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Book Reviews BEFORE They Were Blocked

Crofton’s Read and Review:


Baseball Fever

For reasons I can’t explain, I was never interested in baseball until the 2001 World Series, and even after the Diamondbacks won, I soon slipped back into indifference. But the 2004 post-season changed all that. (C’mon, how could you not be interested in baseball after that season?)

Since then, I’ve enjoyed many games on TV and in person, but the more I watched, the more I realized I knew next to nothing about the game. I believe the best way to learn baseball is by watching it played, preferably with someone who knows it well. Without such a person available, I recommend two valuable baseball resources: George Vecsey’s Baseball: The History of America’s Favorite Game (2006) and Zach Hample’s Watching Baseball Smarter (2007). (I had to get this one through Marina. Wish we had it in our collection.)

Vecsey provides a basic history of the game, starting with the game’s origins, founder(s) and early days, leading right up to the present. The book makes no claims to be comprehensive, yet the historical highlights and key players are all there: the first teams, the icons (Cobb, Ruth, Young, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Robinson, Mays, Rose, etc.) how war affected the game, the Negro Leagues, minor leagues, broadcasting, ballparks, traditions, the World Series, commissioners, owners, rivalries, scandals and controversies including, yes, steroids. Longtime baseball fans will find little they don’t already know, but for those new to the game, Vecsey provides a good crash course.

Watching Baseball Smarter is a fun, irreverent breakdown of the mechanics of the game including chapters titled The Basics, Pitchers and Catchers, Hitting, Baserunning, Fielding, Stadiums, Umpires, Statistics, Random Stuff to Know, Random Stuff to Notice. Hample explains the hows and whys of just about every conceivable play in baseball, often using baseball slang. But don’t worry: there’s a glossary included so you can look up what it means when a batter hits one up the elevator shaft. A fun, informative read for both newbies and veterans.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Renegade’s Magic by Robin Hobb

Renegade’s Magic, the third book of The Soldier’s Son trilogy, is the conclusion of the tortured tale of Nevare Burvelle. Nevare is a man torn between the life he was born to, that of a solider’s son, and the life he was forced into by a woman of powerful magic, that of a forest mage. In this volume, Nevare in fact lives as a split person: his original self, or consciousness is held prisoner inside his body, while control of the body and his actions is held by his forest mage self. Much of the novel sees Nevare helpless, able to mentally interact with his controlling self, but unable to physically influence anything in the outside world.

The novel is set in the land of Gernia, an frontier-like world with a strong military tradition and a king who favors expanding his realm by building a road out beyond a mountain range. Unfortunately, this road-building involves tearing down an ancient forest. The trees here are sacred to the Speck people (analagous to Native Americans, but with 100% more magic!) because they house the souls of their mages; when a tree is cut down, the soul of the ancient mage is lost forever. The Gernians are suspicious/fearful of the Specks because of their magical abilities, and the Specks are furious at the Gernians for their destruction of their elder trees. This conflict is embodied in Nevare–his Gernian self and his Speck self are completely at odds, yet they are both him. How he deals with that duality and what it means for both the Gernains and the Specks form the meat of this trilogy.

One of the more unique aspects of this trilogy is that Nevare, when he becomes his forest mage Speck self, is enormously fat! The Speck mages’ obesity is a physical manifestation of how full of magic they are; they all have dedicated “feeders,” whose sole job is to feed the mages constantly and take care of their physical needs. I have never seen the like of it before in fantasy, and found it an interesting choice since morbid obesity is viewed as a rather repellent condition by many (including Nevare’s Gernian family and friends, who cannot understand why their strapping soldier son has let himself go to such a degree; of course, they have no idea that he has been “claimed” by the magic). There are clear environmental themes here (cutting down the forest=bad, though not for the normal conservationist reasons), and a resounding call for trying to understand fully the ramifications of one’s actions before blindly doing what one wants to do.

Unlike many sprawling fantasy works, Hobb does not overwhelm the reader with a huge cast of characters. Instead she focuses on world-building and character development. Hobb is masterful at both of these tasks, and I truly feel like I’m there with her characters as they go through their lives.

I first read Hobb’s prior trilogies: Farseer, Liveship Traders, and Tawny Man, and absolutely adored them. These books are more in the traditional epic fantasy mold, with dragons and magic and medieval-esque setting. All three trilogies are set in the same world (The Soldier’s Son trilogy is unrelated to the first three), and the 1st and 3rd feature the same main character. Upon finishing the last book of the 3rd trilogy, I was in tears, partly because of events in the book, but mostly because I knew I had come to the end of my time with this world and these characters, and I would truly miss spending time with them. So naturally, I was excited to see that Hobb had released a new series of books! I must say I didn’t enjoy this trilogy as much as the first three, but she is such a good writer that I still was invested and wanted to read each book as it came out. If I were to recommend Hobb to a new reader, I definitely suggest starting with Assassin’s Apprentice, the 1st book of the Farseer trilogy.

Catherine 🙂

Free for All: Odballs, Geeks and Ganstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert

A collection of vignettes of library life by California public librarian Don Borchert, this memoir made me, in turns, nod my head in recognition and thank my lucky stars our library isn’t that bad. His writing style is engaging and makes the book a fast read (the just over 200 page count helps there as well.) All of the stories you’d expect are included–the woman who runs up all of her cards until they’re blocked and applies for more under a slightly different name, eyes wide in affronted disbelief when questioned whether she’s had previous cards, the surly teens testing the limits, the crazy old man who curses and yells. There are also some very sad tales the likes of which I’ve been lucky enough to avoid so far in my career, and which make you ponder our relationships to our patrons and the extent of our influence in their lives.

For sensitive readers, be aware that Borchert does not shy away from profane language, so if you are turned off by that you might not enjoy the book. Being more of a sailor when it comes to such things, I didn’t mind and found myself laughing out loud several times at his bold opinions and the unapologetic way in which he expresses them.

Recommended for all library staff who aren’t put off by some profanity.

Catherine 🙂

Monday, March 3, 2008

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: a novel in cartoons by Jeff Kinney

So lots and lots of kids have been requesting this book recently and the sequel just came out. I flipped through this book briefly before it became popular, but since the holds list is humongous, my curiousity really got the best of me.
Let me tell you, the kids are right on the mark with this one. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is told in journal from the voice of a 6th grader and is about the most important parts of his school year- interactions with friends, family and teachers, thoughts about girls and grades and other crazy 12 year old musings. Most importantly this book is HILARIOUS! Seriously this book made me laugh out loud dozens of times. I even got to the point where I was reading parts of it aloud to the boyfriend. That’s how good it is.
So anyway, now that I’m done raving for a minute, just let me say that I bought the book because of the holds list, so anyone can borrow it at their leisure. It was a quick read- somewhere between an hour and 1.5 hours.
It’s worth it! 🙂

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I’m back with another new Y realistic fiction. First time author Jay Asher tells the story in two voices: Hannah’s point of view was recorded on cassette tapes before she took her own life and is shown in italics; Clay’s point of view, printed in regular type, is his reaction as he listens to the tapes and recalls the events that lead up to the tragedy.

The writing is amazing and reviewers have given it raves for the power of the story. I can’t stop thinking about Hannah and I feel a true sense of grief that she couldn’t find a way to make different choices. That’s what kids need to “get” that they can’t blame other people no matter how bad it is.

I need to read a funny book now.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

For a time before the outbreak of WWII, Franklin Roosevelt considered a proposal that would establish a temporary settlement for persecuted European Jews in the Alaskan panhandle. The plan fell through, but Michael Chabon uses the proposal as a “What If?” springboard, building the foundation for the architecture of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

Sixty years have passed since the Sitka, Alaska settlement, which saved millions of Jewish lives. (In Chabon’s version, two million Jews died in the Holocaust instead of six million.) Only now the Sitka district is about to revert to American rule, forcing its Jews to find yet another homeland. Just before the upheaval, Detective Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a chess prodigy/heroin addict who lives in the same rundown hotel as Landsman. With the Reversion imminent, Landsman is pressured to forget the case and move on (literally). To make matters worse, most of this pressure is coming from Landsman’s boss, who is also his ex-wife.

Imagine the style of any hard-boiled detective writer, preferably someone like Raymond Chandler, then toss in plenty of Jewish culture (including, of course, healthy doses of Yiddish) clashing with Native Americans, Americans, Filipinos and all sorts of bureaucracy . Add an outrageous sense of humor with sentences that are so well constructed it’s astounding. That’s a very small sampling of the delights to be found in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

(As an aside, I thought it interesting that Chabon abandoned the usual hard-boiled detective first-person narrative, choosing instead a third-person present voice.)

So does this Alternate History/Detective/Murder Mystery/Clash-of-Cultures novel actually work? Like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, it doesn’t really matter who the murderer is. (And yes, you do find out who did it.) It’s all about the journey, not the destination. Sure, there were moments that I thought the story was close to coming off the rails, but Chabon is such a gifted writer I didn’t care. And I wasn’t disappointed. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Like You’d Understand, Anyway: Stories by Jim Shepard

My first encounter with Jim Shepard was his incredible short story “Sans Farine” in The Best American Short Stories 2007 (which is also included in this collection). The story is narrated by an executioner during the French Revolution. The images and details feel so authenitic I almost wondered if Shepard really was an executioner in a past life. Or maybe he’s a time traveler. Or just extremely well-read.

These first-person narratives aren’t simply good stories with historical backdrops. Sure, you certainly get the feeling that Shepard was hanging out with a middle-aged Aeschylus at Marathon, was floating around with the first woman cosmonaut inside a Soviet capsule, was hauling a whaleboat through the Great Australian Desert in 1840. But there’s much more.

Shepard gives the reader eleven wildly differing settings and times, yet wherever (and whenever) you go, conflict is conflict. It becomes very clear that Shepard understands just as much about relationships as he does about history. Many of these relationships are either between siblings or sons and fathers, but not all. Many are strained, many are broken, some are as shattered as a crystal vase dropped from the Sears Tower. But Shepard doesn’t stop with relational conflicts. Each setting acts as its own character, providing added external conflict to heighten the internal conflicts.

Filled with dark humor, drama, tragedy, introspection and yearning, these tales stick with you long after you’ve finished them, refusing to go away. I couldn’t read more than one at a sitting. I suppose some of that is due to the vast differences and settings of the stories. I mean, it’s hard to jump from 1986 Chernobyl straight to Tibet’s Chang Tang tundra. But these are stories to savor, anyway, stories you can get lost inside. Highly recommended.

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