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!
Books I read to Nicholas (10 years old):
- A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass is the story of 13-year-old Mia, who perceives letters, numbers, and sounds as having colors. She’s kept this a secret after realizing, years earlier, that seeing these colors is weird. Meanwhile, her beloved grandfather died, and she found a kitten at his grave. She named the kitten Mango because the sounds he makes are mango-colored. As the story begins, Mia is failing math because the colors of the numbers interfere with her understanding their numerical relationships, so she finally tells her parents. After a few false starts, they find a neurologist who explains that her condition is called synesthesia. Mia gets so wrapped up in learning about synesthesia, and in meeting a boy online who has it, that she neglects a group history project, hurts her best friend’s feelings several times, and casually cheats on math tests. She learns that acupuncture can enhance synesthesia, talks a boy in her history project group into letting her tag along to his acupuncturist, and gets an amazing trippy effect. Then Mango dies–and Mia’s world goes colorless. Her grief is very real (it got me all choked up!) and so are her guilty feelings over the possibility that she neglected Mango because she was so preoccupied. The rest of the book, though, is somewhat awkwardly written and reminded me of the Issue Stories foisted on me in Unitarian children’s programs. Also, it bothered me that the story ended with Mia’s parents never knowing about the mind-altering acupuncture that was administered to their child without their consent when she lied about her whereabouts, and she never owned up to cheating in math, and her various peer conflicts were resolved unevenly. Nicholas liked this book very much, though.
- The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson is an adventure in which a magical hidden Island intersects with ours via a portal in a London train station, which opens only once every nine years for nine days. Many people have traveled through the portal. The King and Queen of the Island hire triplet nannies, who take the baby Prince along on their visit to London–where he is kidnapped by an annoying woman who always wanted a baby! The King and Queen have to wait nine years to send a party of rescuers (who are, of course, a bunch of interesting characters with unusual powers) back to London to rescue the Prince, who has been raised as an incredibly irritating spoiled brat. The plot is nothing very original–we both saw the “surprise twist” coming a mile off!–but it’s a charming story with many entertaining details. I particularly like the mistmakers and the description of the harpies.
Books I read to Lydia (nine months old):
- Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb by Al Perkins, illustrated by Eric Gurney. This wonderfully rhythmic book about monkeys drumming, which I enjoyed as a child but never obtained for Nicholas, was a Christmas gift to Lydia from my brother. Lydia loves it and will often bounce or clap in time with the rhythm. She even once pulled it from the shelf and, upon recognizing the cover, began to drum on it!
- Bear on a Bike by Stella Blackstone, illustrated by Debbie Harter. This board book was a favorite of Nicholas, and I’m happy to read it to Lydia over and over again! Bear uses various modes of transport to get to various intriguing places, pursued by a kid with the refrain, “Where are you going, Bear? Please wait for me!” The detailed, brightly-colored illustrations give us plenty to look at, and in addition to the bear and the kid there are recurring background characters we can follow from page to page. The rhyme scheme is so infectious that during Nick’s toddler years, Daniel and I began to respond to any phrase with a rhythm similar to “BEAR on a BIKE” by mumbling, “Happy as can be!”
- Modern Type of Apartment Hotels Thruout United States by Robert Carroll Cash both is and isn’t what I was looking for: It is a book of floor plans of pre-World War II apartment buildings, which are hard to find. It names the intersection at which each building is or was located, so I can look on Google Streetview to see if it’s still there! But these apartments are all relatively similar because almost all of them are either what we’d now call “efficiency apartments” or just standard hotel rooms with bathroom but no kitchen. Also, the book (which my brother ordered by mail, at my request for Christmas) is printed much too small to be legible: The pages are 5″x8″ and ought to be more like twice that size. I can look at it only when I have my contact lenses out, holding the book a few inches from my nearsighted eyes! It’s printed from the Hathi Trust Digital Library, which has an amazing online collection of old books that have been scanned. Despite the tiny format, I’ve been enjoying looking at the book, which includes buildings from many cities but mostly Chicago.
- 101 Classic Homes of the Twenties by Harris, McHenry, & Baker Co. is one of those excellent floor-plan books published by Dover from old documents. I wanted this one because it includes a wide array of single-family houses and some multi-family dwellings from my very favorite decade of architecture. The plans and photographs are clearly printed, so I’m really enjoying this book. As a bonus, it has very entertaining text! Each design is accompanied by a paragraph emphasizing the moral perfection enabled by living in this home, like this:
Clean men, both of hand and heart, are invariably the product of happy home unions. It is around the harmonious hearthstone, where the glow of mutual interest and understanding temper the finer senses, that men mould character of sterling worth. It would be a violation of natural law if homes in The Van Buren class should produce other than men of clean purpose.