Saturday, December 23, 2006

Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

December 23, 2006

Somehow I missed writing a review of this book by Jon Krakauer back in the summer. Of course this review isn't fresh since it's been several months since I read the book, but it was rivetting. The primary story that Krakauer tells involves the grisly murders of a young mother and her child by two brothers who believe that God ordered them to commit the murders. The deeper story is of the shadowy world of Mormon fundamentalism, which is all too often mistaken for the LDS church. While the LDS Church declared polygamy illegal in 1890, fundamentalists considered this apostasy and broke off to live a more "righteous" life. Fundamentalist sects headed to secluded areas in Colorado, Mexico, the northwest, and Canada to form communities of polygamists that still exist today (and make national news once or twice a year). This is a bone-chilling book for the crime aspect, and an excellent portrayal of the strange world of the polygamist communities.

Book Review: Crunchy Cons

December 23, 2006

The subtitle of this book by Rod Dreher this book by Rod Dreher just about sums it up: "How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party)." What homeschooling parent wouldn’t want to read this book? I’ll admit that certain words in this subtitle give me the heebie-jeebies (“right-wing” is one of them), but others are just too attractive for me to pass this one up (having “hip,” “homeschooling,” and “countercultural” in the same sentence makes me giddy). “Crunchy” itself is something I’ve been accused of being by more than a few people, although I must admit I’ve often bristled at the term because I grew up amidst a swarm of die-hard Crunchy Granola-Heads (these yuppie-turned-crunchies need to be carefully distinguished from true hippies a la my oldest brother and his dysfunctional and now defunct commune groupies).

But back to the book. It is an “a ha” book throughout. In nearly every chapter I had those moments of thinking (or saying outloud and then reading passages to Randy), “Yes! Exactly!” and “So THIS is what I am—and there are tons of people like me!” There were a few moments of saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” especially in the chapter devoted to religion, but I do have more of an understanding of some of my friends’ choices now. Boy, there’s just so much good stuff in this book, but let me start by providing the Crunchy Con Manifesto:
1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.
2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.
3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.
4. Culture is more important than politics and economics.
5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship—especially of the natural world—is not fundamentally conservative.
6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.
7. Beauty is more important than efficiency.
8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.
9. We share Russell Kirk’s conviction that “the institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

One of the things I love best about this book is that Dreher emphasizes how important it is to work across party lines and labels to conserve beauty, the earth, the family: “There’s one thing we should definitely keep out: the nasty spirit of intolerance and incivility that dominates American political and cultural debate today. Life is too precious, and too important, to waste taking seriously people like the liberals who laughed at the prospect of bombing a Baptist church [story told in book], or conservatives who talk of liberals not as if they were human beings but enemies to be destroyed. The challenges facing us as individuals, as families, and as a society are grave, and the knee-jerk, party-line viciousness that drives our politics today gets us nowhere. I know too many liberals with whom I disagree on some pretty fundamental ideas, but how are also thoughtful and kind people who could even be my allies in public disputes over things important to both of us.”

As I said, there’s just so much good stuff in here. Here are a few more favorite quotes:

From the chapter “What Are Crunchy Conservatives?”: “Everyone of us can refuse, at some level, to participate in the system that makes us materially rich but impoverishes us spiritually, morally, and aesthetically. We cannot change society, at least not overnight, but we can change ourselves and our families.”

From “Education”: “Homeschooling tests a husband and wife’s commitment to the idea of family as mission. That is, do you think of our family as something that exists for no discernible purpose, or do you conceive of it as serving a larger mission? … The question is not whether or not you love your child, but what that love demands of you. Before thinking seriously about homeschooling, you have to think seriously about marriage and family—that is, what they really mean to you, and what you’re prepared to sacrifice for their sake. Homeschooling is not a neat thing you try, like a new diet or exercise routine; it is a demanding way of life, and it soon becomes the focus of a family’s life.”

From “Religion”: “If crunchy conservatism stands for anything, it’s the questioning of Progress and thoughtful but radical dissent from an ideology that believes the material universe is ours to manipulate to suit our ends.”

Read the book.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Year in Books: My Book Rankings for 2006

December 20, 2006

I think I hit a five-year-low this year with only 38 books—less than one book per week. I should include the dozen or more Young Adult read-alouds to make the list heftier, but somehow that feels like cheating.

I was really fascinated to see that all 5 nonfiction books that I read this year made it easily into the Top 10 list. In fact, I think that those were, indeed, my Top 5 favorite books. I always think that I really have to be in the mood to read nonfiction, and yet just the right nonfiction book can be absolutely spectacular and terribly memorable.

Out of my list of 44 books that I made last January, I read only 14. The rest of the books I picked up by recommendation either from friends, the Sonlight “Bibliovore” forum, or because the author was one I’d enjoyed previously. I'm missing a few reviews, but for most of the books, you can click on the title for a review. And so, without further rambling, my Year’s Best and Worst:

The Top 10
• Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (by Amy Krouse Rosenthal)
Eats, Shoots and Leaves (by Lynne Truss)
The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother
Under the Banner of Heaven (by Jon Krakauer)
Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party)(by Rod Dreher)
The Memory Keeper's Daughter (by Kim Edwards)
Bel Canto (by Ann Patchett)
Celia's House (by D.E. Stevenson)
Brave Enemies (Robert Morgan)
Storming Heaven (by Denise Giardina)

Very Enjoyable Books
The Solace of Leaving Early (Haven Kimmel)
Life of Pi (by Yann Martel)
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (by A. McCall Smith)
• Tears of the Giraffe (Ladies #1 Detective series, Book 2)
• Morality of Beautiful Girls (Ladies #1 series, Book 3)
The Kalahari Typing School for Men (Alexander McCall Smith
The Full Cupboard of Life (McCall Smith)
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (McCall Smith)
Blue Shoes and Happiness (by Alexander McCall Smith)
Portrait in Sepia (by Isabel Allende)
Lucia, Lucia (Adriana Trigiani)
Milk Glass Moon(Adriana Trigiani)
The Songcatcher (by Sharyn McCrumb)
Ghost Riders (by Sharyn McCrumb)
New Stories from the South, 2005

Marginally Making the List
Deception Point(by Dan Brown)
Digital Fortress (by Dan Brown)
44 Scotland Steet (by Alexander McCall-Smith)
Portuguese Irregular Verbs (by Alexander McCall Smith)
The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs (by A. McCall Smith)
At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances (by McCall Smith)
Sarah's Quilt(by Nancy Turner)
Monster (by Frank Peretti)

Books Which I Experienced the “Why-Did-I-Read-This-Book?”-Syndrome After Reading
Unspoken (by Angela Hunt)
Miss Julia Hits the Road (by Ann Ross)
A Wedding in December (by Anita Shreve)
Even Now (by Karen Kingsbury)
Fall on Your Knees (by Ann-Marie MacDonald)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Book Review: The Color of Water

December 17, 2006

The Color of Water by James McBride, subtitled "A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother," is a double memoir, telling both the story of the author's mother and of his own life growing up in an interracial family. The author's mother, Ruth McBride Jordan (nee Rachel Shilsky), was born a Polish Jew whose father was a strict and cruel Orthodox rabbi. The family ultimately landed in rural Virginia in the 1930s, where they were despised and rejected as Jews. Her father was emotionally abusive and kept the family in a constant state of misery. Eventually Ruth ran away to New York City and found love and acceptance among Harlem's black community. When she married a black man in the early 1940s, her Jewish family said kaddish and sat shiva. She wasn't even allowed to go to the hospital when word came that her mother was dying. Ultimately Ruth left her Jewish roots completely behind and became a Christian and, with her first husband, founded an all black Baptist church. The author is the eighth of Ruth's 12 children--all of whom graduated from college and went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, journalists, etc.--and none of whom knew more than a smidgen about their mother's past until James began working on this book. This is a beautifully written book, switching between the author's voice and his mother's, creating a vivid picture both of Ruth's struggle with being rejected both as a young Jewish girl and as a white woman in a black world, and of the author's own struggles with having a white mother.

Friday, December 15, 2006

American Life in Poetry Favorites

December 15, 2006

I love the weekly column American Life in Poetry, whose sole mission is "to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture." No doubt the most common complaint about poetry is that it is too complicated--too untouchable. I truly believe that some poets set out to create obtuse poetry, burdening their language with obscure imagery and symbolism that only the author understands. The poems in the ALP column are selected by Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate 2004-2006. Kooser's goal is to select poems that represent every day life in America--poems that are profound in their simplicity. Below are a few of my favorites from the past few months of columns:

Bread Soup: An Old Icelandic Recipe
by Bill Holm

Start with the square heavy loaf
steamed a whole day in a hot spring
until the coarse rye, sugar, yeast
grow dense as a black hole of bread.
Let it age and dry a little,
then soak the old loaf for a day
in warm water flavored
with raisins and lemon slices.
Boil it until it is thick as molasses.
Pour it in a flat white bowl.
Ladle a good dollop of whipped cream
to melt in its brown belly.
This soup is alive as any animal,
and the yeast and cream and rye
will sing inside you after eating
for a long time.

Reprinted from "Playing the Black Piano," Milkweed Editions, 2004, by permission of the author. Copyright (c) 2004 by Bill Holm.

August Morning
by Albert Garcia

It's ripe, the melon
by our sink. Yellow,
bee-bitten, soft, it perfumes
the house too sweetly.
At five I wake, the air
mournful in its quiet.
My wife's eyes swim calmly
under their lids, her mouth and jaw
relaxed, different.
What is happening in the silence
of this house? Curtains
hang heavily from their rods.
Ficus leaves tremble
at my footsteps. Yet
the colors outside are perfect--
orange geranium, blue lobelia.
I wander from room to room
like a man in a museum:
wife, children, books, flowers,
melon. Such still air. Soon
the mid-morning breeze will float in
like tepid water, then hot.
How do I start this day,
I who am unsure
of how my life has happened
or how to proceed
amid this warm and steady sweetness?

Poem copyright (c) by Albert Garcia from his latest book "Skunk Talk" (Bear Starr Press, 2005) and originally published in "Poetry East," No. 44.

In November
by Lisel Mueller

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with its old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made the coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
a woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.

Reprinted from "Alive Together: New and Selected Poems," Louisiana State University Press, 1996, by permission of the author. Poem copyright (c) 1996 by Lisel Mueller.

No Children, No Pets
by Sue Ellen Thompson

I bring the cat's body home from the vet's
in a running-shoe box held shut
with elastic bands. Then I clean
the corners where she has eaten and
slept, scrubbing the hard bits of food
from the baseboard, dumping the litter
and blasting the pan with a hose. The plastic
dishes I hide in the basement, the pee-
soaked towel I put in the trash. I put
the catnip mouse in the box and I put
the box away, too, in a deep
dirt drawer in the earth.

When the death-energy leaves me,
I go to the room where my daughter slept
in nursery school, grammar school, high school,
I lie on her milky bedspread and think
of the day I left her at college, how nothing
could keep me from gouging the melted candle-wax
out from between her floorboards,
or taking a razor blade to the decal
that said to the firemen, "Break
this window first." I close my eyes now
and enter a place that's clearly
expecting me, swaddled in loss
and then losing that, too, as I move
from room to bone-white room
in the house of the rest of my life.

Reprinted from "Nimrod International Journal: The Healing Arts," Vol. 49, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 2006, by permission of the author. Copyright (c) 2006 by Sue Ellen Thompson, whose latest book is "The Golden Hour," Autumn House Press, 2006.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Book Review: Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

December 8, 2006

I am sad, so sad, that I have finished this book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. This is the kind of book that inspires me to write. I know it's not fair to her because she does have other books, but I want to read nothing else by Rosenthal, because I don't think any of her other works could possibly live up to this. The book is Rosenthal's own odd encyclopedia--one that anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s can identify with. As she explains in the foreward, "I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or dead. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict...or recovered anything....I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story."

From there, the book is a collections of thoughts and events in one woman's life. Under "B," for example, you'll find thoughts on Birthdays; Bowling; Brodsky, Joseph; and Busy (to name a few). Here's part of the entry for "Busy": How you been? Busy. How's work? Busy. How was your week? Good. Busy. You name the question. "Busy" is the answer. Yes, yes, I know we are all terribly busy doing terribly important things. But I think more often than not, "Busy" is simply the most acceptable knee-jerk response....

I remember years ago my friend Lauren was reading Carrie Fisher's Postcards from the Edge, and she kept laughing and underlining things, taking notes. That's how I was with this book. It is weird to me that Amy Rosenthal and I have utterly different day-to-day lives merely in that I am a really ordinary person and she is a best-selling author--not to mention the dozens of other differences--and yet I found myself constantly amazed that her observations ring so close to mine. Amy Rosenthal might add this as an entry to her book:
Pet Peeve: I find it annoying when people share favorite quotes from books. Why don't people understand that quotes are only meaningful to the reader herself?

Nonetheless, I am sharing a few of my favorite entries:
My kids keep asking me at dessert time, Mom, can I have this little sack of Skittles and this piece of gum? or (looking through their Halloween loot) How about this mini Baby Ruth and a candy cane? I take a quick look at the items they are holding up in their hands and, without hesitation, assess the inventory and respond accordingly, You can have half the candy cane and the mini Baby Ruth. They accept my arbitrary ruling as gospel, as if it stems from some great unwavering truth.

Sign, Bathroom
I saw a sign in a public restroom that said PLEASE DO NOT FLUSH EXCESSIVE AMOUNTS OF TOILET PAPER OR SHOES DOWN THE TOILET. THANK YOU. I so want to meet the person who flushed a shoe down the toilet, and made a sign like this necessary.

Wreck (excerpt)
...Back in the days when children were allowed to sit in the front seat, I used to tease my mom that throwing her arm out in front of me when she had to abruptly stop the car wouldn't do squat. Nonethelss, there would go her arm, landing an inch from my face at about chin level. Of course, not I understand; in fact, that's pretty much how I'd like to escort my kids through the world, with my arm extended, shielding them, lifting it only when I am sure the coast is clear. ...

Perhaps you think I didn't matter because I lived ____ years ago, and back then life wasn't as lifelike as it is to you now.....But I was here. And I did things. I shopped for groceries. I stubbed my toe. I danced at a party in college and my dress spun around. I hugged my mother and father and hoped they would never die. I pulled change from my pocket. I wrote my name with my finger on a cold, fogged-up window. I used a dictionary. I had babies. I smelled someone barbecuing down the street. ... I picked a scab. I wished I was older. I wished I was younger. I loved my children....I chewed on a blade of grass. I was here, you see. I was.

When I was a college senior, I did an independent course on Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. For months afterwards, everything I wrote and often even the way I spoke sounded like Vonnegut. I am afraid I am going to be thinking and speaking in Rosenthal for weeks to come. Her voice is that strong. This is probably the best book I've read this year, maybe even beating out Eats, Shoots and Leaves. [I'd feel amiss if I didn't issue an occasional strong-language warning with the book; the first few pages ("Orientation Almanac") are the worst.]

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Book Review: Miss Julia Hits the Road

December 6, 2006

This book by Ann Ross is another that leaves me wondering, "Why did I just spend nearly a week reading this book?" I read the first in the Miss Julia series a couple of years ago and enjoyed it; however, this one I could have (should have) closed in the middle and lived happily ever after. I will cross the Miss Julia books off of my future reading lists.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Book Review: Blue Shoes and Happiness

November 25, 2006

Like all the books in Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, this newest is wonderful. These books just sort of radiate warmth and goodness. I want to go to Botswana and meet Mma Ramotswe. I was actually thinking just the other day, "Could we go on sabbatical to Botswana?" Skip Anita Shreve; read Alexander McCall Smith.

Book Review: A Wedding in December

November 25, 2006

I don't know why I read books like this --I really don't! I've read a few Anita Shreve books, and they're all basically the same: depressing and completely unenlightening. This one is like spending time with people you wouldn't have really liked in high school who meet again after 25 years, and you like them even less.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Book Review: Bel Canto

November 11, 2006

In this novel by Ann Patchett, terrorists in a South American country storm a birthday dinner in search of the country's president. Instead of the president, they take hostage a group of 38 businessmen and diplomats from various countries, a famous opera singer whom everyone is in love with, and a translator. Over the course of several months, hostages and terrorists live together in their own world, forgetting the outside world and at times wishing that captivity would last forever. An excellent read. I'm adding Patchett's other novels to my reading list!

Sunday, November 5, 2006

Book Review: The Memory Keeper's Daughter

November 5, 2006

My friend Caroline told me she had an absolutely wonderful book for me to read and gave me 6 days in which to read it before she had to return it to her sister. Now, 6 days doesn't seem an unreasonable amount of time to read a book, but lately I seem to have developed narcolepsy, and I usually manage about 10 pages per night. But The Memory Keeper's Daughter (by Kim Edwards) definitely kept me awake and mesmerized. This is the story of a doctor who delivers his own twins on a winter night. His firstborn, a son, is perfectly healthy, but the girl is born with Down's syndrome. Neither he nor his wife knew that they were expecting twins, and he makes a split-second decision to "spare" his wife by giving the baby girl to the nurse. And the story goes from there...(and yes, I finished it in 6 days!)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Book Review: The Portuguese Irregular Verbs series

October 18, 2006

I have finally, finally finished reading this series of incredibly short novels by Alexander McCall Smith which includes Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances. I don't know why it took me so long to get through these books. I guess I'd have to say that, as much as I like McCall Smith, these books just weren't riveting enough to keep me from falling asleep during my allotted evening reading time. The middle one was definitely the best and had some hilarious, laugh-outloud scenes; but on the whole, I just couldn't quite bond with a German professor of philology as much as I could Mme Ramotswe in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Book Review: Celia's House

September 27, 2006

Back in January when I compiled my annual "Books to Read" list, Tia suggested this book by D. E. Stevenson. I believe she said that the book was the inspiration for naming her daughter Celia (and I know she'll put me straight if I'm recalling that mistakenly). And she is so right. This is an absolutely wonderful book (please ignore the sappy cover on the link--it makes the book look like a cheesy romance novel, which it is not). It's been a long time since I've read something so darn happy (but not happy in a goofy sort of way). I used to read novels like this all the time but have drifted toward more contemporary works in the past decade. This was a happy return, and I know I'll check out more of Stevenson's novels. Thanks, Tia!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Book Review: A Murder for Her Majesty

September 14, 2006

This book by Beth Hilgartner is our first Sonlight 7 (World History, Part 2) read-aloud, and, as usual with Sonlight's reading list, was phenomenal. This was one of those many books that the kids screamed, "NO! Read more!" when I finished a chapter and closed the book. The story takes place during the Elizabethan era in York and centers on a young girl who, having witnessed the murder of her father, flees to York and ends up disguised as a boy in the cathedral choir. The mystery itself is surrounded by details of life in York during this time period. I love starting the year off with a book like this; it leaves the kids hungry for the next one.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Book Review: Portrait in Sepia

September 11, 2006

Portrait in Sepia is the third book by Isabel Allende that spans a few generations of a Chilean family. (Apparently and unknowingly, I skipped over the middle book, House of Spirits, but I did read the first one, Daughter of Fortune. I didn't know that I was reading a continuation of Daughter of Fortune when I picked this up; I just had Allende on my "to-read" list. I wish I'd read the middle book before this one.) Allende is an excellent writer. Her characters are extremely well-formed and compelling. Some of the subject matter is tough at times, but the whole time period is fascinating to me. I know very little about Chilean history or about the experience of Chilean immigrants in California in the 1800s, so the book intrigued me from a historical perspective as well. I will go back and read the middle one for sure.

Book Review: 44 Scotland Street

September 11, 2006

I think I would enjoy anything by Alexander McCall-Smith. While waiting for the first book in his Sunday Philosophy Club series to come available at our library, I picked up 44 Scotland Street. This is very different than the Ladies' No. 1 Detective Series, but very enjoyable. I absolutely liked the Ladies' No. 1 series better, but I did find the characters in 44 Scotland Street very compelling and funny. I had a funny dream during the weekend in which I was reading this book. In the dream I was accused of being an intellectual snob, and I totally attribute this dream to a character in the book, who forces her 5-year-old son to learn Italian and play the saxophone because she considers him an intellectual genius. I look forward to reading the next one in the series, Espresso Cafe (I think), to find out what happens with this child prodigy and his horrible mother!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Book Review: Unspoken

August 28, 2006

Hmmm. I'm not sure how to review this particular book by Angela Hunt. The story reminds me vaguely of Peretti's Monster, although Hunt is a better storyteller and a more believable writer. The story is interesting: a gorilla expert has raised a gorilla from babyhood, teaching her to be fluent in sign language. The gorilla must eventually be returned to the zoo. Ultimately, the gorilla teaches her owner about God. Sounds weird, I know, but it was rather intriguing. Anyway, this is a fast, light read, good for filler between more substantial books.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Book Review: Fall on Your Knees

August 22, 2006

An reviewer likened this book by Ann-Marie MacDonald to a car accident, in which you know you shouldn't gawk but just can't help yourself. I should have stopped gawking a week ago. This was a painful epic about a completely dysfunctional Nova Scotian family in the early 1900s. The writing in itself was excellent and the characters compelling in a train-wreck sort of way, but I closed the book last night wondering what possessed me to wast a week's worth of reading on these horribly depressing lives. Double thumbs down.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Book Review: Ghost Riders

August 7, 2006

Ghost Riders is yet another Sharyn McCrumb novel that weaves a historical account of Appalachia in with a telling of a current fiction tale. These novels stand on their own, although the same characters appear in most of them. I've been reading McCrumb's novels since She Walks These Hills (which I think is the best) and always enjoy them. (I don't particularly care for her MacPherson detective series, however.)

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Book Review: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

August 5, 2006

This is a wonderful combination of The Velveteen Rabbit and Hitty, Her First Hundred Years. This is the story of a china rabbit, Edward, who goes through a series of trials with various owners as he learns how to love. There is quite a lot of sadness in the book, if you have a sensitive child, and a lot of hard, depression-era reality. Duncan and Laurel were enthralled with the story, and I got all teary-eyed at the end. That's the sign of a great read-aloud for me.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Book Review: Sarah's Quilt

July 31, 2006

This book is a sequel to Nancy Turner's These Is My Words , which I read 4 or 5 years ago. I remember absolutely loving the first book; however, 4 or 5 years is too long in between books, and I couldn't follow the sequel very well. Too many references were made to the prequel, and I didn't start enjoying the book on its own until the last quarter or so. So,my recommendation would be: read These Is My Words right before you read Sarah's Quilt. I don't know why the book has this title, by the way. It makes it sounds like a corny romance novel when it's actually about life in the Arizona territories in the late 1800s.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Book Review: Fairy Tale Feasts

I stumbled on this book at the library last week: Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook for Young Readers and Eaters. What a fantastic book! The premise is to pair a recipe with a fairy tale or folk story. For example, "The Little Mermaid" is followed by recipes for Seaweed Stuffed Shells and Tomato Sauce; "Hodja Borrows a Pot" is followed by Hodja's Kebabs and Cucumber Yogurt Salad. This week Laurel made--completely by herself!--Runaway Pancakes (to go along with the story by the same title) and fruit salad (to go with "The Fox and the Grapes"). Next on our list are Cinderella's pumpkin tartlets and sweet chocolate mousse from "Seven Hills of Sweet."

I love that nearly every page in this book contains an extensive sidebar giving further information about both the story itself and the foods. In the recipe Perfect Porridge, for example (which follows "The Magic Pot of Porridge"), the sidebar lists such facts as "In the old days, porridge was eaten by a wooden spoon, because..." and "Scottish porridge makers use a 'spurtle...'" etc. etc. Really fun book!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Book Review: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years

July 10, 2006

We're finally done! I've been reading this book by Rachel Field outloud to Laurel for months. I can't even remember when we started; it's been so long! We kept losing it, finding it, reading other books in between....but at long last, we're finished.

Laurel says, "I didn't love this book, but it was really good." Hitty traces the life of a handmade wooden doll through 100 years and a dozen or more owners. She travels from Maine to India back to the U.S. and all sorts of places in between. The book presents, through Hitty's eyes, a unique look at culture through several generations. I think much of it was a little bit above Laurel's head (she's 8). I think the book is better suited for 10-12 year olds. This would be great to incorporate into an American History study, 1800s-1930s.

Sunday, July 9, 2006

July 9, 2006: Book Review: The Solace of Leaving Early

This second book by Haven Kimmel is just fabulous. (If you haven't read her first, the memoir A Girl Called Zippy, run to the nearest library and check it out immediately!) The story features two ridiculously obsessive and much too philosophical characters who are forced together because of a small-town crisis. I absolutely despised the annoying character of Langston for much of the book, but she is ultimately redeemed in her role as foster mother to two little girls. A heavy read at times--and much flawed religious thought--but well worth it.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Book Reviews: Ladies #1 Detective Series

June 23, 2006

I have finished three more books in The Ladies' No. 1 Detective Series by Alexander McCall Smith, and I have to say I just love these books. I asked a friend of mine recently if she'd read these, and she said she'd read the first one and it was "Cute." Wow. That had to have been a surface-level read, because this series is so far from being "cute." There is wonderful language in each novel, and this beautiful river of tradition flows through every chapter. To only read this as a plot book--a fun summer beach novel--is a shame. So much is missed by skimming. Mma Ramotswe is a wonderful character, and Botswana comes to life under McCall's Smith poetic writing. Read it as "cute" if you wish, or read deeper and be mesmerized by the theme of people, family, and country.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Book Review: Brave Enemies

June 10, 2006

I loved this southern novel by Robert Morgan, also the author of Gap Creek, another of my favorites. This is a fascinating story of a young mountain woman during the Revolutionary War who, after a series of extremely unfortunate events, decides that her best chance for survival is to pretend she’s a boy. What happens in the hills between the rebels and the loyalists and those suspected of being a spy or seditionist on either side is pitiful and shocking. Ultimately Josie unintentionally joins the militia and fights at the fateful battle at Cowpens in January 1781. This is a fast-paced read. I’m glad to know Robert Morgan has several other novels I’ve not yet read!

Friday, June 9, 2006

Book Review: Monster

June 9, 2006

Frank Peretti's Monster is a good summer read. I remember Peretti's other novels as being much more visual and spiritually impacting. This novel is just a satisfying "Sasquatch" read, for those of us who have been fascinated with Sasquatch since watching the Six Million Dollar Man face off with the critter. This book goes on my list as a good plot read, but the writing itself is lacking and the dialogue is stilted. He also got quite preachy at several points; in fact, my eyes started glazing over at times. That said, if you've always had an interest in Bigfoot, this is a fun read.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Book Review: Storming Heaven

I’ve experienced the “you can’t judge a book by its cover” syndrome. Since I am currently blacklisted at the library until I pay my rather hefty fees, my friends have been supplying me with books. Amy loaned me Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven. When I looked at it, I thought: “A romance novel? How weird for Amy!” The cover looked all sunset-like and pink. (It wasn’t until I was a quarter of the way through the book that I realized this cover was actually a rendering of a coal-mining town.) Au contraire—this is not a fluffy book in any fashion. In fact, it reminds me a lot of one of my all-time favorite books, Richard Llewelynn’s How Green Was My Valley. Storming Heaven is the story of people whose way of life was altered forever when the coal company came in, taking their land and robbing the mountains—people who fought back ultimately by trying to organize a union. It is just hard to even comprehend the events that took place on Blair Mountain in West Virginia, when the U.S. Army was called into “disband” the pro-union miners with guns, bombs, and poison gas.

Reading this book is for me like going to the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge and reading about the families whose farms were ripped out from under them when the Secret City was built. It’s just all so heartbreaking. Mountains stripped; old home places tossed aside like scraps of lumber; family farms buried under asphalt.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Book Review: New Stories from the South, 2005

For the past many years, Randy buys this year's edition of New Stories from the South for my birthday. I love southern fiction. There is just nothing like it. I love what Jill McCorkle has to say in her introduction to this collection:

Pain, sorrow, grief--isn't that what we really want to see, to experience and learn from? Who wants to read a story where everything is perfect and nothing whatsoever happens? It would be like an endless pile of those holiday brag letters where no one tells of the year's misfortunes and losses but only of brilliance and success and good times. Who wants to read such? Give me something that will break my heart. Make me ache. Make me laugh and weep simultaneously. Make me feel and care. That is what a story should do, and oftentimes a story is as much about what has come before as the situation at hand. There is history and nostalgia. There are regrets and losses. There are joys that in hindsight take on a different level of pain. Read a story that really works and you will find that dark taproot.

These are good stories. Nothing stands out as terribly memorable, but good, solid stories. I was sad when I came to the end and look forward to next year's installment.

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Book Review: 2 By Dan Brown

Dan Brown's Deception Point and Digital Fortress are both great plot reads. I can't remember which is which now by the titles, but I think Deception Point was slightly better than Digital Fortress. They aren't deep and the dailogue is tiresome, but they are great reads for those weeks when you don't want anything more than plot.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Book Review: Eats, Shoots and Leaves

How could I not love an author whose rallying cry is "Sticklers unite!"? For I am a grammar stickler, and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss just makes me feel so happy!

I love this introduction to the chapter "The Seventh Sense":
"Either this will ring bells for you, or it won't. A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near to where I live. 'Come inside,' it says, 'for CD's, VIDEO's, DVD's, and BOOK's.'
"If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once. By all means congratulate yourself that you are not a pedant or even a stickler; that you are happily equipped to live in a world of plummeting punctuation standards; but just don't bother to go any further. For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word 'Book's' with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated."

Obviously, to read a book subtitled "The Zero Approach to Punctuation," one would have to be somewhat of a grammar freak. And although I have tuned it down tremendously in the past couple of decades, the truth is that I used to find it almost impossible NOT to correct one's grammar.I used to get such incredible joy from my editorial days! How I LOVED to make those copy editor's marks.

And grammar classes in high school and college! I can't even express the pure joy in diagramming a sentence. (I am REALLY coming out of the closet now!) The satisfaction in a sentence well-diagrammed must be akin to the feeling a mathematician has at solving a big fat equation. It's all so strange, I know. It's what Lynee Truss calls "The Seventh Sense." She writes, "No one understands us seventh-sense people. They regard us as freaks. When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggresively instructed to 'get a life'...Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions."

I loved this book. It simply made me really happy. And I am so looking forward to getting out my red pen for RICK LANEY, our support group's next newsletter editor! Knowing Rick, he will take it upon himself as a personal challenge to present the newsletter needing absolutely no editing....

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Book Review: Life of Pi

I did it! I did it! I finished Life of Pi! This book was sloooooow going for the first 75 pages. I was so close to putting it down. For about a week I read 3 or 4 pages a night and thought "Why am I reading this book?" But there was something intriguing about it. Nevertheless, when my friend Leigh (who does not have a blog but who SPIES on me by reading my blog) confessed to me that, not only did she not finish the book but that she completely despised the 1/3 that she did read....I decided: I will give this book one more night. (I should say here that I dragged this opinion out of Leigh! I MADE her tell me what she thought of the book.)

But like I said, there was something intriguing about the character, a 14-year-old Indian (as in India) boy who, along with his family, is emigrating to Canada. What kept me reading the first third of the book (his life in India) was this interesting twist: he is a devout Hindu, a devout Catholic, and a devout Muslim. There is a funny scene when he is walking with his parents and looks up to see his three religious mentors coming toward them. Each greets the family and tells his parents what a devout son they have. "He is an excellent Muslim," says one. "He is a dedicated Hindu" says another. "He is a devout Christian," says the Catholic priest. The religious leaders all look in surprise at each other and begin fighting over Pi, as all assumed that Pi was dedicated to only their own religion.

So eventually Pi and his family and several large animals (his father was a zookeeper) are sailing to Canada and the boat sinks. Pi finds himself on a life boat with a nasty hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, an orangatan, and a Bengal tiger, Richard Parker. Several gruesome scenes result in only Pi and Richard Parker remaining. The rest of the book narrates their survival. As I said, the book took me a week to get into, but one I did--it was well worth it. It was a fascinating story.

So yesterday in my essay writing class, I used the name "Richard Parker" as a name for a character. It was the first name that came to my mind. One 13-year-old boy looked at it and said, "Richard Parker! He's the tiger from 'Life of Pi'!" Who knew? I realized then that, indeed, this would be suitable for my 12-year-old to read.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Book Review: The Songcatcher

I love Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachain series. These books, including The Songcatcher, paint an amazing portrait of life in the Appalachains. Each book can stand on its own. Many of the same characters pop in and out of the books, but each books is written to be read by itself. My husband actually discovered Sharyn McCrumb when we lived in Iowa. He was looking for books on the Appalachain Trail and found her book She Walks These Hills. My Dad, voracious and insatiable reader that he is, picked it up off the bookshelf and plowed through it. He said it was absolutely enthralling. Of course I immediately read it--and it was amazing. All of McCrumb's books in this genre (she also has a detective series that I'm not crazy about) weave an "old" story in with a current one. Lots of good history. Anyway, I highly recommend starting with She Walks These Hills and reading all of them. Perhaps the books are more poignant to me because I live in this area, but I think they would have a wide appeal.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Book Review: Even Now

My mother is a voracious reader. Best of all she loves books like Karen Kingsbury's Even Now. I love her for that. For my own taste, Kingsbury is too formulaic and predictable. Yes, I did get teary-eyed a time or two, the goal of a sentimental, inspirational author. If you need an extremely light read with a happy ending, Kingsbury is a good choice.

Friday, January 6, 2006

Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

My friend Patti recommended this book by Alexander McCall Smith (at my library it is under the "Ms" on the shelves for McCall), and then I saw the series listed on loads of "Books I Read in 2005" lists. I loved it! On the surface it is the life of Precious Ramatswe, a private detective in Botswana, and snippets of her cases. But the meat of this book (and the whole series, I hope) is the fascinating life of the people of Botswana. I have to say, too, that McCall Smith is a lyric and often simply profound writer. I re-read some of his lines over and over just for the sheer pleasure. Like this one: "His life was unrecorded; who is there to write down the lives of ordinary people."

Monday, January 2, 2006

Book Review: Two by Adriana Trigiani

So I wanted to start off my year with lots of good fiction. I have a huge list of books to read this year. I finished • Milk Glass Moon at a few minutes before midnight on Dec. 31, but I'm counting it as a 2006 book. This is the third book in the series that include Big Stone Gap and Big Cherry Holler. Unfortunately, it's been a few years since I read the first two books, so I didn't remember a whole lot of the story. I have a bad habit of doing that. Anyway, I remember really like the first book in the series. Part of the allure for me is that much of the story takes place in the Tri-Cities, TN, where I went to college and lived for many years. The third book was OK. Just OK, and definitely not great.

However, Lucia, Lucia was terrific. I read this in one day. It was completely different than the Big Stone Gap trilogy. The novel is set in the 1940s-50s in New York City, and the character of Lucia is compelling. This one I highly recommend. Very sweet.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Book Review: A Very Small Farm

I just finished this book by William Paul Winchester last night. My friend Leigh has been recommending it for years and she finally loaned it to me. What a beautiful book. A Very Small Farm is a beautifully written journal of one man's life on his small subsistence farm in Oklahoma. In the busyness of the Christmas season, I was especially drawn to the simplicity of his life. It's the "other" life I have always felt in my bones that I was made for, being in the seventh generation of fruit farmers (but not being one myself).

I was surprised (though I suppose I shouldn't be), when coming upon the section on Winchester's fruit trees, to come across his description of Liberty apples, one of my dad's varieties. He goes on to mention getting trees from Geneva, NY, where my father ran a fruit breeding program for 30 years.

Before I turn this over to Randy and my dad to read, I wanted to record a couple of my favorite quotes from the book. I love this first quote because it is so true of being a mother as well as a farmer:

"The best thing about my work is that it is of my own choosing and done in my own way. Under those circumstances even the most menial work is pleasure. Since I didn't know much about farming in the beginning, almost nothing, I made mistakes. But they were my mistakes to put right or live with. The work was difficult enough that I had to be inventive, but not so difficult I couldn't learn....The nearest equivalent to the small farmer is the housewife, especially if she is the mother of young children. We are amateurs, working for the pleasure of it rather than for hire."

The second quote is shorter, but one I wholeheartedly relate to: "As for boredom, the word has no meaning. It's inconceivable with so much to do and such and intriguing world to do it in."
A lovely book.