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Viewing Blog: Chasing Ray, Most Recent at Top
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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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26. YA Column: How To....

The biggest literary surprise for me last year was what I found between the covers of Kate Lebo's A Commonplace Book of Pie. I expected a small but quirky cookbook, which makes sense because Lebo is a pie maker. And while there are certainly several delicious sounding recipes (starting with basic pie crust and then including everything from Mumbleberry to Peach Ginger Pie), Lebo has a lot more to share here about pie than how one puts it together. Accompanied by Jessica Bonin's evocative paintings, Lebo writes about the essence of what makes each flavor of pie so memorable. I can't do justice to her prose; just read her description of Key Lime Pie:

When Annie Dillard writes, "Any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger," she means key lime pie. Which is dust, which is bone, which (according to Dillard) smells like pie. With which finger does the sacred wipe? Don't ask the key lime pie-lover. He works fast so he might deserve rest, reads hard so he might invent stories, beats his own time in one-man pie eating contests so citrus will make the gutters of his mouth sing. The finger that wipes his lips is his.

Now take a sigh and let all of those lovely words about pie float into your heart. What Lebo does is not only write about the virtues of using cold butter (repeated more than once); she also elevates her subject to the stuff of poetry. She gives us words that fit the wonderfulness we feel when the perfect piece of pumpkin or apple or raspberry pie graces our palates. And even more surprising, you will find not only Annie Dillard but also William Burroughs, Emerson, Muhammad Ali, and Isadora Duncan in the pages of this book about pie. It's a wonderful trick that Lebo has accomplished, creating a valuable cookbook that is a marvel to read. I don't care how old (or young) you are, lines like this cannot be resisted: "If you love peanut butter pie, you are either Dolly Parton or someone who loves her." Home economics would still be in every high school in America if the reading list included titles like A Commonplace Book of Pie, and we would all be much better for it.

Jeff VanderMeer takes the traditional writing guide and turns it on its head with Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. This full-color, slightly oversized title takes readers through topics of inspiration and creativity into more toolbox-oriented discussions of character development, plotting, and world-building. He also uses the development of his own work to explicitly show how stories change from draft to final copy while also looking at the structure of other stories, such as Ian Banks's "Use of Weapons" and Angela Carter's "The Fall River Axe Murders."

Wonderbook really sings when it comes to the design. The information is solid and engaging but the many, many illustrations, which include everything from original artwork (courtesy of artist Jeremy Zerfoss) to maps to photographs are stunning. The book is a feast for the eyes and with its glossy paper and variety of fonts, sidebars, and informative graphics, it draws readers in with every turn of the page.

The author wisely includes the thoughts of other writers here, from Neil Gaiman's essay on "The Beginning of American Gods" to personal pieces from Nnedi Okorafor, Catherynne Valente, Karen Joy Fowler, Charles Yu, Joe Abercrombie, and more. The variety of his contributors, both in their works, gender and ethnicities, is refreshing. There is something here for everyone, and many young writers will likely find authors to emulate and read up on within the book's pages. (George R. R. Martin fans should take note of an exceptionally long and interesting interview between him and VanderMeer on the "craft of writing.")

VanderMeer, Zerfoss, and designer John Coulthart have created something very appealing with this presentation and because of that Wonderbook should have high teen appeal, and be a go-to title for both high school and college classrooms; homeschoolers also need to take note.

Artist and visual essayist Debbie Millman plays a lot with words and design in her oversized collection Self-Portrait as Your Traitor. This book brought to mind the journalistic compulsions of my youth, when I felt like I had to get down on paper -- in one way or another -- all the feelings that threatened to otherwise overwhelm me. Millman is much more sophisticated than I was at sixteen, but the raw emotion is the same; these are the poems, stories, and thoughts she must share with the world. For readers, it's a chance to peek into a unique mind, and be alternately amused and shocked by what we find there.

So what do you read about in Self-Portrait as Your Traitor? How about a young girl's appreciation for a trinket as she battles a monster; a recollection of a first job out of college that encapsulates everything from the first brush of professional giddiness to an almost inevitable soul-destroying lack of self-confidence. There's even a peek at the lives of adults from the perspective of the child who hears everything and remembers it well into her own adulthood. (Is it a cautionary tale to know that we all end up sounding like our mothers at some point?)

Self-Portrait as Your Traitor is for older teens, for those with a jaundiced eye fixed on the world around them, for those who are sometimes angry and don't know why but feel that way just the same. Millman uses large fonts, varied backgrounds, and a lot of other techniques to make the book as intriguing to gaze at as to read. It won't fit in a backpack but will demand attention on the shelf and likely prompt a few journal entries in response to the author's passionate prose.

While reading all of these books, the appeal of good graphic design will become obvious and that is when teens will want to take a look at Chip Kidd's Go: A Kidd's Guide to Graphic Design. Kidd, whose book covers are instantly recognizable (see his Book One: Work: 1986-2006), has put together a basic study of the subject and provides readers with not only examples of how design can be improved (covers with more or less color, etc.) but also a series of "assignments" to spur creativity. There are chapters on typography, content and form, considerations of pattern, light, and image cropping, and a nice introduction to concept. Essentially, Kidd is inviting kids to think beyond design as something to look at and instead think about how it comes to exist in the first place.

Go is an obvious choice for classrooms involved in yearbook or campus newspaper and website design, but it will be of great use to anyone over twelve interested in a creative field. Kudos to the author (and publisher) for bringing this adult subject to a younger audience that will find much to learn from the bright and inviting layout.

Finally, photo collector Josh Sapan shares some very cool, and often unexpected, oversized panoramic group photographs in The Big Picture. This black-and-white collection has a bit for everyone: the Army-Navy game from 1916, the Miss America Pageant in 1926, and a beautiful double-page spread of the Yale crew team from 1910. The National American Women Suffrage Association in St. Louis is suitably serious in 1919 and the crowd welcoming Henry Flagler on the first train to Key West in 1912 is appropriately huge. But what really stays with you as you browse the pages (and read very brief essays by the likes of Anna Quindlen, Mark Halperin, and Yogi Berra) is how much of our country's history is captured in these group shots. Far less stiff than posed studio portraits, these are Americans at work and play, dressed in the clothes they were most themselves in, engaged in the activities that dominated their waking hours. Here is our American history, endlessly fascinating and so worthy of our attention.

COOL READ: Enchanted Lion Books has published another charmer from French illustrator Blexbolex that carries a deep and unexpected story. Ballad is designed as one of those short, "chunky" hardcover books (not unlike a board book in size) that initially tells a short story about walking home from school. In spare words on each page, the reader makes the journey from school to home, but with each succeeding chapter (only a few pages long), the journey becomes more perilous and intense. Bandits, magic spells, a witch, a curse, soldiers, war! Your standard walk home becomes a trip that sees the whole nation in peril and if the stranger does not save the day (a cavern! a dragon! a duel!), then all will be lost.

Ballad is exactly what the title suggests -- a classic storytelling saga that builds on simple components to construct a stirring tale. The artwork is colorful and expressive, the lettering precise and elegant and the entire adventure both a witty delight for children and teens. Would-be graphic designers will also find something to enjoy here, as Ballad's design is truly exceptional.

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27. On Flying in SE Alaska: Panhandle Pilot

When Bob Adkins arrived in Sitka in 1964, his intention was to teach for a year or two and then return to the life he knew in his home state of Michigan. As happens all too often for recent transplants to the Last Frontier, Adkins fell in love with Alaska, especially the Southeast region. In rapid succession he met the woman who would become his wife, made lifelong friends, relocated to Haines -- where he has lived now for more than four decades -- and most unexpectedly of all, learned how to fly. It is that aspect of his Alaska adventure that he explores in "Panhandle Pilot."

Adkins was bit by the flying bug in 1966, and pursued lessons in Fairbanks while attending a summer seminar for high school counselors. After a far-too-exciting first solo -- of which he provides a minute-by-minute description in the book -- he successfully landed and began avidly pursuing more flight hours whenever possible. Longtime Alaskans will take special note of Adkins' first instructor, Don Jonz, who in 1972 was flying a charter that included Alaska Congressman Nick Begich and Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana. It disappeared somewhere between Anchorage and Juneau and continues to be one of Alaska's most enduring aviation mysteries.

In the years that followed his first flight, Adkins pursued private and commercial pilot licenses and an instrument rating and also became a flight instructor. With friends in Haines he purchased various small aircraft over the years and enjoyed hunting and fishing trips throughout the region. The book includes many wonderful photos of those adventures. In 1985, he was happy to accept part-time employment with a brand new air taxi service, Haines Airways. It was the logical conclusion to his longtime passion; a chance to fly over the country he knew so well and meet people eager to experience it from the vantage point of the air.

As Adkins maintained a full-time position in the Haines school system, his experience flying for Haines Airways is a bit unusual. He primarily worked for them only in the summers and although he certainly flew many long days, it was never his sole source of income. It is clear that while he did find himself in sticky situations a time or two during the time he was with the company, the pressure to take flights in difficult weather was not something he succumbed to. This is not to suggest that he had no experience with accidents, however, as several pilots Adkins knew or worked with crashed at some point.

When he writes about such accidents, Adkins includes not only his own personal memories -- especially of close friends -- but also excerpts the official reports from the National Transportation Safety Board. This gives readers a look at how common accidents in Alaska are investigated and adds a deeper layer of information to an otherwise very personal story.

Despite Adkins' cautious nature, there were still some very dicey flights for the author along the way. Consider the following recollection of transporting a mental patient with two city police officer escorts ("Bill" and "Jerry") to Juneau. Only a four-place Cessna 182 was available for the charter, so Adkins was in much closer proximity to his disturbed, handcuffed passenger than he would have liked:

We entered the Juneau control zone and were cleared to land. Halfway between Coghlan Island and The Cut, on a long straight-in final approach, the kid bent forward again, but this time he moved liked lightning. He lunged ahead as far as he could, reached all the way up and down Jerry's neck from his ears to his shoulders while giggling maniacally at the top of his voice! "Heeheeheehee."

Bill grabbed him and slammed his hands down, but meanwhile I thought Jerry was going to go through the front windshield. He was plastered against the instrument panel as tight as he could be with his seatbelt fastened. If there had been dual controls in 808, Jerry would have put us straight down into Auke Bay.

Bill forcibly held the kid's hands down all the way through the rest of the landing and Jerry finally peeled himself off the instrument panel just was we stopped and I shut the engine down.

Jerry was still breathing hard and the kid still giggling hysterically when the four officers got him out of the airplane and took him away.

From flying prisoners and mental patients to tourists and scheduled passengers, freight and mail, Adkins provides a solid slice of the nuts and bolts of Southeast air taxi operations in "Panhandle Pilot." His narrative voice is that of a genial guide carefully sharing his experiences while also enlightening readers on some of the basics about flying in the region's often difficult weather and appreciating the blindingly gorgeous scenery. It is clear that Adkins has enjoyed every single moment in the air, whether flying friends or for hire, and he is happy to let readers know just why Alaska and flying go together so well.

"Panhandle Pilot" is available in independent bookstores throughout Alaska, directly from The Sheldon Museum in Haines and via the author's website. The Babbling Book in Haines can also be contacted for a signed copy.

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28. Sherlock and the Nile but not as you would expect


A couple of things I have a literary softspot for: pre WWII Egypt and curious women. This is largely due to my childhood fascination with all things Egyptian archaeology but mostly because of Amelia Peabody. (If I have to tell you who Amelia Peabody is then I don't think you should be on this blog.) (Okay, that's rude. Read all about her here.)

When I find a new book that is the slightest bit Peabody-esque then I pounce on it like a tiger. (A tiger who looks like a woman and is standing in a library but you get my drift.) Shadows On the Nile by Kate Furnivall is set in 1932 when Jessie Kenton's brother Tim, an archaeologist, disappears after attending a seance. Jessie follows the thread of his disappearance--left in Sherlockian clues from their childhood that only Jessie would understand--all the way to Cairo and Luxor and the tomb of King Tutanankhamun. Along the way there are thrills and chills and bad guys and maybe good guys (but do you ever really know?) and THE guy.

THE guy is the only weakness in this novel. He's actually a pretty good character but the romance doesn't work. You have Jessie & hero guy charging all over everywhere trying to find Tim and then there is a bombing (Egypt had some issues with their British colonial overlords in 1932) and then they just fall into each others arms. This read to me a bit like "insert major romantic leap here". The bombing (although it fits with the politics) also seemed designed solely to force the romantic moment. Our guy and girl work as a couple of sleuths and friends and potential romantic partners, but not this much, not this fast.

But...that's okay. The couple bit is a small bit, a tiny quibble, and it's mostly okay. The overall plot, which includes a wonderful subplot about Jessie's other brother who went missing when they were children and got found without her knowing, is splendid. I love that subplot. I also enjoyed the politics, the train ride, Jessie's awful parents and everything Egypt.

So, in review: Shadows On the Nile is a good mystery full of lots of interesting characters, some killer settings and a message about family that resonates long after the final page is turned. The romance is iffy, but the rest is more than enough. In fact, a sequel would be most welcome (and then the romance would work!)

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29. Because Tammy Wynette is everyone's secret heroine

I grew up on country music. I grew up on Marty Robbins and Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and Tammy Wynette and George Jones. My mother played music from the 50s sometimes on the weekends and had a longstanding crush on Elvis, (Blue Hawaii is still one of my all time favorite movies), but the soundtrack to my childhood, the recurring music in the car and the house and on the beach blanket radio was always country. I hear Kenny Rogers sing "The Gambler" and I'm in a little ranch house on a two lane road that I can hardly bear to drive by anymore because it hurts too much to see how much it has changed.

I listen still to the music of my childhood because the reality of that place and time is too far gone and away.

Emily Arsenault's
Miss Me When I'm Gone
is a subtle mystery about an author who might have slipped and fallen after speaking at a library or might have been pushed. Gretchen Waters had a surprise bestseller with a post-divorce memoir about driving around the south while visiting places connected to some female country music icons.

"Tammyland" was dubbed the "honky-tonk Eat, Pray, love" by Gretchen's publishers. She was at work on her second book, another memoir this time about finding her [unknown] father. But then Gretchen fell (or was pushed), and her family asked her old friend Jamie to serve as literary executor and put together her notes. What Jamie finds in the boxes of papers and notebooks and computer files is that Gretchen was writing about her murdered mother as much as her mystery father. She was also missing all of her deadlines and nowhere near a structured manuscript. Gretchen was drowning in her past and Jamie, sadly, did not know in time to toss her a line.

Arsenault does a great job of subtly building the thriller aspect of the narrative, of taking Jamie along as she catches up on her old friend's life which includes immersing herself in "Tammyland". Readers thus get not only bits and pieces of Gretchen's current work, (and Jamie's sleuthing as she visits the same places and meets the same people), but also read excerpts from the previous book. This gives you great words like these about Tammy Wynette:

Tammy's life--like her music--conveys a vulnerability that I think many of us are not comfortable with. You can hear the "teardrop" in her voice, and think, That's beautiful and honest. Or you can hear it and opt for the safer response: That's pathetic and maudlin, to which I am too cool and self-assured to relate. And for that reason, Tammy will never be hip like Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn have become.

There.Is.So.Much.More. Arsenault writes so much great stuff about Tammy and Loretta and Dolly and even--YEA!--Dottie West! She gets under the skin of who they were when they made it big and what their songs were about and why so many of us connect so much with them. In reading about Gretchen's reaction to these women, Jamie discovers why her friend was set out on such an unexpected path in her new book and that discovery leads her down the same path which, of course, leads her to the answers about what happened that last night.

I really enjoyed the hell out of this book, loved the characters and the Nancy Drew-ish nature of the plot. But man, did I madly love everything that was written about the ladies of country. I wish "Tammyland" was a real book so I could read it again and again. I'll have to satisfy myself with the comforts of rereading Miss Me When I'm Gone and also, of course, from hitting YouTube. This is Tammy singing a song that is particularly special to me because, my childhood is in its every word.

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30. With "natural treasure map" in hand...

I reviewed Imperial Dreams by Tim Gallagher last year for Booklist (it received a star and I loved it) but as it has been selected to the Editor's Choice for a Best Book of 2013 (and a top ten in the Science & Health category), I wanted to revisit it here.

Gallagher is the Editor-in-Chief of Living Bird, the magazine for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He also tracked and wrote a book about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker which I thought was pretty good as well. He traveled to Mexico in search of the Imperial Woodpecker which has not been declared extinct but also hasn't reliably been seen in 50 years. All of that would be daunting enough except the habitat for the Imperial Woodpecker happens to be very difficult territory to traverse. It's also right in the heart of Mexico's drug territory, so if the mountains don't get you then the drug lords will.

But the bird could be there and Tim Gallagher really wants to find it; he really wants to know that this bird is still alive.

Imperial Dreams is a lot of things but mostly it is really excellent writing. There is natural history here, the story of a bird that was TWO FEET long, but also a travel story and an adventure story and an introspective tale about a man and his friends and a maybe, possibly doomed quest that no one can let go. Gallagher wades deep into the territory of Pancho Villa and Geronimo, giving readers some history here, some cultural awareness there plus a moment or two where he had downright fear-for-your-life type thoughts. It's all good, promise.

If you asked him, I bet Tim Gallagher would say that Imperial Dreams is all about a bird and because this bird is so amazing, that would be enough for any book. But as I read more of his work, I am realizing that where Gallagher is going is not so much into the field in search of birds, but into his own heart, into our collective hearts, into the places where a beautiful bird still matters.

In elegant and entertaining prose, Tim Gallagher is reminding us what matters. The Imperial Woodpecker is one of those things and if we have lost it forever then the world really ought to weep.

You can read more about Gallagher's work and the Imperial Woodpecker at his blog.

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31. On WWII, Bombing and Poetry

During WWII 110,000 men were trained by Bomber Command in England's RAF. Of them, 50,000 were killed and 15,000 suffered serious casualties. These are the men that that Daniel Swift writes about in Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War. Swift visits the sites of former military bases where the men were trained, attends reunions and speaks to veterans. He is hoping to understand just what it was like to be part of such a dangerous and dangerously destructive group. He also hopes to find out more about his own grandfather who was killed in action as part of a Lancaster crew in 1943.

And then, there is also the poetry.

Of the men in his grandfather's crew, only his body was recovered, after it washed ashore and was later buried in what turns out to be a grave basically impossible to find. (Some of the book is about visiting cemeteries.) The author's father was only 3 when the crash happened and seeks his own emotional closure; they both wish they knew more about the lost airmen and they both discover, eventually, that what they have is mostly all they will ever get.

But learning about the war and the men who flew the bombers and reading what has been written by those in the bombers, goes a long way toward showing Swift what it was probably like for his grandfather. And all of this investigating also means that he learns a lot to share with readers. Here's a bit:

Bombing was to the Second World War what the trenches were to the First: a shocking and new form of warfare, wretched and unexpected and carried out in a terrible scale of loss. Just as the trenches produced the most remarkable poetry of the First World War, so too did the bombing campaigns foster a haunting set of poems during the Second. But this is not simple process, for they are not equivalent geographies. Bombing, if we take the whole of it, is always double. It was a kind of war conducted in the cities and the planes, shared between the bombers and the bombed, and so it asks a split reckoning, a thinking in two places. 'Children look up,' wrote Cecil Day Lewis: and think upon the bombers above.

I think we have gotten a bit blasé about war poetry; we are used to having our hearts torn, we expect it to be intense, we expect it to be serious. But what Swift discovers is that the poetry of bombing was too extreme for many--bombing itself was too extreme for poets at first (lots of quotes from Virginia Woolf and others in England who were at a loss as to how to write about the London bombings). As horrific as the trenches were, it was still warfare between soldiers. In the bombing campaigns of WWII we saw the first large scale fighting against civilians and that changed everything, even for poets.

Bomber County is not a breezy read; Swift gets a bit academic at times although not overly so. I would have loved this book in college; it fits perfectly in several courses I took about understanding war and considering the inner thoughts of the men who fought it. I especially liked that it was about aircraft crews because I think very little (comparatively) has been written about their war experiences and the many personal parts about Swift's grandfather (quotes from letters, etc.) were quite moving. It's poetry like this though, from Randall Jarrell, that stopped my reading in its tracks:

In bombers we named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school--
Till our lives wore out;

I could read those lines forever and they never get easier, which I suppose is the best thing that war poetry can do.

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32. The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home is my new Travis McGee

The Sea Detective caught my attention in Booklist because the protagonist, PhD oceanography student Cal McGill, professionally studies "flotsam and jetsam". I have reviewed several books on this subject from Loree Griffin-Burns' YA title Tracking Trash to Donovan Hahn's Moby-Duck, plus I grew up on the water and have been collecting odds and ends from the beach forever.

So I was very excited to read about the exploits of Cal McGill.

Mark Douglas-Home sets the novel in Scotland and it opens with the drowning murder of a young girl from India. Flash forward three years and McGill is doing a little trespassing for an environmental cause. In short order the reader learns that he has a recreational habit of messing with the minds of politicians, he's wicked smart, and his doctorate involves tracking a lot of stuff that falls off ships from containers to oil spills (it's also how he earn cash). Slowly, Douglas-Home brings the story of the dead girl into McGill's radar while also introducing a subplot about his grandfather who was lost at sea during WWII (which explains some of McGill's obsession). There are several bad guys, a very unusual cop who gets a decent amount of attention from the author, some severed feet that wash ashore (unrelated to anything but still interesting - oddly it happens a lot, there was just one in Florida), and a HUGE revelation about McGill's grandfather.

And Cal's ex-wife shows up, but that goes about as well as you expect.

Douglas-Home gives a lot of back story in The Sea Detective and in the early chapters that can get a little hard to follow. The threads of the plot require juggling not only the dead Indian girl but also the local police detective who is dealing with an ass of a superior, McGill and the small town where his family came from who have a lot invested in keeping the truth behind his grandfather's death hidden and even a tabloid reporter trying to work an angle at McGill's expense. I assume this will get a bit easier in future installments as the back story will have been told (it reminded me of the first Maisie Dobbs book in that respect).

But that is just a minor quibble; I loved the setting, I thought Cal McGill was fascinating and utterly unique and the historical mystery blends well with the horrors of the modern story. There is a wry cynicism to McGill that reminds me of Travis McGee but he's also whip smart while not being too jaded, so there's your Spenser. (There can be no higher praise from me then favorable comparisons to these two characters.)

There is a second book that just came out in the series, The Woman Who Walked Into the Sea and I'm really looking forward to reading it. As soon as I get far enough ahead in my columns, etc., I'll be buying a copy. (A third is due this year.)

The Sea Detective
reviewed in The Scotsman. And here are a couple of reviews of The Woman Who Walked Into the Sea: The Herald and the Library Review.

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33. Russell Hoban believed turtles should be set free

I read a lot of books for adults that I often end up recommending for teenagers. I was the kind of kid that read above my age early on and especially as a teen I was reading John MacDonald and Robert Parker mysteries and a ton of SFF all of which were published for adults. None of this should come as a surprise to most readers - those age categories are all too often nebulous at best (especially for nonfiction) but on occasion I read something that really can only be appreciated by adults. It's not because of the obvious (sex & violence) but because of the nature of the story.

Simply put, there are some thing you can not understand until you live a lot longer than 17 years.

Russell Hoban's (Bread & Jam For Frances Russell Hoban!) Turtle Diary is about two people who independently decide to set some sea turtles free from a local aquarium. Set in London, William is a bookseller and Neaera is children's book author and both are largely respectable and unremarkable people. They certainly aren't the lawbreaking sort. William is recently divorced and missing his life and suffering a mid-life crisis of mammoth (but largely silent) proportions. Neaera, by her own description, "looks the sort of spinster who doesn't keep cats and is not a vegetarian. Looks....like a man's woman and hasn't got a man."

First, it's not a romance. This is not about William and Nearera finding each other and making mad passionate love as the turtles find freedom. It's more about finding friendship and kinship and meeting someone who thinks your big crazy idea makes sense. It's an incredibly quiet book but a very powerful one because it makes so much sense. It's about making the kind of life you want out of the one you are living.

And turtles. It's also about turtles.

The rescue involves the London Zoo where three very large sea turtles have been living for decades. While it is not squalor or abuse they are dealing with, William and Neaera feel the animals are living stifled lives; it's simply not fair that giant sea turtles should be stuck in a tank for people to gawk at. Each wants to set the turtles free and each encounters their caregiver, George who quietly encourages them. Through alternately chapters readers follow the two as they inch along toward a plan and meeting each other. Along the way bits and pieces of their lives are revealed until, when the rather madcap adventure takes off, it makes perfect sense that these very sedate people would do something so rash and inexplicable.

Turtle Diary has been reissued by the New York Review Books and so, of course, it's a gorgeous edition. The intro is written by Ed Park which I thought was bit stiff for all of the book's sly humor, so don't judge the novel from those pages. It's a quiet read, a careful read and a very sweet one. But mostly it is a book that can not be fully enjoyed until you are of an age that knows what it is to need an adventure; to need to do something to shake yourself out of your life.

Could a teenager read Turtle Diary? Sure. But I think it takes an adult to truly appreciate it and all that William and Neaera need from setting something free.

Here's a trailer for the movie that was made in 1985 and if you like it, the whole thing can be watched on YouTube. (I haven't see it yet but with Ben Kingsley & Glenda Jackson I don't see how it can fail - the trailer sells it, big time!)

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34. Brian Kimberling's Snapper Showed Me Indiana

While I'm not a 100% "judge a book by its cover" kind of reader, Snapper certainly caught my eye from across a crowded aisle at ALA Midwinter. It's not only gorgeous to look at though, it's also appropriate as the protagonist, Nathan Lochmueller, studies birds in his native Indiana. Readers follow Nathan in these linked chapters (there's really no big narrative arc to speak of) as he deals with romance issues, job issues, family issues, vehicle issues and a big love/hate relationship with his state. All the while he his studying birds and sharing inside information on the birding life.

So yeah, GREAT cover!

Without a big plot point - the romance is up and down, the job issues are up and down and there are no bodies discovered in the woods - Snapper keeps you with Nathan's voice. He's funny, often sarcastic, sometimes wry and always noticing things about the people and places around him (which makes sense as he studies birds for a variety of agencies).

There is some talk of politics here and a few slight digs about the difference between the Midwest and South (in the way of telling a few family stories). And there is some noticing of differences found in small town versus large illustrated quite sweetly at one point by a sojourn into the lives of the fine folks of Santa Claus, Indiana, where every Santa letter gets answered by the denizens of the local diner.

Basically, Nathan spends the book trying to find himself and the reader is along for the ride. This doesn't sound like much - it sounds like one of those exceedingly dull books about nothing in fact - but Snapper is funny and Nathan does evolve and Kimberling manages to make Indiana such a big part of the story that you feel like the state's identity is a character as well. Here's a bit:

I doubt anyone outside Southern Indiana knows what a stripper pit is. They don't exist anywhere else. This is sometimes embarrassing for me in conversation, if I say I spent many a happy adolescent hour there. People think I'm talking about Thong Thursdays at Fast Eddie's. The British Broadcasting Corporation once sent a reporter by boat to Evansville to investigate the wild ways of the inhabitants--the kind of thing they used to do in "deepest Africa," I think. We are Hoosiers after all.

A stripper pit is what remains of a bituminous coal mine, so, as explained in the next paragraph, this his how you get a lake spontaneously in the midst of some woods. Lest you think these are beautiful landscapes, Nathan explains, "At the bottom of those lakes you'll find old refrigerators and stolen cars and bags of kittens. It is Southern Indiana."

So what happens in Snapper? Nathan and his friends grow up, some amounting to something and some not. He does a lot of observing of birds and people and a lot of thinking about his on again/off again relationship with Lola. Eventually he moves away and finds the right girl and grows up (mostly). It's a life like a million others in America and in most every single way it is not the least bit special.

Except Brian Kimberling knows all of them are, and that's why Snapper is really such a great book.

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35. Catalogging Consortium Spring 2014

Several titles caught my eye in the Consortium catalog - here's a peek:

1. She Wore Red Trainers: A Muslim Love Story by Na'ima B. Robert (Kube Publishing). This YA title introduces Ali and Amirah (who wears red trainers/sneakers). Ali is dealing with the death of his mother and "exploring his identity as a Muslim". Amira has sworn never to marry but...well, they fall hard for each other (of course!). This one is billed as a "unique romance that explores the possibilities and passions young Muslims face when falling in love." I'm hoping the characters are compelling, though they kind of had me with the Converse high tops on the cover.

2. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books). This short (100pgs) NF title (an essay really) is just what it sounds like - Solnit's take on "conversations between men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don't." It is apparently the origin of the term "mansplaining". (Plus, REBECCA SOLNIT. Do you really need to think twice about anything with her name attached to it?)

3. Jam Today Too by Tod Davies (Exterminating Angel Press). I am endlessly attracted to cookbooks and just so not good at cooking. I have big dreams to eat well and eat interesting things but it never seems to happen. I don't know why this is, but it is. Anyway, Davies has created not just a cookbook but a memoir discussing new ways to "cook and enjoy a meal with friends, family and even beloved pets, during the best and worst time." How can you resist?

4. The Stonehenge Letters by Harry Karlinsky (Coach House Books). A mystery with photographs and illustrations wherein a psychiatrist in the Nobel Museum finds letters from famous people providing explanations as to why Stonehenge was built. Apparently they were responding to a contest in Nobel's will (open only to Nobel laureates) with a prize to whoever solves the mystery of Stonehenge. That's a pretty unusual novel premise!

5. Looking for Jack Kerouac by Barbara Shoup (Engine Books). BARABARA SHOUP! A YA title set in 1964 that involves a road trip by some Kerouac fans down to St Petersburg, FL to find their hero (who really lived there at the time). I don't know how to begin with the proposed wonderfulness of this book (great cover too!) but Barbara Shoup + Kerouac for teens just sounds great.

6. Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm (Two Dollar Radio). First, the title itself is great and hard to beat (it's what grabbed my attention). Leah's little brother Jacob disappeared when they were young, now a grown man shows up at her job and claims to be him. Back to childhood memories and figuring out what happened for Leah! It's described as a "wrecking-ball of a novel that attempts to give meaning and poetry to everything that comprises small-town life in central Kentucky." I do not think there are enough novels set in Kentucky, (where the author is from), so nice to see this one.

7. Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo (Pushkin Press). Leo's memories of growing up in East Germany with his rebellious parents and the questions he seeks to answer about why their marriage did not last are what fuels this title. Mostly, I'm attracted to the idea of growing up in a country that no longer exists - which is so far from my own experience it might as well be another universe.

8. Domestic Arrangements by Norma Klein (Ig Publishing). Another entry from Lizzie Skurnick Books. I love Norma Klein so much - she was hugely important to my teen years. This one is about Tatiana, who becomes famous for filming a nude scene at 14 in a major movie. "A stunning example of Klein's fearless take on the complexities of adolescence..." The intro is written by Judy Blume.

Do I really need to say anymore? I didn't think so.

9. Point of Direction by Rachel Weaver (Ig Publishing). A psychological thriller in remote coastal Alaska about a couple hired to be caretakers at a lighthouse. Things do not go well - of course! Obviously the AK setting has me on this one and although I don't know if they identify it as such, the cover pic is of Eldred Rock Lighthouse in Lynn Canal, which is just really cool. (Not too remote though - the ferry goes by every single day more than once.) Always happy to see a book set in AK that is not...well, not making fun of AK. Here's hoping this is a good one.

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36. 2013: Books & Stories That Caught My Heart


A wee bit late on this one, but there is my round-up of most memorable reads from last year.

In graphic novels, I enjoyed both Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm on the Manhattan Project and Not My Bag by Sina Grace, a sarcastic almost absurdly funny take on working in a large department store. Artwork is excellent in both but the stories are really impressive. I recommend Trinity for homeschoolers especially - a great tool for teaching about the atomic bomb.

In nonfiction, Townie by Andre Dubus III really stayed with me; I identified a lot with how a divorce can tear apart a family on multiple levels. Also Bomber County by Daniel Swift which began as a search for his grandfather's grave (he was lost as a Lancaster crewmember during WWII) and became a look at the poetry of the war. (This book has has been way criminally overlooked in my opinion.)

For Booklist I reviewed Gaddafi's Harem by Annick Cojean, a graphic look at how much he and his powerful friends abused the women and girls of Libya. It also reveals how insane he truly was. And What Do You Buy For the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife by David Harris-Gershon is about an American couple whose lives are upended by a bombing in Israel and the attempt afterward to understand why it happened. One of the best, most even-handed books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I've ever read.

And I blogged about Lidia Yuknavich's memoir The Chronology of Water a couple of months ago. It is a raw look at a life hard lived and the nearly debilitating lost of a baby but man, does she persevere. I could not write like this, but I also can not forget it.

Kevin Guilfoile's short memoir of his father, baseball and Roberto Clemente, A Drive Into the Gap, also continues to be unforgettable. Here's hoping Field Notes Brand will publish again after this great read.

For novels, I was gobsmacked by Misfit by Adam Braver, another killer book from Tinhouse. This one will turn upside down anything you think you know about Marilyn Monroe and - even if you have no interest in Monroe - you will be drawn into the story of her final sad days.

Jenny Davidson's The Magic Circle about young women who become immersed in role playing games continues to creep me out in how utterly believable it is. Consider it a both a caution against collegiate peer pressure and a call for bravery when it comes to creativity.

And the best mystery I have read in ages is The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home. Set in Scotland, the protagonist is a grad student who tracks "flotsam & jetsam" of all kinds. The mystery is partly about some severed feet that wash onshore, partly about a young girl who is murdered and washes up onshore and partly about the protagonist's grandfather who was wrongfully accused of causing the death of a crewmember during WWII.

I am not doing this one justice here - more on it in a longer post.

For YA, I loved Bennett Madison's September Girls which turns everything you ever thought you knew about mermaids on its head and is a lesson on how to revinvent myth in a provocative and powerful way. Ditto what Holly Black does for vampires in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown which knocks it out of the park by removing all sparkle from vamps. AT LAST.

I enjoyed not only the adventure and world building in my pal Gwenda Bond's The Woken Gods but also, most of all, the characters. Really smart kids who aren't preternaturally smart and adults who aren't artificially stupid or cruel. All good. And for a complete change of pace, Molly Beth Griffin's tender Silhouette of a Sparrow gives readers a historical novel that beautifully captures lakeside vacations in the 1920s and a love that inspires a young woman to pursue greatness.

Two novellas stood out, both from the always impressive Subterranean Press. Cathrynne Valente's Six-Gun Snow White was out of this world, absolutely stunning. She takes Snow and puts her in the west with a horse named Charming and dares the reader to look away. You won't be able to put this one down; best fairy tale rewrite since Bill Willingham's Fables (which I adore).

And Daniel Abraham's Balfour and Meriwether in the Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs which seems to be very Holmes & Watsonesque (which it is) and have somewhat traditional monsters, but then takes multiple turns into psychology and the true horrors of societal rules when it comes to GBLTQ people and gives readers such a stunning emotional punch in the final pages that it rather takes your breath away. Loved it.

Finally, some short stories. Andrea Barrett's collection Archangel exceeded my expectations especially in the cover story, set in post-WWI, and "The Investigators" which includes inventors dedicated to science and stirring scenes of early aviation. She is one of the most careful writers at work today and really worth your time; I can't recommend her enough.

Delia Sherman's title story from the collection Queen Victoria's Book of Spells has me pining for a novel set in this slightly magical world with its dedicated researcher who gives us some library scenes that manage to be both Harry Potteresque and also right out of AS Byatt's Possession. (With bonus history of Queen Victoria as a young girl.)

And Liz Hand's "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" from her collection Errantry is another look at early flight that involves an important piece of film hidden in a flight museum and the work of three men to prove its worth for a dying friend. Hand had me with the flying premise but the complicated friendships really bring it home; this one is magic.

Now on to 2014!

[Post pic from artist Mark Dion's exhibit "Flotsam and Jetsam (the end of the game)" - used here as an allusion to The Sea Detective, of course!]

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37. At the Closing of the Year: Considering 2013

So, like lots of other folks, I see 2013 as an interesting mix. The Map of My Dead Pilots came out in paperback and has done pretty well with steady monthly sales. I was hired as a freelance aviation reporter and contributor to the Alaska Dispatch Bush Pilot blog and [drumroll please] I formed Shorefast Editions with my longtime pal Katrina and we republished The Flying North, the first of many more books to come.*

So that's all good!

I also attended ALA Midwinter, which was a lot of fun and gave me the chance to meet a ton of folks I only knew previously via emails and twitter. I also traveled to Haines, AK for the AK Historical Society/Museums AK conference and presented on The Flying North, meeting lots of other great folks (and falling hard in love with Haines). And in October I worked a table at the Pacific NW Booksellers Association for Shorefast and met a bunch of booksellers from the region and got to see how publishers pitched books.

That was very very interesting. (And I really should blog about ALA MW & PNBA because as an author and publisher I learned a lot, both good and bad.)

I also achieved a writerly goal by having an essay published in ALASKA magazine (September); something I long hoped to achieve.

In December I wrote my 100th YA column for Bookslut which was really startling. I can't believe it has been this long. I can't help but wonder if I am becoming too distant from what teenagers enjoy - if my choices are still a good fit. But I'm still enjoying it and the people I have met through the column. So I'm hanging in there and writing reviews now for both February (graphic novels) and March (science-based adventures) (lots of Tesla in that one, oddly enough).

On the downside, while I was preoccupied with all of this (and still reading and reviewing for Booklist of course), I did not make any real headway on my next book. I submitted an essay on my research ("Lost and Found in Alaska") to Bloom out of desperation; it forced me to sit down and think about what I am trying to accomplish with the fragments of book that fill my laptop. I'm not conventionally stuck on this book - not blocked - but rather tired. There is nothing I can give up, all of my other writing sustains me in ways financial or emotional or both, but I have to work better at compartmentalizing and just working through a schedule that includes time for the mountain book. (Which I could also call MAP part 2 as it includes thoughts on the literal creation of 20th century maps of AK by early pilots.)

This is such an ordinary writerly problem; it's almost embarrassing to admit. I'm not giving myself the time I need to write the book because there is no obvious place to sell the book. No one is waiting for it, no one is asking about it. My agent has left the business, my editor left my publisher. MAP sells on its own (although I'm working on helping it out a bit in 2014), but no one is waiting for more from me.

This means, like back in the days of looking for an agent, it's all up to me. (How did this happen AGAIN????) I've been letting myself down on this though; it's the only true writerly disappointment I have for 2013 but it's a huge one.

I have to do better, and that is my whole 2014 resolution: I just want to do better.


*You can buy a magnet of The Flying North cover! And if you like, you can sign up for the Shorefast newsletter and we will let you know as new books are available next year.

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38. Christmas, 1984

I remember this Christmas and this song quite vividly. I still believe we can feed the world and more than ever, that we shouldn't stop trying.

In order, these are the artists who sang: Paul Young, Boy George, George Michael, Simon Le Bon, and Bono. The chorus included David Bowie, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney, Bob Geldof, Ure and many other artists who weren't given a verse but sang the "Feed The World" part and lent their images to the effort by appearing in the promotional photo.

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39. The Wonderful Impact of Gifting Books to Teens Who Need Them...

That's how the students at Washington DC's Ballou Sr High School and their librarian Melissa Jackson feel about the recent Guys Lit Wire Holiday Book Fair. Via the Powells Books wish list, 59 books were bought and shipped to Ballou where they have been very gratefully received.

I love seeing something like this happen - it's really what the holiday season is all about. Thanks so much to everyone who helped make these kids happy and to all of you out there who believe in the power of books to change lives. :)

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40. In Honor of All That Is Right in the World: Heart Covers STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN


From the Kennedy Center Honors, 2012. I watch this and think we all just might make it in this world, as long as we keep doing this sort of wonderful magic.

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41. In Honor of All That Is Right in the World: Heart Covers STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN


From the Kennedy Center Honors, 2012. I listen to this and I think we all just might make it in this world, as long as we keep doing this sort of wonderful magic.

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42. Kevin Guilfoile on how nonfiction is permeated with all we do not know

This is part of a very brief passage in A Drive Into the Gap and I've been thinking about it a lot since I read it last week:

On some level, most novelists write fiction to create order our of chaos. When you shape a fictional story, you can tie every loose end, fit the round pegs comfortably in circular holes. In a novel the author can create a world that makes sense.

The non-fiction writer often does the opposite. He starts with the assumption that the true story he wants to tell conforms to a logical narrative. Instead he discovers that there are always motivations that are incomprehensible. That people act irrationally. That memories are imperfect. The non-fiction writer uncovers the chaos hidden beneath the orderly surface.

There was a very big part of me that desperately wanted to make A Map of My Dead Pilots fictional. I wrote parts of it that way at first, or tried to. but the truth kept beating me down and forcing its way into the narrative. At one point in the final manuscript I do tell readers how I would have rewritten one small story if it is was fiction; how I would have made it a happily ever after.

Truth is so messy. I don't think some novelists realize that. Truth is just impossible to accept sometimes. Guilfoile writes that "...there are always motivations that are incomprehensible". This is the question of why behind every pilot error aircraft accident. I'm still trying to understand some from 1929. I look at accident reports and wonder, "Why did this pilot take this chance that killed him?"

Two weeks ago a pilot crashed in Alaska and died along with three of his passengers. The final Probable Cause report is likely a year away but I know we are never going to understand why he made the final decisions that led to the crash.

Truth is so messy. In a novel I could tell you what he was thinking; what all of them were thinking. As a journalist, as an nonfiction writer, I can only tell you what happened and then lead into the chaos with me so we can both try to find answers together.

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43. Surveying the stacks & making some lists

I have a holiday gift list up at Alaska Dispatch for the pilot or aircraft owner in your life. Lots of great ideas on this one - I've been collecting items for months to add to it.

I also have a new column up at Bookslut with some great adventure novels for teens (my 100th column!) and I have a feature on NF titles for kids/teens that are really off the beaten path (sea monsters! collective nouns! hovercrafts!)

That feature also includes the coolest pop-up I've seen in ages on national parks. It's STUNNING.


I have enjoyed my friend Kelly Fineman's downsizing posts for the past few months and because I know her, they've made me think a lot more about getting rid of stuff than the average episode of Clean House. Also, Kelly's level of stuff sounds pretty similar to my own so she's a lot easier for me to identify with.

The other night I was downstairs sorting out books for future columns when I started looking at my own bookshelves. I'm pretty picky about the books I keep and I really have remarkably few when you consider how many I could keep (an insane number, trust me). But I do have two overloaded shelves of books I have bought or have been given to me that I plan to read someday and just haven't gotten to. They are a mess and some of the books have been there for years. I finally decided it was time to let them go.

Kelly's been writing a lot about space and keeping things for emotional reasons and not sitting on things because it's too hard to deal with the trouble of getting rid of them and all of this and more made me pull all the books off the 2 shelves and ruthlessly (RUTHLESSLY) go through them. I think I have about a dozen left which I am now going to read over the next couple of months. I might very well love them all and keep them forever, or give them a shot and pass them along but either way - those shelves are never going to be such a mess again. (Donating all discards this week to local Friends of Library bookstore.)

Books should never become a burden, emotional or otherwise. If you are not going to read them then it's time to set them free, so someone else can give them a good home. I can't believe it took me so long to get this message into my head. Thanks, Kelly!

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44. Reporting from Wonderland


I have been crazy sick for the past week and a half so all writing of all kinds (like here) has been pretty much impossible. I have been reading a bit though and wanted to highly recommend Alice, I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin. I'll be writing more about this novel of the real Alice, (Alice Liddell Hargreaves), in the next day or so but wanted to mention it now when I had the chance.

Also, there will be an Alice in Wonderland 2 apparently, due out in 2016. Hmmmmm.

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45. The Real Alice in Wonderland

I keep thinking I'm going to feel 100% any moment now because I first got sick two long weeks ago and yet still, something is not quite right. It's all very frustrating.

I did read Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin in the midst of all this illness however, and I enjoyed it immensely. The basic facts of the Alice in Wonderland biography are here: Alice Liddell Hargreaves was the inspiration for the famous book, her father was dean of Christ Church, Oxford and that was how the family came to know Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). Dodgson took photos of Alice and her sisters, he spent a lot of time with the girls and one afternoon trip he told them the Wonderland story and at Alice's urging later wrote it down. Then something happened between the Liddells and Dodgson and there was a brutal falling out and they never really spoke again. Later, Alice became very close to Prince Leopold (as in brother to the King and son of Queen Victoria) and they broke up - although they each named a child after the other.

Whew!

Benjamin takes all these facts, including Alice's eventual marriage and the birth of her three sons (sadly, two died in WWI), and folds them into a novel about her life that is enormously compelling. She writes about her complicated childhood as the daughter of a very important man (and one of the only married men at Oxford) and shows how difficult it was to stand out in such a big family. A lot of Alice's childhood struggles were ordinary and utterly predictable but the friendship she developed with Dodgson was something altogether different and just what it was about is a literary mystery for the ages.

Benjamin doesn't drop any major bombs here and she shouldn't; her restraint is perfect and lends itself well to this complicated history. What Alice did, what Dodgson did, what her sister and mother and father and everyone thought (and the source of their motivations) are handled with care and empathy. That is what makes Alice I Have Been so believable - you can see the history unfolding exactly as the story does and by the time Leopold comes onto the scene you are so caught up in Alice's life that you really wish the book would abandon the truth and give us the story we want (Alice as a princess!!).

And don't even get me started on the deaths of her sons. Brutal, absolutely brutal.

Melanie Benjamin has also written about Ameila Earhart and Mrs. Tom Thumb - if they are half as good as her treatment of Alice, then they must be read as well.

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46. Dwelling in Possibility by Howard Mansfield

Earlier this year, a friend and I discussed the viability of a drinking game involving HGTV, where every mention of the words "granite countertops" or "double sinks" or "perfect for entertaining," would result in a shot. We figured it would only take a single thirty-minute episode of House Hunters to intoxicate the average person; if it was a showing of Property Virgins, the person wouldn't get through the first house. (As my friend put it, "No one ever talks about a room that's perfect for eating ice cream alone in front of the TV.")

Howard Mansfield has written several books that discuss different facets of history, architecture, and preservation, often with an eye toward his New England roots, including The Same Ax Twice, and Bones of the Earth. His most recent title, Dwelling in Possibility, is an exploration of the nature of home and more specifically, how we have distanced ourselves from the concept of dwelling. "We have shelter from the rain and snow and sun," he writes, "but our houses aren't sheltering our souls."

For a population of rabid HGTV watchers, Mansfield's conclusions about clutter, space, and useful design will be both familiar and reassuring (and often quite funny as well). But there is much more to this title then wryly noting our national designer addictions. Dwelling in Possibility exhorts readers to consider why building houses, as opposed to building homes, has become a national past time.

In three separate sections Mansfield considers "Dwelling in the Ordinary," "Dwelling in Destruction," and "Dwelling in Possibility." In the early chapters his witty sense of humor is on full display, most especially when considering the power of clutter to control our daily lives. It's hard not to laugh (and agree) when reading a rant like this one:

We have poured our concerns about clutter into almost every shape we know: self-help, recovery support groups (Messies Anonymous, Clutter Diet), meet-up groups, Let Go of Clutter Retreats, Feng Shui, vague Zen aspirations ("Do More With Less in Your Zen Bathroom"), decluttering online in the Second Life world, and television shows where you can watch people throw out junk. There's Clutter Awareness Week (the third week in March), a Clutter Hoarding Scale, newspaper stories ready to pronounce a national epidemic ("Stuff Robbed Dee Wallace of Love"), and a tsunami of books soon to be at a flea market near you. "I own several organizing books and this is my favorite," said one reader at Amazon. Another woman, who had surrendered to a professional organizer, confessed to squirreling away boxes of her favorite "decluttering" magazine articles.

Fair enough. Mansfield has us on our endless desire to remove stuff from our lives and our acute inability to apparently accomplish that without buying more stuff to "do it right." What the author does that is unexpected, however, is take all this humor about modern living and pivot in a wholly different direction in the book's stark second section. In these chapters, he writes of the twentieth-century cities, towns, and villages that have suffered "de-housing" through the tactics of war, and shows how our inherent yearning for home has all too often been used as way to destroy civilian populations.

Sadly, there are all too many examples of military destruction that Mansfield can point to, but as he takes readers on this grim historical tour he cannot resist teasing out the many complicated stories that linger behind the factual records. While recalling the infamous initial report of U.S. Marines torching huts in Vietnam as a way to punish the populace, he shares the powerful threats brought against reporter Morley Safer for revealing the dark side of the American occupation to the public.

In Vietnam, like everywhere else in Asia, property, a home, is everything. A man lives with his family on ancestral land. His parents are buried nearby. These spirits are part of his holdings," says Safer.

The images of the Zippo lighters setting fire to a grass roof while families huddled nearby was deemed so damaging to the war effort that the Pentagon tried to ruin Safer's reputation; President Johnson was certain Safer had bribed a Marine to set a fire.

"Burning down a house is a transgression," writes Mansfield, "It's an obvious sin..."

Through the bombings of London, Tokyo, and Hamburg, the author pores over the words of the men who ordered the attacks and those who dutifully followed through, while also considering their ultimate failure. The houses were destroyed, but the people, without exception, remained determined to rebuild, and no one surrendered because a city was lost. In the end he notes how house destruction became a policy that stubbornly held on in the face of all evidence, suggesting it was not a worthwhile use of money or men. "These things develop their own momentum," he writes. We bombed cities day in and day out simply because we kept getting better at hitting them.

It seems impossible that a title could include discussions of the significance of useful footpaths to a community, the allure of California Closets to cure what ails us, and also the profound despair left in the wake of Tokyo's burning. Yet Mansfield's light touch, whether engaged in humor or sympathy, never wavers from his intent to fully understand his overall subject. He is fascinated by what we need from a home and how confusing our relationship with that concept has become. As he always does, Mansfield quotes from all manner of writers, architects, and historians throughout the text, but mostly it is his own voice that shines through. As he writes of house hunting with his wife in the earliest pages, you can imagine him walking through countless doors, his curiosity endlessly piqued as he surveys the rooms around him. He can't stop looking; he can't stop noticing:

Houses that smell of feet, or vaguely like diapers, even though the children are in high school.

Houses that are worn and comfortable, like an old fielder's mitt, like the sweatshirt and jeans the commuting executive wears on Saturdays.

Houses that are walled in with photos of children, grandchildren, nieces, and grandnieces. The walls of diplomas like battle ribbons.

Houses in which nothing has happened, and that seems terrible...where boredom sticks to the walls, yellows the walls like grease from ten thousand meals.

Howard Mansfield has seen it all, stood there, collected his thoughts, and now shares his conclusions. In elegant, careful prose he ushers readers far beyond the peeks we are accustomed to having through our television shows and shelter magazines. This is an author who is endlessly patient while pursuing his subjects, and delightfully capable of sharing his journeys with the rest of us. As a cultural historian, there can be few more determined to understand the modern human condition. Dwelling in Possibility is thus quite extraordinary in its quiet message about how we live, and certainly a triumph for this brilliant author.

Dwelling in Possibility by Howard Mansfield
Bauhan
ISBN: 978-0872331679
240 pages

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47. YA Column: Saving the World. Again.

With winter break looming large, it's time to get a stack of books together for a nice long afternoon of escapist fiction. Go ahead and indulge yourself with these adventures -- I'm sure you deserve them!

Gwenda Bond provides readers with a rousing drama that is firmly grounded in a classic coming-of-age story with her mash-up of myths and secret societies, The Woken Gods. Washington, D.C. is now home to embassies housing the physical manifestations of legends from around the world and throughout history, including the Greeks, Egyptians, Sumerians, American Southwest and even New Orleans. Just as global politics has always involved uneasy detentes between nations, the gods and man are gripped in a peace forged in death that is maintained by the mysterious Society of the Sun. Society members keep the gods from killing mankind through brute strength and hundreds of "relics" that have been gathered and guarded through the ages and now are the only effective weapons against immortal power. That Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse is very real, only it involves the relic-gathering skills of a ton of Indy-like archaeologists and is in a way cooler location.

Kyra Locke knows all about the Society and the gods because her father works there and her mother lost her mind when the gods were "awakened." Now an angry high school student, she spends a lot of time failing to get her father's attention and hanging out with ex-boyfriend Tam and best friend Bree. Then Kyra's dad giver her a vague "if I don't come home you must run away" lecture and a god tries to kill her in the middle of the street. The Society saves her butt and hauls her and her friends away to tell them what has really been going on. Except they don't really and the teens must figure it out on their own. But the fun here is all the twists and turns and lies and revelations, and careful world building and nonstop action (with bonus romance) that make anyone looking for a bunch of smart tough characters to hang out with very, very happy.

What Bond gives readers here is a whole bunch of adults who have not done the right thing in ways big and small. She also gives us adults who can't seem to wrap their heads around the fact that teenagers are not stupid or silly and thus can actually be trusted with the truth. There is some research à la Giles, some breaking and entering (more than once) and some running for your life that is not always successful. Also a few serious ceremonies, the frustration of secret justice, the "I didn't know you liked me but I'm so glad I know now" kind of conversation and the requirement of putting your hand into an open wound to stop a deadly infection. Clearly, the squeamish need not apply to save the world in this case.

The Woken Gods is a fast-paced tonic for curious readers who seek multi-layered mysteries and a salute to smart under-appreciated kids everywhere. The cool part is when it all comes together at the end and some very delightful parents do step up to the plate because they trust their kids. Bond has her characters growing up in a strange new world, in a bold brave way. The Woken Gods is one mighty fun read, and thus a perfect respite from holiday madness. Smart equals good in any adventure, and this is a very good read.

Jasper Fforde follows up The Last Dragonslayer with the second book in his "Chronicles of Kazam" series: The Song of the Quarkbeast. These books (and they really should be read in order) are set in a funny world where magic is used for fixing construction projects, large-scale landscaping and speedy delivery via flying carpet. There are also pointless foreign policy squabbles, foolish bureaucrats, a despotic king and all number of recognizable societal silliness. Our heroine, sixteen-year old Jennifer Strange, lives in the Kingdom of Snodd where she runs the show for a bunch of "underemployed magicians" at Kazam Mystical Arts Management and nothing ever seems to go the way she wants it to.

In The Song of the Quarkbeast, Jennifer has a lot on her plate. Kazam's founder is still missing in an enchantment that went wrong (although reappearing unannounced in various points in the kingdom on occasion), her most powerful magicians have fallen victim to a spell, Kazam is under attack from a power-mad professional rival and there are trolls. She is also missing her late lamented pet quarkbeast very much, which becomes that much more difficult when she meets a rather demented quarkbeast hunter. All in all, Jennifer's life is as complicated as ever and keeping a cool head is especially critical if she wants to save the kingdom again.

Fforde knows exactly what he is doing with these books, and while they are a bit lightweight, they are also a lot of fun. Jennifer possesses a wry sense of humor that serves her well and her friends and coworkers continue to balance quirkiness and kindness in equal parts. Fforde fits all of their idiosyncrasies into this tightly crafted plot with ease and the addition of a hint of romance this time around is welcome but not a distraction from the continued unfolding of life around Kazam. There is also more than one mystery but every last bit is solved, sorted, and dealt with by the final paragraphs. There is no villain in these books, Fforde prefers to give his readers the sort of political messiness we are all too familiar with in the twenty-first century. The politics are so funny, teen readers will enjoy their addition to the plot. The Song of the Quarkbeast is pure fantasy comfort food: an excellent choice for decompressing in the midst of your own family political upheavals this month.

The adventure in The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence hits much closer to home but also involves leaps of faith and a strong heart for the title character. As the story opens, seventeen-year-old Alex is stopped at a border crossing and herded off by the police on drug charges. He is apparently the center of a national news story and facing multiple personal crisis. Plus his closest friend is dead, and he's the only one who can explain what happened. That's the setup, and the chapters that follow bring readers back several years to explain how Alex got there.

First and foremost, he is the boy who got hit by a meteorite and lived. The one-in-a-million accident made him famous and left him with a unique perspective that has colored every choice he makes in life. Raised by a mother who runs a wiccan-type shop and gives tarot card readings, he is used to being an easy target for bullies. Now with a wicked scar on the side of his head, a crazy story and avid interests in astronomy and neurology (for obvious reasons), keeping himself from being a target is nearly a full time job. It is while on the run one day that he meets a reclusive neighbor, the gruff widower Mr. Peterson, and finds the friend who changes his life.

Alex is a complex and endearing character, intrigued by science and literature and especially, through his friendship with Peterson, drawn to the works of Kurt Vonnegut. Extence makes sure to explain these interests, allowing Alex to have deep considerations of writing and astronomy that carefully add layers of meaning to the story. Most importantly he is a very likable kid whose curiosity will appeal to many readers. Consider this revealing passage:

I think if I could just spend the whole six hours of the school day solving algebra problems, then I'd be extremely happy. But, of course, that's not exactly normal. That's the part everybody hates. Most of the other boys can't wait for the break so they can go outside and play football. And to me, that really is baffling. It seems like such a waste of time and energy. It doesn't tell you anything about the world. It doesn't add or change anything. I don't get the appeal.

Extence takes Alex far beyond the point of traditional bullying and places him in an adult situation that calls for problem solving and sincerity of the highest order. He must make decisions that rattle not only his family but also ultimately spark a national dialogue, and he does it all for the most basic of reasons: it's the right thing to do. Light years from the traditional "problem of the week" novel and a brilliant look at the creative mind of an intelligent teen who willfully challenges the adults around him, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is thought provoking and intense. Fans of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes should especially give this one a look.

Joanna Nadin's Paradise combines family drama and secrets in the best gothic tradition, while still firmly set in contemporary England with nary a moor in sight. Sixteen-year-old Billie should be happy, the grandmother she never knew has left her a house in her will, and as Billie and her mother and little brother are barely hanging onto their crappy London apartment, this refuge sounds like a godsend. The problem is that her mother, who has always exhibited unpredictable behavior, is determined to leave without telling her boyfriend and Billie isn't too excited about being in a place she doesn't know with a mother who is starting to unravel again. She is sorely tempted to just walk away from it all, but her brother needs her and she loves her mother and the house does offer a possibility of... something else. In the grand scheme of things, that is enough to tip the scales and so off the little family goes to Cornwall where, of course, everything comes apart.

As you would expect, there is a big house where everything is mysteriously undisturbed, as if it has been waiting for the new occupants. Billie's uncle died years before in an accident as a teenager and his room is just as he left it, whereas her mother's childhood room bears no hint that she ever lived there. The town seems to know more about the family then Billie does and while a small group of teens seems welcoming, Billie's mother becomes more and more unhinged making it difficult to pay bills, let alone invite friends over. All too soon everything goes to hell in a hand basket in the most spectacular fashion but not before Billie learns just enough about her mother's past to demand more answers, which entails visiting a graveyard, nearly drowning in a dangerous sea, and finally figuring out who her father was and why he left her before she was born. The secrets are revealed so quickly in the end that your head spins a bit, but as someone who hung on every word of Victoria Holt when I was fourteen, I think the rhythm is just fine and readers will be delighted. Consider this one a modern twist on a classic narrative and a true page-turner.

For those seeking a bit more of a cautionary tale for their vacation reading à la Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bridget Fonda's roommate-from-hell classic Single White Female, I recommend Jenny Davidson's subtle novel, The Magic Circle. The story starts out with one of those uniquely cerebral bar discussions favored by grad students, albeit on an unexpected topic. The plot centers around the groundwork that goes into developing a game to be played on the street level that realistically incorporates the architecture and history of the environment around it. For Columbia University students Ruth and Lucy, this means figuring out what to include in their game about the Victorian era in New York City, "Trapped in the Asylum."

The game is set in the Morningside Heights neighborhood, and is based on the real history of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. Using the game's app as a guide, players move through the streets portraying someone voluntarily committed to the asylum à la Nellie Bly. They will also gain experiences and answer questions that uncover clues about the asylum's creepy past. The goal is to make an educational game interactive and fun, part of what Ruth is researching in school, and it all seems quite interesting but relatively innocuous. The inclusion of neighbor Anna, a visiting scholar from Denmark, turns Ruth and Lucy's careful game planning on its ear however and brings a level of uncontrollable chaos into their lives.

On the surface, The Magic Circle is very much about game theory and the work that goes into creating a successful manufactured environment. The women work hard at making their games work in a logical way, both Ruth's "Trapped in the Asylum" and Anna's brainchild, "Places of Power", the latter of which incorporates Greek myth, the occult, and architecture into the mix. (Ghostbusters is appropriately name-dropped here, though Anna's vision has a much more adult form.) Through email excerpts and online journal entries, Davidson shows Ruth and Anna working through the details of their separate games while alternately arguing against and supporting each other's visions. Lucy, who is called away for several chapters due to a family crisis, serves to show the readers just how much the games change and overwhelm their creators' original visions when she returns and is shocked to discover how far her friends have moved from their original theories. Lucy cannot resist being drawn into the debauchery presented by Anna's game however, changing her view of what the games are supposed to be about. (So much for education.) Anna shows the appeal of game playing can be more than just leaving reality behind; it is about embracing a fantasy that is as close to real as it gets and presents potential consequences that are unpredictable and thus extremely exciting. It should come as no surprise that all of this takes a serious turn for the worse very quickly.

Anna's brother arrives and romances the reserved Ruth. "Places of Power" rapidly gains in popularity as word spreads through online message boards and forums and groups converge to play the game in a wild weekend that finds all the players engaging in dangerously indulgent behavior in Morningside Park after dark. The intoxication of playing the game infuses every aspects of Ruth and Lucy's lives and pitted against each other by their roles, they find themselves less inclined to question their conduct and suspicious of ulterior motives. Through it all, the Danish siblings weave a web that threatens to overwhelm the other two women, and lures them deeper into a game they never intended to play, let alone expected to threaten their lives.

The Magic Circle is a subtle thriller that effectively introduces the appeal of urban exploration and game playing into the freedom presented by the college environment. The dark turn that the plot takes is a warning call to any older teen who feels the lure of leaving the rules behind. Davidson shows how easy it is to lose your way and come unmoored from the person you thought you were when tempted by others. Teens about to leave for college will find a lot to consider in Ruth and Lucy's adventures and many questions to answer about how they would respond to all the possibilities that these games present. (Some sexual content makes this one a crossover for older teens only.)

Finally, as this is the holiday season, I couldn't resist a couple of unusual ideas that would certainly have appealed to me as a teenager. (And frankly still do.) Beth Kephart's recent title on writing memoir, Handling the Truth, has been receiving accolades all over the place for its thoughtful consideration of the good and bad in the genre, as well as providing examples from many wonderful books. Kephart is a National Book Award finalist who teaches writing; she pulls from her own experience and classroom discussion to illustrate many points. For the teen writer, Handling the Truth offers some valuable insight into many facets of the writing life, especially finding the truth in a story. Packaging Handing the Truth along with a couple of the dozens of memoirs Kephart lists in her detailed bibliography would be a great way to tell the teen in your life that your take his or her writing dreams seriously.

Another idea is to purchase a book subscription for YA lovers that will extend the gift-giving season into their mailboxes all year long. After filling out a questionnaire to help narrow down the gift recipient's interest, Oblong Books and Music in New York State will mail recipients"...a brand-new hardcover YA book specially chosen for them each month, along with swag and info about the books and authors we love, and whatever's hottest in the YA world. We'll help you discover the books that will be your new favorites." The service is available for three, six, or twelve month installments and all information can be found on the store's website.

COOL READ: Oyvin Torseter's The Hole is certainly one of the most simple yet innovative picture books I have come across in ages and an absolute treat for young children. Nicely designed by Enchanted Lion Books with heavy cardboard covers and sturdy pages, Torseter's story is beguiling in its simplicity. An animal-man (who stands upright but looks like a dog) has just moved into a new apartment. As he wordlessly unpacks, he is shocked to discover a hole in the wall. The hole appears and disappears at random as he tracks it around the rooms until finally capturing it in a box. He then goes off into the city (full of all manner of other "people" plus, great buildings and cars), boards a bus, and travels to a large facility where the hole is unpacked and studied until the techs tell him "that's all we can do for now" and packs the hole away for future study. He returns home, goes to bed and, of course, the hole is still there. (Fortunately for our hero's sanity, he doesn't notice.)

This subversive little story is laugh out loud funny, witty as hell, even with its very few words, and, as the hole is physically present through an actual hole in the page, also a very active book for the reader to engage with. The spare use of color and the line drawings give the pages plenty of white space for the hole to stand out, and the diversity of the characters gives the book a broad appeal. The Hole is an ageless read, as it will be enjoyed by everyone who picks it up. (And trust me, everyone will want to pick it up.) This is one of those titles that from conception to final product is just utterly and completely original. It's as good as it gets, and I can't recommend it enough.

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48. Arctic Bush Pilot by James "Andy" Anderson

While a lot of attention deservedly goes to the pilots who first developed Alaska's aviation industry, less is known about those who thrived in the post-war era. In the 1950s and 1960s the fledgling air carriers that had struggled for decades truly began to soar and at the front of the pack was the territory's oldest airline, (the second in the U.S.), Wien Air Alaska.

In 1948 pilot James "Andy" Anderson was hired by Wien to establish and operate the company's Bettles base. A World War II Navy veteran, Anderson had arrived in the small village a year prior to work for the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA). Over the next 20 years he flew all over Interior Alaska for Wien and also built and operated the company's roadhouse, the present-day Bettles Lodge.

Anderson accumulated 32,000 hours by the time he left Alaska. Thirty years later he told his story to writer Jim Rearden, who had flown with Anderson many times. The result is "Arctic Bush Pilot," a fascinating look at mid-century commercial flying in Alaska.

With over 50 photographs to illustrate his experiences, "Arctic Bush Pilot" takes readers from Anderson's military years flying the Curtiss Helldiver to his employment as a radio operator with the CAA in Bettles where he first met Sig Wien. His recollections of flying for Wien Air include multiple aircraft such as the Cessna 180, Republic Seabee Amphibian and a military surplus Noorduyn Norseman from Canada. He also details his close relationship with the company, especially Sig Wien and how he came to be one of the largest stockholders in Wien by the time he left.

For modern pilots, "Arctic Bush Pilot" will likely be appealing because so many of the situations Anderson describes are remarkably similar to their own. Consider this excerpt on the subject of pressure:

The aerial mail routes I established in the Koyukuk Valley were flown with no radio or navigation aids. Weather was often lousy. Regardless, after a time the villagers not only expected, but demanded, that mail be delivered as scheduled and on time.

Sometimes weather was bad at Bettles Field at the same time it was good at one or more of my stops. Often villagers weren't aware of this and scolded me when I missed a mail run due to bad weather they didn't experience. I had to be careful to not allow this pressure to push me into unsafe flying.

One of the more gripping episodes Anderson recalls is an emergency flight in 1955 for Sydney Huntington, who had a splinter embedded in his right eye and was suffering tremendous pain. After waiting through steadily decreasing temperatures, Anderson finally chose to depart for Huslia at 60 below. He first flew Huntington to the small hospital in Tanana where the doctor determined he could not be adequately treated and must go onto Fairbanks. The temperature there was 52 below zero and ice fog, which still shuts down the airport every winter, cloaked the city. Anderson recalled:

As we neared the town I could see it was mostly obscured by dense ice fog. I dropped to 1,000 feet, used flaps, and crawled along at about a hundred miles an hour, following the railroad tracks toward the airport as visibility decreased.

I called the control tower. They were expecting me, having been informed by the CAA of my medivac [sic] flight. Visibility was down to a few hundred yards when I landed at Fairbanks International Airport.


Huntington was immediately transported to the hospital and the splinter removed. Six months later, after suffering continuous pain, the injured eye was replaced with a glass one. When "Arctic Bush Pilot" was published, he credited Anderson with saving his life.

There are many stories of flying in bad weather or carrying awkward loads in "Arctic Bush Pilot" as well as insight into the burgeoning Wien operation. Anderson writes of the company building landing fields at Venetie, Kobuk, Arctic Village and Anaktuvuk Pass and establishing a radio network throughout the Interior. He recalls being stuck in Anaktuvuk until local residents used caribou fat to patch a hole in a torn wing float and serving as the only lifeline for miners in the remote Chandalar country. At times humorous and witty and at others wistful and nostalgic, Anderson's reminiscences always show a deep affection for the people he worked with and flew.

But what comes through strongest from "Arctic Bush Pilot" is that once upon a time, in a place where the maps were still being drawn, Andy Anderson considered himself lucky to be part of the Alaska story. His contribution to the state's aviation history is undeniable to anyone who uses the airports he developed or frequents the many villages that depended upon his single aircraft for air service. Most importantly though, he took the time to share his experiences with Rearden and together they produced a thoroughly engaging and highly readable book.

"Arctic Bush Pilot" is available at libraries and bookstores across Alaska. It can also be ordered online from numerous booksellers. Learn more at the publisher's website.

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49. Books for Curious Minds

Every year I keep an eye out for special books that I believe will make excellent unexpected gifts for holidays. Readers love a good novel or story collection but there is something to be said for the appeal of innovative nonfiction, especially when it is heavily illustrated. I think the coffee table book is one of the better inventions of the publishing industry and I'm still annoyed that all books, regardless of audience, do not come with pictures. Consider these titles the best of both worlds: visually captivating to the very young while engaging and informative to readers of any age.

I first saw the pop-up book America's National Parks across the room at a booksellers' tradeshow and had to pick it up. With paper engineering by Bruce Foster, illustrations by Dave Ember and text and concept by Don Compton, this collaboration is not only a stunner to page through but extremely informative as well. The pop-ups are insane. Six of the national parks are highlighted, and within each massive double-page spread are smaller pop-ups highlighting specific aspects of each destination like the "red jammer" touring buses in Glacier and the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite.

Unlike many pop-ups, which serve as glorious art objects but are light on text, Compton has done a first-rate job of informing readers about the specific parks (including photographs of each destination in small accompanying foldouts). He breaks up the pop-ups with spreads introducing each region and discussing other significant parks that can be found there, such as Shenandoah, Acadia, Cuyahoga Valley and Mammoth Cave in the eastern U.S. These spreads include full-color reproductions of historic posters created by the WPA in the 1930s. That style is duplicated in Ember's many illustrations, which celebrate each destination in a way that is both evocative of the past and thoroughly modern.

Young budding cartographers who would like to look beyond America's borders will find a lot to love in the oversized Maps by Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński. With fifty-two full-color maps of continents and countries, there is a lot to love in this fanciful yet accurate journey around the world. The maps, on matte paper with muted colors, include everything from landmarks to animals to popular foods. Every country has a boy and girl representative with names common to their homelands and famous people from history (Cleopatra! Da Vinci! Confucius!) are depicted as well.

Maps reminded me a bit of the Walt Disney "Small World" ride (this is a compliment) and brought the same sort of wonder to mind. There is so much to look at in these big spreads that children can easily pour over the pictures for hours. I loved how many different things are included, from sports to art to geology, and that each page also includes information such as capitals, population, and primary languages. Maps is a colorful way to learn geography that is not cartoony or simple; this is in fact one of the more elegant titles on the subject for the very young that I have seen. It's truly delightful.

For older readers with an interest in the evolution of cartography, two recent titles take a look at how sea monsters played a part in mapmaking for centuries. Joseph Nigg's Sea Monsters: A Voyage Around the World's Most Beguiling Map is an in-depth look at a 1539 Nordic map, the Carta Marina, which was designed by Olaus Magnus. This map was influential in the work of many mapmakers and historians for centuries who used Magnus' depictions of creatures such as "Pristers" (aka whales), the "Polypus" (lobster), and the legendary Kraken in their own work. The dust jacket unfolds to reveal the full map, which is a treat unto itself.

Chet Van Duzer takes a broader geographic look in Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, where he considers how creatures evolved in their appearance over a variety of European maps between the tenth and sixteenth centuries. Referring to all sorts of texts, including Ptolemy and Magnus, Van Duzer shows how creatures have changed as our understanding of them grew. The eight illustrations of the evolving walrus are both bizarre and amazing.

Most of these maps, and indeed the time periods they cover, will be foreign to teen readers, but the idea of "Here There Be Monsters" written across a map is something any fan of fantasy literature or science fiction will recognize. Nigg and Van Duzer explore places and times where such monsters were very much alive to most of the world's population. The glossy illustrations are attractive and the texts compelling. To know what people thought -- what they believed -- so long ago provides a valuable window into the past. The fact that these two books come wrapped up in maps and monsters makes the history that much more impossible to resist.

For readers interested in getting their hands a bit dirty, Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe (aka "the Coke and Mentos Guys") have a new book of science projects out: How to Build a Hovercraft. The experiments run through three levels of difficulty from the more basic (such as the "yanking tablecloths and other near disasters," which they caution needs lots of practice), to a "Coke-and-Mentos-powered rocket car" which does pretty much what you want such a contraption to do. There is indeed some adult supervision required on this stuff (and safety goggles) and certainly a likelihood of getting in trouble with the powers-that-be if you do any of it near a school, but How to Build a Hovercraft is well designed, full of easy-to-follow instructions and proof positive of the fun that can be found in science. It's got gold mine potential written all over it for kids who are bored with memorizing the periodic table of the elements and desecrating the bodies of dead frogs. Yes, there is some inherent danger in experiments like the Fire Wire, but the authors have all the necessary warnings and walk you through step-by-step. Get outside, get some tools and dive into this book; it will shake up your ideas about science in more ways than one.

A bit less intense but still hands-on, Philippe Petit (author of Man on Wire), has crafted a lovely exploration of sixty different types of "beautiful, lifesaving, and secure knots!" with his title Why Knot?

This compact hardcover (which comes with its own small piece of rope for practice) includes not only easy-to-follow instructions for knot making, but illustrations to help along the way and also -- the best part, I think -- Petit's own high-wire memories and photos from his walks. He also provides general advice on knots throughout the book including such things as how to protect the "extremities."

What elevates Why Knot? above the younger Klutz publication fare is not only the thoroughness of the subject matter, but also Petit's wise thoughtfulness. The introduction considers "knot science" and the seriousness of the craft and takes readers through all sorts of topics such as function, tradition and history associated with knots. This is serious stuff he's writing about, and a subtle way of reminding readers that they should know about something like knot-tying in order to accomplish many other wondrous things (like walk between very tall buildings). Consider Why Knot? a return to craftsmanship, another remedy for our diminished ability to fix stuff. If you're shopping for a certain middle-grade reader, I'd pair Petit's work with Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky; fans of the knot-tying character Lincoln are going to love following in his footsteps.

For the contrarian who is just tired of all the ostrich behavior going on in society today, Darryl Cunningham's graphic novel How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Climate Denial is exactly the tonic they are waiting for. (I'm tempted to say we should all chip in and send this to every high-school kid in Texas to save them from their textbooks, but I figure if we talk it up enough online, they will find it anyway.)

Cunningham is fed up with everyone who says the moon landing did not happen. Other targets include "The MMR Vaccination Scandal," "Evolution," and "Climate Change." Very carefully, he leads readers through the reasons why the primary arguments against the science on such subjects are incorrect. For example, he explains why no stars are present in the famous shot of the earth from the moon (this leads to a discussion of glare in photography) and uses not only his own drawings but actual photographs of astronauts and the moon to make his point. He also namedrops the Mythbusters and their experiments on the subject, which ups the book's coolness factor by about a million.

For all its sly humor, Cunningham is doing something very serious with Moon Landing: he is asking his readers not to be afraid to challenge the adults in their midst when they toss about dubious claims or make assertions that fly in the face of reason. The vaccination chapter in particular is a brilliant example of this, as Cunningham showcases the determined journalistic inquiry that revealed the opportunism and cold hard cash that fueled the now discredited study claiming the MMR vaccination led to autism. Reading this chapter will likely fuel the indignation of a thousand future Frontline investigative reporters.

Follow the truth, says Cunningham throughout his book, and more importantly, embrace the truth. Then go and tell anyone who challenges the moon landings that really, there's no freaking way.

Finally, one of the bigger surprises of the past couple of months is the amount of pleasure I have found in paging through a book on collective nouns. I should have known better than to underestimate the fine folks at Woop Studios, for their delightful A Compendium of Collective Nouns is miles from traditional etymological resources. While the words might be in the expected alphabetical order, their presentations never fail to surprise. Consider the history behind a Draught of Butlers, which is begging to be an answer to a bar trivia contest:

Prior to the advent of glass bottles, wine was stored in wooden casks, or butts, which were stored in the buttery. From the buttery arose the title butler, with one of his duties being to draw a draught of wine before he served it to his masters. The butler, of course, had many other duties, but perhaps none so pleasant as sampling the draughts, which brings us this term with a wink and a smile.

The authors have a lot of fun with the words they chose to include in their collection with everything from "a fright of ghosts" to "a circus of puffins" to "a rage of teeth." They acknowledge a wide variety of references with everything from a 1909 issue of Field and Stream to the Bible, note what are likely errors in transcription over the years -- the Middle Ages use of "sloweth of bears" somehow became "sleuth of bears" -- and include a variety of graphics, many of them full color, to liven up the pages. For the budding wordsmith, this title cannot be beaten.

For young readers, there are many solid collective noun alphabet books (A Crossing of Zebras also by Woop Studios, is one to check out) but I have a particular soft spot for the colorful and cheery Have You Ever Seen a Smack of Jellyfish? by Sarah Asper-Smith. The hook here is as much the artwork as the text. Asper-Smith uses silhouettes for the words and animals on each page while bright colors provide the backgrounds. A "murder of crows" perch on a blue tree while a "string of ponies" frolic within a yellow corral. A "pod of whales" swim in a deep green sea while a "parliament of owls" keep watch from a burnt orange barn. The title creatures, a "smack of jellyfish" are home in a purple ocean with green seaweed.

Asper-Smith has made something beautiful here, giving preschoolers a collection of thoughtful terms and animals to learn about and graphic arts fans something to appreciate. Have You Seen a Smack of Jellyfish? is the book that readers of A Compendium of Collective Nouns will learn their first big words from. Both are crisp and witty walks on the wild side of the English language, and along with all the other titles discussed here, they prompt the question: "Who knew learning could be so cool?"

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50. Let's stuff some stockings

You don't usually put books in stockings but Kevin Guilfoile's A Drive Into the Gap is so reasonably priced ($6.95) and such a compact size (69 pages) that it fits perfectly into the stocking-stuffer category. It's also bloody brilliant, so a nice surprise to share with the reader in your life who likes books about fathers and sons, baseball, writing or heartfelt real-life mysteries. Special bonus if they know who Roberto Clemente was.

Basically, anyone who enjoys a good story which, in this case, also happens to be true.

I bought A Drive Into the Gap after reading Walter Biggins' review at Bookslut. It's about Guilfoile's father, who has Alzheimer's, and the mystery behind the bat that Clemente used for his 3,000 hit. It's also a bit about baseball, which Guilfoile's father worked in, and storytelling - especially about mythic moments - and about how Barry Bonds is a jerk. (I knew it!!!) (Okay this is only a couple of pages in the book but still, I KNEW IT!!!)

It's just a lovely little book, a quick but thoughtful read, and something different from standard stocking fare.

I also recommend some of the Field Notes notebooks as unexpected gifts. They are surprisingly addictive - you wouldn't think little notebooks would be so useful in the electronic age but they are. I love mine and use them to keep track of the different writing projects (big and small) that I'm involved in, as well as the standard daily "To Do" list.

Oh - and put some pens in the stockings! These are SEVEN YEAR pens and they are very reasonably priced and super cool. Pens are always good for the stocking. (I always put in scratch-off lottery tickets and coffee cards too.) (Oh and magnets which are always a good thing!) (And bookmarks!!!!) (And I buy an issue of a magazine that I think my husband would like but hasn't picked up.) (This doesn't fit in the stocking, but I put it underneath it.)

Hmmmm, what else? Oh - I also always put in Burt's Bees lip balm because, well, you can never have enough lip balm in the winter.

I love stocking stuffers. They make me happy. :)

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