Friday, December 28, 2012

How Music Works by David Byrne

How Music Works offers many answers to a question that I had never even asked. Now that I've read it I wonder, "How could I have gone so long without this information?" Musician and writer David Byrne crafts such an enticing collection of essays, dropping factoids and anecdotes along the way, that I was equally informed and entertained.

More of a blend of personal experience and hypothesis than a hard-line course in objective facts, Byrne tackles nearly every conceivable aspect of the art form: venues throughout history; the creative process; collaboration; recording; and business.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Wreckers by Iain Lawrence

The Wreckers by Iain Lawrence

I am not a fan of boats. Not big ones, not small ones. I'm not one to watch movies about boats. But I was in the mood for a good old-fashioned adventure story, and nothing but a novel of the high seas would suffice. I've been meaning to read this book ever since I started working at the library. The cover art reminds me of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Indeed, since the story is set in 1799, it could be a Stevenson novel. But it was the jacket copy that really sealed the deal.

There was once a village bred by evil. On the barren coast of Cornwall, England, lived a community who prayed for shipwrecks, a community who lured storm-tossed ships to crash upon the sharp rocks of their shore. They fed and clothed themselves with the loot salvaged from the wreckage; dead sailors' tools and trinkets became decorations for their homes. Most never questioned their murderous way of life.

Then, upon that pirates' shore crashed the ship The Isle of Skye. And the youngest of its crew members, 14-year-old John Spencer, survived the wreck. But would he escape the wreckers? This is his harrowing tale.
And what follows is indeed a harrowing tale, with all manner of buckles swashed.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Might Mars Rovers by Elizabeth Rusch

More than eight years before the Curiosity rover landed in Gale Crater, two rovers named Spirit and Opportunity landed on opposite sides of Mars. While previous NASA missions to Mars, such as the Viking landers, had carried scientific instruments, their capabilities were limited. To Steve Squyres, then a college student, it was obvious that the Viking landers were not the ideal way of studying the geology of Mars. True, valuable pictures and information had been collected, but so much more could be discovered—if only it could move around the planet and crush rocks or dig things up.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising to learn that Squyres had arrived at college considering a major in geology. An astronomy course taught by a member of the Viking science team inspired Squyres to study planetary science instead, with the dream of exploring Mars. Sending an actual person to Mars seemed impossible, but what about a robot, "a rolling geologist, with the hammers and drills and tools of a human geologist"?

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron

The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron, started yet another series I must follow through to the end. It's that good.

Within, we're introduced to a different kind of fantasy setting. One where magic is really just the control of, or better yet just the cooperation of, spirits that inhabit everything - from doors, to grains of sand, fire, water, birds, air currents, etc. A good wizard convinces these spirits to work for him or her and in return the spirits get energy from the wizard's soul. A corrupt wizard enslaves spirits to do his bidding, usually resulting in the death of the spirit.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Prince of Cats by Ronald Wimberly

Written and drawn by Ronald Wimberly, Prince of Cats is a singular book. A graphic novel retelling of Romeo and Juliet, it focuses on Tybalt, Juliet's hot-headed cousin, who's often referred to as the "Prince of Cats." While Wimberly updates the setting to a slightly-skewed version of today's America--young men wander the streets with swords, looking for fights--he retains the poetic speech and even the iambic pentameter of the original play.

Wimberly's work is heavily influenced by hip-hop and graffiti artists. The juxtaposition between the character's stately speech and their modern surroundings is jarring at first, but he draws interesting parallels between the bombast of hip-hop culture and the swagger of Shakespeare's violent young nobles. Discussing his language choices in an interview with Comics Alliance, Wimberly said, "One of the things I like about Shakespeare's work is how there's a narrative in his application of language as well as in the story of the characters. I chose to mix it up because the mix is what a large part of the process was about. I wanted the language to reflect what I was doing. I wanted Shakespeare's original work to come in like a sample."

Prince of Cats is a unique spin on a 400-year-old classic. This is certainly one of the most intriguing, captivating books I read this year.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart

Quick, as far as humans are concerned what's the world's most dangerous animal? Great white shark? Nope. Try the mosquito. The mosquito is incredibly good at spreading diseases (including, but hardly limited to, malaria) among bigger animals and can thus be held responsible for more deaths than any other.

If you pick up Amy Stewart's Wicked Bugs, you might expect to read a lot about the big nasty critters with pincers and stingers and venom. And she doesn't disappoint, describing such fearsome insects as the Asian giant hornet which has a potentially deadly sting that feels like a "hot nail" through your flesh. She covers some of the usual suspects, too, such as the trifecta of "killer" spiders (brown recluse, black widow, tarantula) none of which turn out to be all that scary. But Stewart also includes the far deadlier mosquito and any number of other disease-carrying creatures which wreak far greater havoc than even the fiercest creepy-crawly (which in my opinion is the giant centipede, a foot long and as much as an inch across).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Philip Larkin: So I look at others

Despite the considerable acclaim that attached to his work, English poet Philip Larkin remained always apart. Never the type of mythic figure in the public consciousness that Auden or Ginsburg became, throughout his career Larkin remained librarian at Hull University, eschewing trappings of fame. This feeling of distance and distrust is highlighted in his work, a sense of exclusion suggesting a slightly bafflement at the world. Though his work appeared primarily in the 1940s through the 70s, its concerns and voice remain vibrantly familiar and continue to have the spark of relevance.

In his poem “Money,” his poetic voice captures this outlook:

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Black Count, Bushman Lives, and A Wrinkle in Time

As it is the time of year people are thinking of gifts – and books make tremendous gifts – I've got a trio of titles that I've been suggesting lately that might just suit an otherwise tough-to-shop-for boy.

What if I were to suggest that the Alexandre Dumas classic The Count of Monte Cristo was partially based on a true story? Or if some of the swashbuckling in The Three Musketeers came from stories passed down father to son? And what if it turned out that much of the inspiration in Dumas' tales came from a mixed race general who fought alongside Napoleon but was despised because everyone assumed the striking black man charging ahead fearlessly on his horse he really was the one in charge?

I suppose you can guess the final question: What if I were to tell you that this striking historical figure was, in fact, Alexandre Dumas’ father? Author Tom Reiss’ delivers all this and so much more in The Black Count: Glory, Revollution, Betrayl, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, the biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. From his birth and brief experience with slavery in Haiti, to his Paris education where he learned to sword fight with aristocracy, to his rise in the French Revolutionary army, The Black Count is a biography that reads like an adventure novel. I’ll be honest, i don’t generally like biographies, but I love sweeping adventure stories and this one, steeped in Reiss’s well-sleuthed family history, feels both familiar and new at the same time.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

For some sections of our country, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have existed mostly as background noise, turning to signal only when something goes horribly wrong or spectacularly right for American military personnel. But I have taught mostly Native American and Latino students in New Mexico, and then mostly small-town white students in Iowa, both populations heavily represented in our nation’s military. Among these communities the noise is louder, the thrum is constant, but it still rarely forms a signal. Another hometown hero, another flag at half-mast. Another son or daughter returned in pieces, literally and figuratively. Another soldier and another military family trying to return to something like normal. History may not repeat itself, but it echoes, and our most recent wars echo through the fractured minds of too many young men and women in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For all of these soldiers, and for all those who love them, for all of my former students who have been forever changed, positively and negatively, by their military experiences, I wish I could put a copy of Trish Doller’s Something Like Normal in your hands.

Friday, December 7, 2012


This novel says "Dream Sequence" all over it. I loved the outright wish-fulfillment bits of this novel. I mean, this guy goes from being a nobody to being a hero -- from fairly weak to strong and studly. I can say that without giving away spoilers because the boy's just like it says on the package: a monster hunter.

This novel manages to be both bildungsroman and buddy tale. It has a strong male figure in the form of an uncle, it's got a bit of flag-waving, but in an acceptable way, and it's all about Mom's Apple Pie, Saving the World, and Taking Care of Business. And Monsters. A fast-paced, self-pubbed action novel with funny asides that the 12+ crowd will really enjoy - even those who might not really love reading.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Super Cool Graphic Novels

This year, I was lucky to be chosen as a first round graphic novel panelist for the 2012 Cybils Awards. This is cool for a lot of reasons, but the main reason I'm thrilled to take part in this is because I'm actually not super into graphic novels. I think like a lot of people unfamiliar with the medium, I assumed that graphic novels were for comic book geeks who were into super heroes. While there are certainly lots of those types of stories, what I've learned since I read my first graphic novel in 2009 (I read two that year) is that within the medium of the graphic novel you can find any type of story you want. This year I've read about sixty graphic novels (so far!) and I'd like to share some of the coolest.

I'm grouping these roughly by the age of kid I would recommend these books for, but of course, I trust you know your own patrons/students/children and can match books accordingly.

2nd-4th grades
The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Evil Penguin Plan by Maxwell Eaton
Back in the day, I was a fan of two silly cartoon beavers named Norbert and Daggett, and Eaton's Beaver Brothers Ace and Bub remind me of them. I like the wonky humor and the puns. These books aren't terribly sophisticated but neither are they so mind-numbingly inane that a grown up helping a new reader won't go super crazy reading along. It doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but I find Ace and Bub and their friends rather charming.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Under Wildwood by Colin Meloy

It was probably inevitable that Colin Meloy would write a fantasy novel.

The frontman of The Decemberists actually had a bit of a pedigree coming in to the release of his first novel last year: in addition to the highly acclaimed fiction writer Maile Meloy for a big sister, he’s also got an undergraduate degree in creative writing and had contributed an entry to the 33⅓ series (on Let It Be by The Replacements).  Plus there were all the lengthy story songs he’d written for the band, like “The Crane Wife” (based on a Japanese folktale) and “The Island” (an eleven-minute encapsulation of The Tempest).  Oh, and that epic, album-length rock opera The Hazards of Love, which is screaming to be staged.  (And if Wikipedia is to believed, it has been, albeit in small production in Montreal.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

This Sentence is Lying to You

Perhaps the nerdiest thing about me -- and it's a competitive field -- is that I love books about mathematics, especially stuff on number theory, infinity or the lives of famous mathematicians. On the other hand, missing from my list of nerd traits is a love of graphic novels. Not that I have anything against them, I just mostly haven't been able to get into them. In fact, I want to love graphic novels, so when I heard that there was a graphic novel about math, I thought "Here's my in."

The title of this post is one of my favorite paradoxes. If it's true then it has to be false, and if it's false than it has to be true. And it's not just a joke, but a serious conundrum that if taken too an extreme threatens to undermine the functions of language. Logicomix is a graphic novel that tells the story of a man who tried to deal with such paradoxes. Primarily a biography of Bertrand Russell, an English mathematician, logician and philosopher who tried to bring the rigor of mathematics to the arena of logic, Logicomix relates his quest to develop a universal and consistent language of logic. This quest would lead ultimately to the technologies of computing that have so radically changed our world over the last several decades. But it was hardly a straight-line path. In fact, many of the minds that contributed to the discussion were destroyed by it, driven to insanity (or perhaps driven to logic by insanity). Whether logic is intimately connected to madness is one of the central themes of the book.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Tunnels Series by Roderick Gordon & Brian Williams

One of my favorite books as a kid was the Great Illustrated Classics edition of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth; something about the thought that you could delve deep into the earth and discover trees and an ocean and giant dinosaurs (despite this being completely impossible) was fascinating. Even now, going to a cave system (and being a Kentuckian, there are a lot of them nearby) fills me with glee that I am beneath the surface of Earth. Clearly Roderick Gordon & Brian Williams' Tunnels series is tapping deep into this spelunking nerve, taking the "hollow Earth" concept and expanding it into a massive and complex alternate reality.