Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The animated version of this book opened in theaters just in time for the holidays and has several big stars doing the voices of the characters (Matthew Broderick as Despereaux; Dustin Hoffman as Roscuro; Emma Watson as Princess Pea; and Tracey Ullman as Miggery Sow). If I go to see the film, I think I'll have to wear a T-shirt that says "Don't Judge a Book by its Movie"--yes, there really is one available. Books are always better than the movies made from them. That's not to say that you can't like both.

This is a Newbery honor book written for ages 9-12. The book is four stories woven into one delightful tale. In Book the First, we find out about Despereaux Tilling, a mouse who loves music, stories, and a princess named Pea. In Book the Second, we find out about Roscuro, a rat who lives in darkness, but desires the light. In Book the Third, we are told the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl with an impossible wish to be a princess. And in Book the Fourth all these threads of stories are brought together in a very sweet conclusion.

Now I freely admit I'm a big fan of the author of this book, Kate DiCamillo. She writes for both children and adults and says she likes to think of herself as a storyteller. In fact at one point in this book she has the character Gregory the jailer tell Despereaux "Stories are light", and as preface to telling this story says "The world is dark, and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story."

In fact, she wrote this book because her best friend's son asked her to write a story for him about an unlikely hero with exceptionally large ears. And Kate has managed to pull it off in style. That is not surprising if you've read any of her other books--"Because of Winn-Dixie", "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane", or "The Tiger Rising".

DiCamilla has said that she had a writing instructor once who told her that writing is all about seeing. It is the sacred duty of the writer to pay attention, to see the world. And DiCamilla takes that bit of advice to heart in all her writing. She is amazingly descriptive and perceptive of everything going on around her in the tales she tells. There is great emotional resonance in her writing. It will pluck your heart string. She says that what she discovered in her writing was that each time she looked at the world and the people in it closely, imaginatively, the effort changed her. The world, under the microscope of her attention, opened up like a beautiful, strange flower and gave itself back to her in ways she could never imagine. What stories are hiding behind the faces of the people who you walk past everyday? What love? What hopes? What despair? Kate knows and is able to communicate that to us in her stories.

Do yourself a favor and pick up this book or any other that the amazing Kate DiCamillo has written. You'll be glad you did.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Wesley the Owl by Stacey O'Brien

This is a delightful love story between a petite blonde biologist and a member of another species, a barn owl that she named Wesley. Stacey took Wesley under her wing (so to speak) on Valentine's day, when he was 4 days old. It was a relationship that would endure for almost two decades. As Stacey says "to that which you tame, you owe your life".

Wesley taught Stacey the Way of the Owl, and Stacey spent the next 19 years of her life intensively living and studying the life of a barn owl. Sprinkled through the book is much owl lore (as well as insight into other birds and reptiles). For instance, owl's mate for life, and when an owl's mate dies, he doesn't necessarily go out and find another partner. Instead, he might turn his head to face the tree on which he's sitting and stare fixedly in a deep depression until he dies. Such profound grief is indicative of how passionately owls can feel and how devoted they are to their mates. Baby barn owls have a hard existence. One out of every 15 owl babies make it through the first year. Father owls hunt relentlessly. He has to feed himself, his mate, and his babies. The babies will consume 6 mice each per night (with the usual brood being 5 babies). The males then will have to provide approximately 37 mice every night during nesting season. It is a testament to Stacey that she provided Wesley with 28,000 mice over his lifetime.

Another thing I liked about the book was the glimpse Stacey provided into the prestigious research community (she calls it a kind of scientific Hogwarts), where resident owls flew freely from office to office and you were allowed to meet some of the brilliant and eccentric scientists studying these animals. At Caltech, for example, she described what she called "trolls". These were theoretical mathematicians and physicists who lived down in the tunnels of Caltech (that were heated with steam). These guys rarely came aboveground. They received grants, and their meager style of living didn't cost much. She describes walking through the darkness of these tunnels and coming across a bluish glow (the computer screen) of these trolls. Next to the computer screen would be a twin bed, some blankets, piles of books and papers, and of course, the computer. Some of them spent their entire lives this way. Productive genius theoreticians, who tended to keep to themselves and publish their work. Some of them clearly had what's now referred to as Asperger syndrome, a mild form of functional autism, but they were happy doing their calculations and making discoveries. Fascinating.

But this book is not written strictly from a scientist's perspective. Having a tender heart for Wesley from the start, their bond only deepened over the years as Wesley revealed his personality, emotions, and playful nature. Wesley was fiercely loyal and protective of Stacey, even trying to run off would be human suitors. And of course the most touching part of the book to me was when Stacey described her own life threatening illness and the unconditional love and courage of her adopted barn owl that pulled her through it. And of course, because no matter how close we get to the animals we share our lives with, their life expectancy falls startling short of our own, Stacey tells us about the end of their love story and how she survived afterwards.

Enhanced by wonderful photos of Wesley that Stacey took (like any proud parent would), this is a book that any animal lover will enjoy. It explores that mystical bond between animals and humans in a wise, joyous, and quirky way.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Comic Book Tattoo Tales Inspired by Tori Amos by Rantz A. Hoseley

This anthology contains over 50 stories inspired by the songs of Tori Amos, a Grammy Award nominated singer songwriter known for her emotionally intense songs and one of the most prominent figures of the 1990s alternative music scene.

Neil Gaiman wrote the introduction and is a friend and collaborator of Amos. She wrote the introduction to Neil's "Death: the High Cost of Living".

The artwork is beautiful, and it is wonderful to see modern comics in a coffee table format book. These comic artists adapted the concepts behind Amos's songs into graphic vignettes. They did not do visual cover versions of the songs, but simply used the song as a jumping off point. So here you have a huge number of talented creators giving their best with a wide variety of themes, from fantasy, to historical drama, to science fiction. Tori Amos fans will love it. Comic fans will love it.

The author, Rantz Hoseley, thinks the union of comics and music is powerful, and that they are inherently related. He says "Both music and comics deal with emotional ‘beats’ that the creator sets up in their creative work for maximum impact; knowing when to go soft and restrained, when to have a ‘quiet’ moment, followed by having a big powerful surge that takes your breath away, or gives you that electric charge down to the base of your spine.” This book seeks to articulate the relationship between the wholly auditory experience of music with the wholly visual experience of comic books. And I believe it succeeds in a big way.

Here's one other interesting little tidbit of trivia. There is a librarian on the cover with Tori Amos. Her name is Amy Marie Keller, a.k.a. soldiergirl librarian. She is the perfect example of the new librarian. They are smart, well read, interesting, funny people, who have a passion for pop culture, activism, and technology. They are progressive, and hipper. And as my main man Neil Gaiman says in one of my favorite quotes about librarians "Most people don't realize how important librarians are. I ran across a book recently which suggested that the peace and prosperity of a culture was solely related to how many librarians it contained. Possibly a slight overstatement. But a culture that doesn't value its librarians doesn't value ideas and without ideas, well, where are we?" (from 'The Sandman'. Line spoken by Lucien, Librarian of the Dreaming)

Give Yourself the gift of Reading

Why is a book the best gift for this holiday season? Let me count the ways...

(1) It comes fully charged (batteries not required). (2) No sizing issues (one size fits all). (3) The right book at the right time can transform a life. (4) You can buy ten hardcover books for the price of an iphone. (5) Costs less than a movie with popcorn, is around the same price as a DVD, but the experience lasts much longer. (6) Weighs less than a fruitcake and is more original than a tie or sweater. (7) Books can be a wonderful escape should you find yourself in need of one, and cost much less than a vacation or spa experience. (8) Books can be useful...for example, everyone should have a cookbook, dictionary, or spiritual book. (9) You can't curl up with a gadget. (10) Nothing is easier to wrap.

Obviously I could go on and on about this, but let's just leave it at that for the moment. For those of you who need a little help picking out a book, here's a link to a nicely put together Holiday Gift Guide.

A couple of other interesting things I'd like to share with you...

There was an article in People magazine recently about James Patterson and his son Jack called "Getting My Kid to Read". Check it out here.

Another interesting article in Scouting magazine from September 2008 called "Guys read Guy books". Check that one out here.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The traveler by Daren Simkin

Once upon a time there was a boy named Charlie. He had a pretty nice life, but it wasn't perfect. So one day he packed up all his time (all his round, squishy years and square, mushy months, down to every itsy-bitsy second) in his suitcase, said goodbye to his parents, and set off to find something better to spend his time on. This book captures an important truth about time and is a tiny fable that will charm readers of all ages.

This is the story behind the book. The author first heard a phrase that caught his attention. Then he drove across country mulling it over. He sat down and wrote this fable around the phrase, then showed it to a friend, who showed it to an agent friend, who got it published and then talked to the folks at Starbucks, who chose it for their holiday book.

A very sweet and heartwarming book with a message that young and old can appreciate.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Christmas Sweater by Glenn Beck

This book, written by radio and television host Glenn Beck, is destined to be a holiday classic. I say that not because I am a fan of Glenn's (though I am), but because it contains all the elements to make it so--poignancy, family, faith, forgiveness, atonement and redemption.

Eddie is a 12 year old boy who wants a shiny new bike for Christmas. His father has died, they have had to close the family bakery, and money is tight. But Eddie has dreamed about this bike and believes that somehow his mother will come up with the money to buy it for him. What he receives from her instead is a handmade sweater she crafted with love in her heart. Eddie is too young to realize the real significance of that simple gift and this event sends him on a journey to manhood that has him wrestling with himself, his family and his faith.

Here's an example of some of the wisdom this book contains:

"Most times we're so focused on what we think we want that we can't appreciate how happy we already are. It's only when we forget about our problems and help others forget theirs that we realize how good we really have it."

"When life's perils thick confound you, put His arms unfailing round you."

"...everything happens for a reason. It is up to you to find that reason, learn from it, and let it take you to the place you're supposed to be--not just where you have ended up. You can either complain about how hard your life is, or you can realize that only you are responsible for it. You get to choose: Am I going to be happy or miserable? And nothing. . .will ever change that."

" one is meant to carry the load alone. We're all in this together. Once you realize that you can ask for help, your whole world will change."

"Sometimes our strengths are also our weaknessses. Sometimes to be strong you have to first be weak. You have to share your burdens; you have to lean on other people while you face your problems and yourself. That's hard to do, but your family is there to provide a shelter from the storms that come in everyone's life."

"...we can't control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. We are all meant to be happy...if you're not happy, it's not God's fault, it's not my fault, or anyone else's fault. It's your own."

"No material thing can [make you happy]...You have to find your way back to the things that will give you lasting happiness, and you can't buy them in a store."

"Everyone needs a place where they can go to just ponder for a while. Silence is important; it's the only time you can hear the whispering of truth. It's funny how many people just look at the surface and never ponder the deeper meaning of things. I guess maybe it's easier that way, because when you skim the surface you blame your problems on the first person you find--and that's never yourself. Maybe that's why people aren't comfortable with silence. Silence makes you think and thinking makes you realize that not all problems are caused by someone else."

"...sometimes we get so entangled in life that we miss the obvious. We just get so caught up in our own problems that most of the time we fail to see what's right under our nose."

"The two most powerful words in any language are 'I am'. Those two words contain all the creative power of the heavens themselves. It was God's answer from the Burning Bush to Moses's question 'Who shall I say sent me?'--I am that I am.' It is the name of God."

"When you choose the path, you choose the destination."

" is not meant to be safe. It's only in our mistakes, our errors, and our faults that we grow and truly live...sometimes the hardest part of the journey is believing that you're worthy of the trip."

And this last quote that really sums up the spirit of this captivating holiday book:

"Heaven is the atonement of all things. Atonement. It's a chance to fix the unfixable and to start all over again. It begins when you forgive yourself for all you've done wrong, and forgive others for all they've done to you. Your mistakes aren't mistakes anymore, they're just things that make you stronger. Atonement is the great redeeming and equalizing force that leads to the fulfillment of all things: every hug you've ever longed for...everyone you've loved and lost...Atonement, is heaven on earth."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter

This is the story of how a small abandoned kitten transformed a small town library and in the process became famous around the world.

When he was only a few weeks old, on one of the coldest nights of the year, a small kitten was stuffed into the book drop box at the Spencer Public Library. The next morning, the Director of the Library found him, nursed him back to health, and for the next 19 years Dewey Readmore Books won the hearts of all he came in contact with. As his fame grew, he became a source of pride for the Heartland farming town who adopted him and transformed a small library into a meeting place and tourist attraction.

How much of an impact can one cat have? Let me quote Dewey's Mom, the Director of the Library: "He was like one of those seemingly ordinary people who, once you get to know them, stand out from the crowd. They are the ones who never miss a day of work, who never complain, who never ask for more than their share. They are those rare librarians, salesmen, and waitresses who provide excellent service on principle, who go beyond the job because they have a passion for the job. They know what they are meant to do in life, and they do it exceptionally well. Some win awards; some make a lot of money; most are taken for granted. The store clerks. The bank tellers. The auto mechanics. The mothers. The world tends to recognize the unique and the loud, the rich and the self-serving, not those who do ordinary things extraordinarily well. Dewey came from humble beginnings (an Iowa alley); he survived tragedy (a freezing drop box); he found his place (a small-town library). Maybe that's the answer. He found his place. His passion, his purpose, was to make that place, no matter how small and out of the way it may have seemed, a better place for everyone...he never gave up during his long night in the box, and he was devoted to the library that became his home. Dewey didn't do one heroic thing; he did something heroic every day. He spent his time changing lives in Spencer, Iowa, one lap at a time."

This is a heart warming book that captures the specialness of small-town life and the sense of community shared there. It is a story of love and courage and devotion. And whether you are a cat lover or not, you can't help but admire the resilience and humanity of the people of Iowa, and one town in particular, who opened its door and heart to a down and out kitten.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Blue Christmas by Mary Kay Andrews

The holidays can be a time of loneliness and sadness for a lot of people. Many magazines this time of year run articles about how to overcome the holiday blues or holiday depression. For personal reasons, this year I'm having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit. So I decided to pick up this quick holiday read by Mary Kay Andrews and see if it helped.

This is a funny story with quirky characters, lots of southern charm, and a few recipes thrown in to boot. An antiques dealer in Savannah (Weezie Foley) decides to enter a decorating contest in the historical district in which she owns and operates her shop. The only problem is she has some stiff competition from a trendy boutique around the corner, a boyfriend who is moody and withdrawn during the holidays (which is a big distraction), and a decidely odd family who can be more of a hindrance than a help. But Weezie manages to pull off her own Christmas miracle --with the help of the King himself, Elvis--and we find out that sometimes it takes a blue Christmas to put us in the holiday mood. This special edition of her book includes an essay by the author, the aforementioned recipes, and tips for keeping the "happy" in our holidays. Who could ask for anything more?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Double Dippin by Nicole Falon Garrett

There were many things I liked about this book. First and foremost, it is set in a city that I adore--my kind of town, Chicago. I also like the way the book is organized, each chapter starts with an interesting quote, and is told from the perspective of one of the characters. Thirdly, I like the breezy style of the writing. I thought the author did a very good job lacing humor throughout the book and the conversational tone set with her characters rang true to me. And the title the author picked for her book is perfect, as it works on so many different levels.

Double Dippin takes you into the lives of a group of upper class professionals as they go about their jet setting day to day business. Money is not a problem with this crowd, and at first they seem to be living the good life and extremely happy in their circumstances. But soon secrets begin to emerge, infidelity rears its ugly head, and murder becomes a part of the landscape.

I found the book to be a good romp in the mystery suspense realm. It has a lively pace and the author does a good job of bringing her story alive and making you want to turn those pages to see what happens to her characters next. It is clearly an adult novel and the language is a little graphic in places, and there is sex galore, but that does seem to be the trend these days. Janet Evanovich seems to have carved herself a nice career out of this trend.

So if you want to take a roller coaster ride through the world of power and money set in one of the superlative cities of the world, pick up a copy of Garrett's book.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman by Hank Wagner, Christopher Golden & Stephen R. Bissette

This book was a must read for me. I happen to be a huge Neil Gaiman fan. As the promo on the jacket says, over the past twenty years, Neil Gaiman has developed into the premier fantasist of his generation, achieving that rarest of combinations--unrivaled critical respect and extraordinary commercial success. He is a pop culture phenomenon and the impact of his work in fiction, film, music, and comic books is unparalleled.

This book is a treasure trove of all things Gaiman. In addition to containing in-depth information and commentary on all his works, it includes rare photographs, artwork, and trivia.

One of the things that impressed me about Neil's early years was the fact that he was about 5 or 6 years old when he read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. Yes, that's right, 5 or 6! I was an adult before I ever read the Chronicles of Narnia--I can't imagine reading that book at such an early age. Neil says that he admired Lewis's prose style (found it faultless) and his use of parenthetical statements to the reader, and thought to himself that was so cool that he'd like to do that when he became an author. [Notice how he says when he became an author, not if he ever became an author.]

On his 7th birthday, his parents got him a boxed set of the Narnia books (all seven of them) and he lay on his bed and read them. That's what he did on his 7th birthday! At age 10 he started reading Tolkien. The point is, he was a reader. He loved reading. Reading gave him pleasure. [I can totally relate to this, as I feel exactly the same way.] He said he was very good at most subjects in school, not because he had a particular aptitude in them, but because normally on the first day of school they'd hand out the schoolbooks, and he would read them--which would mean that he knew what was coming up, because he'd read it. He was an incredibly fast and incredibly enthusiastic reader who retained information fairly well. He was a voracious reader who got everything from books. He read more than a book a day, because he always had a book with him and read at any down point.

His parents would drop him off at the library first thing in the morning, and he read his way through the children's library. After he finished, he tried that with the adult library, but found out he couldn't do that with adult books, there were too many, and many he wasn't interested in. But once loose in the adult library, he found he was much more interested in science fiction and fantasy. He jokingly said it got to the point where his parents would frisk him for books before family functions.

What I found interesting is how he turned his love of reading and the written word into writing as a profession. He said one night he could not sleep...just couldn't sleep. He remembered lying there in bed and he had a sort of vision, a train of thought that went--O.K. let's say I'm eighty years old, and I'm on my death bed. And I say to myself, as my life ends, 'I could have been a writer. I could have actually been a writer.' --and he would die not knowing if he was lying to himself or not--and he found that unbearable. He found the thought that he would die thinking he was kidding himself, a terrible thing. He thought it would be better to go and try and be a writer, and to fail, then he would at least know that no, he was put on Earth to be something else. It would be better to do that. It was the worst thing he could think of for himself in the world, at that point, the idea of not knowing if he was lying to himself or not. Because in his heart, he thought he was a writer.

As the book says, Gaiman is a writer, but, first and foremost, he's a fan, a man with a passionate love of story, avidly consuming myths, television, movies, novels, short stories, animation, and comics. He loves to write for writing's sake, and as a means of staying in touch with his legion of fans--his blog, now in its sixth year click here , has over a million unique hits each month. Through it he communicates daily with his fans--those who are devoted to his work.

He truly is the Prince of Stories, and this book is a remarkable chronicle of his work.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...