Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Emperor of Ocean Park

by Stephen L Carter

Thumbs Up.

Mr. Carter is, from Wikipedia, "an American law professor, legal- and social-policy writer, columnist, and best-selling novelist." I became interested in him after stumbling upon a list of his non-fiction writings which have drawn a following from various political points of view. Since I knew I'd never be able to concentrate on a meaty non-fiction tome at this point, I chose to read his first novel.

The Emperor of Ocean Park is a narrative related by Judge Oliver Garland, an African American law professor at a fictional private East Coast university law school. The plot involves university politics and personality clashes, a federal court nomination, judicial rulings, family relationships, and mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Judge Garland's father. But the chief conflict is Judge Garland unraveling a posthumous mystery left by his father.

Although not a fast paced novel, Mr. Carter leaves just enough intrigue to pull the reader through the book. I enjoyed reading about and pondering the sociological struggles the African American characters deal with. Each in their own way.

Although I have had many non-Caucasian friends throughout my life, I am pretty much from a single-cultural upbringing. I was however, taught to look at a person's heart not his skin; and that we are all children of God, made in His image. Is there anyone who wants to think of themselves as racist? But the book made me aware of how even someone who does not think of himself as racist probably carries unconscious racist attitudes and actions. And is that wrong, or merely unfortunate? And is it preferable to pretend we don't carry a certain bias or to put it all right out there? These are the kinds of ideas that Mr. Carter seems to address via his characters and their reactions to each other in a variety of social situations.

So no, the novel is not a quick read. But the plot is compelling, the characters are well sketched and consistent to the personalities Mr. Carter gave them, the personalities are colorful. And the writing itself is rich with both subtle and obvious metaphor and irony and historical allusion. The entire plot revolves around chess related symbolism.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Westing Game

by Ellen Raskin

Thumbs way up to the ceiling!

This is one of my favorite books.  I read this for school in 6th grade and then spent a year searching every Goodwill in the Twin Cities area for it.  I hadn't had a chance to reread it since my children were born, but recently took the time to revisit it in preparation of sharing it with my oldest, who is 9 (who loved it too).

The book starts with a group of strangers moving into a new apartment complex- some of which have children.  A famous businessman, Sam Westing, is found dead.  Soon after, they are all summoned to the reading of his will, which says that one of them murdered him.  The will outlines an elaborate "game" which the "players" need to follow to discover the identity of the murderer and get the proceeds of the will.  The book primarily follows the attempts of the kids to solve the crime, and a girl named Turtle in particular.

Paging through this mystery, even as an adult, is a treat.  It's one of those rare books that you reach the end of, then immediately want to reread it to see how everything unfolded in light of the information gained in the last chapter.  This smartly written book is like a logic puzzle in prose and an excellent choice for readers- young and old alike.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Something Missing

By Matthew Dicks

Thumbs Up!

A few weeks ago, I found myself with over an hour to kill, in the library, by myself. It felt positively decadent. I was scanning the new books, and came across this one. The back cover stated, "A career criminal with OCD tendencies and a savant-like genius for bringing order to his crime scenes." Hmmm - Bizarro Monk!

I found this a fun read. The main character, Martin, has a regular job at Starbucks. But, he also has a number of 'clients' - his word for the people whose homes he burglarizes. He has strict rules for who might be his clients, such as they must be married, two incomes, and they won't miss the items he takes. Usually, he takes routine things, such as salad dressing or a few rolls of toilet paper, depending on his current requirements. Occasionally, he'll take higher end items. But he's extremely careful to make sure the clients won't notice what's missing.

I'm certainly not advocating this, but this book would make an excellent "How-To" manual for thieves.

Martin's character may be off-putting to some because, well, he's a crook. Nevertheless, I found him endearing. As the novel progresses, there is definite growth in his character as he drops some of his meticulous habits to come to the aid of his clients.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and the Sea Monsters

by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

Thumbs down.

Mr. Winters melds the original Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility with a fanciful world in which all sea creatures desire the demise of humanity. And yet, instead of living further from the sea, they all seem to be drawn to it. Barton Cottage is set on a windy crag overlooking a gloomy, foggy stretch of sea. Colonel Brandon has some sort of strange ailment in which he has grown tentacles on his face similar to those of Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Sir John is married to a tribal princess whom he kidnapped in a burlap bag when fleeing the tropics after searching for the origins of the sea creature "plagues." Lizzie sings sailor shanties instead of arias and reads diaries of shipwrecked sailors instead of Shakespeare's sonnets.

The satire is overdone in many places and the book drags much of the time. It lacks the same witty cheesiness of Quirks first regency horror mix, Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies. Perhaps the venue of sea legends does not lend itself as well to mockery. I'm not sure. I'm sorry to say it, but it is true.

On the plus side, the illustrations at least had the correct clothing styles.


by Donna Jo Napoli
Illustrated by Jim LaMarche

Thumbs up.

In this quirky picture book, the main character, Albert is not quite normal. Albert appears to be a young man, but he looks very child like. I'm not sure whether Ms. Napoli was trying to portray a man with OCD or on the autism spectrum.

At any rate, regardless of his unusual personality, Albert is very lovable. He decides each day whether or not to go out based on the weather. But alas, his judgment of the weather is based upon what kind of noises are emanating from the streets below his apartment.

When an act of kindness toward a pair of cardinals traps him at the window for an extended time, he learns that not everything that at first sounds ugly truly is.

The illustrations are fabulous and really help to define Albert. An altogether beautiful celebration of the unusual.

Swing: A Scanimation Picture Book

by Rufus Butler Seder

Thumbs Up.

This is an awesome book. Each page spread revolves around a certain sports action, such as kicking a soccer ball or shooting a basket. The pages are animated with a part of the page the slides behind the opposite page with the page turning motion. (I am sure there is some name for this, but I can't figure out the correct google search to figure it out.)

The text asks a question about the featured activity and includes onomatopoeic words to add to the experience.

But the highlight is really the animation. These are just really cool. The batter on the cover cut out really swings. And the ball comes directly toward the reader. Duck!

My kids of all ages have been very intrigues by this book and it has entertained all of us repetitively.


by Eric Rohmann

Thumbs, uh, thumbs don't even come into this one.

This is the most bizarre picture book I've ever read. From inside the back cover, "Eric Rohmann is a painter, printmaker, and fine bookmaker whose work both explores and generates the excitement of an imagination unleashed." Yes. Well. This pretty much sums up the book.

The story follows Otho, a boy with a pumpkin for a head, who is none-the-less loved by his parents. He loses is head in a traumatic fashion and the rest of the plot is what is happening to his head while it is separated from his body. And how they come to be rejoined.

And the Oh, so stunning moral, "You must be careful, Otho. You know the world will always be difficult for a boy with a pumpkin for a head."

The book as a whole is visually appealing. It has a nice thick cover with a cut out window featuring Otho. The illustration prints are interesting and add to the whimsy of the story. But I just can't get past the somewhat nightmarish quality of the plot.

My kids all love it. Frightening.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

You Can't Take a Balloon into...

The Metropolitan Museum
The National Gallery
The Museum of Fine Arts

by Jaqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser

Thumbs up.

I really liked this set of three wordless picture books. In each, there is a brother and sister and the grandparents touring a famous museum in an important American city. The girl brings a balloon along each time and has to leave it outside with a different someone in each book. The balloon gets away and floats around the city visiting famous landmarks. Meanwhile the children and grandparents are inside viewing famous works of art. But all ends well as the balloon finds its way back to the museum each time, just in time for the family to come out.

The Metropolitan Museum is in New York City, the National Gallery is in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts is in Boston. The author/illustrator team really hit their stride with the second book. The second and third include a map of the city with the route the balloon is traveling and all the famous landmarks. All three include notes at the end on the works of art viewed by the family. But the second and third also include notes on famous people who somehow end up with cameo appearances around town in the illustrations. In the second and third, Ms Glasser also manages to have the people in the balloon chase imitate whatever is going on in the art work being viewed back at the museum.

Theses really are a treat to look at. Although the reviews on Amazon rate them for ages K-3, K-4, and K- 5, respectively I "read" one of them to my kids the first night we had them from the library and I had all ages on the floor surrounding the book. I would have enjoyed spending much longer to look at them, and still hope to get a chance, in order to absorb all the historical figures popping into the pictures. I think the bigger kids have had them in their bedrooms going over them.

Other children's picture book connoisseurs may recognize the illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser. She did the illustrations for the historical picture books by Lynne Cheney, such as A is for America and A is for Abigail. She also does the Fancy Nancy books, of which we are great fans.

Mr. Darcy, Vampyre

by Amanda Grange

Thumbs up.

Ms Grange has written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, beginning the morning of the wedding and continuing onward. As Elizabeth experiences various premonitions, Mr. Darcy is increasingly erratic and aloof. Since the title makes no secret of it, Mr. Darcy is a vampire and the story involves the duel plot line of Elizabeth trying to figure out the strange behavior from her new husband and also a danger that follows them as they tour Europe on their wedding trip.

Although Ms Grange does not write in the familiar Austen style, the characters do think and speak true to the expected regency style. I really liked Ms Grange's use of metaphor and poetic prose. It was very pretty writing and she was able to make the reader really see and hear the things the characters were seeing and hearing.

Ms Granger also cleverly included realistic locations and historical events to give the reader a tour of early 1800s Europe.


"To Try Men's Souls"

"To Try Men's Souls" by Newt Gingrich (and coauthor): Thumbs up

I really enjoyed this rich and vivid novel that chronicles the amazing Christmas crossing of the Delaware by George Washington and his (at that point) very ragged and exhausted army. It is a moment of history that, of course, we are all familiar with but that is played out in this novel in a very thorough and moving way. The story follows General Washington, Thomas Paine, and a young militia man whose family's loyalties are divided as a result of the war and who is wholly committed to the cause of the Revolution. Gingrich's writing is very engaging and I found the book emotionally draining at times as I felt the absolute improbability of victory under the circumstances and therefore the unbelievable triumph of it in the end. In the context of the battle, Gingrich interspersed the struggles of Tom Paine in producing words to inspire such a demoralized and ragged army. His "The American Crisis" takes on even greater meaning when seen in the context of when it was written.

As it fits into the time period we are studying in history, I knew I would take interest in this book. But as I have been disappointed in other popular historical fiction writer's works, I found I was very happy with both the topic and the great writing of this amazing book.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Toby Alone

by Timothee de Fombelle
translated by Sarah Ardizzone

Thumbs up.

This was a really fun and interesting children's book. The plot is engaging and the book features some interesting philosophical points. This book could be useful for engaging an older child in a discussion or analysis of current events or history. But the story does not get bogged down with the philosophizing. I would say that a independent reader of 3rd or 4th grade could read it. But for reading aloud, my pre-schoolers through high schoolers all were engaged. The illustrations by Francois Place are cute pen drawings somewhat reminiscent of those by Quentin Blake in the Roald Dahl books, with similar silliness and exaggeration.

The characters are colorfully developed and tale moved along at a quick pace. The author keeps a reader curious by telling just a bit about a person or occurrence and then leaving the reader to wonder while he backs up and gives a bit of history about that person or occurrence. This plot devise can be difficult for books at this reading level, but Mr. Fombelle does it well.

The main story revolves around Toby and his survival. He is being chased by bad guys and he is seeking his parents. The rest of the details make up the plot. Toby and those of his society are tiny (Toby is less than 1/2 mm tall) and their world is The Tree.

The book is definitely anti-fascist or anti-totalitarian. It does this well. The tyrant in the story, among other things uses fear to stir up the populace against Toby and his family and keeps every one ignorant by criminalizing publishing and information dissemination.

The plot is also somewhat green and anti-industrialist, but it is not preachy. I was apprehensive for a stretch, that the book would end up being anti capitalist or big-business or free-market. Mr. Fromelle's fascist was definitely abusive to The Tree and he also made poor use of the available science for his own commercial gain. But the author stopped short of implying that any of these things inevitably lead to fascism, or that anyone who engages in capitalism or big business or the free market is always a fascist. And Mr Fromelle also included many interesting characters of independent thought and behavior.

I see Mr Fromelle has also written Toby and the Secrets of the Tree. I think I'll have to see whether I can get it from the library.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies

by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Thumbs up.

This is a hoot. Combine the silliness of a hoaky martial arts movie, the kitch of a bad horror flick and classic regency fare and what do you get? Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies. I was constantly fighting off the urge to read snippets to whoever was near.

Mr. Grahame-Smith takes the framework of the Jane Austen original and inserts a zombie plague, the Bennet girls having been highly trained in Shaolin monasteries in Tibet, and the gradual decline of a good friend who has been bitten by an unmetionable.

I hope they make a movie.

The illustrations will be bit distracting for regency fans, because in all but the first, the clothing style is totally wrong. Imagine Lizzy doing a side kick in late 1800s/early 1900 clothing with kind of a Wild West flair.

In doing a little side reading on this book, I see that there is a movie currently in production called Pride and Predator, produce by none other than Elton John. Pardon me, I guess I should say, Sir Elton John.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Duggars: 20 and Counting:

Raising One of America's Largest Families- How They do It

by Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar

Thumb up, thumb down.

A very quick read, this book tells how the Duggar family, profiled by TLC and Discovery Health Channel, live their lives as a family with 18 children (when this book was written- they now are expecting number 19).  Having seen their show a handful of times, I was very curious about not only how they day-to-day handle their large crew, but also how their personal faith shapes their values and behavior.

The writing is very down-to-earth, written in first person from either Michelle or Jim Bob's point of view.  It begins more as a history of the couple and how they started their family and businesses.  It chronicles their many moves and describes their parenting methods and homeschooling curriculum and techniques.  There are little boxes every few pages which have a frequently asked question (via e-mail), with a member of the family answering it.  But mostly, it is sharing their philosphy of servant-leadership and aiming to inspire others to find peace and meaning in their families through that same faith.

What interested me the most was their explanation of their particular branch of Christianity.  I accept many of their choices: homeschooling, no televisions, modest clothing, lack of family planning techniques, delegation of duties including chores for even young children, daily family devotions and scripture memory work.  However, the scripture-based explanations they provide for many of these things confound me.  They choose to follow many Old Testament rituals, even though they describe themselves as New Testament Christians.  In addition to homeschooling, they also have home church.  Their lack of television and the fact that their internet is limited to 70 or so educational or faith-based websites leaves the impression that these children have little outside-family influence.  They do attend a homeschooling conference once (sometimes twice) a year, and their social circle seems to be comprised of friends met at those conferences or family members.

The discussions on their views on letting God choose the size of your family and their commitment to never borrow money but allow God to meet their needs with the resources and opportunities He gives them in His timing are very different from anything you will hear in the secular world, and are worth consideration.  They quote many resources that they have used over the years that have shaped their views, so it is possible to further study the background of their beliefs.

The book is worthwhile to those who would like to have further insight into the specifics of what devout faith-based parenting can be.  For me, it was an eye-opener as to how law-oriented families operate compared to Gospel-oriented ones.  These little ones are taught at an early age how to serve, be kind, be thrifty, be generous, be humble, etc.  They read a chapter of Proverbs each day and try to live out the teachings of that Proverb.   It was hard to read this book without constantly and consciously separating the difference in theologies between my family and the Duggars.  It left me praying that each and every one of these children grow up not only knowing how God expects US to act toward Himself and others, but also how HE has acted on our behalf, and through His grace saves us from sin and loves us whatever our shortcomings.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Writing the Lost Generation

by Craig Monk

In Progress

I stumbled upon this book while reading background material on another book I haven't yet finished, Time was Soft There. Craig Monk who writes The Classroom Conservative blog, is a professor of literature at Lethbridge University, in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.

Writing the Lost Generation appears to be a collection of writings from those authors collectively known as the "lost generation." Since much has been written about these authors and their lives and writings, Prof. Monk is, I think, trying to let them speak for themselves.

I am having trouble with Prof Monk's writing style. I remember once having been taught that a good writer will strive to use very concise language. I have always remembered that and tried to follow that precept.

But in the context of reading Writing the Lost Generation, I'm altering my opinion. There is a point at which language becomes so full of meaning that the fullness detracts. In such writing, the reader must expend so much mental energy processing the information that the work loses it's draw.

While reading this book, I have to evaluate each word and then phrase and then clause and sentence, paragraph, etc, in order to keep the connections intact. The vocabulary and structure are not difficult in and of themselves. But Prof. Monk has mastered the idea of concise. Each word and even each component of the language is so full of meaning that there are no "breeze through" words to allow a reader processing time.

To put this a different way, I feel like a new reader. I have seen each of my kids go through the stage of having the phonetic ability to read words. But they cannot always remember the beginning of the sentence by the time they get tot the end. So they return to the beginning and have to sound out the words once again, and once again they can't get to the end of the sentence with the meaning intact.

So as an busy adult with lots of demands on my time, I may have to set this book aside simply because of time constraints.

Which brings me back to the precept of good writing being as concise as possible. If the writing style is very concise and the words are strung together in such a way as to say exactly what the author desires in as few words as possible, and yet people choose not to read the book because of the mental exercise involved, is it truly good writing?

If I decide to finish the book, I may write a more traditional review later. But I'm not really very optimistic about it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Christmas Sweater (Part II)

by Glenn Beck

OK, here's the deal now that I've finished reading this. Beck has had a troubled life. His mom committed suicide when he was a teen. Beck later became an alcoholic and drug user. When in his thirties (I think he said) Beck found "faith" and at some point after that had a dream that changed his life.

This book is an allegory aimed at teaching Beck's version of how to thrive in this life even when things are tough. Even when we are broken in spirit. His answer: acknowledge your own worth; grasp the atonement that is there for you. His definition of atonement: peace that comes from forgiving yourself and others.

The story is mostly sweet. It gets a bit hokey just prior to the climax, after which the story rushes to a happy ending.

We all carry around guilt in this life. Some is our own guilt. Some is guilt we take on falsely. By this I mean that we often feel guilty over things that are not our fault. Those of us who are feeling beaten down by this undeserved guilt, might be helped by Beck's allegory. Perhaps. But the true guilt we all have is harder to assuage. The idea that we are "worthy" in and of ourselves and we just need to grasp the "atonement" that is somehow universally available is not a Christian idea. Our true worth comes only through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The righteousness God gives us through this sacrifice is what gives us our worth and true atonement. True guilt will only be assuaged by this atonement; and true atonement will give true peace with God and therein lies true wholeness for our brokenness.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Christams Sweater

by Glenn Beck

Thumbs up. In Progress.

This is apparently a fictionalized autobiography Beck has written to help others appreciate the important things in life before it's too late.

Beck tells the story through the narrative of a young boy and series of his flashbacks. The story is compelling and well told. I'll post an update when I finish it.

Prairie Tale

by Melissa Gilbert

One thumb up, One thumb down.

In this memoir by actress Melissa Gilbert, best known for her role as Little House on the Prairie's Half-Pint, Laura, Ms Gilbert lets it all out. She tells of her habit from a young age of denying any feelings or opinions of her own. She relates her struggle to express emotions and to react honestly to reality. She shares her struggle with alcoholism. She tells of her heartaches and joys.

This is a touching story and Gilbert writes with hope for the future. She has finally "found herself" and seems to address other "lost" adults, to share the peace she's found.

Ms Gilbert also shares anecdotes of sexual promiscuity and drug use. She seems to embrace a strange, kind of eclectic spirituality composed of bits and pieces of this and that; whatever has helped her find peace.

The writing is good. The read is quick. Throughout, Gilbert shares "cameo" anecdotes of other famous personalities. If you like celebrity biography and soul searching, this book does it well.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Flowers

by Dagoberto Gill

Thumbs down.

I really had to force myself to finish this one, but I didn't feel like I ought to write about it, if I hadn't finished it.

The Flowers is written very stylistically. The plot revolves around the main character, Sonny, who tells the story of his troubled life. Mr. Gill employs a stream of consciousness story telling method similar to that of William Faulkner. A reader almost has to read the entire book before figuring out who everyone is and how they all hold together.

Also distracting is the perpetual, multiple paragraph attempt to show a reader Sonny's daydreams in a metaphor of lights and colors and flashes.

The time setting is unclear; I think it's supposed to be contemporary. But the attitudes of racism displayed by some characters is more reminiscent of the sixties or seventies. Perhaps in a lower income urban neighborhood, those attitudes are still prevalent.

As the story unfolds, the racial tensions mount, culminating in several days of rioting until our hero, Sonny has to rescue the damsel in distress.

Although a few personalities exhibit a glimmer of noble character, a reader is left with the impression that poverty and despair are insurmountable and inevitably lead to a moral vacuum.

There is also the, seemingly prerequisite, graphically described sexuality.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pilates for Weight Loss: the Fast and Effective Way to Shed Weight and Change Your Body Shape for Good

by Lynne Robinson

Thumbs up.

Ms Robinson, co-founder and director of UK based Body Control Pilates Education, has put together this book of, well, pilates education.

Robinson's introduction starts with a history of pilates and describes the various benefits it can render. She includes information on body weight and muscle mass, and gives formulas for determining ones ideal weight.

She continues with a section on what she considers the foundational exercises of the pilates exercise method. From there she goes into the exercises specific to weight loss and increasing muscle mass and therefore metabolism. She has two chapters of suggested workouts for various goals and suggestions for exercising away from home.

The final section is on lifestyle choices and tips for making the most of ones exercise in order to increase health and well-being.

The book is chock full of photos and clear and specific, descriptive language. It is difficult to learn exercises from a book, but Ms Robinson puts in a valiant effort that will probably be successful for some learners.

Summers with the Bears: Six Seasons inthe North Woods

by Jack Becklund

Thumbs Up.

Becklund tells the story of how he and his wife fed and befriended, for six summers, the bears in their yard in Northern Minnesota. This is not a scientific or sociological tale. Mr Becklund and his wife love animals and started feeding birds and other small animals in their yard, and when t he bears started coming to eat, too, making frineds with them was just a natural progression.

There are levels at which befriending a wild animal bothers me, but it was a sweet story, well told.

Rescuing Sprite: A Dog Lover's Story of Joy and Anguish

by Mark Levin.

One thumb up, One Thumb Down.

Let me start by saying that I am not an animal lover. I did not grow up in a home with pets. although I would have liked to have a pet while growing up, the primary ideas with which I came into adulthood was that pets ought to be outside; they cost money to feed; and they are not people.

That said, I can kind of...maybe...if I use all my mental capacity...imagine...the feelings the author describes with regard to his animals.

In the context of a memorial to Sprite, a dog the Levin family adopted from an animal shelter, Mr Levin tells of his childhood pets; his current pet, Pepsi; and then the two years his family had with Sprite.

Whether because of the emotion with which Mr Levin is writing, or because the subject matter is so different from his academic writings, the language is somewhat stilted. The narrative is in places terse and the segues are not smooth.

Even so, I enjoyed reading about the personal life of a man I have come to admire. The glimpses into his family life and friendships, and into his law and radio occupations were fun to read.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Fair Bear Share

by Stuart J. Murphy

Thumbs up.

This cute book is part of a teaching series by Stuart J. Murphy called MathStart. In this book, Murphy tells the story of a Mama bear who wants to make a pie for her four cubs. But she needs their help gathering berries, nuts and seeds.

As the cubs bring in each item they've harvested, Mama bear helps the cubs count their own things. She has them put the items in piles of tens and ones, and then helps them total the harvest. The counting of each "crop" they bring in increases in difficulty until Mama gently guides them through the process of re-grouping, or carrying, of extra groups of ten.

The illustrations by John Speirs are appealing and engaging. He manages to show each seed, and berry, and group of ten, and so on, in such a way as to make the concepts understandable to young children.

My 9 and 11 year olds could easily read it alone, and although they both already understand the math concepts being taught, they still appreciated its visual portrayal. My 6 and 7 year old were very engaged and I could see the continuous "light bulbs" gong on. My 4 year old enjoyed the story pictures, and she and helped to count the harvest.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Black Like Me

by John Howard Green

Thumbs Up.

Author John Howard Green, is a researcher studying the plight of the southern black population in 1959. He decides, in order to get a truer idea of what black people experience, to medically dye his skin and live among the black population in New Orleans. The book is his journal during that time.

This book, like Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, tells the travesty of Black and White race relations in America prior to the civil rights movement. It's important to remember and be reminded of where we as a nation have come from and the strides we've made. It's easy for me, having been raised in a mostly color-blind home, to be naive about what things were really like for the African American populace in some parts of America fifty years ago.

String Games

by Richard Darsie

Ten Thumbs Up.

This little book is similar to the Klutz books that used to be very popular (and perhaps still are) for visually teaching kids a skill such as crochet or not tying or juggling.

String Games is a covered spiral bound book with a box inside which holds three colorful loops of various lengths. There are step-by-step instructions along with photos for string games such as Cat's Cradle and Jacob's Ladder.

The book contains instructions for 24 string games for both one and two persons! I had no idea there were that many. They are presented by category with each category arranged from the most basic to most complex. Each game has it's difficulty clearly labeled at the beginning.

One bonus that really adds interest for me is that Mr. Darsie includes for each string game a brief description of the game's origins. It really is fascinating.

Waiting for Columbus

by Thomas Trofimuk

Thumbs up.

I give this book a thumbs up, but with a caveat that I'll address later.

Mr Trofimuk spins a tale of mystery and intrigue; love and pain. He tells the story of a person who thinks he is Christopher Columbus. Consuela, a nurse at the Sevilla Institute for the Mentally Ill, is trying to help Mr. Columbus find his way back to reality. Mr. Columbus gradually tells Consuela his story, which we hear in snippets. Trofimuk bases the man's tale on the biography of the real Christopher Columbus with occasional lapses by the patient into modern situations, such as when he tells of looking for his parking place or answering a phone.

We also follow the tale of the the Interpol detective, Emile Germain, who is healing from his own traumatic experience while searching for a missing person who was last seen in Spain. Hmm, convenient.

The book is rich in sensual experience. I mean that in the truest sense of the the word "sensual," as in "appealing to the senses." Many times I could almost smell the air; taste the food or wine; hear the music or street noises.

The author uses metaphor generously, but in a pretty way, not contrived or forced. The language is often very poetic, as when the detective, Emile, momentarily recalls the playful personality of the car-rental woman. He "presses the button on the door panel and the window opens. He lets the car-rental woman slip out the window and into the hot day."

The complaint I have with the book is one common to most contemporary novels. Too much, too graphically described male/female interaction stuff. Although much of it in this book is cloaked in metaphor reminiscent of the Biblical Song of Solomon, none of it is necessary to the story line, almost all of it is between unmarried persons, and on at least two occasions does Mr. Trofimuk cross the line into graphic description. And, well, the author's great descriptive talents...let's just say he doesn't leave them behind for these parts.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done

by Dave Crenshaw

Thumbs up.

Some people will not like this book stylistically. Mr. Crenshaw uses an allegory of a small business owner meeting with a fictional consultant, to make his points. For me it made the book easier to read (I didn't fall asleep every few paragraphs). And perhaps it made the philosophies of Mr. Crenshaw more memorable. I haven't forgotten them yet, but then, it's only been a few hours since I finished it.

Mr Crenshaw's basic premise is this: Many people think they are good multitaskers. But they aren't. They may be better than others at an inefficient system of managing time and work. Crenshaw uses the term switchtasking to describe what most of us do when we think we are multitasking. Switchtasking, according to Crenshaw's definition, is being involved with one task, being interrupted or interrupting ourselves and then immediately getting back on task until the next interruption. But each of these interruptions costs us time and energy.

A true situation of someone accomplishing more than one thing at once is when one requires no concentration, such as watching TV while eating. This he refers to as background tasking. Because only one task requires intellectual effort, the other can occur in the background of our brains.

After convincing the reader that multitasking is, in fact, a myth, Crenshaw goes on to give tools and advice for dealing with the interruptions we all have in our lives. He includes worksheets such as those to help determine where one is inadvertently multitasking and which chronic interruptions warrant their own time slot.

The argument makes sense. It is easily presented. It is a fast read that I can imagine would help some people in their professional lives.

I have a hard time thinking of ways it could help a full time, stay-at-home, homeschool mom. There are many things demanding a parent's time that cannot be schedule into a certain time slot. "It's not your turn to soil your diaper yet, Jimmy." or "You'll have to hold off on that skinned knee, Susan, I'm helping Fred with his school right now."

One point Crenshaw made, however, is worth noting. When we think we are having a conversation and yet trying to keep our brain on what we are doing, we will do neither the conversation nor the task well. Which can easily cross the line into rudeness. In my own life, I know I often continue reading a recipe or correcting a paper or whatever while trying to answer a child's (or even husband's) questions. It never goes well. I will have to be more conscious of stopping the first thing before attempting to listen.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Among The Bears: Raising Orphan Cubs in the Wild

by Benjamin Kilham

Thumbs up.

Mr. Kilham, a registered wildlife rehabilitator, is asked to raise a pair of bear cubs. Although he knows they would die if left in the wild, he is somewhat apprehensive to undertake this challenge. Raising bear cubs is an eighteen month obligation and the success rate for returning cubs raised in captivity is not high. With this in mind, Kilham decides to attempt a less traditional approach. His goal is to keep them as much in the wild as possible during this process.

Although I've not finished the book, it appears that Mr.Kelham was successful at his task.  So much so, in fact, that he is called upon repeatedly in the coming years to work his magic on other orphaned cubs and comes to be considered the expert at this variety of wildlife rehabilitation.

Mr. Kelham is dyslectic and explains in his preface how that affected his life and why, therefore he had to work with a professional writer to make this book a reality. He mentions his dyslexia periodically throughout the body of the work also. It is usually in the context of why he chose certain things in his life and how he overcame various obstacles. This could be a good example for others who struggle with learning and and other disabilities.

One thing that stands out in this book is Mr. Kelham's humility with regard to the behaviors and personalities of his bears. He makes a point of admitting constantly throughout the book how little we understand about how animals accomplish certain things and why they engage in certain behaviors. He is very careful not to engage in anthropomorphism. (I had only a vague idea of what this word means until recently. Apparently is refers to the attributing human personalities thought processes to animal behavior.) This stands in marked contrast to my previous book.

All in all, so far, the story is well told and draws the reader along to learn what happens next with the cubs.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Beast in the Garden

by David Baron

Thumbs up.

In spite of the fact that Mr Baron definitely carries contemporary Darwinist presuppositions, I really loved this book. Mr. Baron starts his account by leading the reader along with searchers as they discover the remains of Scott Lancaster. Eighteen year old Lancaster, of Idaho Falls, CO, was brutally killed by a cougar within a few hundred yards of his high school during school hours.

Baron then backs up and tells the history of nearby Bolder, CO, and how the particular societal attitudes and ensuing legal decisions of this small city eventually lead to the habituation of the area cougars to humans. Does that sound very exciting? It really was. Baron's talented writing style took me to visit families who loved natured and built lovely homes in the hills outside of Bolder. I visited animal lovers who enjoyed watching the deer in their urban yards. I felt the nervous awe when people started seeing cougars in their neighborhoods.

I could empathize with the local official who, after area pets started disappearing, thought the cougar behavior was changing, and that these cougars were likely to endanger humans eventually. I could hear this man's frustration when the rest of the people in his department continually claimed that cougars were no threat to humans.

And I could even understand the position the various government agencies chose to take in being hands-off. The City of Bolder had created the situation by their "we want to live with nature" policies. Baron relates an episode of a problem cougar over whose presence and actions the locals were becoming vocal in their desire to have this animal taken care of. When one of the local citizens finally hired a lion guide to help dispose of the animal, the city was outraged.

The evolutionary views of Mr. Baron, however, were somewhat hard for me to hear over and over and over and over. He uses a specific vocabulary, whether intentionally or just as a result of his presuppositions. When people hunt, for instance they are persecuting animals. When a problem animal has to be eliminated, it's life is taken. And when said problem animal is eliminated, it is an act of vengeance.

Hunters are all wanton killers. And government management efforts cater to these same wanton killers (oh, sportsmen).

This kind of phraseology at times felt like a continual assault as I read Baron's book. I definitely would not be able to read this if I was overly sensitive to the opinion of people such as Baron toward people such as I. I definitely felt like Mr. Baron would have considered me a less enlightened person for holding on to the view that God indeed put man over creation to use and, yes, even dominate.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Chosen

by Chaim Potok

In Progress. Thumbs up.

Mr. Potok uses the friendship between two Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn during final years of WWII and following to teach the history of Judaism.

So far it's a heartwarming, compelling tale and I'm learning many things I did not know.

Ranger's Apprentice: The Siege of Macindaw: Book 6

by John Flanagan

Thumbs up.

I love The Ranger's Apprentice series. Mr. Flanagan once again spins an exciting tale of adventure. Good versus evil.

In The Siege of Macindaw, Flanagan again deals with emotional challenges. He shows the results of poor decision making on one's future. His heroes portray the meaning of true friendship, even in the face of various pressures from other people.

This sixth book has a little more "love story" than the others. As an adult, I found this aspect a bit silly, but it could perhaps be a teaching tool for young adults dealing with boy-girl relationships. A parent could discuss with a younger reader some of the things the characters involved say and do.

Woodsburner: A Novel by John Pipkin

by John Pipkin

Thumbs down.

A fictional account of the day Henry David Thoreau accidentally burned down a chunk of Concord Woods. Pipkin tries to use the quirks of fictional characters against which to compare and contrast Thoreau's philosophy. It kind of falls flat.

That coupled with the fact that most of the main characters and several minor ones have these blaring deviancies in their personalities. I don't need to read about the perversions of fictional nineteenth century personalities.

Also, I couldn't help getting the impression that Pipkin was trying to show that even old-fashioned people, and people of of faith especially, were all perverts. Maybe he was trying to define deviancy downward; or to defend the acceptance of various perversionsin our day by showing that perversity, itself, is universal throughout history. Which it is, of course, in our sinful condition. But not to the extent Pipkin's characters portray.

Conscience of a Conservative

by Barry Goldwater

Thumbs Up.

I loved this book. Light political theory and philosophy. A fast read. This was written in 1960, but definitely filled with the same wisdom that is at the foundation of the modern conservative movement.

Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith

by William F. Buckley Jr.

Thumbs up. In Progress.

But I can already tell you it's a thumbs up. I was leary to request it, assuming Buckley to have a stiff writing style. But the narrative flows well. The story is compelling. Although the Buckley family was wealthy and grew up unlike anyone with whom I have have ever had immediate contact, the commonality of the human experience comes through. And by telling his own story, Buckley is able to address deeper philosophical and religious ideas in a thought-provoking way.

The Founders' View of the Right to Bear Arms: A Definitive History of the Second Amendment

by David Young

In Progress

Mr. Young states at the beginning of this book that he started his research thinking he knew the background and purpose of the second amendment and also the errors of those who think otherwise. But that his research brought him to yet a third opinion.

But I haven't read far enough to find out how he would define his starting position and it's opposite.

The book had to go back to the library, but I was interested enough that I will probably re-request it at some point.

My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir

by John H. Richardson

In progress.

I picked this one up second hand. Since it does not have a due date, it is currently sitting on the back burner.

Mr. Richardson tells about growing up with only a skeletal knowledge of who his father truly was.