Saturday, October 20, 2012

Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores edited by Greg Ketter

Prime Books
Published October 3, 2012
288 pages
Buy here.

If you are a bibliophile who can't get enough of bookstores, this is the book for you.  It's a collection of short stories by various authors that use bookstores as their primary setting (and sometimes as secondary characters!).  As the title indicates, all the stories are on varying points of the fantastic scale, and every story utilizes a bit of magic to tell its respective tale.  Since the target audience for this collection seems to be those who see even an ordinary bookstore as a place of magic, this only seems appropriate.  While the stories are all connected by their use of fantastic elements, the stories also employ quite a bit of contemporary realism (though there is at least one futuristic story, as well as a couple that are given historical contexts).  Yes, the bookstores are magical, but this magical quality is enhanced by their placement in modern society.  The stories are not set in an entire world of make-believe, and the bookstores in the stories serve for the characters a reprieve from, cause for, or solution to their problems.

A few stories stuck out to me on a first read as particularly enjoyable.  "A Book, by Its Cover" by P.D. Cacek, sees a bookstore owner in Nazi German using his shop as a means for others to escape, though not in any way that may be expected.  "The Hemingway Kittens" by A. R. Morlan explores the possibilities of scientific advancement in the form of two bookstore cats.  "Pixel Pixies" by Charles de Lint is a tale about a bookstore owner who is troubled by pixies that escape from her computer and a hob who tries to help her.  "Escapes" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a rather disturbing story about a woman who begins working in a bookstore after she moves to escape her sadistic ex-boyfriend, while "'I Am Looking for a Book...'" by Patrick Weekes is a hilarious jab at large-chain bookstores, relaying the frustrating experiences of Gorhok, a demon trying to find a book he needs to bring on the end of days that very night.

While the stories above are my particular favorites at this time, I definitely enjoyed all of the stories to varying degrees; I can't say there are any in this collection that I dislike.  If you are as enchanted as I by just the everyday regular bookstore, you will certainly find something to love in this collection.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Little, Brown
Published September 27, 2012
512 pages
Buy here.

Four words: This. Book. Is. Awesome.  It's dark, it's a bit gritty, it is everything I wasn't necessarily expecting from J.K. Rowling, and that is mostly why I enjoy it so much.

The official synopsis about the book that was released a few months ago focuses on the main plot thread: a man on a small-town council dies, and the rest of the book deals with what happens when heads bash in the election to re-fill his seat.  A fine synopsis, to be sure, but since this book is only 20% about this plotline and 80% about the characters, such a synopsis fails to do the book any real justice.

This is because in terms of a cohesive plot, that really is the gist of this 500-page novel.  Barry Fairbrother, who holds a seat on the Pagford town council, is in the midst of dying when the story begins.  What happens throughout the rest of the book revolves around a number of other families in town as the stage is set to choose Barry's replacement, but it is the details about and interactions between these families that really make this book what it is.  Relationships between husbands and wives, parents and their (adult and teenaged) children, students and their teachers, and council members and fellow council members take center-stage in this sprawling tapestry of a tale.

It's a point-of-view novel, so the character focus is constantly shifting as the full extent of characters' relationships to one another are slowly revealed throughout the book.  In this, Rowling succeeds in creating both incredibly fleshed-out characters and a level of mystery, and both of these created more than enough enticement for me to continue reading.  The characters themselves are largely unlikable and petty people, but in realistic ways that allow the reader to sympathize with (almost) all of them despite the dislike.  Pretty much everyone in this story is fairly miserable to some degree, but that misery is very human and lends to a degree of universality.  This in particular is what makes the book such a successful venture.

Rowling's writing in her new book is superb, her descriptions are vivid (I was particularly moved by Kay's first visit to the Weedons' home), and the dialogue flows wonderfully.  Given the tone, themes, and topics brought up in the story, it is absolutely, positively geared toward adults, and I would recommend leaving any and all Potter-based expectations at the door when reading this book.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, September 24, 2012

Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things by Ted Naifeh

Oni Press
Published April 11, 2012
144 pages
Buy here.

Originally published in 2003, this special hardcover reprint of the first volume of the Courtney Crumrin series is just eerie and bizarre enough to make me want to read more.  Teenaged Courtney is dragged by her parents to live with great-uncle Aloysius, who creeps her out at first but then earns her trust by revealing his magical secrets to her (and getting her out of a few jams when she takes it upon herself to uncover some secrets on her own).  The nearby forest is full of goblins, faeries, and other strange manner of creatures, which Courtney gets mixed up in very much against her will.  She also has to deal with bullies, being an outcast in a new school, and dangers in babysitting.  Full of magic and teen angst, this introduction to Courtney Crumrin has whetted my appetite for the slew of additional titles bearing her name.

Rating: 3.5/5

Long time no read

My end-of-summer was a bit crazy with worrying over finances and preparing three classes for the fall semester.  Now that I'm back into the swing of things at work, I will able to devote more time to reading again, which means much more updates here on the blog!  Fall officially began over the weekend, and with October fast approaching, my literary adventures will aim for ghoulish delights for a while.  Stay tuned if you're on the hunt for good things to read for Halloween!  I just finished an appropriately witchy graphic novel, so I should have a new post up either tonight or tomorrow!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Read-Aloud Poems: Edited by Glorya Hale

Black Dog & Leventhal
Published September 11, 2012
288 pages
Buy here.

This is a lovely collection of 120 poems by some of the classic big names, including Stevenson, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Blake, Carroll, Whitman, Lear, Rossetti, Browning, and Angelou, plus many others.  The poems are thematically arranged by topics such as nature, family, and humor, and include some nice illustrations.

I didn't read a single one of these poems silently, so I will attest to the delight in reading them aloud.  The themes and content of all the poems are adult- and child-friendly, so this book would be a great addition to any parent's read-aloud repertoire (or even serve as a good starting point).  As a teacher, I could definitely see myself using this collection in an ESL class so students could practice pronunciation, rhythm, and sound-spelling relationships.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

With Respect to the Japanese by John Condon and Tomoko Masumoto (2nd Edition)

Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Published 2010
160 pages
Buy here.

This is a brief, very basic guide to assist American and Canadian business-people better understand the work culture of corporate Japan.  Topics are presented in a general compare/contrast between Japan and America, and cover points such as group mentality vs. individualism, the importance of social hierarchies, everyday interactions with co-workers and bosses, and differences in giving feedback to employees between the two cultures.  Also included is a chapter on the calendar year that covers the more important events and holidays that go on each month.  Overall, the authors provide their own impressions and knowledge, but they also include "data" of sorts in the form of general interview responses from Americans, Canadians, and Japanese employees and employers who have worked with one another in Japan.  Parts of it read almost like a research study, which I felt gave the whole book a bit more weight.

As an ESL teacher who occasionally has Japanese students in my classes, I found this book extrememly relevant, as work culture is, of course, connected to the wider culture of the country.  The book is quite short, but it is an informative and useful guide that acts as a great jumping-off point for further research on all the topics introduced.  I certainly learned quite a few things from this book, and I have every intention of furthering my cultural knowledge of the country beyond a working context, using Condon and Masumoto as a road map of sorts.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Andy Squared by Jennifer Lavoie

Bold Strokes Books
Published September 18, 2012
216 pages
Buy here.

A work of LGBT young adult fiction, Andy Squared tells the story of seventeen-year-old Andrew Morris as  he goes through significant changes in his life after the catalytic arrival of new classmate Ryder Coltrane.  Ryder, who is gay, opens up to Andrew and helps Andrew realize just what it is that he has failed to understand about himself: that he too is gay.  While Andrew adjusts to this revelation and begins a relationship with Ryder, he must also deal with the challenges of his family and friends adjusting to it as well, particularly his twin sister, Andrea.

I found this to be a delightful coming-of-age and coming-out story.  I love the characters (and occasionally love to hate them), and I like that many of them, not just Andrew, are so dynamic in fairly dramatic ways.   Andrea, for example, goes through her own transformation of understanding her relationship with her twin after he comes out, and, as the title of the book suggests, she is as main a character as Andrew himself.  I actually found the Andrew/Andrea relationship slightly more intriguing than the Andrew/Ryder one, despite Ryder being the initial cause of all the change.  I think this is because Ryder seems to act mostly as a guide for Andrew, and their relationship ironically allows for Andrew an easy transition that balances the resulting conflicts in the other aspects of Andrew's life.  Just as important to the story, but definitely not as painful as Andrew's relationship with Andrea.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  The writing is wonderful (especially in the more physical scenes...tasteful yet steamy!), the dialogue feels genuine, and the characters and their motivations are believable.  This is Lavoie's debut work, and I very much look forward to reading more by her in the future!

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Scott Pilgrim Volume One: Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O'Malley [Color]

Oni Press
Published August 14, 2012
192 pages
Buy here.

I must begin this review by saying that this release is my first ever exposure to the Scott Pilgrim universe.  I have never read the comics before now, and due to my lack of interest in seeing anything starring Michael Cera, I skipped the movie.  The comics are now being re-released with added color, so I took the opportunity to finally acquaint myself with this series, and I must say I'm glad I did.

Scott Pilgrim didn't strike me as a particularly likable character at first.  He is twenty-three, lives in Toronto, and at the start of the comic has just begun dating a high school girl named Knives Chau whom he met on the city bus.  He's in a band and lives with/off his gay roommate, Wallace (who apparently ends up "stealing" all of Scott's sister's boyfriends).  He seems to lack motivation to really do anything, and I'm not sure if he even has a job.  Also, he's a twenty-three-year-old dating a high schooler.

Things start getting interesting for Scott, however, when he begins dreaming about a girl on rollerblades.  As it turns out, this girl exists in reality, and her name is Ramona Flowers.  After meeting her at a party, Scott starts to date her in addition to Knives.  He also begins receiving mysterious messages from a Matthew Patel.  In the big climax of this volume, Scott's band plays a show and Matthew Patel shows up to battle Scott to the death.  This battle consists of what I think is supposed to be a choreographed musical number that pits Scott and his crew against Matthew and his evil bat-girl minions.  Ramona informs Scott that if he wants to continue dating her, he must defeat her seven ex-boyfriends.

The plot is pretty basic, if not a bit bizarre, but the volume serves as a good introduction to all the characters, the setting, and the conflict for the rest of the series.  The writing is funny and the color definitely pops, so even though I kind of want to punch Scott in the teeth for being a bit of an idiot, I certainly want to keep reading the fun character interactions, over-the-top action sequences, and (I can only hope) more dance numbers.

If you're new to the series, give it a go with this re-release.  If you've already read every issue, at least check out the great color.  Volume 2, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, is out in color on November 7, 2012.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal [Reprint]

Icon Books
Published September 11, 2012
272 pages

A blessedly brief work on the Bard, this book is a guide of sorts to approaching Shakespeare's works, either for the first or hundredth time.  Crystal begins with some background on Shakespeare and his plays, including Elizabethan audience expectations versus modern deifying of the playwright.  This tendency to put Shakespeare up on a pedestal is part of what makes people unwilling, nervous, or incapable of understanding and enjoying his writing.  Crystal also describes the Globe Theatre and how a typical performance of a play would have looked and sounded.  Not being a Shakespeare expert by any means, this was all information that I found fascinating, and reading just this far helped me to realize that simply reading Shakespeare in a classroom for analytical purposes is, without doubt, the least interesting way to experience Shakespeare.

Throughout the rest of the book, Crystal's main thesis is that Shakespeare wrote everything he did in the ways that he did with very deliberate purpose, and by understanding these methods it is possible to better interpret and act out the plays in a way closer to what Shakespeare seems to have envisioned.  By paying attention to prose vs. verse, any deviations from iambic pentameter, use of thou and you, and characters with no speaking lines, Crystal argues that readers can make more meaning out of plot and characterization.  He illustrates his tips with short bits of his own analyses.

Overall, Crystal does a wonderful job of presenting strategies that can help make Shakespeare more approachable, more understandable, and more enjoyable to the "average" reader, and would be a wonderful supplement in English classes.

Rating: 5/5

Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man by Brian McGrory

Crown Trade
Published November 6, 2012
304 pages
Buy here.

In this well-written, laugh-out-loud memoir, McGrory writes all about his life prior to and after the death of Harry, a dog with which he had a wonderful relationship.  Life for McGrory after Harry involves a new wife, two stepdaughters, and a houseful of various animals, including Buddy the rooster.  Unlike Harry, Buddy more or less despises McGrory and has no qualms about letting that fact be well known.  In the end, though, life with Buddy helps McGrory realize how to better adjust to life in the suburbs and how to truly be a member of the family.

I found this book impossible to put down.  Not only is the writing brilliant, but McGrory's story runs a wide gamut of emotions.  His account of his relationship with Harry is touching, and it makes his relationship with Buddy all the more hilariously dysfunctional.  The descriptions of Buddy's various but calculated outbursts of hatred toward McGrory are probably my favorite parts of the book, and McGrory's indignant jealousy toward a family pet is understandable yet entertaining.

I cried, I laughed, I marveled, I wanted to read it again immediately.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals by Jenny Brown

Gotham Books
Published August 2, 2012
304 pages
Buy here.

Given that I love books about human-animal relationships, I was really expecting to enjoy this one.  What I got from this book, though, was a little more than I had bargained for.  Brown documents her journey from clueless meat-eater to extremely impassioned vegan on a mission to save whatever animals she can through her sanctuary in Woodstock, NY.  She also highlights the journeys of many of the animals themselves, describing their personalities and showing their individuality and worth as fellow living creatures.  Also included are basic facts and descriptions of the horrors of factory farming.

All of this is for the good, certainly, and I did really enjoy reading about the individual animals that Brown's organization had saved.  Everything else, though, came across as a little...overwhelming.  After a couple chapters, I had a really hard time stomaching the pathos oozing from every single page, the celebrity name-dropping, and the feeling that Brown sees anyone who continues to eat or raise meat as ignorant and/or heartless.  She is extremely opinionated and forthright in her views on animal cruelty, and while I certainly don't fault her as a person for that, it was just a bit more than I could deal with in her book.

Despite emotional appeal not being my personal cup of tea, I can see how this could be a great introduction to the topic for someone who is currently clueless about how factory farming operates.  She does do a good job of laying it all out, but again, for me, the raw emotion in the book is just too much.

Rating: 3/5

The Plant-Powered Diet by Sharon Palmer

The Experiment
Published July 17, 2012
400 pages
Buy here.

Recently I have been thinking more about my diet and realizing that I am still eating far too many carbs and fats, and not enough green stuff.  I was quite drawn to this book when I read the title, and I am pretty psyched to have stumbled upon it through NetGalley.

Palmer approaches plant-powered eating not necessarily as a "diet" as we typically understand it, but rather as a whole lifestyle change for overall health rather than, say, a quick weight loss program through brief periods of plant-centered eating.  The book is a super handy reference for anyone looking to cut out any amount of meat and animal-based foods from their diet, and Palmer stresses that it is as useful for omnivores as it is for vegans and vegetarians.  She outlines the benefits of various grains, vegetables, fruits, non-animal proteins and fat sources, herbs and spices, chocolate, dairy substitutes, and coffee, tea, and wine.  Each chapter includes very thorough lists of foods in each of these categories with nutritional and/or flavor descriptions and/or ways to use them.

Also included in each chapter are one or two assignments to help readers begin integrating these foods into their diets; this is a particularly helpful tool for those who don't know (or, like me, have forgotten) just how easy it is to do and need some help making small changes to their eating habits.  Additionally, there are tips on eating out and exercising, a 14-day sample menu, and loads of recipes, all of which are meat free (but which could easily be modified for those who want to include it).

Overall, Palmer provides great guidance as she holds readers' hands through the nutritional benefits of meatless/reduced meat eating, and I will certainly be referring to it myself as I get back on track with vegetarian eating.  Her approach is all-inclusive, and while she highlights the benefits of not eating meat, she does not take a holier-than-thou stance despite being a vegetarian herself.  I found the book well-written, easy to follow, and, above all, something I can really use to improve my own eating habits.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

Little, Brown and Company
Released: 2010
159 pages
Buy here.

I've been a fan of Sedaris' writing for quite a few years, but I put off reading his latest book until now.  I remember picking it up at a bookstore right after it came out and immediately putting it back on the shelf when I realized it was a collection of short stories about animals, not the personal essays and memoirs that are the usual Sedaris fare.  I also couldn't justify paying $20+ for a very small hardcover book of not-even-200 pages.  It is now severely discounted at my nearest bookstore, however, so I finally have acquired a copy.  Short stories + large-ish text + lots of illustrations = a quick and easy read.

There are sixteen stories in the collection, all of which feature anthropomorphized animals interacting with one another in very human ways.  The stories actually manage to highlight some of the worst aspects of humanity, so if you're looking for something to cheer you up, steer clear of this (unless you are one to indulge in a whole lot of schadenfreude).  One story that sticks out to me is "The Migrating Warblers," in which husband-and-wife yellow warblers discuss the various difficulties that arise when they migrate to Guatemala every year: the lack of desire on the part of the native birds to learn English, despite the annual influx of migrant American birds; "amusing" lapses in their own Spanish abilities; the "lazy natives."  It's all worth it, though, because it's cheaper than going to Florida!  Another standout for me is "The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat," which takes place in a cage in a research lab.  The sick rat has been there for quite a while and is literally on the verge of death when a new, healthy rat is introduced to his cage (assumingly his replacement for when he eventually/soon dies).  The healthy rat goes on at great length to explain to the sick rat that his illness is entirely his fault due to his "hatefulness and negativity."  The healthy rat, on the other hand, is never sick because she is able to stay so positive all the time.  She goes on to say that limericks have been attributed to curing certain diseases.  After a hand reaches into the cage and injects the healthy rat with a syringe, the sick rat makes up a limerick of his own in which the reader learns that the healthy rat has just been injected with AIDS.

See what I mean?  Not exactly sunshine and roses, and not even really laugh-out-loud funny.  It is dark, scathing satire, and despite the fact that every single story is full of misery to some degree, I couldn't help but enjoy them because the misery conveyed is so recognizably human.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, July 6, 2012

Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

Strange Chemistry
Released: September 4, 2012
352 pages
Buy here.

This is a wonderful piece of young adult fiction that takes place on modern-day Roanoke Island and features Miranda Blackwood, a teen who is a bit of an outcast among her peers, and Phillips Rawling, supposedly-delinquent son of the town's police chief who can hear voices of the dead.  Phillips is away at school off the island when the story begins, but after the disappearance of Miranda's father and 114 other people from town, his father requests that he return to the island.  Once there, he and Miranda end up working together to fight a foe from the island's past, a foe who was involved in the first infamous disappearance of the original colonists of the island in the late 1500s, a foe who will stop at nothing to gain immortality for himself and his followers.

Miranda and Phillips must find out what happened to the people who disappeared (and why they act so differently after suddenly returning), where Miranda's father has gone, what the spirits who speak to Phillips want, and why a strange snake-shaped scar has suddenly appeared on Miranda's cheek.  All the while they must dodge parents, law enforcement, and evil henchmen as they attempt to bring down their opposition.

Minor aspects of the novel are based on historical fact, but for the most part Bond takes great liberties with her historical figures by incorporating particular relationships, genealogies, and, most importantly, magic and evil curses to create her plot.  For some reason, I was a bit worried about the story sinking into a certain level of silliness, but Bond does a great job of mixing the historic with the fantastic, and this balance makes everything work.  In addition, the characters come off as real, and that makes enjoying the ride of the story effortless.  The pacing is great, and I had a hard time putting the book down because Bond creates a good mystery around all the action that really makes you want to keep reading.  I would definitely recommend this to young adult readers, particular those interested in colonial history and low/contemporary fantasy.  There are times when plot points and character development fall a bit flat, but overall I had an enjoyable reading experience with this book.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Joy Compass by Donald Altman

New Harbinger Publications
Released: September 1, 2012
168 pages
Buy here.

This is a self-help book that is dedicated to helping readers create a more joyous existence for themselves.  In order to do this, Altman lays out eight things to incorporate into everyday living: laughter, gratitude, forgiveness (of self and others), music, meditation, affirmation, being present in the moment, and social connections.  Altman also emphasizes being more connected in general to one's mind and body, as well as doing every action with focused intention.

This book is short and sweet, but that does not mean that it should be zipped through.  Altman provides a lot of exercises that relate to each chapter, all of which involve journaling to some degree.  Many exercises are action-based and take no more than five to ten minutes.  They include a period of written reflection about the insights gained from the exercises.  Some exercises take longer, up to a week, in order to get readers to make note of certain behavioral or thinking patterns; reflection periods for these exercises involve considering what to change, what to keep, or what to add to these behavioral or thinking patterns that will increase one's joy.  Other exercise involve making lists and sometimes rating items.

All the exercises work toward making readers aware of what is creating or preventing joy in their lives, and Altman's advice is practical and easy to engage with.  Regardless of how much joy you may already have in your life, give this one a read and maybe try out some new activities to increase that joy and your connectedness to the world around you.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Two Books on Stress Management

I decided to do a joint post for two books since they are both on the same topic and cover, more or less, the same information.

Stress Pandemic: The Lifestyle Solution by Paul Huljich
Released: July 31, 2012
MWella Publishing
288 pages
Buy here.
Rating: 4/5

In this book, Huljich describes his own problems with serious stress that eventually led to his having a severe mental breakdown.  After rejecting doctors' prognoses of a lifetime dependence on prescription medication to deal with this issues, Huljich took matters into his own hands and devised nine (seemingly) simple steps to reducing stress.

The first three steps involve seriously shifting one's mindset by recognizing stress is a legitimate problem in one's life, making the conscious decision to do the work necessary to reduce that stress, letting go of harmful coping strategies, and putting an end to doing things that one does not have the sufficient time or desire to do.  The next four steps are more action oriented and include performing affirmations, getting adequate exercise, eating right, and getting enough sleep.  The final two steps are the maintenance steps; they involve watching one's thinking patterns to stay positive on the journey toward reduced stress and staying in the present, as well as recognizing that implementing all nine steps at once is a process and should be taken slowly and with allowance for minor setbacks.  Each step gets its own chapter, and at the end of each chapter is a short list of self-assessment questions that give readers a chance to think about how they do or can implement each step as part of a stress-free lifestyle.

The Stress Less Workbook by Jonathan S. Abramowitz, PhD
Released: August 1, 2012
Guilford Press
292 pages
Buy here.
Rating: 4.5/5

Abramowitz takes a less personal, more clinical approach to stress management in his book, and also provides a slightly more complete process to dealing with stress.  The first part of the book is full of various assessments for readers to complete as they go through the book.  Abramowitz first provides assessments on current stress: typical stress levels, symptoms of stress, causes of stress, consequences (good and bad) of stress, and basic stress management techniques.  These are all designed to help readers orient themselves in their experiences with stress before moving on to actually dealing with that stress.  The second part of the book shifts to practical steps to dealing with stress.  The major points of focus are improving communication, learning how to manage one's time, changing a variety of thinking patterns, relaxation techniques, and tips to improve overall health (diet, exercise, sleep, etc.).  The third part addresses maintenance and stress management beyond the scope of the book itself, and it focuses on dealing with stress related to work and school, family, and major life crises.

Personally, I found this book to be of more immediate use than Huljich's.  Abramowitz includes tons of helpful assessments, questions, worksheets, anecdotes, examples, and suggestions throughout.  I found it to be a bit more engaging and easier to immediately implement the strategies suggested.  However, that's not to say that Huljich's book is any less useful, given one's personal preferences.  Huljich's material is a bit more straightforward and less dense; many readers, then, may prefer it over Abramowitz's.  Huljich's nine steps are all included to a degree in Abramowitz, but Abramowitz elaborates on many more topics.  For someone looking to get an initial grip on their stress, it may be easier to focus on Huljich's nine stripped down steps than to work through all of Abramowitz's material at once.

In the end, I think the two books could be used together because they offer up much of the same helpful information, but they do it in very different ways that complement each other well.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Grammar Girl's 101 Troublesome Words You'll Master In No Time by Mignon Fogarty

St. Martin's Press
Released: July 3, 2012
146 pages
Buy here.

I have been a huge fan of Grammar Girl for many years now for three big reasons: one, I myself love grammar and usage discussion; two, Fogarty really does her homework on all her topics; and three, she explains things super clearly and provides great memory tips to help people really learn the points she discusses.

All three of these things continue to be true, and in Fogarty's latest book, she tackles some of the nit-pickier aspects of English usage.  Some of the problems she discusses deal with punctuation issues (e-mail or email?), while others are about spelling, correct plural forms, or slowly shifting meanings.  As always, she uses reputable sources to help her tackle these issues, such as former and current style guides, the Oxford English Dictionary, and real-life examples of each of the 101 words used in context by actual speakers and writers.  A few of the especially troublesome entries include suggestions on how to remember Fogarty's usage advice, some featuring our old pals Squiggly and Aardvark.

A great resource for teachers, students, and writers (as is the Grammar Girl podcast at, this is certainly one to add to your library!

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Eating Mindfully (Second Edition) by Susan Albers

New Harbinger
Released May 2012
312 pages
Buy here.

This book is sort of the anithesis to typical "dieting," as it emphasizes NOT counting calories, relying on your scale, or depriving yourself of your favorite foods.  Instead, Albers posits eating within the four foundations of mindfulness as enumerated by the Buddha: mindfulness of the mind, mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, and mindfulness of thoughts.  Eating mindfully depends on changing your approach to food in order to accommodate all four of these foundations.  The book is organized by the four foundations, and Albers provides a numbered list of strategies to heed each foundation.  She also includes the occasional exercise (which she labels "skills builders") to help readers immediately incorporate certain strategies into their life.

I personally did not get a whole lot out of this book, only because I am at a stage of my health-reclamation journey where I already learned a lot of the things Albers highlights.  However, I recognize all her advice as valuable since much of it is what I already follow at this point.  One big thing I did take from the book are the idea of eating slowly and really noticing and enjoying your food.  I still don't do this, even though I know I should, and I have tried to start in the past couple of days.  The other concept I found illuminating is the idea of not allowing yourself to have judgmental thoughts about your food choices, and not to categorize foods as "good" or "bad."  This is something I recognize myself doing, and Albers' point is that such thinking leads to guilt rather than satisfaction from eating.  This is something I would certainly like to work on.

This is the second edition of this book with added material, but I honestly don't see what the added material really contributes.  Much of what is in the final section of the book is already brought up (and in more detail) in the earlier sections.  The extra section just seemed to add repetition.

If you are obsessed with dieting and are looking for a more reasonable alternative, definitely check this book out.  In addition to the four foundations framework, Albers includes a lot of resources, both print and web-based, to help readers better achieve the strategies outlined in the rest of the book.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Hachette Audio
Released 2011
Buy here.

I purchased this audio book not because I an in die-hard fan love with Tina Fey, 30 Rock, or even SNL.  I purchased this audio book because I know enough about Tina Fey to know that I find her reasonably entertaining, and the fact that she narrates this audio version made me certain that her delivery of her own writing would further entertain me more than simply reading the text version myself and imagining her voice in my head.

Boy, did I call that one!

This book is all about Tina Fey, but it isn't a typical, straightforward, chronological autobiography.  Chapters are arranged in, more or less, a birth-to-growing-up-to pre-college-to-college-to-TV-to-marriage-and-kid sort of order, but the chapters don't always necessarily flow seamlessly from one to the next, and sometimes they even move backward, which I kind of liked.  The thing that struck me as really weaving all the chapters together, though, was a sort of successful-woman-in-a-man's-world theme that she brings up in many of her anecdotes, moreso, I think than her title theme of being a boss (though at times the two intersect).  There is a lot going on in this book, though, and her tales of woe, awkward mishaps, crushed spirit, womanhood, and motherhood are told with such candor, self-deprecation, and humor that it is difficult to not be entertained by this book.

The text version of this book isn't long (under 300 pages), and the audio version clocks in at just around 5.5 hours (which, in audio book terms, strikes me as rather short).  If you're looking for a light, fast, fun read (and you don't, at the very least, dislike Ms. Fey), definitely check this one out.

Rating: 3.5/5

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin & Catherine Johnson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Released 2009
352 pages
Buy here.

Temple Grandin is best known for her work with both autism and animals.  She has worked for many years as a consultant to help large-scale farms improve the housing and slaughtering methods of their animals.  This is her latest book.

In the first chapter, Grandin establishes the framework used in the rest of the book, what she calls the Blue-Ribbon Emotions.  These are seeking, rage, fear, panic, and play.  She also introduces the concept of stereotypies (not a typo, I promise!), which are abnormal behaviors that animals engage in, such as pacing back and forth in a cage or swimming in figure eights in a tank.  Stereotypies occur, Grandin says, when an animal's Blue-Ribbon Emotions are not in balance; for example, if a hunting animal in a zoo is not allowed to engage its natural seeking behavior, it will become depressed and behave abnormally.

Subsequent chapters focus on a single animal/animal group and highlight particular Blue-Ribbon Emotions that need to be engaged, as well as ways of engaging them.  Grandin discusses dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, and poultry, and she explains the various ways to house, feed, and transport them with as little emotional stress as possible.  She then moves on to a chapter about wildlife in which she emphasizes the need for animal experts to focus on fieldwork and real-life observation of animals instead of using theoretical models on computers.  Finally, she talks about animals in zoo captivity and how to address zoo animals' Blue-Ribbon Emotional needs.

 The whole point of this book is that different animals have VERY different needs, both from humans and each other, and different types of stimuli could set off their various Blue-Ribbon Emotions.  Grandin describes these differences with clarity, and even though she uses a lot of neuroscientific terminology, she explains with definitions and examples so as not to confuse her readers.  She also cites a lot of other people's books and studies on animal research, so there is plenty of follow-up reading for those who are interested in learning more.

There are only a couple of things I consider drawbacks.  One is that Grandin uses phrases like "I think," "I guess," "maybe this is true," all throughout the book.  I've not read anything else by her, so I don't know if this is just the way she writes, but it definitely takes away from her persona as an objective woman of science, and it makes a lot of her statements very wishy washy.  Grandin also repeats herself in many places, voicing the same point or example more than once.  Other than those relatively minor things, though, I found this to be a great read.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, June 4, 2012

Quiet by Susan Cain

Crown Publishers
Released January, 2012
352 pages
Buy here.

This book is all about what it means to be an introvert in Western society, something that, as an introvert myself, I have struggled with all my life.  Reading Cain's book has made me realize that my introvertedness does not indicate that I am some freak of nature, but rather that I just happen to not belong to the group (extroverts) that our society tends to endorse without real legitimate reason, and that being an introvert does not signal deficiency, but a different set of skills.

Cain carefully explores different elements of the introverted vs. extroverted dichotomy.  In Part One, she deals first with the shift at the turn of the twentieth century in which America began to value the salesman-type personality over simple honorable behavior and how that preference has stuck with us up to today in current trends in classroom and workplace organization.  More importantly, she argues why such preference is not necessarily a good thing.  Part Two focuses on the science behind introversion and extroversion in terms of the nurture/nature argument and how the brains of the two types process chemicals and experiences differently.  Part Three operates as a single chapter of comparison between Eastern and Western ideals in terms of introversion vs. extroversion, and Part Four gives some good advice on and strategies to help your introverted self and/or child through our extroverted society.

The thing I like most about this book is the scope of research Cain puts into it.  She brings together a wide variety of studies and makes them the forefront of each chapter, and this makes the book, in part, an excellent literature review on the various aspects of the topic.  She also includes her own experiences as informal research, and she describes various workshops designed for introverts that she attends, as well as interviews with the people who run those workshops.  Being an introvert herself, she also includes personal anecdotes as well as composite stories of other introverts she has met and helped through their struggles.  She also includes biographical bits about various historical figures who struggled with being introverts.  All these different types of sources help to flesh out the studies that Cain presents, and they also contribute to a more varied and engaging reading experience.

The one pitfall of this book is the organization of material in each specific chapter.  The overall organization of the book across the four different parts is wonderful and makes a lot of sense, but within each chapter, Cain seems to jump back and forth a lot between the studies, her anecdotes, historical figures, and back again.  Given what I just wrote above, this obviously isn't, on its own, a bad thing.  Sometimes it was just hard for me to connect the stories with the science.  The most glaring example of this is in Chapter 6, the title of which highlights Eleanor Roosevelt and in which Cain writes about how Eleanor was an introvert.  This information is given, however, around the research of Dr. Elaine Aron, but the only connection I can see between the two is the way in which Aron is compared to Eleanor Roosevelt on a personal level.  Personally, I didn't feel that particular connection was enough to focus on both in the same chapter.

Still, I feel I got a lot out of this book, particularly, as I mentioned above, the reassurance that there is no need for me to feel like my introvertedness is something that needs "fixing"; it just happens to not be glorified in the school and workplace in the same way that extrovertedness is, and that's not my fault!

Rating: 3.5/5

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

Bantam Books
July 2011
1040 pages
Buy here.

Let me start off by saying that I am a relatively new fan of the Song of Ice and Fire series.  I only learned of it through the TV series, which I didn't start watching until a couple of months after it originally aired.  I then proceeded to plow through the books at a ferocious pace.  My point is, I have not had to experience the torment of waiting years in anticipation for this book to be published, nor have I spent hours, days, months, years speculating on where the whole thing is going.  I read the books because I am curious to see where it will eventually go, but I have by no means invested the same time and energy into this series as most other readers, and I have no doubt that this causes me to have a fairly different perspective on this book.

Having said that, it seems like this book is the least liked of the series, which I felt I understood the first time I read it myself.  However, I just finished reading the entire series a second time, and I now think that this may be my favorite of the bunch so far.  Many people have complained that it drags on, that nothing happens in terms of plot, that nothing is really resolved in terms of the character arcs.  I can sort of see how all of that is true, and that was initially why I didn't like the book much the first time around.  After a second reading, though, I felt like the action and immediate aftermath of the War of the Five Kings was a bit too drawn out between A Clash of Kings and A Feast For Crows.  Too much fighting, too much laying waste to the land, a ridiculous number of dead main characters.  It was all too much of the same for me across three separate books.

Dance With Dragons is a step in a new direction, though.  While the events of the book happen simultaneously as those in Feast for Crows, the distance in terms of setting helps to separate the two books, as does the introduction of so many new characters.  Things move forward in a much more significant way in this book than they do in Feast for Crows, and part of that has to do with much of the plot given as memories.  We do not need to know every single detail of every single character's journey, because all those details can easily be summed up.  Martin's focus in his writing is more on character than plot, it seems, so writing in this way allows him to focus on character interactions rather than what is simply happening, and I like that.  The events of this book are strange in that they look both forward and backward, but much farther backward than the war that just ended.  History literally comes back to life in this book, in the forms of Dany's dragons (which, duh, hatched in GoT, but have been all but weak pets up until this book) and in the young prince who everyone believes is dead.

I guess what I like about this book so much is that it brings us back to the grand sweeping history that Martin started off with in Game of Thrones.  The War of the Five Kings was necessary of course to change the immediate political conditions in Westeros, but it seems like in Dance With Dragons Martin was finally able to get back to the greater issues that have yet to be resolved.  Yes, the action in books two through four was nice, but ultimately the War of the Five Kings is not the point of the overall series; it is merely a stepping stone to setting up a new ruler (one who, I hope, ends up being a Targaryen).

Many readers complain that nothing "happens" in this book, but I don't know why that's a bad thing, particularly after all the action of the previous books.  The direction of the series is shifting, and to shift painlessly things need to be set up a bit more, as they are in this book.  While there may not be as much action as the earlier books filled with warfare, I find it hard to agree with the idea that the series has not moved forward with this book.  Personally, I would much rather read interesting setting and character development than action after action, and I don't mind that Martin is taking his time establishing the next steps of the story.  Everything that was established after Robert's Rebellion is in ruins, and the last of the Targaryen dynasty is revving up to restore their claim.  If there really are only two books left, I have no doubt they will move quickly now that all the pieces are in place.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

New England Frontier by Alden T. Vaughan

This book is by no means new (the latest edition was revised in 1995), but it is still readily available, and for good reason.  The focus of Vaughan's work is Puritan/Native American relations between the landing of the Mayflower and the start of King Philip's War, and covers topics such as Puritan laws, trade between Puritans and Native Americans, and Puritan efforts to convert Native Americans to Christianity.  Vaughan takes a fairly objective stance on these topics, showing how both parties managed to remain quite amicable for a good while, and blaming each party for things going sour only when blame is warranted.

I am by no means a historian, but I found this book to be quite readable and easily understandable.  Vaughan lays down the basics of New England's Native American tribes up to the point of the Mayflower landing, and he gives some background on earlier European exploration of America.  Chapters are, on the whole, arranged thematically rather than chronologically (though the information within each chapter is chronological).  For this reason, I found this book much more effective than, say, Nathanial Filbrick's more recent work, Mayflower, which is organized through a straight chronology of the same time period.  Vaughan's thematic approach makes the topic much more coherent, and he doesn't focus on so many minute details that Filbrick does, which also makes it more cohesive.  For readers looking for a broad overview of early Puritan/Native American relations, Vaughan's book is definitely a good place to start.

Rating: 4/5
Buy here.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Beyond the Wall edited by James Lowder

BenBella/Smart Pop Books
240 pages
Published June 26, 2012
Buy here.

This is an excellent collection of fourteen essays of literary analysis that covers a variety of topics relating to George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  There are three different types of essays in this book, the first one being straightforward interpretations of the texts through close readings of Martin's words alone.  One of my favorites in this grouping is "Men and Monsters" by Alyssa Rosenberg, who argues that Martin does not use sex and sexual violence gratuitously in his books (as he is frequently criticized of doing), but rather as an indication of serious character and societal flaws.  "The Brutal Cost of Redemption in Westeros" by Susan Vaught is another excellent piece, and in it Vaught argues that there are no obvious boundaries between "good" and "evil" characters, but that the coming winter is the one true "evil" force of the story.  "Evil" characters, then, are the ones who act only in their best interests and tear at the fabric of Westerosi society, making unified preparation for the coming winter difficult.  Other essays that fall into this category are "An Unreliable World" by Adam Whitehead, in which Whitehead discusses the problems of time-keeping in Westeros (both in terms of the history of the land and the histories of specific characters), "Of Direwolves and Gods," in which Andrew Zimmerman Jones discusses the various religions of Westeros and surrounding lands, and "A Sword Without a Hilt" by Jesse Scoble, which explores magic in Westeros and beyond.

The second type of essays in this collection are those that view and interpret Martin's series through some sort of specific lens.  Myke Cole applies the Cooper Color Code to explore the different ways in which Arya Stark and Theon Greyjoy show evidence of suffering from PTSD in "Art Imitates War." Linda Antonsson and Elio M. Garcia Jr., in "The Palace of Love, the Palace of Sorrow," explore the elements of 19th-century Romanticism that Martin employs in his series, primarily through characters' nostalgic views of their own world and other characters.  In addition, "Petyr Baelish and the Mask of Sanity" by Matt Staggs explains how Baelish is a psychopath, in the clinical rather than popular sense of the term.

Finally, the third variety of essay deals with issues a little outside of but connected to Martin's texts.  In "Same Song In a Different Key," Daniel Abraham highlights the challenges inherent in adapting stories in general and Game of Thrones specifically into a graphic novel, while John Jos. Miller discusses the collectibility of various versions of the books in the series in "Collecting Ice and Fire In the Age of Nook and Kindle."

These essays are well written and well supported, and this collection makes an excellent companion piece to the Song of Ice and Fire series.  Events and characters from all five of the current books are explored and referenced, and although the HBO series is alluded to, the books are really the focus of analysis, and a good grasp of the show's textual foundations is necessary for understanding and appreciating these essays.  For the more-than-casual fan, though, the essays provide great insight into the world and characters that George R. R. Martin has created.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Zombie by J.R. Angelella

Soho Press
353 pages
Published June 5, 2012.  Buy here.

I’m honestly a bit mystified by this novel, but I’ve yet to decide if that’s a bad thing or not.  The story is told through the eyes of Jeremy Barker, a high school freshman at an all-boys Catholic school in Baltimore.  Jeremy loves zombie movies, and he maneuvers through his daily life and personal encounters by sticking to his code of survival, which he pieces together from various zombie movies.  Between his divorced parents (addict mom and Vietnam vet dad), school bullies, girls, and aggressive teachers, Jeremy’s is certainly a world that warrants careful use of survival techniques. 

The plot itself has less to do with zombies (there are, in fact, no literal, brain-munching undead to be found in the whole book) and more to do with the ways that Jeremy’s favorite movies are intertextualized throughout the story.  Weaved within Jeremy’s adolescent tale of survival, though, is a bit of mystery surrounding a video he finds in his father’s room, his father’s nightly disappearances, and his father’s unexplained relationship with one of Jeremy’s teachers.  The tone of the book is a bit dark and all the characters are oddities in their own ways, but the writing is great and there are many laugh-out-loud moments.

Still, I can’t help but feel like I missed something with this book.  The mystery of Jeremy’s father is revealed in the end, but even during the reveal it’s hard to get a grasp on what is really going on.  Interactions between characters are, on the whole, fairly awkward and roundabout, and there are times when it’s hard to understand why characters say certain things or respond in a certain manner.  None of the characters are particularly likeable, especially the adults, and the overall organization of the book (extremely short chapters in ten different sections titled after zombie movies) doesn’t immediately make much sense.  

Despite all this, though, the mystery element and the odd humor make this a good read; the difficult bits will make a great re-read, and I'm looking forward to diving into it again to figure out all its little perplexities.  If you like zombie movies, young adult fiction, and/or bizarre stories, definitely check this one out.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Research Virtuoso by The Toronto Public Library

Annick Press, 2012
122 pages
Buy here.

The Research Virtuoso is a fun, straightforward, and handy introduction to conducting academic research and writing research papers.  Authored by Jessica Rovito and Peggy Thomas of the Toronto Public Library, this book is general enough to be used in any course that requires research, either at the secondary or collegiate level, while providing very specific tips and resources for students to use in the research process.

The book is divided into four parts.  Part One focuses on the pre-research stage, from receiving and understanding a specific assignment to planning and brainstorming to identifying and consulting initial sources.  Bloom's Taxonomy is introduced as a concept on its own and as a tool for writing research papers.  Particularly helpful parts of this section are the examples of different organizational structures and web addresses for online brainstorming tools.  Part Two emphasizes finding information, more specifically the where of research (Internet, libraries, archives, people) and the how of performing keyword searches with electronic sources.  In Part Three, readers learn about skimming and scanning, evaluating resources, taking good notes, avoiding plagiarism, and using different methods of citation.  Finally, Part Four is all about the writing process and putting together a solid presentation of a research project.

Each section is very easy to get through, and headings are a bit tongue-in-cheek to help keep readers interested.  (One section heading is titled "Pick Some Brains: Not Just for Zombies.")  Each part is chock full of information, but the authors avoid overloading the reader by interspersing that information with short comic strips, tables, checklists, and worksheets.  Overall, it has a wonderful mix of textual, visual, and interactive components.

This book is very usable as a textbook in a writing/research-oriented course, and can easily be supplemented with lectures, discussions, and activities.  The language is simple, explanations and definitions are clear, and the organization is logical.  I will certainly be using this book the next time I am in a position to choose my own textbooks.

Rating: 5/5