Monday, December 28, 2009

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

This is one of the books of 2009 that I so anticipated reading. I loved The Time Traveler's Wife (my review here), and I'd read good things about Niffenegger's second novel.

Happily, I was not disappointed. Her Fearful Symmetry is the story of two sets of twins, Elspeth and Edie (the first generation), and Julia and Valentina, the daughters. When Elspeth dies, she leaves her London apartment to her nieces, and then comes back to haunt them—affectionately. Sort of.

Along with the apartment come an assortment of inhabitants, including Elspeth's long-time partner, and a lot of secrets. While Julia and Valentina try to figure out their own identities and sort through secrets, their own relationship begins to fall apart.

Her Fearful Symmetry reminded me a lot of Diana Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale (my very short review here), with a satisfying inclusion of ghosts and cemeteries. The last few chapters of Her Fearful Symmetry fell a little flat for me, but I didn't care too much. Niffenegger is a fantastic storyteller. If the idea of time traveling put you off of The Time Traveler's Wife, I'd recommend starting with Her Fearful Symmetry. (And then—go back and read the former, please!)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Books as Gifts

I try to make sure that everyone in our family gets at least one book for Christmas. Most of our books come from used bookstores or the library, so buying new books is a luxury reserved mostly for Christmas and birthdays.

I gave Scavenger Hunt Adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Randy and the younger two kids. Randy has a goal of completing all 900 miles of trails in the Smokies, and this is a fun way to get the kids involved (although they are already enthusiastic hikers). Check out his blog for this week's hiking adventures.

For my 16-year-old, a collection of poems by Leonard Cohen. Cohen wrote Let Us Compare Mythologies over 50 years ago, when he was just 22. After seeing Cohen in concert a couple of months ago, Jesse is determined to complete his Cohen collection of music and poetry. (I know. I have a way cool kid.)

My 12-year-old daughter is always looking for something to read. Because we are a family of voracious readers, she has read through so many "girl" classics already and really leans toward contemporary fiction anyway. I picked up a bunch of books that are library doesn't have:

• Mary Ann Rodman: Yankee Girl
• Lisa Greenwald: My Life in Pink and Green (she's reading this one first)
• Erin Dionne: Models Don't Eat Chocolate Chip Cookies
• Frances O'Roark Dowell: The Secret Language of Girls

And for our youngest, who turned 9 on Christmas Day, I got the first three of Flat Stanley's Worldwide Adventures: The Mt. Rushmore Calamity, The Great Egyptian Grave Robbery, and The Japanese Ninja Surprise.

I didn't get any books for Christmas, but I do get to pick out my own with a gift card to a local bookstore. And I'll be going all by myself, without kids, so I can do some serious perusing.

What books were floating around your house on Christmas day?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book Review: Little Britches


I recently had the pleasure of reading this memoir by Ralph Moody aloud for the second time in the past 6 or 7 years, this time to my younger two kids. This is one of those books that makes me get all choked up as I read it aloud, and at times I had to pause, take a deep breath, and get a drink of water before I could continue. It's that sweet.

This is Ralph Moody's tribute to his father, starting in 1906 when 8-year-old Ralph and his family moved from New Hampshire to a ranch in Colorado. The life of the Moody family becomes a series of adventures and life lessons, from dying animals to the consequences of disobedience. Each chapter brings another story of life on the ranch, highlighting Ralph's progress from little boy to man and his father's gentle but extraordinarily effective parenting style.

Moody's writing style is clear and lyrical, and his dialogue is fantastic. Father's lessons are always meaningful but never, ever didactic. My kids didn't know they were getting life lessons as we read; they loved Father nearly as much as Ralph does.

My kids, ages 12 (girl) and 8 (boy), were mesmerized by this book. I was a little afraid when we began reading it that my daughter would find it to be too much of a "boy" book, but she loved it. They have both asked to read the second book in this series, Man of the Family. I've not read this one yet, but I may put aside our scheduled reading and delve into this one instead.

If you're looking for a fantastic read-aloud along the lines of Little House on the Prairie and Caddie Woodlawn, you'll love Little Britches. The biggest problem, besides the crying, is that you'll probably want to step in a time-machine to a time period that was both much more simple and much, much harder.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book Review: The Lacuna


Oh boy, where to start? Reviewing a book by the likes of Barbara Kingsolver is daunting when I'm not, well, madly in love with the book. I want to be able to say, "I was mesmerized! I couldn't put it down!"

But I can't say that about The Lacuna. Let me say right off the bat that I suspect that it's largely my fault as a reader. I simply don't have the depth of intellect necessary for this book right now. I trust Kingsolver enough to know that she is a master storyteller; therefore, I am not connecting as a reader.

So, the story: Harrison Shepherd, known as Soli in the first tw0-thirds of the book, is a Mexican-American—or is he an American-Mexican?—who, as a teenager/young man, words for both Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo and for Leo Trotsky in Mexico. So we have three big issues in one sentence: identity, art, and politics. Toss in McCarthyism, agoraphobia, yellow journalism, truth vs. perception, homosexuality, and a writer's internal struggle. And, I must add, each of these issues is examined in depth, not just mentioned and left behind.

It's a hefty, thought-provoking, enlightening book, about as far from a quick beach read as you can get. The book is told almost entirely through Shepherd's journal entries, a format which takes some adjustment and a whole lot of concentration. The first two-thirds moved slowly for me, even painfully at times. You'd be best served to read this in large chunks of time, rather than in 15-minute snippets. The last third of the book, when Shepherd comes to America, moved faster and was, for me, more coherent. I really, really liked the second part of the book. In fact, I sort of wanted to go back and read the whole first two-thirds after finishing the book.

But I'm not going to, at least not anytime soon. I feel like reading some Danielle Steele now. (Kidding!) If you read the book—and I do recommend it, after all, it's Barbara Kingsolver, for Pete's sake—my advice is to set aside some good, solid reading time and pay attention.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Three Books in Three Weeks?

I've been a s-l-o-w reader lately, and suddenly I am faced with the need to read, and quickly! I have three new books that are in high demand at our local library, which means they won't be able to be renewed: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver; Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger; and Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol.

I really only have about 50 pages left in The Lacuna, and I intend to do some serious lounging and reading on this rainy afternoon. I was afraid that I wouldn't have a terribly positive review of Kingsolver's most recent, but I've read the stage at last that I am anxious to pick it up and start reading. The book definitely isn't as riveting as The Poisonwood Bible or her earlier works, but I'll be able to happily recommend it.

I hope to get to Niffenegger's book by tomorrow and get that read this week. My biggest challenge will be staying awake for more than 15 minutes each night when I go to bed to read. I may have to start drinking coffee after dinner…

That leaves Dan Brown's new book. I anticipate that this will be a fast and easy read after being mentally challenged by Kingsolver and Niffenegger. Brown's all about plot for me; it's not about the careful turn of a phrase or the poetry of prose. And that can be a good thing every now and then.

The one new release I've got to get my hands on is John Irving's Late Night in Twisted River. Perhaps that will be my first book of the new year. And I must say, Irving would be a great way to start a new year of reading!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Sunday Salon: November in Review

It's not been a fabulous reading month. I had to take at least 2 books back to the library, overdue, that I really wanted to read. I spent too much time on books that were only so-so or that I gave up on. I'm hoping for better things for December!

Read and Reviewed
Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes (YA): Review here
Chocolat by Joanne Harris: Review here
Children of the River by Linda Crew (YA): Review here
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie : Review here

Books Read but not yet reviewed:
Maus 1: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman

Books I Gave Up On
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: I enjoyed the first 50 pages or so, but ultimately I tired of it.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson: I lasted about 5 pages. I was annoyed that someone who knew nothing about hiking could go out and buy all the equipment he could possibly want and need. I know so many people for whom hiking the Appalachian Trail is a lifetime dream; Bryson's "Hey, I think I'll hike the AT" seemed like a luxury pursuit to me. Anyway, John Krakauer is just soooo much better of this kind of writer.

Now Reading
Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Where I Played
Weekly Geeks: Top 10 Books Published in 2009
Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books

Reading Related
Christmas Books That Make Me Cry

Exciting News
Anita Diamant commented on my blog!

And that's it for November. I'm looking forward to fabulous reading in December!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Weekly Geeks: Top Ten Published in 2009


The most recent Weekly Geeks challenge is to come up with a Top 10 of 2009 list. These have to be books actually published—not just read—in 2009. My choices were limited, as apparently I've only read six books published thus far in 2009. However, I will say that the first 3 will almost definitely make it to my own Top 10 books read in this year. (I only included four of the six 2009 books I read because the other two should absolutely not make anyone's lists of Top 10 books.)


1. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (my review here): This fantastic novel that stretches across several years and continents will most likely be my #1 book of the year.

2. Day After Night by Anita Diamant (my review here): Historical, World War 2 fiction.

3. Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dalls (my review here): Sweet, uplifting book but packed with interesting details about life in Colorado in the early 1900s.

4. The Outcast by Sadie Jones (my review here): Well-written debut novel, mostly post WW2.

This list will likely have at least a couple of additions before the year ends. I just started reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna last night, and I am anxiously awaiting my copy of John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River. Two of my favorite authors showing up at the end of the year: wow!

For more Top 10 Published in 2009 lists, check out Weekly Geeks.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Book Review: Road to Paris (YA)


While searching for books for our next Literature Circle class, I found this one by Nikki Grimes on the Coretta Scott King Book Awards list. Paris and her brother, Malcolm, have been in one foster home after another for most of their lives. When they are unexpectedly split up and sent to different homes, Paris is devastated. But while she aches for her brother, Paris finds comfort in her new foster home, in spite of the racism in the nearly all-white neighborhood.

Books about foster care can be risky for young readers. As readers, we expect "abuse" to be paired with "foster care," although this is an unfortunate reaction on our part. I'm sure we all understand that there are a multitude of excellent, nurturing foster families who strive to make a good home for kids; however, literature's portrayal (particularly in the memoir genre) of foster care is often harsh and cruel.

So, I was a bit skeptical that a book about a girl's escape from an abusive foster home would be acceptable (G-rated) reading material for 5th-8th graders. In The Road to Paris, however, Nikki Grimes manages to deal with a whole lot of hard issues in a quiet, matter-of-fact way. Yes, Paris's mother is an alcoholic who chooses men over her children, and the grandmother isn't a kindly old lady who will do anything for her grandkids; but neither are demonized. Grimes doesn't dwell on the abusive foster home from which Paris and Malcolm flee. Instead, she focuses on Paris's new life and her struggle to figure out where she, as a foster child and a biracial girl, really belongs.

Highly recommended for ages 10 and up.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book Review: Chocolat


I have been meaning to read this book by Joanne Harris for, oh, 10 years, and at long last I picked it up at the library. I was prepared to be wowed. I was, instead, woefully underwowed.

So the story, for the other dozen people out there who haven't read this NY Times bestseller or watched the movie, centers on a sleepy town in France that comes awake when Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk come to town and open up a store that specializes in all kinds of chocolate delicacies. The conflict overriding the story is between Vianne, who is somewhat of a psychic, and Reynaud, the town's priest.

As I said, I really wanted to like this book. But ultimately, it fell flat for me. The characters seemed like ones I've seen in other books dozens of times: the kind old rebellious woman and her busybody, rich daughter. The stuttering boy and his overprotective mother. The priest with the secret past. The important man in town who beats his wife. The gypsies, who aren't really thieves but who are persecuted by the townspeople nonetheless.

Harris's writing is nice, although often a bit too flowery for my taste. I understand that the writing reflects the richness of the chocolate, but it was a little much for me at times. I began to crave Hemingway-esque simplicity.

And, strangely, I never craved chocolate throughout the whole book.

I am going to watch the movie. I have a feeling this might be one of the very few times I like the movie more than the book.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review: Children of the River (YA)


In trying to decide which book to read next for the high school World Lit/World Geography class I teach, I picked up Children of the River by Linda Crew. Recommended for grades 7 and up, the book tells the story of Sundara, a Cambodian refugee who fled the Khmer Rouge at age 13. She and her aunt, uncle, and cousins settle in Oregon; she doesn't know the fate of her parents and siblings.

The rest of the novel takes place four years later, as Sundara faces the challenges of being a proper Cambodian girl at home while falling in love with an American boy in high school. Besides feeling conflicted about her role, she constantly wonders the fate of her family back in Cambodia, fearing that they, like millions of others, have been slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge.

I really liked this book. It was well written, engaging, and honest and presented insight into the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. So, I gave it to my 16-year-old son to read to get his opinion. He called it "cheesy," "corny," and "unreadable." He did not, in fact, finish the book. I had a feeling he would say that. All the good qualities in the book—and there are many—cannot save it from being a young adult romance novel with little appeal to young men.

But for YA female readers: yes! Don't miss this one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Book Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Imagine, book lovers, a world in which all of your books were destroyed. In this novel by Dai Sijie, set during China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, two young men—sons of intellectuals— are sent to a remote village in the countryside for "re-education." They are forced to become hardworking peasants, carrying buckets of excrement and working in the mines.

Their only solace is 19-year-old Luo's gift for storytelling, which captivates the villagers. Soon the boys are given the special privilege of viewing movies and then re-enacting the stories for the villagers. On one of these trips they meet a friend from the city and discover that he has a hidden treasure: a bag of forbidden Western books.

The young men manage to get their hands on one book by Balzac and devour it, repeating the story over and over again to the villagers and to their newfound friend, the daughter of the tailor. Luo soon falls in love with the seamstress—who falls in love with his stories—, and the trio set about to steal the rest of the banned books.

They read them over and over again until they can tell the stories by heart, and they continue to captivate the village with their storytelling, without revealing the source of the stories. This stash of literature sustains the young men as they endure their re-education and has a surprising effect on the villagers.

This is a quick and highly enjoyable read and reminded me to be thankful for the shelves and shelves of books in my home!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Sunday Salon: October in Review

Books Read and Reviewed
Dancing Under the Red Star (loved it)
Cowboy and Wills (give-away--leave a comment if you're interested!)
Day After Night by Anita Diamant (loved it!)
Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian (fantastic!)
The Outcast by Sadie Jones (pretty good)
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst (pretty good)
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (fantastic)

Not Yet Reviewed
Children of the River by Linda Crew (YA--story of a Cambodian refugee in America)
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (loved it)

Currently Reading
Maus 1: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman (wow!)


Up Next
Chocolat by Joanne Harris
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Buffalo Soldier by Chris Bohjalian


And Just a Little Writing…
Sunday Scribblings: First Kiss

How was your reading month?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book Review: Dancing Under the Red Star


Subtitled "The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin's Gulag," this book really is an amazing story. Author Karl Tobien was an adult before his mother ever revealed her past to him, and when he heard her story, he knew it needed to be told.

Margaret Werner was eleven when she and her parents left Detroit to take a job in Russia in the early 1930s. Her father was part of a group with the Ford Motor Company that was assisting the Soviet Union in starting an auto factory in Gorky, Russia. They thought they would be there for a year.

It was 30 years before Margaret made it back to the United States. The Werner's life in Russia was terrible from the first day, when they discovered their deplorable housing conditions. Soon after they arrived, Stalin began his reign of terror, and the Ford Motor Company essentially abandoned its group of 400 workers. Margaret's father was arrested in 1938 on fake charges of treason and sentenced to prison camp. They never heard from him again.

Margaret and her mother struggled to survive in Stalinist Russia, always fearful for their lives yet determined and amazingly resilient. In 1943 the police came for Margaret, who was about 25 years old. She was charged with anti-Soviet propaganda and espionage, again a totally false charge, and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.

For a decade then Margaret struggled to survive in the Russian "gulag archipelago," the forced labor and prison camp system mostly in northern Siberia. Margaret's sheer grit, wit, and determination is amazing, and she develops an amazing faith in God throughout her experiences. She also forges close friendships with her fellow women prisoners and is able to keep in brief contact with her mother.

After her release, Margaret quickly marries and has a baby (she is in her late 30s by then) and sets about to find a way to finally get back home, to the United States. Her whole life story is absolutely amazing. While this narrative is certainly not on the level of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, it is extremely readable and provides an incredible view of Stalinist Russia.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review: Cowboy and Wills


When three-year-old Wills is first diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, his mom takes him to buy an aquarium. From that point onward, Monica Holloway rushes to the pet store in an effort to comfort—and distract—herself and Wills from the reality of his diagnosis and all that life with autism entails. Fish, a rabbit, hamsters, hermit crabs: eventually, the only animal left to join their home menagerie is a dog.

Cowboy and Wills goes on to tell the story of how the Golden Retriever Cowboy impacts the life of this little boy as he struggles through a world that simultaneously terrifies and excites him. Cowboy, rambunctious as any pup, forces Wills to get dirty and take chances. She becomes Wills's pathway to navigating the confusing world of relationships and new experiences that come with school and life in general. From speaking to his classmates to setting up playdates to sleeping in his own bed, Wills makes tremendous progress with Cowboy by his side.

I like Holloway's voice. She doesn't hide anything, and I like that honesty. As a middle-class reader far from the excesses of California, I felt shock at the enormous amount of money she spent at the pet stores, therapists, private schools, veterinarian and more. But I loved that she felt shock, too. And what parent wouldn't spend that kind of money for her child's well-being? And I loved that Monica saw her own OCD tendencies and recognized that she needed to get her own behaviors under control for her son's sake. (As a side note, I had a really, really hard time reading about Monica's need to pick giant flakes of dead skin off of Cowboy. I really, really wish she'd left that part out of the book.)

The book leaves off when Wills is still a little guy. I hope Monica will write another one in 10 years or so, letting us know his progress. You can't help but want to be assured that everything turns out great for this lovable little guy.

Would you like a copy of this sweet book? I have an extra one to give away, so leave me a comment if you'd like to be in the running for this book! (U.S. only please.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Catching Up

These past two months I gotten way behind on posting reviews, but I'm nearly caught up now. I've hit some really excellent books this fall. Click on the titles for my reviews:

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian ****
Day After Night by Anita Diamant ****
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros****
A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary ****
Buster Midnight's Cafe and The Persian Pickle Club, both by Sandra Dallas***
The Outcast by Sadie Jones ***
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst ***
New Stories from the South, edited by ZZ Packer **

Next up, I'm hoping to teach my next literature circle for middle-schoolers focusing on the black experience in America. So far we're considering Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Let the Circle Be Unbroken; Bud, Not Buddy; and Sounder. I'd welcome any suggestions! This would be for 6th-8th graders.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Book Review: Day After Night


I haven't read anything by Anita Diamant since The Red Tent, which I absolutely loved. Browsing the "newly arrived" shelves last week at the library, I saw Day After Night and knew I must break my rule of reading books off my current TBR list (which I do frequently) and check it out.

The novel is based on the true story of an internment camp for "illegal" Jewish refugees after World War 2 and the daring rescue of the prisoners there. The whole concept of Atlit, the British-run camp in Palestine, was completely new to me. Even my Dad, who not only fought in WW2 but is an amazing historian, had never heard of Atlit. (Then again, my Dad is somewhat hard of hearing, so he may not have heard my question. Perhaps we'll discuss that later.) It is impossible to imagine the utter horror and disgrace of these Jews, who somehow managed to live through the Holocaust, having to endure yet more imprisonment when they thought they were starting new in Eretz Yisrael.

Diamant beautifully tells the story through the lives of four detainees, all who struggle with being random survivors while their friends and family were killed in the Holocaust: Zorah survived a concentration camp; Tedi survived by hiding in the countryside; Shayndel was a Polish Zionist; and Leonie has been forced into prostitution in Paris. While their stories unfold, the rescue plans are put into place.

I absolutely loved this book. Diamant is a fantastic storyteller, and she has a gift for giving voice to relatively obscure bits of history. I'm definitely going to go back and read Diamant's Last Days of Dogtown, which I missed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book Review: Skeletons at the Feast


Why have I not read anything by Chris Bohjalian before? Skeletons at the Feast is my first, and I'm excited to have a long string of other Bohjalian novels to read. In this novel, World War 2 is coming to an end, and the Emmerich family—or what is left of it—begins the journey across the war-torn Nazi Germany to reach the British and American lines before the Russians catch up with them. Along with the Emmerichs, a Prussian artistocratic family, are a Scottish POW and a Wehrmacht soldier, who is really a Jew who escaped a train headed to Auschwitz.

Woven in with the story of the this group of refugees is the story of a group of Jewish women who are forced to march from one concentration camp to another as the war winds down. I read a lot of World War 2 novels, and the description of these women is exceptionally powerful.

I am teaching a class right now to middle schoolers that focuses on World War 2 literature through various perspectives. We've read Number the Stars (Danish resistance); Snow Treasure (Norway); and will read Sadako and the 1000 Paper Cranes (a Japanese girl after the atomic bomb). I really appreciated Bohjalian's bringing several different perspectives together in one novel: traveling together are former Nazi supporters, a Scottish POW, and a Jew. Along the way they meet all kinds of people, and ultimately cross paths with the group of women from the concentration camp. I loved all the mixing of perspectives.

For a great list of World War II reading, be sure to check out War Through the Generations. Some of my other reviews include:
Day After Night by Anita Diamant
Sarah's Key
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
I Have Lived a Thousand Years
The Nazi Officer's Wife
Jimmy's Stars (Mary Ann Rodman)
When the Emperor Was Divine (Julie Otsuka)
Briar Rose (Jane Yolen)
Night (Elie Wiesel)
The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak)
The Endless Steppe (Esther Hautzig)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book Review: The Outcast


Sadie Jones's debut novel, The Outcast, is a tragic, heartbreaking novel—but well worth the read. Jones is an excellent writer. Her characters are rich and the story is thickly woven. Set in England in the decade after World War 2, the story opens as 19-year-old Lewis is released from prison and returns to his home in the country. He's hoping to start over, but his father in anything but welcoming.

The rest of the novel goes between flashbacks of Lewis's tragic life and the current story. You can't help but root for Lewis, who lost his beloved mother at an early age and was raised by a cold-hearted father. Lewis spirals into a pit of self-despair, leading eventually to cutting. I had to question the cutting; it seems such a modern thing. I never even heard about this form of self-mutilation until the past decade or so, and I wondered about this aspect of the novel. I did just a little searching for the history of cutting and saw that it has been indeed known and documented in the past 100 years and more. Still, I didn't care for the contemporary twist on the story. Cutting too strongly evokes thoughts of emo kids for me.

But the form that Lewis takes for self-punishment (and there are others, as well), regardless of its modernity in my mind, only slightly distracted me from the excellent writing of the novel. I was totally wrapped up in the world of Lewis and his neighbors, the Carmichaels, who also play a pivotal role in the novel.

This novel reminded me somewhat of Ian McEwan's Atonement. I look forward to what Sadie Jones has next.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: Dogs of Babel


Carolyn Parkhurst has a handle on dialogue, and I'm a sucker for excellent dialogue. The Dogs of Babel is the story of a man's quest to find out the circumstances behind his wife's death. Paul comes home from work one day to find police at his house; his wife has fallen to her death from a tree in the backyard. The police says it was an accident based on the position in which she fell, but Paul isn't so sure. The only witness to Lexy's death is Lorelei, the couple's dog.

This is why I thought I wouldn't finish the book: at this point, Paul, a linguistics professor, decides to teach the dog to talk so that she can tell him what really happened to Lexy. But I kept reading, because at this point I was greatly appreciative of Parkhurst's skills with dialogue, and Paul was a very likable character. To my relief, the parts about Paul actually trying to teach the dog to talk were minimal. The rest of the book flashes between Paul's grieving process and obsession to find out how Lexy died, including his attempts to teach Lorelei to talk, and flashbacks to his life with Lexy. These flashbacks were fantastic and created an even greater sympathy for Paul. I was actually hoping Lorelei would talk eventually so he'd figure everything out.

There are some strange scenes with a secret society of pseudo-scientists who operate on dogs to make them talk, but on the whole I thought this was a really enjoyable novel. The love story behind the mysterious death is well worth the read.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Book Review: The House on Mango Street


I've had The House on Mango Street on my TBR list for a long time, and I'm so glad I finally read it. This is a story told in a series of simple but eloquent vignettes about the life of Esperanza, a young girl growing up in the Latino section of Chicago.

I love the concept. The short vignettes to me represent both the snapshots we have as adults looking back on our childhoods, and the snapshot feel of living in that time. I can remember that feeling as life as vignette even as a child reflecting on childhood. Cisneros captures that so well.

And while the chapters are short and the language is simple, so much is going on beneath that surface: themes of poverty, racial discrimination, power, abuse, education, dreams, coming of age. Cisneros chooses her words carefully for a powerful impact.

It's not my favorite coming-of-age novel by any means. I love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Separate Peace, though both of those novels show utterly different worlds. What I love so much about both of those novels is the story itself. The House on Mango Street is presented in an entirely different way, and while I enjoyed it, I prefer a novel with which I can linger and savor for more than an hour.

But don't skip The House on Mango Street. It's a quick read and a powerful one.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sunday Scribblings: First Kiss

I haven't taken part in Sunday Scribblings in such a long time, but this one kept calling to me. I was torn between the first significant kiss and the first significant kisses. I went with the First Kiss.

First Kiss

What I expected?
Under the dim light of the plaza
leaning into the phone booth,
the dark cave of his mouth. I was swallowed
up like Jonah and the whale, hoping
to surface and survive.

We learned to adjust later.

One summer night at the sunken
gardens I opened my eyes
and he was staring
across the lawn.
I —an afterthought.

There was something appealing
about his mouth.

Ten thousand other kisses later
I remember the cold white vinyl
of his letterman jacket sleeves
and the beginning of something.

Once, I was a young girl
who had a first kiss.

Feel like a little writing? Join Sunday Scribblings here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Book Review: New Stories from the South


Every year for my birthday, I can count on Dr. H. buying me the year’s best collection of stories from the South. I love short stories. I used to be a voracious reader of short stories, and now I seem to only read them once each year. I have no reasons why. I think that it may be because when I read short stories, I yearn to write them. And I right now I just don’t have the time.

Someday I’ll be in that place again. But for now, I look forward to this yearly collection. Only this year: not so much. I have to say this set of stories, edited by JJ Packer, was — for me— the worst collection since Annie Proulx edited the Best American Short Stories back in 1997.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy any of the stories. A few were excellent. Most just left me feeling, um, dirty. Slimy. As if I were sliding against a brick wall in a filthy alley. A few I even totally skipped because I could not connect at all. I have reached the stage where I can say, “I’m skipping this one” without feeling like I might be missing out on something wonderful, or cheating.

Not my favorite. This collection seems to be a tribute to the dirty side of the South that is rapidly becoming too well known. I see faces of meth addicts in the newspaper at least a couple of times each week around here, and that reality is enough for me. I like the sipping-sweet-tea South much better. Yes, it’s called denial. And right now, I can live with that.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Book Reviews: Buster Midnight’s Café and The Persian Pickle Club

After reading Prayers for Sale last month, I was determined to read through the rest of Sandra Dallas’ novels. I’ve already read most but her earliest, so I was left with these two and just a couple more.


I enjoyed both novels for what they were: sweet stories with good endings. I read Buster Midnight’s Café first and liked it better. Because I am just an ordinary person, I always have a hard time with novels that include a hometown girl/boy who goes to Hollywood and becomes famous. But I didn’t care too much in this story of three friends and a secret they share. Set in Montana before and after World War 2, the story is narrated by the very likeable Effa Commander. Again, I have issues with weird names, but that’s my own problem. I liked this book.


I was not as crazy about The Persian Pickle Club, although I don’t regret reading it. My main complaint is that there are just way too many characters to keep straight. I just can’t focus on a dozen quilters with similar-sounding names. Or again, the odd names: this narrator is named Queenie Bean. I crave simplicity. Still, the story was good. These two books are perfect for in-between reading.


As a writer, though, Sandra Dallas obviously has continued to grow. Her later novels are tremendously better than these first ones. She has developed depth and complexity, as well as a sense of seriousness, in her latest novels, particularly Tallgrass and Prayers for Sale. Tallgrass (my review here) remains my favorite Sandra Dallas book, and I continue to look forward to her next one.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Book Review: A Girl from Yamhill

Miss Smith pulled out a paper that I recognized as mine and began to read aloud. My mouth was dry and my stomach felt twisted. When she finished, she paused. My heart pounded. Then Miss Smith said, "When Beverly grows up, she should write children's books."

I can't even imagine how many times I've read one of the "Ramona" books to my kids. And every single time I read one of the books, I laugh. Henry Huggins, Ribsy, Ramona and the Quimby family feel like old friends.

I think it's Beverly Cleary's matter-of-fact, honest voice that I adore so much, and in her memoir, A Girl from Yamhill, her voice is even clearer. Cleary details her life growing up on an Oregon farm and later moving near Klickitat Street in Portland. She had a rather isolated, lonely childhood in many respects, especially in a home where love and encouragement was given reluctantly and infrequently. But early on, her teachers recognized that she had a gift for writing and actively encouraged her.

I absolutely loved this narrative of Cleary's life up through high school. She was just an average girl with a gift of writing and a determination to make things happen, in spite of economic hardships. I don't often read memoirs of writers, and I have no idea why. The few that I have read, I have enjoyed immensely—and I come away feeling inspired. I can hardly wait to get my hands on her second memoir, My Own Two Feet.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Back in the Groove

I'm back in my reading groove, which makes me so very happy. The Count of Monte Cristo was amazing, but a month devoted to one book totally threw me off my own self-imposed reading schedule, which is all in my head.

Since I finished with The Count, I've been flying through a bunch of books. I have added a new reading period this past week. My daughter turned 12 recently and now believes she should be allowed to stay up until 10 p.m., so we've been sitting on my bed, each reading our own novels, for about 30 minutes each evening. Her desire for this time together has taken me away from what used to be an hour or so spent mindlessly on Facebook. Social networking or time with my little girl and a book? Not a hard choice.

So in the past few weeks I've read:
Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas (review here)
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (review here)
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (review here)
Buster Midnight's Cafe by Sandra Dallas
Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
The Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary

I'm currently halfway through New Stories from the South, 2008. Dr. H. bought this for me back in February, but I haven't been in the mood for short stories until now. Now I have all kinds of short story ideas running through my head, and I have a strong compulsion to write. I feel my eyes glazing over when people are talking to me because I am crafting lines. I shouldn't read short stories unless I have time to write…

Next up, I'll be catching up on book reviews.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book Review: The House of the Spirits

I've long been a fan of Isabel Allende, but somehow I missed her very first novel, The House of the Spirits. I went back and read it partly because I'd always meant to and partly because a few people suggested it as a novel to teach to my high school World Lit students. While I loved the novel, I can't imagine teaching it to high schoolers. There are just way too many brothel visits, for starters.

The House of the Spirits chronicles a period in Chilean history (although it's called an "unnamed country") through the life of the complex Trueba family. This is a family full of dynamic characters: Clara, the precocious, clairvoyant, telekenetic little sister who becomes the wife of Esteban after her older sister, Esteban's fiance, dies; Esteban himself, devoted to Clara but cold-hearted and cruel to everyone else, including all the peasants who work his plantation; Esteban's children, legitimate and otherwise; and a cast of other richly developed characters.

I'm not always a fan of magical realism, but I had little trouble accepting (or sometimes ignoring) the scenes that focus on Clara, her spiritualist friends, and the spirit world. Although I always gravitate toward realism, the crazy, accepted magic just becomes part of the chaos of the Trueba family and of the country's political upheaval.

This is the kind of novel you live in while you're reading it--the kind that you can't wait to get to each evening. I definitely recommend reading Portrait in Sepia and Daughter of Fortune as well as The House of the Spirits.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Book Review: The Good Earth

It's been a long, long time since I read this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Pearl S. Buck. I believe we read this in about 8th grade, possibly 9th, and I have vivid memories of the feelings the novel evoked: of a handful of earth, of poverty, and sadness. I read several Pearl S. Buck novels after this one, and I'd like to go back and read them again as an adult.

This is the story of one farmer, Wang Lung, and his family. As a young and very poor farmer, Wang Lung marries the slave O-lan from the rich house, and the two of them work the land until they are prosperous, hiding money in the walls of their hut and buying more land as they can. O-lan bears him several children, including many sons, and as long as she is working beside him, he prospers in all ways.

As Wang Lung becomes more prosperous, his personal life falls apart. He begins treating O-lan with contempt and takes a second wife, who is like a spoiled pet to him. His children grow up to be spoiled, unpleasant adults, and his second wife requires too much attention and material goods. And outside of his own small life, China itself is going through a time of political upheaval that touches Wang Lung in only the most distant ways.

I love Buck's voice; it is simple yet poetic. Her characters absolutely brim with life. Even weeks after reading this book, I can easily conjure up pictures of Wang Lung, O-lan, and the rest of the cast of characters. Rarely do I find images as nearly tangible as those painted by Buck in this novel.

This is one classic re-read that was well worth the the time—and that stands the test of time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Book Review: Prayers for Sale


Sandra Dallas is an author I am thrilled to have discovered a few years ago. Alice's Tulips was my first Dallas novel, and I absolutely loved last year's Tallgrass, a story of one girl's experiences in a Japanese-American internment camp. The Diary of Mattie Spenser and New Mercies were also very enjoyable reads. There are a few Sandra Dallas novels I've yet to read; you can check them out here on Sandra's webpage.

I noticed as I was perusing Sandra's website above that novelist Jane Smiley (a former professor of mine at Iowa State University) calls Sandra "a quintessential American voice." That's what I love about Sandra Dallas: she slips in well-researched American history lesson with a really good story. I know, I know: it's a particular grievance to many historians that novels are looked upon by some readers as "history"; however, I maintain that a good novel, with accurate historic details, can often teach history more effectively than a dry textbook.

The history lesson in Prayers for Sale involves an isolated mining community in the mountains of Colorado in the late 1800s until 1936, when the primary story takes place. Hettie, who has lived in is in her late 80s, has lived in Middle Swan most of her life. Nit Spindle is a lonely new bride, who has come with her husband from Kentucky for a job. The two strike up a beautiful friendship. Hettie is a natural storyteller, and Nit is an appreciative listener. Hettie has lots of stories to tell that involve the people in Middle Swan and their history.

One of the things I loved about this novel is that it is so gratifying. If Hettie begins telling a story about someone, she finishes. In the vein of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, the reader gets a solid story of a resident of Middle Swan: his or her past life, what brought him to Middle Swan, and how s/he ended up. I love things all neatly tied up like that.

While telling the stories of the residents of Middle Swan, Hettie reveals to Nit her own life, with its tragedies and joys. For the first time in her adult life, Hettie tells her own story to someone and trusts that Nit will take her place as the storyteller for Middle Swan.

I look forward to seeing what Sandra Dallas will be writing next!

* Thanks to Wiley from @uthors on the Web again for inviting me to review this novel. You may want to out these other blogs for more reviews:
August 24: http://www.fiveminutesforbooks.com
August 25: http://www.abookbloggersdiary.blogspot.com/
August 25: http://www.lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com
August 26: http://www.lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com
August 27: http://www.rebelhousewife.com/
August 28: http://www.stephaniesbooks.blogspot.com/
September 9: http://blog.mawbooks.com/

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Twelve-hundred and forty-three pages with really small print—and The Penguin Classic unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo was well worth it. Again, I must ask as I did with the classics Things Fall Apart and A Death in the Family, why have I never read this before?

Alexandre Dumas is a master storyteller, and this is an amazing story. Even though this book took me an uncharacteristic 3 weeks to read, it's not because the story wasn't riveting. It's just a really hefty book! The Count is one of those books I thought about a lot during the time I was reading it and couldn't wait to get the kids in bed so I could have my reading time. I lived in the world of wronged Edmund Dantes for three weeks, and I really miss it. This is one of those books that positively captures the reader.

So the story goes that Edmund Dantes, a young sailor who is filled with good will and integrity, is wrongly accused, on the night of his betrothal, by a couple of greedy, jealous men. And although the crown prosecutor believes in his innocence, he condemns Dantes to prison.

And for the rest of the story: read the book. It is truly a masterpiece.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Slowest Month Ever

Books Read and Reviewed in July
Funny in Farsi
People of the Book

The Reason Why
Big Thick Book

And that's pretty much July at SmallWorld Reads.

I have a 14-hour car trip coming up this week (and I will probably only drive a couple of those hours), so surely I will be able to finish the last 700 pages of The Count! But I must reiterate, that while this is a really thick book to get through, it is well worth it.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Book Review: Funny in Farsi

So while searching for books to use for a World Lit class I'm teaching this year, a college friend suggested Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas. Lucky for me, Random House was offering this books as a free download right then, so I got to read it right away. I absolutely loved it.

Funny in Farsi begins when seven-year-old Dumas and her family move from Iran to California. Dumas becomes the cultural and language translator for her parents, as she quickly learns English, and spends the next several years balancing between being American and being Iranian. With humor, Dumas addresses some serious topics: the Iranian hostage crisis, the difficulty of language and cultural barrier, religion, food, and more.

I loved Dumas's voice. She is funny and down-to-earth, but beneath her witticisms there is an obvious ache at the hardships of being an Iranian in America. Having read Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis earlier this year, I enjoyed reading a totally different perspective on growing up Iranian. What is barely spoken of in Funny in Farsi is presently starkly in Persepolis. Dumas expresses herself through humor, while Satrapi works through her grim drawings.

I read that ABC is going to be shooting a pilot for Funny in Farsi, and I will definitely try to catch that. Television may ruin the whole thing, of course, but I will definitely be reading her new memoir, Laughing Without an Accent.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Big Thick Book

I was a bit mortified to realize that I haven't reviewed a book in nearly three weeks. I've been having an odd reading summer since I've been concentrating on re-reading classics or reading them anew. For the past week I've been immersed in an unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Again, this is one of those books that I can't believe, in all my years of literature courses, that I've never read. I don't remember it ever even being on a reading list! But one of my friends says this is her favorite book and another suggested I have my World Lit students read it, so I finally ordered it.

Now I'm having a hard time putting it down. I am only 200 pages into this 1200-page book, and I was wrapped up in the story from the first page. I need to get some serious reading time in, more than just 30 minutes before falling asleep each night, or I'll be reading this until December!

But today promises to be a gray, rainy day—exactly the kind of day for reading a big, thick book after church. If only I can stay awake.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Book Review: People of the Book

Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders was on my Top 10 list from last year. Absolutely fantastic. She won the Pulitzer with March, which I've not read yet, and she is going strong with her newest, People of the Book.

The novel follows the trail of a 500-year-old Sarajevo Haggadah, going backwards on its journey from wartorn Sarajevo to its creation, in the 1400s. Each section tells the tale of that century's holder of the Haggadah, people of various faiths who risked their reputations and lives to save the precious book from wars, book burnings, and neglect. Each of those sections was interspersed with the story of Hanna, a rare-book expert who is commissioned to restore the manuscript.

Brooks is a superb writer, and the story was fascinating. Each section is a world of its own, and the reader is easily transported to that time period and caught up in that character's story. And with each section, I was left wishing I could read a whole novel about that particular story. I wasn't nearly as entranced by Hanna's contemporary story as I was by the other sections, but it worked well as a whole.

I should have read this book faster, as I did keep losing track of whose story was being told. That has nothing to do with Brooks' writing but a suggestion that you might want to have a clear head when reading this book (i.e., my before-bed reading time did not do this book justice). My only niggling complaint with this book is that its style closely mimics The Girl in Hyacinth Blue (my review here), a lovely novel by Susan Vreeland. The style is so similar that I at first felt gypped, like, "Hey, I've already been here before!" I realize that this is probably a fairly common novel technique (although as a voracious reader, I have to say I've only encountered it in these two novels and in Hitty: Her First Hundred Years) but somehow it bugged me that Brooks used the same pattern as Vreeland. Silly, I know.

Ignore my one little peeve, and read the book.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sunday Scribblings: Toys


I.
"The Living Doll": It was without a doubt the scariest episode of The Twilight Zone. Talking Tina haunted my childhood in an I-love-to-be-scared kind of way. "My name is Talking Tina, and I'm going to KILL YOU!" my friends and I would shriek and collapse in the curious, delightful mix of hilarity and terror.

II.
My mother says I cried and hid when my grandmother brought me, age 2, the life-sized doll I later named Maria. I don't remember ever being afraid of Maria; I suppose I quickly grew taller than she. Maria was soon joined by a nearly bald baby doll, whom I named Betty Ann after the teenage neighbor who handed down her baby doll to me. And there was always Thumbelina, with the sweet, slightly dirty face and yellow hair.

Decades later my daughter finds Maria and Betty Ann in my mother's attic and brings them home. I dream of Maria that first night. She is life-size—taller than I am—and dancing stiffly. She holds her arms straight out, demanding that I join her dance. I wake up, a scream caught in my throat and heart pounding.

III.
The Japanese doll gave me nightmares. A visiting professor brought her as a gift for me. Beneath her red kimono she was just a purple plastic cross, and her head popped off too easily off its stick neck. But it was her white face that terrified me, and the way her head rolled under the bed so alive. Sleeping, knowing that white head was under my bed, was impossible. But to get out of bed and find her was even more terrifying. She trapped me for a whole night. In the morning my brother fetched her head and stuck it on his finger, chasing me over shining hardwood floors, his socks skating and tiny teeth so white and clean.


More thoughts on "Toys" here at Sunday Scribblings.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Book Review: Made in the U.S.A.

I was excited about reading this latest book by Billie Letts. I remember enjoying her Where the Heart Is, although it's been many years since I read it.

Honestly, I thought this novel was a disaster. Everything about it felt contrived; in fact, everything about it felt like it was written to be made into a Hallmark movie. Maybe it was.

Two kids whose guardian dies (of a heart attack in Walmart) go off to Las Vegas to search for their long-lost Dad. Dad, of course, ends up dead, so the 15 and 11 year old siblings have to fend for themselves on the streets of Las Vegas. Within a short amount of time, predictably, the girl poses for porno magazines and becomes a coke addict. What a surprise! Not only was the storyline predicable, but the whole porno episodes were handled much too graphically. I don't really have any desire to read lurid details about a young girl's experiences as a porn star. Seriously. It totally did not fit into this "feel good" book.

The Las Vegas scenes go on and on, and then enter another homeless guy with a strange Mexican accent, who brings the kids to his long-lost family of circus performers. (Strangely, none of them have Mexican accents. Yes, it's sort of explained but it was so lame.) The girl, of course, turns out to be a world-class aeralist. Seriously.

The writing was choppy. The characters were flat. The dialog was dreadful. Does anyone really start their sentences with "Say, …"

Say, I bet you can find something better to read than this. Please do.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Reading, Just One of My Father's Legacies

My childhood was rich in the cadence of words, both written and heard. There was always the sound of my father's voice telling stories, and the image of my father in the middle of everything, quietly reading a book.

My family had books everywhere. Bookshelves lined our den and bedrooms, corner shelves were stacked full with books in the living room and dining room, and books crept onto the polished tops of coffee and end tables. My father never used bookmarks or even turned down the corners of pages; he was—and still is—a spine-breaker. He left his trail face-down, books sprawled out on surfaces, waiting to be picked up again, their spines permanently arched and cracking.

My father could be alone in a house full of us. The bustle of the family could hum all around him while he sat, cross-legged, rubbing the corner of a page between thumb and forefinger. "Jim," my mother would say for the fourteenth time, and he'd look up, eyes mystified and foggy under his black-rimmed glasses. Any true reader knows that to swim to the surface and bob up into reality can be disorienting.

My father has never been a monogamous reader. He splits his time between his bedroom novel, his coffee table magazines, his scientific journals, his biblical texts, and whatever anyone else is reading. He reads every book my mother brings home from the library and cannot be in my house for 10 minutes without visiting the nearest bookshelf and pulling out a book. He's easy to find and predictable, there on the green couch with his legs crossed and his thumb and forefinger doing their page rubbing.

But my father has never been stingy with his love of reading. The earliest recording of my voice is me at about age three with my father. "What do you want me to read?" he asks in his gentle Southern Illinois drawl, like the rolling hills of an orchard. I answer back in the same accent, "Just any ol' thing, Daddy." Though my mother was my daytime reader, my father read to us each evening from the big white Pearl S. Buck story Bible.

After supper and on long car trips, he was a storyteller. He knew how—still does know how— to tell a story. He knew all about character development, plot, climax, conflict, and denouement, and he used those devices with skillful ease. He is a master storyteller, rich in language and suspense.

A passion for reading is certainly not the only gift my father has given to me, but it is perhaps the one that links my life so solidly to his. This we share more deeply than our delight in the perfect sail or a slice of the sweetest peach: a passion for words, both written and spoken, for the sound of language and the joy of a well-turned phrase, and for sheer delight of a perfectly good book.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sunday Scribbling: Vision



Daydream


There was a vision he had once:
a grassy hill
me laying back in a white sundress
him resting his head on my stomach,
both of us facing upwards, eyes closed
hot sun pouring down,
blessing us.

Or was it a field of crimson and yellow
leaves sprinkled on grass,
me in jeans and a white t-shirt
resting my head on his thighs,
the late October sun
casting weak shadows?

We are steeped in shared memories,
long ago visions come true
more than we can count
and never enough,
cool mountains framing
our lives.

More scribblings on "vision" here at Sunday Scribblings.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Book Review: Things Fall Apart

Wow. I've had this Chinua Achebe's first novel on my TBR list for a couple of years, but when several people insisted that it must be included in a World Literature class, I decided I really needed to read it right away. This is another one of those astounding books, like James Agee's A Death in the Family (my review here), that I have to wonder: why did I never encounter this in any literature class—high school, college, or graduate school?

The novel centers on Okonkwo, an Ibo man in pre-colonial Nigeria. Okonkwo strives to be a successful man in his tribe, hard-working, well-respected, and unrelenting. He has no sympathy for weakness and fiercely upholds all tribal laws and traditions.

In matter-of-face prose, Achebe reveals tribal life in this Ibo village and Okonkwo's determination to maintain his sense of dignity and manhood in the face of whatever comes his way. From his exile to his son's betrayal to the coming of the white missionaries, Okonkwo continues to insist that his way—the old tribal way—is the only right way and the only way for things to stay together.

This is a short novel, less than 200 pages, but full of images and characters that will stay with me for a long time. Combined with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun (my review here), and Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, this would make a fantastic literature unit on Africa and the impact of colonization, tribal wars, and missionaries.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Book Review: Dear Mr. President: Abraham Lincoln--Letters from a Slave Girl

My younger (2nd and 6th grade) kids and I spent about a month reading about Abraham Lincoln this year, and we really enjoyed this epistolary work by Andrea Davis Pinkney. The fictional letters are between President Lincoln and a young slave girl, Lettie Tucker, who was secretly taught to read and write by her master's daughter. Lettie tells the president about her life, and in doing so challenges his views and perhaps influences his decisions. The President in turn shares his thoughts with Lettie, and together the mourn the loss of his young son and of Lettie's father.

We enjoyed the conversational tone of the book as well as the pictures. I liked how so many historical events were included in the letters, and my kids were familiar enough with the events of the Civil War to have some context. I did have issues, however, with Lettie's command of the written word and her constant profundity. I understand that it makes connections in the book, but it was all a little too blatant.

But my kids didn't notice that kind of thing. They were really enthralled by the story of Lettie and Mr. Lincoln, and the photographs were wonderful. I'd count this as a valuable addition to a study of Abraham Lincoln.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Books Read in May

Most of May was devoted to reading middle-grade readers in preparation for a literature circle class I'm going to be teaching at our co-op this fall.

Books Reviewed:
Epileptic by David B.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. Middle-grade reader.
Ties That Bind, Ties That Break. Middle-grade reader.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. Middle-grade reader.

Books Read but Not Yet Reviewed:
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.
Sounder by William Armstrong.

I'm currently reading Things Fall Apart for a high school World Lit class I'll be teaching. I've got a bunch of re-reading to do in preparation for that class that will probably take up most of my June reading.

Perhaps in July I can start tackling my own TBR list!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

I found John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas on one of those "listmanias" on amazon.com, as I was looking for favorite middle-school readers. Of all the YA books I've read in the past month, this has been close to the top.

The story takes place in Auschwitz, where nine-year-old Bruno moves with his parents and sister. Unlike most stories of the Holocaust, however, Bruno is on the other side of the fence: his father is a high-ranking Nazi officer. After months of wondering who all those people in striped pajamas are at the camp (he can see one small section from his bedroom window), Bruno sneaks over to the fence and meets a boy his age. They strike up a friendship that Bruno knows must be kept secret, even though he doesn't understand what is happening. The story, of course, has a devastating ending.

The book is flawed historically for various reasons. By age nine, for example, Bruno surely would have understood the word "Jew." Perhaps if he were 5 or 6 in the novel, his innocence would be believable; but a nine-year-old is old enough to really be taught to hate. And surely the son of a Nazi officer would have been fed a steady diet of hatred.

But I didn't care. I liked believing that a child could be so pure and innocent that he didn't know what was going on. I liked how he calls Hitler "the Fury" and Auschwitz "Out-with." My own eight-year-old still has moments when he realizes that a word he always thought was pronounced one way is really wrong ("Grape-Grandpa" instead of Great-Grandpa).

I love the perspective of the Holocaust from Bruno's view. This was so different from any other Holocaust novels I've read. I'd recommend this to ages 12 and up, only because the ending is so devastating. I think it would be a great introduction to talking about the Holocaust.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Dragon of Trelian Tour, Day 2

As I said in yesterday's post about Michelle Knudsen's new novel, The Dragon of Trelian, my nearly 12-year-old daughter is not a huge fan of the fantasy genre. My older son loved stories of castles and kingdoms, but she's more of a realist. Still, this novel grabbed her. Here's what she had to say:
"It's not exactly like any of the usual books about princesses. The princess isn't at all girlie—she's kind of tomboyish."
And, she tagged on, she really liked all the twists and turns and the bit of romance. She didn't actually use the word "romance," but I know she liked the little bits of it here and there. Just enough—but not too much— for a nearly 12-year-old.

So the story goes: The Princess Meglynne is 14-years-old, and she has a very big secret. After an accidental meeting, she impulsively decides to tell the mage's apprentice, Calen, her secret: she has found a baby dragon. The dragon is, at first, in the background of the story. The main action is happening at the kingdom, where Meg's older sister, Maerlie, is about to be married. The scenes go between Meg's kingdom life, Meg's life with the dragon, and Calen's experiences as a mage's apprentice.

Eventually, Meg and Calen's fates are intertwined. And that's all I'm saying today.

These bloggers are also talking about The Dragon of Trelian:

A Christian Worldview of Fiction, Abby the Librarian, All About Children's Books, Becky's Book Reviews, Cafe of Dreams, Dolce Bellezza, Homeschool Book Buzz, KidzBookBuzz.com, Novel Teen, Reading is My Superpower, Reading to Know, The 160 Acrewoods, Through a Child's Eyes, Through the Looking Glass Reviews