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A Non-Fiction Variety Pack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hot Young Widows Club: Lessons on Survival from the Front Lines of Grief by Nora McInerny

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl

The Universe Explained: A Cosmic Q & A by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees written and illustrated by Don Brown

Reading, like summer, can be random.  Days away from school and work open the door to the unexpected, allow the senses to notice what is hidden by everyday experience.  Surprises appear on the library shelves–new titles or those that have been circulating and were missed earlier.

I’ve stumbled upon some surprises this summer, both fruitful and not.  One was pleasant, an amazing story which lived up to its buzz. One, much to my disappointment, did not.  One snuck up on me, and one made me cry.

The Universe Explained: A Cosmic Q & A literally threw itself at my feet while walking past it in the lobby.  It’s 281 pages of awesomeness, asking and answering questions you’ve had about the cosmos and then some.  Questions are divided into chapters covering the seen (celestial bodies, space exploration, technology) and the unseen (alien life, black holes, the universe’s edge).  Each question is succinctly answered on its own page and accompanied by a full-color illustration. A helpful glossary in the back defines unfamiliar terms. Authors Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest have created an accessible book with plenty of eye-catching appeal.  Use it to answer your own questions or give it to a young person (upper elementary and older) with an appetite for reading or science or both. This would be a great title to explore as a family, sparking curiosity and discussion.

I’ve long enjoyed Ruth Reichl’s food writing; her heady descriptions of the culinary life have inspired and delighted me immensely.  I was excited to finally read her latest, Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, covering her stint as Gourmet’s editor-in-chief and the magazine’s last days before being closed by Conde Nast.  I imagined a behind-the-scenes look at the Gourmet kitchens accompanied by lush descriptions of dishes created there, and that’s the outcome…sort of.  The book is long on magazine publishing and short on food. Reichl’s normally unhurried pace and rich description take a back seat to what sometimes feels like a breathless recitation of industry names and events by an avowed outsider trying to find her place in that world.  This is more a case of managed expectations on my part than an indictment of her writing quality. Save Me the Plums does exactly what it claims–explores Reichl’s journey into the world of luxury publishing, keeping her wit and outlook intact.  To explore what gems she has to offer, start with Reichl’s earlier memoirs or her amusing journey as the New York Times restaurant critic then come back to the rest of the story.

Don Brown has a talent for telling difficult stories using spare, strong words and pictures.  His non-fiction graphic novels have garnered acclaim and made award lists; more importantly, they engage readers and open them to experiences near and far.  Brown’s text and art are like a good movie soundtrack which doesn’t call attention to itself but lets the story take the spotlight. The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees is no exception.  It combines thorough research with first-hand accounts to track the plight of people fleeing war and death.  The art–pen and ink with digital paint–conveys struggle and desperation in watercolor greys and sepia tones.  The few bright spots are oranges and reds of explosions. Seemingly simplistic, the illustrations and spare text pack are moving.  Brown includes background information, research notes, and a bibliography at the end. Give this to teens and adults with an interest in current events or history or start a conversation with a teen who may have only heard of this in passing.  Also, try Brown’s other acclaimed graphic novels for teens exploring the Dust Bowl and Hurricane Katrina.

Reading Nora McInerny’s book The Hot Young Widows Club: Lessons on Survival from the Front Lines of Grief knocked me for a loop.  I haven’t cried that hard over a book since Where the Red Fern Grows in the 5th grade.  This is a 91-page grief memoir packing a gigantic, emotional gut punch.  It’s also a life preserver for the bereaved and a handy tool for those who aren’t at the moment.  (Because, as the author points out, “Here is one important thing we all have in common: literally everyone we know and love will die.”)  McInerny experienced a miscarriage plus the deaths of her father and husband within 7 weeks of each other. Afterward, she and another woman founded the titular club; along the way, she’s gathered observations, advice, and encouragement into a valuable resource for all of us.  McInerny’s forthright, concise style is packed with humor and sass. She offers support, space, and survival tips to those who are grieving and concrete advice to those who want to help but don’t know how. If you are grieving or know someone who is, try this book–it has so much to offer.

What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book review by Beth Snow

 

Coming of age stories are the bread and butter of books written for teen audiences.  They appear in a wide variety of formats, both fiction and non-fiction. Like people, they come in all shapes and sizes–which makes it more likely that readers will find a story that fits.  For teens trying to find their place in the world, it can make all the difference. Today’s title is more than just historical fiction or an object lesson; it describes a painful path to identity.

In What the Night Sings, author Vesper Stamper raises and answers the question, “When all is stripped away, who am I?”  Through her main character, Gerta Richter, she shows (in words and images) what remains of identity after a harrowing journey.  Teenage Gerta lived a life sheltered in beautiful music and in her father’s love until the Nazis came one night and put them in a cattle car bound for a concentration camp.  Only when her father’s story unfolded on the train ride, did Gerta learn she was Jewish and living under a false name. From that point on, she’s immersed in the horrors of the Holocaust surviving through luck and her skill with her father’s viola.  Barely alive at the end of the war, Gerta begins the long road to recovery at a refugee camp where she meets other survivors–each with their own physical and emotional scars, each facing decisions about the future. At 16, she must learn who she is and carve a path for herself in a world utterly, irrevocably changed.

Let’s stop there, because plot summary doesn’t begin to tell the story.  Stamper unfolds Gerta’s tale of pain and discovery using carefully crafted prose–just enough detail to be effective without offering more than what is needed.  She crafts an outline on which readers can hang their imaginations, filling in Gerta’s experience: “The train screeches, slows, whines. The clacking tempo decreases until we stop.  A rush of wind blows through the two small windows. It smells of a sweetish smoke. It is not wood smoke.” Although Stamper uses few words (the entire book including multiple supplemental sections reaches only 266 pages), it’s enough to create rich, believable characters.  It’s also enough to convey the research behind this well-written historical fiction. Gerta’s emotions feel authentic, immediate, a realistic response to the specific nightmares of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

There’s a sparse beauty in Stamper’s text and in the black-and-white, ink wash illustrations found throughout.  Whether a small, corner work or a full, two-page spread, her art is both ethereal and very much grounded in reality.  (Pages 198-99 are a fantastic example!) Images and story mesh perfectly, bringing Gerta’s journey to life and deepening the reader’s experience.

What sets this book apart from the greater body of Holocaust fiction is its timeline.  The main narrative doesn’t end with the Nazi defeat. Instead, it tackles the immense question of “What happens afterward?”  As was the case for millions after World War II, Gerta’s life does not immediately return to prosperity or joy because bombs stopped dropping and concentration camps were liberated.  Stamper unflinchingly describes the situation faced by survivors–disease, malnutrition, poverty, housing shortages, physical and emotional scars, the search for loved ones, rampant anti-Semitism, reclamation of identity.  Perhaps it’s possible that hope can return to Gerta, that she can truly live instead of merely survive: “Everyone has come and gone, piles of shells pulled in and out of waves, and I’m still here, a skeleton of a sea creature, dropped in this tide pool, living, watching, still living.”

Be sure to read What the Night Sings cover to cover.  The supplemental materials after the story round out the book and offer richer reading.  The author provides hand-drawn maps of the book’s settings along with a glossary, pronunciation guide, and brief list of related resources.  To get a true feeling of how music intertwined with the characters, try listening to the selections mentioned in the book; a list is included with the other resources.  Most importantly, read the “Author’s Note” for a powerful view of Vesta Stamper’s moving, challenging journey of discovery as she created this story.

This memorable work was a finalist for the American Library Association’s 2019 William C. Morris YA Debut Award which honors a book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrates impressive new voices in young adult literature.  This is an amazing book, award or no. Read it because it’s beautiful, powerful, important, and Velveteen Rabbit real. It’s great for teens (and adults) who are ready for Holocaust and coming of age material; be prepared for discussion opportunities on a variety of topics.  I greatly enjoyed this title and hope you do, too.

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