Sunday, February 21, 2010


On on a not-so-special day in a not-so-special small town Jason Bock makes up a religion.  While in a teen church organization meeting Jason claims to worship the Ten-Legged God, mostly to tick off the youth group leader.  But it doesn't end there.  Jason figures that if others can make up a God without any proof, so can he.  So he decides to worship the town water tower.  After all, water gives life, water is found everywhere, the water tower is the tallest structure in many towns.  Jason even manages to recruit a few members who become Chutengodians to worship the tower with him.  But soon what starts off as a harmless joke gets out of hand.

Despite the absurd premise of a boy starting a religion around a water tower, this book is actually very believable.  When it comes down to it it's a book about a teenage boy questioning his religion and the very concept of belief.  The difference he makes between belief in a god and belief in religion is interesting.  It's also interesting to read about how his friends react, especially his obsessive friend Shin who actually seems to start taking the religion seriously.  The details are also great.  At the beginning of each chapter is an excerpt of the Chutengodian holy book.  It's far-fetched, sure, but not so far-fetched I couldn't see someone actually believing it.  The narration was also done well and I enjoyed watching Jason as he puzzled through these difficult issues and dissected the arguments of his father and others.  As Jason puts it: "Being Catholic is hard.  Being ex-Catholic is even harder." 

Godless, by Pete Hautman.  ISBN: 0-689-86278-4


If you're stuck in your room or you're stuck in a rut,
If your life needs adventure no if, and, or but,
If you love magical creatures and mysteries too,
I've got just the right thing: read Zorgamazoo!

If you want to read rhymes much better than mine: Pick up Zorgamazoo, don't waste any time!  Okay, I'm done.  I promise.  Sorry about that.  Zorgamazoo is a delightful rhyming romp that reminded me strongly of Dr. Seuss, except in long form.  It's apparently Weston's first novel and I'm eager for the next.  In addition to rhyming the novel does a lot of fun things with typography and has illustrations at the beginning of each chapter and all I could think of while I was reading it was how much fun it would be to read aloud.  I even imagined how I'd vary my voice to match each character and different typographic effects.  Another strong heroine in this one, although I think this book could easily be enjoyed by both sexes.  The book is fairly bursting with an exuberant spirit that is infectious and while not terribly deep it's certainly clever and I support its message whole-heartedly.

Zorgamazoo, by Robert Paul Weston.  ISBN: 978-1-59514-199-6

The Diamond of Drury Lane

Cat is an orphan, but she considers herself to be one of the luckiest people alive. You see, when her parents abandoned her she was left on the steps of the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, and that's where she has lived ever since.  Life in the theatre is never boring, but it becomes even more exciting with the arrival of a diamond and two new friends--all of which seem to bring nothing but trouble into her life.  With dodging gang members on the street and nearly dying on wayward set pieces nowhere seems to be safe for Cat.  It's a good thing cats have nine lives because she'll need every one!

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I'm admittedly more than a bit biased due to the book's setting in a theatre in 1790 England.  Cat's narration does get on my nerves at times when she decides to address her audience directly, but that doesn't happen very often and overall I like her spirit.  I also, of course, enjoyed the peek into theatre life at the end of the 18th century.  Cat curses a lot in her narration and she spends a lot of time interacting with gang members or attending boxing matches or other less-than-respectable activities but there's nothing really that bad about it and I think it would be fine for younger readers.  Especially because none of her cursing would be really recognizable to a child today and if there's anything I've learned it's that people seem to find cursing cute if it's from another time or place and this is from another time AND place so I don't anticipate parents having any problem with it.  The book is fun and has a strong female lead so I'd recommend it as a nice bit of light reading, especially to those with any interest in theatre.

The Diamond of Drury Lane, by Julia Golding.  ISBN: 139781596433519

My One Hundred Adventures

One summer twelve-year old Jane decides that she is ready for some adventure in her life, so she decides to pray for adventures to come--one hundred of them to be precise.  What follows is an unforgettable summer that changes her life forever.  From hot-air-balloon rides to all-night car rides Adventure follows her wherever she goes.  Unfortunately, so does Trouble. 

This charming novel seems the embodiment of the old Oscar Wilde quote: "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers."  Jane lives in a small town in a house on the beach with her poet mother and her three younger siblings.  Over the course of the summer her mother's ex-boyfriends show up making her question how they live and who her father is and the local pastor takes her on bible-spreading missions that make her question religion as well.  She learns a lot of serious lessons for a girl her age, and while she is a bit precocious her narrative is believable throughout and perfect in its childhood logic.  A great book to read aloud to a child this summer or for a child to read themselves, although I'd say this book is definitely geared towards girls more than boys.

"It is inestimably comforting to have a friend, someone who is not horrified at you but with you."

"All our lives are mundane but all our lives are also poetry."
My One Hundred Adventures, by Polly Horvath.  ISBN: 9780375845826

The True Adventures of Charley Darwin

For most people the name Darwin brings to mind an old, serious-looking man with a long, white beard.  But what about Charley Darwin--the small boy who couldn't still still in class because he'd rather be collecting specimens outside?  Darwin's life was not always certain and the man who would go on to become one of the most important and controversial scientists of his day (and ours) was once a young man, unsure of himself and without a clue as to what he'd do with his life.  This book follows that boy from his days as a mediocre student worshiping his older brother who seemed much more likely to make something out of his life through his growth into the young man who joined the Beagle Expedition and set off on a trip around the world from which he knew he may never return.

I read this book just a couple of days after Darwin's birthday and enjoyed it immensely.  It was easy to relate to the young Darwin and the picture of his life as a young boy was charming and surprising.  The book also seemed fairly well-researched while allowing for small discrepancies to augment the narrative, which is just how I like it.  What results is a fascinating portrait of a man and his time that provides a context to better understand both the man and his theories.  I found it interesting following him on his travels as his ideas grew and become more solid and certain and seeing just how his theory evolved (I couldn't resist).  Plus, I love it when novels have bibliographies in the back.

"Facts are unchanging but memories are mutable--sometimes sharp, sometimes out of focus, sometimes shadowy or absent altogether."   

True story: apparently Darwin almost didn't go on the Beagle Expedition because Captain FitzRoy believed in phrenology and din't like the look of Darwin's nose--who knew?  Although this is true I imagine the response Darwin uses in the novel that gets him on board is made up by the author: "Well sir, I can tell you that my nose has been known to tell the most outrageous lies about me."  I like it anyway.

The True Adventures of Charley Darwin, by Carolyn Meyer.  ISBN: 9780152061944

Sunday, February 14, 2010

So much for globalization

So today I read this article from Library Stuff in my feed burner because I thought it looked cute and it lead to a map of the birthplaces of the authors who make it onto the top 250 borrowed books list in the UK.  Then suddenly it wasn't just a cute use of google maps it was a commentary on today's reading preferences, and one that made me rather sad.

I looked at the map and of the 250 books almost all of them appear to be written by writers from the UK or America.  There's 3 in Africa, 2 in Australia, 1 in New Zeland, 1 in Canada, 1 from Germany and 1 from Afghanistan.  Of those one of the African authors is Alexander McCall Smith who is of Scottish descent and attended the University of Edinburgh and currently lives in Scotland, so he's not that big of a stretch for the UK people to read.  Another, Philippa Gregory, also attended University of Edinburgh and while born in Kenya moved to England when she was two.  Her stories are mostly historical fiction set in Europe.  So, not a great case for the diverse tastes of the UK public.  Australia and New Zeland both have the union jack incorporated into their flag design, so they don't seem like they'd be a big stretch for the UK public either.  Canada and Germany are both western countries, so if we want to just look at non-western authors on the top 250 books list in the UK we are left with 2.  That's right, TWO!  Khaled Hosseini and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who both moved to the United States in their teens, which means that unless one of the authors born in an English-speaking country decided to write something in another language there are no books in translation on the list and just the two non-western authors.  That is incredibly depressing.

I'm not just upset because of some vague feeling of the importance of diversity, I'm upset because there is a whole world of wonderful literature out there that most people don't seem to know exists or at least don't bother to read because it is different.  But that is exactly why we should read it!  Not every country has the same narrative traditions.  They don't all tell stories in the same way or see life in the same way.  Sure, it may be difficult to read a book translated from another language and culture that you are unfamiliar with at first because it's not what you're used to.  It will seem foreign, because, well it is foreign. But if you stick with it long enough a magical thing happens and eventually it won't seem foreign any more.  Eventually it may even seem natural to you.  Eventually you may gain a whole new perspective on the world, a new window to look through, a new soul.  Eventually you may find you like that different kind of narrative, and even if you don't at least you'll have been exposed to it to say whether or not you like it.  At least you'll know that way of telling a story and seeing the world exists.

Gods' sakes what is the point of reading if not to explore new worlds?  Why read, heck why even bother living if not to grow, broaden your perspective, and learn new things?  I'm not saying every book you read should challenge you and make you grow because we all need a break and simple entertainment now and then but the percentage should be higher than 2 authors on a list of 250 books.  There's a whole world of different perspectives out there! Why waste the only life you've got living in just one?

With that in mind here are some recommendations of books written by authors outside of America and UK that I've read in recent years.  Check them out, buy them, give them to your friends, blog about them.  For heaven's sake do something with them because obviously whatever we have been doing in the past is not enough.

This book, recommended to me by my friend Collin (you see recommending books to friends works! Go do it!) is hilarious.  It is full of a delicious dark humor and an utter absurdity that I just love. What is really great about this short story collection is that each one is so unique and has a slightly different tone.  Many of them are very short, too so it's a great book to read on short bus trips. The Bus Driver Who Wanted To be God & Other Stories by Etgar Keret. 

I actually liked this book better than Eva Luna. Another short story collection, but this one is completely different than the first I recommended.  These stories are much more narrative in nature and have a sense of magical realism rather than absurdism.  Still, great little stories and another new perspective. The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabelle Allende.
This book I'd recommend to those people on the list who only checked out chick lit.  It does a great job of giving the reader a taste of life in another country and another perspective while remaining light.  What I loved about this book was that even though it's from Saudi Arabia it was the similarities that stood out to me.  It follows the lives of four women and their friendships and their loves and it's a story that's familiar enough to all women to be comfortable, but with that lovely freshness and unique flair that comes from an unfamiliar version of a favorite song.  The Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa al-Sanea

One of my all-time favorite books.  I've mentioned magical realism and absurdism on this list and this one is surrealist.  If those all seem the same to you, trust me there's a difference.  That's a rant for a different blog post though.  I was able to relate to this one much easier than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although I enjoyed that one as well, because the protagonist is a teen coming of age rather than a man going through a mid-life crisis.  Plus, it has a librarian in it.  What more could I want? Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.
Another book that I think even the chick-lit crowd would enjoy.  It's been a while since I read this novel, but I remember loving the way she wove the recipes into the narrative of the story.  If you like cooking, or romance stories, or both, you'll love this one! Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.

Another magical-realism romance, so sue me.  It is valentine's day technically.  But it's not just a romance, it's a historical fiction, and an epic tale spanning the entire life of its characters, and boy howdy is there a lot of sex in it.  Trust me.  Actually this isn't one of my favorites on the list precisely because I found all the magical realism sex to be a bit of a turn off.  Come on, aren't you interested now?  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 
It's a murder mystery.  It's a historical fiction set in  16th century Istanbul.  It's about love.  It's about art.  It's told from the perspective of a murderer. And a corpse.  And a coin.  And the color red.  It's whatever you want it to be, baby.  It's another one of my all-time favorites, and it's not to be missed.  If you want a contemporary novel, try Snow (which is another one of my favorites, possibly because it includes actors).  If you want a more noir-style mystery try The Black Book.  Just try something by Orhan Pamuk because he's wonderful!  My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.

You may have seen the movie.  The movie was crap.  Ignore it. Read the book.  Trust me.  It's not just about vampires and witches and warlocks and things that go bump in the night and the day.  It's about the nature of Good and Evil and Free Will.  It's about how the songs that come up on random on your ipod always match you mood.  It's about philosophy.  And it's about kicking ass and taking names.  Read it, read the sequels.  You'll get a hang of the crazy naming system eventually, I promise.  Then when you decided to tackle Anna Karenina (which you should!) you'll already be used to the names and you can enjoy it easier.  Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

There, I've made it easy for you.  Read some of these, no research required.  And trust me, there's much more out there.  Really great stuff of all types.  You have no idea what you're missing, so go and explore from the comfort of your local library.  You'll thank me later (I prefer milk chocolate, with caramel but I'll take any kind really.)