Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

Having just come off of reading Matthew Pearl's tome, The Technologists it seemed a perfect segue to move to a novel that is all wrapped up in the latest techno change within the literary world ... digital literature, smart phone apps, Kindles, website proliferation, media mash that can be overwhelming and so plentiful that one can get lost in the pixels and gigabytes. It is a fact that today's world is fast becoming one of two layers - the virtual and the physical. Today's young people have learned to absorb the use of every new bit of hand-held technology to negotiate both planes of existence, but there are still places where the printed page holds sway.

Those places - bookstores, tag sales, estate auctions and the like - are places where great mysteries and treasures sit. They are just waiting for some person's hands to latch on, for some person's eyes and brains to engage, for some person's soul to become a willing participant in the story told, the question posed, the dilemma debated, the life exposed.

Robin Sloan gives us two characters, Chris and Kat, young residents of the techno-culture of San Francisco trying their best to make it through this latest economic downturn. One character is successfully riding the techno tide and the other has struggled to keep head above water in San Francisco's work world. Chris happens into a small 'hole in the wall' bookstore one day that is a cross between black hole and Diagon Alley. Before he knows it, he's the newest night clerk at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. His enthusiasm for using technology to improve business and his curiosity about the intriguing customers that frequent the store and their interest in what lies in the stacks toward the back of the store meld in a fast paced race to solve an ancient mystery, save his employer's reputation, and maybe 'get the girl' ... read on, friends. This is a really fun book!

Sloan has a sharp savvy wit that gives a good chuckle now and then. He weaves the current names and corporate powerhouses into the story, uses the geography of the Bay Area to bring the setting up before your mind's eye, and has techno-speak down and uses it to create a nerdy jargon that moves the computer-esque element of the story right along. At the heart of the story, though, are the books and the type and the Old Knowledge that is a firm foundation for all that has come from it and the heartfelt sense that the power of the word will carry on ... in all its manifestations.

For a neat interview, see NPR's link here

Friday, January 25, 2013

Breaking the Rules - Poetry Jam

Image: ‘The Alarm- Crows’ -  Richard Copello


Midwinter Lune

Crows perch high
Sun beats blue on black
Grey branches sway

Breeze turns cold
Beaks part and chortles rise
Wings spread wide

Branches click
Time to disappear
Man noise comes

Swooping sounds swish
High-pitched cries echo afar
Black feet dangle

Five black crows
Streak a bleak winter field
Looking for warmth

… Susan M-Lindquist – 1/24/13

This lune poem is a contribution to Poetry Jam's weekly writing exercise ... this week's task is to choose a type of form poem and change it up slightly, breaking the rules a bit. Smack dab in the center of this poem is a change from word count to syllable count ... form interrupting form, so to speak. Click here to see what others have contributed ... break your own rules and write something too.


Hikikomori and the Rental Sister - Jeff Backhaus

I am not a professional book reviewer, but I know a good story when I read one - an honest to goodness story that can reach into your heart and twist at emotions, making you feel completely wrapped in another person's experience. In this book, I have settled into the grief and guilt and fear that its central character wallows in. Thomas has been slammed by a wrenching experience that he cannot get over, come to terms with, move on from ... so what does he do? He turns his back on life, on wife, on career, on friends, on even the most mundane things. Thomas is hikikomori ... a modern day hermit in his small Manhattan apartment ... with his wife right down the hall. What does she do? She becomes increasingly saddened, angry, desperate, resigned, and finally, proactive. She hires a 'rental sister'. The rental sister, Megumi is a young beautiful Japanese immigrant with her own set of issues, but she becomes the link between Thomas, the world, the wife, the grief, the confrontation, and (is it possible ?) the healing.

This a layered novel that jumps between first and third person narrative, telling a story of emotional trauma, isolation, intimacy, and just what one does for love. No words are wasted and the story flows  in bits and starts, like a faucet that comes on and off, off and on, off and on. There are beautiful sparsely worded images that will make you stop and contemplate, get lost in the thought, take time to remove yourself a bit from the book and go into your head. There are softly sensual passages that demand you contemplate intimacy on the physical and psychological planes. There is a baring of  the different characters' souls that makes your heart ache and makes you need to put the book down for a while, for who doesn't grapple with emotional isolation, guilt, second guessing, denial, and escape at different times in one's life?

This is a good little book. No, I'm no professional book reviewer, but I do know a good story when I read one.

Image from Backhaus' website

For an interesting take on Jeff Backhaus and his approach to his writing craft, check out Largehearted Boy's post on this book here.  Interesting ... and the music is wonderful.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Boys Without Names - Kashmiri Sheth


The upper level of the building is cramped with bodies and trays of beads, frames, a smelly glue pot, the rolled up tatters of jute bedding and sundry little personal items. Six young boys work feverishly placing small beads onto blunt needles and then sticking them into position on wooden frames. They work quietly, so as not to raise the ire of their Boss, who sits in an easy chair in the room below. The television rumbles sometimes or the Boss can be heard snoring as he naps the day away. The doors are all locked; there are bars on the windows. From the outside the building resembles a ramshackle warehouse. Inside, though it is a prison of work and deprivation.

Thus, is the story of Gopal and his cohorts. How Gopal comes to this bleak sweatshop in an alley in Mumbai and how his cohorts cope with such a brutal life is the story that Kashmiri Sheth tells. It is, at times, heart-breaking and at others, hopeful. It brings the reader in contact with good people and people who are broken and brutal. Gopal is a resourceful and strong protagonist who never loses hope that he will be reunited with his family, who uses his wits and savvy to survive under circumstances that would make many of us despair.

The issue of child labor and sweatshop evils has come more and more into the public eye, over the past few years, as the commercial consumption remains high and the supply of cheap, but well-made goods streams into the country from third world nations. American consumers, being so far removed from the source of products, can easily buy everything from jewelry to hangbags to picture frames to clothing to fireworks to coffee and never connect their consumption patterns with the practice of slave labor ... slave labor. That's what it is ... in bold black and white. Within our own country, there are wide-spread abuses of  workers within the agricultural fields, as everything from tomatoes to oranges to celery is brought to market. A practice that this nation turned its back on so many years ago continues to this day and we consumers unwittingly (or blythely) ignore its continuance in the blind need to consume without investigating the source of our 'stuff'.

Kashmiri Sheth has put faces and names to the nameless workers who labor every day in sweatshops, in writing this powerful novel. While hers is a book written for a young adult audience, there are plenty more out there to read and think about. There are agencies to investigate and support that work toward economic equality, fair labor practices, humane treatment within the work place, and education of workers. I know I will never look at an inexpensive picture frame again without wondering whose young fingers might have created it.

Kashmiri Sheth traveled to India to research her novel and I am very glad that she did. I can only hope that more people read this book and discuss the important topic of economic justice with their friends and families. I would recommend this book as a family read-aloud, a class or church youth group book club read, or as a scout troop read and investigation project. It is a vivid story that has all the brutal components of the issue without such graphic horrors that it would traumatize kids. It would be a real eye-opener for those ten years and older. An important book ...


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday Snapshot - Remembering Prague

A couple years ago, my husband and I returned to Europe to visit friends in Germany. One of the junkets that we took with Gundel and Wichard was a train ride to Prague to do a walking tour of the city. It was a lovely time ... just look.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Virginia Lee Burton - A Life in Art - Barbara Elleman

Some books from childhood remain indelibly imprinted on our hearts and in our brains. We all have our favorites - One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, The Little House, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Story of Ferdinand, The Courage of Sarah Noble, The Corgiville Fair, King Bidgood's in the Bathtub, Strega Nona. These are some of my favorites.

Seed of Doubt - Poetry Jam

Seed of Doubt

I held that hand you offered
Warm and strong it was
I looked at dirty knuckles
Fresh from our garden chores
The sun was strong
Sweat beads on your wrist
Misted wiry hairs 
A glass of lemonade? Yes!
One hand brushed damp bangs
Up and away from my eyes
The other dropped my hand
Urging me toward the kitchen
I sat at the table
Legs sticking to the chair vinyl
A cold glass rested before me
A cold hand dropped to rest
Draped between my knees
I freeze
Wait! Cookies!
Your back was turned
I dashed
The screen door clattered
The sun was blinding
My sneakers slapped the sidewalk
The postman cursed my rushing by
I didn't care
My mother called and I ran

Writer's Note:
Often when we are in danger or feel threatened, the experience is remembered in an almost photographic manner. Images and sensations are stilted and bounce back willy-nilly to create the incident. They bounce back square before your eyes or at the center of your forehead, as you close eyes to bring things back. Thus is the incident of my childhood ... was his touch innocent and gentle or was it dangerous? I will never know for sure. I reacted from a gut reaction, having been drilled by parents and teachers early on to flee danger at the first inkling.

Later, I questioned myself. I never, though, allowed myself to be alone in Neighbor John's presence again. He touched my shoulder or guided me through activities in his yard (right across from our yard), but always when Mother was hanging laundry or brothers were playing whiffle ball or friends were jumping rope on the sidewalk nearby. I learned to be cautious, but I always wondered if I really needed to be. It makes me sad to think that I had to be that way with him, but I did.

This poem is part of Poetry Jam's weekly writing exercise ... this week the theme is 'danger' in any of its manifestations. Link to see what others have shared. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Technologists - Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl's latest book, The Technologists , is just what I have needed to perk up my brain and make me pay attention to detail. His story is set in post-Civil War Boston at the time that MIT is beginning to educate young people in the various burgeoning sciences. This is a time when science and technology come face to face with the ever-growing working (and the beginnings of the middle) class. The story is set against the backdrop of economic threat that many workers felt whenever technology and the industrialization of manufacturing was touted, the moral threat that many in the academic world of humanist education felt when faced with the scientific theories of the new scientists (like Darwin) of this era of educational growth, and the political threat that society dealt with when differing political forces played out their philosophical battles in the public arena.

Pearl's way of writing is a bit weighty, in that he tries very hard to use the vernacular of the age in dialogue, develop characters that are historic within a purely ficticious plot line that has a fantastical element to it, and drop interesting historic tidbits about the geography and history of Boston's urban development. That's a big task and I will say he is partially successful at handling it. The plot does get weighed down at times, though, as he shifts between the many characters and sub-plots that all come together to make the big story.

This brings us to the storyline. Quick study: someone or some group is messing with the fabric of life in the city of Boston. Strange machinations have caused the navigational instruments of the ships entering and leaving Boston harbor to scramble and have caused a series of devastating shipping collisions within the harbor. Panic ensues within the city government when the leaders try to explain to investors and the public just what happened. Within days, other strange and disturbing events occur. The students and faculty of the new college, MIT, are suspect and the public panic threatens the very existence of the university. It's up to a group of students and faculty to figure out just what's happening and explain it to a troubled government and public. Therein lies the plot line. A tangled web indeed!

Of course, as one reads this book there are other issues that crop up. I thought about the level of academic competition that arises when political or public health issues arise and good sound research and cooperation is required to solve the ensuing problems. I also thought about the suspicious reaction that society often has when any new and novel way of looking at the world surfaces. Letting go of old ideas to embrace new ideas is difficult. Change is difficult. Often, man's lesser qualities surface when change is eminent and serve to stymy growth and innovation. It takes people of perseverance and fortitude, honor and humility, wit and resilience to move society along ... just such a group as the technologists.   

Let's just put it this way. If you like Boston history, know the city somewhat, have a love for the writing of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, enjoy a good 'Crimie' novel, and like the language of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Henry James and the ilk, you may just enjoy this book ... it's certainly worth a try!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Saturday Snapshot - Soup for Supper

The fog has rolled into New England and it is eerily calm ... now. It came on the heels of winds that whipped around the corners of the grey cottage and scoured the snow banks, before bringing a splating kind of rain that beat the snow down to rounded brow-beaten hummocks of sogginess.

This is not the weather that inspires me to walk out into the world. Instead, I have stoked the fires up in the woodstoves and have begun to make a soup ... a fishy kind of soup with a big hunk of monkfish and a small pile of potatoes and carrots and celery and onions ... and an herb bouquet that resembles a sweet little nosegay. If only it had a pretty green satin ribbon, but it is headed for the stockpot, so rough and rustic jute will have to do.

Perhaps I will make a round loaf of rustic bread to sit beside our supper bowls ... it's a lazy, 'curl up at home kind of day', and I am going nowhere special ...

This post joins others linked into Alyce's Saturday Snapshot photoshare over at her website - at home with books . Join the others and see what's happening around the world with other Snapshot folks!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

When We Were the Kennedys - Monica Wood

Stepping into this book was like walking back in time to childhood ... Monica Wood describes, with such poignant detail, snapshots of a youth spent negotiating the sidewalks and classroom aisles of small town existence. In her case, life unfolded in a small factory town in northern New England. The circumstance of her memoir revolves around the year that her father died suddenly from a massive heart attack. Her life, during this time of grieving, is distilled in written form to remembrances and reflections on her mother, her uncle, her sisters, her school teachers, and her community and the way the fabric of her life flows and changes as life without her father becomes a routine and not the initial traumatic explosion in an otherwise normal morning. All this familial change and grieving occurs around the same time that the nation loses its beloved President Kennedy.

I loved Ms. Wood's power of description. She uses her words so effectively and brings scenes to life easily, without wasting words or rambling.

The Gallant ladies linger a bit, they speak kindly, they squeeze her hands, but this is the era before 'closure', before 'letting it all out', an era of private mourning. You don't say things out loud. Mum, a shell-shocked widow trying to find her footing, intends to keep her misery to herself.
She isn't sleeping. One night I wake with a start - everything eerily calm, Cathy asleep next to me, Betty asleep in her bunk, Anne, softly breathing, asleep in hers. I slip out of bed and listen: nothing. I crack open our bedroom door and find the kitchen empty, everything in silhouette: the table and chairs, the sewing machine, the birdcage. Nothing breathes; even the cats have vanished. Then I hear something - at least I think I do, a sound nearly eroded  from memory, something that might be a voice or a motion, or a thought.
Is it Dad? In there, in the parlor? One step, then another and I'm at the parlor doorway, peering in. I see a human shadow in the darkness. Blood rushes through my ears, I can no longer place the sound I either did or did not hear, and then the figure resolves into the motionless shape of my mother.
Standing in the center of the room, she fumbles with her nightgown as if she has just put it on. What is she doing? What time is it? I do not understand the thing to which I'm bearing witness: a widow awake in her too-small house, unwilling to return to her marriage bed. Like a spirit from the ghost  stories that she and Dad loved to tell, she haunts her own house at night, and as soon as it empties out in the morning she sleeps at last, borrowing beds that smell of her children.
She hears me. Turns. Her beautiful brown eyes meet me in the dark.
"Mumma?" I whisper.
She doesn't answer. I'm not positive she can see me. I've intruded on something adult and private, and so, not knowing what else to do, I retreat gently, as if backing away from a strange but benign-looking animal, my eyes fixed on hers. By morning it feels like a dream.

This is the first book that I've read by Monica Wood. I already have an order in at the library for an earlier novel called Any Bitter Thing. Savoring every page of When We Were the Kennedys, I can tell that I have 'found' a new favorite author.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

100 Books in 2013 Challenge ...

New Years resolutions come our way at this time of year. It's a given. I have usually not participated in the tradition, but this year, I thought I'd resolve to read 100 books during the year and write a short reaction on Buch Handling about each. In addition, I am going to try to branch out and read different genres. That's my personal goal. I figure posting this resolution will do two things - 1) it keeps me honest and persistent in trying to achieve the goal and 2) it forces me to work at the genre switch-up aspect. I am a real fan of historical fiction and would gladly fall down the rabbit hole with a stack of just that type of book. Making a goal to branch out can only help me out as a reader.

So, I would like to welcome any readers visiting Buch Handling to join me in this challenge. It's a purely personal thing. Grab the image above and legitimize your participation by posting your personal reading goals for the year, put the image in your blog sidebar or down below your posts somewhere to keep it in front of your eyes when you're posting and do your best to read 100 Books in 2013. If I see it on your blogs anywhere, I'll know I can browse your posts about achieving your goal and perhaps get some good recommendations for my reading list.

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars - Katherine Marsh

Take a look at the cover art on this book. Whom would you suppose this book is written for ? I had  this conversation with my nephew and he agreed with me that this book cover would appeal to upper elementary and perhaps middle school students. That being said, as I got into the story of Jepp, a young Belgian boy of the late 16th century, I became convinced that not only is this a story for older students and adults, but it has content that is ripe for discussion with older teen-agers. Issues raised in this book range from a person's right to know their parentage and familial history to issues of gender equity, the rise of scientific inquiry in the early Christian world, sensitivity to the issues that people with physical disabilities have, rape and a person's personal responsibility to victims of sexual and emotional violence, and the will that everyone has to make their lives mesh with their dreams and hopes. It goes on and on ... all very deep and weighty topics.

All these issues are wrapped up in a well-researched story of the rise of the astronomical research done by such early scientists as Tycho Brache and Copernicus, the courts of the Spanish nobility, and the fate of a young court dwarf named Jepp whose misadventures take him from Belgium to the coast of the North Sea and to points beyond.

Katherine Marsh has written an excellent story that lets the reader be drawn into the fictitious life of the young protagonist, Jepp as well as the gritty world of court politics. It takes all Jepp's intelligence and fortitude to survive and prosper in this world where the divide between nobility and commoner is so stark, where God-given rights are easily trampled by nobles in their rush to live their lives of plenty and reach higher on the social ladder, where court hangers-on will do much to establish a safe spot of ease for themselves at the expense of the rights and comforts of the less fortunate, where a young man must be determined in order to overcome the odds and take control of his destiny.

This has been a good read all the way around ... but my one recommendation to Ms. Marsh and her  book's publishers would be to change up the presentation on the book jacket ... fast .... before this book gets relegated to the elementary school library book stacks.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Summer Remembered ... Saturday Snapshot

Soul of Summer

It comes this time of year
Lurks just behind the woodpile
Creeps up beside you 
Like the cold draft at your elbow
Settles on you when the sunlight
Spears the glass frost feathers

Soft summer daydream
Warm fuzz of August peaches
'Cat tongue' feel of lemon verbena
Complaining tick of chipmunk
Insistent call of wood thrush
Rose scent on the morning breeze 

This post (rather, the short poem above)  has been sitting as a draft for a while, as I contemplated the picture's colors and did free association with the feelings it gave me when I sat and gazed at it. It is finally in a state that I'm not ashamed to offer as a Saturday Snapshot. I hope you are having your own remembrances of spring and summer time, as we slowly wait for the back of winter to be broken.

Join the others who share their snap shots at Alyce's weekly blogshare by hitting the link above and seeing just what folks have brought to this week's Saturday Snapshot.


Friday, January 4, 2013

The Art Forger - B. A. Shapiro

Let me first say that this book struck a real chord with me, as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the first place that my husband took me when he was trying to impress my romantic side. I have a soft spot in my heart for every small nook and cranny of that magnificent building and every piece of art that is perched, mounted, and hanging within its walls. That being said, when I happened on Shapiro's book, The Art Forger I was immediately intrigued.