Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sunday Scribblings: Lost

This week's theme at Sunday Scribblings: lost. Here's my take on the prompt.

The Lost One

comes back to her
in the month of his thirty-eighth
birthday, sometime in April
when the tiny white crosses
of the dogwoods had glowed
ghost-like at dusk
and she had felt him coming

too early for more
than a minute's worth
of breath and a sprinkling
of holy water, his name. Gasp
of the nun, sign of the cross.

she had returned to her kitchen,
rubbed the windows clean of streaks
to better watch her three boys outside
who never thought to ask
or why
or even to notice the swell of her belly
gone back to ribs

and now he would be years older
than she was then, a sweet balding man
who, whistling, comes
through the front door with a kiss
on the cheek and a single daffodil.

—Sarah Cummins Small, copyright 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

Book Review: Conversations with the Fat Girl

From now on, when my friend Kristina recommends a book to me, I will immediately go and find it. First it was Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and now this fantastic book by Liza Palmer. The back cover blurb doesn't do this book justice: "gives voice to women everywhere who wish for just once that they could forget about their weight."

The book does, indeed, center around weight on one level. Maggie and Olivia were best friends from elementary school who were drawn to one another initially because they were the fat girls. But a decade later, Olivia crosses into the world of skinny people when she gets gastric-bypass surgery. Olivia finds the "perfect" fiance, and Maggie struggles to find a place in Olivia's new life. That's all I'm going to say about that.

Maggie herself is a completely lovable character. While Palmer specifically details Maggie's struggles with the low self-esteem that can come from being overweight in a skinny world, she really transcends weight issues to the larger issues of insecurity and identity struggles. This week I found myself peering at the lives of some high school acquaintances via Facebook, seeing their jobs listed as Ivy League faculty and DC law firm partners, and feeling that momentary twinge of envy—of not measuring up. Palmer does a fantastic job of capturing, through Maggie and her weight issues, that sense of not-measuring-up that we all feel at times.

On still another level, I appreciated Palmer's insights into friendship. Who is a true friend? How long do you make excuses and carry on a friendship that is no longer joy-filled, but instead based on a shared history?

I loved this book. I'm waiting to hear Kristina's next recommendation.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Who's Reading What

I love to think about all the books that our being devoured on a daily basis in our home. Here's what's being read this week:
* I'm reading The Bookseller of Kabul and Corrie ten Boom's Tramp for the Lord and just finished reading Abe Lincoln Grows Up to the younger kids
* Dr. H. is reading The Road and listening to The Grapes of Wrath
* 15-year-old just finished The Road before handing it off to his father and is now reading Lies My Teacher Told Me and Grisham's The Pelican Brief and is also re-reading Satrapi's Persepolis for his English 1010 course at the local community college
* 11-year-old is reading a Madison Finn book and having a Nancy Drew mystery read to her at bedtime
* 8-year-old is reading Uncle Pete's Pirate Adventure and having Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix read to him at bedtime.

I love the hum of a well-read house, the book talk and "how did you like..." conversations. And I'm incredibly thrilled that my son and his friend are busy tonight writing a novel. That makes me inexpressibly happy!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Book Review: The Road

I've had this one on my reading list for a long time. I kept thinking that I needed to be in the right mood to read post-apocalyptic writing, but sometimes you just have to take the plunge. I don't know why I was somewhat reluctant; I used to devour futuristic and apocalyptic novels. I think perhaps having young children discourages one from reading too many depressing works.

At any rate, I loved this novel by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy is in some ways a Hemingway-esque writer. His prose is sparse and sometimes gruff, but beautifully moving and poetic. The setting permeates the book: something horrible has happened to the earth, although we're not told what exactly happened. Life has been nearly wiped out, except for those few survivors, most of whom are "bad guys." The man and his son are "good guys," holding onto a tiny shred of hope that there are more of their kind left. They head south for the winter, constantly battling starvation, hiding from cannibalistic marauders, choosing to survive. Suicide is never far from the father's mind, but his fierce love for his son keeps him going.

It's a savage, brutal, depressing book. This is the kind of fierce writing that hooked me on apocalyptic literature many decades ago. On one level, this is Dr. Suess's "The Lorax" turned from gently admonishing to brutal realism: this is what could happen if we don't straighten up. On another level, it is a novel about the fierce love of a parent for his child despite hellish circumstances. And above all, it is a terrifying picture of what Someday might look like.

McCarthy's writing is exquisite. He is a master of language, a poet wrapped up in minimalist. The images are stark but explosive, as palpable as is possible through the written word. I am looking forward to the movie but would be terribly sad for anyone who watched the movie without first savoring McCarthy's writing.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Book Review: The Bonesetter's Daughter

I love Amy Tan. I fell behind with my Amy Tan reading after her first two novels, and I'm catching up with the novels I've missed. I read Saving Fish From Drowning a year or so ago and finished The Bonesetter's Daughter last week. Tan is, really, a masterful storyteller.

As in most of her other novels, Tan explores in this novel the mother/daughter relationship and the role of the extended family and one's rich family history in one's life. I love the feeling that I get reading Tan's novels: that we aren't just floating through this world aimlessly; we are structured by our heritage, formed by our parents and strengthened by our lineage. We are anchored, and the more we know about our family stories, the more we can understand about who we are—and aren't.

LuLing, now an old woman fighting Alzheimer's, was once the village bonesetter's daughter in a tiny village in China; decades later her daughter Ruth reluctantly and then with astonishment goes about discovering her mother's true past. The narratives of the young woman LuLing and the middle-aged Ruth blend together beautifully, without a jolting between past and present.

Tan's stories are so multi-layered. There are an abundance of relationships explored here, beyond just mother and daughter; fascinating pieces of life in China in the early to mid-1900s are described; and of course the whole Chinese and Chinese-American cultural themes are fascinating.

I think at this point I've read all of Tan's fiction, and I look forward to more of her work in the fiture. This time I won't let a whole decade slip by without reading her.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Sunday Salon: On The Road at last

At long last I am traveling through Cormac McCarthy's The Road. There was a time in my life, probably my late teens and early twenties, when I gobbled up apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novels. I remember one period that ended with my reading Neville Shute's On the Beach. I'm not sure what novels preceded this, but this was my last for awhile because I started having dreams—vivid, end-of-the-world dreams. Then I had kids, and one generally doesn't read books about nuclear terror when one has sweet babies around. The two don't mix too well.

I stood by the library shelf for a couple of minutes trying to decide if I really did want to read The Road. I don't have babies any more, after all. I added it to my bag, and I'm nearly done with it now. I am disturbed that the child in the book is probably around the age of my youngest, but I'm able to take myself out of the novel and read it for its sheer cold, brutal beauty. This afternoon I'll read the last 50 pages.

I told a friend last night that The Road reminds me a lot of a short story I wrote in college—when I was in my apocalyptic state— called "Public Storage." It's weird how that happens sometimes, when a best-selling novel or hit movie echoes eerily of something I wrote in my 20s. It's kind of like how my friends and I would have certain fashion styles that only we wore to be unique, and then a year or so later they'd be a national trend. I'm just saying.

But back to reading. This week I participated in the Book Review Blog Carnival at Linus's Blanket, did a little scribbling on the topic "Art" for Sunday Scribblings, and also recorded my findings for Library Loot. I gave up on reading Charles Martin's newest, Where the River Ends. I don't like giving up on books and rarely do so (although that's my second dud of the year), but I just could not get into the book. I really loved Martin's When Crickets Cry. But I haven't been crazy about any of his other books, so I should have left this one on the shelf.

I reviewed Dedication (review here) by Nanny Diaries authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (pretty good) and am getting set to review Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter. (Fantastic.) To the kids I'm reading Carl Sandburg's fabulous Abe Lincoln Grows Up. And that's what's happening in our reading world! For more Sunday Salon posts, go here and take a look!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Library Loot

Today I took my mom to the library to see a harp concert. There were 12 harpists, ages 12-22, and over 400 people in attendance. (Yes, we have an awesome library for a small town!) I snuck off in the middle of the concert to hunt down some books, videos, tapes, etc. I could hear the concert while I was searching, but I thought I'd better get my books before those 400 people started roaming through the library!

Here's my loot:
For my own reading: The Birth House (by Ami McKay), The Bookseller of Kabul (Asne Seierstad) and Conversations with the Fat Girl (by Liza Palmer) and recommended a long time ago to me by Kristina
For my 11-year-old: Steal Away Home (by Lois Ruby)--to go along with our slavery unit
For my high-schooler: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (by James W. Loewen)
Audiobooks for my young 'uns: A Wrinkle in Time and Number the Stars
Movies for our jungle unit: The Magic School Bus In the Rainforest and National Geographic's Totally Tropical Rain Forest.

I began reading Lies My Teacher Told Me while I was waiting for the harp concert to finish, and I've now added it to my reading list, as well. I was instantly mesmerized.

Back at home, I'm still in the middle of reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I'm hoping I don't have apocalyptic dreams like I did after I read Neville Shute's On the Beach years ago.

And that was my day at the library, sans children but with my mother. Check out more library loot posts here at The Striped Armchair.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Book Review: Dedication

I loved The Nanny Diaries, written by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus in 2002. I had high hopes for Dedication, and, while I enjoyed it, it didn't come close to The Nanny Diaries for me. The story: Kate and Jake were high school sweethearts. Jake leaves Kate without a word and becomes a famous rockstar, but all his songs are about Kate. A decade later, Kate finally has her chance to confront Jake, and of course finds out that he loved her all along and all that.

This book has its moments. Anyone who has ever wished they could go back in time and figure out what exactly went wrong in a relationship can relate to Kate and Jake, although most of us don't have exes who are famous musicians. But the whole book was just too fast and breezy for me. The dialog was too choppy and tried to hard to be clever. I get tired when I have to keep up with so much wit.

So, it's okay. It would be a fun beach read—an in-between read for when you need something not very deep, or when you are feeling quick enough for snappy conversation.

Other reviews of Dedication:
The Friendly Book Nook

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sunday Scribblings: Art

At the Pompidou Centre in Paris, we smirk. This is art? These displays of bricks and cotton fuzz? Wire and mortar? A window frame? Bah, says my father. I, at sixteen, wish to appreciate the postmodern display, but I must agree with my father. Bah, I say. The artist himself, perched silently at the end of the display, scowls. Had we known, we would have kept our bahs to ourselves.

The Mona Lisa. The Winged Victory. David, the Pieta, the Sistine Chapel. I have stood before them, smelling centuries before me, yearning to touch their smooth perfection. Awed.

Art class: I am pained that I don't have some special talent within me. As an art lover, I am deserving of such.

A tangle of scribbles, a collage of tissue paper, a handprint, globs of poster paint, something that looks vaguely like a dog.

My children: works of art.

A tree, a rock, a cloud.

What we have between us.

A word.

(For more thoughts on the topic "Art," see other Sunday Scribblings here.)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Children's Books on Slavery

For several weeks now we have been reading about slavery in the United States. Below are the chapter books and picture books I've enjoyed with my younger kids, ages 8 and 11.

Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman by Dorothy Sterling (This is an excellent book; please don't leave this one out!)

Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom by Margaret Davidson (I loved this as a child and was thrilled to find it at our local library sale for a quarter!)

Uncle Tom's Cabin (Young Folks Edition): This is essential, in my opinion, because so many other books refer to Harriet Beecher Stowe's book as pivotal in the recognition of the evils of slavery in America. Although I had a copy of the book, this children's edition is available online, too.

If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine (I think this whole "If You..." series is fantastic)

Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson, ill. by James Ransome (nice picture book about one family's journey on the Underground Railroad)

Show Way by Jacqeline Woodson, ill. by Hudson Talbott (Traces the author's heritage from mother to daughter back eight generations, with a wonderful thread of quilting, piecing together, writing, and freedom. Love this one.)

Alec's Primer by Mildred Pitts Walker (Picture book retelling the true story of Alec Turner, born a slave in 1845, who was taught to read by his master's daughter. Ultimately Alec runs away from the plantation to join the army during the Civil War. We loved this story because it is based on a real person.)

The Wagon by Tony Johnston, ill. by James Ransome (Wonderfully poetic story of a child born into slavery and his subsequent freedom after the Civil War.)

"The Tale of 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'" from The Children's Book of America by William J. Bennett

Addy: An American Girl series

My America: Corey's Underground Railroad Diary (3 books in series)

I Have Heard of a Land by Joyce Carol Thomas (about the land rush in the late 1800s, post-Civil War)

Movies: Harriet Tubman (Animated Hero Classics by Nest Productions): I was not crazy about this video. I'm going to try to find and preview the movies Race to Freedom, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and/or A Woman Called Moses as the biographical, animated video fell way short of telling much of Harriet's story.

In the Hands of a Child has a slavery lapbook. I downloaded this once when it was free from CurrClick, but I thought the information was too ponderous for my 2nd grader. I'd recommend it, though, for grades 6 and up. The Homeschool Learning Network also has a Harriet Tubman unit study for only $3.50. While I felt like reading the literature above was an excellent study of slavery in America leading up to a study of the Civil War, I think the lapbook and unit study would be an excellent addition for older kids.

Next up: the Civil War!

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Sunday Salon: January Reads and Reviews

I was nervous with January's initial offerings: one discarded book and one that I disliked. But wow! Did things ever change! I ended up with a fantastic reading month.

The best book of the month? I'd have to say The Other Side of the Bridge, but Sarah's Key and The Guernsey Literary .... were also excellent. I also finished, but didn't yet review, Dedication by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, authors of The Nanny Diaries.

My first post of January was my list of books read in 2008, including the Top 10 and the Bottom 10.

I participated in Sunday Scribblings just once, with the theme being "Phantoms and Shadows." I'm determined to get back into the swing of the weekly scribblings.

I'm also determined to enter reviews at the Book Review Blog Carnival, which is going on this week at Inkweaver Review. One habit that is easy for me to continue is listing my weekly reviews at Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books. I get lots of books for my TBR list there!

A new place to play for me is Library Loot, sponsored by The Striped Armchair. In fact, I've got a bag of books right now that I need to list!

I reviewed one children's book, The Sonshine Girls: Summer Secret, which my 11-year-old daughter absolutely loved. The kids and I have been reading books about slavery for the past month. I'll post an overview soon.

And that's about it for January. I'm about 100 pages into Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter and have a couple more books in my library bag. I can only hope that February turns out to be half as fantastic as January!

To join The Sunday Salon, click here.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Sunday Scribblings: Regrets (or Not)

Today's theme at Sunday Scribblings is "regrets," but my take here is "no regrets."

Letter to the Man I Didn't Marry

Today I ran three yellow lights,
which in some states signal the driver
to clear the intersection and in others to proceed
with caution.
I did neither,
as I'm sure you recall.
I hear
you've been asking about me.

My baby knocks more insistently
these days, especially after I eat
what's bad for me:
chips or chocolate, late night
bowls of sweetened cereal.
(You disapprove, I know. I remember
the angle of your head.)
Maybe she will look
like me.
Maybe she will be a he. My breasts
grew larger while I napped.
When I opened my eyes, my son
was there to kiss my cheek
with his tiny chapped lips.

From the front porch swing
I watched the librarian fly by on her bike
like the wicked witch and the irises rise
inch by inch.
I am itching
to get my hands in the soil,
to smell the dirt caked thick and dark
beneath my nails.
You were wrong, you know.
You never could have been the one
to heal me.

~Sarah Cummins Small, copyright 1999

For more Sunday Scribblings, click on the link above.