Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Video Game Books

Video games: They began as dinky pixelated images where the goal was to eat fruit and run from ghosts (poor old Pac-Man). Now they’re complex, visually stunning stories in which you can fight wars, search for treasure, and build cities. Books that incorporate this changing, challenging technology toy with reality, critique modern society—and afford readers a chance to really, truly, geek-out like crazy.  

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, 2011, Crown Publishers (Science Fiction).

In the year 2044, the environment and the economy have gone to shit. People are poor, sick, and miserable—except when they’re in the OASIS, a completely immersive online video game where they can be fabulous beauty queens or dragon-slaying wizards. The OASIS provides education, jobs, and alternate lives that are ten times more fulfilling than anything the beat-up, worn-down real world can offer. For teenager Wade Watts, the OASIS is his ultimate escape—because it’s creator, eccentric techno-genius James Halliday, left a treasure hunt embedded in the game that leads to a billion dollar real-world fortune and complete control over the OASIS. Halliday was obsessed with the 1980s, the decade of his youth, and Wade (and the rest of the world) have followed in his footsteps, studying John Hughes movies and Atari video games for clues to Halliday’s “Easter egg.” And when Wade gets to the first clue before anyone else—even the soulless minions from the evil IOI corporation—the world (online and offline) will never be the same. Sweet, funny, clever, and quirky, with a cast of badass (ok, geeky) gamers, ‘80s trivia galore, and a Hollywood movie adaptation already in the works, Ready Player One is, quite simply, a winner. 

For the Win by Cory Doctorow, 2010, Tor Books (Young Adult Science Fiction). 

The future’s not all fun and games—not for everyone. Sure, people around the world are engrossed in complex, online video games, but the system has been corrupted. Kids work as slave labor for big bosses, farming virtual gold and prizes from the games that are then sold—for a big profit—to rich gamers who can afford to cut corners. Matthew Fong works his virtual magic in poor conditions for small wages so Boss Wing can reap the rewards. Leonard, aka Wei-Dong, stays up all night in L.A. so he can work online with a ragtag team out of China. Mala, known as General Robotwallah, leads an “army” of kids in India through the games under the watchful eyes of Mr. Banerjee. But when any of these skilled young gamers try to strike out for themselves under their own terms, they’re met with threats and violence. Enter Big Sister Nor, a factory-worker-turned-gamer who’s out to lead a worldwide rebellion—online and off—against the bosses and owners. With an international cast of characters whose stories sweep across the globe, For the Win is authentic and exciting. There’s plenty of social commentary here, but this is one thrilling call to action. 

The Unidentified by Rae Mariz, 2010, Balzer and Bray (Young Adult Science Fiction).

In the not-too-distant future, education has been taken over by corporations. Malls are converted to Game Centers, and students learn by—you guessed it—shopping. Connected to each other by high-tech digital devices, playing complex video games in a simulated consumer environment, the most popular kids earn the highest Game scores. Katey “Kid” Dade is decidedly not popular; she just wants to make music with her friends and get along with her mother at home. But then Kid’s curiosity is roused when a group calling itself the Unidentified pulls a daring anti-corporate prank. Ironically, Kid’s investigation into this act of rebellion makes her more appealing to the corporations, and soon Kid’s been “branded”—contracted by sponsors as a “trendspotter” who acts as a spokesperson. As Kid longs for her previous anonymity and digs deep into the Unidentified’s secrets, she begins to question the society she belongs to. And as any reader of dystopian fiction knows, shaking up the status quo leads to all kinds of trouble. Compulsively readable and pitch-perfect when it comes to depicting the life of the average high schooler, The Unidentified is a compelling glimpse into a future that’s not so very different from our own technology-dependent lives.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, 2002, Starscape Books, originally published in 1985 (Science Fiction). 

Years ago, an alien race invaded earth—twice. By sheer chance, a single commander of the International Fleet managed to defeat the “buggers.” But humans live in fear that they will attack again, and the International Fleet has spent years developing an intense program to train the next generation of all-star commanders. The students at Battle School are children, little boys and girls who nevertheless possess razor-sharp intellect and an instinct for strategy. The top student is Ender Wiggin, just six years old when he leaves his family. Ender is different, and special. Video games, battle simulations, and a fantasy game with a twisted psychological component—plus isolation, bullying, the knowledge that his failure means the end of life of earth, and an uncanny ability to survive and thrive—turn Ender into the ultimate fighting machine. And though Ender may be the earth’s last and best hope, he’s never been predictable—and the buggers are still out there. Despite Ender’s fierce determination, he’s a sympathetic character who’s never allowed to make any plans for his future or stray from the destiny he’s been chosen for. Smart, suspenseful, and thoughtful, Ender’s Game has become a classic of the science fiction genre.

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, art by Thien Pham, 2011, First Second Books (Graphic Novels/ Fantasy). 

It was a Pac-Man arcade game in a Chinese restaurant and for six-year-old Dennis Ouyang, it was love at first sight. But Dennis’ parents have different ideas: good grades, college, med school. So young Dennis never plays a video game until he’s in college. Then—the day after his father dies of liver cancer—Dennis finally gets his hands on a video game system. He’s a natural, and gaming becomes his life even when he flunks out of school. But when Dennis is visited by a quartet of quirky cartoon angels straight off the front of a greeting card, he’s quickly back on track, video game-free and on his way toward the future his father always envisioned for him: a successful career as a gastroenterologist. As Dennis tries to ignore the visions of pixelated video game characters that dance in his head, artist Thien Pham inks cartoon panels in subtle shades filled with energetic characters and the wry humor of author Gene Luen Yang. Level Up is a smart, savvy meditation on what can happen when you try to juggle what you want and what’s expected of you with the twists and turns that life can take all on its own. 

JPod by Douglas Coupland, 2006, Bloomsbury Books (Fiction/ Humor). 

Ethan Jarlewski is a video game designer at a big Vancouver company. Dream job? Not when his most recent assignment is to add a cuddly turtle character to the nearly-complete skateboarding game that’s already been in production for months. As Ethan and the quirky coworkers in his cubicle group—they’re the jPod, because all their last names begin with J—find as many ways as possible to not do their work (reminiscing about the ‘90s, surfing the internet, playing video games, writing letters to Ronald McDonald), Ethan’s life takes a series of very strange turns. His mother grows and sells marijuana. His struggling-actor father needs constant pep talks. His real estate agent brother is into human trafficking. Kaitlin, the pretty new jPodder, is taking her sweet time in warming up to the jPod in general and Ethan in particular—though she shows a pleasing penchant for rearranging the keys on Ethan’s keyboard. And the other jPodders just get weirder and weirder. As the insanity of Ethan’s life builds and builds, and the wordplay and wit of JPod never let up—and author Douglas Coupland writes himself into the story. Chock-full of pop culture references and brimming with 21st century sarcasm and irony, JPod is a strange, silly, satirical look at the strange, silly, satirical modern world that we live in. 

Reamde by Neal Stephenson, 2011, William Morrow Books (Science Fiction). 

I’m still on the library waiting list for this one, so as soon as the 312 people ahead of me finish the book, you’ll be able to read all about it here!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Grows Up

Remember reading those old “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” stories when you were a kid? With opening sentences like “You are a deep sea explorer searching for the famed lost city of Atlantis” or “You stand on the deck of the RMS Titanic, the brand new White Star ocean liner,” you knew immediately that there was adventure in store. And then there’s the added thrill of getting to decide what happens next: “If you choose to return to the island, go to page 12. If you decide to follow Jenny into the abyss, go to page 38.” The adventures were straightforward, the choices were good or bad—ah, how simple life was. But now that you’re an adult, choosing your own storybook adventure is more complex, sassier, sexier, gorier, and helluva lot more interesting.

Pretty Little Mistakes: A Do-Over Novel by Heather McElhatton, 2007, Harper Books (Interactive Books/ Fiction).

Ah, high school graduation, that time when “the real world” seems to contain every and any possibility. This hopeful moment is where Pretty Little Mistakes begins. A few key life choices can result in your shacking up with a handsome Italian, blown to bits by a pipe bomb when you’re working as a doctor in Africa, running away to join the circus, or pecked to deaths by ducks when you become a meth addict after flunking out of college. The choices here will lead you all over the world and into a variety of professionals ranging from sex-phone operator to scholar. You’ll get married, impregnated, and divorced (not always in that order). You’ll be a rousing success and a miserable failure. The possibilities are endless. And if you don’t like where life leads you, you can always go back and start over. After all, everyone deserves a do-over.

You Are a Miserable Excuse for a Hero! by Bob Powers, 2008, St. Martin’s Griffin Press (Interactive Books/ Humorous Fiction).

You’re a loser. You’re a thirtysomething wannabe actor, working as waiter, and the girl you went out with last night has been kidnapped. Her kidnappers call you in the morning, waking you up and demanding fifty thousand dollars for her safe return. You don’t have fifty thousand dollars. You don’t even know if you like this girl all that much. But you could be a hero…or you could get drunk and go back to sleep. There are happy endings here, where you got to grad school and raise a family and make a life for yourself surrounded by loved ones. There are also really sucky endings, with torture and murder and unwanted pregnancy. But most of all, there’s plenty of sarcasm, dark humor, and utter nonsense. It’s everything your average childhood “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” story is not, and that’s what makes You Are a Miserable Excuse for a Hero! so addictively entertaining.

Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure by Emma Campbell Webster, 2007, Riverhead Books (Interactive Books/ Historical Fiction).

If you love Jane Austen, if you’ve read all her novels, watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice until you know it by heart, if you long to go to Lyme to see the spot where Louisa Musgrove fell, then Lost in Austen is the book for you. As Elizabeth Bennett, you have intelligence and wit and some portion of beauty, but not a lick of money. You wish to marry for love; your meddling mother wants you to marry for money. As you make choices that may lead to dashing Mr. Darcy or to drippy Mr. Collins (and every other Austen hero from steadfast Captain Wentworth to caddish Willoughby) you gain or lose points for Accomplishments, Connections, and Fortune that will attract or repel possible suitors. There’s a delightfully wicked sense of humor at play as well, with plenty of sass and tongue-in-cheek criticism. Austen fans will happily get lost over and over again.

Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? by Max Brallier, 2011, Gallery Books (Interactive Books/ Horror).

How many times have you found yourself hollering at the idiot characters in horror movies as they insist on finding the source of that creepy noise when they should be running for their lives? Well, here’s your chance to set things right. You’re a young businessman in the city when all hell breaks loose and zombies take over Manhattan. You’re first choice: get to your apartment, catch the next taxi, or take the subway out of town. These three paths lead to such life-and-death decisions like: Ax or shotgun? Run or stand your ground? Save the girl or save your ass? Sometimes you end up just another zombie, stumbling around and moaning for brains. Sometimes you’re the big hero, guns blazing as you lead crowds of grateful schoolchildren to safety. It’s action-packed, gory as all get out, and every bit as much fun as the best zombie horror flicks on the big screen.

The Raging Tide, or The Black Doll’s Imbroglio by Edward Gorey, 1987, Beaufort Books (Interactive Books/ Picture Books/ Humorous Fiction).

Edward Gorey is well-known for his grown-up picture books and his macabre sense of humor. In The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an entire alphabet of small children meets their makers in all manner of devilishly entertaining ways. In The Doubtful Guest, an surprise visitor makes himself quite content in the midst of a household that’s too polite to tell him to go away. And in The Raging Tide, Skrump, Naeelah, Figbash, and Hooglyboo engage in nonsense, guided by your very own expertise. If you think it is clever when Hooglyboo crams Figbash into a vase, turn to page 11. If all this seems “too terrible to contemplate,” turn to page 29. You may also, on another page, choose to visit the Dogear Wryde Topiary Gardens (page 26) or tour the Villa Amnesia (page 23). Nonsense indeed, but in the grand tradition of Edward Gorey, it’s nonsense that you can’t get enough of.

Meanwhile: Pick Any Path—3,856 Story Possibilities by Jason Shiga, 2010, Amulet Books (Interactive Books/ Graphic Novels/ Children’s Science Fiction).

On the first page of this intricate, creative comic book, you’re a little cartoon boy in an ice cream shop deciding between chocolate and vanilla. If you choose chocolate, you follow a brown tube-like line that leads up and around to a tab on a different page. The vanilla line leads you straight off one page and onto another. You continue to follow these lines up, down, right, left, backwards, and forwards as you jump from page to page and wind your way through panels that feature a mad scientist, parallel universes, quantum mechanics, and a giant squid. Sometimes, you save the world. Sometimes, you destroy all life on the planet. Either way, you learn about math and science and—believe it or not—have a whale of a time doing it. Ostensibly for children, Meanwhile will captivate readers of every age with its mind-bending tricks, wily ways, and unexpected endings.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

It’s been 146 years since John Wilkes Booth walked into a theater and shot Abraham Lincoln in the head. But our collective interest in that event has not dimmed. Consider a few details from that fateful night—Booth had only a few hours to plan the assassination; Lincoln had recurring dreams and premonitions about his death; Booth knew the play so well that he could anticipate the crowds’ laughter to cover the sound of the shot. And then there’s the remarkable cast of supporting characters—Mary Surratt (the first woman in American history to be executed by the federal government), Secretary of State William Seward (who survived a near-fatal assault by another assassin at the exact moment Booth was killing Lincoln), and Robert Lincoln (Abe’s son who would be at hand to witness two more presidential shootings). It’s no wonder we’re still fascinated by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln Shot: A President Remembered by Barry Denenberg, illustrated by Christopher H. Bing, 2008, Feiwel and Friends Books (Nonfiction/ Children’s Picture Book/ Biography).

Purporting to be a commemorative edition of the (fictional) 1866 National News, published on the one-year anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, this striking (and large—it’s nearly two feet tall) picture book combines history with the art of book design to present an object that is both a pleasure to read and a wealth of information. Faux-contemporary articles narrate the events at Ford’s Theater; cover the hunt for Booth and the conspirators’ trial; and provide biographies of Lincoln, his family, and his generals. Photographs, posters, maps, and original artwork by Christopher H. Bing—combined with yellowed pages, old-fashioned type, and advertisements from the era—complete the illusion that we’re reading an antique 19th century newspaper documenting the crime that changed the nation. And it’s an illusion readers are more than willing to buy into, given that its creators have gone to such lengths to make it so authentic and so engrossing.

Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution—An Illustrated History by James L. Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg, 2006, William Morrow Books (Nonfiction/ Civil War History).

The assassination is not just the story of John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln. Sure, we know dramatic details like Booth’s theatrical leap to the stage after the shooting, but this illustrated history gathers all the lesser-known but no less compelling facts of the case—Booth’s numerous schemes and failed plans before his final successful murder attempt, the extensive network of Confederate spies and sympathizers that Booth relied on, Booth’s dramatic escape and capture, and the trial and execution of the men (and woman) who aided him. The story is conveyed through detailed summaries written by two men who are assassination experts. Reproductions of newspapers articles and illustrations cover nearly every page, and the haunting faces of Booth’s accomplices stare out from their post-capture portraits. It’s a bit morbidly fascinating, but this astonishing collection of images provides one of the most accurate, intelligent, and comprehensive looks at the Lincoln assassination.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson, 2006, William Morrow Books (Nonfiction/ Civil War History).

James L. Swanson, co-author of Lincoln’s Assassins, here focuses on the events immediately after Lincoln’s murder. An angry, bitter, South-sympathizing Booth stumbles across an unforeseen opportunity, acts on it, and flees into the night. The next twelve days will shock a nation still reeling from the barely-ended Civil War. Manhunt becomes a gripping page-turner as Booth literally breaks a leg during his dramatic leap to the stage, cons his way across the bridge to Maryland, hides in the woods for days with his naïve accomplice David Herold, and makes a desperate bid for safety in the Deep South. Booth’s obsessions and hatreds, his deep-seated desire for fame and notoriety, his immense ego—not to mention his ill-luck and miserable mistakes—take center stage here, and the results are compelling. Swanson picks up where Manhunt leaves off with Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse.

The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln by Kate Clifford Larson, 2008, Basic Books (Nonfiction/ Biography/ Civil War History).

One of the most compelling characters in the story of the Lincoln assassination is Mary Surratt, the only female conspirator and the first woman executed by the federal government. Mary was the mother of John Surratt, one of Booth’s most infamous accomplices. Booth was a constant visitor at the Surratt boarding house in Washington, D.C.—he even visited Mary the day of the murder. In short, the Surratt home was the center of operations for the assassination conspiracy. When Mary was inevitably arrested (her Southern sympathies were no secret), the public was shocked that a gentlewoman could be involved so directly in such a deplorable plot. When Mary was sentenced to death, the nation was outraged that their government could be so harsh to a mere woman. The Assassin’s Accomplice reveals Mary Surratt as a strong-willed woman who made no qualms about what she believed—and who paid for those beliefs with her life.

The Murder of Abraham Lincoln: A Chronicle of 62 Days in the Life of the American Republic, March 4-May 4, 1865 written and illustrated by Rick Geary, 2005, NBM ComicsLit (Comics/ Nonfiction Graphic Novel).

What better way to learn about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln than through the artistic stylings of a comic book from a series called A Treasury of Victorian Murder? Author and illustrator Rick Geary begins on March 4th, 1865 (the date of Lincoln’s second inauguration) and doesn’t let up until the President’s body is laid to rest on May 4th. Geary’s dialogue adds flare to the already-inherent drama of the events, his maps of places and buildings are immensely helpful in getting a sense of the action, and the particulars of the time period are rendered with a carefulness that speaks of thorough research and attention to detail. The story unfolds seamlessly as page after page of Geary’s rich black-and-white illustrations (reminiscent of 19th century newspaper engravings) flow by. Plus it’s just fun to see Honest Abe and the villainous Booth done up as cartoons, complete with stovepipe hat and twirling mustache.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, 2005, Simon and Schuster Books (History Writing/ Travel Writing).

Sarah Vowell loves a good assassination—so much so that she goes on a cross-country vacation to visit the sights associated with three presidential murders: James A. Garfield, shot by deluded Charles Guiteau in 1881; William McKinley, shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901; and of course good old honest Abe Lincoln, shot by John Wilkes Booth back in 1865. Vowell’s obsession with the Lincoln assassination takes up quite a bit of this delightfully oddball book. It is here that we find out about Robert Lincoln (aka “Jinxy McDeath”) and his penchant for being nearby when presidents were killed. We also learn where Lincoln’s brain ended up and that Vowel has a crush on the actor who played John Wilkes Booth in the off-Broadway musical Assassins. Quirky, witty, and endlessly enjoyable, Assassination Vacation supplies everything you ever wanted to know about the Lincoln assassination but didn’t even know you wanted to ask.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


There’s nothing like a half-mile long convention center exhibit hall full of publishers throwing books at you to get you back in the mood for book-blogging. The American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference was in New Orleans last month, and the exhibit hall was a librarian’s heaven on earth. You’d walk past a table and a book would appear in your hands—an ARC, or Advanced Reading Copy. Many of those ARCs were new graphic novels and illustrated books that represent an especially exciting trend in publishing right now. Here are some new and up-coming titles, fresh from the forty-pound bag of books that this librarian lugged across that exhibit hall, through the convention center, and down the streets of New Orleans.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, Sep. 11, 2011, Scholastic Books (Children’s Illustrated Novel)

Brian Selznick’s debut novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, won the Caldecott Medal. Selznick’s second book, Wonderstruck, continues to push the boundaries of the illustrated novel format. Just as Hugo Cabret told a good portion of its story through full-page black-and-white drawings, Wonderstruck is also full of Selznick’s trademark illustrations. But this time, half the novel is told through pictures alone—the story of Rose, a girl in the 1920s who becomes enchanted with a beautiful actress. Ben’s story, set in 1977 as he runs away from home, is told in words. Combined, the stories of Rose and Ben offer tales of mystery and intrigue that wind and weld through a union of art and prose. Selznick has become an expert at mixing elements of the novel, graphic novel, picture book, and film, and Wonderstruck continues to cement his reputation as a visionary in his field.

Trickster: Native American Tales—A Graphic Collection edited by Matt Dembicki, 2010, Fulcrum Books (Graphic Novel Anthology)

Native American stories are often overlooked in literature; even more so in the graphic novel boom that has swept book publishing the last few years. But Trickster: Native American Tales remedies all that—and does so in an intelligent, artistic, and truly delightful way. Collecting various interpretations of the Trickster character and myth just as it collects different artists and authors to tell the tales, Trickster is a unique and authentic anthology. The artwork ranges in style from bubbly cartoon rabbits to realistic raccoons to black-and-white inked coyotes and ravens; the tales are drawn from many cultures to emphasis the distinct differences between North America’s tribal groups. But it’s not only educational information about a too-often-ignored history; Trickster is as genuinely funny as it is thought-provoking. Whether he’s a coyote creating stars in the sky or a rabbit out-witting bison, there’s something for everyone in the tales of the Trickster.

Around the World: Three Remarkable Journeys by Matt Phelan, Oct. 11, 2011, Candlewick Press (Children’s Graphic Nonfiction)

Picture book illustrator Matt Phelan won critical acclaim for his 2009 historical graphic novel The Storm in the Barn, a Depression-era story tinged with fantasy. His new book, Around the World, is no less enchanting for being based on fact. In 1873, Jules Verne published Around the World in Eighty Days, his famous adventure story about a high-stakes race around the world. The novel captured the public imagination, and a few intrepid real-life adventures determined to embark on their own worldwide round-trips. Phelan’s beautifully illustrated book follows ex-miner Thomas Stevens on his bicycle (the old-fashioned kind with the giant front wheel), sea captain Joshua Slocum all alone on his thirty-six-foot ship, and sassy reporter Nellie Bly as she charges around the globe to beat Jules Verne’s fictional eighty-day challenge. The adventures are thrilling enough in black and white; the final book will be published in glorious full color.

The Wikkeling by Steve Arntson, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazinni, 2011, Running Press Kids Books (Children’s Illustrated Novel)

Henrietta’s life is controlled by rigid rules that “protect” her from deadly things like house cats (dangerous wild animals) and old books (which can make you sick). But one night Henrietta finds an injured cat in a secret attic. From the tip-top windows, she can see her neighborhood the way it used to look in the idyllic way-back-when days. Good things rarely last, however, and soon a mysterious, long-fingered yellow creature called the Wikkeling is haunting Henrietta. Its mere touch can give you a headache, and it wants to know where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. As Henrietta investigates this menacing apparition and the world she lives in, readers are delightfully creeped out by illustrator Daniela J. Terrazinni’s stark and wild drawings. The dystopian world of The Wikkeling is eerily similar to our own, and that is of course where its real appeal lies.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales by Chris Van Allsburg, Sherman Alexie, M.T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabitha King, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, Louis Sachar, and Jon Scieszka with an introduction by Lemony Snicket, Oct. 25, 2011, Houghton Mifflin Books (Children’s Picture Book/ Short Story Collection)

Since it was first published in 1984, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg has been inspiring people to write stories. The original introduction tells of Harris Burdick, a man who left his artwork with a publisher and walked out the door—never to return again. The fourteen fascinating illustrations and their even-more fascinating captions remain to motivate writers all around the world. Now, twenty-seven years later, the best and brightest of children’s and young adult literature contribute their stories to the Harris Burdick oeuvre. In October, readers young and old can experience Lois Lowry’s story about the nun flying through the cathedral whilst seated primly in a wooden chair, Stephen King’s tale about the blast-off house, and Chris Van Allsburg’s own version of the girl and her caterpillars. By turns creepy, cute, and comical, this new batch of stories will inspire Harris Burdick fans all over again.

Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page by Matt Kish, Oct. 11, 2011, Tin House Books (Illustrated Novel)

One day in 2009, Matt Kish, a librarian and artist in Ohio, was inspired by his “undying love” for a big book about a man and a whale. Kish decided to draw an illustration for every page of the Signet Classics edition of—you guessed it—Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Two years and 552 pages later, Kish’s project is complete. Using common materials and found pages, Kish deliberately employed a low-tech style in response to the increasing amount of digitally produced book art. A quote or passage from each page of Moby-Dick is Kish’s inspiration, and the result—seen in a few promotional postcards and a simple BLAD (Book Layout and Design, a sort of six-to-twelve-page mini-ARC)—is beautiful, fun, and inspiring. Kish began his Moby-Dick drawings as an art project for his modest blog; in a few months his artistic interpretation of Melville’s masterpiece will be available to one and all.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Spring Break Used Books

Booklists for Bookworms is on spring break for a few weeks.  In the meantime, check out these wonderful sellers of used books:

AbeBooks.com is your online source for used, new, rare, out-of-print books, classic collectibles, signed editions, textbooks, and pretty much any other book you can think of.  Their motto is "passion for books," and it shows.

ThriftBooks.com.  "Spend less.  Read more."  Who can argue with that?  Plus there's bestsellers for under $4, free shipping, and over five million cheap used books up for grabs. 

Magers and Quinn Booksellers, located in Minneapolis, MN, is the Twin Cities' largest independent bookstore.  With everything from discounted new books to near-priceless rare books, M&Q is "a bounty of the world's best books assembled by biblioholic booksellers."

Half Price Books claims to be "America's favorite new and used bookstore chain."  With stores in sixteen states and a new website to boot, plus hundreds of thousands of new books, used books, magazines, music, movies, and games to choose from, they're probably right.

BetterWorldBooks.com promotes more than just used books at low prices.  They also promote education by funding literacy projects across the country and around the world.

Strand Books in New York City is an institution:  Eighteen miles of books wrapped around 55,000 square feet and it still has the cozy, old-world feel of a bookstore that's been around since 1927.  If you're not up to browsing all that shelf space, you can shop online from the comfort of your home.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why We Love Jane

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is more popular today than she ever was in her all-too brief life. Arguably the best-known female writer in literary history, Jane wrote only six books—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion—before she died at the age of forty-two. Some think of her as the ultimate romantic, the founding mother of the chick lit genre. Some admire her keen wit and observant eye, seeing in Jane an uncanny ability to critique society. Not merely content to read Jane’s books, we’ve created an entire industry around her legacy—sequels, prequels, spin-offs, modern adaptations, and a unique body of work that analyzes why exactly we’re so fond of dear old Jane.

Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin, 1997, Alfred A. Knopf Books (Biography/ 19th Century English Novelists) 

The first biography of Jane Austen was published a few years after her death by a nephew; it was meant to be the final word on “Aunt Jane” and her quiet, humble existence. To her later biographers, Jane proved exceptionally elusive—despite leading such a supposedly ordinary existence, there are very few records, notes, letters, or other papers that reveal what Jane was really like. Guesswork is a must for an Austen biographer, especially since sister Cassandra destroyed many of Jane’s letters, which hints at a private life that was more dramatic than historical fact leads us to believe. Jane Austen: A Life, the 1997 biography by Claire Tomalin, is one of the best. Tomalin reveals details about the lives of family and friends to throw light on how Jane lived and worked and thought and felt; Jane’s life is placed firmly in its context of 18th and 19th century religion, politics, and war. Most importantly, the evolution of Jane’s writing is thoughtfully traced. The reader is left with a vivid sense of Jane, her work, and her life. And that, given the difficulty of truly explaining Jane, is the best Austen fans can wish for.

Becoming Jane Austen: A Life by Jon Spence, 2007, Hambledon Continuum Books (Biography/ 19th Century English Novelists)

The only other writing Jane left behind (besides her novels, a few half-finished works-in-progress, and a handful of childhood scribblings) is her letters. Jane’s elegant literary style is not on show in these missives; these are everyday thoughts put down on the spur of the moment, gossip, news, and family jokes. But there is one tantalizing incident—a flirtation with one “Tom Lefroy.” Tom and Jane met, danced, chatted, and parted forever. Schoolgirl crush or doomed love affair? We’ll never know, but that doesn’t stop biographer Jon Spence from speculating that this relationship was a turning point in Jane’s life that directly inspired the love stories she later wrote. Spence also highlights the possible influence of Jane’s fashionable, glamorous cousin Eliza de Feuillide, whose first husband was guillotined during the French Revolution. By making connections between historical fact and literary fiction, Spence infuses Jane’s life with the romance and drama that Austen fans long to know she experienced. Becoming Jane Austen was the inspiration for the 2007 Hollywood movie Becoming Jane, which firmly casts Jane Austen as the heroine in her very own romantic comedy.

“The Janeites” in Collected Stories by Rudyard Kipling, 1999, Everyman’s Library/ Alfred A. Knopf Books, originally published 1922 (Fiction/ Short Story Collections)

Rudyard Kipling’s 1922 “The Janeites” is one of the first stories to mention Jane Austen as a member of the literary canon, as an author one is expected to know and love. In the story, a simple-minded ex-soldier recounts how, thanks to Jane, he survived World War I. Humberstall is wounded and reassigned to the position of assistant mess waiter. While he’s working, he notices the senior mess waiter conversing on equal terms with military officers. The subject, of course, is Jane Austen. Humberstall has never heard of this “Jane woman,” but he can tell that a passion for her is something akin to being a member of a secret society. Soon Humberstall is escaping the horrors of war by learning the meaning of “Tilney,” learning how to spell “Catherine De Bugg,” naming artillery after other characters, and gossiping about whether Jane ever got married. Humberstall tells his own story so Kipling writes in a lower-class British dialect; it’s charming (once you get used to it) and Austen fans will get a kick out of Humberstall’s crash-course in all things Austen.

“Jane Austen Faints” in Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography by Hermione Lee, 2005, Princeton University Press (Nonfiction/ Literary History and Analysis/ Biography)

How does a biographer handle the ambiguities, contradictions, missing years, mythmaking, facts, and fictions? When British writer Hermione Lee gets to the case of Jane Austen, she has plenty to talk about. Given the piddling amount of factual information that exists from Jane’s forty-two years on earth, Austen is a notoriously tough subject. Any incident that is known—no matter how trivial—is ripe for debate. Once, according to family legend, Jane Austen fainted. The cause was the unexpected news that Mr. Austen had decided to move the family to Bath; the result has been intense biographical speculation. This is Jane exhibiting extreme emotion; it must be important. Lee examines various Austen bios see what different writers have made of the incident. Is Jane shocked by how sudden the news is? Terrified of city life, away from the familiar green countryside? Afraid a secret love affair has been uncovered and she is being forcibly separated from her suitor? The real cause is unknown, and so every biographer’s point of view colors our vision of Austen—and forces us to question whether we can ever really know Jane as well as we think we do.

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman, 2009, Henry Holt and Co. (Nonfiction/ Literary History and Analysis/ 19th Century English Novelists)

Even if you’ve never read any of Austen’s books, you’re familiar with their titles and plots. Note the success of the BBC’s TV Pride and Prejudice miniseries starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, or the chick lit bestseller Bridget Jones’s Diary (a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, complete with its own Mr. Darcy), or the Hollywood movie Clueless (a modern retelling of Emma), or the recent book mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Today, Jane is everywhere, and author Claire Harmon shows us how she got there. This is a biography not of Jane’s life but of her fame—her quiet life followed by a few brief decades where no one knew her name, and then a century-long revival that has yet to end. Harman shows us Jane as a feminist and as an anti-feminist, Jane as a prickly old maid and Jane as a token for “girl power,” Jane as a Hollywood heroine and as a Bollywood starlet. We meet Jane’s detractors (Charlotte Brontë, Mark Twain) and Jane’s fans (Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf). We figure out our own personal reasons for loving Jane. However she is viewed and analyzed and adapted, one thing becomes very clear in this fascinating exploration—Jane Austen is here to stay.

Sanditon and Other Stories by Jane Austen, 1996, Everyman’s Library, originally published 1870-1871 (Fiction Classics)

Forget all the sequels, prequels, and spin-offs. Never mind the sexual innuendos in Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife and the cartoon violence in Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Throw out the mystery series starring Mr. and Mrs. Darcy (by Carrie Bebris) and the mystery series starring Jane herself (by Stephanie Barron). You don’t need the next best thing; there IS more Jane. When she died, Jane left several unpublished works. Two of these we know as Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but the fragmentary Sanditon, the few chapters of The Watsons, and the novella Lady Susan showcase Jane at her finest. Sanditon begins with an overturned carriage, several gossipy chapters about the characters’ lives, and ends just when the heroine becomes entangled in a romantic mystery. The Watsons features a young lady brought up by wealthy relations and shipped back to her poor family in the country—rather the opposite of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price. Lady Susan is a sassy little tale about a man-hunting widow who wants her daughter to marry well—and herself to remarry even better. These fragments, believe it or not, are every bit as good as the real thing.