Monday, October 27, 2008

Book Review: Shattered Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Book Review Carnival

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

Friday, October 17, 2008

Book Review: Tallgrass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Autumn Books for Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related post: Smoky Mountain Reading

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Reading with Children, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 10, 2008

Book Review: Girl in Hyacinth Blue

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

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

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Meme

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

What was the last book you bought?

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

Name a book you have read MORE than once

To Kill a Mockingbird

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

The Bible seems the obvious answer here.

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

Recommendations and reviews.

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?

Both, but I read more fiction.

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

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

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)

Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

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

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas.

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

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

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

Yes. Most recently, The Ten Year Nap.

Want to play? Go to Booking Through Thursday.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Book Review: Beneath the Pines

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

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

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

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sunday Scribbling #131: Forbidden


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

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

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

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

The Sunday Salon: September in Review

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

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

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

Sunday Scribblings

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

Booking Through Thursday
• Autumn Reading

Just Check Out From the Library:

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

Currently Reading:
Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

Friday, October 3, 2008

Banned Book: The Great Gilly Hopkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Best

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Today's Booking Through Thursday asks:

What, in your opinion, is the best book that you haven’t liked? Mind you, I don’t mean your most-hated book–oh, no. I mean the most accomplished, skilled, well-written, impressive book that you just simply didn’t like.

The first book that came to mind--no, shouted "PICK ME! PICK ME!"— is Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth. I actually despised this book. We had to read it for an awesome class in graduate school called "The Mayflower at Ellis Island: The Immigrant Experience in the U.S." The professor chose Portnoy's Complaint to read an example of growing up Jewish in American in the 1940s and 50s. It's supposed to be outrageously funny, but I found it outrageously annoying. Even though I loved Roth's novella Goodbye, Columbus, which I read in college, I have never read another Philip Roth novel. That's how much I hated this "masterpiece."

Do you have a most-hated "masterpiece"? Check out other answers at Booking Through Thursday.