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

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.