September 2007 Archives

Root for the underdog

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Everyone loves a story about an underdog. No, not Underdog, the crime-fighting cartoon canine. Just your average, everyday underdog — the guy or gal who overcomes obstacles and comes from behind to achieve something great.

Sports is filled with these stories, especially in the movies: "Rocky," "The Bad News Bears," "The Mighty Ducks," "Rudy," "The Longest Yard," "Hoosiers," "Breaking Away" ... and on and on.

After reading through a bit of Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football (Thomas Dunne Books, 279 pages, $24.95), I'm convinced we'll be seeing it onscreen in the next couple years as well...

Twelve Mighty

Move over, Buffy

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I figure since stores are already selling Halloween candy, it's not too early to pick a book titled Good Ghouls Do (Berkley Books, 231 pages, $9.99) — a teenage vampire tale by Julie Kenner, the author of The Good Ghoul's Guide to Getting Even, where we first met our heroine, Beth Frasier.

Good Ghouls

Beth is your normal, everyday high school girl — except that she drinks blood and she's out to kill the freak who made her a freak. You see, if you kill your master — the vampire who "made" you — you can be restored to human ...

Start spreading the news...

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I like New York in June .... how about you?

Seriously though, I like New York any time of year. Don't get me wrong. I would never give up the Windy City for the Big Apple. I can say, with honesty and affection, that NYC is a great place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there.

Today's book came off the shelf because NY is still on my mind since I recently returned from one of my annual jaunts there. The World in a City: Traveling the Globe Through the Neighborhoods of the New New York (Ballantine, 267 pages, $25.95) is thoughtfully written by New York Times columnist Joseph Berger, who's been hanging around the city a long time — ever since he immigrated at age 5 ...

The World in a City

Channeling Cleopatra and Mussolini

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Anyone ever ask you that question, "If you could have a conversation with anyone in history, who would it be?" Author Michael A. Stusser asked himself that question and went one step further, conducting "interviews" with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, J. Edgar Hoover, Vincent van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Cleopatra and Confucious, to name a few.

Stusser is a Seattle-based writer and game inventor (The Doonesbury Game, Hear Me Out) whose work frequently appears in Mental Floss magazine — so you know the guy's got a pretty good albeit odd sense of humor. Now his Dead Guy Interviews are collected in paperback, The Dead Guy Interviews: Conversations With 45 of the Most Accomplished, Notorious, and Deceased Personalities in History (Penguin, 291 pages, $14).

The Dead Guy Interviews

Here's some excerpts from a few "interviews" that cracked me up ...

Dancing feet

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In honor of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet naming a new artistic director (see Hedy Weiss' Sun-Times story), I've chosen a book for kids about two dancers — a brother and sister — who rose to fame in the early 20th century.

Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire (Candlewick Press, $17.99) by Roxanne Orgill and illustrated by Stephane Jorisch, colorfully tells the story of the Astaire siblings from Omaha, Nebraska...


High School 101

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Ah, to be young and back in high school again... ahem ... I mean, man oh man, I'd rather walk barefoot over hot coals than have to relive the high school years. The awkward freshman year, trying to figure out where you fit in, the crush on the cool guy who likely doesn't know you exist, the dorky clothes you wear because you have no idea they're not in fashion ... oh, the agony of it all. If only there had been a handbook filled with the do's and don'ts of freshmen year.

Marissa Walsh has tapped into this teenage angst with A Field Guide to High School (Delacorte Press, 133 pages, $15.99), which actually is a novel but could certainly be read as a handbook for navigating the pressure-cooker world of high school...

A Field Guide to High School

Forensics fever

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Between reading the controversial O.J. Simpson book (reviewed in today's Sun-Times), which brought back memories of the trial's bloody details, and recently becoming hooked on reruns of the original "CSI," today's pick practically jumped off the shelf and into my hands on its own.

Forensics and Fiction: Clever, Intriguing, and Downright Odd Questions From Crime Writers by D.P. Lyle (Thomas Dunne Books, 284 pages, $23.95) is a sequel of sorts to the author's 2003 book Murder and Mayhem. Both books are filled with questions from crime writers who want to make their stories as authentic as possible.

Aside from being a handy reference for crime writers, Forensics and Fiction is interesting reading. Here's a sampling of questions ...


I will admit I'd been looking at today's pick on The Book Room shelf for weeks — first in proof copy and then the final hardcover version — and resisted pulling it down, but since I kept going back to it and wondering, I thought it was about time I picked it up and at least paged through it. What I discovered was a remarkable collection of stories.

I'll Fly Away: Further Testimonies From the Women of York Prison (Harper, 255 pagse, $25.95) is a book of stories written by women in the York Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Connecticut...

I'll Fly Away

Saints be praised

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Paging through Patron Saints: A Feast of Holy Cards (Abrams, 159 pages, $24.95), I was looking for a saint whose feast day is today. I'm sure there is one, but the closest I could come to in the book was St. Januarius, Patron Saint of Volcanic Eruptions, whose feast day was yesterday. Residents of Naples, Italy, where a vial of his blood is preserved, invoke the saint when nearby Mt. Vesuvius threatens to erupt...

Patron Saints

Chicago history lessons

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The more children's books I look through, the more I'm convinced there is a lot for adults to learn by paging through them.

Today's book of the day is Chicago History For Kids: Triumphs and Tragedies of the Windy City (Chicago Review Press, 173 pages, $14.95) by Owen Hurd...

Chicago History For Kids

The male mind

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Any woman who's married or been married, or has/had a boyfriend — or a father, brother or male roommate for that matter — will read Stephen Fried's Husbandry: Sex, Love & Dirty Laundry — Inside the Minds of Married Men (Bantam, 177 pages, $18) and be reminded of every annoyance that goes along with such living arrangements.


It's a good thing Fried has a self-deprecating tone and a sense of humor because that's what makes this book accessible to both genders. Men will read, laugh and nod in agreement at Fried's observations culled from his own life...

Calling all Achievers

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You know you're a Lebowski if you can answer the question, "What's Shabbos?"

The complete Lebowskian answer is: "Saturday, Donny, is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means I don't work, I don't get in a car, I don't f---ing ride in a car, I don't pick up the phone, I don't turn on the oven, and I sure as sh-- don't f---ing roll!"

I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, 'The Big Lebowski,' and What Have You (Bloomsbury, $16.95) is 234 glorious pages of fan-book heaven for those who know, appreciate and understand the genius of the Coen Brothers' 1998 masterpiece, "The Big Lebowski."

Like a rug that ties a whole room together, this book has a little bit of everything ...

I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski

Puzzles and Pets

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Last week we had an entry about a caterer who solves mysteries on the side. Today we have a couple of new paperbacks with the same amateur sleuth theme: You Have the Right to Remain Puzzled by Parnell Hall (Bantam, 349 pages, $6.99) and Who's Kitten Who? by Cynthia Baxter (Bantam, 336 pages, $6.99).

Puzzled is the latest in Hall's series of brain-teasing mysteries, which also includes ......

Civil War For Dummies

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Did you know that the Gettysburg Address was panned as "silly, flat and dish-watery" by the Chicago Times? How about the role of nuns on the battlefield? ("They were the only group of women experienced in both nursing and hospital management.") Or that the trousers-wearing feminist surgeon Mary Edwards Walker was rumored to be a spy?

You'll find out these Civil War tidbits and much more — such as the story of "Taps," the snowball battle of 1862 and all about Confederate postage stamps — in Strange But True Facts of the Civil War by Patrick M. Reynolds (Taylor Trade Publishing, 144 pages, $18.95).

Civil War

These illustrated stories are a great way to learn something about history without reading a textbook. (Meaning, for all you parents out there who maybe didn't pay attention in history class, this will be a nice way to learn a few things while paging through with your kids.)

How 'Sweet' It Is

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Mmmmmm......cupcakes. That's what I was thinking when I pulled Sweet Revenge (William Morrow, 368 pages, $25.95) off the shelf. The bright yellow cover jacket first drew my eyes to it and the cupcake picture sealed the deal.

Sweet Revenge

I'm new to the world of Diane Mott Davidson and her catering heroine Goldy Schulz, who finds herself in the middle of a 14th mystery ...

Ode to Robby Benson

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Remember Robby Benson? He of the big, blue eyes, baby-smooth skin and sensitive voice? He of the big screen tear-jerkers "Ice Castles," "One on One," "Ode to Billy Joe" ... TV's "The Death of Richie," anyone?

Benson disappeared from the public eye after a while and spent most of his post-Tiger Beat years behind the camera, doing voiceover work and directing sitcoms. Now he's gone and written a novel, Who Stole the Funny? (Harper Entertainment, 349 pages, $13.95) ...

Who Stole The Funny

Advice from a teacher

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Those of us who as children went to school every day, who had books, pencils, lunchboxes, desks to sit at, etc., likely never thought to stop and think about how lucky we were.

In Jonathan Kozol's Letters to a Young Teacher (Crown, 263 pages, $19.95), the National Book Award winner and former educator bestows the wisdom of his many years teaching in public schools to a first-grade teacher he calls Francesca. When she asks him about his first experience in public school, he tells her about his first job, teaching fourth-graders in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood...

Letters to a Young Teacher

Mothers, daughters and granddaughters

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The narrator of today's selection, The Empress of Weehawken by Irene Dische (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 307 pages, $24), is one of those great characters you can instantly envision in the movie version — or in this case, maybe a sitcom...

The Empress of Weehawken

Beastly beasts and pirate rats

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In today's Sun-Times Books section, children's book reviewer Deborah Abbott writes about a handful of back-to-school books for young readers.

So today I'll stick to the "young readers" theme with One Beastly Beast (Two Aliens, Three Inventors, Four Fantastic Tales) by Garth Nix, illustrated by Brian Biggs.

This book offers four short stories...

One Beastly Beast

Soap opera beginnings

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In the press notes that came with the Family Acts (Ballantine, 321 pages, $24.95), there is an essay written by the novel's author, Louise Shaffer, titled "Why I Write."

Family Acts

"I think every book I pick up is a mini-vacation," Shaffer writes, "or at least has the potential to be one."

In Family Acts, we travel to New York, California, Georgia and a few scattered points in between ...


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For anyone who has any pre-conceived notions about the nation's growing trend toward "megachurches" — and I admit, I do — Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn From America's Largest Churches (Jossey-Bass, 198 pages, $23.95) may help clear things up.

Megachurch Myths

The authors, Dr. Scott Thumma, a faculty member at Hartford Seminary, and Dave Travis, executive vice president of Leadership Network ("the premier church networking organization for innovative churches"), break down such statements as...

Mothers and daughters

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"Life is short, so make time for your loved ones" is the big message in today's selection, Life on the Refrigerator Door: Notes Between a Mother and Daughter (Harper, 220 pages $15.95) by Alice Kuipers.

Life on the Refrigerator Door

The book covers about a year in the lives of teenage Claire and her divorced obstetrician mother. The two never see each other, and apparently do not have cell phones, so they communicate via written notes. Here are a couple examples ...


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If you've ever had food poisoning, you probably feel as if you've looked Death in the face and survived. Many of our ancestors weren't so lucky.

Morton Satin's Death in the Pot (Prometheus Books, 248 pages, $24) takes the reader back through time and chronicles the effects of bad food on society.

Satin, a molecular biologist and director of technical and regulatory affairs at the Salt Institute...

Death in the Pot

Road trip

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In today's Sun-Times Books section, my colleague Dave Hoekstra writes about Jack Kerouac's On the Road, published 50 years ago this week.

So today I chose the young adult book Zane's Trace (Candlewick Press, 177 pages, $16.99), a swift read of a road book by Allan Wolf that details a teenager's day trip to visit his mother's grave, where he intends to join her in eternity ...

Zane's Trace