The Most Accomodating Bookshelf Imaginable

HOLY GUACAMOLE! If you are like me, and you organize your books by anything other than size and/or the day you put it on the shelf, these will be your new favorite bookshelves ever, because now it no longer matters if you have a book about sailboats whose author's name starts with an S and is oversized, because the oversized books will now fit on your rubber bookshelves. Oh yeah, I'm going to need those. Because god knows I don't have enough bookshelves in my house already.

via Gizmodo (via my lovely husband via Google+)

Audiobook Review: The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Attwood

The best part about alternate reality or alternate future type books is the realness of them; a successful author will lure readers into a world that feels very much like an extension of our own, and then drop bricks on them. Having read only two of her works, The Handmaid's Tale and The Year of the Flood, I am prepared to declare Margaret Atwood a master of this world-creation, and highly recommend her any works.

That's the short of it. The long of it follows after the break.


With Year of the Flood, Atwood has imagined a post-plague world in which only a few humans survive, and must learn to fend for themselves in a land devoid of resources and overrun by mutant animals. But really, it's completely believable. Though the novel begins with the years after the flood, readers are quickly filled in on the events preceding it: the consolidation of corporations across the globe into a conglomeration known as the CorpSeCorps; the rise of "compounds," run by said CorpSeCorps, in which people lived with all resources provided to them; the privatization of the nation's armed forces, and then, the government; and the growth of pocket cells of street gangs, terrorists, pacifists, and religious cults.

Year of the Flood switches back and forth between two perspectives: Toby, a veteran Gardener, former victim of one of the most vicious gang leaders in town, and inveterate tough-gal, who finds herself quarantined in a ladies' spa after the plague; and Ren, a naive child of a Gardener convert whose lift is uprooted when she and her mother are returned to their compound, who is locked away in a high-end sex club with excellent benefits and plenty of prepackaged food to tide her over. Both find themselves survivors of the plague through luck and miracle, and are left in a friendless, lonely world of death and destruction.

Atwood has imagined a careful, calculating world that is a clear extension of our own; much like The Handmaid's Tale, which is also excellent, Year of the Flood suggests our destination, should we continue on the path we are on at the moment. In that, Atwood has succeeded in laying the groundwork for a captivating, engaging storyline.

And the storyline does not disappoint. As we come to know both Toby and Ren, both in their present state and in their individual histories, we learn of their differences, their strengths, their weaknesses. Though the Gardeners at first come off as cult-ish and didactic and slightly absurd -- and they are all of those things -- it is not difficult to understand how they came to be, or why people are continually drawn to them. As more and more characters crawl out of the woodwork - sometimes literally - readers are treated to the joy of experiencing human bonds, a kind of love and reliance that is most often depicted in literature only in immediate families.

In this land without families, then, Atwood suggests that there is an alternative. In a land without government, public programs, or really any social structure, there is an alternative. In a land without resources, there is an alternative. These alternatives lie in banding together, and in redefining our sense of community, family and independence, but they do exist.

A note on the audio: The audio version of Year of the Flood is narrated by two women, Bernadette Dunn and Katie MacNichol, capturing the alternating voices of Ren and Toby, who each narrate their own tale. Interspersed between the narrative are sermons from the Gardeners, read by Adam One (Mark Bramhall) and accompanied by a musical score written to represent the hymns of the Gardeners. The sermons and music are slightly long-winded at times, but then, most of us have sat through a religious ceremony of some sort in our lives, and I'll be the first to raise my hand and admit that my mind has wandered. Ultimately, then, the musical score adds little to the story, but the careful variety of voices - all of whom recreate their characters perfectly - only add to Atwood's already captivating and engrossing story.

A note on the prequel: Like Ben at Learning to Read (link below), I did not realize before embarking on Year of the Flood that it was in fact a sequel to Atwood's earlier novel, Oryx and Crake. The Gardeners, mentioned in passing in Oryx and Crake, take on the central role of the sequel; Oryx and Crake are both characters mentioned in passing in Year of the Flood who apparently form the central storyline of Oryx and Crake. Although I've read them out of order, I am intrigued enough by both the concept and the set-up of the pair and by Atwood's imagination to go back and visit Oryx and Crake.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

Learning to Read
Page Turners
Literary Musings


You might also like:

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
A Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood


Note: Thanks to the Anne Arundel County Public Library for a copy of this audiobook, and for continually stocking such an excellent selection of audiobooks.

Audiobook Review: The Girl with a Pearl Earring

Some people read with the story in mind. Others read with an eye toward language. Still others read to befriend the characters they come to know and love - or know and hate. I read in all of these ways, often depending on the book in my hands, but lately I find myself reading with a mind to inspiration. Where did this story come from? What spark of inspiration set this particular author to writing?

Perhaps it is because I've started to have fantasies of picking up fiction again (or for the first time, depending on your definition) myself, and find that despite a well of words within me, I am lacking that elusive spark, that subject, that object or person or era or passion in which I can submerse myself, lose myself, and meet my story.

In light of this new slant to my reading, it is no wonder that I found myself drawn to Tracy Chevalier's Girl with the Pearl Earring, a novel so clearly rooted in the famous yet inexplicable painting. Who is this girl, who at one glance appears to be smiling, at the next, pouting? Who does not fit in with the subjects of Vermeer's other painting? Who is neither wealthy nor famous? Who does not show her hair, but wears a band of fabric not customary to any of Vermeer's contemporaries? And why, on a girl so obviously of the working class, does she wear a large, glistening pearl in her ear?

Chevalier's novel explores the life of this mystery girl, who, it turns out, is a maid in Vermeer's household, and a maid with an eye for color and paints. As she begins to work more closely with Vermeer, we find her in a situation rife with unspoken tension, fluttering eye contact, and beautiful paintings.

Chevalier masters the world in which Griet and Vermeer live, from the details of their small Dutch town to the exquisite descriptions of Vermeer's tools, paints, and final pieces. Girl with the Pearl Earring is a perfect balance of history and fiction, a novel in which Chevalier's imaginative retelling of this famous painting support, rather than detracts from, the story of the painting itself. It is the kind of masterful novel that succeeds in reshaping our definition of a thing; in this case, Vermeer's painting, but for me, the story behind paintings in general.

I have visited the great museums of the world (or of my little world, anyone), from the Met to the Louvre, and appreciated paintings for their intricate brushstrokes, the careful lines and balance, the vibrant, or not-so-vibrant, colors of the work. But never before have I applied my "Why did the author write this book? Where did the idea come from?" tack to paintings. Though I could not begin to explain why literature and art insist on residing in separate parts of my brain, I can thank Chevalier for helping me bridge the gap between the two, and compliment her on an exquisite work of art, beauty, love, color, and history.


A note on the audio: I listened to the Recorded Books edition of Girl with a Pearl Earring, narrated by Ruth Ann Phimister. Though I have not heard Jenna Lamia's narration, and so have no basis of comparison, I can say that Phimister's treatment of Griet is spot-on. Though never affecting a Dutch accent, a hint of an accent suggests it; though narrating the story of a girl forced to grow up earlier than would be expected, and told from a perspective many years down the line, her voice suggests the persistence of youth; though never venturing into sadness or regret, her narration implies a sense of curiosity over what could have been. Phimister's voice and Griet's story have, in my mind, become inextricable -- when I think back to this novel, I hear her narration in my head.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

The Book Nook Club
Blog Critics


You might also like:

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostovo
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier


Note: Thanks to the Anne Arundel County Public Library for the audio copy of this book, and for generally maintaining an amazing collection of audiobooks for me to peruse.

Celebrate Banned Books Week!

"Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas." -Alfred Whitney Griswold, New York Times, February 24, 1959 

This week marks the 30th annual celebration of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read. This week, readers across the world take a hard look at the list of books challenged or banned across history, holding firmly to the belief that while individuals may choose what they (or their children, as the case may be) will read, they do not have the right to call for government action to prevent others from reading or viewing said material.

William Brennan, US Supreme Court Justice, said in his ruling on Texas v. Johnson, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." In other words, if you write something no one wants to read about it, your book should theoretically ban itself -- we don't need to do the work for you. And if even just one person wants to read your offensive or disagreeable idea... well, who are we to dictate bad taste?

In reviewing the list of books challenged, burned,* removed from schools and/or libraries, or outright banned in 2010 and 2011 alone (download the PDF of the list here), the list of objections to titles ranges from "it gave my daughter nightmares" (The Hunger Games, challenged in New Hampshire in 2010) to labeling books "pervasively vulgar, obscene and inappropriate (Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology, which was named one of the best adult books for high school students by SLJ in 2001).

I've read a few of the books on the 2010-2011 list, and I plan to celebrate this week by going back to a much earlier banned book - To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm ashamed to say that I have not read this since middle school.

Personally, I think this is the best part of the attempts to ban books: in attempting to ban a book, all censors do is succeed in calling more attention to it -- which in turns, means more people want to read it. Just look at what happened to Laurie Anderson's Speak last year; calling rape "pornographic" is a good way to piss off a lot of readers, women, teens, and advocates... and an even better way to make Speak's sales sky-rocket.

So what are you reading this week? What books have you read that have been challenged or banned? Are you more interested in a challenged book after it has been challenged?


* It's the 21st century... do we really need to burn things we don't like anymore? Isn't that a little Salem-ish of us? Can't we just de-friend it on Facebook and call it a day?

Thanks to the National Banned Books Week program (download PDF) for the data seen above. Image from

National Book Festival

We've all seen the headlines lately -- Borders closing, publisher lay-offs, downsizing, cutting costs, etc. Couple the bad news with the fear of the e-book trend, and it's really no wonder that the cries of "The book is dead! The book is dying!" continue to sound. But then I spent a day at the National Book Festival, wandering around the masses and masses of people that had come to hear authors speak, get books signed, and generally partake in an orgy of book love. Despite the rain, and the oh-my-god-it's-like-walking-through-pudding-humidity, and the broken escalators on the Metro, thousands upon thousands of people attended the free-to-all show.

There are those that will argue that any free entertainment will draw crowds, and I agree. But the fact that, free or no, people of all ages flocked to the Mall to celebrate the book tells me that there is still an indelible love for books in all of us. Children were excited to make their own bookmarks and hear authors in the storytelling tent, and adults in crowds ten-deep behind the seated areas of author-speaking tents. I sat for 45 minutes stalking open seats to score three together for Sarah Vowell's talk (I love her).

To me, it doesn't matter how we read, or really even what we read, so long as we continue to read. The National Book Festival was an event seemingly born of this ideal, celebrating the book, its authors, the institutions that support it, and the people who consume it. Well done, Library of Congress.

So It's Not Like Riding a Bicycle, After All

There are some things that are just like riding a bicycle - easy to pick back up after a long break. It turns out blogging is not like that. I've been staring at a blank screen (in the new Blogger template, WHOA WHAT IS UP) for two days, trying to decide where to start. The list of books I've read and haven't written about is long, and some of the books I read as long ago as February. But I will persevere...
expect a boatload of reviews and a return to semi-regular posting this week! Just in time for Banned Books Week.

In the meantime, I leave you with this excellent thought, originally shared by Out of Print (follow them on Facebook).

“Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.” -William Faulkner (and it's his birthday, no less)

Checking In

Wow. I'm ashamed to look at my posting history over the last few months -- it's been a ghost town around here. To anyone that is still following me, thanks! That's some true dedication. To those that used to and have since stopped checking... well, I probably shouldn't bother writing to you, as you've stopped checking.

Which is all just a really long way of saying that I'm still here, I'm still blogging (sort of), I'm still reading (a lot!) and I'm hoping to get back in the swing of things in the coming weeks. I'm in the process of changing jobs, which I'm hoping will leave me with a more normal schedule. And though I have not crossed off any more Hemingway books on my list, or read War and Peace, I did fly an airplane, which was on my 26 by 26 list.

I've read a lot of great books lately, and will have reviews coming shortly of the following of Exley, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Year of the Flood, North River, and a few others. In the meantime, I've been reviewing titles for Shelf Awareness for Readers -- if you're short on book recommendations, hop on over and browse the latest reviews there. And be sure to subscribe for a twice-weekly dose of bookish love.

I've also been out of the loop on book news and other book blogs, so let me know what I've been missing!