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Staff Picks: Books

Notes from the Blender

I like teen books. They’re clever, easy to read, and they usually end well, even if the story gets messy in the middle. Here’s what I liked, especially, about Notes from the Blender:

It’s told in two different voices: a boy and a girl (unrelated) whose single parents have hooked up and gotten pregnant. Suddenly Declan finds he’s going to be step-brother to his biggest crush. Popular, beautiful Neilly, whose parents divorced when her father came out, now finds herself estranged from her mother, yet oddly open to making friends with Declan, one of the least cool kids in school.

There are four positive gay characters in the story, including Neilly’s father and his fiancé. Neilly likes her new stepdad-to-be, and she proudly defends her father’s sexual orientation.

Declan’s lesbian aunt is minister at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church he attends. The way the adults in the church are portrayed is pretty realistic of UU communities. Unitarian Universalism doesn’t get much press in our culture, but teens who are UU’s deserve to have their church show up positively in novels. He has a close relationship with his aunt and her partner, which deepened after his mother died.

Declan’s dad gets to be a real man with feelings, grief and awkwardness, who generally communicates well with Declan (even though he botched the chance to tell Declan about his new love, before there was a baby on the way.)

Authors Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin also paired up for A Really Awesome Mess in 2013.


Notes from the Blender

Fighting for a Safe Harbor

Some say that prostitution is a “victimless crime,” because presumably everyone involved participates willingly. Rachel Lloyd, in Girls Like Us, demonstrates that many girls and young women recruited and trafficked into the commercial sex industry are clearly victims of the system.

Lloyd, the executive director of GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, was once a victim of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE.) She was eventually able to escape, through the support of a caring church community and some adults—surrogate parents, in essence-- who reached out to her, offering her a chance for educational and professional success, beyond the life she knew.

In Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World where Girls are not for Sale, an Activist Finds her Calling and Heals Herself, Lloyd breaks it all down: how the neglect and abuse most girls experience prior to exploitation sets them up to become victims of CSE; the methods pimps use to keep the girls from leaving; the stigma that surrounds girls, once they’ve become commercially sexually exploited. She also describes in detail what factors must be present to support someone leaving and successfully thriving, after living ‘in the life.’

Lloyd, along with several of the girls served by GEMS, successfully persuaded the New York State legislature to enact the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, which aims to protect –rather than prosecute—children subjected to sex trafficking.


Girls like us: fighting for a world where girls are not for sale an activist finds her calling and heals herself

Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the Legend

When I read that Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the Legend was Library Journal’s pick for top nonfiction title of 2011, I was intrigued.

Author Susan Orlean has written a wonderfully readable book, not only about Rin Tin Tin, the iconic dog star of films and TV. Her story ranges widely and touches on the early history of Hollywood and films, the bravery and use of animals in war, and much more.

The story begins on a battlefield in France during World War I. A young American soldier, Lee Duncan, discovers an orphaned German shepherd puppy in a bombed out kennel. He has left his own dog behind in America, and adopts the small pup. Duncan, who was raised in an orphanage, feels an affinity with the abandoned dog, whom he names Rin Tin Tin. He immediately senses that this is an extraordinary dog, and is fortunately able to bring “Rinty” back to the US. The rest, as the saying goes, is history—and what a ride it is!

Susan Orlean is a respected reporter who spent ten years researching and writing this book, the story of a dog born in 1918 and his descendants, and the people who loved them and helped to insure their legacy.

This is a book for all people who have ever had or loved a dog.


Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

25 Years of Brilliant Essays and Reviews

There are several elements that I feel, that while not required, certainly make for better reading when it comes to essays, reviews and personal reflections. They are: 1.) an energetic prose that flows well and that doesn’t become bogged down in obtuse jargon and esoteric detail 2.) an economy and focus (most pieces should not exceed 7 pages in length) when summarizing a particular subject’s value or importance to either the audience or the writer 3.) a calm passion and genuine curiosity for the subject matter and lastly 4.) an engagement with complex ideas or cultural values by mixing together an element of wit with a fierce and independent intelligence.

Geoff Dyer’s nonfiction prose really hits the spot for me and for those who love writers willing to tackle a multitude of subjects with a fresh perspective, check out his Otherwise Known As the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews. Fans of the late cultural critic John Leonard or those who enjoy the inventive observations of Greil Marcus may also enjoy Dyer’s work. Dyer tackles the books of writers like Richard Ford, Don Delillo, Lorrie Moore, and John Cheever along with personal takes on comic strips and life as an only child. He delves into the inner essence of works of art like J.M.W Turner’s painting Figures in a Building, linking its evocative power with that of Tarkovskii's masterpiece, Stalker. Along the way, you’ll learn about the impact of Richard Avedon’s mixing of high art with fashion photography and how Susan Sontag’s fiction pales in comparison to her contributions as a cultural critic. Dyer is never boring even when you may take issue with his opinions. You’ll never end up with just a straight, descriptive review with Dyer. He’s a deft craftsman with a talent for bringing out new readings on old subjects. Highly recommended.


Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

Salvage the Bones

In her acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award for fiction, author Jesmyn Ward said “…I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor and the black and the rural people of the south so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important as theirs.”  If this was the goal for her award-winning novel Salvage the Bones, I certainly believe she achieved it.  Salvage the Bones, set in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, tells the story of the Batiste family struggling to survive daily life in the shadow of a hurricane.  Esch, the narrator, is fifteen and pregnant, and alone in a household of men.   Her father, an alcoholic since her mother passed away, can think only of protecting the family from the hurricane, while her brother Skeetah is obsessed with his prize fighting pit bull and her pups.  Her brother Randall is focused on winning a scholarship to basketball camp, and her little brother Junior relies on Esch to act as mother.  Their lives seem dangerously close to falling apart even without the assistance of one the worst hurricanes in American history, and the threat of impending doom creates an uneasy tension in the novel. Salvage the Bones is the story of human struggle, endurance, and love, and I don’t what could be more “fraught and lovely and important” than that.


Salvage the bones

Memory and Obsession

Dana Spiotta's new novel, Stone Arabia, is about memory and obsession.  Denise, the novel's narrarator explores her relationship with her brother Nik, who is a musician.  Nik is creative and started several bands that almost made it, but not finding popular success doesn't stop Nik's flow of work.  Strangely, not only does Nik continue to be prolific in recording music, he creates The Chronicles which compile the history of his fictional bands complete with album and concert reviews that he writes. 

As Nik obsesses about his own little made up world, Denise obsesses about other people's problems she encounters through the media.  Interestingly, Denise does not criticize the media bombardment we experience for desensitizing us to tragedy, but the exact opposite.  She feels it makes her too sensitive to too many people's problems about which she can really do nothing. 


Stone Arabia

This just in!!!

I was just thrilled this week when I checked the holds shelf and Rooster's revenge, the 3rd installation of Beatrice Rodriguez' Chicken Thief trilogy, was waiting for me! This wordless set of picture books that I dare say are of interest to ANY AGE is truly husband sat with us on the couch as I "read" them to my daughter, and I even overheard him mentioning them to one of his guy friends. The illustrations are adorable, witty, with the characters' emotions perfectly portrayed on every page--no words necessary. A quick summary of the trilogy: in The chicken thief, a fox kidnaps a hen on a serene morning, and her friends give Fox and Hen together...well, hard to say without giving away the ending of The chicken thief but the title gives you an idea...and ditto to Rooster's revenge--VERY worth your while to find out!


Rooster's revenge

World Without Fish

For a fast-moving look at the crisis of the oceans, check out Mark Kurlansky’s World Without Fish, a 2011 release geared to readers aged nine and up. Kurlansky, a former commercial fisherman, explains how overfishing, pollution, and global warming are a triple threat to ocean eco-systems. He argues that these threats must be resolved by the generation of people that are not yet adults. I appreciated the nuanced explanation of the problems and the potential solutions that are available to us. Punctuated by a multi-part comic strip narrative and other illustrations by Frank Stockton, World Without Fish is fascinating for its design alone. Mark Kurlansky is the author of the bestselling Cod, among other books.


World Without Fish

You Really Do Want to Cook This Now.

Melissa Clark has had plenty of experience writing about food; she’s a food columnist for the New York Times, a contributor to magazines such as Bon Appétit, and has written over 30 cookbooks.  To be honest, her expertise intimidated me—I thought the recipes in her latest cookbook, Cook This Now, might be difficult to make or full of hard-to-find ingredients.  Instead I found a thoughtfully arranged cookbook with recipes that incorporated simple, accessible ingredients and clear instructions.  Each recipe includes a short addendum called “What Else?” that provides hints for making the recipe turn out just right and also tips for substitutions or variations.  There’s no going wrong with Clark’s help!  My favorite recipe is for cumin-roasted cauliflower served with yogurt and pomegranate (you can find this recipe on my favorite food blog, Smitten Kitchen); it may sound a bit fussy, but in reality it’s simple to make and so delicious!  I liked this cookbook enough to put it on my "Best of 2011" list. 


Cook This Now

Ask Me Why I Hurt

I first heard of Randy Christensen, MD, when Diane Rehm interviewed him on her show, discussing Ask Me Why I Hurt. “Dr. Randy” is medical director of Crews’n Healthmobile, a mobile medical clinic providing health care for homeless youth in Phoenix, AZ. In this book, Christensen tells the true stories of many of the young people he’s treated on the healthmobile, changing names and identifying characteristics, of course, to protect the privacy of his patients.

We learn early on where the book gets its title, when “Mary” appears outside the van, wearing a beaded bracelet, with the words “ask me why I hurt” spelled out in block letters. Mary nervously avoided the doctor’s direct questions, so it took a while for Dr. Randy to build enough rapport with her to trust he could ask the question, without her running away. When Mary did finally answer him, after several stops to the mobile, he learned she’d been seriously sexually abused by her father. Mary’s and the other teenagers’ stories told in this book are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, as many of them do ultimately find reason to hope and ways to heal.

I take exception to the subtitle: “the Kids Nobody Wants and the Doctor who Heals Them.” To say this book is about the kids nobody wants isn’t the whole truth. Many of the young people seeking health care at Crews’n have experienced serious neglect and/or abuse, often at the hands of family members, that is true. Yet, Mary finds sanctuary and a second chance with her aunt; ultimately, we learn that she goes on to finish her education and complete a master’s degree. Donald—a boy whose father beat him so severely he sustained permanent brain damage--gains a loving family and caring community when Pastor and Mrs. Richardson take him in. Then there are all the workers from HomeBase, a shelter for teens, and UMOM, a shelter for homeless families, who help teens prepare for adult life, via GED and life skills education.

To my mind, the book isn’t really about Randy Christensen. Granted, he shared autobiographical details that help the reader understand the stresses of trying to balance family life with the particular challenges of his chosen career. And yes, as I read the story, I came to care about him, as well as the kids that visit the van. The book is written in first-person narrative, but the main reason for the book is that these young people matter, their stories matter, and Christensen felt they needed to be heard. Christensen shows us that there are a lot of young people suffering, there's a desperate need for more services and protection for them, and yet there are many people who care and are helping teens-at-risk make positive changes in their lives.


Ask Me Why I Hurt