Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Running the Books: The Adventures of An Accidental Prison Librarian" by Avi Steinberg

399 pages

Pimps make the best librarians. Psycho killers, the worst. Ditto con men.

So begins this memoir. It all started when Avi Steinberg graduated from college and wasn't sure what to do with himself. Though he graduated from one of the most distinguished schools in the country--Harvard--he felt a lot of career-related pressure from the extraordinarily high standards of the Orthodox Jewish community he grew up. When he saw an ad in the paper for a prison librarian, he decided to give it a try. What Avi thought would just pay the bills and provide insurance until he figured out what he wanted to do ended up changing his life. Nothing could have prepared him for the bizarre culture he'd become part of in the tough Boston prison. There was the anxious pimp who solicited Steinberg’s help in writing a memoir. A passionate gangster who dreamed of hosting a cooking show called "Thug Sizzle." A disgruntled officer who instigated a major feud over a Post-it note. A doomed ex-stripper who asked Steinberg to orchestrate a reunion with her estranged son, who was an inmate himself. Some of it's funny and some of it's heartbreaking, but it's all fascinating. In fact, I loved this entire memoir. I find prison culture in general very interesting, even more so from a librarian's perspective since I am a librarian myself. I really like Avi's writing style; I think he uses the perfect tones for both the touching and the hilarious parts, and he does a great job of humanizing the inmates without being cheesy about it. In some cases, he has to reconcile the kind, interesting people he gets to know in the library with the violent crimes he knows they have committed. He's honest about his struggles to give the inmates a chance without being flippant about the things they've done or completely letting his guard down. This is a book that will stick with me for a while, and I hope Avi Steinberg writes more books!

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog

I just picked this book up from a cart one day and thought the title was interesting.  The inside did not disappoint.  Hal Herzog is an anthrozoologist and discusses the strange feelings humans have about animals and some of our crazy moral and ethical conclusions.  He discusses why some animals are appealing (apparently the bigger the eyes, the more likely we'll want to parent/love them) and why some repulse us.  He explores vegetarianism and veganism and why so many slide back into the consumption of meat.  It's a fascinating, quick read that probably raises more questions than it answers, but I enjoyed reading it and will be thinking about the implications long after I check the book back in.
Kim F

Friday, September 23, 2011

Shadowheart (Shadowmarch: 4)

by Tad Williams
(2010 | 722 p)

I would like to propose that Tad Williams stop writing trilogies and tetralogies. Why does the awesome have to stop? Take a cue from Robert Jordan and keep those bad boys coming. I realize I'm a nobody in the grand scheme of Tad Williams' publishing life. I'm making this proposal based on completely selfish reasons. It's a flimsy, pathetic argument at best, but there it is.

Clearly it's with a sad heart that I finished this, the fourth and final book in Williams' Shadowmarch tetralogy. Trying to summarize the plot of this densely written 722 page brick is almost more than I can bear at the moment. So, I'll be brief(ish). The twins Barrick and Briony Eddon continue to wander separately across Eion. Briony Eddon has come across a powerful prince who is not only smitten with her but also well outfitted with a small army of troops. How convenient. The prince and his soldiers serve as her loyal escorts as she makes her way back toward her Southmarch home. Barrick Eddon has been changed by the mysterious Qar and is figuring out how to survive in this new self. He, too, discovers a need to return to Southmarch with an army of Qar in tow. Did I mention that the nasty god-king of Xis has King Olin Eddon held prisoner and a small country's worth of soldiers waiting outside the gates of the castle? Gods are waking up, ambition is upsetting the delicate balance, and family loyalties are being tested.

Soapbox time. As a card carrying feminist I was put off by the fact that Qinnitan and Briony's virginity seemed to carry such importance. They "saved" themselves for their true loves, yadda yadda. Briony and Qinnitan were both strong, capable young women... why ruin it by making them chaste? And I already mentioned in a previous review my distaste for the depiction of the homosexual characters in this series. Briony's travelling troupe of buds has not one but two old, lascivious sorts the apparently prefer young lads while the evil Autarch was sexually abused by his Uncle. A familiar stereotype, for sure. But I know Williams' is capable of much more than these overused and quite worn out tropes.

If you've made it this far into my review you must think I'm bonkers. I first declare my undying love for all things Tad Williams and then rail against his depiction of women and homosexuals. Well, there it is. I DO love Tad Williams' stories. In fact, I am so comfortable in the worlds that he creates I can't help but start feeling it's my right to move around the furniture. It's a well-meaning sort of badgering and if Tad Williams' were to ever stumble across this review I hope he'd take it in the spirit of sisterly poking in which it's intended.

I recommend this series to all lovers of the epic fantasy genre. Happy reading!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"The Dead Tossed Waves" by Carrie Ryan

407 pages

Gabry is all about playing it safe--as safe as she can growing up in a town trapped between a forest and the ocean in a world teeming with the dead, who constantly hunger for those still living. Then, in one fateful night, her infatuation with a friend's brother, Catcher, causes her to join a group of kids on the other side of the Barrier, and everything changes forever. Some of the kids are killed and the rest of them are imprisoned for crossing the forbidden barrier. Only Gabry and Catcher got away--but she doesn't know where Catcher escaped to. On top of that, she discovers an unexpected secret about her mother's past that changes everything she knew about her life, and a mysterious boy from the Dark City appears and seems to know more than he lets on. Gabry realizes that she is going to have to get WAY out of her comfort zone by going deep into the Forest of Hands and Teeth to confront her family's past in order to save everyone that she loves.

I was mostly disappointed with this sequel to "The Forest of Hands and Teeth." That first book wasn't my favorite zombie novel by any stretch of the imagination, but it did hold my interest and left me curious about what happened in the rest of the series. I enjoyed the basic plot of "Dead Tossed Waves," and I liked the way that it brought the lives of the new characters together with the ones from "The Forest of Hands and Teeth." There are several unexpected plot twists that interested me. However, I just didn't like Gabry's narration very much. She gets very overdramatic about the romance stuff, which gets on my nerves. She also uses corny metaphors that had me rolling my eyes a lot. That's really the only major thing that I didn't like about this book, but it kind of ruins it when you don't like the main character. I am definitely going to read the third book in series, though, because I am invested enough that I want to find out what happens. Also, I have hope that the narration will be more my style since the first one (which is narrated by Gabry's mother) didn't seem as bad as "Dead Tossed Waves."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Art of Racing in the Rain

by Garth Stein
322 pages

From Publishers Weekly

"If you've ever wondered what your dog is thinking, Stein's third novel offers an answer. Enzo is a lab terrier mix plucked from a farm outside Seattle to ride shotgun with race car driver Denny Swift as he pursues success on the track and off. Denny meets and marries Eve, has a daughter, Zoë, and risks his savings and his life to make it on the professional racing circuit. Enzo, frustrated by his inability to speak and his lack of opposable thumbs, watches Denny's old racing videos, coins koanlike aphorisms that apply to both driving and life, and hopes for the day when his life as a dog will be over and he can be reborn a man. When Denny hits an extended rough patch, Enzo remains his most steadfast if silent supporter. Enzo is a reliable companion and a likable enough narrator, though the string of Denny's bad luck stories strains believability. Much like Denny, however, Stein is able to salvage some dignity from the over-the-top drama. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved."
I found this book heartbreaking but couldn't put it down. I've never been much of a dog person, but I seriously thought about getting one after reading this book.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Bad Taste in Boys (Kate Grable #1)" by Carrie Harris

201 pages

High school senior Kate Grable is kind of a nerd, but she's okay with that. She's at the top of her class and determined to be an all-star doctor one day, so it's all good. To work on her medical skills, she volunteers as an assistant trainer for her school's atrocious football team. As a bonus, this allows her to spend time with her crush, Aaron, who is the quarterback. Things start going downhill, though, when Kate discovers that the coach is injecting some of the players with steroids. Even worse, it seems that these so-called performance enhancers have a pretty nasty side effect: they turn people into flesh-eating zombies. Apparently the steroids are tainted with a virus, and it's spreading quickly. Kate's discovered something that could wipe out humanity, and she's got to turn into a science-superhero in order to gather enough evidence to stop it before everyone she cares about starts trying to eat her.

I loved this book! It's clever and funny, and I've never read another zombie story quite like it. It's got a nice mixture of your typical teen drama and undead awesomeness, which creates an amusing contrast. The steroids-creating-zombies thing is creative and interesting. I love that Kate kicks butt and gets the guy using her intelligence rather than her looks or charm. I'd like to see more strong, smart girls like her in teen literature. I also love Jonah, Kate's dorky but adorable younger brother, who made me laugh out loud several times. I'm super-pumped about this series and looking forward to the next book, "Bad Hair Day," which is supposed to come out in fall 2012.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD" by Traci Foust

371 pages

As she grew up during the 1970s in San Francisco, Traci Foust could always sense that her obsessive thoughts were unusual. Her memoir begins with her memories from age seven, when her parents divorced and she moved into an apartment with her mother, older sister, and older brother. After that, her illogical trains of thought and bizarre compulsions began to take over her life. Her hands never felt clean, so she washed them over and over. She failed her math classes because numbers multiplied and overwhelmed her mind. She worried that if she didn't snap her fingers every time she heard the word God, something terrible would happen. Her parents and teachers didn't know what to do with her. Her psychologist incorrectly diagnosed her as schizophrenic. As she grew older, she felt increasingly isolated and misunderstood as well as in constant stress under the barrage of tormenting thoughts. In high school, she used NyQuil and antihistamines to escape from her own mind. It was only as an adult that she learned how to accept her disease, stop blaming herself for it, and get it under control.

This story provides a very intimate look inside the mind of OCD. It seems like Foust is totally honest and lets it all out. I think she does a great job of telling her meaningful story without taking herself too seriously. She's not afraid to poke fun at the goofy parts of her life. I also like the way Foust stresses that mental problems are based on physical factors just like any other sickness, so it's okay--crucial even--to seek help and get the appropriate medication. Although people in general are becoming much more aware of mental illnesses, there is often still a stigma attached to those who have them. Foust's story demonstrates that the first step to getting better is to accept the disease. Her memoir should be a great inspiration to people with all kinds of mental illness--people who feel like they are crazy and that no one understands.

"Thank You Notes" by Jimmy Fallon and the Writers of Late Night

166 pages

Pez dispensers. Shorts season. Taco Bell chihuahua. All of these and more the subject of sarcastic thank you notes written by Jimmy Fallon and his crew of Late Night writers. I thought about three-fourths of them were funny, and about a dozen made me laugh out loud. I expected this collection to be better than that, but I still thought it was a fun, quick read.

Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters

by Chuang Tzu, translated by David Hinton
( 4th century BCE, this translation published in 1997 | 113 p)

"Long ago, a certain Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly -- a butterfly fluttering here and there on a whim, happy and carefree, knowing nothing of Chuang Tzu. Then all of a sudden he woke to find that he was, beyond all doubt, Chuang Tzu. Who knows if it was Chuang Tzu dreaming a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming Chuang Tzu?" -- Chapter 2, Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters

Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters is a collection of parables believed to have been written by the Taoist teacher Chuang Tzu during the 4th century BCE. This work, along with the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, is considered to be the framework over which the philosophy of Taoism developed.

Parables tend to be enigmatic at the best of times and this collection, written not only centuries but millennia ago, is no exception. This isn't a work to be read once and then put aside. These stories will send you off down a path you didn't intend to follow and then bring you back where you started, with the story itself. I found reading this overview of Chuang Tzu from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in conjunction with the text, to be very helpful.

This was my first time reading Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters and I still haven't tried the Outer Chapters or the Mixed Chapters. I'm sure I'll be coming back to these stories again, and probably coming away with something different each time.