan and her touchy rat friend, and the wonders of underground cities full of rodents and minuscule humans. With madcap moments, evil plots and laugh-out-loud touches, this is a great read and would be such fun to read aloud. The scenes in the underground community made me nostalgic for one of my childhood favorites, Evelyn Sibley Lampman's The City Under the Back Steps - I continue to hold out hope that someone will republish it someday. In the meantime, Emmy can keep the flame burning.

When I Crossed No-Bob is a wonderful gem of a book with a wonderful gem of a narrator in Addy O'Donnell. This slice of hard scrabble life in the post-Civil War South is beautifully rendered and thoughtfully written. Addy's struggle to stay true to her bad-reputation family history in the face of a growing sense of self worth, possibility and morality is fleshed out in scenes large and small. The growth and transformation of her character in the space of this slim book is inspiring and hopeful. McMullan's work in expressing Addy's inner dialogue is wonderful - and many of her musings strike either a chord of recognition or a funny bone. A true gem.

Veering off in a completely different direction is the wacky trip of The True Meaning of Smekday. A wild adventure across an alien-invaded United States with 11-year old Gratuity Tucci, her cat Pig, and a disgraced Boov named J. Lo manages to be wickedly entertaining (great plays with language barriers, smackdowns of popular culture, wonderful pencil drawings and cartoon panels interspersing the narrative) as well as a great message about intercultural cooperation, loyalty among friends and self-reliance. Vividly imagined travels visit Florida, Las Vegas and Roswell, and if you think you can predict the fashion in which Gratuity and J. Lo manage to save the Earth - I'm here to tell you there's no possible way -- but you'll love it when you read it!

And then there's Laura Resau's amazing Red Glass. A captivating, gorgeously written novel of cultural acceptance, fierce loyalty, compassion and personal bravery, this is a book that sticks with you long after the reading is done. Sophie's journey begins with a late night phone call about a young boy who is the sole survivor of a family attempting a border-crossing from Mexico. His addition to their family circle (which includes several cultures already) is the spark for all that comes after. When a family decision is made to arrange a visit for the boy with his relatives in a remote Mexican village, Sophie is determined to defy her usual feelings of insecurity and fearfulness in order to be a support to him. From this decision, and from the relationships she forms with the others on the journey and in the village, her life changes in both real and magical ways. Without question, my favorite recent read, and I have already bought a copy so that I can both re-read it and share this deeply satisfying story with others. A must-read.

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