"A house without books is like a room without windows." -Horace Mann

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stones into Schools

by Greg Mortenson

Back in September I raved about Mortenson's first book, Three Cups of Tea, which to this day is one of the most memorable and inspiring nonfiction books I have read.  This second book, which picks up where Three Cups left off is just as mesmerizing.

Three Cups of Tea tells of how Mortenson fails to climb K2 and ends up in a small village in Pakistan where they save his life and care for him.  It is there he discovers a group of children going to "school" out in the open, with no supplies.  He goes on to promise the leader of the small village that somehow he will build them a school.  From there the book details how he does his by starting the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and fulfills the promise and makes many more to many small villages in Pakistan.

Stones into Schools details the further adventures of this organization and man as they both grow, and as they move into working in the harsh conditions of remote Afghanistan.  The harrowing efforts so many people make, most of them local people who simply want education for their daughters, is truly amazing.  And I was equally appreciative that Mortenson covers his expanding relationship with members of the military, who are in support of his good work.  Even he admits it surprised him somewhat, but it gives a lot of hope to me that there are many good men and women who serve their country (my brother and brother-in-law included) and also want to help the people where they serve. 

If you've read Three Cups of Tea, this sequel is just as good if not better.  If you haven't read either of them, go do it now because it will change your view of the world for better.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Man in the High Castle

by Philip K. Dick

I recently got the urge to read some good sci-fi, so went online and looked up a list of the top 100 books in the genre.  This book ranked high on a number of lists so I thought I'd give it a try.  My review is mixed.  While I was fascinated by the premise of the plot, as well as intrigued by the style of writing, overall it didn't always hold my attention, and the ending was a little too "post-modern" for my taste.  It just kind of ended, without really ending.  I've taken classes on Post-modern literature but I just prefer tradition story-lines.

The main idea of the book focuses on the United States in an alternate reality where Japan and Germany have won World War II.  The western half of the country is controlled by the Japanese, who are the conquerers but somewhat decent.  The eastern half is run by the Nazis, who have taken their "final solution" to greater lengths and have proceeded to wipe out most of Africa.  The Nazis are the real ones in control, with the Japanese under them, and the Americans on the bottom rung.  The way Dick simply and quietly introduces the reader to this society and fills it with believeable characters and characteristics is fascinating and quite impressive.  His attention to detail is exquisite and makes the reading of the book quite fascinating.

I also was intrigued by the language and word style of the book.  I'm not sure I can explain it very well, but it is as if Dick writes it like he is one of the conquered Americans who has been influenced heavily by an oriental way of thinking and writing.  The way the characters speak and think are in sentences that often don't have connecting words, so they feel somewhat like a foreigner speaking.  Let me give you a small example.  Instead of writing the sentence "It was essential to avoid politics."  he simply writes "Essential to avoid politics."  It seems simple enough, but when all these sentences are added up into a whole book, it gives a strong feeling of a foreign kind of presence upon these otherwise "normal" Americans.  It makes the reader wonder how we, as "conquerers" influence and change those that are the "conquered." 

It also makes you think about how fluid history is, and how changeable it is with even just one simple alteration.  And how history can be very different from various viewpoints. 

I can't really explain the ending, but suffice it to say I got to it and kept reading into the next book (I'm reading it from a compilation of his works) thinking that there was more to the story.  It just kind of leaves you hanging.  In fact, after doing some research, I found out that Dick had intended to write a sequel but could never get to it, partly because he was loathe to go back into the draining experience of having to research history about the Nazis.  So, maybe there's a reason for the strange ending but it was still disappointing.  An interesting literary read that I'm glad I picked up, but I can't say I really "enjoyed" it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas, translation by Robin Buss

I've long been interested in reading some of the "classics" that somehow I never got to in my many years of school and personal reading.  So when I heard that my mom was recommended The Count of Monte Cristo by a friend of hers and that she enjoyed it very much, I was eager to pick it up.  I went to the library and ordered a copy but when it arrived, it was about half the size of the one my mom had recommended.  The librarian explained that most people don't care what version of a book they read.  Yet, there can be quite a difference between translations.  I had been told that the translation my mom had was particularly good, in that it followed the original narrative of the story that Dumas wrote in French without cutting a lot out, but still made it very readable.  I was desperate for a big book as reading material on the long flight to Hawaii (I know, tough life, eh?!) so I asked to borrow her copy, and luckily she had just finished.  Thank goodness.  It kept me busy for the flights there and back, as well as a few weeks afterward.

The very basic story of the book involves Edmond Dantes who is falsely accused and throw into prison for a crime he didn't commit.  In prison he meets another prisoner, an old man, who helps him escape to find a hidden treasure on the island of Monte Cristo.  From there the story explodes into a ton of different story lines which eventually all connect in the end, all centered around Dantes as he goes about exacting his revenge on those who hurt him.  Yet he also comes to learn that it is really only God who is the final judge. 

If you've seen the movie "The Princess Bride", there is a part where the grandfather explains what is in the book he wants to read to his grandson: "Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles..."  That's how this book is, its got everything you could want in a good adventure story.

I must warn that it is not a particularly easy book to read if you have a lot of distractions (such as children), because it is no simple matter keeping all the many players in the story straight in your head and remembering how they relate to one another.  But it is well worth the time.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ender's Game

by Orson Scott Card

Ender is a child genius who lives in a future world where Earth is fighting a war to stop an alien invasion by what are know as the "Buggers."  He is recruited and trained to be the next great general that will hopefully save the world.  He is trained, along with a number of other children, to learn combat tactics, psychology, and leadership.  But the training he receives is much more serious than he or any of the others understand. 

This is one of my favorite sci-fi books, because its not your typical "hero saves Earth" story.  Ender is an innocent kid who nevertheless has a brilliant mind and can access ruthless and violent tendencies in himself when necessary to get the job done.  And yet, he maintains his integrity and innocence as much as is possible.  There are few books out there that really get into the mind of a kid, and I think Card does a fabulous job of writing from the perspective of children. 

Be warned that there is some violence and language in the book that can be disturbing.  It is a tough read because it is about putting children into situations where they have to grow up very fast and learn to deal with a very hard world.  How each of them cope with it is what the story is really about. 

One of my favorite parts is a bit surprising, because normally I have trouble following technical/strategy type stuff.  However, the parts where they describe the zero gravity combat tactics training missions is really fascinating, and he writes so well that even I can picture it in my mind.  I so wish I could be weightless, just once! 

Ender is one of my favorite characters of all time, and wait until I review the companion novel "Ender's Shadow" which is about the same story, except from a different child's perspective.  Another quite fascinating look into child psychology, but contained within a brilliantly written fiction.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Long Walk

by Slavomir Rawicz

There are no words that do justice to the true story of this man's walk to freedom, except his own.  I have read this book before, but found myself just as involved through my second reading.  Rawicz describes the journey from being captured and tortured (not horribly graphic, but plenty to make the point) as a Polish prisoner in a Russian prison, then shipped like cattle to Siberia, and finally sent on a forced march to a gulag, or work camp.  He and six other men plan an escape which entails walking south from Siberia, all the way to India.  This "walk" not only cover approximately 4000 miles, but involved walking through the Russian winter snowstorms, crossing the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas.  It is also somewhat unique because along the way this group of men befriend a female escapee and she travels with them.

It is a harrowing journey to read, and makes you very tense until the end, wondering if they really are going to make it.  You laugh a few times, cry some, and gasp at what these men, with hardly any supplies except their friendship and pure resolve, are able to do.  It is an important read for detailing many of the unjust, cruel, and inhumane ways these people were treated.  The book also has a very unique voice to it, one of straightforward and honest details, without going too far into melodrama. 

What is especially wonderful about this book is that for all the horrible treatment these men receive at the beginning of their experience, the story chronicles many good and generous people who help them along their way, who literally saved their lives time and time again.  Some of the stories of "poor" Mongolian and Tibetan people who give of their small means in such generous ways are true examples of the goodness of humanity.  It makes up, in some part, for the terrible things that were done to them.  And finally, it again reminds me and hopefully you of the greatness of the freedoms we so readily enjoy.  To what lengths would you or I be willing to go to for freedom?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

by Chris Van Allsburg

I've loved the artwork and stories of Chris Van Allsburg since I was young and read many of his strange and intriguing children's books.  If you don't know who this author/artist is, he's the one that did such stories as Jumanji and The Polar Express, now made more famous from movies (although definitely NOT made any better by the movies).  As always, read the books first!

One of my favorites is a mysterious book that is a great one to read near Halloween, aptly titled The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.  You must read the introduction to understand the interesting nature of this book.  I won't give it away because you honesty cannot appreciate any of it without seeing the illustrations.  Its not even really a story book.  Basically on each 2-page spread is a black and white illustration, the Title for the story that the illustration is for, and one line or phrase from the story.  That's it.  And yet, those 3 simple things can say a whole lot and still leave much to the imagination.  Allsburg's real talent truly is in his artistry, done mostly in black and white and with details that let your senses wonder.

I still remember one family night activity where mom had us each pick one of the illustrations and using the 3 elements provided, write our own story about what was happening.  There were some funny stories, scary stories, and downright strange stories, especially since the majority of us were still in elementary school.  We enjoyed sharing our creativity and appreciating everyone else's amazing ideas.  Get this book and solve your own Harris Burdick mystery this Halloween.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Crucible

by Arthur Miller

I recently watched the movie Goodnight and Good Luck, which is the story of Edward R. Murrow, a television broadcaster who dared to stand up to Senator McCarthy when he was on his anti-Communist crusade.  It reminded me of another time when people were accused of things that could not be proven, and condemned with no real evidence.  Arthur Miller's play The Crucible is a dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials, and one family in particular caught up in the horror and hysteria of it all. 

Many of you may have perhaps performed this play in high school or even watched some sort of video/movie rendition of it, but today I wanted to review it because there is something to be said for reading the play and remembering the power of simple words on a page.  It is not an easy story to read, nor a happy one.  But it is one that reminds me that nothing should ever let us sacrifice truth to the whims of the world. 

The story is focused around John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth.  John has had a relationship with a younger girl in the town and is racked with guilt.  The girl accuses his wife of being a witch, and the witch hysteria continues to grow and spread throughout the town until many innocent people are tried and sentenced to death.  John Proctor struggles with his guilt, his faith, and his life as he takes his turn in court.  Two of John Proctor's lines are my particular favorites, because they are about the real value of truth and integrity:

"A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud—God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!"

"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"

May we never let fear conquer truth, and always keep ourselves worthy of our good name.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

by Grace Lin

I come from a family of storytellers.  My grandfather and mother both are beautiful storytellers.  There is nothing better than a story within a story, which is why I so enjoyed this children's book.  It is a simple narrative about Minli, a young girl who lives with her parents.  They are poor and her mother is somewhat discontent with their meager circumstances.  Minli goes on a journey to find the Old Man in the Moon and learn how her family can find fortune and happiness.  She meets fantastic creatures and people along the way, including a dragon who cannot fly and a talking goldfish.  and each of them has their own story they tell about their own fortunes.  The author incorporates many Chinese folktales into her story, weaving them together elegantly into a rich and touching narrative.

This is a lovely book for both parent and child to read, especially together, because it shares beautiful stories about family, friendship, forgiveness, contentment, gratitude, and love, all in a way that reminds you to never stop believing in the wonder of magic and fantasy.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Prince of Frogtown

by Rick Bragg

The voice of a real Southern story teller is not one soon forgotten.  For that reason alone, I was excited to read Rick Bragg's third memoir about his "white trash" Southern family.  The first, All Over but the Shoutin' was one I recently reviewed and enjoyed very much.  It was about his mother, a heroic, tough woman raising her sons in hard circumstances.  The second book is called Ava's Man, about his grandmother and the loss of her one true love.  I have not reviewed it but would certainly recommend it as much as the other two.  Finally there is this book, The Prince of Frogtown, which is about Bragg's father.

Bragg admits that he fought for many years against writing about his father, who abandoned his family early on and was an alcoholic.  He didn't want to write about a father that had not given him much thought, at least so it seemed to him.  But this book takes the reader on an interesting journey, as Bragg becomes the stepfather of a boy and is reminded of his own father.  He explores the good and bad sides of the man, listening to stories of those who loved him despite the drinking.  It is about a man that made many mistakes, some unforgivable, and yet he had many good qualities and he did good things too.  I've always loved stories that show a person for what they truly are, all the parts together instead of just one skewed view.  Bragg does not really get to a point of total forgiveness, but he comes to better understand his father, and at least give him credit for the good he did. 

This book has the rich Southern voice that Bragg has in his other books, and I like how he intersperses his past with his present stepfather experiences.  It feels like I was brought along for a ride of self-discovery and an opening of the heart to again be reminded that it is not us to judge another until we have truly walked in their shoes.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Underneath

by Kate Appelt

I'm in the middle of another book about the American South but can't do a review until I'm finished, but it made me think of a children's book I recently came across and enjoyed very much.  The Underneath is a Newbery Honor book and tells the story of a dog who lives under the porch of a house.  Inside the house lives a mean and angry man.  He stays underneath the porch to stay safe from the man.  The dog is lonely until he makes friends with a lost cat and her kittens.  They make unlikely friends, which are some of the best friends anyone can have.

Appelt tells a wonderful tale of love, and writes with a southern voice that paints pictures rich with imagery and depth.  She incorporates a little of the southern tradition of magic and animal spirits, but in a way that makes you think and wonder, not in a way that makes it scary or dark.  The voice of the book reminded me of other well-loved books including The Yearling and Where the Red Fern Grows.  Like these other favorites, Appelt uses animals to tell a story about love and humanity.

Monday, September 20, 2010

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

by Peter Hessler

There's a great website called FiveBooks.com where they interview a leading writer in a specific field of study (ranging from Detective Novels to Cold War History) and ask them to recommend 5 books by other authors in their field.  I love this idea, because I believe good writers are some of the best at recognizing other good writers, especially in their own focus.  I got this book recommendation from an interview about "Foreign Memoirs" and liked the idea of it because it was recommended along with Three Cups of Tea, another of my favorite books that I have already written a post about.

Peter Hessler paints a great picture of his time living and teaching in China.  The imagery of location is strong, both in its beauty and in its ugly side.  He deals with much of the politics, but in a way that looks at it from  many angles.  Although Hessler was there to teach and he does discuss that side of it in many chapters, much of the book is simply about his interaction with the Chinese people, and how they interact with him.  Most fascinating to me was his thoughts on the way the Chinese people view politics, dictators, Americans, their land, progress, and their general world view.  Very different from what I am used to, but that's what made it so good.  However, I think my favorite chapters were about teaching his Chinese students Shakespeare and Don Quixote. 

If you want a book that gets you to think outside your own world view for a while and experience a society which is very different from our own, both in good and bad ways, then this will be a good read for you.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt

by Sarah MacLachlan

Recently I joined a string ensemble group and it has been fun playing in a group again.  Its reminded me of one of my all-time favorite young adult books, since it is about a cellist.  I have read it over and over again, even as an adult.  The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt is written by the same author as Sarah, Plain and Tall.  She has a simple writing style that nevertheless gets to the heart of complicated family relationships. 

Minna Pratt is a teenager who plays in a string quartet, and there meets Lucas who seems to have the perfect life.  Minna feels her family is anything but perfect, and are in fact rather odd and eccentric.  She struggles to figure out how she fits into all this, and why Lucas thinks her family is so interesting.  She also struggles with her musical talent, trying to figure out how it plays into her life.  The characters in this book are funny and unique, from the cranky quarter leader nicknamed Porch to Minna's little brother who hums and sings everything that he says. 

I love this book first because Minna reminds me a lot of myself, in her relationship with music especially.  I was never the musician who loved practicing, but I loved making music, and I loved playing music with other people.  But beyond the subject matter of music and cello and all that, it is about the kind of secret strange lives we live in our own heads and how we try to fit all that in to the world around us.  It is also a lot about appreciating what we have, instead of wanting the seemingly perfect lives of others.

One of my oft-used quotes comes from this book, and it reminds me constantly of the value and beauty of good writing and poetry: "Fact and Fiction are Different Truths."  Enjoy both the fact and fiction you find in this good read.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Obsessed with Bookshelves

I love books, but my dilemma lately is where to put them.  I've got three bookshelves that have seen better days, mostly during college, and they are stuffed full of books.  They are the standard boring faux-wood shelves you can get at any Supercenter.  What I want is a bookshelf that I love as much as my books.  My dad created a built-in bookshelf for my mother a few years ago as a birthday present, and now I want one of my own. 
Unfortunately, this will not work for me as I have no stairs, no long narrow hallway, no stained glass window, and I doubt my husband would ever approve of Nanny McPhee blue walls.  But I was recently introduced to a fabulous blog that is all about bookshelves and unique ways to store and read books.  I mean, who wouldn't want a pac-man bookshelf?! 
There are tons of other amazing and beautiful ways to use your books not only as literature, but also as art.  If you have lots of books, check it out for some brillant (and bizarre) inspiration.


Now the only problem is deciding what I like best.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

All Over But The Shoutin'

by Rick Bragg

Yesterday my family decided to get together for game night.  My mother offered to take all five of the grandkids to her house for a slumber party, so we could actually enjoy ourselves without interruption.  How can you turn down such an offer?!  As I sit her in my house that is completely silent, void of demands for bread and butter, diaper changes, and cartoon noises, I am once again so grateful for a mother who has and continues to sacrifice for her children and grandchildren.  It may seem a small thing, but it is not.

My book today is one of her favorites and mine as well.  When my parents moved to Louisiana for two years due to dad's job, they suddenly became immersed in the southern culture, very different from where they came from.  They began to appreciate, more and more, the literature of the South, with its unique language, peculiar humor and rich heritage.  The best of these works are usually about the people on the poorest margins of society, black and white alike.

One of the first they recommended to me was All Over but the Shoutin'", which is a memoir about the author's childhood growing up as a "white trash" boy in the rural Alabama hills.  His father is a heavy drinker that has a bad temper and often runs out on his family when they need him most.  But the real focus of this book is on Bragg's mother, a strong-willed woman determined to get her children educated and off welfare.  She picks cotton, goes without new clothes for eighteen years, and quietly goes about working miracles amid seemingly impossible circumstances.

Rick Bragg received the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his feature writing in the New York Times.  His memoir writing is honest and forthright about his life, and yet it is full of such beautiful language and imagery and detail that you feel a part of the story and are sad to leave it at the end.  He has written a number of other books, including Ava's Man and Prince of Frogtown which are also memoirs about his family, and just as good as this one. 

Here's to my mother, and all mothers who give up so much of themselves for their family.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Three Cups of Tea

by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

There are not many books that really get me fired up to actually get up and do something good.  But when I finished this book, I felt like climbing mountains and building schools with my bare hands. 

Three Cups of Tea is the true story of Greg Mortensen, who went from being a mountain climber to a humanitarian focused on providing education to girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  His harrowing, near-death experience while climbing K2 led him to a fateful meeting with the leader of a small Pakistani village called Korphe.  He promises to build them a school, as way of thanks for saving his life.  From there the book details the process of raising money, finding donors, traveling to remote and dangerous areas, and even once being kidnapped by Taliban sympathizers.

It also details the events that lead Mortensen and Jean Hoerni to co-found the Central Asia Institute, which has since built 131 schools in remote areas of the area and educated over 58,000 students, many of which are girls who would not have the opportunity otherwise.

Mortensen's main premise in the book is that the best way to fight extremism in this area is to work together to alleviate poverty and provide education.  He says it is especially important to offer schooling for girls in remote areas because often it is the females that stay in the village while the educated boys end up going into the cities to work.  The women back home are in charge and provide stability for the village.  If they are educated, they will pass that on to future generations.

I love this book for many reasons, the most important being its focus on equal education for all people and genders.  I love that Mortensen gets into this endeavor with his whole being, sacrificing much time with his family and putting himself in danger, in order to physically be a part of this work that he loves so much.  He is not one that just sends money and hope it is put to good use.  I also loves the stories of the Pakistani people, many of whom are eager for education and want peace.  The sacrifices they make and the ordeals they go through to fight for their schools is inspiring, to say the least.  I wish sometimes we here would be awakened to how lucky we are to have a multitude of educational opportunities, and how valuable it is to those who do not have easy access. 

Originally the book's subtitle read One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism One School at a Time.  Mortensen fought and won to have the subtitle actually read One Man's Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time.  Here is what he says about the difference: "If you just fight terrorism, it's based in fear. If you promote peace, it's based in hope."  This book truly does give you hope for the world.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

East of Eden

by John Steinbeck

I have to start this post by saying that this is a recommendation, but be aware that this is not a terribly pleasant or easy book to read.  It is well written.  I love what it says about what it is to be human.  It gave me hope.  It tells stories of some good people.  It is making me think and look at myself and the world around me. 

But, it is a hard book to read.  Not just from the sheer size of it, but from the weight it will leave with you.  It is full of people who hurt each other.  It tells terrible stories about mean and ugly things.  There is not a lot of happiness here.  There rarely is much happiness in Steinbeck's works.  The other two works of his that I have read, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men did not tell happy stories either.  And yet I loved both of them.  I'm not sure I love this one quite as much as the other two, but it did give me even more respect for the author.  He was a brilliant thinker and writer.

The books covers the lives of two California families, moving down the generations as they interact with each other, and ultimately ending with two brothers who reenact the Bible story of Cain and Abel.  This synopsis sounds very simplistic in comparison to the depths of the book itself.

It really comes down to the question of what being human really means.  Its main thesis is about our freedom to choose between good and evil.  That our good or bad actions are not set by predestination, lineage, or birthright, but that we can choose what we will be.  That no one is perfect, and it is the combination of our good and bad tendencies that make each of us so wonderfully human.  No matter what kind of bad things happen to us or what kind of bad things people do to us, we still have a choice within ourselves as to whether we will react in love or hate.  It is about understanding that choice and our freedom to make it, and accepting ourselves as human, which includes making mistakes, but also choosing often to be good and kind.

Steinbeck always manages to find these precious nuggets of hope and beauty amid the struggles of humanity, but in this book especially, these nuggets are few and far between, and often you feel like you are wading endlessly through unhappiness to get to each one.  For some of you, it will be worth the energy expended to read it.  But for others, you may not feel up to it, especially if you want a quick read or an easy read.  Honestly, though I'm glad I've read it, I can't say I enjoyed it.  And yet I feel that it will stick with me for a while.  Not in a bad way like some books, where my mind returns again and again to scenes that I would much rather forget.  But in a way that I think will help me try to be a better person.

East of Eden leaves you with a lot of thinking to do, mostly about yourself and what kind of person you are. It's not a terribly comfortable feeling, but sometimes that can be good for us.

I hope this will still make sense in the morning, but I felt like I needed to get this all written down tonight so I can sleep.  Take my thoughts for what they are worth.  As this book points out, "Thou mayest choose for thyself..."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith

A friend of mine recently said she had finally gotten around to reading this book, and then exclaimed, "How did I miss this one for so long?!"  I felt the exact same way.  My mom had this book on her bookshelf all the years I was growing up.  I remember the cover distinctly.  Yet, it got passed up year after year.  Occasionally, as I would browse through her books for a new read, I would ask her about it and she would be surprised I hadn't read it yet.  Finally, I found it as a book-on-tape and listened to it on my commute.

This is a story about Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in a poor area of Brooklyn.  The images Ms. Smith draws of the people in her life and the daily life of early twentieth century city dwellers are strong and memorable.  Like the "Tree of Heaven" which is a hardy tree that grew invasive in the vacant lots of New York City, Francie Nolan flourishes in seemingly inhospitable circumstances.  She has a mother that works hard to support a drunken father, but her father is still and good and kind man.  An illiterate but entertaining aunt who has many men, but cannot have children.  Tough grandparents who immigrated from Germany.  There are myriads of other memorable characters that influence her life and she comes of age.  This book shows, through Francie's eyes, the political and social changes of the time, as well as experiences of war, race relations, immigration, and first love.

Francie is a wonderful narrator of her life, never wallowing in self-pity or getting sappy, just presenting her life for the reader to enjoy and be a part of.  It is a long book, but one would hardly know it because the story draws you in so well that it is hard to put it down.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tacky the Penguin

by Helen Lester

Tacky the Penguin is...well...tacky. He doesn't quite fit in with the other proper penguins. He's always doing things a little different. The others think he's just too weird, until his crazy antics save them all from a bunch of penguin hunters.

We have a lot in common, Tacky and I. In fact, my good friends know my "Penguin" nickname and how it came to be. It's a story I don't need to tell here because its not that exciting really, but let's just say that like Tacky, I've always tried to embrace the things that make me a little different.

Children's picture books require a good illustrator almost as much as a good author, and Lynn Munsinger does not disappoint. This is a lovely and funny book that shares a great message about being yourself. There are also a number of other Tacky books that further share this lovable bird's unique personality. Make this a birthday or Christmas gift for any of the young readers in your life. Or even the old ones like me!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Walk Two Moons

by Sharon Creech

There's nothing better to read on a road-trip than a road-trip story.  So if you are taking a big trip before fall arrives and school starts, pick up this book and laugh and cry along the way.  Salamanca Tree Hiddle travels from Ohio to Idaho with her eccentric and hysterically funny grandparents.  They are going to visit her mother's grave, which is near where she died in an accident.  Salamanca doesn't tell anyone that the real reason she wants to go is because she believes her mother is not dead and she can bring her back.  And even though much of the book is concentrated around Salamanca and her mother, the real story is about her relationship with her father and the new woman in his life.

I love the layers of this book, the different and complicated relationships of the family, as well as the stories stacked on each other.  As the trio travels, Salamanca tells her grandparents the story of Phoebe Longbottom, a girl who has many interesting adventures, and who also is searching for her lost mother.  Her story is very similar to Salamanca's own, and the way she uses it to explain and sort out her own life gives the book a depth and richness that keeps you intrigued.  But the real stars of the book are Gram and Gramps, who keep you laughing the whole time, but also touch your heart with the love they share. 

Another Newbery Medal Winner that is worthy of the honor.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


by Roald Dahl

The BFG is a Big Friendly Giant who whisks a little girl away from an orphanage one night, after she catches him blowing dreams into the rooms of other children.  In typical Roald Dahl fashion, this book is filled with humor that is just a little dark, a fantastic chain of events, heartwarming friendships, and justice for the bad guys.  The author has a vivid and quirky imagination which all children will enjoy.  I also like that he doesn't always ignore the darker side of life.  He himself had a rather dismal childhood in the time when English children were sent to boarding schools.  This upbringing obviously colored his writing, which you can also read more about in his autobiography called "Boy".

This was the first of Dahl's books that my mom read to me when we were growing up, so it will always be my favorite.  We also enjoyed reading some of his other books together, such as Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Danny the Champion of the World, The Witches, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Read this one before someone attempts to make a bad movie out of it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ella Minnow Pea

"a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable"
by Mark Dunn

Don't let the subtitle scare you away.  To do a rough translation, it means "a fable about letters that is written in a progressively limited way."  To some of you this may sound a little boring, but trust me, it is a fascinating and fun story with an underlying message that reminds us all of the importance of our freedoms, particularly the freedom of speech.  At first it seems like a simple little story about an imaginary land called Nollop, which is named after a man who invented the pangram (a sentence which uses all the letters of the alphabet).  Their society is focused around words and language, and all is well until the letter Z falls down off the monument commemorating the pangram.  Some see it as a simple accident, while others see it as a "sign" and decide to make it illegal to use the letter Z in any spoken or written communication.  This begins a chain of events which leads to, as one review says so well, a "linguistic siege".  Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living in Nollop who sets out to save her society. 

What is particularly clever about this book is that the author himself is under his own writing constraints, as laid out by the book, and reading his sentences as letters disappear is challenging, funny, and sometimes infuriating.  The title alone gives you an idea of the word play throughout.  It is engaging and an easy read, despite all the "wordy" references.  A cleverly written book that makes an important point about how we should never become complacent about fighting for our freedoms.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

I know a lot of you may have already read this series, but just in case you haven't, I had to get this recommendation done because the third book in the series will be released soon and I can't wait!

This is considered a young adult sci-fi fiction book, but adults can enjoy it just as much as youth, and I personally found it quite gripping.  I can see why it is considered a sci-fi book, but it is more about the human spirit than anything.  It will keep you on the edge of your seat, or in my case bed, since I finished it at 3am. 

Set in a future post-apocalyptic time where 13 districts of people are ruled over by one powerful Capitol government, the Hunger Games are forced to be played every year by a boy and girl from each district.  It is a game of survival where they are supposed to kill each other until only one remains the victor.  The Games are used by the Capitol as a form of entertainment, but also as a reminder to the districts of their lower status and to keep them in subjection.

It sounds disturbing and it is.  However, I am a fairly sensitive soul when it comes to disturbing and scary topics.  I often have nightmares about books and movies that are just not worth it, no matter how good the material.  This book did not bother me.  I felt Collins covered the graphic parts with restraint, but did not gloss over them either.  I have heard some say that it was too disturbing for them, so take that as you will.

The characters feel real and their relationships are complicated.  Collins does a good job of leading you to think something predictable will happen, and then turning it to something you wouldn't expect.  It leaves you satisfied and interested for the next book, but does not wrap up everything into a pretty, happy ending.  The second book, "Catching Fire" did the first book justice and I won't tell you about it because if you read the first, I don't doubt you'll be hooked.  The third book "Mockingjay" is being released August 24th.

It's refreshing to find a new series which everyone is talking about, and which is worthy of all the attention.

Friday, August 13, 2010

James Herriott Books

During college I got the fabulous opportunity to study for 4 months in Wales, and also got to briefly visit parts of Ireland and England.  I loved every minute of it!  Wales is a pretty quite area of the world, unless a Rugby match is on, and mostly it is a place of rolling green hills, castle ruins, and a whole lot of sheep.  While I was there, the landscape and people I met often reminded me of stories by James Herriott.  His books are considered fiction, although they are loosely based on his life as a veterinary surgeon in England.  He wrote numerous short stories, the best of which are contained in these books:

All Creatures Great and Small
All Things Bright and Beautiful
All Things Wise and Wonderful
The Lord God Made Them All
Every Living Thing

Herriott, whose actual name is James Alfred Wight, tells stories about the people and farmers and animals of the Yorkshire countryside, with laughter, thoughtfulness, at times sadness, and often with a good eye for the absurd.  The way he describes the life of a vet will give you a new appreciation for the job, but he also covers his brief stint in the military, as well as his family life.  He gives forthright details about the illnesses and procedures, covering a period of time when new advances in veterinary medicine were slowly starting to be implemented.  Yet Herriot constantly keeps his focus on the humanity of both the animals and their people, without getting overly sentimental.  There are characters in every book that you will never forget, some good and some bad, but mostly ones that will just make you laugh.  Herriott pokes fun at himself as much as any other.

These are not books just for animal lovers.  I myself am not much of an animal-lover.  We have a cat, which truthfully I wish we didn't.  I will never get a dog, at least not of my own volition.  I liked the cows and goats and chickens that my parents raised us with just fine, but didn't particularly mind when butchering time came around either.  I love these books because it goes beyond the animals, to observe and comment on how people interact with the natural world around them.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

I've been telling everyone about this book lately, so if you've already heard my thoughts or read it yourself, then you can ignore this post.  If not, go find a copy.  Its been on the LA Times bestseller list at #1 for a year, so you may have to get on a library waiting list unless you can find someone to loan it to you.

This books tells the stories of a group of African-American maids who work for Southern white families, during the time of the Jim Crow laws, which touted the idea of "separate, but equal".  Of course, it didn't end up being equal at all and wasn't really much of an emancipation.  The book also tells the story of a white woman who decides to write about their stories, even if it means that she will face repercussions from the southern society she lives in.

One would expect the heart-breaking stories of hatred and abuse found here, but the books delves to a deeper level regarding the interaction of the white people to their "colored" servants.  The relationship of black nurses to the white children they raise was fascinating, as well as the relationships of the women themselves, both in the white and black communities.  It put me in the time and place with such force that I was loathe to have to leave it and wanted their stories to continue for much longer.  I couldn't put it down so ended up reading the entire book in about a day and a half, finishing at 3am!  I love when that happens.

There are also plenty of moments of humor, one of which is so funny that I couldn't stop giggling while I was reading, so much that my husband actually wanted to know what I was laughing about.  I can't give it away because it is a pretty big part of the plot, but let's just say you will never think of pie the same way again!  This is Stockett's first book, and it is brilliant.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Patrick McManus Books

Anyone go camping or fishing this weekend?  Do you find that not all your outdoor activities always go as well as you planned?  If so, you should check out the humorist Patrick F. McManus.  He has a lot of books, but my favorites are his original first four:

A Fine and Pleasant Misery
They Shoot Canoes, Don't They?
Never Sniff a Gift Fish
The Grasshopper Trap

My family and I often read these books to each other on long road trips, which kept us all entertained, but also made it necessary to stop for extra bathroom breaks because we were laughing so hard.  If you are an outdoorsman, or if you have perhaps a father-in-law like me that is obsessed with hunting and fishing, these are the books for you.  The names he uses for his regular characters gives you some idea of the kind of humor you will find.  Retch Sweeney, the best friend.  His little sister, nicknamed The Troll.  The crotchety old neighbor man/mentor called Rancid Crabtree.  And don't forget about the family dog, Strange.

Even if you have no love for outdoor things, you will still find these stories funny.  I can't remember one family camping trip where we didn't have at least a few things go wrong, which makes these stories so familiar to me.  Such chapters as "How to Go Splat" and "Poof! No Eyebrows" are classics.  But if you hesitate in my recommendation, just pick up the book The Shoot Canoes, Don't They? and skip to the chapter called "My First Deer, and Welcome to It" and then decide for yourself.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mrs. Mike

by Benedict and Nancy Freedman

I love stories about the invincible women who lived during the early frontier days, mostly because it makes me appreciate all the wonderful things I have like electricity, running water, clean clothes that don't involve petticoats or bloomers, and no hard manual labor.  But those trials made for some tough, independent, amazing women.  Mrs. Mike is no exception.  She falls in love with a mounty and then faces trial, hardship and tragedy in the wilderness of the Canadian north.  It is a wonderful and realistic love story as well as a tale of survival, based on Kathy O'Fallen's real life experiences.

The descriptions of the scenery and characters are well-written and puts you very much into the moment.  The writing does not gloss over the hardships they face, or make the tragedies any less heart-wrenching than they might have felt at the time.  I also appreciate seeing their young romance blossom into a strong marriage.  Read this book and then do some research on your own ancestors and find out about the strong women who brought you to where you are today.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

by Mary E. Pearson

She wasn't supposed to survive the accident.  But she did.

From the beginning, you know there is something odd about Jenna Fox and the circumstances surrounding her accident, coma, and now her reawakening.  It's hard to review this book without giving away the secret, so you'll just have to believe me when I say this is a fascinating book about a girl that is trying to discover herself and the mystery surrounding her recovery.  Not only does she deal with having been moved clear across the country abruptly and trying to make new friends, but she also must deal with strange ways her parents and grandmother act toward her. 

I figured the mystery out shortly before it was revealed, but up until then it kept me in quite a lot of suspense and made me feel slightly uneasy.  I love when a book can do that so subtly.  What really surprised me was the questions and issue that it brought up, which made me thing long and hard about my beliefs in the soul, science, life, and mortality.  Yet the book was not heavy-handed with this issues and did not feel like it was preaching to me.  It only placed the questions before me and made me really think about how far I would go to save someone I love.

I wish I could say more, but I can't.  So please go read it and then I'll finally have someone to talk to about it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Original Oz Books

by L. Frank Baum

We've all seen the classic Wizard of Oz movie, perhaps even read the book.  But not too many people realize that L. Frank Baum wrote a total of 14 Oz books, all of which I recommend today, both for you and your kids.  The original favorite characters of the Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, Dorothy, and Toto are in all the subsequent books, but many new and fantastical friends join the journey.  Polychrome, the Rainbow's Daughter, Tik-Tok the Mechanical Man, and the Nome King are just a few of my favorites.  These books, more than any others, take me straight back to my childhood because they tell stories that come directly from childhood imagination, unfettered by something so boring as reality.  Baum tells good stories that are easy and fun to read, and will make you smile.  If only I could own a tree that grew lunch boxes and dinner pails, then I would be a happy girl!

The 14 books in order (which is how one should always read series) are:

-The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
-The Marvelous Land of Oz
-Ozma of Oz
-Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz
-The Road to Oz
-The Emerald City of Oz
-The Patchwork Girl of Oz
-Tik-Tok of Oz
-The Scarecrow of Oz
-Rinkitink In Oz
-The Lost Princess Of Oz
-The Tin Woodman Of Oz
-The Magic of Oz
-Glinda Of Oz

Many other authors since L. Frank Baum have tried writing Oz books and I have read some of them, but none are as good as the originals.  I highly recommend reading these to or with your kids, just as my mom did with me.  Leave your boring Kansas lives for a moment each day and go visit the wonderful world of Oz.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Survival in Auschwitz

by Primo Levi

I was actually planning on writing about one of my favorite childhood books today, but last night I caught the end of a great old movie, Judgement at Nuremberg, about one of the Nazi war criminal trials.  It has some of the best actors and actresses including Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, and Judy Garland.  Even a young William Shatner appears.  I read later that many of these big names took reduced pay for the film because of the importance of it being told.  If you've never seen this movie, you should.  It is one of the best court room dramas ever, not to mention it reminds us about just how easy it is for good men to be corrupted by doing what is easy instead of what is right.  The ending will make you think long and hard about how you might have acted, given the terrible choices of the time.

Perhaps the subject matter was why I didn't sleep well last night, and I woke up this morning reminded of the book Survival in Auschwitz which I read for a class in my MFA program.  It is a hard book to read, as any Holocaust account should be, but it is an important one to read as well.  It covers the horrors of the concentration camps but also reminds us of the strength of the human spirit to persevere in unimaginable circumstances.  What I loved most about this book is the chapters that talk about the daily living of the camps, detailing the work they did, and the intricate trading system between the inmates.  There are even brief moments of humor, however absurd it may seem.  These brief chapters of normalcy interspersed with chapters of horror brought a unique perspective to the book.  Levi also delves into the workings of the human mind and how different people dealt with the reality of the death camps in different ways.

Levi was lucky to have been put in Auschwitz towards the end of the war so only spent 9 months there, but at the end of the book he details the equally horrific events that occur after the Nazis abandon the camps and leave the starving, sick, and wasted inmates to fend for themselves until they are rescued.  This part of the ordeal is a subject I had not read about much in other books, but the chapter titled "The Story of Ten Days" is one that I will never forget. 

Read this book, if only to once again remember what should never be forgotten.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

by Allison Hoover Bartlett

I felt it appropriate to start my recommendations off with a piece of nonfiction that delves into the world of literary obsession.  The title alone was enough to hook me and the story is fascinating.  It is the story of two men, both obsessed with literature, who go about feeding their passion in two very different ways. John Gilkey is a master book thief who simply views rare books as status symbols more than good reading material.  He believes he is simply a different kind of book "collector".  Ken Sanders is the man who goes after Gilkey with equal passion, and finally brings him to justice.

Who knew the world of rare books could be so exciting?! 

I loved the book because it talks about books, bookstores, rare books, book conventions, booksellers, personal libraries, etc.  It was fascinating to learn about a man that could so utterly convince himself that stealing books was not really a crime and that he deserved to own them, even if he couldn't afford them.  The details about rare book collecting were fascinating, as well as the ingenious techniques Gilkey used to steal books.  The story of Ken Sanders and the lengths to which he goes to catch Gilkey will keep you turning pages.  If you too have a literary obsession, read this book and find out if you are really as obsessed as you think.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fact and Fiction

Fact: I love reading.  I love books.  I love holding them, smelling them, owning them, giving them away to be read, having them come home to me again.  I love talking about books. 

Fiction: I am the most well-read person you will ever meet. 

I read a lot, but not compared to many.  My own mother has me beat by a long shot.  In fact, I get great glee when I come across a book I can recommend to her, since it is so often the other way around.  The more I have studied literature and read books, the more I realize just how little I have read.  And how much there is that awaits me.  It almost makes me salivate to think of the next book I will stay up late devouring. 

I find myself often asked for book recommendations.  It doesn't take much to have me overflowing with words, lists, titles, authors.  And yet, there is always another that I remember later.  Always another.  May it ever be so. 

This "room with windows" will be my bookshelf.  Here I will collect and converse about all good books.  Other opinions will differ from mine, as would be expected.  Opinions are both fact and fiction.  And as one of my favorite quotes reads, "Fact and Fiction are different truths."  I hope you find your own truths within a few of these books.