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April 21, 2011 Edition

Atlas of Remote Islands, by Judith Schalansky

Can an atlas be charming? Schalansky opens her review of 50 remote islands with the story of her introduction to armchair travel as a child in East Germany. Betrayed by the impermanence of political atlases, she lavished her attention on geographic maps and found herself drawn especially to islands. In this poetic compendium, each mapped island stands isolated on its page, the only clues to its nearest neighbors found on the facing page of brief text. And the text? It is eclectic – some historical tidbits, some factual data, some dreamy musings. This unusual offering will send the right sort of reader into a swoon of imagined travels.

Lost and Found in Russia, by Susan Richards

Even today, more than 20 years after the fall of communism, much about Russia remains mysterious to Americans. Here, Richards dives solo into Russia’s countryside, reuniting with old friends and meeting new ones in seldom-visited cities and giving readers a look at contemporary life with its frustrating mix of old and new ways of thought. She accidentally visits the closed city of Zarafshan, which is not only the hub for a series of gold and uranium mines, but also much frequented by aliens in their flying saucers, and is smuggled out barely ahead of official notice. After a chance meeting with a scholar of the Old Believers (an offshoot of Russian Orthodoxy), Richards is invited to visit the village of Burny, one of the strongest Old Believer communities left. And she spends time with an old journalist friend, whose resilience in the face of continual tragedy and numbing decline in living standards is a casual part of Russian survival.

The Gardener’s Color Palette, by Tom Fischer, photographs by Clive Nichols

Not every gardener chooses their plants by color, but for those do, here is a wonderful resource. Beautiful photographs offer close-ups of each featured flower, and the accompanying text gives a factual overview of the plants requirements, botanical name (and pronunciation), and a bit of a personal introduction. Fischer covers 10 different color palettes from white to brown to green to orange and suggests plant pairings for each of the 100 plants he highlights. You’ll find some plants in multiple colors – and this, he says, is a sign of that plant’s talent for beautiful colors. You’ll also find some old friends here, including the brilliantly-blue Himalayan Poppy and several yarrows.

The Winter of our Disconnect, by Susan Maushart

Some readers will love Maushart’s light and breezy, LOL-style of writing. Others will love reading about her family’s 6-month hiatus from anything with a screen. No iPhones, no iPods, no laptops or televisions for her or her three teenagers. In a move to reconnect her gradually growing-apart family with each other and with “life itself,” Maushart ditches it all, opting for going to the movie theater, reupping gym memberships (she finds running on the treadmill to the beat of her own drummer an alien experience), and once again driving a car full of chattering, bickering teens. She mixes her anecdotal observations about increased attention spans, changes in sleeping patterns, and attitude with the latest research and comes out with a plea for unplugging – at least some of the time. For a less-storied look at the subject, take a look at Alone Together and Grown Up Digital.

Shadoweyes, by Ross Campbell

When aspiring teen vigilante Scout Montana tries to save an old man from a mugging, she gets hit with a brick and morphs into Shadoweyes, a mutant superhero, in this graphic novel aimed at young adult and adult readers. How? Why? Not so important in this dystopian city where crime, poverty, and health problems are everywhere and Scout and her best friend Kyisha are just trying to make their world a little safer. Scout’s powerful pointy blue form is perfect for roaming the city and beating up ne’er-do-wells, and at first she can go back and forth between her human and superhero form. But soon she’s stuck as Shadoweyes. Afraid to tell her mom, she leaves home. It’s the little details (and there are so many) that make this such a fantastic story: the repartee between Scout and Kyisha, the cat they rescue who isn’t afraid of Scout in her new form, and the ways her good deeds are rewarded.

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