Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Always Winter and Never Christmas

Reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe intermittently over the past few months, my son and I finally arrived at Chapter 10. At this point in the story, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Lucy, Peter, and Susan have fled the beavers' den. Since their brother Edmund has snuck away to tell the Witch of their whereabouts, the children are especially eager to get a head start.   

After walking, walking, and walking, and pad-pad-padding through the moonlit snow, they finally rest in a cave. After a brief nap, Mr. Beaver goes out to investigate.  When the others hear voices, they fear he's been caught.  However, when he appears moments later, he hasn't been speaking to the Witch at all, but to "a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest."

The children, seeing Father Christmas, become solemn.  They learn that his appearance signals that the Witch's power is getting weaker, but seeing the presents he has for them, they understand the battle is not over.  Peter receives a shield and sword, Susan receives a bow and horn, and Lucy receives healing medicine and a small dagger. Finally, he brings out (perhaps the best present of all when you are standing in the snow in the middle of the night and humbled by such important presents) "a large tray containing five cups and saucers, a bowl of lump sugar, a jug of cream, and a great big teapot all sizzling and piping hot."  With a "Merry Christmas" and "Long live the true King!" Father Christmas and his reindeer dash out of sight.  

Lest the reader be getting choked up, Lewis closes the chapter with Mrs. Beaver fussing over the tea and thankful she remembered to bring the bread knife.

Perhaps we will make it to the end of the book before next Christmas. Some things are meant to be savored.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

Preteen Mila travels with her father Gil from London to New York. A scheduled trip to see Gil's old friend Matthew becomes complicated when the friend goes missing right before their arrival. 

Mila grows more puzzled as she narrates her thoughts through the search.  Slowly, her eyes are opened to the sadness and betrayal of the adults around her.  "A week ago America felt like the friendliest place in the world but I am starting to see the darkness everywhere I look. The worst thing is, I don't think it is America. I think it is me."

Even while meeting various people Matthew has left behind, Mila is also trying to comfort her friend back home whose parents are splitting up. Near the end of her trip, she says, "I want to go back to being a child." The irony being she has been sent with her absent minded father to keep track of their passports and make sure they eat meals on time.

All is not doom and gloom, however. There are lighter moments when Mila's every encounter with an American elicits a comment on her "accent." She also finds an ally in a boy around her age who bolsters her spirits with well-timed texts. And finally Matthew's dog serves as a loyal traveling companion whose care often draws the humans out of themselves for a little while.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Wrapped" Attention

I have the challenge (every other week) of reading to a mixed group of 3-6 year-olds. Many of them are chatty or squirmy or both. So it was something of a Christmas miracle when two books we read this week had them completely (well, almost) still and silent for the entire book.

The Christmas Blizzard by Helen Ketteman is told by an old-timer remembering a Christmas of his childhood when Santa had to use the town as a base camp. The illustrations by James Warhola pack the pages with intricately drawn, and funny, details. The preschoolers were delighted when a strong wind picked up a house to reveal a man taking a bath. But as my son noted, "You can't even see his private parts." 

Grumpy Badger's Christmas by Paul Bright and Jane Chapman was also a crowd-pleaser. The kids liked making the sound effects on each page that were loud enough to wake any hibernating creature. And what's not to love in a character that stores enough homemade lemonade to last him through the winter?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Serafina's Promise by Ann E. Burg

Serafina's chore each morning is to collect water for her parents and grandmother:

"One foot forward-
The other foot forward-

This is only the first of many chores she faces growing up in rural Haiti.

After meeting the young doctor that takes care of her baby brother, Serafina decides that she too wants to become a doctor when she grows up. First, she must figure out a way to ask her parents to send her to school. She approaches her father and together they make a plan. However, nature decides to throw several obstacles in their way. 

Told in verse, the story drums with the beat of the parade Serafina watches with her father, rushes with the waters of the flood she flees with her mother, and shines with the hope she sees in the stars. 

After my daughter and I both read the book, we discussed it using the questions we found here. We both admitted to crying through most of Part III of the book. And we both agreed that we are very fortunate to be able to go to school. As Serafina says, "Education is the road to freedom." My daughter interpreted that to mean, "If we go to school, we can be whatever we want." 

One foot forward.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cleaning House

Since it's almost time to post this year's list of quirky reads, I happily happened upon Cleaning Nabokov's House by Leslie Daniels. It fits the bill rather nicely. Platypus and all.

Tired of eating lettucini cooked on a hot plate in her motel room in Upstate New York, Barb decides she needs to get her children back from her ex. Working through a court-ordered checklist, she sells her car to buy a house. After moving in, she finds out Nabokov once resided there. While sorting out her daughter's extensive purse collection, she opens a stuck drawer to find a pile of note cards. On them are the notes and sketched out plot of a novel about Babe Ruth.

Discovering the unfinished novel allows her to expand her circle of support. The underwear she orders online is certainly not doing the job. She meets an agent (married to her mailman) who convinces her to write the missing scenes. A lawyer in the city helps put her in touch with authenticity experts. While in the city, she comes across an idea for a lucrative business. Since her job writing customer service letters for the Old Daitch Dairy isn't quite enough to put food on the table, she decides to open a "day spa" for the women of the town. 

And yes, it does have a happy ending.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Breathing Out

I started doing yoga in March. Sure, my arms are a little more toned, and my core is a little stronger, but I've stayed in it for the mental benefits. More often than not, the difference between a good day and bad one is whether or not I made it to yoga. This was made clearer to me during a class I took last week. At the end of class, after we eased into this pose, the teacher instructed us to let go of something we were holding on to with every exhale. I thought to myself, "Well, this shouldn't take too long." However, 17 breaths later, I was still breathing out resentments, disappointments, and insecurities I wasn't even aware were still hanging around.

The protagonist of Susanna Daniel's novel Stiltsville also grapples with letting go. At the novel's beginning, twenty-something Frances travels to Miami for a college friend's wedding. After one of the guests invites her to a house standing on stilts in the middle of the bay, Frances not only falls in love with the ocean, but she falls in love with the house's owner Dennis. Soon after, she gives up her life in Georgia and moves to Florida to be with Dennis.

Frances and Dennis marry. Frances has a baby and falls in love again...with motherhood. However, after several miscarriages, she has to let go of the idea of her daughter having siblings. They continue to travel to the stilt house on weekends. Occasionally leaving Margo with relatives, they host friends at the house. But one weekend, a flirtatious guest leaves Frances wondering if her marriage will last.
Frances and Dennis stay together as Margo grows up and leaves for college. Now an empty-nester, Frances takes up tennis. And the attentions of her tennis coach. Another near indiscretion is avoided when Frances must comfort her daughter after a tragic incident at her college.  

More years pass. Frances watches Margo marry, and finds out Dennis has a debilitating illness. Faced with his death, Frances must decide if she is willing to let go of her life in Miami once he has gone.   

This is a story of a marriage. And as with all marriages, it never hurts for the main players to breathe deeply every once in a while and let go.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

All That Is

Clever asides: "As it happened, Enid Amour knew Bacon." Familiar observations: "Anet noticed almost with surprise that all the newspapers were in French." And old friends: "At the foot of the Ngong Hills."

All can be found in the aptly titled All That Is by James Salter. Beginning in war, the novel follows Philip Bowman through his first jobs in publishing, multiple relationships, trips to Europe, and meetings with old friends and past lovers. 

Salter is a master storyteller and satisfying wordsmith.