Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Books Read in January

Linked to my reviews.
Books with asterisks (*) are re-reads.

Picture Books
  • The Sorely Trying Day (Russell and Lillian Hoban) -  A chain of events leads members of a family to behave badly, causing a ripple effect of bad behavior down the line. Funny and still apropos, despite the somewhat archaic language form used at times. My girls laughed ruefully as they recognized their own behavior.
  • Fannie in the Kitchen (Deborah Hopkinson; illus. by Nancy Carpenter) - Takes place in the late 1880's in Boston, Mass. Marcia's mother appreciates Marcia's "helpfulness" but hires Fannie Farmer as a mother's helper, mostly for her cooking. Marcia's ire soon turns to intrigue as Fannie teaches her how to cook. Marcia in turn inspires Fannie to set down her recipes on paper. The pictures are an intriguing combination of images and styles: Victorian lithograph-type for the background, parents and baby; warmer, rounder drawings, in color, of Fannie and Marcia. The idea, obviously, is draw the eye to these two central characters. The hilarious little details in the period-inspired drawings keeps them from pretension; one page shows Marcia's mother licking her plate. The chapter divisions are in keeping with the theme. Each one is a meal "Course," with a little Fannie Farmer hint box on most full page spreads.
  • Apple Tree Christmas (Trinka Hakes Noble) - A terrible blizzard near Christmas ruins a girl's favorite apple tree. Will her personal sorrow ruin Christmas? A very good family Christmas story, non-religious, without Santa Claus.
  • Birdie's Lighthouse (Deborah Hopkinson; illus. by Kimberly Bulcken Root)  - Birdie's journaling of how her family becomes the lighthouse keepers on a small, bare, rocky and lonely island. Then when her father gets sick, she has to take over as lightkeeper. Although fictitious, Birdie is based on real women who were lightkeepers. There is a wonderful "Afterward" by the author that gives the history of real women/girl lightkeepers.
  • When Jessie Came Across the Sea (Amy Hest; illus. by P.J. Lynch) - A young Eastern European Jewish girl receives a boat ticket to America from her Rabbi. Leaving her beloved grandmother behind, she uses her sewing skills -taught to her by her grandmother- to earn money in America, saving it in order to bring her grandmother across the sea as well. A lovely story, beautifully told and illustrated, of devotion and love.
  • Uncle Vova's Tree (Patricia Polacco) - A story about a family's Epiphany traditions and the continuation of them even after their beloved uncle, who was the "keeper" of the traditions, dies. I liked it up until the mystical end, which made it lose its power as a family story, to me.
  • The Orange Shoes (Trinka Hakes Noble; illus. by Doris Ettlinger) My girls loved this story of a poor country girl who uses her art skills to turn an ugly incident into a work of art, and the family who loves and supports her through it all. Olivia was the one who found this book and read it first, and then came to me and said, "Mom, you have to read this! It's so good!"
  • *Tikki Tikki Tembo (Arlene Mosel; illus. by Blair Lent) - This classic brings a giggle every time we read it.
  • Grandmother Winter (Phyllis Root; illus. by Beth Krommes) - My girls were confused by this story until I explained the concept of Grandmother Winter. Then we read it again and they could enjoy it. Gorgeous illustrations. 
  • Blue Willow (Pam Conrad; illus. by S. Seilig Gallagher) - The "fable" of how the design on Blue Willow china came to be. Well written but sad story. 
  • Morris the Artist (Lore Segal; illus. by Boris Kulikov) Morris, who loves to paint, buys a birthday gift for another child that he wants, and when he gets to the party, won't hand over.
  • Uncle Blubbafink's Seriously Ridiculous Stories (Keith Graves) -  "Seriously ridiculous", yes. I think it takes a different kind of personality than mine to appreciate this book. Didn't appeal to me at all. I couldn't bring myself to read it aloud to my kids.
  • *The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit (Beatrix Potter) - I read this periodically to my children, but they never get excited about them. 
  • *Frog and Toad All Year (Arnold Lobel) - My girls are huge fans of Frog and Toad.
  • *Days With Frog and Toad (Arnold Lobel) Reading about Frog and Toad never gets old, although some volumes (like this one) are better than others.
  • *My First Counting Book (Lilian Moore; illus. Garth Williams) - Linked to my review. 
  • Al Pha's Bet (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Delphine Durand) 
  • This Plus That (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Jen Corace) 
  • Little Pea (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Jen Corace) 
  • Little Oink (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Jen Corace) 
  • Little Hoot (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Jen Corace) 
  • Spoon (Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Scott Magoon)
  • *Blackout (John Rocco) - A young child wants to play a board game with someone, but all the family members are "MUCH TOO BUSY."  When the lights suddenly go out, there is nothing but time for family togetherness. My girls love this book and keep picking it up to read or look at the pictures. The pictures do most of the storytelling; the text is pretty spare. (As an aside, I love that the family is multi-racial, that the youngest family member could be a boy or a girl, and the dad is cooking.)
  • *Grandpa Green (Lane Smith) A little boy tells the life history of his great-grandfather, who is forgetting things. But the topiaries he creates do the remembering for him. A beautiful book, full of clever topiaries to help tell the tale. I appreciated it more than my girls did.
  • *Are You My Mother (P.D. Eastman) Always a favorite with my littles.
  • *A Bargain For Frances (Russell and Lillian Hoban) - Frances gets tricked by her friend into buying her friend's tea set. When Frances finds out about her friend's trickery, she figures turn-about is fair play. I was never that smart as a child.
  • *Bread and Jam For Frances (Russell and Lillian Hoban) - My personal favorite of the Frances books. Deals with the meal battles that parents face with picky eaters. If only they were resolved as easily (and amusingly) as they are in this book.
  • *Owl Babies (Martin Waddell; illus. by Patrick Benson) - Linked to my review.
  • *Chrysanthemum (Kevin Henkes) - A little mouse girl is made fun of because of her name, until a wise music teacher intervenes. My girls love this book.
Children's Non-Fiction
  • Swirl By Swirl (Joyce Sidman; illus. by Beth Krommes) - A lovely, lyrical book about spirals and the many places/ways they occur in nature. Gorgeous illustrations.
  • A Fraction's Goal - Parts of a Whole (Brian P. Cleary; illus. by Brian Gable) - Excellent for gaining an overall understanding of fractions. My only reservation was with the pages showing the baking measurements, as the drawings made it unclear to my daughters what the "whole" was. But I can understand how that would be hard to capture in a drawing. We followed up with some hands-on kitchen fractions.
  • So You Want to Be An Inventor? (Judith St. George; illus. by David Small) A big hit with my girls, this fun book that talks about the qualities necessary to be an inventor and highlights actual inventors throughout history and the inventions they created as a result of those personality qualities. Superb illustrations.
  • Just a Second (Steve Jenkins) A fun trivia book of happenings in the natural world based on time as the unit of measurement, i.e. things that happen in a second, a minute, an hour, etc. Fascinating stuff. Amazing collaged pictures.
  • What To Do About Alice? (Barbara Kerley; illus. by Edwin Fotheringham) - An amusing picturebook biography about Alice Roosevelt (daughter of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt) who wanted to "eat up the world." The illustrations are great.

Middle-Grades Fiction
  • The Little Bookroom (Eleanor Farjeon) - A compilation of fantastical little stories; some better than others.
  • The Middle Moffat (Eleanor Estes) - I read this aloud to Olivia and Karina. Linked to my review.
  • The Children of Green Knowe (L.M. Boston) - Linked to my review. 
  • Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfeild) - Linked to my review. 
  • Rufus M. (Eleanor Estes) - I read this aloud to Olivia and Karina. They liked this one better than The Middle Moffat. The episodes are more amusing.
  • Breaking Stalin's Nose (Eugene Yelchin) - Linked to my review. 
  • Anna's Blizzard (Alison Hart)

Young Adult Fiction
  • The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Rae Carson) - I liked it.
  • Divergent (Veronica Roth) - I read this for book club. Meh.
  • The Wild Orchid: A Retelling of "The Ballad of Mulan" (Cameron Dokey)  Well written, likable characters, great storyline, but for the length of story it was (not long), there was too much build-up. When it came to the actual getting to the battle and what made her a hero, it felt rushed and hurried. This is my complaint of all Cameron Dokey's novels in this series: too much build-up, rushed climax and ending.
  • *Wildwood Dancing (Juliet Marillier) - This intriguing story is a wonderful blend of several fairy tales (12 Dancing Princesses, The Frog Prince, etc.) and Eastern European legends.

Adult Fiction
  • Gap Creek (Robert Morgan) - Just didn't do it for me.
  • The Hum and the Shiver (Alex Bledsoe) - Interesting modern Appalachian spin on Celtic legends. Just not sure how I feel about it.
  • The Informationist (Taylor Stevens) - Linked to my review.
  • *Sacred Hearts (Sarah Dunant) - Linked to my review.

Adult Non-Fiction
  • Reading For the Love of It: Best Books for Young Readers (Michele Landsberg) - I love her insightful look at so many aspects and issues within children's literature, and I agree with her on so much. So worth the read despite it's age (published in 1986.)
  • The World of Downton Abbey (Jessica Fellowes) - I loved this behind-the-scenes look at the world of BBC's Downton Abbey. A fun peek at history, too. Gorgeous photos and back story, in-depth look at the filming of the show. I'm so enjoying watching it right now.
  • HTML Manual of Style (Larry Aronson) - Marginally helpful. It would have been more helpful if I understood it better; I think I need a "dummy's" version.
  • The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins) - So interesting. He has many valid points, and makes his points very logically and sensibly, but I can see how religious people would be offended by some of what he says. But it's also true that religious people tend to see atheists as amoral at best and immoral at worst, which is just a completely false picture.
  • Things I Learned About My Dad (In Therapy) (essays compiled by Heather Armstrong) - Some interesting essays on fathers; some not so interesting.

Friday, January 27, 2012

2012 Newbery Honor Winner: Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

This book flew invisibly past my radar. I hadn't heard of it or even seen it until I read that it won the Newbery Honor. Obviously, I had to rectify that, so when my latest batch of books came from the library yesterday, full of this year's award winners, I wanted to read this one first.

Synopsis: Ten-year-old Sasha is a fervently loyal Stalinist, who is excited to become a part of the Young Pioneers (Stalin's youth organization) and extremely proud of his father, who works for the State Security (secret police). They live with 46 other people in a communal flat/apartment, happy -from Sasha's perspective- that they are the living epitome of Stalin's ideals. Then, in the middle of the night, the secret police come and roughly haul away his father. What follows is a quick succession of events that has Sasha questioning his loyalty and the validity of the system.

The action of this fairly quick and completely gripping story takes place over the course of only one evening and the following day. It's a book that contains important issues such as freedom (or the lack of it), paranoia, propaganda, idealism vs. reality, standing for right (or not).

Here are some thoughts I had as I read:
  • I think Yelchin does a very admirable job of tackling his subject from a naive ten-year-old's perspective. It's a genius approach, reminiscent of Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, where the limits of the young protagonist's understanding and maturity throws a spotlight on the horrors going on around them. What Yelchin seems to steer away from are Sasha's emotions. Deliberate devise or not, I think it's genius to downplay them, because again, it throws the spotlight onto the world in which he lives. The buildup of paranoia and hysteria that exists in the book -created by living in such a system- engulfs the reader in their own emotions. I think it would be completely overwhelming if we had to deal with both sets of emotions at once, especially for the targeted reading age group.
  • In the beginning, Sasha is the perfect little Communist, just as he's been trained from baby-hood. Even as people are betraying his family, he doesn't feel a sense of betrayal, rather he admires their patriotism. There are also a few instances where Sasha has to choose to take a stand for right, and you can't help having empathy for his choices. (You will have to read the book to understand this in context.) I think it's a credit to Yelchin's writing ability that he can make us empathize with a boy with whom we have ostensibly very little in common.
  • It's interesting to me how the author subtly shows the disconnect between child and adult. Here is Sasha's father, who has trained him to be a good little Communist from birth, and yet somehow expects him to know where the inconsistencies lie between the dogma and reality. It's a mistake we parents frequently make: assuming that our young children can see and understand those subtleties and inconsistencies.
  • Yelchin, through young Sasha, gets to the heart of why this period of Russian history is known as The Great Terror: what happens to society as a whole and the individuals within it when every infraction is treated like it's the very worst possible crime? What happens when people are kept in such a state of terror and propaganda that they don't even realize they are the victims?
  • The illustrations are dark, and have an exaggerated quality that perfectly accompanies the exaggerated paranoia. (There's an ironic one on pages 106-107 depicting the principal as Hitler.) The illustrations are reminiscent of Communist propaganda posters from the era. The other interesting thing to note is that we only see Sasha from the back or side -always turned away from the viewer- throughout the book, until we finally see his face for the first time on p. 137, just before the end.
  • This book would make an excellent accompaniment to history lessons about that era for children age 10 and up. I'd have high schoolers read it as part of a Russian history unit. I think it would also make excellent book club reading.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: My First Counting Book by Lilian Moore; illustrated by Garth Williams

My First Counting Book
by Lilian Moore
Illustrated by Garth Williams

"One little puppy,
A roly-poly puppy, alone as he can be.
Isn't there a boy or girl
Who wants to play with me?"

Thus begins my Susanna's favorite counting book, which also happens to be a Little Golden Book, first published in 1956. "Ithn't he tho cute?" coos Susanna about the little puppy. "I want him. He would like me."
This book features sweet, cuddly animal drawings by Garth Williams (the illustrator of Charlotte's WebThe Little House on the Prairie series, and many, many more books.) Each number features a little rhyming poem by Lilian Moore.

"Bunny finds five cabbages-
One, two, three, four, five-
Near the garden wall.
Bunny sniffs five cabbages,
And Bunny wants them all."
This book has been a favorite of each of my girls, so loved and read that we are on our third copy.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ghosts and Ballet and Mini Reviews, Oh My! (Some read-alouds for the 7-12 age range)

The Children of Green Knowe (L.M. Boston). The story of young Tolly who goes to live with his kindly Great-Grandmother OldKnowe whom he has never met, in an old manor in the English countryside and finds it benevolently haunted by the spirits of three children (Tolly's ancestors) who died during the Plague in the 1600's. Lonely Tolly loves exploring the grounds with their whimsical topiaries, and learning about the history of the house and his ancestors and the three children, Toby, Alexander and Linnet.
Originally published in 1955, this book has a gentle, old-fashioned feel, with a delicious bit of shiver to it. It somewhat reminds me, writing-wise, of Frances Hodgson Burnett's books.
It's suitable for good readers from ages seven and up, it would also make a good read aloud (if your children are okay with the idea of ghosts. Mine are not, even though the ghosts in the story are benevolent.) It is the first of a series.

Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfeild). Great Uncle Matthew is passionate about collecting fossils and other natural items, and fills his large house with the things he's collected on his travels, including the three abandoned baby girls -each under different circumstances- he brings/sends home on three separate occasions to his niece, Sylvia. When GUM (Great Uncle Matthew) disappears and money gets tight, Sylvia takes in a motley assortment of boarders who all teach the girls something, which allows the three very different but devoted "sisters" to come into their own. 
Written in 1936, it was really quite a progressive book for it's time, when you think about it, in terms of its treatment of women and careers. I like that it shows, in a rather vague way, that every person has something to teach us.
I'm remembering the scene in the movie You've Got Mail, where Meg Ryan's character kind of gushes over this book and the other "Shoe" books by Noel Streatfeild. I'm sorry to say I can't gush, but it was a good story, with solid writing and interesting characters. It just didn't grab me. Maybe because the problems the family faces are easily and conveniently solved with no real character growth on anyone's part. Although it's not one I'm personally anxious to read aloud to my girls, it would make an good read aloud, especially if you have little dancers in your family.
This is the first time I've read this children's classic, and I wonder how I'd have reacted if I'd read it at the right age. Maybe then I would have gushed, but I doubt it. Even then I liked a little more dramatic tension in my stories. (I wish the publisher had put in more pictures by Diane Goode in this version I read. It was too slim on the illustrations.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

2012 Book Awards Announced This Morning

I'll highlight the Newbery and Caldecott winners in this post, but be sure to go here for the complete list of award winners.

Winner of the 2012 John Newbery Medal:
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
I haven't read this book yet. In fact, I've never read anything by this author. I need to rectify that.

Winner of the 2012 Newbery Honor:

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
I'm so glad this book at least got the Newbery Honor. I loved it. You can read my review here.

Winner of the 2012 Newbery Honor:

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin
This one went completely under my radar.

Winner of the 2012 Caldecott Medal:
A Ball For Daisy by Chris Raschka
I haven't read this one, so all I can say about it right now is that the cover looks cute. 
My library doesn't have it.

Winner of the 2012 Caldecott Honor:
Blackout by John Rocco
Beautifully illustrated story of a family in the city when the power goes out and how that event brings them together. My girls love reading this.

Winner of the 2012 Caldecott Honor:
Grandpa Green by Lane Smith
Sweet story where the topiaries tell the story of a Grandpa who's losing his memory.
My young children didn't fully appreciate it, but I loved it.

Winner of the 2012 Caldecott Honor:

Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell
I own this one, and my girls love it. (I do too.)
It's the story of Jane Goodall as a young girl.

I have ordered the books I haven't read from the library, which had everything except A Ball For Daisy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Family Stories: The Ingalls Family

Little House in the Big Woods (by Laura Ingalls Wilder) was the first book I read aloud to my girls. Olivia was three and a half years old, Karina was two and Susanna was in utero. We had already read the My First Little House Books, which I had come across at our small local library, and Olivia kept wanting more stories about Laura. But there weren't any more of those books, so I decided to feed her desire by reading her the original book Little House in the Big Woods. It had the added advantage of being about a girl that was close to Olivia's age (Laura is four in that first book) and her family life in the big woods of Wisconsin.

I took it slow, reading only about half the chapter every day. I knew she had an excellent attention span and comprehension for someone her age (a result of being read aloud to almost from birth combined with no television viewing) but some of those chapters have long descriptive passages that were beyond her knowledge base and so could easily lose the attention of one so young. Olivia loved it. It delighted her to encounter the expanded episodes she was familiar with from the My First Little House Books. (I think the pace we took was perfect for her.)  To this day she remembers the story of Ma slapping the bear (thinking it was Sukey the cow), and cousin Charley's version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, where his trouble-making lands him in a yellowjackets' nest, and he has to wrapped in mud and linens to bring down the swelling.

Coincidentally (or maybe not) this is the first novel I remember being read aloud to me, and it made a big impression on my young mind, too.

For those of you unfamiliar with this book -is there anyone unfamiliar with this book?- it tells the story of a family living in the woods of Wisconsin in 1872. Pa is a tall hard-working brown-haired, brown-bearded man with twinkling blue eyes, adored by his little girls. Ma is quiet, gentle, and determined to teach her girls about manners, hard work, and self-sufficiency. Mary is the oldest daughter who, even at five years old, is always obedient and industrious. Laura is four years old, small in size but large in spirit, which frequently gets her into trouble in this and the subsequent books. Baby Carrie is the youngest. This is the story of their life in those big woods.

I remembered the books with such fond nostalgia from my childhood, but reading them as an adult gave me a whole new appreciation for them. What strikes me in reading these books is the background story that's taking place: the hardship the family experiences may be mainly from Laura's point of view, but the tension and thread under the surface is about these two adults who are trying to scrabble out a living while protecting their children as much as possible. Life was very hard for those pioneers and homesteaders. The mere act of living for pioneering people meant working from sunup to sundown just to make sure they had what they needed to see themselves through the cold winters. These are wonderful history books about the pioneering movement and spirit. The fact that Laura gives so many wonderful descriptions of what living that life entailed, means that we get a fascinating glimpse into the early settlement west. Despite what some critics of the books have said, Laura doesn't romanticize the life. She tells the good and the bad matter-of-factly. Some of the bad things that happen in this and the other books of the series have no easy, nicely-wrapped-up resolutions. She knows that life was hard, and yet they found comfort in the little things like Pa's fiddle music, an ongoing motif throughout the series. (See my post about Pas' Fiddle Project for a fun addition to your reading of this series.)

Our family has gone on to read more of the Ingalls family adventures in:
  • Little House on the Prairie where the family leaves the Big Woods because they were getting too crowded to Pa and journeys to the Kansas Territory. It tells of life on the trail in the covered wagon, the family building their log cabin and the problems of life on a flat prairie in Indian Territory (wolves, a prairie fire, etc.) (Be aware that this book contains some of the prejudiced attitudes of white settlers at the time. But I thought the scenes where Laura and her Pa discuss those issues were very poignant, since Pa recognized the problem that people like him were creating by their westward expansion -i.e. the Native Americans being booted off their land- but didn't know what to do about it. Toward the end of the book, this forced migration is something Laura witnesses.) In the end, the Ingalls family is evicted from their land by the U.S government as well.
  • Farmer Boy is about Almanzo Wilder (Laura's future husband) as a boy in on a large farm in New York state.
  • On the Banks of Plum Creek has the family leaving the Kansas territory and settling in a dugout on Plum Creek in Minnesota, before Pa builds a house with machine sawed lumber. In this book Laura and Mary go to a real school and church for the first time, and meet obnoxious Nellie Oleson. The family also has to contend with a plague of locusts, which forces Pa to walk to find a job three hundred miles away in order to feed his family and be able to buy grain for the next planting season. Ma and the girls has to cope with everything in his absence.
  • By the Shores of Silver Lake takes place five years after the family first came to Plum Creek and finds the family just recovering from a scarlet fever epidemic. Mary has been blinded by scarlet fever. and Grace has been added to the family. The family (Baby Grace has joined the family) moves to the Dakota territory, where Pa works as the pay clerk for the railroad company. And the family becomes one of the first to settle in DeSmet. (This one was our least favorite so far.)

That's as far as we've gotten in our reading aloud. We will probably revisit the series toward the end of this year, rereading Little House in the Big Woods for Susanna's benefit. She will be delighted to read about a girl who is her age. (She seems a little obsessed by that idea right now.) And my older girls appreciate it more at their "advanced" ages than they did at three and two.

 I would highly recommend the series for young boys. There are tons of exciting things that happen.

The books of the The Little House on the Prairie series:
  • Little House in the Big Woods
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Farmer Boy
  • On the Banks of Plum Creek
  • By the Shores of Silver Lake
  • The Long Winter
  • Little Town on the Prairie
  • These Happy Golden Years
  • The First Four Years

Saturday, January 21, 2012

When Did I Become a Book Lover?

I silently pondered that question, driving home from the library this afternoon.

I think I always knew books were important. I saw my mother reading constantly. It was her leisure activity of choice. And I loved it when she read aloud to us. She is very good at it. I loved the cozy feeling of snuggling up next to her after my bath/shower and listening to her take me to other lands and lives. My little girl thoughts, however, were taken up with exploring and adventure --acting out any book adventures, and making up my own adventures. I grew up spending more time outside than inside. When the sub-Saharan rainy season hit, it was necessary to spend more time indoors, and that's when I explored our bookshelves. (We didn't have TV.)

Don't get me wrong; I loved to read any time of the year, and my parents provided plenty of variety in the way of picture books, children's literature, encyclopedias, reference books, maps, etc. Reading was something I just did, without conscious thought, as common as breathing air. But being outside was living life to the fullest, as far as I was concerned.

The concept of reading changed for me the year I was twelve and the Banjul American Embassy School (B.A.E.S.) was formed in The Gambia, West Africa. (We'd already been living in The Gambia for three years when the school opened. My mom was one of the people responsible for that happening.) In that newly formed school was a small room that had been dedicated as the library. As soon as I stepped across the threshold of the library that first school day, and saw the shelves filled with books, something snapped alive inside. I had never before been given access to so many books. I tingled with unknown anticipation. It occurred to me that on these shelves were book adventures for me alone to discover, that my reading life could be a whole new private realm of adventure; something of my very own that no one could/would share. It seemed like a powerful concept to my twelve-year-old mind.

I spent a lot of time in there over the next two years, and read many of the books on those shelves. The library shelf discoveries led me back to our bookshelves at home, too. I became aware of the many wonderful books that were on our shelves that I had ignored up to that point. I have read voraciously ever since.

Do I think it was the library that created that deep love of reading? No. I think the foundation had been laid for years from being read to aloud by my dedicated mother, and from the home library my parents provided. I give my mother the credit. She wisely never pushed me regarding books; never told me what to read (although she gave me occasional suggestions) and showed me by example how important a reading life was.

What that library at B.A.E.S. (poor and meager by U.S. standards) did was awaken a powerful hunger in my mind I'd never felt before. To this day, I get tingles when I walk into a library.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Book Review: Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

I first read Sacred Hearts in September of 2009, and decided to re-read it this year. The following review is adapted from my 2009 review.

During the late 1500's, it had become so expensive for families to give their daughters in marriage (the girls were supposed to enter marriage with a good dowry) that most families -even wealthy ones- could only afford to marry off one daughter. And generally the only option left for the remaining daughters was the convent and life as a nun, bringing with them a small dowry.

This story takes place in the year 1570, and Serafina (the name given her as a Novice) is endowed to the convent of Santa Caterina at sixteen years of age. Her hysteria at finding herself in this position brings her under the care of Suora Zuana, the Dispensary Mistress, a middle-aged nun whose advent into the convent years before was due to her physician father's death.

The story revolves mainly around these two women (although other nuns play large roles) and takes place solely within the walls of the convent. It is a story of convent politics, religious fervor, boredom, intrigues, and relationships within those walls.

The author does not sentimentalize the lives of these women; in fact, the narrative is quite bleak and harsh. I almost quit reading in the first quarter of the book. I'm glad I persisted, because against this bleak backdrop, the humanity of these women shines through.

The author pulled me so deeply into the story that every time my kids pulled at my sleeves to get my attention, I had to shake myself to get back into my life and time. It was a hard book to read from that standpoint. I came away with a new respect and empathy for these women who had no choices in life, yet who made the most of the life that was given them.

Here are some thoughts I had as I read.

  • Did the girls' families know what life would be like for their daughters inside the convent? I somehow doubt it. It was considered an honor to have a family member who was a nun or priest. Although families got to visit the nuns occasionally, I doubt that the life they led was ever discussed, probably out of loyalty to the church. I think it is human nature not to want to discuss the problems of your religion, out of a feeling of self-preservation, if nothing else. And even if the families did know, what else was there for the daughters?
  • The nuns could, under a good abbess, be put where their strengths would serve the convent best. And where else in that day and age could you have women apothecaries/healers freely able to work without a man's supervision?
  • As powerful as the nuns were within their own community, still they had to answer to and obey the priest. It's sad to me that in this day and time, for all our progress, male patriarchy dominates in religious communities.
  • I think the author excellently depicted the religious fervor that can grip a community that is so closed. Then again, you can see that same religious fervor even in communities that are not closed. Religion, by its very nature, incites fervor.
  • Then there's the perennial question: do the ends justify the means? (You'd have to read the book to understand why I ask this.)
  • The author does not divulge Serafina's real pre-convent name until almost the end of the book. I thought this was a master stroke since -as she says through her characters- names have power. (Again, you would have to read the book to understand this in context.)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book Review: The Informationist by Taylor Stevens

Vanessa "Michael" Monroe was the child of American missionaries in Cameroon. Ignored by her parents, she grew up with a quick ear for learning the languages spoken around her, a talent for observation and blending in, and a rebelliousness that screamed for attention. Her skills led her to fall in with a group of criminals as a teenager and some appalling things happened to her (you'll find out as you read further into the book) that turned her into a smart, strong, savvy and emotionally crippled survivalist. As an adult, she has made a career out of using her talents to gather information in African and other third world countries for businesses and governments. When a big oil tycoon hires her to find out information about his step-daughter, who went missing in central west Africa four years previously, Michael quickly discovers that she's going to have to use all her skills just to stay alive on this mission.

I came across this book on some one's blog. (I'm so sorry, I can't remember whose it was.) I wanted to read it just because it was about an American girl who grew up in Cameroon, a country I lived in when I was very young. It's the first country we lived in that I have vivid memories of. (We lived in Chad when I was a baby.) I was four when we left Cameroon. (Then we spent the school year in the 'States before taking a job in Ougadougou, a country that has since changed it's name to Burkina Faso. No, my parents weren't missionaries. My father was a range ecologist who was contracted by organizations who were contracted under the United States Agency for International Development. Clear as mud?)

When I found that my library didn't have it, I bought it on my Nook.

The writing at the beginning had a distancing quality that didn't appeal to me. Twenty pages in, I started to wonder if I'd ever care about the character, if I even wanted to read the book.

And then...I couldn't stop reading.

 Having finished the book, I'm still not sure I like Michael Monroe, and I'm not sure how I feel about the book. This book is not for the faint of heart. There is graphic violence in some scenes, which was a turn-off, so I had to gloss over some parts. At the same time, I can completely see where it's coming from since Michael's experiences as a young teen have created emotional demons that cause her to snap under certain circumstances. And I don't like how emotionally manipulative she is. But again, I get that her background has made her that way.

Have I given the impression that I didn't like it? I did like it, but at the same time I have mixed emotions about it. It's an unusual thriller, it's setting and history of the main character unique and keeps moving like a good thriller should. I liked that about it. I thought the author did a superb job of capturing the central west African climate and the attendant cultures and customs. She also nailed the ambiguous life of Third Culture Kids. I liked how the action played out, and the pacing of the story, for the most part. After the first I'm-not-sure-this-book-is-for-me 30 plus pages, the things I didn't like weren't reason enough to stop reading. (I'm going to recommend it to my parents and get their take on it.) And I plan on reading the next book, The Innocents.

How's that for an ambiguous review?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Family Stories: The Moffat Books by Eleanor Estes

We had a delightful time reading The Moffats aloud last year, and the girls are eager for more Moffat adventures. So I caved to their begging and pleading and am reading the second book in the Moffat series, The Middle Moffat.
If you are not familiar with The Moffats, the stories -written in the early 1940's- revolve around an American family living in Cranbury, Connecticut before and during the first World War, that includes Mama, Sylvie, Joey, Jane, and Rufus. Their father died before we meet them in the first book. Their mama supports the family with her sewing and tailoring, but it's not an easy living. There's a lot of scrimping and making do, and the children have a lot of freedom to come and go, in a manner unfamiliar to children in our day.

The first book's overarching theme is that Moffat family house, which all the young Moffats have grown up in, is only a rental, and the landlord has put a "For Sale" sign on the house. With this looming over their heads, the Moffats proceed with life.
In these somewhat autobiographical books, based on Eleanor Estes' childhood memories, each chapter of the books is a complete story about some episode in the children's lives. My girls' favorites from The Moffats were the Halloween chapter, where they make a ghost in their attic to try to scare the obnoxious neighbor boy, and the chapter about Jane losing their coal money.

The second book, The Middle Moffat (winner of the Newbery Honor), finds the family adjusting to life in a new house, neighborhood, new friends, and for Jane, a new school.

The appeal that Eleanor Estes' books have is that she is able to capture the mind set of young people, their impishness, their curiosity, how they see the world, etc., in a way that transcends the passage of time. And Louis Slobodkin's whimsical sketches helpfully highlight the story. (These books are also an interesting look at American children's lives during this time in history.)

We've enjoyed getting to know the Moffats and we're looking forward to more of their adventures.

Here are the books, in order:
The Moffats
The Middle Moffat
Rufus M.
The Moffat Museum