Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt

The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt: After graduating from high school, Boaz Katznelson joined the Marines. Two years later, he comes home - and he's not the same person he was when he left. Once, he was his little brother's idol and the star of his school; now, he's distant, a shadow of his former self. He refuses to travel in cars or talk about his experiences.

Levi, Bo's younger brother, is determined to find out what happened. There are those who may say they'd be willing to follow their loved ones to the ends of the Earth, but not everyone would actually do that. Levi would. It is from Levi's point of view that this story is told, as he joins his older brother on a walk that will take them far from home -- and closer to the truth.

This is the story of an Israeli-American family, of any American family with brothers, of soldiers and the civilians who love and support them, of broken heroes, of survivor's guilt, and of heritage. The Things a Brother Knows is not about whether or not we should be in this war we're in; it never encourages nor discourages readers to enlist. Instead of preaching or teaching about politics, Dana Reinhardt's powerful story discusses how and why we connect with others, and illustrates an unbreakable bond between two brothers who are striving to know each other - and themselves - better.

I recently updated the author's website at - Drop by to say hello to Dana and learn more about her other novels.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Batman... Scarecrow... does anything more need to be said?

Some guys are Jokers fans. Most, I suspect are Catwoman aficionados of course. There might even be a few who like that Ventriloquist fellow. Me, I love tales when my favorite superhero faces off against Prof. Jonathan Crane AKA the Scarecrow. And when I found this novel--Batman: Fear Itself--my heart shrieked with joy.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

Another day of fast food drudgery is almost at an end when a stranger walks into Plumpy's. Okay, so Plumpy's is a fast food restaurant and lots of strangers walk in. But even college dropout fast food workers like Sam can recognize that there's something different about this guy. And it's not just his shoes (way more expensive than those of your typical Plumpy's customer) or the weird things the guy is saying (petitioned the Council? What Council?).

Turns out the guy is Douglas Montgomery, the scariest, most powerful necromancer in the Seattle area. Though Sam didn't know it, he's got some necromantic powers of his own. Unfortunately for Sam, Montgomery does not want any competition in the necromancy business (and it is a business—just ask the zoo), no matter how weak the competition may be. Now, even though he'd previously had no idea necromancers actually existed, Sam has only one week to figure out how to avoid Montgomery's clutches or Montgomery will kill Sam, his friends, and his family.

Friday, December 24, 2010

It's Never Too Early for a Life of Poverty and Loneliness: Three Good Writing Books

The biggest regret I have about my writing career -- so far, at least -- is that I started so late.

Of course I wrote little stories to read to my fourth grade class and performed puppet shows for my family and composed epic poems to woo girls at school, but I didn't sit down to write a real story with a beginning, middle, and end until my late teens. I didn't sell one until my twenties. I didn't sell a good one until my thirties.

Writing, like playing an instrument, benefits from daily practice and application...and it withers with every skipped day. You never quite lose it forever, thank God, but for every day you're away from the page, you'll probably have three or four of struggling to get your voice back and your neuroses subdued. There's a momentum required in writing, partly of confidence and partly of imagination.

The earlier you start that momentum, the better.

For years, I read and thought and talked about writing far more than doing it, and if there's one thing I can suggest to young readers who want to be writers, it would be to start writing immediately. Today. Even if it's a journal entry, a poem, a little story about someone you know, anything. And you do that every day, letting it seep into your skin and become natural.

That's really the key.

I could have learned that sooner if I'd read these three important books on writing when I was young.

Stephen King's On Writing is essential, really. Not only does King summarize the important mechanics of writing in only a few pages, he tells stories from his life of how he learned what he knows. He reminds us that writing is a process as much as a result.

Writers live a little differently than other folks, cultivating perception and commitment as they do, and King's anecdotes are instructive about just what it is going to take to do this right. Your path will be different, of course, and you'll make your own choices and mistakes. But following King's candid discussions of his career can remind you of how someone else made it through the treacherous forest...and believe me, you'll need that comfort more than a few times.

If I'd read The Modern Library Writers Workshop by Stephen Koch much sooner, I'd have saved a lot of money on writing books and a lot of time blundering around. In fact, if I had to settle for a single book on the craft, this would be it. Everything you need is here, written clearly and affirmatively. From beginning to end, from idea to completion, this book covers the essentials of writing publishable fiction (and non-fiction, come to think of it).

By quoting the masters and offering his own experience as a teacher, Koch approaches the subject with directness but also kindness; he tells you everything that can and will go wrong, but he reminds you that you're up to it. "You have no choice but to be wholly clueless of the perfect manner to tell a story until you do," he says.

Koch's advice is not so much about getting it right the first time but about refusing to quit until it is right.

His very first line is some of his best advice: "The only way to begin is to begin, and begin right now."

Not long ago, I'd have thought Heather Sellers's Chapter After Chapter was too dreamy and motivational to recommend to the serious writer. If you're serious, you shouldn't need to be told why you want to write, should you? Lately, though, I've come to discover that no serious writer should be without it.

In years of writing education, workshops, critique circles, and reviews, I have to say that the biggest failing I see in fiction tends to be a lack of feeling. We have ten thousand books about faking the structure and mechanics of a good story, but without something emotionally important to you behind it all, they fall flat. Sellers provides advice and inspiration for pursuing the work that is important to you one good sentence and one good chapter (or story) at a time.

"Writing is hard," she writes. "It takes so much willingness to be bad at something. It’s not fun to suck. And, if you are to write, suck you must." In Chapter After Chapter, she provides some of the intellectual tools you'll need to face that ambivalence, anxiety, and instability that comes in the early versions of all great things.
It's well worth reading and taking to heart.

As for grammar and structure and all of the things you should be learning in English class, my suggestion is to read, read, and read some more -- noticing what good fiction looks and sounds like.

Luckily for you, there's always Guys Lit Wire to help you find it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

TYRELL by Coe Booth

Name a young adult book with a main character that is homeless.

Still working on that?

Yes, that is a very short list indeed.

It is very good to know then, that we have Coe Booth’s Tyrell. With his dad in prison for selling drugs, 15 year-old Tyrell, his mom, and his seven year-old brother, Troy, lose their apartment and are forced to a homeless shelter. But with the shelter full, they are sent to a roach-infested motel room. Desperate to get his family into a new apartment, Tyrell comes up with a plan to make some quick money. Not wanting to follow his father’s footsteps – and repeatedly refusing to bow to his mom’s pressure to do exactly that and sell drugs to make the family some money – Tyrell’s plan is to host a big party. While the party is basically legal, he needs the help of other men in the ‘hood who make their living illegally.

The real power of this terrific and important book is a glimpse into American society that very few of us who were raised in the suburbs (like me) ever experience or see from the inside. Sure, I live in Chicago and drive through neighborhoods like Tyrell’s, and have done work inside schools in those neighborhoods. But I leave. Tyrell stays. And with Tyrell, Coe Booth has created a complete character whose frustrations leap off the page.

One of the fascinating aspects of the story is the gender relationships. Tyrell has a girlfriend, Novisha, but as the book opens he meets another girl, Jasmine, who is staying at the same motel. While he keeps saying he’s staying faithful to Novisha, he’s also sleeping with Jasmine and justifies it by saying they’re not having sex. Is it fair to call Tyrell sexist? Maybe. But most of girls and women in the story have their own issues when it comes to men. Tyrell’s mom refuses to work and relies on the men in her life – first her husband and then Tyrell – to support the family.

Is Tyrell a good guy stuck in a broken society? Or is he more a bad guy perpetuating a broken society? He’s dropped out of school and seems lost. But looking around his life, he sees little hope, just like the Tyrells all over our country, from the big cities to the dying rural towns. There are no simple answers in Tyrell; the characters and issues are complex, just like they are in life. I recently read and reviewed John Barnes’s outstanding YA novel, Tales of the Madman Underground. These stories take place in different times and widely different settings, but they have much in common. People adrift in our communities, dealing with abuse and neglect and poverty, struggling to survive. This book also reminded me of Nicole LeBlanc’s brilliant and devastating work of non-fiction, Random Family.

Tyrell is really a different kind of coming-of-age story. Slowly, as he weaves his way through the literal and metaphorical web of life in urban America, Tyrell confronts the notion that sometimes family does not come first. Maybe his first priority is to that kid in the mirror.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Graphic Novels -- notes from a Top 10 List

In addition to the prose and ruminations I contribute here in monthly installments, as some of you know I also review graphic novels for SF Site, in the Nexus Graphica column.

I share that column with Austin-based writer/editor Rick Klaw, and as is our custom, we close out the year with a "Top Ten" list, each of us devising our ten favorites among the things we've read and written about (with the acknowledgement that you could spend the year reading, or coming across, other books, and have an entirely different, and equally worthwhile, Top Ten list as well).

The list runs in two parts -- two weeks apart -- in its original form, but here is a redaction of finalists of piqued-interest to GLW readers, all of which were plucked from the top five of the top ten:

In the fifth spot, Rick liked DC Comics' superhero collection, Wednesday Comics, edited by Mark Chiarello, writing that "throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s, adventure strips dominated the Sunday newspaper comics pages. Oversized, full color pages featured the thrilling tales of Prince Valiant, Tarzan,Flash Gordon, and countless others. Under the guidance of DC art director Mark Chiarello, Wednesday Comics successfully re-captured this lost era with a series of oversized weeklies à la the Sunday funnies (dubbed Wednesday rather than Sunday in honor of the day new comics arrive in stores). This beautiful 11"x17" 200-page hardcover volume collects all the tales from the incredible 12-week run. While each featured A-list talent, some stories work better than others. Jack Kirby's creation Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth (expertly rendered by writer Dave Gibbons and artist Ryan Sook); Paul Pope's unique take on Adam Strange; and especially Hawkman as delightfully envisioned by Kyle Baker lovingly embracing the format and lessons of their antecedents. Other excellent tales excel under the contributions of Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso, Kurt Busiek, Joe Quiñones, Karl Kerschi, Brenden Fletcher, Walt Simonson and Brian Stelfreeze. Regardless of the story, one mood permeates the entire volume: fun. Combine all this with previously unpublished strips starring Plastic Man and Creeper, original sketches, and Chiarello's impressive book design, and Wednesday Comics quickly emerges as must-experience for all classic comic book fans."

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Crack in the Sky by Mark Peter Hughes

In the near future the earth is falling apart. Due to the unwillingness of humans to deal with the warming climate the polar icecaps are melted, the oceans are ruined and cities like Los Angeles and New York are destroyed. To save themselves, humans have created domed cities to keep their standard of living while the storms rage in the Outside.

The hero of the country is Eli Papadopoulos' Grandfather. Grandfather, as he is known to the world, devised the domes and the carefully crafted world within them. Without the domes, many would have died and the survivors would have nowhere safe to wait while the earth recovers.

As part of the Papadopoulos family, Eli is expected to do well in his school work, and then join the family business of running InfiniCorp, the company that provides and oversees everything in the domed cities. Eli, though, thinks the strange things he is seeing must mean that the domes are falling apart and something is really wrong. In A Crack in the Sky, the future could be determined by the decisions of 13-year old Eli.

Eli's family assures him everything is okay, but he starts to meet with a dangerous group called, The Friends of Gustavo, who believe the earth is still getting worse and that InfiniCorp cannot provide safety for much longer.

This really is a grand adventure as Eli struggles to believe that his grandfather and his family might be part of a devious plan to keep people from realizing what is happening or even thinking for themselves. Hughes, the author of the very good Lemonade Mouth, has written a wonderful post-apocalyptic adventure. I'm assuming, and hoping, that there are more of these to come. Fans of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies or Claire Dunkle's The Sky Inside will enjoy A Crack in the Sky.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Here's What I Want

A lot of years ago, someone asked me what I was asking for for Christmas, and I said, "All I want is books. Just books." Let's just say, not much has changed since then, even in spite of sagging bookshelves. Books. If I get "just books," I'll be content. So I thought I'd share a bunch of titles that will make it onto my wish list this year. Maybe they'll make it onto yours.

by Sharon Dogar is a companion text to Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. Dogar imagines the story that Peter van Pels, one of Anne's companions in the secret annex, might have told.

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares brings together Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist fame, with another quirky, dual-voiced narrative. I love the sound of this premise. Lily leaves a notebook full of dares on a bookstore shelf, hoping that the right guy will find it and rise to her challenges. This starts an adventure all over the Big Apple. Plus some romance. Plus no doubt plenty of uber-clever dialogue.

Zombies vs. Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Labalestier, brings together many of the coolest kids in the YA author club, including Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Maureen Johnson, Meg Cabot, and Scott Westerfeld. It's full of stories, some about unicorns and some about, you guessed it... zombies. The idea is that by the end, readers will be ready to choose a team. Unicorn or zombie? Sounds like a fun trip.

You'll have to wait for January for this one (maybe for the New Year's Wish List?). The Big Crunch sounds like a love story that isn't super sappy. Guy meets girl. They're not perfect or perfect-looking but they find each other and fall for each other, but they don't believe in soul mates, or swoony love. It's by Pete Hautman, and he knows what he's doing. It sounds like it would make a good indie movie. Every new year should start with a love story, right?

Whatever's on your wish list this year, I hope you get in some good reading this holiday.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hidden Finds: Westerns

I’m so excited to see True Grit coming back to the big screen, especially as envisioned by the Coen brothers. Not because I think the movie will be good, which I do, or because I think the Coens will be able to capture what makes the book great, which I don’t, but because it brings renewed attention to one of the most underappreciated writers around, Charles Portis, and the literary possibilities of the western in general. True Grit is a fantastic book, dominated by the voice of its narrator, the elderly spinster Mattie Ross as she recounts her quest as a fourteen year old to enact retribution on her father’s killer.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Interview with Scott Oden

Scott Oden is a bestselling author of swashbuckling historical fantasy, including his latest, Lion of Cairo. I recently got to ask him about Lion, history, and advice for young writers.

Q: What do you want to tell us about Lion of Cairo?

The Lion of Cairo is an adventure story, part fantasy and part historical, set during the turbulent years between the Second and Third Crusades . . . roughly 1170 AD. Its cast of characters includes shadowy assassins, seductive courtesans, wily thieves, barbarian Turks, a foul necromancer, and a fierce hero who is “known from Seville to Samarkand as the Emir of the Knife”.

It’s a little dark, a little grim, but filled with rousing battle scenes and moments of daring—perfect for a story which takes its cues from Robert E. Howard and the Arabian Nights.

POETRY ROCKS! Modern American Poetry "Echoes & Shadows"

Sheila Griffin Llanas has written a great resource for modern teens interested in poetry and, more particularly, in its history with POETRY ROCKS! Modern American Poetry "Echoes & Shadows". The book contains information about twelve great American poets, beginning with Robert Frost and concluding with Langston Hughes. The poets are arranged in birth order, and each chapter begins with their biography (in brief), then provides sample poems - the first of which is accompanied by a summary and explanation. The themes and poetic techniques used by each poet are discussed, as well as their critical reception. Additionally, there's a bibliography.

The manner in which poems are discussed is conversational, staying away from too much jargon and explaining any technical terms as they arise. The poets included in this particular volume are:

Robert Frost
Carl Sandburg
Wallace Stevens
William Carlos Williams
Ezra Pound
H.D. (Hilda Dolittle)
Marianne Moore
T.S. Eliot
Edna St. Vincent Millay
E.E. Cummings
Louise Bogan
Langston Hughes

This book is probably not the sort of thing most teens will want to own themselves, but to my way of thinking, it should be a must-buy for libraries and writing programs because of how it deals with the history of modern poetry and the lives and work of the included poets.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Aikido Kid

I don’t know of any kid who at some time before they traded in their comic book collection for rent money didn’t want to grow up and be some kind of hero. A super hero, an action hero, a kung fu hero. And of course, we all got into debates about whether or not our heroes could exist in the real world. I remember a buddy of mine reasoned that Batman might be able to exist if he was three people: a professional engineer and inventor and computer guru, a trained forensics expert, and a life-time-dedicated martial arts freak. You couldn’t be all three. Each would require a lifetime of focus to be as good as the Batman was. So, if you had to pick one, which would it be?

I was thinking about this question when I devoured Robert Twigger’s memoir of becoming an Aikido expert, ANGRY WHITE PAJAMAS. Twigger was a young poet and rambling soul who ended up in Japan, teaching English, and basically being alive without too much thought as to how to live. But when his roommates decide to take up with the world famous Akido school that teaches the Japanese Riot Squad how to kick ass, Twigger signs himself up and dedicates his life to the eleven month agony and ecstasy of martial training.

Brutal would be putting it mildly. Twigger and his mates endure endless sessions of painful exercises, demonstrations, and forms. Some of the sessions are so brutal students pass out, puke, or worse. Relentless forms are practiced, flips performed, strikes unleashed. They’d lose gallons of sweat, drink three large Pepsi bottles of water to replenish, and not have to pee once! Some students fell by the way side, from injury or exhaustion, and were treated as ghosts who didn’t deserve to haunt the school. But Twigger held on to the end by the skin of his teeth, learning to show the guts required to endure the endless strains, wounds, and injuries he’d accumulated, hopefully demonstrating that he had the “Spirit that conquerors imaginary ghosts.”

Along the way, Twigger gives us the alien eye on Japanese culture, the politics of the teaching world, and his attempts at romance that are sometimes as comical as the screw ups at the academy. We’re introduced to all the strange domestic and foreign die hards, from loud mouths and tough guys to geeks and freaks and loners, who soon realize that completing the course means surviving as much as learning. This is not the karate class you get at the YMCA with old grannies and kids with ADD. Students get hurt, for real, and a lot. A fight on the real streets could mean death, the teachers expect you to treat every fight as if it could be your last one. No weakness, no remorse. The teachers are tough and often colder than an ice pick to the skull. They don’t care if you get hurt, and only the severest injuries are an excuse to not show up. The life of the students is nasty, brutish, and, for many of them, short.

Twigger’s journey is filled with colorful characters, crippling training sequences, and a crazy lesson on finding one’s identity in the most unlikely of places. If you like the Karate Kid with an extra dose of brutality that would make Mr. Mygagi shake his head, then check out ANGRY WHITE PAJAMAS. It might help you decide which route to heroism is for you .

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Pharaoh's Secret

In retrospect, some of the most influential books I read as a teenage guy were about young women. Specifically, they were books about strong, smart, independent young women. A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg Murray, The Golden Compass’s Lyra, and The Westing Game’s Turtle all grabbed my attention as protagonists who took hold of their situations, while causing me to examine the unique perspective their authors allowed them to provide as female characters. Most of all, though, they were cool. They made me excited to read and follow their adventures. They faced questions that made me think about the world. And they led to me search out these qualities in friends. The brilliant and interesting women I am friends with today, I know, in a roundabout way, because of the fictional young women I met when younger. With Talibah’s adventures through Egypt and its history in The Pharaoh’s Secret, Marissa Moss adds another character to this tradition.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

His Mom Saw No Promise in Him

I'm a big fan of Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens. I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer several times, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn three or so times. When I became a fan of Finnegans Wake, I discovered James Joyce expressing appreciation of Twain's work in that book.

I'm also a fan of Sid Fleischman. Our kids enjoyed his McBroom stories that we read to them. Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini is an excellent biography. So I was pretty sure I'd like The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West.

I was right.

Now if you haven't read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, I'd say wait. Don't read the biography until you've read at least one of those.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Arnold Murphy’s Bologna Dare

There is no phrase that jolts my skeptical meter into the red faster than "laugh-out-loud funny." When a movie is described this way its almost guaranteed not to make me laugh, but it's worse when this line is used in books because it's so rare that I laugh out loud even when something is truly funny.  For something to be funny enough that I laugh out loud while reading it I have to be caught off guard, I have to not see the joke coming.

I actually found myself laughing out loud more than a couple times while reading Beat the Band, Don Calame's follow-up to last year's Swim the Fly.

As part of a semester-long project in Health class, Cooper is paired up with the notorious "Hot Dog" Helen which instantly lowers his cool cred at school. Worse, their topic is on contraceptives and STDs.  Coop's brilliant solution: enter the school's Battle of the Bands competition so he can rock his way back to cool and bury his lowered social standing. Problem: he hasn't told his buddies he's entered them into the competition, never mind that none of them can play an instrument.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Luke Cage Noir: The Power Man returns in style

I was an avid comics reader when I was a kid, though my loyalties went to DC and its stand-alone issues more than Marvel's serializations that jumped titles with no warning. Still, I kept up with Marvel just to be on the safe side, so I remember the original incarnation of "Luke Cage, Power Man." Created by Archie Goodwin, he was a blaxploitation figure dropped among Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc. as (it seemed to me) a pandering attempt to stay "hip." I had no particular beef with the character, he just always seemed to jar against the rest of the Marvel universe: his services were for sale, he wore no mask, and even used his own name. His exaggerated "street language" only added to that.

Which is why this particular reboot, Luke Cage Noir--part of Marvel's "Noir" series that places its heroes in pulp settings--seems to me a much better use of a character who broke ground without necessarily being handled well. Instead of working to fit him into an existing universe, writers Mike Benson and Adam Glass create an appropriate place for him: Prohibition-era Harlem.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Brain Jack -- Brian Falkner

When this book came in the mail, I remember pulling it out of its wrapper and saying, "Well, that's awfully... shiny" before setting it aside. And then I forgot about it until it was nominated for the Cybils.

When I finally picked it up, I was hooked from page one. Brain Jack begins:

On Friday, on his way to school, Sam Wilson brought the United States of America to its knees.

He didn't mean to. He was actually just trying to score a new computer and some other cool stuff, and in any case, the words "to its knees" were the New York Times', not his--and were way over the top, in Sam's view. Not as bad, though, as the Washington Post's. Their headline writers must have been on a coffee binge, because they screamed

National Disaster

in size-40 type when their presses finally came back online.

Anyway, it was only for a few days, and it really wasn't a disaster at all. At least not compared to what was still to come.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Freefall by Mindi Scott

Freefall by Mindi Scott
"Seth McCoy was the last person to see his best friend, Isaac, alive, and the first to find him dead. It was just another night, just another party, just another time when Isaac drank too much and passed out on the lawn. Only this time, Isaac didn't wake up.

Convinced that his own actions led to his friend's death, Seth is torn between turning his life around . . . or losing himself completely.

Then he meets Rosetta: so beautiful and so different from everything and everyone he's ever known. But Rosetta has secrets of her own, and Seth soon realizes he isn't the only one who needs saving . . ."- summary from Amazon

I really enjoyed this book. It was just executed so well and had so many different layers to it and it was just awesome. Seth did get on my nerves sometimes for being mopey, but for the most part, it all made sense. His best friend Isaac had died fairly recently, just like two months before the book started, so he does have a reason. I do also get his anger at others. He's a good protagonist with some glaring flaws but you can't help but feel for him.

I want to go on the record and say that I hate Carr and wanted a bunch of people to just beat him up. I knew he was trouble from the beginning. It was funny though because just the other day, I was complaining about how I feel so powerless when it comes to evil people winning and not being reprimanded. Then I read this book and everything turns out awesome; that's why I love books, they're so much better than real life.

The romance in the book is handled really well. Seth and Rosetta's interactions are realistic and so is their journey toward being together. Also, when they first realize that the other does like them in that way, it's the cutest scene ever. Those two are adorable. Also, funny. I loved them joking around. Kendall was a wonderful character too and I really enjoyed her when she was in the book.

Overall, a really wonderful, well-written debut and is definitely a book to check out.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

It's almost a week since Thanksgiving, and the early Pilgrims are still on my mind. That's particularly amazing, given America's collective tendency to enjoy the one day off before rushing into the hellish pit of consumerism that is Black Friday. Who are we, awash in food and material goods, in relation to this ragged group of settlers? How can we understand the hardships they faced when we cannot even give thanks before rushing to pitch a tent in front of Best Buy?

Fortunately, authors such as Sarah Vowell are interested in pursuing these sorts of questions, and she does so with great aplomb in The Wordy Shipmates. Trying to describe the book is difficult, as it is an amalgam: part history, part biography, part commentary, part editorial, part get the idea. Vowell has opinions, and is certainly not hesitant about sharing them. You may not agree with her comparisons of the Massachusetts Bay Colony founders to modern political and religious movements, but you'll never be bored and you'll always be kept thinking.

Vowell takes as her main subject John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the creator of the famous "city on a hill" phrase. Winthrop is not an easy subject, and fortunately Vowell does not take the easy road of mythologizing him in her work. Instead, his faults and foibles are laid bare along with the rationale for his decisions which, by our modern estimation, might seem at the least harsh and at the worst tyrannical. In other words, she presents the complicated picture of a man who lived in even more complicated times.

If you're unfamiliar with Vowell's writing style, you're in for a treat. It's casual and never pedantic. This is not a lecture delivered by a stodgy history professor. She doesn't mind mingling the past with the present, so there are frequent allusions to events throughout pop culture, some more apt than others, but all work to make the book more engaging. This so-called "armchair history" is just the sort of narrative that can engage those who cannot identify with people who seem so distant, so far removed from themselves. It is a light form of history text, to be sure, but it's also the kind of work that can reconnect us to our country's origins without the "fair and balanced" spin of those wishing to co-opt the political history of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to finish off that last remaining turkey before it gives in to salmonella....