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Immortal Snake: 04/30/08
The cover story in the May issue of FSF is "Immortal Snake" by Rachel Pollack. It is heavily inspired by the African myth known as "The Ruin of Kasch."
Pollack though has transported the myth to a new world that reminded a little of Robert Silverberg's Majipoor and especially Valentine Pontifex.
The story is one of change brought on by the human desire for power. The newest Immortal Snake and his two chosen companions conspire against the Readers, the true holders of power in the land of Written in the Sky. With all revolutions come the threat of a vacuum when the new leaders die. Only the best planned revolutions take into account what comes after the victors are no longer in charge.
The Unspeakable: 04/30/08
The Unspeakable for its theme of the delicate balance between faith and physical affliction reminds me a great deal of Lying Awake by Mark Salzman. Here it is the story of two priests both examining their own faith after a set of extraordinary circumstances bring their faith and calling into question.
Peter Whitmore is sent to investigate his friend and colleague, Jim Marbury when stories of miraculous healing filter back to the Diocese of St. Paul. At the heart of these miracles, is a missing period of time in Jim Marbury's life when he failed to show up at a conference and was later found walking in the cold, miles away from his car and suddenly mute.
Most of the novel is a series of conversations between Whitmore and Marbury, about the time of the accident, their time in the seminary, Whitmore's childhood and current events at Marbury's church. There is enough wiggle room in the story to interpret the novel any number of ways. Marbury may have been giving the ability to heal at the price of his voice or he's faking both or somewhere in between.
My one complaint is the unnecessary time spent with Whitmore's background. As a narrator he is only interesting as a friend of the much quirkier priest. It's unnecessary for him to have his own traumatic past just to make his connection stronger with Marbury. I found Whitmore's flashbacks an unwelcome distraction from an otherwise interesting novel.
Crispin: The Cross of Lead: 04/30/08
Crispin: The Cross of Lead was one of the first books I put on my wish list when I joined BookCrossing. I think I heard a review of it on NPR but it's been so long now that I don't remember for sure. This year I'm trying to focus more on reading the books I've been wanting to read for ages rather than only reading books I've committed to either for Bookcrossing or as ARCs. I checked out Crispin: The Cross of Lead from my local library.
Avi's books seem to be span all genres, the only thing that unites them is the intended audience, tweens. Crispin is somewhere in the range of fantasy and historical fiction, taking place in medieval Europe around the time of the plague. The story cover's Crispin's quest to learn the truth behind his birth after his mother's death.
While the book had it's moments, it didn't capture my imagination like Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? The book borrows heavily on the fantasy genre conventions and relies too much on Crispin's emotional state to carry the plot. If I were a younger reader and still relatively new to the genre, I would probably enjoy the novel more.
All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown: 04/29/08
All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown by Sydney Taylor is a perfect illustration of why I recommend everyone try reading a book at random. There are some absolute gems out there that might be beyond your normal scope of view. In last month's trip to the library I chose three books by random: A Traveller in Time, All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown and The Light in the Forest. So far, they have all been delightful.
All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown is the third in a series of semi-autobiographical books by Sydney Taylor about a Jewish family living in the New York in the first half of the 20th century. Uptown takes place around and during WWI and it was the WWI connection that first caught my eye.
The war, while a setting for book is only one part of it. Ella, Charlotte, Henny, Sarah, Gertie, and baby brother, Charlie must help their father cope while their mother is in the hospital with appendicitis. As the children are learning how to run a house hold while dealing with all the other day to day things like school, holidays and boyfriends, many of the early chapters cover what it took to run a home back then especially on a tight budget.
Then at a third level, the passage of time is marked by the inclusion of Jewish holidays. These moments bring the family to life and make me wish I'd been able to read and review the book in time for the Jewish Literature Challenge! In fact, there's now an award for Jewish children's literature named in honor of Sydney Taylor. The award even has its own blog.
Rebecca's Locket: 04/29/08
The second story in the May issue of FSF is "Rebecca's Locket" by S. L. Gilbow (who wrote "Who Brought Tulips to the Moon" in the December issue). "Rebecca's Locket" was also the top search term to my blog in February, so I'm pleased to finally have the chance to review this story.
"Rebecca's Locket" in a light hearted eight pages explores the pitfalls of technology based immortality. The technology in question is the Eternilocket. It's supposed to lessen the pain of the grieving process but sometimes it gets in the way.
Take for instance, Jerry Morgan. He gets to attend his own funeral and makes an ass of himself in the process. Rebecca may have been a loving wife but she believes in "death do us part."
The House on the Strand: 04/28/08
Daphne du Maurier wrote great beginnings and great endings but sometimes she got lost in the middle as she did with The House on the Strand. This novel comes late in her writing career in 1969, just before her collection of short stories, Don't Look Now.
Coming on the heels of A Traveller in Time I couldn't help but see similarities between the two books. Here, though, the reason is science, not magic. Biophysicist Magnus Lane has created a serum that when ingested allows one to experience the past. He convinces the narrator, Dick Young, to be his guinea pig although he does partake of the serum too from time to time.
At at time when LSD was part of the pop culture scene, it's easy to draw connections between the drug and the time travel formula that Dick and Magnus take. Just as LSD can cause flashbacks, Dick ultimately learns the true negative effects of the serum, first in the tragic death of his mentor and then in his own physical condition.
Frankly though, I found Dick's trips back to the 14th century rather dull. What kept me reading was not the fates of Roger and Isolda but the tension between Dick's attraction to Magnus and his duties to his American wife and her children from a previous marriage. Like in My Cousin Rachel (1951) there is a strong homosexual subtext that is ever present but rarely acknowledged, certainly not the with frankness of the stories in Don't Look Now.
Ian and I got engaged in 1993. Before Ian "popped the question" we went to the jewelry district in Los Angeles. We were nineteen and had no budget. I ended up picking out something just slightly better than costume jewelry.
In 1995 just before we got married I bonked my hand into the tiled wall of the women's restroom by the film classes. The sapphire either popped out or if it was glass, it shattered. Regardless, I now had a ring without a pretty blue stone and I was heart broken.
Ian, though, rolled with the bad news and announced that we would buy a new emerald and a better setting and call it "engagement ring 2.0". We went to a local jeweler on State Street in Santa Barbara and picked out an emerald. The stone and the setting cost more than the original ring but it has stayed put now for 13 years.
In March 2007 after picking up Sean from school, I absentmindedly took my engagement ring off. Then to my shock, I couldn't get it back on! So I put it in my wallet and took the ring home. For a while I kept the ring in a box next to my favorite chair upstairs but when both of my children were having too much fun playing with the ring, I decided to try wearing it on a different finger before I could get it resized.
The first day the ring stayed put on my pinky. The second day, though, when I woke up, the ring was gone. I tore apart the bed and the area around the bed. I could not find the ring. As I had been gardening the day before, I decided the ring had fallen off my finger and over the edge. I searched the grounds outside between the buildings where the ring might have landed but I didn't see it.
By August 2007, I was despondent over the missing ring. Ian suggested we get "engagement ring 3.0." Then on August 12th, I had come to terms with the ring being gone and I was ready to start thinking of what I would want for my replacement. Then as I was going to bed, having just decided to stop looking for the ring, I saw it lying right next to our clock alarm at the foot of the bed. Better yet, the ring fit on my ring finger again.
Sometime in the last year of doing Thursday Thirteens, Robin at Around the Island recommended Doggies by Sandra Boynton to me. So last month when I spotted a copy at our local library I snatched it to read to my kids. Thank you for the recommendation; we loved it!
Doggies is a "counting and barking book" and very silly to read. Each dog is different and each one has a unique bark. The book is best when read out loud. In 14 pages you will be expected to bark enough to sound like an entire neighborhood of dogs. These dogs bark, arf, yap, nnn, ruff and so forth.
Harriet, though, waits for the punchline. On the very last page, one of the dogs isn't a dog. I didn't notice at first but my daughter did. There's no fooling her on some things!
It's Spring: 04/27/08
It's Spring is a cute board book by Samantha Berger and Pamela Chanko. It's the story of spring spreading throughout the forest and farmlands.
An observant rabbit notices the arrival of spring and goes out to tell the other animals. Each animal in turn finds another animal to spread the word about springs arrival.
Melissa Sweet's adorable illustrations make the book all the more enjoyable. Harriet loved just flipping through the book to look at the animals and name them.
The first story in the May issue of FSF is "Reunion" by Robert Reed (who wrote "Five Thrillers" in the last issue).
"Reunion" is a much shorter story than "Five Thrillers" but just as character driven. This time the protagonist is a young woman named April who has crashed a high school reunion to find out the cause behind the class's extraordinary success. Twelve of the twenty-three graduates have gone onto earn fame and fortune in a variety of fields and April doesn't believe they did it by chance alone.
April is also there to find out the truth behind her father's death. He is the missing twenty-third classmate. She believes he is the key to their success.
I liked this story as much as I liked "Five Thrillers" even though this one is not much more than an extended conversation between April and the classmates. Reed does an excellent job of finding his protagonist's voice and sticking to it.
Fast Profits in Hard Times: 04/26/08
It is a surreal experience to read a book about investing in a time of economic recession or as Jordan E. Goodman calls it "Hard Times." The former Money magazine journalist gives ten strategies for earning money in Fast Profits in Hard Times.
Each chapter contains one of the ten strategies and these strategies are further broken down into different techniques. The techniques involve: tax liens and deeds, below market real estate, income trusts and master limited partnerships, high-yield equities, DRIPs, bonds, options, foreign exchange, cash flow, and passive income strategies. Goodman writes in a straight forward fashion and shows exactly where one has to put in the hours of work to make the investment strategies pay off. Although he writes in an upbeat tone, he doesn't blindly promise results to everyone who reads his book.
As with all forms of investing, it takes money to make money. It also takes time and dedication. None of these ten strategies are "get rick quick schemes."
The Dispossessed: 04/25/08
The full title of Ursula K. Le Guin's award winning novel is The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. It's part of along tradition of ambiguous utopian novels that are thinly dressed critiques of contemporary society. In the case of The Dispossessed the two societies in question are the United States and the Soviet Union.
What makes Le Guin's utopia all the more ambiguous is her refusal to take sides. Both societies are flawed in a number of ways and yet both have supporters and detractors. Like so many of these novels, the story is told from the perspective of a traveler, Shevek, a physicist who has left Anarres (USSR) to continue his research on Urras (USA). It is through a combination of flashbacks to Anarres and his social faux pas that Le Guin reveals the good and bad of both societies.
The Dispossessed exists in the same universe as Left-Hand of Darkness (1969) and the other Hainish cycle books. In terms of the story timeline, it's comes first in the series but was the fifth published. The details linking it to the other Hainish books are sparse and the novel works well as a stand alone.
Along with The Dispossessed I also recommend:
School Daze 04/25/08
It's probably time for another update. Thank you to everyone who asked about our illnesses. We're all now over the flu but I think we're suffering from all the pollen in the air.
The pine trees have done their pollen explosion and our car and the car port are constantly coated in a yellow-green dust. In the garden, all of my seeds have now sprouted and the berries are in bloom.
In other news, we will be enrolling Sean into three sessions of swimming lessons in Castro Valley. My mother is paying for one of the sessions. Thanks Mom! I need to drop off the enrollment form and payment next Wednesday.
Harriet continues to amaze us with her new words. Today she learned: salami and turkey. She's also come up with a few new funny word combinations. My favorite one is: "full fish" which means she wants a cup of milk or juice in her sippy cup. Her favorite sippy cups are Finding Nemo themed, hence the "fish" reference.
How Do You Go to the Bathroom in Space? 04/24/08
William R. Pogue served as an astronaut on a number of missions including the last Skylab mission. His book How Do You Go to the Bathroom in Space? presents a number of questions and answers (246 in the most recent edition according to Pogue's website) about life in space. The book is aimed at readers aged 9 to 12 and it is a solid introduction to the space program and a number of other topics.
I happened to read a 1985 copy that had been retired from a local school library and the book felt dated. It's nice to know that there are newer editions available (1991 and 1999).
From reading reviews of this book on various online sites, I can see that it is still very well received especially in the elementary schools. Reading it out of context, in a local coffee shop, I found the book a bit dull in places. The book works best as a reference material, rather than something to read cover to cover in one sitting.
Ella Enchanted: 04/23/08
My husband has been wanting me to read Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine now for about four years and I've been blowing him off. To make things right, I decided to read the book as my first selection for this year's Spring Reading Thing. Neither of us have seen the film so I won't be comparing the two.
As can be expected from the title, Ella Enchanted is based on the Cinderella fairy tale. In this version, Ella is short for Eleanor. The hook to this retelling is that Ella has been blessed (or cursed) with the gift of obedience. She must follow all direct orders even if they might cause her harm or cause her to harm others. While all the key points of the fairy tale are there the story is really Ella's quest to break the curse.
The book is roughly divided into four parts: childhood, school, remarriage and the ball. The remarriage of Ella's father is the part where novel gets forced back on track with the fairy tale. The change in tone is jarring and frustrating. By the ball the book stops playing connect the dots and goes back to telling a good story that only bears a passing resemblance to the fairy tale.
What I liked best about Ella Enchanted was the inclusion of all the different languages and cultures (both for humans and non-humans). I liked how the novel explained the ever absent father from the fairy tale without making him evil or impotent. I also liked the ongoing friendship between Ella and Char so that his decision to seek her hand in marriage after the ball was based on more than just a dropped shoe and a nice dance.
Having now read and more or less enjoyed the novel I think I'll have to rent the film one of these days.
There's No Such Place as Far Away: 04/23/08
There's No Such Place as Far Away was written by Richard Bach as a birthday gift for Rae Hansen in 1976. The gist of book is an existential explanation as to why he couldn't make the party and why neither of them should grieve over it.
I have to admit I'm not a fan of Bach's writing. I suffered through the "beloved" Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) in 8th grade and wouldn't have read this short book were it not for H. Lee Shapiro's beautiful water color illustrations. Shapiro's birds in flight and his vibrant use of color make an otherwise ho-hum bit of philosophical platitudes into something magical.
The book is only 48 pages long and worth a quick read if only for Shapiro's artwork.
London Orbital: 04/22/08
London Orbital by Iain Sinclair is an interesting counterpoint to Mrs. P's Journey by Sarah Hartley. It is part map and part memoir of the outer fringes of London where the M25 makes its 125 mile (give or take) loop around the city.
Sinclair's walk in the late 1990s was inspired by his hatred for the Millennium dome. Walking and mapping the areas around the M25 became a way to cleanse the palette. He broke the walk up into seven parts, working anticlockwise around the fringes of the highway.
I enjoyed the first half of the book but as he came around the back half of his travels it became more of the same. Six hundred pages was just more time than I wanted to spend touring along the edge of the M25. The book could have been shorter with fewer asides and tangents.
I think that readers more familiar with the area will find the book more interesting. Likewise, I don't know that a Londoner who had never been to East Bay would find Castro Valley all that interesting either. While it wasn't among my favorite nonfiction books I've read so far this year, I did learn a few things. I recommend this book to readers familiar with London. Readers who aren't should take the book slowly and have a map handy.
A Traveller in Time: 04/21/08
You'll probably notice the different spelling. I'm going with the British spelling as A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley is a British novel. As the title implies, the novel is a time travel story but the time travel is a method for uniting the present (1934) with a wonderfully told historical fiction set around the Babington Plot.
Penelope Thacker is a bit fey as apparently all the Penelopes in the Thacker family and she begins to experience things from the past but try as she might, she cannot change them. As Penelope begins to live half her life in the past she learns how to live in the 1580s. Alison Uttley fills the world of the Thacker Manor with the mundane details of running a home and farm along with the big events surrounding the imprisoning of Mary Stuart.
Uttley's novel has enough historical information to teach the basics of the Babington Plot without hitting one over the head with facts, dates and figures. Readers knowledgeable of the events will enjoy filling in the missing details. Readers not as familiar with the history can still follow along and enjoy the time travel aspects of the novel.
Flu and Stuff: 04/21/08
It's the third week in April and I feel like the month has gone by in a daze. I've had a few people (mostly family) ask me what we've been up to so here's a brief update.
The Flu: Harriet came down with it first around the start of the month. I came down with it right after she was well. For Harriet it was a four day illness; for me it was ten days. Then Ian and Sean got the flu almost back to back. Sean missed a birthday party yesterday and school today.
Sean: Sean's ability to read has really taken off. It has lead to some embarrassing conversations. Top on my list of awkward conversations: what are hooters? He read the Hooters sign while we were on our way to a BookCrossing meeting. I knew he'd ask eventually since their logo is an owl and he's an owl fiend.
Harriet: Harriet meanwhile is learning how to talk. She's had a huge vocabulary for about nine months but recently she's actually been trying to use it for communication. She's developed a short hand lexicon for the things she's most interested in. Her newest addition to this list is "up and down" which means any action she wants someone to do. She uses it if: she wants to be picked up, if she wants to be let out of her booster seat, if she wants something opened or if she wants something closed.
Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus: 04/20/08
The Junie B. Jones series starts off with Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus in which Junie starts kindergarten an has to learn how to ride the bus to and from school.
Over all, I like the books from the series I've read. See for example my review of Junie B. Jones and the Mushy Gushy Valentime from November 2006. Unfortunately, the series gets a rough start. Junie here is acting much too young and her parents and teacher don't seem wiling to give her the support she obviously needs to get over her fears of kindergarten and of riding the bus.
The story is broken up into three parts: Junie meets her new teacher, Junie goes to school, and Junie refuses to ride the bus home. Junie is normally braver and stronger willed than she is in the first book. I can't imagine any of the kindergartners I know deciding to hide in a closet while the school closes, yet this is exactly what Junie does.
Happily in the later books in the series, Barbara Park gets a handle on Junie B. Jones's personality and she starts to act like a more typical child her age. Don't let this first rough book put you off the series if you haven't read it yet.
Oh Boy, Boston! 04/19/08
Oh Boy, Boston follows the Polk Street kids on a field trip to Boston to participate in a kite festival and a reenactment of Paul Revere's ride.
Richard "Beast" Best who I gather is the "tough" for the series, has been cast as Paul Revere except that he doesn't care the least about the trip or the play. Of course for this book to teach its lessons through the Beast's blundering, the teachers have to remain blind to his complete apathy over the play and the trip.
When the story isn't following the Beast as he slumps along from one mishap to another, the book is following the children's attempts to keep a stowaway dog out of site and out of trouble. What the dog's name is or who he belongs to (beyond belonging to another of the Polk Street students) escapes me.
The fictional bit of the book is nothing special. It's fairly typical poorly disguised morality play and history lesson. The second half of the book has an extended appendix explaining the different sites the Polk Street kids saw on their trip to Boston. Here is where the book gets interesting. The book even includes photographs of some historical markers so any Markeroons out there with children might consider finding a copy of the book if they are doing some family snarfing in Boston.
Blood Matters: 04/18/08
Blood Matters is a thin volume packed with information on recent advances in the science of genetics told in a very personal manner. Masha Gessen was inspired to write Blood Matters after learning she had a mutation that increases her risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
In the first chapter when Gessen is recounting her mother's death and her own fears about breast cancer I was reluctant to keep reading. I was afraid the book would be nothing more than a gnashing of teeth and self pity. Fortunately after introducing the reason behind the book Gessen gets on to the science and her own process of learning about it.
Blood Matters is broken into three parts: The Past, The Present and The Future. In the first part, Gessen places herself in the context of genetic science both as a potential cancer sufferer and as an Ashkenazi Jew. In the second part she looks at how genetic testing is being used now in mainstream healthcare and by certain communities. In the final part she wraps up with where the science of genetics is going and who is driving these advances.
As this is a memoir and a layman's introduction to genetics and the human genome, I am reminded fondly of Laura Gould's book on calico genetics, Cats Are Not Peas. I actually ended up enjoying the book so much that I will probably get myself a copy to keep as reference material, right next to my copy of Cats Are Not Peas.
Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? 04/17/08
Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? by Avi is a good introduction to the literary mystery. Think of it as akin to The Bookman's Promise but for younger readers.
Here detectives are fraternal twins Becky and Toby. Becky has the bad luck of being accused of stealing a set rare books that had been set aside for the library sale: The Wizard of Oz, The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, and Through the Looking Glass.
While The Wizard of Oz is the impetus for the mystery, the heart and soul of the mystery is hidden away in Lewis Carroll's works. Avi walks the reader through the key points of each of the missing novels but a basic understanding of the books will make the mystery all the more enjoyable.
Tales of Oliver Pig: 04/16/08
Sean and Harriet love it when I read a story to both of them. Their favorite type of story to share is one about siblings. A recent story that we enjoyed together is Tales of Oliver Pig by Jean Van Leeuwen and illustrated by Arnold Lobel.
Oliver is about five and his sister Amanda is about one. Their closeness in age to Sean and Harriet added to their enjoyment of the book. Oliver has great plans and Amanda wants to do what her big brother is doing but she sometimes gets in the way. Oliver and Amanda need to learn how to play together.
The book is divided into five chapters and each one stands alone as a complete story. The chapters are:
"Baking Day" tells about how Oliver, Amanda and their mother bake cookies on a rainy day. Sean liked this story since he and I have loved baking together since he was a toddler. "A Bad Day" is a cautionary tale of how hard it can be to share with a rambunctious toddler. "Grandmother's Visit" reminded Sean of the many trips his grandparents have made. "Snowsuits" shows how hard it can be to get two young children ready to go outside in inclement weather; I think I found it funnier than either Sean or Harriet did. The last story, "Is It Oliver?" is cute story of Oliver playing games before bed with his father. Since Sean and Ian do that too, Sean enjoyed re-reading this story with him.
Tales of Oliver Pig is just one in a long series of books. We checked out the book from the library but I will be keeping the books in mind for future presents.
Last month Sean was learning about different kinds of reptiles including snakes. Sean wanted to learn more about snakes so we checked out Snakes by Adrienne Mason from our local library.
For being only 32 pages long, Snakes manages to pack in a lot of information about snakes: their habitats, their anatomy, their biology and the basic different types of snakes. The book is beautifully illustrated and Sean and I spent more of our time discussing the illustrations than we did in reading the book.
If you have a budding young herpetologist or you live in an area populated by snakes I recommend this book. Although we've never seen a snake in wild I've shared stories of growing up in San Diego where rattle snakes were commonplace.
My Ántonia: 04/15/08
I read Willa Cather's My Ántonia for the Decades Challenge. I wanted to read it after having enjoyed My Mortal Enemy last July. While I enjoyed pieces of My Ántonia, it didn't hold my attention like My Mortal Enemy.
My Antoniais broken into five uneven parts and grew out of some short stories Cather had previous written. The five parts are The Shimerdas (which comprises the largest chunk of the novel), The Hired Girls, Lena Lingard, The Pioneer Woman's Story, Cuzak's Story. It's in the Lena Lingard where the story loses its focus as the narrator, Jim Burden, goes away to college and his attention turns from Ántonia Shimerda to Lena Lingard who is a less interesting character than the Bohemian pioneer.
The settings and themes of My Ántonia are similar to those in On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937) by Laura Ingalls Wilder but they are aimed at an older audience. Cather describes through Jim Burden the way the landscape changes and the rise and fall of the different pioneering waves. Burden arrives in Black Hawk at a time when the sod dugout homes are giving way to A-frame wood houses and the homesteads are being eaten up by wealthier farms. By the novel's conclusion, Burden laments at the way the highways are beginning to criss-cross the landscape cutting through and burying so many of his childhood landmarks. I found that closing observation especially telling given the book's publication in 1918, decades before the two big pushes of interstate highway systems.
My Ántonia's two central themes are the roles that immigrants and women played in shaping the prairie. Burden observes throughout the novel the different cultural backgrounds of the families living near him and how these backgrounds influence the choices the families make in their day-to-day running of their farms and businesses. Then through Ántonia and to a lesser extent the other women in the book, Cather highlights the role women played in these early pioneering years and how often their contribution was belittled or underplayed.
Grace's Letter to Lincoln: 04/14/08
This book is part historical fiction and part biography. It was inspired by a letter written by then 11 year old Grace Bedell to Abraham Lincoln when he was running for president. In her letter she suggested that Lincoln try growing a beard to win votes. Grace's Letter to Lincoln includes a reproduction of the original letter at the close of the book.
Besides the history of the letter, the book covers the subjects of the Underground Railroad, women's suffrage, slavery and the early days of the Civil War. Grace's Letter to Lincoln could be a good introduction to a number of subjects but should be used in conjunction with other books or resources.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: 04/13/08
Ian Fleming is best known for James Bond who appeared in twelve novels and nine short stories and spawned a movie franchise but he also wrote a children's novel called Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car (1964). The novel was later adapted into a film (1968) staring Dick Van Dyke.
Except for the car, the book is a very different story from the film. The car in both the book and film can fly and seems to be alive. Fans of the film though might be disappointed by the simplicity of the book. Here the Potts family go head to head with gangsters in France after flying to an island to spend a day at the beach.
What makes the book special beyond seeing a different side to Ian Fleming is the artwork by John Burningham. His multimedia illustrations help bring Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to life. I have to admit to enjoying Burningham's illustrations more than the story itself.
The 400-Million-Year Itch: 04/13/08
The April issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction ends on a time travel story that focuses on the universal search for happiness. The story is called "The 400-Million-Year Itch" and is another of Steven Utley's "Silurian Tales."
In "The 400-Million-Year Itch", a scientist known only by her first name, Amy, recounts her work with a more famous scientist, Cutsinger. The interviewer wants to know about the exotic locations and creatures she encountered while working on and around Gondwana. What she recounts instead is how mundane even the exotic can be because people are people after all and a job is a job.
The trip that Amy recounts was one shared with a Navy chaplin, a science fiction writer, a volcanologist, Cutsinger and of course the crew. Throughout the trip Amy feels as if she is seen only as an extension of Cutsinger, nothing more than a glorified assistant.
Amy's professional relationship with Cutsinger is my one quibble with an otherwise enjoyable story. If she were a graduate student during the trip then things make sense. The end of the story where she claims to have written most of Cutsinger's autobiography though brings this thesis into question. If she has her own career in whatever her field is, it's unlikely that she would have remained Cutsinger's "assistant" for all these years.
This concludes the reviews from the April issue. Here are all the stories reviewed from this issue:
I first read Kidnapped when I was in junior high school. I remember tearing through it in the course of a few hours. That first read was twenty years ago. Since then I've been meaning to reread it. I chose to do so last week when I was suffering from the flu. Take the fact that I was feverish, tired and not quite myself when considering my review.
When I first read the novel I was completely taken in with David Balfour's adventures, from meeting his despicable uncle, to being kidnapped and sent to sea, to the shipwreck and his adventures with Alan Breck Stewart and the "Red Fox." I wasn't concerned with the historical aspects of the novel (the Jacobites, Stewart, Campbell and so forth).
The second time around, I've learned more history and I found the improbable stringing together of events distracting rather than entertaining. Maybe it was the fever or maybe my tastes of changed, but this time the story only held my attention through the shipwreck.
The Willowdale Handcar: 04/12/08
I can't remember if my introduction to Edward Gorey's gothic humor was his animated opening to Mystery! or his illustrations in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot (one of my cherished books of poetry). Anyway, I love his books and his art.
The back of the book describes The Willowdale Handcar or the Return of the Black Doll thusly:
Who are the pilgrims and where are they going? The first part is easy; they are Edna, Harry and Sam. They are going wherever the Willowdale handcar will take them. The mystery comes in the form of a number of characters they meet along the way including Nellie Flim who apparently is missing.
Who then is Nellie Flim from Miss Underfoot's Seminary? She's the mystery and the pilgrims Edna, Harry and Sam keep on her trail throughout the short book.
The peril then comes in the form of a number of misadventures and misfortunes: falling rocks, unexplained explosions, crashing cars and bad weather.
The religious community comes in many forms: Sam's experience at the seminary, the abandoned cemetery and the Halfbath Methodist Church. None of these places are enough of a draw to stop the pilgrims' progress.
So what is the meaning of their progress? I think an entire essay could be written on deciphering this cryptic little book: it's place names, it's character names and the artwork itself probably all mean something. I think on the surface it's a story about the journey, not the destination. Beyond that, I don't know except that I have enjoyed reading and rereading it.
In An Instant: 04/11/08
In an Instant is a two part memoir, one about how the Woodruffs met and the other about Bob's recovery from the injuries he received when an IED exploded under the vehicle he was riding in. For the most part, Lee's memoir covers Bob's recovery. Bob's memoir in turn covers their courtship and marriage.
As Lee explains in the "About this Book" section, the process of writing was therapy for her during those tough weeks while Bob was in the medically induced coma. Bob's contribution to the book was also therapy and served as a way for him to recover. He had to relearn how to speak, write, walk and all the other things most adults take for granted.
For the gruesome details of Bob Woodruff's injuries, In an Instant is a fairly easy book to read. Lee's passages are by far the more interesting half of the book. Her descriptions of what happens to the body when it is hit by an IED are frank, raw and unglamorous. Bob's memories of his marriage and early career may be of interest to his fans but for me it interrupted the flow of an otherwise interesting book.
The Fountain of Neptune: 04/11/08
With only one story left in the April issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I have to say it has been my favorite issue since my subscription started. The fifth story, "The Fountain of Neptune" by Kate Wilhelm is an excellent and surprising fantasy set in Florence, Italy.
I read "The Fountain of Neptune" during a break from reading Blood Matters by Masha Gessen. Both tales, one fantasy and one non-fiction center around medicine and end of life decisions. In Masha's case, she decided to face her fears head on and learn everything she could about how her own DNA could be affecting her chances at certain types of disease. The unnamed protagonist in Kate Wilhelm's story does just the opposite; she quits her job and flees to Florence where she will live out the remainder of her life and document every day of it through writing and photography.
Both women though have their horizons' broadened by the choices they make. As "The Fountain of Neptune" is fantasy, the protagonist's decision to go to Italy is justified in ways she would never have expected. Almost until the very end she remains in denial of what she is experiencing, attributing her observations to the symptoms of the disease rather than the magic of the city and it's famous fountain.
In the way that Florence forever changes the life of the ailing protagonist I was reminded of Marlena de Blasi's two memoirs: A Thousand Days in Venice and A Thousand Days in Tuscany.
The Heart of the Matter: 04/10/08
What is The Heart of the Matter? From looking through old book covers, I'm not sure the publishers know either except that it is a complex book open to wide interpretation. The Penguin edition emphasizes the oppressive weather that dominates the book: heat and rain. The cover of the new edition I bought highlights the pink gins that are drunk through out the novel (mostly by Scobie's mistress). The 1967 Bantam edition features Scobie and the two women in his life, thereby highlighting his brief affair.
To me, the book was about the isolation, boredom and stress of living in an outlying bit of empire during war time. When I was first reading it, I mistook the unnamed location for somewhere in the Bahamas because of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana. This time, though, the location is actually supposed to evoke images of Sierra Leone, a place where Greene was stationed during WWII.
Although Greene's novel works with an ensemble cast, the protagonist is clearly Major Henry Scobie, a police inspector who is at the end of career and just never going to get the promotion his wife thinks he deserves. After the death of their daughter in England the marriage is basically over except that both are Catholic and unable and unwilling to divorce.
The story of their loveless marriage is woven together with scenes from Scobie's job. He's always on the look for smuggled wartime information, contraband, diamonds and so forth. He's constantly slogging through the heat and humidity and one step away from catching some horrible tropical disease. It's a hard and thankless job that Scobie does because he doesn't know what else to do with his life. He has no hobbies (not even reading poetry like his rival Wilson or killing cockroaches for sport like Harris).
I highly recommend The Heart of the Matter but I suggest that you take it slow. It needs time to read a little bit at a time and digested.
Jenny Archer to the Rescue: 04/10/08
In Jenny Archer to the Rescue Jenny learns about some children her age who have become heroes through their quick thinking and she wants to be a hero too. She decides the best way to be a hero is to learn everything she can about first aid.
Learning first aid is something everyone should do and Jenny Archer is just the right age to start. I took my first Red Cross first aid classes with my Girl Scout troop at about that age. While the book emphasizes the importance of certain first aid skills, it doesn't give Jenny the opportunity to put her skills to use.
In fact the book is unfortunately weighted too heavily on cheap laughs at Jenny's expense. All of her attempts to be helpful come off as either too pushy or too eager to see an emergency where there isn't one.
Bleach 10: 04/09/08
Up until volume 10 of Bleach, I've enjoyed the manga and the anime equally. Volume 10: Tattoo on the Sky breaks that trend; I enjoyed the anime more.
Volume 10 spends most of its effort on showing how cool and scary the different captains of the soul society are. On the flip side, Ichigo and the others are learning how to control their spirit power. I really liked this training scene in the anime but here it falls flat.
But the largest chunk of volume 10 is devoted to Ichigo and friends coming head to head with the captains of the Soul Society. Lots of slashing and posturing and onomatopoeias and very little in terms of plot progression. I know from previous volumes that this series goes in cycles and I know from sneaking peaks at Nanashi-inc, I know things are going to get exciting really soon.
The Nocturnal Adventure of Dr. O and Mr. D: 04/08/08
I have really been enjoying the April issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The fourth story, "The Nocturnal Adventure of Dr. O and Mr. " is worth a second or third read.
Tim Sullivan's conversation between a frustrated writer, a playful musician and an amateur artist named Doris is by itself interesting and entertaining. It can be taken as a mood piece. At the second level, Sullivan has built a world or a state of mind (if you believe Dr. O) or a dimension (if you believe Mr. D) that is recognizable and yet mysterious and worth exploring. At the final level Sullivan asks you to sort out who Dr. O and Mr. D are. Although he doesn't give any hints at who Doris is, I have to wonder if she is based on anyone too.
For more on the story (and the identities of Dr. O and Mr. D), please see the interview posted the magazine's blog.
The Company of Cats: 04/08/08
The Company of Cats is a collection of short stories, photographs and comics about cats. Michael J. Rosen chose stories from well known and well respected authors so the book should be good but it falls short on its promise of an enjoyable read for cat lovers.
I think the problem lies not with the stories themselves but with presentation of the book. The book is printed and bound in the same fashion that uplifting gift books are done. With the tiny and sometimes ornate font and duotone photographs, it looks like a book that should have lighthearted and short stories. What one gets instead is twenty literary works. The disconnect between the text and presentation makes for an unnecessarily difficult to read.
The authors included are: Alice Adams, Roald Dahl, Amy Hempel, Doris Lessing, Phillip Lopate, and Bobbie Ann Mason. The story by Lessing, while depressing, was actually one of my favorites in the collection.
Gregory III: 04/07/08
Gregory is a straight-jacketed child living in an unnamed asylum somewhere. His introduction from the distant future implies that someday he's reformed enough to go back to mainstream society and make quite a living for himself but however or whenever that happens isn't revealed in this slim volume. Gregory has rats and bugs for friends (they live in his pants) and a demented imagination.
What Gregory III reminds me of most is The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward. I'm reminded of it because of the introduction. In both stories the only setting is institution but both are told from sometime beyond the protagonists' stay. Hempel's bold use of line and black and white visually brings to mind the German classic expressionist film, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920).
The Other Log of Phileas Fogg: 04/07/08
Jules Verne and Philip José Farmer are two of my favorite authors. Farmer often uses characters and authors from 1800s literature (see his Riverworld series) and in The Other Log of Phileas Fogg is Farmer's take on what really happened during Fogg's trip around the world.
The Other Log assumes you've read Verne's novel and are familiar enough to follow along with the added information Farmer provides in the ellipses of the original book. You are also asked to believe in a war between long lived alien races, teleportation and that the entire account is factual.
Beyond the war for the universe taking place on earth that somehow has come to a head during Fogg's trip around the world, Farmer also connects the dots to the rest of Verne's novels and Captain Nemo plays a key role in The Other Log.
I don't want to give away too many details. If you are a fan of Verne, science fiction and don't mind some wacky crossover fictional elements, I recommend The Other Log of Phileas Fogg. Fans of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen will probably also enjoy this novel.
Render unto Caesar: 04/06/08
On a night when Ian and I are finishing up our taxes, "Render unto Caesar" by Kevin N. Haw is the perfect break. It's the third story in the April issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction and only four pages long.
The story begins with a Reuters' news item: "Booming virtual economies in online worlds ... have drawn the attention of a U.S. congressional committee, which is investigating how virtual assets and incomes should be taxed." (page 96)
So you'd think the quote was talking about assets "earned" by human players. That's what the virtual players thought too. Not the IRS, though and they are out to collect.
Dance Hall of the Dead: 04/06/08
I was introduced to Tony Hillerman's books in college. I read the one I was assigned Talking God (1989) and then a couple others on my own for fun. Then around the time I got married, I got distracted with other books and forgot about Hillerman's books even though I had been enjoying them. Now I'm back to reading them.
Dance Hall of the Dead is the second in the series and feels a little dated (with the reference to the hippy commune) but is still an interesting mystery. Sgt. Joe Leaphorn has to track down a missing Navajo boy, George Bowlegs, after his Zuñi friend Ernesto Cata has been found murdered.
Leaphorn is racing against time because of the elements: an approaching winter storm, the general harshness of the high dessert and because of the hostility of the different groups involved: the hippy commune, Bowlegs's broken family, an archeological dig, the school, and the Zuñi. While Leaphorn is tracking Bowlegs, someone is tracking him. Can he get to Bowlegs before the murderer does?
Hillerman does an excellent job of depicting the lands and cultures of the Navajo and Zuñi. His terse descriptions manage to involve all the senses without bogging down the story with useless filler.
The entire series of books is as follows:
Have You Brushed Your Fish Today? 04/06/08
Last night when I getting Harriet ready for bed she said: "I need to brush my fish!" Brushing her teeth is the last step in her night time routine but I couldn't place why she was talking about fish. I'm thinking, "what fish?" but she is adamant, "I have to brush my fish!"
I get her into her footed pajamas and take her into the bathroom. As I sit her on the sink's counter it hits me. We recently replaced our old duck shaped toothbrush holder with a fish themed one. She points right at it, "See my fish! I need to brush my fish!"
So have you brushed your fish today?
The Lion's Own Story: 04/05/08
I grew up loving Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon series so whenever I see any of Johnson's other books I must read them.
Had I run into The Lion's Own Story as a child, I would have loved it. I have a favorite stuffed cat toy (who once was tiger striped) and have had him since I was 18 months old. The Lion's Own Story is eight short chapters all told as conversations between Ellen and her toy lion.
Ellen's imagination is always dreaming up marvelous adventure stories for Lion, while he takes a more conservative approach to telling his story. When Ellen asks him where he came from, expecting stories of a life in the jungle, he replies with a brief description of the toy store where he was purchased. Each of the chapters continues on this line; the lion tries to give Ellen practical advice and Ellen continues to be an adventurous child.
The Lion's Own Story is the sequel to Ellen's Lion (1959). I borrowed the book from my local library and would some day like to own both books.
Z for Zachariah: 04/05/08
I am making more of an effort to read books that have been on my wishlist instead of just reading willy-nilly. Z for Zachariah the posthumous post-apocalyptic tale of survival has been on my wishlist longer than anything else.
Robert C. O'Brien is best remembered for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH but I think Z for Zachariah is the stronger book. The book relates in a series of diary entries a teenage girl's life after a nuclear war has poisoned the land and the surviving citizens have been killed by nerve gas. For unknown reasons, her town has been spared but she is late survivor.
Z for Zachariah is how Ann sees herself as the last person alive. Zachariah is the last man in an A to Z of Bible names, one of the few books she has in her house.
Enter another survivor, scientist John Loomis. Before Loomis the focus was on Ann's ingenuity and on her memories of the war. Loomis an outsider shows first hand the brutality of war both in his recovery from radiation poisoning and in his treatment of Ann.
The book holds up well and is as chilling and depressing as any similar book written for an adult audience. It was one of those rare books that left me wanting more when I had finished reading it.
Five Thrillers: 04/04/08
"Five Thrillers" chronicles the life and times of Joe Carroway and the ongoing battle between the sapiens and the Rebirths.
Each of the five stories is a different chapter in Joe's life (or lives if you want to believe Joe's stories). They are:
Each of these thrillers is about ten pages long and reads like your typical technology driven adventure story with a lone hero at the helm: think books by Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy. Now add in the medical thriller aspects of humans becoming more than human ala a typical Robin Cook novel and you get the world in which Joe Carroway lives.
Reed hit on many of my favorite story elements in "Five Thrillers." To put it simply, I loved this story. I would love to see Joe Carroway's adventures (even though they come to a tragic end) expanded from novella to novel.
Test-Drive Your Dream Job: 04/03/08
Test-Drive Your Dream Job is one of the most enjoyable business how-to books I've read. Brian Kurth relates his personal experiences of creating his own dream job (creating Vocation Vacations) and is honest about the pitfalls such a change can take. Certainly Kurth would probably love to get new clients from his book but advertising doesn't seem to be the main point behind the book. Kurth's enthusiasm is for helping people find the perfect job no matter where one is in life or career.
Test-Drive Your Dream Job at 256 pages is the perfect length to read through in one or two sittings. The basic idea behind the book is the importance of finding a mentor and then "test-driving" the new job with a mentor's guidance. As it happens, that's exactly the service that Vocation Vacations offers but one could easily follow the steps of the book without hiring Kurth's company.
There are many check lists and how-to scenarios to help readers through the process of finding a mentor. There are sample letters, emails and telephone scripts to help readers make it through the process of researching the dream job, finding prospective mentors, hooking up a with a mentor and following through with the test-drive.
Changing jobs isn't easy and Kurth relates his own experience on how the process of setting up Vocation Vacations paid on his personal life. Before jumping into a new career, take the time to consider the ramifications: how will the bills be paid, how does your family feel about it, what happens if the new career doesn't work out?
Five Little Ducks: 04/03/08
Like Ten Little Ladybugs by Melanie Gerth, Five Little Ducks is a counting and rhyming book. Here it is a mother duck and her five ducklings who one by one leave her side until she is alone.
The mother duck goes through her routine and one by one her little ones leave her side to explore on their own. The story is based on a traditional folk song and colorfully illustrated by Dan Yaccarino.
Overall it's a cute book. Harriet and I enjoyed it. I have one little quibble and that's over the way the fledgling ducks are drawn. They're still bright yellow. Fledglings would have their adult plumage. I suppose to the mother duck they will always be her babies even now that they've left home.
The First Editions: 04/02/08
The April issue of F&SF starts off with "The First Editions" by James Stoddard. Perhaps Stoddard is one of Yon Diedo's many first editions. Diedo is a book collector specializing in first editions of the tell all memoir variety.
Jakob Mamolok learns first hand just how rare a collection Yon Diedo's library houses. He also makes the mistake at laughing at his prized possessions. What follows is a lengthy exploration of the life and times of both the book lover and the books themselves.
If you would like to learn more about Diedo's collection, check the ads in the back of the issue:
All silliness aside, I really enjoyed this story. I was nervous at first having been disappointed by other recent book collection stories I've read but Stoddard's take on what it would mean to be a book captured my imagination.
For more on the story, please see the interview posted the magazine's blog.
Burnt Bread and Chutney: 04/02/08
I feel rather split brained about Burnt Bread and Chutney the memoir by Carmit Delman. Her book is both a biography (that of her maternal grandmother's life as a Bene Israel (Indian Jew) and a memoir of growing up poor in the United States and Israel. I enjoyed the bits about the grandmother but was bored by the rest of the book.
Carmit Delman tries to show how exotic her own life was growing up in the United States being not quite Indian-American and not quite Jewish-American but her descriptions of life here are banal and ordinary.
Her choice of subjects are universal: conflict between older and younger generations, blending of cultures between families and between country of birth and adopted country, the embarrassment of being poorer than friends, and so forth. Whenever the memoir seems to be stalling in one of these ever so ordinary passages, Delman would throw in a reminder that her life was fundamentally different because of her Indian ties and that by itself was not enough to make this memoir interesting or all that memorable.
The Gulls of the Edmund Fitzgerald: 04/01/08
In 1975 when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior, I was two. Although I didn't know about the tragedy as a news event then, I grew up knowing the song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" sung by Gordon Lightfoot. It wasn't until NPR reported on the 30th anniversary of the sinking that my interest in the wreck spread beyond the song.
Tres Seymour's book The Gulls of the Edmund Fitzgerald caught my eye at our local library. I liked the bold illustrations and the subject matter. especially since I was a child when the ship sank.
The picture book tells the story of a boy who is warned away from the waters of Lake Superior by some gulls just before another gale storm forms. As he puts his foot into the water, the ghosts from the different sunk ships come on the breaking foam to lure him into the waters.
Reviews I've read have reacted negatively because the book is too scary or too bleak. Yes, it is, but children become better rounded people by learning about the tragedies of life. I think it's important for children to learn how to recognize when the weather is turning dangerous. Why not use a famous event to teach this lesson?
Daisy Says Coo: 04/01/08
Daisy is a funny looking duckling. Throughout the book she meets other animals, all of whom make a different noises. To each new animal she meets she says "Coo!"
That's really all there is to this board book. There are the bright and off kilter illustrations, the different animals and the endless repetition of "and Daisy says coo!"
Daisy the duckling is obviously a popular character having starred in more than a dozen books. The Daisy books have also been translated into a number languages. Daisy Says Coo! is billed as a "first Daisy book" and I think it will be our last because didn't grab either of my children's attention.