Thursday, December 25, 2008

Guest Blog – A Christmas Dress for Ellen

Along with the Christmas decorations stored in the basement, I have a basket full of favorite Christmas books. One that I recently acquired is A Christmas Dress for Ellen. This is a charming story retold by Thomas S. Monson who is now the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The story is about the Jeppson family living in Southern Alberta in 1927. After two years of failed crops, the family is facing not only a bleak Christmas but a cold hard winter with little fuel or food to feed the family. The miracle occurs when a courageous mail carrier braves a winter storm to travel to the tiny town of Hillspring to deliver presents to the forlorn family.

It is a good Christmas story but a great deal of its appeal for me is that my father, Bob Fisher, was born and raised in Hill Spring, Alberta. In a small self-published book, Reflections at Christmas, my father told a couple of Christmas stories that tell about the perils of winter in Southern Alberta. One of the stories is similar to the one told by President Monson. In the Fisher story a neighbor comes to the rescue and battles his way through the snow to deliver the family’s Christmas package on the eve of that important day. Without his valiant efforts, the stockings of all the children would have been empty when they woke in the morning.

Another winter tale that Bob tells is about his father Peirce Fisher traveling by horse drawn sleigh in a storm that became increasingly severe. On the Blood Reservation he had to cross a gully that had only one bridge spanning it. As weariness settled in, Peirce walked more slowly with every step. Finally he gave in to the bone tiredness that he felt and leaned against his horse and fell asleep. Out of the blizzard a voice spoke to him, “Wake up, Wake up. You die.” This Indian angel who came in answer to Pierce’s prayer led him across the bridge. With his help, the horse and Grandpa Fisher made it home safely. For years afterward, Peirce looked into the face of every Blood tribe member that he saw, but he never recognized his savior from that winter night. However, he always treated each person with kindness and consideration.

I love the tales of Christmas miracles and of people’s kindness towards each other. This season leaves me with the desire to keep a bit of Christmas with me all through the year. And like my grandfather treat each person I meet with dignity and kindness. May this holiday season leave you with a touch of the season’s magic and kindness.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Guest Blog – Touching Spirit Bear

Once in awhile I am ready to take a break from mystery novels, so when this book was recommended to me, I thought I would read it. After all I have been reading all of the James D. Doss books at the local library featuring Charlie Moon who is a Ute.

If I had a young son who was struggling to read, Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen is a story that I would urge him to try. The novel is about Cole Matthews who is a 15 year old juvenile offender. Cole has always been in trouble and has always been angry. When a fellow classmate reports to the police that Cole has bragged about a break-in and robbery, Cole seeks revenge on the tattle tale. He attacks Peter and in his rage beats Peter’s head against the sidewalk. Only the interference of someone else prevents him from actually beating Peter to death.

While awaiting trial, Cole is assigned to Garvey a Tlingit tribe parole officer. It is likely that Cole with his long record of violence and larceny will be tried as an adult. Garvey intervenes and believing that the smooth talking Cole might actually be ready to change his life, recommends Cole for Circle Justice. Circle Justice is a community effort to rehabilitate offenders. The process of this system is a bit on the long side in Mikaelsen’s novel but it does give crucial background for the story. We discover that Cole has been beaten and neglected by his alcoholic father with the quiet acquiescence of his submissive drinking mother. He sees his world as a place where the only control he can have is through intimidation of others.

After months of waiting, the Circle of Justice determines that it will allow Cole to participate in their plan for healing his anger and abusiveness. He is to spend a year alone on an island just off the coast of Alaska. Shortly after arriving there, Cole sees the large white bear known as the Spirit Bear. In his anger and rage, Cole attacks the bear. Of course, the bear in defense of himself lashes out. For several days, Cole lies in the continuous rain with broken ribs and pelvis and multiple fractures in his right arm. Mosquitoes prey upon the torn flesh in his chest and rodents and seagulls come to participate in the feast. Broken and fragile, Cole struggles to remain alive despite his injuries.

The attack by the Spirit Bear happens early in the novel. The story is about Cole’s gradual acceptance of responsibility for his behavior and the slow process of healing and finding hope. Mikaelsen is able to make the angry and defiant Cole very real without resorting to using the kind of language that as a reader I have no doubt that he used. There is a sense of hope to the story despite the fact that the author makes it very clear that cycles of abuse are often passed from one generation to another. The abuse affects all of the community and there are no simple answers for healing violent and broken souls or healing the neighborhoods they have affected. Definitely a worthwhile read for the young reader and for adults.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Guest Blog - Death's Half Acre

Since I started reading the Hardy Boys and the Dana Girls mysteries when I was about 11 years old, I have been hooked on the genre. Christmas stories of any type always appeal to me. The first Margaret Maron novel that I read was a Sigrid Harald story, Corpus Christmas. Harald is a New York City police officer. I liked Harald and tried to find more novels about her. However, when I first saw Bootlegger’s Daughter about Deborah Knott living in North Carolina, I was not really interested. An attorney in a small town in North Carolina. Hmmm. I am both a Westerner and a Northerner. Was I interested in reading about someone in the rural south? Finally I gave in and read the first of many Deborah Knott mysteries.

I just finished Death’s Half Acre, the latest of Maron’s books about Judge Knott. As I read it I realized that it might be difficult to read this book without some background on the Knott family despite the fact that a family tree has been included at the front of this book; however, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the latest antics in the lives of Deborah’s huge extended family. I noticed that on her website Maron expresses concern about new readers picking up a book in the middle of the series. Maron’s books are always populated with interesting characters. This book is no exception. In fact at times, I wondered whether I could keep up with all of the characters in the novel. Would I recognize the murderer when I got to the last chapter? Maron played the game entirely straight. I had all of the information in front of me and I still did not know who it was who shot Deborah in the arm in one of the final chapters. When all was disclosed, all I could say was, “Why didn’t I see this?”

Needless to say, I am looking forward to reading Maron's new book Sand Shark in 2009.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Guest Blog - Jon Scieszka

As a grandmother, I am interested in children’s books. However, there are so many books out there that it is hard to know what would be an appropriate and enjoyable book for my grandchildren. I am always open to recommendations. When I heard about Jon Scieszka on NPR, I decided that I would check him out. I visited the library and literally checked out three books by Scieszka to read. I spent a happy hour or so reading children’s books but am still undecided about whether to invest in some of his books for my children’s children. I am not an expert on what appeals to children or what is appropriate.

Jon Scieszka was recently named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress. Be sure to click on the author’s name above and read more about this interesting man. There is an interview with Martha Stewart on his site as well. He has actually been publishing books for the last twenty years but this is the first time that I have read any of his work. By the way, twenty years ago I had a preschooler.

His first book was The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! The story is narrated by A. Wolf who claims that he was framed for the accidental deaths of two of the little pigs. It is a fun revisit to the age old morality tale of the need to be a hard worker who builds a brick house instead of going for the easy job with lots of time to play. Incidentally, although I chuckled, my sympathy for Alexander T. Wolf never did overshadow my concern for the pigs. There is also a 10th Anniversary Update available with a further message from the incarcerated A. Wolf. The illustrations by Lane Smith are colorful and imaginative.

The other picture book I checked out is The Frog Prince Continued. As in so many relationships, the Frog Prince and the Princess are not living happily ever after but are struggling to get along. He gets on her nerves a lot, in fact a whole lot. Finally the Frog Prince decides that he is going to find a witch who can turn him back into a frog. He encounters several fairy tale witches along the way. Most of them are much too scary for the Frog Prince or a little reader to linger with for long. I really liked the paintings of Steve Johnson and I am sure that my granddaughters would love the prince's encounters with familiar fairy tales. And possibly they will enjoy the surprise ending more than I did. I was definitely taken by surprise. Apparently I have little or no imagination.

Jon Scieszka has plenty of imagination. He has a whole series of books for young readers about the Time Warp Trio. Three boys from Brooklyn travel back in time to visit many historical events and sites. The book I chose to read is called Da Wild Da Crazy Da Vinci. Fred, Sam and Jo with the aid of their magical book travel back to visit Leonardo when he was employed by Borgia to create military machinery. He is working on a tank when they come upon him. They encounter not only Borgia but also Machiavelli and a Captain Nassti. This series undoubtedly serves as a doorway into a world of history that children might otherwise ignore. I have just to check out whether there was really anyone named Nassti in Leonardo’s world. By the way, my local library had a great many of these books available if your reader should get interested in them.

Scieszka has a new series that is out about Trucktown. Smash Crash has been on the New York Times best seller list for several months. It was not available at the library so I might have to go browse at Barnes and Noble. It is for preschoolers and is based on four year olds of Scieszka’s acquaintance. Scieszka’s message to parents and children is to open your mind about the many options for reading. He says that television and the computer all play a role in helping children acquire the skill needed to read. If you click on some of the highlighted words you will discover some of his computer pages for books including And parents, set a good example. Read yourselves. Especially fathers. Have a home with books of all sorts “just lying around.”

Happy reading and good luck on your book selections this holiday season.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Guest Blog - Don't Know Much About the Pilgrims

Next Thursday on November 27th, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. For most Americans it is a time to gather with family and friends and to take a moment to express appreciation for all that they have. Usually they will eat a turkey dinner with all of the side dishes that go with it and watch football on television. Although President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November, it was not until 1941 that Congress declared a national holiday to give thanks setting the holiday as the fourth Thursday in November.

The first Thanksgiving was a feast that both Indians/Native Americans and the Puritans shared. Most of us have some vague memories from elementary school of learning about the Pilgrims and of how the Indians brought them food and taught them how to grow crops in their new home. If you would like a refresher course, Kenneth C. Davis has a children’s book out called Don’t Know Much About the Pilgrims. It is a very painless way for children and the adults in their lives to learn more about the Puritans and their early struggles to settle in New England. The book answers questions about what the Pilgrims wore, how they built their houses and where they worshipped. In fact it answers the question of how the Puritans became called the Pilgrims. There are bright and entertaining illustrations by S.D. Schindler to spark the imagination. In fact I learned a lot that I had not known about those first few years in Massachusetts.

I felt really confident about all of the information that the author shared until I came to the end of the book. On page 44 Davis says, “Today about one in every six Americans has a relative who came over on the Mayflower.” In my own family tree I am aware of Swiss Mennonites who came to the United States in about 1720. My husband has relatives that can be traced back to Tennessee in the early 1800s. Some how though I don’t think either of us had an ancestor on the Mayflower and I suspect that there are millions of Americans today whose families came to the shores of North America long after the Pilgrims. I wonder if this is a typo or if Mr. Davis just needs to check his statistics one more time.

In any case, this was a fun read and a good reminder that we have much to be grateful for. We in the US will miss the Blogger this Thanksgiving. I understand that she will be teaching classes in Turkey next Thursday.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Guest Blog - Dead Soul

About twenty-five years ago, I took a university class on adolescent literature. I read a lot of books that I enjoyed but I never liked reading fantasy or science fiction. Two books that we were assigned to read were Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting. My professor kept encouraging me to read more fantasy. She was convinced that I would enjoy it. Needless to say, I never did become “hooked” on fantasy novels for adolescents or adults.

My indifference to fantasy has led me to wonder why I find James D. Doss’ mysteries intriguing and enjoyable. I recently finished Dead Soul and felt even more wrapped in the mystiscism in this Charlie Moon mystery.

In this mystery Aunt Daisy sees a young red headed woman on two separate occasions. Both times she realizes that the woman wants to talk to Charlie about something. Both times she is told by the woman that she can be found in an abandoned mining town in an arroyo. When the local police check it out, the two officers find no one living in the arroyo and they hastily leave the abandoned mining camp without acknowledging to each other that something there does not feel right.

In the meantime Charlie has been asked to look into the unsolved death of a Ute tribesman, Billy Smoke. Billy was acting as a chauffeur for a U.S. Senator. One night while waiting in a parking lot for the senator, he was bludgeoned to death. Shortly after he was killed, the senator approached the car and was attacked and left crippled as a result of his beating.

As always Charlie is able to recognize the truth although it is buried between layers of deception. However, this novel more than any other that I have read by Doss has a haunting quality. In fact Charlie cannot sleep because of dreams of the missing red headed woman. Unfortunately Dead Soul is one of Doss’ earlier books. I have read some of his more recent novels and have not encountered quite the same otherworldly atmosphere in them. I am having feelings of regret that I may not find another novel with practical Charlie haunted by another dead soul. And this from someone who has always said, “I just don’t like fantasy.”

Monday, November 10, 2008

Guest Blog - I Feel Bad About My Neck

During this past week, I watched the movie All the President’s Men again. I am not sure how long it has been since I last watched it. I have seen all or part of it several times over the years. It is the intriguing story of two Washington Post reporters who uncover the fact that it is the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, who is behind the break-in of the Democratic headquarters located in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C and the subsequent cover-up. The two well known reporters are Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

Since that last time that I watched the film, I have read a book by Nora Ephron entitled I Feel Bad About My Neck. The book is a collection of published newspaper articles and essays. Most of the them are entertaining. Some of them from the 1970s feel a little dated and I wondered why they were included in the collection. For the most part though, I thought it was a very amusing book and I could identify with many of her comments about aging...including feeling bad about my neck. I have never lived in New York but have lived in large cities and I especially enjoyed the glimpses into the life of a New Yorker - the life of a person who lives in her own neighborhood or village in the middle of a metropolis.

Frequently in her book, Ephron refers to her ex-husband. Since I have not been in the habit of reading Ephron’s articles in the media, I had to do a little research on the Internet to discover that Ephron’s ex is Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. In fact she has two sons from that marriage. The marriage ended “acrimoniously” and was the basis for Ephron’s novel Heartburn.

Although I chuckled over the book, I soon found that the attraction I felt for much of her work was generational. My daughters did not share my enjoyment. I have since discovered that there are quite a few books and movies that strike a cord with one generation or the other but not with both. When I read Notebook, I commented that there was too much detail about the young lovers’ relationship. My daughter-in-law said that the story would have been good if they had just left out the part about the old couple. Fortunately there are so many books out there that I will never read even a small portion of them and there is surely something to delight and entertain anyone who takes the time to open a book.

By the way, I did come to the conclusion that the movie All the President’s Men is kinder to Woodward than to Bernstein. I wonder if their personalities were accurately portrayed.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Guest Blog - Silks

The latest novel by Dick Francis and his son Felix is called Silks. Geoffrey Mason, the protagonist of the story, is a barrister in successful chambers in London. He hopes that one day he will ‘take silk’ and become a Queen’s Counsel. In his free time he rides in horse races as an amateur jump jockey wearing jockey silks.

The story begins in November of 2008 as Mason is defending Julian Trent who is accused of beating a man and his family with a baseball bat. Although he is convicted, he is soon out of prison. The prosecution’s attorney is found to have been involved in jury tampering and a mistrial is called. None of the previous witnesses are willing to testify against Trent in a second trial. And before he knows it, Mason is confronted by Trent swinging his baseball bat.

When top jockey Scot Barlow is killed by a pitch fork belonging to another jockey Steve Mitchell, Mason starts getting mysterious telephone calls telling him to be a ‘good little lawyer’ and take the case and ensure that Mitchell is convicted.

The story revolves around Mason’s struggle to fight for justice against a back drop of violence and intimidation. Mason soon finds that not only is he being threatened but his father and a new love interest are also in danger.

I’ve been a Dick Francis fan for years and owe all of my knowledge of racing and particularly jump racing to reading his mysteries. I picked up the book ready to be entertained but I was really puzzled by the dating in this new novel. The book was released last spring but the story begins in November 2008 and ends in May 2009. Why was the story placed in the future? Not until the final chapter does the reader discover that the solution to the mystery centers on a historical event that we are all familiar with; therefore, the manipulation of time in the novel. The story had to take place in the future.

Francis father and son did not disappoint me. I liked the main character and although I soon realized that one piece of information was key to the solution, I still was surprised by the ending. I hope that there will be another Dick and Felix Francis again next spring.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Guest Blog - In a Dark, Dark Room

Now that Halloween is over, is it too late to share with you our family’s favorite scary children’s story book?

When my youngest daughter was about 7, she loved to read the stories again and again or have someone read them to her. In a Dark, Dark Room is actually An I Can Read Book, but children at that age still love to snuggle up and have a parent read.

The story we loved best was The Green Ribbon. It is the love story of Jenny who always wore a green ribbon around her neck and Alfred. They fall in love and eventually marry but Jenny frequently reminds Alfred that he cannot take the ribbon off her neck. When they grow old and Jenny is dying, she finally gives her consent to Alfred to remove the ribbon. I won’t spoil the ending for any of you who cannot guess what happens.

My daughter is now in her mid twenties and still likes to watch scary movies at any time of the year and enjoys the chill of visiting a good haunted house in October. If you have a little ghoul at your house, they might enjoy this collection of stories retold by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Dirk Zimmer who died this year on October 3rd.

By the way, I have never graduated from the I Can Read level of scary stories. I like a good cozy mystery rather than something that keeps me awake at night.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Guest Blog - Tony Hillerman

I just checked my email and found a note from the Blogger about the death of author Tony Hillerman. If you are a mystery reader and you have never read one of Hillerman's mysteries set on the Navajo reservation in the southwest, you have missed one of the joys of mystery reading. He also wrote an autobiography, Seldom Disappointed and added the commentary to a photographic memoir of WW II called Kilroy was Here. Hillerman Country: A Journey through the Southwest with Tony Hillerman is a great addition to your reading if you have never had an opportunity to travel through this area of the United States. This book seems to be out of print but by now you know that I think the library is a great resource.

I am sorry that there will never by a new Tony Hillerman to read, but I am so grateful that he left behind books that I will enjoy reading again and again.

Guest Blog - At Home in Mitford

About ten years ago, a friend loaned me a book to read saying, “I think you’ll really enjoy it.” For some reason I never got beyond about page three and regretfully returned the book to her without having read it. A few weeks ago while visiting my sister, she handed me the same book and said, “Read this one. I think you’ll really enjoy it.” This time I persevered and wasn’t surprised that I really did enjoy it.

At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon is the first in a series of books about Mitford and Father Timothy. It is the warm and often amusing story of a Episcopal priest who at the age of sixty finds himself falling in love with his new neighbor while he is at the same time developing diabetes and feeling the effects of working hard for years without ever taking a vacation or any kind of break from worrying about the parishioners whom he dearly loves.

The book if full of interesting characters with stories of their own, but none of them overshadows Father Tim. He is a refreshingly human pastor who has great faith in God and the belief that if you will come to Him, He will lead you in the path you ought to go. Although the story revolves around a religious man of great faith, I never felt that I was being preached to. I liked his simple message that we should be looking for the Lord “down here” instead of asking if he is “up there” and that we can always count on the Lord even if his servants sometimes fail us.

It took me awhile to get into the book but about halfway through I discovered that there were lots of chores I was willing to avoid in order to curl up and read. Just what I expect of a good book. I’ll be looking for the next book in the series when I go to the library again. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am so far behind the trend on this popular series that I'll have no competition in checking the books out.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Guest Blog – The Man Who Forgot How to Read

On June 16th, I posted a guest blog about Howard Engel’s novel Memory Book. It is a mystery that takes Engel’s fictional detective through a similar experience that he had in his own life. Benny Cooperman wakes up in a Toronto hospital with no idea how he got there. He discovers that he has alexia sine agraphia.

In his own life Howard Engel woke up on July 31, 2001 and gradually realized that he must have had a stroke. He calmly woke his sleeping son, Jacob, and together they went to the emergency room of the hospital where his diagnosis was confirmed. During his slow recovery from the stroke, Engel wrote Memory Book. The Man Who Forgot How to Read came later. In this short memoir, Engel details the slow adjustment of a man whose life and livelihood revolved around reading to a world where as he said the local newspaper looked like a “Serbo-Croation version of the Globe.” He could write but he could not read what he had written. Like Memory Book, the memoir has an afterword by Oliver Sacks, MD.

I found reading about Engel’s experience interesting not because I am interested in medical conditions but because I was interested in the author. In fact Engel covers much the same ground in his memoir as he did in the novel about Cooperman. Since both books were published Engel has a new book out called East of Suez. I am looking forward to reading it when it is published in the US.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Guest Blog - Emotional Arithmetic

Last spring while living in Toronto, I read two books by Matt Cohen: Emotional Arithmetic and Elizabeth and After. At that time the movie with Susan Sarandon had not yet been released on DVD. It came out this summer, but I was unable to find it at any local rental stores or online. Thanks to I discovered that for some reason when the DVD was released, the title was changed to Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning. The new title in many ways describes what happens in the movie so is somewhat appropriate; however, Cohen’s original title holds such depth and meaning.

At the onset of World War II Melanie lived in Paris with her parents. One day when she returned home from school they were gone. When she went to a neighbor’s apartment for help, the women handed her over to the authorities. A gold star was sewn on her jacket and she was shipped to Drancy on the outskirts of Paris. Drancy was a way station where people were held until they were shipped to some of the infamous concentration camps of WW II. At Drancy, Melanie met Christopher who was about her age and Jakob. Jakob became their protector and ultimately their savior. He bribed a guard to send him when the children’s names came up to be transported to a camp.

Shortly after Melanie arrived at Drancy, Jakob gave her a notebook and instructed her to keep track of the number of people who came and went from Drancy. For example, she might have noted that 156 men and 144 women and 34 children arrived on a certain day. She kept track of their names and who they were. Jakob told Melanie that she must never forget and that she must be a witness some day of what happened at Drancy.

Eventually when the Allies took Paris, Melanie and Christopher were released from prison. Melanie was sent back to Canada where she grew into a woman who championed every individual who was persecuted around the globe. She became obsessed with writing on behave of anyone who came to her attention. She had filing cabinets full of information on people who were political prisoners. Campaigning for the release of individuals became her life’s mission. The people who paid the price for her devotion were her husband David and her son Ben.

All of this is the backdrop for the story of the reunion of Christopher and Jakob with Melanie. Christopher has become an entomologist while Jakob was rescued from concentration camp by the Russians who continued to keep him in prison or mental hospitals.

I was surprised at how many of the details of the book, I had forgotten since I read it just over four months ago. The movie does not hold a lot of the smaller details of the book but it still conveys the feeling of the book. I noticed that the viewers of the movie did not rate it very highly on, but having read the book before hand, I was very appreciative of how well the movie was made. It is set in the eastern townships of Quebec in the autumn. Visually the movie is beautiful. And with just a few flash back scenes the shared experience of Drancy is made clear. The interwoven relationships of the individuals in the story are well defined. Overall I would recommend reading the book or seeing the film. Because of the subject matter it is not a light and entertaining book. Instead it is thought provoking. Both Cohen and director Paolo Barzman evoke feelings of warmth and concern for Melanie who has carried the burden all of her life recording the arithmetic of victims of persecution.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Guest Blog - Barchester Towers

I have finally finished reading Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers. In the late winter, the Blogger and I watched the BBC production called The Barchester Chronicles. This series produced in 1982 was based on two novels by Trollope: The Warden and Barchester Towers. I had watched the TV mini-series when it was first shown on PBS’ Mobile Masterpiece Theatre and had off and on looked at the boxed set of DVDs somewhat wistfully. Finally I decided that I could resist no longer and bought the set of shows based on Trollope’s novels.

The Blogger and I started out watching just the first episode and then decided that we would watch the next one before stopping for the night. I think that it took us only a week to watch all 7 episodes or a total of 374 minutes of program. The series left both of us chuckling and wondering what was going to happen next among the small community of clergy from the Church of England. It was fun to see Alan Rickman in one of his earliest roles as the 'villain of the piece.' As a long time viewer of BBC productions on PBS it was delightful to see some of my old friends such as Susan Hampshire and Donald Pleasence.

As I watched the show, I began doing some reading about both the series and about Trollope. One criticism that I read of The Barchester Chronicles. was that the TV series did not give enough substance to Mr. Arabin. The comment was that he was a very interesting character in the novel. Out of curiosity, I checked the novel out from the library. I never got past all of the fascinating information about Trollope in the preface before the book was due to be returned. While on a trip to California in March with my husband, I bought a used copy of Barchester Towers at a bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

Since March I have carried the book on every plane and on every trip in the last six months. In between other books and when I couldn’t get into another book, I would pick up Trollope and read another thirty to forty pages. Now that I have finished the novel, I am feeling a little lost and alone. Trollope had become a really good friend. I really cared about those living in the shadow of the cathedral. The critic was right. Mr. Arabin was more interesting in the novel as were all of the other characters. I enjoyed the humor whether it was subtle or more obvious such as the arrogant Bishop and his ‘bishop-wife' named Proudie or the family of fourteen children belonging to Mr. Quiverful.

Trollope worked for many years in the postal service and is credited with instituting delivery of mail twice a day and the installation of the well known red pillar boxes. He was about forty before his first book was published and he did not like the writing of Charles Dickens at all. Or was that he did not like Dickens at all. I found Trollope so much more enjoyable than I anticipated and am ready to find out what happens in the next book in The Chronicles of Barsetshire. I am eager to find out if the characters are as vivid without having been acquainted with them before hand.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Banned Books Week

This is just a reminder that it’s Banned Books Week (and National Reading Group Month). I thought you might find a few of these articles about banned books interesting:

  • The San Juan Capistrano School District banned the Twilight series—oddly enough, it banned it for adult content and not for terrible writing.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Guest Blog - Lucy Maud Montgomery

This is the centennial year of the publication of Lucy Maud Montgomery's novel Anne of Green Gables. A new biography is going to be published next month authored by Mary Henley Rubio who has spent 30 years writing about Montgomery. In anticipation of the centennial celebration, one of Montgomery's grandchildren Kate Macdonald Butler wrote an article for the Toronto Globe and Mail about her grandmother. In the article she reveals that Montgomery took her own life in 1942. She talks about the difficult life that Montgomery lead suffering not only with depression herself but with her husband's, Rev. Ewan Macdonald's, mental illness. Several days later the Globe and Mail published an email interview with Rubio that gives a different slant on the famous author's death.

I admit that I knew nothing about Montgomery's life. I read Anne of Green Gables as a young girl and was so delighted when my own daughters fell in love with Anne Shirley too. No details of Montgomery's life will ever overshadow the remarkable stories that she wrote. Anne makes frequent mistakes and struggles with who she is and whether or not she is loved. Even though she made her first appearance a hundred years ago, Anne reflects the sorrows and joys of girls and young women of today.

I very much appreciate Butler's openness about her grandmother's and grandfather's mental illnesses. As a whole we need to be more aware of the struggles of people who deal with depression and other challenges. We have stepped forward a bit in our treatment and acceptance of mental illness since 1942 but we still have a long way to go. Hopefully Lucy Maud Montgomery will have opened new doors for all of us in understanding the struggles of others and perhaps in seeking help to solve our own problems.

In 2004 The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery was published. Rubio's new biography Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings is scheduled for release in the US in November. I want to thank the blogger who is far away in Turkey for bringing the article written by Butler to my attention.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Mystery of Swordfish Reef

I just finished yet another of Arthur Upfield’s pre-WWII Australian detective novels. (The copyright is actually 1943, but I suspect he wrote it before the war.) My Upfield reading began with the Agatha Christie-esque The Lost Shoe. I bought several other used Upfields expecting the same tone.

Lo and behold, The Lost Shoe is the only Christie-esque novel I have read so far. The Mystery of Swordfish Reef has detective Napoleon Bonaparte (“Bony”) investigating a murder in fishing waters. He poses as a swordfish angler to track down the disappearance of a fishing vessel and its three passengers.

The most irritating thing about the novel (at least for me) is the EXTENSIVE detail about Bony’s fishing expeditions. Upfield obviously had a love of fishing, or he thought his readers would have a great love of it.

Bony solves the murder, with a climatic kidnapping and confrontation. Upfield’s treatment of the aboriginal culture in the climax is the most interesting note. Upfield’s brilliant detective is a “half caste,” born of an aboriginal mother and a white father. This would incline me to believe that Upfield wanted to go against stereotypes of aboriginals. However, the last few scenes reveal Bony, totally embarrassed that his “mother’s side” overcame his father’s side as he physically attacked the murderer. Bony’s thoughts on this matter are incredibly racist. I guess I just need to remember that Upfield wrote his novels over fifty years ago and may have been somewhat advanced in his thinking for the times.

Guest Blog - Kate Hardy

In 1979 I picked a novel off the revolving book rack at the library. The book was Green Money written by a novelist that I had never heard of – D. E. Stevenson. When I read the first book, I did not even know whether the author was a woman or a man. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a life long romance.

Green Money was a romance with a touch of P. G. Woodhouse comedy to it. It definitely fell into the category of a mystery as Alistair Cooke defined it when speaking of Pride and Prejudice. The mystery is who will marry whom.

Since that first encounter with D.E. Stevenson, I have read everything that I could find written by her and tried to add it to my personal library. One of my favorite stories is Smoldering Fire first published in 1935. It is the story of a woman in an abusive marriage who meets the Laird in a village in Scotland and, of course, they fall in love. In 1935 a divorce was not only rarely heard of but also extremely hard to obtain. There seemed no future for their relationship.

Since 1979 I have read and reread my favorite novels. This spring I read one book and then had to find another one where the same characters were casually mentioned. That led me to read another one. Finally I decided that I really wanted to read Kate Hardy. However, I couldn’t find a copy of it anywhere. I was sure that I had read this hard to find novel by Stevenson at some point. In desperation I found a copy on Amazon and splurged.

Kate Hardy is a little different from most of Stevenson’s other novels. It takes place in post WW II Britain. Kate is a successful author who decides to buy a house in the country. In the quiet countryside, she meets two very different men. One is the largest landowner in the area with a long heritage as a gentleman. The other is a local boy who returns after six years of war a decorated hero. He no longer fits into the carpenter’s shop he worked at before the war broke out. D.E. Stevenson is very much a product of her time and class. All of her novels clearly define the differences in class. Officers and enlisted men do not socialize together. The gentry do not cross the line to marry among the workers on their land. Could Stevenson possibly do the unthinkable and have a spark of romance between Kate and the boy/man from the village?

Agatha Christie is frequently praised for her astute portrayal of British life among the upper middle and upper classes. D.E. Stevenson is an equally skilled artist in painting the England with which she was familiar. Her first novel was based upon her own journals as the wife of an officer in the English army. The four novels about Mrs. Tim Christie are among my favorites. I am an acknowledged Anglophile and highly recommend any novels by Dorothy Emily Stevenson that your library might have on its shelves. Your best chance of finding a few of her novels is among the large print library copies. Good reading.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Guest Blog - White Shell Woman

After doing some serious reading for awhile (well, serious reading for me) I picked up a James D. Doss novel and have thoroughly enjoyed indulging in a Charlie Moon mystery. And I have to admit that I did not see this one coming. The totally logical solution hidden among Indian lore and mysticism completely surprised me.

White Shell Woman is a mythological character from the creation stories of several different Native American tribes. This novel opens with various tribes having a tour of a national park before the official opening for the season. The park overlooks two sandstone monoliths who are said to be the twin sons of White Shell Woman. As in many novels set in the mountain west, there is a sense of conflict over the sacred lands of the ancient tribes who still inhabit the area and people who would exploit the land. Part of the park is being excavated by an archeological team and only a few days after Charlie Moon and his aunt Daisy have visited the park, a young woman is found dead in one of the digs.

Mysterious sightings of a crouching man who turns into a dog along with other seemingly inexplicable occurrences make this an intriguing story. As usual it is challenging to try to separate the lore from the facts. While I was left wondering though, Charlie had no trouble sorting them out.

The blogger happens to have a Master’s degree in English, so when I came across this quote at the end of the novel, I had to share it with her. I hope you will enjoy the humor as well. It is a conversation between Charlie Moon and his friend Parris. Charlies says:

“You been engaged for about six hundred years. And me-I’m supposed to be your best man. And your best friend to boot. So if there’s something gone sour, you should tell me.”
“Well, there’s lots of reasons. If you really want to know-”
Parris choked back a sigh. “Sometimes Anne kinda gets on my nerves.”
”Gimme a f’r-instance.”
”Well, she’s always correcting the way I talk. Like I don’t never say nothing right.”
Moon sighed. “Ain’t that always the way.”
Parris took a deep breath. “Keep this under our hat-but I found out she’s an English major.”
“You should not make an accusation like that without evidence.”
“She keeps the sheepskin hid in a closet. But I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
“When you first met the woman, she should’ve told you about that right up front.”
They enjoyed a long silence. White Shell Woman p. 271

In case you cannot tell, I have grown quite attached to these two fictitious friends from Colorado.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Wee Note on the Future of this Blog

My dear loyal (and not-so-loyal) readers,

I leave for Turkey in the wee hours of the morning tomorrow. Although it breaks my heart to admit it, because of technology and time restrictions once I move, I will no longer be able to maintain this blog on a daily basis.

Ideally, I hope the blog will continue to function as a forum for all contributors to post and share reviews as they read.

As for me, although I don’t know what kind of access I will have to books in English, I will continue to post reviews for anything I read over the next year.

Thanks again to all contributors and readers for indulging my fancy and participating in this blog. Your involvement means the world to me.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Book Buzz

  • What book is popping up all over the place? Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson was a Swedish journalist who died several years ago, so at least he won’t know that The New York Times hates his book, which it describes as “a thoroughly ugly view of human nature, especially when it comes to the way Swedish men treat Swedish women. In Larsson’s world, sadism, murder and suicide are commonplace — as is lots of casual sex.” Clearly, I missed a lot during the few days I spent in Sweden.
  • The second book in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries, Living Dead in Dallas, has been on Amazon’s bestsellers list for the last two weeks. The HBO program True Blood is based on the series, so I’m not surprised to see the book there. But I have to wonder what is wrong with the first book?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lonely Planet Phrasebooks

I only own three books in the Lonely Planet Phrasebooks series, but I’m sold on them. The pocketsize books contain brief introductions to countries, a crashcourse in grammar, useful vocabulary and phrases, cultural tidbits, and even a small dictionary in the back.

I picked up my first phrasebook several years ago before visiting Ukraine. I used the dictionary and sections on travel, shopping, and eating out to refresh my language skills. It was exactly what I needed, though I have probably already forgotten everything I learned.

Imagine my surprise when I bought the Polish phrasebook a few years later and discovered the “social” section. This section is without a doubt the all-time greatest reason to buy Lonely Planet Phrasebooks because it provides translations for any and all “romantic” encounters. 

(For some reason, the Lonely Planet folks must have thought visitors to Ukraine wouldn't be looking for love—even though the country is famous for its mail-order bride industry.  However, they released a new edition this year that I can only hope is full of dating phrases.)

My Turkish phrasebook arrived last week, and I have spent many hours in fits and giggles over the various phrases. “You’re a fantastic dancer,” “Do you want a massage?,” “Touch me here,” “I won’t do it without protection,” “Easy, tiger!,” and “You’re just using me for sex” are just a few of my favorites.

Clearly, I have the maturity of a twelve-year-old boy. However, I also can't help but think if you need a phrasebook to tell someone “I love you,” you probably don’t actually know him/her well enough to be in love.

Even without the dating sections, Lonely Planet Phrasebooks are invaluable. In fact, I think everyone should plan an international vacation just for an excuse to buy one.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Smoke Screen

My priorities are clearly suspect. I only have a few days before moving, a few days with access to English-language books, and I wasted several hours today reading a trashy novel.

I picked up my first Sandra Brown novel years ago when she was still a pure romance writer, and I have stuck with her through her transition into a romantic-thriller writer. Smoke Screen, her latest, is completely formulaic but enjoyable-enough for that very reason.

Journalist Britt Shelley wakes up one morning next to a dead police officer. She doesn’t remember what happened the night before. Naturally, she soon finds herself a suspect in the officer’s death. Enter Raley Gannon. Raley is a disgraced arson investigator and is sure Britt’s conundrum is related to his own.

Of course, Britt and Raley decide to investigate the crimes on their own, find themselves in mortal danger (several times), and make a little love (several times) along the way. Brown throws in several unconvincing red herrings, but anyone with half a brain—or who has read a book before—will guess early on the culprit.

Smoke Screen is anything but groundbreaking, but who really reads popular fiction for mental exercise? The book has some action, a dose of romance, and a little mystery. What more could I want while I’m trying to avoid packing, learning a new language, or doing anything else productive?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Guest Blog--The Shape of Sand

Between reading Marjorie Eccles’ books Shadows and Lies and The Shape of Sand, I seem to have forgotten how long it takes for her to get into the meat of the story. The jacket promised me a mystery about the body of a woman hidden behind a wall. However, it was about page 140 before Eccles has finished setting the background for her mystery.

The Shape of Sand takes place in England but revolves around events that take place 40 or 50 years before the discovery of the body. The journal of Beatrice Jardine recounts a holiday in Egypt ten years before her unexpected disappearance left her family in disgrace from the ensuing scandal. This novel by Eccles has not only the shape of sand but shadows of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Beatrice’s journal tries to convey a mystery wrapped in the exotic atmosphere of the streets of Cairo and an expedition to ancient tombs along the Nile.

Perhaps if I had not taken a university course where I learned that the ancient Egyptians had no word in their language for art, I would have been more impressed with the descriptions of the monuments and frescos commissioned by Ramses II with Eccles’ dialog about "art." And it might have helped if I didn’t have vivid memories of the Indian wrongly accused of inappropriate attention to an English woman in A Passage to India.

I have not figured out how Eccles can build the atmosphere for her mysteries with less volume, but I have endured the build up and enjoyed both mysteries after she gets down to the business of solving the crime. In both of the novels I have read, Eccles spends so much time establishing past events in South Africa and Egypt that she almost lost me.

During this past year, I have read several mysteries set in Cairo in the early twentieth century written by Michael Pearce. With an economy of words, Pearce is able to bring Egypt in that era to life. Since he lived in Cairo for part of his life, I feel far more confident in the picture that he has drawn with his writing than I do in Eccles’. Reading The Shape of Sand, I was reminded of those novels of Egypt under British rule, and I might see what Pearce’s character Gareth Owen, the Mamur Zapt in Cairo, has been up to lately.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Generation Dead

Some of the teenagers in Daniel Water’s Generation Dead are “living impaired” or “differently biotic.” In other words, they are zombies.

For some reason, living impaired teens are popping up all over the United States. The teens, who move and talk slower than their traditionally biotic counterparts, try to assimilate into “normal” society and have no desire to harm anyone. Phoebe, who is living, and Tommy, who is undead, develop a groundbreaking and unusual friendship that causes consternation within both communities.

The setup is intriguing. After spending way too much time with vampires, I was excited to tackle another supernatural element. Naturally, I was particularly interested in the taboo romance between Phoebe and Tommy.

What should be a fun and potentially scary romp is anything but. This is not a zombie book or a romance or a thriller. Instead, Generation Dead reads like a primer on political correctness. Now, I am all for being PC, I really am, but it’s just not what I was expecting in my sci-fi young adult fiction.

The book is overwhelmingly political. The action is cushioned between lecture after lecture about accepting those who are different from the majority. I absolutely agree with Waters in terms of minority rights. But if that is his focus, he should write about actual minority characters and leave the undead to fantasy authors and audiences.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Annie Proulx is back with Fine Just the Way It Is, a collection of short stories. The New York Times writes that Proulx’s “sense of story is admirable, her sentences are artful, and she writes like a demon.” USA Today calls Proulx “one of the best short-story writers working today.”
  • I keep running into The 39 Clues, described as a “multimedia, interactive adventureseries” that includes cards, books, games, and prizes. USA Today thinks the first book, The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan, is “full of promise.”
  • Finally, the blog Pop Candy features “Twenty-five great high-school books.” I’m not sold on the list, but I will say that I did learn how to spell the word separate correctly when I read John Knowles’s A Separate Peace in high school.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Gardens of Water

I move next week, so I promise this is my last (okay, maybe next-to-last) review of a book about Turkey.

Alan Drew’s Gardens of Water is quite similar, at least thematically, to other fictional accounts I have already read, particularly Bliss. Sinan, a Kurd, lives outside Istanbul with his wife and two children. The story begins the day before a powerful earthquake hits Turkey. Sinan suddenly finds himself, and his family, jobless and homeless.

Convinced that Americans are responsible for, or at least funding, the Turkish war against the Kurds and the PKK, Sinan is reluctant to accept help from American—specifically, Christian American—relief workers. He is particularly wary of a young American who shows interest in his teenage daughter, İrem.

Sinan is torn between two worlds: the traditional and the contemporary. He struggles to maintain his family’s honor while functioning in modern society.

I am still a novice when it comes to fiction about Turkey, but even I know that the book’s themes are not new. That in itself is not a problem, but Drew doesn’t seem to bring anything fresh to the story. His writing is acceptable, but the story is formulaic, and he relies heavily on cliché.

Drew does a good job, though, of pulling the reader into Sinan’s thoughts. Sinan isn’t simply a conservative, “backwards” villager. He genuinely believes in his lifestyle, although his faith falters now and then, and wants nothing more than for his family to feel and do the same.

Gardens of Water is certainly not groundbreaking, but it is adequate.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Lace Reader

After finishing Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader, I have to question what all the buzz is about. Although the book’s premise is intriguing, the execution leaves much to be desired.

Towner Whitney returns to her home near Salem, Massachusetts for the first time in 15 years. She fled after her twin sister’s suicide, and her own emotional breakdown, and only returns when her step-grandmother goes missing.

Much of modern-day Salem is populated with witches, and no one in town—or out—seems surprised or alarmed by this fact. Towner comes from a long line of witches. The women in her family have a history of mind reading, tea reading, and lace reading. Towner, however, has chosen to abandon these practices.

The book follows two stories: Towner’s return and the events that led to her leaving in the first place. Like I said, the premise is intriguing. The actual story—not so much. Barry fills the book with tedious, unnecessary descriptions and details, so I found it difficult to actually get into the story while slogging through these passages.

For a book that reads (and is written) more like popular than literary fiction, I was surprised by how intentionally muddled the story is. Specifically, Barry never makes clear what is magic and what is a product of mental illness. I know the vagueness is deliberate, but for the kind of book it is, such writing makes for an unsatisfactory conclusion and reading experience.

If you are interested in the supernatural (and language, sex, and nudity), leave The Lace Reader on the shelf and tune into HBO’s new series True Blood instead.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Guest Blog--Grandmother Spider

I am in the middle of reading a Maeve Binchy novel and part of the way through a biography. Both are interesting, but the other night at bedtime, I picked up Grandmother Spider just to help me relax and go to sleep. I did eventually fall asleep, but the next day, I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it. Now I am back looking at the other two books and thinking about needing to read them so they can go back to the library. At the moment, it is tempting to simply ignore both.

James D. Doss has again mixed mysticism and superstition with my idea of reality to make another page-turning mystery. The story begins with Aunt Daisy’s warning to nine-year-old Sarah when she kills a spider. Unless she immediately proclaims that it was a Navajo who killed the spider, Grandmother Spider will come looking for her and seek revenge. And Grandmother Spider is no ordinary arachnid. She is huge and can bite off the head of a cow.

That very night Sarah and Daisy are disturbed by a coyote’s howls. When Daisy takes her shotgun to scare off the animal, both she and Sarah see a huge, dark body moving across the sky. And it looks as if a screaming man is being clutched in one of the many arms of the monster.

The next morning two cars are found abandoned by the lake, and there is no sign of their owners. It doesn’t take long for rumors to spread across the Ute Reservation and beyond about the mysterious creature seen in the sky linked with the disappearance of the two men. One of the missing men turns out to be a scientist working on top secret work for the USAF.

Just when I thought that I had it figured out, Doss threw a curve ball, and I felt completely out of the game. I was puzzled by a death and the appearance of a gun-totting security force.

Fortunately, though, Charlie Moon never looses his grip on reality or his sense of humor. He scoffs at the rumors of a monster or Grandmother Spider seeking revenge. When Moon’s best friend and ‘pardner’ Scott Parris tells him, “You are the luckiest policeman I ever heard of,” Moon replies, “I’d rather be lucky than smart.” With a little luck and a lot of intelligence, the two policemen are able to solve the mystery.

I still haven’t decided, though, what to do about the puzzle in my life. What to read next?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Wreck This Journal

Technically, Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal isn’t exactly a book, but I wanted to write a review of it anyway.

This week, I gave the “journal” to my niece who turned 13 years old. I knew she would either react with rapture or complete apathy. Fortunately for my aspirations to be a cool aunt, she loved it.

Each page of the journal contains different instructions for destructing the book: poke holes through this page, burn that page, mail the entire journal to yourself. My niece immediately set out to wreck the journal. She ripped pages, smeared food on other pages, and sprayed perfume on a few.

The one drawback to the journal is that it asks for very little actual writing. I’d like to see a few more opportunities and prompts to record one’s thoughts and experiences. That being said, the book does get the creative juices flowing in other—albeit more destructive—ways.

Wreck This Journal isn’t likely to inspire the next Shakespeare. But it can give young people a lot of giggles and a way to channel their energy in a creative manner. And it just might inspire the next Picasso.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Oodles of books came out this week, so let me mention a few that interest me (and thus must surely interest you). Last week, I heard a good interview with Patrick Tracey on NPR about his new book Stalking Irish Madness. Speaking of NPR, The Good Thief has been sponsoring the station for weeks. Hannah Tinti’s novel about an orphan traveling through New England is finally available to read, so maybe the ads will magically disappear. New England must be a hot topic because Kathleen Kent’s The Heretic’s Daughter about the Salem witches also came out this week. Finally, Marilynne Robinson has a new book, Home. I read Housekeeping in college and didn’t love it, but I might be in the minority.
  • I keep running into David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife everywhere I turn (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration). I likely won’t read the book, but The New York Times gives the fictional account of Brigham Young’s 19th wife, Ann Eliza, a positive review.
  • I saw an ad this week for Bookmarks. I’ve never read it, but I am intrigued by a magazine all about books. Then again, I'd probably never get around to it since I have a hard enough time reading the book reviews in the newspaper.
  • Thank goodness for dishonest people. Someone leaked a draft of Stephenie Meyer’s latest book, Midnight Sun, on the internet, and now Meyer claims she might not finish it. I haven’t read the draft, but considering how terrible the final product is, just imagine how hideous Meyer’s first-draft writing must be. Don’t feel too badly for her, though. She is directing a music video for Jack’s Mannequin. How being a crap writer qualifies Meyer to direct, I do not know.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tales from the Expat Harem

I stumbled across Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey. The title is rather off putting, but this collection of 29 essays is perhaps the most helpful book I’ve read in my preparations for moving to the country.

English-speaking women from around the world, though mostly Americans, write about their experiences living, working, and sometime romancing throughout Turkey (though most do live in Istanbul). Only of few of the authors are professional writers. Although the writing is not always stellar, it is more than adequate and sometimes even better than many of our current bestselling authors.

The women provide a variety of perspectives, but almost all openly admit to struggling with adapting to a culture so different from their own. In “Forever After, For Now,” Tanala OsaYande writes about maintaining her identity as an independent American woman while navigating the Turkish dating scene. Several women also write about experiencing the Turkish bath for the first time, and Rhonda Vander Sluis in “Failed Missionary” describes working as a Christian missionary who eventually rethinks her calling.

Only one essay is set in the city where I will be living. Unfortunately, it takes place in the 1960s, and the author has apparently not returned since then. I’ve been told Eastern Turkey is far more conservative than the West, but I suspect life has changed dramatically in the last 40 years, so I won’t take any advice from the essay.

Another story mentions a tradition I’m convinced Americans should adopt. Brides write the names of single women on the soles of their shoes, and grooms write the names of single men. Maybe if someone had done this for me, I would be long married. Then again, maybe someone will do this for me in the near future.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Guest Blog--The Frozen Thames

Last summer I read several novels by Canadian author Helen Humphreys. When I read The Lost Garden, I had a new insight into what it must have been like for a Canadian serviceman waiting to go into battle during World War II.

Canadians entered the war at the same time that Britain did in 1939. There was one difference for those men from North America serving overseas. The British could go on leave to visit their families. The Canadians were isolated on an island far from their families with no idea when the war would end or when, if ever, they would see their families again. My own father did not return from England where he served in the RCAF until April 1946 almost a year after the war in Europe ended.

In Leaving Earth, I learned about a whole new world that I had never contemplated. The story is of two women who fly in a circle around Toronto trying to set a new record for the longest time in the air. The bond these two women form as they are isolated in the clouds and drenched in the rain in a small frame airplane becomes real under Humphreys’ pen.

The Frozen Thames is a very different type of book. Humphreys says that she wrote it in response to feelings of concern about the edges of our polar caps slowly melting into the oceans. In this tiny book with a wide variety of illustrations, she takes on the description of ice in one particular area of our world, the Thames River in England. (A paperback version is going to be available Oct. 7, 2008).

Humphreys says that the Thames froze over 40 times in recorded history, and she has used several sources for her accounts. The book has a tiny chapter that highlights some of the events or consequences of each year when the river froze solid.

When I picked up the book, I immediately thought of my memories of frozen ponds. I remember one time taking our small children to a frozen pond in upstate New York. Despite not having ice skates, we had a wonderful time running on the smooth surface and sliding. The Thames, however, was not a smooth surface. It is a river with tides and bridges. As the ice would form the tide would change and the ice would break up into clumps only to refreeze with jagged edges and small cliffs in the surface.

The book begins with the freezing of the river in 1142 when Queen Matilda is under siege in a castle. She and a few loyal knights manage to escape under the cover of night across the frozen river. Many of the tales are told in the first person.

Most of the characters are imaginary people living at the time when the river froze. She takes us into the world where people who make their living by ferrying people across the river or fishing in it are starving because the river is frozen over. We catch a glimpse of a world so cold that everyone in the household is sleeping next to the fireplace fed by scraps of wood because coal cannot be transported on barges down the river. Birds freeze while sitting on the fence or while flying in the sky. And there are frequent frost fairs on the Thames when the river becomes frozen so solid that even lighting a fire on its surface cannot melt the ice.

The last time the Thames froze in London was 1895. Why hasn’t the Thames frozen during my life time? You will have to see if you can find this small treasure with reproductions of works of art in it and find out for yourself.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Few Short Stories

Tonight, I got on the topic of short stories with a few family members. I’m not exactly sure how it came up, but I love the fact that in addition to chatting about movies, TV, and Michael Scott-esque bosses, we can also discuss literature.

Because I tend to be a know-it-all and always have something to say, I had to recommend a few of my favorite short stories:

  • Good Country People”: If you haven’t read this classic Flannery O’Connor short story about a “spinster” and a bible salesman, you must. I always include it in my literature classes because I enjoy re-experiencing its ironic twist with my students. To see their reactions—both horror and glee—is an absolute pleasure.
  • The Lottery”: The short story by Shirley Jackson came up during a conference I attended last week. I could have sworn one of my colleagues suggested reenacting this story with his students. If you have read it, you will know what an alarming suggestion that is. If you haven’t, and you want to know why I was stunned, you better read it soon. After all, you never know when your number will be called.
  • The Things They Carried”: I first used this Tim O’Brien short story in a class comprised of current and former members of the military, which made it all the more resonant. The story takes place during the Vietnam War, and the title literally and figuratively refers to those things the soldiers carried. Literature is at its most beautiful when it touches the reader on such a personal level.
  • Pantaloon in Black”: This William Faulkner short story is perhaps my all-time favorite. Unfortunately, I can’t find the full text online because it deserves to be read by a wider audience. Many readers may be more familiar with Faulkner’s “The Bear” or “A Rose for Emily.” The last image in “Emily” is absolutely classic, and I remember clearly my shock, disgust, and delight the first time I read it. “Pantaloon” is far different from “Emily” and “The Bear.” The story of a black man’s grief over his wife’s death, and the reaction of the white community, is profoundly emotional and progressive.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Speaking of politics, USA Today reviews Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife. Alice Blackwell, the book’s protagonist, is “loosely” based on Laura Bush. How a librarian could marry a playboy, I will never understand.

  • Are you tired of reading books and just want to write your own? Check out Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal, which gives the reader/writer ideas for constructing—and deconstructing—her life story. I’m buying this book for my 13-year-old niece and will report back on its success (or lack thereof).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Amy Bloom’s Away is a story of epic proportions, yet it is told within the confines of a few hundred pages. Such brevity is odd considering the novel’s scope but is well-suited to readers with little patience for never-ending sagas (like me).

The novel begins in the 1920s as twenty-two-year-old Lillian Leyb arrives in New York from Russia. She leaves after her parents and husband are murdered in a pogrom; her young daughter is missing and presumed dead.

In New York, Lillian copes with life as a recent immigrant, but everything changes when she receives word that her daughter, Sophie, might still be alive in Siberia.

Lillian does what she must both to survive and to wend her way back to Russia. In retrospect, her morals are often suspect, yet every decision she makes feels natural and appropriate for her particular situation.

Along the way, Lillian finds herself in a variety of bizarre locations, including a brothel and a prison, and associating with an unusual cast of characters, including a con-woman and a pimp.

Characters routinely enter into and depart from Lillian’s life. In a charming and creative twist, once a character exits, Bloom gives a brief rundown of his or her life after Lillian. Inexplicably, Bloom does not project the future of some characters, and I found this neglect both perplexing and disappointing.

I was also disappointed that Bloom never truly develops Lillian’s character—or rather, never lets the reader into Lillian’s soul. Bloom seems more interested in the situations Lillian finds herself in than the woman herself. Ultimately, though, I came to care for Lillian, her compatriots, and her quest to find Sophie.