Exposé of the Naples Mafia

The Camorra is an organized crime system, ruling the southern regions of Italy. It dominates over Naples and surrounding areas of Campania. They deal with high fashion, drugs, construction and the disposal of toxic waste. The non-fiction book, Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano, discusses all this and more. Chinese goods are shipped to Naples and distributed undetected across Europe. There is a vulgar handling of toxic waste that is causing devastating pollution to agriculture and impacting the health of the people living in the region. Saviano's exposé of the Naples mafia is a page turner. This is no Godfather, Hollywood version of mafias and organized crime. There exists a grim reality that effects the lives of real people (many innocent) who are dominated by the Camorra in one way or another. After publishing this book, the author was forced into hiding after receiving death threats. It's a fascinating read, albeit a bit sad and gritty.


What is Literary Nonfiction? Part 1

At first glance, "literary nonfiction" seems like a contradiction in terms.  Shouldn't a book be either a story or factual, not both?   First, some background, and then I'll give a few examples of what might fit in this category.

In case you haven't heard, there are some big changes afoot in public education.  California, along with most other states, has adopted the Common Core State Standards, which seek to prepare students for future success by teaching "21st Century" skills: critical thinking, creative problem solving and effective communication.

Recognizing that most reading required for college or career is nonfiction, the standards place a greater emphasis on informational reading.  Students in K-5 would have a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction.  This doesn't necessarily mean a lot of dry, factual texts.  To foster interest in critical thinking, children's curiosity could be sparked with a good true story.

Now for the examples:

The subtitle helps pull you into reading Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class
Invented Basketball. In 1891, young teacher James Naismith wanted to try something new with his bored and misbehaving students. Indoor football was too rough, and so were indoor soccer and lacrosse. When he tried tacking up a couple of peach baskets for goals and wrote rules limiting physical contact, a new sport was born.  Joe Morse's action-packed illustrations have a proper turn-of the-century feel and Naismith's original typed rules are reproduced on the end papers.  Author John Coy's spare but informative text has an inviting tone that will attract young readers.

Bad News for Outlaws: the Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, U.S. Marshal reads enough like a dime novel that the glossary of "western words" in the back comes in handy. Here's a sample: "Word spread that Bass was a square shooter but a hard man. Outlaws learned that when Marshal Reeves had your warrant, you were as good as got unless you hightailed it out of the territory." But though it reads like a tall tale, it's actually a well-researched biography by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson of a man who escaped slavery to make his reputation in the Indian Territory that is now Oklahoma.  He made more than 3,000 arrests in his career. Doesn't that cover art by R. Gregory Christie make him look resolute?

This next example is a nonfiction tearjerker. Eight Dolphins of Katrina: a True Tale of Survival by Janet Wyman Coleman documents the aftermath of hurricane Katrina by exploring the fate of several dolphins left to ride out the storm at the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Missisissippi. Their home had survived hurricane Camille, but this time it was flattened by a forty-foot tidal wave. Hoping that the dolphins were somehow alive out in the Gulf, their trainers set out in a boat with a helicopter circling overhead. You can guess from the title that the story had a happy ending.

Part 2 of this blog will include a more extensive reading list.  Do you know any books that you think would qualify as "literary nonfiction?" If so, add them to the comments below and they might be included on the list.


Spotlight on a Non-fiction Juvenile Series

You Wouldn't Want to Be a...!

History has never been so fascinating... or so gross!
Take a step back into the past... as a samurai, a Viking explorer, a slave in ancient Greece, a medieval knight or an American pioneer (among other roles) and learn of the hardships and/or unlucky fates they faced. This is an entertaining series that offers information about the past, exploring different cultures, places and time periods all over the world, from ancient Egypt to the Wild West. Life wasn’t pretty for many and this series shares some insight! The illustrations are attention grabbing and there is humor too. It’s a great non-fiction series for children, from grade school to young adult.

You Wouldn't Want to Be a Viking Explorer! Voyages You'd rather Not Make by Andrew Langley

You Wouldn't Want to Live in a Wild West Town!: Dust You'd Rather Not Settle by Peter Hicks

You Wouldn't Want to Be a Ninja Warrior!: A Secret Job that's Your Destiny by John Malam

You Wouldn't Want to Be a Nurse in the Civil War!: A Job That's Not for the Squeamish by Kathryn Senior

You Wouldn't Want to Climb Mount Everest!: A Deadly Journey to the Top of the World by Ian Graham

You Wouldn't Want to be a Salem Witch!: Bizarre Accusations You'd rather Not Face by Jim Pipe

You Wouldn't Want to Be a Secret Agent During World War II!: A Perilous Mission Behind Enemy Lines byJohn Malam

You Wouldn't Want to Be an Aristocrat in the French Revolution!: A Horrible Time in Paris You'd Rather Avoid by Jim Pipe

You Wouldn't Want to Live in Pompeii!: A Volcanic Eruption You'd Rather Avoid by John Malam


Read with Me, Play with Me

The best picture books invite readers (and listeners) into a special world, whether full of magic, humor, or heart. Some, and there have been several out lately, actually demand an interaction between the book and the reader; these interactive books require a child who is old enough to follow the lead but young enough to give himself over to the inherent ridiculousness of talking to a book. I am lucky enough to have just such a 4-year-old at my house, and we have been enjoying books like these:

Press Here by Herve Tullet
It’s not the first ever interactive picture book, but Tullet’s simple, elegant cause-and- effect really jump started the recent trend. Following the instructions, a child can move around a fanciful space, making spots appear and disappear and dance across the clean white pages. It’s beautifully designed and completely child-centric.

Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson
The tree is clearly inspired by Tullet’s book, but Matheson takes the same concept and blends in the magic of the seasons. It’s a gentle read, with 1 tap, 2, 3, 4 taps prodding spring leaves to burst from a bare tree, followed by buds and blooms, and apples to knock from branches (we always have to take a break here to enjoy a pretend apple together). It’s not revolutionary, but it blends preschool concepts with just a little bit of magic.

There Are Cats in This Book by Viviane Schwartz
This title, and its sequel There Are No Cats in This Book, introduce Tiny, Moonpie, and Andre, a trio of primary colored cats, and their feline adventures. Lifting flaps, turning pages, and a running dialogue with the reader make this an engaging, energetic, entertaining read for cat lovers and everyone else.

Count the Monkeys by Mac Barnett
Even my 7-year-old comes down for this one – the reader is invited to count the monkeys, but oh no! a giant cobra has scared them away! Barnett does, indeed, sneak in a counting book, but each page turn brings more and more preposterous reasons those monkeys won’t stay put. Put your arms up, roar, cast your vote (is it Mongooses or Mongeese?),whatever, but don’t just sit there!

What are your favorite interactive picture books?


Upcoming Author Visit

Kate Carlisle is the author of the Bibliophile Mystery series featuring the likeable main character Brooklyn Wainwright. The first book in the series is Homicide in Hardcover. In this series starter we meet our protagonist, a rare book expert mistakenly accused of murdering her mentor and stealing a rare and priceless book. Brooklyn transforms from book binder to amateur sleuth as she tries to convince everyone of her innocence and track down the real killer. This cozy mystery will take you all around San Francisco and introduce you to all kinds of unusual characters; including Brooklyn’s hippie commune living parents and their guru as well as a mysterious and handsome stranger. A fun storyline, quirky characters and interesting information about book restoration make this book an appealing read. This first book is a great start to a fun series and the charming Brooklyn Wainwright will win you over from the beginning.

The author of this series, Kate Carlisle, will be visiting the Brea Library on Saturday, May 31st at 10:30 am. Cozy mystery fans should be sure and put this speaking engagement on their calendars. Kate Carlisle’s eighth book in this series, The Book Stops Here, comes out on June 3rd.


Suffering on the Pacific Crest Trail

I Promise Not to Suffer was one of the compelling titles that caught my eye at our last Literary Orange event. It was Gail Storey's account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a hiking trail which spans 2663 miles along way from the Mexican border all the way to Canada. And she intended to accompany her physician husband while he was taking a midlife crisis break hiking both this and its eastern equivalent Appalachian Trail, as well as cycling point to point paths from the four corners of these trails to a midpoint in the U.S.

This might be a realistic goal for an athletic type, but Storey tells us right away that she was neither athletic nor a lover of the outdoors. In fact the book opens with the statement that she thought nature was "okay as long at it stayed outdoors".  She describes herself as a slight person who wore a cross-bar brace for bow legs in infancy and did not even walk until after the age of two. But she loved her husband so much that, after a failed attempt to join him on the Appalachian Trail, this time she would really do it.  And her purist "maker" husband had designed as light a load as possible. They would be minimalists. They would sleep with a tarp rather than a tent. They were middle aged, the author in her late fifties.

OK, hiking. How hard can that be? Just put one foot in front of other, right?  But as Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods recounts hilariously, these "walks" mean mountains, snow, storms, being lost and joining wildlife such as bears, poisonous snakes, mountain lions and more. And in this account of the Pacific Crest Trail, the terrain was a never-ending series of scaling treacherous mountains or crossing scorching deserts. Where were the carefree walking paths in pleasant weather? Almost never. Where the joys of all systems go on a spring day as they had to average about twenty miles a day before being late-spring snowbound in the High Sierras or caught in the early fall blizzards of northern Washington. Rarely.

But beyond being an extreme journey of physical challenge, Storey recounts how it transformed into a path of great spiritual change as well.  She laces in her history of an often sordid childhood, troubled young years, and the very imperfect parent relationships that haunt them in past memories and in the present as they check in along the way. Beyond the hardship, the sense of family that develops among the select group of "through hikers" adds a whole additional level of interest. Philosophical, full of suspense and humor, I found this to be a book that I could not put down until the end.  This book was the 2013 winner of the National Outdoor Book Award and Gail Storey was recently interviewed on our local public radio station, KPCC.

Besides Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, among other titles about such hiking or other adventures include, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, The Cactus Eaters, Ultimate Adventure: a Rough Guide to Adventure Travel, or A Hike For Mike: an Uplifting Across the SierraNevada For Depression Awareness


Feline Heroics

A Street Cat Named Bob:And How He Saved My Life by Bob Bowen is a true story about a stray cat adopted by a street musician in London.  It is a heart-warming book that captures the wondrous bond that can develop between human and animal. 

A recovering heroin addict one-step-away from being homeless, Bob Bowen was barely making ends meet.  Playing his guitar at his usual corner spots he relied on handouts from charitable strangers to cover his bills.  One evening coming home to his dingy flat, he chanced upon an injured cat.  Seeing something of a kindred spirit in the scrappy tom, Bowen decides to take him in and nurse him back to health, an act of kindness that changes both of their lives.

Bowen names the cat Bob, and takes him along busking for handouts.   Workers and shoppers who used to walk by with eyes askance now stop to chat with Bowen, and to give Bob gentle strokes and tasty treats. Bob becomes quite a sensation, resulting in more money from those passing by.  Unfortunately, it also results in conflicts with fellow street musicians who scuffle over limited resources.   The competitive dynamics of life-on-the-streets are eye-opening.

A cellphone video of Bob posted on the Internet goes viral.  A publisher offers Bowen a book deal, and A Street Cat Named Bob becomes a best-selling hit in England. Now living a more stable and comfortable life, Bob and Bowen travel the lecture circuit raising awareness about addition, recovery, homelessness, and the special friendship between a cat and its owner.

After you've read A Street Cat Named Bob, check out two similar and equally good books featuring heroic felines: Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned about Love and Life by a Blind Wonder Cat by Gwen Cooper, and Dewey:The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron.


Zen-in' and Motorcycle Maintain-in'

Originally rejected by 121 publishers, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig, has now sold 5 million copies worldwide. This philosophical book explores themes about the quality of life, identity, approaches to living and poses the question, 'What is good?'
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values is a moving narration about a motorcycle trip taken across America's Northwest. The narrator is travelling with his young son and two friends. Throughout the journey, the narrator talks to the reader about two approaches to life that we lead- the rational and analytical classical and surfaced and intuitive emotional. It is important, though not easy, to find middle ground.

The author uses the art of motorcycle maintenance as an analogy for how to live life with quality and describes how one's approach can reflect the strengths and weaknesses of one's overall life philosophy. The book is very humanistic and not complex in its delivery of these thought provoking themes. It is very well written and compelling. The pace of the book is good so that you'll feel its substance and be enlightened throughout each page in a simplistic manner that is digestible. The ending is stunning. There are many philosophical discussions, anecdotes and themes that bring the story together as a whole.

Lila: An Inquiry into Morals is another philosophical book written by Pirsig. It was a nominated finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992.


A New Take on Fantasy: Brandon Sanderson

When most people think of fantasy fiction, they think of elves, dwarves, dragons, and wizards. In other words, they think of the thousands of books out there that adhere to the fantasy formula that was made popular by JRR Tolkien almost 60 years ago. Now, I love Tolkienesque fantasy as much as the next reader, but for those that are looking for a fresh take on the genre, look no further than Brandon Sanderson.

Sanderson came into the limelight when he was chosen to write the last three novels in the extremely popular Wheel of Time series after author Robert Jordan died without finishing it. But now, with 6 New York Times Bestsellers, a Hugo Award, four Whitney Awards, and a David Gemmell Legend Award under his belt, it's safe to say that, on his own, Sanderson is a force to be reckoned with in modern fantasy literature. His detailed world-building, deep characterization, and unique take on the mechanics of magic all come together to create stories that break the mold of the fantasy genre.

The following is a list of his most popular works.

The Stormlight Archive Series
This series is Sanderson's first attempt at epic fantasy, and so far it is shaping up to be quite a grand story indeed. Slated to be 10 volumes, the series has two parts currently published: The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance.

The story starts out with the king of Alethkar, the most powerful country in the world of Roshar, being killed by a mysterious "assassin in white" with the power to bend gravity to his will. This assassination sparks a war of vengeance against the Parshendi, a primitive race of people who take responsibility for the actions of the assassin. But as the Alethi armies soon find out, the broken plateaus and vast chasms of the Parshendi homeland (aptly named the Shattered Plains) make typical warfare obsolete. With the discovery of "gemhearts;" rare gemstones that grow in the chrysalises of large animals on the Shattered Plains; a war of vengeance soon becomes a war of greed, fracturing Alethkar into noble houses fighting for wealth.

Years later, with the might of Alethkar divided and the assassination of kings and emperors all over Roshar at the hands of the now-infamous Assassin in White, an ancient evil worms its way into the world. Only three people stand in the way of the return of the Voidbringers: Kaladin, a soldier betrayed by his lord and sold into slavery; Dalinar, a dishonored highprince who has visions of the distant past; and Shallan, the young daughter of a disgraced noble house who holds some very powerful secrets. These three must learn to master the powers hidden within them to save Roshar from Desolation.

The Mistborn Trilogy
The Mistborn Trilogy includes the books Mistborn: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages.

In a dystopian empire governed by the immortal Lord Ruler, the descendants of those that opposed his rise to power live as skaa-servants and laborers-while the descendants of his supporters live lavish lifestyles as nobles.

Protagonist Vin is a skaa street urchin who works as a thief, con-artist, and good-luck-charm for an abusive street gang. After a con-gone-wrong where most of her gang is killed, Vin is recruited by a mysterious skaa thief named Kelsier who teaches her how to use a power she never knew she had. As it turns out, her "good luck" is actually a form of mind-manipulation made possible by a strange power known as Allomancy. As an Allomancer, Vin has the power to burn metals in her stomach to fuel all kinds of supernatural abilities.

With her new-found powers, Vin is ready to help Kelsier and his crew of outlaw skaa pull off the greatest heist in the history of the Final Empire: they're going to break into the Lord Ruler's own treasury. As the pieces of the heist come together, Vin and the crew soon discover that stealing the treasure is not the end-game that Kelsier has in mind. The overthrow of the Lord Ruler is his real aim, and Vin has to decide whether it's worth risking everything, including the lives of her new friends, to help Kelsier make the Empire a better place for the skaa.

A brilliant standalone novel, Warbreaker is the story of Vivenna and Siri, two princesses of the nation of Idris. Though Vivenna is betrothed to the God King of rival nation Hallandren by decree of a treaty between the two nations, her father instead sends Siri, as he can't stand to see his favorite daughter taken away from him. When Vivenna learns of this, she sets out for Hallandren to rescue Siri. In after a time in Hallandren, Siri finds out that the God King is actually a prisoner of his priests, and Vivenna ends up helping the infamous terrorist Vasher. Both sisters soon find themselves embroiled in a plot to start a war that would see their beloved nation of Idris crushed under the undead armies of Hallandren.

Elantris was once a beautiful city filled with marvels of technology and magic combined. The only way to live there was to be "chosen" by the city itself. One would wake up and find their hair turned a lustrous blond and their skin turned to a statuesque alabaster; they would be called to the city. Hundreds of year ago, however, Elantris was cursed, and now its chosen inhabitants turn a sickly grey, lose their hair, and never heal from wounds; despite being immortal. Instead of being revered, those who wake up as Elantrians now are quickly and quietly banished to the once-great, but now dilapidated, city.

Prince Raoden of Arelon finds himself chosen as an Elantrian weeks before he is to wed a beautiful foreign princess. Unlike the majority of the population of Elantris, however, Raoden won't let himself slip into a comfortable insanity. With a little help from an Elantrian scholar and his fiance, Raoden tries to solve the mystery of Elantris' downfall, while also trying to save his nation of Arelon from a foreign threat.