Friday, September 22, 2017

The Animators

Think of The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker as a grittier Fangirl (by Rainbow Rowell). Or perhaps a more sharply focused take on The Interestings (by Meg Wolitzer).

While I was reading it, I kept picturing a cartoon sequence from the (amazing) Amazon series Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street.

In Episode 7 (season 201), bongo drums start playing a 70s beat as one of the main characters, Ranger, ruminates on puberty. “If nature puts you at the back of the pack, you do anything you can to get to the front.” He adds, “First you get the hair, then you get the power, then you get the respect.”





In Whitaker’s work, Mel and Sharon meet in a college arts program. Discovering a mutual affinity for drawing and a love of obscure comics, they begin collaborating. When their film of Mel’s coming-of-age story becomes a word-of-mouth sensation, they begin pondering their next project. An unexpected stroke forces them to pause. 

During her recovery, Sharon opens up about a traumatic event she experienced as a child. When she is well enough, the two make a trip to Kentucky to introduce Mel to her family and the surroundings that shaped her. The two begin animating Sharon’s story. However, in some ways, the project will prove to be even more damaging than her stroke.

Through Mel and Sharon's stories, Whitaker examines the intersection of memoir, truth, and fiction. Does the storyteller, regardless of medium, have the right to reveal the lives of others central to the story? She also looks at the healing process. When our identity is tied to what we do, what happens when our abilities are changed in some way?

Read an excerpt here.


Friday, September 15, 2017

“After the initial kerplunk”

This week’s challenge was to read a collection of stories by a woman. Having loved her novel and memoir, I picked up Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken.

In the title story, Wes and Laura worry their pre-teen daughter Helen is growing up too fast. The family decides (as one does) to take a spur of the moment summer trip to Paris. “The plan was to disrupt their lives, a jolt to Helen’s system before school started again in the fall…Perhaps the problem all this time was that her soul had been written in French.” And it appears it has, as Helen discovers an ease in communicating with taxi drivers and food vendors in the French she has learned in school.

The family slowly starts to relax into the rhythm of their days and the parents begin letting their daughters venture out on afternoon excursions by themselves. However, they learn they’ve let their guard down too soon when the phone rings in the middle of the night. A nurse tells them Helen is in the ICU.

Days turn to weeks, and eventually the family decides to send Laura and their youngest daughter back to the States. As Wes watches his daughter slowly, painfully recover, he turns to art as therapy. And we are left wondering who needs more healing.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the interview in the back between the author, McCracken, and Ann Patchett. Writers and friends, the two discuss memoirs, the thought process behind organizing the collection in this book, and book prizes.

Find suggestions for more story collections here.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Serafina's Promise

Today is a repost in honor of #internationalliteracyday and the storms ravaging the Caribbean.

Serafina's Promise by Ann E Burg

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

"One foot forward-
stop.
The other foot forward-
stop." 


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.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Then the floods came

One morning I was awakened by a knock on my door. I opened it to find some very serious officials wearing rain gear. Grabbing my passport and purse, I accompanied them up the hill to the community center. Torrential rains had caused the river to flood the first floor of my apartment building my second week in Japan.

At the community center, I clumsily tried to make onigiri with the women of the town, who were tasked with feeding the volunteer firefighter brigade. At one point, later that evening, one of the women motioned for me to come with her. She invited me to her house for tea, and we eventually worked out her sons were students at the junior high and elementary schools where I was to be an assistant English teacher.

I was allowed to return to my apartment, picking my way through the mud that now filled the foyer. It would take weeks for the clean-up, but in the meantime Junko and her family checked up on me and helped introduce me to others in the community.

As the waters recede in Texas and Louisiana (and Bangladesh, India, and Nepal), and recovery proceeds, my hope is those communities are  strengthened, not torn apart. And strangers who encountered each other by happenstance and tragedy become neighbors.

Although there have been plenty of real-life Houston heroes in the news this week, here’s a list to direct you to some fictional ones as well. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Women in Translation

This week’s challenge was to read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love. 

Turning to Powell’s, my trusty purveyor of used books, I discovered a women in translation sale. Sold.

Liu Xia’s collection of poems, Empty Chairs, spans the years 1983-2013. Under house arrest after her husband, now deceased, was imprisoned, she is described as a poet who has “turned from a bird into a tree, her feathers becoming white and withered.”

From “One Bird Then Another”:

Back then,
we were always talking
about the bird. Not knowing
where it came from – the bird,
the bird – it brought us
warmth and laughter.

From “How It Stands”:

Why draw a tree?
I like how it stands.
Aren’t you tired of being a tree your whole life?
Even when exhausted, I want to stand. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Shore Excursion

Recently, I dropped off my brother and his family at a Seattle port for an Alaskan cruise. I started feeling a little claustrophobic seeing the masses of people queuing up to board with two to three suitcases a piece. I kept seeing the images of this disaster as I took in the truly massive ship with lifeboats ringing the sides in plain sight. My brother and his family, by the way, had a wonderful time.

Therefore, I was curious to pick up Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy when I saw the words “holiday cruise” and “misfortune” in its synopsis.

Liv and Nora are cousins, as close as sisters. Since Nora is having a bad time of it after her mom dies, Liv decides their two families should go on a Central American cruise for Christmas.

Skeptical at first, the adults start to enjoy themselves.  Befriending a glamourous Argentinian couple Camila and Gunther, relaxing while the kids play in Kids' Club or swim with their new friends, Liv congratulates herself for arranging the trip. But even the ship’s myriad amusements grow to be too much of the same. At the next port, the moms decide to take the kids on a zip-lining adventure with a local guide while the dads golf at a club with one of Gunther’s friends.

When the tire on the guide’s car blows out, everyone is a little rattled, but unharmed. Trying to salvage the day, the guide, Pedro, offers to take them to a local swimming hole. Liv makes sure she has her son Sebastian’s insulin pump and the sunscreen, and the kids and moms trek down to the water.

What happens next is a series of bad decisions that are equally thrilling and frustrating in the reading. Just like you might yell at the young girl on the screen not to go in the basement, you’ll want to tell the kids to stay put, don’t get in the van, don’t go upstairs, don’t get on the train.

Meanwhile, Noemi who has been living with her grandmother in Ecuador, finds out one morning her uncle has arrived to take her to New York to her parents. Their journey intersects with that of the missing kids, juxtaposing the despair of the poor with that of the privileged.


The novel evokes Ann Patchett’s  Bel Canto, provoking empathy for both kidnappers and captives. It’s only fitting that Patchett has given this novel a glowing book jacket review, “smart and thrilling and impossible to put down.” Exactly. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Sibling Rivalry

I’m reliving my childhood. My tormentor, aka younger brother, loved to sneak into my room and string my Fozzie Bear stuffed animal onto the cord of my ceiling fan. I would turn red with range, only fueling his fun, and plot my revenge.

My daughter (who just turned twelve) prefers screaming bloody murder when she finds that her carefully constructed toyscape has been destroyed or her phone’s wallpaper has been changed by her little brother.

Most of the time, like my brother and I did, they do get along and play well together. One of the most enjoyable conversations I overhear while they’re in the backseat of the car is a shared love of certain book series.

Roald Dahl books fly back and forth from their rooms at bedtime. The Giver Quartet is on its way. So far, my son has only read the first one, but my daughter has been encouraging him to read the others.

The following two series, however, are ones they’ve both read, and argued about, recounted favorite scenes from, and figured how to reserve at the school library.

Myth-O-Mania by Kate McMullan
The nine books in this series are narrated by Hades, King of the Underworld. Trying to dispel the “myths” (pun intended) promulgated by his brother Zeus, he retells each story with his own unique twist. My son’s favorite is Say Cheese, Medusa! My daughter likes Phone Home, Persephone!

The True Story of… by Liesl Shurtliff
The three books (so far) of this series are Rump, Jack, and Red.  “It’s like you took a fairy tale and modernized it, pretty much,” my daughter said. But more exciting. And funnier. My son recommends Rump. My daughter’s favorite is Jack

Friday, August 4, 2017

Vamos, patojos

One of my high school Spanish teachers showed this movie in her class. Made in 1983, it follows the journey of a brother and sister fleeing their homes in Guatemala to try and make a new life in Los Angeles. It was the first time I thought about what it might mean to start over without family support or even legal documents.  

I never thought almost 30 years later my daughter would be reading a book, published and set in 2016, that follows a similar premise, but with a cast of much younger characters.

In The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz, Jaime Rivera and his cousin Ángela are being threatened by the gang that killed Angela’s brother Miguel. Their family members scrape up enough money to send them from their small town in Guatemala to a relative in the United States. Ángela is fifteen. Jaime is twelve years old. 

Jaime, an avid artist, sketches their perilous journey aboard pick-up trucks, buses, and freight trains as they cross into Mexico and make the long journey north to the Rio Grande. They encounter other children along the way traveling in pairs or alone. Pooling their resources, they figure out who to trust. They pray they won’t be separated, lost, or even killed. The kindness of strangers puts food in their bellies. Veterans of the journey offer advice for survival.

Perilous and eye-opening, the novel introduces us to fictional characters who, unfortunately, are based on the stories of actual young people. Kids who fear for their lives. Kids who have no choice but to try for a better life.

To find more social justice books for kids, click here.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Profusion of Tropical Life

I’ve never been on a boat smaller than a ferry or larger than a speedboat. Therefore, sailing from Long Island to Australia on a fifty five foot catamaran sailboat is probably something I’ll only ever read about. Reading this week’s challenge, travel memoir Black Wave by John and Jean Silverwood, pretty much ensures that.

Experienced sailors, John and Jean, set out to fulfill a life-long dream when they boarded their new sailboat, the Emerald Jane, along with their four kids (ages 14, 12, 7, and 3).

Encounters with pirates, John’s alcoholism, and shady dock dwellers were balanced out by amazing sunrises, swims with dolphins, and lessons only the sea could teach their children about navigation and hard work.

Little did they know their trip would be abruptly shattered by a coral reef near the Polynesian Islands. Jean tells the story from her perspective and astutely begins with the page-turning event of the journey – the shipwreck.


Knowing how the trip ends, but not the outcome, I was turning pages at a furious clip.  I found the description of the trip’s preparation fascinating and enjoyed (vicariously) the idea of living on a sailboat and living off the fruits of various islands. (Homeschooling and sharing close quarters with five other people seems less appealing.) 

Despite the nail-biting disaster that befalls them, the book does have a happy ending – a must for an armchair traveler that doesn’t have the solace of a pina colada to soothe frayed nerves. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Braiding Sweetgrass

Botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about humanity’s damaged relationship to the natural world in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.

“If time could run backward, like a film in reverse, we would see this mess reassemble itself into lush green hills and moss-covered ledges of limestone. The streams would run back up the hills to the springs and the salt would stay glittering in underground rooms.” 

“Never take the first plant you find, as it might be the last—and you want that first one to speak well of you to the others of her kind.” 

“The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness.” 

“We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of the earth’s beings.” 


Just as I finished reading Kimmerer’s book, I came across this article which only reinforces her thesis. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Summer Reads

The high temperature lately has been 77 degrees, which counts as sweltering in the Seattle area. However, the sun is shining. Brightly! Consistently! So midway through July, I’ve conceded it’s summer.

These books have just become available on my Overdrive wait list, and so by default, comprise a summer reading list of sorts. Whether historical or contemporary, fiction or memoir, they all captured my attention and provided the most essential quality of any good summer read – escape.

First Comes Love by Emily Giffin

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Who thought this was a good idea? By Alyssa Mastromonaco

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

We were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter


Need a second (or fifth) opinion?






Friday, July 7, 2017

Tell the Wolves

I suspect this week’s challenge intended for me to read a romance of the bodice-ripper variety. However, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a romance of the not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house variety.

It’s 1986. Greta and her sister June are having their portrait painted by their uncle Finn. When Finn’s farewell kiss on the top of the head causes June to wash her hair three times, the reader is reminded of the early, fearful days of the AIDS epidemic.

Finn dies. June mourns the loss of not only Finn, but their trips to the Cloisters and afternoons spent listening to his Requiem recordings.  

When Finn’s prized Russian teapot shows up on her doorstep, June discovers Finn had kept his relationship with Toby a secret during all those visits to his (actually, their) apartment in the city.  
Toby and June begin meeting to share stories of Finn and to help one another through their loss. As Toby’s own health begins to deteriorate, the whole family must come to terms with the man Finn loved.


Carol Rifka Brunt captures perfectly not only June’s teenage rebellion and sadness, but the complicated relationships that make up a family. Through Finn’s loss, she begins to realize her parents are people with feelings and dreams, not just stressed-out accountants. She learns more of her mother’s sacrifices and the artistic gifts she shares with her brother. Most importantly, she learns she doesn’t have a monopoly on love.

Friday, June 30, 2017

“Everything is under control”

I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in July of 1992. It was the summer before my senior year in high school. Along with reading, my diary recounts days spent babysitting my two-year-old sister, practicing piano and typing, making dinner using a new-fangled product called Boboli, taking tennis lessons, listening to Janis Joplin, and accompanying my mother to her doctor appointments for the baby due that August.

My 17-year-old assessment of the book? “Very, very creepy. It seems almost possible.”

My 42-year-old assessment? “Very, very creepy. It seems almost possible.”

Using my new-fangled Kindle, I highlighted the following as plausible:

“It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time. Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.”

“Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better? Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.”


“As the architects of Gilead knew, to institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove.”

Friday, June 23, 2017

Be Frank with Me

To Kill a Mockingbird –type novel Pitch is on every school’s reading list. Author Mimi Banning retreats from the limelight never to publish again. Or so she thought. 

After losing her money to a Ponzi scheme, Mimi is given no choice but to write another book. Her publisher hires Alice Whitley to fly to California and watch over Mimi’s 9-year-old, so she can complete the task.

Alice has her hands full with Frank. A fan of movie-inspired fashion, arcane trivia, and routine, Frank charms as much as he exasperates. With the help of Banning’s friend and part-time handyman Xander, Alice is able to entertain, console, and care for Frank. Xander entertains Alice.

Frank, who can expound on the national dance of the Dominican Republic, the link between tax filing day and the Titanic, and the works of Picasso, doesn’t do so well fitting in.  A bullying incident at school requires him to abandon his top hat for the guise of a normal kid - khakis. This doesn't do much for his spirit. 

Alice's solution is to give Frank a break from school. All is going well, or at least not any worse. Mimi even comes close to finishing her book. However, an ill-timed birthday present for Frank proves disastrous for everyone. Mimi disappears, and Mimi’s publisher, Mr. Vargas, is forced to fly in for the rescue.

The novel’s romance, humor, and sleuthing are punctuated with bits from old movies, Frank’s trivia, and Alice’s insecurities. It’s as madcap as it is heartwarming. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Cogmakers

In middle school, I had a trio of teachers who were all in their first or second year of teaching.  Filled with youthful enthusiasm, they let us do things like sauté mushrooms over a Bunsen burner. They also let us play games, mostly review games, but still games.

Probably one of the only facts I retained from 8th grade science was a trick for remembering the difference between latitude and longitude that came up during one review game, mostly because it resulted in not only my cheeks, but my whole entire scalp, face, and neck blushing bright red. In middle school my hair was long enough to get caught in the metal rivets in the seat backs. To demonstrate longitude, the teacher pointed at me and said,"See, the lines go up and down like her long hair."

I haven’t given much thought to longitude since putting down my pencil on the last science test I took. However when faced with the challenge to read a nonfiction book about technology, I was intrigued by a book called Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel.

“The measurement of longitude meridians…is tempered by time.” Seems straightforward enough until you remember that before the 1700s, there wasn’t a reliable time keeper that could be taken to sea.

By 1714, this problem of calculating longitude had become so pressing that a reward was being offered to the one who could solve it. Various methods were considered: lunar distance, magnetic compasses, signal boats at sea, and yes, wounded dogs.

Enter English clock maker John Harrison. Harrison succeeded in developing, over the course of his lifetime, several clocks that proved seaworthy - clocks that ship navigators know as chronometers.

Sobel sets out this curious history in a readable, fascinating, dare I say, page-turner. Not once did I feel compelled to blush.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"And you don't feel you could love me/But I feel you could."

I’ll gladly read any book that begins with an epigraph quoting Paul Simon. After reading the collection of stories Single, Carefree, Mellow, I’ll gladly read anything by Katherine Heiny.

Reminiscent of books like The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, the pleasure is in the telling.

Most stories examine either an affair or the fall-out from an affair. There’s Nina who finds out the neighbor she has been seeing has been involved with another neighbor. There’s Josie who expresses the frustration of googling an ex’s ex.  She asks, “Do you know how many women there are in Boston named Lisa who work as paralegals and have red hair and potentially went to Billy’s high school?” Finally, there’s Maya who appears in several stories dealing with her dog’s illness, affair with her boss, and nascent pregnancy.

Some stories rely on the rare second person pov. This usually makes me think of books by this author, but in this case evokes a confidant – a parent, like you, sitting on the bathroom floor thinking, “All that stands between you and champagne is the bedtime story.”


After the kids are asleep (and the champagne has been downed), this book will do quite nicely for your own bedtime story. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

"If she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived"

The year this movie came out, I went through a Edith Wharton phase. I read through my hometown library’s scant collection of her works, but then moved on, I’m sure, to read whatever Winona Ryder starred in next.  

When perusing a list of authors for this week’s challenge (read a book published between 1900 and 1950), Wharton’s name popped up.  I downloaded Ethan Frome to my Kindle and…stalled.

When I finally forced myself to read it through to the end, I realized it’s probably a good thing I didn’t read this one as a teenager.  Bleak in setting, a rural midwinter, and theme, the misery of unrequited desire in a loveless marriage, this novel doesn’t lift the spirits.  

Ethan has fallen helplessly in love with Mattie, a girl he and his wife have taken in after she was left with only “the fifty dollars obtained from the sale of her piano.” Mooning over Mattie, even the glimpse of a gravestone inspires this reverie: “We’ll always go on living here together, and some day she’ll lie her beside me.”

Frome’s wife, Zeena, who suffers not from “troubles” but from the much more serious
“complications,” casts a pall over the household. When she decides to take an overnight trip to visit a specialist, Ethan revels in the opportunity to enjoy Mattie’s company. He steals a kiss; the two plot their escape. When Zeena’s prized pickle plate breaks into pieces, they realize the futility of their plan. Not only do they fear her reaction, they realize they lack the funds to replace the plate, much less flee to the West.    


In this simple story, Wharton has crafted a cautionary tale. Furthermore, framing the narrative as a tale told from a newcomer to Ethan’s village gives the story a chilling sense of foreboding. I think I'll skip the movie. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Breaking into Song

This week’s challenge was to read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+. Using this list, I came across Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle. Since this is a book we enjoyed listening to in the car last summer, I opted for the sequel Five, Six, Seven, Nate!

In the first book, middle schooler Nate Foster travels to New York by himself to audition for a Broadway show. After several mishaps, Nate lands a spot in a new show called E.T. The Musical. 

The second book opens with Nate saying goodbye to his best friend Libby as he packs for rehearsals. Back in New York, his Aunt Heidi gives him both a place to stay and an appreciation of his dream – which is all but nonexistent at home.

Awkward and simultaneously self-conscious and confident, Nate stands out in the cast of polished, experienced child actors. Nate soon finds support from the dance coach and a seasoned actress playing the understudy to E.T. She recognizes Nate’s gift of a photographic mind that not only remembers lines, but whole scenes of blocking. While he tries to stay out of way of the show’s star Elliott, played by his hometown nemesis Jordan, he is comforted by the gifts left by a secret admirer.
Even though the director, who has only worked on video games, can’t remember his name, he will soon have to rely on Nate in ways he never expected.

Narrated by Nate, the novel is funny, snarky, and sweet. Nate never shies away from voicing his unique perspective of the theater, his fellow middle schoolers, and his own view of himself. As he commits the musical to heart, he becomes a star – both on stage and off. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Call Backs

When I was little, a local music store asked my dance teacher if her dance class could appear in its new commercial. I don’t remember much about the experience except for endless takes of grapevine-ing across a hot parking lot in front of the music store. I did see it on TV a few months later.  Our little dance routine was on the screen for a few seconds. I figure I still have about 12 seconds left.

For those seeking their 15 seconds of fame, I recommend the following titles:

Seeing Stars by Diane Hammond
Hammond takes us into the world of child actors. Centering around an agent called Mimi, the novel follows a circle of characters as they hope to be discovered.  

Ruth and her daughter Bethany have just moved to Los Angeles from Seattle. Ruth is all too eager to purchase the headshots, remove the braces, and visit the beauty specialists required. She also ferries Bethy to auditions, acting lessons, and showcases the agent insists on (and charges for). 

Angie and her daughter Laurel have left the Southern pageant scene for Hollywood. However, Laurel, at 16, is getting too old for most parts, so time is running out.  

Quinn, since being dismissed by Mimi, is couch surfing and also worried about the future. Trying for a part in a new Gus Van Sant movie may be his last chance.

From on-set scenes (equal parts homework and Cinnabons) to acting classes with vaguely familiar has-beens, Hammond makes the process look both grueling and well, grueling.

I’m Glad About You by Theresa Rebeck
After college (and a stint in Seattle theater) Alison Moore moves to New York with hopes of making it as an actress. A friend calls in a favor and soon she is auditioning for the role of “witness” on a crime show. One hit show later, she is walking the red carpet and appearing in celebrity magazines.

Her ex-boyfriend Kyle works as a pediatrician in their hometown of Cincinnati. Newly married, his wife Van is eager to start a family but wary that Kyle may still have feelings for Alison.

The novel follows Alison’s career and the people she must (or chooses to) leave behind.  Like most celebrity obsessions, we empathize with their trials while at the same time rolling our eyes at the drama.

Rebeck, a playwright and television writer (also the creator of one of my favorites), engages the reader with clever dialogue and characters that you'd much rather watch on the screen than befriend  

Friday, May 12, 2017

Charismatic mega-vertebrates

Setting out to read a book that is set within 100 miles of my location, I turned to Hannah’s Dream by Diane Hammond.  

Technically, the town of Bladenham, Washington is fictional.  However, since it purports to be within smelling distance of Puget Sound, I’m going to count it.  

Max of the Max L. Biedelman Zoo was born in Seattle but grew up on safaris in Africa. When her parents left her at age 25, she moved to their 50 room estate surrounded by 300 acres of farmland in Bladenham. By the 1950s, her estate had become home to a number of wild and exotic animals. Just before she died, she acquired a young elephant by the name of Hannah. She appointed one of her new hires, Sam Brown, as Hannah’s keeper.

As Hammond writes, “When he first met her, Hannah reminded him of nothing so much as a worn-out, hip-shot, low-slung, dog-ugly, poorly dressed old floozy in bad shoes.” After 40 years, Sam and Hannah are still together, but Sam and his wife Corinna are looking forward to retirement. Although she is happy with Sam’s morning delivery of Dunkin’ Donuts and daily walks, Hannah dreams of having companions and room to roam.

The zoo’s new director, Harriet Saul has grand plans. After realizing Hannah has the potential to bring in money and visitors to the zoo, she hires a new elephant keeper, Neva Wilson. Neva soon finds an ally in both Sam and Truman, the director of operations. They soon find themselves hatching a plan to find Hannah a new home at a California elephant sanctuary.


Sam’s affection for Hannah had me hooked from the first chapter. However, it was the cast of characters from Neva’s eccentric landlord to Truman’s potbellied pig Miles that kept me reading.  All, not just Hannah, are charismatic mega-vertebrates. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

“When you make dal for another woman’s child, keep it a little bit raw”

To meet the challenge of reading a book with a central immigration narrative, I had to look no further than Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran, a book I requested as soon as I heard about it on NPR.

“Popocalo offered no work, only the growing and eating of a few stalks of corn.” Thus begins the story of Solimar Castro Valdez. Soli’s parents have paid a coyote to take their nineteen year old daughter from Oaxaca. Mexico to California. Despite their best laid plans, Soli strikes out on her own and hooks up with some young boys riding the trains north. She and Checo are attracted to each other instantly. When tragedy strikes, as it always must for those migrating, Soli then finds herself on an onion truck heading to San Francisco. After landing in the Mission district and thinking she was back in Mexico, she connects with her cousin Silvia. It is Silvia who points out that Soli is pregnant, but she finds her a job as a housekeeper in Berkeley.

Meanwhile Kavya , a chef, and her husband Rishi, an air quality engineer, are thirty somethings living in Berkeley. Their Craftsman home is within “wafting distance of bakeries and storied restaurants.” All is as it should be until they decide they are ready to try for a baby. One unsuccessful year later, the fertility treatment that wipes out their savings ends in miscarriage. They consider adoption. When the private agency proves beyond their means, they turn to fostering in hopes of adopting one of their charges.

Fast forward to one harrowing afternoon after Soli has given birth to Ignacio (Nacho). When Soli loses sight of the little girl in her care, she calls on her cousin to help find her. While driving around, she and her cousin are arrested after Silvia runs a red light. Nacho enters the foster system while Soli and Silvia are taken to a detention center.

Kavya and Rishi end up taking in Ignacio (Iggy) and after some weeks of adjustment fall into the exhausting but fulfilling patterns of parenting. Meanwhile, Soli is left wondering what they’ve done with her baby. Months of waiting and hearings pass. In the end, Soli makes a decision that will affect everyone’s future.

Sekaran draws out a compelling story that illustrates the heart-wrenching complications of deportation when the person in question has a U.S. born child. This novel craftily manages to elicit sympathy for both mothers, but at the same time, provides a satisfying ending. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Just So Happens

Struggling to overcome my jet lag from a much anticipated trip (17 years) to Japan and the demands of dirty clothes, science fairs, and baseball practice kept me from writing last week.  In addition, they almost kept me from reading. Every time I sat down to read, I would fall into a disorienting nap, dreaming I was still in Kyoto or Kamiyahagi.   

Rewind to April 7. After the novelty of the in-flight entertainment had worn off, a couple of movies had been watched, and dinner had been served, I turned to my Kindle for some late-night reading. I thought it would be fun to read a book set 5,000 miles from my location…5,000 miles (or so) from my location. Finding one available for the Kindle the day before my trip proved much harder. 

Luckily, I discovered and downloaded Just So Happens by Fumio Obata.

In this graphic novel, the main character Yumiko sets the scene, “I am Japanese and still go back to Japan now and then. But here, London, is my home.” After hearing of her father’s death, she returns for the funeral. On the plane, she remembers her last trip to visit her father in the sweltering heat of summer. In the midst of fireworks and fans, she stumbles into a nighttime Noh performance. Later at the funeral, as she questions the meaning of the ritual, she remembers the masked dancer she saw on that earlier visit.


With realistic drawings that capture the essence of both London and Japan, Obata tells a story that is sparing in words but rich in emotion. Anyone who has traveled or moved far away from home can relate. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Cotton and Cyanoacrylate

This week’s challenge was to read a fantasy novel. Enter Anna-Marie McLemore. Reminiscent of those written by Alice Hoffman and Laura Esquivel, her novel The Weight of Feathers is a magical romance between the children of two feuding families. 

The Corbeau and Paloma families have been rivals for as long as Lace can remember. Lace Paloma is a performer in her family’s traveling mermaid show. Cluck Corbeau makes the wings for the high climbing dance performances of his family.

One night an accident at the chemical plant causes a searing rain. Lace is saved from severe damage only because Cluck carries her to safety.Her beauty damaged, Lace becomes an outcast.  She finds refuge in Cluck’s family only by leading everyone to believe she is a local instead of a Paloma. 

As her relationship with Cluck deepens, she discovers the extent of his scars and the truth behind the generation-old family feud.

McLemore blends the magical realism of feathered humans and bloody curses with the all too real problem of abusive families and deep-seated prejudices. Readers will be swept up in the spectacle and brought back down to hard realities.  

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Nameless City

In preparation for landing here, I’ve prepared a couple of posts in advance. Needing to catch up on my reading challenge (It's April already?), I went for challenge #6 – read an all-ages comic.

Using this handy list, I found The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks (color by Jordie Bellaire). Volume one follows the adventures of Kai, a young Dao fighter-in-training. In the first pages of the book, Kai meets his father, a higher up in the army, for the first time. Having been raised by his mother outside the city, Kai is eager to reunite with his father who decides to show him around the city. After one taste of city life, Kai is in love. Eager to find more meat on a stick, he returns the next day on his own and meets city dweller (and orphan) Rat. Impressed by Rat’s running skills, Kai returns morning after morning, bearing baskets of food in exchange, to learn her tricks. In the meantime, a plot is unfolding to assassinate the current leaders. With Rat and Kai’s help, the plot is …well, you’ll just have to read the book.


Hicks’ drawings contrast the austerity of the palace training, the grit of the city, and the tranquility of the monk’s enclave. Younger readers will appreciate the action scenes and marvel at Rat’s leaps across the city’s rooftops. Older readers will appreciate the allusions to the fragile balance between war and peace and the arbitrary nature of language when it comes to ownership and power. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Two-Top

Books about the restaurant industry have found their way to my nightstand lately. After a short stint as a hostess at an Italian restaurant in college, I decided I wasn’t cut out for restaurant life. I didn’t like the shifts that could start or end at any time, the ice machine flirting, and periods of stress and boredom that could occur on any night. With the right author, that same hectic pace makes for good reading.   

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan
Just before Christmas, Red Lobster manager Manny DeLeon finds out his branch of the restaurant is closing. We follow him from his opening checklist to his last task. An impending snow storm, a skeleton crew, and a bus full of seniors show up to ensure his last night is anything but typical. Former wait staff will cringe in recognition at the demanding (and messy) toddler, the tool who always shows up late, and the annoyance of that song that is constantly playing night after night. They will also nod in recognition at the manager who can calm the most demanding customer and the awkward dance working next to past hookups. (This one also counts toward the book challenge of reading a book you've read before.)

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
You’ve read the story before. Girl moves to New York. Girl gets job in a restaurant. Girl parties after work.  However, Sweetbitter tells the story well. Just days after landing in New York, Tess is the girl who manages to find work at a high-end restaurant with only her barista experience. Through perseverance and canny knowledge of who to befriend, she begins to learn the ropes of each station, running food, drinks, and shadowing the more experienced waiters. She also begins educating her palate. Staying after work for a drink leads to later and later nights and an education of a tawdrier sort. Danler intersperses the narrative with snippets of spoken word heard in the restaurant. The flavor is true.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Good Kick

We all have a curmudgeon in our lives. Someone who laments the loose morals of today’s kids. Someone who doesn’t get the Internet. Someone whose jaw twitches when the student driver stalls out when he’s teaching her how to drive a standard. Someone who takes his cat for a walk and gets hamburgers thrown at him from passing cars. Someone who gives his grandkids permission to go swimming, but only if they don’t get wet.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman chronicles the days in the life of one such curmudgeon after his wife has died. Ove is the man who is flabbergasted that the neighbors can’t back up a trailer without knocking over his mail box. On his morning inspection of his neighborhood, he muses, “Can’t a man calmly and quietly stand over a cat-shaped hole in a snowdrift in his own garden anymore?”

Only wanting to reunite with his wife, he finds suicide attempt after suicide attempt thwarted. He’s interrupted by his pregnant neighbor Parvaneh, the cat he’s reluctantly adopted, and the man whose seizure causes him to fall on the very tracks Ove is about to jump onto. This leaves him no choice but to save the man instead.

Eventually, despite his distaste for engaging with others, he begins to see a way to begin living again through small acts of kindness. Begrudgingly he concedes, “Tomorrow’s as good a day as any to kill oneself.”


And those people in your life that make you cringe or cry? They are just as likely to make you smile or even laugh because maybe like Ove’s, their hearts are too big. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

News Break

Sometimes I need to turn off NPR and turn up the song that comes on KISS FM. It helps if the kids are in the car because they actually know the lyrics.

Sometimes I need to set aside The New Yorker and dog-ear the pages of a recipe book. It helps if I don’t check the mail for a while.

Sometimes I need to eat cereal for dinner instead of salad. It helps if my husband has to work late.

Sometimes I need to log out of Facebook. It helps if I hide my phone.

Sometimes I need to close the book club book and open one of these. It helps.

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
For fans of Jenny Han and Nina Lacour

The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close
For fans of Maria Semple and, well, Jennifer Close

Mystic Summer by Hannah McKinnon
For fans of Emily Giffin and Elin Hilderbrand

The Ramblers by Aidan Donnelley Rowley
For fans of Claire Messud and Emma Straub

When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald
For fans of Maile Meloy and Celeste Ng

Friday, March 3, 2017

Losing Track

This week’s challenge was to read a book set in South America by a South American author.

The Blue Line by Ingrid Betancourt opens on a middle-aged Julia in Connecticut. Blessed, or rather cursed, with the gift of premonition from the time she was a little girl in Uruguay and Argentina, Julia has always been compelled to seek out the scene of her visions in hopes of intervening.

While living in Buenos Aires as a child, she became close to her grandmother, Mama Fina, who also has visions. As Julia grows, Mama Fina helps her to analyze each vision and develop a plan to intercede. Whether it’s protecting a priest, escaping political imprisonment, or later, uncovering an affair, Julia’s experience (and foresight) is harrowing, thrilling, and horrifying to read.

It’s not an easy read. Shifting in time from 2006 America to 1970s Argentina to 2002 France and several times in between, Julia lives with Theo, meets Theo, loses Theo, and finds Theo. The reader must pay attention but is rewarded as the story begins to make sense, the loss understood.


Betancourt, herself, was held by a Colombian guerrilla organization for more than six years. If truth is stronger than fiction, Even Silence Has an End will be a knockout.