Mysteries, Dogs, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Wes Moore [book reviews]

A new school year has begun, with both of our young Earthlings attending in-person school for the first time in 18 months!!!  During the pandemic, my now seven-year-old Lydia and I developed a routine of reading Morning Story during my first cup of coffee, and she was eager to continue this custom as we return to needing to leave the house on time.  This is the silver lining to a schedule that has her big brother leaving for school an hour and twenty minutes earlier than she does: I have to be up that early, to make sure he gets up, so I have plenty of time to work Morning Story into the schedule.

Before I get into reviews of the books I’ve read to Lydia and to myself in the past two months, I want to mention again the value of comic strips in helping children learn to read.  We have a stack of Sunday newspaper comics sections and several Calvin & Hobbes anthologies that I had read to Lydia, but now she’s reading them on her own!  She also likes to read them aloud to other family members.  Calvin & Hobbes includes some very challenging words, but the humor is just her style!  The only hitch is making her understand that a lot of the things Calvin does are not okay things to do; there are good reasons his parents and teachers are mad at him!  Sometimes we have to take away the books for a while when her behavior is too Calvinesque.

Books I read to my second-grader

No Flying in the House by Betty Brock, illustrated by Wallace Tripp

Annabel appears to be an ordinary three-year-old girl.  Gloria appears to be a talking dog three inches long, who as Annabel’s guardian convinces the wealthy Mrs. Vancourt to take them into her home.  Who are Annabel and Gloria, really, and where did they come from?

I remembered enjoying this book very much when I was in second grade, but I couldn’t remember anything about it except the opening premise and that being able to kiss your own elbow means you’re a fairy.  I had fun rediscovering all the enchanting details!  Lydia liked it pretty well, too, although she was disappointed that the cat who brings forbidden knowledge turned out to be a villain.  (“She’s like that snake in the Bible!”)

Note that this story may make you feel really creeped out by any miniature animal collection that may be on display in your home….

Ribsy by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Louis Darling

This novel takes the viewpoint of a non-magical dog familiar to readers of Cleary’s series about Henry Huggins–but in this book, Henry is more of a background character, as the main narrative follows Henry’s dog Ribsy after he accidentally gets into the wrong car and is transported to an unfamiliar neighborhood.  Ribsy wants to get home to Henry, but he keeps having adventures: a bubble bath inflicted by a swarm of little girls, a stay with a lonely widow who feeds him much too well, a visit with a second-grade class and a squirrel, an unexpected role in a football game, a startling telephone conversation, and getting stranded on a fire escape.  The portrayal of twentieth-century human situations from a dog’s perspective is both touching and hilarious.

Books for adults

You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt

Although I liked this book and the ideas expressed by the former First Lady of the United States, writing 15 years after her husband’s death about the things she had learned in her much longer life as well as in her time as First Lady…I found it strangely difficult to finish.  I read about 60% of it in a couple of days, then put it down for months at a stretch and read just a few pages at a time.  I can’t really explain that.

There are lots of good ideas here about being open to experiences and perspectives.  It reminded me of my grandma’s approach to life and how I’d like to be more like that and less nervous and self-centered.  For example:

If you approach each new person you meet in a spirit of adventure, you will find that you become increasingly interested in them and endlessly fascinated by the new channels of thought and experience and personality that you encounter.  I do not mean simply the famous people of the world but people from every walk and condition of life.  You will find them a source of inexhaustible surprise because of the unexpected qualities and interests which you will unearth in your search for treasure.

Eleanor Roosevelt explains how this attitude informed her husband’s approach to being every American’s President while being famous himself, and what she learned from and alongside him.  She makes strong arguments for diversity in government and every human endeavor, explaining the need to tap the strengths and wisdom of older people, women, immigrants, and the poor.  She has particularly interesting thoughts about the effects of gender roles on people’s ability to adjust to changing circumstances.

The Searcher by Tana French

Unlike the other books by this author that I’ve read [see reviews of The Likeness and The Trespasser], this one is not a Dublin police procedural.  Instead, Cal Hooper is a retired Chicago police officer who’s bought a run-down house in rural Ireland where he thinks he can have a peaceful life away from urban mayhem.  Then a local kid, Trey, starts hanging around and clearly wants his help with something…but Trey has a hard time trusting anyone.  As Cal begins to unravel the mystery, he finds that some of the local characters aren’t as harmless as they seemed.

I liked this better than the Dublin murder mysteries.  The more relaxed pace allows for more mood, scenery, and characterization.  Cal’s unfamiliarity with rural Irish culture added a lot of interesting wrinkles to the plot.

Discovering Wes Moore by Wes Moore

The author feels that his life could easily have gone off the rails, and he’s lucky to have had the support and discipline of his mother, military school, and other positive influences.  Another man named Wes Moore also grew up fatherless in Baltimore, and he’s now serving a life sentence for murder.  The author Wes Moore interviewed the other Wes Moore and speculates about why their lives turned out so differently.

This is a really interesting concept, a bricks and balloons story of balancing the allure of gangs and drug dealing against the uplifting effects of school, travel, discipline, religion, high expectations, and love.  Unfortunately, it’s not very well written or structured, and the author focuses more on himself than on the other Wes Moore (who appears only in the last 40 pages).  He overgeneralizes all the things his mother thought would be good for him as vital contributors to his success, but a school that wakes you before dawn by screaming profanity at you and dropping you five feet onto a tile floor is just abusive, not proven to have positive results.  You didn’t deserve that, Wes, and ritual abuse is not what the other Wes needed.

One crucial difference between the two Wes Moores, which the author did not explore at all, is that the other Wes Moore became a father at 15 and had four children with two women by the time he was 20.  The obligation to support his children and their mothers was what drove the other Wes Moore back to drug dealing after his stint in Job Corps and months of searching for steady work that paid more than $9 an hour.  The author Wes Moore never acknowledges his own delaying of fatherhood as a factor in his academic and career success; he doesn’t explain how he resisted the temptation to have girlfriends or who taught him how to avoid unplanned pregnancy; he includes a photo of his wife and dedicates the book to his daughter, so he became a father sometime before age 34 (when the book was published), but he doesn’t discuss this aspect of his life at all.  Working in life-course research on young men in Pittsburgh, I saw many examples of teen fathers who quit all criminal activity except drug dealing, because they could not get any legitimate work that paid as well as drug dealing; it’s a responsible strategy, in a way.  Yes, the author Wes Moore’s high-quality education helped him get better jobs, but he needs to consider that he was able to complete that education because he didn’t have children to support.  The author also fails to explain why the other Wes committed the jewelry-store robbery that led to the murder–he had gone back to drug dealing, but then the narration shifts to the perspective of the other Wes’s mother learning about the robbery and murder on the news; we never get his explanation of how he got into that situation, and since that’s not a typical move for a drug dealer to make, I wonder.

Still Life by Louise Penny

This is the first in the series of mysteries featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache that so many people have recommended.  I happened to read A Trick of the Light first, but this is the first book of the series and a better starting point!

Retired teacher Jane Neal is found dead in the woods, shot by an arrow, in the tiny Quebec village of Three Pines.  It appears to be just a hunting accident, but some clues look suspicious, so the homicide team investigates.  Is it just a coincidence that Jane died the day after her art was accepted for an exhibition and she yelled at some teenagers for harassing the local gay couple?  Why has she never allowed even her closest friends into any room of her house beyond the kitchen?  The detectives also have a lot to learn about arrows and archery and hunting techniques.  It’s an interesting story with suspicious characters that kept me guessing!

I acquired this book and three others in the series through my local Buy Nothing group, but after reading another one of them, I’m thinking this series jumped the shark and maybe I don’t want to read them all….

Glass Houses by Louise Penny

By this point in the series, Inspector Gamache and his wife are living in Three Pines, where a statistically improbable number of murders have occurred, and now there’s another one to solve!  Meanwhile, Gamache has been promoted to the chief of all police in Quebec, and he’s pursuing a clever strategy of appearing incompetent and letting a lot of criminals get away with stuff and letting a huge shipment of narcotics cross the border into the United States so that he’ll be able to catch the most important criminals right here in Three Pines!  No, really.  He will.  Not yet.  But he’s getting to it.  There’s so much suspense.  This is really important.  He’s very clever.  This is going to work wonders.  Any minute now.  What if they fail?  Well, they simply must not fail.  It’s the only way.

Meanwhile, a mysterious person in a black robe is lurking in Three Pines.  Then a visitor to the village is found bludgeoned to death in the church basement, wearing the black robe.  There’s a convoluted explanation for how this is all part of the very problem Gamache is solving, but none of it makes a whole lot of sense, and it leads up to quite the bullet-riddled action scene.

And the sentence fragments.  Drove me crazy.  The author or the editor apparently thought shorter sentences would be more suspenseful.  So many sentences.  Broken up like this.  Tragic.

Read other writers’ book reviews at Quick Lit and Show Us Your Books!  Pick up tips on many topics at Hearth & Soul!

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