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Selections for November 2007

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Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen Headley (2007)

One of the knocks on many contemporary novels for teens is that they tend to be bleak - terrible things happen to their angst-ridden protagonists, it's always raining (metaphorically, at least), and the chance of a they-lived-happily-ever-after ending is poor, if not impossible. Of course, nobody, least of all me, is arguing that adolescence is a bed of roses - or that it should be portrayed that way in fiction - but I must say it was refreshing to read Justina Chen Headley's decidedly upbeat debut novel, Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies). The author has given her protagonist, high school student Patty Ho, some difficult problems to deal with in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years. These include the perennial teen novel problem of learning to accept yourself (made more complicated here by the fact that Patty is half Taiwanese and half white), as well as racism, the highs and lows of first love, and a mother who has never told Patty one thing about her absent father. Headley also gives Patty an intelligent, self-mocking, and quite funny voice, which makes all the difference in how we read and perceive the novel. When a Chinese fortuneteller (who's intuiting Patty's future through her belly button) sees a white guy in Patty's future, her mother decides to keep Patty's mind off love with the wrong sort of boy by sending her to math camp. Being away from her super-strict mother, dating Stu Huang, being paired with a roommate who breaks all the rules (and stereotypes), and getting to know her Auntie Lu all combine to give Patty a secure sense of herself and her place in the world. And best of all, there's no bleakness in sight.

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Made to Stick by Chip Heath (2007)

Ever wonder why one idea or brand name is unforgettable and another just slips in and out of your mind like water passing under a bridge? Brothers Chip and Dan Heath explore just that in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Dan, a teacher and textbook publisher, and Chip, a business professor at Stanford, propose that the answer lies in a particular quality of such phenomena, which they label stickiness. They offer tips and techniques to writers, speakers, and those involved in creative endeavors of all sorts to enhance the stickiness of their ideas and products. Their message is as applicable for marketers and speech writers as it is for college professors and even parents. The Heaths' formula for stickiness boils down to making use of six elements: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories. (With one more "s" word, they could have had the acronym "success," and there's nothing like a good acronym for stickiness, but I couldn't come up with a good "s" word.) The Heaths offer examples from a wide swath of people and situations, including Mother Teresa, John F. Kennedy, Nora Ephron, Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign (remember "It's the economy, stupid"?), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Steve Jobs, as well as memorable urban legends and Subway's most successful advertising campaign (Jared Fogle's dieting success on a Subway-heavy diet - I'm sure you remember it). We can only hope that if enough people read this fast moving, entertaining, and very useful book, none of us will ever again have to suffer through yet another boring and humdrum PowerPoint presentation.

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Dancing With Rose: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer's by Lauren Kessler (2007)

For most people, the word "Alzheimer's" conjures up a vision of difficult personality changes, lost memories, and a slow decline to death. It has taken its place alongside "cancer" as the word that no one wants to hear in connection with themselves or their loved ones. Yet an estimated 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and it's hard to find anyone whose life has not been touched in some way by the disease. For journalist and professor Lauren Kessler, the news of her mother's diagnosis impelled her to take a job as one of the low-paid resident assistants at an Alzheimer's care facility in Oregon. She writes about her experiences in Dancing With Rose: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer's, one of the most compassionate accounts of working with the ill and aged that I've ever read. About a dozen residents live in each "neighborhood" in the home; each includes private rooms and baths, a common kitchen, and enclosed patios for the patients. Kessler and her fellow resident assistants are each assigned to a neighborhood, where they assist the residents with the ADLs (activities of daily living) of toileting, showering, dressing, and eating, as well as doing their laundry, cleaning the kitchen, and emptying the garbage from their rooms. As she comes to know those in her care, Kessler discovers that even within the fog of dementia many of them are still able to love, to laugh, to experience friendship and pleasure; they are, in fact, in many ways perfect practitioners of the Buddhist philosophy of living in the present moment. When asked about her day, one patient says, "I don't remember what we did... but that doesn't matter. It was sure fun while it was happening." Kessler offers readers a new way of looking at and thinking about Alzheimer's that just may take some of the dread of the disease away.

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Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy by Andro Linklater (2003)

Despite its grandiose if somewhat vague subtitle, Andro Linklater's engaging, easygoing, and informative Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy is actually about, well, measurement. (It occurred to me upon finishing it that a better, but possibly more boring, subtitle might have been "How the United States Became the Only Industrial Society In the World that Doesn't Use the Metric System.") Following the Revolutionary War, a deeply indebted United States was in desperate need of accumulating cash through the sales of its most valuable asset, the federal land outside the original 13 states. But before that could occur, the land had to be measured. This is the story of that great and (Linklater convincingly argues) historically significant measurement. Its main character is the surveyor Thomas Hutchinson and his decision about the choice of units with which that measurement was to be done. Thomas Jefferson argued for the meters and kilometers of the metric system used in France, among other countries, but Hutchinson ended up sticking to the traditional surveyor's chain, a unit of measurement (as well as an actual device) that had been used in Britain for centuries, and which results in the miles and acres with which we are all so familiar. But this is not only a history of measurement (though that's much more interesting than you might think) - Linklater also covers such topics as the Jeffersonian ideal of the small farmer, the shape of building blocks, and the conflict between speculators and western settlers. This is a great example of the sort of oddball history that's frequently so much fun to read.

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Tico and the Golden Wings by Leo Lionni (2007)

Leo Lionni's career as a creator of picture books is long and distinguished. The author and illustrator of more than 40 books (four of them Caldecott Honor books, including Inch By Inch; Swimmy; Frederick; and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse), he offers children imaginative and thoughtful stories accompanied by meticulously drawn and colorful pictures. Tico and the Golden Wings, first published in 1964, has just been reissued with the original gold ink of Tico's wings restored to the illustrations. Because Tico (a bird) was born without any wings, he can't join his friends as they fly hither and yon. Being good friends, they always bring back presents for Tico, but still he wishes that he could fly, too. And one night he gets his wish - golden wings that shimmer in the moonlight. But Tico's friends are upset and jealous because his wings are more beautiful than theirs. How Tico learns the real value of his golden wings, and how he copes with his friends' envy and learns that being different is not bad, is a fable that children (and adults) can (and will) treasure.

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Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (2007)

Out Stealing Horses, by award-winning Norwegian writer Per Petterson, is best read slowly, the better to savor his spare and restrained prose, and the nuances of the slowly emerging plot. Petterson's narrative style is one that is not often encountered in the typically fast-moving and hyperbolic American popular fiction of the bestseller lists, so for some readers it might take some getting used to (it did for me). But it's well worth the effort. Petterson's sensitive and insightful exploration of death, grief, forgiveness, and love make this a novel to cherish. So take a deep breath, settle back in a comfortable chair, and prepare yourself for a beautifully translated (by Anne Born), transporting read. Now nearing 70, emotionally unmoored from his family and friends, Trond has come to a desolate and isolated part of eastern Norway to spend the rest of his life in reading (especially Dickens) and solitary thought. However, a meeting with a neighbor forces the unwilling Trond to remember one particular summer day more than 50 years before, which began when his best friend Jon came by with a plan to "borrow" a neighbor's horses, and ended in tragedy and the realization that nothing would ever again be the same, for him or, especially, for Jon.

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Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot (2007)

"Brilliant" is the word that kept coming to mind as I was reading Bryan Talbot's idiosyncratic Alice in Sunderland, a graphic novel that explores the connections between the author's beloved home town of Sunderland, situated in England's northeast corner, and another of his great loves, Lewis Carroll's two classic fantasies, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Among the more delectable tidbits Talbot offers up are: a history of Sunderland from the Roman occupation to the present; an extended accounting of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell's family trees; a comic book style rendering of the myth of the Lambton worm (worm - or wyrm - being an ancient name for dragon); a sight-seeing journey down the river Wear (rhymes with 'hear'); famous Mackems (as the residents of Sunderland are known), past and present; well-known contemporary writers, artists, performers, musicians, and others, who have Alice or Sunderland connections; a discussion of when and why Carroll wrote the Alice books; and a meta-fictional discourse on comics. The accompanying illustrations are in both black-and-white and color, and include drawings, photographs, reproductions of articles from old newspapers, and fragments of letters. The book is organized in a non-linear, non-chronological manner, circling backward and forward in time, jumping from one subject to another, and then back again, so the total experience is rather like dreaming, where myth, reality, and invention mix and mingle. This would make a perfect gift for any lighthearted fan of Lewis Carroll, or any devotee of graphic novels.

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The Once and Future King by T.H. White (1987)

I can still remember the day when, as an 11-year-old, I first made the acquaintance of King Arthur: it was in T.H. White's classic novel, The Sword and the Stone. In this delightful tale, told with sly wit and a knowing twinkle by White's omniscient narrator, we meet a boy called "The Wart" who is being raised in a castle on the outskirts of the Forest Sauvage. One day, he encounters a bumbling old wizard who becomes his tutor. This is Merlyn, of course, complete with the pointy hat and long beard (which he frequently chews on in times of anxiety or befuddlement) of legend. But this was, of course, no chance encounter. Merlyn has a specific agenda for his pupil - to prepare him to be king. It is not enough that the Wart acquires the skills to be a great knight - Merlyn also goes to great lengths to teach him to think for himself, to question the rule of Might, and to cultivate the sense of love, kindness, and justice that is every child's birthright. Merlyn's teaching method most often involves transfiguring the Wart into different animals, so that he can learn about and observe human society and behavior from these other species. By the time the Wart finally passes the test of The Sword in the Stone and becomes King Arthur, Merlyn has prepared the boy as best he can to fulfill the responsibilities of a king, and to face his destiny, or as Merlyn calls it, his "glorious doom". Those who continue on to the next three books that complete the quartet The Once and Future King will find that the story of that destiny and doom is a glorious read. White's rendering of the familiar historical events of Arthur's life is suffused with psychological complexity, emotional sensitivity, and political commentary. (The first two books in the collection of four were written in 1938 and 1939, and the allusions to the burgeoning Nazi regime are unmistakable.) The universal battle between Right and Might is played out in both the political and personal realms. White turns iconic figures such as Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenever into living, breathing, complex individuals. And because the reader can relate to them as such, the interpersonal battle they play out, so heavily steeped in love and mutual respect, is intensely painful and unbearably beautiful to witness.

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In the Woods by Tana French (2007)

Tana French's intense debut novel, In the Woods, is part whodunit, part psychological thriller (à la Barbara Vine and Patricia Highsmith), and wholly successful. Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are Dublin police detectives who are called in to investigate the murder of a young girl. For Rob, the murder forces him to remember the central event of his childhood - the woods where Katy was found are the same woods where his two best friends disappeared. All he remembers from that awful day is that he was found terrorized and traumatized, with his sneakers filled with blood. Following that event, Rob's parents sent him away to boarding school, and when he does return to Ireland many years later, to work for the police force near his childhood home in a Dublin suburb, it's with a new name, a posh accent, and a well hidden secret. Rob has shared his connection to that cold case of the missing and long presumed dead children with only one person: his partner and best friend, Cassie. As past and present crimes collide uneasily, French's plot twists and turns will bamboozle even the most astute reader. The scene, close to the end of the novel, in which Cassie interrogates a suspect, will remain in your mind long after you finish the novel. Because these characters are so well drawn, I almost wish French would write another novel about them, but a more sensible voice (my own, save more sensible) tells me that it wouldn't be the same, and I should just be delighted to have found such a well-written, expertly plotted thriller.

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The End of the World as We Know It by Robert Goolrick (2007)

Robert Goolrick's memoir, The End of the World As We Know It: Scenes From a Life, reads like a novel, and when you turn the last page over you may desperately wish, as I did, that it actually was a novel - a complete work of imagination - because it's too awful to think that any child had to suffer the way that Goolrick did. And be forewarned - no one I know has finished this book with dry eyes. Yet, painful as the memoir is, it's on my "too good to miss" list. Goolrick's voice is un-histrionic yet very moving. The story he tells, which is fascinating, if terribly sad, is lightened by unexpected and very welcome moments of humor. Using the occasion of returning to his Virginia hometown for his father's funeral, Goolrick shines a searchlight into the heart of his dysfunctional family in order to understand his own scarred and lonely life. To all outsiders, the Goolricks seemed to be a perfect Leave It to Beaver sort of family - his father taught English at the local college, his mother was a Southern belle, his apparently loving grandmother taught manners and morals to young Robert and his siblings. Yet behind the scenes, the family's life was anything but a 1950s sitcom, marked as it was by a sea of alcohol and abuse. Goolrick is no exception to the rule that no child comes through this sort of childhood unscarred. Goolrick makes us understand that even though on the surface it appears that he's managed to build a successful life for himself (at the very least, financially), in most of the important ways he's still that terrified, solitary, untrusting kid. The book's epigraph, from Christopher Marlowe's "Edward II" encapsulates his dark theme: "Come death, and with thy fingers close my eyes,/Or if I live, let me forget myself."

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Nothing But Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson by Sue Stauffacher (2007)

In 1957, at the age of 30, Althea Gibson was not only the first African American tennis player to win the Wimbledon women's tennis championship, she was the first African American to ever play there. In Nothing But Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson, Sue Stauffacher brings her story to life for second through fifth graders. And even the youngest readers, I think, will be able to relate to tomboy Althea's love of sports and her desire to excel, and sympathize with her frustration at the codes of behavior she's forced to live by. Folks who knew the high-spirited and energetic child believed Althea was "nothing but trouble," but Buddy Walker, a savvy and caring recreation leader in her Harlem neighborhood, saw Althea's potential, and gave her her first tennis racket. Recognizing how her personality might get in the way of her success as an athlete, Buddy says to her: "You've got to decide, Althea. Are you going to play your game, or are you going to let the game play you?" - a lesson Gibson apparently took to heart, becoming one of the greatest, and most respected, sportswomen of her time. There's a useful timeline of Gibson's life (written on tennis balls!) at the end of the book. Greg Couch's paintings are a perfect complement to the text. Their energy and imaginative use of color and other elements add greatly to the book's appeal. Clearly, both the author and illustrator of this book had great affection for its subject.

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Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford by Peter Y. Sussman (2006)

I sometimes think that the best way to get to know someone (other than, of course, actually getting to know them) is to read their correspondence - which is not to say that biographies and autobiographies are not useful, but biographies are filtered through the choices and interpretations of their authors, and even autobiographies are colored by how their authors want to be seen. But letters to family and friends are, so to speak, primary source material. It would be difficult to write a dull book about Jessica Mitford (nicknamed "Decca"), since her life was so event-filled, and both the biographies (a good one is Mary Lovell's The Sisters) and Decca's classic memoir of her early years, Hons and Rebels, are absolutely worth reading. But Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter Y. Sussman, gives one a unique perspective on this funny, warm, intelligent, and thoroughly remarkable woman. Decca was born in 1917 into an upper class English family, but early on rebelled against her life of privilege and devoted herself to social activism - fighting fascism, supporting the civil rights movement, and, in general, doing good. She's probably best known in the United States, where she spent much of her life after the death of her first husband in the Spanish Civil War, for The American Way of Death, her exposé of the funeral industry. These letters - to her mother; her five sisters; Winston Churchill; her second husband, liberal San Francisco lawyer Robert Treuhaft; her daughter Constancia; friends ranging from Julie Andrews to Betty Friedan - cover her life from the 1930s through the early 1990s (she died in 1996). Vivid and entertaining, they bring their writer to life in an unstudied, unmannered way. Peter Y. Sussman is the very model of an editor; his introduction, footnotes, and brief essays at the beginning of each section give us just the right amount of context for the letters that we're going to read, without taking away any of the pleasure we'll have reading them. If nothing else, this book just may encourage you to forsake email and take pen in hand to write a letter to a friend.