Sunday, August 26, 2007

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas

Author: Frederick Douglass

First line: I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland.

Why you should read this book: In his own words, the self-educated Douglass describes the brutal horrors of American slavery, along with his own burgeoning understanding of freedom and equality as he grows from a young boy in bondage to a young man who has taken possession of his own life. His prose is clear and deep as he relates the blunt injustice of forced servitude: inhumane treatment, stubborn hypocrisy, cruel indifference, and deliberate brutality. An important record of the past written with precision and pathos by a talented and determined man.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You can't stomach detailed descriptions of violence against men, women, and children.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Monkey Wrench Gang

Author: Edward Abbey

First line: When a new bridge between two sovereign states of the United States has been completed, it is time for speech.

Why you should read this book: Joyfully provocative, controversial, and contradictory, this dynamic novel begat the Earth First! movement and remains the bible for eco-warriors more than thirty years after its original publication. United by a love of the land and disgust with the havoc wreaked by industry on the pristine desert, the four members of the Monkey Wrench Gang unite to make war against the machines that systematically destroy the environment in the name of progress. Rich in details, both of the landscape as well as the methods used to take down construction equipment, billboards, and bridges, this story is a fast-paced tour with an irreverent guide intent on preserving paradise at almost any cost.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You think the desert is a lot of wasted space and you don't see why it shouldn't be strip mined, clear cut, and paved over.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Very Small

Author: Joyce Dunbar

First line: One day, when Giant Baby Bear was playing in the woods, he found a very small...something!

Why you should read this book: The unlikely friendship between Giant Baby Bear and the Very Small (it's sort of a cross between Tom Thumb and a hobbit-footed puppy wearing a cheetah suit with antennae) helps children feel safe and protected even when they perceive themselves as helpless. Despite the Very Small's anxiety, Giant Baby Bear remains unfailingly kind and makes a good effort to understand and assuage his friend's fears. A great book for bedtime or for kids about to embark on an adventure into the unknown (like the first day of school).

Why you shouldn't read this book: You were hoping for something a bit more gruesome (see below)


Author: William Steig

First line: His mother was ugly and his father was ugly, but Shrek was uglier than the two of them put together.

Why you should read this book: Yes, this is the inspiration for the Dreamworks movies, and it features an ogre, a donkey, and a princess, but the similarities end there. Forget ugly-adorable or ugliness hiding a kind personality: Steig's Shrek is gruesome and deplorable and mean and rude and he never demonstrates any positive quality (except, perhaps, determination), while the princess starts out hideous and stays that way. Shrek bests a witch, a dragon, thunder and lightning, a knight in shining armor, and his own vile reflection in pursuit of his happy ending in a crowd-pleasing tale that raises awful to an art form and doesn't sugar-coat anything.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You were hoping for something a little cuter (see above). In addition, if you're going to be uncomfortable explaining the appropriateness of the term "jackass" to your little ones, you're going to want to skip this. If that's the case, you're not hip enough for this book anyway.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Borreguita and the Coyote

Author: Verna Aardema

Quote: "Your mouth is so big, you could swallow a cougar. Open it wide, and I will run and dive right in."

Why you should read this book: A pleasant turn on some old trickster stories, in which Borreguita, the ewe lamb, pulls the wool over the hungry Coyote over and over again. The themes are timeless, but character expressions in the cunning illustrations give the story a modern sensibility, as does the small, female protagonist. A few words of Spanish and the prominence of rock cliffs whose color changes with the sun produce a warm, Southwestern flair.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You want to see Coyote eat the lamb.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Eyes of the Dragon

Author: Stephen King

First line: Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons.

Why you should read this book: Unlike the majority of King's oeuvre, this book is almost devoid of gore, monsters, and details that keep the squeamish up at night; rather, it is a vast and sweeping fairy tale, laying out a battle between good and evil complete with magic, castles, and romance. Flagg, who appears in many other King stories, is here revealed as an agent of chaos and destruction, masquerading as advisor to the old king. Good Prince Peter will surely oppose his dastardly plans for the kingdom, and must be put out of the way at any cost, but Flagg underestimates the power of courage and love.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're rooting for the bad guy.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Lost Lady

Author: Willa Cather

First line: Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those grey towns along the Burlington railroad, which are so much greyer today than they were then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere.

Why you should read this book: As a boy, Niel Herbert knows of no lady more beautiful, gracious, or admirable than Mrs. Forrester, the young wife of the august Captain Forrester; as Niel grows to manhood, he takes it upon himself to protect the vulnerable woman, whose older husband's health has begun to fail. Cather shows us a world of fading glory, of the transitory gilt-edge of the old west, of a woman shaped by her environment, both enriched and victimized by the changing tides of history. This is a deep and complex portrait of a complicated woman, true to life and full of raw understanding.

Why you shoudn't read this book: You don't believe in formality or nostalgia.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Portnoy's Complaint

Author: Philip Roth

First line: She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.

Why you should read this book: Roth didn't invent the stereotype of the overbearing Jewish mama and her guilt-ridden son, but he did, with the timing of a borsht-belt comedian and the insight of a Dr. Freud, breathe life into the character whose upbringing defines him as an individual while simultaneously crippling him as a man. In public, a precocious golden boy devoted to social justice and equality, Portnoy is a private slave to his unstaunchable libido, obsessed with the goyim, and well aware that he will never satisfy his mother's expectations. An American classic, Portnoy's Complaint speaks to all of us who grew up straddling the increasingly vast chasm between an idiosyncratic home life and the equally bizarre, yet somehow more enticing, conventions of the rest of society.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're a Yiddische mama who could never believe your darling offspring capable of harboring perverse or perverted desires.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Desert Solitaire

Author: Edward Abbey

First line: This is the most beautiful place on earth.

Why you should read this book: Abbey's experimental sojourn in to the desert involved masquerading as a park ranger while injecting himself into the enviroment, injecting the environment into himself, and gulping up the landscape like a drowning man gasping for air. Describing the stark beauty of a single tree, a brutal stretch of sun-baked rock, or the tourists whose automobile culture encroach on the pristine splendor of his world, Abbey's book is vivid, angry, awe-inspired, and real. He warns his reader not to go looking for his eden, that technology has improved the wilderness right out of existence, and we have only the vibrant colors of his linguistic snapshots to haunt our future, reminding us how progress can take us further from perfection.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You believe everything worth seeing can be seen from the driver's seat of your SUV.