Friday, December 30, 2016

I Have My Own Quirks

Although this article argues otherwise, I often deem a book worthy to be read if I like the quotes-superlatives-blurbs-(dare I say)reviews on the back cover. In this case, I'm working backwards to share a cover quote of a book I’ve already read in the hopes of enticing you, dear reader, to do the same.

Of the books I’ve read this year, the following (in no particular order) have made it onto the coveted “quirkiest reads of the year” list.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
“A literary novel with a squirrel subplot may sound improbable” The New York Times Book Review

"Dahlia's story is a zany, hilarious, laugh fest that made my inner geek girl sit up and search for a caper to solve!” Rebecca Zanetti, New York Times bestselling author

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
“a careful balance between hilarity and heartbreak”  Michael Cart, American Library Association

"This novel is light as a zephyr and unique as a snowflake." The Washington Post

“smart, serious, heartfelt and confessional without being maudlin" Janet Maslin, The New York Times

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
“Kevin Wilson commands the cavalry riding around the vastly important Army of the Loopy.” Padgett Powell, author of EdistoAliens of Affection, and The Interrogative Mood

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen
“Twin Peaks meets the Brothers Grimm” The Telegraph (UK)

Friday, December 23, 2016

Blessing in Disguise

The Herdmans are notorious for smoking cigars, setting things on fire, and having a pet that requires a “Beware of Cat” sign. As the narrator says in Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, “We figured they were headed straight for hell by way of the state penitentiary…until they got themselves mixed up with the church, and my mother, and our Christmas pageant.”

Lured to church by the promise of free refreshments, the six Herdman siblings show up at the first rehearsal for the Christmas pageant. Before anyone realizes it, all of the starring roles have been assigned to the various Herdmans. “And there they sat. The closest thing to criminals that we knew about, and they were going to represent the best and most beautiful.”

There’s only one problem. They’ve never heard the Christmas story before. As the pageant director patiently tells the story, the siblings interrupt asking her to explain manger, swaddling clothes, Wise Men, and myrrh.

“’And, lo, the Angel of the Lord came upon them,’ Mother went on, ‘and the glory of the Lord shone round them, and ---‘
‘Shazam!’ Gladys yelled, flinging her arms out and smacking the kid next to her.”

Eventually they make it to the dress rehearsal but fail to run through the whole play. On the night of the pageant, the whole town shows up to see just what the Herdmans are going to do. When Joseph and Mary are late for their cue, everyone figures they forgot. However, a few minutes later the disheveled couple show up in the doorway. Mary pauses to burp the baby and they make their way up the aisle. Some are appalled that Jesus gets burped, but the narrator comes to some realizations that will change her perception of the Holy Family forever.  Jesus could have been a colicky baby. After all he “was born and lived…a real person.” And Mary “is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman – sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby.”

The story is not about a peaceful scene you might find on a Christmas card, but it’s “about a new baby, and his mother and father who were in a lot of trouble – no money, no place to go, no doctor, nobody they knew.”

And long after your daughter has finished the book, she’ll randomly, gleefully yell out the Angel of the Lord Gladys’ immortal words,” Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

Friday, December 16, 2016

“A story of alienation, political tyranny, homelessness, working-class people, pagans, and angels"

This is how Nadia Bolz-Weber describes Christmas in her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People.

As I was reading this book, I was getting ready to give a presentation to the youth group at our church. For me, this is a tough audience especially when my lesson plans include info on, yes, World Soil Day. In the days leading up to the presentation, I kept daydreaming about coming down with food poisoning, having to help my kids with a last minute school project, or being stuck in a freakish blizzard.

And then I read this:

“We make lame excuses to get out of commitments, or we blame other people for the fact that we can’t show up. But sometimes we create these smoke screens to divert attention from the truth of our own decisions and shortcomings.” 


Bolz-Weber herself writes about dreading a speech she has to give at a youth conference. On the plane ride there, she encounters a young teen in the seat next to her who makes her realize that her connection with this other person was a message from God:  “Oh hey, God told me to tell you something: Get over yourself.”

I, too, got over myself and survived the presentation despite a few rowdy junior high boys and a mildly lackluster “discussion period.” I was even invited back next month. Hopefully, I won’t be as anxious the second time I stumble my way through. As Bolz-Weber writes, “Never once did Jesus scan the room for the best example of holy living and send that person out to tell others about him. He always sent stumblers and sinners. I find that comforting.”

So do I.

Listen to an interview with the author here.

Read a report on how we gather in community here.

Interested in books on simple living, spirituality, community, and social justice? Find a list here.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Good Life

A small group of mortal philosophers call on Athene. She transports them through space and time to Thessaly (later known as Atlantis) where they attempt to create the city outlined in Plato’s Republic. After they’ve organized food, shelter, clothing, artwork (originals not copies), and a schedule of education, the philosophers procure ten thousand and eighty children from slavers. Manual labor is done by a fleet of robot workers.

Thus the experiment begins.

Jo Walton’s The Just City follows Apollo, made mortal, a young girl named Simmea, and Maia, one of the philosophers, from the city’s founding to the arrival of Sokrates. It is Sokrates that encourages the citizens to question if justice is truly being served.

When I set out to complete (!) the challenge by reading a book of historical fiction set before 1900 (“the boring part of history…where nothing happened except people inventing things”), science fiction would not have been my first pick. However, since I trust these folks, I decided to give The Just City a try. And then couldn’t set it down for the next two days.

Since this year started with Miss Piggy and ended with Plato, I’m curious about what 2017 will bring.

Friday, December 2, 2016

"Come, Mrs. Bunny, we must hop!"

This week’s challenge was to read a book out loud to someone else. Mr. and Mrs. Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire! by Mrs. Bunny (translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath) was just the thing to amuse both the reader and listener.

Madeline is disappointed in her parents’ disdain for graduation ceremonies and the need for a pair of white shoes for said ceremony. However, new shoes seem less important when she comes home to find a note that her parents have been kidnapped by “The Enemy.” Meanwhile, on an island nearby, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny have decided to become detectives. Mr. Bunny suspects Mrs. Bunny is looking for an excuse to buy a new hat. Mr. Bunny is right. However, their detective skills (and new fedoras) are soon put to the test when Madeline asks for their help in rescuing her parents from, dramatic pause, the foxes. With the assistance of a code-cracking Marmot, a mooching neighbor called Mrs. Treaclebunny, and plenty of carrot cake, the bunnies solve the case.

The charm in reading this story out loud is giving voice to Mr. and Mrs. Bunny’s quick-witted exchanges. Equal parts sarcastic, long-suffering, and endearing, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny are just as eager to criticize as they are to compliment each other. Also amusing are Madeline’s off the grid parents and their dealings with their kidnappers.  

Next on the list is Lord and Lady Bunny – Almost Royalty! This time writing credit goes to both Mr. and Mrs. Bunny. 

Friday, November 25, 2016


My daughter had to give a presentation at school about her family’s holiday traditions. She chose to talk about Advent. When she had finished speaking, a boy in her class raised his hand and asked, “Do you still celebrate Christmas?”

Actually, this year we may be just celebrating Christmas since, in the move, I’ve managed to misplace our Advent wreath, children’s nativity set, and Advent calendar, a book called The Storyof Christmas. 

Those objects are replaceable of course, but one of the nice things about traditions is unpacking the ones you have used year after year. The corners may be dog eared, the wreath may be splattered with pink and purple wax, and the donkey may be missing a tail, but that is part of what makes them yours.

Whether you are starting a new tradition or supplementing an old, perhaps one of these books will add to your Advent season:

A Gift for the ChristChild: A Christmas Folktale by Anne Wilson and Linda Schlafer

Manger edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins

Pretty Paper by Willie Nelson and David Ritz

Friday, November 18, 2016

Hon no mushi

Ironically, it was after I traveled to Japan that I began reading Japanese writers. My husband introduced me to Murakami, and I discovered the short stories of Hisaye Yamamoto in one of the anthologies I was assigned to teach.

Upon arriving in the Northwest I reconnected with another teacher I had met while participating in the JET Program in Japan. She immediately got me to join the Pacific Northwest JET Alumni Association, and I immediately signed up for their book club. Be sure to click on the link for a great list of Japanese authors and titles.

This month’s book, published by Seattle’s Chin Music Press, is Why Ghost’s Appear  written by Todd Shimoda and art by LJC Shimoda.

Mizuno Ren, an entomological illustration specialist, has disappeared. His mother hires a private investigator to find him. The search leads him to spurious fortune tellers, government clerks, travel agents specializing in sex tours, and, yes, a doppelganger.  Throughout the search, the detective feels his own soul splitting apart as he speculates on another case he investigated 20 years before.

Returning again and again to Mizuno’s mother, the detective finds her a much more complex personality than he had first thought. He observes “most people, nearly all I should say, are quite simple. They’ve developed a routine in life, they exist by four or five rules, have four or five experiences on which they’ve defined their lives.”

I kept waiting for the narrator to reveal himself, ala The Sixth Sense, to be an obake, but that never happens. I think. Like a lot of Japanese fiction, this novel is mystical and sometimes mysterious. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Act Your Age

You would think reading a book under 100 pages would be easy. Well, the reading was easy, but the finding was harder. I finally turned to the NYPL blog for suggestions. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes in at 52 pages. 

Mr. Button realizes something might be amiss with his newborn when he encounters one horrified look after the other as he makes his way to the nursery.  When he sets eyes on his firstborn, he discovers not a squalling infant but a puzzled old man of 70. They bring Benjamin home and find instead of weaning him from bottles, they must wean him from cigars. As Benjamin grows older, his visage grows younger. At 20, as he appears to be a distinguished man of 50. He begins working for his father’s hardware company and marries a young woman. However, as his wife Hildegarde ages, Benjamin himself grows younger and soon finds her wrinkles displeasing. Hildegarde moves away, leaving their son to look after his father. Soon Benjamin is young enough to be playmates with his own grandchild. And as he passes into infancy, he remembers nothing of his life, but only perceives the comforting presence of his nurse.

Fitzgerald pokes fun at the social mores of the day. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m curious whether the tongue-in-cheek tone of the book was captured on screen. First Benjamin is discriminated against for looking too old for college, and then he looks too young for the military service.  As he grows younger and more energetic, he finds fault with his wife for acting her age. She, in turn, accuses him of being stubborn and not wanting to “be like any one else.” His son also finds fault in his father’s “refusing to look sixty.” They seem to think age is merely a state of mind. However in Benjamin’s case, it is only a state of body.   

Friday, November 4, 2016

Faith and Politics

“Read a book about politics in your country” seemed appropriate for this week’s challenge.

I first came across Sojourners when I became a Jesuit Volunteer. Every house had a subscription to the magazine that included articles on faith and justice. The founder, Jim Wallis, has written several books, so I turned to him for week’s challenge.

The Great Awakening explores the idea that some of our country’s largest reforms such as the civil rights movement have come out of religious faith. His book is both field guide (chapters include How to Change the World, and Why: Rules of Engagement) and call to action on the day’s issues (poverty, hunger, environmental collapse, race, family, war). Admittedly when faced with chapter after chapter of issue after issue it can all become a little overwhelming. That’s his point, I think. Being a person of faith shouldn’t be comfortable.

He ends the book with a chapter on hope and the passion of the kids he meets who want to solve specific problems. “When the really big offences are finally corrected, finally changed, it is usually because something has happened to change our perception of the moral issues at stake…the moral contradiction we have long lived with is no longer acceptable to us.”

So as I look to my eight-year-old who was disappointed when Bernie dropped out of the race and asked me if Hillary’s husband was once president. And I look to my eleven-year-old who indeed finds the idea that some kids don’t get to go to school or have to walk miles for fresh water unacceptable.

And others, as Wallis mentions, who are “bright, gifted and committed.” 

Friday, October 28, 2016

I heart libraries

Looking for a new series for my third grader, I headed to the reference desk.  The librarian directed me to an online database called NoveList Plus. (note: This is a subscription service, but your library might offer it as well.) We did a search for his current favorite, The BFG, and a list of “Read-alikes” popped up in the margin. 

A search for my pre-teen resulted in these “Read-alikes”...

Once I had found books for my kids, I headed over to the shelf labeled “Lucky Day.” On it sit copies of current bestsellers and popular titles (you know, the ones with 87 people on the waiting list). If you happen to be in the library on your lucky day, as I was, you can check out anything on the shelf. The one caveat: no renewals. I checked out copies of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible:A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice


Friday, October 21, 2016

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

Fine, she’d said. Fine. Then on a whim: If you find a job, I’ll go.” So sets off the events that take Charlotte and her family from the comforts of England to the sunny promises of Australia. Her husband Henry does find a job and soon Charlotte is tending to two small children in a strange land. Although she takes small delights in the smell of freshly line dried laundry, she misses her work as a painter. When a friend sees promise in a portrait she paints of Henry, she begins imagining a different life. Away.

Meanwhile, Henry, the son of an Indian mother and English father, faces prejudice at work as he is overlooked for a teaching position and relegated to a smaller office. Seeking to console Charlotte, he applies for a position in England. Before he can tell her, he is called to India to say goodbye to his dying mother. Charlotte is then left with the perfect opportunity to say her own goodbyes.

Bishop’s depicts the conflicts of marriage, the dissatisfaction of motherhood, and the impossibility of returning home. With her lyrical descriptions, she transports the reader to England, Australia, and India with poetic ease.

Friday, October 14, 2016


You’ve all seen the hashtag. The kid didn’t get into the gifted program. The furnace is on the fritz. Her vacation will be in Miami rather than Paris. The housekeeper quit.

Enter Eleanor Flood.  In Maria Semple’s new novel Today Will Be Different, a once-upon-a-time animator of a popular TV show is now writing her graphic memoir and shuttling her 8 year-old son from private school to make-up counter. She and her surgeon husband (with a side gig on the sidelines at Seahawks games) have agreed on Seattle for 10 years for him and then back to New York for 10 for her. In the meantime, her mantra is “today will be different.” And the day of this novel is. 

With her customary wit, quirky flourishes, and uncanny depiction of the familiar, Semple has created another character, like Bernadette, that will stay on your mind long after you’ve closed the book. Despite the (first world) problems Eleanor encounters, her desire to do better and be better resonates with thrilling (and depressing) accuracy.  

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Play's the Thing

When my daughter was three and my son an infant, I realized that when I was driving, I could not easily understand what they were saying from the back seat. This, along, with my husband’s frustration of always having to repeat himself, sent me to an audiologist, who strongly recommended my getting hearing aids. After a short period of adjustment in sorting out important sounds from un (no, the click of the car lock should not be as loud as the ambulance siren approaching), now it is usually just a matter of remembering not to get them wet and having batteries on hand. Although the world is not louder, it is much, much crisper.
Despite that, I still prefer to turn down the sound and turn on the Closed Captions when I’m watching a TV program or movie. I don’t lose any of the nuances of the dialogue, and I’ve noticed most captions tone down the profanity.  Are those of us reading CC considered a gentler folk?

Therefore, I thought this week’s challenge of reading a play would be familiar. Not being in tune with the theater world, I first referred to this list.One of the only plays the library had from the list (in book form) was Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.

The play features one set and two casts of characters from separate time periods. In earlier scenes, the characters appear only in their own time periods, but as the play progresses, they soon cross paths with each other.  

In addition to contrasts in period, the action plays off contrasts in math versus literature, Newton
versus Byron, and experience versus research. The cast of the 19th century looks to the future in creating a legacy. The cast of modern times is preoccupied with looking back to uncover the mysteries of the past.

Since I probably haven’t read a contemporary play since my Neil Simon phase in high school, I had forgotten how much I enjoy reading the stage directions, both in setting the scene, and in instructions to the actors.

Stoppard delights in both the lines his characters say and how they are directed to say them. I loved his stage directional asides (see the scene in which Hannah interrupts as her rival and critic Bernard reads from his lecture) almost as much as his word play. He frequently creates scenarios to amuse the audience whereby lines such as “Oh, no! Not the gazebo!” allude simultaneously to sex and landscape design.

Having read this play, I’m curious about actually seeing it performed live. However, unless the actors are mic’d, I might have to stick to the book. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Women In Revolt

When I began working for a new college this year, I was sent the familiar email from HR informing me that I must complete the online training courses for privacy, safety, and sexual harassment. Although such trainings are routine these days, we are only about a generation out from those women who first stood up in the workplace and said enough, already, when it comes to sexism in the workplace.

Enter The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich. Povich worked for Newsweek magazine in the 1960s. At the time, most women were relegated to the pool or researchers while men with the same education and experience were assigned writer positions. In March of 1970, when Newsweek published a cover story on the feminist movement, a group of women employees from Newsweek women sued the magazine for discrimination. Following their lead, women at other major news publications and outlets soon followed suit.

Povich recounts the excitement and trepidation of early attempts to organize, the fears of being fired, and the initial agreements with management that were subsequently ignored.  In frustration, the ACLU was consulted again and another round of negotiations began. By the mid 1970s, after management finally began to hire more women writers, the magazine also began promoting women to editor positions.

Despite their victory, the book opens with the story of young women journalists in the 2000s who are still fighting for equality in salary and promotions. The need for training persists.

If you like the book, you might check out the series being developed from the Newsweek women’s story. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

All Creatures

So, I’m that lady. The one with poop bags (unused) in jacket and jean pockets just in case. The one dragging a reluctant dog around the block when it’s raining. The one jogging down the street trying not to trip over the leash because she is late for school pick up…again. The one waking up at 2 a.m. to let her out (and back in). The one cleaning out the crate if she doesn’t.

Being a new pet owner drew me to James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. Published in 1972, this book also fits the Reading Challenge category “Read a book originally published in the decade you were born.” When I picked up this book I was expecting something along the lines of Carson’s Silent Spring or Thoreau’s Walden. It is not.  Instead, imagine Bill Bryson writing in 1930s Yorkshire.  

Herriot recounts his misadventures as a new vet. Ranging from middle of the night births to mid-afternoon visits to treat dogs with indigestion, each chapter is a new case. Herriot wryly admits his mistakes and modestly summarizes his victories. He revels in the countryside on spring afternoons and curses it on frigid winter nights. His attempts to convince stodgy farmers to accept his modern treatments may be hit and miss, but always amusing. This book is a comfort read in all senses of the word.

So, I’m that lady. The one content to curl up with a book while the dog naps at her feet. Even though I’m not the one buying Halloween costumes or baking homemade dog treats, it may only be a matter of time.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Sympathizer

Back to the challenge. This week’s task was to read a book by an author that is from Southeast Asia.

The Sympathizer by View Thanh Nguyen is not for the faint of heart. I’ll admit that I skimmed parts of the book due to graphic narratives of torture or battle. However, in the end, the novel gives important insight into war, its aftermath, and its displaced peoples.  

The narrator of this novel is a self-described man of two faces and two minds. He is a communist sympathizer working for the South Vietnamese army. The son of a European priest and a Vietnamese mother, he is also fluent in American English (and culture). He makes it out of Vietnam on one of the last transports and finds himself, along with his commanding general, in Los Angeles. His connections lead him to work as a consultant on a movie about the war, and he soon travels to the Philippines to oversee the casting of the Vietnamese extras in the film. Meanwhile, the General suspects someone is leaking information to the enemy. To detract attention from himself, the narrator blames an innocent man and commits himself to the General’s call for another mission to liberate his people from the Viet Cong. When the narrator is captured by the communist camp, he reveals the novel’s previous pages to be his coerced confession.

More than just a confession, the pages become a reflection of his attempt to live a life as two men. It gives the reader insight into not only the conflict, but the aftermath. Those left behind are driven to extremes to survive. Those who have fled must figure out how to start over in a foreign culture.

To paraphrase one of the book’s final passages, tomorrow we too may find ourselves among strangers. If we do, will we cling to the past? Assimilate to the new? Or try to do both. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Smart, Modern Women

Not since reading the Flavia de Luce mysteries, have I been so intrigued by the amateur sleuths that crop up in Emily Arsenault's books.

In What Strange Creatures, Theresa Battle writes copy for a candle company catalog by day and procrastinates writing her dissertation by night. When her brother is arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, she tries to prove his innocence.  By seeking out the girlfriend’s current and former acquaintances she often draws inspiration from her dissertation subject, Margery Kempe. Weaving Kempe’s story with Theresa’s, Arsenault ventures to ask us to examine our own vocations.

Miss Me When I’m Gone centers around Gretchen Waters, the author of Tammyland, a memoir of the author’s love of female country music stars. When Gretchen turns up dead after a reading, everyone is shocked, including Jamie, her best friend from college. Gretchen’s mother asks Jamie to be her literary executor and turns over the journals, files, and notes Gretchen was working from for her second book. Originally intended to be a book about the men of country music, Jamie discovers that this second book is actually Gretchen’s attempt to find out more about the identity of her father. As Jamie pieces together the notes left behind, she travels into Gretchen’s past and finds out more than the murderer bargained for.

The Broken Teaglass follows two young dictionary editors as they start finding random citations from a  mysteriously quirky story called The Broken Teaglass.  As the excerpts turn up out of order, they intriguingly reveal a corpse, a guilty conscience, and a love affair all set in the very dictionary offices from which they are working. What could be better than a novel that combines unrequited love, murder, and words? Arsenault builds up the suspense with each excerpt, and helpfully puts them all in order in the later chapters revealing that context matters.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Write about...

When I was pregnant with our first child, my husband and I joked about how our children were destined to be dorks. When your father is a former “mathlete” and your mother’s nickname in middle school was “Nerdstar,” there’s really no escaping it.

One of the “dorky” things we’ve started doing as a family is “Writing Night.” With a little help from a book called unjournaling by Dawn DiPrince and Cheryl Miller Thurston, we choose a prompt from the book, set the timer for five minutes, and all produce a short piece which we then read out loud.

From the prompt, “Write a sentence where each word starts with the letters of the word sentence,” our son wrote this:“She eyes nuts too eagerly, now cowardly eats.”

When the prompt suggested we write a paragraph using as many words we could that rhyme with blue, our daughter produced this:
“Sue bought new blue shoes. She wore them to her Aunt Coo’s farm. When she got there, she heard the cow moo and the sheep boo. And then her Aunt Coo called, “Watch out!” She turned, but it was too late. “Choo Choo.” The blue train swept her away, and poor Sue, was never seen again!!
(Her Aunt Coo was very blue. Boo hoo! Who knew??!!)”

Dorky, but cute, yes?

My husband found another book for our preteen to use on her own. Rip the Page by Karen Benke

alternates word lists, writing terms, writing prompts, and advice from writers. This activity book kept my 11-year-old happily busy this summer. And it will double nicely as a go-to resource for writing warm-ups for my own students this fall.  

Friday, August 19, 2016

"Gravity, plus ocean current, plus wind"

The one time I felt in danger of drowning was when, as a middle schooler, I went to a place called Wet ‘n Wild. I ventured into the Wave Pool, drawn to its seemingly tamer attraction compared to the death defying twists and turns of the higher and faster water slides. I positioned myself next to one of the metal bars lining the deep end and waited for the waves to begin. Slowly the agitation quickened and the waves got higher.  Losing hold of the metal bar, it was all I could do to keep my head above water. Trying not to panic, I glanced over at the lifeguards who seemed oblivious to my plight. Meanwhile my companions were screaming in the delight of it all. Finally the waves subsided and I was able to touch bottom and climb out, thankful for the hot concrete underneath my feet.

This memory came back as I was reading Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. A plane has crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. One of the passengers, Scott Burroughs, finds himself in the ocean, somehow still alive. Determined to swim to shore, he begins to set off when he hears the cry of a four-year-old boy who has also miraculously survived. Not only is it night, but Burroughs holding onto the boy, has dislocated a shoulder, fears the sharks swimming below, and faces giant waves which threaten to drag their bodies under.  The story of his rescue and the aftermath of the crash is entwined with the backstories of the other passengers on the private plane. Was it an accident or an attack? Answering this question proves as gripping as the first few pages of Burroughs’ heroic swim.

Since I’ve been obsessed with NPR’s you-might-also-like lists lately, I just have to say if you like Before the Fall, you might also like Hawley’s earlier novel The Good Father.  It too unravels a mystery of sorts. Why would a smart college-aged kid from a well-to-do family fall off the grid and assassinate a presidential candidate? This time, the character seeking answers is the boy’s father. He retraces his son’s travels across the United States, trying to prove his innocence.

And if you like The Good Father, you might also like this movie.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Mr. (and Mrs.) Holmes

You’ve seen the movies and shows. The haunting but jaunty violin music that follows Benedict Cumberbatch all over modern London. The signature intense cuts of Guy Ritchie. The unforgettable stained glass knightJoan Watson.

While you are waiting for Season 4 of Sherlock, read the original series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 
Or look for these other modern spin-offs.

Anthony Horowitz sends Sherlock and Watson on a new case in The House of Silk. He follows it up with Moriarty which explores what happened to Sherlock and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. Although it’s more graphic (ummm much more graphic) than the original mysteries, the suspense is just as thrilling.

Laurie R. King focuses the plot around Holmes’ wife Mary Russell. King explains how they met with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. If you find yourself hooked, find the complete series list (in order) here. The star in these books is the exotic locale which varies in each book.

Julian Barnes sets the stage around Sherlock’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in Arthur and George as he sets off to solve a mystery in “real” life. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Aha Moments

There’s always one moment during yoga when I think to myself, “Oh, this is why I woke up this early.” Having resumed a somewhat regular running routine, I keep waiting for that moment to happen during a run. I haven’t given up quite yet.

Luckily that moment comes quite often when I’m reading. If only it burned more calories.

My latest why-I-love-reading titles:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
The Lake House by Kate Morton
Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave  

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Friday, July 29, 2016

"The bounds of arithmetic have been overstepped"

When my daughter started preschool, she attended a Montessori school. Although we were impressed by the diligence of the students, and the peaceful atmosphere of the campus, we were somewhat taken aback when the teacher informed us that she would not call our daughter by her nickname. Furthermore, she said, books with imaginary characters were frowned upon and were not allowed in the classroom. 

This philosophy came to mind when reading The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua for my reading challenge this week. As the book mentions, Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord and Lady Byron, was “conditioned away from dangerous poetical practices.” Her nurse was warned not to tell her any “nonsensical stories” for fear of flaming the fires of her father’s poetic madness.

Since most of the book takes place in a “pocket universe,” it may not have been the best pick for this challenge - read a nonfiction book about science - but it was an informative and fun read. Laid out as a graphic novel, this book traces the relationship of Babbage, an inventor, and Lovelace, a mathematician, and the development of the precursor to modern computers, the Analytical Engine. Even though the illustrations are most delightful, the end notes are what drive the reader forward. They contain the intriguing trivia, excerpts from correspondence, and the author’s own wry commentary on which the illustrations are based.

Despite her formative years of education, I’m happy to report that my daughter’s imagination remains intact, and she still quite enjoys a good nonsensical story. I’ll save this one for her. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

“The best I could manage was light chagrin”

Since the kids are at the grandparents this week, I ran (somewhat) amok in the DVD section of the library. A series called The Guild caught my eye. Apparently, I’m not the only one to think so because it was heavily scratched. My husband, in seeing my frustration, casually commented, “Why don’t you just watch it on YouTube?” Aha. Turns out I’m about 5 years late to this Internet series. But whereas the DVD from the library only had seasons 1 and 2, YouTube has them all.

Part of the reason it caught my eye was that I had recently read a book about gamers called The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss by Max Wirestone. Dahlia Moss is an aimless 20-something. When she is approached by someone at her roommate’s party who wants to hire her as a private detective, she jumps at the chance to earn some cash. Her mission is to find the Bejeweled Spear of Infinite Piercing…an item that only exists as part of an online game. When the guy who hires her ends up dead, she must reach out to the other members of his gaming guild to solve the mystery. Hilarity, well, you know. 

Half insightful, half clueless, Dahlia is a delightful narrator. As she says,

“…sometimes you just have to take some chances, right? And maybe things do get a little unfortunate. What of it? If you ask me, an unfortunate decision here or there can change your life. In a positive way, just so long you don't killed in the process. Admittedly, that's the tricky bit.

And the tricky bit of watching Internet series? Watching only one season at a time. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Strange New Things

After living with the placid, almost chilly, weather of Washington for the past six months, the heat humidity of South Texas came as a shock last weekend. Although I was grateful for the wind (keeping the mosquitoes at bay), it too was a reminder of the extremes of Texas weather. As we battled the sandy wind while walking along the muddy beach, the squelch of each footstep brought to mind a book I recently finished about a missionary who finds himself in an alien (literally) environment.

My choice for this week’s reading challenge to read a book about religion was The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.  A global corporation, USIC, has chosen Peter, the pastor of a small congregation in England, to serve as their new missionary at an outpost on another planet. Although sad to be leaving his wife Bea, Peter excitedly boards a ship to the new world. 

Expecting the native population to be indifferent at best, hostile at worst, he is pleasantly surprised to find a healthy devotion to Jesus and familiarity with the Bible, which they refer to as the Book of Strange New Things.

Although most of the engineers and other tech workers of the USIC compound prefer the sterile air conditioned environment of the base, Peter comes to welcome the humid, windy conditions of life with the natives. As his relationship with the natives grows, his connection with his wife weakens. Bea, back on Earth, is dealing with the collapse of the economy and the environment. Peter is at a loss of comforting Bea via email even as he works to comfort those close to him.

My favorite passages in the book were those in which Peter is trying to translate Biblical metaphors into language that can be understood to someone who has never seen a lamb nor can pronounce many English consonants. My least favorite part was seeing how easily a married couple can disconnect. Electronic communication fails miserably when their daily experiences have become so foreign to each other.

This book is a testimony to the support faith can give in times of joy and suffering, but also serves as a reminder that we need the love and support of our human connections as well. 

Friday, July 1, 2016



In searching for this week’s reading challenge selection, I consulted this list. On page 3, I found Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (color by Lark Pien). Attracted to the enticing blue of its cover and image of a girl relaxing in a pool, I put in my request. 

In the graphic novel, Sunny is sent to Florida to spend some time with her gramps. He lives in a retirement village and his big plans for entertaining her include trips to the grocery store and post office.  Finally, he takes her to the pool where she meets a boy her age who introduces her to the wonders of comic books. Interspersed throughout the story of Sunny’s visit are flashback scenes that reveal the dysfunctional family events that have led her here. Despite the squeaky hide-a-bed sofa, and the absurdly early dinner hour, Sunny is able to enjoy herself and let go of some of the stress that has plagued her the previous year.

Whether it’s a glimpse of a superhero shadow on the pavement or a family frozen into Pompeii statues, the illustrations of this graphic novel work seamlessly to push the plot forward. Even though a novel about a girl’s visit to her grandpa doesn’t seem like a page turner, it is. Luckily the engaging drawing helps slow the pace for the reader to take a second (and even third) look.

Although the book is set in the 70s, it made me reminisce about my 80s childhood spent with my grandparents in their retirement village of Bella Vista, Arkansas. Swimming, mini golf, and picking beans for 25 cents a bucket were the big plans that filled our day. When I got tired of exploring the woods or sneaking Snickers out of the fridge, I would curl up on the sunflower patterned deck chair and make my way through the dozen or so library books I had packed for the visit.  And like Sunny, wish for the superpower of invisibility. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Summer Before the War

My mom has always bought me books as gifts. In fact, I have children’s books bearing her inscription dating back from my first Easter. My aunts, too, introduced me to classics with gifts of A Wrinkle in Time, and when I was older, The Mists of Avalon. Members of my dad’s family, too, are avid readers though books were never exchanged at Christmas. However, one Christmas, my cousin surprised me with volume one of the collected works of Jane Austen.  I was smitten from page one.
Another British writer has caught my fancy lately with her Austen-like characters and plots of unrequited love. Lucky for us, Helen Simonson (of the beloved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) has released her second novel, The Summer Before the War.  

Beatrice Nash, recently orphaned, has been hired to teach Latin at the local grammar school. Although she is not as plain as her benefactor Agatha Kent had hoped, she is taken under her wing and introduced to the town’s notable residents. As a “spinster,” she must suffer the indignation of reporting her expenditures to her trustees and defend her aspirations to be a published author to naysayers.  Beatrice declares her intentions to remain single, but when she becomes close to Agatha’s nephew Hugh, she begins to have second thoughts.  

Meanwhile, Agatha tries to maintain diplomacy as various heads of women’s committees in town compete in fundraising efforts to support British troops who have just been called to war.  Soon the arrival of a group of Belgian refugees, food shortages, and death notices in the paper make the war all too real. Agatha continues to falter when both her nephews decide to enlist.

Simonson examines the early days of war as it affects two generations. She also adds a contemporary twist in examining issues of women’s rights, artistic expression, and repressed sexuality. Her characters will stay with you long after the book has ended whether it’s the young Gypsy boy who carries his tattered copy of the Aeneid into battle or the Belgian refugee who has seen unspeakable horrors.

This is a book I will enjoy giving this year. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

"Let that which had been written all be rewritten"

The challenge this week? Read the first book in a series by a person of color. Using the handy list compiled by the NYPL, I decided on The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.

Years after computers are relegated to desert caves, a nomad discovers an audio recording of a memory extract entitled The Book of Phoenix.

Phoenix narrates her life story which began as a genetic experiment. It’s only after she escapes Tower 7 that she realizes the extent to which she was manipulated. Magically, she sprouts wings and travels to Africa to return a seed given to her by the great tree that served as the “Backbone” of her home tower.  

However, her presence in the African village is soon detected and she is captured and taken to another tower back in the States. Here she is reunited with the speciMen who helped her escape, Mmuo and her close friend Saeed.

With the help of Mmuo and Saeed, she discovers that an inordinate number of the speciMen are African or of African descent. Dying and rising multiple times, she makes it her life mission to destroy the towers the Big Eyes have created. Through the violence and destruction, she discovers, “Human beings make terrible gods.”

Okorafor explores the parallels between the new world’s enslavement of the genetic experiments to the slave trade of America’s beginnings.  In addition to exploring the issue of race relations, her story also takes in to account the devastation of global warming. Phoenix is troubled by not only the treatment of her fellow man, but perplexed by the outdated social mores she encounters: “It was 80 degrees outside, balmy December weather. I still couldn’t understand why men in this day and age had to wear this outdated attire (a suit) to look professional and respectable. These clothes were from cold times, before the climate had changed. Why couldn’t the United States incorporate the world’s fashions as the English language incorporated so many of the world’s words? It was plain meshugana.”

We know through her legacy that Phoenix can only succeed through another fiery self-sacrifice. We also learn, in the end, how the nomad takes her story and puts pen to paper to disseminate this fantastical tale. However, the book’s epilogue provides an intriguing monologue by a new character, Sola, that makes us question the veracity of all we have heard.

And of course check out the next book in the series, Who Fears Death.

Friday, June 10, 2016

“Pudding wrestling with kangaroos”

The Northwest weather is conducive to naps. I’ve probably taken a few too many naps in the past few months to be considered healthy. But now that the sun is shining more, I seem to be a little more productive. Also back on track this week is my reading challenge. Funnily (surprising not ha, ha) enough this week’s challenge was to “read a book with a main character that has a mental illness.”

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson is a collection of essays on how she deals with her anxiety by hiding under desks, stays in bed as needed due to her depression, but mostly tries to live her life by finding ways to be “furiously happy.”  From a hashtag she created for her blog to this collection of essays, this phrase “furiously happy” refers to seeking out wacky adventures while one can in order to look back on those moments when one can’t.  

Mental illness not only affects her as an individual, but friends and family members as well. Lawson writes how she constantly debates her mental stability with her mother who insists she’s normal.  She comments she loves these conversations with her mother “because she gives me perspective. It’s also why she hates having these conversations with me. Because I give her details.”

Details which may include the side effects of the antipsychotics she’s taken, taxidermied giraffes, coffins filled with scabie glitter to thwart grave robbers, cannonballing possums, and stunning uteruses (uteri?).

She also exasperates her husband Victor with Rory-the-dead-raccoon. Rory tends to pop up in the background of Victor’s conference calls or can be seen riding cats at midnight. As Lawson states, “Other women might show their adoration with baked goods or hand-knitted slippers, but mine is channeled through animal corpses.”

One of the most enlightening parts of the book is the spoon theory. She uses spoons to explain the limits of people living with chronic illness. For instance, each task one must accomplish in a day is represented by a spoon. Healthy people have an unlimited amount of spoons, but those living with chronic pain or an autoimmune disease may only have, say, six. So if someone chooses to use a spoon to pick up the dry cleaning, he or she won’t have a spoon left to clean the house. Or as Lawson tells it, she may have even fewer spoons the next day after she tries to explain to her husband how she ran out of spoons, gets frustrated when he misunderstands, and has the argument in her head instead because, yes, she has no more spoons for defending herself.

When she is running low on spoons and cannot get out of bed, living a furiously happy life means Lawson can still go to “a storeroom in the back of [her] mind filled with moments of tightrope walking, snorkeling in long-forgotten caves, and running barefoot through cemeteries with a red ball gown trailing behind.”

That image alone is worth staying awake for. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

TBR (ideally on a beach towel in the sun)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Well second most wonderful. Tis the season for summer beach reads lists. My favorite list by NPR is not out yet, but I’ve been busy browsing these:

The books everyone else has put on hold at your library

The books most likely to be found at Target

The books most likely to combat the summer slide

And on my TBR list for summer are the following new releases by some of my favorite authors:

What's on your list?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Comfort Reads

In the tongue-in-cheek tradition of shows like this, comes this series brought to us by PBS. Except, delightfully, it’s not a mockumentary. Amateur bakers ranging in age from 17 to retiree meet in a tent each weekend for a bake-off showcasing a different skill.  Although the baked goods look scrumptious, it’s the contestants’ asides, facial expressions, and repartee with the hostesses and judges that will keep you watching.

To bide my time waiting for Season Two to be made available somewhere on the Internet, I’ve discovered the Hannah Swensen murder mystery series by Joanne Fluke. Hannah owns a bakery in Lake Eden, Minnesota. However, in between baking the next day’s batch of cookies or catering her mother’s Regency Romance club, she has a nasty habit of stumbling upon dead bodies.

Comfort food for the serial reader, this series is predictable in plot (find a body, eat chocolate, go behind boyfriend detective’s back to interview suspects, make a cake, get trapped in a small space with the killer, eat more chocolate).  Swensen’s obsession with new recipes (helpfully printed at the end of each chapter) and dilemma of which suitor to marry - detective or dentist - is quaintly old-fashioned, in our age of Pinterest and Also, comforting, once you’re hooked, is knowing that there are 17 or 18 more to read.

And recipes involving double or triple chocolate to try.

Friday, May 13, 2016

"It was the trip to the circus the day before the world ended"

In Days of Awe by Lauren Fox, Isabel’s best friend has died. Shortly after, her husband has moved out. Her daughter has turned surly and prefers spending time with her grandmother. And her maternal instinct is “buried underneath an unexcavated pile of clutter, along with the missing check [she] wrote for her field trip to the Art Museum and the bike key [she] lost last year.”

Upon meeting a charming gentleman in her grief group, she must decide if she’s ready to date again. Testing out her excuse for backing out of the date, she says, “I’m not looking for a relationship right now I’m looking for a relationship right now I need to focus on me I need to focus on cake.”

Slowly Isabel comes to terms with her dying marriage and the death of her friend. She remembers how to make her daughter laugh. And just maybe everything will be okay.

If you can relate to cake as a life goal, you will thoroughly enjoy this book.  If you are a forty something mother of a preteen, you must read this book. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

"There is everything left to cure"

This week’s reading challenge - read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel – was a challenge. I’ve tried reading other books in the same vein, but I’ve never made it past the first few chapters. Perhaps it was the epigraph by Haruki Murakami that greeted me on the first page, or the fact that the protagonist was safely ensconced in a hospital for the first half of the novel, but I actually finished Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg.

Joy, the protagonist of this novel, is one of a few people who have proved immune to a sickness that has swept across the United States. She, along with other asymptomatic Americans, has been shuttled to the Hospital. Ostensibly, they are there to be studied for a cure. However, the extreme security measures and questionable qualifications of the medical staff make them feel more like inmates rather than patients.

As the story progresses, we discover Joy had less than a stellar childhood. Abandoned as a baby, she grew up in foster care. After leaving the system, she finds work as a night clerk in a convenience store and whiles away the lonely hours sipping from shoplifted bottles of cough syrup. When the sickness starts claiming its victims, a dying relative contacts Joy and gives her the first clue in figuring out her mother’s identity.

It is the search for her mother along with her growing skepticism of the Hospital’s concern for her well-being that drives Joy to escape. On the road, she finds her way from Kansas to Florida. Kismet brings her a traveling companion, a former housemate from her foster home. Together, Joy and Marcus witness the desolation of communities devoid of people and the devastation of neglected infrastructures that predates the epidemic.

Unfortunately Van Den Berg’s chronicle of a sickness without a cure feels all too familiar in light of recent scares. But by focusing on memory and friendship as tools of survival for those lucky enough to survive, she infuses hope in an otherwise bleak existence.   

Friday, April 29, 2016

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Instead of the crazy lady in the SUV who thinks I’m the “b%*&h” who stole her boyfriend in junior high….

My encounter with the strange neighbor was foremost in my mind as I picked up Peter Lovenheim’s book In the Neighborhood. As he writes, it is rare for most Americans to know their neighbors. Even with social media apps trying to fill the gap (my Next Door update just informed me there is a “Creepy guy at 160th & meridian Little Ceasers”),  we are clueless as to who might be living a few doors down. He aptly observes that it often takes a natural disaster or tragedy to bring people out from behind closed doors.

I’ve experienced this first hand when it took a flood to meet my neighbors in Japan. More recently, a mild winter snowstorm brought the neighborhood kids out to shovel sidewalks and gave my kids an introduction to our latest neighborhood in Washington.

Lovenheim’s premise is that it shouldn’t take a tragic event or extreme weather for us to meet those living in close proximity. In fact, he wonders that if neighbors do know one another better they could be instrumental in providing a haven before tragedy strikes.

Lovenheim, going through his own separation, was influenced by a murder down the street to set out to meet his neighbors. Not only did he meet them, he even convinced some of them to let him spend the night and observe a day in their lives. His book is an account of those encounters as well as a brief examination of the influence our suburban lifestyles have on isolating ourselves from those around us.

In reaching out to his neighbors, not only did he benefit from finding friendship, he was able to connect others who had much in common. His book teaches us that nodding to the woman who walks her dog every evening is a start, but not an end. 

So even though I am now avoiding eye contact with anyone driving an SUV on my street, I probably will be braver about saying hello to the dog walkers and stroller moms I see on my afternoon walk. And maybe soon this "housing community" will actually start feeling like a community. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

"A palimpsest of old logging roads and game trails"

I met a lumberjack once. He lived in Oregon, sported an impressive beard, and ate vegan store brand Oreo’s. He recounted the dangers of his job - among them the brutal exposure to the elements on a daily basis.  

Peter Geye captures the brutality and desperation of men who worked in the lumber camps at the turn of the century. His novel The Lighthouse Road is set in 1890s and 1920s Minnesota. It follows the immigration of a young woman from Norway who finds work as a cook in the lumber camp.  She gives birth to a son. After her death, her son Odd is adopted by the town. When he’s older, he supports himself as a fisherman.  Odd falls in love with a woman who knew his mother and eventually learns the truth behind her death even as he’s facing the reality of raising his own son alone.

In the tradition of books by Annie Proulx, Jim Harrison, Charles Frazier, and Jeffrey Lent, The Lighthouse Road explores the effects of one’s environment on family, identity, and survival.  Its characters build boats by hand, travel by dog sled, fight wolves, and survive Atlantic crossings on one jar of sheep’s milk. With a spare yet vivid writing style, Geye captures a harsh reality that is both appalling and appealing. 

Not unlike a vegan Oreo. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Think of me with my nose in a book"

It has taken several weeks, but I have completed the challenge of reading a book over 500 pages long. It’s accompanied me on Sunday rainy afternoon reading sprees, flights to and from Chicago, kept me occupied on sick bed stints (as watcher and watchee), and been a constant companion at myriad baseball practices.  

In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, we go back to nineteenth century England. The Napoleonic Wars are raging and the politicians are wringing their hands. Enter Mr. Norrell, a magician with not only a formidable library, but practical powers as well.  After being introduced to London’s social scene, he quickly becomes a celebrity.

Meanwhile Jonathan Strange has also been mastering the dark arts. Inevitably, as the only two real magicians left in England, the men cross paths and Strange is taken under the wing of Norrell as a pupil. However, as Strange’s powers increase, he parts ways with Norrell. Whose brand of magic will win out without destroying everyone in their inner circle?

At 1024 pages, this is certainly not a book for reading in one sitting. However, every time I opened it, I was surprised, horrified, or fascinated by the next turn of events in these two men’s lives. Clarke breaks up the potential monotony of battle scenes and drawing room intrigues with wry humor and clever twists. This book transports the reader to another time, place, and even dimension, and proves a pleasant distraction from that delayed flight or overzealous little league coach. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

We are Family

Taking a break from my reading challenge, I delved into a few books recently that made me ponder the various permutations of family.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson examines the consequences of growing up with performance artist parents.

After Birth by Elisa Albert is an honest look at the shock and awe of having a baby.

Spinster by Kate Bolick reports on the women who helped shaped her life and the passion to be found in remaining single.

Swing Low: A Life by Miriam Toews lovingly describes the life of her father and ruminates on his last days and death. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Sweet and Salty Squid Candies

I turn 41 today. If I were to write a food memoir, it would have to include these moments...That simple Spanish breakfast I had in Madrid when I was 8.  The baklava I tried in Greece when I was 20. That apple empanada I inhaled outside a Oaxaca bakery when I was 28. Those sweet potato fries in Ann Arbor when I was 37. Since 1) I can’t draw and 2) these were all pre-Instagram, they’ll have to remain in my memory (and thighs).

Luckily for us, Lucy Knisley can draw (and cook) and has captured her unforgettable food experiences in Relish: My Life in the Kitchen. She charmingly illustrates her childhood growing up with foodie parents, her teen rebellion in sneaking McDonald’s fries on a trip to Rome with her father, and first adult job as a cheese monger. Each chapter has a nice finish with a step by step depiction of a favorite recipe. The strata of huevos rancheros on page 75 will have you digging out the frying pan and adding queso fresco to your shopping list. Trust me. 

Since I'll be in Chicago next week, I've already earmarked page 159 for ideas of foods to try while I'm there. More memories in the making. 

Friday, March 11, 2016


In keeping with my reading challenge for 2016, I decided to read “a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years.” My choice? Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson since it was a NYPL pick and conveniently already on my daughter’s bookshelf.

Astrid and Nicole have been best friends since first grade. Now that they are 12, their different interests are pulling them in two directions. After Astrid’s mom takes them to see a roller derby, Astrid decides her destiny lies in being a roller girl. Nicole, disappointingly, decides to stick with dance camp with arch nemesis Rachel. Showing up for camp alone is one thing, but Astrid quickly realizes that showing up for camp with weak skating skills might be worse. As the summer progresses, however, Astrid becomes more confident on skates (and off) through the support of her teammates, her new friend Zoey, and motivational messages from derby star Rainbow Bite.

The author Victoria Jamieson, in addition to being an illustrator, is also a member of the Rose City Rollers Derby League.  Her experience shines through the stars of pain liberally sprinkled through the pages and the mantras of tougher, stronger, and fearless echoing over the rink. However, she also perfectly captures preteen Astrid’s world outside the rink. Everything from saying hi to a boy to a shopping trip with her mom is, well, awkward.  

I may not be ready to try out for a roller derby league, but this book definitely made me want to check out what it's all a bout.  

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Eyes Have It

This week’s challenge was to read a book that was adapted into a movie and then watch the movie. I went about this challenge backwards since the movies showed up on the reserve shelf at the library before the books were available. This may have skewed the results, but in both cases the visual images from the movies stuck with me long after I had finished reading the printed page.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The HBO adaptation wins out partly due to the Maine scenery and the kitsch of the seventies (and later) set pieces, but mostly due to the strong performances by actors Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins as Olive and Henry.  Zoe Kazan is also mesmerizing as shop girl Denise Thibodeau who works in Henry’s pharmacy. Reading the book, it’s interesting to note which characters made it into the script and which were left as background players. Most regretfully is Angela who has a sizable backstory in the novel, but merely shows up as a lounge singer in the miniseries.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

In the movie version of this book, the um, movies, make it all worthwhile. High school students Greg and Earl spend their free time making parodies of classic movies. When Greg’s mom asks him to befriend a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer, Greg reluctantly agrees. Where other story lines would turn this scenario into a romantic comedy, Greg wryly notes, Greg and Rachel simply become friends. When Greg is asked to make a movie for Rachel, he balks, stalls, and even gnashes his teeth, but ends up making a beautiful piece he shows Rachel in her final moments. Apart from the movies within a movie, one of my favorite scenes is Greg’s discovery after Rachel’s death of her whimsical creations. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

"An argument that predates my time here"

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. When I taught English in Japan, I would often answer a knock on my door to a random coworker who wanted to take me (somewhere) to (do something). Neither of which I completely understood until we arrived at the intended destination. Despite the intrigue caused by my poor grasp of Japanese, due to the lack of activities in my rural town, I always said yes. 

Once, early on, my acquiescence led me to the car of a woman and her husband who took me to a small amusement park where they treated me to kakigori. Afterwards, we stopped at a grocery store where the woman (through a well-worn dictionary) managed to explain she wanted to cook lunch for me. Halfway through lunch, the couple got up and began emptying out the refrigerator. Then abruptly the husband gestured he needed to drive me home. I never saw them again.

Later my coworker explained that theirs was an arranged marriage and that soon after my visit the woman left to go back to her hometown. I tried not to take it personally. Even though I, too, was lonely that year, it was a self-inflicted situation, not one forced on me by parents or relatives.

Like my would-be friend in Japan, the protagonist of Written in the Stars finds herself at the mercy of her parents’ decisions. Listed as a book “that is set in the Middle East,” this YA novel by Aisha Saeed felt a little too easy for my book challenge as I quickly flipped through the pages to find out what happened in the soap opera worthy turn of events.

Naila is a high school senior in Florida. When her parents, who are from Pakistan, find out she has been secretly dating Saif, they whisk her away to the family’s compound in Pakistan for the summer. After a series of teas and lunches with various family friends, along with a return date to the U.S. that keeps getting postponed, Naila begins to grow suspicious. After she wonders why she is being asked questions about her cooking and sewing skills, her cousin finally breaks the news that her parents have been trying to find her a husband. 

When she tries to flee the country, she is thwarted by her uncle. When she tries to seek help from her boyfriend Saif, her father destroys her cell phone. In the end, she is drugged into submitting to the marriage ceremony. All is not happily ever after. Until it is. The plot twists in-between will keep you reading, though a thinly veiled rape scene means this book is probably not appropriate for younger YA readers. Or at least the one who lives in my house.

Reading this book did make me more curious to read more by Saeed. I’m adding Love, InshAllah to the list. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

"What if I'm a girl?"

There’s a scene in the television series Transparent when Davina looks through a set of old photographs. What was once a picture of Davina as a schoolboy has been photo shopped into a photo of her as a schoolgirl. The scene is touching as we realize she finally has a concrete image of what she has always pictured herself to be.

The title character in George by Alex Gino also thinks of himself as a girl. She secretly pores over teen girl magazines, dreams of wearing make-up, and longs to play Charlotte in their class production of Charlotte’s Web.  Although she doesn’t get the part, she and her best friend Kelly devise a scheme for George to play the role so she can finally show her mother and the world her true self.

This book hopefully will inspire empathy in its young readers towards people who long to fit into society yet remain true to themselves. Sadly this book may be overly optimistic in its cast of supportive characters. Everyone from George’s best friend Kelly to her older brother to the school principal embraces her unquestioningly. I suspect most transgender kids aren’t so lucky. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

“a perfect layup”

My earliest memory of being read to at school was in fourth grade when Ms. Walker read Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt.  Then in seventh grade, my reading teacher astounded everyone when she said she was going to read to us from this book. What?! We were too old to have someone read to us. However, as soon as she started reading (using different voices for each character), we were hooked.

Even today, I still love being read to…as long as it's a children’s book. I will gladly oblige my son when he asks me to play any of the following audio books in the car: The Stink books by Megan McDonald (read by Nancy Cartwright), the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne (read by the author), or the A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy (read by David Pittu).

This week’s challenge was to listen to an Audie Award winner. Keeping my seven-year-old in mind, I chose H.O.R.S.E. by Christopher Myers (read by Christopher Myers and Dion Graham). In the story, two boys play the basketball game of horse, which quickly expands from the court to the neighborhood to the galaxy. On our first listen, we didn’t have the printed book in front of us. My son was confused. For our next listen, we followed along in the book and the story clicked. Along with the narration, the rhythmic background music and sound effects made the story come alive. 

"Can you play it again?" my son asked. And I knew we had found a winner.