Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Among the Shadow Children

My boyfriend and I have recently begun taking walks through Prospect Park to the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. I'm not much of a library gal, mostly because my love affair with books is rooted in a materialistic and possessive need to own and display everything I've read, without the burden of overdue fees. Add that to the fact that most libraries are closed on Sunday (the best book day of all), and I've checked out fewer books since grade school than I've had birthdays.

Of course, that's all beginning to change now that spring has (more-or-less) sprung and our weekend excursions to the library have proven to be healthy, relaxing, and - best of all - completely free.

Last month, I decided to revisit my childhood by re-reading the chilling children's book, Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. While browsing the Juv-Fic-H shelf, I stumbled on the Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, a series I'd heard about on the YA grapevine but had never read. Three library trips and seven books later, I can now say that I'm hooked on the library experience and guilt-free YA pleasure reading.

My 2009 booklist is doomed.

The seven books of the Shadow Children series (Among the Hidden | Among the Imposters | Among the Betrayed | Among the Barons | Among the Brave | Among the Enemy | Among the Free) are set in a not-so-distant totalitarian future where devastating famines and fears of overpopulation have led to the brutal enforcement of the Population Law, restricting families to no more than two children. Any unfortunate third children born under this new regime are hunted down and murdered by the Population Police, the families who concealed them tried as traitors to the country.

The protagonist of the first, second, fourth, and seventh books is Luke Garner, an illegal third-child who has lived twelve years of his life in hiding, known only to his parents and two older brothers. When a new development of houses built by the wealthy Barons supplants the forest behind Luke's farm, he discovers that there are other "shadow children" like him, including his new neighbor Jen who dreams of leading a revolution against the government to demand that third children be given the same rights as other citizens.

While Jen's revolution ultimately fails, it sets Luke and other third children, Nina, Trey, and Matthias, on the path to freedom as they assume false identities, successfully infiltrating first a school, then a Baron family, and finally the Population Police itself, as they work with an underground movement of rebels who seek to overthrow the oppressive regime. The futuristic world Haddix has created is undeniably a fascinating one, with horrors and bitter truths that are all-to-real to a 21st century already suffering the effects of overpopulation and extreme inequality between the rich and the poor.

While the over-arching themes and plotting work well in each book, there are some weak characterizations with too many of the young protagonists stumbling through the series, getting lucky along the way, but rarely taking matters into their own hands. Much of the action requires a serious commitment to the suspension of disbelief as there are implausible set-ups and revelations that older readers will see coming from a mile away, but they detract only moderately from the dramatic tensions that run high throughout the series.

Although time is spent focusing on other characters in the later books, the series ultimately comes back to Luke who has matured from a frightened boy to a young man still learning to trust his instincts and use his wit to survive betrayals, torture, and government coups as he struggles to stand up for the rights of all people to live among the free.

Friday, March 20, 2009

March Playlist

Ten Random Songs from my March Playlist

Shimmer Like a Girl Veruca Salt
Complainte De La Butte Rufus Wainwright
Accidentally In Love Counting Crows
Paperback Writer The Beatles
Across the Universe Jim Sturgess
Handle With Care Jenny Lewis
Turn Into Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Front Row Toby Lightman
Shine Like a New Pin Camera Obscura
Bizarre Love Triangle Frente!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Literary Pursuits on the F Train: Part Deux

My last post featured 10 books that have recently engrossed F train readers during their morning commutes on the Manhattan-bound subway out of Brooklyn. I was considering making this a monthly feature (and perhaps I may still), but a wait of three more weeks proved too long as I was unable to resist the temptation of discovering new works of literature, more-or-less under my nose.

As subtly as possible to avoid the inevitable dirty looks from the eavesdropping-phobic, I've squinted and strained this week to read the distant titles of novels that my fellow commuters have brought along for their rides. Many are the unsurprising, current New York Times Bestsellers, while others are unexpected and compelling finds that may just inspire additions to my 2010 booklist.

I spy with my eye ... something old, something new, something borrowed from the Brooklyn Public Library, something blue ...

It's the end of the world as we know it, especially if bloggers are setting the national agenda. In his latest novel, Buckley imagines a not-so-distant future when America teeters on the brink of economic disaster. Buckley's heroine is "a morally superior 29-year-old PR chick" who blogs at night about the impending Boomsday budget crisis. And her name? Cassandra. "Cassandra is a metaphor for catastrophe prediction. It's what I do." (Publishers Weekly)

The Conscience of a Liberal
In this New York Times bestseller, Paul Krugman, today's most widely read economist, examines the past eighty years of American history. Seeking to understand both what happened to middle-class America and what it will take to achieve a "new New Deal," Krugman has created his finest book to date, a "stimulating manifesto" offering "a compelling historical defense of liberalism and a clarion call for Americans to retake control of their economic destiny" (Publishers Weekly).

Digital Fortress
On page 1, the protagonist, lately dismissed from The National Security Agency (NSA), drops dead of a supposed heart attack. Though dead, he enjoys a dramaturgical afterlife in the form of his computer program. Digital Fortress creates unbreakable codes, which could render useless NSA's code-cracking supercomputer called TRANSLTR, but the deceased programmer slyly embossed a decryption key on a ring he wore. Pursuit of this ring is the engine of the plot. (Gilbert Taylor)

The Fountainhead
On the surface, The Fountainhead is a story of one man, Howard Roark, and his struggles as an architect in the face of a successful rival, Peter Keating, and a newspaper columnist, Ellsworth Toohey. But the book addresses a number of universal themes: the strength of the individual, the tug between good and evil, and the threat of fascism. The confrontation of those themes, along with the amazing stroke of Rand's writing, combine to give this book its enduring influence. (Amazon)

Four to Score
Half-Hungarian, half-Italian and all-Jersey, Trenton's best-known bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum, is a raucous delight. When Maxine Nowicki, charged with stealing her boyfriend's car, skips her court appearance, she's fair game to be hauled in. Before the case is over, Stephanie will invade an Atlantic City casino with her intrepid allies: Grandma Mazur, Lula, and Sally, a seven-foot transvestite rock singer. Although Stephanie is the bounty hunter, she's the only one who isn't armed. (Publishers Weekly)

The Giant's House
A platonic and achingly poignant love affair between a young man who suffers from gigantism and a librarian who is 14 years his senior is the focus of this remarkable debut novel. Narrator Peggy Cort, spinster librarian, first becomes aware of James Sweatt when he comes into the library with his grade-school class, already 6'2" at age 11. Peggy finds herself drawn to the gentle, lonely young man, because he fills a void in her own life and because of James's loving but eccentric family. (Publishers Weekly)

The Savage Detectives
The major work from the great Chilean-born novelist Bolaño. In early 1970s Mexico City, young poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima start a small, erratically militant literary movement, the Visceral Realists, named for another, semimythical group started in the 1920s by the nearly forgotten poet Cesárea Tinajero. Bolaño fashions an engrossing lost world of youth and utopian ambition, as particular and vivid as it is sad and uncontainable. (Publishers Weekly)

A Thousand Splendid Suns
Hosseini's riveting story is an in-depth exploration of Afghan society in the three decades of anti-Soviet jihad, civil war, and Taliban cruelty. He impels us to empathize with and admire those most victimized by Afghan history and culture—women. Mariam, a 15-year-old bastard, is married off to 40-year-old Rasheed, who abuses her brutally, especially after she has several miscarriages. At 60, Rasheed takes in 14-year-old Laila, and the two wives form a strange alliance. (Publishers Weekly)

The Wasp Factory
Few novelists have ever burst onto the literary scene with as much controversy as Iain Banks in 1984. The Wasp Factory is distinguished by an authentically felt and deftly written first-person style, delicious dark humor, a sense of the surreal, and a serious examination of the psyche of a childhood psychopath. Most readers will find that they sympathize with Frank, despite his three murders. It's a classic of contemporary horror. (Fiona Webster)

The Year of Living Biblically
What would it require for a person to live all the commandments of the Bible for an entire year? That is the question that animates this hilarious, thought-provoking memoir. Jacobs didn't just keep the Bible's better-known moral laws, but also the obscure and unfathomable ones. Throughout his journey, he is a generous and thoughtful participant, lacing his story with funny cultural commentary as well as nuanced insights into the impossible task of biblical literalism. (Publishers Weekly)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Commuter's Library: Literary Pursuits on the F Train

The Manhattan-bound F train out of Brooklyn has been sucking lately. There's more delays than ever with severe overcrowding during rush hour, and best of all, if the proposed MTA fare hikes go through, we B'klyners - and all other NYC subway riders - may soon have to pay 25% more for our unlimited Metrocards, raising the monthly bill from $81 to a sickening $103.

Mother $%&#s!

But we F train commuters are trying to make the best of it. Those of us lucky enough to get seats (and those able to stand and balance a book without impaling other riders), often engage in a little literary escapism to make it through the daily drudgery. In addition to the staples of NYC transit: The New Yorker, The Bible, and the Twilight series (in that order), F train commuters indulge in a veritable cornucopia of literary pursuits, from the trashy to the classy.

Some of last week's riveting reads:

The Billionaire in Penthouse B
A rich, powerful loner, Gage fit the description of the man who may have information about the mysterious demise of Jacinda Endicott's sister. Which was why Jacinda had abandoned her old life and taken a job at Gage's penthouse as his live-in maid. By day, she snooped for clues about her employer; by night, she fought her fatal attraction to the sexy, secretive billionaire. Her heart told her Gage was innocent; her head warned her otherwise. Which would she listen to? (product description)

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Some of the 23 stories in Wallace's bold, uneven, bitterly satirical second collection seem bound for best-of-the-year anthologies. In the "interviews," that make up the title story, one man after another, speaking to a woman whose voice we never hear, reveals the pathetic creepin
ess of his romantic conquests and fantasies. These stories, at their best, show an erotic savagery and intellectual depth that will confound, fascinate and disturb the most unsuspecting reader as well as devoted fans. (Publishers Weekly)

The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman has created a charming allegory of childhood. Although the book opens with a scary scene as a family is stabbed to death, the story quickly moves into more child-friendly storytelli
ng. The sole survivor of the attack, an 18-month-old baby, escapes his crib and toddles to a nearby graveyard. Quickly recognizing that the baby is orphaned, the graveyard's ghostly residents adopt him, name him Nobody, and allow him to live in their tomb. (Heidi Broadhead)

How Soccer Explains the World
Foer, a New Republic editor, scores a game-winning goal with this analysis of the interchange between soccer and the new global economy. The subtitle is a bit misleading, though: he doesn't really use soccer to develop a theory; instead, he focuses on how examining soccer in different countries allows us to understand how international forces affect politics and l
ife around the globe. The book is full of colorful reporting, strong characters and insightful analysis. (Publishers Weekly)

The Omnivore's Dilemma
Michael Pollan writes about how our food is grown -- what it is, in fact, that we are eating. The first section discusses industrial farming; the second, organic food, both as big business and on a small farm; and the third, what it is like to hunt and gather food for oneself. Each section culminates in a meal - a cheeseburger from McDonald's; roast chicken and vegetables from Whole Foods; grilled chicken and corn fr
om a sustainable farm; and, finally, a meal foraged from the wild. (Washington Post)

This debut novel traces Russian-Jewish Sasha Goldberg's screwball coming-of-age and search for her long-ago disappeared father. After Sasha is accepted into a local, cash-strapped art school in the gloomy Siberian town of Asbestos, she becomes pregnant and has a daughter, whom she is forced to leave behind to attend an art school in Moscow. Sasha begins scheming her way to America and
soon is on a plane to Phoenix, Ariz., as a 17-year-old mail-order bride. (Publishers Weekly)

The Pitchfork 500
Named the "best site for music criticism on the web" by The New York Times Magazine, Pitchforkmedia.com has become the leading independent resource for music journalism, the place people turn to find out what's happening in new music. In The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present, Pitchfork offers up their take on the 500 best songs of the past three decades.

The Secret Supper
Set in the late 15th century, the book revolves around a papal inquisitor's investigation into Leonardo da Vinci's alleged heresies. After receiving a series of cryptic messages from "the Soothsayer," who warns that "art can be employed as a weapon," the Secretariat of Keys of the Papal States dispatches Father Agostino Leyre on a twofold mission to Milan: identify the Soothsayer and discover what, if any, messages da Vinci is hiding in the painting. (Publishers Weekly)

The story concerns a group called the Crimebusters and a plot to kill and discredit them. Moore's characterization is as sophisticated as any novel's as he investigates issues of power and control, propelling the comic genre forward and making "adult" comics a reality. The intelligent social and political commentary, the structure of the story itself, the fine pace of the writing, and its humanity mean that Watchmen keeps its crown as the best the genre has yet produced. (Mark Thwaite)

The Wordy Shipmates
Essayist and public radio regular Vowell revisits America's Puritan roots in this witty exploration of the ways in which our country's present predicaments are inextricably tied to its past. In a style less colloquial than her previous books, Vowell traces the 1630 journey of several key English colonists and members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Gracefully interspersing her history lesson with personal anecdotes, Vowell offers reflections that are both amusing and tender. (Publishers Weekly)