Independent thought, independent time, independent minds, independent bookstores -- Independence Day! Hope you have a wonderful holiday with family and friends, either of the flesh-and-blood or the ink-and-page variety. Please enjoy these reviews by your local booksellers and the fireworks going on behind your eyes as you read these and other great books. Celebrate along with these other countries whose independence days are in July: Abkhazia, Algeria, Argentina, Bahamas, Belarus, Belgium, Burundi, Cape Verde, Colombia, Laos, Liberia, Malawi, Maldives, Peru, Rwanda, São Tomé and Principe, Slovakia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, and Venezuela! Happy Independence Day!
And Happy Reading!
John & all Dieselfolk
For those of us who travel through the world by ear, moving through the sonic spaces of city or desert, ocean or forest, is rich with music. No earbuds for us, music's everywhere -- the patterns of car sounds, human speech, birdsong, and cellphone rings -- all straining toward music. They say that music is a universal language, yet we often walk around tone-deaf to what surrounds us. One of the many losses, and a canary in the coal mine of natural collapse, is that of the orchestral performances of creatures in their ecosystems. For decades, Krause has recorded tens of thousands of hours of these live performances in their native locales, spanning the whole globe. Praised by the likes of Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson, and Pete Seeger, Krause pulls it all together to make a passionate plea to save the natural soundscapes that gave birth to all of human music. -- John Evans
Author Liz Moore has written the simple, yet thoroughly engaging story of Arthur Opp, a nearly 500-pound former professor who has shut himself up in the mansion that once belonged to his dead parents. An agoraphobic, Arthur stays in the downstairs of this childhood home, not having been able to venture upstairs due to his weight for 10 years. But when he finally hires a housekeeper, a quirky pregnant teen on the run from an abusive boyfriend, and receives a letter from an old girlfriend, asking for his help, he is forced to come out of his shell. I just loved seeing how the author brings her character "back to life in the real world" in this tender story of loneliness, friendship, and overcoming the odds. A well-written feast for lovers of feel-good literary fiction. -- Linda Grana
Adolescence can feel apocalyptic under even the sunniest of circumstances. In The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker takes all the figurative fissures and shocks of growing up and turns them brightly literal. Ten-year-old Julia and her family wake up one morning to discover, along with the rest of the world, that something mysterious and unknown has caused the earth's rotation to slow. Days and nights are both getting longer, time seemingly stretching and hours drifting apart. Because of this -- or, Julia wonders, perhaps inevitably, inescapably -- the people in her life start to separate as well: neighbor from neighbor, divided by those who choose to follow government-mandated "clock time" and the rebellious "real-timers"; her father from her mother; Julia from her small group of friends.
Sliding slowly between the long, burning days and the endless eerie nights, Julia seeks to make sense of the changing world and to forge connections with others caught up in it. Her nostalgic grandfather, her eccentric real-timer piano teacher, her pre-teen crush with his own singular experience of loss: Julia drifts in and out of the orbit of each, clinging to what she can. Though a sense of loneliness -- and of course, looming tragedy -- permeates this novel, Walker ensures that its title isn't simply cheaply ironic: there is truly beauty, and true miracles, to be found in the oddities and even the heartbreak of Julia's brave new world. When Julia remembers the last time she tasted a grape -- because before long crops are failing under the withering heat of lengthening days and the bleak chill of frozen nights -- you can feel the extra relish the finality of the experience brings. You can taste it with her, that last grape, bursting bittersweet on your tongue.
Though universal in its vision and appeal, The Age of Miracles is also boldly, and brilliantly, a Californian novel. Julia's coastal suburb comes alive in Walker's descriptions of its bluffs and canyons, in the quality of its shifting light. Dreamlike but vivid, the imagery and the slow-working emotional impact of The Age of Miracles will haunt you for days, and keep you awake through the long, but not yet interminable, night. -- Anna Kaufman
By the end of The Angry Buddhist, I was wondering if its lowlife characters -- who include ex-cons, call girls, corrupt police, a gun-for-hire, a blackmailer, a dog- and kidnapper, two rival politicians, and their spouses and aides -- didn't live in the unforgiving desert of California, would they be less harsh and callous and nutsy? No wonder the would-be Buddhist of the title is angry. While I read this novel John Edwards' trial was underway and the parallels between reality and the book's plot amazed me. It also called to mind Fargo, Congresswoman Mary Bono's career strategy, and a few of the more amusing Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen narratives. Happily, the novel is grounded by an ironic mystery-blogger who serves to remind the reader that the author is fully in control of his hardscrabble desert rabble. -- Diane Leslie
Within three pages of starting Apollo's Angels, I found myself tumbling headlong through ballet's growth and evolution from the 16th century French courts; past kings and queens; through revolutions, cultural movements, and wars; under the noses of religious leaders and famous intellectuals; and across oceans and continents, fueled at all times by ballet's eccentric characters as well as this very special author's barely-concealed love for her subject. Dance critic, professor, and ex-professional ballerina herself, Homans is entertaining, thorough, and always readable. Particularly enchanting is her delicate handling of an art form whose memories have until now been encoded not on canvas or plaster but in the human body itself. Her constant sensitivity to this reality allows even we the uninitiated to feel very close to something that, however monumental, is still at risk of vanishing even as it exists. It is the accessibility of Homans' writing throughout that makes this singular, memorable, and downright fascinating book such a joy to read. If you're even halfway curious, take a chance on Apollo's Angels. It won't disappoint. -- Ian Walters
This is one of those books that at first glance you are not quite sure what is inside. Open it. It is exceedingly clever and hysterically funny. Are you familiar with I LEGO N.Y.? This is the same guy, back at it, but tenfold. Through a variety of mediums and captions, Niemann regales us with his humorous childhood memories and quirky observations...and yes, the Legos are back, but wait until you see what he has done with leaves. Napkin drawings, maps, hand-sewn voodoo-like dolls, cookie dough, and even a hole in the wall all become canvases. Niemann began his visual blog, "Abstract City," in 2008 for The New York Times, and here it is now, all under one cover. Leave this one on your coffee table or give it to a friend who needs a good chuckle -- a smile will be your thank-you. -- Cheryl Ryan
I am a sucker for things that rhyme. Therefore, I thoroughly enjoyed Bear's Loose Tooth, a rhyming tale of Bear and his loose tooth. One of the greatest strengths of this book (besides the rhyming) is that, early on, it addresses all the concerns that a young child might have about his or her loose tooth. Bear asks his friends, "But how will I eat if my tooth says goodbye?" to which they reply that a new tooth will grow in the old one's place. Passages like these comfort the reading (or listening) toddler, quelling fears they might have about their loose tooth. It's a double whammy -- a book that rhymes and reassures! If a parent needs help easing a child's fears about losing a tooth, or just wants an entertaining book, Bear's Loose Tooth is a perfect choice. -- Alex Braunstein