Friday, December 5, 2014

Maus: One Man's Ancestry is a Society's History Lesson

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The Holocaust, an event that has been seared onto the memories and history books of the world, an event fanatically gruesome yet so diligently efficient it has overshadowed genocides that have wiped out several times more people than the mere 6 million victims of the Nazis.  However, as time passes, the events from the 1930's and 40's continues to grow more and more distant to us as a society.  As time moves on and survivors, along with their memories, die, the Holocaust will inevitably become just another catastrophe in the history of mankind.  It will lose the human tragedy element of it, the guilt, the shame, the fear, the overbearing shadow of an event too big for its survivors and their descendants to even start to come to terms with; it risks becoming just another chapter in a textbook.

Yet, to one man, American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, the Holocaust will never be just another chapter.  It is the defining chapter... yet he didn't even live it.  His father was a Holocaust survivor; it became a permanent part of Vladek's life, one that shaped who he was, as a husband, a father, a person.  Spiegelman constantly felt hounded by the specter of the long over Holocaust that his father felt, thus it became a focal point for his career.  Speigelman began his comic career working for underground magazines and newspapers.  He had several successful strips that ran in various publications, as well as being the creator of the Garbage Pail Kids.  However, it was the frequent strips about his father's experience in the Holocaust and how that affected their relationship that kept coming back to Spiegelman.  He would base comic strips off his father's anecdotes during the Holocaust, letting his father see them and discuss them (sometimes with good results, sometimes with antagonistic guilt trips).  With more and more information from his father, Spiegelman started conducting interviews with him about his experiences, chronicling Vladek's life from the early 1930's to the end of World War 2.  These interviews culminated in Maus: A Survivor's Tale in 1991, a graphic novel.  Graphic novels are books written entirely in comic book form, with pictures, dialogue, and only scant narration to lead the story.  Highly reviewed and a critical success, Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in the Special Citations and Letters Category, becoming the first graphic novel to win such a prize.  Maus has been cited as bringing graphic novels, which had been a small and mostly underground field of novels, into the forefront, later making graphic novels one of the most popular book types for both young adults and adults.

Spiegelman's idea was that using a graphic novel would better record his father's story; however, instead of using humans, he used an anthropomorphic animal element.  The idea behind the use of animals for people came from the idea of certain races of people being 'subhuman' or like animals.   He also believed that the use of animals to represent different races would expound on the absurdity that people were different due to race and that the theology of the Nazis that targeted Jews was comical.  The use of animals was also intended to help the reader better understand the politics, however preposterous, of the time period and to illustrate what exactly the Nazis thought divided them from others.  The Jewish people are depicted as mice, since they were seen as terminable vermin by the Nazis.  Cats are used in the portrayal of Nazis, a classic enemy of mice.  Polish characters are shown as pigs, since Vladek and his family were sold out by a Polish man.  There is a haunting human element that comes from the use of animals.  It incites a strong sense of vulnerability of the Jews during the Nazi regime and acutely conveys the sense of fear of the enemy, the Nazis, or in this case, the cats.  The entire novel is black and white; the is no depiction of color, no distraction from the story at hand. The cartoons are simplistic yet detailed, a beautiful example of the talent and pure artistry of Spiegelman.  Despite using animals, these cartoon panels do not have a trace of cuteness or fun in them.  It is perhaps due to the stark contrast of the events being told and the medium being used that a deep sense of tragedy and pain is conveyed.  As far as graphic novels go, the illustrations do not clash with the dialogue.  Both are succinctly clear and concise, making the novel extremely captivating and easy to read.  First time graphic novel readers will not struggle with this novel; Spiegelman does an artful job of making the story flow and not confusing the reader.
Courtesy of

Maus is separated into two sections: My Father Bleeds History and And Here My Troubles Began; the first is Vladek's experiences leading up to his imprisonment in Auschwitz.  This is a type of first person account of history and it does not fail to deliver.  Spiegelman represents his father's words and memories exactly from their interviews and it gives great insight to the family life of people leading up to the Nazi invasion of Europe.  Spiegelman does not sugarcoat his father's actions or words; at time, Vladek seems like a jerk.  Spiegelman does a wonderful job using the cartoons along with his father's stories to portray the growing sense of unease and unrest spreading through Europe in the late 1930's among the Jewish populations.  And Here My Troubles Began brings us to a point in adult Spiegelman's life, where he is grappling with his father's growing eccentricity and anger.  This is the part of the novel that covers Vladek's time in Auschwitz and it truly a heartbreaking, yet interesting account of how one could survive.

The interactions between father and son periodically break the story to illustrate how the past has dominated and shaped not only Vladek's life but also Spiegelman's.  Spiegelman, both as a child and as an adult, is haunted by memories that are not his but are of the past, a time when he wasn't even alive.  He is the product of two survivors and their actions and beliefs are purely guided from their past and survival.  The Holocaust stains every family interaction, every familial connection they have.  The label of survivor runs undercurrent to both Vladek's and Spiegelman's actions.  This phenomenon is common; it is a type of survivor guilt that is passed down through generations of families.  He cannot escape a past he did not experience.  This is a significant topic that is not commonly broached during discussions of the Holocaust, yet Spiegelman lays out his own personal examples to better show people how far reaching the Holocaust still is.
Spiegelman's self portrait,
courtesy of

What makes Maus a valuable read for not only graphic novel enthusiasts (a must due to the beautiful illustrations and the significance it played in reviving the medium), but to history buffs as well is the honest depiction of the Holocaust, its victims and survivors, and the ancestors left to burden the tragedy.  The underlying fear, guilt, shame, and horror of the Holocaust continue to reach into the Jewish and European populations today, with ancestors still feeling the aftershocks of surviving (and perpetrating) the Holocaust.  The Holocaust, in Spiegelman's opinion, has served as a large, common bond that ties all Jewish people together; the benefits of that, however, are possibly less than positive, according the Spiegelman.  He sees that the continuation of suffering from the Holocaust, long after it's end, is what will always paint the Jewish community. It painted every moment of his father's life; Vladek never found closure from it.  It also influenced Spiegelman's life for a long time, which is what led him to start Maus. There continue to be studies and books done about the lasting effects of World War 2 and the Holocaust on today's modern society.  However, there tends to be a lack of emotion and pure humanness in the academic works.  It is up to books like The Diary of Anne Frank, Night, and Maus that will help society never forget the horror incurred during that time period.  Perhaps, with accounts like these, we as a society will not forget.  Perhaps then, we can avoid repeating history.  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Executing History Perfectly- Agnes Magnúsdóttir and her "Burial Rites"

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Today, Iceland is a prime example of a country absolutely thriving in the modern, changing world.  It is at the top of the game in education, technology, human rights, and regularly tops the stats lists for one of the best and safest places to live in the world.  Yet, 200 years ago, Iceland was a desolate, harsh country, mostly empty space, with a smattering of extremely close-knit, interwoven communities, which feared strangers and change.  This setting, chilly in both the physical landscape and the social one, is where author Hannah Kent sets her novel, Burial Rites.  Burial Rites focuses on the last person executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, in 1830.  A brilliant combination of historical fact and fiction, Burial Rites is a lyrical, somber, yet beautiful novel about love, betrayal, and the ability to overcome first judgments.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir and two others are accused of the brutal murder of their employer.  Two of the three are condemned to die.   Kent explores what could have happened; the event itself and Agnes are both hard to pinpoint down in the historical record.  Agnes is known only from the court and execution records.  However, it is a fact that, while awaiting Copenhagen's final decision on her fate, Agnes is sent to work for the family of a local district officer; the real family is portrayed in the novel.  It is this aspect of the ordeal that Kent makes her story.  Agnes's initial arrival is met with almost open hostility and distrust; after all, she is a convicted murderess.  Also thrust into the spotlight is a hesitant, uncertain pastor (also based on a real person), who has been instructed to counsel Agnes in her remaining days and to help her seek penance for her crime.  All persons who encounter Agnes are unhappy to be doing so; they are fearful of her, fearful of her crime, although they were also fearful of the man she killed.  Through the everyday interactions and work performed, both the depth and complexity of Agnes is revealed, leaving the family burdened with her questioning her, themselves, and their overall faith in God and in Iceland.

Agnes tells her story to the pastor, making Burial Rites literally a story within a story... and surprisingly, this works.  Agnes's storytelling gives character and emotion to the novel; the story of day to day life with the family sets up an excellent illustration of the setting and the way of life back then.  Agnes's personal history is largely fictional; however, it is convincing.  Kent does a wonderful job of portraying the stark poverty of the lower classes of Iceland and how their lives are completely in the hands of the upper class, resulting in a tumultuous lifestyle of near-slavery, constant movement between employers, and never-ending poverty and misery, especially for women.  Put this situation in a setting of frigid winters, nearly uninhabitable landscapes, and suspicious and intolerant townspeople, and the reader can see that there was no hope for Agnes from the beginning.  Nevertheless, the reader also sees that Agnes is highly intelligent, introspective, and serious.  She does not take her emotions lightly, thus ending up in the volatile situations that leads her to kill. Her story is heartbreaking, yet there is a certain amount of strength that is the undercurrent for her tale.  She never gives up, never doubts herself.  This strength lends itself to a beautiful character, albeit a murderess.  As a person, Agnes herself is what creates the crux of the story: can someone convicted of a murder be a good person?  Can morals and laws be ambiguous to the point where the convicted is the victim?
Author Hannah Kent, courtesy of

Agnes's passion and recklessness play a perfect parallel to the other main character,  Iceland.  The weather, the rugged landscape, and the unforgiving nature of rural living in Iceland all contribute to the demeanor of the people who live there.   Kent, despite being an Australian, paints a haunting portrait of a country and its people at odds with itself and with a changing world.  The reader can see how year after year of rough and hard living and coexistence with one of the world's most extreme climates has turned the Icelanders into hardy, cold, sensible, yet highly superstitious people.  Agnes's character, which is different from their own, causes whispers of witchcraft and sorcery.  This is almost in complete contrast to the way they view their lifestyle, which is logically and realistically.  The beauty of Iceland lies within its mountains, its proximity to the ocean, its streams, and the summer vegetation. The book is worth reading solely for the representation of Iceland, a country that is not usually featured in novels.  However, the reader will get a succinct and memorable setting from Kent, who does not shy away from lengthy setting descriptions or from just pulling the reader away from the story for a bit to enjoy the country side.

This is not a mystery.  There is a crime, yes, but there is no solving the problem.  We know from the outset that Agnes is executed; it is a historical fact.  However, Burial Rites is more than worth reading.  It is worth several reads.  One will simply not be able to forget the daunting facets of living in Iceland; Kent makes their lives not romantic, but seeming trials of tenacity.  Burial Rites will leave you questioning.  Questioning morals, law, punishment, and just what exactly is a crime.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Do Not Be "Fool"ed by Shakespeare

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Oh, the classics. We read them because they were perhaps revolutionary for the time period, thus we are enlightened by the antiquity yet still taught by the applicable lessons in them. Or we read them because our mean high school teachers forced us to. One of those commonly required authors is William Shakespeare; he wrote seemingly endless amounts of fodder for future English classes. Yet, one man saw greatness in a particular Shakespeare play. He saw the potential for humor, gore, smack talk, smut, and an endless amount of sarcasm in King Lear... he saw his eleventh literary creation, Fool.

Fool is the story of Pocket, King Lear's court jester. Pocket is a witty, highly intelligent, manipulating, kind, crude, sweet man, who is subtly the voice of reason in Lear's crumbling kingdom and family. Fool follows the original King Lear story line... and that's about it. The characters are much more richly detailed, their interactions more complex, emotional, and conniving. Pocket is stuck in the middle as Lear divides his kingdom and falls into a pit of self-pity. Pocket decides that it is up to him to solve the crisis and the reader will see how King Lear's plot ACTUALLY moved along.

Christopher Moore is no stranger to humor, crudity, and controversy. His earlier books revolve around a strange, fictitious community with a penchant for attracting wackos, people on the run, supernatural forces, and plain tomfoolery. In 2002, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal was published and tongues started wagging about Moore's writing; reviews ranged from scandalized to adored. (It is a great book; however, if you are delicate, it might not be the book for you!) Moore forged ahead, cranking out books with his ideas ranging from vampires to his favorite fiction community to death hounds. In 2009, Fool arrived on the scene. During this time, readers had seen a deluge of "retold classics"; no one could escape Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Yet, Fool is not a retold classic. It is the classic story told from a different perspective, the one of the jester, who, in most stories from the time period, is just a background character. There is none of the flowery, aged language that we suffered through with Shakespeare; Moore uses modern language for his dialogue only slightly peppered with old English (mostly for sarcasm's sake), which adds a very entertaining twist for the time period. Like Shakespeare, Moore doesn't waste time with lengthy descriptions of settings or background stories. He too jumps straight into the fray that is King Lear's family and kingdom. Moore has an distinct writing style; he combines wit, humor, and stark detail, with twisted, complicated story lines that leave the reader fully immersed in the story and in the characters' lives. His characters and their escapades are memorable; you cannot help but laugh at their shenanigans and chaos. However, Moore also weaves sorrow, anger, and a sense of moral dilemma in each novel; thus, while humorous, each will leave the reader thinking about the story, the outcomes, and the characters long after they have finished the book.

There is a certain amount of crude language and adult scenes in the novel. However, there is a purpose with every adult scene (or mention of women with "a generous spirit in the dark"); marriage, sex, and relationships all play a huge part in the decisive actions in King Lear, thus they play the same role in Fool, only with copious amounts of humor and cheek involved. There is nothing horribly graphic; however, like with Lamb, Fool has raised several eyebrows with the unchecked language and the compromising situations that several characters find themselves in.

Moore has not written anything outlandishly obscene or awful. He is merely joining a growing crowd
Author Christopher Moore,
courtesy of
of authors, like Carl Hiassen, Robert Olen Butler, David Sedaris, and many others, who write without pretension and without the fear of offending others. They write real life-like interactions, situations, and scenes; life is chaotic, funny, and awkward. Critics have chastised Moore for his destruction of a classic. Others, however, have praised Moore for resurrecting a play that almost no one reads for joy. He adapted a story that has solid morals, lessons, and emotions (King Lear is one of the most emotionally turbulent Shakespeare plays) and made it readable for the current generations. Fool is a wonderfully written, thoroughly enjoyable book. It does not subtract from the original; in fact, to readers who enjoyed King Lear, Fool almost enhances the story line, giving life, breathe, and personality to characters whose surroundings, etiquette, and beliefs are out of date and hard to relate to. Critics must remember that Shakespeare's play were not famous because of flowery language, hidden literary tools, and deeply convoluted literary meanings and metaphors (if I had a dollar for every time a teacher said, "But what does it mean?!"...); Shakespeare's writings were famous because it captured the human condition and the characters had emotions that we all feel and that we all hide. His characters range from being saviors of their peers to cold-blooded, ambitious murderers. He became famous for exploring the human emotion in play, which had not been done before. Fool does the same thing. We see the characters at their worst and at their best and it makes us wonder how we would react in similar situations. Shakespeare and Moore, centuries apart, both capture the human spirit: all the filth, the crudeness, the hilarity, and the beauty that life comes with in their works.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"The Death of Bees"- Destroys and Restores Your Emotions

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"Today is Christmas Eve.
Today is my birthday.
Today I am fifteen.
Today I buried my parents in the backyard.
Neither of them were beloved."

Right off the bat, you know that The Death of Bees (2012) is going to be rough.  This is a book about horribly neglectful and abusive parents; the pitfalls of the government's policies on child welfare; misplaced and malicious judgement made about people; growing up in general; and the tenacity that children and teenagers have to survive their situations no matter how dire.  The book is gritty and in your face; the author does not shy away from the violence and neglect that pervades homes and families.  Author Lisa O'Donnell's debut novel, The Death of Bees does not hesitate to shock; it is the shock factor of the novel that jolts the reader to the realization that this story is one that could very well happen. O'Donnell uses short, abrupt descriptions to create the stark surroundings that the girls live in.  The realism is further conveyed through the dialogue between the characters.  It is real, emotional, secretive at times, and also full of slang that normal teenagers and children would use.  O'Donnell has a distinctive style that keeps the story moving along quickly, but also embeds the story into the reader's mind and soul.

In layman's terms, Marnie and her younger sister, Nelly's, lives are terrible.  Their parents are violent drug addicts, who have little time for their children.  Marnie reflects throughout the novel about her having to care for Nelly since Nelly was a baby. Nelly, who appears to have autism and is very brilliant and mature for her young age, is burdened by the fact that they are keeping a huge secret. The critical plot point for the novel is not revealed at once.  Rather, the situation is slowly and painfully revealed to the reader through the interactions between the characters and flash-backs.  When they find that both their parents are dead, they have no choice but to keep it a secret. However, the secrecy of the two leads to suspicions from their neighbor, Lennie, a homosexual man who is ostracized in the neighborhood due to a scandal; Lennie's dog seems intent on digging in the girls' backyard and Lennie does not quite buy the whole 'our parents are just on vacation' story.

Lisa O'Donnell, courtesy of
O'Donnell does not pull any punches with The Death of Bees. To the outside world, they seem like two deadbeat girls.  However, O'Donnell paints an enlightening family portrait of them; they are two smart girls who are living under the shadow of their parent's drug use, even after death. They are determined to stay together out of love and camaraderie. The realism portrayed in the parents' drug use, and the far reaching consequences of it, is startling.  We see how one of the main villains of the story is the government and it bureaucracy.  O'Donnell makes a poignant, yet firm point about the results of trying to tear apart siblings who have nothing but each other.  Time and time again, the Child Protection services from the government flit in and out of their lives, not really doing anything, not really helping the girls like they should. We see how the girls' fear of being separated by the government drives their actions, making the government possibly the most despicable character in the book. Their fear only drives them closer, which in turn cements their relationship; they are tough sisters who will stick together no matter what. O'Donnell really explores the topic of how government action, especially after the fact of neglect and abuse, is more destructive to the girls' lives than if they would have been just left alone. That is quite possibly O'Donnell's main point: one is left to their own devices when everyone else around them fails to help.  

Yet, there is an underlying note of hope throughout the whole novel.  Rays of light and hope permeate through the grime of the main characters' lives, making the novel suspenseful in it's own right.  The one person who cares enough to try to help is the neighborhood pariah.  Lennie's homosexuality poses problems throughout the book.  He is cruelly discriminated against; however, he is the only adult in the novel who wants to selflessly help the girls and he demonstrates the greatest amount of kindness and understanding.  Lennie is a beautiful character, perhaps the best written of the entire novel.  A juxtaposition to the despised drug addict and alcohol class in the area, Lennie is shunned because of his homosexuality.  This isolation puts him in an awkward position, one where he has to chose self-preservation or chose the girls that have become his eccentric family.  O'Donnell weaves the story in a way to where the reader does not really know who is actually the main character, if it's the girls that need redemption and love so badly or if it's the man who needs the same.  The outcome is sublimely dramatic; the reader is thrown off course and then treated to a whirlwind that leaves them breathless and hopeful.  

This is a beautiful book about different lives coming together. Lennie, Marnie, and Nelly are all in the same boat; they are preemptively judged by those around them and tossed aside, labeled as no-goods.  The pain and suffering that they endure, however, leads to hope.  O'Donnell uses the horror of their lives, the sadness, the loneliness, to illustrate that their is always hope, even in the most unexpected places. It is a beautiful piece of fiction.  This novel never quite tears you down; you keep rooting for Marnie and Nelly, despite their setbacks.  You begin to think in their terms and realize that nothing should tear you down completely.  It is a story about survival, acceptance, and love.  It is not elegant or academic.  Yet, it examines the human condition and what we do to survive in such a way, it makes you question your own ability to withstand life's challenges.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Making Crime and Chemistry Charming: Flavia de Luce

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Flavia de Luce does not go looking for trouble; it just happens to find her.  She does not mean to make the police look bad; she just cannot help that she knows more about chemistry and science than they do.  So, armed with her immense knowledge of self-taught chemistry and her dogged persistence, Flavia does what any 11 year old girl would do: she solves the crime. A creation of Canadian author Alan Bradley, Flavia and her family were first introduced in 2009'sThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a delightful, twisted mystery involving boarding schools, dead birds, and stamps. Bradley continued with Flavia's genius chemistry-centered answers to crime in The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (2010), A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011), I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (2011), Speaking from Among the Bones (2013), and most recently, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (2014).

Growing up in a post- WW2 English village as one of the last members of a worn-out prestigious family name and ruined fortune, Flavia displays the famous hereditary de Luce genius and also a personal knack for danger.  She dabbles in poisons, daydreams about her missing beauty/genius of a mother, and avoids her remaining family: her stoically mournful father, her wistfully dramatic sister, Ophelia, and her bookish but blasé sister Daphne.  Their family is all that is left of a once proud, immensely talented family; the quirkiness and the genius of the de Luces lent itself too often into madness and/or complete detachment from the outside world.  Haunted by the specter of their adored mother and wife (who disappeared when Flavia was two) and desperate to maintain their sprawling estate almost as an homage to her, the de Luces keep to themselves, interacting with the outside world but not with each other.  With lots of free time and a fully equipped chemical lab (one ancestor was obsessed with chemistry), Flavia has no choice but to get involved in her own crime investigations, much the chagrin of the local constables.  She is the type of character that is compelling, since you do not know whether to hate her or love her.  Her age and maturity can be trying; Bradley has a firm grasp on the annoying qualities of an 11 year old.  Nonetheless, the reader cannot help but be enchanted by the precocious girl, who uses her tender age to con adults into letting her in on secrets she uses to her advantage and also uses her astonishing knowledge to find clues that the normal person would have missed.

Bradley paints a melancholic yet nostalgic picture of a tumultuous time in English history.  The great, crumbling fortunes and estates of an England long gone due to war and economic downturn are at the heart of these novels' settings.  We can see the old ways of life clashing with the upcoming, more modern way of life; these clashes often lead the comic relief, confusion, or the oft- poignant reality that life is not going to be the same anymore for the villagers of Bishop's Lacey, simply from the fast-pace times that have followed the war.  For having never visited England, Bradley paints an accurate and picturesque idea of the English countryside.  The reader is treated to the quaint comings and goings of the villagers, the wildfire of small-town gossip, and the ever-present suspicion of people who are not from Bishop's Lacy.  The villagers are well-rounded additional characters, with whom Bradley makes a revolving facet of the de Luces' lives. The colloquialisms of mid-century English villagers (and the comparison of speech to the well-educated de Luces) is simply delightful and adds to the whimsical feel of the novels.  This whimsical feel clashes fantastically with the often brutal crimes that the novels center around.  The crimes' perpetrators sometimes have a near senseless reason at the end, giving the novels a growing sense of 'times-are-changing'.  The straightforward dialogue is reminiscent of the "Golden-Age" of crime novels, reminding the reader of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  

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These are not award-winning novels.  Instead, they are colorfully crafted stories about a family barely hanging on and a little girl whose wits and intellect bring not only justice for the village but also a sense of strength in her family.  The solving of the crimes is fun and the stories that Bradley weaves are contorted and surprising.  However, the real stories are about the de Luces. The reader cannot help but be intrigued by the de Luces and their history, which pops up often throughout the series; the falling apart of what was once a great family is morbidly fascinating.  Her father is a fallen, depressed man, who cannot (perhaps will not) get over his beloved wife's death.  The mystery of Flavia's mother is a constant theme throughout, culminating in the VERY revealing, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches.  In spite of her brash independence, time and time again, Flavia is saved by her sisters, who seem to hate her, but, as Flavia discovers, love her fiercely.   They appear to be worlds away from each other, separated by their grief, their secret hopes, and their vastly differing personalities.  Yet, in the darkest and most desperate times in the books, the de Luce clan fiercely defend each other and are each other's greatest protectors.  The novels illustrate that sometimes, the differences in one's family does not matter; what matters is the undying love, respect, and admiration that binds the family together and does not falter in the face of danger or loss.  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The King Has Returned

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For a while, it seemed that the king of psychological horror books had stepped down.  Stephen King's books in the last decade have tended to be off-the-wall, weird, difficult to follow, and were just overall disjointed, badly written, and uninteresting.  Fans everywhere continued to buy the books and slouch through them, out of respect for his past works.  And then, in 2013, Doctor Sleep happened. With Doctor Sleep, we saw the return of the Stephen King we grew to love (amazing stories!) and hate (sleepless nights!).  While still reeling from the revelations, thrills, and horrors seen in Doctor Sleep, fans were then hit in June 2014 with King's first hard-boiled crime novel, Mr. Mercedes; it was a success not only with King fans, but also with crime/mystery fans.

It appears that King has finally moved on from his brush with death in 1999, when a distracted driver ran him over with a van.  The accident clearly had a huge impact on King, not only physically, but emotionally as well; he had recurring nightmares about the accident and had great difficulty sitting up for more than forty minutes to write.  Almost all of his books written after the accident had underlying themes of near death, accidents, and theories about time reversal and how it could affect the future.  Several books have characters that were suspiciously similar to King and who dealt with the consequences from near fatal accidents.  It was perhaps due to his emotional and physically painful recovery (as well as maintaining his several decades long sobriety) that King began writing the disjointed and muddled books that marked the 2000s.  There were no great hits from King, no books that would make the reader's blood run cold or keep them up at night.  Fans worried that this was the end of an era; Stephen King was a has-been, an author who had run his course of success. Yet, with these two novels, King has triumphantly returned.  He has returned to his classic form: a suspenseful build-up of a battle between good and evil, with ample interjections of fear spawning not only from objects and surroundings, but also from everyday people.

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A sequel to 1977's The Shining (admit it, you still can't hear REDRUM without shivering), Doctor Sleep picks up on Danny Torrence's life as an adult.  Battling his demons left over from his eventful stay in the Overlook Hotel, Dan hits rock bottom and needs to reclaim his life.  He still has his Shining; but it has diminished due to years of alcoholism and self-hate.  The reader sees Dan getting his life back together, along with strengthening his Shining.  Interspersed through Dan's recovery, King introduces us to the True Knot, a group of wanderers who maintain their immortality with the lives and souls of children with Shining.  The story becomes a race against time and evil for Dan to save Abra Stone, a girl with immense Shining which makes her a valuable asset to the True Knot. Doctor Sleep is Stephen King at his finest.  There is horror: the True Knot hunts down their victims and dispatches them in a gruesome method in order to get the Shining from them at its strongest.  There is psychological panic at facets of everyday life: you will never look at normal looking people in RVs the same.  There is the classic King style: a battle between good and evil is embedded in everyday life, fought by momentous evil and by people who might have flaws, but are unfaltering good in their core character.  King illustrates the power of self and of normal people's determination to defeat evil.  There are several ancillary characters who rise up to the challenge to help Dan save Abra.  Ancillary characters are often King's greatest creations; they are us, with our flaws, our pettiness, our desires, our overall humanness.  However, these characters play huge parts in King's novels, whether by encouraging the protagonist to continue on no matter the hardships or by actively playing a role in the hardship itself.  The dialogue is clipped, realistic, and powerful; King manages to convey a range of emotions and wishes in his minimalist dialogue, reminiscent of his earlier works.  It is a book that will leave you breathless, satisfied, and very uneasy.

While a departure from King's go-to genre, Mr. Mercedes was yet another reminder that King has not lost the suspense, the terror, and the overall excellent prose style that he became famous for.  The reader is introduced to Bill Hodges, a retired cop who flits with ending his life out of boredom.  We also meet Bradley Hartsfield, a mild man who flits with mass murder out of boredom.  A seemingly gruesome but unsolved crime hangs over Hodges, who becomes unofficially involved in the cold case again when a letter arrives at his house, with the writer claiming to be the perp.  A back and forth between the two culminates in Hodges realizing that he is toying with a psychopath, a person who is intent on killing again.  Mr. Mercedes traces the cat and mouse game between the two men, the climax building to Hodges attempting to stop Hartsfield's biggest spree yet.  Once again, King relies on his ancillary characters to drive the story forward, using them to either block or propel the main characters' actions.  Readers are treated to a different type of crime novel set-up.  Instead of an unknown, in the shadows bad guy, Hartsfield is identified to the reader almost immediately and has his persona and justifications unwrapped throughout his interactions with others and himself.  Crime is a departure from the norm for King. Nonetheless, King manages to include his signature suspense, complex characters, and portrayal of the human psyche into the story, making it feel almost more like one of his older works, despite being very recent and very different from any type of genre he has previously written.  This is the type of book that is not read for the ending or the whodunit; it is read for the story itself, to see how King will lead the reader to the inevitable, yet seemingly elusive conclusion.The novel reads as a battle of the psyches, of who can outwit the other faster and more efficiently.

Can The Stand or Salem's Lot ever be recreated?  No, of course not.  King's earlier books literally launched a genre; he introduced mainstream literature that was not your typical crime or romance novels.  King's novels from the 1970's have earned their spots in literary greatness simply because of their originality and their (at the time) unrivaled content; they will not be outdone by King again.  However, readers can now look forward new, fresh Stephen King books, books that have all the components that made King a legend plus his renewed vigor in storytelling.  There might never be another The Shining, but give these two a chance; you won't regret it.   


Monday, September 22, 2014

Trying Limit Our Imaginations- Celebrate the Right to Read

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To Kill a Mockingbird. Captain Underpants. The Color Purple.  Green Eggs and Ham. Junie B. Jones. Catch-22.  Harry Potter.  The Giving Tree.  The Lord of the Rings.  All VERY different books, from different eras, with different audiences.  However, these books all have one thing glaringly in common: they are considered banned books. Reasons ranging from sexism, Marxism, racism, realistic portrayals of history, violence, sexual content, language, smoking, and bad decisions have all marred these books according to some people and those people want those books out of the public eye.  They have rallied, protested, held book burnings, and continue to petition to have these books removed from schools and libraries.  Why?  Because they are offended by the contents.

This week marks the 32 year of celebrating banned books. Banned books span from children's books to adult books; they are referred to as "challenged" books, since offended parties have to petition with the Office of Intellectual Freedom with their concerns about the book in question.  The majority of these books have had concerns raised due to their appearances in school and public libraries; however, several adult novels have consistently been called into question as well, due to their sensitive subjects.  In 1982, librarian and Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, Judith Krug, alarmed by the rising number of books that were being challenged and subsequently banished from school and libraries, created Banned Book Week.  The objective was to raise awareness about challenged books and the reasons that were given.  With the ALA's full support behind Banned Book Week throughout the decades, the week has become an almost celebration of challenged books in schools and libraries. 

So.  What has Banned Book Week done for us?  It has provided a valuable forum to discuss freedom of speech and the freedom of intellect guaranteed in the United States. Banned Book Week has given educators and librarians across the country the opportunity to teach children and adults alike about the virtues of having the freedom to read what we want and not be censored due to others' prejudices against different ideas and leanings.  We need to read banned books; not just for their content.  We need to read them in order to show people that we as Americans will not be censored.  We will not allow a small group of people to dictate what we can and cannot read, just because they do not agree with the content.  Banned Book Week is about more than just books; it is about the freedom we have as a country to educate ourselves freely and to read whatever we want without the fear of persecution. Read a banned book; celebrate the right to read.   

Monday, September 15, 2014

Dragging Along The Dominican Republic- Junot Diaz

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Junot Diaz doesn't shy away from the heart wrenching.  He has written the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner about a multi-generational family curse (lots of dying); several short stories about a young man who just cannot stop cheating on women he loves (lots of thoughts about dying); and about people who try to ingratiate themselves in America for a better life (leaving behind lots of death in the Dominican Republic, just to face having to die in the American ghettos where they live).  Life and death go hand in hand in Diaz's stories, along with failure and success, and the desperate need to be better than one's parents, while maintaining their heritage.

Diaz, who writes both short stories and novels, creates an unique central character: the Dominican Republic (DR).  The DR holds a strong place in Diaz's heart; he too immigrated to the US as a child and was raised in New Jersey.  Currently a creative writing professor at MIT, Diaz strives to highlight a segment of the American culture that often gets forgotten: the immigrant population from the Caribbean. The DR is a central theme throughout his 1996 debut collection, Drown, where the reader is exposed to a series of short stories that are snapshots into the characters' souls.  We see how they struggle to convey a macho (or slutty, depending on what they want) persona to the public, all the while mourning their inability to achieve higher goals like college or at least staying out of jail.  Failures and triumphs are also in his Pulitzer Prize novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Having a generational 'curse' hanging over his head, Oscar is an overweight nerd, the exact opposite of what a Dominican man is supposed to be.  He is a constant source of woe for his mother, who hopes that he can become more manly or at least more healthy, and for his beautiful and popular sister, who is completely unsure how to deal with her awkward brother. Diaz's latest award winning collection, This is How You Lose Her, we see how the DR paints the characters' (several characters resurface through all of his stories) relationships.  Several stories are about how men want to stay with the women that they truly love, but they just can't escape the pressure to be 'manly' by cheating with several different women.  In others, the reader is shown how women also can't stop playing men for money, cars, or whatever they want.  The constant back and forth in their relationships is blamed on the instability of relationships and sex in the DR; however, this cultural norm for the DR does NOT translate well in the US.  Throughout their struggles with themselves, their history, and their family, the DR hangs over their head, like a past they cannot escape and a future they cannot avoid.

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Diaz writes his stories with a modern, yet uniquely Dominica-meets-East-Coast vernacular, almost a type of Spanglish that is easy to follow along with, all the while pulling the reader into the characters' world.  The descriptions he gives of the varying settings create a stark contrast between the overall pictures of the DR and of the USA; however, the reader can also see the glaring similarities between the two with descriptions of crime and the abject poverty the characters experience.  Junot Diaz is not only telling a story; he is bringing the Caribbean immigrant story to life, a story in which a reader will be completely immersed in.  The stories which Diaz tells are beautiful in their simplicity; uncomplicated phrases and clean descriptions enhance the complexity of the characters' interactions and the depth of their emotions.

Love, loss, poverty, and, most importantly, a loss of culture is what drives Junot Diaz's characters; these people feel the stinging pain of trying to mesh their Dominican culture and identity in with the oft-sterile culture of the USA.  They cannot regain what they left behind, thus they tend to fill the void with destructive behavior, almost barreling themselves towards the stereotype of a "ghetto" immigrant.  It is these descents, these personal struggles, both real and imaginary, that Diaz creates for his readers.

Have Some Louisiana Pride!!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Trading In Harry and Magic for Cormoran and Murder

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Robert Galbraith achieved two things with his 2013 debut novel, The Cuckoo's Calling. 1) He wrote a mystery that was fresh with its approach to a flawed hero, the man who can't exactly get the girl, who doesn't make too many self-improvements, but somehow manages to come out on top. 2) He also was able to use his pen name to hide behind his real identity as Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling and prove to the world that SHE could write books that didn't involve wands or Hogwarts. And prove it she did. The Cuckoo's Calling received spectacular reviews upon it's debut, while the world still thought that Galbraith was a new, male author; it was hailed as being darkly fascinating, with its mystery solving hero being a “a complex and compelling sleuth," according to Publisher's Weekly. Her sequel, The Silkworm, has received equally positive reviews, with Cormoran Strike proving once again that he can be the hero without being perfect.

Cormoran Strike. An amputee veteran from the Afghan wars. A huge man that elicits stares wherever he goes. The illegitimate child of a famous rock star. A detective. It is these traits, good and bad, and so many more that make up Strike's personality, thus influencing his business as a private detective. Strike is that person that men want to be and women want to be with. In Cuckoo's, the reader finds Strike trying to pick up the pieces of his life after a long-term relationship implodes. He is drawn into the high-stakes and high pressure world of fashion, modeling, and the lives of the wealthy, where one of their own has committed suicide. The dead woman's brother convinces Strike that maybe something else happened. In Silkworm, Strike is once again entangled in a strange, cult-like world, this time of book publishing. An author has been brutally murdered and it seems like EVERYONE wanted him dead. Throughout both books, Strike is assisted by Robin Ellacott, his pretty and quietly intelligent assistant; she too is plagued by her own demons and continues to surprise Strike and the reader with her bravery and cunning.

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But, you ask, how is this different from EVERY, SINGLE mystery series ever? Somehow, Galbraith/Rowling makes it different. It is set in modern day London, so American readers are introduced to the British life of today. It is written with the same rolling, but at the same time, succinct descriptions that brought us the magical world of Harry Potter. The dialogue is crass, witty, emotional, and engaging; I was never bored by the back and forth between Strike and the suspects. Galbraith/Rowling does not shy away from violence; the crimes depicted in the book are not gruesomely described, but are conveyed in a way that the reader will feel very involved in the crime investigation. The people killed are not innocent saints of humans; they too are flawed. But the reader, along with Cormoran, becomes convinced by the straight-forward violence that justice must be served. How it is served is a departure from the cut-and-dry police procedural plot line that many mysteries follow. Galbraith/Rowling twists and unwraps the mystery at hand, resulting in several problems caused by several people, which will lead up to the main crime. The multifaceted aspect of the books keeps the reader hooked until the very end.

I am hoping that Galbraith/Rowling can breathe new life into the mystery genre. Recently, the genre has been overtaken by cozy mystery series (I love me some cozy mystery series but they all tend to be the same over and over again) and by gruesome, gory mysteries (Sorry, Jeffrey Deaver, but wow!). Galbraith/Rowling can be categorized with Dennis Lehane, Marshall Karp, Stieg Larsson, and those who don't shy away from gritty mysteries, flawed heroes, and the often violent nature of people overall. Perhaps, as the fan base of Harry Potter gets older, they can graduate to Galbraith/Rowling's new series; its written just as well as Harry Potter and also has the action, the tension between good and bad, the wit, and the ever-proper Britishness that we all grew to love.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Unbroken- The Story of A Man More Awesome Than You

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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is a non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, published in 2010. It is going to be a movie directed by Angelina Jolie, to be released on Christmas 2014. It's an incredible book, spending 180 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list. It is about a man who has done more and survived more than most of us could even dream of achieving. His life should make all of us aspire to be more.  The book is gripping, suspenseful, romantic, heroic, and inspiring; I read it in three days, calling into work sick so I could finish it. The movie is already generating Oscar Award buzz, even though it hasn't officially been released; the trailer alone made me cry. Why haven't you read it yet? I'm not sure.

Louis Zamperini overcame QUITE a bit to become the very embodiment of the idea of a 'true' American. An small-town boy, who became a Hitler-dissing track star in the 1936 Olympics, Zamperini joined the military in World War 2, was shot down in his plane, floated adrift in the Pacific for 47 days, only to be rescued by the Japanese forces and then spent more than two and a half years in a POW camp. Surely this must end in tragedy, with this hero dying horribly? He did die... July 2, 2014, at 97.  Zamperini was everything the "Greatest Generation" epitomizes: courage, faith, hard work, and an undying love for country and for family. The book is about Zamperini's journey to sports greatness, to military defeat and torture, accumulating in a self-realization and salvation that played a huge role in improving American and Japanese relations after the war.  

Is this a tear-jerker? You bet! Hillenbrand, her first success being the underdog story of Seabiscuit, is in perfect form in Unbroken.  Known for her meticulous research, Hillenbrand uses military archives, news archives, and personal stories from Zamperini, his family, and his friends to weave a tale that leaves the reader breathless and terrified, yet hopeful.  Although clearly a non-fiction work, Unbroken reads almost like a fiction; the story is almost unbelievable and the outcome is incredible. Hillenbrand has a real talent for drawing the reader completely into the story and relaying emotions to where the reader can vividly feel them. No detail is left unexplored, no emotion left untouched. She takes you on the journey of Zamperini's life, from the angst of teenagehood fistfights to the unbending belief that he would survive his time in the POW camp. Hillenbrand, who became close friends with Zamperini while researching the book, wrote in her eulogy to him, "If anything defined Louie, it was that. What made his life transcendent, what made it resonate in millions of hearts, was not the hardship he encountered, but the way in which he greeted it, how he turned it to joy, and what that told the rest of us about the potential that sleeps within ourselves."

Why should you read this? Well, it almost seems unpatriotic to NOT read about an ultimate American patriot.  He served his country as an Olympian, a soldier, a veteran, and a good citizen; all of this, and he never gave up.  If that isn't the true American spirit, I don't know what is.  And the book is an intense, but utterly gratifying read.  You will never be the same after reading this.  

Besides, you need to read the book before you see the movie!!

Quote taken from

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Rainbow Rowell- This Woman Knows Your Soul!!!

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Are you looking for an author to make you laugh, cry, and most importantly, self-reflect?  Try Rainbow Rowell.  Winner of the International Reading Association Award for Young Adult Fiction for Eleanor and Park, Rowell has thus far managed to capture the angst, joy, and overall adventure of life throughout our lives.  All four of her novels mainly focus on a female protagonist; however, Rowell's gift for witty and thought provoking dialogue make every character intriguing.  Rowell's strong women are not your typical literary women.  Rowell writes women who are quirky, smart, and attempting to navigate the choppy waters of life; all readers can relate to the feelings of insecurity or sexiness that the characters experience.  There is a constant theme of trying to fit in.  The novels explore the pressure to be cool, the want to be noticed for your personality, or the fear of having to be something that you don't necessarily want to be, even if it the "popular" thing to do.  Rowell celebrates the different personalities in women and in people in general, whether it be through the quirky characters falling in love or just the realization that being different is OK, no matter what people say.  The overarching theme in Rowell's writing is that loving yourself for who you are is the most important thing (not to mention attractive!) thing you can do.
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So far, Rowell has written four novels, starting
with Attachments in 2011. Each book deals with a different stage of life; teenage years, college years, adult years being single, and then midlife while married with children.  Each one is a love story woven throughout the trials and triumphs of life, ranging from school to work to friendship.  

My personal favorite has been Fangirl. Cather is a new college student who is torn between her life revolving around her sister and their love for a Young Adult book series (and their subsequent fan fiction about the series)  and her new life at college, with the inexplicable changes from growing up and the growing attention from her roommate's boyfriend... or is he?

The biggest draw to these books is that you feel like Rainbow Rowell GETS you.  Her characters could easily be you.  They're weird, they have eccentricities, they fall wildly in love in the worst of circumstances.  THEY ARE HUMAN.  There are no huge twists, no grandiose changes in attitude or personality, no grand gestures of infatuation or devotion.  These books are about life, all the messes and all the beauty included.  Read one and you won't regret it. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

$3,207,852.00 Comic Book- Kryptonite to Your Budget?

What cost 10 cents in 1938 and cost $3.2 million in 2014?

Answer: Action Comic No 1, the comic that launched the superhero genre.

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Action Comic No 1 was released June 1938 and it featured Superman, the superhero creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The near-perfect copy, sold on on August 24, 2014, is one of 50-100 copies assumed to be in existence and has the highest quality rating ever give to an AC No1 by the Certified Guaranty Company at a 9.0. 

This comic, considered to be the "Holy Grail" of comics, with its pristine white pages and its historical significance, was sold by Washington collector, Darren Adams. "If anyone has ever been curious what an 'Action Comics' 1 looked like the day it came off of the newsstand 76 years ago, this is the answer," he wrote. The comic holds significance as being the first time Superman was introduced to the public. Siegel and Shuster, two teenagers from Cleveland, sold the rights to Superman for $130. Seventy-six years and multi-billion dollar franchise later, Superman still has a strong hold in pop culture, being the subject of several movies and hundreds of comics after his initial appearance.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Watching HBO's The Leftovers? Check out the Book!

Cover image for The leftoversAfter a string of recent hits with Game of Thrones, True Blood, and True Detective, HBO is back at it again with their newest drama, The Leftovers.

The scripted series, which stars Justin Theroux, chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of a small New York town in the years following the mysterious disappearance of 2% of the world's population.

Intrigued? Be sure to check out the 2011 book of the same name that was the basis for the show, written by Tom Perrotta. Find copies in your library here.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Judy Blume is Back!

Hey Judy Blume fans!

The "Queen of YA" is back, this time with a new novel in the works for adults. The so-far untitled book, which is due out sometime next year, will be her first for adults since 1998's Summer Sisters.

Want to know more about this mysterious new publication? Check out the Washington Post article here.

Ready to check out some of her older titles? Find them in the new online catalog!

McDonald, Soraya Nadia. "Judy Blume is writing her first new book in more than 10 years." Washington Post. 26 June 2014. Web. 26 June 2014.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

TED Talk: Stephen Burt on Why We Need Poetry

Check out this TED talk to see why poetry critic Stephen Burt thinks poetry is an integral part of life.

Want to watch more? Visit

Burt, S. (2013, June). Stephen Burt: Why people need poetry [Video file]. Retrieved from need_poetry

Friday, May 30, 2014

Get Ready for the Funny with Amy Poehler's "Yes Please"

Premiere Of NBC's
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This week on the Today Show, funny lady Amy Poehler announced that she will be making her first step into the publishing world, with her upcoming book Yes Please.

The comedian and Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock alum will give her readers advice on many of life's tough subjects.

Interested? Be sure to check out a copy from your library when the book is released by Del Street Books this October.

Want an early peek at the book's cover? Watch the reveal over at the Today Show website.

Premiere Of NBC's "Parks & Recreation". Photographer.Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 28 May 2014.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Remembering Dr. Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou
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The literary world is sad to see Dr. Maya Angelou go. The poet, author, activist, and public speaker has passed away at the age of 86.

Have a look at some of Dr. Angelou's greatest pieces below, and check them out from your library.

Cover image for Great food, all day long : cook splendidly, eat smart

Cover image for Even the stars look lonesomeCover image for I know why the caged bird singsCover image for Hallelujah! the welcome table : a lifetime of memories with recipes
Cover image for And still I rise
Cover image for Letter to my daughter

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dr. Ben Carson Releases a New Book

Cover image for One nation : what we can do to save America's futureDr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and subject of the film Gifted Hands, has released a new book with his wife.

One Nation: What We Can Do to Save America's Future, Dr. Carson's sixth book, presents the surgeon-turned-columnist's plan to bring America back to its place of prominence.

It is a sequel to their bestselling 2011 title, America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great.

Interested in reading One Nation? Find out what branches have a copy in our new online catalog.

Or check out some of Dr. Carson's other books:
America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great
Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story
Take the Risk: Learning to Identify, Choose, and Live with Acceptable Risk

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" to be released as E-book

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Britannica ImageQuest
According to a CNN report by Melodi Smith, Harper Lee is finally ready to give her world-famous novel the digital treatment.

Pulitzer-prize winner "To Kill a Mockingbird" follows a young girl named Scout and her lawyer father's fight to defend an African American man accused of rape in the 1930s.

The book was adapted for the screen as a 1962 film starring Gregory Peck. It also marked the film debut of Robert Duvall.

Can't wait until the e-book is released by HarperCollins on July 8th? Be sure to check out a copy of the film or book from your library!

Smith, Melodi. "Harper Lee OKs e-book version of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'." CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc, 29 April 2014. Web. 29 April 2014.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962) - PECK, GREGORY; BADHAM, MARY. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 29 Apr 2014.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Hillary Clinton Reveals New Book Title
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Britannica ImageQuest
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has more than a future grandchild to celebrate. The former First Lady also has a new book on the way.

Hard Choices will give readers a look into her four-year tenure as Secretary of State.

Be sure to look for it in your library when it is released by Simon & Schuster on June 10th. In the meantime, check out Clinton's previous memoir Living History.

Read more about Hard Choices at TIME.

DNC National Convention. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 20 Apr 2014.