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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Review: Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

Priyanka is teased by school (where she wants to just go by "Pri," which is easier and less easy to make fun of), her favorite uncle has had a new baby which makes her feel neglected, and her mother won't tell her anything about India, her father, or why she emigrated to America. Then, in an old suitcase in a closet, Pri finds a beautiful pashmina, which, when Pri wears it, seems to take her to India, where a peacock and an elephant show her around to all of the amazing and wondrous sights. Pri wins $500 in a comics contest and, frustrated by her mother's reluctance to tell her anything about herself, she insists upon going to India. At first her mother says no, but that same day Pri's aunt calls, and the two sister who haven't spoken in the 16 years since Pri's mother left, agree that Pri can go and stay with her aunt.

When Pri gets to India, she discovers the pashmina stops working for her. Also, India isn't quite as gorgeous and amazing as the images she'd seen--the elephant and peacock had left out the dirt, the poverty, and the lower classes. But Pri's aunt, who teaches school to the lowest caste of children, is game to show Pri the real India. They end up going on a quest to find the maker of the pashmina. Along the way, Pri learns a lot about herself. And she gains a real respect for her heritage, shown most simply when she says, upon her return, that she wants to go by Priyanka again.

The magic of the pashmina is an interesting vehicle to hang the story on, as it both incites Priyanka's real interest in India, and yet gives her a sanitized version of it, and it also seems to show other people their future—is that just a future, or is it the future? The illustrations are pretty much just two-tone except for the ones when the pashmina's magic is in full force. It has the effect of going to Oz and switching from black and white to color, but it also in a way felt like it diminished the everyday, real life of Pri and her family. I liked what the artist was going for there, but I wish somehow the everyday life had ended up more vibrant. That said, it's a wonderful and touching coming-of-age story, not just for the children of immigrants, although that's certainly something nearly everyone can identify with if you go back far enough (certainly in this country), but also just for the appreciation of different cultures and for our ancestors, no matter who we or they might be.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Book Review: Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast

I vividly remember my first trip to New York City as an adult, visiting my friend Mary. I remember her explaining the subway system to me, although I found it pretty intuitive and could quickly get around on my own, using just a tiny credit-card sized map I pilfered from a hotel room. I remember after I moved to New York, figuring out that Q buses go to Queens and M buses go to Manhattan, and figuring out that the street/avenue numbering system in Queens and Brooklyn is 90 degrees turned from Manhattan. When you figure these things out, a very daunting and frightening place like New York, quickly becomes manageable. So long as an address isn't way downtown where the streets have names, I can find it without a map. Ideally, you'd know the cross street, which is something locals know to ask, and which Roz Chast explains to her daughter in this book.

Ms. Chast wrote/drew this book for her daughter when she was preparing to go to college in Manhattan. Roz had grown up in Brooklyn and lived in Manhattan for many years, before moving to the Connecticut suburbs to raise her kids. Going to college is scary no matter where you're going. I went to a tiny town in North Carolina, and I was scared I wouldn't find my way around the campus and wouldn't be able to figure out a class schedule and all sorts of things like that. This book is one you certainly don't have to be a New Yorker to enjoy--most every big city has this moment. In April, I finally figured out the way the Metro in DC works. I'd ridden it at least a half a dozen times previously, and on that trip I nevertheless ended up going the wrong way once, and missing my stop another time, but I have figured it out! It's such a feeling of mastery, and you gain so much confidence with each nugget of knowledge gained about how to navigate our large and confusing world. Ms. Chast's unique illustration style goes perfectly with the frenetic and anxious city that she both loves and yet doesn't want to live in.

I got this book for free from the publisher, my employer, Macmillan.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Book Review: The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs by Janet Peery

I love contemporary family stories by the likes of Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley, and this book falls squarely in that arena. Its' the author's second novel, twenty-five years after her first one (which was a National Book Award finalist.) And it's a story most everyone can relate to (or if you can't, just look at your parents' lives, or just wait): adult children dealing with their aging parents. It's something I've seen my own parents deal with in the previous decade, which certainly has made me think about when that stage will come for me and my siblings. In fact, we've already more or less divvied up our parents in terms of who gets primary responsibility for each one. And that's not a terrible idea as five disparate siblings trying to agree on tactics in Ms. Peery's book, does not go well.

It doesn't help that all of the siblings are also dealing with their own issues, and most of them have an addiction problem or two (it does tend to run in families after all.) This family has a lot of the usual stereotypes: the one who went to college and escaped the midwest for Boston, the flamboyant gay one with AIDS, the troubled son who's been in and out of jail, and so on. We see the story from the different perspectives of these three of the five siblings, as well as from their mother's. We go through roughly a year, with medical, emotional, mental, physical, and financial troubles along the way. On the one hand, not a lot happens. On the other hand, it's a very accurate portrayal of real life, with flawed characters that can hit close to home.

I got this book for free from my work because it is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Book Review: The Hunting Accident: A True Story of Crime and Poetry by David Carlson, illustrations by Landis Blair

This reads like a memoir and it is nonfiction, but it took me a while to figure out how the authors were related to the story--The main character, Charlie, is a friend of the author's, and told him this crazy story about his father, and Mr. Carlson ran with it and did a lot of research to find out the truth behind it all.

Charlie's mother died and he had to move in with his father in Chicago. His grandmother had always told him is father was no good but, aside from being blind, his father actually seemed like a pretty good guy. It was a little time-consuming for Charlie to have to read to his father the types manuscripts of his stories for proofreading, but in all, so not bad, that Charlie started to wonder why his mother took him and left so suddenly, and why his grandmother hated his father so much. When Charlie gets into trouble after hanging out with some hoodlums, his father finally breaks down and tells him why he really wants Charlie to straighten up his life--he doesn't want Charlie to go through what he did, when he served several years in prison for armed robbery.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg of this story. When Matt, Charlie's Dad, went to prison as a newly-blind teenager, he had special housing. And the other prisoner at Statesville Prison in special housing, and therefore his cellmate, was Nathan Leopold. Of Leopold & Loeb. Of the murderers who tried to commit the perfect crime! (It was one of the many "crimes of the century" in the 20th century and worth looking up if you don't know about it. They explain enough that you don't need to know for reading the book, but it's still fascinating.) Leopold initially wasn't at all happy with having to babysit Matt, but eventually, he took it upon himself to educate Matt. By assigning him to read The Divine Comedy by Dante.

Are you still not intrigued? You are hopeless and I give up. For those of you who are intrigued, the illustrations really lend weight to the story, the stark pen and ink images giving a real sense of the bleakness of prison and also help with understanding Matt's blindness. It is a riveting story which I read in one day, and will stay with me for a while to come.

This book is published by First Second, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Book Review: Bored and Brilliant: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Spacing Out by Manoush Zomorodi

This book grew out of the podcast, "Notes to Self" from WNYC. T here are essentially two premises: we no longer allow ourselves to be bored which means we are losing our creativity, and a corollary of that, we need to be much more aware of how much we're using our electronic devices. Personally, I found the corollary more interesting than the main point.

Now, that might be because I don't work in a creative job myself (although it is very much creative-adjacent.) Although one crucial aspect of creativity for everyone includes creative problem-solving, which is harder when your brain has no time to rest,

I did find it fascinating that when I started reading this book, my sister commented that her job as a guard at the Cleveland Museum of Art actually is super-boring and that she and her fellow guards (most of whom are artists) all carry notepads because of the great ideas they get at work. (Two chapters after she mentioned this, museum guards were given as an example, in the book! Weird.)

In order to be more bored, we've got to put down our iPhones, laptops, and iPads. Of course, that's a heck of a lot harder to do than say. And Ms. Zomorodi has a series of tactics or exercises which can open your eyes about how much, how often, how long, and how unproductively our phone use might actually be. And knowledge is power as, after doing these exercises, pretty much everyone reduces their screen time (albeit, not by much.) She also points out the inherent irony of parents limiting their kids' screen time while playing Candy Crush all day themselves. The irony isn't the problem of course—it's the behavior modelling.

So if either of these are issues that concern you--the growing lack of creativity in our lives, or the ever-presence of electronic devices, this book is for you. It won't fix the problem, but awareness is the first step.

I got this book for free from the publisher, my employer, Macmillan.

Friday, September 1, 2017

My Month in Review: August

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

I note the non-Macmillan books in this post with a star.

I have crossed the 100 books mark! I've only done that a couple of times in my life and NEVER in August, always in December. So how high will I go? It's kind of daunting/scary to think about it. Who knew that I could read this many books? Granted, I am reading a lot of YA and Middle grade (and in fact, I'm even reading a lot of Early Readers and Picture books, but I'm not counting those in my number.) But I've always read some children's books. And the number of audiobooks (also already a new record) is additionally upping my overall number. I had a goal this season that between May-Aug I would read 75 books on my Winter 2018 list (and that number does include both picture books and early readers) and I DID IT!

Books completed this month:
Come Sundown by Nora Roberts
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer (audio) *
It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan by Tristan Donovan
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
Hazy Bloom and the Tomorrow Power by Jennifer Hamburg
The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (audio) *
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton
The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling (audio) *

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller *
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan (audio) *

What I acquired this month (non-work books): 
It's a little ironic that when I finally got a decent job, and when I spend half my working days in bookstores, I no longer need to buy books. Of course that's mostly because I no longer have time to read non-work books and I can get any book I want from the 5th largest publisher for free. But I think in a year or so I'll go back to supporting bookstores better.