Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Paging through the Past

The Swerve: How The World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
My score: 4 of 5 stars

One of the reasons we have libraries is to keep a record of human knowledge. We like to think that over time we've been gradually adding to our store of information and safeguarding it for the future. But in the 15th century, at the end of what are sometimes called the Dark Ages, a man could make a living searching for lost books because so many of them had been misplaced and forgotten. Poggio Bracciolini was such a man, and when he looked on the shelves of a monastery he found a book that contained a poem. It was a poem that would change the world.

It's amazing to think that some of the same ideas contained in the work, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, are still hotly debated today. Then again, maybe it's to be expected when it came from an ancient society that has its hooks so firmly in our modern consciousness. After all, we still say "Rome wasn't built in a day" and most of us can name a few ancient Greek and Roman gods. As you read about the discovery of the text you'll learn not only about ancient Rome, but also about the world in which Poggio lived. How did he come to be a hunter of books, and how did he manage to bring this text to wider recognition? And just how did that Roman poem change the world?

Stephen Greenblatt won a Pulitzer Prize for his book this year. You can watch the video below from PBS News to learn more about the book and its author.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Adrenaline on Every Page

Fun & Games by Duane Swierczynski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Behind the Hollywood studio machine there's a hidden organization that controls the real lives of actors, not just their careers. They're called the Accident People. If they decide it's time for an actor to die from an overdose or drown on a movie set, then they make that happen--one way or another. When down-on-her-luck action star Lane Madden discovers a car trying to run her off a twisty canyon road, she knows that the Accident People are coming for her. But Madden is no quitter. She'll fight for her life, alongside ex-cop Charlie Hardie who stumbles into her path and is swallowed up in the trouble she carries with her.

Author Duane Swierczynski writes for Marvel comics, which explains the pulse-pounding pace he maintains throughout this book. You can't turn a page without someone getting shot at, punched in the face, injected with mysterious chemicals, thrown out of a window, or otherwise incapacitated. But no matter how bad it gets the characters keep plugging away. This is an intense, violent read, and if you like action it's definitely for you.

You'll be happy to know it's part of a trilogy, with the second title, Hell & Gone, published last year, and the third, Point & Shoot, scheduled for 2013.

If you like testosterone-driven, gut-punching action, you should also check out Josh Bazell's Beat The Reaper and its follow-up Wild Thing.

Review by Danny Hanbery

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Think You've Got Problems?

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"That I will lead my life and practice my art with integrity and honor, using my power wisely"
 ~ from the Hippocratic oath

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the story of Sybil. Sybil was diagnosed with multiple personalities (MPD - now called DID) after years of wondering what was wrong with her. With the help of her therapist, she was able to integrate all her personalities into one complete person. The multiple personalities were the result of years of trauma and abuse at the hands of her mother. The story (and popular mini-series starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward) chronicled Sybil's life and her journey through therapy.

Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case was full of surprises. The book follows three women: Sybil (aka Shirley Mason), Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Sybil's therapist), and Flora Schreiber (the author of Sybil: The True & Extraordinary Story of a Woman Possessed by Sixteen Separate Personalities). Sybil Exposed chronicles Sybil's life, Dr. Wilbur's rise in the medical field, and Schreiber's journalist career. I was impressed by all the research Debbie Nathan did to present the true facts of this story.The book is highly detailed and full of footnotes. In fact, the last 50 pages include the note citations and index.  It look me longer than usual to finish this book, but I was glad I stuck with it.

If you were ever interested in Sybil's story, or want overviews of the psychiatric and journalist fields from the 50's to the 70's, this is a good read.

View all my reviews

Monday, May 21, 2012

Enchantment Under the Big Top

The Night Circus 
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The blurb from Goodreads says it all:

"The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart."

I had heard a lot of buzz about this book, but was reluctant to pick it up. Now I'm kicking myself that I didn't read it sooner. The Night Circus is my favorite book of the year so far. Filled with twists and turns, longing and desire, real and magical worlds, it hooked me from page one. I cannot wait to reread it in a few months. Every chapter is deftly crafted to draw the reader in without revealing too much. The short chapters make it the ideal book to read on a lunch break or when you have snippets of time - just be aware that you will not want to put it down.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 17, 2012

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

Asian-Pacific Heritage Month began in 1977, when Congress declared the first 10 days in May Asian-Pacific Heritage Week. (I know, "week" must have a different meaning in Washington, DC.) President Bush then extended the week to a month-long celebration in 1990. May was chosen because the first Japanese immigrants to the United States arrived on May 7, 1843 and the transcontinental railroad—which was built mainly by Chinese laborers—was completed on May 10, 1869. This emphasis on Chinese and Japanese immigration is rooted in history. Asian immigrants to the US came almost exclusively from Japan and China before the immigration reforms of the mid-1960s did away with stringent quotas and the Vietnam War unleashed a flood of refugees from all across Southeast Asia.

Asian-American literature mirrors this historical break. Most of the Asian-American writing published through the 1970s and '80s came from authors of Japanese and Chinese descent, and it looked a lot like the rest of American fiction but with a distinctive emphasis on family and social issues. Since the commercial and critical success of Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club in 1989, Asian-American fiction has exploded into the mainstream even as it has grown increasingly diverse. Today's Asian-American writers are as likely to be of Hmong, Indian, Korean, Pakistani, Thai or Vietnamese descent as Chinese or Japanese.

Jhumpa Lahiri and Chang-rae Lee are among America's most consistently excellent writers. If you haven't read anything by them, let Asian-Pacific Heritage Month be the excuse to treat yourself to a great new read. Lahiri is of Bengali descent, born in London but raised from age three in the US. She has published two award-winning short story collections, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), and a novel, The Namesake (2003), which was made into a film in 2007. Unaccustomed Earth is a very novel-like collection of short stories filled with recurring themes and characters and a narrative arc that swings inexorably toward a heartbreaking climax in the literal wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. As great as her subsequent books have been, Interpreter of Maladies remains Lahiri's masterpiece.

Lee is Korean, born in Seoul but—like Lahiri—raised in the US from age three. He has published four novels, Native Speaker (1995), A Gesture Life (1999), Aloft (2004) and The Surrendered (2010). Native Speaker is my favorite of his books, a sustained meditation on family, identity and loyalty disguised as a page-turning political espionage thriller. If you liked Ethan Canin's America America, Native Speaker is for you. A Gesture Life may be easier to find and may hold broader appeal, telling as it does the story of a retired Japanese-American pharmacist.

Memories Lost - Would It Be a Curse or a Blessing?

4 of 5 stars

The Song Remains the Same 

A plane falls from the sky in Iowa. Nell is one of two survivors of the crash, found two hundred yards from the debris field still strapped in her seat. She awakes to find her memory gone and everyone a stranger. Who can she trust to awaken her memories? Her husband? Her mother? Her sister? The journalist interested in telling her story?

Nell, a thirty two year old NYC art gallery owner, uses music from her own play lists to try and jog her memory.  As she learns more about her life before the crash, more questions come into play. Was she happy? Is this the perfect opportunity for change? Do the family members helping her regain their memory have their own secret agendas? With the help of her therapist and the other crash survivor, Nell works toward uncovering her past and realizing what she wants for tomorrow.

Don't let the bright pink book cover scare you. It looks like fluff, but the story is well written, flows well, and makes you think.

View all my reviews

Monday, May 14, 2012

Thomas Mullen takes the 2012 Townsend Prize

Thomas Mullen has won the 2012 Townsend Prize for fiction for his second novel, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. The Townsend Prize is awarded every other year to the Georgia writer judged to have produced the best work of fiction or short stories in the previous two years. It was created in 1981 in honor of Jim Townsend, founding editor of Atlanta magazine.

The versatile Mullen is a Further Reading favorite. Danny recommended The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers just last week, and I gave Mullen's latest, The Revisionists, similar treatment back in March. All three of Mullen's novels are part of GCPL's collection, including his highly regarded debut, The Last Town on Earth, about the 1918 influenza epidemic and a quarantined town in Washington state torn between mercy and self-preservation.

If Mullen's marvelously imaginative novels aren't your cup of tea, you can find many other Townsend Prize winners at your local GCPL branch. Here's the complete list:

Friday, May 11, 2012

It's the Journey, not the Destination

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by
Reif Larson

Have you ever mapped the history of your phone cord, or diagrammed the length at which pants become shorts? How about charting the path of a dinner conversation or illustrating the motion vectors of a man on a bucking bronco? If you’ve never thought about doing those things, don’t worry. T.S. Spivet has you covered.

Twelve-year-old T.S. Spivet is a scientist and a mapmaker. Sure, he lives on a remote ranch in Montana, a setting more attuned to cowboys than the cutting edge, but he’s got talent. So much talent that his illustrations appear regularly in scientific journals. He’s making such a splash, in fact, that the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. calls one day to offer him an award. The problem is he has to travel most of the way across the country to accept it. Oh, and they don’t know he’s only twelve. Or that he hasn’t told his parents what he’s up to.

But T.S. has a plan, and sets out on a journey that will take him further from home than he’s ever been before. Toting his cartographic equipment along with him, he illustrates the journey as he travels, exploring the country around him and learning about the history of his own family with an old journal he borrowed from his mother on his way out of town. (She doesn’t know about that either.)

This book is a wonder. You’ll enjoy the perspective of the naive protagonist, while wincing at all the risks he takes throughout the book. The illustrations provide excellent insight into our young hero’s mind and add a touch of humor as well. You’ll be rooting for T.S. Spivet from beginning to end.

Review by Danny Hanbery

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Is it okay to not like a book?

Review by Pat

I am a committed reader. If I start a book there is a 98% chance that I will see it through to the end. But what does this accomplish? If one reads for pleasure, should one not quit reading a particular book once the experience becomes bothersome? After all, there are thousands upon thousands of books to read. I debate my choice to continue a ‘bad’ book with my busiest reader friend who informs me that she will put down any book that becomes unenjoyable. She reads a lot…a whole lot. I read a good bit and admit that the bad books can really slow me down. I will pick the offender up, not being carried by the story, not wishing to turn each page just to see what happens next. I will put the book down to have internalized musings on why the characters are behaving inconsistently and on matters such as missed opportunities the author had to impart a sense of place. I can have some great internal discussions.

So there lies my answer. I do think it is okay to not like a book. I think it is okay to keep reading that book too. Reading broadens the mind, providing new perspectives no matter how well or poorly composed is the execution. If I love a book, I will know it from the beginning. I will keep turning those pages anxiously enjoying the journey or the minutiae. If I hate a book, I will keep reading, still firmly convinced that I am a better person for the experience. After that, I head online for the book reviews to see if other people felt the same way about the book that I did. Searching for that book review that confirms my opinion then becomes part of the experience for me…part of the fun.

So, here is my heresy…I will let you know the book that I just read that others have loved. I did not like State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. State of Wonder is about American medical researchers in the Amazon jungles and their quest to understand the native customs that may lead to the development of an astonishing new product for a United States pharmaceutical corporation. I found the plot too outlandish and the characters unbelievable. As another reviewer stated, “I was unable to suspend my disbelief.” But, that is okay. And guess what, I will probably go read another book by Ann Patchett just to see if this was an anomaly or if I just need to steer clear of her books. After all, there are plenty of books to read. Plenty.

If you like books that talk about medical science and its practice in faraway lands, consider reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. This is an epic tale of brotherhood, medical practice, loaded with cultural and interpersonal conflicts.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Brother, Can You Spare a Gun

These two books about gunslinging brothers are linked in my mind (maybe because of the red covers), and they're both fantastic reads.  Give one of them a try!

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen

The Firefly Brothers are dead. Or are they? Jason and Whit Fireson, the founding members of the Firefly Gang, wake up in a morgue. The newspapers say they've been gunned down by small town cops, but the brothers don't seem any worse off for it. What's going on? And where is the $70,000 they stole from that bank?

In the middle of the Great Depression the Firefly Gang provides much-needed hope for people whose faith in the American Dream is fading fast. They had a good family, good upbringing, good prospects. But things got tough and the Firesons learned that if you make one bad decision there's not much room for second chances when unemployment rates are over 50%. Robbing banks seems like the best way to bring in some cash in the absence of a fair break. When the American Dream is dead, you've got to make your own dreams.

With the newly formed Bureau of Investigation on their heels, however, the brothers have got to think fast to avoid getting a bullet for their trouble. Or maybe that isn't such a big deal after all. Even after the news of their deaths has spread around the country the Firefly brothers are still being seen in tiny hamlets and big cities. Their girls, Darcy and Veronica, don't know what to think, and neither do the cops.

It may be harder than they thought to kill the American Dream.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

This is the first book I've ever read from the library's Western section. I don't know how it compares to the other books on this shelf, but it seems to have all the required ingredients: Guns for hire, gold prospectors, saloons with plenty of whiskey, hotels with women to keep a man company, ambushes in the wilderness, even a few Indians.

The narrator of the tale isn't a stoic gunslinger, however, but a contemplative, self-conscious, slightly pudgy follower of his brother's lead. As Eli and Charlie Sisters--famed assassins, feared by everyone they meet--travel from Oregon City to San Francisco in search of their quarry, they leave a trail of bodies in their wake. Charlie seems to be living the life he always wanted. Eli isn't so sure. But how does a gun for hire leave the life without finding a bullet in his back? How does he find a woman to love and a house to call a home? And why does he want to stop anyway? Morality? God? Saddle sores?

If you're a fan of Westerns, this is the book that will give you a slightly different take on the genre. If you're not a fan of Westerns, this is the book that will get you interested.

Review by Danny Hanbery

Friday, May 4, 2012

Holmes is Where the Heart is

Do you like Sherlock Holmes? Are you willing to give him a try? Because this is definitely the time. We're experiencing a mini-Renaissance of Sherlockian influence, up to and including two movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, and a BBC series that updates the classic stories by bringing Holmes into the 21st century.

The second season of that series premieres on PBS May 6, and if you have any liking for detective shows, British television, or things broadcast under the "Masterpiece" brand, you should do your best to watch. Click here to visit the PBS site for more information.

In the meantime, there are plenty of books available through Gwinnett County Public Library that can give you a glimpse of the world's most famous detective. First off we have A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon. This collection from several well-known authors offers a variety of interpretations of Holmes, from stories taking place in his original turn-of-the-century London setting to ones set in the present day. Some feature Holmes himself, and some feature characters who take the idea of Holmes and reinvent it. Neil Gaiman's "The Case of Death and Honey" and Alan Broadbent's "You'd Better Go in Disguise" are particularly recommended.

It doesn't stop there, of course, Laurie R. King's series featuring Mary Russell as a protege of Holmes offers mysteries with a Sherlockian flair, and there are many more series featuring Holmes in one capacity or another.

Click here to view a list of books in which Mr. Holmes makes an appearance.

And of course, if you're looking to jump start your interest you can always revisit the originals from Arthur Conan Doyle. Click here to request any of the detective's early adventures.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why Comics?

Review by Niles

Somehow the phrase "All Ages Comics" became synonymous with the phrase "Kids' Comics." I couldn't exactly tell you when, but I have an idea of how. 

My theory is that comics in general are already seen as a lower form of literature and when you flip through a lot of all-ages books, like Jeff Smith's phenomenal Bone or Jason Shiga's impossibly labyrinthine choose-your-own-adventure Meanwhile, the first thing you see are "cartoony" or "cutesy" images in a fantastical setting. What you don't get from just flipping through pages are the depth and complexity of these stories, the maturity of the themes, and the detailed character studies. 

They're also really, really fun to read. Bonus!

We carry too many wonderful All Ages Comics to list in this short article, so I'd like to focus on a series by a local Atlanta cartoonist and professor of sequential art at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Chris Schweizer. His Crogan series should appeal to readers of Clive Cussler, Bernard Cornwell, Louis L'Amour or anyone who enjoys historical adventures. The series follows the travails of members of the Crogan family tree throughout different, meticulously researched historical periods. The first book, Crogan's Vengeance, shows the ascension of "Catfoot" Crogan from lowly deckhand to feared and respected pirate captain. The second book, Crogan's March, tracks Peter Crogan's tenure in the French Foreign Legion and the heavy decisions he's faced with. There is a third book to be released this June, Crogan's Loyalty, which will tell the story of two brothers on opposite sides of the American Revolution. 

Flipping through the pages of these books, you may be a bit put off by the cartoonish figures but you'd be mistaking that for the sheer expressiveness Schweizer instills in his characters' "acting." I can't recommend these books enough to lovers of swashbuckling adventure stories. And the best part is that, unlike the superhero comics that miss the point by mistaking violence and sex for "maturity," these are comics that you will happily pass along to the young readers in your life. Or vice versa.

*Comics and Manga are referred to as Graphic Novels in the Gwinnett County Public Library catalog in case you are looking for them. Here is a link to our recent arrivals.