Friday, October 24, 2014

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I did it!  I finished Moby Dick!  I’m half-tempted to spend the rest of this review patting myself on the back but I won’t.  I also won’t tell you much about the plot, not because I’d give something away or it’s difficult to describe but because you know what Moby Dick is about – there are dogs and cats that know what Moby Dick is about.  So, instead I will tell you what I expected.  When I thought about a 600+ page classic, I assumed it was going to be dense, bleak, and repetitive.  I was very surprised and happy to be wrong.  It is not overly dense, in fact, since it is written in the first person and Ishmael is an open character, it ends up being fairly conversational.  Just this past week was the 163rd anniversary of the British publication of Moby Dick, so of course a novel written over a century and a half ago isn’t written in my youthful, modern vernacular but other than some cultural references, I didn’t have much trouble.  It also isn’t bleak.  There is a lot of humor.  It’s a giant classic, so yeah, people die.  Also, it’s about whaling which isn’t the most pleasant enterprise.  But there is a lot of humor and not just from the gallows.  Plus, this book is anything but repetitive.  It has an extremely wide range.  There are chapters about types of whales, chapters about depictions of whales, stage directions, soliloquies, histories, legends, and the dark adventure of a man who seeks revenge above all else.

It’s a good book.  It really is.  Further along in the story, the sentences can start to lengthen with various asides but that’s just how Ishmael thinks.  It is a book that rewards attention.  Not to mention, the chapters are pretty much all self-contained so you don’t have to read it at one clip.  So give it a try.  I think you’ll be surprised like I was.  I’m glad I read it and not just because now I can say I’ve read it. 

You could try to match the epic scope of Moby Dick by listening to the Led Zeppelin song of the same name or you could listen to an entire heavy metal album inspired by the tome, Leviathan by Mastodon.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

The cover of Wolf in White Van looks like a maze.  And it makes perfect sense, once you’ve read the book.  The story is narrated by the protagonist, Sean.  His face is disfigured and he implies he caused it one way or another but no details are given straight ahead.  Sean’s descriptions of events move backwards and forwards in time, they alternate between in the moment narration of his thoughts, words, and actions and hazy reminiscences.  Also, there are sections of text from a role-playing game that Sean created and allusions to attendant tragedies.  Information is provided bit by bit, almost like you are moving in concentric circles like the ones on the cover.  I am hamstrung in describing much more because the author, John Darnielle, sneakily metes out just enough intrigue to keep you wondering and reading on.

Wolf in White Van is the first full-length novel from Darnielle and it is a highly impressive debut (it was on the longlist for the National Book Award).  It is a strongly thematic story if “deciphering” can be a theme.  Figuring things out is the point of almost each passage.  The reader is trying to figure out what happened to Sean and why.  Sean’s parents are trying to figure him out both before and after his disfigurement.  Sean’s clients are moving turn by turn through his elaborate, post-apocalyptic fantasy world.  And Sean is coming to terms with the world, his life, and himself.  At a time when the first question after a tragedy is “why?” Wolf in White Van suggests that there are no easy answers.  Even the people at the center of a maze can’t always tell you how they got there.

It was only a matter of time before I deviated from my theme for the week.  As far as I know, there are no songs inspired by Wolf in White Van but John Darnielle is the singer, songwriter, and guitarist for the band The Mountain Goats so if you like his novel you should definitely give his records a try.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth

When is the best time to do things?

Who is the most important one?

What is the right thing to do?

These are The Three Questions young Nikolai asks in this lovely picture book by Jon Muth.  The tale is adapted from a short story by Leo Tolstoy and Muth’s version makes it palatable for young readers.  Nikolai (named for Tolstoy’s brother and Muth’s own son) asks his animal friends his questions and receives different answers from each.  Only when an unexpected event calls Nikolai to action does he understand the true answers to his deep questions.

Anyone familiar with Jon Muth’s work will find much to appreciate in The Three Questions.  His watercolors, as always, are gorgeous and calming.  His take on the old story is unique and helps frame almost existential questions well enough that children can learn from it with very little help.  Often, high-minded and wonderfully illustrated picture books are the purview of literary awards but this book and its parable are a perfect fit for quiet time with the school-aged set.  The story is not too wordy and the artwork of each page is worthy of being framed (or at least made into a poster).  Muth obviously felt a strong connection to the original story which he even mentions in an author’s note at the end.  All of the characters are named after Russian authors or people from Tolstoy’s life (even the wise, old turtle is named Leo).  The illustrated characters were modeled after Muth’s son, his dog, his infant daughter, and Tolstoy.  The personal connection is clear all the way throughout.  I am always in favor of finding books for kids that are fun and that foster a love of reading but it’s also good to find those rare books that inspire a child to think.  The Three Questions is one of those books.

If you like The Three Questions, check out the album Post-War by M. Ward featuring the song “Chinese Translation” which was inspired by the Tolstoy original.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

I don’t normally recommend books that make me feel gross but then I read Perfume by Patrick Suskind and here we are.  As is hinted by the title, Perfume focuses on scents.  It is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man born with no natural scent of his own but a preternatural sense of smell.  The problem for the orphaned Grenouille is that very little in 18th century Paris is very pleasant to smell.  The way some novels describe stunning landscapes or mellifluous sounds, Perfume describes scents.  And many of these scents are unpleasant, even horrific.  Grenouille takes them all in though; he doesn’t discriminate between “good” or “bad” smells.  He smells them all, sometimes from miles away, and he catalogs them in his twisted mind.  He is, as he is described several times, an abomination.  As he makes his way through the world, portending or causing havoc, he receives training as a perfumer and then his ideas begin to take shape.

I hesitate to give too much of the plot away, not that the book is a mystery but very little of it goes as you might expect.  One thing that Suskind gets across vividly is how powerful smells are and how people ignore that fact.  Just the descriptions of the smells of Paris are enough to raise goose bumps.  Despite being uncomfortable, I found myself wanting to start a new chapter as soon as I finished one.  The story is so unusual and the characters (reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor) are almost uniformly terrible people so I had to find out what was going to happen to them all.  It is a quick, compelling read and the closer we get to Halloween, the more sense there is to reading something that makes you uneasy.  As I said, I don’t want to give too much away but I can’t help but mention that the ending is odd and wholly unexpected…until you think back on how Suskind, with almost no editorializing, wrote of the bizarre events that led to the conclusion.

If you like Perfume, you should check out In Utero by Nirvana which includes the song “Scentless Apprentice” inspired by the novel.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dubliners by James Joyce

I have decided on a theme for this week of reviews.  I have done this because apparently I like making trouble for myself.  Anyway, all of the books – or the stories in them – have inspired songs.  Enjoy.

Short story collections are usually named after one of the more interesting stories.  They often have names like Love in Infant Monkeys or The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher or Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?.  There is no title story in Dubliners.  It seems to have that title for no more complicated a reason than it’s about people who live in Dublin.  And that is what these stories are about – people.  Reviews of short story collections will typically describe the plot of one or two of the quirkier or exciting tales but I can’t really do that for Dubliners.  Most of the plots can’t be described much further than “a woman decides whether to leave her unfulfilling life for an unknown adventure” or “a boy goes to a street market for a girl he likes.”  Those don’t read like movie posters.  And they aren’t supposed to.  The point of every story in Dubliners is the characters – their thoughts, their emotions, their being.

James Joyce could write people.  He could lay out his characters’ thoughts so well that he more or less invented stream of consciousness.  He didn’t leave many different works:  scattered poems and plays, a short novel, an acknowledged masterpiece, a brilliant but essentially unreadable monolith (think a 600 page “Jabberwocky”) and Dubliners.  The collection of stories is probably the easiest of his works to get into.  It’s short, for one.  For another, it’s easy to pick up at any point.  Most importantly though, it’s honed in.  Each story is honed in on a particular feeling.  The feelings are so specific that you can’t even say “oh, this one is about love" or "that one is about embarrassment.”  These are the finer feelings – the granular ones.  They are so specific as to possibly only be felt once.  These feelings and these stories are superbly written.  Joyce is one of those classic authors who proves his mettle pretty much immediately.  The characters are so personal and full that you care about everything that happens to them, even if the plot is little more than “a song reminds a woman of a boy she loved in her youth.”

If you like Dubliners you can also check out Why Should the Fire Die? by the band Nickel Creek which features a song inspired by the story “Eveline.”

Friday, October 17, 2014

Teen Read Week Part 5

This week is Teen Read Week @ Your Library!  VBPL is celebrating by bringing you some teen literature recommendations written by volunteers from the library's Teen Advisory Group.

To Kill aMockingbird by Harper Lee was something that I had to read for class. Like every book I read for class, I assumed it was boring and dry but I was wrong. This book is so well-written about racism in the past that you never want to put the book down. Whether or not this is a required read, it's a worthwhile read.

-Mara, Teen Volunteer-

Are you a fan of The Hunger Games, The Pledge, or Divergent? Then what are you waiting for, READ ME!
All Deuce has ever wanted was to be a huntress. After surviving and training for her first fifteen years to earn a name and status in the Enclave, she gets to be just that! As a Huntress she has to brave a scene worse than upstate New York during night time, encountering repulsive, horrifying creatures called ‘Freaks’ in the tunnels in order to provide her Enclave with meat. She and her attractive, brooding hunt partner Fade come across a horrifying realization...The ‘Freaks’ are getting smarter. Join Deuce as she deals with Topsiders, gangs, love, and friendship. And worst of all? The truth.  This novel is well written and descriptive to the point where you can smell what Deuce is smelling.  It has characters you will never get enough of, and after you finish you’ll struggle to catch your breath.
If you liked this book then be sure to read: Stung By Bethany Wiggins, Angelfall by Susan Ee, and Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien 

-Kenya, Teen Volunteer-

If con artists and playing cards at kids’ birthday parties are your ideas of magic, then the Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage is not for you. However, if you’re like a lot of fantasy readers: magic fights, conjurations, and charms are more your thing. Flyte by Angie Sage is the brilliant second installment in the Septimus Heap series. Follow Septimus’s incredible journey as he deals with a vengeful older brother. Flyte is a must read, fast paced adventure book that I recommend for any kid or any person who keeps in touch with their inner child.

-Abriel, Teen Volunteer-

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Teen Read Week Part 4

This week is Teen Read Week @ Your Library!  VBPL is celebrating by bringing you some teen literature recommendations written by volunteers from the library's Teen Advisory Group.


Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson was a book about a girl who is struggling with an eating disorder. This book is written so beautifully that it allows the reader to get into the main character's mind and think how she thinks. Although no one should read this if they can't handle books with sensitive themes.

-Mara, Teen Volunteer-

It’s just your average day for these five teens. They went to school, ate with their families, and were… oh, you know… kidnapped by the universe’s most evil supervillains: the Vindico. What would these villains possibly want with five angst-filled teenage brats? If you guessed the villains wanted apprentices to take over for them then you are correct. The Vindico by Wesley King is a dark and humorous novel. It’s a great read for anyone who likes the ever-changing emotion of teens or the X-Men.

-Abriel, Teen Volunteer-

When I was first assigned The Color of Water to read over the summer for my AP English 11 class, I was not very excited.  However, once I started reading it I realized that it is a great story that tells the story of a boy's struggle in a racist world, and more importantly his mother's, who was born to an abusive Jewish family but later married a black man and converted to Christianity. The book alternates points of view from James's, the boy's, point of view, to his mother's growing up which I found to be an interesting addition.  This is a great read that I would recommend to anyone!

-Gabe, Teen Volunteer-

One word cannot describe how I felt while reading this book. With a captivating story line, well developed characters, and an amazing plot, I was entranced from the day I picked it up. After that day, I simply could never take a break from reading it.  The Vicious Deep is sure to pull in many readers with the tide. Zoraida Cordova did an outstanding job on this piece of art, and I am looking forward to reading more of her work.

-Darryl, Teen Volunteer-