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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

I got this book as a gift a Christmas or two ago and devoured it, which is probably why it came to mind now, so soon after the holidays.  The title itself was one I couldn't resist.  From the very moment I started reading, I was hooked.  Its hard not to be mesmerized when you figure out that the narrator of this book is Death himself.  Nothing if not a unique perspective, and the author does a fabulous job of imaging what life might look like from the perspective of Death.

The story itself is about a young girl named Liesel who is a foster child living in Nazi Germany.  She cannot resist the power of books and begins stealing them.  Her foster father helps her share the books with those around them who are desperate for hope, something to inspire them amidst the terrors around them.  She also befriends a Jewish man who they are hiding in their basement and the books become a lifeline between them.

You might wonder if this book, with Death and Nazis so heavily involved, isn't a little dark and depressing, but it actually has many wonderful moments of love, hope, and compassion.  That isn't to say there aren't moments that wrench your soul.

Its a hard book to explain or to put into words.  Let's just say I have not met anyone who has not liked this book and I've talked to a lot of people about it.  And its won quite a number of awards.  Well worth a first, second, third read (and so on)....Enjoy!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Peter and the Starcatchers

by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Yet another take on the story of Peter Pan?  Why yes.  I was a little skeptical to start, and at first the book seemed to confirm my doubt.  The beginning of the book really seemed to drag for me.  I couldn't really get into it.  I almost even gave up finishing it.  But curiosity made me keep reading, wondering how all this would tie in to the well-known story of Peter Pan.  And finally it all came together and I was hooked. 

The authors impressed me with their ability to weave a lot of little details into the story that would later all come together in clever ways.  Each time a new yet familiar character was introduced (the crocodile, mermaids, Tinkerbell, etc.) it made me smile.  But they did each in fascinating and imaginative ways that I am now very interested in reading the next in the series.  You could almost consider this a "prequel" to the Peter Pan story we know.

It begins with a boy named Peter who is an orphan.  He and the other "lost boys" from the orphanage are sent by ship to be slaves.  On board is a mysterious trunk and strange things happen when people get near it.  There is also a girl named Molly on board.  They are stranded on an island after being chased by pirates.  I'll let you read the rest...

So, I think this is a good book and would be especially enjoyable for a young adult audience.  For adults, it might be a little slow at the beginning, but I think that can be somewhat explained by the fact that there is a lot of setup needed at the beginning, and I think the reader is naturally more impatient to get to the action because they already think they know the story that is coming.  But it will surprise and delight you.  I also found the explanation of how the "Starcatchers" play into the story slightly cheesy, but necessary to put a little more background and serious nature into the fanciful tale we all know and love.  I like the slightly darker undertones that this story adds.

Have you read this book?  What do you think?  Are the other books in the series worth a read?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Packing for Mars

by Mary Roach

What did you answer as a kid when someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up?  If you answered, or even thought "Astronaut!" then this book is for you.  It is about the daily ins-and-outs of what it is really like to be in the space program, or even be in space.  It shows the stark reality of what being an astronaut entails.  Much of it is not pleasant or fun.  I no longer ever want to be an astronaut.  But I have a much great appreciation for those who do.

This book is non-fiction, but it is quite funny.  Roach has quite the sense of humor and all her little side comments and notes are hysterical.  Apparently her other books also look into some of the more strange parts of life, including my next read of hers called "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers."  Sounds fascinating, eh?!

Anyway, back to this book.  It covers the space program from birth to its current status.  It talks about the early pioneers, the monkeys, and the ships themselves.  It explores some of the more unpleasant aspects of space exploration including (but not limited to) peeing in space, what kind of food astronauts eat, is not showering for a month acceptable, and is sex even possible in zero gravity?  I've never wondered about these things until now, but after reading the book I wonder why I never thought of these things.  This book may not be best read if you are grossed about by bodily functions.  It sure gives you a better appreciation for gravity and what it does for us every day.

As much as this book take a somewhat "irreverent" look at space travel and all the weird things that go along with it, Roach does a great job of still making it all seem worth it, at least for those who have a passion for it.  The men and women who work on space travel, especially the ones behind the scenes, are really amazing and fascinating people.  But even space explorers have to pee!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Stroke of Insight

by Jill Bolte Taylor

I read this book right after I finished Mr. Chartwell and they complimented each other well.  As explained in my previous review, the first book is about depression and is fictional, but quite unique and rather funny.  It is a story about how much we can or cannot control depression in our lives.  By far the best book I've read in a long, long time.

My Stroke of Insight is a non-fiction book written by a brain-scientist who actually has a stroke and lives to tell about it.  Not just lives, but thrives and is able, over a long period of time, to come to understand what happened in her brain and then explain it to the reader.  It is fascinating!  The detailed description of how the stroke starts to effect her is scary and intriguing all in one.  How she struggles to get help is miraculous.  I personally appreciated very much her discussion of her long and difficult recovery and found it very true and personal to me about what things helped her recovery and what things hindered it.  Been there, done that!  And I also have to say that Taylor's amazing mother that helps her through every step of her recovery reminds me of my own.  There is nothing quite like a strong mother to literally work miracles when you need them most.

And finally, after she goes through her own personal experience, she then lays out a fascinating discussion about the left brain and right brain and how the work together and separately.  She brings science into the realm of PMA (positive mental attitude), spirituality, and creativity, and describes how we can actually use our brains to help ourselves be better people.  She makes it clear that we really can control our thoughts and our actions and our brain a lot more than we think we can.  Yet she also praises the amazing strength of the human brain and recognizes that we have a lot more to learn and that we cannot control everything.

I found her science very accessible for a non-logical reader like myself, and the diagrams and pictures were helpful.  Taylor also included a couple of extremely helpful lists, two of which I think everyone should check out.  The first simply listed the signs of when someone is having a stroke so that they can get help faster.  Here it is, so you will know:

S = Speech, or problems with language
T = Tingling, or numbness in your body
R = Remember, or problems with thinking
O = Off-balance, or problems with coordination
K = Killer headache
E = Eyes, or problems with vision

The second list was even more important to me.  It was called "40 Things I Needed the Most" and it laid out the things that she found most helpful for recovery.  Having been through numerous surgeries and in and out of hospital settings, I found this list to be very true and should be read by anyone visiting a hospital, nursing home, or someone recovering at home.  A couple of the items on the list that I especially agreed with are these:

1. Please don't raise your voice—I'm not deaf, I'm wounded.
2. Honor the healing power of sleep.
3. Speak to me directly, not about me to others. (this should apply to doctors and nurses especially)
4. Remember that in the absence of some functions, I have gained other abilities.
5. Call in the troops! Create a healing team for me. Send word out to everyone so they can send me love. Keep them abreast of my condition and ask them to do specific things to support me
6. Approach me with an open heart and slow your energy down. Take your time.
7. Make eye contact with me
8. Trust that I am trying—just not with your skill level or on your schedule.

This is a rare and fascinating book where science, miracles, spirituality, and the brain all come together to form a wonderfully inspiring read, and its all true!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Midwife's Apprentice

by Karen Cushman

A lot of depth is packed into this simple-looking book.  The story is set in the medieval times and is about a young girl who is an orphan and unloved by everyone.  She eventually is taken in and becomes the midwife's apprentice, learning who she is in the process. 

What I love about this book, and which is obviously why it won the Newbery Medal, is that it really puts you into the time and place it is set.  The descriptions are visceral and thick with wonderful imagery, both of the beauty and the darkness of the times.  I felt like I could literally touch and walk right into the meadows and cottages.  The main character is the same way, a very authentic feeling girl who does not know where she fits in.  The language she and the characters use also feels true to the times.  Not once does the book fall into any sort of a trite or romanticized way of looking at the world it portrays.

At times I am grateful for a book like this because it is a breath of fresh air from the complicated, dark, and romance-laden children/young adult books that are all the rage now.  A small and honest story that nevertheless can be told in any time and age - the story of a young girl learning that she too is of worth in the world.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Perfect Square

by Michael Hall

Have I mentioned how much I love libraries?!  There is something so rewarding when you find a book that you can touch and turn pages, and the illustrations are beautiful.  Especially when it is a children's book.  Online just can't do them justice.

My recent find is called Perfect Square and its a simple book, but really is almost perfect in its loveliness.  It starts out introducing a perfect square who is happy to be a square.  But then something happens to it and it gets torn up, or cut, or ripped.  So instead of being sad, the square picks up the pieces and makes itself into something wonderful, like a fountain, or river or bridge.  In the end, the square finds that being perfectly square isn't quite as wonderful as it thought at the beginning so it makes itself into something new.

The colors are vibrant, the pictures simple but imaginative, and the book shares a lovely thought that is not too overbearing - that maybe being what we think of as "perfect" isn't all its cracked up to be, and being different is fun.

So, from one "imperfect" square to another, go get this book and share it with your kids.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Auntie's Bookstore and My "Little" Brother

I wish I had a new book recommendation for you.  I have been reading a lot of things lately, but none worthy of a full post.  I read The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton which was interesting but a little anticlimactic at the end.  I tried reading a couple of other highly recommended books but found there was just too much junk in them, which for me usually means sex on a too weird or too graphic level.  I find that I just don't feel like wasting my time on those books, no matter how good they are, because its the bad images that seem to stick in my mind.  Not worth it for me.

I will say that I did read an excellent book called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.  The reason I didn't do a full post on it was that it was rife with language that I did not appreciate and did not find necessary at all to the story, which really annoys me and makes it hard for me to recommend to just anyone, unless I know that language doesn't bother them.  However, the book was good enough to keep me turning pages despite the language.  Its fascinating because the narrator of the story is autistic so its a bit bizarre, but also fascinating and quite funny at times.  And I found that it gave me a small bit of insight into the thought patterns of a few autistic people I know, and I hope it might help me a little bit both understand and empathize with how they interact with the world and with me.

My "little" brother and me - 2004
Anyway, I digress.  My post is about Auntie's Bookstore.  Actually its really about my brother.  He's the youngest of the family, but now the tallest.  We've always had fun hanging out together.  He recently went to basic training and then to jump school for Airborn (where they jump out of military airplanes at very short distances with full gear on - crazy!)  and is now being stationed in Alaska.  He's pretty excited, and we are all happy he has found something that he loves to do.  So we were able to get a few hours together yesterday for a lunch date.  And then he said the magic words: "Could we run down to Auntie's and get me a couple of books for the flight?"  Is there really any other answer to a statement like that?!

Auntie's Bookstore is a mecca for book lovers in Spokane.  Its locally owned, right downtown in a beautiful old building with a big grand staircase right in the middle.  I especially love the little alcove for young readers.  Its got character, unlike the chain stores.

We wandered blissfully through the shelves and parked the kids in a big chair to look at picture books.  I gave my brother a couple recommendations, mostly focused on his current interest which is sci-fi and some fantasy.  We got him a copy of The Hunger Games, and then found a copy of a one of my latest favorite fantasies, The Name of the Wind.  He should be well-entertained on the long flight to Alaska.  The kids each got a "Max & Ruby" book.

And I left without a single book for me.  But it was worth it because I got to spend a couple hours with a great brother - love you Toady!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mr. Chartwell

by Rebecca Hunt

Sir. Winston Churchill, the famous British politician, was a brilliant and talented man.  What some do not know is that he also suffered all his life from bouts of manic depression.  He called his depression the "Black Dog."

This book takes that premise and creates a fabulously inventive, original, and witty fiction about Churchill's interaction with his "Black Dog" and also tells the story of a woman named Esther who is also dealing with her own depression.  It is a quick read and quite compelling.

When you first start, the story is a little strange and mysterious.  But it leaves you intrigued, wondering just who this "Mr. Chartwell" is, and if you are able to suspend your disbelief a bit and let the story unfold, it is a wonderful narrative.  It may sound depressing, but it is actually full of subtle humor and wonderful descriptions.  I especially loved the historical details that Hunt includes about Churchill and his family relationships, and one cannot get enough of his fabulous words. 

My mother has long suffered from depression and while hers may not be as bad as what Churchill struggled with, it has many of the same characteristics.  This book gave me a better understanding of what it must be like to live with depression constantly threatening otherwise happy days.  It is an inspiring book and gives hope to those with depression, or those who try to help others deal with it.

If you know of anyone with depression, this should be high on your reading list.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Wrinkle in Time

by Madeleine L'Engle

A classic science fantasy novel about Meg, a young girl who goes on an adventure to solve the mystery of her father's sudden disappearance.  He vanishes while working on a government project called a tesseract.  She travels with her little brother Charles,  and a friend from school named Calvin.  They also meet three old ladies who help them on their journey - Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.

Eventually they travel to Camazotz where they find Meg's father trapped in a society which is controlled by a single mind that doesn't allow anyone to think for themselves.  To rescue their father, the children must fight against the powerful controlling mind and discover the one that cannot be controlled - love.

This is a lovely story about a family that is a little different than most (both parents are scientists and Charles is a super-genius) but who love and take care of each other.  It incorporates simple ideas of science and dimension easily, allowing even young children to understand the concept of a "wrinkle in time."  It has a little touch of romance, and fun realistic characters who are far from perfect and make decisions based on pride, flattery, and jealousy.  But ultimately it is a wonderful story of how good virtues can overrule the bad. 

This book has two others that follow it, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, but I found that I did not enjoy them nearly as much as this first book.  It has been some time since I read them, but it is not usually a good sign when I cannot remember a thing about them.  This book however is one that you will remember for a long time, and enjoy reading again and again.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


by Laura Hillenbrand

I cannot wait a minute longer to write about the book I just finished.  I had not planned to finish it so quickly, as there were a number of other activities going on this weekend, but I could not stop.  

Unbroken is an astounding story about Louie Zamperini who starts out life as a wild kid but ends up channeling all that pent up energy into running.  He becomes a world-class athlete and even runs in the Olympics.  But everything changes when he's drafted into WWII.  What then follows is a harrowing story of a crash-landing in the ocean and a miraculous story of survival.

One feels like this part of the story alone would be enough for one amazing story, but it continues as Louie is then taken as a POW and put through horrific experiences.  It would not do the man or the book any justice to try to even describe what happens to him, but suffice it to say it will stay with you, both in the horror and in the wonderful depths of human spirit shown.

And then at the end, it becomes a miraculous story about a man who loses his life and then finds it again and ends up being able to do what, to most of us, would seem almost incomprehensible in such circumstances.  He forgives.

As many of my friends and family know, I am pretty squeamish when it comes to things such as violence and torture (which I don't find to be a problem - perhaps more people should be less tolerant of it).  This book is definitely a hard read through some passages, but I will say that although I was horrified at the things done to the POWs, the book was written in such a way that told the truth but made it readable for me, without feeling that it would give me nightmares for weeks.  I guess I feel that the book pulls your through all those things by the sheer unbroken spirit of the main character.

I also very much appreciated the details put into the end of the book, especially in discussing the troubles that POWs and military men faced when returning from the war.  Both my grandfathers served, one in WWII and one in Korea.  One was injured by a grenade and sent home.  He still has nightmares, flashbacks, still flinches at the sound of loud explosions, cannot watch fireworks, and kicks and attacks imaginary foes in his dreams.  He is now in his 80s, but even this many years later, the things he survived haunt him.  And that was just as a soldier, not even as a POW.  I knew about some of his experiences and appreciated his great sacrifice, but I know I'll never be able to truly understand how it changed him.

However, something about this book helped me more fully realize the reality that many of these men faced and are still facing.  I thought of some of those old vets who perhaps I've seen begging or homeless and I feel a great love for them.  I am ashamed that perhaps I have judged some of these people in the past without knowing the things that they may have gone through and survived, so that I can have the freedom and comforts I so often take for granted.  I now have a brother and brother-in-law in the military and am so grateful for those who are so willing to serve, because it is not small thing.

Finally, I say again that for all the sadness contained within this story, it still gave me an ever-pervading feeling of hope throughout even the darkest moments of the narrative.  It is a great gift for an author to be able to convey that feeling in a book.  It is an even more priceless gift for a person to have this in their life, as Louie did.  I have felt it an honor to have spent the last few days in such amazing company.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Art & Max

by David Wiesner 

A very clever children's book with some lovely illustrations, this book is recommended for parents and kids alike, but particularly to anyone interested in art.

Art and Max are two lizards who decide to do a little painting in the desert one day.  But things get a little out of hand when Max gets a little overzealous with the paintbrush and creates a bit of a catastrophe.  The book takes off at this point with brilliant illustrations that include paint, watercolor and line drawings, and which all incorporate into the actual plot of the story seamlessly.  I love a good book that is cleverly written but still tells a good story without drawing attention away from the characters. 

Wiesner is a three-time Caldecott medalist, so the beautiful illustrations and focus on art concepts is not a huge surprise, and it makes for a lovely, fun and funny story that both you and your children will love to read and discover together.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

One woman's death changed the history of medicine forever.  Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and she didn't even know what she was a part of because they didn't tell her.  This book tells the amazing story of an African-American woman whose cancer cells were taken from her without her knowledge or permission.  And it was not for many, many years that even her descendants were told the whole story. 

I read this book for a book club and thoroughly enjoyed it.  As one fellow reader said, "It's the kind of book that makes you feel smart."  The description of scientific things is well written and makes it an easy read, especially as there are so many lively, interesting, and crazy characters involved.  One can tell that the author put a lot of work into researching the story fully and telling it with as much honesty as possible, considering that much of the story was covered up for many years, sometimes just by bad judgment, and sometimes by outright lies. 

The really amazing story within the books is about Lacks' descendants, specifically her daughter and the journey that she goes on to discover the truth about her mother's cells.  Mixed in with all this are issues of race, religion, poverty, health care, and the questions of what happens to body and spirit when death occurs.  No matter what your belief, the book makes clear that Henrietta Lacks truly did become immortal and has effected nearly every person living on the planet right now.  We can't change the disturbing events of the past, but by reading this book we can, in a small way, do justice to Henrietta and honor her for the part she plays in many of our lives today.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Summer of the Monkeys

by Wilson Rawls

In honor of Father's Day coming up this weekend, I thought I'd write a review of a long-time favorite, The Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls.  You may recognize the author's name from his other well-loved work, Where the Red Fern Grows.  Both are set in areas of the Ozark Mountains and are about boys who love adventure, fun and animals.  Both stories tell about a boy's coming of age, learning that the world is bigger than just them, and learning to love and give beyond themselves.

Summer of the Monkey is about Jay Berry Lee and his grandfather who love to have adventure and a little mischief as well.  They hear about award money being given to anyone who can catch a troupe of monkeys that have escaped from a traveling circus.  Thus follows a number of attempts at catching the wily and irascible monkeys.  By the end, Jay Berry learns a lot about the monkeys, his grandfather, and himself.  And a lot of funny events come along the way.

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with Father's Day.  Books remind me of both my parents because they both love to read.  My mother reads voraciously, quickly and with dedicated intensity.  My father is more casual but prolific and wide-ranging in subject matter.  He will randomly pick up almost any book that someone else is reading and just start wherever they have left off, in the meantime often forgetting to mark their spot.  Sometimes he takes the book home with him, leaving the owner to wonder what happens next, sometimes for a week or two on end.  When we were younger, Mom read books aloud every night (Summer of the Monkeys was one I remember) and dad would usually lay down on the couch or floor and listen with his eyes closed.  Sometimes we made the mistake of thinking he'd fallen asleep and try to get near enough to tickle him or steal his glasses.  He would let us get close and then quickly snap his teeth at the outstretched fingers and grin.

I must say that as he ages, there are more and more times when he really does end up falling asleep.  But that is for another commentary.

This particular book reminds me of my own father in a few specific ways.  First, he's a bit of a redneck and I think would love nothing more than run around in torn up overalls with a big dog and chase 'coons.  Instead he works at a desk, fixes a never-ending line of broken-down cars, and puts up with a passel of noisy grand kids.  Second, he's a lot like the grandfather in this book who thinks its a great adventure to try and catch a bunch of monkeys with some pretty harebrained schemes and contraptions to do so.  The family joke is that dad truly believes he can fix or make anything with PVC, duct tape and gray glue.  Third, for all his redneck, crazy side, my father has a tender heart, much like the men in this book.  They put a tough front up sometimes, but they love their families and it shows.  That's my dad. 

But the main reason this book reminds me of my father is that at the end of the book, Jay Berry makes a hard decision that shows just how much he has grown up, a decision that involves a lot of generosity.  If you've read it, you'll know why this particular event touches my heart so much.  My father is one of the most generous people I know, always sacrificing what he wants to try and make everyone around him happy, and I have been one of his most prolific recipients. I am grateful for his ever-vigilant love and sustaining support. And if you still don't understand why this is all brought to my mind at Father's Day, then read this entry from my personal blog and you will get a small glimpse of the amazing father I am blessed to have.

Thanks Dad.

p.s. My personal blog is private so if you are a friend and interested in reading, send me your e-mail address and I will send you an invite.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Moon Over Manifest

by Clare Vanderpool

I'm currently without a book, waiting for some on order at the library and chomping at the bit to have them arrive.  So in the meantime, I figured if I can't read a book at least I can write about a book.  My latest enjoyable read is a Newbery Medal winner, most of which are usually a safe bet for a good book.  This one is about a young girl named Abilene who is used to leading a somewhat transient life with her father.  But one summer he decides to work a railroad job and sends her to live in Manifest, Kansas, a small town that was once his home.  Abilene discovers many interesting characters in the town, all of them connected in some way to her father's mysterious past.  Some old letters and newspapers leads the entire town down forgotten roads to where old secrets are revealed and remembered.  Secrets about an old mining town, about sons gone off to war, and about moonshine during the prohibition. 

Vanderpool sets the place of this book well.  The town of Manifest is memorable and interesting, and feels authentic to the time.  She gives you just enough mystery to keep the pages turning, and one big twist at the end is completely unexpected.  I also enjoy the technique of writing a story within a story.  The author helps transition between the past and present by placing old newspaper articles within the story that connect bits and pieces and also gives you clues as you go along.  The voices of each character are distinct.  Perhaps this is all because the story is loosely based on an actual Kansas town and on historical documents, not to mention stories passed down through the author's family.  This story feels like it could be one my Grandpa told me around the campfire at a family reunion.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Iceberg Hermit

by Arthur Roth

I love me a good survival story.  Especially when its based on a true story.  The Iceberg Hermit by Arthur Roth is just such a story, although it is based solely on the account of Allan Gordon himself, a story that many of his friends and neighbors discounted as fiction at the time.  But it makes for an awfully good story, no matter whether you believe it true or not.  Its hard for me to imagine making this kind of thing up.  The author discusses some of these issues in the last chapter of the book, putting up theories as to how Gordon's account could have been true or not. 

Allan Gordon is a young man who is working on a whaling ship in the year 1757 when it hits an iceberg and Gordon is left the sole survivor, stuck on an iceberg with polar bears.  Part of the ship is lodged on the iceberg, which is part of the reason he survives.  He eventually finds a way to leave the iceberg and meets a group of people who he believes are a tribe of Norse Greenlanders.  After seven years away, he finally returns home, only to find how much he has changed, as well as those he loves.

As Roth says in the last chapter, "What is important is that we want to believe that the story is true.  We want to believe that man is capable of overcoming the dangers Allan overcame."  That's why I read, because each good book makes me want to believe that I can be the hero, that I can overcome.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


by Tony Morphett

Science Fiction is a tough genre for me.  Some of it I really like, such as Ender's Game, I Robot, most everything by Ray Bradbury.  But there's a lot that too bizarre, too disturbing, or just too badly written to get into.  As many Sci-Fi readers might know, many of the really good works in this genre are in short-story form.  Not sure why, but that's what I've found.

One such short story is a family favorite called "Litterbug" by Tony Morphett.  Its about a guy named Rafferty who invents a garbage disposal that apparently vaporizes whatever you put in it.  However, he soon learns that things aren't getting vaporized, so much as transported elsewhere.  When his garbage starts coming back through the machine, he discovers that it is actually being sent to another planet.  From there, it becomes a decision of what kind of relationship to have with his new "friend" on the other side. 

It sounds odd, but this story is actually quite funny.  I can't even think of one other sci-fi story or book that could be considered funny, but this one is.  That's why it is so memorable to me.  I love that "Litterbug" is also a hopefully story, unlike many other sci-fi narratives which often involve being taken over by machines, aliens, each other, or just our own stupidity. 

The trouble with my post, however, is you may have difficulty locating this story.  Our family came across it many years ago in a collection simply titled "Science Fiction" (edited by Sylvia Z. Brodkin) and I believe it is acutally an old, out-of-print textbook.  It is worth trying to find however if you do like sci-fi, as it includes many other wonderful stories including more famous ones like "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury.  Other family favorites include "And He Built a Crooked House" by Robert Heinlein, and "The Winner" by Donald E. Westlake.  I did find some copies of this collection on Amazon, but only as used copies from various sellers, and a good copy will cost a fair amount.  I assume you may be able to find the story within other sci-fi collections, and it will certainly be worth the search.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Under Fishbone Clouds

by Sam Meekings

Another heavy read, but definitely worth the effort.  This book opened up much more Chinese history than I had ever before known, and yet I know it only just scratched the surface of a very complex society.  As heavy as all this sounds, the novel is actually all about love, the kind of love that grows between a couple, the kind of love that will last through life, death, and sacrifice.

I love that the novel's narrator is not one of the characters of the story, but is actually the Chinese Kitchen God, challenged by the Jade Emperor to figure out the workings of the human heart.  He follows the lives of two people as they learn to love each other, all while surviving extreme political and cultural upheaval.  I love the voice of the Kitchen God, who knows all, but is also down-to-earth and has an intriguing attachment to the two mortals. 

I also loved the poetic language that Meekings writes with.  I would sometimes drift off just reading the beautiful language and descriptions, then realize I wasn't quite processing what it was saying about the story.  But I always went back because the story really drew me in.  The beginning hooked me quickly, but I'll admit there was a short time in the early parts of the book it did slow a little more than I like in a narrative, but once it got into more of the political happenings, then I was caught once again in the story and it just got better and better.

Again, not an easy book to read.  It follows this husband and wife as they become swept up in the political changes of China before, through, and after the "Cultural Revolution."  I'd heard this term many times before but was honestly lacking in any knowledge at all about what that meant, other than it had something to do with socialism.  Well, this book solved that problem for me, at least a little.  I know now that the Cultural Revolution was about the working class rising up against the bourgeoisie and the beginnings of socialism.  That seems a simple enough explanation until you finish the book and have learned about the thousands that disappeared when they were sent to do forced labor in the countryside, thousands that died from straight out starvation, thousands that died from brutal beatings received from youth gangs.  That only mentions the human suffering, and added to that is the rejection and destruction of thousands of years of culture, books, science, learning, art, and creativity, all for the good of the "people".

And yet, despite all this horror, the Kitchen God does learn that the human heart can continue to love through all that, though the love changes into something more.  He has profound thoughts about what a marriage really is, and why people keep holding on to each other.

This booked helped me understand a little bit more about why China is what it is today.  I do not, in anyway, assume that I have anywhere near a full grasp of the culture and people, but this one small part of their history (which is long and varied) helped me better understand how they view themselves and the rest of the world, how socialism and the Cultural Revolution changed them forever.  This book made me want to learn more of Chinese history, because it made me realize that this story is but one small ripple in a huge ocean of history about a people that, to most of us here in America, we really know very little about and often judge without any idea of what made them the people they are today.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Skippyjon Jones

by Judy Schachner

Let's take a break from the serious book I am currently finishing up, and review an awesome children's book I came across at the library bookstore for 50 cents!  I love the occasional gem I find at these places.  It makes me wonder why someone would give up such a fun book, especially as it sat amid a sad plethora of Disney princess books and the "new and improved" version of Winnie-the-Pooh.  Don't get me wrong, I don't mind these things for their own value, but compared to this unique and fun book, the rest seem like boring replicas of each other.  Enough said.

Skippyjon Jones (don't you love that name?!) is a Siamese kitten who has a wild and vibrant imagination.  First he pretends he's a bird, until his mother gets him out of the tree and puts him in to time-out in his room.  Which only leads to offering him even more opportunity to explore his imagination as he goes on adventure as his pretend Chihuahua alter-ego, El Skippito. 

Two things drew my eye immediately to these book while thumbing through the other mundane offerings.  First, the front cover art.  With children's books, you can actually tell a lot about a book by the cover alone.  This one just made me smile, because that cat looks like he's got a lot of character.  The second thing I noticed was the little award symbol, which is a good, quick, visual indication that a book has a good chance of being worthy of your time and money.  The award on this one happens to be the "E.B. White Read Aloud Award".  If you don't recognize that name off the top of your head, E.B. White wrote Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, to name two of my favorite of his works.  I'd never heard of this particular award, but any book that receives an award for being a good "read aloud" book is usually good - and it was.

If you are lucky enough to come across this one at some yard sale or library clearance, snatch it up before someone else does.  After doing some quick research it looks like there are other books about this funny cat, so I'll be keeping an eye for those as well.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Funny in Farsi

by Firoozeh Dumas

I was looking for a something a little different to read and came across this memoir about an Iranian family that moves to America.  It made me laugh and it also made me a little sad about some people's attitudes towards those them don't understand.  Oddly enough, for as "different" as this family is from my own, it reminded me of the many similarities we all have. 

I'll be the first to admit I don't know much about Iran, so I enjoyed being enlightened by this book.  I also learned a little more about the reaction that Americans had when the Iranian hostage crisis took place.  And it made me appreciate a little more the massive amount of culture shock an immigrant faces when moving to a new country. 

All of these serious topics are covered through hysterical stories of her family.  Her father, always dreaming of making it big, an uncle who tries every crazy weight loss idea offered on TV, and mostly through stories about herself as she attends her first school, her first summer camp, and gets her first babysitting job.  Her father is a particularly memorable character and reminds me at times of my own. 

If you don't know much about the culture of Iran, this is a good book to start with. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

by Gary Kinder

Can you possibly pass up a book with a name like that?!  I love it!  The English language is a beauty to behold, even at its simplest. 

This is a non-fiction work that is immensely interesting, intense and fascinating.  It tells two stories.  The first one is of the Central America, a ship that is sunk by a storm on its way to New York during the California Gold Rush, with 21 tons of gold on board.  It goes down 200 miles off shore and 2 miles below the surface. 

The second story is about Tommy Thompson, a visionary man who many think is crazy.  He is an adventurer, an inventor, and he is on a quest to find the ship and the gold, despite everyone telling him it is impossible.  When others say that a deep sea recovery of this nature is virtually unattainable, he spends a decade inventing ways to get there, and in the process changes the very nature of deep sea diving and what the world believes is possible in the depths of the ocean.  Towards the end, Thompson's adventure takes on quite an urgency as others begin to get close to what he has been working on for years.  I was on the edge of my seat and biting my nails, wondering if he would indeed win the race.

Yet amidst this all, the story of the people aboard the Central America and their ordeal on the ocean is time and again brought back to the forefront, so that the reader never forgets the harrowing journey that these people made and the great losses they suffered.  Both Thompson and Kinder do a wonderful job of honoring the ship, its crew, and its passengers for what they went through, helping the reader understand at what cost this gold was bought.

As Captain Jack Sparrow says, "Not all treasure is silver and gold, Mate."  This is one book that is a treasure in and of itself, so go on the greatest hunt ever and read it today.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


by Kenneth Oppel

Occasionally, in the midst of the heavy reading I usually gravitate towards, its refreshing to simply read a good adventure story.  Airborn is just such a book, about a young man who works on an airship and aspires to someday fly his own.  He meet a young lady on board and they have quite an adventure with pirates, a mysterious island, and an even more mysterious animal.  It is well-written, especially as it describes with inner workings of the airship and the crew on board.  I especially loved referring to the diagram of the airship to see where all the different areas are located.  It reminds me of an old book that my grandmother gave me about a little kid taking his first ride on a clipper ship.  I'll have to review that one soon! 

It is considered a Young Adult fiction, but is appropriate for all ages.  I thoroughly enjoyed the short escape from my much more boring (but no less important) reality.  The book won the Canada's Governor General's Award and is followed by a sequel called Skybreaker, which I will be picking up at the library soon.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Cutting for Stone

by Abraham Verghese

This book is not for the faint of heart.  But it is full of heart, blood, bone and sinew.  I haven't even finished it yet, but I know its a good one.

You see, I started to read it a few weeks ago and was so excited to find out that my mother had never heard of it.  I knew she'd like it because its all about doctors and the medical profession, which is what she loves and does so well.  Shortly after I gave her the recommendation, we went on a trip to visit my sisters.  She hadn't found time to get a new book from the library, so I said she could start reading my copy.  We passed it back and forth all week, careful to mark each others spots, and then she graciously left me the copy to finish.  A few days later, I took her to lunch for her birthday and asked what she planned to do, or what she wanted.  She said it had been a stressful week and all she wanted to do was go home, lay on the couch and read all afternoon. So, I gave her the book back as a present.  She not only finished it in a few days, she is also now reading it aloud to my father, one of our long held family traditions. I wish I could be there and listen.  She said it was the best present she's gotten in a long time.

But, back to the book.  The story is about two boys who grow up in Ethiopia, born in mysterious and horrific circumstances to a nun who serves as a nurse at a small hospital outside of Addis Abba.  The presumed father, Dr. Thomas Stone, flees after their birth.  Political and family challenges separate many of the characters and then bring them back together.  It is a narrative about things broken, and things mended - body, soul and family.   

As I said, a book not for the faint of heart.  The political turmoil which the book is set within is full of violence.  The medical descriptions and procedures are outlined in graphic detail.  As my mother confirmed, medical personnel often are the most vulgar when referring to the human body and its processes, and this is not glossed over in the book.  But my mother said that it is one of the most profound books she has read recently and also one of the most honest in presenting what medical school, doctors, and jobs are really like.  She said it reminded her of early internships and her first jobs at the state mental hospital and some of the large hospitals.  So none of it bothered her.  The reason these things don't both me in this sort of book is because they fit the topic, they are necessary and even crucial to the story.  You know they are not just thrown in to shock or disturb the reader, just for the sake of shock value itself.

I am champing at the bit to get my book back because after only reading the first quarter of the book, I find myself often thinking of the characters and what will happen next.  If that's not a good indicator of an excellent read, then I don't know what is.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Hero and the Crown

by Robin McKinley

My sister called today wanting to know if I remembered a book we read when we were younger, specifically with a girl and a dragon.  That rather broad topic could have covered a lot, but as soon as she said the author's name might have been Robin I knew she was talking about The Hero and the Crown, a Newbery Medal Award winner.

Robin McKinley is a favorite author of mine because she tells stories (I believe they are considered young adult genre) that are full of fantasy and fun, but yet have a very firm grounding on reality.  The romances she portrays aren't story book romances where the perfect man and perfect woman fall madly in love and live happily ever after.  Her stories don't always have easily wrapped-up happy endings.  So they feel real and let me (especially as a young girl) dream of something beyond where I was at the time.

This specific book is about a girl named Aerin who is royalty, but doesn't fit in.  She is loved by her father and by her friend Tor, but other hate her.  She becomes a dragon slayer which is not considered proper work for a princess.  She eventually saves a village from the dragon Maur but at much cost to her own well-being, and is saved by a mysterious man who is not quite mortal, named Luthe.  He gives her further information about the real problem behind the evil happening in her land, and she then goes off to again save the kingdom.  You'll enjoy this book at any age, but teenage girls who like a little fantasy will especially appreciate this one.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Christmas Gifts

As this is a blog about books, I felt it was appropriate to break quickly from book reviews and tell the story of my Christmas gifts.  First, a little background.  My husband is an accountant.  I have come to learn that many accountants actually have a sense of humor.  My husband loves joking around, and is best at quick off-the-cuff quips.  Sometimes his more "planned" jokes don't always come out as funny as he expects, but at least he tries.  He rarely gives me a gift without a joke involved.  In the past this usually involves a lot of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups which I don't care for, but which he loves.  Once he even emptied a big package of them, and put a KitKat inside instead, thus camoflaging it, and I almost gave it away!  So, I expected much of the same this Christmas.  Little did I know that he had switched things up...

My first present I go to open does not look like the shape of a book, but he has disguised it and I pull out a book titled, "Housekeeping".  Everyone laughs hysterically because this is obviously a comment about how he loves a clean house and I don't care quite as much.  What's funny about this is that I tell him later that 1) the book has really nothing whatsoever to do about housekeeping, and 2) I already own the book and have read it.  He was rather disappointed by this revelation but I told him it was still funny the way it came across.

I get my 2nd present from him, which is obviously a book.  I'm thinking that this is my real present.  But no, it definitely is not.  It is a hardbound library book that looks like it was written in the 70s, and titled "Women Chosen for Public Office (Profiles)".  I wish I had taken a picture of it, but a description will have to suffice.  There are black and white photos of women who must have lived in the 1900s, formidable looking women like most of those early "feminists" must have been.  All of them with high neck collars, big black hats, and corsets.  Not that I wouldn't want to learn about these tough women, but this book was scary looking!   Apparently he got this one at Goodwill for a dollar.

So now I am wondering in my head how many of these joke books I'm going to have to open before I get a book I want!  Apparently my husband said I looked mad (I was not) so he finally got my last present out and had me open it.  It was most definitely not a book, but it was a lovely purple necklace with the receipt for an Amazon order attached.  My REAL present arrived 2 days later. 

I'm glad my husband knows what I really want, and can still have fun himself at the same time.  Here's hoping all you received some good books for the holidays.  I'm always looking for recommendations.