Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Book Review: The Amateur Marriage

I have always been a huge fan of Anne Tyler. I remember the moment when I first discovered her, way back in a college lit class. The professor offered a summer reading list, and Dinner at the Homesick Restuarant was one of the choices. I liked the sound of that and made a mental note to read it. A few weeks later I noticed a friend reading that The Accidental Tourist. She asked me, "How do you pronounce this name, Macon--is is 'Ma(k)on' or 'Ma(s)son'?" I almost didn't read the book because of the uncertainty of the name pronunciation. I am strangely affected by words I can't pronounce easily.

Fortunately for me, I read The Accidental Tourist and then proceeded to read all of Tyler's past books and every single one since (except for her newest one, Digging to America. But that's on my TBR list.) The Amateur Marriage was familiar, as all Anne Tyler novels are, because Tyler's novels depict ordinary people living ordinary lives. Tyler's forte is delving into families and the various relationships involved in maintaining and surviving in a family: as an individual, a couple, a parent, a child, etc.

The Amateur Marriage is the story of a doomed marriage. Michael and Pauline slide into marriage almost by mistake, and they never manage to quite get the rhythm of a good marriage. They never quite click, never quite fall madly in love, never give each other exactly what they need. Sounds ordinary enough, maybe even trite, but Tyler is anything but trite. Her language is precise and smooth; her dialog is always perfect. The characters are wonderfully developed because you know people exactly like this.

As I often feel with Tyler novels, I wished for more. While Michael and Pauline are certainly the central characters, I wanted to know more about their children and grandson. I'd love another book or two devoted to these more minor characters. But so far Tyler has resisted taking any of her amazing novels and turning them into a loose series, and, really, I'm glad. She is perfect as she is.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: The Namesake

I first encountered Jhumpa Lahiri in her newest collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. My review of this stunning collection is here. It took me awhile to finally get to The Namesake (OK, it took me five months) although I had it in my actual TBR stack. Dr. H. got to it before I did and gave it a lukewarm review ("I liked it, but it wasn't fantastic"), so I wasn't in a huge hurry to get to it.

But I'm glad I finally did. The Namesake is Lahiri's first novel, and it doesn't hold a candle to Unaccustomed Earth; however, that collection of short stories was, as indicated in my review linked above, phenomenal. The Namesake dragged a bit and left me feeling sometimes wishing for more. Nonetheless, Lahiri's writing is excellent and her powers of perception amazing.

Gogol Gungali, the son of immigrants Ashoke and Ashima, despises his name. "Gogol" was a name indicative of neither his Bengali heritage nor his American birth. In fact, the name (which carries a story that he never hears until adulthood) was meant to be only temporary, until a better name was chosen, but Gogol goes through life being burdened by a name that hangs like a heavy chain around his neck. He obsesses about his name and eventually changes it.

The novel is essentially one of cultural identity, heritage vs. home, personal identity, and family ties. Big themes, but Lahiri handles them well and, for the most part, in a satisfying way. I think the novel works best in conveying the tremendous struggles in making a life in a new country, leaving behind deeply ingrained traditions and culture, as well as expressing the difficulties of the children of these immigrants.

Next on my list is Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. And although I've read so-so reviews, I'm also going to look for the movie version of The Namesake.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Christmas Books That Make Me Cry


The mark of a good Christmas book, for me, is that it makes me cry. We have a good number of children's books for Christmas, and I try to add a new book each year. We have some of the popular ones like The Polar Express and some silly but sentimental ones like Mercer Mayer's Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad, starring Little Critter. Some of the books we give the obligatory seasonal read and then put back on the rack.

But I have my favorites. These are the books that, without fail, make me cry at some point. My voice catches, a child's head pops up and looks at me and says, "Mama! Are you crying again?" I can't help it.


1. The Tale of the Three Trees (retold by Angela Elwell Hunt): This book ties it all together—Jesus' birth, life, and death—in a simple but eloquent story. I get choked up on almost every page.


2. The Story of Holly and Ivy (by Rumer Godden): This one takes us a couple of reading periods to get through, but it is so well worth it. This is the story of an orphan who wants a grandmother, a doll who wants a home, and a woman who wants a family. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.


3. The House Without a Christmas Tree (by Gail Rock): I loved this TV special when I was a kid, but I'm not sure I'd ever read the book until a few years ago when I picked it up at a yard sale. Now my daughter and I read this story annually of a girl who begs her father for a Christmas tree, and I always cry at the end.

4. A Wish for Wings That Work (by Berkeley Breathed): Is it weird to get weepy over a book about a penguin named Opus? I can't help it; there's something about Santa saying, "Ho, ho, ho, go!" to a penguin whose wings don't work that brings tears every time. Also, this was one of the books we bought for our oldest for his first Christmas, so it's extra sentimental.

5. The First Night (by B.G. Hennessy): This short book starts off with one of my favorite Bible verses: "And the World became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14) and proceeds to tell the birth of Christ in simple but poetic text. I especially love the rustic look of the paintings, done on butternut wood and shaped with a jigsaw. It's the simplicity of a birth—of a new life—that gets me every time.

And so those are my Top 5 favorite Christmas books. Do you have one that makes you cry? If so, leave a comment and I'll check it out!

* In other news, be sure to check out the Book Review Carnival that is just up at Maw Books. With over 80 book reviews to peruse, you're sure to find a few books to add to your TBR list! The next Book Review Carnival will be in 2 weeks; you can submit your review here.

* To join in The Sunday Salon, click here and start joining in!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Book Review: When the Emperor Was Divine

This is a small, unassuming novel, just short of 150 pages, but it is absolutely exquisite. This is Julie Otsuka's first novel, and I hope there are many, many more to come. Everything about this books is—dare I say it?—perfect.

The story is of a family—a girl, a boy, and a mother—who, like thousands of other Japanese Americans in 1942, must pack up all their possessions and become enemy aliens in a desert internment camp. Their father, a dignified businessman, had already been sent to a different camp for "dangerous" enemies, where his letters are heavily censored.

I have read several novels about the Japanese-American experience during World War II, and this is, without a doubt, the most powerful. (My review of Sandra Dallas's Tallgrass lists several of these books.) Otsuka's prose is stunning. She has a gift of giving the reader an unusual intimacy with each character with the briefest of words. The mother, for example (and this is just one of many short passages that round out the mother):
"It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the woman, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules. She gave the cat to the Greers next door. She caught the chicken that had been running wild in the yard since the fall and snapped its neck beneath the handle of a broomstick. She plucked out the feathers and set the carcass into a pan of cold water in the sink."

Otsuka knows when to give details (the pan of cold water in the sink) and when to leave them out (she didn't give the orange-and-white striped cat named Tippy who was the girl's favorite to the nasty neighbors next door in the white house). As a voracious reader, I admire and appreciate her clean and compact writing style immensely. I don't want to read extra stuff, but I appreciate the art of poetic details that add depth and impact—and texture.
"Always, he would remember the dust. It was soft and white and chalky, like talcum powder. Only the alkaline made your skin burn. It made your nose bleed. It made your eyes sting. It took your voice away. The dust got into your shoes. Your hair. Your pants. Your mouth. Your bed. Your dreams. It seeped under the doors and around the edges of windows and through the cracks in the walls. And all day long, it seemed, his mother was always sweeping. Once in a while she would put down her broom and look at him. 'What I wouldn't give,' she'd say, 'for my Electrolux.'"

A brilliant pairing of their life back in California with their life in the desert. There is so much power in what seems to be a simple passage. This isn't a novel full of plot and action; it is a heartwrenching novel in its lyrical prose and surface-level simplicity. This is a not-so-distant part of America's past that is quietly swept away, with a line or two in history books. If you know nothing of this episode in American history, I strongly urge you to take some time reading this book and others (listed in my Tallgrass review). Also, this book is totally appropriate for high schoolers studying American History.


Other reviews of When the Emperor Was Divine:
Natasha at Maw Books here
Rebecca at Reading Rants and Raves here

(If you've reviewed this book, leave a comment and I'll link to your review!)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Book Review: Twilight

I'm in that "last person to read it" category here with Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. And now I've read it!

Um, it was a fun read? I can see why teenagers like it?

I guess I'll just have to say that I totally don't get the Twilight phenomenon. I kept thinking that something amazing would happen as I was reading it. Isn't it supposed to be breathtaking and addictive?

I keep thinking that maybe I just need to be 25 years younger to appreciate this story of vampires with ethics and sex appeal, but I have adult friends who also love it.

What am I missing?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Review: The Echo Maker

I was drawn to Richard Powers' The Echo Maker not because it was a National Book Award Winner or a Pulitzer Prize finalist but because it is about a man who sustains a traumatic brain injury (TBI). I didn't read the novel for its prose or plot but, truly, to read about fictional character with a TBI.

I found Mark Schluter, the injured man, familiar in many ways. Six years ago my oldest brother sustained a TBI as a result of a bicycle accident. The days that followed were touch-and-go, and then the long process of rehabilitation began. My brother has lived on his own for at least 4 years now and seems remarkably well. Like Mark in the novel, my brother was quirky before the TBI; the injury exaggerated some qualities that were already there.

Powers certainly did his research. Here is something that I wrote on my other blog a couple of years ago about my brother:
"It's hard to describe what James is like now. Someone who doesn't know him well might not notice anything terribly odd. He may just seem a bit clumsy or distracted. You could even get used to him the way he is now. But truthfully, there is a whole person who was lost in the three short seconds it took for him to lurch off his bike and hit his head on the pavement. There was this brilliant, arrogant, selfish, generous, irritating, gentle, sharp-witted man who was my oldest brother--and now there is this brother who is like a broken statue glued back together."

I was startled, and strangely comforted, to read this echoing paragraph in The Echo Maker:
"Mark still limped and contusions still lined his face, but otherwise he seemed almost healed. Two months after the accident, strangers who talked to him might have found him a little slow and inclined toward strange theories, but nothing outside the local norm. … His days were laced with flashes of paranoia, outbursts of pleasure and rage, and increasingly elaborate explanations."

And so I came to this novel with an agenda. I read with a thirst for shared experience and illumination, and for that, the novel was satisfying. A short glance at the amazon.com reviews tells me that this novel is about the search for self, the destruction of an ecosystem coupled with a broken mind, etc. I was, frankly, distracted by myriad subplots. Woven throughout the book is a fight between wildlife preservation and urban development, and also a doctor's midlife crisis and fleeting fame. I love sandhill cranes, but this whole subplot seemed to have a forced and tenuous connection to the theme of memory and self. (Yes, I get that the migratory birds have long memories, but still.) Brain specialist Dr. Weber got so irritating toward the middle of the book, when his story kicks in, that I skimmed lots of parts that had to do with him.

In the essay writing class I teach we have a mantra, especially useful when we get distracted: "Stay on the topic! No tangents!" Powers' writing is beautiful, his prose poetic. The whole story of Mark was interesting enough, I think even to a reader who has no vested interested in brain injuries; however, the subplots were overbearing and tedious. Still I'm glad I read it.

(Reviewed by CaribousMom here. If you've reviewed this book, leave me a comment and I'll post the link!)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Book Blog Tour: The Raucous Royals, Day 3

On this final day of The Raucous Royals book tour, I'll just whet your appetite with a few more details about the book itself. I mentioned on day one that this books is subtitled: "Test Your Royal Wits: Crack Codes, Solve Mysteries, and Deduce which Royal Rumors are True."

These rumors are ones we've probably all heard:
* King Richard III murdered his nephews
* Queen Anne Boleyn had six fingers
* Marie Antoinette said, "Let them eat cake."
* Catherine the Great was crushed to death by her horse
* and nine others.

But are they true or false? You'll have to read the book to find out.

Author and illustrator Carlyn Beccia has a fantastic website. I subscribed immediately. I was thinking that The Raucous Royals would make a great gift paired with some kind of card game, like Authors, that highlights various monarchs. I didn't find such a card game but I did find two other possibilities: Royalty word game and the Sleeping Queens card game. I also found a coloring book of Kings and Queens of England and a Queen Elizabeth paper doll.

If you missed the first two days of this blog tour, you can see them here:
Day 1: Introduction to The Raucous Royals
Day 2: Interview with Carlyn Beccia

And that finishes up this blog tour, brought to you by KidsBookBuzz.com and these bloggers:
01 Charger, the 160acrewoods, A Mom Speaks, All About Children’s Books, Becky’s Book Reviews, Cafe of Dreams, Dolce Bellezza, Fireside Musings, The Friendly Book Nook, The Hidden Side of a Leaf, Homeschool Buzz, Hyperbole, KidzBookBuzz.com, Looking Glass Reviews, Maw Books Blog, Never Jam Today, Our Big Earth, Quiverfull Family, Reading is My Superpower, SmallWorld Reads, SMS Book Reviews

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Book Blog Tour: The Raucous Royals, Day 2


I posted yesterday on the first day of The Raucous Royals book blog tour about how much we loved this book at our house—especially my 11-year-old who isn't a big history buff. Today I am excited to be able to present an interview with Carlyn Beccia, author and illustrator of this wonderful book. Isn't she adorable? I'm quite sure I'd love to have coffee with her; perhaps she'll be doing a book-signing out my way sometime! And then maybe we could go get a pigeon-blood facial together...

Read on to learn a bit more about Ms. Beccia and The Raucous Royals:

SmallWorld Reads: Thanks for taking time to do this interview. I have to tell you that your book The Raucous Royals is a huge hit in our house, especially with my 11-year-old daughter. She really likes to know about authors, and she has helped me to compose these interview questions. But before we start, could you tell us a little bit about yourself-maybe some tidbit that isn't included on the book jacket of The Raucous Royals?

Carlyn Beccia: I have a daughter too. She is now 1 years old and is already exhibiting her royal stature in our household. I went into labor with her on November 16th…I had JUST finished the book. My doctor thought I was a bit nutty when I told her that the baby had to wait until November 17th to be born because that was the day that Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England. So you could say that I get a little too excited about the royals sometimes.


SWR: Could you tell us a little about what inspired you to write this book?

CB: Sure. I hated history as a kid. I know everyone says that but I REALLY hated history. I once got my 5th grade history teacher so mad that she told me, “I was going to hell in a handbasket.” I asked her – “what is a handbasket? And why would someone go to hell in one?” I was honestly curious.

She sent me to the principal for being fresh.

It was not until after college that I realized handbaskets collected the heads of the guillotined royals during the French Revolution. I thought…if only my teacher had told me this juicy tidbit of history, instead of cursing me out, then she might have got me to listen to her lecture on the French Revolution. Instead, all I remembered were the rumors: Marie Antoinette said let them eat cake. Napoleon was short. Anne Boleyn had six fingers. Catherine the Great had a thing for horses. I completely missed the real people behind the rumors. All those court intrigues, love scandals, murders and follies committed – those are the stories that I wanted to tell in The Raucous Royals. Too many text books leave the juicy details out. Readers need to learn about the blood-stained handbaskets too. I believe that history’s less heroic moments can be taught in a responsible way.


SWR: You are quoted as saying on the book jacket that one "discovery led to another rumor, and then another." Were there other rumors you discovered along the way that you did not include in this book?

CB: Yes, so many royals did not make the cut. I continue to debunk rumors and myth on the blog.

I am featuring Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, this month. Catherine was believed to have a talent for poisoning people. It was rumored that she had a cabinet full of poisoned rouge, poisoned apples and poisoned gloves that hurried many enemies to a painful death. It is true that Catherine had some strange things in her cabinet. She was big advocate of using pigeon blood to improve her complexion and she kept a vile of goat’s blood and the metals from her alchemy charts handy, but she didn’t have any poisons.

She also hung out with some dubious soothsayers, seers and astrologers. She was friends with Nostradamus whose quatrains supposedly predicted the death of her husband, Henri II. She also employed the Ruggieri Brothers who were known for their expertise in the Black Arts.

In one legend, Cosimo de Ruggieri brought Catherine before an enchanted mirror in a magic chamber of the Chateau of Chaumont. He told Catherine that the number of times her sons’ faces circled the mirror would foretell the length of their rule. Her oldest son, Francis II, circled the mirror one time. Next, Charles IX’s face appeared and his face circled 14 times. He was followed by Catherine’s favorite son, Henri III, whose face circled 15 turns. But then Catherine’s sons disappeared from the mirror and Henri Prince of Navarre suddenly appeared. He was son of Antoine de Bourbon (a Bourbon prince and of a different family). His face circled the mirror 22 times. All of this came true. The Valois line (Catherine’s family) died out with Henri III and they each reigned for the number of times predicted in the magic mirror.

This tale makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up! Who couldn’t resist repeating it? Forget Snow White. Meet the real evil step-mother… We can imagine how these stories of Catherine as a sorceress earned her the reputation as the “The Black Queen.” We have to remember that predicting a king’s death was treason in the 16th century.


SWR: I think the debunking that most surprised me was that Louis XIV really did bathe regularly! I remember reading a history book to my children just two years ago that he only bathed a few times in his life! Why do we get so mixed up? Why do these myths continue, in spite of evidence to the contrary? Do we as humans just thrive on exaggeration and aberration?

CB: That’s a really good point. I wanted this rumor to be true! It certainly makes for a better story. I think it is human nature to only repeat the shocking stuff.

SWR: Which rumor that turned out to be false surprised you the most?

CB: I was convinced that Richard III killed his nephews and no one was going to tell me any differently. He was guilty and that was it. But as I dug deeper and deeper, I found there was simply not enough evidence to convict him. Readers will have to weigh the evidence and come to their own conclusions, but I personally think he was innocent.

SWR: How did you do your research for the book? How long did it take you to write the book?

CB: I started researching The Raucous Royals in 2005. It took about 2 1⁄2 years to research, write and illustrate.


SWR: You say on page 14 that "a rumor usually starts small and grows." I found it very appropriate for this age group (or for any age group, really!) to see how damaging to a person's reputation that a bit of exaggeration can be. Did you intend for your book, in any way, to be a cautionary tale?

CB: Yes, but I hate heavy-handed lessons. I do hope that the message is subtle. Rumors obviously spread much more quickly today. And I see students relying way too much on the Internet to do their research. That’s why I made sure to include some tips on how to research a rumor in the back of the book.


SWR: My daughter and I were wondering if you have thought about writing a similar book about United States presidents and/or leaders. Have you come across any good fodder for such a book?

CB: I have thought about it. There are certainly tons of examples of Presidents behaving less than presidential, but you won’t see me writing a book pointing out Lincoln’s flaws. There is something about presidential follies and scandals that does not sit well with me…especially in our celebrity focused culture. We need our heroes. We already don’t have enough of them. I am the type of person that gets teary eyes when I hear the National anthem! My dad was a big army guy and he really instilled a sense of pride in all things American. I know that is grossly hypocritical to say it is ok to poke fun at royals, and not our presidents, but I guess I am a typical conceited American in that respect. So although I would love to see that kind of book out there and would endorse it 100%, I am not the right person to write it. My writing style is too sarcastic for the subject to come off in a respectful manner.

What I would like to do is take the supposed worst presidents in history and give them a positive make-over. I am reading a fascinating book right now, called An American Lion about Andrew Jackson. I always had a low opinion of Jackson due to how he dealt with the Cherokees. But again, the truth is more complicated.

SWR: How much time do you spend daily working on writing projects? What can we look forward to next?

CB: I spend more time researching then writing. The writing is actually pretty quick.

My next book is called, I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat (title pending) and will be released in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin. The book features the most bizarre and grossest cures doctors have used throughout history - leeches, maggots, ground up mummies, unicorn horns and occasional frog slime. I am presently practicing painting blood stains on aged paper. Fun stuff!


I appreciated Carlyn's great interview, and I can hardly wait to read her next book! I can already say for sure that my youngest son will devour it!

Stay tuned tomorrow for a final wrap-up of The Raucous Royals, and check out more interviews at other stops on
the tour!
01 Charger, the 160acrewoods, A Mom Speaks, All About Children’s Books, Becky’s Book Reviews, Cafe of Dreams, Dolce Bellezza, Fireside Musings, The Friendly Book Nook, The Hidden Side of a Leaf, Homeschool Buzz, Hyperbole, KidzBookBuzz.com, Looking Glass Reviews, Maw Books Blog, Never Jam Today, Our Big Earth, Quiverfull Family, Reading is My Superpower, SmallWorld Reads, SMS Book Reviews


Monday, December 1, 2008

Book Blog Tour: The Raucous Royals


When The Raucous Royals arrived in the mail, it was immediately intercepted by my 11-year-old daughter, and I didn't even get a chance to flip through the pages until the next day. Subtitled Test Your Royal Wits: Crack Codes, Solve Mysteries, and Deduce which Royal Rumors are True, this book for middle readers by Carlyn Beccia enthralled my daughter.

I should mention that my daughter doesn't particularly enjoy history in general, but Beccia has hit upon the perfect antidote for kids who tend to turn up their noses at history books: weird and disturbing rumors about famous people.

These famous people all happen to be royalty with hundreds of years of rumors following them. Who hasn't heard that Napoleon was short or that King Louis XIV only bathed three times in his life? We are told—or read— these things at some point in our lives and assume they are true. Who would make up such things?

Beccia serves up a dose of reality in this book. She lays out the rumor, presents the facts, and then encourages the reader to draw his/her own conclusions based on the evidence. Her illustrations are fabulous and her text funny and very readable. There is nothing dry about this history book.

I've got more to say about The Raucous Royals, including an interview with Carlyn Beccia, coming up tomorrow. Until then, you may want to check out some of the other stops at the tour!
01 Charger, the 160acrewoods, A Mom Speaks, All About Children’s Books, Becky’s Book Reviews, Cafe of Dreams, Dolce Bellezza, Fireside Musings, The Friendly Book Nook, The Hidden Side of a Leaf, Homeschool Buzz, Hyperbole, KidzBookBuzz.com, Looking Glass Reviews, Maw Books Blog, Never Jam Today, Our Big Earth, Quiverfull Family, Reading is My Superpower, SmallWorld Reads, SMS Book Reviews

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Sunday Salon: November in Review

I am pretty sure that this has been the most pitiful reading month I've had in a couple of years. I can't believe it's possible—I feel as if I must have missed recording something!—but apparently I have only finished one book this month, Kate Morton's The House at Riverton (review here). I am, quite frankly, shocked and horrified. What in the world have I been doing?

I am nearly finished with The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. I'm fascinated by this book about a man with a traumatic brain injury, as my oldest brother sustained a TBI 6 years ago. Hopefully I'll have that finished and reviewed in a few days.

I really enjoyed being part of Children's Book Blog Tour for This Is the Feast by Diane Z. Shore. I participated in only two Sunday Salons: The Sunday Salon: October in Review and a discussion on British Lit or World Lit? Thanks for the great responses on the latter! Sunday Scribblings and Weekly Geeks got just one post each: Sunday Scribblings #137: Stranger and Weekly Geeks: Author Fun Facts.

And that is just about the extent of my contribution to the book review and writing world for the month of November. I think that in December I should spend less time trying to beat my husband on various word games on Facebook and more time reading!

How was your November reading? Book reviews and much more at The Sunday Salon. Join here.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Book Review: The House at Riverton

This book (published April 2008) by Kate Morton consumed much of my November. Often when a book takes me so long to read, it's because the book drags on and on, yet I am determined to finish it. Not so with The House at Riverton. I loved Morton's debut novel. I thought about the characters often through the days (weeks) during which I read the well-sculpted and richly woven book. My problem was that I just couldn't stay awake for more than a few pages at a time, thus the 2-3 week reading period.

The novel begins with 98-year-old Grace, who had once been a servant for a prominent British family, the Ashburys. As a maid, Grace is able to observe the happenings in the home—especially among the three teenagers—without being noticed. She is privy to all sorts of information and secret goings-on. World War I tears the family apart, and Grace eventually becomes the lady's maid of the eldest daughter, Hannah. During these years, younger sister Emmeline grows wild and Hannah, who married for money and security, falls in love with a famous but intense poet.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks brought about by a modern-day filmmaker who seeks to make a documentary about Riverton. Grace is the only living remnant of the Riverton generation, and the filmmaker's inquiries open the floodgates to Grace's memories.

This novel has a similar feeling to Diana Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. There is an old family, a history of secrets, and that lovely ghostly feel. I definitely recommend this one; I only wish I'd been able to read it in larger chunks for a more cohesive experience.

Other reviews of The House at Riverton:
Caribousmom here
The Literate Housewife here
One More Chapter here
The Sleepy Reader here

If you've reviewed the book, leave your link in the comments!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Book Review: This Is the Feast, Day 3

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, one of the reasons that I liked Diane Shore's This Is the Feast so much is because the details in the book fit with the historical accounts that my children and I have read about the Mayflower. Whatever we are studying at home, we love to combine picture books with nonfiction accounts and chapter books. I think that it's tempting to give up picture books completely when one's children reach a certain age, often 6 or 7, and start delving solely into chapter books. It is exciting, after all, to leave behind Curious George and head into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But I've found that my children still love picture books just as much at 11 as they did at 4. This makes sense, really. A novel that I read at 14 took on a completely different meaning at 22 and then reshaped itself into something else again at 40. Picture books are the same way: what they see at age five is at a completely different level than what they see at age 10. So this year we've been pulling the picture books off the shelf and reading them, and I'm happy to add This Is the Feast to our November reads.

Here are some other resources that we used when we studied the Pilgrims and the Mayflower journey last year. Read together with This Is the Feast, your kids can have a much broader perspective of this time period!
If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 (Ann McGovern)
American Adventures #1: The Mayflower Adventure (Colleen Reece)
Dear America: A Journey to the New World (The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple)
American Family Paper Dolls: Pilgrim Period (Tom Tierney)
Colonial Kids: An Activity Guide to Life in the New World (Laurie Carlson)—all kinds of great crafts and activities
And if you haven't read a picture book lately with your older elementary child, take a break from the chapter books and revisit some old friends!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Book Tour: This Is the Feast, Day 2

I mentioned yesterday how excited we were to receive Diane Shore's This Is the Feast in the mail as part of the Children's Book Blog Tour. Last year my younger children and I spent several weeks studying the events that led up to the voyage of the Mayflower and the voyage itself and the Pilgrims' first year in the New World. We did lots of hands-on activities, watched a couple of movies, and read lots of books.

A couple of the things I like the most about this combination of Shore's text and Megan Lloyd's illustrations are the attention to detail and the refrain of "Thanks be to God." The details fit well with the history we've read of this journey and subsequent year: the Pilgrims are throwing up on the Mayflower (my 7-year-old son loved this); there is "death and disease" that first year (we see a man sick in bed while the family goes on about him); the corn is multi-colored, not just your standard picture-book yellow. I love the details of the "three sisters" method of planting (corn, squash, and fish) and how Lloyd includes the squash vines climbing the corn stalks. And I love how the women scrape salt off a big block of salt into their food!

There is an emphasis in this book on the joy of survival that they Pilgrims must have felt after a year of struggle. In several places, the Pilgrims acknowledge the source of their strength: "Thanks be to God, our strength and our guide," or "Thanks be to God for the lives He has spared." This is the kind of book I want to be reading to my kids at Thanksgiving!

Below are several other bloggers taking part in the This Is the Feast Tour. I haven't had a chance to visit most of them, but Natasha at Maw Books does have a terrific interview with Diane Shore on her blog today.
the 160acrewoods
A Mom Speaks
All About Children’s Books
Becky’s Book Reviews
Cafe of Dreams
Dolce Bellezza
Homeschool Buzz
KidzBookBuzz.com
Looking Glass Reviews
Maggie Reads
Maw Books Blog
Never Jam Today
Our Big Earth
Quiverfull Family
Reading is My Superpower
SmallWorld Reads

Monday, November 17, 2008

Book Tour: This Is the Feast by Diane Z. Shore


I was thrilled to get Diane Z. Shore's newest picture book, This Is the Feast, in the mail to review last week as part of the Children's Book Blog Tour. First of all, it's gorgeous. It's one of those books that you want to crack open and read to the kids immediately. So I did.

Written for kids ages 4-8, This Is the Feast begins with the Mayflower sailing across the ocean and ends with the first Thanksgiving. My younger kids are nearly 8 and 11, but they still love picture books. I'll talk more tomorrow about details of the book, but I must say here that Megan Lloyd's illustrations are truly fabulous. The pairing of Shore's rhythmic story and Lloyd's rich pictures is perfect.

We have a whole shelf of Christmas books at our house, but we only have about 2 Thanksgiving-related books. I'm sheepish to say that one of them is Arthur's Thanksgiving! If I were starting out again with small children, I'd absolutely buy this book and bring it out at the beginning of each November. There's still plenty of time to order it before Thanksgiving, though! Click on the title to order from amazon.com. Or go to your local Barnes and Noble; I saw it featured there just a few days ago.

Tomorrow I'll go into more details about, well, the details in this book I like so much. Until then, if you'd like to read other reviews of The Feast, check out these other stops on the tour:
the 160acrewoods
A Mom Speaks
All About Children’s Books
Becky’s Book Reviews
Cafe of Dreams
Dolce Bellezza
Homeschool Buzz
KidzBookBuzz.com
Looking Glass Reviews
Maggie Reads
Maw Books Blog
Never Jam Today
Our Big Earth
Quiverfull Family
Reading is My Superpower
SmallWorld Reads

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sunday Scribblings #137: Stranger

I am a stranger in this place,
laid out in a perfect
grid like a thousand midwestern acres
or a New England town,
solid and square, boundary lines
unmoveable. If I could

just jump the fence,
scale the stone wall,
skate in circles around your careful
map. Figure eights.

I don't know the rules; my blades
have rusted with time and neglect.
I mix my metaphors yet again—
my tongue is twisted and inept.
I long for paper and pen,
the cool comfort of written wordplay.

(To see more takes on the prompt "Stranger," visit Sunday Scribblings.)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Sunday Salon: British Lit or World Lit?

The Sunday Salon.com

I need help.

I'm pondering teaching a literature class next year for high-schoolers at our co-op. Initially I thought I'd teach British lit, but now I'm wondering if I really ought to teach World Lit. I could do a solid British lit program, but they'd be missing out on so much by limiting them to just British lit. (I've already taught American Lit.)

So, tell me: what works (literature or drama) would you deem essential for a high school Survey of British Lit course? And what works would you insist upon for a Survey of World Literature course? I have dozens of ideas running around in my head, but I'd love to hear some of yours.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Weekly Geeks: Author Fun Facts



I love this week's assignment for Weekly Geeks: fun facts about authors.
The directions:
1. Choose a writer you like.
2. Using resources such as Wikipedia, the author’s website, whatever you can find, make a list of interesting facts about the author.
3. Post your fun facts list in your blog, maybe with a photo of the writer, a collage of his or her books, whatever you want.
4. Sign the Mr Linky at Weekly Geeks with the url to your fun facts post.
5. As you run into (or deliberately seek out) other Weekly Geeks’ lists, add links to your post for authors you like or authors you think your readers are interested in.

Of course the dilemma is choosing the author. My first thoughts were Harper Lee and Flannery O'Connor, but I've decided instead to find out about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read her Half of a Yellow Sun a month or so ago and thought it was amazing. Guatami Tripathy at Reading Room wrote a series of reviews of Adichie's short stories that definitely makes me want to read more.

So who is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Here is her website. I learned there that Adichie was born in 1977 to Igbo parents in Nigeria. She came to the U.S. at age 19, graduated summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State, and received a master's degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins.

Her short stories and novels center on the struggles of the Igbo people and the struggles of Nigerian immigrants today in the U.S. and England. According to her website, "Although Adichie was born seven years after the war [Nigerian Civil War] ended, she states that she 'ha[s] always felt a deep horror for all the bestialities that took place and great pity for the injustices that occurred.'"

Her works include:
Novels: Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun
Play: For the Love of Biafra
Poetry: Decisions
And a long list of uncollected poems and short stories

I really liked this article about Adichie from the BBC News website. This is the kind of information that goes beyond the Wikipedia biography and adds depth to the facts:
For Ms. Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun is not some distant tale of the horrors of Nigeria's three-year Biagran civil war. Her grandfather died in a refugee camp during the war, a fact, she says, which still made her cry while she was writing the award-winning book.

No wonder it was such a heart-wrenching book. If you haven't read it, please do. I plan to check out Purple Hibiscus in the next couple of weeks.


Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Sunday Salon: October in Review

What I Read:
The Great Gilly Hopkins (reviewed here)
Girl in Hyacinth Blue (reviewed here)
Tallgrass (reviewed here)
Shattered Dreams (reviewed here)
Run (reviewed here)

Favorite Book of the Month:
Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas

Least Favorite:
Nothing was dreadful this month. Shattered Dreams did get on my nerves about two-thirds of the way through, so I'd have to pick this memoir of a polygamous marriage as my least favorite. Still, it was interesting.


Where I Played:
• Sunday Scribbling: Forbidden
• The Sunday Salon: Reading With Children, Part 2 and Autumn Books for Children
• Book Review Carnival
• Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books weekly
• Booking Through Thursday: Best and a Meme


Books Received via PaperbackSwap:
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Currently Reading:
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

Up Next:
Hope's Boy by Andrew Bridge


How was your October reading? Book reviews and much more at The Sunday Salon. Join here.

Book Review: Run

I've had "more by Ann Patchett" scribbled on my hard copy TBR list for close to two years, ever since I read and enjoyed her novel Bel Canto (my brief review here). I've seen Run listed on a few book reviews lately and finally got my hands on it. Patchett is, foremost, an excellent writer. It is a pleasure to read a well-crafted novel that holds no awkward dialog or seeks to manipulate the reader's emotions. Patchett is much like Ian McEwan in this respect.

The novel centers on Bernard Doyle and his motherless boys, Sullivan, Tip and Teddy. Tip and Teddy, biological black brothers, were adopted into this white Irish family as infants and adored by their adoptive mother, Bernadette Doyle. When she dies before they even enter elementary school, Bernard dedicates himself to raising the boys. The novel itself takes place in a 24-hour period when the boys are in their early 20s and Sullivan, the prodigal son, is in his early 30s.

Through an accident in a snowstorm, Doyle and his boys suddenly find that they must redefine their world to accomodate new information about a stranger who saves Tip's life and her little girl. Are their lives really what they think they are? Who are they, really, and what does it mean to be a family?

I liked this novel. I can't say I loved it because something was missing; there was some unfinished business. I am left dangling with few nagging questions about the characters, their decisions, and the statue of Mary that looked like Bernadette. I feel like this is a novel that should turn into a series about the Doyle family. The characters are compelling enough that I'd read more about each one, but somehow they weren't completed in Run.

But my criticism of the novel is weak, really, because I would recommend it. Patchett's writing is so fabulous and the characters are likeable, interesting, and compelling. Perhaps what I really needed to do was think a little more while I was reading instead of racing through to the end.

Also reviewed at:
The Bluestocking Society

If you've reviewed Run on your blog, please leave your link in the comments!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Book Review: Shattered Dreams

Irene Spencer's memoir, subtitled My Life as a Polygamist's Wife, was both fascinating and frustrating, and, when finally finished, I was glad it was over.

Irene's story is interesting for the most part. Raised in a fundamentalist polygamous Mormon community, Irene vacillated between her love for an outsider and her firm conviction that God commanded her to live in a plural marriage. Although her mother, who had left her plural marriage, tried to convince her otherwise, Irene ends up becoming the second wife of her brother-in-law, Verlan LeBaron. Life with Verlan and his wife (her half-sister) Charlotte is tough from the beginning.Verlan appears to be an egomaniacal jerk from a crazy family. In the first year of marriage, the threesome moves to Mexico to live in total poverty, and Irene's first baby dies. In the next 28 years, Verlan takes seven more wives and fathers a total of 56 children, 13 of whom belong to Irene.

Irene's life is one continuous battle. She continuously fought with all the other wives, competing for time with Verlan. She battled total poverty and constant danger for nearly three decades. She battled depression, poor health, low self-esteem, and sheer exhaustion from managing Verlan's obscenely large household. Strangely, one of Irene's primary concerns in this memoir seems to be her lack of a satisfying physical relationship with her husband. Verlan is obviously a selfish creep, and yet Irene laments having to share him in page after endless page.

The reader, obviously, wants Irene just to leave Verlan. She had a large non-polygamous support system and could have left at any time. Even when she does finally leave, when at least half of her children are already grown, she ends up going back to him. I understand that I can't understand her state of mind. I understand that she was completely indoctrinated from birth to believe that plural marriage was mandatory in the eyes of God. Still, you can't help but wish, by midway through the book, that she would stop whining and just leave him. Again, I know that I can't possibly relate to the psychological bondage under which Irene lived, but several other wives did leave Verlan. Irene seemed to feel a tremendous need to be, ultimately, Verlan's favorite wife.

I also wondered how, if indeed Verlan and his wives lived in such total poverty, how Verlan was always buying new houses, flying on airplanes, and even taking Irene to Europe. Some parts of the story didn't quite fit. And some stories seemed completely extraneous and repetitive in this narrative. I think Irene's memoir could have benefited from more careful editing.

That said, this really is a fascinating look at a practice that continues today among those who call themselves the fundamentalist Mormons. I'd recommend reading this in combination with Under the Banner of Heaven, John Krakauer's amazing look into this strange world of polygamy in America.

Other reviews of Shattered Dreams*
Natasha at Maw Books here
Hava at Nonfiction Lover here (Hava has also reviewed His Favorite Wife, by another of Verlan's wives)

* If you've reviewed Shattered Dreams, please leave a comment so I can add your review!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Book Review Carnival


The next Book Review Blog Carnival is coming upon Sunday at Books, Books and More Books . This is another great place to submit your book reviews and to find new books for your TBR lists! You can submit your review here at the carnival.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Book Review: Tallgrass

This isn't my first Sandra Dallas book. I liked Alice's Tulips, The Diary of Mattie Spencer, and New Mercies well enough; all three were light reads, somewhat formulaic but enjoyable as "in between" reads.

But I found Tallgrass to be a step above Dallas's usual writing. For one, I love the subject matter. Or maybe I don't love the subject matter, but I am always mystified as to why this subject is so little discussed in the history of the U.S. The Tallgrass of the novel is the fictional name (but based on a real Colorado camp) of a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. I've always found this to be a fascinating part of our recent history, and yet I don't think I was really aware of it until graduate school, when I took a class in minority literature. Toshio Mori's Yokohama, California, a collection of short stories that portray a Japanese American community right before WWII, and Mine Okubo's Citizen 13360, a graphic novel depicting Okubo's life as a teenage college student in an internment camp, just blew me away. I had heard of the internment camps, and my father had a couple of Japanese-American colleagues who had lived in internment camps, but these things were only whispered about, said in a cautionary sort of way.

Tallgrass, unlike the abovementioned titles, is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl who, like everyone else in the world, watches her safe world change rapidly with World War II. The people of her tiny rural town are in further upheaval when an internment camp is built at the edge of town and thousands of Japanese Americans are brought to live there. Rennie Stroud's father welcomes the Japanese, much to the dismay of the townspeople, but Rennie isn't so sure she is comfortable with "the enemy" being housed at the edge of their farm. When a local girl is murdered, the town is convinced that one of the prisoners is responsible.

This book is part historical fiction and part coming-of-age. Rennie is a likeable character, and I love the relationship she has with her family. Dallas's characters are for the most part well-developed, although I didn't get quite enough of a feel for the internment camp itself. I'm not sure I could have visualized it very well had I not read other books on the subject. But besides that, I really loved this book.

I was amazed to get When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka in the mail last week, as well. I'd read Natasha's review of this at Maw Books and had forgotten that I'd ordered a copy from Paperback Swap. I'm looking forward to reading it next. Other books I've read years ago related to this topic: The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Creel, which I absolutely loved, and the more well-known Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Both of these were turned into movies in which I recall being quite disappointed.

If you don't know anything about this period in American history, these six books are a great place to start. You might even want to take this a step further and read a different perspective on American history than what you probably learned in school. Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, traces the economic and political history of various racial and ethnic groups in America—Chinese, Indians, African Americans, Mexicans, Japanese, Irish, and Jewish people. I found this text to be enlightening and valuable in providing a more rounded view of American history.

Other Review of Tallgrass:
Lesa at Lesa's Book Critiques
Lynne's Little Corner of the World

(If you've reviewed this book, please leave a comment and I'll link to you!)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Autumn Books for Children

Autumn is definitely here in East Tennessee, in spite of temperatures in the 80s. The driveway is covered with leaves and the first hints of fall color are showing up in the trees. Because the Smokies get tons of visitors in autumn, the question is always: what kind of fall color will we have this year? The happy fact is that even in years, like last year, when the prediction is that we'll have a "low color" year, autumn is gorgeous around here.

In celebration of this perfect season, I thought I'd share some of my favorite books for fall. Autumn Leaves by Ken Robbins is by far our favorite leaf book. After a brief discussion about leaf characteristics and why leaves change color, Robbins shows the reader leaf colors from trees across the country, with close-up photographs of leaves as well as photos of whole trees for easy identification. This book spans several ages. The text is simple enough for preschoolers but not too simplistic for middle readers. I think it's just a great guide book.

For preschoolers and early elementary children, Lois Elhert's Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf is an explosion of beautiful, rich color. The book traces the life of a sugar maple from seed to sapling. Kids will want to get out craft supplies and make leaf collages after reading this one.

The Let's Read and Find Out Science series has a good resource book, Why Do Leaves Change Colors? for young readers (preschool/early elementary). It's simple, with good detailed illustrations of leaves and a couple of easy craft ideas.

I've always loved authors Gail Gibbons and Anne Rockwell for probably ages 3-6. Both authors have a voice I appreciate; they don't talk down to children or dumb down their explanations. Gibbons The Seasons of Arnold's Apple Tree, which takes the reader through the changes in an apple tree though the seasons, was one of our favorite autumn books. We also enjoyed Rockwell's colorful Apples and Pumpkins. Perhaps my favorite preschool pumpkin book, however, is Jeanne Titherington's Pumpkin Pumpkin. I bought this books at a lovely toy store called The Pumpkin Patch in Ames, Iowa, where we lived when Jesse was a preschooler. I love the gentle colored pencil drawings and the little boy who looked so much like my own child.

Now go! Read to your children and play in the leaves!

(This post is excerpted from a longer post at SmallWorld at Home. My apologies to those who read both blogs!)

Related post: Smoky Mountain Reading

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Reading with Children, Part 2


For this week's Sunday Salon I thought I'd step off my usual path again and talk about reading with children. In this post I discussed how precious reading is in our family. But one reader asked me: how exactly do you find books for kids?

Without a doubt, the best reading list I've found is the Sonlight list. You don't have to be a homeschooler to peruse, use, and appreciate the fantastic literature used in this curriculum. So how do you navigate this website? First, go to Sonlight's home page. From there, find the "Subjects" category in the header. Under Subjects, click on Core Curriculum From there, look at both Readers and Read-alouds and then the age/grade levels in which you are interested. Once you are in that level (finally!), click on the "individual items" tab to see all the books. I know that's a lot to go through, but it really is worth it. You don't have to buy these books, of course, but this will give you a chance to make fantastic library lists.

Sonlight's online list is a bit complicated. The company used to have a listing of all the books at the back of its catalog but has done away with that, unfortunately. I like this list of 100 Best Books, but I like the age-by-age breakdown here even better. And if 100 isn't enough (of course it isn't!), here is a list of 1000 Good Books for preschool-grade 12.

Paula's Archives is another great place for reading lists, such as
* Easy chapter books
* Literature to supplement history and
* Living books for science

What about books for babies through preschoolers? I think this is a great list from the NY Public Library. Scanning these titles, I feel a tremendous nostalgia for the days of Bread and Jam for Frances, The Carrot Seed, and Mike Mulligan. (On a side note, my 7 and 11-year-olds still like for me to read picture books to them. A few times a week I'll pull out an old favorite to read to them, and they love them just as much as they did when they were preschoolers.)

But there are a lot of hidden gems that are not on traditional reading lists. When my children were small, I read William Kirkpatrick's Books That Build Character and took copious notes. This is a guide to over 300 novels, myths and legends, science fiction and fantasy, folktales, Bible stories, picture books, biographies, and many other books that emphasize virtues and values. I still carry that yellow legal pad of titles in my library bag! Another fantastic guide to children's literature is Honey for a Child's Heart by Gladys Hunt.

Another way to search for kids' books is simply by subject matter. The Best Kids BookSite has an extensive listing of books according to subject. Right now, for example, you can find dozens of titles on pumpkins or football or apples. You can also click over to the Book Wizard to find books according to interest and age.

Of course, one of my favorite ways to hear about new books of any sort is through book blogs. Here are some that specialize in reviewing children's books:
* The Well-Read Child
* Becky's Young Readers
* Mommy's Favorite Children's Books
* Picture Book of the Day
* The Reading Zone
* Kidz Book Buzz
* Never Jam Today
* Novel Teen Book Reviews
* The Longstockings
* Curled Up with a Good Kid's Book

Also, Maw Books and Semicolon , while not exclusively children's book blogs, often have excellent reviews of kid and young adult lit.

If you have a favorite source for children's literature, let me know and I'll add it in. However you find books for your kids, please read to them every single day. And if you don't have kids, remember that books make the best gifts for all those baby showers and birthday parties you attend!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Book Review: Girl in Hyacinth Blue


This novel by Susan Vreeland begins with a painting that one instructor shares with another at a private academy in Pennsylvania and ends with the creation of the painting itself, hundreds of years earlier. Like the doll in Rachel Field's wonderful Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, the painting goes from home to home, from family to family, in a series of usually bittersweet scenarios. Among other stories, the painting is given as payment for the upkeep of motherless baby in Holland, purchased because a man is reminded of his first true love, and is traded as food for the artist himself.

The artist himself: Vermeer. I read Tracy Chavelier's Girl with the Pearl Earring about a year ago. If you haven't read either of these books yet, I'd strongly recommend reading Girl with the Pearl Earring first and then follow it with Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The two complement each other beautifully, and both make me want to study Vermeer much more. Vreeland does a wonderful job of expressing the pure joy that a perfect painting brings to people, the bonding that happens between art and artist and art and owner.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Meme

btt button

Today's Booking Through Thursday is a book meme that's been circulating around the web. Here goes:

What was the last book you bought?

I have no idea. I ordered a bunch of Scholastic books recently but I don't remember any of the titles and haven't received the order yet. But I did just receive When the Emperor Was Divine via PaperbackSwap.

Name a book you have read MORE than once

To Kill a Mockingbird

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

The Bible seems the obvious answer here.

How do you choose a book? eg. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews

Recommendations and reviews.

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?

Both, but I read more fiction.

What’s more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

Beautiful writing. No matter how gripping the plot, bad writing kills a book.

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)

Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas.

What was the last book you’ve read, and when was it?

Girl in Hyacinth Blue. I finished it 2 nights ago and haven't yet reviewed it.

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?

Yes. Most recently, The Ten Year Nap.

Want to play? Go to Booking Through Thursday.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Book Review: Beneath the Pines

A couple of weeks ago my friend Amy (not to be confused with My Friend Amy) handed me this book and said, "My son's first babysitter wrote this!" So of course I'm thinking that this is going to be a bust. What former babysitter writes a great first novel? But I liked the feeling of the book cover, and the blurb on the back cover actually sounded great.

And so even though a whole stack of books were in line before this one, I distinctly heard Beneath the Pines calling "Pick me! Pick me!" when I finished Half of a Yellow Sun. (After an intense book like that, I need just the right kind of book to read.) I loved Janet Beard's first novel! The story switches back and forth between the 1950s, when Mary Alice McDonnell was a young girl in love, and the present, when Mary Alice is a biology teacher in her 60s, carrying burdens from her past. There's plenty of good stuff in here: strong characters, bittersweet romance, a good dose of Appalachia, secrets, and redemption.

Sure, there are lots of coincidences that set the whole story in motion. The dialogue can be a bit forced. The ending is rather rushed with the characters forced to dissolve all their baggage in a couple short chapters. Still, this is the kind of book I like to read after a string of intense reads like Half of a Yellow Sun and The Cellist of Sarajevo. I like Beard's writing, and I enjoy stories that take awhile to unravel. This isn't an earth-shattering novel, but a great break between more intense reading.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sunday Scribbling #131: Forbidden

Forbidden

Some memories are better left bricked, stuck
tight behind layers of mortar spread thick
like frosting,
icing on the cake.

The one about: forbidden.
And when: forbidden.
That summer: forbidden.
Forbidden. Forbidden.

See how cleanly I can replace
what's fallen, neatly fitting together
brick upon brick,
mortar thick,
keeping them all in their
appropriate place.


(For more scribbling on "Forbidden," click here. You can play, too.)

The Sunday Salon: September in Review

What I Read:
Favorite Book of the Month:
Half of a Yellow Sun

Least Favorite Book:
Songs in Ordinary Times (especially since it stole 2 weeks' worth of reading time!)


Where I Played:
Weekly Geeks
Favorites Published in 2008* (post your own list of top books of 2008 on your blog and comment at Weekly Geeks for a chance to win a box of books!)
• Week of Quotes (Quote #5 here, Quote #4 here, Quote #3 here, Quote #2 here, Quote #1 here.)

Sunday Scribblings
Weddings
Coffee

Sunday Salon
• Plugging Away and On the List
• Challenge Challenged
• Book Overload
• War-Torn and Carnival

Booking Through Thursday
• Autumn Reading

Just Check Out From the Library:

House at Riverton by K. Morton (reviewed by CaribousMom)
Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife by Irene Spencer (Reviewed at Maw Books)
Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas
Hope's Boy by Andrew Bridge
Run by Ann Patchett


Currently Reading:
Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

Friday, October 3, 2008

Banned Book: The Great Gilly Hopkins

I've had The Great Gilly Hopkins for years. Our homeschooling is centered around a fantastic literature-based curriculum, and this Newbery honor book by Katherine Paterson is included in the 20th-century world history program. Banned Books Week seemed a perfect time to read this book on the ALA's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.

I loved this sweet book. Gilly Hopkins is a foster kid, tossed from home to home, always hoping that her mother will come back for her. Her latest home seems intolerable to the great Gilly: she can't get a rise out of Trotter, her obese foster mother; her foster brother, William Ernest, is so terrified that he barely speaks; and the blind next-door-neighbor comes over for supper everynight—and he's black. Gilly has lots of prejudices to overcome and a very hard heart to soften. This book is about redemption, the need to be wanted, and the ability to change one's heart.

So what's the problem with it? Why is it on the List?

I suspected it was because of Gilly's occasional bad language, although her language is specifically used as a device to show how she changes. I did a little research and found this, excerpted from article "Why Johnny Can't Read: Censorship in American Libraries" by Suzanne Fisher Staples (bold words mine):

With few exceptions, literature's best, most important books are believable and compelling because they do contain material that readers may find troubling. Take Katherine Paterson's National Book Award winner, The Great Gilly Hopkins, which was banned in school libraries in Albemarle County, Virginia, because it contains curse words and "takes God's name in vain." The book is about a tough-talking, angry foster child who is redeemed by love. The parent who filed the complaint listed the profanities in the book without reading it. The school board convened a panel of educators, who reviewed the book and twice recommended it be kept on the shelves. The school superintendent ordered it removed anyway.

In an open letter to the Albemarle County School Board, Katherine Paterson wrote, "Though Gilly's mouth is a very mild one compared to that of many lost children, if she had said `fiddlesticks' when frustrated, readers could not have believed in her and love would give them no hope."

One fifth-grade reader (whose teacher described him as `the Gilly of my class') wrote in a book report of The Great Gilly Hopkins, "This book is a miracle." There is little doubt that if Mrs. Paterson's Gilly hadn't cussed like a trooper that lost boy would have been denied his miracle.

One librarian at a conference on children's literature in Virginia this summer speculated as to why parents react so forcefully to books they perceive as offensive. "They feel helpless sending their children into a world that seems increasingly plagued with hazards over which they have no control," she said. "They see the books available to their children as an area where they can have control."


That's what bugs me the most: that we parents forbid our kids from reading books that we've not read ourselves. I don't think I've ever been guilty of doing this, but this week is a good reminder, nonetheless.

And I will for sure be keeping The Great Gilly Hopkins on our shelves.