Walkable City, Visible City, and 4 more book reviews

My brother got me two books about cities for my birthday–one fiction and one nonfiction, both great books with great covers! Here they are, along with reviews of the other books I’ve read recently.

Walkable City by Jeff Speck

I love living in a walkable urban neighborhood!  This book by a city planner told me a lot I didn’t know about what makes some cities thrive with useful, pleasant walking spaces and just how good for our physical, mental, environmental, and social health walkability is.  Every page made me gasp with some interesting fact or startling insight.  It’s filled with “rules” about how to make spaces work for us, yet it also emphasizes the need to get rid of regulations that create less-walkable areas, for example requiring off-street parking for every individual dwelling.  The real-life examples, from dozens of American and international cities, are fascinating.

If you live in a walkable place, this book will show you hidden details of how it works.  If you live in an unwalkable place, this book will teach you what to advocate in your local planning meetings or what to look for when you move.

Visible City by Tova Mirvis

Nina and Jeremy share a New York City apartment and two young children, but they barely see each other anymore.  Nina, a stay-at-home mom, is drawn to watching the older couple in an apartment across the street who look so contented together–but who is that younger woman on crutches who is suddenly in their home?  Jeremy spends most of his time at the office, trying to prove himself in a career that suddenly seems less important when he discovers the architectural splendor of an abandoned subway station and meets people devoted to exploring New York’s hidden places.  Separately, Nina and Jeremy get to know separate members of the family across the street, and their lives intersect in several very different ways as their neighborhood struggles with the construction of a huge new building. Read more of this post

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Every school needs a Jacob!

My three-year-old Lydia and I recently enjoyed a picture book from our local library, Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah & Ian Hoffman, illustrated by Chris Case.  Jacob is a preschool boy who enjoys wearing dresses from the costume box but is criticized by his classmate Christopher.  His mom is kind about his hurt feelings, but when he says he wants to wear a dress as his regular clothing, she’s clearly unsettled.  After an experiment with a towel toga and some more bullying from Christopher, Jacob steels his nerve to talk to his mom again–and she helps him sew a dress he really likes.  When Christopher complains about it at circle time, their teacher says, “Everyone wears what’s comfortable for them.”  She points out that people used to say girls couldn’t wear pants.  At recess, Jacob stands up to the bully, feeling his dress surrounding him like “soft, cottony armor.”

Lydia and I loved this story of bravery and being yourself!  It’s very gently yet vividly written, perfectly evoking Jacob’s desires and worries at a preschool level, not preachy and not over-explaining.  I’m especially impressed with the moment when Jacob’s mother is trying to decide what to say and Jacob feels like he can’t breathe–that’s all it says, but you can feel the tension, the importance of his mother’s reaction to him.  I also love what she says as they make the dress: “There are all sorts of ways to be a boy.”

Lydia likes pink and flowers and Hello Kitty, but she also loves trains and playing in the mud, and she likes to wear clothes handed down by her older brother Nicholas, like a blue T-shirt with a dragon on it.  She was surprised by the idea that girls “couldn’t” wear pants.  I pulled out a few of the pre-1960 children’s books we own and pointed out that all the girls in the pictures were wearing dresses.  We agreed that sometimes pants are more comfortable, and other times a dress is just the right “soft, cottony armor” for your adventures! Read more of this post

5 Book Reviews

Here’s a sprightly introduction to my reviews of the books I’ve read in the past month.

The God We Never Knew by Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg is a theologian and Biblical scholar who admits that he got well into his adult life and graduate studies before he realized that his understanding of God was warped by assumptions he’d picked up as a child in church.  He proceeded to explore and learn more about God.  He explains how God is in everything and everything is in God.  Because God is always and everywhere present, “…we are already in relationship whether we know it or not,” so prayer is not a magic spell addressed to a distant genie but is simply “consciously entering into and nurturing a relationship with God.”  He explains how this God is easy to reach yet heartbreakingly easy to ignore, describing his own surprising realizations that he’s “forgotten” to pray for a few days in a row even while he’s writing a book about God–that makes me feel better about my own lapses!

A debate over inclusive language brought him a startling insight: Read more of this post

Book Reviews: Old and New

I started a new job three weeks ago, so I’ve been rereading familiar books as a backdrop to all the new ideas!  However, right before going back to work, I read a book published in 1999 that was new to me.

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

John is a teenager in the era of zines–that brief time between when teenagers started wanting to tell everyone their innermost thoughts and when blogging became possible.  That time and its trends are perfectly evoked in this novel of self-exploration and the joy of getting to know a really interesting person.  When you’re a straight white suburban guy, and your new best friend is a Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee lesbian, should you ask her to the prom?  I didn’t expect much from this book, but I really enjoyed it.

Kumquat May, I’ll Always Love You by Cynthia D. Grant

I read this book several times as a teenager and liked it so much that it had been on my shelf all these years, but I never got around to reading it again until now.  It’s pretty well done, with zany characters and some very clever lines, but now I see it as kind of self-consciously over-written, and Olivia is so mature and perceptive that her inability to pick up on painfully obvious clues doesn’t make much sense.

Olivia is a high school senior who has been living alone for two years.  First her father died, then her grandmother, and then her mother went out to the grocery store and never came back.  Her mom sends postcards once in a while, always promising to be home “soon.”  Meanwhile, Olivia has kept her solitude a secret from everyone but her best friend Rosella.  But now, her childhood friend Raymond has moved back to town, bringing new energy into Olivia’s life, falling in love with her, and sharing a secret of his own.  What will happen if she tells him the truth about her mom?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This one did not disappoint me when I read it for what must be the fifth or sixth time, at least.  If anything, I’d forgotten just how excellent the prose and dialogue are, how wonderfully the various events of Scout’s childhood weave together into an overall story that feels so true, how perfectly it depicts a range of characters who understand that racism is wrong yet to some extent take it for granted, and how it’s not just about racism but about multiple ways of respecting people for who they are.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

My partner Daniel brought out his DVD of The Secret of NIMH to watch with our two-and-a-half-year old Lydia, who loved this story of a brave mother mouse and has wanted to watch it every week or so since–but Daniel and I were frustrated that the movie so drastically over-simplifies the plot of the book and adds a lot of magical mumbo-jumbo and makes Jeremy the crow so irritating!  We think the best thing about the movie is the colors; many scenes, especially at sunset, are visually gorgeous.  Anyway, I was inspired to look for the book, which I’d read in school in sixth grade.  I found it in the library.

Mrs. Frisby is a mouse raising four children alone since her husband’s untimely death last year.  When her son Timothy comes down with pneumonia, she visits Mr. Ages, a mouse known for his knowledge of healing, and gets medicine and the advice that Timothy must stay indoors and warm until he is fully recovered.  But the mice must move out of their winter home before the farmer plows his field and destroys that home, and the weather’s getting warmer too soon for Timothy to make the journey to the summer place.  Mrs. Frisby happens to rescue a crow tangled in string, who advises her to consult the wise old owl about her problem–and that leads her to learn about her husband’s surprising past and his association with the mysteriously intelligent rats who live in the big rosebush.

This is an excellent story combining cute animals with deep thoughts about the nature of intelligence, ethics, and cooperation.  Lydia’s interest in it is really pushing her toward accepting a story with very few pictures!  We’ve tried other chapter books on her, and she’s accepted them some of the time but often insisted on flipping through the book to see all of the pictures or on hearing Chapter One over and over again.  With this book, she keeps asking to hear the part about the owl (perhaps because that’s one of the scariest scenes, perhaps because she likes my owl voice) but she’s generally letting me pick up where we left off, so I think we’ll be able to read the whole book before it’s due back to the library!

Visit the Quick Lit Linkup for more book reviews!

6 book reviews and Peyton Place GIVEAWAY!!!

p1040349I thought it was time to reread Peyton Place because I hadn’t read it in years–I couldn’t remember how long.  But I found that I remembered it too well to thoroughly enjoy it again, and that’s why I decided to give away this book, which I read 3 or 4 times years ago.  This is a Book-of-the-Month Club facsimile of the first edition of this classic novel of scandalous secrets.  It looks great on the shelf but is lightweight for carrying around with you.

Giveaway is open to anyone with a United States mailing address.  To enter, leave a comment on this article.  One entry per reader, even if you have multiple comments.  Winner will be selected by a random drawing on March 1, 2017.

Peyton Place is the story of a small New England town and dozens of its inhabitants, many of whom have secrets: past decisions they regret, plots to deceive each other, or unacceptable yearnings.  Set in the late 1930s through the 1940s, published in 1956, it vividly evokes a society with strict taboos and enormous fear of gossip.  The character development and dialogue are excellent, and the scene-setting prose really pulls you into each moment.  The book became famous because it was so shocking by 1950s standards, but it’s become a classic because it’s really a compelling story!

Trigger warnings: Murder. Incest. Abortion. Gruesome poverty. Profanity and hostile language. Sexy teenagers. Lewd jokes.

Now, on to the six new books I’ve read in the past few months!

The Bronze King by Suzy McKee Charnas

Tina is on her way to school in Manhattan when she hears an explosion in the subway station.  She decides to take a bus instead.  Nobody’s heard anything about any explosion, and she wouldn’t think any more of it, except that her tuna sandwich is mysteriously missing.  Next day, her sneakers are missing.  Then it’s a statue in the park, then her bathroom medicine cabinet–and then she’s assaulted by a guy on a skateboard whose jacket says Prince of Darkness.  Tina remembers her grandmother’s advice to “make a wish by running water and seal it with silver,” and she wishes the statue would come back and set things right.  Then she meets a mysterious subway fiddler and a semi-annoying boy, and together they save the world from doom!

No Impact Man by Colin Beavan

I’ve now fulfilled my pledge not to read this book until I could get a used copy for free–thus, no impact.  I heard about Colin Beavan’s attempt to change his family’s lifestyle to zero environmental impact when he was doing it in 2007, but because I’d been on the greener-living journey for about 17 years at that point, I figured there would be no surprises for me in his blog or the book he wrote after completing the year.  I was wrong.

You see, I was raised in a family (and Girl Scout movement) that valued “using resources wisely,” so I always was thinking about it to some extent, and then I started gradually trying one thing after another to conserve more and produce less waste.  It’s been a very gradual and mostly comfortable journey.  Colin Beavan, and even more so his high-fashion, grew-up-rich wife Michelle, started with a carelessly wasteful lifestyle and suddenly tried to change everything really quickly.  They tried things I never have, like living without electricity.  They had to learn skills I picked up as a child and have never set aside for any length of time, like cooking from raw ingredients.  Their insights and personal growth are really impressive.

The experiment began with Colin waking up in the morning and realizing that he couldn’t blow his nose on a disposable paper product.  He eventually realized the answer was handkerchiefs and that he could use cloths he already had.  But by the time he figured that out, he’d realized that he’d been thinking of this project as a battle against his “selfish” needs and desires, but it was really about learning new habits that fulfill the same needs and desires.

What’s most remarkable about this story is the changes in what Colin and Michelle began to think of as rewarding, fun, and normal, especially those that came from tuning in to what their toddler was doing or from listening to their own minds instead of television.  Although they didn’t continue the most extreme of their changes after the year ended, they made many permanent changes.  Can one family’s choices really make a difference toward slowing global climate change?  Here’s one of my favorite passages:

Just because our individual actions are not remembered doesn’t mean they’re not crucial.  The straw that breaks the back requires all the rest of us straws.  The domino that begins the domino effect requires each of us to be in line for the chain reaction to take place.

The one thing I don’t get about this book is the author’s hostility toward the many people who asked him what he used instead of toilet paper and his refusal to answer that question.  He seems to think people were asking with intent to portray his project as disgusting and crazy.  Gosh, isn’t it possible that they were asking so that they could switch to this greener habit themselves?  They can’t do that if you won’t tell them how!  Well, don’t worry: I will tell you.  (I’ll also tell you what his daughter used instead of disposable diapers and what his wife used instead of tampons.  He didn’t mind putting those facts in the book….)

The Survivalist’s Daughter by Hazel Hart

Kindra is the sixteen-year-old daughter of homesteaders who live in an isolated mountain cabin, home-school her, and attend a very conservative church.  She’s restless and wants to see more of the world, but her parents barely allow her to talk to the guy working at the general store.  Suddenly, one morning, federal agents raid their home, kill her mother, arrest her father, separate Kindra from her one-year-old brother, and take her in for questioning about her father’s illegal gun sales.  The grieving teenager so sheltered she’s never eaten fast food is suddenly plunged into the real world and the custody of relatives she never knew she had.  The adults want to integrate her into the family’s everyday life by pretending everything’s normal and there’s no time to talk, but Kindra wants to understand why her father lied about her family and to find her brother and take care of him.  She and her newfound sister hatch a plot that ends up having unintended consequences.

This exciting story really pulled me along, and many of the details were well-written and realistic.  But some of the dialogue and characterization and plot points felt amateurish.  The author teaches community college, and this book reads a lot like something somebody wrote for school–but an A+ effort!

Trigger warnings: Violent death of a parent.  Otherwise, this is a surprisingly tame story considering the plot–scary ideas more than graphic scary action.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

This interesting set of essays on Christianity comes from the perspective of a guy from Texas who barely knew his father and barely knew God, despite lifelong church attendance, but slowly things started to change, and now he’s been on a long road trip and lived in the woods with hippies and ended up in Portland, Oregon, where he spends a lot of time at the famously liberal Reed College.  He’s become a Christian in a whole different way than he was before, and he’s still learning.

Throughout the book, I wondered how old the author is, because he writes in an innocent way that sounds young, yet he’s clearly had a lot of experiences.  One of my favorite parts is the story of how he started tithing, giving 10% of his income to the church.  It’s so much like my “magic penny” experience of quadrupling my contribution that it gave me chills.  He does a great job of explaining the weird feelings of being a Christian “outside the safe cocoon of big Christianity” so that you find yourself explaining your beliefs, like this:

I believe in Jesus; I believe He is the son of God, but every time I sit down to explain this to somebody I feel like a palm reader, like somebody who works at a circus or a kid who is always making things up or somebody at a Star Trek convention who hasn’t figured out that the show isn’t real.

Wolfy & the Strudelbakers by Zvi Jagendorf

Wolfy Helfgott is a little boy when he and his parents, uncle, aunt, and cousin flee Nazi-occupied Vienna and settle in London–only to be bombed out in the Blitz and evacuated to a little seaside village.  They return to London after the war, and Wolfy grows into a teenager juggling British everyday life with the demands of Orthodox Judaism and the eccentric customs of his family.  Some of the chapters are from the perspective of other family members.  As an adult, Wolfy–who’s now changed his name to Will Halfgo–travels to Israel to meet the other part of the extended family who fled Vienna, and he repeats the traditional cemetery visit that connects to so many threads of his past.

This book combines zany humor and eccentricity with deep grief and worry in the way only twentieth-century Jewish stories can.  I’ll be thinking about these characters for a long time.

Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Korobi Roy is a college student in Kolkata, India, raised by her grandparents after both parents died.  She’s engaged to marry her true love, Rajat Bose, whose parents own an art distribution business with a New York City gallery that’s struggling in the aftermath of 9/11.  Everything seems perfect as Korobi and Rajat prepare to marry–but then Korobi has an argument with her grandfather, and later that night he suffers a fatal heart attack.  Her grandmother now feels released from her grandfather’s insistence that they keep secret from Korobi the truth about her parents.  When Korobi learns that her father is not Indian and may still be alive in the United States, she feels compelled to travel to find him.  While she’s away, things go wrong for both the Roy and Bose families, both Korobi and Rajat are tempted by other people, and then Korobi discovers a terrible secret about the New York gallery and then learns that even her grandparents didn’t know all the truth about her parents.

I love this tensely plotted novel, thick with descriptions of Indian life both traditional and modern.  It has so many plot twists yet never seems over-the-top.

Visit the Quick Lit linkup for more book reviews!

Book Reviews: Good, Bad, and Coincidental

Imagine my surprise when one of the paperback mysteries I’d picked up at a used-book sale turned out to reference one of the others!  In Harm Done, which I reviewed last month, a girl claims she was kidnapped by two women who forced her to do housework, and an irritated Inspector Wexford demands to know if she has read The Franchise Affair.  She has–apparently it’s such a classic in Britain that it’s required reading for university entrance exams–but she’s indignant at what he’s implying.  I didn’t understand until I read The Franchise Affair myself.  How convenient that it happened to be the next book in my stack!

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

This 1949 mystery begins with a languid, small-town lawyer getting a phone call from a woman who’s been utterly surprised by the police coming to her door.  Marion Sharpe and her elderly mother live in an isolated house (called The Franchise) on the edge of town, and 15-year-old Betty Kane claims that when she was waiting for the bus that would take her home from spring vacation at her aunt’s house, Miss Sharpe and Mrs. Sharpe offered her a ride but instead held her prisoner at The Franchise, forced her to do housework, and beat her severely before she finally escaped.  The Sharpes claim no knowledge of this at all!  The lawyer and police suspect that the Sharpes are innocent and Betty is lying to conceal what she was really doing for four weeks, but finding the truth requires a long investigation. Read more of this post

Some Old and Some New: September Book Reviews

This month I read two books that were new to me and two I’d read before but didn’t remember well.

36 Children by Herbert Kohl

Mr. Kohl was a white, Jewish graduate of Harvard and Columbia who agreed to teach sixth grade in a public school in Harlem in 1962.  The school was only 29 blocks from his apartment, but it was in a different world.  His 36 students were all African-American or Hispanic.  He says, “It is one thing to be liberal and talk, another to face something and learn that you’re afraid.”  He faced it, but it took him a while to rearrange his approach.  His first breakthrough moment came when he asked the kids why they used the word psyches to insult each other: What did it mean?  “Like, crazy or something.”  Why?  Mr. Kohl showed them the word’s unusual spelling, explained that it is Greek, told the myth of Cupid and Psyche, and listed some words derived from those names.  The students became fascinated both with the concept of root words and with ancient myths, and these interests helped to guide the whole year.  Read more of this post

Wallflowers and Oranges Unbound! (book reviews)

I’ve been catching up on my magazines this month, but I’ve also read three books…

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Charlie is a friendless teenager beginning his freshman year at a high school in the affluent southern suburbs of Pittsburgh.  The book is a series of “Dear friend,” letters he’s writing anonymously.  His writing style and some of his perceptions of things are weirdly innocent, like he’s four or five years younger, which made me feel afraid for him right away.

Charlie soon makes friends with two seniors, Patrick and his stepsister Sam, who introduce him to “good music” and parties with lots of drugs.  The friendship is valuable and helpful to all three of them, but there’s a lot of drama of many kinds (romantic issues, conflict with the popular crowd, family problems, sexual orientation, academic struggles, abuse, mental illness) constantly twisting all of them around and destabilizing their relationships.  Some of this story is about the joy of having a few good friends in a school where you’re mostly an outsider.  Most of it is about struggling along trying to deny that something is very wrong with you. Read more of this post

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Having finished all the books I got for Christmas, I acquired a bunch more for my birthday!  Not only did I receive some books as gifts, but I found lots of low-priced books at the Regent Square Yard Sale, I bought a few books at Balticon, and after reading one of the titles below I swapped it for one of the others at a Little Free Library in my neighborhood.  I’ve got enough new-to-me books to last all summer!  Here are the highlights of my past month’s reading:

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

This is a classic Anne Tyler novel: A bunch of quirky characters form a family in Baltimore, someone goes through some self-evaluation and yearning, there’s an off-and-on romance involving misunderstandings, somebody runs an unusual business, and there are some gems like these:

“That first night you telephoned, I had just about hit bottom.  It was so incredibly providential that you called me when you did, Rebecca.”  He reached across the table and gripped one of her hands.  Unfortunately, it was the hand that held her scrunched-up napkin.  Also, she felt an instantaneous, nearly overwhelming urge to wriggle her fingers frantically, like some kind of undersea creature.

Read more of this post

4 Great Poetry Books for Young Children

Our two-year-old Lydia loves poetry!  Most young children enjoy hearing rhyming, rhythmic words, but Lydia is particularly fascinated.  We have many picture books with rhyming text–like the wonderful works of Dr. Seuss–but we’ve also found several longer poetry books that she enjoys and so do we.

Poetry is very helpful in getting children interested in books and understanding how language works.  Our first child, Nicholas, went through a long phase of pointing out “matching” words on the page–words like rough and tough that look the same except for the first letter–and he was intrigued to learn that such words usually rhyme but sometimes don’t, and that words that rhyme sometimes don’t match visually.  Poems that don’t rhyme are educational in a different way, demonstrating the power of language to express feelings and perceptions.  Both rhyming and non-rhyming poems are more memorable than prose, enabling children to quote favorite portions and to “read” their books to themselves as the pictures cue them to recall the words. Read more of this post

Secrets to a Happy Road Trip with a Two-year-old

When our son Nicholas was 2 years old, we drove from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma, stayed a while, and drove back.  In each direction, we spent 3 days in a row on the road for about 8 hours a day of actual driving time, plus rest stops.  My cousin who has older children gave me two very helpful tips, and I thought of another idea that proved even more useful than those!

Tip #1: Bring a Magna-Doodle or similar self-contained drawing toy, instead of crayons/markers and paper. It’s much less messy!

Tip #2: Plan for an extended rest stop every 100 miles.  Look at the map for a park, museum, or other pleasant spot.  You will not stop at all of these places.  Just have a list handy in your travel folder (or wherever you organize the information like directions and coupons).  When your child becomes restless, then you can say something like, “Just hang in there for another 20 miles, and we can hike in Englewood MetroPark!”  (That’s one of the stops we made, a very nice park off I-70 near Dayton, Ohio.) Read more of this post

What I’ve Learned By Reading Too Much (and 4 other books!)

In addition to finishing the books I got for Christmas in time for my birthday, I’ve read a few other new-to-me books recently, including one that actually has the alternate title What I’ve Learned By Reading Too Much!  I learned something from each of these books.

The Dance of Anger by Harriet G. Lerner

This is one of the most helpful self-help books I’ve ever read.  It explains several ways that anger typically functions in women’s relationships (with men, family members, friends, and co-workers) and how our handling of anger often keeps a relationship stuck in frustrating patterns.  Although the book focuses on women and makes some generalizations about what women do vs. what men do, it’s more insightful than stereotypical, and some of the strategies could easily be useful to men, too, when they find themselves stuck in the same situations.  A particularly helpful section talks about the formation of triangles in which “we reduce anxiety in one relationship by focusing on a third party, who we unconsciously pull into the situation to lower the emotional intensity in the original pair.”  I’ve sometimes realized that I was doing this, or that two people had pulled me into the middle of a conflict that was really between them, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to get out of it.  The book explains how to figure out why it’s happening and how to get out of it by “staying calm, staying out, and hanging in”–none of which is especially easy to do, but the clear explanation of steps makes it sound possible, at least!  I also appreciate this book’s clear explanation of a pattern in which one person consistently “over-functions” (does too much) and the other “under-functions” and why both people find this difficult to stop.

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

This dystopian techno-thriller starts with a fascinating premise and goes on into a saga that seemed kind of muddled… Read more of this post

Books from Other Cultures: Japan, Sweden, Louisiana…

I didn’t specifically plan to read about foreign cultures in 2016, but the books I got for Christmas happened to include three translated from Swedish, one translated from Japanese, one set in rural Louisiana, and one about houses around the world–so these are what I’ve been reading!  I reviewed the other two Swedish books last month.

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, translated from Japanese by Dorothy Britton

This is the best-selling book in Japanese history, but I had never heard of it until Cocoon of Books reviewed it.  Totto-chan was the childhood nickname of Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, who grew up to become a popular television personality in Japan.  In the 1980s, she wrote this memoir of attending an alternative elementary school in the early 1940s.  Totto-chan started first grade at a typical elementary school but was considered an incorrigible discipline problem.  Her mother took her to visit Tomoe School, where the headmaster believed that children learn best from following their own interests and having plenty of field trips, conversations with adults, real-world projects, exercise, and music.  Totto-chan thrived in this unusual school, held in a cluster of retired train cars.  The book is a series of sweet anecdotes of childhood, many of which make serious points about educational practices and social norms.  Tragically, Tomoe School was destroyed by American bombs during World War II and was never able to reopen.  Kuroyanagi concludes the book with an essay about how the Tomoe experience shaped her into a successful person rather than a lifelong troublemaker (the core issue I’ve been studying in my work), and she gives updates on what some of the other alumni were doing in their forties.  This is a very charming book that really made me think.  It would be suitable for children over age 8 or so.

The Natural House Book by David Pearson

My partner Daniel picked up this used book, published in 1989, as a Christmas present for me because of my interests in architecture and environmentalism.  It’s dated but still interesting.  It explains how “natural houses” traditional in various parts of the world utilize environmentally-friendly principles and how the same ideas can be adapted in new construction.  It also promotes the idea that a more natural house leads to a more natural life that’s more comfortable and healthy.  I didn’t learn a whole lot from this book, but I did enjoy looking at it.  It’s funny how the traditional stuff is as true as ever, while some of the advice about how to avoid toxins in new construction is outdated.

Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells

This novel is related to the well-known Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which I’d started to read a few years ago but abandoned after a couple of chapters because the protagonist seemed like such a whiner, her mother seemed like such an evil bitch, and I just couldn’t stand people with terrible names like Siddalee and Necie y’alling each other all over the place.  Daniel got me this book because, at a glance, he saw that part of it is about Girl Scouts and the author’s name is Rebecca and it seemed pretty well written.  Well, it is–there are some exquisitely vivid passages, and everything seems very real, and at times that’s sweet and wonderful.  The book is made up of interconnected short stories with different narrators, giving you a series of perspectives on a central Louisiana white Catholic family and their black maid and hired hand, first in the mid-1960s and then in the early 1990s.

I particularly appreciated the story in which Siddalee’s father, Big Shep, serves on the local draft board.  He starts off feeling inspired by this patriotic duty, but as the Vietnam conflict goes more and more wrong, he begins to have doubts, particularly when it’s time to consider the draft status of boys he’s known since they were born whose value to their families is painfully obvious.  In every debate, he’s crushed by the prejudices of the clean-handed businessmen who don’t understand his perspective as a rice farmer.  The Vietnamese peasants are rice farmers, too.  Big Shep, who in other people’s stories seems like such a tough guy, really struggles with his feelings here–and you, the reader, are the only one to hear about a lot of it.

But Siddalee’s mother is, in fact, a truly terrible and/or horribly damaged person.  There were moments when I felt some sympathy for her, but mostly she’s dreadful.  It’s no wonder Siddalee felt traumatized and fled and had years of therapy–and although the final story is supposed to be about how her healing process is working so well, now that she’s understood that God is really a woman and that she needs to treat herself like a baby forever, it mostly just made me wince.  I don’t think I’ll read this one again.

Trigger warnings: Alcoholism and associated appalling behavior.  Drunk driving.  Child abuse, both violent and sexual.  Unbearable dialect.

Shadows in the Twilight by Henning Mankell, translated from Swedish by Laurie Thompson

This book disappointed me by not being what I expected, but it’s really a very charming novel about an almost-twelve-year-old boy, suitable for reading by kids that age or even younger.  Joel lives in small-town Sweden in 1957 with his father, and they miss his mother, who left them years ago.  Joel wants to have an adventure and tries to get lost in the forest on purpose, but he realizes the foolishness of this before it’s too late.  Then he does have an adventure: Crossing a street in a hurry, he gets hit by a bus at just the right angle so that he falls between the wheels and is completely unhurt.  As the excitement of this Miracle fades, Joel begins to feel an uneasy sense of obligation: He must have been saved for a purpose; what is it?  He finally decides that he must do a good deed.  He makes the choice of what the good deed will be and figures out how to do it entirely on his own–with unintended results.  Reading, you’re inside Joel’s head, seeing things as he sees them and being talked through all his reasoning, as well as enjoying the various types of imaginative play that lure him away from his mission temporarily.

People have been recommending Henning Mankell to me for years, so I picked up this title when I saw it cheap (and let my one-year-old daughter give it to me for Christmas) without realizing that although Mankell is generally a writer of suspenseful crime fiction, this isn’t an example of it, despite the promisingly creepy title and cover.  I started reading it when I was in the mood for a mystery, and that’s what made it seem painfully slow, as if nothing was happening.

I’ll read this again sometime when I’m in the mood for following an eleven-year-old on his mild but really rather entertaining adventures.  I mean, he gets to wander the steam tunnels under his town, masquerade as an aspiring saxophonist, and sneak into the telephone office in the middle of the night–what’s not to like?

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately

It’s been a difficult year for me so far, but you know what I can do when I’m sick, when I’m hanging around the hospital waiting for things to happen, and when I’m recovering from surgery and have to rest a lot?  I can read!  And it happens that I received a lovely stack of new-to-me books for Christmas!  Here are my reviews of the ones I’ve finished:

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

For the first half of this book, I was enjoying the story well enough, but I was a little disappointed that this book wasn’t grabbing me like Morton’s The Distant Hours (reviewed here).  Then it started to do things that really impressed me structurally as well as making the plot more exciting!  The most amazing thing I can explain without giving you any spoilers is that a conversation between two main characters which starts around page 30 appears again around page 440 but from the other character’s point of view; the third-person narration giving you the viewpoint character’s unspoken thoughts and perceptions of the action, combined with the fact that background noise prevents each of them from hearing some of what the other says, combined with what you’ve learned about the plot in the intervening 410 pages, gives the conversation an entirely different meaning!  Wow.

Anyway, about the story: Laurel was hanging out in her treehouse, being an angsty teenager, when she saw a strange man approach her mother and heard the few words he said before her mother fatally stabbed him with the birthday-cake knife.  The official story is that her mother was defending herself against a dangerous vagrant, but Laurel isn’t so sure…but (for rather weakly explained reasons) she doesn’t attempt to figure it out until fifty years later.  The story of Laurel’s investigation is interwoven with flashbacks to World War II London, when her mother had all the interpersonal drama that she then left behind to become Laurel’s wonderful, nurturing mother at Greenacres Farm.  Twists and turns galore bring us to a roller-coaster ending in which it all finally, astoundingly, makes sense.  There are some dragging moments in the first half, but it was well worth reading carefully in order to appreciate the rest!

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, translated from Swedish by Rod Bradbury

Allan Karlsson is alone in his room at the old folks’ home and doesn’t feel like going to the party that’s about to begin celebrating his 100th birthday, so he climbs out the ground-level window and shuffles off in his slippers.  Read more of this post

Book reviews coming in 2016

I’ve been very busy this year so far, but I’ve been reading anyway!  Here is a hasty iPad photo of the wonderful stack of books I received for Christmas, all of which I expect to read and review over the next few months.  [UPDATE: I added links to the reviews when I posted them.]
stack of books

I’ve already read three of them and parts of two others!  Can you guess which ones?  Which would you read first?

Having new-to-me books to read works for me!  Stay tuned for reviews, coming soon! Meanwhile, visit the Quick Lit linkup for other writers’ book reviews!

Books for Adults, Preteens, and Toddlers

I’m starting a new “preteen” tag with this post because my son Nicholas, as he approaches his eleventh birthday, has started to ask for “more young-adult-type books” and has been appreciating most of what we’ve been finding for him, including a book I picked up used and read aloud to him without having read it myself–a potentially risky move, but it worked out fine.  (Don’t miss the book reviews Nicholas wrote last month!)  My recent reading includes books I’ve read to myself, a book I read to him before his dad and I switched who’s doing the bedtime reading, and books I’ve been reading over and over again to 19-month-old Lydia.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

This novella, translated from Japanese, is a sweet and perceptive story of two Generation X college students who have more in common than the narrator, Mikage, initially realizes.  She doesn’t understand why Yoichi is being so kind to her after the death of the grandmother who raised her–they are only acquaintances, and he already has a girlfriend–but by giving Yoichi a chance, Mikage finds something she didn’t know she needed and eventually is able to help him in return.  The prose is so vivid and absorbing that I felt like the story was happening right this minute, until Yoichi walked in with a new word processor–the book was published in 1988!  Taking that into consideration makes Mikage’s acceptance of Yoichi’s transgendered mother all the more interesting.  Mikage and Yoichi’s relationship and working-out of their futures, combined with the very Japanese details of their daily lives, made Kitchen just the kind of parallel-world experience I was looking for when I picked up a book from Japan.

The book also includes “Moonlight Shadow”, a short story with some similar themes but a more magical style.  It was a little too heavy on the wistfulness, and some ideas were repeated too many times, but I liked the way it reminded me of Japanese folktales about mysterious young ladies who turn out to be something else in disguise.

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass

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Book Reviews and Giveaway!

The silver lining of being mildly disabled for months after a car accident is that I’ve had lots of time for reading!  I’m grateful that I had the type of concussion that makes computer work difficult but isn’t hampered by reading on paper.  Here are some of the books I’ve read.

I’m giving away my copy of Last Call in the City of Bridges because, although I mostly enjoyed the book, I don’t feel like I’ll need to read it again.  [UPDATE: Laura Reu is the winner!]

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Two infertile couples each adopt a little girl from Korea.  They meet at the airport, where Bitsy Donaldson has an elaborate plan for enthusiastically welcoming her new daughter and capturing every memory, while the Yazdan family has a quieter approach.  Bitsy sees this other family as connected to hers by the shared experience and organizes annual shared celebrations of Arrival Day for years to come.  The gradual accumulation of Arrival Day traditions is very sweet and realistic, the interplay between various members of the two families is fascinating, and the eventual romance between two of the grandparents is superbly poignant and unique.  One of the most interesting things about this story is that, while the Donaldsons are typical white Baltimore natives, the Yazdans are Iranian immigrants, so they have their own non-American culture in addition to the daughter from Korea.  Anne Tyler’s long marriage to an Iranian-American surely helped to inform and inspire the Yazdans’ customs and attitudes.  This wonderfully immersive story of very real people gives Saint Maybe (reviewed here) some serious competition as my favorite Anne Tyler novel!

The Minotaur by Barbara Vine

Read more…

Book Reviews by a 10-and-11/12-year-old

This is a guest post by Nicholas Efran.

Key:  =1 star     ⭐︎=1/2 star


The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

This is a book about a mouse who gets sent to the dungeon for being different.  He is in love with the princess in the castle he lives in.  Then he discovers that a rat and a girl named Mig are planning to trap the princess in the dungeon.  Go read the book to find out what happens next!☆☆☆☆☆

Woof by Spencer Quinn

This is a book about a girl who adopts a dog, and the dog tells the story from his point of view.  WARNING: I did not finish reading this book because it’s not the best of mystery novels, in my opinion.  Her relative’s prize fish plaque has been stolen!  That’s the point I read up to. You can read the book to find out what else happens.☆☆⭐︎

Ramona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary

The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary is about a girl named Ramona and her adventures with her sister Beezus and her friends, including Howie, her neighbor.  In many of the books, Howie has a sister named Willa Jean.  In Ramona and Her Mother, Willa Jean is given a box of tissues, which all in all she throws around the Quimbys’ living room.  In this book, Ramona has many other funny adventures, and I don’t want to spoil it all for you…so read the book!  WARNING: If possible, buy an older edition of the book with less snooty illustrations than the current one.☆☆☆☆☆

I Survived: The Attacks of September 11th, 2001 by Lauren Tarshis

The I Survived series is a series that I have heard about for a long time, but this is the first book I have “read”.  (My teacher read it to the class.)  The book is about a boy who loves playing football.  Then one day he sneaks out and takes the train into New York City because he wants to talk to his uncle about a serious event that may prevent him from continuing to play football.  His uncle and father are both firemen, and they rushed to the scene after a plane hit one of the twin towers.  It was very good, and you should read the book to find out what happens next!☆☆☆☆⭐︎

The Earth Dragon Awakes by Laurence Yep

This is a book that we read together as a class at the beginning of fifth grade.  It is about the tragic events of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. There are 2 main families that are focused on in the book and you follow these families through the struggles and happenings of the many days in the struggle. Read the book to explore the wonders of this tragic day.☆☆☆☆☆

Visit the Quick Lit Linkup for more book reviews!  Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday for more great tips on many topics!

Book Reviews: Guys and Womanhood, Grown-ups and The Child’s Child, and Tripods!

Different kinds of people and their different ways of living are among my main interests, and I’ve been reading about a variety of demographics in the past two months.

The Book of Guys by Garrison Keillor

I remember really enjoying this book of short stories the first time I read it, several years ago.  This time around, I didn’t like it as much–too many of the stories spin off into excessive absurdity in a way that kind of stops being funny to me.  Still, it has some really great lines, some vivid, some silly, and some philosophical:

It was one of those ugly and treacherous springs in the Midwest, when winter refuses to quit, like a big surly drunk who heads for home and then staggers back for another round and a few more songs that everyone has heard before.

“Try dessert substitutes, such as erasers. A plate of erasers served on a slice of sponge contains less than two calories.”

After all, he cared for her, she was his wife, and when your wife has an affair, don’t you want it to be a good one, a great experience for her?

And the overall premise, that guys (males) sometimes struggle with their identity and that it isn’t the same struggle for all of them, is a fine one.  I enjoyed hearing from some of these guys again.

The Long Shadow by Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson

This book summarizes a longitudinal study of almost 800 people who started first grade in Baltimore public schools in 1982 and were interviewed for the last time at age 28. Read more of this post

Book Reviews: 4 British Books

Although I’ve never been to Great Britain, books by British authors have been on my shelves since I was very young.  The first ones I read to myself were from the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton, when I was in first grade; I remember that after the first few pages, I stomped off to find my mother and complain, “The quotation marks in this book are all wrong!  And they spelled color wrong!  And what’s a lorry?”  Once I understood that there are places in the world where people speak English but use different spelling and punctuation and vocabulary, I was intrigued by this parallel universe, and I’ve read several British books every year since.  The books I’ve read in the past month happen to be a spontaneous clustering of Britishness.

No, wait–does Ireland count as Britain?  I know the government is separate.  But it’s right there on the same island with Northern Ireland. [irrelevant link deleted] But it’s not on the island of Great Britain, and my mind is echoing with the shout of the Mike Myers character from two decades ago: “Here’s Scotland! Here’s Ireland! Here’s the bloody sea!!!”  Oh dear.  I hope I’m not offending anybody….  I already set up the title of my post, and I’m running out of time for writing, and I’d better just get on with my reviews….

I’m a Stranger Here Myself and Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson

These two books went onto my list–the list that I give to people who ask what I want for gifts–at different times.  I didn’t realize that they are the U.S. edition and the U.K. edition of the same book!  Bill Bryson grew up in Iowa, lived in England for twenty years, then returned to the United States.  The first of his books I encountered was The Lost Continent, about traveling around the U.S. ten years after he’d moved away, and I was interested to see how an additional decade would affect his perspective. Read more of this post