Monday, June 28, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I'm about halfway through Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. It's the selection for this year's Life of the Mind freshman reading program at the University of Tennessee, where Dr. H. teaches. Faculty members in any department can volunteer to lead a discussion group, and Dr. H. always enjoys doing this. I like to read the selection, too, if I haven't already. I was terribly jealous last year. The book was The Glass Castle (my review here), one of my favorite books ever, and guess who got to attend a luncheon with Jeannette Walls? Really, I was happy for him.

Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003) is the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician who helped to revolutionize international health care. Kidder chronicles Farmer's drive to improve the health of the poorest of the poor in Haiti, particularly focusing on decreasing AIDS and TB cases.

I'm thoroughly enjoying the book, but I must say I'm surprised by the selection. It's tougher reading than the selections in previous years. I'll be curious to hear how the students react to it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Review: Mockingbird

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
~ Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

I wasn't expecting to be blown away by this little book written for a preteen/YA audience. But Katherine Erskine's Mockingbird was absolutely fantastic. In fact, I had to keep checking the back of the book to make sure that it really was written for young readers, not necessarily because of the content but because I enjoyed it so much.

The story centers on Caitlin, a 10-year-old girl with Asperger's Syndrome. I can't even begin to describe Erskine's amazing ability to get inside the head of Caitlin, to describe what she's doing and thinking in a way that makes perfect sense, even to those of us who have very little real-life experience with anyone on the autism spectrum. As the reader, you are immediately there in Caitlin's world from the first sentence.

The book begins in the aftermath of a horrible tragedy: a school shooting in which her 13-year-old beloved brother, Devon, is killed. As Caitlin tries to process this tremendous upheaval in her life, the adults around her—particularly her widowed father and her teachers—try to cope with their own devastation and to help Caitlin.

I generally avoid books that deal with school shootings because they often seem to be capitalizing on a tragedy. NOT SO here at all. Not one single bit. This book is filled with heartache, especially for Caitlin's father and for another young boy in the book; but it's also filled with hope and restoration. I cannot express enough how absolutely beautifully written this book is on so many levels, from Erskine's actual writing style (including fantastic dialogue) to her ability to get inside Caitlin's skin and "walk around on it."

If you liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, you will love Mockingbird. I loved The Curious Incident…, but I will have to say that Mockingbird blows it away. I know that's very bold of me to say, especially with the former making its rounds of required reading in schools now; but I think Mockingbird is a rare gem.

I've given this to my 12-year-old daughter to read, so I'll be curious to hear if she loves it as much as I do. As it is with many YA books, I think adults will appreciate this book on a completely different level as teens or tweens. Please don't hesitate to pick it up even if you aren't the targeted audience.

Other Reviews of Mockingbird
Forever Young
Reading Nook
Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup
Tina's Book Reviews
Carrie's YA Bookshelf
Laughing Stars
Kids Lit
Six Boxes of Books

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet has been recommended on countless blogs over the past several months, and I finally got my hands on it at my favorite used bookstore.

The story focuses on Henry Lee, both in his early 50s and flashing back to him as a 12-year-old Chinese-American boy in Seattle during WW2. Present-day-Henry, a recent widower, stumbles upon trunks stored in the basement of the Panama Hotel, filled with items belonging to Japanese families who were sent to internment camps. From here we flash back to the story of twelve-year-old Henry, whose father despises the Japanese, as he falls in love with a young Japanese girl, Keiko.

The racial tension in the book—between whites, Japanese, Chinese and blacks—is wonderfully portrayed. I enjoyed experiencing the relationships between Henry and other characters—his father, mother, his son, Keiko, the musician Sheldon, his classmates. I thought the dynamic between Henry and his son was particularly well done.

I really liked the book. It's a light read, especially for such a disturbing subject as the internment camps. I would say that I loved the book except for one thing that kept bugging me: Henry's age. This was a huge stumbling block for me in really accepting the story. I have a 12-year-old right now, and I just couldn't accept the gravity of this love story through the eyes of a 12-year-old. Why wouldn't the author bump Henry and Keiko up into being 15 or 16 year olds? There is only one part of the story that I see where the age makes a difference (Henry's father wants him to go to China for school when he turns 13), but this part could easily have been dropped from the book.

Anyway, it was an enjoyable and fast read, and I think it would make a great movie. I bet there is one in the works.

While Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is more about this Chinese-American boy's perspective, it does touch on life in a Japanese internment camp quite a bit. If you are interested in this little-known part of American history, I'd recommend any of the books listed below. I particularly loved Otsuka's.

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas
The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Creel
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Yokohama, California by Toshio Mori
Citizen 13360 by Mine Okubo
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

(A Few of the Many) Other Bloggers' Reviews of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet:
The Book Lady's Blog
Nerd's Eye View
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Historical Tapestry
A Novel Menagerie (for me, she hits the nail on the head with this statement: "Neither outstanding nor poor, I think that this book hits that 'sweet spot' in the middle of the spectrum.")
Word Lily
The Bluestocking Society
Melody's Reading Corner
At Home with Books
A Comfy Chair and a Good Book
Devourer of Books
Fashionista Piranha
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?
In the Shadow of Mt. TBR
Medieval Bookworm
The Novel World
Stephanie’s Written Word

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Sunday Salon: On the Shelf

I had great success a couple of weeks ago at my favorite used book store when our wonderfully bookish friends from Canada were visiting. I somehow completely neglected to bring my TBR List with me, so I had to scan shelves for familiar-sounding titles. There were about 10 more I wanted to get, but I settled on these because the price was right:

Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizaeth von Arnim
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

As it turned out, only two of those were on my actual TBR list; the others were on my mental list. I'm nearly done with Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I've read so many fantastic reviews of it. I'm really enjoying it, although I'm irritated with the main character's age (12). I think he should have been a couple of years older.

Now that the insanity of dealing with two huge events in the span of 3 weeks is over (my oldest getting his Eagle Scout and graduating from high school), I'm looking forward to a long, leisurely summer of reading. I should probably read some kind of self-help book first, like, Sometimes Procrastination Really Does Backfire or Free Yourself from the To-Do List and Live More Abundantly. (And a quick search on shows many self-help books dealing with procrastination!)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Book Review: The Language of Trees

I was attracted to this book by Ilie Ruby because it takes place on the shores of Canandaigua Lake in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. I grew up on its neighboring lake, Seneca. (Seneca is a much better lake by the way, but we don't need to discuss that here.)

I soon discovered that the setting, however, could have been anywhere, on any lake. For me the book didn't evoke any of the strong feelings I have for the Finger Lakes, but that was absolutely okay. The story itself completely hooked me in.

There was a mystery, a terrible accident, love stories interrupted. The story is full of secrets and unfulfilled dreams, of lives interwoven and sometimes unrequited love. I loved the characters Echo and Grant, who lost each other once at age 18, and Melanie and Lion, the recovering addict and her true love. And I loved the ghostly element of the book as Melanie's little brother softly haunts the lake shore. This could have been cheesy and annoying, but Ruby does a fantastic job of just haunting enough, in a perfectly chilling fashion.

There is a lot going on in this book, but again, Ruby made the stories flow beautifully. I never had to turn pages back trying to figure out who was who. I was eager to grab the book as soon as possible each evening. Ruby is a wonderful writer. Her characters are intriguing and well drawn, and she managed to pull together several stories without losing me once. In fact, now that I'm finished with the book, I miss it.

Highly recommended.