Renata S.

About Renata S.

I'm the teen services librarian at the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

John Darnielle, for all intents and purposes, is one of my favorite bands, The Mountain Goats. He writes, composes, sings, and plays guitar for all their songs, which are notable for their humorous and heartfelt storytelling. So, I was intrigued when I saw that he had written a book, and moreso when I heard that it had won an American Library Association Alex Award, which is the award given to works of literature that were written for adults but have high appeal to teen readers.

Wolf in White Van is a strange book. Its structure unfolds like the mazes depicted on the book’s cover, a story with layers upon layers. It’s the story of Sean Phillips, an avid sci-fi/fantasy fan who was disfigured in an accident when he was 17. While he was recovering, he began shaping imaginary worlds that he turned into Trace Italian, a role-playing game that is played by snail mail. Players write Sean a letter explaining their turn, and he writes back to them with the story of what happens next. Wolf in White Van is simultaneously the story of Sean, the story of Trace Italian, and the story of some of Trace Italian’s most dedicated players. They’re all the same story, of course–the story of people looking for meaning and connection in the world, trying to create connections between fiction and reality.

Some of my favorite parts of Wolf in White Van were the excerpts we got from the game itself:

Could the map be wrong? No: as the tower rises you see symbols that bear no resemblance to the ones you know will mark the spires of the Trace Italian. Half-scratched pictures, shapes that could be letters, clusters that could be numbers. This is not the bulwark, not the housing that guards the Trace. And still it rises.

 

I’d recommend Wolf in White Van to anyone who knows what it’s like to get lost in a fictional world, even if only for a little while.

 

 

 

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The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Recently I saw a ripple of excitement across social media: a new Sarah Waters book was coming out soon!! I thought: who? Which was surprising to me, since, as a librarian, I like to think I’m pretty well caught-up on the popular authors of the day. But of course, no one person can read everything. Still, given how excited many of my friends were about the release of The Paying Guests, I figured I should probably try reading it.

I was a little disheartened when I picked up my hold on it and discovered that it was a very long work of historical fiction set in 1920s England. I’m one of few Americans who isn’t mad for Downton Abbey–it’s just usually hard for me to enjoy period dramas. But still, I decided to give The Paying Guests a try, and I’m so glad I did. It’s the story of Frances Wray, a spinster who lives with her mother. Her brothers died in the Great War, and her father died shortly after, and as a result, the Wrays have fallen on hard times and must take in boarders to make ends meet. Their neighbors refer to the boarders as “paying guests” to make it seem classier.

At first, Frances is determined to go about life as normal, but her life quickly gets entwined with the drama their boarders, the Barbers bring with them. The Paying Guests is a beautifully-written story that combines a page-turning crime story with a tender romance. Waters’s historical details inform and shape the story without dragging it down. I would highly recommend The Paying Guests to anyone, but especially to those who already enjoy historical fiction.

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This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

I’m a longtime admirer of Naomi Klein, a journalist, author, and activist. Her previous books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine were both eye-opening for me in terms of their content, and admirable to me in terms of Klein’s ability to write sharp, concise prose that tames thorny issues into words that are not only easy to follow, but enjoyable to read. I had high hopes when I heard that she was releasing a book about climate change, since that is a complex topic with often-changing theories and information. This Changes Everything did not disappoint.

In her introduction, Klein recollects that for a long time, she felt that climate change, though unfortunate, was not necessarily a critical issue. I can relate to that feeling–it seems like there are so many problems facing the world today that it’s overwhelming. Klein reveals the first time she began to see global climate change as a truly critical issue–in 2009, she met with Angelica Navarro Llanos, Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization. Llanos explained the “Marshall Plan for the Earth” to Klein, where wealthy countries who had benefited from causing climate change would pay reparations to developing nations who were being hurt by it. Klein began to understand how connected climate change is with food justice, super storms, clean water, poverty, and other pressing issues.

In the rest of the book, Klein goes on to show how all these issues are interconnected. She spells out who profits from climate change (energy companies; entrepreneurs who want to block out the sun) and who suffers (pretty much everyone else), and what steps need to be taken immediately to delay–and eventually repair–climate change. Her tone captures the urgency of the situation, but is not without hope. She highlights examples like the Lakota entrepreneur Henry Red Cloud, whose organization trains American Indians in the installation of solar and wind energy projects on reservations. It creates jobs and low-cost energy sources and reduces pollution. As a journalist, Klein traveled around the world and spoke with many fascinating people working on various projects related to climate change, and This Changes Everything includes partial interviews with many of those people.

If you have felt overwhelmed by media reporting on climate change, I would highly recommend reading This Changes Everything. Naomi Klein has written a compelling, cohesive story that takes into account many of the causes and possible cures for climate change.

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Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Bryan Lee O’Malley is best-known for his Scott Pilgrim series, which inspired the recent cult hit film Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Scott Pilgrim is the genre-bending story of a slacker young twenty-something. O’Malley has grown up since the publication of the final volume of Scott Pilgrim, and so have his readers. Secondshis latest work, is the story of Katie, a 29-year-old chef. Unlike Scott Pilgrim, she’s ambitious and focused. The restaurant she co-founded is doing well, but Katie’s looking to branch out on her own.

Then there’s an accident at the restaurant, and Katie meets the house spirit who lives in Katie’s apartment above the restaurant. The spirit gives Katie a mushroom she can eat to undo the mistake that caused the accident. It works! Katie discovers where the mushrooms grow and ends up using them to undo lots of things. In this way, she can try out different possibilities.

Seconds really resonated with me, a late-twenty-something. Katie’s indecision and confusion about her future are perfectly rendered here. The storyline may be ultimately predictable (I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone to learn that changing the past turns out to have consequences Katie didn’t predict!), but it doesn’t matter. It’s still cathartic to see Katie’s struggles and growth. Katie herself is a great character–stubborn, ambitious, and funny. The supporting characters are great too, especially Katie’s shy friend Hazel who tells her about the role of house spirits in her culture, and Lis, the increasingly-grumpy house spirit.

O’Malley’s artwork is also wonderful. His cute manga-influenced style from Scott Pilgrim is still present, but here he gets to use color and it really shines. He uses the graphic novel format to convey emotions and scenarios with a single glance or crowded restaurant.

I’d recommend Seconds to fans of Scott Pilgrim, but also to readers looking for a funny and compassionate take on life as a millennial.

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No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glenn GreenwaldI admit that when the news broke about the NSA’s surveillance scandal, I didn’t feel terribly alarmed about it. Of course I value my own privacy, but the NSA wasn’t really going to spy on me, right? What’s the big deal? In his book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, Glenn Greenwald aptly explains what exactly the big deal is. Greenwald is an acclaimed journalist and after reading this, I understood why he’s won so many awards. He’s great at turning something complicated and maybe a little bit boring into a compelling narrative. It doesn’t hurt that in researching this story, his own life turned into a bit of a real life spy novel. Greenwald was the journalist to whom Edward Snowden decided to entrust his leaked documents, but in order to meet with him, Greenwald and his colleague had to travel to Hong Kong and follow Snowden’s requests, like meeting in unoccupied hotel conference rooms and greeting each other with code phrases, or covering his head with a towel when he types in his computer password to prevent any hidden cameras from being able to observe. At first, Greenwald (and I) thought Snowden’s measures seem extreme, but as Greenwald gets in deeper, Snowden begins to seem more and more reasonable.

I recommend No Place to Hide to any reader looking to understand the NSA surveillance scandal and what the right to privacy should mean in the USA. It also doubles as a pretty good true crime thriller.

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Actors Anonymous by James Franco

Actors Anonymous by James FrancoI suppose I was interested to read Actors Anonymous by James Franco for the same reason I’m interested in any kind of celebrity memoir or novel: a sense of morbid curiosity. Our culture is obsessed with celebrity, and so am I. And so is James Franco.

Although Actors Anonymous is a novel, parts of it are very clearly autobiographical. The character known as “The Actor” apparently has a career identical to Franco’s, and part of the fun for me of this book was wondering how much else was based on truth.

The book’s style is experimental. It’s loosely based on the 12 steps of the AA-like Actors Anonymous, and is told through vignettes of the lives of various actors. Some characters’ stories are presented in verse or letters. We see different perspectives on the craft of acting, as well as fame and success.

I think how much a reader enjoys Actors Anonymous will depend upon how much goodwill the reader is willing to extend to James Franco. I’ll give him a lot, honestly–I can acknowledge that he’s a pretentious art school weirdo, but I admire his honesty. Here is a lithmus test for if you will enjoy this book:

F*** business. F*** money. F*** fame. F*** coolness.

 

I am in a great position. I can say f*** all of those things because I am a famous actor and because I have money and I can do whatever I want (within a range) and I will look cool.

Did you hate that? Fair enough. Don’t read this.

If you were intrigued or entertained by it, check out Actors Anonymous by James Franco.

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Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff

I’m not generally a poetry reader. I mean, I like poems if they happen to cross my path, but it’s rare that I would sit down and read a whole book of poetry. But I loved David Rakoff’s essay collections Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty, so I decided to pick up his last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, published posthumously. Love, Dishonor is a novel in rhyming couplets, and it follows a loosely connected group of people throughout the 20th century.

Fans of This American Life may recognize one of these chapters–Nathan’s chapter is a revised version of the “Scorpion and the Tortoise” story from the Frenemies episode. For those of you who haven’t heard it, it’s a toast being given by Nathan at the wedding of his ex-girlfriend Susan and his ex-best friend Josh. He tells the allegory of a scorpion who asks a tortoise to help him cross the river. The tortoise is hesitant, and the scorpion points out that if he stings the tortoise, both creatures will drown. Yet the scorpion still stings the tortoise halfway across the river, and as they’re both drowning, the scorpion says he couldn’t help it–it’s just his nature. Nathan concludes

So what can we learn from their watery ends?

Is there some lesson on how to be friends?

I think what it means is that central to living

A life that is good is a life that’s forgiving.

We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether

to kiss or to wound, we still must come together.
[…]

So we make ourselves open, while knowing full well

It’s essentially saying, ‘Please, come pierce my shell.’

I loved that piece when I first heard it on the radio, and in the context of the book, where it’s preceded by Nathan’s breakup and followed by the story of what happens to Susan and Josh. The novel also branches out to characters who are more loosely connected. I won’t spoil it, but the way the final chapter makes the connections clear is beautiful.

The book also features bright, cartoonish illustrations by Seth, who illustrates the children’s book series All The Wrong Questions. I liked the style of illustrations–they were a good match for the way Rakoff’s verses provide a sketch of what each character’s personality is like.

The back cover blurb for Love, Dishonor says, “Rakoff’s insistence on beauty and the necessity of kindness in a selfish world raises the novel far above mere satire,” and I fully agree. In the hands of a lesser writer, a novel written entirely in rhyming couplets could have been a mere gimmick. In Rakoff’s hands, it’s a thing of beauty.

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The Moth, edited by Catherine Burns

The Moth edited by Catherine Burns

 

For those of you who may not be familiar with the Moth, the intro to the radio show sums it up: “True stories told live without notes.” Told live! So when I first heard about The Moth book, edited by Catherine Cook, I admit I was a bit skeptical. I’m a fan of the Moth’s podcast and radio show, and have even told some stories myself at the Louisville Moth StorySlams. But so much of what I love about Moth stories are the way the tellers tell them, and I wasn’t sure how well these stories would translate to the written word. And furthermore, I wasn’t quite sure what the point of doing so was, when most of these are available on the Moth’s podcast. But since I do love the Moth so much, I decided to put aside my misgivings and try the book. I’m glad I did.

First of all, I loved the preface by Adam Gopnik, the forward by George Dawes Green, and the introduction by Catherine Cook, all of which give different perspectives on the history of the Moth and how Moth stories are shaped. Cook’s introduction also makes it clear that the 50 stories chosen for this book aren’t necessarily the 50 best Moth stories, but rather 50 that were chosen because they would adapt well to the page. These are undeniably great stories, though, and if they lost anything by being transcribed, they also gained something by giving the reader the opportunity to linger over favorite phrases, or re-read particularly surprising lines.

There’s a wide variety of stories in here, truly something for everyone. Some of them are stories from celebrities–I particularly loved Darryl “DMC” McDaniels’ moving story about how a Sarah McLaughlin song saved his life–or people with extraordinary jobs, like astronaut Michael Massino’s story of a harrowing spacewalk–but many of them are from so-called ordinary people with so-called ordinary stories, and those perhaps best represent what I love the most about the Moth. I was moved to tears by Jennifer Hixson’s story about sharing a cigarette and a story with a woman after a fight with her boyfriend, and by Ellie Lee’s story about finally realizing what an important place her father’s grocery store was for their neighborhood. I was moved to hysterical laughter by George Dawes Green’s story about his stubborn mother and their family’s historic plantation. The Moth collects stories from all walks of life, and I would recommend it to fans of the the Moth radio show as well as to any fans of well-told stories.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

I first heard of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan when it was announced as a 2013 Alex Award winner. The Alex Awards are for books written for adults that are deemed to have appeal for teen readers. Since I myself am an adult who works with teens, I like to check out Alex Award books when I can, and when I happened to see the audiobook version of Mr. Penumbra was checked in right before I left on a trip, I decided to check it out. I’m definitely glad I did!

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a story for people who love books, but also for people who love the internet. It’s a book for people who love puzzles, and figuring stuff out. It’s a book for everyone who grew up looking for a secret door into Narnia or waiting for their letter from Hogwarts. It’s the story of Clay Jannon, who lost his graphic designer job and ended up working the night shift at the titular bookstore. The bookstore has very few customers, and Clay can’t understand how it stays in business at all. With his free time he starts poking around and discovers that the bookstore is much more than it appears to be on the surface, and he and his friends get caught up in an exciting international secret society.

This really works as an audiobook because it’s so fast-paced. Also, the book’s author makes a cameo in it as the narrator of the audiobook-within-an-audiobook, which is a fun addition.

I agree with the Alex committee; I think this would be a great book for adults and teens alike. (Note: There is some mild adult language, and a glossed-over description of 2 adults in a relationship. Still, if this were a movie, I personally think it would be PG-13.)

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Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

 

Here’s a librarian confession: sometimes when I sit at the reference desk, people come up to me and ask me to suggest a funny book. I always say, “Well… have you read anything by David Sedaris?” Sometimes, people have already read everything of his and loved it, and then I suggest similar works. Sometimes, people never never heard of David Sedaris, and then I force them to check out Me Talk Pretty One Day. But every so often, people will say, “Oh… you know, I tried to read something by David Sedaris and I just couldn’t get into it.” I literally don’t know what to say to those people. Not thinking David Sedaris is funny does not compute to me and I have no idea what else to suggest to those people. Like, maybe they think Shakespearean tragedy is hilarious. I just have no way of knowing.

Anyway, obviously, I love David Sedaris’s writing so I knew I wanted to read Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls as soon as I could. I especially love a chance to listen to his books as audio books, because he reads them himself and there’s always a bit of extra humor in his delivery. I was also excited when I heard that the music between essays would be by Andrew Bird, one of my favorite musicians. So, I was primed to love the Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls audiobook, and it did not disappoint.

If you already enjoy Sedaris’s brand of quirky, dark, observational humor, I probably don’t need to say any more about this book. If you’ve never read anything by David Sedaris or heard any of his stories on NPR, this book is as good a place as any to start.

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls largely consists of the darkly comic essays Sedaris is known for, describing events like shopping for taxidermied owls to give his boyfriend for Valentine’s Day (“’I really think the owl will do it for me today. It’s a Valentine’s Day present—perfect for our new place. A house, actually—no basement, and three stories tall.’ I wasn’t trying to be boastful. I just wanted him to know that I was loved, and that I lived aboveground”) or getting his first colonoscopy. The “Etc” alluded to in the book’s subtitle refers to a series of poems Sedaris wrote about dogs, as well as a set of monologues intended to be performed by high school speech teams. I saw Sedaris speak when he came to Louisville on his book tour, and he told the audience that he’d heard about high school speech students adapting his essays to perform, and he felt skeptical of their ability to condense his work, so he wrote some pieces that would already be within the time limit. Those were all particularly hilarious, and I’d love to hear them performed by high school students. (Maybe a bonus track on his next audiobook?)

(NOTE: this book overall contains adult language that parents might not feel comfortable listening to with children in the car.)

Anyway, I highly recommend this in audio form, or in print. Unless you’re one of those people who doesn’t think David Sedaris is funny, in which case… gosh, I don’t know, maybe try Macbeth?

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