When you reach a certain level of notoriety and authorial success, your books stop being a publishing gamble and start being a given. Without even trying, Little, Brown &Co. are going to make a mint on Rowling’s newest offering, and they knew it from the day the contract was inked. In the same way that any book with James Patterson’s name on the cover will top all the charts (even if it’s mostly written by someone else), any book Rowling published was fated to succeed, no matter how dull it was. It sounds a little cynical, and it is – but there’s a silver lining, too. These blockbusters pave the way for publishers to take a risk on newer authors with smaller print runs and no guaranteed successes; for every book like The Casual Vacancy, you get a crack at a few dozen unknowns, little unlikely gems like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
The other privilege – or perhaps curse – about this level of fame is the relationship you have with your editor. When you are a bona fide brilliant author with millions upon millions of your books in print, when you are a household name, when a character of your invention is shorthand for an entire cultural movement, who’s going to read your manuscript and tell you it’s just TOO DARN LONG? Certainly, nobody had that conversation with Joanne Rowling, whose first novel for adults uses 500 pages to tell the story of…a city council election. (Do you remember what other incredible feats of storytelling she’s managed to shoehorn into 500 pages, or even less? I do.) She has a lot of talent, especially for humor and dialog and characterization; she can inhabit and bring to life many different personalities and create unique, interesting, multi-dimensional characters. She’s just let her talent and her vision run away with her.
Pagford is a small English town; one of its city councillors has just died young and unexpectedly. Rowling tells us what follows through the eyes of no less than seventeen independent characters (and those are just the ones I could remember off the top of my head). That viewpoint is always in flux; in one paragraph you see the inner turmoil of teenaged Gaia, and in the next the thoughts belong to her mother Kay; on the next page of the same chapter, you’re in the head of a totally different person in a different family. It’s not easy to follow; I was halfway through before I could confidently tell Miles apart from Colin and Tessa apart from Kay. This constant shifting and the wide variety of inner monologues does provide the sturdiest backbone of the novel in showing how, no matter how petty or inconsiderate or mean or low our actions may seem, all people are virtuous in their own eyes, or are merely held hostage to their circumstances.
The jacket copy describes this election as a “war,” but I wouldn’t apply that term to sullen teenagers playing pranks and old women ramping up their catty gossip and a few hundred people voting in a city council election. I’d just call it everyday life, and I don’t think everyday life needs this many point of view characters or this many pages. If this 500 page novel were half that long, it could be brilliant and beautiful – instead it’s bloated and boring.
This classic children’s novel has been weathering the storm of censorship and controversy for 4 decades now. Jean Craighead George won the 1973 Newbery Medal for her novel, Julie of the Wolves, which tells the story of a Yupik Eskimo girl called Miyax (Julie to her pen pal in San Francisco) who survives alone on the Arctic tundra by communicating with a wolf pack. The outside world has wrought changes on Julie’s culture, and when she is forced to choose between an arranged marriage and a harsh, desperate flight across the wild tundra, she runs away. She eventually learns the language of the wolves and becomes a member of the pack, a process that’s terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure.
Julie’s journey of survival and self discovery has resonated with young and old readers since its publication in the seventies, despite being challenged for including violence and being “unsuited to age group.” To learn more about this book, censorship, and Banned Books Week, check out the ALA Banned Books Week website.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is the first in a trilogy of fantasy novels, but don’t worry: since they’re written for a YA/mature child audience, it’s not nearly the kind of time commitment that most fantasy series are. The first novel follows Lyra Belacqua, a precocious 12 year old girl who lives in a universe parallel to our own: in her world, each human is accompanied at all times by an animal daemon – a physical manifestation of their soul and a lifelong companion. For children like Lyra, the form of the daemon is in flux, taking the shapes of different animals depending on the person’s mood or circumstances. Lyra is a wonderful fantasy heroine: she’s tough and smart and relatable, and her journey isn’t just an adventure but a moving tale of growing up. She sets out to rescue a friend who’s been kidnapped by the mysterious, possibly malevolent Magisterium; on the way, she meets gypsies and witches and powerful Magisterium officials, and learns how to use a device called an Alethiometer that can answer any question with absolute truth.
The next two novels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, follow Lyra’s further journey to fulfill her destiny. The trilogy has been banned or challenged on the grounds of Political Viewpoint, Religious Viewpoint, and Violence. To learn more about this book, censorship, and Banned Books Week, check out the ALA Banned Books Week website.
In honor of Banned Books Week, which lasts until October sixth, I’m revisiting my favorite banned book: Beloved by Toni Morrison. I first read this masterpiece in a high school English course; it’s dense and lyrical and moving. The story is based on a real-life tragedy: an escaped slave woman who murdered her own children to stop her owner from recapturing them. That woman is Sethe, and her life story is one of mingled despair and hope, tragedy and good luck. The narrative is touched by the supernatural: the spirit of Sethe’s murdered baby, whose headstone only reads Beloved, has haunted her house ever since her death. 20 years later, when a pretty 20 year old girl turns up on Sethe’s front step knowing things only a family member could know, it’s unclear what her intentions and her identity really are.
Sethe’s story is magical and moving. It’s been banned or challenged for containing offensive language, explicit sexuality, and being “unsuited to age group,” according to the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books. When I read this novel as a teenager, I wasn’t scarred, offended, or damaged: Morrison’s book was, instead, eye-opening and moving. It made me more interested in literature and in history, and it gave my class fodder for discussions that improved our understanding of reading and the way it impacts real life. I hope you’ll check it out: you won’t be disappointed.
To learn more about this book, censorship, and Banned Books Week, check out the ALA Banned Books Week website.
If you adore Harry Potter, do yourself a favor and check out Harry Potter: Page to Screen, the Complete Filmmaking Journey. It’s a big, heavy, hardcover behemoth absolutely stuffed with photographs and text from all 8 Harry Potter films. Interviews with the cast and crew give insider information, and viewpoints from the set designers, costume designers, directors and actors show how meticulously the details of these movies were planned. From the small things – Hermione doesn’t wear red or green, as “those are Ron colors,” the story behind Harry’s blue eyes (a controversial change from the books’ oft-referenced bottle green), and the talon design of Bellatrix’s wand – to the big things: hours of makeup for dozens of actors cast as goblins; the complex design of the set for Snape’s final scene; the massive miniatures built to stand in for Hogwarts castle, and the equally massive undertaking of covering those miniatures with “snow” for the winter scenes (and then meticulously brushing and cleaning that “snow” away before the salt it was made of could corrode the material beneath).
Whether you’re into the boy wizard or just into movie magic, you’ll adore this book. It inspired me to re-read the novels and re-watch the movies, which of course launched a relapse of full-on Potter mania at my house! These are some of the other library items I’ve been checking out:
These cookbooks are so excellent, you may want to make a permanent place on your bookshelf for them – I know I’ve checked each one out from DPL several times. The library can be a real lifesaver for thrifty cooks like me!
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman: Drop everything and try the recipe for “Jim Lahey’s No-Work Bread” on page 833. It will blow. your. mind.
The Good Housekeeping Cookbook: Nothing but the best, most versatile, most standard, most essential recipes. I have checked this book out at least 5 times, and I’m always finding something new to try. I’ve gotten tons of compliments on their recipe for roasted red potatoes!
Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook: Although I’ve never joined Weight Watchers, I’ve always loved their cookbooks. All the recipes are flavorful despite being light, and the included nutrition facts are helpful for any weight loss goals. Recipes in this newest WW book run the gamut from the easy (Turkey Chowder: ten ingredients and 5 hours in your crock pot) to the hard (Tandoori Lamb with Almond-Apricot Couscous: unfamiliar ingredients with a big flavor payoff). Bonus: includes a large and very yummy vegetarian section.
The Sneaky Chef: how to cheat on your man (in the kitchen): Cooking healthy food for picky eaters is tough, whether they’re your kids or your spouse! This book is full of ingenious ways to hide healthy ingredients in hearty, familiar foods that anyone would love. Want to learn how to sneak cauliflower, zucchini, white beans, or yogurt into your mashed potatoes to cut down on fat and boost nutrients? How about adding spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, and zucchini to chili for a hearty and decadent meal with a serious nutritive punch? Awesome.
At a wedding I attended recently, I ended up having a long, open-bar-fueled argument with another guest over our favorite speculative fiction books. She loves Robert Jordan; I love George R.R. Martin. I won’t bore you with the details, but I do want to emphasize how vehemently opposed our tastes were, so that when I tell you that we both adored The Left Hand of Darkness, you’ll know: wow. that must be a seriously awesome book.
And it really, really is. This is about as pure sci-fi as sci-fi can get: a tale of fiction that speculates on the future of science and how it may alter human culture. And, in this book, even human genetics.
The story takes place on the planet Gethen, mostly known as Winter, where Genly Ai has been assigned as a diplomat. His mission is to bring the people of Winter into the broader galactic civilization. His task is complicated by the alien culture and politics of this world, where the human inhabitants are genderless beings whose sexual characteristics and reproductive abilities only surface during mating seasons, when they can become either male or female (depending on their chosen partner). LeGuin is a master: this novel is excellent. It’s not about aliens, or sex, or politics, but it is about the way all of those things affect friendship, culture, and human nature. Like all great science fiction, this isn’t a work with a limited scope or audience – it’s one that uses speculation about the future to make sharp observations and thoughtful arguments about the way we live now.
I recently visited Fargo, North Dakota. Really. A traveling companion picked up this t-shirt in a downtown art gallery, of all places:
With a metro area some 200,000 strong, Fargo is home to a state university, quite a lot of railroad tracks, a surprisingly bumpin’ downtown area, and three library locations. For some perspective, the Fargo Radisson is the tallest building in town at 18 stories (and no, there’s no observation deck. The top floor is leased to a law firm and they’re very uptight about hotel guests exploring their floor – can’t imagine why). If you haven’t been lucky enough to visit this glamorous locale, check out these library materials for a peek into the sophisticated, swanky, utterly glam Fargo lifestyle.
- Fargo: this famed “murder-comedy” follows Frances McDormand as a policewoman uncovering the truth behind a string of interconnected murders. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, whose unique style gives this movie an unforgettable tone.
- Trains roll through Fargo at terrifying speeds. Honestly – they move about twice as fast through downtown Fargo as they do through downtown Davenport. The corresponding noise and whooshing wind is rather alarming, especially if you’re on foot waiting for it to pass. Strangers on a Train (the Hitchcock classic about a murder pact gone awry) and Murder on the Orient Express (the unforgettable Agatha Christie mystery) also involve trains, and plenty of murder – a distinctly Fargo-esque combination, based on my extremely limited and highly biased research.
- Louise Erdrich was prominently featured both at the Fargo Public Library and at the hip downtown Fargo bookstore. Her stories about Native Americans past and present are rich with descriptions of the Great Plains and its people; Love Medicine, her first novel, is set in North Dakota and is excellent. Ditto her second novel, The Beet Queen. (side note: I also highly recommend The Painted Drum, although it really has nothing to do with Fargo and probably deserves its own post).
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik is a lighthearted, escapist novel, and part one of a series. I downloaded it from WILBOR and read it on my kindle, though many Rivershare libraries own paper or audio copies. If you enjoy alternate history or dragons, the Temeraire series is your new best friend! In Novik’s world, the Napoleonic wars are fought on the backs of dragons, sentient aerial warships that are manned by not just a single rider, but a crew of trained aviators. Throw in a bit of Austenian comedy-of-manners, a touch of Serious Military Jargon (it’s much pleasanter when it’s applied to a dragon instead of a ship or some other boringly realistic war machine), and finish with a sharply interesting main character and you have a summertime winner.
That sharply interesting main character is not Laurence, the human whose point of view we read: it’s Temeraire, the dragon he befriends and rides. Temeraire is vastly intelligent, aloof, regal, and enigmatic, but he’s also kind, deliberate, and deeply loyal. His motivations are largely a mystery, as Novik chooses to spend more time on aerial action, b-stories, and descriptive passages than on the depths of the dragon’s psyche. Why would a dragon, with immense strength and intelligence and free will – not to mention the occasional ability to spit acid or breathe fire – choose to remain subservient to humans and fight in their wars? Why would a species capable of creating its own society lack almost any interest in doing so? These are the questions His Majesty’s Dragon leaves hanging. There are five additional novels in this series to tackle them!
Webcomics collected for the printed page rarely hang together as cohesive singular works, and this book is no exception. They also rarely deliver a consistent laughs-per-page number or manage to be as fresh on page 50 as they are on page 1; and for these, Hark! A Vagrant is indeed an exception. Kate Beaton’s comic is very funny and accessible; she pokes fun at various literary and historical figures (both infamous and obscure), in addition to hipsters and teenagers and even superheroes. If you like smarmy, witty, smart comedy and drawings that range from the moody and surreal to the supremely cute, this book is a great choice!
Since the humor is hard to describe, just check out this comic. If you like humor about 200 year old inventors or have a soft spot for Tesla…
For more awesome, check out Kate Beaton’s comics at their original home: harkavagrant.com.