Dark Days of December | What We’re Reading

This week as winter tightens its grip, the School Library Journal/LJ staffers map out real and unreal worlds, learn how not to report a story, find ways to clean up your living space, and plan for future Newbery Awards.

Mahnaz Dar, Associate Editor, Reviews, SLJ
This weekend I was captivated by the—sometimes incendiary—world of journalism. Two weeks ago, Rolling Stone published a piece about a college freshman at the University of Virginia (referred to only as “Jackie” here) who claimed to have been gang raped at a fraternity party two years ago. Many criticized the article for making no effort to obtain the alleged rapists’ side of the story (though none were named, the fraternity itself was mentioned) and also for passing off dialog supposedly spoken by “Jackie’s” friends right after the event as true (they are in fact statements recollected by the woman; reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely failed to interview the friends or anyone else present that night). The fraternity, in response to the article, made a statement that directly contradicted several points made in the story, and several days ago, Rolling Stone retracted the piece. Meanwhile, several news outlets and magazines, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Slate, are covering the story itself.

tidykondoLiz French, Senior Editor, Reviews, LJ
I’ve been going through a spate of cleaning and organizing, thanks in large part to my colleague Etta’s reading recommendation, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Ten Speed: Crown). A few weeks ago, Etta was evangelizing about this book (including in a previous WWR column) so I grabbed the e-version from Edelweiss and plunged in. I’m not sure I can follow the author’s instructions completely, so I’m probably doomed to a less tidy life than er, some people. But I do enjoy some of Kondo’s suggestions, and she seems like a real oddball in the best possible way. This woman talks to her clothes! She worries that her handbags get tired of carrying her belongings around all day. She used to sneak into her family members’ rooms and reorganize their stuff! It’s really too bad that the TV series Monk has gone off the air, because I could totally see an episode with the author stepping into Adrian Monk’s OCD life and “tidying” it up. High jinks would ensue!

I did make some headway on my bulging bookshelves, but culling from the fashion section was tough. I nearly pitched Elizabeth Mason’s The Rag Street Journal: The Ultimate Guide to Shopping Thrift and Consignment Stores Throughout the U.S. and Canada (Owl: Holt). After all, it is almost 20 years old—surely most of the stores she mentions are long gone? But I made the mistake of opening the book on my morning commute (I was going to put it on my local YMCA’s swap shelf). Okay sure, the listings are out of date, but the tips for shopping, cleaning, and maintenance of  vintage goodies is timeless. Plus, the glossary of thrift-shopping terms is priceless. Here’s a few:

Dustible: This is an item that someone may try to pass off as a collectible, but it is usually only about eight to 15 years old and presently doesn’t have any value except for collecting dust.
Someone who buys things at flea markets or thrift stores and sells them to other dealers or stores for a profit.
Stingy cheapskate:
No one you ever want to be or do business with!

So I guess this picker will be toting Mason’s dustible back home. Sorry, Marie.

WarthatSavedBarbara Genco, Manager, Special Projects, LJ
Over the long Thanksgiving weekend I determined to carve out a few hours for a good book. I was intrigued by both the title and cover of the ARC for Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life (Dial: Penguin, Jan. 2015). Armed with a nice cup of milky tea and some buttered toast, I opened the book and was immediately transported to the mean slums of London on the eve of the Battle of Britain. The young protagonist Ada, born with a club foot, is demonized and kept inside, a virtual prisoner, by her troubled, widowed mother. She has no shoes, has never been to school, and crawls because she was never allowed either crutches or the surgery that could ameliorate her birth defect. When her younger brother Jamie is set to be evacuated to the countryside, Ada steals her mother’s shoes and goes along with him. They are placed with a depressed vicar’s daughter, Susan Smith, a former Oxford scholar who now lives alone in the cottage she inherited from the love of her life, an adored school chum, called Becky. Though the story may initially seem peopled with “types,” the characters actively transcend such roles and are full, rich, and real. Bradley also wrote the well-received historical novel Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children. Though the catalog copy compares this to Lois Lowry’s brilliant Newbery Award–winning Number the Stars (Houghton Harcourt, 1989) I think this is really more akin to Michelle Magorian’s Guardian Award–winning, and deeply moving Good Night, Mr. Tom (Harper, 1981) which also tells of an abused boy, an evacuee, who is healed of emotional and physical abuse through the kindness of the old man in whose cottage he is billeted. The war details are ample and intriguing—just the thing for someone like me who heretofore got all her details of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk from the 1942 movie Mrs. Miniver. That said, this is a truly terrific novel and a wonderfully satisfying read. (Here’s a recent review in SLJ for more plot details.) For me, the act of reading this book brought me back in time to the mid-late 1960s when I inhaled one Newbery Award–winning and honored historical novel after another. This book has that same immersive impact. The War That Saved My Life has already garnered quite a few stars. It deserves it. Have you already begun your own 2016 Newbery Medal short-list? Start with this one.

cosmigraphicsEtta Verma, Editor, Reviews, LJ
This week I read (and reviewed for LJ) Michael Benson’s Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time (Abrams), a gorgeous set of illustrations ranging from “here be dragons” style paintings of Earth, wind, fire, and heaven, with cherubs puffing out their cheeks to create the four winds, right up to computer-generated maps of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. I’m more into the early maps, which to me are really hopes and fears made cartographic, than the clinical, modern depictions. Overall, I love imaginary maps and books of them, but lately we get few books like that at LJ—perhaps the continuing recession has resulted in a more practical bent to publishing? Sigh.
At home, a map of sorts has been our nightly reading, too. Henry (age four) and I are enjoying Phyllis Root (text) and Matthew Cordell’s (illus.) Toot Toot Zoom! (Candlewick), about little fox Pierre, who sets off across the mountain to find a friend. Fascinating to Henry in an “is that even allowed?” kind of way is that every few spreads the book’s orientation switches from landscape to portrait, with the width of the book becoming the height that Pierre’s little car must climb.

unnaturalcreaturesAshleigh Williams, Editorial Assistant, SLJ
I hate winter. It used to be my second favorite season, until I gained the wisdom (and perpetually frozen limbs) that only age and city living can bring. So I don’t usually find myself drawn to seasonal reads, but upon further reflection, Marina Dahvana Headley’s apocalyptic short story “The Traditional” echoes some of the darker feelings that can emerge this time of year. An unorthodox tale of a relationship that blooms on the brink of apocalypse, the premise sounds a bit cheesy, yet the story itself is anything but. It’s visceral, entertaining, and definitely subverts the concept of anniversary gifts. While I have yet to try her longer works, Headley’s contribution to the fantastic compilation Unnatural Creatures (HarperCollins) is another standout piece. “Movable Beast” is a wry tale of an unseen monster trapped in the miniature forest of Bastardville, a town as friendly as its name. I can’t wait to spend the holidays perusing her other beautiful, bizarre sf tales.

Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench