A Book a Day … Day 17 and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

I’ve noticed that I’m on a bit of a memoir kick. It’s completely unintentional, really, since my Mom is a binge reader and hands me everything she reads. This year, apparently, was my mom’s “the year of memoir.”

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers is a hyperactive, Red Bull memoir that is a bit dizzying. Eggers is self deprecating, egocentric college senior who loses both his parents to cancer within a period of five weeks and becomes his 8-year-old brother’s guardian. Between turning a hard-wood floored home into a sliding rink and juggling work, school, his 8-year-old brother’s life and and the hormones of a 22-year-old, this memoir is a bit like reading a stream-of-consciousness stumble through life.

It’s good. It’s inventive. It’s a kind of writing I’ve never actually encountered before. And BOY was I glad to finish it because I was exhausted. It was like wind sprinting through this guy’s mind … and always being a step behind.

Eggers founded  826 , a non-profit organization that pairs students with writers to help students develop their writing ability and succeed in school. He’s a really fascinating person.

A Book a Day … Dayb 15 and Micah Kesselring

Today we deviate and I have to recommend this beautiful CD written and composed by Micah Kesselring that has stories in its notes.
Admittedly, I’m a bit of a music dud. There’s a huge gap between my Hughie Lewis and the News-slash-Cindy Lauper days and 2005 (around there). But little by little, thanks to Jango and the magic of having friends who actually CARE about music, I’m getting back in the swing of things.
I have the privilege of working with a bi-national institute that brings in a Jazz Festival and Blues Festival every year. This year, the cultural director called me last minute to translate for the blues musicians who came in. And, this year, I met my first genius. Lots of people throw that around. “Oh! She’s a genius! She’s brilliant!” Very few people, though, for REAL REAL REAL have that genius thing going on.
Actually, in my 41 years, I’ve only ever met ONE genius. This guy.
Micah so impressed me. He started playing guitar when he was 10 and went professional by the time he was 14. The Blues Hall of Fame invited him to play when he was 15. This guy … is the real deal genius guy. When he played, he was transported somewhere else … And it was magical to watch someone become music. That’s the best way I can describe it.
He became his music.
 So, today I recommend this treasure.


A Book a Day, Day 14 and Touching the Rock:An Experience of Blindness

John Hull, an Australian theological scholar, after 36 years of sight problems went completely blind. Touching the Rock is a collection of essays, thoughts, and moments he describes during the first three years of his total blindness, keeping a diary on a cassette player he has beside his bed.
Its simplicity and eloquence is phenomenal.
It’s not a “look-at-me” survival guide to being the Super Blind Man. There are no Tony Robbins moments in here. It’s a quiet, emotional and physical journey into what it feels like being a blind husband and parent; what it’s like to encounter people after years of not seeing them, and “not seeing” them; what it’s like to feel frustrated with the vagueness of language; and what things make the world come alive for him.
It’s all in the details.
It’s beautiful.

A Book a Day, Day 13 and Fat Angie

Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton Trujillo is one courageous novel with one of my favorite, most unexpected heroines in YA.
Angie is fat. Angie is the laughing stock of the entire school because she tried to kill herself, unsuccessfully, during a basketball assembly. Angie is a binge eater. Angie is gay, and just figuring that out (with the new-girl-in-town KC Romance). Angie’s sister is being held hostage in Afghanistan, and Angie’s the only person who believes her sister is still alive. Add a cruel, borderline psychopath adopted Korean brother, an MIA dad who’s too busy with his new family to bother with the old, and an icy mother who is an expert at belittling her daughter and her daughter’s feelings, Angie could’ve been the greatest, most miserable victim in YA. Everything here could’ve been a mega-flop.
But she’s not.
She’s courageous and strong. She’s flawed. She’s scared. She messes up. She forges her way to understand her own truths. She learns to see the world through others’ points of view. And, in the end, with no resolution, we still feel the change and sense of hope and strength in her.
War, suicide, cutting, homosexuality, bullying, abuse, eating disorders, adoption … all woven into a tight story with a heroine we cheer for from page one. This is one courageous novel!
I love when I read a novel that breaks all the rules and comes out ahead. (Plus, this is, hands down, one of the best covers in 2013).

A Book a Day and Cannibalism in MG fiction

“Middle school romance is hard enough, but cannibalism really gets in the way.”

This has to be my favorite tag-line of a novel … ever. Jennifer Duddy Gill found a magical way to weave the enchanting middle grade story of Ferrell Savage and Mary Vittles battling to be co-champions on the sledding hill against a new foe, Bruce Littledood, with an intriguing period of history. Ferrell and Mary must grapple with their mysterious, and somewhat horrifying, family pasts.
The Secret of Ferrell Savage is quirky with a cast of characters that kind of reminded me of Northern Exposure (This dates me. I know.) Ferrell, notoriously “lazy” and living with what seems to be attention deficit disorder tries to impress overachiever Mary while hiding the fact his great great great uncle ate her great great grandfather. Awkward.
Cannibalism in MG fiction isn’t easy to dish out. But it works here with this funny, lovely story! (Spoiler: everybody comes out with all body parts in tact!)

Day 11, A Book a Day and our dusty past

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan is one of those gut-tightening stories because it had me screaming, “Don’t do it! Stop plowing the land, you stupid, greedy, ignorant people.” This is the problem with great non-fiction. You can’t yell and prevent anything because it already happened. And it’s still just as stress-inducing.
As a reader and former student, we always heard about the dust bowl, but we read The Grapes of Wrath and about the mass exodus.
I had no idea the dust was as fine as silt, and people died of pneumonia because it coated their lungs.
I had no idea that in one day, in one particular storm, double the same amount of dirt that was removed to dig the Panama Canal (which took ten years!)
I had no idea that the dust would be ripped up to ten thousand feet above ground and travel as far as New York.

Every single page was a nightmare. And the worst parts: IT WAS ALL PREVENTABLE and IT REALLY HAPPENED.

Not everyone left.  People stayed. People survived the dust bowl and lived to tell their tales. Timothy Egan, rightfully so, won a National Book Award for this great feat of storytelling, recapturing a time that mirrors the greed and wrecklessness of today’s politicians and corporations who rape the land for the “common good.”
This is a gripping tale. It’s frustrating as hell because, well, how stupid can people be?
Very, very stupid. And it’s dotted with extraordinary facts that help paint a picture of how extreme, dangeous, and terrifying the dust bowls were.

A Book a Day … Day 10 and Gone With the Wind The Screenplay

A good friend sent me a treasure this year. It’s Sidney Howard’s screenplay based on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. The introduction is filled with quirky facts about how Hollywood’s most successful movie EVER came together with five writers (including Steinbeck!), three (or four) directors, and filming key scenes even before Scarlett O’Hara was cast.
It’s been such a treasure to read a movie. This weekend, I’m going to watch it, and, perhaps, read along in a couple of parts so I can see how the director put the words into film.
I’m on a bit of a screenplay kick, especially because I’m insanely obsessed with Breaking Bad. I’ve downloaded several of the series’ screenplays and the more I read the more genius I think Vince Gilligan is. Just a genius, really.
This new art of reading movies is exciting for me because I love movies. PLUS, there’s something phenomenal about finishing something so quickly (it’s about one minute per page).
So … for movie buffs, what better gift than to give the screenplay of their favorite movie? Add a popcorn bucket with some of their favorite flavors, and I guarantee it’ll be the most unique gift of the season!

A Celebration of Light

I think that my favorite Colombian holiday is the festival of lights. On a Catholic level, it’s a celebration of the Virgin Mary. But all religions have this ritualistic act of lighting candles. There’s a sacred glow about candlelight, and the mystery of where the smoke curls, whispering its secret to the stars,  seeming as if it were a messenger to the heavens.
So in Colombia, the 7th and 8th are exquisite. Cities dim their lights and become, somehow, more decent. Instead of the cold fluorescent glare of artificial light, magic takes over, if just for a moment. There a visual hush as our eyes adjust to the dimmer, orange flicker of candles. Wishes are made. And I think, I really do, that many come true.
My dad kept a candle lit in the window for me when I moved to Colombia. He left it there for many years. The last two nights were my chance to light candles for the people I love who live far away. I made many wishes, and I hope they felt that we weren’t so far as it may seem.

A Book a Day, Day 7 and the Art of Illustration and Great Storytelling

Picture books go beyond great storytelling, they’re 32 pages of art, contemporary and classic, innovative, and I’d dare say, just as phenomenal as you’ll see in most galleries. (Honestly, I’d paper my whole home in Shaun Tan).
The artistic vision of illustrators (and cover designers) is overlooked as, “oh how sweet.” But any picture book author knows that she might have to wait four to five YEARS for that “just right” illustrator to work with. They’re THAT good. And illustrators bring flavor, culture, diversity to the pages of books making this art priceless.

So today, I celebrate a few of my favorite picture books that surprised me and  whose stories and illustrations bring life to the pages. Picture Books: Not just for kids, you know!

The Day the Crayons Quit written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Schaar Idle (writer/illustrator)

NiñoWrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

Dentro de la Caja by Paula Giorgi and Pablo David Sanchez

A Book a Day … Day 6 and 7 and two of YA’s biggest rock star authors!

Don’t judge.
It’s the holidays.
And I’m having a crazy time organizing my time.

But I have two books that just touched my heart and my writer’s, “Oh hell, I’ve got to do better” strings! (In a good way. It’s GOOD to want to write like the best.) E Lockhart and A.S. King are two of the best YA writers out there, hands down.

We Were Liars by E Lockhart was on my radar for months. I got it its release day and read through it without stopping. It was a binge of brilliant writing. The language, concise and poetic; the unreliable narrator suffering from PTSD who, during the second read, you realize isn’t unreliable at all; the East Coast old money setup which is major world building to someone from small town Nevada; and the tragedy that we can’t quite see, even though the pieces are all there.
E Lockhart is a master of fragmented narrative, and the spare language she uses to create a haunting mood is nothing short of art.

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate,
political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

This book is a phenomenal option for teens (13+) who love the elements of mystery, romance, friendship, and the innocence of mortality we all have until we realize we’re just people. It has just enough of everything to make you want more but realize it was … just enough.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King is one of those books that wriggles into the subconscious and stays … Vera and her best friend, Charlie, in particular. A.S. King is a master of character: flawed, relateable, heartbreakingly real. Vera’s loved Charlie since they’ve been neighbors. They share secret spots; they share each others secrets; and Charlie turns on her.
When Charlie dies under mysterious circumstances and is blamed for some horrible things, Vera knows the truth. But how long should someone keep another’s secrets?
This is a very human book about that idea we grow up with: Don’t get involved. It’s none of our business.
But we have to start to question those teachings because when people we love hurt, it is our business.
Vera and Charlie make me so sad. But there’s this beautiful sense of hope in the layers of lies and secrets, tragedies and truths. The need to speak the truth is so very human, and Vera finally finds her voice.

Isn’t it funny how we live inside the lies we believe?

Like E Lockhart’s book, this is ideal for teens (13+) who love mystery, who live through heartbreak and disappointment, who are afraid they’ll become their parents, who want to find their voices and speak the truth.