What I Read Recently: Adult, Tween, Baby, and Architecture Books

I’ve only read two books to myself in the past month, but I’ve been reading to both of my kids, too, and looking at some floor-plan books, so here are two book reviews in each category.

Books I read to myself:

  • The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards begins during a snowstorm in 1964, when Norah and David’s child is about to be born.  They can’t get to the hospital, but luckily David is a doctor, and his nurse Caroline is able to meet them at the clinic and administer anesthetic that makes Norah semi-conscious during the birth (as was the style at the time).  Baby Paul is perfect, but he’s followed by a twin sister whom David immediately recognizes as having Down Syndrome.  He directs Caroline to take the baby girl to an institution, and then he tells Norah that their daughter died at birth.  He wants to spare his family the pain of raising a disabled child, but Norah is devastated by the loss, and it affects their family life forever.  Meanwhile, Caroline finds the institution unbearable and decides to move to another city and raise Phoebe (giving her the name Norah had said she would give her daughter) as her own child.  The plot then unfolds over 25 years.  This is my favorite kind of book, about people who seem very real getting into interesting situations and having feelings that make sense even if you, the reader, would react differently.  Almost every moment has a vivid clarity.  I also love the depiction of Pittsburgh, where Caroline raises Phoebe, because that’s where I live and I’m familiar with their neighborhood and the other places they go.  This book was just as good the second time around as when I first read it several years ago, but I’m glad I waited to reread it until my own daughter was safely born–stories of birth defects and complications are not ideal pregnancy reading!
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  Just when I think nothing new can be done with the structure of novels, something like this comes along!  Ursula is born in 1910 and dies without taking a breath.  Ursula is born in 1910 and drowns at the seashore when she’s five years old.  Ursula is born in 1910, has a terrible feeling of foreboding at the seashore when she’s five years old, and then at age eight ventures onto the icy roof, after her brother throws her doll out the attic window, and falls to her death.  Ursula is born in 1910 and at age eight hides her doll under the pillow, but then she catches the Spanish flu….  It’s like a time-travel story, except it’s always the same stretch of time; what matters is what she does with it and what else happens, the effects of the proverbial butterfly fluttering its wings.  WARNINGS: Some of Ursula’s lives are pretty grim, even graphically horrifying.  The nature of the story is going to force you to think about all the ways a little girl could die.  But if you can handle it, this is a fascinating book!  I especially like the points when the cumulative effects of Ursula’s multiple lives come almost to the surface of her consciousness–which in some of the timestreams gets her sent to a psychoanalyst who is hilariously clueless about how to talk to a child!

Read more…

Books I’ve Been Sharing with My 10-Year-Old

I wrote Great Chapter Books for Kids when Nicholas was four years old, thinking I’d add to it later or make it the first post in a series…and I keep meaning to get around to it…but meanwhile, I’m going to use the Quick Lit Linkup as motivation to write about what I’ve read to Nicholas, and recommended that he read, just in the past couple of months around his tenth birthday.  Some of these will eventually make the “great” list, while others might not.

Although I don’t spend as much time reading to Nicholas as I did when we commuted by public transit to his preschool, I still read to him for about half an hour at bedtime; we have been firm about keeping up that tradition even now that baby sister Lydia is on the scene!  My father continued to read bedtime stories until I was 14, and I think it’s a great way to experience books together.  Nicholas also gets to read a different book to himself in bed for a while after 8:30.

These are some of the books he’s heard or read since November:

The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis

This is one of the less-well-known Chronicles of Narnia, but I think it deserves more acclaim. Read more…

28 Book Reviews!

For some reason, growing a new life makes me want to read books I’ve never read before.  Starting last fall during my exhausted queasy phase and continuing up until now, when Lydia is seven months old, I’ve reread only a few books and read many more that were new to me.  Only a few of them are recent releases, but perhaps you missed the older books, so they’ll be new to you, too.

This list includes several books that my life-partner Daniel recommended when I was casting about restlessly with no immediate opportunity to go to the library or a used-book sale, as well as some from the stack he handed me when I said, “What science fiction would I like that I haven’t read?” a few weeks before attending Capclave.  If you are in a long-term relationship, try asking your partner for books he or she would like you to read: They’ll give you something new to talk about, which can teach you new things about each other, and they’ll give you even more in common.

Anyway, on with the books!  (They are in alphabetical order by author and then by title.)

Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

This travelogue of Earth by the author of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and a zoologist co-author) was obviously right up my alley, yet for some reason I’d never noticed it on our shelf until Daniel recommended it to me.  Adams and Carwardine visited a bunch of endangered species in their exotic habitats and wrote about it with a highly entertaining blend of interesting zoological facts and, well, Douglas Adams.  WARNING: Do not read the part about the Komodo dragons when you are struggling with nausea and/or all alone downstairs in the middle of the night, let alone both. Read more…

Things Not To Do: Fiction Writing Edition

Well, I was really hoping to write a nice long post for the What I’m Reading series at Modern Mrs. Darcy, where Anne and her readers talk about the books they’ve read recently, on the 15th of each month.  I’ve read a whole lot of new-to-me books this year, because having viral bronchitis for the entire month of January, then having a new baby in May and doing lots of breastfeeding, gave me plenty of time for reading–and it seems that a new baby makes me want to read books I haven’t read before.  But now that I’m back to work at my full-time job, as well as taking care of my baby and 9-year-old when I’m at home, I don’t have a lot of time for writing!  Maybe next month…

Meanwhile, I’m going to rant about two things that happen far too often in the novels I read.  (I won’t rat out specific books, though, because both of these are late-in-the-plot twists, thus spoilers.)  If you are an aspiring author, please avoid these irritating cliches! Read more…

3 Good Books on Civil Rights

I happen to have read three books that deal with the rights of African-Americans just before Black History Month.  Two of them are bestsellers I hadn’t read before, but the one I’ll mention first is a less-well-known book I’ve read a couple of times before and suddenly felt inspired to reread.

The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown by Louise S. Robbins is the story of a white librarian who was fired in 1950 because of her personal involvement in advocating equality for African-Americans.  The official reason she was fired was that she had provided “subversive materials” in the library–books and magazines that were thought by the most paranoid conservatives to be advocating Communism–but that was greatly exaggerated.  Really, the people running the town were afraid that her pro-integration activities would embarrass them and/or threaten their status.  There was a long and convoluted campaign to get rid of her, complete with a sudden replacement of the library’s board of directors, outrageous rumors, secret after-hours sneaking into the library’s storage room to photograph books (which, in fact, had been removed from general circulation), and so on.  It’s a great story!  For me, it’s especially interesting because I grew up in that town (Bartlesville, Oklahoma) and this story is both a reminder that things were worse before I was born and a spookily familiar tale of “community leaders” who make policies based on their own stupid prejudices and force out everyone who disagrees with them, and of honest citizens afraid to speak up for what’s right in a culture where personal choices can have mysterious, gossip-driven effects on people’s employment and social lives.  Most of the institutions and a few of the people who are major players in the story are familiar to me.  But even if you know nothing about Bartlesville, small-town politics, or that part of the country, this is a really interesting story!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Read more…

3 Books for Laughing Out Loud

Today’s Three Books on Thursday theme is books that make the reader laugh out loud.  I can’t, of course, guarantee that what’s funny to me will be funny to you, but here are three books that in my opinion are filled with hilarious moments:

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson is an account of traveling around Great Britain.  Bryson was born and raised in Iowa, then lived in England for 20 years and wrote this book as he was preparing to move back to America.  The first time I read it, I thought it was entertaining and somewhat funny.  The second time I read it, I started in a hospital waiting room–where I was awaiting surgery, very sad about the circumstances that brought me there, and extremely hungry and nauseated–and it was so funny I could hardly believe it!  Anything that could make me laugh on that day has got to be good.  Bryson has a way of noticing tiny details that are really very strange and pulling them together with just the right phrasing.  He also has a great sense of humor about his own behavior and perceptions, which got very grumpy at times during this journey because he was hiking long distances, and the weather and/or terrain didn’t always cooperate.  I also love his book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America; it’s over 20 years old now, so it’s something of a time capsule of a past America, and very funny.

Legal Daisy Spacing: The Build-a-Planet Manual of Official World Improvements by Chris Winn is a mysterious catalog which seems to be aimed at some aliens who are much bigger than we are and are planning to make our pesky planet (or one a lot like it) much tidier yet more smoggy.  From this catalog, they could order such items as coastline tiles and molds to form mountains into proper conical shape.  Here are a few pages.  The charming style of the product descriptions makes the whole concept less alarming and much funnier.

More Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel is the second anthology of a comic strip about lesbians in San Francisco.  This is the volume I happen to own and have read many times; they’re all good!  These strips were published in the 1980s, and Bechdel did a great job of appreciating the lesbian subculture while showing the awkwardness of getting along in everyday life at a time when lesbians were considered very strange and threatening by mainstream society.  Although I’m very straight myself, the main character Mo’s worries and over-seriousness and social awkwardness are very similar to mine, and all the characters are fun and well-drawn.  Just recently I picked up this book for the first time in a while, flipped to a random page, and immediately started laughing at the next-to-last frame of this strip.  (NOTE: This book includes a lesbian sex scene.  Don’t read it if you can’t handle that.)

After the above, I feel I ought to offer an alternate book for children, and luckily my 8-year-old son and I have been reading one!  Lulu Goes Shopping by John Stanley is one of a series of anthologies of the 1940s comic book “Little Lulu” published recently and available in our local library!  (Look under “graphic novels” in the children’s section.)  My dad used to read me “Little Lulu” comics from his childhood, and they’re often very funny!  Lulu and her friends are always having adventures, making up stories, attempting things that go spectacularly awry, resolving arguments innovatively, and confusing the adults.  The unique cuteness of the art really adds to the humor.

The Horror From Beyond Time

I meant to post this on Halloween, but perhaps–just as our neighborhood’s Halloween celebration was postponed until Saturday (due to rain)–you are willing to extend the Halloween season by a few days and read this creepy short story, carefully honed over several years by the man I love, who really ought to write more often.

The Horror From Beyond Time

Our Favorite Publisher of Affordable Books

I recently had a birthday and was very pleased to be given three books from Dover Publications.  Daniel knows that I can never get enough floor-plan books, and Dover prints gobs of great ones!  They also have a wide selection of nonfiction, classic fiction, children’s books,  coloring books, how-to-draw books, clip-art collections, puzzle books, nature guides, textbooks, and lots more.  Most of their books cost less than $20.  They have a great environmental policy, yet their recycled-content paper looks and feels better than the pages of many other publishers’ books.

This is not a sponsored post.  I am writing this just because we think Dover is a great company and want more people to know about them!  Dover books are available from most bookstores, as well as from their own catalog.

In addition to floor-plans, I particularly like Dover’s illustrated history books.  Read more…

Saint Maybe

This week, Modern Mrs. Darcy is hosting a carnival in which writers link to their articles about The Book That Changed My Life.  Check it out to find some great new things to read!  I, of course, can’t pick just one book but linked to my list of Books That Blew My Mind.  However, there’s another excellent book I recently reread for what must be the 6th or 7th time–I can’t say that reading it changed my life in any huge way, but it’s such a very enjoyable and well-written novel that I think everyone should read it!

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler is a very warm, real story about a 17-year-old boy named Ian who makes a selfish, impulsive decision that triggers his big brother to commit suicide. Ian then winds up joining a church (of an interesting fictional denomination) and finds healing by raising his brother’s stepchildren. The story covers 25 years and is told from the perspectives of various family members. The dialogue, sensory descriptions, and Christian insights are just wonderful!

Maybe it didn’t change my life, but Saint Maybe is one of my favorite books.  This time through, I learned it’s a great choice for reading in the waiting room when the future of one’s own family is in question, because this is a story in which love shines through and stuff works out for the best, even when it didn’t look that way at first.

3 Good Children’s Books

Today’s 3 Books on Thursday theme is children’s books, and I am going to limit this list to just 3! Of course, there are many other picture books Nicholas and I enjoyed together when he was 18 months-5 years old, before he started insisting on chapter books for bedtime stories as well as on-the-bus entertainment, but these are 3 that have a special place in my heart because they continued to entertain me even when I was reading them to him 42 nights in a row!

Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber is the story of Ira’s first night away from home, at his friend Reggie’s house next door. Ira is really looking forward to it until his big sister asks if he is going to take his teddy bear. This throws Ira into a dilemma: Will he be able to sleep without his beloved Tah Tah? But what if Reggie laughs at him for still sleeping with a teddy bear? Oh, the agony! I love the dialogue, the dignified way in which Ira finally solves his problem, and the blotchy yet evocative bright-colored illustrations.

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew is one of the lesser-known books of Dr. Seuss, but it is my favorite! The protagonist has led a carefree life until one day he stubs his toe, and then he begins to have other minor troubles, and a passerby (traveling in a one-wheeler wubble pulled by a camel) offers to take him to “the wonderful city of Solla Sollew . . . where they never have troubles, at least very few.” The journey, however, is fraught with troubles, beginning when the camel gets sick and starts to bubble so our hero has to pull the wubble. Eventually he is “crashing downhill in a flubbulous flood, with suds in my eyes and my mouth full of mud,” and it actually gets worse from there! It never fails to cheer me up by reminding me that my own troubles, whatever they may be at the moment, are not that bad.

A Picture for Harold’s Room by Crockett Johnson is my favorite of the several books about Harold (who appears to be a baby but acts at least six years old) and the big purple crayon with which he draws scenes and walks into them, creating his own reality. My favorite part of this one is when Harold’s use of perspective leads to his horrified realization that he is now only half the size of a daisy. How will he get back to his usual size?! It’s a great story about both the power of imagination and our power over it.

Check out 3 Books on Thursday and Book Sharing Monday for more writers’ favorite children’s books! See my recently expanded article Books That Blew My Mind for 29 of my overall favorite books!

3 Good Books About Parenting

Jessica’s Three Books on Thursday post today is about parenting books, so I decided to post my top three recommendations, even though they’re already included in the longer list of Books That Blew My Mind.  To prevent faithful Earthling’s Handbook readers from feeling gypped, though, I’ll first list three more books–actually, sort of categories of books–that weren’t quite mind-blowing but have been very helpful to me as a parent.

Like Jessica, I did a lot of reading about parenting long before becoming a mother.  In fact, I started when I was about eight years old and my parents bought a set of World Book encyclopedias and the accompanying Childcraft books.  Childcraft is a treasure trove for kids, but it also included Read more…

How a silly Website brought me a great book

I have been a fan of passiveaggressivenotes.com for some time now.  It’s one of those sites that perfectly utilizes the Internet’s awesome power to collect silly things seen around the world.  It almost always can make me laugh in that wonderfully sudden way that really dispels stress.

Last summer, I saw a note posted there (unfortunately, I can’t find it again now to link to it!) taped in the window of a Border’s bookstore that had closed.  Like the rest of the chain, and many other bookstores in the past decade, it had languished because so many customers went into the store to browse and read but purchased nothing, preferring to do their book-buying online.  The sign said something like this:

CLOSED FOREVER
Try using the bathrooms
at amazon.com!

I thought it was clever and funny, but I also was zinged with guilt–just as I had been when reading about the demise of bookstores–for the times when I browsed without buying or used the restrooms or drinking fountain at the Barnes & Noble that used to be in my neighborhood.  Read more…

An Unexpected Find in the Thrift Store

Recently, I bought at Goodwill two anthologies of Calvin and Hobbes, a comic strip I enjoy reading to my six-year-old son. When we started reading the second one, Weirdos from Another Planet, we were surprised to find the following note written in metallic gold pen inside the front cover:

Dear Corey,
It was really fun getting to know you. We’ll really miss you here. Have fun in your new home. Sorry I shot you. It was an accident. I thought I was out of ammo. See ya later maybe.
Your pal,
Ted R.

Maybe, indeed. I bet Corey dumped the book at Goodwill and never hung out with Ted R. again.

Then again, maybe Corey treasured the book for a decade before he passed it on. We will never know. I love the sense of mystery!

7 Novels of Other Worlds on Earth

I like science fiction, but one of my favorite kinds of books is the kind set on Earth, in the present or recent past, but in a subculture that is really vividly described and interesting.  A good example is The Chosen by Chaim Potok, one of the Books That Blew My Mind.  Here are 7 others that, while not quite as mind-blowing to me personally, also have that ability to transport me to a different “world” on this planet: Read more…

Religious Education with Ramona Quimby

I’m an Episcopalian now, but my parents joined a Unitarian Universalist church when I was seven years old, so I was raised in that denomination. There were many things about it that weren’t compatible with my spirituality, but I did learn at least one valuable lesson there: Some secular books contain wisdom and moral dilemmas that can be valuable catalysts for religious discussion and development. I’m a big fan of the Bible and prefer attending a church where it’s the main text.  It’s just not the only book that can speak to the truth in our hearts.  Last Sunday, I had an opportunity to apply this idea in my Episcopal church. Read more…

How to Do Everything!

This article is linked to the greatest tips edition of Works-for-Me Wednesday, where the hostess explains how to get a human on the phone when you call customer service, and more than 178 people have linked to their own helpful tips on how to do all sorts of things.  Here are my own greatest tips:

7 ways to eat less meat.

40 ways kids can help around the house.

13 ways to use less electricity for your lighting.

Toddler discipline in 3 easy steps!

7 product recommendations (NOT paid endorsements!). Read more…

Books That Blew My Mind

UPDATE February 1, 2012: For the past two years, this has been an article like my links page where I keep adding content as I get around to it.  Now I’m going to call it finished!  Of course, I expect to read additional mind-blowing books during my visit to Earth, but this list now includes all the qualifying books I have discovered so far.  [Um, and I added one more on February 2!]

This is a list of books that made a big difference to me at the time I first read them, and in some cases forever afterward, by giving me many new things to think about and/or a completely different angle on an old favorite topic.  I highly recommend them all.  They’re in approximately chronological order according to when I first read them, but that doesn’t mean anyone else needs to read them in this particular order, and where I mention ages please take into account that I was a very precocious reader–many kids will not be able to read these books to themselves until they are several years older.  (Check out these great chapter books for kids!) Read more…

Great Chapter Books for Kids!

It’s Works-for-Me Wednesday! We started reading chapter books to our son when he was 2 years 9 months old.  Two years later, they’re an important part of his daily life.  I read to him every day on the bus going to and from preschool, almost always from chapter books because they’re more convenient: more story for the weight, less frequent decisions about what to read, and more interesting for me!  He also chooses chapter books for some of the other times Daniel or I read to him, like at bedtime.

Chapter books encourage a longer attention span than picture books and help to develop long-term memory (because you have to remember what was happening in the story in between reading sessions).  Because there are fewer pictures or none at all, the child has to use his imagination to picture the scenes.  The vocabulary tends to be more advanced than picture books. Read more…

Hear now the Tale of Job!

My four-year-old son and I were in our car on the way to Trader Joe’s last Wednesday when this Seatrain song telling the Biblical story of Job came up on the CD my dad made for me. I turned off the engine right after the line, “Long, long they journeyed until they found Job in the ashes of his burned-out farm.”

Nicholas objected, “But wait! Why was his farm burned? and what happened next? Tell me the rest of the story.” I gave him a quick summary on the way into the store, and then on the way home we listened to the rest of the song and then played it over again all the way through. We talked a little bit about the moral: Bad things sometimes happen to good people; it is important to trust God even when things aren’t going so well for you. Read more…

The Other Three Bears

Nicholas often asks me to tell him a story while we’re walking somewhere.  Most of these stories are anecdotes from my childhood, well-known fairy tales, or made-up ramblings that entertain him for the moment but are never requested again.  This story, however, is one I invented with his help over a year ago and have told dozens of times since then.  I hope other people will enjoy it, too!

Once upon a time, there were three little bears sitting on three little chairs, very quiet and very still.  They were sitting like that because their father had told them to, and they always did everything their father told them to do.

The father bear needed his little bears to be quiet and still because he had to work very hard at his desk.  He worked and worked until . . . yawn . . . zzz . . . flop! he fell asleep right on top of his papers.

The three little bears looked at each other, and they looked at the door, and they looked at each other again, and then they very quietly tiptoed outside and shut the door.  They got their sled, and they sat down on it, one little bear behind another little bear behind another little bear, and they pushed off and slid downhill through the snow: “Whee!” “Whee!” “Whee!”

They were having great fun, when suddenly they saw ahead of them . . . a pig!  The pig had wandered out of the forest and was just standing there in the middle of the snowy hillside, looking the other way.  He couldn’t see them coming!  They had no way to steer!  Bang! Crash! The sled hit that pig and knocked him up into the air so he landed right on top of the three little bears, and they all went down the hill together: “Whee!” “Whee!” “Whee!” “Squeeeee!!” Read more…