One of Shane Burcaw's biggest goals was getting people to see past his disability. It's fair to say he accomplishes that and more in his candid new memoir, Laughing at My Nightmare. Even the title suggests some of the self-deprecating humor that helps shape the amusing but bittersweet tone of Burcaw’s story. Saddled with spinal muscular atrophy at age 2, the 21-year-old has been in a wheelchair his whole life, but that's not what this young man’s story is about. It’s about figuring out how to live a life as close to normal and sharing his daily successes and failures along the way.
There is no cure for Burcaw’s condition. His body does not produce the enzyme necessary for producing and maintaining muscle tissue. His body is failing him, but he refuses to fail his body. Disease aside, the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, native is just a normal guy. He hangs out with his buddies, admits to liking girls and goofs off playing video games. The difference is he depends on others to do everything for him, from dressing to toileting. He has a hard time when it comes to fitting in with others with disabilities. The fact that he doesn’t want sympathy comes through loud and clear.
Burcaw shares his experiences through his blog, (also called "Laughing at My Nightmare"), where humor is an integral component. He figured there were people out there who would want to know what life for a severely disabled person is like. So he starts writing about sex, fear of dying, questions about God. Before he knew it, he had several thousand followers and was soon embarking on a national tour to raise money and awareness for his disease. Burcaw’s story is not without its somber moments. With short chapters, black and white photos and text bubbles, he manages to strike just the right chord for what he is trying to accomplish. “What if we traveled to schools and talked about humor and positivity?” he says, “We could help kids see that life is what they made it.” Teens and adults will find much to like in Burcaw’s heartfelt journey.
Ethics and morality get trumped by passion and ambition in Saskia Goldschmidt's disturbing yet engaging debut novel, The Hormone Factory, translated from Dutch by Hester Velmans. Mordechai de Paauw is the Dutch cofounder and CEO of a slaughterhouse-turned-pharmaceutical enterprise. His new company, Farmacom, becomes a global success for its pioneering of hormonal treatments, including the contraceptive pill. However, it is deeply overshadowed by the flawed humanity of its owner.
Now on his deathbed, Mordechai reflects on his turbulent life, its towering achievements and its darkest failures. He revisits the early days of the family butcher business he and his twin brother Aaron inherited from their father. It is Mordechai who sees the pharmaceutical possibilities of extracting hormones from animal waste, but it is Aaron who pays a dear price. Mordechai seeks and forms an uneasy partnership with an equally ambitious German scientist, Rafael Levine. The two mount one breakthrough after another while Hitler charges toward Holland’s doorstep. World War II threatens Mordechai's interests, as do gross errors in judgment, personal and professional.
Goldschmidt, whose father survived the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, found material for this story while conducting research for another book. "I came across the file of Professor Laqueur, a famous pharmacologist and clinician, one of the founders of the pharmaceutical company Organon and the man who discovered testosterone. More important, he also happened to be my father's first father-in-law." Professor Laqueur’s collaboration with the Van Zwanenberg slaughterhouse owned by two brothers from the town of Oss, Holland, eventually resulted in one of the country's first multinational pharmaceutical companies. To be sure, Goldschmidt's imagined story of the real players sheds an unflattering light on a young industry on the cusp of discovering miracle drugs. An intriguing book club read, this story will resonate with anyone who has ever swallowed an aspirin.
As the calendar year comes to a close, it’s become common to compile best-of lists to share, discuss and widely recommend. Here are 10 of my favorite fiction titles, in no particular order, published in 2014. What lands a book on my best-of list? All of these novels feature quality writing, stories with an intriguing plot hook and memorable characters. They make the reader reflect on bigger issues, and ultimately on the human condition. We want to read books we can connect with, often in ways that are far from obvious. While I want to be entertained as I read, I want to be thrilled by the author’s craft. I look for a poetic turn of phrase, descriptions that make me pause, reread and reflect. This list reflects a variety of fiction subgenres, including realistic, historical, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic and mystery.
The eye-catching cover of Lily King’s slim novel Euphoria, depicting the inner bark of the native rainbow eucalyptus, slyly reveals the story’s setting of Papua, New Guinea. Loosely based on events in the life of brilliant, pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria’s Nell is a headstrong researcher both aided and hobbled by her partner in life and in the field, her Australian husband Fen. As the book opens, the two are fleeing the brutal tribe they had been observing for a number of months, frustrated and hoping for a new opportunity. Fate connects them with the previously isolated English anthropologist Bankson, who welcomes a chance to work with the dynamic couple in studying a female-centric tribe, the Tam. Intellect, connection and understanding (or lacks thereof) spark passions among the anthropologists and the tribe itself, leading to both internal and external discovery.
“I was strong and he was not, so it was me who went to war to defend the Republic.” Thus begins Laird Hunt’s Civil War nod-with-a-twist to Homer’s The Odyssey, Neverhome. Here Penelope goes proudly off to battle while Odysseus tends to the home fires. Told in a first person narrative, the story follows “Ash” Thompson, a young Indiana farmwife hungry for honor and adventure, who passes as a man in order to join the Union army. Ash soon finds she has a strong taste for battle and a remarkable talent with a gun. Hunt takes readers through the harsh realities of war in the Civil War era, seasoning the story with the kind of small details of daily life that fascinate readers and make history come alive.
Mark Watney has the dubious distinction of being the first astronaut accidentally stranded on Mars in Andy Weir’s The Martian. A biologist and mechanical engineer, Watney was left for dead after a violent sandstorm caused flying debris to pierce his spacesuit and sent him flying down a hill. This event triggers the sudden evacuation of the rest of the crew of NASA’s third manned mission to the red planet. But Watney has suffered only minor injuries, and pure dumb luck and a little science keep his suit from being totally breached. He soon realizes his dire circumstances, setting the survival plot in motion. Author Weir has created a smart, funny, self-deprecating geek in Watney, a guy you can’t help but root for as he solves problem after problem with determination, grit and pure knowledge of math and science. Told in a series of log entries interspersed with chapters that depict the scientists and suits at NASA working on a way to rescue the man whose plight has become an international cause, The Martian is a pure sci-fi page-turner.
A team of four women make the twelfth expedition to Area X, a lush overgrown landscape teeming with wildlife and cut off from civilization for decades after The Event has begun. The team is comprised of our narrator, known only as the biologist; the surveyor; the anthropologist and the psychologist, whose penchant for hypnotizing the others makes her immediately suspect. Annihilation, a smartly packaged original paperback, is the first installment in The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, whose volumes have all been published in 2014. Mysteries abound in this unsettling, intellectual sci-fi thriller, as the party discover a feature of the landscape heretofore undocumented — an underground tunnel (or tower, as the narrator prefers to think of it) that descends deep below the surface. Who or what has left the message on the walls, written in living, pulsating vegetation? How is the narrator changed when she accidentally inhales spores that have been released? And what exactly happened to those who came back from previous expeditions, irrevocably damaged?
“Irrevocably damaged” also serves to describe the characters who populate Phil Klay’s stories of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Redeployment. The winner of this year’s National Book Award, Klay’s stories plumb the emotional and psychological depths of what it means to serve, and the aftershocks that reverberate throughout the bedrock of life after homecoming. Justly compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried, Redeployment will surely maintain its place on must-read lists for decades to come.
The other titles that round out the list have been previously reviewed by my colleagues here on Between the Covers: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia, Station Eleven by Emily St. John-Mandel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas and The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.
"Seven half-bloods shall answer the call,
To storm or fire the world must fall.
An oath to keep with final breath,
And foes bear arms to the Doors of Death."
The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan is the end, the final book in a five year saga, and the fulfillment of prophecy. Roman mythology and Greek mythology have clashed with each other, with Gods, Goddesses, Titans and the very Earth itself. It's been clear since the beginning that someone was going to die. Would it be Jason Grace, son of Jupiter? Piper, daughter of Aphrodite? Maybe it would be one of the five other heroes, including a returning Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase. The action is big, the threats are far out there and the characters are still quipping.
In a post-Potter world, any number of contenders have stepped up to provide fantastic sagas for the young. Riordan has become the Dean of Children's Mythology. Every page in his books are full of reimagined Greek and Roman (and sometimes Egyptian, and soon to be Norse) mythology that can be quickly and easily digested by new readers. It's by turns hilarious, horrifying, action-packed and zooming along with all the speed of a thriller. There's a potency to The Blood of Olympus that comes from being built on stories that have lasted for thousands of years.
This is not a perfect book. Most of the ensemble cast run through their character arcs and just stick around for lack of anywhere else to be. The humor can be patchy. It doesn't matter, because this is smart, imaginative writing that will inspire the next generation. Some of the kids who read this will go on to be archaeologists, mythographers and authors. The rest will have a good time in a world that's grown bigger since they started reading.
My True Love Gave to Me is a collection of 12 holiday stories from young adult authors like Rainbow Rowell, Stephanie Perkins, Laini Taylor and David Levithan, among others. Each story is unique — some are realistic, romantic stories set at Christmas or New Year’s Eve celebrations, others are fantasy stories filled with elves or set in far-off lands. They’re all sure to put readers in the holiday mood!
Though each story is delightful, Stephanie Perkins’ “It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” was my personal favorite. Perkins, who is also the editor of My True Love Gave to Me, brings holiday romance into readers’ lives with Marigold and North’s story. When Marigold buys a tree at North’s family Christmas tree lot, he agrees to help her carry the tree across the street to her apartment, not knowing the night of adventures this decision will bring. Other stories deal with lesser known holiday traditions, like Holly Black’s “Krampuslauf” about a group of teenagers who live in a town who have an annual celebration for “Saint Nick’s creepy buddy, the Krampus.” Gayle Forman’s “What the hell have you done, Sophie Roth?” follows Sophie, a freshman at a college in the middle of nowhere, who is sad to be away from her mother on the last night of Hanukkah. Other stories are totally fantastical, like Laini Taylor’s “The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer,” set on the Isle of Feathers, where a girl named Neve must face the Advent traditions of her home.
Perkins did a wonderful job editing a diverse group of stories dealing with holiday traditions both real and imaginary. My True Love Gave to Me is a great holiday read, especially for those looking to find new teen authors to enjoy in the future. As an added bonus, make sure to pay close attention to the cover, as you can see the couples from each of the stories!
Scholastic Books announced that author and illustrator Norman Bridwell died last Friday in Martha’s Vineyard at age 86. Bridwell was best known for creating the lovable Clifford the Big Red Dog character which spawned into a hugely successful children’s book series.
The first book was published in 1963 and the series would grow to include more than 150 Clifford titles. The series has been translated into 13 languages, and sold 129 million copies worldwide. Clifford successfully crossed over to the small screen with a PBS Kids’ animated series, which drew more fans. He is headed to the big screen in 2016.
Dick Robinson, chairman, president and CEO of Scholastic, noted in the company’s press release that, “Norman Bridwell’s books about Clifford, childhood’s most loveable dog, could only have been written by a gentle man with a great sense of humor. Norman personified the values that we as parents and educators hope to communicate to our children — kindness, compassion, helpfulness, gratitude — through the Clifford stories which have been loved for more than 50 years.” Listen to Bridwell himself on the magic of Clifford in this 50th anniversary video.
Following the journey of the heroine in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks gives the sensation of jumping down a confusing yet richly stylized rabbit hole. Holly Sykes is not only a strong-willed English teenager who loves her Talking Heads LP, she’s also a hypersensitive psychic phenomena. At age 15, she rebels against her callous mother by running away for a weekend. This typical rite of passage causes a terrible loss to the family and Holly herself. And so the jostling expedition begins through space, sanity, and many years.
Throughout her life, Holly develops complex relationships with a series of eccentric characters who also narrate this intricate tale, including an arrogant college student, a journalist covering the Iraq War in 2003 and an aging egocentric literary writer. Reality begins to distort as Holly’s psychic strength attracts two separate groups of mystics with supernatural powers and questionable intents. The plot’s jagged terrain has the unhinged feeling of sewn together novellas, and seeing the seemingly free-flowing threads come together is a one-of-a-kind reading experience.
The Jane Austen Centre declared today Jane Austen Day in recognition of the anniversary of her birth in 1775. Austenites worldwide are making plans to celebrate their beloved author in all manner of festivities, including teas, costume balls and social media events. Indeed the day has its own Facebook page! Austen’s enduring appeal is evident in the legion of literary spin-offs and retellings published every year. Two new entries in the field will interest the Austen Army as well as readers of historical fiction, mystery and romance.
If you liked P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley which was recently adapted as a two-part series on Masterpiece Theater, then Stephanie Baron’s Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas is for you. The 12th installment in this popular series takes place during the Christmas season of 1814. Jane and her family are dining at The Vyne, the wealthy Chute family’s ancestral home. When one of the guests is killed in an accident, the mood dampens. Almost immediately Jane suspects something sinister is afoot and that a killer is at large. Baron’s attention to detail is impeccable, the mystery is well-crafted and devotees will savor the biographical tidbits sprinkled throughout.
Syrie James invites readers to get to know the teenage Jane in Jane Austen’s First Love, a novel, the author explains in her afterword, was inspired by actual events. It’s 1791, Jane is 15 and she dreams of falling desperately in love. Edward is 17, heir to an estate and handsome beyond belief. They live in two different worlds but continue to spend time together. Jane can’t stop thinking about him or the fact that he seems interested in her too. But there is a rival for his affection. When Jane starts matchmaking with three other potential couples, things go disastrously. This charming story’s appeal extends beyond Austen fans to romance readers and those who enjoy compelling coming-of-age stories.
Written from the perspective of Downton’s own trusted butler, Carson, Rules for Household Staff is anything but the dry instructional manual its title would suggest. Carson’s careful and precise introduction brings a depth of dignity to the serving class in keeping with the series’ sensitive depiction of its members.
Referring to servants as Improvers of Lives, Carson likens those who enter the profession to “doctors and nurses” who “heal and make well lives that can be fraught with worry and responsibility.” Clearly, those who serve – at least at Downton – are called to do so, and by the correct and efficient discharge of their duties, they may aspire to master their chosen career. To this end, the remainder of the volume is dedicated.
Replete with useful notes and instruction on a staggering variety of practical duties and behavioral obligations, Rules for Household Staff is a surprisingly concise and markedly engaging read. Readers who follow the series will develop a deeper understanding of the downstairs characters in Downton, as well as a keener appreciation of the responsibilities each member of the household bears in the running of the abbey. Along the way, readers may also pick up some unexpectedly useful skills, such as napkin folds, the proper procedure for decanting wine and a nontoxic method for ridding the kitchen of flies.
Recommended for history enthusiasts and in particular for fans of the Downton Abbey series. Those who have already enjoyed Rules for Household Staff may also appreciate The Chronicles of Downton Abbey.
Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters is a funny, irreverent take on what it would be like if famous authors and classic literary characters texted. Ortberg takes books and authors that we read in high school or college and retells their stories in text form. From Hamlet to Elizabeth Bennett to the Lorax, from Edgar Allan Poe to William Wordsworth to Emily Dickinson, no character or author is out of reach for Ortberg.
Ortberg uses classic characters like Jo March and Jane Eyre, juxtaposed with more modern ones like the twins from Sweet Valley High and the members of the Baby Sitters Club. She brings these characters to life through text speak and emoticons, making the reader crack up at the thought of Plato texting the cave allegory to a close friend, or Hamlet text-yelling at his mother to keep out of his room. The texts referenced in the title of the book are particularly amusing—Mr. Rochester’s in all caps and Jane Eyre’s cool and distant, as he tries to lure her back to him.
Ortberg, one of the co-editors and founders of The Toast website and a prolific Twitter user, has translated her hilarious online writing career into print with Texts from Jane Eyre. Readers will be laughing along as they relive some of their favorite (or least favorite) literary characters in text message form. This is one that former English majors will devour!