After the election and a brief getaway (to the Caribbean; sadly, I had to come back), I returned to New York in time to ask my colleagues at LJ/School Library Journal and Junior Library Guild what they’re reading in these postelection, pre-Thanksgiving times. Aside from LJ Prepub Alert Editor Barbara Hoffert’s pert reply (“recipes”—good one, BH!), I heard about my workmates’ escape reads, engagement reads, algorithm reads, and darling children’s reads, not to mention nonfiction that reads like fiction and a debarkation from the David Foster Wallace train. Welcome aboard the SS WWR, and thank you for sailing with us.
Mahnaz Dar, Assistant Managing Editor, LJS
In light of Election Day, I just finished Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women (Free Pr.), an inspired and intriguing look at the 2008 election from a feminist perspective. Traister explores women’s—often conflicting—reactions to Hillary Clinton and the role gender played for First Lady Michelle Obama and even Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin. The book also deftly covers the role of the media and pop culture (the Katie Couric interview with Palin, as well as the death knell that was Tina Fey’s Palin impersonation). It’s deeply enlightening yet also entertaining, and though it was bittersweet to read this book directly following the results of the 2016 election, I found it, in some ways, inspiring as well.
On a happier note, I think I may have discovered just what I needed: a wonderful new suspense/mystery writer. (Well, new to me at any rate!) I just began reading Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake (Morrow), and so far I am loving it.
Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
Princesses and pioneers populate my book list this week. Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist (Blue Rider: Penguin) recently arrived in the office, but it was a finished copy and a November release, which means it’s too darn late to run a review. Most likely the book was embargoed because the publisher didn’t want anyone to spill the beans—Fisher did indeed canoodle and more with Star Wars costar Harrison Ford, who was married at the time. Shocking, eh? I have always liked Fisher’s writing and tone, so I enjoyed dipping into the book for nuggets such as this one, about aging and not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone:
I went to Madame Tussauds to see the wax statue they’d made of me. Well, not me, actually. That would have been someone lying in bed watching old movies on TV, drinking a Coke with one hand while adjusting her dog Gary’s tongue with the other. The statue they made was of Princess Leia me.
Not that I’m a big fan of my face, but still—it is mine, whichever way you tilt it. I didn’t like my face when I should have and now that it’s melted, I look back on that face fondly.
Over the weekend, I raced through Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s). I had a few tiny reservations but am still thinking of the book and all the New York love in it—and the author is a Chicagoan! The title character is based on real-life advertising pioneer Margaret Fishback, who was the highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world in the 1930s. In Rooney’s book, she’s an 85-year-old inveterate flaneur, walking nearly the length of Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, 1984. She meets all kinds of people, from security cops to Chelsea squatters (remember, it’s set in 1984) to limo drivers to feasters at Delmonico’s. I’ll discuss this book further next week, probably, unless something else strolls into my life.
Laura Girmscheid, Research Manager, LJS
Algorithms To Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (Holt) is my latest read. This is basically a how-to for the data nerds in your life. The authors, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, give advice on how to store things optimally, how to improve memory, how to make decisions, and more, all supported with hard science and graphs. I’m enjoying it. Whether I apply the information discussed is another matter entirely.
Tyler Hixson, Editorial Assistant, SLJ Reviews
I know I’m super late to the game with Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (Crown), but it came out in 2003, when I was 13, so I feel I should get a free pass. I’m on sort of a true crime spree (boy, did that sound bad) and figured I should continue with one of the best books of the genre out there. Set against the stupefying spectacle that was the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Larson’s account follows the story of Herman Webster Mudgett, alias H.H. Holmes, one of America’s first serial killers, as he lured young, unattached women to work in his “World’s Fair Hotel,” where they would quietly disappear. With no family or friends in Chicago, no one noticed they were gone. When Holmes was caught in 1894, he was convicted of nine murders, confessed to more than 30, but estimates of the actual death toll skew upwards of 200. Americans at the time weren’t used to this sort of maniacal monstrosity happening on U.S. soil—despite having devoured reports of a similar kind of killer, known as Jack the Ripper, across the pond four years earlier.
Equally as interesting as the story of Holmes is Larson’s parallel narrative of the World’s Fair and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles it overcame to exist. The equivalent of a small city that should’ve taken more than 40 years to design and build, given the technology that was available at the time, the fairgrounds took no more than three years to erect. New architectural procedures were invented just to deal with Chicago’s sandy soil. The Ferris wheel, a mainstay in literally every fair in America today, was constructed simply to outshine the Eiffel Tower. Larson brings to life the characters of Daniel Burnham, John Root, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the event’s designers and architects, along with dozens of other politicians, architects, and financiers. The juxtaposition of the sinister Holmes and the almost painful optimism and hope surrounding the construction of the fair creates a riveting read, and I am truly sorry it’s taken me 13 years to get my hands on it.
Rebecca Miller, Editorial Director, LJS
A week or so ago, my nine-year-old son asked for books about regular kids—those without special powers. That inquiry led me to a long list for him (via smart colleagues at SLJ and JLG). It also brought my attention back to a book I am behind on reading, until now: Sara Pennypacker’s Pax, illustrations by Jon Klassen (Balzer + Bray). One of SLJ’s Best Books of 2016 and selected for the 2017 Heavy Medal short list, this story of a boy named Peter and his pet fox, Pax—and their search to be reunited—is poignant and full of pleasure as both discover the worlds they now inhabit apart. I’m savoring it first and will then read it with my kids. In the meantime, we turned to a classic for comfort as election returns came in: A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. I’d purchased a copy for my daughter last Christmas, which didn’t hook her then. Well, the time was ripe—and both kids laugh and play with the words as we go chapter by chapter each evening at bedtime. While at my go-to Burton’s Bookstore, I picked up The House at Pooh Corner to hold us until that special package arrives under the Christmas tree: the rest of the series, including the new The Best Bear in All the World (Dutton Bks. for Young Readers)—with stories by Jeanne Willis, Kate Saunders, Brian Sibley, and Paul Bright, illustrations by Mark Burgess—published in October to celebrate the silly bear’s 90th birthday. No telling!
Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
The election managed to coincide, for me, with a period of enormous eldercare-related stress and almost no downtime. What this means is that I’m looking for some good immersive nonfiction into which I can retreat: my idea of escapist reading is something that requires my attention and engages me all the way. For a while I was enjoying, at the suggestion of several LJ coworkers, Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others (Other Pr.), until the library sucked my ebook back into the ether; I was particularly interested in how all those free thinkers, of whom many were Jews, fared during the run-up and aftermath of World War II. Attention must be paid, etc. When that one disappeared out from under me I turned to Zadie Smith’s 2010 essay collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin), in anticipation of her newest novel, Swing Time. The pieces weren’t particularly pertinent to anything in my life—I don’t care about the posthumous disposition of Kafka’s work, and I never really got on the David Foster Wallace train—but I enjoy her process of reviewing, seeing what’s in her toolbox. She does a lot of thinking on the page, and this book veered close to being a vanity production in a lot of places. Now I have a hard copy of the Bakewell book, thanks to the ever-generous LJ shelves, and my library holds for Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader (Farrar) and Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Picador) just came in. So for someone with not much in the way of free time (including, unfortunately, Thanksgiving break), at least I have a lot of good reading to do when it does happen.
Georgia Siegchrist, Assistant Editor, JLG
I’m currently reading Paul Fischer’s A Kim Jong-il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power (Flatiron: Macmillan). As the title notes, the book is about how the North Korean leader kidnapped South Korea’s most famous actress, and later, its most famous film director. Jong-iI, obsessed with movies from a young age, realized how well the medium could be used as propaganda. But North Korean films weren’t very good—those forced to work for Jong-il had no exposure to foreign films and knew only the basics of filmmaking. To improve the quality of North Korean productions and give the country some cultural credibility, he ordered the kidnapping of South Korean actress Choi Eun-Hee, and later, her husband, Shin Sang-Ok. Once united in North Korea, the couple made the best films North Korea had ever produced, all under the watchful eye of Jong-il. While Choi and Shin appeared to be cooperating with the regime, they were secretly plotting their eventual escape.
Needless to say, the subject matter is fascinating, and there are many bizarre facts throughout. For instance, there is a legend that claims that the king/founder of Korea rode a unicorn. In 2012, North Korean newspapers reported that archaeologists had not only found the grave site of the unicorn—in Pyongyang, of course—but that it was marked with a stone reading “Unicorn Lair.” You seriously couldn’t make this stuff up. While I’m definitely enjoying the book for its research and entertainment value, I do think it could be better written. This is the author’s first work, and at times it shows, owing to clunky transitions, repetition, or comparisons that feel shoehorned into the narrative. Nonetheless, I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in film, foreign relations, and North (or South) Korea.
Henrietta Verma, WWR emerita
At the moment I don’t really have time for reading outside of the books I’m reviewing, but my children are still reading for fun. My six-year-old son is enjoying Michael Sussman and Scott Magoon’s Otto Grows Down (Sterling), in which a little boy wishes his naughty sister was never born and suddenly everything else starts to reverse itself as well. Some wonderful things happen—Otto’s friend moves back to the neighborhood, and at recess he slides up the slide. Other things aren’t so great—going to the bathroom is “downright disgusting,” for example—and when Otto gets younger and younger and starts to be unable to talk, he’s had it. Luckily, the spell is undone and, of course, his little sister doesn’t seem so bad after all.
My 12-year-old daughter is reading books in a genre that’s new to me but is her favorite: titles by people who are famous on YouTube. She recently enjoyed Jenn McAllister’s Really Professional Internet Person (Scholastic) and is now devouring Emily Trunko’s Dear My Blank: Secret Letters Never Sent (Crown). It’s hard to get much out of her, but she wants to go the bookstore for more, so….