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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Books Worth Reading

I've was hoping to have this post out before Christmas, but alas, things got busy.  Better late than never, now you can prep for next year!  Anyway, I've seen a number of facebook posts recently, asking about favorite books for Christmas.  I have a number of friends who do a countdown to Christmas with children's books, and I like to give a book to my kids for their Christmas Eve gift to open before bed.  That being said, there are a lot out there that are downright lame.  So, here are some of my choices that I think are worthy of your time:
1. The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg

Read this instead of watching the movie.  Please.  A lovely tale about children who know and recognize the true meaning of Christmas.  Beautiful, haunting illustrations.

2. A Child's Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas

This story is about a little boy's experience with the sights, sounds, smells, and adventures of Christmas in his small Welsh town.  The characters in the story are wonderfully rich and quirky, and the warmth and laughter it brings truly will make you smile.  I believe this would technically be considered a prose poem, but it is very accessible and easier to read than some of Thomas' other poetry.  And if you can find an audio recording by the author, or even go see a play of this work, its almost better to listen to than to read.  You can really let yourself disappear into the richness of the language and the story.  I have a soft spot in my heart for Wales since I had the pleasure of studying abroad there for a few months during college.  One of the best experiences of my life. And one of the best days while there was when I was able to see a performance of this work at  the college a few days before my own Christmas in Wales.  It was truly a marvelous experience.

3. Merry Christmas, Festus and Mercury, by Sven Nordqvist

I came across this treasure in some used book sale, and one look at the cat on the front had me hooked.  When I read it and looked at the other illustrations, I loved it even more.  Its got a quirky feel to it because of its focus on a different tradition/culture, so its refreshing, and the relationship of this old man and his cat is hysterical and heartwarming all at the same time.  Not sure how easy it would be to find a copy, but keep an eye out.  I believe there are others in the series.

4. Duck and Goose, It's Time for Christmas!, by Tad Hills

A fun little board book for the younger crowd.  Duck and Goose and two funny characters who are getting ready for Christmas.

5.  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson

This is a chapter book instead of a picture book, but is a pretty quick read nevertheless.  Its about a town putting on their Christmas pageant and all the funny moments that entails, as well as how one family of misfits teach everyone the true meaning of Christmas.

6.  A Little House Christmas: Holiday Stories from the Little House Books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I have re-read the Little House books so often I have lost count, and they only get better and better.  Many of my favorite excerpts (except for my all-time favorite parts about her falling in love with Almanzo - but that's for another post) are the Ingalls' Christmas celebrations.  They are so happy with so little, and I love the old-time traditions and family gatherings.  I'm so excited to find this collection because it gathers all these stories together to be enjoyed during the holidays.  And I plan to definitely get the collection that has the original Garth Williams illustrations.

7. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

A true classic, the story of Scrooge and his journeys with three spirits who teach him about the true Christmas spirit of love and kindness.  My favorite quote is when Scrooge is confronted with Jacob Marley's ghost, who is weighed down with the chains of greed he forged in life:
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge.
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

8. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski

A talented old woodcarver never smiles, having lost his family to illness.  But when a widow and her son ask him to make a new crèche, he discovers his own Christmas miracle.  Lovely illustrations and a touching story. 

9. A Christmas Parable, by Boyd K. Packer

This is a deceptively simple story about a man who has a dream that teaches him about the greatest Christmas gift of all - the Atonement of the Savior.  I especially love his poem at the end about being washed clean, in relation to the miracles of Christ both in the Bible and in our hearts today.  My mother started a tradition many years ago of reading this book to us on Christmas Eve and then writing down Christmas memories in the back.  We would then review our favorite memories from the year before, and then each take a turn picking one of the Nativity pieces to display.  Finished off with reading the Christmas Story from Luke.  So many joyous memories, surrounded by an eternal family.

10. Christmas Bells, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Most of us know this poem better as the words to the carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", however it is interesting to read the original version, which has a total of seven stanzas.  Two omitted from the song make reference to the Civil War.  Either way, the words of this poem/song are some of the most joyous, hopeful, and true words you will hear.  No matter what each Christmas brings, whether in hard times or good times, Longfellow's verse will give you renewed hope that "God is not dead; nor doth he sleep! / The Wrong shall fail, / The Right prevail, / With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

So, there are some of my favorite books.  However, I can't end without sharing a few of my other favorite entertainments for Christmas:

It's a Wonderful Life
Mr. Kreuger's Christmas
White Christmas
Miracle on 34th Street
While You Were Sleeping

"O Holy Night" and "O Come O Come Emmanuel" by Manheim Steamroller
"Halleluja Chorus" from The Messiah
"Jingle Bells?" by Barbara Streisand 
"Silent Night" by Boyz II Men
"Ode to Joy" by Beethoven
"A Soalin" by Peter, Paul & Mary
"What Sweeter Music" written by John Rutter

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Way of Kings

by Brandon Sanderson

I am really obsessed with this author right now, as you might notice from the many books I've read of his lately.  It has been so long since I've really found a good set of fantasy books, and Mistborn fulfilled that longing.  Then I voraciously read a few of his other single books like Elantris and Warbreaker and like them, though not on the epic scale of the others.  Then I discovered a 10 book series called the Stormlight Archive, the first book of which is The Way of Kings and I quickly ordered it from the library.  A large volume, in both a physical and a written way, but well worth the time.  Then I excitedly went to order the 2nd book, only to find it was not available.  Why?  Because it hasn't been published yet!  I didn't realize that this is a "projected" 10 book series, meaning that Sanderson has only finished and published the first one, and now I have to wait for 9 more books, which will probably mean the next 10 years of my life will be spent waiting to know what happens at the end!  But if the first book shows anything of that ending, it will be well worth the wait.

So, as I read The Way of Kings I felt like the book did two things.  It told a great story.  Actually it tells a number of great stories about great characters.  But it also felt like a huge introduction to the even larger series.  What I'm saying is, it covers a lot of territory, sets up a lot of stuff for future reference, and leaves a lot of parts hanging with no definite answers, because there are many more stories to come that will flesh it all out.  As long as I go into the book understanding this, I love it because it builds and builds the suspense.  And yet, it is amazing to me that an author can do all that, yet still work in some really amazing stories and characters as well.

And as you can imagine, its not easy to really sum up.  This first book tells the beginning stories of a few different characters.  First, a man who goes from healer, to soldier, to slave, to leader.  The details of his slavery on the "bridge crew" are fabulous and the setting and characters are well thought out and presented.  Another character is a mysterious assassin, one who loathes his job but is for some reason compelled into it.  There is also a female character who becomes the apprentice of a wise woman, only in hopes of stealing her most precious possession, but instead finds herself learning more than she thought.  And finally, another character is a chivalrous military leader who is turning away from way and trying to find the way of peace.  All these characters are set amid a world that is plagued by great storms, so much that the world has adapted, with descriptions of plants and animals and people that are suited for weathering great tempests. A truly epic landscape and story.

And just like another great series, The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, its killing me to have to wait for the next installment!  Its going to be a long 10+ years.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach

In honor of Halloween just having finished, I thought a review of this book would be appropriate.  Though it sounds rather gruesome, it is very interesting and quite hysterical.  The author's side notes are almost better than the actual text, because this is where all her random and bizarre comments are made.  A word to the wise however.  I am not a squeamish person in any sense of the word.  Lots of time in the hospital probably got that out of me years ago.  However, this book definitely went into some details that were best left for non-meal time.  But by no means should you avoid it for this reason, just choose your reading time wisely.

I was introduced to this author by the book Packing for Mars, and found it just as entertaining. Whereas that book deals with the very real human details of what it takes to get a person into space (the food, the sanitation, etc.), this book literally details with very human details, as in the remains of a person and what is done with a body after physical death occurs.  Experiments, embalming, burial, investigation, and decay are all covered, but in a way that allows for humor and respect to both have a part of the story.

The ways in which human cadavers have contributed to science is innumerable and amazing.  Medical testing, crash tests, CSI studies, organ transplants, etc. have all led to very real and very important contributions to our way of life.  And cadavers have been a part of all of that.  Of course, many of the ethical questions come into play as well, and Roach discusses many of these, including religious beliefs, grave robbing, etc.

Overall, though it sounds a little disturbing and somewhat gruesome, this book actually gives you a great respect for the human body and its complex design, for science and its discoveries, for those who donate their bodies to science, and to the families that respect these wishes.  Instead of avoiding this topic and feeling it taboo, I love that Roach unveils a stunning landscape of something that is all around us, and just below the skin.  As much as this book is centered around death, it is actually very much about the wonder of life.

Jump! (and Halloween books)

by Scott M. Fischer

This is a fun children's book that my son actually discovered at the library.  Each page is about an animal that gets scared by a bigger animal, which makes it JUMP!  The book has great rhymes, good rhythm, and kids love to "help" read the story when its time to turn the page and JUMP!  And the artwork is fun, nothing fabulously amazing but not cheesy either.  My son picked this book to share with his Kindergarten class on his Superstar Day, and it was very popular.  The teacher commented that it was a very good choice for that age.  I love finding new books for the kids, and I enjoy them myself.

On a side note, I was invited to read at my nieces' school for their Halloween party.  My mother often reads there and she is quite popular but she was going to be out of town and recommended they ask me.  I was happy to fill in.  It was to be arranged thus: 15 kids at a time from ages K-7th grade, for 15 minutes each, and I would do this 5 times in a row.  I bit daunting but it was also exciting.  I love sharing my love of books with anyone and everyone.  I tried to think outside the box and pick some different books that the kids may not have read before.  And it was difficult to think of how to appeal to all the different age groups.  Luckily, the kids seems to enjoy it and were very respectful and well-behaved.

I had four different things to read, though I found I had to shorten my time and finally had to cut one out.  However, I'll include them all because they went well together.

1) I started out with reading/singing a poem called "Three Little Witches" by Marjorie Barrows.  My mom used to sing this to me when I was a kid, and it has a good rhythm and is fun.  A good way to get them interested and paying attention.

2) For the younger children, I chose a book called "Little Goblins Ten" which is kind of a Halloween version of the poem/song "Over in the Meadow".  Its a counting book, but its also got a good rhythm, and with this one I had the kids participate.  When I would say a word they had to respond back.  So it would go, "Haunt! said the daddy" and the kids would have to say back, "Haunt! said the two" and they would have to do it the way I did, so I tried to really ham it up and make scary Halloween noises

3) "The Witches" by Roald Dahl is a favorite of mine and so I used them for the older children, some of whom had read it.  I started by summarizing what Dahl says are the characteristics of a "real" witch, things like that they are bald, have no toes, etc.  The kids got a kick out of this part.  I then read an excerpt, the chant that the Grand High Witch says about their evil plan to turn all the children into mice.  This is the one I finally had to cut out of the last couple because I didn't really have enough time and I had to summarize the book a lot, but it was a good choice and a high recommendation from me.

4) I finished with Chris Van Allsburg's "The Witch's Broom".  It has the most wonderful haunting illustrations, as all his works do (Polar Express, Jumanji, Harris Burdick) and though its about a witch's broom, really its not too scary at all, just clever and quite a funny turn at the end.  It has a lot of deeper meaning which I thought maybe some of the older kids might pick up on as well, but most of the kids really were quite mesmerized with it.

So, all in all, it was a lot of fun and I hope the kids enjoyed the reading.  I certainly did, and I loved being able to visit the school and teachers, since I actually attended there way back in 4th grade.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that since a few of my books were about witches, I decided to dress the part, complete with a homemade broom, black teeth (braces are handy for this), and a big ugly wart on my nose.  It was fun!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Hero of Ages

by Brandon Sanderson

I just read one of the best fantasy trilogies I've read in a long time!  I actually already reviewed the first book in the series, Mistborn, if you want to get some idea of where I started.  However, I just HAD to write about the third book of the series, which I just finished yesterday.  It was so good.  It made me want to re-read it all again.  And it made me want to re-read my Lord of the Rings trilogy as well.  Two very good signs.

Most of the fantasy series I have ready of late have started off with a pretty good first book, but then die off from there.  As much as I enjoyed Hunger Games, the 2nd and 3rd books weren't quite as good as the first in my opinion.  The Mistborn Trilogy however defied my expectations.  I enjoy the first book and appreciated its complexity, its basis in some kind of physical/scientific type "magic" that is somewhat believable, and I appreciated the depths of the characters.  Little did I know what all that would become.

In similar fashion to The Lord of the Rings by the great J.R.R. Tolkien, the first book is simpler than the others, does a lot of set up, and gets you involved in the characters themselves.  The second book, The Well of Ascension, is the transition story, where everything feels like its all going to fall apart and you're not sure they're really going to ever make it.  But you can't quite beat the final third book, The Hero of Ages, which brings it all together.  Not in a neat little "happily ever after" package, but in a complex coming together of all the things the author has been setting up over the course of the series.  I liked that I guessed a few key happenings before they occurred, but others threw me completely for a loop and literally made me gasp.  I think I may have actually talked out loud to a few of the characters.

For all the violence in this series (and it is fairly violent), I most appreciated the concepts of leadership, faith, what is "right", and good vs. evil that the author really delves into.  He leaves moments of time within the book where the characters really think about what the believe and what they believe in, instead of just going from battle to battle.  It gave me much to think about, and I don't often find that in modern day fantasy novels.  Again, a reminder of Tolkien.  Don't get me wrong, I can't say that is on the level of Tolkien writing for the writing itself, but the overall scope of the story is beautiful, terrifying, intriguing, and refreshing.

I love the feeling of finishing an excellent book.  But I hate the feeling of now having to go find another book that I can only hope will be as good.  Wish me luck!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ghost in the Wires

by Kevin Mitnick

An interesting read this time around, not sure its a recommendation but it was definitely intriguing and made me think.  The book is about the author's life as "the world's most wanted hacker."  This guy was really good at hacking into almost anything, but only saw it as a challenge, not as a way to get rich.  He was addicted to the high he got when he broke into something supposedly secure and top secret.

He hacked into the telephone companies, the DMV, and final the FBI.  Much of this was to protect himself while on the run from the authorities, and he used the information he gained at that time to create new identities and track those who were trying to track him.  In the end he was finally caught and spent some time in prison.  After his release, he became so well-known as the top hacker that he eventually made lots of money off of speaking engagements, media deals, and his own consulting business which provides hacking services to companies legally, to check their security. 

The writing in the book is somewhat technical, but if you skim through the stuff that doesn't make sense you get the gist of what he is saying most of the time, and it is quite a fascinating and riveting story  that keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering if he's going to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

However, it was a complicated read for me because although Mitnick admits that his activities were illegal and he often acted stupidly, he also never really seems sorry for much of what he did.  He has this strange outlook where he is finds it unthinkable that people treat him unfairly, whether that is his hacking buddies who rat him out, or the FBI or government who do things that aren't completely honest.  Yet he deceives many of these people himself.

I'm not saying that some of the injustices in his case were warranted.  Just because someone is a "bad guy" does not mean that they don't have rights or that others can then treat them unethically.  However, what I do have a problem is the writer's attitude toward it all.  First, he never seems to see that although he doesn't hurt anyone outright, his actions have far reaching consequences.  I can't help think of his family and the terrible heartache he put them through, or the tax dollars that went to catching him and locking him up, or the life he missed out on by choosing to run.  And what about the people that he convinced to do things they shouldn't, what are the ramifications for them?  Mitnick to me seems to have quite a tunnel-vision view of how his acts didn't really "hurt" anyone.

And again, how can he be doing illegal, unfair, and deceptive things to others and then turn around and be surprised and horrified that others do the same to him.  His cry that his incarceration was "not fair" is one that strikes a bit of a hypocritical chord to me.  Deception, no matter how small or large, hurts a lot more when it is directed at you instead of at someone else.  He did not seem to take his own medicine very well, though that is no excuse for some of what he went through.  And finally, its a little depressing that in the end he makes huge amounts of money off this, not just as a "legal" hacker, but as a type of celebrity.  Then I find myself asking if I am not being hypocritical because I just spent the last five days reading his book.  Yet, just because I don't agree with what someone does, doesn't mean I shouldn't read a book about what they did.  Ah well.  We all have some of that in ourselves I think.  The trick is to be able to recognize it and try to be better.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Caleb's Crossing

by Geraldine Brooks

Bethia is a young Puritan girl who lives in a tiny island settlement of early American pioneers.  Although this group is more liberal than those from the mainland, her father still believes that they are there to save the souls of the "savage" Native Americans who already live on the island.  The two groups find a way to live together in a careful peace and Bethia's father even gains some followers.  However, he is constantly deterred by a powerful chieftain who has a lot of control over his people.

Amidst all this, Bethia explores her beautiful island and happens upon the nephew of this chieftain, whom she calls Caleb.  He teaches her about his customs and the island, while she teaches him to read and tries to convert him to Christianity.  They become as close as brother and sister, though they know this would be absolutely forbidden from both sides.  Later Caleb comes to live with the white settlers and becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.  But the pull of these two very different worlds takes its toll on him and changes him forever.  Bethia too learns more of what she really believes and herself walks a little in both worlds.

This book is loosely based on the story of a real young man named Caleb who graduated from Harvard.  There are very few details of his life, so the author admits that much of it is fiction, especially the character of Bethia.  However, the story has a feeling of being very honest and true to the time period.  Much of the book is about the struggle of finding what someone really believes for themselves, and how they reconcile that with what others believe.  The author doesn't allow herself to make judgements about what is "right" or "wrong", but tells a story about others trying to figure that out.  Its about friendship and love, and also about prejudice and hate. Its got a lovely little romance thrown in for good measure.  On another level, the book is also about the role of women in a society that hardly puts them much above the "savages", for even the Native Americans are allowed to go to school, whereas a woman is not.

Brooks has a haunting voice for description, especially the details of the beauty of the island, as well as the living conditions at the college.  The book made me extremely grateful for the education I received at such an easy price.  It has not always been so for others, nor is it even now for some.  The story made me take a deeper look at what I believe and reminded me how grateful I am to know that I have a loving, kind, and forgiving Heavenly Father who loves all his children.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mistborn: The Final Empire

by Brandon Sanderson

I love me a good fantasy novel, but I am more and more picky about which ones I spend time reading.  Lately, the ones that have intrigued me the most are those which have magic that is based on some kind of more "scientific" or tangible aspect.  I don't know if that makes sense, but I like the idea of magic coming from some sort of source other than just your mind, or a "magic" wand.  I like to know why the magic works the way it does, even if I know that its not really real.  Its fascinating for me to imagine an author than can make up these ways of looking at magic that are based in some sort of a realistic concept, its an amazing skill.  One of my past reviews of "The Name of the Wind" is one of these kind of books.

I found the book Mistborn similar in that manner, although its not as big a book, and its probably more appropriate for a young audience than the other.  It however is probably not meant for a young audience as it still has a fair amount of violence in it.

The story is about a young girl named Vin who survives in a street thief gang that works in the capitol city of a land that is plagued with continuous ash falling, and a great disparity between classes.  It is ruled over by the Lord Ruler, a man who "saved" the world and is thought to be immortal, but who has turned his world into a dark and evil place.  Vin has a type of magic she calls "Luck" which allows her to alter people's emotions.  She eventually meets up with a man named Kelsier who wants to lead a revolt against the Lord Ruler.  He teaches Vin more about her magic, which is based on the "burning" of different types of metals that are swallowed into the body.  The group eventually uses Vin to infiltrate the nobility to be a spy.  Things are complicated (as always) when Vin meets a young nobleman who isn't what she expected.  Much of Vin's dilemmas center around trust and friendship.  And there is always the mysteries lying behind the story that make you wonder - Who is the Lord Ruler?  Is he immortal?  How did he save the world?  And why is there the constant ashfall?

I suspected a few different versions of how the story would end, but didn't get close to guessing until the very end, and even then there were some great and unexpected surprises.  The characters are realistic to me, and I like the philosophy of how religion and belief work in this book.  It doesn't give you a nice, neatly wrapped ending or even answers, but I'm very much looking forward to reading the next in the series to find out!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Farthest North

by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen

Well, this was one hefty book and it took me forever to finish it.  Not because it was all that large compared to other books I've read, but because it was simply some heavy reading.  Its the true story, told through journals, of a group of Norwegians who attempt to make it to the North Pole in 1893.  Although they do not succeed in making it all the way there, they got closer than anyone else had at the time and also fulfilled a number of other plans they had to test some theories about the Arctic region and discover all they could to help future explorations.  The first travel as far as they can by ship, purposely getting themselves locked in the ice so as to be taken along with the drift of the icebergs.  Then, when they have gone as far as they can that way, two of the leaders of the expedition set off on dogsleds to make it as far as they can in that manner.  The ship continues on, headed for home, and the men on the dogsleds make it 146 miles farther north than another else before they are forced to head for home.

I enjoyed the details of the preparation for the trip, especially the details (not that I got it all) about the ship and how it was built, as well as the things they brought with them.  Life on the ship seemed pretty easy going and it was fascinating to think of people back then being so at easy in the north pole, not worried at all about being stuck in the ice for a few winters straight.  It details exciting events such as whales, ice breaking up, and bear attacks.  The real story begins though, when the two men take off on sledges, an arduous journey that is truly amazing as they go over rough ice, sleep together in a soggy reindeer sleeping bag, have to eventually kill off their dogs to survive, and winter in a homemade igloo for months on end.  This part is where it really got me, when they talk of living in a small confined space, no bathing, where their clothes begin to rot, and begin to have to ration their food.  And of course, one cannot help but be excited when they finally make it back to "civilization" and see their first fellow human in over a year.

However, as much as this story is interesting, there is a lot that bogs the reader down.  The journals of Dr. Nansen were not written to be entertaining or a "good read".  They were written to log events and scientific discovery.  Much of what is detailed is just that - details that are of not interest to me particularly.  And much of it is repetitive and mundane, because of the nature of the journey.  Traveling across polar ice is not the most exciting of adventures on a detailed daily level.  Curiously, I stuck with this book at times because of the nature of the story.  Every time I got bogged down, I felt myself feeling like if I gave up on these guys, they'd never make it home.  I felt like my reading this book was at times like their story, some exciting but much of it a little tiring.  For some reason I felt it would do the story an injustice if I didn't see it through to the end.  And I am glad I did.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dragon's Gate

by Laurence Yep

Sorry I haven't posted a review lately, but big things are happening for us and its been a little crazy of late.  My reading time has been sparse, but I've managed to finally get through a rather large book I was working on.  But this review is instead about a book I read in between waiting for the library to let me check the big one out again, and which was much more manageable and enjoyable.

Dragon's Gate is written by Laurence Yep, a prolific author of children's and young adult books that tell stories centering around Chinese immigrants and their stories.  This particular book of his is about a young man who lives a good life is China but dreams of going to the "Golden Mountain" of America with his father and uncle, who proclaim it to be a wonderful place.  Through unexpected circumstances he ends up going to the Golden Mountain and finds out that it is not at all what he expected.  He joins his father and uncle who work blasting through a mountain to build the railroad.  The Chinese workers are treated poorly and unfairly as they work on the "Dragon's Gate" as they call it.  The boy Otter helps the other workers see the way they are being treated and begins a small revolt that leads to a strike.  The workers are able to negotiate for better treatment, but it forever changes young Otter and makes him see the world in a different way.

I enjoyed this story because it was based on true events.  It started with a lovely story about a small part of Chinese culture at the time, and then it moved into the terrible and true story of the Chinese immigrants that made much of the railroad and the Western expansion possible.  Yep does a fabulous job of understating things and not making them too melodramatic, mostly because a story like this does not need anything added to it to make it poignant, important, and touching.  I'm not the only one who thinks this is a great book since it won a Newbery Honor Award in 1994.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Penderwicks, and a long car trip...

by Jeanne Birdsall

We did a whirlwind 3 day trip down to Southern Idaho this weekend.  My husband's grandmother passed away so we went to the funeral, which was really quite nice because she was really ready to be done with this life and move on to the next where she will be with her husband again.  I'm so grateful to know that we can be families forever.

One necessity of any long car trip is a good book, as I am lucky enough not to get too easily carsick. Unlike my husband.  And my son.

Requirements for a good road trip book:
1) Entertaining, not to heavy reading because with kids in the car, you tend to get interrupted a lot with requests for water, candy, pee breaks, french fries, McDonald's, toys, games, a different movie, windows up, windows down, etc.

2) Paperback.  You may need to pack it in somewhat flexible circumstances, especially if your car is jam packed with entertainment for the children, much of which will only be entertaining for about 5 minutes.  Considering the ride was 8.5 hours one way...well, you get the idea.

3) Indestructible.  This goes along with #2, because you never want to bring a hardback that has a loose cover.  It will get ripped, stepped on, torn, folded, etc.  Best to get one from the library that can take a little wear and tear.

4) Good to read aloud.  This is not a requirement but definitely a nice one to break up the monotony for others in the car.  My mother got us through many a long car trip by reading passages of To Kill a Mockingbird, Where the Red Fern Grows, the Oz books, the Narnia books, and Patrick McManus short stories.  Good times!

Those are just a few of my requirements.  Sometimes I don't get around to reading on a trip, but this time the children cooperated for a while and took consecutive naps, so I was able to read an entire new book from start to finish in a few hours while on the straight, long freeway through Montana.  The Penderwicks is a book about 4 sisters.  Immediately I figured I would love it, because I am the oldest of 4 sisters.  They go to vacation at a little cottage on a large estate.  The owner of the estate is a real "uppity" lady, but luckily her son becomes their good friend and they all get into a number of fun and exciting adventures.  They eventually help the son, Jeffrey, communicate better with his mother, and they have a lovely holiday.

It was a lovely book about family, different personalities, love, and adventure.  The author did a great job of describing each of the girls and their differences, as well as the father and the family dog.  The descriptions of the scenery as well were well done.  The adventures were exciting and funny, and the other characters added depth to the story.  It is a charming, easy-going, fun, and generally happy little story that reminded me of past summer holidays with my family.  It is also a National Book Award Winner, so you don't have to just take my word for it!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Once and Future King

by T.H. White

The story of King Arthur is one of my favorites, dating back from when I was first introduced to Disney's The Sword in the Stone and then later, one of my mother's favorite musicals, Camelot.  I tend to forget that this story is based largely on folklore and legend, and even King Arthur's existence is often debated.  Still, it makes for a good story, even if most of it may not be true.

I'd been long meaning to read The Once and Future King, and finally got around to wade my way through it.  And I don't mean wading, as in slogging slowly in druggery, but it is not an easy book to read and certainly not one that is a quick read on any level.  T.H. White is a master storyteller, and his details are rich and full and complicated.  So it takes some time but I enjoyed a lot of it.

The book is divided into 4 parts, and the first one is by far my favorite.  It tells of Arthur's childhood when is known only as Wart and is educated by the wizard Merlyn.  I loved the details of his experiences being turned into animals, which is to teach him to think differently about the world around him.  The other parts go into his early years as the King as he learns to lead and when he meets Guinevere.  Then enters Lancelot into the picture and his story, which is much different than other versions of the story led me to believe.  In fact, in the book he is not considered particularly handsome or desirable, only that he is determined in being the best because he has issues with his own self-image.  And finally, the last section details how the empire falls apart little by little, because of their own nature, but also because of the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere.

Such a happy, funny book at the beginning, and it ends on such a sad note, although the last few pages brings you back to a little bit of a hopeful note.  King Arthur represents someone who tried to changes a way of life that was brutal, dark, and at times ridiculous.  He is a flawed man, a man who makes mistakes, but a man who nevertheless tried to do what he thought was right.  He tried to see the world from other points of view, and was forgiving of even those closest to him that hurt him the most. 

That is where the tragedy for me lies.  Not in the book itself, but in the story it tells.  Arthur had a vision of a greater world that he could work towards.  He put his own desires aside for the greater good.  Guinevere and Lancelot had good intentions to do this, but they didn't resist the temptation and instead caused a situation that lead to the breaking up of the round-table and ultimately war.  Now, I realize that this is a simplified way of looking at the story and that there were many other factors that caused the dream to fall apart, but it nevertheless felt like a real tragedy.  So, I enjoyed reading the story and getting a lot more details and depth than the Disney or musical versions, but it was a little heartbreaking at the end.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Thinking in Pictures

by Temple Grandin

If you have not seen the movie "Temple Grandin" yet, you need to go see it.  Claire Daines plays the title character, who is a young lady with autism.  The movie shows the process of her learning to interact with the world, and her mother's determination to keep her out of an institution.  She is a woman who sees the world in a very different way from many of the rest of us who consider ourselves "normal".  Because of this different way of seeing the world, she discovers an interesting passion and calling in life. 

It's a movie that is hopeful, funny, and very helpful for seeing a different perspective on the world and perhaps helping us understand a little more people who are autistic.  I thought Daines did a spectacular job of becoming this character, which is based on a true story.

So, to the book.  I came across this book somewhat randomly, but figured it would be worth a try since it's written by this same Temple Grandin and I was intrigued to learn more about her unique perspective of the world, and of her own struggles with autism.  Much of this book was fascinating, informative, mind-opening, and funny.  Some of it was a bit of a drag.  But for me it was still worth the read, though I did skim through a number of sections rather quickly.

The reason for the skimming is mostly because Grandin admits herself that 1) she leans heavily towards extreme detail and exact description, and 2) because she is a scientist, and some of her focus in the book goes into scientific detail that is not my cup of tea.

Grandin begins by talking a little of her childhood, but mostly about how various forms of autism manifest themselves and how they change the perception of the world for an autistic child.  The idea of thinking in pictures instead of thinking in words is something that is pretty foreign to me, but it was interesting to read about and try to imagine how different I would be if my brain worked that way.

I also appreciated much of the practical advice Grandin gives about how to work with autistic children, how to discipline them, and how to stimulate and guide their brains to work the way they work best.  She is a prime example of an amazing mother who never gave up on her, but also didn't let her get away with things that simply weren't appropriate.  Even parents of children who don't have autism could probably be reminded of these things.

The scientific sections, especially the details regarding medication, etc. is where I skimmed the mostly.  It would be a good reference tool for someone who might need to consider that possibility, but for me it was not interesting, so I skipped ahead.

Closer to the end of the book, Grandin gets into her real passion, which is working with animals.  I don't want to give too much away, especially if you plan to see the movie because its so much fun to watch it all unfold there.  However, her connection and concern for animals, which she admits is probably deeper than her ability to connect with humans, is touching and it shows her true humanity.

As for the technical writing of the book, at times it does feel a little heavy-handed, but I think that is because Grandin is not a word-oriented person, so writing is not always easy for her.  But I am really impressed by her ability to put her thoughts and analysis into a book that does come across, for the most part, as very personable and fairly easy to read.  I think some of her early chapters especially would be a very important read for any parent, teacher, or caretaker that may have the opportunity to teach a child with autism. It certainly helped me be more aware of how other people around me might not always think the way I do, and how it really is amazing that we manage to find ways to communicate as well as we do.

Monday, February 20, 2012


by Richard Mosher

Another winner recommended from my mother!  This is a lovely story about a young Vietnamese girl who lives in France with her "grandfather" who adopts her as a young child after her parents are killed.  Its a young adult novel, with a lovely setting and place, some history of WWII, some sadness, and even a little bit of young love.  Mind you the "romance" part is not heavy or overbearing, and it does not overpower the rest of the story, but adds a nice element of happiness into a story that has some sadness within it.

Zazoo is a young girl who struggles a bit with who she is and her identity.  Is she Vietnamese, or French, or something else?  And she begins to learn that her grandfather is not who he used to be, and has a past that has pain and anguish in it.  As she learns more about his history and hers as well, she learns that no one is perfect, and that all of us make good and bad choices.  It is a story about forgiveness and learning to live with the past. 

I especially loved the setting of this story, the lovely descriptions of the canal, of Zazoo in her boat, and of the small house she shares with her grandfather, who is slowly slipping into forgetfulness.  Its a touching story with a hint of romance and a wonderful story about forgiving, but never forgetting those we love and lose.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

by William Kamkwambaand Bryan Mealer

If you're every having a bad day and you feel like complaining (like I was a few days ago when my teeth hurt from yet another orthodontic adjustment), read this book instead and then see how you feel.  This book will put your life into perspective and make you extremely grateful for the troubles you face.  Yet it also is a very hopeful and inspiring story about a young man who doesn't let his circumstances hold him back from making what he wants of his life.

William Kamkwamba is a kid who lives in Malawi Africa, in what much of the world would consider poverty circumstances.  As a young child he becomes interested in science, specifically electricity and wind power, and dreams of being able to have electricity in his own home.  He also dreams of being able to pump water so that his family can grow extra crops when the dry season comes.  He cannot afford to stay in school so he begins to teach himself about how electricity works, and then experiment on what he learns.  And without any formal schooling, scrounging for parts in junk yards, he builds his own a windmill and installs electricity into his family's home.  

Beyond this already amazing story, the book begins with the story of his early life, specifically a terrifying account of how he and his family barely survive a terrible famine.  This was the part that really put my puny troubles into perspective, and made me so thankful that we are blessed with an abundances of the basic necessities of life.  So many of us have excuses for why we don't go write that book, or finish that invention, or go back to school, etc. and here is a kid that survives a famine and then pulls himself out of poverty by reading books and putting what he learns into action to make his life better.  Truly humbling.

I also appreciated that it is written by William (with help from his co-writer) and I like that he gives a lot of details about the good things in his life in Africa.  He doesn't discount the African traditions of magic and superstition, but simply explains them as a way of life.  You can tell he has a great love for his land and wants to make it a better place.  If we all had this kind of concern for our own lives, our world and each other, what a better world it could be!

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

I came across this fabulous movie on one of my favorite book blogs just yesterday, and had to share.  It was a 2012 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short so you know its going to be good.  If you love books, this lovely movie will make you smile today:

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Go Away, Big Green Monster!

by Ed Emberley

Picked this fun kids book up from the library today, thanks to the recommendation of a friend I happened to run into there.  We also happened to arrive just in time for playgroup, and the kids got to make fun Chinese Dragon heads with streamers for the body which looked very much like flames as they "chased" each other in circles around the room.  A fun craft and I thought it was very creative and fun. 

We all really enjoyed reading this book for the first time before naps just now.  It's a fun book that uses progressive paper cutouts to slowly grow a "big green monster" with purple hair.  The second half of the book has the reader telling each of the facial features to "go away!" and the monster progressively disappears.  An easy and exciting book for kids, my boy and girl liked it equally.  Its got simple words and bright colors.  A fun book to pick up for your toddler!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Chosen

by Chaim Potok

An old, worn copy of this book sat on my mother's bookshelves all my young life.  Somehow it always got passed by, first because I was probably to young for it, and then because the cover wasn't "exciting" enough, and looked a little "heavy".  But I finally got around to it on my list and now am sorry I waited so long.

The story begins with a baseball game between two Jewish schools.  What starts as a somewhat casual game turns into a rivalry, and then outright war.  It hooks you into that game so well that you can almost smell the heat and the dust and the baseball glove leather.  Potok has a wonderful ability to set a scene that is infused with living, breathing movement that comes off the pages. 

Beyond the opening baseball game, the book is about friendship, religion, and father/son relationships.  It is about Jewish culture and belief.  I personally appreciated a small glimpse into the traditions of Judaism, and its different manifestations.  It was fascinating to learn of the intensity required by some to study the Torah, and to what lengths their devout beliefs go to.  I consider myself devout in my beliefs, and so it was good to be reminded of similar aspects but in a different setting.  It also focuses somewhat around the play between science and spirituality and how they are not always mutually exclusive.

Mostly I loved that for all the focus around Jewish culture, etc. the book really revolves around the friendship of two boys who are different from each other, as well as the relationships of each boy to their own fathers.  And I very much love a book that, once again, doesn't wrap everything up at the end into a neat little package stamped with the phrase, "and they all lived happily ever after."  Not everything is resolved perfectly in the end, and not everyone is happy.  Which makes a good book, because it makes you ask your own questions about how you would be in the given situation?  What kind of parent will I be?  How can friends be so different?  What can forgiveness do for someone?  How do I communicate with my parents/children?  How dedicated am I to my beliefs?  How do I reconcile my beliefs when something or someone challenges them?  These are just a few questions still running through my head after reading the book.  I love a book that I can think about for a long time afterward.

My mother most likely got her copy of this book from her best friend, my aunt (and also my friend) who loved Jewish studies and was fascinated with the culture, people and beliefs.  She went a number of times to Jerusalem to study, and read many books, and met many dear friends.  Unfortunately she passed away a little while ago from a heart condition.  I dearly wish I would have read this book years ago so that I would have had a chance to talk to her about it.  I'm looking forward to someday seeing her again and we'll have that long talk I've been longing for.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Martian Chronicles

by Ray Bradbury

Can anyone really be as amazing as Ray Bradbury, truly?!  The man was literally a genius, had an amazing imagination, and an even more amazing sense of humanity - good and bad (and often very bad).  A fairly prolific writer with 24 or so books to his name, many of which are collections of short stories, which are a lot harder to write than one might think.

My first introduction to Bradbury, as perhaps many of you, was watching the DISNEY version of "Something Wicked This Way Comes".  I wonder who at Disney thought a Bradbury novel would fit well into their genre?!  All I know is that it scared the bajeebers out of me.  I distinctly remember reading "A Sound of Thunder", and watching a short movie version of "All Summer in a Day" in school.  They are memorable because they are so disturbing, but not in a outright shocking or freaky way, just disturbing in small ways that makes you really think about life on this planet and the future.  Bradbury was a master of taking a story about another planet or aliens, and turning it back on the reader, making you look inside yourself to see how human we all are.  

I read Fahrenheit 451 as a young adult and was mesmerized.

After that I read some collections, which included favorites that come to mind such as "The Long Rain" and "Zero Hour."

So now I read the Martian Chronicles.  I liked this collection because unlike some of his others, the short stories in it are all somewhat connected to each other and move in a kind of disjointed chronological order, being about life on Mars, both alien and human.  Again, the human aspect of life on Mars really makes you wonder just how much different or NOT different we might be if another planet suddenly because an option. 

Two of my favorite stories from this particular collection are somewhat opposite each other.  The first is called "The Earth Men" and its quite funny and really is a comment on what we humans might do if someone were to show up claiming to be visitors from another planet.  The second story is called "There Will Come Soft Rains" and its a bit scarier.  However, again, not like a modern day horror movie with blood and torture.  Bradbury subtly plants images and sounds and movements into his stories that give you a slow-growing realization of all the little clues adding up, and suddenly you shudder (or sometimes laugh) when if finally dawns on you what's really happening.

I enjoyed this collection, as I have all of Bradbury's works so far.  I highly recommend you check out a few stories of his you haven't already experienced.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy

by John LeCarre

I normally don't go in for book by such prolific authors as John LeCarre because it seems like quantity rarely equals quality.  If someone asks me, "Have you read the latest LeCarre (or fill in the blank with another author)?"  then I usually decline, because it seems to me that unless you are truly an almost miraculous writer/editor etc, its hard to imagine putting out books that fast that are really good.  I'm sure they're good, but not really really good.

So, I was hesitant to read this one but it was recommended from a book website I love, and was recommended in an interview from a "spy novel" writer, so I figured that at least the recommendation came from someone who probably knew the genre well.

To finally get to the point of this post, I very much enjoyed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  Probably not the all time best mystery novel I've ever read, but I haven't actually read a huge amount in this genre because there is so much of it that is really bad, or that just has a lot of crap in it that I'm not willing to wade through.

Some other comments on this book are that it is a very "cerebral mystery."  As in, its more brain than brawn.  Very true.  There wasn't honestly much action in this book, even if it was a spy novel.  Its mostly a lot of conversation, thinking and speculation from the main character who is brought back from forced retirement to figure out who the mole is within the spy agency.

One difficulty, which I didn't find bothered me too much, is that it is a British spy novel, so you've got to be okay with British words, lingo, and phrases, and some of them you just have to brush past because its not worth trying to remember all the different names and places.  But the reason I liked it is because it didn't feel the need to explain all this, it just assumed you either knew it or would figure it out for yourself.

Of course, any good spy novel is great if you can't really guess who the bad guy is, and this one kept me guessing all the way to the end and had a good surprise at the end.  I loved all the little spy details that make any good detective novel exciting and interesting.

And I recently discovered that they just released a movie based on the book, and I didn't even realize the coincidence until I was almost finished reading.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed that it was rated R.  I can pick the things in the book that they probably focused on and sensationalized to make it an R, but I think extremely unwarranted and unnecessary.  Most of the parts that would be "questionable" are told in retrospect through conversation and with a lot of inferring, so I don't think they needed to do that.  I was so looking forward to seeing their version of it.  Now I'll pass.  (getting down from my soap box now)

So, it would be a good book to read when you're a little short on your list of other books.  Can't say it was so fabulous I would tell you to read it immediately but it was a great break from my more serious line up of books, and still intense and kept me wanting to figure it all out.  Fun way to start the new year!