On the Road with David Sedaris

David Sedaris brings you into his life and adventures with his 9th and probably best book yet, Calypso.  The 21 stories and personal essays will amuse, shock and lead to an understanding of the family and brilliance of Sedaris.

He’ll take you to Tokyo where he and sister Amy buy absurd clothing (clown pants with suspenders, a trio of hats meant to be worn together) that ‘refuse to flatter.’

He’ll show you what he goes through in his attempt to make a wild fox his friend.

He’ll take you to the post-dinner dining room table of his youth where he and his 4 siblings would vie for their chance to either light their mom’s cigarette or tell her their daily story. Mom Sedaris would give helpful notes to each (“lose the part about the teacher….” or “cut to the chase here…”)

You’ll go with him on his Fitbit-induced walks from his countryside home in Sussex. By the time he works up to 60,000 steps a day, he’s sporting a grabber in one hand and a big garbage bag in the other. He imagines stories to go along with each piece of interesting garbage. Neighbors report to his long-suffering boyfriend, Hugh, such things as “We saw David in Arundel pick up a dead squirrel with his grabbers” or “We saw him outside Steyning rolling a tire down the side of the road.”

Hugh, seemingly in permanent eye-roll mode, has a lot to contend with when the rest of the Sedaris clan are around. And they’re around a lot after Sedaris buys a beach house off the coast of North Carolina. The vacation home, purposefully without any TV, gives Sedaris and his 90+ year old father Lou, brother (plus sister-in-law and niece) and four sisters a place to be together on holidays. The four sisters become three in the aftermath of the youngest one’s suicide. This fact is dealt with off and on throughout the book in the inimitable fashion of Sedaris.

Sedaris finds his always critical father has been replaced by a nicer more agreeable one. And while Sedaris admits it makes a better story to hang onto the cantankerous Dad he remembers from his youth, he still makes a good case for holding a grudge. David is the only one taken out of Dad’s will after a particularly spectacular argument.

Sedaris writes beautifully about the moment the two found common ground. “Just Listen,” his dad commands the 15 year-old, as he goes about playing John Coltrane’s ‘I wish I knew” and Betty Carter’s “Beware My Heart.”  I won’t spoil it for you by quoting the ending here. You’ll just have to read the book for yourself. And, when you get to page 141 and 142, you might want to que the music and JUST READ!

Forgotten Gods

I’ve often wondered what happens to gods when people move from one country to another. When mass immigration from far-flung climes began, did people bring their gods with them? Or was all that water too much to cross? Yes, people brought their beliefs and their folklore but they tucked them away in cupboards and basements in the name of assimilation. But was belief enough to lure those gods vast distances before time passed and they became entirely forgotten?

In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, not only have people forgotten about worshiping their gods but they’ve begun to forget (and ignore) them in favor of two new gods: media and technology. The old gods have taken notice. No one sacrifices in their names anymore, their images are no longer scratched on walls, paper, or flesh.

Shadow Moon is an ex-con serving his last few days in prison. He has this overwhelming feeling that something dark is coming. He’s released three days early to attend the funeral of his wife who died in a car accident along with his best friend. At the airport on the way to the funeral, Shadow meets Wednesday, an older gentleman who seems particularly skilled in getting what he wants. At times a doddering old man and at others full of flickering eyes and thrumming lust, Wednesday offers Shadow a job. It takes some time to talk him into it, but Shadow finally agrees after seeing he has nothing left to go home to.

He becomes Wednesday’s chauffeur and gopher, driving him long distances to specific landmarks and to meet with certain people. Shadow thinks Wednesday might be a demented old man, grumbling about the old days and alluding to a coming war. He watches as the old god charms old friends like Mr. Nancy (aka Anansi from West African and Caribbean lore who takes the shape of a spider) and Ostara (better known as a pagan holiday appropriated by the Catholics into Easter) and a whole cast of gods and myths. At first, Shadow pulls a Scully (you know, from the X-Files) and doesn’t believe a word from Wednesday or the other gods until he finally has to admit all the strange happenings cannot be explained away. Shadow suffers from visions, something that never happened before he met Wednesday.

Meanwhile the ‘new gods’, representing the Internet and anything modern, kidnap Shadow and try to convince him to join their winning team and be one of the good guys. Why do they think they’re the good guys who will win? Even the Germans thought they were the good guys who would win. Each side thinks their stand is the right one. What Shadow can’t figure out is why he’s so important to both sides.

I can’t tell you that because the point of my blogs is to talk you into reading the book, a little “Hey, how are you? I think I have a story here you will like.” I hate spoilers. I especially hate reading anything that starts with SPOILERS AHEAD. Why don’t you just tell me Santa is not real or the Easter Bunny is a myth?

Fans of folklore and mythology will be entranced by this book, thoroughly enjoying the deeply created characters who stomp off the page and into the room. Who knows, it might even motivate a few people to take out their old gods, dust them off, and put them in a shrine. Would you look at the time? I have 300 candles to light and 2 hours of chanting to the ‘God of Books’ before sunrise.

How to Win Children and Influence Parents

One of the truly great no-downside parts of my job is that I get to share pop culture enthusiasm with young people every day. Whether we’re ranking Harry Potter, judging each other’s floss skills, or kvetching about that darn pigeon, it’s often the highlight of my day. But I also love introducing young readers to their next obsession. This is great when it happens in the library, but I also enjoy being the one to swoop in with under-the-radar recommendations for the children of my friends and family. While I prefer to tailor my suggestions to the reader, I’ve found that there are certain books that rarely fail. And for the low cost of free.99, you too can be the hero of the next family gathering or dinner with friends! Here are a few of my favorite “wise-guy” picks.

9780316483018_p0_v1_s550x406It’s relatively new, but Bob Shea’s Crash, Splash, or Moo! has become the first book I grab when I have a chance to read a story aloud. This is a lightly plotted picture book formatted as a game show. The host is, of course, Mr. McMonkey and the audience’s task is simple: watch ACTION CLAM and (plain, old, boring) Cow complete in a series of increasingly preposterous stunts and predict whether they will end with a crash, a splash, or a….MOO. Like many of Shea’s books, it’s filled with bright, engaging colors and stuffed with jokes and delightfully silly scenarios. I love that this book both encourages a ton of audience participation and leaves everyone (including the reader) cackling with glee. It’s as much fun as I’ve had with a story in a long time and even when I have to read it several times in a row (by popular demand) I never get sick of it.

743b09a15d28ca3221e153270b710b93I have to make a confession about Ms. Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera. This is a stolen recommendation. My mother, who is a remarkable children’s librarian in her own right (as was her mother before her – I seem to have entered the family business) clued me in to this middle grade chapter book. Ms. Rapscott’s Girls follows the titular Ms. Rapscott, the headmistress of a “school for girls of busy parents.” These poor children are sent there because their parents simply do not have the time to care for and raise them. If that sounds awfully dark for the intended audience, fear not! Primavera builds a world that is equal parts whimsical and absurd as Ms. Rapscott and her charges embark on a series of misadventures. And my goodness, this book is at its hysterical best when it is roasting adults. I will leave you with this description of one student’s parents:

Her parents, Dr. Loulou Chissel and Dr. Lou Chissel, were very busy. They had started out in the cinder-block business and slowly but surely had worked their way up to become prominent cosmetic surgeons. In a stroke of genius Beatrice’s father, Dr. Lou Chissel, had even devised a way to fill our wrinkles and lips from the raw materials he had used to make his cinder block.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Dr. Liu often said.

But the Chissels didn’t stop there. Dr. Loulou Chissel had shortened her daughter’s name from Beatrice to Bea to save time, because Dr. Chissel was very busy experimenting with ways to grow hair on cinder blocks.

“Just think of the possibilities,” she crowed.

Dr. Lou rubbed his bald head, “Just think.”

As you can imagine, all this thinking required a great deal of quiet. But their daughter, Bea, was always wanting something -like breakfast- and she was always asking questions like, “What’s a birthday present?”

When no one answered she would get louder and louder, until she would shriek at a decibel loud enough to shatter glass:

“What’s a birthday present?!!!!!!”

This is how Beatrice Chissel became Known for Being Loud.

jason-reynolds-spidermanYA is one of my favorite areas to read, so I have many go-to books for teenagers. I was tempted to talk about Nic Stone, but I’ve blogged about both of her novels before. I thought about mentioning Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books, but I’d rather devote a future post to them. So I’ll go with my favorite, an author I talk about nearly every day but don’t write about enough, Jason Reynolds. While all of his books are transcendent, the recent popularity of Marvel’s animated film, Into the Spider-Verse, makes this a wonderful time to give a teen Miles Morales: Spider-Man.

This book follows Miles through a particularly tough stretch of his junior year of high school. His uncle just died, as has Peter Parker, his spider-sense is on the fritz, and, oh yeah, his history teacher? He might be a super-villain. Add to that the stress of school, family pressure, and his crush on a classmate and Miles has his work cut out for him! I love that this book is appropriate for a wide range of teens – I’m as comfortable recommending it to sixth graders as I am to high school seniors. Reynolds is also simply a phenomenal writer, exploring serious issues like race, class, and identity, while also flashing a masterful ability to create realistic teenage characters. Don’t take my word for it – I’m currently discussing All-American Boys, which he co-wrote with Brendan Kiely, with a high school book club and the students all agree that he nails teenage dialogue. I have little doubt that Miles is the Spider-man we need right now and I can think of no one better than Jason Reynolds to do him justice.

Rumor Has It

What the heck must it be like to be so confident in yourself that you could see someone you like, march right up to them, and say: “You. I’m taking you home to my bed right now.” Not only to have the confidence to say that, but also the confidence to know that the person is going to nod yes, take your hand, and let you lead them to a place where you can be alone. Mind you, I’ve just downed more than half a box of cold medicine, a feat that would impress Keith Richard, so I’m also wondering how men can have sex with a lamp on or the curtains open, letting all that new moon shine down on, well, all that moon.

In Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen, Jack is a promiscuous high school student and I mean promiscuous in the best way possible: he likes himself and he likes sex. He likes it a lot. And for that, he’s become fodder for the high school gossip mill. The girls bathroom is right next to the boys and once a week Jack enjoys a solitary cigarette while listening to the latest news about himself through the thin walls of the bathroom. Evidently, any male he makes eye contact with becomes a conquest. It’s been said he was part of a forgy (an orgy of 3 or more people). Many of the rumors about him are wrong except that he does like sex. He’s just not about doing it for popularity.

One day he opens his locker and a note slips out. It seems he has a secret admirer. He can’t tell if it’s sweet or creepy. His best friend Ben, a romantic who is still waiting on his fist kiss, thinks it’s sweet while Jenna, with her razor sharp tongue, thinks it’s a little stalkery.

Jenna got kicked off the school’s newspaper for articles like which teacher was pulled over for a DUI, so now she does online news. She wants Jack to answer sex, relationship, and life questions for her blog. He’s reluctant to put himself out there, giving advice he’s afraid might mess someone’s life up. But he starts reading submitted questions and gets hooked. His answers to questions would make Doctor Ruth turn bright red and fall off her sex therapist chair.

Jack begins to get more notes slipped into his locker. They’ve gone from sweet to restraining order worthy. The notes begin to threaten his friends and his mother. Jack’s always been close with his mom but lately he feels like they haven’t been connecting. He doesn’t know who his father is. His mom chose a sperm donor. One of the notes threatens her job. He does his best to keep the notes from her.

He confides in his beloved art teacher. (Why is there always that one teacher you know will be in your corner and fight for you? And why can’t that happen when you become an adult and get a boss?) She takes Jack and the notes to the principal. The principal basically says that Jack brings it on himself, wearing a little make up to make his looks stand out. Just when Jack is going to give up and give in to his stalker, he finds out who it is. And it’s not anyone who’d ever be on the suspect list.

Full of love, doubt, and confusion, Jack of all Hearts is about not apologizing for who you are or playing into the cliche of how everyone thinks certain people should act.

Excuse me, the other half of the NyQuil box is calling and Keith Richards is mumbling about how amazed he is someone can survive that ( except nobody can understand him so someone finds a translator.) Be yourself, have as much sex as you can, be safe, protect your heart but if it gets broken, let it be broken for awhile before you find the super glue in the junk drawer.

Morning Routines

I’m pretty much the last person to notice a trend and definitely the last one to hang on to a trend once it’s started. The last woman to wear those cat eye glasses of the 1950’s – that’d be me. The final one to be into the huge shoulder-padded clothing of the 80’s – me again. And, there’s no doubt that I’ll be the last one in leggings after they’ve fizzled out with the rest of the world.

But now I am really in on something from the beginning and it is quite simply this:  thinking about how we spend our first hours after waking up.

I know I’m not the only one thinking about this subject, because the Wall Street Journal just had a feature article on how people have carved out time for themselves just after they wake up. Further proving my point, Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander just came out with a book called My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired.

Spall and Xander  have interviewed over 60 prominent people and asked them things like:

Do you use an alarm to wake up? Most don’t and many get up naturally or with a pets assisting at about 5:30 or 6.

What are your most important tasks? Many intentionally keep technology, specifically cell phones, at bay.

While coffee and meditation figures prominently, each person interviewed has carved their own unique way of keeping the world away until they’re ready. The interviews include people with young children, retired generals, tech start-up entrepreneurs, artists and writers. They share what happens to their routines when traveling, and how they feel when unable to follow their established routines.

There are even a few people from the Northwest in the book – novelist Ruth Ozeki, Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson, and Bob Moore from Bob’s Red Mill. I loved being privy to these individuals’ morning routines and I think you will too. The two authors summarize throughout the book, addressing the idea of flexibility in morning routines and the importance of changing what’s not working.

This book made me think about my morning routine and how I can change it when I’m no longer working. I may wake the cat up, instead of the other way around, just for starters. I think about people all over who are relishing those early morning hours, as I do. For me, this was just the right book at the right time.

The World According to Fannie Davis

I have always heard the phrase ‘running numbers.’ I’ve seen it in movies and mentioned in books, but I realized after reading The World According to Fannie Davis by Bridget Davis that I had NO IDEA what it really meant!

Of course I kind of assumed it was to do with gambling, but never gave it another thought past that. Bridgett opened my eyes to a whole lifestyle that I had never even suspected existed. I was amazed at the intricacies of the numbers game, people’s superstitions choosing their numbers, and how the whole system worked.

Bridget’s mother, Fannie Davis, was a remarkable woman: she ran her ‘business,’ took care of her home, and felt that her family extended to the entire neighborhood. From the time Bridgett was very young, she knew that her family would be in trouble if people found out what Mama did. While there were raids on other numbers places, theirs never suffered the same fate.

Legal lottery in Illinois was created because the government saw how much numbers runners were making and they wanted a piece of the action. At first Fannie was afraid it would hurt her business, but it seemed there were enough people who didn’t trust the government. So many, in fact, that it didn’t slow her business down much.

I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. It really was an insight into another way of life.

Here’s to the Scientists and Monkeys

Every once in a while, I read a book that must have been made for me. I don’t mean one that just aligns with my interests. I mean there’s an underground lab somewhere filled with white coated technicians experimenting with plot formula and monkeys with typewriters tapping away, all working on the singular mission to create books perfectly tailored for my taste.

That’s the only explanation I can think of for Amy Rose Capetta’s The Brilliant Death. Released in October. I only found this book last week. As I’ve read it, I’ve been increasingly impressed by the work of this cabal of scientists and monkeys that call themselves “Amy Rose Capetta” and increasingly annoyed that it took me two months and a decent amount of dumb luck to stumble upon it.

9109wewh-qlThe Brilliant Death is set in a kingdom filled with murder, intrigue, and stories of magic wielding strega. Teodora di Sangro has grown up with ample firsthand experience of violence and viscous plots. Her father is the head of one of five families that rule the kingdom. Like the mafia, these families rule through an intricate web of extortion, intimidation, and retribution that keep the people fed, clothed, and thoroughly subjugated.

Teo also carries a secret. The stregas of childhood legend are more than bedtime stories. They are real, and Teo is one of them – possibly the only one. She has always kept her magic secret, but has used it to help her family. When an enemy, rival, or other problematic person threatens them, she is quick to secretly transform them into pretty trinkets that now line her bedroom’s shelves.

Then one day, Teo’s entire world is shaken. First, her father is poisoned and falls into a coma. The new capo, who rules the five families, claims credit for the assassination attempt and summons a family representative to the capital. Teo believes she is the best choice among her father’s children to assume this task – after all, she has been secretly defending her family for years. However, Toe is also a daughter in a world where her gender effectively disqualifies her from leadership.

Yet on the same day her father falls, Teo meets Cielo. Cielo is beguiling, witty, and possibly quite dangerous. Like Teo, Cielo is a strega. And a gender fluid strega at that! Cielo’s appearance, combined with their ability to completely transform their appearance, give Teo hope that she too can transform, allowing her to travel to the capital and confront the capo. With the help of Teo’s brilliant younger brother Luca, she and Cielo set off for the capital in an uneasy alliance, one that will need to be unbreakable to survive the deceit, cruelty, and corruption that await them.

The Brilliant Death is full of mythical magic, fantastical world-building, and political intrigue in a kingdom stuffed with dastardly criminals and dashing rogues. It also prominently features queer romance, a thoughtful approach to identity, and complicated presentations of family, loyalty, and betrayal.  I’m not saying it’s a perfect book, but for me it comes pretty darn close!