The Race for the Roses

I’m not much for holidays and birthdays can kick it, but the first Saturday in May? That’s a day to celebrate.

I grew up in Saratoga Springs, a small city in upstate New York famous for it’s “Health, History and Horses.” Just outside of town lies Saratoga Battlefield, where the turning point of the American Revolution was fought. Throughout town there are natural springs with water famed for its restorative properties (if you can get over the rotten egg smell) that once brought celebrities, socialites and presidents to town. But Saratoga’s proudest reputation is as the Graveyard of Champions. Our racecourse, which first opened a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, is known for producing some of the most shocking upsets in racing history. This is where a horse fittingly named Upset beat the great Man o’ War, where Secretariat fell to Onion, and the latest Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah was defeated by Keen Ice. Like I said: health, history AND HORSES.

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My sweet Saratoga home

All of this is to say that I am very excited for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby when 20 spoiled three-year-olds will sprint a mile and a quarter vying for a blanket of roses, a spot in the record books, and a cool 1.425 million dollars. If you want to catch Derby fever, it’s not too late! We have plenty of great books to help you dive into the proud, storied, and often shady world of racing.

I can’t possibly start this list with anyone other than Dick Francis. Before becoming a prolific and celebrated mystery writer, Francis was a champion Steeplechase jockey in Britain. He even had the distinction of riding the Queen Mother’s horses for several years. After retiring, he brought his deep love and extensive knowledge of the sport to his writing, crafting clever mysteries with plots orbiting the world of racing. What truly sets Francis’ novels apart is his devotion to research. Whether his protagonist is a meteorologist, a lawyer, a veterinarian or a photographer, Francis clearly did his homework and I’ve always learned new and interesting facts from these fast-paced thrillers.

33a80220-c935-0132-4594-0ebc4eccb42fYou can’t really go wrong with any of Francis’ novels, but I’d suggest starting with his first. Dead Cert follows Alan York, a young jockey who witnesses the death of a fellow rider in a mid-race fall. York believes that this death was no accident, and he is determined to bring his friend’s killers to justice, no matter the cost. This cagey mystery in not only a wonderful introduction to Francis’ writing, it also features one of my all-time favorite chase scenes.

But enough with the Brits, you say, the Kentucky Derby is an American race! Fair enough. There are plenty of racing stories about desperation, cruelty and corruption at the racetrack. Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award Winner, Lord of Misrule, is proof of that. Gordon brings you into the world of Indian Mound Downs, a run-down racetrack in 1970’s West Virginia. This novel follows a cast of hard-luck characters as they strive for their small slice of racing glory, be it through hard work, wisdom, deception, or methods far more sinister.

For even darker fare you can head to Kentucky, the heart of the American racing industry. The scope of C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings makes it difficult to summarize. This work spans the latter half of the 20th Century telling the story of a cruel and wealthy horseman determined to make racing history, his willful daughter, and a groom who helps tend to their horses. The picture Morgan paints is often ugly and does not flinch from confronting the lingering legacy of racism and bigotry in both the world of racing and America at large. This is a gut punch of a novel and goes far beyond the world of horses, but it’s also a fascinating look inside racing’s troubled world.

Scorpio-paperback-websiteIf you want your racing stories with a supernatural flare, try Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. On a small island surrounded by cruel stormy seas, lives revolve around a yearly race. But these races use no ordinary horses. Instead the jockeys ride on water horses, wild and unpredictable creatures that are herded from the sea and ridden by only the bravest, most reckless young men on the island. That is until Puck enters the race. Puck is the first female rider to ever enter the race, and many would love to see her fail. This is not an option for Puck, however; her family’s house and land depend on the outcome of the race. If this pressure is not enough for a young orphan trying to support her siblings, Puck must also fight to ignore her growing feelings for the race’s returning champion, a quiet young man with his own haunted past.

exterminator_cover_0Finally, I’ve got something for the history buffs. If you ask a casual racing fan about the winner of the 1918 Kentucky Derby, Exterminator, you are likely to get a blank stare. I’ll admit, I had never heard of him before reading Eliza McGraw’s Here Comes Exterminator!: The Long Shot Horse, the Great War, and the Making of an American Hero. Exterminator was a fascinating horse, a long-shot turned hero who raced an astounding 99 times in his career. McGraw expertly weaves Exterminator’s story into a larger saga that captures a snapshot of the United States in the years surrounding World War I, a traumatic time filled in equal measures with ebullient glamour and puritanical temperance.

Hopefully you are now feeling some small sliver of my excitement for Saturday’s race. And if you want to know who I like to win, you’ll have to find me in the Library.

America Undone

It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel….a little itchy and anxious to be honest.

It is possible that I enjoyed myself an inappropriate amount while reading Omar El Akkad’s American War. The title probably betrays this fact, but this is not exactly a delightful romp. Set in the late 21st Century during the second Civil War, this novel 32283423presents an upsetting and eerily plausible portrayal of our near future. Ostensibly this war is fought over a national ban on fossil fuels, but the roots of the conflict creep far deeper into the national psyche, playing on centuries old resentments and cultural differences (but good news – “proud, pacifist Cascadia” is far from the front lines).

American War follows the life of a young woman named Sarat, born into a chaotic South devastated by flooding, famine, war, and the worst elements of humanity. Sarat spends her formative years in a refugee camp, witnessing both the fanatical partisanship of the Southern rebels and the cruel indifference of the Northern war machine. As Sarat grows older, she finds herself drawn into the war that has defined her existence, becoming an agent of death that will help shape history and bring about grave and devastating consequences.

So, yeah, I realize that doesn’t sound terribly cheery, but El Akkad’s deft narrative style sucked me deep into this novel. By mixing Sarat’s story with government dispatches, oral reports, written records and other “source material,” American War had the feel of an upsetting historical account. At the same time I found myself without context, unsure of how events would unfold and where bias existed in the presentation, but still burdened by the full knowledge of these events terrible impact.

Station_Eleven_CoverPerhaps I have a morbid streak as I have always enjoyed dark and disastrous accounts of imagined futures. For me, the immediate comparison for American War is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Like American War, Station Eleven presents our future in stark and frightening terms – it follows a travelling Shakespearean troupe in the years after a viral pandemic devastates humanity, leaving only scattered pockets of survivors in its wake. It also shares American War’s storytelling technique, incorporating various source materials from before, during, and after the height of the catastrophe.

World_War_Z_book_coverI feel compelled to also mention World War Z, by Max Brooks. Please don’t judge this book because of the movie based on it. Designed to be read as an oral history, each section is narrated by a different survivor of a zombie apocalypse, describing responses and containment attempts by different groups across the globe. With this narrative Brooks crafts a book that is as much a consideration of international relations as it is a zombie novel. Rather than a work of horror, this is a novel of logistics and strategy in the face of terrible catastrophe. If you enjoy audiobooks, this title makes a particularly great listen as many talented and diverse voices were cast to portray the book’s narrators.

unwindNow, I’m a Youth Services Librarian and I just talked about three ADULT novels, so I have to plug some YA. The Unwind series by Neal Shusterman takes place after a second American civil war fought over reproductive rights. When partisan militias fight to a stalemate, a compromise is reached. Though abortion is outlawed, unwanted children between ages 13 and 18 can be “unwound,” a process through which they are physically dismantled and recycled for transplants. The justification for this macabre policy is that every part of the unwound teenagers is reused, and therefore the body lives on. I realize that this premise sounds as absurd as it is disgusting, but Shusterman is a masterful writer and takes the time to illustrate how this policy slowly developed at the hands of well-meaning policy makers. By the end of the series it feels a little too plausible for my comfort.

ashfallpb_hiresMike Mullin’s Ashfall also does a superb job portraying societal collapse. Ashfall follows a teen after the (very real) supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park erupts. Spoiler alert: things don’t go well unless you’re a fan of sunless days, endless winter, famine, and roving gangs of cannibals. Despite a whole lot of death and destruction, this is an enjoyable and ultimately hopeful series. Scientists confidently assert that this supervolcano won’t erupt anytime soon. Probably.

136471._SX1280_QL80_TTD_Finally, before I leave to ponder our impending ruin, I just want to mention one graphic novel. Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra follows a twenty something slacker named Yorick and his pet monkey after a mysterious virus leaves them the only two living males of any species. Chaos quickly ensues and it is awesome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short walk from “great book” to “WE’RE ALL DOOMED.” If you need me, I’ll be taking deep breaths and either hiding under a desk or stockpiling canned goods.

Book and an Album: Identity and Otherness

If you want to excite a Librarian, tell them that a book award is being announced. Seriously, try it. We love these prize/honor lists because we get to see incredible authors and illustrators get the recognition they deserve, but also because it is a surefire way to find remarkable books to read and share with others. I discovered Watched by Marina Budhos when it was named an honor book for the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. A short plot summary was enough to convince me I had to read this book.

Naeem is a young man caught between expectations and desires. As a first generation Bangladeshi immigrant, he is aware of the sacrifices that his parents make for him, and feels the pressure to succeed. As a Muslim, he knows that he is expected to be respectful and pious even while he questions his faith. And finally, as an older brother he knows that he is a role model to a young boy who reveres him.

Watched-CoverYet Naeem has his own ideas. He goes to school in Queens and his experiences are far different from his parents and other elders. And because Naeem is a teenager, his brain is hardwired to make some rash decisions (really – it’s science). After making a string of poor choices, it isn’t too surprising when Naeem finds himself in an interrogation room facing accusations and likely arrest by the NYPD. Instead, the police offer Naeem an alternative – watch his neighborhood and its mosques, report on “suspicious” activity, and make some decent money in the process.

Naeem desperately agrees to this offer and things start off fairly well. Naeem feels like a hero. He believes that by watching his neighborhood he can keep trouble makers from ruining the reputation of the hard-working majority of his community. It doesn’t hurt that he is also earning enough money to help his parents make ends meet. But as the pressure to produce actionable intelligence increases, and the police turn their focus to people close to Naeem, he faces difficult choices about his identity, his community and his sense of right and wrong.

While Watched deals with heavily politicized topics, the book has few outright heroes or villains. Watched works largely in the gray, giving complex motives to characters whether they are exploitative police officers, terror suspects, misunderstanding parents or troubled teenagers. The ideas in this novel are as nuanced as the characters and Budhos uses Naeem’s trials to explore difficult questions. Among the most significant concepts in Watched is that of the “good immigrant,” a nebulous phrase that can serve as a disservice to both those it includes and excludes. Watched is a compelling story that left me unsettled, challenged my assumptions, and rewarded my time.

a0908914594_16Need an album to pair with Watched? Try the Swet Shop Boys’ debut album, Cashmere. Swet Shop Boys are the rappers Heems and Riz MC, better known as the actor Riz Ahmed. Together, they make music that is both pointedly political and raucously hilarious, with gorgeous production that leans heavily on South Asian samples. Heems and Riz MC trade rhymes exploring identity, race, inequality and otherness with dexterity, refusing to shy away from controversy and pushing the comfort boundaries of the listener. Given that Heems first broke out as part of the group Das Racist, with the song Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, it should come as no surprise that this album has plenty of lighter moments and more than a few explicit references. Make no mistake; this is an album that provokes. Several of the songs tell stories from perspectives that may offend. Yet these are also stories that feel real and urgent, presenting perspectives that are underrepresented in both popular music and hip-hop.

The Female of the Species

This is how I kill someone.

I learn his habits, I know his schedule. It is not difficult. His life consists of quick stops at the dollar store for the bare minimum of things required to keep his ragged cycle going, his hat pulled down over his eyes so as not to be recognized.

But he is. It’s a small town.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for opening lines. The above quote, which opens Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species, is narrated by Alex Craft, a teenager in a small Ohio town hit hard by recession and harder by opioid addiction. The soon-to-be-victim that Alex is stalking is the man who abducted, raped and killed her older sister three years prior. Due to a lack of evidence, police cannot make charges stick. Thus, the killer walks free until Alex takes ferocious justice into her own hands.

femalespeciesAmazingly, in a small town with no secrets, Alex gets away with murder. People are satisfied that a vigilante “made things right,” and the killer’s death evolves from recent crime to urban legend. But for Alex, this act of savage violence bears its own costs. Though she feels no guilt, she remains overcome with rage and views herself as deeply damaged. To protect others and herself, Alex withdraws, keeping to herself whenever possible. However, during her senior year of high school two classmates threaten her seclusion. Peekay, the local preacher’s daughter and Jack, the closest thing the town has to a golden child, are both drawn to Alex and determined to bring her into their lives. As Alex begins to care for Peekay and Jack, she feels a fierce need to protect them, bringing her anger back to the surface with explosive and violent effects.

At times, The Female of the Species is deeply upsetting. McGinnis does not shy away from uncomfortable subjects including addiction, sexual assault, rape culture, and the unequal expectations society places on young men and women. McGinnis gives her characters the voice to skewer hypocrisy with devastating precision, as when Alex observes: “But boys will be boys, our favorite phrase that excuses so many things, while the only thing we have for the opposite gender is women, said with disdain and punctuated with an eye roll.”

The Female of the Species rewards readers willing to grapple with these difficult issues by masterfully blending genres. McGinnis seamlessly maintains the intensity of a psychological thriller while incorporating elements of a contemporary coming of age story and flirting with classical tragedy. As the story unfolds, told from the alternating perspectives of Alex, Peekay and Jack, Alex is revealed to be an incredibly complex young woman whose intensity, ferocity and loyalty are equally mesmerizing and terrifying.