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

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..."