On Being a Book Guru

It’s a pretty cool status to have. Also, not that hard to earn if you read a lot.

Case in point:

Last week at work my fellow clerk, “Lorelai,” was on desk with me. She was checking in a bunch of Mo Willem’s picture books.

Not that I do, but if I was going to have a crush on an author, Mo Willems would likely be a contender because he’s really awesome. So I try to read all of his books (not hard since they are all picture books and, therefore, brief).

As Lorelai continued to check in books I regaled her with a running commentary on the books.  Edwina, the Dinosaur That Didn’t Know She Was Extinct is quite funny. So are the Elephant and Piggie books. However, my current favorite from Willems’ ouvre is Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed because it’s just kind of brilliant.

Anyway, after suffering through my opinions, Lorelai turned to me and said, “You’re like a book guru.”

Amused and flattered, I said, “I try.”

“Well, I think yuo’ve succeeded,” was her response.

Jellicoe Road: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Jellicoe Road by Melina MarchettaMelina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road* (2008**) won the 2009 Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature. Find it on Bookshop.

Jellicoe Road is not a novel with one protagonist. Rather, it is one with many. The story starts on the Jellicoe Road with a tragic accident that will have far reaching repercussions for each character in the novel. Then, abruptly, the story starts again twenty-two years later at the Jellicoe School–the boarding school located farther down the same road–when Taylor Markham is chosen to lead the school’s faction in a secret territory war that has spanned a generation between the school boarders, the Townies, and the Cadets.

The Jellicoe School is the only real home Taylor has ever known. She has been at the school since she was eleven, when her mother abandoned her on Jellicoe Road and Hannah drove by to pick Taylor up and take her to the school. Now seventeen, Taylor is in many ways still a young girl afraid of being abandoned by those she loves. Which is why, at the start of the story, Taylor balks at the authority thrust upon her and the relationships it will necessitate. Leading the Jellicoe School through the territory wars is bad enough, but being in charge of an entire dorm of students seems truly unbearable. Taylor’s resolve to live a life apart is tested, and in many ways broken, with the efforts of well-meaning friends and the appearance of Jonah Griggs–the one person Taylor never expected to see, or need, ever again.

As the territory wars escalate, Taylor’s life is thrown into disarray with the sudden disappearance of Hannah–the only adult Taylor would come close to calling family. With Hannah gone, Taylor begins reading Hannah’s unfinished novel for lack of anything else to cling to. Marchetta weaves Taylor’s story and the events of Hannah’s novel and even the histories of other characters together to create one haunting narrative where, the more Taylor reads, the more it feels like she is looking not at fictitious characters but at people she has known her entire life.

While trying to understand Hannah’s sudden absence, Taylor also starts to understand herself. Eventually she realizes that living life at a distance offers no protection from abandonment and provides even fewer options to heal scars from past betrayals.

The novel starts with rapid fire narration as Taylor throws out events and names at the reader without any frame of reference. Later in the story the importance of the Cadet, the Hermit, and the Brigadier becomes painfully obvious. But in the first pages the narrative comes closer to painfully confusing and unwieldy. By the end of my reading I had a marker at almost every page to indicated important points and favorite passages. However, if you can roll with the uncertainty, you will be rewarded. At a little over four hundred pages, Marchetta still creates a page-turner that moves quickly and weaves together every single narrative thread by the final page.

Because Taylor is not forthcoming with explanations, the novel reads like a mystery (fitting since my two Printz Award predictions were also mysteries of sorts). However a good portion of the story is also simply about friendship and love. Taylor expects neither from her time on the Jellicoe Road even though they might be exactly what she was supposed to find there all along. Marchetta blends moments of humor and gravitas in her unique prose style to create another really great read.

* Jellicoe Road was actually originally published, I assume in Marchetta’s native Australia, with the title On the Jellicoe Road. For various reasons, upon finishing the novel, I feel that this title is superior to the American edition’s shortened version.

** The book was originally published, again I assume in Australia, in 2006.

Possible Pairings: What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, Heist Society by Ally Carter, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Paper Towns by John Green, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Wessex Papers by Daniel Parker, Past Perfect by Leila Sales, The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

BEDA, where did the time go?

It’s hard to believe but in three days, BEDA will be over because April will be over. So, since I have content for the next two days planned out, today seemed like a good time to look back and reflect. I first joined the BEDA insanity because it seemed like fun and I wanted to give it a try. Even as a pretty steady blogger, it was hard to stay on top of the constant daily deadlines, but it was also satisfying to persevere. My other, lesser known, motivation to join BEDA was to get all of the older planned content up on the blog and out of my head/queue. This goal was also accomplished.

It’s been a crazy month going by in starts and stops but mostly feeling way too long for my liking. For various reasons, I’ll be happy to part ways with April 2009 because I think I deserve better and I hope that things will soon get better.

But that isn’t the important thing. The important thing is that BEDA is almost over and almost complete. And no matter what else April may have brought my way, no one can take that away from me.

“How many minutes do we have?”

Enter Little Girl (possibly five years of age) and her father:

Little Girl: “How many minutes do we have?”

Miss Print: “What do you mean?”

LG: “How many minutes do we have?”

Miss Print: “Until the library closes?”

LG: *nods*

Miss Print does some quick calculations. (It was approximately 6:15 and the library closed at eight that evening.)

Miss Print: “You have one hundred and five minutes.”

LG: “That’s a lot.”

Miss Print: “Yup. You’re probably covered.”

LG: “What does covered mean?”

Miss Print: “It means you’re safe. You have plenty of time.”

I would later learn that I also impressed two coworkers with my crazy time telling skills. *bows humbly*

Method #354 to identify a good BFF

While discussing a Star Trek book staff pick with “The Bear” . . .

Miss Print: “What is the name of the Star Trek Species with the really big ears?” (They are all money-crazed and usually traders/entrepreneurs.)

Bear: “Ferengi?”

Miss Print: “Yes! I have been trying to come up with that for a week, thanks.”

Unrelated: I miss Star Trek. Forget a new movie, we need a new TV SERIES. (Especially after the sub-par ending of Enterprise. Just saying.)

“You can call me dude.”

I don’t remember why I had planned to say “Dude, harsh” but here’s why I avoided it:

Miss Print: “I would say “Dude, harsh” but I feel like that’s all I’ve said to you lately. Plus I’m trying to stop calling coworkers dude.”

Bear: “You can call me dude. Then I can call you dude. Dude.”

Miss Print: “Is this where you say you’re a fan of Dude, Where’s My Car?

Bear: “Not a fan, but it was an underrated movie.”

[If we’re going to be technical, and really why wouldn’t we? Bear is actually the only coworker I call dude.]

“Here’s to you, Stand-Up Guy.”

The other day a guy came into the library looking to get a library card. We chatted while I entered his information into the computer and he seemed nice and friendly and, you know, normal. What I would later learn was that he was also a totally stand-up guy.

After getting the card, the gentleman returned to purchase a book from our book sale truck:

Miss Print: “After all that, you’re buying a book?”

Stand Up Guy Patron: “Well, I’m going out of town so I didn’t want to have it for too long. How long can you keep books?”

Miss Print: “Three weeks.”

SUGP: “Oh, well then I could have checked something out.”

Miss Print: “It’ll be a dollar for that one.”

SUGP offers me a twenty dollar bill. The register almost never has change for a twenty, such was the case that night.

Miss Print: “Do you have anything smaller?”

SUGP: “No.”

Miss Print [considers]: “You can just have it.

SUGP: “I couldn’t.”

Miss Print: “No, take it. Just give us a dollar donation or something the next time you have change.”

SUGP [takes book]: “I am going to come back with a dollar for you.”

And maybe a half hour later he did. Because he was a stand-up guy like that.

Dessert First: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

Dessert First by Hallie Durand, illustrated by Christine DavenierDessert Schneider doesn’t know what to think on the first day of third grade when her teacher introduces herself as Mrs. Howdy Doody and starts marching around in fluffy white slippers. But then Mrs. Howdy Doody tells the class that they should all find their own personal style and march to their very own drummers. And Dessert kind of likes that idea because it means she might have a chance to eat dessert first (before dinner) once in a while–if she marches just right.

Dessert comes from a family of foodies. Her younger sister Charlie and brothers Wolfie and Mushy all love food. And her parents own Fondue Paris, a very cool restaurant specializing in all things fondue. Coming from this background, it is no surpise that Dessert signs her name with a Maraschino cherry anymore than she believes that cherry is all you need in life, along with something to put the cherry on of course.

The problem with belonging to a food family, though, is that sometimes food–especially sweet chocolately foods–can be really distracting. When Dessert discovers an off limit box of special Double-Decker Bars at home, she knows she has to try just one. At least, it was supposed to be just one. Sometimes, without Dessert meaning to, things get out of hand because she spends too much time getting into trouble and not enough time thinking about how to avoid it.

Dessert First by Hallie Durand (with illustrations by Christine Davenier) is the first book about Dessert Schneider and her family. While not as good as the first Clementine book (possibly because it’s just plain shorter), I saw a lot of similarities between the two books. Dessert is a really likable eight-year-old with a fascinating family.

The illustrations add a lot to the story as well. Sometimes I find myself dissappointed, after seeing the colorful cover, to discover that a book has black-and-white illustrations but Davenier’s are done with thick lines and bold geometric patterns (mostly on Dessert’s dresses) that really make them work.

That said, some aspects of the plot did bother me. I was never a eat-dessert-first kind of kid so I found Dessert’s singular interest in the matter to be . . . interersting. An eight-year-old sneaking not one but twelve brownies without anyone noticing was also interesting. It set up a chance to learn an important lesson, but it was also just strange because Dessert didn’t seem to have any self control. I get it in terms of the story but I wonder if it could happen in the real world. Finally, I had issues with the Doody Drive at the end of the story where all of the elementary school is asked to give up something they love for two weeks to pledge money to build a tree house. It just seemed bizarre and not entirely appropriate for a grade school to me. Maybe that’s just me. . . .

Weird bits aside, I see big things in Dessert’s future and hope that Dessert First leads to bigger and better installments about the Schneider family.

Strapless: A Non-Fiction Review

Strapless by Deobarah DavisI read this book in August 2008 and have been meaning to review it ever since. For shame.

Most people know John Singer Sargent’s infamous painting “Madame X” even if they don’t know the name and have never heard of the artist because this painting has quite the sensational story attached to it.

According to surrounding lore, Sargent initially painted “Madame X” with the right strap of her black gown slipping off of her shoulder. When the painting debuted at the 1884 Salon in Paris (the place to have a painting displayed at the time and a good signifier of current or future artistic success) it created an uproar, so scandalous was the pose. Indeed, facing numerous charges of the painting’s indecency, Sargent eventually repainted the strap sitting firmly, and properly, on Madame’s shoulder.

Pursuing my art history minor in New York City I had the amazing opportunity to see “Madame X” in person at the Metropolitan Museum. The painting has always had a special place in my heart for, if nothing else, the drama associated with its debut. So I was very pleased when a copy of Deborah Davis’ book Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (2004) fell into my lap.

Find it on Bookshop.

Part historical research, part biography, part social commentary, part feminist text, Deborah Davis handles a lot of material in a relatively small volume (320 pages with font of average size and relevant pictures included). One of the reasons Davis decided to research this particular painting and its subject is because so little information remains about Virginie Amelie Gautreau, her life, or how Sargent came to paint her scandalous portrait.

While “Madame X” eventually catapulted Sargent into the artistic canon and toward immortality, the portrait likely led to Gautreau’s ruin and her obscurity. In her book, Davis tries to set the record straight, portraying Gautreau as the powerful, savvy woman she was before a bare shoulder changed her social standing forever.

My library system catalogs this book as a biography of John Singer Sargent, which for a lot of reasons is the logical choice. However, really, most of the book is spent looking at the life of Sargent’s subject and patron: Madame Gautreau.

The book traces Gautreau’s family history, her migration from New Orleans to Paris (where she became a quasi-celebrity along the lines of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton virtually overnight at the tender age of twenty-three), and perhaps most interestingly just how much work went into being a beautiful woman in Paris in the 1880s. No details escapes Davis’ examination as she looks at the clothing, finances, indeed the very persona Gautreau had to cultivate to live the decadent lifestyle she became accustomed to.

The strong point in Strapless is when Davis sticks to such facts: how Gautreau lived, why Sargent would want to paint her, what happened at the Salon when “Madame X” debuted. Davis also expertly outlines the tenuous, and often stressful, patron-artisan relationships that Sargent and artists like him had to cultivate in order to eke out a living with their brush.

The momentum flags when Davis veers into the hypothetical wondering if Sargent might have been in love with Gautreau, torn between her and one of his young proteges. While the theory is interesting, it does remain a theory very akin to the conspiracy theories so often found in research on the Titanic.

That aside, Strapless is a remarkably well-done book. The thorough research shows through without dulling the writing. Davis’ text is conversational and very accessible–more so, it must be said, than many writings found in the field of art history. An excellent book on art history for enthusiasts and art historians alike.
Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Strapless

In which I reinterpret “Chatty Cathy” for my own purposes

I felt like being a Chatty Cathy today and just babbling for a bit instead of posting yet another quote or book review (after blogging for more than half of april the patter does start to get boring, amazingly enough).

Last week was a bit erratic for me. We found out that my great uncle, the one who had a “mini” stroke in January, also has lung cancer. Which is really scary because that part of my family has never fared very well against cancer. So that’s scary. It’s also scary because he’s only 12 years older than my mom. So in addition to worrying about my uncle, it brings up all of these worries about my mom’s mortality, how his sister will manage, and even my own mortality. I feel awful to already be thinking about these things, but I’ve had terrible worries about my uncle since December–right before his stroke. I’m convinced that’s because on some level I was tuned in and knew what was coming. Even though I really would love to be wrong this time. Really.

In less melancholy news, my semester is winding down with final projects shaping up nicely. That means I can finally have a bit of down time this week, which was much needed because of the two week depression/worry trainwreck I had going there. On Friday I took part in my second reading at Pratt which went off without a hitch. I read more of my poems–not all favorites because I did those the first time around. But it was fun and I feel like it’s a good thing to do.

Spring has been slow to arrive, but the plants my mom ordered from QVC have not been. Our efforts to get the back area Spring Ready are in full swing with the purchase of pots and the constant need to purchase more soil. Things are shaping up nicely. If the cold snap doesn’t kill everything before they bloom we’ll have some really nice flowers out there in a bit.

And now you know everything.