Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

This is the story of an electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the 20th century. 

Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses.  An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father's "museum," alongside performers like the wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a 100 year old turtle.  One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River.  The photographer, Eddie Cohen, is a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father's Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor's apprentice.  When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman's disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.  

New York itself becomes a character in this magic, romantic, and masterful tale well told by Hoffman.  The descriptions of New York City around 1911 are superb. And the two historical events that the fiction is based between (The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the Dreamland Amusement Park Fire) were horrific happenings.  She also has a further reading list in the back of the book that gives you excellent supplementary information about Coney Island, the Lower East Side and Triangle Fire, and even further Photography references.  I know this book is going to resonate with me for a long time.

I also enjoyed her earlier book "The Dovekeepers," which was a tour de force of research and imagination concerning Masada, the ancient fortress on top of a rock plateau on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Looking for Me by Beth Hoffman


Teddi Overman found a broken down chair on the side of the road in rural Kentucky, lugged it home, reconditioned it, and sold it for way more than she expected—and in the process found her life’s work.  She took other people’s castoffs and turned them into beautifully restored antiques and even managed to open her own shop in Charleston.  But Teddi has a big hole in that perfect life, due to the mysterious disappearance of her brother Josh and the shattered family relationships that disappearance left behind.  
There are so many different elements to this story.  It's a story about following your dreams, disappointing a parent, and severing ties to your childhood home.  There are little bits of wisdom woven through the story that are indeed quite charming.  "Never tie your happiness to the tail of someone else's kite."  "Maybe that's what love does--smooths the hard edges of life, giving us a gentle place to land when we fall and lessening our bruises when we do."  Or, "Sometimes it's not what we hold on to that shapes our lives--it's what we're willing to let go of."  This southern novel will appeal to nature lovers and romantics with its evocative use of descriptive language and its engaging and powerful story.  There is great authenticity in her descriptions of rural Kentucky and her understanding of family relationships is wonderfully displayed in her dialogue.  A very enjoyable read.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson

This Junior Library Guild selection written by a woman who is a musher herself has a visually striking cover and a story that matches it.  Terry Lynn Johnson writes outdoor adventures for young adults and works as a Conservation Officer near Whitefish Falls, Ontario.  You can find out more about Terry Lynn Johnson by visiting her website where she has information about her books and articles as well as photos and links and a nice blog too.

Fourteen year old Victoria Secord (an Alaskan dogsled racer) is on a routine outing with her dogs when she comes across an injured "city boy" and gets lost in a freak snowstorm.  As the temperature drops and her meager food supply runs out, she realizes it is up to her to find a way to save them all.  Victoria is an independent and self-reliant young lady, and thanks to the excellent training she received from her father is fairly well equipped to survive in the Alaskan bush.  But she is carrying some extra emotional baggage of her own during this struggle because she still hasn't come to terms with her father's tragic death in that same unforgiving wilderness. 

The author does an excellent job of  weaving together a tale of wilderness survival, dog team lore, and a coming of age story of a girl with heart and backbone who by the end of the story has come to terms with the loss of her beloved father and finds within herself the strength and fortitude to not only survive, but thrive.  This has been called the female version of Hatchet, and her writing has been compared to Gary Paulsen, Farley Mowat, and Jean Craighead George; noteworthy praise indeed.

I highly recommend this suspenseful tale that is an intense page turner and makes you feel like you are mushing along with Victoria, Bean, Drift, and the others as they try to fight their way to safety through the Alaskan wilderness.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Telling the Bees by Peggy Hesketh

Octogenarian Albert Honig's most constant companions have been bees.  Deeply acquainted with the workings of his hives, Albert is less versed in the ways of people, especially his friend Claire, whose presence and absence in his life have never been reconciled.  When Claire is killed during a burglary gone wrong, Albert is haunted by the loss and by the secrets that hovered between them for so long.  Piecing together their shared history, Albert will come to learn both painful truths and the redemptive power of laying the past to rest.
The thing I liked best about this book was all the information on bees, beekeeping, and bee lore.  We keep bees, so I already knew a fair amount about them, but it was lovely the way the author could weave all this detail amongst an old fashioned murder mystery.  It is literary fiction with a beautiful narrative, so it is something you need to read slowly so that you might savor all the metaphors.  It is a meditative novel about the intricacies of the human condition that shows us that even the quietest of lives can still hold a full measure of drama and passion.    

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Time magazine has said that Patrick Ness is an insanely beautiful writer.  I would have to agree with that. When I read his book "A Monster Calls," I found it to be a profoundly moving and expertly crafted tale, the beauty of which resonated with me long after I turned the last page.  So, I was really looking forward to reading this book, and it did not disappoint.

It is a realistic story with some magical elements.  As Patrick tells us in the Notes & Acknowledgments at the end of the book, the original story of the crane wife is a Japanese folk tale.  It is an inspiring story, one that The Decemberists use on an album also called The Crane Wife.  The epigraph from this novel is taken from the song.

So here's the basic story:  One night, George Duncan--decent man, a good man--is woken by a noise in his garden.  Impossibly, a great white crane has tumbled to earth, shot through its wing by an arrow. Unexpectedly moved, George helps the bird, and from the moment he watches it fly off, his life is transformed.

The next day, a kind but enigmatic woman walks into George's shop.  Suddenly a new world opens up for George, and one night she starts to tell him the most extraordinary story.

This book is all about love--how it can torment us and tear us apart, but also how it can redeem us.  If you believe in magic in whatever form and shape it can assume, this book will appeal to you.  If you love storytelling with beautiful language a bonus, this book will appeal to you.

And if you love cut paper sculptures like those that George does in the book, you really need to check out the work of an extraordinary artist, Su Blackwell (  One of her works is shown below:

The Raven by Su Blackwell

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

"What are you reading?" is the question Will Schwalbe asks his mother, Mary Anne, as they sit in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.  Mary Anne has been diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal.  This is the story of a son and his mother, who start a "book club" that brings them together as her life comes to a close.  Over the next two years, Will and Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading.  Together they find that reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying.

This book is about so much more than just a list of books that the two of them shared during the time prior to his mother's passing (though there is a list in the back of the book, in case some of their comments inspire you to seek them out).  It is a journey where two people explore the power of books and reading while coming to terms with one of life's most emotional passages--the transition from life to death.  How do we let go? How can we? And yet, we must.

Book Club will be discussing this at our January meeting, and I've made lots of notes about particular passages that held emotional resonance for me.  But because I try to keep things short here, let me list just one of them to give you an idea of the many beautiful passages in this book:

"One of the many things I love about bound books is their sheer physicality.  Electronic books live out of sight and out of mind.  But printed books have body, presence.  Sure, sometimes they'll elude you by hiding in improbable places...But at other times they'll confront you, and you'll literally stumble over some tomes you hadn't thought about in weeks or years.  I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me.  They may make me feel, but I can't feel them.  They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, and no weight.  They can get in your head but can't whack you upside it."

A beautiful book about the relationship between a mother and her son and their bonding over books.  As the book says, “We're all in the end-of-your-life book-club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one.”          

Mary Oliver is an American poet who has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.  She is the author of many famous poems, including The Journey, Wild Geese, The Summer Day, and When Death Comes.  Nature suffuses and sustains her work.  Her latest book is a New York Times bestselling collection of new and favorite poems, celebrating the dogs that have enriched her world.  Since I am a great lover of all things canine, and a big fan of Mary's poetry, this book was a no-brainer for me to pick up.

These poems illustrate the wholehearted devotion of dogs, who love us unconditionally, and in the process teach us to love.  Of course the best way to recommend this book is to let you see one of the poems:

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough
he turns upside down, his four paws
  in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
“Tell me you love me,” he says.
“Tell me again.”
Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.

This is a book for all of those who have canine companions, because as we all know, they are a kind of poetry themselves.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich


Award-winning novelist Louise Erdrich grew up in North Dakota, the oldest of seven children born to a Chippewa mother and a father of German-American descent.  She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and this story was inspired when she and her mother, Rita Gourneau Erdrich, were researching their own family history. 

One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.

While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe.  And thus, the story begins.

In this book, Erdrich explores issues of family, personal identity, and cultural survival.  There are references to Native American history, law, and folklore and she weaves in notions of crime, justice, and revenge.   A powerful coming of age story that probes moral and legal ramifications of a terrible act of violence.

The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg

Now that the hustle and bustle of the Christmas holiday is behind us, I have some catching up to do on postings of books I've finished.  The first one is from one of my perennially favorite authors, Fannie Flagg.  As with all of Fannie's books, I found myself laughing out loud throughout while immersing myself in the heartwarming and hilarious southern world she creates populated by her finely drawn hysterical characters.

Mrs. Sookie Poole of Point Clear, Alabama, has just married off the last of her daughters and is looking forward to relaxing and perhaps traveling with her husband, Earle. The only thing left to contend with is her mother, the formidable Lenore Simmons Krackenberry. Lenore may be a lot of fun for other people, but is, for the most part, an overbearing presence for her daughter. Then one day, quite by accident, Sookie discovers a secret about her mother’s past that knocks her for a loop and suddenly calls into question everything she ever thought she knew about herself, her family, and her future.

Thus begins the search for answers, leading her to California, the Midwest, and even back in time to the 1940s.  The scope of the story spans decades and also generations.  The thing that makes all of Fannie's books such a joy is her unwavering belief in people, despite their weaknesses or eccentricities.  If you are looking for a book to lift your spirits and make you smile, this is the one.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

I'm not normally much of a true crime person.  I have a hard time wrapping my brain around some of the horrendous acts that are perpetrated by one human being upon another of their own kind.  But sometimes these acts can be so brutal and vicious (O. J. Simpson case comes to mind here as an example or Jeffrey Dahmer), that you are almost compelled to try to understand what creates such darkness in the human psyche.  The Manson case was one of the first that I remember made that kind of impact.  I remember it well when it happened, have read "Helter Skelter" the book written by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecuting attorney during the Manson trial, and wanted to read this latest effort because Guinn interviewed some people close to Manson that have never been interviewed before.

In the summer of 1969, in Los Angeles, a series of brutal, seemingly random murders captured headlines across America. A famous actress (and her unborn child), an heiress to a coffee fortune, a supermarket owner and his wife were among the nine victims. A thin trail of circumstances eventually tied the Tate-LaBianca murders to Charles Manson, a would-be pop singer of small talent living in the desert with his "family" of devoted young women and men. What was his hold over them? And what was the motivation behind such savagery? In the public imagination, over time, the case assumed the proportions of myth. The murders marked the end of the sixties and became an immediate symbol of the dark underside of that era.

Manson, escorted to his arraignment on conspiracy and murder charges in 1969

Guinn's book is well researched and documented, and he does introduce new information about Manson's upbringing.  His descriptions of what was going on in the country at that time and in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury are integral to understanding the peculiar confluence of events that created Manson and his family.  It was Manson's musical failure that pushed him to find fame through murder; and you begin to understand why Manson targeted famous people.  It was an extremely interesting read, and I think I can sum up what the entire book was about by quoting the last couple of paragraphs to you.

"Charlie Manson is a product of the 1960s--and also of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  The Tate-LaBianca murders...were the culmination of horrific coincidence.  Invariably, Charlie found himself in the perfect locations and situations to exploit others to his own benefit.  By the time the 1960s arrived, Charles Manson was already a lifelong social predator.  Almost everyone who had anything to do with him was damaged in some way, and Charlie could not have cared less.  Gregg Jakobson compares Charlie to a cancer cell because he thrived by eradicating everything around him that was healthy.  There was nothing mystical or heroic about Charlie--he was an opportunistic sociopath.  The unsettling 1960s didn't create Charlie, but they made it possible for him to bloom in full, malignant flower.  In every sense, one theme runs through and defines his life.  Charlie Manson was always the wrong man in the right place at the right time." 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shadow of the Alchemist by Jeri Westerson

I love Jeri Westerson's Crispin Guest novels and look forward with great anticipation to each installment.  Shadow of the Alchemist is Book 6, and it doesn't disappoint--though I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite in the series.  I think my favorite is always the one I am reading at the time. 
Once a Knight of the Realm, Crispin has been stripped of his title and lands and is now forced to earn a meager living as The Tracker, a man who can find anything for a price.  He has a young apprentice who helps him in these matters, Jack Tucker, a reformed thief that Crispin has taken under his wing.  The lost item this time around is the wife and apprentice of Nicholas Flamel, a renowned alchemist.  This search has plenty of twists and turns (none of which I want to give away here, because there is much pleasure in the reading as each one is revealed)--but it involves the Philosopher's Stone, which is believed to turn lead into gold and create the elixir of life.
Westerson's richly detailed, engaging, gritty, and descriptive writing is a delight.  Her intricately plotted and character driven storylines hold you enthralled, and the book is so atmospheric that I really feel like I've taken a trip back in time to 14th century London and tagged along in the footsteps of Crispin and Jack as they unravel this mystery.   

This is solid storytelling, action and suspense, and offbeat characters, all within a historically detailed framework.  What more could you want from a book? And the good news is that Westerson will be spinning off a three book series of YA novels with Crispin's apprentice Jack Tucker as their protagonist.  I think these books could be a lot of fun, but I do hope she has much more of Crispin's story to tell yet.

And for fun (with articles on history and mystery), I suggest you check out Jeri's blog:    

Monday, October 7, 2013

Kindred Beings: What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection by Sheri Speede

Sheri Speede founded the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon as a home for orphans of the illegal ape meat trade.  This is the story of how one little girl who loved animals found her true calling in a forest sanctuary in Africa as a committed animal activist and rescuer.  It's an adventure story, because after all she was a stranger in a foreign culture trying to adjust to African village life--and it's a love story, because through the chimps she helped rescue she came to understand the meaning of love, loyalty, and true connection.

As a child who knew that she always wanted to grow up and advocate for animals in some way, she took the traditional path at first by choosing a veterinary career.  But soon after beginning her veterinary career she was moved by the plight of three adult captive chimpanzees on display in three small cages located on the back side of the Atlantic Beach Hotel.  Captured as infants by poachers they had been in captivity most of their lives.  Her sadness at the smallness of their lives haunted her and she was determined to see them released from their torment.

Though it took her some time to actually fulfill the promise she made to them to free them, she was eventually successful and established her sanctuary in the Mbargue forest.  In this book, we see the development of Dr. Speede's personal story alongside the emotionally complex stories of the chimps she befriended.  We come to know and love these "kindred beings" just as she does.  When one of the rescued chimps (Dorothy) dies from old age at the sanctuary, we mourn too.  Here's the photograph of Dorothy's funeral (in which Dr. Speede cradled Dorothy's head while her family of chimpanzees mournfully viewed her body).

This photo went viral after being published in National Geographic.  The world seemed to be surprised at the depth of the chimps' grief at the loss of their friend.  Dr. Speede wasn't, and we weren't either after reading this powerful story of these personalities that are so similar to humans.  Dr. Speede has spent her life battling ignorance and apathy and evil trying to end animal abuse and the suffering they endure at our hands.  This compelling story of her bravery and determination to safeguard their well being is uplifting and inspiring.  How fortunate our planet is to have people like Dr. Speede who are determined to live their convictions out in their daily lives sometimes against overwhelming odds.
Dr. Speede is founder and Director of In Defense of Animals-Africa, an organization that is well worth your support.  Read this book.  Make a donation.  It is important that this extraordinary work continue.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This is an emotional story about a young girl living in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.  Liesel Meminger is the Book Thief alluded to in the title.  The novel is narrated by death, which keeps us constantly focused on mortality at a time in history when there is a lot of suffering and death.  Death has the task of separating their souls from their bodies and carrying them away.  He tells us at the beginning of the book that this is a tragic story and many of the people we will come to love will die by the end of the book.  When Liesel's foster parents decide to give refuge to a young Jewish man hiding from the Nazi regime, the characters grow and change in horrible and beautiful ways.

This is a very powerful and emotional book.  It absolutely destroyed me when I read it.  It focuses on characters who are learning to love in the face of great hatred.  It is steeped in war, where warfare shapes the characters' lives and impacts their choices.  It deals with issues of identity.  A Jew in Nazi Germany had to stay hidden in order to stay alive.  The book's non-Jewish characters refuse to identify with the Nazis and forge new identities from friendship, love, and resistance to injustice.  It forces us to examine our ideas about crime and criminality.  Since the law of the land in Nazi Germany requires its citizens to commit crimes against humanity, the main characters here decide to err on the side of kindness and love--regardless of what the law says.  And it deals with the theme of language and communication.  In many ways, the Holocaust was a war fought with words. It relied on mass communication technology to convey its message of hate and to mobilize a nation in its service. But, The Book Thief focuses on using language to heal, to save, and to fight against injustice. It expresses a belief in the power of language to make a positive difference in the world.  And suffering and guilt over the loss of loved ones is a major focus of this book, as well as the great courage displayed by these characters in resisting unjust laws.

But perhaps the most important theme in The Book Thief is the power of books.  Reading isn't just a matter of loving books.  We have to be sure not to take them for granted--and this is something this book reminds us of again and again.  Liesel didn't have the luxury of going to a library and picking out her books, she had to steal them, and even save some from malicious fires in order to read them.   Even today, when a lot of us can browse through entire libraries with the click of a button, there are still people who don't have access: maybe they can't afford books, or maybe they never even learned to read.  Zusak's choice to portray the excitement and influence of books in the context of the Holocaust shows just how powerful they are.  When the Nazis burned books, they were in essence burning the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. Each of the books that Liesel steals represents a glimmer of hope – for her, for the Jewish community, and for the post-Holocaust world.

The movie made from this book will be released next month.  Here is a clip.  In the meantime, do yourself a favor and read the book.  Just keep a box of tissues handy.  You might need them.


Monday, August 26, 2013

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

This thought provoking novel explores the bonds between humans and animals.  It's about family and loss and how each member deals with that loss.  It's funny and intriguing and really hard to review without giving too much of it away, as the joy is in peeling back the layers slowly and savoring all that is revealed.  So, let me just give you the bare bones synopsis and urge you to just give it a try.

Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.

Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.

And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Horns by Joe Hill

Ignatius Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things.  He woke up the next morning with a thunderous hangover, a raging headache...and a pair of horns growing from his temples.  At first, he thinks he's hallucinating; because after all he has spent the last year in a private hell after the death of his girlfriend--Merrin Williams--who was raped and murdered under horrible circumstances.  The only suspect in the crime, Ig was never charged or tried--and he was never cleared--and a lot of people still believe he did it.  So it would be a natural progression to experience a mental breakdown after going through all that.  But, it turns out, they are all too real.  And they seem to have a strange power--when he talks to people, they don't recoil at them, but they do fall into trances and voice their most unspeakable thoughts.  He intends to use this talent to find the monster who killed Merrin and destroyed his life.

This is the premise of Joe Hill's book, Horns.  And what a fascinating book it is.  It is filled with pop culture references that are hilarious (I don't want to take away any of their power by mentioning them here (just enjoy them), theological debate (you can tell he has probably had many heated discussions with his sister Naomi a Unitarian minister), and impassioned romance (the letter written to him from Merrin that Ig finds at the end of the book is so powerfully written it will take your breath away and break your heart).

And guess who is set to star as Ignatius Perrish in the movie version of the book?

Why, Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, of course. 

Oh yes, there are lots of musical pop culture references too.  I'll close with this one above, which you will understand when you read the book.  And in the Acknowledgments, Notes, and Confessions section at the end of the book Hill mentions a book his sister recommended he read, and you may want to read it too: [God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer by Bart Ehrman].  Because if you want to be on the side of the angels, you need all the ammunition you can get. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral.  Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the lane, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother.  He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (that she had claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back.  Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm.  Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways.  The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy.  And Lettie--magical, comforting, wise beyond her years--promised to protect him, no matter what.

Some books you read, some books you just immerse yourself in; Neil's fall into the latter category.  The book started out as a short story and grew into a novel.  This haunting look at childhood, magic, and myth is both beautiful and horrifying.  Like all of Neil's books, it is full of rich quotable passages like this:  “Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”  Or, this:  "Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences."

It starts off with a quote from Maurice Sendak, which aptly sets the tone for the story:  "I remember my own childhood vividly...I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them."  Neil helps us remember the powerlessness of childhood in a very poetic and imaginative way, and helps us examine memories and the boundaries between worlds that can sometimes shift and open doorways to nightmares, fairy tales, and magic.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Healing by Jonathan Odell

"Like The Help, that showstopping work by Kathryn Stockett, The Healing is another Mississippi-born work of art, and Odell's Polly Shine is a character for the ages."  This quote by Pat Conroy on the cover of the book is about one of the main characters.  And I admit, she was my favorite character as well.  Full of back woods wisdom about herbs and remedies and the source of some of my favorite quotes from the book.  "Sometimes when you look at a person all you see is the tangle and you miss the weave."  Or this one:  "A flapping tongue puts out the light of wisdom."

Odell's beautiful historical novel illustrates the connective power of story to heal body, mind, and community.  Rich in mood and atmosphere, this story about the unbreakable bonds between three generations of female healers is a marvelous book of reverberating beauty.

Plantation mistress Amanda Satterfield's grief over the loss of her daughter crosses over into madness.  She takes a newborn slave child as her own and names her Granada.  Troubled by his wife's disturbing mental state and concerned about a mysterious plague sweeping through his slave population, Master Satterfield purchases Polly Shine, a slave woman reputed to be a healer.  But Polly's sharp tongue and troubling predictions cause unrest.  Polly recognizes "the gift" in Granada, and a domestic battle of wills ensues .  Seventy-five years later, Granada, now known as Gran Gran, must revive the buried memories of her past in order to heal a young girl abandoned to her care.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult likes to tackle hot button issues in her fictional narratives, and this time out the framework of The Storyteller is World War II and Nazi war crimes and the huge issue of "forgiveness." 

A 95 year old widower and retired school teacher in New Hampshire, Josef Weber, claims to be a Nazi war criminal.  He confesses this to Sage Singer, a woman he meets in a grief support group, who is a 25 year old baker with a nasty facial scar from an accident.  More importantly, Sage is Jewish.  Josef asks Sage to help him die.  Sage has a grandmother, Minka, who is a holocaust survivor (from Auschwitz).  Sage never really knew her grandmother's story.  In the process of trying to decide how she will react to Josef's confession and his plea for her to help him die to atone for his sins, we learn Minka's brutal story of survival.

Our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by storytelling.  Before literacy or written language, storytellers functioned like today's mass media:  they could entertain, they could inform, they could explain, they could transmit the culture's myths and treasured stories from one generation to the next. And because they did these things in an engaging and interesting manner, people paid attention and learned. Fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.  The more we are absorbed in a story, the more it can change us.  When we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard and are moved emotionally.  At its heart, storytelling is a gift.

Picoult is a good storyteller.  This book grapples with complex moral issues and peels back the layers of human emotion while examining the human condition up close and personal.   She takes a penetrating look at the nature of good and evil to produce a powerful and thought-provoking book.  The seed for writing this book came from Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, about his time in a Nazi concentration camp, and Picoult includes an Author's Note at the end recommending several additional resources she found helpful in writing the book for those who would like to learn more about that period of our history.     

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Few works of literature are as universally beloved as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  In this historical novel we meet the young girl who was the muse for our unforgettable trip down the rabbit hole, Alice Liddell.  It blends fact and fiction to tell us Alice's story, from the time she was a young girl and captivated the heart of Carroll, on through into her adult life and later years.
The friendship between Alice and the man she knew as the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Carroll's real name) has been the subject of speculation by many of his biographers (for after all, when they first met Alice was around 5 and Dodgson was 26; and some of those pictures can seem a bit unsettling by today's eyes).   
Liddell dressed up as a beggar maid, 1858 (photo by Dodgson)

Dodgson went on many outings with Alice and her two sisters.  He was a mathematics teacher at Oxford and the Liddell sisters were the daughters of the Dean there. Like many Victorian bachelors, he became a sort of uncle to his friends’ children, making up stories and games and taking them on short trips. 

Alice and her sisters, 1859 (photo by Dodgson)

Alice was 10 when Dodgson told her his story of a little girl who fell down a rabbit hole, and she begged him to write this one down.

Of the approximately 3,000 photo­graphs Dodgson made in his life, just over half are of children—30 of whom are depicted nude or semi-nude. Some of his portraits—even those in which the model is clothed—might shock 2010 sensibilities, but by Victorian standards they were...well, rather conventional. Photographs of nude children sometimes appeared on postcards or birthday cards, and nude portraits—skillfully done—were praised as art studies.

I do stress that this is a work of fiction (not biography), but I found the book strangely compelling and it is one interpretation of how things might have occurred. 

Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon

I have always been a fan of literary forays and Arthurian legend, so I looked forward to reading this book.  And while I enjoyed the book, I think some that aren't quite as enamored of the backstory as I am might enjoy it a little less.  Essentially, this is the plot:  A recently divorced archaeologist, Donald Gladstone, is trying to discern the true origins of the Arthurian story.  The few fragments of chronicle and verse that mention him by name are enticing, but they do not prove his existence.  He soon meets a linguist, Julia Llewellyn, who works on the Oxford English Dictionary staff.  She agrees to help him in his search.  This quest becomes an intellectual and emotional journey in which we examine love in all its many guises (that between parents and children, professors and their students, and even love of language, history, and place as well as that of a good story well told).

I loved the layers of the historical landscape that were examined, as well as the secret places and half forgotten mythology of the British countryside. I found this a lovely read--intelligent, and mysterious. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Interview with a Pirate: Captain Paul Watson

This is the biography of someone I have admired for a long time.  Paul Watson is the co-founder of Greenpeace, which he left to establish the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.  He is a world famous eco-pirate and marine animal rights activist.  Time magazine named him one of the top twenty environmental heroes of the 20th century.  As Captain of the Sea Shepherd, he has acted as a human shield between whaling vessels and their prey and uses aggressive direct-action tactics against those who would slaughter and exploit marine resources.  He says that what people do not realize is that if we lose the animals, we will all die; the destruction of biodiversity will signal the death of humanity.  He believes that the ultimate act of goodwill toward people is to preserve the biosphere that keeps us alive.  Paul's organization prefers taking action to protesting:  they do not want to protest the whale hunt, they want to end it.  They do not serve the ecology movement, they serve the global marine ecosystem.  The fact is that we are going to lose more species of plants and animals between 2000 and 2065 than the planet has lost over the past 65 million years.  So, Paul Watson continues to work tirelessly to protect the oceans.  And, he is a happy man, because he follows the advice of Davy Crockett to "be sure you're right, then go ahead."  He has lived his life following his heart.  He has said:  "experience has taught me that the secret to happiness is detachment from material desires, a focus on the desires of the heart and a curious mind, regardless of what people might think.  Happiness is not about what you own, it's about what's in your heart, the things you try and what you do to make the world a better place, regardless of how you choose to get involved."  Petitions and banners will not be enough to save the oceans--but, committed activists like Paul Watson just might be able to accomplish it.  I, for one, am glad he's on the job.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag

As a fan of North Carolina writer Sarah Addison Allen, I enjoyed this magical book about an enchanted house and the women drawn to it due to their desperate need for change. The House has conditions. Its residents have 99 nights to turn their life around. The book's magic-realism is the perfect setting for the literary ghosts that live in this house, a house that gives you the things you need most to figure out the rest of your life. Charming and whimsical, this novel is just the sort of escapism most like to engage in during their summer reading.  It is fresh, whimsical, and full of heart. 
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