I know the actual Super Bowl just happened, but I did not watch any of it. Instead, let me tell you about my Super Bowl: the Youth Media Awards.

Every year, the American Library Association announces the best books and media in a variety of categories. For picture books and illustrations, it’s the Caldecott Medal. For children’s books generally, it is the Newbery. For the best books by African American authors and illustrators, it is the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Pura Belpre follows the same guidelines but for Latino authors and illustrators.

TAE KELLER’s “WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER” won the Newbery Medal this year; the Newbery committee didn’t ask me, but I do approve of this decision.

The novel follows 12-year-old Lily, who has just moved from sunny Southern California to rainy Washington with her mom and teenage sister to care for her sick Halmoni (“grandmother” in Korean). Halmoni has always made Lily and her sister Sam feel special. When they were young, she would tell stories of “long, long ago when tiger walked like man” stories just for them that always included two very special sisters. However, the move isn’t an entirely welcome one, especially because Lily discovers Halmoni is more sick than her mom let on — and she keeps spotting a giant tiger around town. With the help of her new friend Ricky, Lily works to uncover what the tiger wants and, by that effort, heal her grandmother.

“When You Trap a Tiger” shows readers the power of stories, both in giving us hope and in changing us. When Lily first meets the tiger, no one, with the exception of Halmoni, believes her. Her sister and mom both blame stress or her wild imagination. But when the tiger proposes a deal in exchange for her grandma’s recovery, Lily knows what she must do.

As Lily works to give the tiger what it wants, she realizes she is not who she thought she was. She discovers a different, stronger view of herself. The typically reserved and quiet Lily feels empowered to make big decisions, strengthen relationships and say she’s sorry. At the novel’s start, Halmoni warns Lily that the tiger characters in Korean folktales are not always what they seem. But neither, Lily learns, is she.

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For the first time, the Caldecott Medal was awarded to an Indigenous author-illustrator team. CAROLE LINDSTROM and MICAELA GOADE’s “WE ARE WATER PROTECTORS” tells of the connection between people and the land and our duty to protect and preserve water. Lindstrom’s poetic call to action portrays oil as a black snake that can destroy our water if we let it.

The Ashinabe/Métis author was inspired to write this book following the widespread protests of the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota, but its message of our connection to and responsibility for the earth is a timeless one.

Goade’s watercolor illustrations are lush and include a broad spectrum of colors and shades reminiscent of water. The young girl featured on the cover appears with her chin raised proudly and her black-blue hair flowing into the swirling water. The rich blues and greens are calm, even as our narrator speaks in dramatic tones and passionate pleas. I feel the most calm when I am near the water; Goade does an excellent job communicating its tranquil nature.

In “We are Water Protectors,” the young narrator encourages readers to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves and to care for our earth and other living things. That is a sentiment I can get behind.

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For a full list of award-winning titles and honorees, check out the School Library Journal award article: https://bit.ly/3k5YZVN.


The Silence by Don DeLillo

Illusory though it is, there’s an endorphin-rush moment when you begin a novel that feels as though it was written just for you. The story’s arc is almost irrelevant. What blows your hair back are the observations in sentences that seem perfectly formed. It’s as if your limbic system has been waiting for this moment. And from this instant, you know that you will need to read everything ever written by this author, this new shadow of you. For me, one such author is Don DeLillo.
I don’t recall how it was in my twenties I ended up reading DeLillo’s “Libra,” a novel about Lee Harvey Oswald. I wasn’t particularly interested in traveling into an imagined rendering of Oswald’s mind. By novel’s end, however, I felt as though I learned more about him than any nonfiction book could reveal. But more than anything, it was DeLillo’s writing that had me up, pacing and reading. There was a rhythm to the words. To this day, I will reread a chapter of DeLillo, much in the same way we listen to our favorite musicians over and over.
DeLillo’s awards and accolades are many, his influence on a generation of writers legion, notably Jonathan Franzen and the late, great David Foster Wallace. His modernist style made him a talisman to those pondering modern life. While DeLillo may not be a widely read author, his writing reminds me of what someone said of The Velvet Underground: not many listened to their music, but those who did started a band. Reading DeLillo made one want to write. And, after 50 years as a published author, he’s still at it.
His latest novel, “The Silence,” could actually be considered a novella. It’s only 117 pages, double-spaced. (The fact that such a svelte book was released in a fickle publishing industry speaks to DeLillo’s reputation.) It takes place on Super Bowl night, the year 2022. A couple, Tessa and Jim, are flying back to New Jersey from Paris. As they approach stateside, the commercial plane loses its lift and plummets. Whereas Jim had been staring at the screen that tracks the plane’s location, airspeed, and estimated time of arrival, he now visualizes the soon-to-be news footage reporting their fiery demise.
At the same moment, another couple, Max and Diane, are ready to watch the game in their Manhattan apartment and are also waiting for Tessa and Jim to join them. Already there is Martin, a former university physics student of Diane’s. Then all electric currents and signals disappear. When it dawns on them that this outage is widespread and not likely to end soon, Max (who appears to have a slight gambling problem) loses it a little. He stops just staring at the blank screen and starts to announce a made-up football game, replete with commercials.
Martin, already a man with “a nowhere stare,” begins spouting thoughts that are sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes absurd. For him, that blank screen means so much more than a power outage. “What is it hiding from us?” Not knowing what else to do, Diane observes and listens to these two, a low-grade panic beginning to well insider her. “The pauses were turning into silences and beginning to feel like the wrong kind of normal.”
Tessa and Jim survive the crash and eventually find their way to Max and Diane’s apartment. (On the shuttle ride from the crash site to a medical clinic, the van comes across a woman jogging amidst this grid shutdown. An odd site, the van’s driver slows to the jogger’s pace, the shuttle riders watching her as she blithely jogs.)
DeLillo is a master of dialogue. In this novel, however, the characters don’t really converse with each other. More than once, someone will exclaim that they are just going to say what comes to mind, for—given the current situation—no one is going to remember it anyway.
During the Cold War, DeLillo’s work explored how life plays out under the threat of mutually assured destruction. There was a dread mixed with weapon-worship, as evidenced in his noting that we named warheads and rockets from Greek and Roman mythology. On this night, in the year 2022, there’s no electrical power to launch such force. The conversation is no longer about nuclear arms; it’s now “the language of living weaponry. Germs, genes, spores.” To Martin “the war rolls on and the terms accumulate.” In fact, he seems to think that this blackout is just the beginning of World War III.
If you have yet to read DeLillo, I would recommend beginning with earlier works, such as “White Noise” or “Libra.” The former devilishly satirizes university culture in an era of unyielding media saturation; the latter shows us how a disillusioned loner can make history. (I am not saying don’t read his latest novel, for it was certainly prescient, being that it was written before our own upheaval that greeted us soon after last year’s Super Bowl. I am saying that his earlier works are that of a virtuoso.)
Another theme DeLillo mines is the formidable nature of crowds. In the “Silence,” our characters try to avoid what they know is taking place on the streets. (Max ventures out briefly to take in the growing tension, “a thousand faces every minute,” “curses rising into the air.”) This power is on full display in “Mao II” (another recommendation), the book beginning with a mass wedding ceremony officiated by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
In “Underworld,” DeLillo’s brilliant magnum opus (and my favorite), we begin with “an assembling crowd,” making their way to game three of the 1951 National League pennant, these New Yorkers bringing “with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day.” Outside the Polo Grounds, a black kid, with “a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful,” gathers with other kids—black and white—who can’t afford a ticket. They briefly strategize the best way to jump the turnstiles.
Inside, during the game, Jackie Gleason holds comedic court. An F.B.I. agent whispers to J. Edgar Hoover that the Soviets detonated their first hydrogen bomb test. This is the game where Bobby Thomson hits the series-winning home run with “the shot heard around the world.” The kid who jumped the stiles catches the ball. “This is the people’s history and it has flesh and breath.” Such events are life-defining. Yet they are, as all moments are, fleeting, “fading indelibly into the past.” It’s an electrified blend of fact and fiction that reveals truth, the very reason we read serious fiction. This is why we read Don DeLillo.

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Cozy Reads for January

Hidden Treasures by Jane Cleland

The Crystal Cave Trilogy by Susan Albert Wittig

Game of Dog Bones by Laurien Berenson

Yesterday’s Echo by Matt Coyle

Over the past few weeks I’ve been catching up with some of my cozy mystery series as well as checking out a new to me author.

Jane Cleland’s Hidden Treasure is number 13 in the Josie Prescott series. Newlywed Josie and husband Ty just bought their dream home. While prepping for a remodel, Josie finds a hidden trunk the previous owner left behind. She returns the trunk and its contents, potentially rare relics, to the owner and an instant friendship forms.  Maudie, encouraged by her nieces, may be interested in selling the trunk’s contents and enlists Josie’s aid. Soon, however, one niece is dead and Maudie and the trunk’s contents are missing. Josie is determined to find a killer and discover what happened to Maudie. Is she dead? Kidnapped? And who has the relics?

The Crystal Cave Trilogy is an adjunct to the long running China Bayles series by Susan Wittig Albert. Ruby Wilcox is China’s best friend and business partner.  The three novellas in this collection are all centered on Ruby and her psychic abilities. Each story from a dream that turns out to be a real kidnapping to the stopping of a serial killer before he can claim another victim highlights her expanding abilities. There is also the thread of possible romance with detective Ethan Connors. The skeptical detective slowly begins to accept Ruby’s gift and wants to know more about her. But is he interested in her as a person and just her abilities? For China Bayles’ fans this may tide you over until number 28 comes out later this year.

My last cozy is Laurien Berenson’s Game of Dog Bones. Number 25 in this canine mysteries series has Melanie Travis, her husband Sam, and Aunt Peg all headed to New York City for the Westminster Dog Show. Aunt Peg has been chosen to judge in the prestigious event. Scheduled to give a seminar on judging the day before the show, Peg is disgruntled that a dog show is being held in the same venue. Victor Durbin and Peg have a history and his location seems to have been chosen to detract from Peg’s seminar. When Victor’s body is found the day after the show, Aunt Peg becomes the number one suspect. Victor was pretty unscrupulous and had plenty of enemies. With so many suspects can Melanie find the killer before Peg is arrested for murder?

In reading book reviews, I ran across a review for Matt Coyle’s Rick Cahill series. Ready for a mystery that is a little edgier I started with the first in the series, Yesterday’s Echo. Manager of a restaurant in La Jolla, California, Cahill likes to keep a low profile. He is an ex-cop who was accused of his wife’s murder eight years ago. He returned to his hometown but it comes with its own bad memories. His dad was kicked off the police force for being a dirty cop.

Into his less than idyllic existence drops Melody Malana. When Melody’s dinner companion becomes less than cordial, Cahill steps in. When he rescues her a second time that evening he takes her home for safety but she leaves before morning. He assumes the interlude is over but soon finds that Melody has not disappeared from his life. When two thugs do not believe his denial and try to beat her location out of him, Rick decides he needs to find her. Tracking her to a hotel he finds a crime scene. A dead man occupies Melody’s room.

Melody pops back into his life only to be followed by the police. First she is taken in for questioning soon followed by Cahill. After Melody is arrested it becomes apparent that Rick may be next. It is now a race to see if he can uncover the truth before he is either in jail or the next victim.

This series has the feel of classic detective fiction but Cahill is a complex character and he doesn’t always get it right. He carries a load of guilt over his wife’s death and seems to always be under the shadow of his father’s sins. He still has his cop’s gut but sometimes follows the wrong instinct.

I’ve read the first two in the series – working my way to Blind Vigil, which published in December. Fast-paced with unexpected twists, these are hard to put down.  If you enjoy Lawrence Sanders and/or Andrew Vachss novels this is a series I think you’ll like.

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The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Matt Haig’s THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY is a sliding doors novel about one woman’s search for a fulfilling life.

In the course of one day, Nora Seed has been mugged, lost her job, and found out that her cat has died. On top of that, she has been reminded of all of the ways that she has failed everyone in her life: her father, her brother, her best friend, and her ex-fiancé.

Struggling with depression, and feeling that she has nothing in her life worth living for, Nora decides to kill herself. Then she wakes up in the Midnight Library, which exists in a pocket of time between her life and her death.

Every book in the library represents another life that Nora could be living at this exact moment; parallel lives sprung from decisions big and small that Nora made in her life. The stacks are accessible through a librarian, who appears to Nora as Mrs. Elm, the school librarian from her childhood.

All Nora has to do is decide what she wants to change — what regret she wants to erase — and Mrs. Elm will find the book that contains that future. Nora will then slip into that version of herself and experience this different life.

With infinite lives waiting for her in the books of the Midnight Library, Nora has the opportunity to find the one where she fits; a life where she is truly happy. She can make any adjustments to her life, but if she gives up her search for happiness, the Midnight Library will crumble and Nora will die.

She starts with the life where she is married to her ex-fiancé, Dan. This Nora went through with her wedding and she and Dan opened a pub in the English countryside. In her own timeline, Nora called off the wedding after her mother succumbed to cancer.

In this life the two of them run a fairly successful pub – but they are deeply unhappy with each other. Seeing Dan in person after all this time, Nora realizes that her life is better off without him. He never supported her, never really cared what she wanted, and actively prevented her from accepting a huge record deal that her band had been offered.

Back in the Midnight Library after realizing this life was not for her, Nora sets out to see the outcomes of her other biggest regrets.

She follows her best friend to Australia, instead of letting her reservations hold her back. She decides to continue competitive swimming – which she had given up after the pressure to succeed gave her panic attacks – and arrives in a timeline where she is an Olympic champion. She even accepts that record deal and finds that she is a world famous rock star currently on tour in Brazil.

As she spends time in these other realities, Nora begins to see how she has shaped the world in her real life; how the choices she made changed the people around her. She begins to see the ways that she succeeded, and begins to accept her own failures.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY is a vivid picture of depression and regret. The author, Matt Haig, is very open about his own mental health struggles, and does an excellent job translating them into this novel.

Nora is a compelling narrator; she is truly gifted in a number of ways, but has shut out the world at every turn and failed to pursue any of her dreams. The Midnight Library gives her a chance to see what her life could be if she had lived it differently.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the novel, although I did have some issues with the way it ended that I will not go into here. Haig offers an interesting perspective on life, and a person’s ability to understand their own impact on the world. THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY was an engaging read, one that I am certain to keep thinking about for a long time.

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Jeana Gockley: JPL director shares her favorite reads of 2020

Goodbye 2020, hello 2021.  

As the previous year is wrapped up and we move into the new one, it is the perfect time for me to reflect on what I read during 2020.  And just like during 2019, I kept track of all the books I read, for a grand total of 38.  That’s eight more than I read in 2019!

Of those thirty-eight titles, I would like to tell you about a few of my favorites.  Here are my top eight picks, in no particular order: 

  1. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  2. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  3. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  4. The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
  5. The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams
  6. Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
  7. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  8. Group by Christie Tate 

Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens – This uber popular title was released during the summer of 2018, and remains so popular today that I had to put myself on a waiting list to be able to check out a copy.  And wow, did it live up to the hype.  I LOVED it!  Owens does an exceptional job with character development and readers will be hard pressed not to fall under the spell of main character Kya Clark.  It is a mystery, nature, and coming of age story all rolled into one beautifully crafted page turner.  

Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee –  The novel, set in Korea, starts in 1910, and focuses on a family who runs a boarding house in a small village by the ocean.  This couple has only one son, Hoonie, who was born with a cleft palate and twisted leg, who manages to survive childhood and grow into a dependable son who his parents are proud of.  Hoonie eventually takes over the boarding house with the help of his wife, and the couple have a daughter named Sunja.  As a naive, sheltered teenager, Sunja meets and falls in love with a much older, Korean man.  Unbeknownst to her, he is already married and when Sunja becomes pregnant, he offers to take care of her as his mistress.  Sunja refuses, and thus, starts a family-centered saga that readers will be unable to put down. This captivating title was released in February 2017, and I am not sure how I missed it.  If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. 

“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett –  Bennett uses her newest offering to explore the relationship between twin sisters and how skin color affects the life of each.  After twin sisters run away from their rural southern town as teenagers, each chooses their own path; with one marrying a dark skinned man, while the other decides to pass for white.  Bennett’s debut novel, “The Mothers” received a lot of attention after it’s release in 2017, but hold on to your hat, “The Vanishing Half” is even better! There is so much to think about in reading this novel.  It would make an excellent book club selection.

The Giver of Stars” by Jojo Moyes – Set during the Great Depression, in rural Kentucky, Alice Wright is definitely out of her element.  Having grown up in a wealthy English family, her marriage to an American and a move to the United States is anything but expected.  Despite the change of scenery, her new life in Kentucky soon begins to feel as strangling as her former life. To help lessen her isolation, Alice signs up to work for Eleanor Rooselvet’s new traveling library, despite her husband’s objections.  Little does she know, this group of librarians, later known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky, will change her life.  This one is so good and worth the time.  

The Bromance Book Club” by Lyssa Kay Adams – This title might look familiar from the romance reading ideas I shared in November, but it is so unexpected here is a refresher.  Major League baseball player Gavin Scott is the main character of this second chance romance.  He goes from being on top of the world after hitting a grand slam, to drinking his troubles away in a seedy hotel room after his wife asks him to move out.  Thankfully, his friend and teammate introduces him to an all male book club where they read and discuss romance novels to help with their love lives. I could not put this book down and loved every minute of it.  It made me laugh out loud several times, and had a positive, energetic feel to it; light, fluffy, and full of emotion.

Red, White and Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston – When first son Alex Claremont-Diaz meet’s Henry, Prince of Wales, things do not go well.  The political rivals manage to make a mess and soon the press are having a field day.  Presidential and royal staff devise a plan for fixing this national nightmare and a public trucemaking is arranged.  What transpires is a secret romance that soon has everyone scrambling to keep it covered up.  McQuiston’s debut is funny, engaging, and escapism at its finest!  I listened to it as a download from MOLib2go (Overdrive) and enjoyed the narration immensely.  I read a quote from a reviewer that said they were “jealous of anyone who gets to experience it for the first time,” and I totally agree.  Alex and Henry shine in this sexy coming out story!

Becoming” by Michelle Obama – I wrote a full review for this one in August, but could not pass up a chance to mention this book again.  This well-crafted, powerful memoir should not be missed. Obama’s writing is clear, accessible, and descriptive.  She does an excellent job of developing a timeline and explaining details.  The pacing is spot on and the imagery the author creates with her words will make the reader feel part of the story.  The warmth she feels for people radiates outward and her use of story and the power that it yields is phenomenal. 

Group” by Christie Tate – I found this book while browsing Reese Witherspoon’s book club picks late one night.  Reese is quoted as saying, “Have you ever read a book that made you want to hug the author?”  My interest was immediately piqued.  Christie Tate is honest, open, and narrates her messy memoir with a painfully real voice.  The book opens with Tate, a student at the top of her class at law school, describing a time when she wanted to die.  These thoughts were not unusual for her; she frequently feels alone and isolated.  Thankfully she meets Dr. Rosen, an unconventional therapist who recommends group therapy.  At first Christie is skeptical, but eventually her group will help her change her life.  While heartbreaking and raw at times, Tate’s journey is hard to turn away from.  Readers will be hard pressed to not finish this one in a single sitting. 

Thanks for taking the time to share in my reflection and reading about my favorites.  If you have set a new goal for yourself this year, I have a fun way to start you on it – sign up for our Winter Reading Challenge. 

It is easy – log four hours of reading by January 31, and you will earn a free drink from Bearded Lady Coffee and be entered to win a selection of prizes from Beanstack and Simon and Schuster!   Plus, by logging your time read you can help us reach 80,000 minutes of reading for our community goal.  I wish you a wonderful new year of reading!

A Pair of Comics–Classics and Cats

Long Story Short: 100 Classic Books in Three Panels by Lisa Brown

Cats of the Louvre by Taiyo Matsumoto

I had a chance to reduce my “To Be Read” (TBR) pile by a handful of titles over the holidays, including some comics and graphic novels. Two of the books took an interesting approach using art to comment on other creative works.

Author and illustrator Lisa Brown’s Long Story Short: 100 Classic Books in Three Panels left me in stitches. I love her ability to distill hefty literary works into a trio of illustrated boxes and a sharply-penned sentence. C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe becomes “Don’t take Turkish delight from strangers.” Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is boiled down to “It’s all fun and games until you have a kid.” Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle shows all the gory details of sausage making with a single word in each panel, “DON’T. EAT. MEAT.”

Brown’s pen is equally sharp when it comes to illustrations. She uses india ink on paper then colors digitally with a muted palette of earth tones, grey, and dusty blues, reds, and olive greens. When she uses a bright color–as she does for The Scarlet Letter–it’s with great effect. Picture two panels in drab browns and blacks except for the pop of white collars and a bright red “A” on the subject, “Adulteress” for Hester Prynne and “Apostate” for Rev. Dimmesdale. The payoff is in the last panel bathed in a bright red background with a white “A” for “Aftermath” above Pearl’s blonde hair and bubblegum-pink dress.

Long Story Short packs volumes (and massive spoilers) in only 65 pages. There’s a lot to take in, including amusing cross-references to other chapters. (In case you’re wondering, it’s “horror” for The Jungle.) The book’s well worth a return trip or two or three if only to catch all of the little touches. While it’s no substitute for reading an assignment, Long Story Short works as a humorous accompaniment. Give this book to a favorite English major or someone who appreciates dry wit; suggested for high school and up.

If I were giving the same treatment to my second selection, it would sound something like this, “Paintings are real. Life is surreal. Also cats.” Cats of the Louvre by Taiyo Matsumoto is not about a feline photo shoot or real-life museum cats. It is a gorgeously illustrated, surreal meditation on time and the nature of art itself.

The narrative structure–calling it a plotline is a stretch–weaves multiple stories into a surreal tale following a group of cats living in the museum’s attic, an art conservator restarting her life after a loss, a little girl who has lives in a painting, and a night watchman searching for his sister who mysteriously disappeared in childhood. Each story threads its way through the world of the Louvre where characters intersect with each other and with the art. Dialogue and visual metaphors point to Matsumoto’s thoughts on time’s fleeting nature and art’s immediate and lasting beauty.

Matsumoto’s black and white inkwork looks a lot more like a sketchbook (a refined, very accomplished one) than a graphic novel for a commercial audience. Panel lines appear hand-drawn, slightly uneven and varying in thickness while his shading and crosshatching lend the stories a hazy, dreamlike quality. He creates charming, lifelike cats who take on a slightly disturbing human appearance when the story is told from their point of view. (The effect is not nearly as bad as those in the recent Cats movie.) Adding to the surreal experience are loads of extreme closeups of everything–eyes, faces, hands, paws, paintings, architecture, desktops, papers, art supplies. Even two large cat eyes look out from the book’s spine.

Reading Cats of the Louvre is like stepping into a hushed, contemplative funhouse. It’s weird. It’s surreal. It’s overflowing with metaphors and symbolism and hidden commentary and deep thoughts. It’s not meant to be pigeonholed. There is more than meets the eye; it will reward readers who come with an open mind. A good benchmark might be The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; if you like it, try this title.

Originally a manga (Japanese comic) series, this single-volume, English edition of Cats of the Louvre is accessible as a whole or with a pause after each chapter. Like other manga, it’s meant to be read from right to left and the book begins at what Western books identify as the back cover. Give this title to teens and adults who like the surreal and have the patience to travel over 400 pages of it.  Happy reading!

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to The Hidden World of Everyday Design By Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

I sort of stole this book review from my husband, meaning that I robbed him of the opportunity to review it himself as soon as I set eyes on it after his discovering and sharing it with me. The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt is as beautiful as it is brilliant. But first, who are these guys and why everyday design?

Roman Mars is the creator and host of the fascinating and entertaining 99% Invisible podcast (est. 2010). Initially, 99% Invisible was a one-man show, but has since grown into a talented staff, including Kurt Kohlstedt, who is the digital director and a producer, as well as co-author of this book. On 99pi.org, they describe the podcast as being “about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” In other words, it’s about everyday design. The premise for the book reflects that of the podcast. Now, let’s tune in to the book proper.

The 99% Invisible City is tangibly splendid, making it clear that careful consideration went not only into the design of the book, but the touch and feel of its materials. The texture and weight of its matte pages are pleasant to the touch and the embossed cover and half-sized jacket are nice features. Of special note is the cover image. Spanning both covers, several figures within the image are labeled numerically, corresponding to the legend printed inside the book jacket. I repeat: the legend printed inside the book jacket—almost too cool!

Content is organized into six chapters, each of which is further arranged into three to six sections containing short entries. I appreciate a well-organized book, especially when, like in this one, an array of topics is covered. It’s as well-researched as it is organized, with an expansive bibliography that, if you’re interested, doubles as a “further reading” list.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this a coffee table book, as it’s not glossy and oversized (or overpriced), I’d say it’s like a coffee table book in that it’s interesting to look at, makes for a great conversation piece, and is suitable for casual reading while still appealing to avid readers.

The 99% Invisible City is exactly as it claims, a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design. Like most field guides, it can be read in its entirety or in bits and pieces. I skipped ahead to chapter four – Architecture, my favorite – after reading chapter one only in part and wandering about here and there in other parts of the book. Regardless of how its read, it recalls visuals of everyday things I’ve seen and wondered “What/why is that?!”

Have you ever heard of stink pipes (think obelisks)? According to Mars and Kohlstedt, obelisks and “other seemingly innocuous sculptures in cities around the world” are, by design, meant to ventilate their sewer systems. So, if you find yourself near such a structure, then you might give the air a sniff to see whether the sculpture is functional or purely aesthetic.

The standardization of utility codes, such as those one sometimes sees spray painted on the ground, came into being after a massive explosion killed/injured at least two dozen people in Los Angeles, California, in 1976. Today, the American National Standards Institute maintains the codes: red means electrical, orange signals telecommunications, yellow identifies combustive materials, pink is for “temporary markings, unidentified facilities, or known unknowns,” and so on. Though not hidden but generally unnoticed, these markings are, by design, meant to make our communities safer.

The authors also explore how regulations may influence everyday design. Perhaps this is best seen in architectural landscapes. For example, the British government once implemented an individual brick tax, thereby causing manufacturers to create larger bricks or builders to use other building materials. A similar window tax, again in Britain, caused people to board up or otherwise cover up their windows. The effects of these taxes can still be seen (or, as in the case of the windows, hidden) today.

Planned failures (e.g. breakaway posts), municipal flags, inflatable figures, towers, foundations, graveyards, water, technology, illumination, property markers, manhole covers, and so much more are covered within the covers of this book. The 99% Invisible City is everyday design presented and written about in an extraordinary manner. What’s more, it’s all remarkably illustrated by Patrick Vale. Though “for all you plaque readers and curious urbanists” is inscribed on the title page, this book has something for everyone. Check it out!

As always, happy reading.

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My Favorite Picture Books and Middle Grade of 2020

The year 2020 was a great year for books. I reviewed many of them here in previous columns, but it was impossible to share them all. I am going to highlight some of the best picture books and novels that I have yet to share.

DERRICK BARNES and GORDON C. JAMES’ “I AM EVERY GOOD THING” is one of the best books I read this year and maybe one of the best picture books I have read in a long time. Barnes and James won a multitude of awards (including the Newbery Medal) with “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” their last picture book, and they did not disappoint with the follow up.

The last few years have offered a great deal of self-esteem themed picture books with many notable titles — including “Crown” and “I Am Enough,” to name a few — but “I Am Every Good Thing” somehow feels uniquely fresh. Even the best picture book encouraging self-confidence runs the risk of relying on cliches or overwrought phrases. The power here lies in the mundane, in the personal aspects of what the narrator (in this case, a young Black boy) believes he is good at, as well as in the boldness and confidence of the broader proclamations. I read this book as part of a library program designed to encourage children to think about what makes them special. While I was not the target audience, I found myself reading and rereading passages of this book because it made me feel good about myself. The best picture books are universal, offering something for every reader.

James’ illustrations are similar to those in “Crown,” and they excel here for similar reasons. The oil paint portraits feel as grand as the bold proclamations the narrator makes throughout. James paints the children in the book as they see themselves or how they wish others would see them.

Another picture book I loved in the latter part of 2020 was the FAN BROTHERS’ “THE BARNABUS PROJECT,” which follows a group of misfit pets (or “failed experiments”) as they try to break out of the Perfect Pets secret lab. Barnabus, a hybrid mouse-elephant, acts as the leader in this epic escape story that begins in an underground lab where perfectly cute, fluffy and well-behaved pets are created.

Barnabus and the other failed experiments sit alone under bell jars until they are recycled into something cuter. The lush illustrations lend a weight to this (very cute) escape story, making Barnabus’ experience feel both real and grave. The Fan Brothers (Terry, Eric and Devin) create adorably strange neighbors for Barnabus as well, including birdlike creatures with long legs and puffball bodies, a box turtle with a fuzzy body and a tiny monster with the stripes, wings and antennae of a bumblebee. The full-page spreads showing the underground pipes connecting the laboratory to the pet shop up above, as well as the breakout scene, are layered, complex, and beautiful. This is one to own.

JERRY CRAFT’s 2019 debut graphic novel, “The New Kid,” won a multitude of awards, including the Newbery Medal for the best children’s book. I enjoyed the fun, funny and insightful book well enough, but I have to admit that I loved the 2020 companion even more. “CLASS ACT” picks up where its predecessor left off, with protagonist Jordan navigating his second year as one of the few Black students at a prestigious, all-white private school. This time around, we get to hear from his new friend Drew, a darker-skinned boy at Riverdale on a scholarship, as well as their wealthy white friend Liam. Drew in particular struggles with what it means to be Black and poor when most of his friends are not. His grandmother’s words echo in his brain (“You have to work twice as hard to be just as good”) as he works to make good grades, navigate friendships and figure out who he wants to be. If “Class Act” were not a graphic novel, it would read much differently. Though the subject matter is often serious, the accessibility and humor of Craft’s illustrations gives it the feel of a (really great) sketchbook over a weighty memoir. Each chapter illustration borrows from a popular comic or graphic novel (some favorites include Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and Shannon Hale’s “Real Friends”), and the award-winning author/illustrator includes directional cues when it may be difficult to know which way to read.

The last middle-grade novel I loved this year was KELLY J. BAPTIST’s “ISAIAH DUNN IS MY HERO.” This book, which began as a short story for the middle-grade anthology “Flying Lessons and Other Stories,” follows preteen Isaiah, a sweet kid who is faced with serious challenges as he and his family endure homelessness, wrestle with grief and battle substance abuse. His writing and the notebooks his dad left behind serve as a buoy that keep him from going adrift. He spends Saturdays in the library, writing poems and reading his dad’s stories, all of which are about Isaiah the superhero. The actual Isaiah may not be sure if he is a superhero, but his dad’s love for him gives him the confidence to keep going when it seems as if life has turned against him. I love Isaiah as a character — he is sweet, a good friend, a good son and a good big brother. The circumstances mean he has to be stronger than a kid should have to be, but Baptist still lets him be a kid. Finally — though I may be biased here — I appreciate that the library is an oasis for Isaiah, a place where he can get lost in books and in his writing. This is an excellent debut novel about growing up, loss, the power of words and the importance of community.

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures by Jennifer Hofmann

East Berlin, early November 1989. Protestors seeking political reforms thrum the city. You can feel it: The old communist order is falling apart. And so is Bernd Zeiger, Stasi officer.

While you and I know that the Berlin Wall is set to topple, the characters in Jennifer Hofmann’s excellent debut novel The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures do not. And, really, the protests that contribute to the wall’s cracking are just sporadic backdrops throughout the novel. What Hofmann gives us is a small cast of characters trying to lurch their way through daily life in a regime that has already taken so much from them.

Zeiger, nearing the end of his career as an officer in East Germany’s brutal secret police organization, is—like the wall—on the verge of total collapse. He has “developed a death wish, passive but pronounced.” The impetus for his breakdown: Lara, a waitress at the café he frequents, has disappeared. Apparently, Zeiger is so starved for human connection that an accidental near fall at the café, resulting in Lara catching herself by placing her hand on his shoulder, has reduced him to a vessel of total need. His life is a double helix of loss of meaning and a yearning for the one thing that might restore some balance: Lara. Driving Berlin, he sees her everywhere. “Lara, the blinding cherry lights ahead. Lara, the speckle of dried dirt on his windshield. Lara in the stratosphere. Lara in the ether.”

If Zeiger had one life-defining event, it was penning a reference work entitled “Standardization of Demoralization Procedures” (SDP Manual). As a young Stasi officer, he was unsettled by the Soviet method of torturing subjects into confessions (real or not). So he codified a different kind of torture, where recipients were at the end of a barrage of mental maneuverings (ridiculous, yet effective) that led to mental chaos. If they confessed, great. If not, it didn’t really matter. A different charge awaited.

An example of its comic absurdity: Subchapter 1.1, “Demoralization through Repetitive, Tedious Speech,” where, in one case, a Party spokesman talked for so long he had “anesthetized an entire room of journalists with his old Berliner lilt.” Still, to Zeiger, it was his “life’s work, a substantial volume, the closest he’d come to fathering.”

I won’t give away what becomes of Zeiger’s search for Lara, but it’s ultimately both fantastical and beautiful. Throughout his pursuit, we learn that Zeiger was on his way to becoming a young orphan after his father was marched into oblivion, Germany having lost the Eastern Front during World War II. (The Eastern Front cost many German children their fathers, “when more stray dogs than grown men had roamed the streets.”) The process of becoming an orphan was complete after his mother received a small box, courtesy of the Soviets. Inside were the remains of her husband. Soon after, she had an “accident’ and “fell face forward into her Walther service gun.”

Dark stuff, indeed. However, the book is often wickedly funny. When a colleague presents a picture of his adult son (also gone missing), Zeiger sees in him “features reminiscent of circus performers with pituitary problems.” Further losing his repose, Zeiger says to this colleague, “I think I’m dying.”

“Differently than the rest of us?”

“I believe so.”

“What makes your death so special?”

“That it’s mine.”

Then there was that time in Zeiger’s career when he reported to work having not received the memorandum that the color gray had been banned within the Party. At HQ, everyone else wore clownishly bright attire. The concept of gray, he learned, “was the sustenance of skeptics.”

So there you have Zeiger, crushed by the Soviets in his youth and then made to do their bidding as an adult. And he knows it. “Failure and shame; iron and steel.”

There are moments in the novel when the question of “Why?” is asked. Why was insanity allowed to reign for so long? It’s almost impossible to find a satisfactory answer. One can only circle around it. “Misery was never content with its victories, not because it was greedy, but because it had no memory.”

The torturer ends up torturing himself. “Any room, he realized, can be a torture chamber. It need not be titled as such to become one. A bedroom, a pretty house, a state, one’s own porous skull.” Hofmann’s novel is a reminder that the building and ultimate tearing down of a wall that was meant to divide expended too many lives, lives that would have been better spent doing just about anything else.

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The Secret, Book & Scone Society by Ellery Adams

I enjoy mysteries with well-developed characters and if it is part of a series, all the better. Ellery Adams’ Secret, Book and Scone Society series has everything I like.

The series gets its title from the first book, The Secret, Book & Scone Society. The setting is the small town of Miracle Springs, North Carolina. The town is situated on the Appalachian Trail and is known for its thermal pools and spa. The afternoon train brings not only tourists but those seeking the comfort and relief the thermal pools provide.

Nora Pennington, the owner of Miracle Books, looks forward to the shoppers and to those seeking change and healing. She is a former librarian and a bibliotherapist. After talking to and listening to her readers she selects titles that help them achieve change and peace.

Nora was the recipient of bibliotherapy after an accident left her with burn scars on her right side. A nurse at the hospital knew Nora’s love of books would help her. The carefully chosen titles took her from despair and remorse to hope.

Sitting in the park before opening the bookstore, Nora meets a man in need of her talents. He works for the company bringing a new housing development to Miracle Springs. Something about the project has him deeply troubled and an employee at the thermal pools told him about Nora.

Before he comes to the bookstore, Nora sends him to the Gingerbread House for a scone. Hester Winthrop, the owner, will bake him a customized scone. She draws people out then adds ingredients to their scone that will invoke a special memory.

However, somewhere between receiving his scone and his session with Nora the stranger meets the train and not in a good way. Estella Sadler, owner of Magnolia Salon and Spa, is the first to tell Nora about the death. She is followed by Hester who at least knows the man’s name is Neil.

Soon a deputy arrives requesting the presence of Nora and Hester at the sheriff’s office. June Dixon, the employee at the thermal pools who sent Neil to Nora, has also been brought in to be interviewed. After the interviews the ladies are convinced that Sheriff Hendricks will not investigate Neil’s death. The easy thing for him to do is rule it a suicide.

Feeling that the troubled man who sought them out deserved better, the ladies decide to find out for themselves if it was suicide or murder. They want to keep their investigation a secret so to explain their meetings the four (Estella has already been asking questions) form a book club – the Secret, Book, and Scone Society.

It soon becomes apparent that things are not what they seem with the new housing development. Then another partner in the development is found dead and Estella is charged with his murder. Can Nora and her new partners find the murderer and free Estella before someone else dies?

Each of these ladies is a loner because of past traumas. To trust each other and become friends, they realize they must share their most painful secrets. As they meet to share information and theories, we hear the stories and the traumas that have brought them all to Miracle Springs.

This series is a winner if the rest of the books are as good as the first. Nora is the lead but each of the four women are strong, sympathetic characters. The setting is charming as is the bookstore in an old train depot. The mystery keeps you turning the pages with some twists you might not see coming.

I’m looking forward to “The Whispered Word”, “The Book of Candlelight” and what other titles may follow. Recommended read-alikes are Jenn McKinlay and Eva Gates. I will add Susan Albert Wittig as I think if you like the China Bayles series you’ll like this one too.

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