Monday, November 29, 2010

YALSA Shortlist Chat

An online chat to discuss the YALSA Nonfiction finalists was just announced on the yalsa-bk listserv. It will take place next Wednesday (Dec. 8) and is limited to YALSA members. Here is the message sent by Stephanie Kuenn, communications specialist with YALSA:

Join YALSA for our free monthly e-chat on Wednesday December 8 from 8-9pm EST to discuss the recently announced Morris and Nonfiction finalists. Did one of your favorite books get nominated? Were you surprised by any of the choices? Join us in ALA Connect for this lively conversation, moderated by Rob Bittner.

Chat participation is limited to YALSA members. YALSA members should go to and use their login for the ALA website, If you've lost your password, you can recover it through the ALA website.

Once logged in, head to the YALSA area (it's or you can navigate there within Connect by choosing "YALSA" from under "My ALA Groups") and then click "Chats."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton
by Connie Nordheilm Wooldridge
184 pages
published by Clarion Books

Publisher's description:
Edith Wharton, author of Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and other acclaimed novels, was born into a wealthy family. Beginning in childhood, Edith found ways to escape from society's and her family's expectations and follow an unconventional, creative path. Unhappily married and eventually divorced, she surrounded herself with male friends. She spent much of her life in Paris and was recognized by the French government for her generosity and hard work during World War I. Her literary and personal life, her witty and incisive correspondence, her fondness for automobiles and small dogs--all are detailed in this warm and sparkling account of a woman well ahead of her time.

My comments:
I must confess that (having never been required to read any of Edith Wharton's books as a student and not being inclined to pick them up on my own) I knew almost nothing about her before picking up this biography. I thought that maybe the "brave escape" the title referred to might mean that Wharton would abandon the life of wealth and privilege she was born into to live as a pennliess writer, and at first I was a little disappointed that she merely gave up the stuffy old-money social circle of her parents while managing to hold on to the wealth and privilege.

Eventually I came to see that rejecting her parents' ideals and aspirations is nothing to sniff at, though. Her actions are ones that any independent or rebellious teen can admire. Wharton also had the courage to pursue a career as a writer at a time when it was not respectable for a woman to write. By winning a Pulitzer for The Age of Innocence, she made the writing profession a respectable one for women to pursue.

I found Wooldridge's writing to be clear and engaging. It's clear that she respects Wharton, imperfections and all. The many photographs of her and her beloved bachelor friends and dogs are interesting, and well-captioned. There's nothing fancy about the design of the book, but the paper is high quality, the fonts look nice, and it's just the right size (not too big, not too small).

The book is well-researched, drawing from university archives, Wharton's body of work, and other biographies. The back end materials include source notes, a bibliography, a list of Wharton's works, and an index. I found the index to be very helpful whenever I needed to refresh myself on one of Wharton's many bachelor friends. The abbreviations used in the source notes confused me at first. It seems like there should have been an easier way to keep the length of the note citations manageable without resorting to two pages of abbreviations. The arrangement works well enough, but is a bit clunky.

I think the highest praise I can give The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton is that I'm actually interested, for the first time in my life, in reading Wharton for myself.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Under A Red Sky

Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania
by Haya Leah Molnar

320 pages
Farrar Straus Giroux

Publisher's description:

Eva Zimmermann is eight years old, and she has just discovered she is Jewish. Such is the life of an only child living in postwar Bucharest, a city that is changing in ever more frightening ways. Eva’s family, full of eccentric and opinionated adults, will do absolutely anything to keep her safe—even if it means hiding her identity from her. With razor-sharp depictions of her animated relatives, Haya Leah Molnar’s memoir of her childhood captures with touching precocity the very adult realities of living behind the iron curtain.

My comments:

Aside from poetry, memoirs may be the most slippery of the nonfiction genres. James Frey's embellished truths and outright lies may have been relatively easy to sniff out in modern America, but who's to know how much of Eva Zimmerman/Haya Leah Molnar's childhood in 1950s Romania is true? She is upfront about the challenges in piecing a book together from her memories in her author's note at the beginning of the book. "The story is filtered through my memory," she writes, and also, "this is not a journalist's rendition of historical events but my personal story about growing up." Some names have been changed to protect people's privacy, and some conversations have been re-imagined, but the "essence" is true.

Her candor is evident throughout her story, which has no clear villains and few hugely dramatic events. Instead, she relies on the color provided by her family members (she grows up as the only child in a house filled with adults) and the quietly dramatic revelations that unfold over time. If there is a villain in the story, then it is the unseen, uncaring government bureaucracy which looms as a constant threat to her family's well-being.

The trials of Eva's childhoods include many that most anyone can identify with, like trying to fit in at school when you are different, getting along with family members who can be affectionate but rude, frustration at not understanding religion or your parents and worrying when your parents are unemployed. Others, like not being allowed to leave the country and not being allowed to take your possessions when you are allowed to leave, may tap in to the imaginations of those who read to experience circumstances far removed from their own.

Eva's father was a filmmaker and photographer, and several of his family photographs appear in a section towards the back of the book, strengthening her account. She doesn't just include them as window-dressing, but ingeniously incorporates them fully into her memories, telling the stories of how the photographs came to be so that when I saw the pictures, I said, for instance, "Aha! That is how she looked on her first day or school!"

I felt that the story ended a little too abruptly with the family's arrival in Israel. There are photographs of Eva's parents' vacation in their first car, and a self-portrait of her father as they immigrate to America. However, I was disappointed to find that the stories behind these photographs are not included in the book. Perhaps a second volume that covers her life in Israel and America is in the works? It's one that I would find worth reading.

Your comments?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Discussion & Mock Vote: December 2

Everybody is invited to a YA nonfiction book discussion on Thursday, December 2. It will be held at the Center for Teaching Through Children's Books of National-Louis University in Skokie, IL.

5202 Old Orchard Road, Suite 300
Skokie, Illinois 60077
Phone: 224.233.2288

Click here for a map.

The event is scheduled for 4:00-6:00pm. From 4:00-4:30 will be time to introduce ourselves, grab some refreshments and get settled. The discussion will take place 4:30-6:00, with a mock vote at the end.

I've made up a short "recommended" reading list for the discussion:

Borrowed Names by Jeannine Atkins
Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery
Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World by Sid Fleischman
They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman
The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone
Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel

Everyone who attends is also encouraged to bring their own favorites to discuss. All nonfiction published for young adults between November 2009 and October 31 of this year is eligible for the award. One very interesting title that seems to have just missed this deadline is Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos - I believe it will be eligible next year.

Please spread the word! If you are unable to attend, but want to participate, then please post comments here. I will share all of your comments during the face-to-face discussion on December 2.