Springing Forewords [sic] | What We’re Reading

This week, LJ and School Library Journal staff springs forward into books about rulers (queens of fantasy worlds, Snow Queens, kings of horror, popularity queens), coming back home, parking spaces, and how to conduct better business.

Mahnaz Dar, Associate Editor, Reviews, SLJ
This week finds me not just reading but rereading! William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is one of my all-time favorite horror novels. I managed to unearth the 1997 25th-anniversary copy published by Gauntlet that I bought back in 1998 (my first amazon.com purchase, incidentally), and so far, it’s still holding up. An excellent day for an exorcism indeed.

Popular CoverLiz French, Associate Editor, Reviews, LJ
Thanks to my colleague Mahnaz Dar, now at SLJ, I’ve been on a youth kick. Last week she and I attended a Harriet the Spy lovefest (see Mahnaz’s WWR post about it here), and since then we’ve been immersing ourselves in all things Louise Fitzhugh (who, by the way, shares a birthday with moi.)
Then Mahnaz gave me a new title coming out next month, 15-year-old Maya Van Wagenen’s Popular: A Memoir; Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (Dutton). Van Wagenen utilizes a popular trope—applying an old etiquette/self-help guide to one’s modern-day life. In this case, she uses the tips and wisdom of a 1951 “popularity guide” to boost her basement-level popularity in middle school. Former teen model Betty Cornell, the author of Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide, contributes a foreword. It’s lots of fun, though Van Wagenen sometimes seems too good to be true. But her trials and tribulations in school and beyond are funny and often poignant. Plus, alert to all you school librarians: there’s a very sympathetic member of your gang in the book. I’ll let Van Wagenen tell you about her:

Kenzie and I walk to the library—“the Fishbowl” as we call it—in the morning. The library gets its nickname from its three glass walls. We volunteer there in the mornings and during lunch as an escape from the cruelty of the outside world. Our librarian, Ms. Corbeil, is one of a kind. She welcomes all Social Outcasts and talks to us like we’re adults and worthy of her attention, something many of us don’t get very often. She’s funny, smart, and rides a motorcycle. Teachers come to her to talk about anything from faulty technology equipment to a midlife crisis. And she buys new books with her own money because the school cut almost all of her budget. So it’s no wonder that the Fishbowl is an oasis, a home away from home.

reworkKathy Ishizuka, Executive Editor, SLJ
Long on my to-read list, Rework (Crown Business) is a distillation of practical business philosophy from Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of Basecamp (formerly 37signals), a popular project management software. I’m among the many fans of the company blog Signal vs. Noise, which despite its pedigree, is not so much about technology, writing code, or the peculiarities of startup culture. So don’t be turned off. If you work and create stuff—notably, with other people—and want to do it better, this blog’s for you. Same goes for Rework.
Distillation is an understatement, actually—the writing is spare as can be (concision in communication is itself one of their recommendations). “Don’t confuse enthusiasm with priority.” “Emulate drug dealers [give some of your stuff away].” “Hire great writers.”
How to be more productive? Fight interruptions tooth and nail; we all need several-hour stretches of alone time to do quality work, according to the authors, who suggest, “Instead of casual Fridays, how about no-talk Thursdays?”
While I’m not a big audiobook user, I wanted to try Whispersync for Voice, which allows you to switch back and forth from the Kindle version to the audiobook. That worked well, aside from a few initial hiccups with the Audible app, which curiously does not allow purchases via the app. The experience of the book was a bit fragmented—I’m going to try another title.

Ophelia and the Marvelous BoyRebecca Miller, Editor-in-Chief, LJ/Editorial Director, LJS
With equal parts enthusiasm and envy, last night I passed my copy of Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy (Knopf) to a friend. This, after lingering my way through it in late-night stints—enjoying the emotional depth and funny quirks of protagonist Ophelia, who races her way through the mysteries of a fantastical (and often frightening) museum in a city that is in the grip of the Snow Queen. I envy my friend’s discovery of this brave girl, as it was so rich for me, but can’t wait to talk about her. The book itself came to me from the publisher, but rose through the stack of promotional copies. In the meantime, SLJ starred it in the March 2014 issue, noting: “While Ophelia is contemporary in her ordinariness, her courage and determination to save the people she cares about harkens back to archetypal fairy-tale heroes and heroines.”

The Broken CrownMeredith Schwartz, Senior Editor, News & Features, LJ
I am reading The Broken Crown, by Michelle West (Daw). It is book 1 of the Sun Sword series, but I came to it backwards. I first read the House War series, which spun off from the Sun Sword, and actually reread it several times before I finally gave in and said okay, I guess I need to know what the heck happened between books three and four. The funny thing is, it wasn’t what happened to the main character that led me to it, it’s the sudden appearance of a tertiary character out of (from my perspective) nowhere.
It’s too early to say how the Sun Sword books will be. I know it will eventually lead to adventures for the House War heroine, but she hasn’t appeared yet. In the meantime I’m mostly muttering about the social dynamics of the Dominion, which combines serfs (called serafs), infanticide of the different, largely cloistered and powerless women, and men who are taught to place power above all else and fear emotions, into one fun package. But the love and loyalty among the women of the harem is not at all what I expected, and complicates and makes interesting the worldbuilding, as well as the male/female duos that manage to find love and/or respect between husband and wife, father and daughter, or brother and sister despite the social pressures against it.
I will almost certainly stick with this series until I find out what happens that bears on life back in the Essalieyan Empire, but so far I have not found a character I like enough to follow for their own sake.

tepperCarolyn Sun, News Editor, SLJ
I’ve just started reading Calvin Trillin’s Tepper Isn’t Going Out (Random). I’m not that far into it, but I trust it will be good. I was introduced to Trillin’s work through his food writing for the New Yorker and New York magazine, and I particularly remember his witty 2009 New Yorker article about poutine being Canada’s national dish – and punchline.
The book’s storyline is centered around Murray Tepper, a New Yorker who has found a coveted parking spot and has made it his business to conduct his life from the parking spot. Such ordinary absurdity is part of the book’s draw.

Etta Verma, Editor, Reviews, LJ
I’ve started Tawni O’Dell’s One of Us (Gallery), which features a storyline I’m tired of—a small-town boy who couldn’t get out fast enough goes back home and confronts ghosts—but O’Dell breathes new life into it. The protagonist is a forensic pathologist who has plenty of ghosts to confront. Returning home, he finds the town still grappling with the fallout of a 19th-century mass hanging of rabble-rousing mine workers. The story and the writing are like more literary John Grisham or Patricia Cornwell—in other words, right up my alley.

All the Heat We Could CarryWilda Williams, Senior Editor, Reviews, LJ
I don’t read poetry often, but I bought Charlie Bondhus’s All the Heat We Could Carry (Main Street Rag) after hearing this talented young poet read at the New York University Bookstore last week. I devoured his searing collection in an evening. Although a slim 68 pages, this volume packs a mighty emotional punch in its depiction of war’s impact on gay soldiers and their partners. From the dusty battlefields and villages of Afghanistan to Memorial Day barbecues and quiet backyard gardens, Bondhus’s lean but emotionally eloquent verses shine a clear light on the horrors and losses endured by his poetic narrators. Even readers who think poetry is difficult will immediately grasp the psychic wounds suffered in the  poem “Trauma”:

I can’t make you understand
that everything is dangerous now;
that you can’t slip your arms around my chest
and pull me to the carpet any more.

that sex feels like crossing
the Korengal Valley without body armor;
that when you try to pin my arms
my instinct is to kill you.

This volume deservedly won the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, and it is an excellent addition to the growing body of fine literature about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars.

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