Was Ramona Quimby one of your best friends? Did you want a mouse on a motorcycle? Then you enjoyed the imaginative and timeless worlds created by Beverly Cleary. Cleary’s wonderful books have impacted generations of readers and, today, as she celebrates her 100th birthday, we pay homage to a standard bearer of children’s literature.
Cleary noted that when she a child in the 1920s and as a young librarian, almost all of the children’s books she came across were about kids in England. Determined to offer children something more relatable, she put pen to paper with a simple writing style infused with humor and a story based on common human experiences. Her first book, Henry Huggins, published in 1950, was about a boy, his dog and their friends, all of whom lived on Klickitat Street in Portland, a street in Cleary’s childhood neighborhood. According to Cleary, Henry Huggins and the other child characters in the book were based on children she grew up with and those who attended story time at her library. She would go on to write several more books about Henry Huggins and his friends, including the Quimby sisters, who would be featured in their own books, the first of which, Beezus and Ramona, was published in 1955.
Popular with children, she was also a favorite with critics who recognized her skill and talent with numerous awards, including the National Book Award, the Newbery Medal and the National Medal of Arts. Cleary's books have been published in 20 different languages, and 91 million copies of her books have been sold worldwide since 1950. Indeed, her popularity is just as strong in Baltimore County with all of her titles in all formats circulating almost 4,000 times this year alone! A few weeks ago, Cleary sat with The Today Show for an interview where she was asked about this milestone and her career and she said she’s proudest of the simple fact that "children love my books."
Yann Martel hit superstardom in 2001 when Life of Pi was published. Soon thereafter, in 2002, won The Man Booker Prize. In this year’s The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel seeks the surreal in order to make better sense of the sorrows of life.
The High Mountains of Portugal is actually three loosely interrelated novellas, the longest of which is the first: “Homeless.” Set in Portugal, 1904, “Homeless” stars Tomas, a man who has lost his child, his lover and his father over a fairly short time. For obvious reasons, he feels betrayed by the world and by God, so betrayed in fact, that he has decided to walk backward for the rest of his life. This causes his uncle great consternation when he tries to show Tomas how to drive one of those new-fangled automobiles. It’s all fun and games until Tomas runs into his greatest tragedy and finds exactly what he thought he was looking for.
In part two, “Homeward,” Eusebio is a pathologist, and his town is in the shadows of the mountains of Portugal. Over the dying hours of the last day of 1938, Eusebio has a deep conversation with his wife regarding how Agatha Christie’s novels relate to the mysteries of the Bible. And then things take a turn for the weird. Magical realism sneaks into the office in the guise of a dead man and his wife. What Eusebio finds within and what he does thereafter must be read to be believed.
Finally, in “Home,” Peter, a member of the Canadian Senate, has a breakdown. His wife is sick. His son is going through a bitter divorce. What better time to quit and run to his ancestral home in the mountains of Portugal with an ape named Odo?
How do all of these things fit together? What is Yann Martel trying to say? What’s with all the animals? How are humans to deal with such grief? It is not until the very end, until the final story ties all of the stories together, that the ultimate epiphany is realized by the reader.
Readers who enjoyed Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil will derive even greater enjoyment from this journey through humility, hubris and the examination of what it might mean to be human.
Two words. Quentin. Tarantino. He is an Oscar Award-winning screenwriter responsible for writing and directing hit movies, such as Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. His most recent project is The Hateful Eight. The film version premiered in late 2015, but readers can get their hands on the 165-page screenplay clothed in book form. If you have not seen the movie, then read the screenplay first, or vice or versa to compare the two mediums and see how they differ.
The Hateful Eight takes place post-Civil War in the middle of a winter storm in Wyoming. A bounty hunter by the name of John Ruth travels in a stagecoach to a town called Red Rock, handcuffed to his prisoner, Daisy Domergue. John Ruth wants two things. One, he wants to deliver Daisy to the Red Rock sheriff so that she can hang for her crimes. Two, he wants to collect the $10,000 fee for turning her in. However, sabotage may be looming around the corner. On his way to Red Rock, he spots a familiar face. It is Major Warren, the bounty hunter, sitting on three dead frozen bodies in the middle of a snowy road. John Ruth's stagecoach driver, O.B., pulls over. Major Warren wants a ride to Red Rock to turn in the three dead men he uses as a seat cushion. Skeptically, John Ruth obliges. O.B. takes off in the stagecoach and they come across another loner stuck in the snow storm, Chris Mannix, who claims to be the new sheriff in Red Rock. Chris adds that he needs to be present in Red Rock if the bounty hunters expect to be paid for their services. Although John Ruth finds Chris' sheriff story fabricated, he allows Chris inside his stagecoach just in case he is speaking the truth. Due to harsh weather conditions, the stagecoach detours at a very convenient place called Minnie's Haberdashery that provides food and drinks. What is odd is that Minnie, the owner, is nowhere to be found. A man called “Bob” welcomes them and mentions that he is looking after the place until Minnie gets back from her "trip." John Ruth and the others quickly discover that there are four suspicious looking strangers inside Minnie’s Haberdashery and most of them provide stories that they are heading to Red Rock when the weather settles down. Despite what they say, John Ruth believes that one or all of the strangers are there to sabotage his plan to get Daisy to Red Rock to hang. Who inside Minnie's Haberdashery aren't who they say they are? Who will make it to Red Rock when the weather clears? You'll find the answers to these questions inside Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.
For those who are not familiar with Quentin Tarantino's work, I want to inform readers that The Hateful Eight contains profanity, violence and gore. With that said, Quentin Tarantino's screenplay was easy to follow and I had no problem visualizing the story. The Hateful Eight has a nice mixture of mystery, western, drama and comedy.
The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a bildungsroman legend coming out of the often overlooked Baltic country of Estonia. It is set during an awkward and mysterious period of time in Medieval Europe — late in the age of Vikings but early in the times of Christian colonization. Author Andrus Kivirähk describes the conflicts of peace — when people are forced to navigate societies in which different languages, beliefs and ways of living intermingle and cross-pollinate. The book's narrator, Leemet, is a member of a society that has learned the tongue of serpents, and with this, gained the power to communicate and control other animal species. But that society's way of life is threatened from within as its people change their ways. Their assimilation to an agrarian lifestyle means that they are renouncing the ways of their forest home and forgetting the ancient language. Will Leemet be able to pass his knowledge of Snakish down to the next generation?
While it does resemble Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear in some respects, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is not a story with any qualms about historical accuracy. It stands out for its wry use of anachronistic language and the ease with which it can be imagined by modern readers. In fact, many of the characters seem like stereotypes from a modern neighborhood — the hippies living on the edge of town, modish young people obsessed with the latest fads and ultraconservative religious fanatics. While the appellation “barbarian” hovers throughout the text, it never alights to describe a particular culture or character. Instead, there is an unrelenting, Darwinian conviction that change is inevitable, unrelenting and often times totally irrational. In the end, is Leemet more of a Grendel or a Beowulf?
A rhythmically written biography with read-to-me value, Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler by Kate Klimo is a fantastic little journey that will help parents and children explore the inspiration and the legend of the iconic man known as Dr. Seuss. The book imitates the format that so many of his own did with large easy-to-read words and lush illustrations on every page. This playful format makes it a wonderful introduction to Ted Geisel’s journey, narrating his growth from whimsically doodling child to an advertising illustrator for hire to his first, then second, then eventually 44 published books for children.
Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler is quick to read but easy to linger on every page thanks to the detailed illustration and wonderfully inspirational story. It would be an ideal read-to-me story time book for younger children, or a good starting point for school-age children to use as a base for further research into Seuss, his process, his life’s history or bookmaking and creating children’s literature in general. Stories like The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are not only iconic pieces of modern pop culture but they were, at their inception, a transformative force that created a new movement of teaching children how to read in the United States. Celebrate a creative man’s life and learn a new thing or two with your children, and most importantly, have fun! It’s what Dr. Seuss would want you to do.
Pierce Brown is a prodigious young author who first hit the shelves in 2013 with Red Rising, book one in a trilogy that includes the titles Golden Son and now the newly released Morning Star. The Red Rising Trilogy is a science fiction epic set after human expansion has moved past an exhausted Earth and a tightly ruled government of Colors has been instated. Those in power have designated themselves the Golds, or the ruling class, and split the people remaining into Colors to match their station — Silvers handling money, Blues working in technology, Pinks in pleasure and the lowly Reds who work the ground itself.
Darrow is a Red who lives and works in the underground mining community on Mars. Although only 17, he’s already married and at the peak of his career as a Helldiver, a role requiring incredible speed and dexterity to control a hazardous drill to mine resources deep in the crust of the planet. His main concerns are his starving family and living his simple life to the fullest, but when a personal tragedy strikes him to his core he finds himself unwillingly hurtled into the world of Golds, a deadly Academy and a revolution the span of which he only barely understands. As his absorption into Gold society extends from months to years and his contact with the rebel leaders who put him there fades away, Darrow faces the difficult reality of encountering the Golds as the flawed but human individuals they are. Despite his losses, despite the suffering of his people, Darrow comes to understand the Golds and their society, to befriend them, even — to his mingled delight and horror — to fall in love.
As he excels in every test he’s given and accomplishes every seemingly impossible challenge the Golds set him, his conundrum comes to a head. Will he be able to take the reins of the revolution against people he’s starting to consider his friends? Will he be able to survive their ruthlessness, even if he does fight? Morning Star brings the conclusion of the delectable tension Red Rising and Golden Son have built up, an intense drama to truly be swept away by.
Hair: A Human History proves the rule that even the most mundane topics become fascinating in the hands of an author who is passionate about their subject matter. A former professor of pathology and dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a once-director of skin biology at Johnson & Johnson, Kurt Stenn has particular expertise as a follicle man. His enthusiasm for the subject matter translates to the page in this engaging microhistory.
Hair offers what the author refers to as a “panoramic view” of the natural fiber, including whiskers, pubic hair and mammalian fur. Stenn provides readers with a modicum of simple science and lots of cocktail party-worthy facts and anecdotes worth sharing. He begins with a description of the follicle growth cycle, spending time on causes of extreme hair loss and explaining male pattern baldness. Hair follicles don’t disappear; they become smaller and smaller until they’re microscopic. Who knew that bald men really do have hair?
The author shares the reason that Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard, and explores how tonsorial choices reflected both beauty and power throughout history. Did you know that the iconic barber pole is a vestige of the time before the 18th century when barbers performed bloodletting? Barbers of the time doubled as surgeons, since hair and body care were seen as one and the same.
Hair touches on the history of hair styling, chemical processing and even hair removal. Stenn takes a look at depictions of hair in art, and at artists that make a statement by including actual human hair in their work. He points out the sentimental and spiritual value of a lock of hair, and describes the once-common custom of wearing jewelry made from a deceased loved one’s hair — a memento mori. Dozens of illustrations add to the book’s appeal. At just 169 pages (plus a glossary and extensive notes), Hair is a fascinating, worthwhile read.
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin audaciously challenges readers from the very beginning. Protagonist Milo Andret is a mathematical genius, a young man with an uncanny sense of direction and intrinsic awareness of geographical place. He visualizes complex problems and, to him, obvious solutions. His adult life becomes absorbed by the complex world of academic mathematical theory, in particular, topology.
What is topology, you might ask? And why would you spend your time on a novel that spans decades and devotes over 500 pages to a literary novel that seemingly centers on math? Credit the supple talent of novelist Canin for crafting a rich, relatable saga with universal themes of self-discovery, fulfillment, love, loss and the importance of family.
Although his path seemed obvious, Milo was never a good student, as he was prone to boredom. Five years after completing his undergraduate degree (he spent the interim working as an auto mechanic), he applies to graduate school at UC Berkeley. A latecomer to the field, it’s not long before Milo discovers the theorem that will define his career, the elusive young woman who will slip through his grasp and haunt him for the rest of his life, and the poet/mathematician who not only becomes his nemesis but represents the path not taken.
But like the real life mathematician John Nash, portrayed in the book and movie A Beautiful Mind, Milo’s brilliance comes at a price. His brain never quiets, and he lacks the coping mechanisms to relax and simply be happy — he’s constantly striving. He loves the company of women, but lacks interpersonal skills that allow for connection beyond the bedroom. Self-medication helps; Maker’s Mark bourbon bottles literally pile up. Milo reaches the zenith of his professional life early and manages to make a number of enemies along the way. He marries to escape, and his career falters as his frustration mounts.
Canin makes a smart choice by giving the narration to Milo’s son. Hans is brilliant in his own way but damaged by a childhood dominated by a mercurial, distant father and a loving, devoted yet unfulfilled mother. His sister, also a prodigy, is scarred by their father’s failure to recognize her. Hans makes a fortune by using his own mathematical skills in the financial markets. Wildly successful, he also self-medicates from his time as a young teen — first with the recreational drug MDA, later with cocaine. Hans and his wife keep their own children far from their grandfather.
Canin is a master storyteller, creating interesting, flawed characters that struggle to feel comfortable in their own skin; characters that long to connect in meaningful ways and leave their mark on the world. A Doubter’s Almanac draws you deeply into the lives of the Andrets in ways that stay with you long after you’ve finished this smart, intensely moving novel. This is literary fiction at its best, challenging and rewarding. A Doubter’s Almanac is the best novel I’ve read this year, deserving of the many accolades that are sure to come its way.