Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Roller Girl by Victoria

Roller Girl is a coming of age graphic novel set in the world of roller derby. Astrid is a 12-year old who discovers her passion for derby when her mom brings her to an event as part of her mission to enrich their lives through visits to a variety of cultural activities. Astrid mistakenly assumes her best friend will join her in her in her enthusiasm for the sport, and is floored to discover that she has been ditched, and will be attending derby camp alone that summer.
Astrid must figure out who she is without her best friend by her side as she learns the ropes of roller derby. Throughout the process she learns a lot about what it means to be a true friend, honesty, teamwork and how to fall without hurting yourself.
Roller Girl includes a great overview of the basics of roller derby, and made me want to give the sport a try…until I remembered how uncoordinated I am.
Roller Girl would speak to pre-teens who might be dealing with the same types of experiences and relationships with friends, parents and growing up. I would also recommend this book for adults looking for a fun quick read.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Here by Richard McGuire

With limited text and strong illustrations, McGuire's Here is a look at the life taking place within one small physical space.

The majority of this graphic novel is set within the living room of a house, with snippets of singular moments of time overlaid to paint a shifting picture of its history. 

The reader is  a fly on the wall, witnessing the pain, joy, and day-to-day experiences of the people who live within this space. As you sit “here” children grow, age, and die, styles change, babies are born, historical events occur in the background and the small moments that make up life flash by. 

I grew up in a home built in the 1800’s, and I loved to sit and imagine what the rooms looked like back then, how they changed over the decades, and wondered endlessly about the lives of the people who walked those halls before me. There were layers of hidden wallpaper, old closed off staircases, and small holes in the floorboards. I always believed that there were stories within those walls. 

For me, Here  is a beautifully rendered telling of my childhood imaginings. I recommend Here to anyone who, like me, wished their walls could talk.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Toumani & Sidiki

Toumani Diabate likes to collaborate.  He has worked with a large band, Taj Mahal, Bjork, Herbie Hancock, and he made two acclaimed albums with the late Malian guitarist, Ali Farka Toure.  On Toumani & Sidiki, he is joined by his son.  The Diabates are griots, which is a class of storytellers, musicians, and keepers of oral tradition in Mali.  According to their oral history, they can trace their family back through 70 generations of musicians.  Traditionally, the Diabates play the kora, which is an ancient stringed instrument similar to a harp.  The kora is played far more rhythmically than the harp typically is, however, and Toumani and his son are masters on the instrument.  They are otherwise unaccompanied on the album.  It’s just the two of them – Toumani in one speaker, Sidiki in the other.

The father and son fill up the space with their koras.  Their playing ranges from slow and meditative to fast and joyous.  They routinely trade off dizzying melodic runs.  They each play with virtuosic skill but this is still music you can hum.  The kora makes a beautiful sound, particularly when played by two men destined to play it from birth.  Most of the music is upbeat and in a major key.  You know when the sun comes through your blinds and appears dappled around the room?  That is what Toumani & Sidiki sounds like.  It is the perfect accompaniment to the two weeks of spring weather sandwiched between the cold and the humidity here in Virginia Beach.

If you like Toumani & Sidiki, you should listen to Ali and Toumani, the second of Diabate's stunning collaborations with Ali Farka Toure, available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

What Makes a Hero? by Elizabeth Svoboda

I started What Makes a Hero?:  The Surprising Science of Selflessness thinking it would be psychological studies of people who have committed heroic acts.  There is some of that but Elizabeth Svoboda took a much broader view of heroism.  There are vignettes about people who have done phenomenal acts for others but there are also stories about organizations dedicated to cultivating altruism in everyone.  Svoboda participates firsthand with scientists who are using MRI technology to map the parts of the brain that process compassion.  She takes a course on meditation and mindfulness.  She attends a meeting of "real-life superheroes" - people who dress up in costumes and either try to break up crimes in action or simply give supplies to homeless people.  She even gathers supplies and goes to San Francisco to give care packages to the homeless herself (while 30 weeks pregnant no less).

You may be able to tell that this is not dispassionate journalism.  Svoboda is very much involved in her story and she is not shy about that.  She very ably reports on all manner of studies about altruism, heroism, and compassion but every so often she takes a step back and details her own feelings or questions.  She wonders, along with the reader, if what these researchers and teachers are trying to do can really change how people behave.  Each chapter almost reads like its own news article but one chapter to the next does build on the lessons and information gleaned prior.  So, even if you just open the book to find the bits that tug at the heartstrings (acts of heroic selflessness, children standing up for bullied classmates) or you are looking to be inspired into different techniques for increasing your empathy, there is a lot here for any would-be hero.

If you like this book, you might enjoy The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo, who is featured in What Makes a Hero? both of which are available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Darkness Visible by William Styron

William Styron is probably best known for his novels, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice.  Later in life, he became another in the long line of people with “good” lives who suffer from depression.  Darkness Visible is his memoir of the struggle.  The book opens with Styron heading to France to receive a prestigious literary award and quickly finding the panic and dread of depression enveloping him.  He theorizes that the stress of traveling and receiving the award coupled with his recent cessation of drinking all came to a head and he is left floundering.  As the book progresses, Styron discusses depression at large, his own troubles with it, and the effects it had on various celebrities throughout history – particularly writers.  He wonders about the perspective depression gives to so many, a perspective that gives them an outsider’s view and also a dangerously intense degree of introspection at the same time.

What separates Styron from the other writers he mentioned is that he made it through his ordeal.  He credits a multitude of people and treatments for his fortunate recovery.  And fortunately for the reader, this short book, which began as an article in Vanity Fair, is a rare glimpse into the depths of depression.  Despite the taboo of discussing depression, much has been written on the topic.  However, very little has been written first-hand by a writer as talented as Styron.  The National Book Award-winning author uses his skill for description and scene-setting to give as thorough a personal account of depression as possible.  Not only does his writing draw you in and help you understand but his unflinching willingness to plumb his own psyche creates a diaristic level of intimacy.  He doesn't leave out the details.  No matter how uncomfortable it may have made him, he gave a true reckoning of his mental state and in doing so he brought his own darkness into the light.

After reading Darkness Visible you might be ready to read Styron’s fictionalized account of mental anguish, Sophie’s Choice, available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell

According to the author’s note, Joe Gould’s Secret, “consists of two views of the same man, a lost soul named Joe Gould.”  The book is a collection of two profiles which appeared in The New Yorker.  The first, “Professor Sea Gull,” came out in 1942.  The second, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” followed twenty-two years later in 1964.  So who was Joe Gould?  Why was he important enough to warrant two large profiles in a major magazine?  The short answer is that Joe Gould was a homeless man.  He was a Greenwich Village bohemian, a fixture of clubs, taverns, diners, and parties.  What made Gould interesting to Joseph Mitchell, one of the best writers working in journalism at the time, was Gould’s work.  He was writing The Oral History of our Time.  This tome, he claimed, was several times longer than The Bible.  It was a mix of rambling essays by Gould and conversations he overheard all over the city during his many years on the streets.  Gould was a Harvard-educated son of an ancient New England family and he left his home to pursue a less orderly life in New York City.

The first section of the book, “Professor Sea Gull,” is shorter and lighter.  It’s a lively profile of an eccentric older man who claims to have deciphered the language of gulls (even translating some poetry into their language).  Gould is funny (sometimes intentionally), annoying, and most of all, surprising.  This portion of the book zips along well as you learn about Gould and his curious history and about the gigantic book he’s writing which he intends to leave partially to the Harvard Library and partially to the Smithsonian Institute.  The second section of the book, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” is longer and more fleshed out.  At this point, Joseph Mitchell had known Gould for many years having become a confidant and a regular contributor to the “Joe Gould Fund.”  Mitchell’s writing is superb.  He so vividly describes every aspect of Gould that you feel you’re sitting at the counter in a greasy diner, watching him eat ketchup.  There are portions that appeared in the first section but here they are much fuller and have new details which change a lot of your perceptions of Gould and what he’s doing.  All in all, Joe Gould’s Secret is a fantastically written story about an interesting man who otherwise would have been forgotten.

If you enjoy Joe Gould’s Secret, you can try My Ears are Bent, a collection of Mitchell’s early profiles or you can place a hold on Man in Profile, a biography of Mitchell himself by Thomas Kunkel, available soon from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Monday, April 06, 2015

How to Sharpen Pencils by David Rees

I imagine you may have some questions.  The first being, “is this a joke?”  The answer to that is, “mostly.”  How to Sharpen Pencils really is about sharpening pencils.  There is more real information about sharpening pencils in these pages than I thought existed.  There are descriptions of types of pencils, different sharpeners, different sharpening techniques, and the overall philosophy that David Rees applies to his “artisanal craft.”  The book is full of photos of pencils in various states of sharpening and the different sharpeners used and Rees himself demonstrating much of what he discusses.  There is even a PO Box address where you can send pencils to Rees to sharpen and return to you for the low, low price of $12.50 per pencil.  But after all of that, what is the joke?

This is one of those books that is steeped in wry humor and irony.  Rees never blinks.  He plays it straight on every page.  Your enjoyment of this book will depend greatly on how high a threshold for absurdity you have.  My threshold happens to be quite high.  How to Sharpen Pencils is based on a centuries old shipbuilding guide that Rees found and thus there are elements on best practices and sidebars with only tangentially related information (such as Common Names of American Schoolchildren, example “Gordy” and Uncommon Names of American Schoolchildren, example “Flubby”).  The humorous insanity of the book increases with each chapter until you are unfazed by the small crescendo of hilarity at the end.  If you enjoy dry humor or if you just hate electric pencil sharpeners, you very well might love this book.

After learning all about pencil sharpening, you can enjoy a parody of an American History textbook, America (the book) by the staff of the Daily Show, available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.