Audiobook: One More Thing

by B. J. Novak
read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: lots of language, both mild and strong. Most of it unnecessary, but I don’t think I expected anything less. Is in the adult fiction section of the bookstore, but I bet older teens would like it.

I picked this up because people at work were raving about it. Said it was hilarious. And I decided that I need some humor in my life. So, even though it’s by an actor I’ve never heard of (I didn’t watch The Office, though he was the “other guy” — the one that I didn’t recognize – in Saving Mr. Banks), I figured why not give it a try.

It says it’s “stories and more stories” but I think it’s more “jokes, observations, and a couple of stories.” There were 64 in the book, and sometimes that felt derivative. Not that I minded: some of the shortest stories were some of the funniest ones. Novak is a great narrator, by the way, and he got a whole bunch of other celebrities to help him out, though he used Rainn Wilson and Mindy Kahling the most

My favorite of the whole book was “The Something by John Grisham,” where John Grisham’s newest novel gets published with his place-saving title instead of a “real” one. I was guffawing at the idea that Grisham’s novel would not only get published with such a bad title, but get rave reviews. Just because he’s John Grisham. (I suppose there’s a poignant commentary there on publishing and fame, but I was laughing too hard to find it.) I did like “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg”, which is an imagining of what Heaven will be like, and how, maybe, we won’t want to spend time with people we didn’t know well in life, even if they are family. Some of them — like the “Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela — made me uncomfortable, and I thought Novak’s humor was more mean than observant. But, for the most part, like in Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Bicycle” — a spoof on Encyclopedia Brown — or “Bingo” — where three cousins are vying to win Bingo at a resort, only to lose to their grandpa — or “Closure” — where a girl whose boyfriend has broken up with him gets absolute closure I was highly amused. And the discussion questions at the end of a couple stories, as well as the end of the book, I thought were a nice touch.

It’s like David Sedaris without the sardonic undertones.

I’m not sure I would have liked this as much if I hadn’t have listened to it. (Much like me and David Sedaris, come to think of it.) There’s something about hearing jokes, as opposed to reading them, that makes the humor work better for me. It’s not a deep book, or one that’s going to stay with me for a long time. But it was amusing, and it did make the drive back and forth to work enjoyable.

Guys Read: Other Worlds

edited by Jon Scieszka
ages: 10+
First sentence: “What would happen if invading warlords from another planet landed on your school’s basketball court?”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

I have off and on luck with short stories; sometimes I am really entertained by them. Others, not so much. This collection, however, worked for me. Not all of the stories worked equally well, but overall, it was a good collection.

It may have something to do with my fondness for Ray Bradbury stories.

Scieszka was nice enough to include a Bradbury short story that I hadn’t read (or at least don’t remember reading) as the last one in this collection. And it was a joy to read the weird, wonderfulness that was Bradbury. This time it was about a planet where, due to the radiation from the sun, humans only lived for 8 days. And one boy’s determination to make it off the planet. Brilliant, and by far my favorite story.

The others weren’t bad, either. I liked Tom Angleberger’s “Rise of the RoboShoes” (with illustrations), and found “The Klack Bros. Museum,” by KEnneth Oppel to be delightfully creepy. “Plan B,” by Rebecca Stead had a great twist on the end, and both “Bouncing the Grinning Goat,” by Shannon Hale and “A Day in the Life” by Shaun Tan were delightful.

Sure, I think Rick Riordan phoned it in for his short story, but it was still cool to read about a Percy/Grover adventure, since it’d been quite a while since I’d read about those two together. There were some that didn’t work for me — most notably “The Scout” by D. J. MacHale — but I guess that’s a side-effect of a collection of stories by multiple authors. There are some you like; there are some that fall flat.

There’s a little something for everyone. But get it for the Bradbury story.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Audiobook: Fragile Things

by Neil Gaiman
read by the author
ages: adult
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

I decided, upon finishing listening to this, that I wouldn’t mind if Neil Gaiman came and narrated my life. He has such a wonderful reading voice, spellbinding on its own, that he could be reading my grocery list, and I would listen, captivated.

But, thankfully, I didn’t have to listen to my grocery list, which would have gotten quite tedious after a while. Rather, I got a collection of some fascinating, some entertaining, some disturbing Gaiman stories. I didn’t love them all, but the ones I liked, I really liked. I think, perhaps, that I like Gaiman in short doses — I absolutely love his stuff for kids — rather than his long novels. So, a collection of stories and poems was just about my speed.

Some of my favorites? “A Study in Emerald,” his take on a Sherlock Holmes story which is weird and wild, and has an absolutely brilliant twist at the end. Or “October in the Chair,” a delightful story personalizing the months of the year and their gathering where they each take turns telling one story, and the story that October (it’s his year) tells. Or “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” which is a mundane awkward boy party until you realize that they crashed a party of alien girls. Or “Sunbird” which is about an epicurean club who have basically tried eating everything there is to eat. Except for the sunbird. Or, the poem “Instructions”, which is one of my favorite picture books.

Sure, there were some missteps (I had issues with ” The Problem of Susan” and another story, where the sex just felt gratuitous), but for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this one. Then again, it may have been because I’d listen to Gaiman read anything.

I, Robot

by Isaac Asimov
ages: adult (ish)
First sentence: “I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

This is one of those books that I’ve always heard of but never had gotten around to reading. I can’t really tell you why; it just never seemed like something I’d be interested in.

Thank heavens for book groups.

Framed as an interview with retiring robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, it’s a series of interconnected short stories detailing the evolution of robotics in the “future”. It’s an interesting look into what Asimov thought our future would be like, and the prevalence of robots in society.

I’m not quite sure what to say about the book other than I really, really liked it I thought it was fascinating to read about what Asimov though the future would be like. I liked the character of Dr. Calvin; she was an interesting person to frame the book around, smart and capable (if a bit cold), and gave the book a good grounding. In fact, the stories went down better for me than short stories usually do, mostly because they seemed like chapters in something larger.

That said, two of my favorite stories were “Liar”, in which a mind-reading robot just tells humans what they want to hear; and “Little Lost Robot,” in which a robot goes missing, hiding in the midst of a bunch of other robots that look exactly like it. I found it fascinating the things the psychologists and scientists go through to figure out which one is the missing robot.

But my favorite was one near the end, “Evidence,” where a man is running for mayor of the region, but there are allegations against him: he’s a robot. The point is to prove he’s not. It’s a fascinating look at the line between robotics and humanity, and the issues about whether or not it’s ethical for a robot to actually “act” human.

It’s a good work, one that stands up to the test of time, even if there were moments when I cringed at the 1950s-ness of it all. Even so, I’m glad I had the chance (finally!) to read it.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

by Chris Van Allsburg, and 14 other writers
ages: 10+
First sentence: “Is there any author more mysterious than Harris Burdick?”
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Back in 1984, Chris Van Allsburg authored a book called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Supposedly, he was recreating the art of one Harris Burdick, who left fourteen paintings at a man called Peter Wender’s office, with only the titles and a brief caption. The drawings were mysterious and wondrous all at the same time: something for parents and children to pour over and imagine.

Of course the next logical step — albeit nearly 30 years later — is to get fourteen (including Van Allsburg himself) of the most talented children’s (and adult) writers to do the imagining for us. Each author — and there are some brilliant ones here: from Sherman Alexie and Lois Lowry, to M. T. Anderson and Kate DiCamillo , to Stephen King and Gregory Maguire — takes a different painting, and spins a story around it, incorporating the tantalizing caption that “Harris Burdick” gave to each painting.

Let me say right off: this is not a picture book. I cannot imagine curling up with my 5-year-old and reading these stories. For one, they are much too long. For two, they are much too… old. This is an illustrated set of short stories, ranging from the disturbing to the strange to the whimsical, meant for older audiences to savor and think about.

Like every short story collection, the stories themselves are uneven: I found Cory Doctorow’s “Another Place, Another Time” to be odd, full of science I couldn’t quite grasp; and Sherman Alexie’s “A Strange Day in July” to be terribly cruel in a ten-year-old bully sort of way. But, when the writing is on, the book is a marvel: Jon Scieszka’s “Under the Rug” is hilarious; Linda Lois Lowry’s “The Seven Chairs” is simple and magical; both Linda Sue Park’s “The Harp” and Louis Sachar’s “Captain Tory” are deliciously sweet; and Stephen King’s “The House on Maple Street” is perfect. It’s fascinating to see how each author’s imagination works with the painting, taking the small details and spinning them into a larger, more complex story, and yet leaving enough space that the reader can invent and hope and dream right along with.

It’s one of those books that begs to be taken out time and time again, to read and look at, inspiring you to dream about both the possible and the impossible. In other words: it’s just the perfect sort of book.

Guys Read: Funny Business

edited by John Scieszka
ages: 10+
First sentence: “A kid gets transferred to a new school.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

Ah, humor.

It’s such an individual thing, really. Some people snort milk out their nose at the slightest silliness (guilty), others just crack a small smile. It’s so hard to find one style that suits everyone.

The best solution? A short story collection. There’s enough different kinds of stories in here (all with male protagonists, so hand this one to the boys. Which was its point, actually.), from enough different authors, that everyone will find at least one that will tickle their funny bone.

For me, it was Eoin Colfer’s story. If I had been drinking milk (or anything at all), I would have snorted it. I howled. It’s basically a personal essay about his older brother, the evil genius, and how he got his younger brother out of trouble. Seriously, it doesn’t sound that funny, but it is. Or at least it was to me.

The other stories were nothing to sneeze at either: there are stories about not-so-great friends, projects gone bad, getting addicted to danger, stupid English assignments, obnoxious parents and grandparents, and superheroes. Not all were equally funny, in my opinion, but all were entertaining and interesting and fun to read. Completely worth picking up (and not just for the guys.)

Besides, how can you not want to read a book that has a trailer like this?

Lips Touch Three Times

by Laini Taylor/Illus. by Jim Di Bartolo
ages: 12+
First sentence: “There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave.”
Review copy picked up from the ARC exchange table at KidlitCon 09.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

Wow.

Oh, I knew Laini Taylor had a fabulous imagination, having adored both Blackbringer and Silksinger, but, really: wow.

This one is three short stories in which the only connection is the act of kissing. Taylor explores what that “means”, but because it’s Laini Taylor, the exploration is not what you’d expect. Or maybe you would, if you’d read her other stuff. In short, it’s weird, wild, entrancing and just plain fabulous. Without giving too much away…

The first story, “Goblin Fruit”, takes something that every girl wants — to be noticed by the popular, cute boy — and turns it ever-so-slightly sinister. Kizzy has a weird immigrant family, one that she’s embarrassed about. It’s all she can do to avoid their practices, beliefs, superstitions, especially those of her (now-dead) grandmother, who believed quite strongly that there are goblins out there waiting to capture your soul. Kizzy tries to live a normal life, even from the sidelines of her high school, but she wants. Wants — to be popular, to be in the arms of the cute boy — so badly it’s palpable. So, when Jack Husk — beautiful, amazing, wonderful Jack Husk — shows up and pays attention to her, she goes with it. It’s got a bit of an open ending: what really does happen to Kizzy, but it doesn’t really matter. In this story, it’s the getting there that counts.

The second story, “Spicy Little Curses”, was my favorite. Taylor played off of Hindu religion and myth on this one, not only setting the story in Imperialist India, but giving us a devil in Hell who thrives off of making life (and death) miserable for humans. There’s a human liaison to Hell who tries to temper what this devil does, but one day — in exchange for twenty two souls — she allows the devil to curse the daughter of the Political Agent. The curse: if she ever speaks, she’ll kill everyone in the sound of her voice. She manages never to speak, but of course, she grows up into a lovely young woman and a soldier falls in love with her. There is not a happy outcome (again, of course), but the twists and turns and the language (oh, the language!) make it simply a joy to read.

And, finally, “Hatchling”. It’s the longest of the three stories, the most developed, the most interesting world-building that I’ve read in a while. Taylor takes were-lore and vampire-lore and develops it in a new and fascinating way in giving us the Druj. Not quite werewolves (and yet they shape shift), not quite vampires (and yet they use and abuse humans for their own pleasure), they terrorize and terrify humans. Mab was one of those, and for some reason, she managed to escape from the Queen. She was pregnant at the time and with her daughter, Esme, she has been in hiding ever since. Fourteen years later, Esme wakes up one morning with one blue eye and one brown eye. This not only terrifies Mab, but leads Emse to the destiny that she never knew she had, changing the way the Druj interact with each other and the world in the process.

I know I didn’t quite capture the wonderfulness that is this book. But it truly is amazing.

Ancedotes of Destiny and Ehrengard

by Isak Dinesen
ages: adult
First sentence (of the first story): “Mira Jima told this story.”

I bought this book ages and ages ago (maybe 12 years?), and although I read it when I first got it, I have to honestly say it’s been sitting on the shelf, mostly unwanted. It’s managed to survive a few move-induced book purges, so there must have been something I liked about it. I just couldn’t remember what. Thanks to the Classics Challenge, I got it off the shelf, dusted it off, and cracked it open to see if I could remember what I liked about it.

Out of the five short stories and the novella, I liked two: the novella and one story. (I do have to admit that I didn’t even read one of the stories. I tried, but I couldn’t get into it.) Two out of six isn’t good odds, but the two are positively sublime. (I suppose I could go into a reflection of Dinesen’s unevenness, but I won’t.)

Babbette’s Feast is the short story that I enjoyed, and the remembered reason for keeping the book. It’s set in Norway. Two sisters of a fairly Puritan sect run by their father take in a refugee from the French Revolution, Babette. She lives with them for 12 years, and then one day, she informs the sisters that she won the lottery and is the recipient of 10,000 francs. Babette decides that what she really wants to do is cook a meal for her benefactresses, and cook she does. Unfortunately, they don’t quite understand what that means until it’s almost too late, yet, in the end, realize what a work of art and grace and service the meal was. I had misremembered it as having a magical realism slant, which it doesn’t. However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t thoroughly captivating. Actually, at one point, I thought that it reminded me quite a bit of A.S. Byatt’s writing at its best: beautiful, evocative, dense, and somehow sublime.

The novella, Ehrengard, is much like Babbette’s Feast in its descriptiveness. It’s peripherally the story of a prince and princess who fall in love, but don’t quite manage to wait until their wedding day. In the need to cover up the royal faux pas, the Grand Duchess consults with Herr Cazotte, a famous artist as to what to do. They decide to send the prince and princess off to a remote mountain estate and surround them with people who are very loyal and very trustworthy (of course, Cazotte will be included). Among the people is Ehrengard, a daughter of a retired general. She’s beautiful, loyal, and Cazotte decides that he must paint her. However, he doesn’t just want to paint her, he wants to capture her, make her his own, so that the whole world will know that she belongs to him (I never could quite figure out if this was sexual or not…). At any rate, the plot is immaterial. Again, it’s Dinesen’s language that makes the story compelling. Her descriptions, the passion in which Cazotte is captivated by Ehrengard.

What Dinesen doesn’t do is endings, which I think is part of the reason I didn’t like the other stories. They wrap up, but somehow I’m always left feeling like there should have been something more, like I was left dangling in the wind. They — even the ones I like — feel unfinished. I’m sure it’s something she did on purpose, but that doesn’t take away the unfinished feeling I had when I was done reading.

Even with that, though, the two stories were enjoyable to re-read. And so the book will remain on the shelves for the time being.

The Dragon’s Son

I picked this one up to round out Becky’s King Arthur Challenge, mostly because I felt bad that I didn’t finish the John Steinbeck book. I found it through a random search of the library’s catalog; I knew I wanted a young adult or middle grade book, but that was all. After a bit of looking, this one popped out at me. Sarah Thomson takes a new and interesting approach to the legend: not only does she go back to the earliest Welsh stories of Arthur, she tells the story from the point of view of the lesser-represented characters (Nimue, Morgan, Luned and Medraud/Mordred) rather than from the usual perspectives.

Essentially a collection of four short stories (everyone gets a few chapters to tell their tale), I was impressed not only with the stories themselves, but with the way they were used to propel the entire myth forward. Thomson manages to tell the entire Arthur story — from conception to death — in 181 pages, and while it wasn’t as in-depth as it could have been, I don’t feel like I missed anything.

The book begins with Nimue, and tells her story from her meeting Myrddin through their relationship to his death. It covers a huge amount of time, but her primary role is to tell about the conception and birth of Arthur. Morgan comes next, but her fundamental character has been changed: she’s not a witch or even a Lady of Avalon. Instead, she’s a bitter, slighted sister of Arthur. She saw her father’s murder by Uther, and she was never able to forgive Myrddin for that. So, when she married Arthur (interesting twist, I thought) and he took her to the castle, she left him because he wasn’t willing to get rid of Myrddin. The story then switches to Luned, who is the handmaid to Elen, Morgan’s sister. This one I found the most fascinating. It involves Lancelot, called Owain here, and how he came to marry Elen/Elaine. Thomson made Elen terrified of men, mostly because she was married off at 12 to a brute of a man. Luned is Elen’s voice, her strength, her solace. It’s only after Luned brokers a marriage to Owain for Elen’s saftey (after her former husband’s death), that Elen learns to love. Unfortunately, Owain’s heart belongs to another, and Elen pines away in a monestary. It moves the story forward, though, because Elen is given Gwydre, who is Arthur’s heir (another interesting twist; Morgan had twins) to raise. The last story is Medraud/Mordred. His is the most tragic, the most bitter. Growing up as the son of Morgan, he is not only influcenced by her mother’s wanton ridding of sons (she gives up Gwydre to Arthur without any complaints), but by Arthur’s neglect. He resolves to kill Arthur, not just because his mother is bitter and wants revenge, but also because Arthur is unwilling to recognize Medraud as his rightful heir. He wages a war of words, rumors against his own brother, and eventually after a confrontation with Arthur, leaves and comes back with an army. And we all know how that turns out.

I liked the changes to the traditional story that Thomson made– the basics were the same, but details were different. I found that interesting and, yes, refreshing. It was nice not to read the same story hashed out. Seeing the story from the minor characters point of view also made it more intersting. A lot of the other elements we usually associate with Arthur were done away with, too: magic, aside from Myrddin’s few prophecies, was essentially non-existant. As were most elements of Druid worship (there were some references to “old ways” but that was it).

I always feel good when I manage to find a book on my own that I like. So, I’m feeling pretty good today, because I liked this one. A lot.

Djinn in the Nightengale’s Eye

A couple years ago, when I read Possession (also by A. S. Byatt), my friend Julie recommended this collection of fairy stories, saying that I would LOVE it. She’s almost right: I liked it, but it fell short of LOVE. (Sorry, Julie.)

I really liked the first three stories: “The Glass Coffin”, which was a Snow White-esque story with a tailor instead of a prince waking up the imprisoned princess; “Gode’s Story,” a somewhat complex story about a man who wanted a woman, cursed her to wait for him, dumped her when she became haunted, married another and then became haunted when the first woman killed herself; and, my favorite,”The Story of the Eldest Princess,” where she goes off on a quest, but because she’s read so many stories, ends up opting out of the whole quest thing and instead hooks up with an old healer woman.

The other two stories — “Dragon’s Breath” and the title one — were okay, but not nearly as enjoyable. My complaints with Djinn, especially, are similar to the ones I had about Possession: too much extra stuff, but not enough plot. When it finally got around to the plot, I really enjoyed it: what would you do if you had access to a personal djinn? (And, what is it that a woman most desires? They never answer that one.)

It really was a collection of stories about stories. Sometimes, it worked — like in “The Eldest Princess”; sometimes, not so much, like in “Dragon’s Breath”. But when it worked, it worked really well, and I was captivated by the writing — Byatt is a really descriptive writer; I just wish she’d be a tighter writer. Perhaps that’s why the shorter stories appealed to me more: the writing was tighter, the stories more linear and less circular. They worked better for me.

Maybe sometimes I do “get” short stories. Funny.