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1. July Reading

Can you believe it’s July already? I can’t. I was just getting used to June, just starting to feel like I was in the June groove, and now it’s time to move on. I am not ready. Can we turn the calendar back to June 15th please? That should be enough for me to get my fill of June and then when July 1st rolls around again I will be ready. Not going to happen you say? Where’s Marty McFly or the TARDIS when you need them?

Well, let’s barrel into July then. What will the month hold for reading? I get a 3-day holiday weekend coming up for Independence Day. Groovy, some extra reading time.

Even though I have been (mostly) good about keeping my library hold requests down to a manageable number, two books I have been looking forward to reading that have long waiting lines have, of course, both arrived for me at once. I now have to either a) rush through The Buried Giant and Get in Trouble in three weeks, or b) choose one to focus on and not worry about the other and get in line for it again if I run out of time. Choice “b” seems the most likely one I will go with which means Ishiguro’s Buried Giant will get my attention first. I am looking forward to it.

Carried over from last month, I am still reading Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice. I am enjoying it much more than I was before even though I am making my way through it rather slowly.

In June I began reading Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and The Martian by Andy Weir. Two very different books and I am enjoying each of them quite a lot. James manages to be funny and ironic and ominous and can he ever write! I know people make fun of his long sentences but I get so involved in the reading I don’t even notice the length of the sentences. I do notice sometimes the paragraphs are very long, but that is only when I am nearing my train stop or the end of my lunch break and I am looking for a place to stop reading. And The Martian, is it ever a funny book. The book itself isn’t funny I guess, there is nothing very funny about being left for dead on Mars, the character, Mark Watney is funny; humor as survival tool. Weir, I must say, does a most excellent job of writing about complex science in such a way that is compelling and interesting and makes me feel smart.

I have a review copy of a new book called Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor on its way to me. The Emily in question is Emily Dickinson. It’s a novel from Penguin Random House and they are kindly going to provide a second copy for a giveaway. Something to look forward to!

I will also begin reading Elizabeth Bishop this month. I’m still reading Keats letters and biography and poetry but he will get a bit less attention as I start to focus on Bishop. Much as I wanted to like Keats, it seems I like the idea of Keats more than the actuality; enjoy his letters more than his poetry. Not that his poetry isn’t very good, it is, at least some of it because there is quite a bit of mediocre stuff he wrote to/for friends that makes me wonder why I decided to read the collected rather than the selected. Hindsight and all that. But even the really good Keats poetry left me with mixed feelings. I mean, I appreciate it and sometimes I have a wow moment, but it generally doesn’t give me poetry stomach (the stomach flutters I get when I read a poem I really connect with). We’ll see how it goes with Bishop. I have her collected as well as her letters to work my way through over the coming months.

Without a doubt there will be other books that pop up through the month, there always are! The unexpected is all part of the fun.


Filed under: Books, In Progress Tagged: Andy Weir, Elif Shafak, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, John Keats, Nuala O'Connor

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2. Martha Brockenbrough Summer Bulletin

As writers and illustrators of children’s books, we have the cutest fantasies. Who else dreams that their work will someday be decorated by a sticker?

And then there’s the conference fantasy, where the agent or editor of your dreams holds your manuscript overhead and says, “This is brilliant!” and she just happens to have a contract in her pocket, which you sign on the spot. It’s almost better than the sticker.

But here’s the thing. People are sometimes asked to send off stories or art, and there are similarly wonderful career-transforming moments. Usually, though, nothing quite so dramatic happens.

And yet… conferences are magic. Truly. Every picture book I’ve ever sold has come directly from my time at an SCBWI conference, specifically the one in Los Angeles. I’ve sold four picture books and have interest in a fifth; each one sprang from an idea or conversation I had at that summer conference, starting with my first one in 2008.

My future editor, Arthur A. Levine, had been in Seattle that spring for a conference, and through a happy accident of seating, we’d chatted through the evening, and he invited me to submit something to him someday. At the time, I was writing an epic novel about a pirate in part because I’d given up on picture books, and in part because, well, I can’t really remember why, which was ultimately the problem with that novel.

At our local spring conference, Arthur had offered sage advice from his then four-year-old son. “When in doubt, write about dinosaurs.” At the time, this didn’t strike me as anything other than adorable. (Who was I to write about dinosaurs, anyway? At the time, I was merely thirty-seven.)

When registration opened for the summer conference in Los Angeles, I really wanted to go. But I couldn’t. We had a family reunion that weekend. And what kind of jerk puts anything in front of family? As it turns out, I am that kind of jerk.

In Los Angeles, Arthur reassured us about the picture book market, which at the time was feeling kind of battered. On the flight home, I resolved to send him a thank-you note for being so encouraging. I looked out the window, and I thought about dinosaurs, and specifically their teeth, and even more fantastically, about who might love their teeth most of all.

Arthur ended up publishing the answer to that question—The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy—five years later. A year or two after I sold The DTF, I mentioned to Arthur at another Los Angeles conference a letter I’d written to my daughter when she asked for the truth about Santa. He said he thought it sounded like a picture book as well. A dear friend I’d met at the Los Angeles conference, Samantha Berger, gave me an idea for how it might be done. I wrote it. Arthur bought it.

Last summer, Samantha and I came up with an idea at the conference while we were eating pizza poolside. So far that has turned into a two picture book deal with Arthur.

These aren’t the sort of things you can predict when you’re thinking about going to a conference. The standard fantasy—that someone might love your work and buy it on the spot—pales in comparison to what really can happen. You go to these conferences and meet people who inspire you. You make friends. You hear words you didn’t know you needed to hear, things that make you laugh and cry, things that feed your mind in ways your everyday routine might not. All of this becomes the fuel of story.

I’d never thought to dream about what comes from inspiration and connection and friendship. And yet this combination is so much better than any contract, and why I’ll go to every SCBWI conference I can.

Fantasies are great and all. But real life? It’s better.

 

Martha Brockenbrough is the author of the YA novels The Game of Love and Death and Devine Intervention, and The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy, a picture book. Both are with Arthur A. Levine at Scholastic, as is her forthcoming picture book, Love, Santa, as well as two Bigfoot picture books written jointly with Samantha Berger. Martha also wrote the nonfiction middle grade Finding Bigfoot for Feiwel & Friends. In addition to her work on SCBWI's Team Blog, she is the founder of National Grammar Day and author of Things That Make Us [Sic]. Visit www.marthabrockenbrough.squarespace.com and on Twitter @mbrockenbrough.

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3. J.K. Rowling Tweets Updates on Gold Dagger Award

J.K. Rowling has announced (via Twitter) that Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm has been shortlisted for the The Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award. J.K. Rowling also previously tweeted that the second Cormoran Strike novel had been nominated for the Gold Dagger Award, just a couple weeks ago. It appears that poor Robert has mislaid his twitter password. According to the The Crime Writers’ Association’s twitter, the winners of the Gold Dagger (among others) awards will be presented on September 29, at a special event. We expect both J.K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith to be in attendance at the special event. These tweets can be seen below.

 

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4. Best Books of June 2015

June 2015: 8 books and scripts read

Recommended for adults and older teens
Tin Men by Christopher Golden

Recommended for ages 14 and up
Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Recommended for ages 8 and up
A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord
BSC Graphix #1: Kristy's Great Idea by Raina Telgemeier

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5. Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2015

Several years ago, I wrote a post on the origin of the word frigate. The reason I embarked on that venture was explained in the post: I had run into what seemed to me a promising conjecture by Vittorio Pisani. As far as I could judge, his note had attracted no attention, and I felt it my duty to rectify the injustice.

The post Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2015 appeared first on OUPblog.

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6. Review: The Magic Formula by Ibrahima Ndiaye and Capucine Mazille

Dear Baobab, written by Cheryl Foggo, illustrated by Qin Leng (Second Story Press, 2011)

The Magic Formula
written by Ibrahima Ndiaye, illustrated by Capucine Mazille, translated by Rebecca Page
(Bakame Editions (Rwanda), 2011)


The Magic Formula is a … Continue reading ...

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7. George Washington and an army of liberty

It was March 17, 1776, the mud season in New England. A Continental officer of high rank was guiding his horse through the potholed streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Those who knew horses noticed that he rode with the easy grace of a natural rider, and a complete mastery of himself.

The post George Washington and an army of liberty appeared first on OUPblog.

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8. Share Your Work

I recently read Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. It talks about the creative life and highlights 10 ways to find your audience by sharing your work and progress.

showyourwork

Here are some gems from the book that I thought I would share with you:

When she was young and starting out, Patti Smith got this advice from William Burroughs: “Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work . . . and if you can build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency.”

Don’t worry about everything you post being perfect. Science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said that 90 percent of everything is crap. The same is true of our own work. The trouble is, we don’t always know what’s good and what sucks. That’s why it’s important to get things in front of others and see how they react.

Just do the work that’s in front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.

Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.

If you spend your life avoiding vulnerability, you and your work will never truly connect with other people.

Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.

I also wrote a a blog post about the author’s other book, Steal Like An Artist.

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9. Hearing, but not understanding

Imagine that your hearing sensitivity for pure tones is exquisite: not affected by the kind of damage that occurs through frequent exposure to loud music or other noises. Now imagine that, despite this, you have great problems in understanding speech, even in a quiet environment. This is what occurs if you have a temporal processing disorder

The post Hearing, but not understanding appeared first on OUPblog.

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10. The limits of regulatory cooperation

One of the most striking structural weaknesses uncovered by the euro crisis is the lack of consistent banking regulation and supervision in Europe. Although the European Banking Authority has existed since 2011, its influence is often trumped by national authorities. And many national governments within the European Union do not seem anxious to submit their financial institutions to European-wide regulation and supervision.

The post The limits of regulatory cooperation appeared first on OUPblog.

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11. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara



Wrenching.

I don't know a better word for Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life, published earlier this year by Doubleday.

Heart-wrenching, yes. But more than that. Not just the heart. The brain, the stomach, all the organs and muscles. It is a full-body-wrenching experience, this book.

It's too early to say whether this is a Great Novel, whether it is a novel for the ages, a novel that will bear numerous re-readings and critical dissections and late-night litchat conversations; whether it will burn long or be a blip on the literary landscape. Who knows. It's not for me to say. What I can say, though, is that working through (sometimes rushing through) its 700 pages was one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life.

There are passages and situations in this book that many readers will not want to live with, will not want in their minds' eyes, and I can sympathize with that. Yanagihara's own editor said, "I initially found A Little Life so challenging and upsetting and long that I had to work my way through to appreciating it. ... (My private little descriptive tag for the book is 'miserabilist epic.')" Miserabilist isn't the right modifier for me, despite the many miseries in the book, but there's certainly an epic quality to the novel's expanse, at least in the everyday vernacular sense of epic. In a genre sense, though, A Little Life is seldom epic; indeed, it's often the opposite: instead of expanding across history and myth and fantasy, telling digressive and episodic tales of heroes and villains, it narrows the world, history, and myth into ahistorical psyches and bodies, constructing a world less of event than of feeling.


The central character in the novel, Jude, suffers relentless, overwhelming abuse through his first fifteen years, and that abuse leaves him physically and psychologically mutilated for the rest of his life. We are not spared descriptions of what happened and of what its effects were.

I do not usually read detailed descriptions of child abuse. I can think of very few works that benefit from such descriptions, and too often they seem to me to be a cheap and morally dubious way for the writer to try to gain the reader's sympathy for characters — who, after all, is more sympathetic than a child?

Now and then, though, a story justifies the detailed pain it describes, and this is, I think, very much the case for A Little Life. Without the detail, Jude's character would not make much sense. The events of the book are so extreme — extreme not only in pain, but in (occasional) joy — that to have the appropriate weight, the descriptions of violence done to Jude first by others and then to himself by himself must be vivid. And they are vivid. They serve to place us into Jude's body, to learn his world through his pain, which is the primary fact of his world.

In many ways, A Little Life fits into the classical mold of the melodrama, though there is a kind of moralism to melodrama that is absent from A Little Life. (Which is not to say that this novel lacks a moral or ethical vision — not remotely — but rather that it's not a book by Elizabeth Gaskell.) But Jude's childhood, particularly, is straight out of melodrama: the villains are grotesquely villainous, the (very) occasional heroes are saintly, and Jude's sufferings are extreme. Indeed, the representation of Jude's childhood is not just melodramatic, but gothic, complete with a monastery teeming with horribly malevolent monks.

The gothicism reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates, but A Little Life is more consistent and successful than any Oates novel I've read (and I've read quite a few, which is to say maybe 10% of her output). Oates's Wonderland, for instance, has an extraordinarily vivid, gripping first section, and there are some similarities in the way Oates presents the psychological experience of violence to the way Yanagihara presents it. But Wonderland falls apart after its beginning, unable to sustain or even really justify the intensity of its opening hundred pages or so. One of the many impressive qualities of A Little Life is how consistent it is, how well it sustains and modulates its intensity through hundreds and hundreds of pages recounting fifty years of Jude's life.

Though it is focused on Jude throughout, A Little Life is not only about him, but also about all the people who are important in his life, including three friends he met at college and who become his closest friends for life. Another of the impressive qualities of A Little Life is its nuanced charting of a group of male friends through three decades or so of knowing each other. We see how they know each other differently, even as they know each other together: Jude's relationship to each of his friends is different, and their relationships to each other are equally different. We see the friends in good moments and bad, and we see especially how friends who have known each other a long time can also hurt each other deeper than anyone else — and how the bond still holds even as its intimacy metamorphoses. We see how Jude and his friends change over time as they become successful, as their lives gain new depths and contours, and as they suffer immense loss.

The relationships in A Little Life are complex, too, in their flows of desire and sexuality. Garth Greenwell has suggested that this may be "the great gay novel" that some people have been calling for, and that may be true, but it's far more queer than gay: the relationships throughout the book shift from the sexual to the asexual, hetero to homo to bi to whatever. (No trans characters, alas.) Identities of every sort are slippery throughout the novel, and with Jude, two of the primary identity categories in contemporary American life, sexuality and race, remain ambiguous or unknown from first page to last. (In conversation, a character says of Jude, "...we never see him with anyone, we don’t know what race he is, we don’t know anything about him. Post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past. ...The post-man. Jude the Postman.”) At one point, an apparently heterosexual character's thoughts are presented to us as he considers the limits of his heterosexuality: "he’d had sex with men before, everyone he knew had, and in college, he and JB had drunkenly made out one night out of boredom and curiosity". The most important relationship in the book is one where the characters are described as "inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn’t officially recognized by history or immortalized in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining."

One interesting, risky choice Yanagihara made was to set A Little Life in a timeless New York City. Though the book spans decades, its New York doesn't really change, and there are no references to any identifiable historical events or to buildings and places that have significantly changed over time. There are few, if any, references to any sort of technological details that would fix a scene in a particular time. This is a world without Giuliani, without gentrification, without 9/11. It is not just a novel that doesn't really concern itself with political or social history, but rather a novel that goes out of its way to erase political and social history from its universe.

This should make me hate the book. But much as I like some political and social history in my fiction, what I like more than that is fiction that takes risks and strives for unique effects and vision. The risk Yanagihara takes in A Little Life is to make its setting obviously a fantasy, but not a fantasy like a big fat trilogy full of orcs and mages. That sort of fantasy lives and dies by its "worldbuilding"; A Little Life does the opposite: it builds its world not from references to culture, history, politics, etc. but through the psychic life of its characters. It is filled with the physical world, but the physical world it is filled with is Jude's, and what overwhelms Jude's physical world, to the point of nearly obliterating time and space, is his body. Jude's nervous system is to A Little Life what the Shire and Mordor are to The Lord of the Rings.

We are not, though, plunged into a psyche and its sensorium in the way that we are in, say, Woolf's The Waves. The narration in A Little Life is not stream of consciousness, but instead a fairly close third person limited point of view sprinkled with free indirect discourse. The point of view characters can change from chapter to chapter, but the perspective is still close. There are also a few important first-person chapters. The writing style is neither avant-garde nor especially "difficult" — indeed, if the book holds your attention, you'll likely find it to be frequently a page-turner.

The risk of setting the book in a rather blank world, a world of place names more than places, ends up paying off in spectacular and surprising ways. It produces some of the effects of stream of consciousness without being stream of consciousness because the way it presents its world is the way its focal character seems to perceive that world. Jude, unlike some of the other characters, is staunchly apolitical and apparently uninterested in history. He is (as we are) haunted by his personal history, but not a history of the world. In the monastery, he was only able to think about his immediate reality, and that habit of thinking goes unbroken for the rest of his life. He carries the monastery with him forever. Though his friends seem mostly to be conventionally liberal, and he has a strong desire for what he thinks of as justice, he holds no apparent political opinions, and enjoys working his way up in a corporate law office, a place other characters consider soulless and evil, but which is the only place Jude consistently can escape his terrors — it's a different kind of monastery for him, one that is comforting rather than scarring.

Yanagihara chose to make all of the characters successful in their professions and wealthy. This is another important part of the fantasy. They came from a variety of backgrounds (including racial backgrounds), but after college they all fairly quickly find professional and economic success. This is not, though, a book about the wonderful glamour of wealth. It's also not a book about the corruptions of wealth. The wealth of the characters seems primarily to be a plot device, as denuded of actual economics as the setting is denuded of actual history. The book's most determined (and determining) goal is to follow the effects of almost unfathomable childhood abuse on Jude throughout his life, to see how pain shapes him physically and mentally, and that goal would get messier without the ease of travel and association that wealth, power, and fame provide the characters.

In that way, A Little Life is not so much like a melodrama as it is like a classical tragedy, where the focus on royalty allows a kind of world-historical gravitas even when the world and history aren't really the work's concern.

And in truth, if Jude and his friends hadn't been as wealthy and successful as Yanagihara allowed them to be, there probably wouldn't have been as many pages to the book, because Jude would not have lived very long. It's hard to imagine him as a high school teacher, for instance, or a retail clerk; hard to imagine him making it through a life where he didn't have access to world-class health care and where he couldn't call in favors from well-connected friends and family. Jude has, as he acknowledges, an extraordinary life as an adult. That his struggles are still so painful, so unbearable, heightens the tragedy. We weep not because the pains of the rich and powerful are more painful than our own, but because we can extrapolate back to ourselves: we, without private drivers and personal assistants, without doctors at our 24-hour beck and call, without the means to fly across the world at any moment, without the ability to wrangle the press in our favor or to summon gaggles of lawyers and lawmakers — we would be crushed. As readers, we bear the pain alongside Jude, we feel our way along with him, but we only make it through because he can.

(Perhaps there is, then, a kind of political subtext to the book: To survive the kind of childhood Jude had, or even one more ordinarily traumatic, you'd have to be brilliant, highly successful, and wealthy. That most of us aren't even one of those things, never mind all three, allows some perspective on the cruelties of our systems.)

The world as these characters experience it is huge, punishing, and vertiginous: "They all ... sought comfort, something that was theirs alone, something to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days." Here is one of the meanings of the novel's title: To survive, these characters must find ways to make life little, to bring it down to a comprehensible size, because otherwise they are lost. The struggle is all-consuming and agonizing, often unsuccessful, but the few and fleeting successes feel worth fighting for, worth fighting toward.

Why follow Jude's struggles, why subject ourselves to his pain and suffering? What pleasure is there in reading a book that fundamentally asks, "How much can a person bear? What sort of childhood can't be escaped?" Why keep turning the pages?

I don't have a simple, clear, or even perhaps convincing answer for that, but I will say this: I've read few novels with such vivid characters. I'm not a particularly immersive reader, and I suspect I resist imagining characters in novels as flesh and blood people more than many readers do. And yet the characters in A Little Life, particularly Jude and Willem, seemed to me alive both while I read about them and after. I could imagine them outside the stories that the novel tells. I could think about a "Jude-type person" or a "Willem-type person". I would have vehement opinions about who could play them in a movie adaptation.

How Yanagihara achieved this effect? I'm not entirely sure. The magical alchemy of fiction. It is far more than the sum of the words on the page. Partly, such an effect relies on what we bring to the words from our own experience. Even though my own life has been and is very different from that of the characters, I still felt, again and again, that the novel expressed something very deep within myself. It unlocked and unleashed emotions I hardly knew I had. And that, too, is part of its purpose: to extend imagination, to help us think and feel our way toward sympathy. In one of the first-person chapters, a character says, "Most people are easy: their unhappinesses are our unhappinesses, their sorrows are understandable, their bouts of self-loathing are fast-moving and negotiable. But his were not. We didn’t know how to help him because we lacked the imagination needed to diagnose the problems." In that sense, A Little Life is a pedagogical novel, a novel that seeks to teach us — or at least to exhort us — to open up our imagination so that perhaps we might better help each other somehow, somewhere. And so that we ourselves might be able to be helped.

I sweated through this book, I wept through it, I felt excitement and joy for the characters, pity and fear. Some days, I had to set it aside because it was all too much to bear. But I went back, always, until finally I reached the last pages, which were heartbreaking and beautiful, indescribably sad and also somehow liberating, even life-affirming, but not in some shallow, Hallmark way — instead, in delineating all the ways that even the most privileged life can go wrong, and showing when letting go of life is, if not acceptable, then certainly understandable, A Little Life illuminates the dignity in its title: these lives, some of them cut short, some of them filled with suffering, feel, in the end, immense.

He knew it was the price of enjoying life, that if he was to be alert to the things he now found pleasure in, he would have to accept its cost as well. Because as assaultive as his memories were, his life coming back to him in pieces, he knew he would endure them if it meant he could also have friends, if he kept being granted the ability to take comfort in others.

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12. Hart-Celler and a watershed in American immigration

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the congressional passage of the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was the culmination of a trend toward reforming immigrant admissions and naturalization policies that had gathered momentum in the early years of the Cold War era.

The post Hart-Celler and a watershed in American immigration appeared first on OUPblog.

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13. A West Ender’s stop on Broadway

We’ve got one day here and not another minute…”. Well, not one day exactly, but just five—a short week’s stay in NYC from England, and four nights to catch a few shows. So how to choose? The first choices were easy: two new productions of classic musical comedies, and as it happens, shows by the same team of writers. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were veterans of Broadway by the time they came to write On the Twentieth Century (1978), though merely young starlets when they first scored a hit with On the Town (1944).

The post A West Ender’s stop on Broadway appeared first on OUPblog.

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14. Review: Stealing People by Robert Wilson

Charlie Boxer returns in one of Robert Wilson’s best novels to date. Two years after the events of You Will Never Find Me Charlie Boxer’s life is nearing some normalcy. Normal for a kidnap consultant whose services offer a little bit extra revenge on the side. His relationships with his ex-wife Mercy and daughter Amy […]

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15. Empathy and Oscar the Grouch: Sonia Manzano #alaac15

Sonia Manzano

Sonia Manzano, Auditorium Speaker

If you ever wondered who Sonia Manzano’s (“Maria” from Sesame Street) favorite Muppet is, here’s her answer: Oscar the Grouch. “He’s negative.” He acts anywhere from age 80 to 8. He stirs up conflict in an otherwise harmonious neighborhood, and this conflict leads to stories.

In fact, Manzano’s new memoir, “Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx” (Scholastic) is all about conflict–her tumultuous childhood in the Bronx, her Puerto Rican roots, and her longing for a “Leave it to Beaver” type of stability. With Maria, she was able to act out (and later, write scripts about) a character that children in inner cities could relate to, and provide them with storylines that offered satisfying resolutions–something they may seldom get in real life. She could be a mirror for these kids, an escape from a hard home life, and a role model.

Manzano thinks her difficult childhood lead to her success. Not in spite of her challenges, but because of her challenges, she was able to become a great actor, writer, and humanitarian.

She spoke quite a bit about the importance of empathy. Sure, people tell their kids to “Be nice.” But what about going beyond that? She questions why some people are afraid to let kids read sad stories. In books, readers are able to connect with characters and feel the deep emotions that dwell within them. It’s the perfect avenue for building empathy, and she believes we should consciously instill this value in children.

Manzano was a fabulous speaker. Many of us in the audience grew up watching her on television, and looked to her as one of the really inspirational and comforting adult figures in our lives. Manzano advocated for television; she pointed out that sometimes TV is a much-needed escape for some children, and that, like a book, it’s just the jumping off point for the imagination: What happens to characters when they’re not on TV, how does the story continue when the set is off? Kids with the freedom to imagine can, and will, grow up to be resourceful and successful adults.

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16. The Writing Process

I’m about two-thirds of the way through a book I am reading to review for Library Journal. The book is called J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing by David Attwell. It is a sort of writing biography of Coetzee and is quite good. If you are a fan of the writer, this is one you will probably want to look out for.

I am also still working my way through all the lessons in the James Patterson Master Class.

Over the weekend Patterson and Coetzee provided a fascinating opportunity to glimpse and compared the writing process of two well-known writers. The writing process has always fascinated me. Everyone has one and goes about putting words on paper or computer screen in a variety of ways. Some writers fetishize certain objects —they have to write with a particular pen in a certain color on a particular kind of paper, or while pounding away at the keyboard there has to be particular piece by Mozart playing and there has to be a cup of tea/coffee in a certain mug placed just so on the desk — and claim to not be able to write without them. Some writers need to have a title first, or write the last sentence first or start in the middle or always begin a new project on the same date or sit down to write at the same exact time every day.

The actual writing part though, there are only so many ways a person can go about it, nonetheless, it remains a perennial and dreaded question at book readings, the moment someone in the audience stands up and asks, “so how did you go about writing this book?” What is wanted, of course, is the secret that only “real” writers know. The password, the handshake, the mystery revealed, the drug, the prayer, the key to it all so that said audience member can go home and write that novel they have inside them and make millions doing it. No one wants to hear an author say the truth, I sat down and wrote for six hours every day, seven days a week for four months (or more) and wrote and rewrote and wrote some more and tossed out and started over and wrote some more and rewrote over and over until it was done. What’s an author to do? Tell the truth no one wants to hear or make something up? The third option is avoiding answering the question entirely. I have heard all three answers at one time or another.

Of course in Patterson’s online writing class he has to address the question, he is the teacher and it is his job to explain how to write a novel. Patterson takes the truthful route but at the same time he makes it sound rather easy. To write a novel, one must first write an outline, do not begin writing without an outline, your book will be doomed. For Patterson, an outline is not the kind you had to do in school with the Roman numerals and the letters and headings and subheadings. He means a narrative outline. There are still numbers but the numbers correspond to chapters and basically what you are writing is a summary of the chapter. With such an outline you can work out plot and pacing before you get in too deep. You can find the slow bits and the holes and fix them before they grow out of control. That’s the idea anyway.

And it seems like a good idea that is really useful for a plot-driven James Patterson sort of novel. Heck, it is probably a good idea for a variety of novel types. It is neat and tidy. And of course once you have your outline, you know how you are going to get from point A to B to C. You know what happens in each chapter. All you have to do is fill in the details. Easy!

Coetzee’s approach is so much messier. No outline, just write. Draft after draft after draft. He makes notes as he goes. He changes character names and locations and plot and then he changes them back again and then he changes them again to something else entirely. It is organic and labyrinthine. It is a journey in which the ending is not known in advance, but is rather a sort of quest; a quest for a story, a quest for an answer to a question, a quest for understanding, a quest for any number of things. No bones about it, it is a lot of work.

And I find myself wondering, do the two approaches reflect the differences between commercial fiction and Nobel Prize winning fiction? Could an author whose process is like Patterson’s win a Nobel? Could someone whose process is like Coetzee’s be successful at commercial fiction and spend 24 weeks on top of the bestseller lists? Which comes first, the process or the desire to write a certain kind of fiction? Do people who make outlines naturally make a course for more commercial fiction? Do the messy organic writers automatically find themselves in literary fiction? And what about other kinds of writing, genre and nonfiction in all its variety? Is this a chicken or egg question?

Maybe. Probably. Likely the answer is a combination of all sorts of factors but it is interesting to consider.


Filed under: Books, In Progress, Writing Tagged: J.M. Coetzee, James Patterson, writing process

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17. Pura Belpré Celebración #alaac15

Sunday’s Pura Belpré 19th annual award ceremony featured a vibrant mix of illuminating speeches, laughter, and entertainment that celebrated Latino Children’s Literature.

Highlights included:

  • Yuyi Morales’s acceptance speech in which she vividly recounted her positive and life-changing experiences as a young mother and new immigrant visiting the San Francisco Public Library’s Western Addition branch. Ann, a librarian at the branch, put The Watsons Go to Birmingham in her hands and it was the first English language chapter book she loved, that she shared with her son.
  • Duncan Tonatiuh invited civil rights leader Sylvia Mendez, the subject of his award-winning book Separate Is Never Equal, to address the audience.
  • United States Poet Laurete Juan Felipe Herrera’s speech chronicled his research and writing that documented the extraordinary achievements of Hispanic-Americans.
  • Heartfelt speeches by Susan Guevara, John Parra, and Marjorie Agosín.
  • A fantastic performance by by Quenepas, a Bomba youth song and dance ensemble.

This fantastic event was hosted by the dream team Reforma and ALSC, and is always one of the highlights of ALA conferences. Next year will mark the 20th Anniversary of the Belpré Award and it promises to be a huge occasion. See you in Orlando!

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18. The Battle of Marston Moor and the English Revolution

As a schoolboy I was told that on the eve of the battle of Marston Moor in 1644, as the rival armies drew up, a sturdy yokel was found ploughing his fields. When brought up to speed about the war between King and parliament he asked, "What has they two fallen out again?".

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19. Random Radness @ #alaac15

A funny thing happened at the Metreon food court…some friends and I were admiring a woman’s Rad American Women A-Z (City Lights Publishers) tote bag. We just couldn’t resist going up to her and asking “Where did you get that amazing bag?” She said, “I have a family connection.” A few minutes later, Rad American’s illustrator, Miriam Klein Stahl, walked up to us and we were introduced. In a Wayne’s World type moment, we all felt “not worthy!” Ms. Stahl was super gracious and nice, and gave us a stack of Patti Smith stickers. Just goes to show that ALA Annual is always full of surprising and lovely random moments….

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20. Happy Birthday to Squire Babcock

According to Facebook (my birthday calendar of record), it's Squire Babcock's birthday, which immediately brings to mind a great road trip with Aaron Burch and Matt Bell to Murray State University, a fried bologna sandwich, the Wiggles, a great cheeseburger in the middle of Ohio, broken bottles of beer, Matt Bell's great sleeping dilemma, and really enjoying the hell out of Squire's novel, The King of Gaheena, on the ride home.

 

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21. India’s foreign policy at a cusp?

Is India’s foreign policy at a cusp? The question is far from trivial. Since assuming office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited well over a dozen countries ranging from India’s immediate neighborhood to places as far as Brazil. Despite this very active foreign policy agenda, not once has he or anyone in his Cabinet ever invoked the term "nonalignment". Nor, for that matter, has he once referred to India’s quest for “strategic autonomy”.

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22. When politicians talk science

With more candidates entering the 2016 presidential race weekly, how do we decide which one deserves our vote? Is a good sense of humor important? Should she be someone we can imagine drinking beer with? Does he share our position on an issue that trumps all others in our minds? We use myriad criteria to make voting decisions, but one of the most important for me is whether the candidate carefully considers all the evidence bearing on the positions he advocates.

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23. Giving Every Child a Fighting Chance #alaac15

There was hardly a dry eye in the audience following Saturday’s screening of the new PBS documentary, The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation. This illuminating film featured moving testimonials from families living in poverty or just barely getting by due to the high cost of quality childcare. The film included facts about the critical brain development that occurs during ages 0-5, and how many children in struggling families are missing out on access to stimulating and education-rich environments and opportunities. Instead, stress (in the form of cortisol) is passed on from parent to child, which leaves a lasting imprint on the child’s development and functioning. This stress follows him or her into adulthood…setting the scene for a cycle that can continue for generations.

Clocking in at about an hour, the documentary was extremely powerful and will provoke libraries–and anyone who cares about nurturing a nation of strong, smart, and independent children–to carefully consider ways we can work together as a community to level the playing field for all children. As the film points out, that moment almost came in 1971, when Congress passed a bill for universal childcare and developmental services for young children. Unfortunately, Nixon vetoed it. Imagine the ways this country may be different today had those services been available for all these decades. Isn’t it time for that change to happen now?

Resources at the panel included:

The Raising of America Web site – Features clips from the documentary series, resources, and ways to take action. The documentary DVD was released in June 2015 and will air on public television soon (time TBD).

For Our Babies – A national movement focusing on efforts to support children age 0-3. A book, For Our Babies: Ending the Invisible Neglect of America’s Infants by J. Ronald Lally, is available and a suggested book club choice and conversation-starter.

Early Learning 2.0 with Families: Enriching Library Services for Families – Co-presenter, the California State Library, offered information on the ELF (Early Learning with Families) initiative. Through ELF, California libraries may receive training and resources to support family-friendly and developmentally appropriate services to aid families with children ages 0-5.

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24. The Book Brief: The Very Best New Release Books in July

Each month we bring you the best new release books in our Book Brief. Get FREE shipping when you use the promo code bookbrief at checkout Fiction Books Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee Set during the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty […]

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25. Tensions in domestic and international criminal justice

In the wake of political violence, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has shown a clear and continued preference for multiple trials to be pursued at both a national and international level. The Court’s approach to complementarity and it’s reading of what constitutes ‘a case’ under Article 17 of its Statute lays the legal foundation for this move.

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