Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Martian, by Andy Weir

Sunrise will be at 7:38 am, sunrise will be at 5:08 pm.

It's still full dark as I start typing here at a few minutes before 7 am.  The radio says it will be warm today, 45 degrees right now.  That's nice because it has been damp-ish and cold and... I really can't complain, can I?  We don't have snow or floods so...a scarf, some gloves, we're good.  I did have to put socks on when I got out of my very comfortable, very warm bed but I didn't have to wrap up any outward facing metal pieces, the sugar water didn't freeze in the hummingbird feeder, and I won't have to wear a hat today.  I am looking forward to a HOT shower, though.

The big building across the valley from us, the old veteran's hospital, is lit by blue and green lights these days in honor of the Seahawks' participation in this week's Superbowl.  I don't usually follow football but this is pretty exciting stuff for Seattle.  There are big 12s all over town, flags and post-it note art of the Seahawks' logo in windows, skyscrapers with all the lights out except for the ones that write out "12".  For those not aware, 12 stands for the 12th Man on the Field, the fans.  The fans are really noisy, yes, seismically loud, and have been known to throw off the other team because they can't hear their plays. 

I wonder what people on flights into SeaTac think as they fly over the city, see it all lit up in blue and green, with a skyline full of 12s?
Rainier Tower downtown Seattle all lit up for the Superbowl

I love science fiction and February brings us one of my very favorite books this year, The Martian, by Andy WeirThe Martian takes place in the fairly near future as Mars landings and explorations are in their infancy.  Six days after the first Mars landing occurs, a massive storm overtakes the team and they are forced to abort the mission.  But one of the crew is skewered by a pole and can't make it to the lander.  The rest of the crew believes he is dead and are forced to evacuate or they will all perish.

A few hours after the rocket leaves the surface of Mars, Mark Watney wakes up still in his suit.  Air pressure has forced the blood in his helmet to close the cracks, he is completely alone on a planet 6 months space flight from home, has no way to contact anyone, and a sincere desire to stay alive as long as possible.

The Martian is his journal about how he survives on Mars, alone and mostly in the dark and cold.

This is one of the best survival stories I've read recently and I think it would be a really good book for boys 13 and up (good for everyone, really, over 13).  It's packed with science and physics, it's funny (truly spit take funny) and poignant, and once you get started, you are going to want to keep reading until you're done.  It is a wild ride and, yes, it is rocket science.

The author, Andy Weir, was hired as a programmer for a lab at age 15 and has been a software engineer ever since.  There were a few times when the humor seemed a little forced, and my husband (a journalist by trade) was a little put of by the constant cursing by the woman who was controlling the press.  I didn't really notice that part, she was under a lot of pressure, but I did think about the f-word's presence as far as schools and school librarians recommending it to students.  Luckily, I have no problems with it and will be talking about it to EVERYONE.

This is a GREAT book for the Common Core curriculum and for any school that has a STEM program. (Crown.  Available February 2014.  Adult but good for anyone over 13 who likes survival stories.)

PS  My husband, D, can't wait for us to share this with his brother and I can't wait to share it with my nephew.  I sense a small family bookgroup in the making.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Ambassador Kate

Sunrise today was at 7:51, Sunset will be at 4:48.  It's foggy, overcast and gray.  No bright colors except for that rampaging hummingbird, a flash of scarlet as he twists at the feeder.  Everything is dun and fir, gray and bark. Most of the birds are the same quiet dirt colors, the ivy is a brighter dull green.  It's cold, and even with the curtains all open, it feels like the shadows are shimmying for more space.  Spring is on its way, though, and the daphne blossoms, the bits that didn't freeze and drop off, are pinkening right up.  I think it's finally time to get rid of the sticks that are all that remain of the huge coleuses (coleii?) on the porch and find something a little more festive to put in those great big pots on the porch.  This time of year is why I leave the Christmas balls in bowls and hanging in the windows, just a little extra shine when the sun isn't out.

Yay for Kate DiCamillo!

This is Kate!
Last  July I got an invitation to be part of the committee to choose the next Ambassador for Young People's Literature.  Yes, I know, isn't that just the epitome of cool?  I went to New York at the end of August, stayed by myself in a little hotel on the edge of Times Square, and spent a couple of hours in the cozy, book filled offices of the Children's Book Council with the rest of the committe: a couple of librarians, a couple of teachers, a bookseller (ME!), and the current Ambassador, WALTER DEAN MYERS!  Be still my heart!  It was a heady couple of hours, let me tell you. The following list is who was on the committee.
  • Walter Dean Myers, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, 2012-2013
  • Luann Toth, managing editor, Book Review, School Library Journal
  • Rene Kirkpatrick, Eagle Harbor Book Company, Bainbridge Island, Wash.
  • John Sexton, assistant library director, Greenburgh Public Library, Elmsford, N.Y.
  • John Schumacher, teacher-librarian, Brooks Forest Elementary, Oak Brook, Ill.
  • Cathryn M. Mercier, director, Center for the Study of Children’s Literature; director, M.A. Children’s Literature and M.F.A. Writing for Children degree programs; English professor, Simmons College, Boston
There is nothing, NOTHING, like being in a room with other people who do what you do but differently.  The room vibrated with excitement, being there to talk about books and authors...Nothing is like that.  Well, I guess there are other people in other jobs who get that feeling, but hey, it's BOOKS!  AND AUTHORS!  And people who KNOW about books and authors! I sat next to John Cole, director of Center for the Book, and had a nice talk about Nancy P. and our Center for the Book.  I think I remember that he has connections to the area; it would be nice to take him on a little tour of all our lovely bookstores and libraries.  I can't tell you how honored I was to be a part of this group.

It didn't take very long to get our long lists down to a short list; not that it was easy, we were just serious about getting it done.  There was discussion about what we thought the ambassador should be and do, information we each held came to the table, and Kate rapidly came to the front of the list.  Done and done!

Kate's platform for the next two year period is "Stories Connect Us", something that all of us who work with children and books often say.  Stories allow us to step into others' shoes, to become empathetic, to test ideas before trying them.  We become better people for them.  I can't wait to hear more from her.  Oh, the video link below is an interview with her on PBS where she says stories are stories, that people should read what they love, that there shouldn't be adult books and children's books, just books.  Love that, Kate.

Okay, now, I have to tell you about Walter Dean Myers.  I have been a fan of his from my first children's lit class at U of O where I read Fallen Angels, and fandom only increases.  I remember sitting on the curb outside the U of O bookstore on a break, drinking a coffee and reading - crying and laughing at the same time.  Sitting across from him at the CBC office, drinking in the experience, hearing about his two years of being the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, was inspiring.  He spent his time going to schools, going to juvenile detention facilities, convincing people that Reading is NOT an Option. He says, "Children who don't read are, in the main, destined for lesser lives. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to change this."
    This is Publisher's Weekly's article about Kate and the Ambassadorship
    The following is the PBS Newshour video with Kate.  Sorry, I can't upload the video here, you'll have to do it yourself:

    If you haven't had a chance to read Kate DiCamillo's newest book, Flora and Ulysses, please head to your nearest independent bookstore and get a copy.  You will love it and then you can share it with your kids and they will love it.  If you don't have a local bookstore, give me a call, and we'll take you in and make you a part of the Eagle Harbor Books community!

    Flora and Ulysses is the story of a lonely little girl, divorced family, a sad dad and a recently vacuumed-up squirrel who now has superpowers. Flora reads a lot of comics and has been reading the Terrible Things Can Happen to You! series and is beginning to think in word bubbles.   Their adventures begin when she rescues the squirrel from the vacuum disaster and Ulysses discovers the typewriter and types, "Squirtel".

    Flora's been unhappy and with the discovery of a super-powered squirrel sidekick, she begins to find reasons to reach out to other people and reconnect to the world.  With Ulysses' zen-like sensibilities, his exuberance for life and the ability to express it via typewritten poems, they make a dynamic duo until her mom tells her dad to take the squirrel out, and not out as in let him go, but out in the New Jersey-Sopranos way.  Much hilarity ensues and many hearts are expanded.  Truly a laugh out loud story but one with phrases and bits that you'll re-read and then share with your partner over breakfast burritos while they say, "Uh, huh?"  because they have no idea of what you just went through.  Ages 7 and up.  (Candlewick.  Available now.  HC, $17.99.)

    PS  F&U is also illustrated by K.G. Campbell, in black and white spot illustrations and some entire comic book style scenes, a perfect companion for Kate's words. 

    Saturday, January 11, 2014

    The Good Life? Simple Life? Hmmm...

    Rene' and sister, Keeli, at G'pa and G'ma's
    Sunrise was at 7:57, sunset at 4:33 pm.

    Ugh- I hate not sleeping through the night, especially when I have to get up so early to go to work. 1:30 am wake-up call.  I just roll around remembering rep appointments that crept up, an upcoming interview, learning how to use more of the POS at the store, health issues, freezing weather and an uncovered daphne plant.  The daphne plant I could take care of RIGHT NOW, although it may have been too late. Thankfully, D can sleep through the light so I can read myself back to sleep. The hard part is finding something that won't make me want to keep reading until the alarm goes off.

    The choice of the early morning read was Chickens in the Road, not a particularly good choice because it took two hours to finally realize that my eyelids were heavy enough to stay shut. One and a half hours later, the alarm goes off and I spring (well, in my head I spring) out of bed, grabbing CITR and my glasses and head off to grab coffee and a few more minutes with it before I hit the road for the bus and ferry rides that are nothing more than free reading time.

    I have ALWAYS wanted to live on a farm.  We lived with my grandparents when I was very young.  A few acres filled with horses, rhubarb, tansy ragwort and summers full of canning jars, plastic jugs of drinking water (the well water had arsenic in it), feral cats, and running through the creek (crick if you are a Kirkpatrick from Spencer Creek) looking for frogs.  There were two barns, one for the horses and one for the tack, and electric fences buzzed in the night.  Grandma had grape arbors and a small vegetable garden.  We lived there for a few years until Mom could afford to move to town.

    The effects of  "the house" (everyone in the clan knows that when you say "the house" you mean Grandma's little white house even though she's been gone a few years) have stayed with me all this time and I have only just, only this year, realized that I am way too old to actually leave my city ways and move to a farm and do all those farm things. That realization has made me kind of sad.  How could I suddenly be too old?

    Thankfully, people actually DO make changes in their lives, at ages far earlier than 50-something, uprooting themselves and family and moving to the way outback to wrestle with chickens and snow, foxes and old orchards, learning to can beans without botulism and how to butcher a hog and then they WRITE about it!  Thank God for books and their writers! 

    Chickens in the Road was great!  Suzanne McMinn was 42 and a popular romance writer, when she decided to move to West Virginia with her partner, 52, somewhere she could have chickens that could walk in the road.  Well, she got the chickens, and then goats, a cow, an uncooperative neighbor, snow, snow and more snow, and then mud, all mixed up with her children, an kind of odd partner (what was his problem?), and all the people who make up a rural community.

    CITR is mostly a slice of life look at what it takes to live way out in the country.  She was lucky enough to have lived in West Virginia before, so she knew some people and had a safety net of sorts.  She'd done some canning and wasn't shy about asking for help, what she doesn't have is a very helpful partner or any real money.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I learned a lot, it was entertaining, and there are recipes for the food and crafts she mentions in the back.  (HarperOne.  Available now.  Hardcover, $28.99.)

    But, one book about living a sustainable life, about supporting yourself with what you make with your own two hands, just isn't enough and I happened to have a copy of Bootstrapper, by Mardi Jo Link, on the shelf, too. 

    Mardi Jo's life starts to unravel after her marriage falls apart, leaving her deep in debt on a farm in northern Michigan.  Deciding to stick it out with her 3 boys, she faces foreclosure, a bad well, feral chickens, and wins a zucchini contest that keeps the family in bread.  Over the course of the year she eventually begins to dig herself out of the depression and the money pit she's found herself drowning in, finding joy and love in the mud and defrosted remains of their only meat, getting creative with her few resources.  Her boys are the real heroes, here, although she deserves a lot of credit for raising them.  They are strong and caring boys, able and careful, willing to go along with the idea of the farm. 

    Very good, funny, but not overly rah-rah!  It's hard being a single mom with three kids and she doesn't slack on the pity parties.  She is realistic about how difficult this kind of life can be.  (Knopf.  Available now.  Hardcover, $24.95.)

    My other favorite book about living on a farm is Farm City, by Novella Carpenter.  This one has been out for a while and I still sell it to the people on the island who are thinking about getting chickens and starting a garden.  Novella moved to Ghost City from the Seattle area, a rundown neighborhood near Oakland, and started a farm. She started with chickens and bees and eventually expanded it from her house and yard into the abandoned lot next door.  The pig might have been a breaking point for any other partner, but obviously, Novella chose the right one (partner, not pig.  Well, maybe the pig, too).  She decided that if she's going to eat meat, she needs to raise and then slaughter the pig.  Chasing around fancy restaurant dumpsters for leftovers to feed the pig is funny, learning what goes into getting a pig ready for food is fascinating.  The part about the effects of live animals on kids in the neighborhood is amazing and surprising.  Give it a try, you'll want a beehive next!  (Penguin Books.  Available now.  $16.00.) 

    Saturday, January 4, 2014

    Hild, A Big Book for the New Year

    This is where I write.  I watch the birds from here.

    Sunrise was at 7:57 am, sunset will be at 4:32 pm.

    It's a beautiful day in our neighborhood, today.  The sun's out, the sky's blue, and the little brown birds are flocking at the bird feeder.  There are a dozen  little brown striped and stippled birds, juncos?  wrens?  I don't know, chickadees I recognize.  One of these little guys has eaten so much he doesn't look like he can fly - he's sitting on a blackberry cane, so round he looks like an ornament.

    I wish my camera was good enough to capture the sky over the Sound - sometimes it is so dramatic, so otherworldly, it looks like it's been designed by animators rather than by weather.  New Year's Eve was one of those afternoons.  Mid-trip, about 10 minutes into the ride home, the boat slowed and the captain announced that there were orcas on the left side, the north side, of the boat.  Of course, everyone headed over and people made room for all to look out.  I didn't see anything from there, but the couple next to me said, "Look, there they are!  Happy New Year!"  and then the captain said, "They're all around us!"  I got chills and grabbed my stuff, heading off to the back of the boat (it's a ferry so the back at this point was facing Bainbridge) where there's a wider, no back light, view.  There, in a silver wedge of light, were the backs and flukes of many whales, traveling south. I've seen whales a couple of times in the year of riding the ferry, but not like this, rising and falling, looking out and seeing the break of water over and over.

    When I couldn't see the orcas any longer, I looked at the sky and it was epic!  That silver wedge of light where the sun cut through the mountains, lighting the ferry's route to Seattle, and a biblical purple, black, roil of clouds on either side of that wedge. The ferries heading past us to Bremerton and BI sparkled and glowed in their passage westward, the rickrack wave of water along the ferry bottoms and the wake a brilliant white  in the darkness.  One of the most amazing rides home I've experienced so far.

    One of my very favorite books this year, out of EVERYthing I've read this year, is Hild, by Seattle author Nicola Griffiths.  A big, rollicking, epic book about a young woman named Hild who lives in 7th century Britain,  the story starts when she is 3 years-old, a smart, thoughtful, caring child being raised to be the king's seer. Hild's uncle is the king, so she is in a particularly awkward position; as long as her predictions are correct, as long as everything goes in the king's favor, Hild gets to live.  Fortunately, Hild is well able to read people, landscape, the weather and uses those observations to lead the king to make better decisions.

    Hild is based on a real woman, Saint Hild of Whitby, born at the time when Christianity was just beginning to butt up against paganism.  There isn't a lot known about the real Hild, only that she was able to read and eventually became the adviser to statesmen and kings.  Nicola wrote the book to find out how she survived not only her birth as the second child to a widowed mother but the changes coming as the petty kingdoms became literate states.  She studied the history, archeology, poetry, art, and literature available at the time, placing our fictional Hild in a fully realized world of monks, dye vats, sheep, horrific death, season changes, and the ways of the women of the time.  Hild, the book, is more than a re-imagined biography of a person, it is a look into what Hild, the woman, would have seen and done as she tries to keep herself and her people safe in a dangerous time.

    Hild is big, well over 500 pages, and filled with descriptions of the world at that time.  The different languages can keep you from reading smoothly for the first pages but you'll soon blithely leap from gutteral Germanic to hushing Welsh in no time.  The advance reading copy I read didn't have a map or an author's note, it didn't have the pronunciation guide, but the finished copy does.  It also includes a glossary and a family tree, something I found very useful.

    This is a book that young adults would thoroughly enjoy, if given enough time to read.  It's realistic, and extraordinarily well-written and would be a good suggestion for anyone who loves Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon.  Good for STEM and Core Curriculum lists, too, as it is chock-full of history, science, botany, astronomy, geography, and the social lives of small villages.

    (Farrar Straus and Giroux.  Available now.  $27.00.  Ages 16+.)

    Friday, January 3, 2014

    Two Yellow Books: Mr. Penumbra and Radiant Filmstrips

    Even when it seems dark and cold, there's new growth.

    Sunrise was at 7:58 am, sunset will be at 4:31 pm.  1 minute, 6 seconds more daylight since Solstice. A quiet, inside-voice YAWP goes here.  I am so looking forward to lighter skies when I get off the ferry, looking forward to wanting to stay away from my bed until at least 7 pm.

    I love the coziness of Winter.  I turn all the tiny lights on, the Christmas lights that are up all year, the little lamps that cast small yellow glowing circles under their shades, the strings of lights along the walls.  No big lights for me this time of year, no, I like the wombiness of it all.  I just want to stay awake long enough to enjoy it!

    I love to cook when it start to gets dark, standing at the window and watching the neighbors coming home to their own yellow lit doorways, their own little fenced yards, their warm dogs waiting on the other side of the door.  Our little street is strung in Christmas lights that stay up all year long and there are a few low street lights that make everything feel like something out of a Narnia story.  Everyone walking on the street has somewhere exciting to go, usually accompanied by a dog, although at a slower pace this time of year.

     I just finished reading a couple of books written for grown-ups that really have nothing in common except that they were amazingly good and the covers are yellow.  One glows in the dark. Most of you know that I prefer to read children's and young adult books so to find, read, and enjoy books for adult readers can be a real chore for me.  They don't move quickly enough or they are too introspective or weird...I don't know, I prefer the books on the edges of literary fiction, I guess - or things that can be shared with someone else because it is universal in its story.  Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, and A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, by Kevin Brockmeier, filled all my requirements for a good read on a dark day.

    Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was so much fun!  There's a little mystery, science fiction, a 24 hour bookstore in a big city, a secret cult dredging secrets for eternal life out of text, the merging of the computer worlds and paper book worlds, and, if I'd actually stopped reading long enough to make notes, a pretty good reading list, too!

    MP24HB is the story of a young man, Clay, out of a web-design job who serendipitously finds work as an old-school (and I do mean OLD SCHOOL) bookseller on the graveyard shift at a 24 hour bookstore where no one seems to buy anything.  A very odd collection of customers find their way into the store, borrowing extremely weird and old books, most of which don't seem to be written in a language he is familiar with.  As Clay watches and starts to know his customers, and as interesting as these books might be, he starts to wonder what really goes on here.  Grabbing new and old friends to do a little investigating, they eventually find that the store is a front for a vast search for the secret of endless life.

    MP24HB is funny and clever and a lovely look at the world of bookstores and books (can't really say bookselling since very little of that happens here) and the joy of knowledge and of friendship.  I loved how seamlessly Mr. Sloan combined the two sides of the book world, the paper and boards side with the downloadable and lit glass side.  Something we may well have to get much more comfortable with (sigh).  It was just a good romp and would be good for older teens as well as adults.  It just came out in paperback and, yes, the PB glows in the dark, too.  Well, the cover glows, the pages still need to be read in light.
    (Farrar Straus and Giroux.  $15.00.  Ages 16 and up.)

    I have no idea what made me pick this book up.  I don't think I've read anything else by him. The advance reading copy I have has only black type (title, author, etc.) on a bright yellow cardstock cover.  I usually don't read memoir or biography since I don't often know who they're about or care about the subject.  I think A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip may change my opinion about memoir, at least.

    FSRF was absolutely enthralling. Maybe because, timewise, it is familiar and recognizable.  The music and the cultural references are things I'm familiar with and I'm now old enough to recognize them as artifacts of my youth, the book slides in to that space in my life like a CD into the only space left on the rack.  I was also a seventh grader, once, and all seventh graders go through the same kinds of things, only the packaging changes.

    Kevin B. has, in this tiny volume, captured the universal feeling of what it means to be 12, all the fear, embarrassment, zits, wonder, and confusion that comes with being that age, but he uses such good words to share it!  Give this to a 12 year-old and they will see themselves in it (although they probably won't appreciate it), give this to someone my age and the memories will color and enhance the words on the page.  I was such a Kevin when I was that age.  Clumsy, so thoughtful that it backfired, friends who were loving and hateful at the same time, awkward, too tall, too big, too too too everything...

    Kevin, looking back from the advantage of some number of decades, knows he is a boy on the edge of something big, he has no idea what it is, but he is ready to re-invent himself.  He longs for more, he longs for better friends who understand him, maybe he longs for a girlfriend, at least a kiss from someone other than his mom; he longs for something he doesn't even know he wants. But he still feels most comfortable playing and hanging out talking about books with a new friend.  He cries when his feelings are hurt, he wants to hug and be hugged. He's not quite sure what everyone's talking about. Over the course of the year he starts to find his way, as most of us eventually do.

    This was a funny and poignant book, filled with lots of cringe-worthy scenes (most of which we'll identify with), good humor, and thoughtful writing.  It's hard to write a small book, it takes a lot fewer words and they have to be the exactly right ones.  Thank you, Kevin Brockmeier, for finding those words and sharing them with us!  (Pantheon Books.  Available April 2014. $24.95.)

    No recompense received for these reviews.

    Thursday, January 2, 2014

    Happy Solstice!

    The view from the Bainbridge side of the water.

    Sunrise was at 7:55, sunset will be at 4:20 pm.

    Happy Solstice, all!  It's the shortest day of the year, 8 hours, 25 minutes and 24 seconds of daylight, today.  Tomorrow?  We'll be up by 3 seconds!  Calloo, Callay!

    In honor of our still beautiful and fairly gentle sunrises and sunsets, I give you the book of the day: Burn Out, by Kristi HelvigBurn Out is a rip-roaring, science fiction adventure featuring Tora Reynolds, the last person on Earth, as far as she knows. 

    300 years ago, an asteroid on an interception path with Earth was coming around the sun.  The powers that be decided to try and deflect the moon-sized rock with a rocket, pushing it into the sun. 
    Unfortunately,the asteroid had more dark matter than the scientists anticipated and the sun started to burn hydrogen faster. Soon the helium at the core was depleted and the sun began to burn out.  As the sun started to die, it became much larger and life on earth disappeared.  300 years later, there are no oceans, water is only available in the air, and, when an earth-like planet was found, those who could, mostly the wealthy and the scientists, flew as fast as they could to escape certain death, taking with them all the politics, jealousy, and hatred they were part of on Earth.

    Tora's life in her underground bunker is, as dull as it is, pretty darned exciting.  She spends her time watching the little red lights on all her life support, hoping they don't change and blink out, watching her computer for anyone who might discover her website, and watching the artwork her dead sister made of flowers she'd never seen.  When an old "friend" comes to visit from the new planet to try and convince her to give him the really good guns her scientist father left her so he can sell them to the politicians, life takes a completely different turn and dull would be a good thing.

    This is the kind of science fiction I love!  Strong characters, good story building, science that makes sense (as far as I can tell), and something both sexes would thoroughly enjoy.  Our world is really bleak but human resilience is strong.  Tora and the people who want her guns are complex and well-developed and have a lot to lose if they can't figure out a way to work together.  There is romance and fighting, massive wind storms in the nights, hope and despair, and it was a book I could not put down.  I can't wait to tell people about it! 

    Teachers:  This could be a really good book to recommend to your students as it has a ton of good Common Core and STEM ingredients to it. 

    (Egmont.  Available April 14. Ages 12 and up.  Call Eagle Harbor Books if you want a copy held for you!)
    (No recompense received for this post.)