Friday, February 29, 2008


So, while I was buried under that mountain called "real life," I missed a totally important announcement:

The Cybil winners were announced. I had the most awesomest extreme pleasure to serve as one of the judges for Middle Grade/Young Adult nonfiction.

So, in today's super-long post, I'm giving the run-down of all of our nominees-- they were all fantastic!!!

But, it's Friday, so first, a poem:

A Song for Alef

Alef the letter
Is a refugee.
From paper
To paper
He knows
No home...

To read the rest, you'll have to read this year's winner, Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood Ibtisam Barakat

Ibtisam was 3 1/2 when the Six Day war forced her family to fell from their home in the West Bank. After the harrowing experience of being seperated from her family in the confused mob, she finds them and they manage to escape to Jordan.

The Barakat family live as refugees in shelters, in a classroom, and on a new friend's kitchen floor for nearly 5 months before being allowed back home. But, once home, there is still shooting, still fighting. It's not safe, so it's to an orphanage. There, here brothers are sent away for brawling.

Eventually, they move. Through it all, Barakat's solace is language and her love of the letter alef--the first letter of the alphabet in Arabic and Hebrew.

But, underneath it all, Tasting the Sky is a story of growing up, of losing a pet and sibling rivalry, of making friends and worrying about school, of moving and saying goodbye. While there is sadness in Barakat's tale, there is no anger or hatred, just a hope for peace. And that's a hope we call all share.

Who Was First?: Discovering the Americas Russell Freedman

Dude, it's Russel Freedman, you know it rocks.

This time, the master of children's non-fic takes on the discovery of America. He starts with Christopher Columbus and then works backwards through time, discussing who discovered America before Columbus, who discovered him before that and on and on. He also devotes a fair chunk to current theory and theories we've discarded over the years.

It had a great design--good use of white space and lots of pictures and maps. However, some of the illustration captions were a bit confusing.

He spends a whopping 10 pages discussing Gavin Menzies's theory that the Chinese discovered the US in 1421. Although Freedman gives both sides of the debate, it seems like a lot of page space to devote to a theory that not a lot of historians credit.

I was most impressed by Freedman's sources and his amazing ability to take very complex, academic arguments and make them accessible to a children's audience without dumbing them down.

The Periodic Table: Elements with Style Adrian Dingle

This is a fun look at the elements. Going through the periodic table, it presents basic information about selected elements including atomic weight, color, date of discovery as well as what it is used for and random fun facts. All of this information is accompanied by a fun drawing of the element, looking awesome and anthropomorphized. Where it might not be the best reference book, it's a really fun book for browsing through and learning about the elements. It also has an awesome pull out poster of the periodic table with all the cool cartoon guys in their little squares. 2 complaints-- not all of the elements are covered in the book. Also, when discussing radium, there was no mention of radiation (which seems like a pretty big oversight!) and when discussing bismuth, there was no mention of Pepto (a lesser oversight, but one that would have been fun to include!)

Ok, so that's 3 of the 6 nominees. Stay tuned for more!

Oh! and Poetry Friday round-up is hosted by the ever-lovely Kelly over at Writing and Ruminating!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Books with parallels to the news

My Top 9 for February is up! Going through this site to buy things from Amazon helps me support my habit. (You don't even have to buy what I linked to! Just click over to Amazon from here!)

So, after some x-raying this morning, it turns out that I'm pinching a nerve in my lower back. It's really not fun.

At least I can still read. Last time I messed my back up, they had me on so many muscle relaxants that I couldn't make my eyes focus enough to read. If you're going to be laid up for a week and are unable to read? Ergh. At least Bravo was running a Project Runway marathon that week. I saw all of season one and most of season two, just in time for season two's finale. And! So soon! The season 4 finale! I'm excited.

But, let's talk about some books, shall we? Both books today parallel something happening in the news, sadly, both books deal with some very current events about fear and hate.

This first story hasn't gotten nearly as much press as it should. On February 12, Lawrence King was shot. He died on February 15. He was gay and sometimes wore make-up and women's clothing to school. He was teased and picked on for his sexuality, for "freaking out the guys." So, one Tuesday, his classmate decided to shoot him in the school's computer lab.

Lawrence King was 15. The boy who murdered him was 14.

Although James St. James's book, Freak Show, is ultimately a heart-lifting tale about waving your freak flag, being yourself, and accepting one another, Billy Bloom is horribly bullied for being effeminate. Even when trying to be "normal," he gets it horribly wrong. So, he decides to be his bad-ass drag queen self.

His first period biology classmates beat him into a coma.

The basic plot is that Billy Bloom, gender-bender, cross-dresser, drag queen, queer, and freak, has been sent to live with his all-American father in Florida. He's sent to school with the Stepford children, who think "gay" is contagious. He asks to be transferred to a different biology class (his worst in terms of bullying) but the teacher never noticed there was an issue.

After failing at all attempts to fit in, he gives up and comes to school in full swamp goddess drag. He wakes up 3 days later in the hospital.

After this, everyone has to be nice to him, as the school is hoping desperately his father won't sue.

He decides to run for Homecoming Queen and it turns into a media circus and a lovely tale of the non-popular kids coming out of the wood work and trying to kick some popular ass.

Billy's voice alternates between his dizzying, frenetic, exclamation point riddled highs and his desperate lows when he's hidden himself in the linen closet. But, Billy knows who he is. He isn't always sure how to handle that, but he knows who he is and generally has the attitude that everyone who has a problem with that can go stuff themselves.

It's a great book, but ultimately, not realistic. It's more happy-go-lucky in a sigh inducing David Levithan sort of way.

Because, in the end, Billy Bloom comes off ok. I won't spoil it for you, but I will say it's not a tear-jerker of a novel.

In the real world, Lawrence King was executed in the computer lab. He never even made it to high school.

Walk Across the Sea Susan Fletcher

They were heathens. They didn't speak English. They looked different. They would work for less money than decent, Christian, white folk.

It's Northern California, 1886, and Eliza's father's one of the many townspeople who want to kick the Chinese out of town. But when one young Chinese boy saves Eliza's life, a tentative friendship forms. Eliza sees how her fellow townspeople are kicking the Chinese out--she sees women and old men being dragged from their homes in the middle of the night and thrown onto wagons to be shipped to San Fransisco.

Coupled with her mother's miscarriage, Eliza starts to seriously questions God, the Bible and her father.

With strong parallels to modern immigration debates, Fletcher's tale is gripping and reminds us that we're all human.

Eliza's questioning of why bad things happen to good people is something we've all asked and the answers she finds will not off-put a non-Christian reader, nor will it offend Christians.

Based on true expulsions of Chinese communities throughout the Pacific Northwest, Fletcher's history is well detailed and well researched without over-powering the story. Her author's notes at the end are excellent--clearly outlining her research process and explaining what was fact and what was imagination. I also loved the details about light-house keeping. The ending was perfect too, because it was real.

Searching for Something in Modern China

Well, I'm resurfacing here. It's a really busy semester for me, homework wise. Plus, work's been crazy. Also, I've started randomly embroidering tea towels, and wonder of wonders, I've actually had a bit of a social life lately.

Anyway, I'm back now. I not only haven't been blogging, but I've been out of the whole blogosphere for a few weeks. I've probably missed some massive bit of earth-shattering news. Ah well.

In the meantime, I've jacked my back again. So, I'm in a lot of pain. At least this time I can still walk. (Last time I messed it up, I was in a wheelchair for two days.)

I thought I'd made my return debut on Nonfiction Monday with 2 adult books about China.

Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man Oliver August

This is a fascinating account of the lawlessness and decadence that goes along with the New China.

Obstensibly, it's about one reporter's quest to uncover the true story of Lai Changxing--a tycoon that was the Xiamen's darling and the poster boy for China's economic prosperity until he ended up fleeing to Canada on corruption charges.

But, it's more about August's observations of a society in flux and the effect that change has on all manner of people. August focus's on the seamy underbelly that such prosperity brings-- and all those who enjoy it.

Highly accessible, I recommend it for anyone who wants a hard look at modern China as well as well thought out explanations of why things are progressing the way they are. I also recommend it for anyone who likes stories with bandits and pretty ladies and corrupt government officials.

Fried Eggs with Chopsticks: One Woman's Hilarious Adventure into a Country and a Culture Not Her Own Polly Evans

Polly Evans had a really crappy trip to China. Unfortunately, she doesn't realize this. Her "humor" seems to be making cranky, ignorant remarks about things she doesn't understand at all. Her explanation of various aspects of Chinese culture and history are superficially explained that where they're not wrong, they're also rarely right.

Her favorite parts of her trip seem to include
1. Idyllic villages that haven't seen any modernization. (Isn't poverty quaint?!)
2. Four star Western hotels
3. Starbucks

Everything else is described as a "hellhole." Seriously. I also love her rants on the Americanization of the world, followed by how much she can't wait to get to the Sheraton.

At points, she seems to realize that she's unnaturally grumpy and cranky. She chalks it up, understandably, to loneliness and the fact that traveling alone in China, when you don't speak Chinese and aren't a Sinophile is incredibly hard and physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. A lot of her comments are what I felt on my lowest days when I lived in China, but...

She's a travel writer. That's what she does. If she can't handle traveling alone in a foreign environment without proclaiming the landscape hellish and the people poisonous, maybe she should get a nice desk job.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I hate my life

No Elif Shafak for me.

There's some nasty weather going on. My way from work to Politics and Prose overlaps with my commute home. I left work at 5:45. I got to the splitting point in the where I had to decide: reading? or home? at 7. I knew by the time I got to the bookstore, I would have missed the event.

I got home at 7:50. I live 10 miles from work.


But, for once in my life, I voted for a winner!


So, I haven't blogged in a while. I've read a ton, but there are several major projects in life, work, and school right now, so... ergh. BUT! I bring you a special report. We will soon return to our regularly scheduled blathering.

So, before I go home and watch to see how the rest of my state voted (dude, it took me nearly 45 minutes this morning!) I'm off to Politics & Prose in DC to see Elif Shafak. I'm really super excited.

So, here I bring you a review of

The Bastard of Istanbul Elif Shafak

Family secrets, denied history and national identity all come to play as two families, as well as the past and present collide.

It's hard to explain the plot without just going on and on and on and on and on.

You have one girl, Asya, who lives with her mother, three aunts, her grandmother, and great-grandmother in Istanbul. She's an angry woman, I think she symbolizes Istanbul well-- modern and thinking she's Western, but pulled to the East and the past by tradition. (One that Asya at least tries to deny. It's easier to deny your past when you don't know who your father is.) All the men in her family die early. She has an uncle that was sent to America to try and break the curse.

You have another, Armanoush, who is Armenian-American, but with a Turkish step-father. In an attempt to understand her Armenian-ness, as well as the genocide and deportation that colors her Armenian family's view of everything, Armanoush runs off to Istanbul, where she stays with her step-father's family.

There's a lot more to it than that, trust me. The two family histories are complicatedly entwined, with the narrative jumping place and time on a regular basis.

More than anything, Shafak has wonderful characters, a love for Istanbul while still admitting her faults, a light touch with magical realism, and a good sense of finding the humor in the absurdities of everyday life.

Shafak was charged with insulting Turkish identity because of her discussion of the Armenian genocide. Luckily, the charges were dropped.

I really liked it and can't wait to read her other stuff.

Hopefully, if you're in the DC area, you can get to P&P in time to catch this event!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Hanging out at Home

Fun new developments in my world: STREP THROAT! Ergh.

So, because I'm all contagious until I've been on my meds for 24 hours, I'm at home today. La la la la bored. Dan suggested curling up on the couch this afternoon with the dog and some cocoa and watching a movie while the world falls apart outside (we're supposed to get some weather today) but... the main symptom of me being sick is me feeling very contrary and nothing we own or on TV sounds good to watch. Y'all are lucky I'm home alone today. CRANKY CRANKY CRANKY PANTS.

I just got mad at the refrigerator for failing to magically provide cranberry juice even though I know full well that I drank it all last night. WHAT DO YOU MEAN MY FRIDGE DOESN'T MAGICALLY MAKE THE FOOD I WANT? SINCE WHEN?

See, even in blog land, I'm all shouty. Maybe because I have strep, so I can't shout in real life.

Anyway, let's talk about some books, shall we? Today we feature a book written for grownups.

Olive Kitteridge: Fiction Elizabeth Strout

Interestingly, my copy is not subtitled fiction, but rather "a novel in stories" which is more descriptive. For Olive Kitteridge is indeed a collection of short stories, all revolving around the small town of Crosby, Maine or its dominating title character, Olive.

I don't think I've ever read a book before with the elderly as main characters.

Olive is loud and outspoken, moody and unexpectedly and quietly kind. We first meet her in a story largely about her husband and his relationship with an employee as juxtaposed with the his relationship with his wife. We then see her as she talks to one of her former students, a young man who has returned to main to kill himself. We see Olive briefly in a story about a troubled piano player. There are two stories that focus on her son and how Olive effects his relationships with women. There are two stories (one strongly featuring Olive, the other one only having her make a brief appearance) with two different takes on how a marriage changes in the empty nest years.

Throughout the book, Strout offers us a glimpse into the tangled and troubled lives of people in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else. She compassionately tells the stories of people caught in a changing world they don't always understand. She tackles grief and pain and the emotions of aging with a steady and clear hand.

Overall, she tells a wonderful story about a complicated woman--a week after reading the book, I still can't decide if I like Olive Kitteridge or not. Overall, a compelling and strong read.

Publication Date: April 2008

Full Disclosure: ARC provided by Random House through Library Thing's Early Reviewer Program.

Recent Reads

Before I Die Jenny Downham

A few months ago, some friends and I were talking online, because Rachel had picked up this book in a bookstore and read the flap copy. She was slightly disgusted about a book whose premise was that a girl who was going to die of cancer had a list of things she wanted to do before she died like HAVE SEX!

And then everyone was all like, ack! promiscuous sex! maybe! but none of us had actually read the book.

Well, I finally did and it is absolutely amazing. And yes, there is sex, but it's a rather minor part of the overall story.

We're all going to die, but for Tessa Scott, it's going to happen soon rather than later. Before she dies, she has a list of the things she wants to accomplish. Travel. Fame. Love. And because she'll never see her seventeenth birthday, Sex. Drugs. A little law-breaking. A day where she has to says "yes" to everything.

Before I Die is a story about coming to grips, and maybe even peace, with your impending mortality. It's a story about dealing with your family and friends as they try to do the same thing. Tessa's narration through her final months is straight-forward. She's sometimes scared and sometimes brash, but she never veers into the melodramatic.

Heartbreaking and fantastic.

Dramarama E. Lockhart

Sadye and Demi are busting out of razzle-dazzle free Ohio to spend the summer at drama camp. At camp though, Demi is insta-star but Sadye has a much harder time of it. She gets stuck with the straight play (a disastrous production of A Midsummer's Night Dream) and, even thought she's a dancer in the 10-day wonder, she's told to lip-synch the singing bits. It doesn't help that she seems to stick her foot in her mouth whenever possible.

Drama camp was supposed to allow Sadye to be as big and fabulous as she wanted, but she ends up feeling small and worthless.

Lockhart perfectly captures the behind-the-scenes drama, tears, laughter, and glitter. Sadye and Demi's changing friendship is pitch-perfect. Reading it, I relived every horrible audition and spot-lit curtain-call. Wonderful.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

January Resolutions

What a weekend. I totally tried to attend the DC KidLit brunch.

But I overslept. And then when I got there, couldn't find anyone.

This might have been because I had it in my mind that the brunch was THIS morning, but really, it was yesterday. I wore my Kiki Strike shirt and everything.

That's kinda been the story of this whole past week, actually. Oiy.

I'm trying really hard to come up with some writing samples for some stuff. Writing samples ABOUT BOOKS. My brain isn't functioning.

And, when I made my new years resolutions this year, one of the things I promised myself was that I would never be more than a year behind in my reviewing. And here it is, February 3 and I never did get around to reviewing those lonely unreviewed books that I read back in January of 2007, so let's do that today, shall we?

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party M. T. Anderson

Octavian Nothing is a slave, but he doesn't know that. He's treated like a prince. He and his mother are the subjects of bizarre human experiments by an Enlightenment society in Revolutionary America. It's only when his mother is killed during a Pox Party experiment that he realizes what's going on. It's through this that Anderson explores the duality of slavery while fighting for freedom from England.

Told entirely in eighteenth century English, Octavian Nothing is a technical feat of writing to be sure, but Anderson keeps up an impending sense of doom and Octavian's frequent change of topic in narration leads to extremely short chapters (most are only 2-5 pages long). So, the language doesn't get in the way of the story or bog it down--the narration moves a steady to quick pace.

Powerful and horrifying, the two parts of the story are meant to be one 900 page book, but this first part stands perfectly well on it's own. That said, knowing there's another part coming, I can't wait. It was the one author question I asked at the National Book Fest this year-- when will we see Part 2? Anderson told me next fall.

Wide Awake David Levithan

David Levithan is pissed off about what's happening to his country, that much is obvious.

Here we are in the not-so-distant feature. The country has undergone another War to End All Wars (except that people seem to think that this one actually will) a Greater Depression, and something referred to as the Prada Riots. Christians have split into two major political/cultural groups-- the Decents (think Falwell) and the Jesus Freaks (Jesus loves EVERYONE.) And Duncan cannot believe that the candidate he was campaigning for--gay, Jewish Abe Stein, just got elected President.

Then the governor of Kansas disputes the results in his state and... well... we remember what happened in 2000, right?

Duncan's boyfriend, Jimmy, is super-militant about his politics and he's off to Topeka to protest. Duncan can't go. Because Duncan doesn't want to run away from home to go, Jimmy turns into a jerkwad. So Duncan goes.

Topeka is ugly. Part Florida 2000, part Ukrainian Orange Revolution, both sides have turned out to protest for and against Stein. It gets uglier.

Usually, the one thing that Levithan does so well--sweet love stories, doesn't really work in this case. I wanted to smack Duncan around and tell him that Jimmy wasn't worth it. Where there are several love stories here, it's the politics that drives the plot. Levithan's future gets a little strident and annoying at times as well (we don't believe in consumerism anymore! We go hang out at the mall after school and buy stuff, but we don't actually keep it! The store restocks and all the $$$ we spent goes to charity! If you really need something, you buy it online later! Puke.)

But I like Duncan, who, when in elementary school, thought the Boston Tea Party was a revolutionary cat fight during a sit down Tea Party. And I like the Bleeding Kansas parallel, as well as everyone sitting through the night with their bright green glow sticks...

But his portrayal of the Kansas protests is believable and real and it's all we can do to hope that we don't actually have to do it in November.

Can we please have a fairly clear-cut win this year? Something that is announced BEFORE I fall asleep on the couch? Preferably having the person I'm voting for winning?

I've voted in 2 presidential elections so far. The first being 2000. I lived in Iowa at the time, so my first primary was in Iowa caucus. That's some pretty intense stuff right there. We all crammed into the gym of the local elementary school, and my history prof was standing on a table telling the Gore people to go out on the hall and the Bradley people to get into groups of 10 so they'd be easier to count. (Bradly gave a great speech at campus earlier that year-- ours was the only precinct he won-- and he won us by a landslide...) And then, for the general, I had to vote absentee and watch the results from China. Where most English language news sites are blocked. Except MSNBC, which was reporting 2 different winners on the front page.

Class got out at noon, which was midnight Central time, so we figured all we had to do was bop by the internet cafe on the way to lunch, see who won, and go on about our day.

No. All afternoon, every internet cafe was full of Americans hitting "refresh" every 30 seconds. I was just waiting until 7pm, or 7am where my parents were so I could call and ask what the #%@##%^@#@#$!@#!@ was going on. They didn't know.

Then I had to try and get election results from Chinese Central Television. "Ger-a" and "Xiao Bu-shi" are two vocab words I definitely learned that semester. Every time I heard one, I'd scream for my Chinese roommate to translate for me....

Let's not do that again this year, ok?