Saturday, December 31, 2011

Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well by Billy Graham

Recently, the evening news indicated that evangelist Billy Graham had been hospitalized, something that has happened several times over recent years.  Each time, reporter focus on his advanced age, as well as his influential career in Christian ministry.  In fact, Graham is 93 years old, the same age as my father. 
I have read books by his son and his daughter, but I can't remember reading an entire book by Graham himself.  I decided to obtain a copy of his newest book Nearing Home without actually finding out what the book was about.  I received an email notice the week of Christmas that a e-copy of the book was available for me to check out through WPLC (Wisconsin Public Library Consortium).  It is certainly a busy time of year, but certainly there was no more appropriate time to read this book.  I found a book that spoke directly to me and the years that lie ahead for my husband and myself.

As the subtitle Life, Faith and Finishing Well indicates, Graham has written a book about aging and the end of life.  While, this may sound depressing or even scary, Graham reminds us to embrace our faith, to again place our faith in God, and then find something to do that will glorify God.  He sort of chastises those who feel retirement is an excuse to indulge in continual self-satisfaction.  Those of us who are baby boomers need to remember that we were also seen as the me-generation in our youth, and shouldn't revert to that behavior in our senior years. (Boy, I hate putting myself in that senior group, but I guess retirement gives me full-fledged entry into the group).  Many of the practical suggestions that Graham makes fit right in with the decisions that every new retiree, including myself, need to make.  What can we do with our time that will benefit others?  Whether it is using one's experience in the business world to help nonprofits or volunteering at a shelter, Graham reminds us that we have purpose and we have the freedom to choose those activities that will let us show God's love in action.  Graham also focused on the unique and powerful place grandparents have in their grandchildren's lives.  God has given us an honor with great responsibility every time he places a new baby into our extended families.

Part of the book speaks of dealing with those inevitable hardships of aging - diminished health and loss of loved ones, both realities that Graham himself has faced with dignity.  He writes so lovingly of his wife and her passing.  He also speaks of the  difficult decisions to give up his crusade schedules and even driving, but then shares how he has found peace and strength from those decisions.

I feel this book would be a good discussion book for a church group of older people, or a multi-aged group if combined with Max Lucado's Outlive Your Life. Both strongly call us to make our faith one which daily shows God's love through our choices and actions.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Young Adult Novel Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Young adult (mature) audience or adult readers,
Contemporary fiction with historical elements

I first discovered Jennifer Donnelly when I read Northern Light the fictional sory of 16 year old Mattie who struggles to keep her own voice as she must care for her siblings in the early 1900's.  Her life and goals are forever changed when her summer job at an inn places her at the epicenter of the true-to-life Gillette murder case (the basis for the classic book An American Tragedy) Donnelly's ability to draw one story into another was superb, and although I usually avoid stories with strong "supernatural" or ghostly influences, I truly liked this book.  When I was done, I kept thinking Northern Light should be promoted as cross-over reading for adults. I believe the same can be said for her novel Revolution.

In Revolution,Andi is another teenager struggling for a voice, and her story will also collide with another girl's story - Alexandrine from the French Revolution.  Let me set the stage for both stories.  Andi is the daughter of a Nobel Prize winning geneticist (father) and a talented artist(mother), but she is trapped in a world of self-blame over the death of her younger brother.  As a result, she is flunking out of her prestigous private school.  The only beacon of hope comes during the time she spends with her music instructor, a Nazi death camp survivor. While Andi self-medicates with anti-anxiety and anti-depressants, she also shoulders the responsibility of watching over her mother who is burying her own grief in a manic frenzy of painting.  Andi's father has abandoned the family for the mysteries of science (and a new wife), but when he finds out that Andi's recent actions may lead to expulsion or the inability to get into the best ivy league school, he arrives to take control.  Within days, Andi is on a plane to France with her father.  While he undertakes a historic examination of a long stored heart to determine through DNA whether it is truly the dauphin son of Marie Antoinette, Andi is left to explore Paris and work on her senior thesis. The vehicle that brings Andi and Alex's worlds together is a small diary Andi finds in a musical instrument case pulled from the Paris catacombs. Another connecting factor is that both girls shouldered a responsibilty for a young boy's life, and both failed, or so they think.  Music, classical, rock, and today's alternative music playsuch a strong component to this book that the author has compiled a play list on her website, so that readers can acquaint themselvs with the songs.

Jennifer's writing style is very literate and she expects her reader's to possess certain knowledge.  I am not a French history scholar, but having studied the French Revolution (albeit, years ago) certainly helped.
I like authors who expect readers to understand some world history and who portray characters who move beyond their own narrow view of the world.  Yet while, Andi certainly becomes caught up in Alex's plight, I never felt as drawn to the young actress - turned spy's story as I was to Andi's story. Jennifer definitely writes for mature readers.  In this book, the life of Andi's over indulged friends will seem a waste to many readers (her intent, I'm sure).  Personally, I tired of Andi's pill popping approach to each day, but I understand that she was "in a bad place" and the numbing effect of the self-medicating provides a believable vehicle for the intersection of the two girls' stories in the dark Paris catacombs.  Some people quickly object or reject a book when a destructive acts like Andi's overuse of her prescription is shown, but I prefer to judge a book and its message on its entirity.  In this case, Andi's ability to find a way out of her self-destruction through her immersion in Alex's story will not leave the reader disappointed.

Now that I have finished this young adult novel by Jennifer Donnelly, I checked her website to see if she had published anything new in 2011.  I found that she has - an adult novel The Wild Rose set in World War I and a companion to The Tea Rose and The Winter Rose.  Now they are on my "to read" list, a list that never gets any shorter because for every book I can cross off, I add several on.

Keep reading everyone.  I know I will be.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Though Waters Roar by Lynn Austin

Strong women who do not fit the mold of their contemporaries have always been my favorite fiction characters (nonfiction, too).  Now I can add Grandma Bebe and granddaughter Harriet to that notable group.  Bebe, born Beatrice, in a family of all brothers was introduced to the unfairness of life at an early age.  First, her father wanted another son and often continued to call her "Son" despite the obvious.  When her brothers went off to fight in the Civil War when she was just a preteen, she was expected to quit school and take over their farm chores.  But the event that would most affect her lifeview was her mother's decision to be a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Mother never shared with the boys that slaves were being hidden in the attic because she feared that they could not keep silent, but Beatrice was introduced to the escaped slaves and even accompanied her mother on one transport.

Later Bebe's marriage would take her away from the farm and her protected life.  Her new mother-in-law found the young wife lacking in necessary social skills. As Bebe faces the harsh realities of a far-from-perfect marriage, she recalls her mother's courage and finds her own voice.  She becomes active in the temperance movement and later the fight for suffrage. 

The novel is narrated by granddaughter Harriet who for most of the book is in jail.  She keeps saying, "How did I end up here/" a literary device to keep the readers in suspense. For a while, we only learn that she had been arrested with bootleg liquour in her vehicle.  As Harriet fears what her parents and especially Grandma Bebe will think when they find out, Harriet retells the significant events of Bebe's life and also daughter Lucy's (Harriet's mother.) As for the real reason why she had bootleg booze in her car, that would be a spoiler.  Read the story and Harriet will finally explain.

Lynn Austin is one of the strongest Christian fiction writers I have read.  I stayed interested throughout the whole novel.  Actually, the Hallmark movie Hidden Places based on her novel of the same name was on television last night and I had to decide whether to read or watch her work. By staying up a little later than I should have, I was able to enjoy the movie AND finish the book.  Austin is able to create characters that have admirable strengths, but we can also see and understand their faults. Their faith or sometimes lack of it fits the story and the characters.  Too often those elements can seem to be add-ons to fit the Christian market.  To me, all aspects of Bebe seemed authentic, from her childhood to her actions as an unhappy wife, to the sage advice given to her adult granddaughter. I will be looking for more Lynn Austin historical fiction. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

An Amish Christmas - some light Christmas reading

The calendar dictated that our family have its Christmas get-together early this year, which meant that I had to finish up sewing projects last week.  I have a nice sewing corner but I still tend to take over the family room on our lower level.  Reluctantly, I quit sewing a week ago Saturday and straigthened the area up.  Although I did a considerable amount of baking and present wrapping after that, I still found a little time for some light reading. I got an email saying that the e-book version of An Amish Christmas that I had placed a hold on through the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium was available.  When that happens, I have three days to download it onto my Nook and then just 14 days to read it.

I had seen this book in several bookstores and flyers, so I had decided to read it despite not being a big fan of Amish fiction.   To me, much of it is oversimplified, but then isn't most fiction?  This book is actually a compilation of three novellas, all set in the same Lancaster County community.  Sarah and her husband are the thread that connects all three stories.  Beth Wiseman wrote "Choice to forgive" which follows the typical plot of young Amish person leaving the fold and then returning to find true love.  "Miracle for Miriam" is a very similar story, only with older characters - a second chance at love story.

I really didn't need to concentrate at all as I read those two stories- a quick skim and I was done.  Luckily I found "One Child" by Barbara Cameron a little more interesting.  Sarah and David have decided to host the local sing and First Christmas gathering, partially because they hope it will help ease the sorrow both feel as the anniversary of Sarah's miscarriage nears.  Sarah has thrown herself into the holiday preparations and her school teaching almost to the point of exhaustion.  As neighbors leave for home, hoping to beat the approaching winter storm, David encourages Sarah to finally get some rest.  A few hours later, a loud knock awakens them.  An Englisher named Jason is asking for help.  His car has slid into the ditch and his cell phone will not work.  Of course, David and Sarah have no phone and the community phone is miles away.  David and Jason set off to bring David's wife Kate to the safety of Sarah's kitchen   The young Amish couple opens their home late that night to the needy English (nonAmish) couple,  and all their lives will be changed when it becomes evident that Kate is in labor.
I liked that this story was not a formula romance.  In the other two, the world of the English was only described in terms of excessive drinking and fast living. In this story, both the relationships of both couples have strengths and weaknesses. Both couples seem to learn a little from each other. They connect in authentic ways that I hope all of us can if we look beyond surface differences. And the outcome of a young pregnant couple seeking shelter on a Christmas Eve night?  That is the end of the story and I don't reveal endings!

As I've checked online sources for this book, I see that four stories are now included in the publication.
The fourth is called Christmas Cradles by Kelly Long and is about a midwife.  I hope that it builds of the more accurate realism evident in Camerson's "One Child" and does not follow the simplistic pattern of the first two stories.

Our family Christmas is over, my entertaining is done until New Year's Eve.  We will be able to enjoy the Christmas church services later in the week.  Until then, I can pick and choose what I do.  My email has let me know that a couple more e-books are available for my reading if I want.  A good book, a warm fire in the pellet stove, a Christmas cookie or two, and a cup of tea.  What a delight!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Other Wiseman

Henry Van Dyke's story The Other Wise Man is now over 100 years old, but it is still touching at this Christmas season. I had read the story about fifteen years ago, but couldn't place my hands on our copy, so last year I downloaded a copy for my nook.  Many publications are available since this work is now considered out of copyright and in the public domain.  You can even find a much shorter version on the web to read, but don't hesitate to read the full text, even in this hectic season.  It will only take an hour or so.

Artaban, a scholar and Magi, has learned of the star and plans to join the three wisemen on their journey to locate the child whose birth the star signals.  He has sold his home and possessions to buy three jewels - a shapphire, a ruby, and a pearl as gifts for the newborn king. He sets out alone to meet Caspar, Melchoir, and Balthazar.  Although the journey is rough, he and his trusty stead are up to the challenge.   But when
Artaban reaches the waters of Babylon, he stumbles on a body across the road.  Obviously, the poor man is a Hebrew exile who has succumbed to a deadly fever.  For a moment, the wiseman believes the man is dead and Artaban only wishes to make a way past the body so he can continue his journey.  Then, the man faintly sighs and grasps the bottom of Artaban's garment.  Artaban is momentarily incensed.  Even an hour's delay to help and comfort this stranger may mean he will miss his sppointed meeting time with the others.  His mind wrestles with the choice.  Certainly an opportunity to witness history making greatness out ranks one insignificant life, but he prays and stays.  When the Hebrew regains strength and hears of Artaban's intended destination he shares details of the prophecies that say that the Messiah will not be born in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem.  Of course, the three wisemen have gone on ahead, unable to wait  and Artaban continues alone.  First he needs to sell one of the jewels for the man's continued care and for camels for the journey across the desert.

The story continues with Artaban always arriving too late.  When he makes it to Bethlehem, Joseph and familly have just fled to Egypt, but Artaban again has the opportunity to save a life.  So goes his life.  He continues to search for the Messiah and he continues to help others until he ends up in Jerusalem thirty-three years later.  When he hears that a preacher has been condemned to die for saying he is King of the Jews, Artaban for a moment thinks that he will be able to use his last jewel, a rare pearl, to save the Savior's life, but then a young slave girl is put in the wise man path and he again must make a decision.

Like the three wiseman, Artaban is not Jewish.  His religion is a desire to know truth and because of that he is able to put aside the preconceived ideas he had of God and accept the challenge to find the Messiah.  He believes he has failed, until Jesus speaks to him, letting him know that his life has been a demonstration of belief and knowing.

Van Dykes writing brings much more wonder and emotion to the story than my retelling.  Find a copy and read it for yourself.  You will not be disappointed.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Still not too late for Advent preparation

In preparation for Advent, I purchased Max Lucado's Advent Devotional for my Nook reader.  I believe it cost less than $3.  I saw the same devotional in hard copy at the ReachOut bookstore in Fond du Lac, WI for $2.99, so this is definitely a reasonably priced.  Each day there is a reading from the Gospel, detailing an event in Christ's life and ministry, followed by a short commentary by Max Lucado.  These commentaries are all excerpts from some of his more popular books.  If you are unfamiliar with Lucado's style, he has the knack of being able to pack a punch into a few simple words as he eliminates that gap between reader of the scripture and Christ.  Lucado pulls you away from your comfortable reading corner and makes you a member of Christ's contemporaries, whether the tax collector or the woman at the well. I've been known to chuckle as I read his writings and often I just have to read passages outloud so others can hear Lucado's descriptions.

Here's an example of the commentaries that follow a scripture reading. This one will NOT make you chuckle, but you may see yourself walking away from the needy at the pool, like so many others.

Scripture reading- John 5:1-8, Jesus Heals a Man at the Pool of Bethesda
"Picture a battleground strewn with wounded bodies, and you see Betheseda.  Imagine a nursing home overcrowded and understaffed and you see the pool.  Call to mind the orphans in Bangladesh or the abandoned in New Delhi, and you will see what people saw when they passed Bethseda.  As they passed, what did they hear>  An endless wave of groans.  What did they witness?  A faceless field of need.  What did they do?  Most walked past, ignoring the people. 
But not Jesus."
                       from day 12, Celebrating Christmas with Jesus

You know it's not too late to start a devotional for this Christmas season.  You can always read two devotions per night.  They are short you know.  In fact, I need to catch up on a couple day's reading myself.
Or you could purchase the book and just read the remaining days.  You can always read the whole book next year (remember this is a short book).  And if you're out shopping in a Christian bookstore, I'd recommend picking up a few copies to share with friends next Advent.  Or you could order them through for under $2.  Just remember where you put them!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Christmas musings and sharing

As I unwrapped our creche scene last year, I was shocked to find that Baby Jesus was missing.  How could that be?  I always wrap each piece and put them away in the same box each year.  For several days, my husband and I both searched Christmas decoration boxes, desk drawers and those odd junk corners where one puts stuff intending to be get better organized later.  No manger to be found.  As I told co-workers about the loss and then began yet another search for a replacement, the phrase "Baby Jesus is missing," began to take on a larger meaning.  Most of the chains and big box stores did not even have anything remotely resembling a creche scene.  I had hoped to find a set which could be purchased by piece so I wouldn't have to replace our whole set.  What we have is not an expensive set, but our daughter purchased it for me when she was a teenager and it has sentimental value.  My husband made the stable, one of his first forays into construction, so I wanted to keep what we had.  After inquiring at several stores, I tried a Christian bookstore/gift shop.  Alas, no luck there either.  It appears that single statue which encompasses the whole Holy Family is what is popular.  No mangers alone to be bought except very large sized sets.  Next we tried Hobby Lobby where I had hoped we could get an unpainted ceramic baby and manger.  I would get a friend to do the painting.  No luck, but a clerk there did tell us that Baby Jesus is one of the most shoplifted ornaments from their decoration area.  I guess I was not the only one who was missing the Christ child.  Finally we made a stop at Steins, a garden center.  There we found a creche scene on display - just the right size, painted a little different than ours, but the right size.  Like I always do, I lifted the ceramic piece to see a price tag.  $12.  Not bad.
I would certainly pay $12 to have a manger and baby, but as I searched the shelves I could not find a box marked with that piece.  I called a clerk over, only to find out that the whole nativity scene was on clearance for $12.  Of course, I took it.  We now have those pieces in our stable, along with some extra animals from the original set.  The remaining pieces are packed away, just incase I someday find that first manger piece. 

Fast forward to this year.  Our youngest granddaughter's mom (the mom is the same lady who gave me the creche set as a teenagaer) told us that she's like a boardbook about the First Christmas for Lizzie.
Little Lizzie will be 14 months old at Christmastime, so we wanted something simple.  Of course, I looked online to see what books were out there, and found a couple titles that seemed possible. 
However, that guilt to support local businesses kicked in and I postponed ordering anything until I could check locally.  For a few weeks everytime I was in a store I checked the book section, the toy section, and the Christmas sections for a board book about Christmas.  Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!  Not at the chain stores, not at Fleet Farm, not even at the big box store that begins with W  I could buy a book about Spongebob's Christmas, but I couldn't find anything that was the least bit religious.  I really think that the only thing you can find religious is possibly a box of cards.  I went again to a small Christian bookstore/gift shop.  There I did find 1 copy of 1 book, but it just wasn't suitable for a one year old.  I'm sure they would have ordered something else for me, but by now I didn't have time for ordering books  Another day, another town.  This time I went into a small bookstore chain, Bookworld.  When I was still a school librarian, I always tried to give this store one or two book orders each year just because I want to see bookstores still exist.  I spent a half hour looking over all their books for prechoolers and made a great selection for two year old Ethan. He loves trucks and I found a nice selection of truck books. And yes, I did find a Christmas nativity board book for Lizzie.  I almost hugged it when I found it, and I can say that I actually had two different books to choose from.

I think back to days when I was a kid (okay that was a long, long time ago), but I also remember when my kids were little.  It was easy to find a coloring book, sticker book, or children's book about the real Christmas.  I always purchased them as stocking stuffers and I never needed to go to a speciality store.  And back to those oldee days when I was a kid.  I can remember getting as a gift, a punch-out nativity set ( published by Whitman or Golden books) probably purchased at the local dime store.  In fact, I saw a similar one on Antiques Roadshow in mint condition and it had a nice collector's value.  Mine, on the other hand, was assembled and re-assembled until it fell apart. Point it, I think Baby Jesus is missing from more than our creche scene and we should do something about it.  Maybe we need to make sure that we are including Christian literature and such in our shopping, and we should be asking regular stores to stock what we want.

Thank you to SmartKidz Media for publishing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and thank you Ripon Bookworld for stocking it!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Obreht 's Tiger's Wife is National book finalist; book is challenging read

Tea Obreht has written a challenging book which takes the reader to an unidentified Balkan country devastated by decades of war.  At times I felt that the villagers who populate the stories were plucked directly from old dark folktales.  The narration bounces back and forth among Natalie and her friend's medical trip to care for orphans and Natalie's remembering of stories her grandfather had told her about the tiger's wife and the deathless man.  Natalie's grandfather has just died in a small village away from family, and his granddaughter tries to make sense of his actions by retelling the stories, a mixtures of myth and truth.
Obreht definitely shows her talent for creating characters and stories in this book.  As the stories/myths of the deathless man and the tiger's wife unraveled throughout the book, I was caught up in the back stories of the characters such as the waiter and the apothecary.  The story telling itself reminded me of The Life of Pi.  Natalie, the young doctor and granddaughter to the old doctor who has died, makes a strong narrator.  However, I just wasn't interested in what was happening around her as she goes to the monastery to inoculate children.  I've read other reviews which describe a better connection between the present day action of the book and the grandfather's stories than what i felt.  I see the book's literary merit; I just am not a fan of stories that are so heavily laden with character's whose lives are molded by superstition and myth.  Whether, the story is European, African, Indian, or Eastern, I am too much of a realist to be strongly attracted to such stories.  I do believe that Tiger's Wife is a title worthy of book club discussions, especially since I've seen a wide range of reactions to it.   I've heard that movies usually have at least one memorable line of dialogue.  Maybe books are that way.  For me, I will always remember the grandfather's comment to young Natalie, that there are moments that you keep to yourself, meaning that some moments have a significance and specialness that they should be treasured without any attempt to make someone else experience what you've just experienced.  Well written moments such as that one make me glad that I tackled The Tiger's Wife.
Clearly, if you want a challenge, this is one to consider.  If you expect a linear novel with defined plot and action, this will not meet your expectations.  I received an e-copy of this book with the expectation that I would write an honest review.  This reaction is my own.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wives of Henry Oades

Later this week our book club will be meeting for the last time of 2011.  Our book for discussion is The Wives of Henry Oades bu Joanna Moran.  I actually read this book a few years ago, and I think I might have been the person who nominated it as a book club pick.  Because our discussions dig deep into the details, I had to set aside time to reread the book.  I would still give the book a strong recommendation, so I am anxious to learn everyone else's reactions.

The book begins as Henry Oades, his wife Margaret, and his children leave England for work in New Zealand.  Margaret is not prepared for the ruggedness of late 19th century New
Zealand and counts the days until the family will be able to return to England.  Believing the children will fare better if they can get out of the dingy, crowded city, Margaret and Henry rent a small cottage miles from his job.  One day as Henry works, Maori tribesmen, bent on revenge against the white race, ramsack the Oake's cabin and set it afire.  Margaret and the children, which now include infant twins, are taken captive and dragged away.  Henry returns later that day to the ruins.  Despite everyone's belief that a charred body found near the property is his wife's, Henry sets out to find her and his children to no avail.  Eventually, he must accept their absence and death.  Work and New Zealand have no meaning for him, and even after a couple years, he cannot rise above his grief.  Returning to England, something he had promised Margaret, now seems intolerable, so Oades books passage to California.  Even the chapter titles in this section are heart-wrenching - Inconceivable, She Speaks to Me Day and Night, and Alone.  

America brings a slow recovery to Henry and eventually a new chance for a loving family. Many stories would end there, but is just the starting point for this drama.  For one day, the new Mrs. Oades (Nancy) will open her farmhouse door to Mrs. Margaret Oades and her surviving children, who are expecting to be reunited with Henry.  Oades cannot turn away his adored children or their mother; but neither can he set aside his young wife, who know owns his heart. Within weeks, they will be charged with bigamy.  What can the courts do since each marriage had taken place within the limits of written law?  Townspeople care nothing for the law; they want Oades to abandon one wife.

Both times I read this book, I felt Henry soon dropped away as a major character as each wife found her own strength and place within the household.  He is still important to the story, but I was so caught up in each woman's feelings that I saw Henry as a background player.  This is one of the most unique stories you'll read.  You'll admire Nancy's compassion and Margaret's strength.  In the end, you will wish both happiness.  Make sure you read the interview with author Johanna Moran to find out about the newspaper article that inspired this book.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A new devotional for grandmothers

Authors Kathyrn March, Pamela Ferriss, and Susan Kelton have written a devotional book for grandmothers based on verses from Proverbs. The purpose is to guide grandmothers to pray daily for their grandchildren. Prayers are specific to the quality described in the daily verse from Proverbs. At the end of each devotion is an activity that a grandparent can have with a grandchild. The activity may be a discussion starter, a role play, or an object lesson. Although the book was written for grandmothers, I could see a Sunday school teacher or pastor using the activities.

I think the idea of giving grandparents specific qualities and topics that they can focus on as they pray for their grandchildren is an excellent idea.
I was given a digital copy for review purposes. I found the prayers and activities so well thought out, that I want a personal copy so my grandchildren can say, "My grandmother is praying for me."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cobbled Court series

Today I am going to blog about the first title in Marie Bostwick's Cobbled Court series.  Currrently there are four stories in the series; the fourth installment, Threading the Needle, remains on my "to-read" list.
When I finish it, I will review it for you. While Bostwick's other books I've reviewed have been unique historical fiction stories, the Cobbled Court series is contemporary fiction with characters you'd find interesting neighbors.  If you've enjoyed any of Debbie Macomber's books, you will like Bostwick's series.

Evelyn Dixon leaves Texas when her marriage ends and decides to follow her dream to open a quilt shop.
Deciding to get as far away from Texas she drives north.  When the charm of New Bern, Conn. captures her heart, she settles there.  The business steadily, but slowly develops.  Among the customers are Abigail Burgess, her niece Liza, and Margot Matthews.  Abigail, wealthy and tough, is dragged to quilting classes by her niece, who rebels against anything her aunt embraces.  Margot seeks solace in the quilting class after losing her job to downsizing.  Soon after opening the store, Evelyn discovers she has breast cancer.  It will be her new friends that rally aournd her, help her maintain the fledging business, and provide the emotional support she needs.

The plot line is familiar one, but Bostwick's writing stands out.  Her characters are delightfully realistic, even quirky.  New Bern is one of those fictional towns that you'd like to set as a destination on your GPS and really visit, perhaps even settle down in.    In Thread so Thin and Thread of Truth the stories of Evelyn, Abigail, Liza, and Margot continue with more friends and townspeople.

I recommend the Cobbled Court series for some cozy, fireplace reading over the cold winter months.
You'll be warmed twice.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fields of Gold by Marie Bostwick

Eva (Evangeline) has accepted that her life will be a "small" life, no different than most young woman on the dusty Oklahoma plains of the twenties.  She has her parents' love and a solid friendship with nearby Ruby.  She doesn't expect anything else, but then one day a plane flies overhead and lands in her father's field.  Amidst the rays of sunlight, tall handsome Slim uncurls himself from the pilot's seat and Eva's life is changed forever.

If you typically read romance stories with the pattern girl meets boy, boy gets girl, boy loses girl over something silly, boy gets girl again, then Fields of Gold by Marie Bostwick is not the romance story for you.  Charismatic Slim does capture young naive Eva's heart, but it is what happens to Eva once Slim leaves that makes Fields of Gold quality historical fiction.  You'll see each parent's love and  support Eva but in different ways.  And the friendship between Ruby and Eva is deep and sustaining, not the wacky "chick-lit" type. 

When I read this I became quickly caught up in the story, its heartbreak, and the resulthing strength.  Life in Oklahoma was captured perfectly.  However, I stumbled when I learned that Slim was supposed to be a real historical figure.  I will not spoil the secret of his identity, but will hint that he was a famous pilot.  Whenever a real person enters a fictional story, especially someone who is a main character, I want the scoop on what is fact and what is fiction.  Not having the answers for those questions somewhat tarnished this story.  Because the characterization of Eva was so good and the plot so compelling, I simply accepted the whole story as fiction and ignored Slim's identity.  That said, the book ends with the reader wanting to know more.  That "want" is satisfied in a follow-up title, On Wings of Morning.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Discover Marie Bostwick

(Marie Bostwick on right, posted with her permission)
Several years ago I discovered Marie Bostwick's Cobbled Court novels, stories of new beginnings bolstered by strong friendships, set on a street of shops in the village of New Bern.  Closing my eyes, I could see the old cobbled courtyard surrounding the rustic quilt shop with the sheltering apartment above it.
However, when I first discovered Marie, she had only written one Cobbled Court novel and I would need to wait months before the next volume was written.  I always hate that about series books. To date she has written four, and I was lucky to meet her at the Quilt Expo in Madison, WI this September.  I realized that I hadn't read the fourth installment, Threading the Needle,which currently remains on my "to-read pile."  At the Expo, Marie excitedly informed readers about upcoming projects, letting us know that her characters become so real to her that she must give them continued life in future books. 

When I finished reading my first Marie Bostwick book, I went to our library system website ( a favorite source of books) and checked what other books she had written.  One by one I ordered them through interlibrary loan and devoured them.  That was several years ago, and so when I decided to blog about her novels, I decided I need a refresher.  I checked the Barnes and Noble website, plus to reread summaries of the different titles.  While doing that I noticed the title River's Edge.  Although the cover looked slightly familiar, the summary did not fire any memory synapses, so I decided to request the book from the library.  As I started to read, the unfolding story pulled me in, and even though I recognized that I had read the book previously, I just wanted to relive young Elise's life in America, so I totally reread the book despite the fact that I have at least four more books to read  as soon as possible.
As a young child Elise believes that her piano playing will keep her beautiful mother alive.  When her mother finally succumbs to TB, both Elise and her military officer father are overwraught with grief.  Imagine a close knit family, but extremely proper and with limited expression of affection, and you will understand Elise's background.  Elise never questions her father when he decides to send her to America to distant relatives in Brightfield, MA, but her heart believes he just didn't want her.  Little did she know that he was torn between his duty as a German officer and his fear of the country's new leader Adolf Hitler.  It is his premonition of war that drives him to send his only daughter to safety.  What follows is a story of finding one's place within a new family and a new land.  Only child Elise, who had never entered a kitchen or played with siblings, is suddenly part of Rev. Carl Muller's bubbling family of four sons and one daughter.  Elise will share a room with daughter Cookie, but for years will not share the laughter and secrets that sisters share.  Mama and Papa certainly accept Elise, as does little mischievious Curt, but the other siblings see only a spoiled foreigner.  Elise grows up, excels in school, and makes a place for herself, but as she does, Hitler invades Poland and war breaks out.  Suddenly her German accent and name make her suspect in the town.  And as Brightfield families begin to bury their sons, Elise is seen as responsible. 

I read this book at a fast pace because Bostwick just keeps the story flowing.  You'll feel the strength of family and the power of growing love.  The nature of war brings suffering and heartache, and it will not be avoided in this novel.  I am attracted to Bostwick's writing because of the small details that are so different, yet they are so real.  In this story, nearby neighbors are tobacco farmers and when an early frost threatens the crop, the whole Muller family go to help.  This includes young city girl Elise who finds that she is actually good at the field work.  And when almost no one else feels she is worth much, it is an elderly cantankerous neighbor who decides that Elise needs weekly "homemaking lessons."  From the cooking lessons come valuable life lessons about acceptance and judgement.

You may be wondering what happens to Elise's father, a man whose family had served the military with honors for generations.  Did he support Hitler?  Was he part of the atrocities?  I wondered the same as I read, and so does Elise as she begins to learn what was truly happening in Europe.  Read River's Edge for the complete story.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas you can always count on several new children's movies being released.  And I would bet that between 75 and 90 percent of them are based on children's books -
 the Harry Potter series, Because of Winn Dixie, Tale of Despereaux, Polar Express, and more.
A few weeks ago I first noticed the movie trailer and advertisements for Hugo and thought another outstanding children's book makes a trip to the wide screen.  I sure hope that author/illustrator Brian Selznick had strong input into this movie- his genius and unique approach made the Caldecott winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret one of my favorite publications during my eleven years as a children's librarian.

The Caldecott award is given to an American published children's book, selected for its  unique or distinctive illustrations.  Usually that means the book is aimed at a primary or early elementary audience.  Not Selznick's work.  His book is thick - over 500 pages and 158 charcoal drawings.  In fact there are pages without words that essentially advance the action of the story.  Skip the pictures and you have lost action of the story, but run your thumb over the pages (like the old-fashioned flip books) and you have almost a silent movie of action.  Then suddenly you will be back into a chapter of text, well-written with a rich vocabulary and suspense.  I have never shown this book to a child (age 9-13) who wasn't intrigued by the format.  How that unique form of story telling will be transferred to the screen I don't know, but I am ready to find out.

The story takes place in the Paris train station of the 1930s.  Young Hugo's father, who is supposed to be maintaining the large train station clock, has disappeared.  Hugo hides in the rooms behind the clock and has taken over "tinkering' with the clock.  Besides hiding from the Parisian police, he has other secrets including a mysterious drawing, a key, and a broken automan (mechanical man).  His life will soon collide with a cantankerous old man who runs a toy booth and a young girl.  And maybe, just maybe they will answer all Hugo's questions.

At the end of the book Selznick provides background on the art of building an automan or mechanical man, work often done by precision clock makers.  And just as the book appears to be partly silent movies, there is a connection in the book to early silent movies and Selznick goes beyond the book to draw his readers into a fascinating history lesson about George Meleis, one of the earliest filmmakers who was also a collector of automans.  Like so many children's authors today, Selznick has a website with background information which enriches the whole experience of reading Hugo Cabret.hene

Whenever a book is made into a movie, new editions of the book usually come out in reasonable paperback.  If you see a copy, pick it up and read it before you see the movie.  The movie may be action packed with special effects, but I still vote for experiencing the author's original creative vision.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Three Cups by Mark St. Germain

Author Mark St. Germain and illustrator April Willy have connected to create a short, but powerful tale of how a simple allowance can bring countless adventures and sound financial footing to a young child.
We can all see the devastating results of the "I want it now at whatever cost" philosophy in American society, so perhaps this book should be a gift for every child.  Simply told, a five year old boy is given three cups on his birthday.  Dismayed, he points out that these cups are chipped ones from the family cupboard.  What could his parents be thinking?  His father explains that he is going to start receiving a weekly allowance and will be expected to divide his money among the three cups, which are then labeled GIVE, SHARE, SPEND.  The story does not indicate how the money should be divided and I like that.  I can imagine the boy determining each time how he will divide the allowance.  Readers will witness his first trip to the bank for a savings account and his first time sharing what he put into the charity cup.  The book ends with the boy, now grown up, starting the process again with three cups for his child.

A website provides a short video which will give you a preview of the book and its soft old fashioned illustrations.  A simple idea, but think about the impact behind it.  Just imagine the results that would be possible if we would all embrace delayed gratification and generosity.

I received an advanced reader's copy of this book to review it.  All comments are my own.

Back to reality

The most recent posts have been slightly sporadic, but with good reason.  First in order to write about books read, one must actually have time to READ.  I am always in the midst of at least one books, but sometimes I just need more time to read before I can write.  And then there are those rare times when I just can't squeeze any reading time in.  Last week was one of those times -- with good reason.  We were in Branson with friends and Russ's brother and sister-in-law.  What a memorable time - laughs, superb shows, and great weather.  Despite the 60 degree temperatures and early November calendar, we actually saw Christmas shows.  Now that we are safely home and somewhat caught up on sleep, it is time to plan for the holidays.  How much sewing can I do and for whom?  What will I cook and bake for each of the family get togethers? And of course, there will be shopping that needs to get done.  I admit that I no longer enjoy shopping, so I hope that everyone gives me really good hints.

With all of that activity, it is SO easy to overlook the real meaning of the holidays.  The last few years I've tried to avoid that by making sure that I always set aside time for Christmas reading.  I've already mentioned some children's books that would make quality family reading, plus I reviewed Max Lucado's new collection of his Christmas writings.  I've downloaded the classic story The Other Wiseman by Henry Van Dyke for my Nook and I plan to reread it this season.  Of course, there is no better reading than the Gospel accounts of Christ's birth.

As you look ahead to the next seven weeks and start marking up that family calendar with appointments, parties, dinners, and concerts, don't forget time to keep Christ in Thanksgiving and Christmas each day, not just on Sundays. So many people complain about the lack of Christ in Christmas, but I am challenging everyone to find those beautiful expressions of his love that are evident everywhere - in music, in well written Christmas books, in heartfelt movies, and live performances.

(By the way, the one show that we picked without knowing much about the performer was the show Cassandre: Voice of an Angel at the Americana Theater, and we were all thrilled by her performance.
Of all the shows we saw, I only purchased an cd by Cassandre.  Check out her website if you are going to Branson -

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder - a Southern novel of family, friends and love

I first read Rebecca Wells when her novel Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood was a best seller.  For me that was the first experience with the charming genres of "girl friend" and Southern fiction.  It is nice to start with high quality, but it leaves a high bar for other authors to reach.  I have been disappointed by other novels that profess to have the same warmth and depth of the YaYa sisters.  If you have not read this book, check it out or try the movie that followed. 

Recently I read Rebecca's 2010 novel The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, set in 1950-70s Louisisana.  Readers will follow young Calla Lily as she watches her mother (M'dear) runs a beauty shop from their porch and then join their father in running a dance studio by night.  Calla Lily soon learns she, too, has the magic fingers that do more than just fix hair. At age 8, Calla and her friend's lives are changed forever when a new girl Sukey moves to town with wild tales of jewels, princes and adventure.  This is a book of growing up, deep family love, romance,  tragedies, and second chances.  Throughout the book she draws strength and wisdom from M'dear, LaLuna - the river that runs through their town, and the lady in the moon herself.

I enjoyed the book and the relationships between characters, especially those formed during the years when Calla lived in New Orleans. The writing just flows and the tiniest details make events and people memorable. Other reviews have mentioned the importance of having a "pink collar" heroine in contemporary literature.  I agree that Calla Lily brings hairdressing to the level of healer that I have never seen before (This is not the story of gossip at the beauty shop!!).  However, I just wasn't into the references and prayers to LaLuna or the idea of the Lady in the Moon watching over Calla.  Ignoring that, it was a good read. I also realize that true Rebecca Wells' fans will insist that you can't delete LaLuna as it is integral to Calla Lily's essence.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

I belong to a delightful book club and we've had some great discussions over the last three years.  Normally, I don't blog about the books we've read and discussed, although I am not sure why.  Maybe I am just talked out or maybe it is because everyone else has said what needs to be said. 

Our last book, Still Alice by Lisa Genova, is beautifully sensitive story of early stage
Alzheimer's.  Harvard psychology professor Alice Howland (age 50) is the perfect success story for academia. She's carved out a respectable career, raised three children, stayed married to her research scientist husband, and paid attention to her physical health.  So when she becomes disoriented on a daily run
and for a few frantic minutes does not know the way home, Alice can not just forget the incident, but hopes it is just stress-related.  As other foggy moments come, she seeks medical help without telling her husband.  The eventual diagnosis of early onset Alzheimers with a definite genetic marker will change the entire family, especially her oldest daughter who is ready to start her own family?  What will happen to her husband who has always found answers and solace in science and research?  How long will she be able to keep teaching?  And who will Alice be if she can no longer teach?

Still Alice is Lisa Genova's first novel and it is a work driven by an intense interest in Alzheimer's devastating impact on both patient and caregivers.  A neuroscientist, Genova first self-published this book to avoid dealing with publishers; then she sought and received the approval of the National Alzheimer's Association.  Still Alice is the only book to ever receive their endorsement.  After just a few pages, you will understand why. This is a sensitive, but powerful portrayal of the human spirit. Genova relates a pivotal year in Alice's life and you will witness her downward spiral -- from her point of view.  You'll be there for the moments of lucidity and decisions amidst the more frequent episodes of confusion and dementia.  You will not be untouched by what you read.

I've avoided novels on this subject in the past, feeling that seeing my grandmother suffer from dementia when I was a child was enough, but I am glad that I did not refuse to read this book. However, I was compelled to read the book in one day.  If I hadn't, Alice.'s situation would have troubled my thoughts throughout the night hours because, as always, all stories of Alzheimers are troubling.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The truly terribly horrible sweater . . . that Grandma knit

Debbie Macomber's book that she co-authored with Mary Lou Carney (illustrated by Vincent Nygren) is not really a Christmas book, but it is a wonderful read-aloud and opens the way for conversations about accepting gifts appreciatively.  Young Cameron excitingly anticipates opening the birthday package that has arrived from his grandmother, hoping it will hold a marvelous new toy.  To his dismay inside the box is a multi-colored striped sweater handknit by Grandma.  Cameron declares (to himself) that he will NEVER wear the truly terribly, horrible sweater and sets in motion detailed plans to rid himself of said sweater.  He puts it on the dog and sends him out in the rain.  He hides it in the back of his closet.  He tries to send it off in a bag of goodwill donations and he even tries to stain the sweater with condiments -- all with no luck.

Then Christmas approaches and Grandma will be arriving.  Of course she will expect to see him in the sweater, and loving her, Cameron wears it.  Then something almost magical happens.  Grandma explains why she knit the sweater as she did.  She made the green stripe because as she knit she thought about
Cameron playing soccer, imagining that she was there watching him make a goal.  Yellow stands for the joy that his parents felt when he was born and all the happiness he has brought to the whole family.  Cameron quickly guesses why there is an orange stripe -- he just LOVES eating oranges.  Suddenly, Cameron sees the sweater in a totally new way.  He understands the love that went into making it and he is delighted to wear it.  Happy Ending.

Almost everyone can reach back into childhood to remember a gift that we really didn't appreciate.
Maybe, like Cameron, our "enlighenment" came rather quickly or maybe we never quite understood the heart and mind of the giver.  As I've read this book to classes over the years, I've remembered a pair of flannel pajamas made by a great aunt.  At age five or six, I didn't appreciate them, especially since they didn't fit too well.  I really wished I hadn't gotten them.  The grown up me realizes that this great aunt really didn't need to give me a gift.  In fact she had children and grandchildren of her own and she certainly wasn't flush with money.  But many days after morning kindergarten I would walk to her house and wait for my mother to pick me up. (Don't think there was a bus route at noon)  And because she was going to spend the holiday dinner with us, she made me a gift.  I know now that is was made with love -- I believe that a gift that takes time is always a gift of love.  By the way, Great Aunt Lizzie made the best cut out ginger cookies, and, even when only five, I was smart enough to appreciate those!

Macomber's book is a good starting point for discussions about how to receive a gift and what giving means to the giver.  It is also a strong choice for teachers or anyone introducing the concept of perceptions/viewpoints.  Cameron and his grandmother had very different viewpoints of the sweater and when Cameron came to understand Grandma's viewpoint, his own perception changed.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

All I'll Ever Want Christmas Doll by Patricia McKissack

Patricia McKissack and Jerry Pinkney make one of those rare duos whose work together surpasses any solo attempt.  Patricia McKissack's story about a little girl who really, really wants a certain doll for Christmas has just the right amount of realism to capture the lesson that others are more important than things.  And Jerry Pinkney's illustrations add a dimension to the story that is difficult to description - it catches perfectly the setting of a poorer neighborhood with a gentleness that harkens a simpler time. Young Nell desperately wants the beautiful Baby Betty doll for Christmas and when the perfect black baby doll actually appears on Christmas she is overjoyed - until her father explains that the gift is for all three sisters.  Nell is crushed that she must share and quickly makes it clear that no one would have gotten the toy had she not asked and then begged for it.  Therefore, she should be the first to hold and to play with Baby Betty. Left with no new gift to play with, her siblings soon wander off outside to play by themselves. From inside, Nell can hear their laughter and begins to realize that Baby Betty doesn't do much.  She doesn't tell stories like Nell's older sister.  She doesn't laugh.  In fact, she does nothing!  And it is not Nell who is having a wonderful Christmas Day, it is her sisters who are enjoying each other's company.  Luckily, there is a quick and satisfying conclusion to the little girl's sudden unhappiness.

McKissack's lesson that sharing and being with loved ones tops a "perfect gift" is a simple, but sweet lesson.  With today's abundance of video/computer games under the Christmas trees, this story is a reminder that shouldn't be overlooked.  In the school setting, young readers/listeners are taught about making connections between author's thoughts and their own experiences.  In my experience  reading this story, second and third graders always were able to make some strong connections between themselves and young Nell. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo

The cover of this touching does not show up well right here, but I guarantee the illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline are a perfect match to Kate DiCamillo's tale of a young girl whose actions bring the true meaning of Christmas to life. Style of car and clothes and even the fact that the little girl and her mother appear to live in an apartment alone in the city suggest that the time period is World War II.  One winter day the girl notices an organ grinder and his monkey across the street and she begins to wonder about the pair. (When I read this story to first and second graders, I needed to explain what an organ grinder was). Then it begins to snow and she wonders where the strangers go at night.  Her mother brushes the concern off saying they must have a home where they go.  Still curious, the little girl gets up in the middle of the night and looks across the dimly lit street.  There beneath the lamp is the organ grinder, standing in the snow, with the monkey tucked into his jacket.  He sees the girl and extends a wave of his hat (that is the book cover).  Even from the distance, she is sure his eyes are sad. In the morning, she even asks her mother if they can invite them to supper. Of course, her mother tells her that such an invitation would be impossible because the man is a stranger.

As the little girl gets ready for her Christmas pageant at church her mind is still on the street pair, so when she and her mother begin their walk to the nearby church, she runs across to the old man and tells him that he is welcome at church, that she will be playing an angel.  Later, at church, the nervous little girl almost forgets her important line -- until she sees her new friend and his monkey enter the church, then she shouts out her line.  It is the ending illustration that shows "Great Joy" in action as the man is welcomed by the congregation, no longer a stranger.

This story is a simple illustration of the commandment to love one another and it would be a great addition to a season of family stories.  Kate DiCamillo has written some of the best "chapter" books for third-fifth graders published in the last eight years.  You might have seen the movies Tale of Desperaux and Because of Winn Dixie, both based on her books.  And if you have an early reader in the family, make sure they discover the stories of Mercy Watson, a delightful pet pig who LOVES buttered toast.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

An Orange for Frankie by Patrica Polacco

Halloween is still two weeks away and I know, I really DO know that I should not be writing about Christmas stories, but I have a reason for doing so.  I have chosen three picture books, all of them several years old, which were favorite read a-louds for different age groups when I was still working as a librarian.  I will truly miss reading them this year, and hopefully, through the blog I can encourage someone else to locate copies of these books  to share with some young readers. So, to give you time to locate these books either at your library or through your favorite bookstore, I am reviewing several Christmas stories early.  Plan ahead, and share some quality Christmas literature this year.
But first, an editorial comment on picture books in general. Sadly, many school systems and parents, in an effort to raise test scores and keep focused on “instruction, instruction” have turned away from picture books.  Book store owners have commented that parents of first and second graders come in only wanting to buy chapter books because their children are now independent readers.  What a HUGE mistake.   For those of you thinking “golden books” or syndicated Disney books, you need to check out the picture book section in a well stocked library sometime.   Stories and pictures often detail complex themes and events, but focus on the young person’s level of understanding.  I once heard an editor explain that even horrific topics like the Holocaust can be written about on a level that is not overwhelming for younger readers. And it is the combination of visual and written that packs the double whammy of understanding.  The stories I chose to share with elementary students each Christmas season had underlying lessons that touched the heart in ways that connected with readers’ own experiences.  In today’s popular reading pedagogy that is called text to self connections.   To me, those emotional layers that can be built through books are the reason we read and should continue to read. So on to the first book review:

An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco
Patricia Polacco is known for her wonderful realistic family stories, many of which have an ethnic component.  Show one of her illustrations to almost any elementary school teacher (or most Markesan elementary students above grade 2) and they will recognize her as the illustrator because her faces are so distinctive.  My absolute favorite Polacco story is based on a real 11 year old from her family.  In the 1930’s Frankie and his large family lived in rural Michigan, a good day’s wagon drive from any city.  Frequently trains stopped at their homestead for more water, and if it was morning Frankie’s mother always had hotcakes and steaming coffee for the engineer and crew.  Even more importantly, she would have the children take coffee and food out to the hobos who had hitched rides on the train.  In the story, it is just a few days before Christmas and Frankie is sent outside to give the men their food when he notices that one of the men does not have a shirt on beneath his threadbare jacket.  Knowing that his own  hand-me-down clothes would not be large enough for the man, Frankie silently goes to his room and selects his best sweater – one his sister had knit for him the previous Christmas, and the boy gives it to the older man, who accepts it with tears in his eyes.  Later, when his mother wants to know why Frankie is wearing his too small sweater for the holidays and when his sister says she has knit a muffler to match the sweater, the boy begins to think he has done something wrong by giving the sweater away.  The story is called An Orange for Frankie because, like many families in the depression, the special gift for each child will be their fresh orange, a treat their father had to drive a day’s journey to get.  And Frankie’s guilt over the sweater will be doubled when he sneaks an early smell and touch of his orange, only to somehow lose the fruit. 
It takes almost thirty minutes to read this story out loud.  That alone indicates a story with complex narration and rich detail.  I always read it to fourth graders and it was a wonderful format for talking about the differences between their holiday expectations and the experiences of this family.  There are excellent examples of family love and sacrifice, and honestly, I got choked up every time I read this story.  Although the story has a happy ending for that Christmas, Polacco lets the readers know that this was Frankie’s last Christmas.  He did not survive childhood (and neither did the real Frankie that the story is based on.)  That ending always seemed to shock kids, but it was a great way to get them thinking about how  medical advances are really quite recent.  It is also powerful to show that a young man’s actions, like Frankie’s gift to the homeless man, can have such impact that his family remembers it years later.    Childhood death is rarer now, but it is probably that detail in the book that makes such a strong connection for me.  My father, now 93, never spoke much about his own childhood when I was growing up.  He certainly never made a big deal out of Christmas presents for us, although there were always plenty.  It was only as an adult that I realized his childhood Christmases were much like Frankie’s and for him, even into old age, Christmas would always be a mixture of joy and sorrow.  You see,  his beloved younger brother, same age as Frankie, died just a few days before Christmas from one of those childhood illnesses which today probably would be wiped out with a dose of antibiotic.  Frankie has a place in Patricia's family that will never be forgotten; young Bobbie has a similar place in my father's.
I believe fourth grade or fifth is the perfect age for this story.  I know that many kids that age could read the book independently, although there are antiquated words that may be troublesome, but I believe that sharing this book with an adult is much more powerful.  If you have family story time or can arrange one, consider this title.    If you don’t have a child to share this with, find a copy of this Patrica Polacco story anyway and you be the child.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Christmas Stories:Heartwarming Classics of Angels, a Manager, and the Birth of Hope

In July, I felt a little like those folks who work in magazine publishing or retail purchasing. These people must plan Christmas promotions and purchases months and months before December, and like them, I had my mind on Christmas when the outdoor temperatures were in the 90s.  I had the opportunity to read Max Lucado's new holiday book, of HoChristmas Stories:Heartwarming Classics of Angels, a Manager, and the Birth of Hope .  As I say in the review below, this small volume would be a great gift idea, and it would also make an awesome read aloud for a couple to share or a family with older children - maybe fourth grade and up.

Max Lucado's writing style always puts you right into the emotions of the story, no hefty or dry theological language but instead language that captures both the human and the divine at the same time.  This book would make a wonderful introduction to someone who has never read Max Lucado or as that little gift for someone who may have  time on their hands before the holidays, perhaps an elderly relative.  Most (maybe all) of the stories have been published in other Lucado books, but are brought together in this volume.  Capturing both the magical mystery and the love often portrayed in Christmas tales, the legend of The Christmas Candle is one of the longer stories. Although the story moved slowly at first, the ending is worth it. Short, but a powerful comparison,Man North Pole or Manger clearly shows which we really need. Perhaps the most powerful story for me was Angel's Story, Lucado's visualization of Satan's vicious attempt to prevent the birth of the Savior. I will view the role of the angels at Christ's birth in a new light this year.

I received an advanced copy of this book in eformat for review purposes.  The opinions expressed are my own.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Three Cups of Tea: One man's mission to bring peace one school at a time

Three Cups of Tea occupied almost every best seller list for over three years and the book became a book club favorite, as well as required reading in many schools.  I read the book several years ago - actually I read some of the chapters and listened to an audio version for part of the book.  For those who do not know the background, in 1993 after a failed attempt to climb K2, the world's second highest mountain, Greg Mortenson became separated from his group and wandered into a remote, poor Pakistanian village.  Ill and malnourished, Greg was taken in by villagers who willingly shared the little they possessed.  Over the weeks of his recovery, Mortenson is moved by the children's desire to learn despite the lack of public education. After his health is regained, Greg returns to the United States and begins a challenging path to raise enough money to build a school in the remote mountain village. 

You will learn much about the culture and mind set of Pakistan through this book.  Recently Mortenson and his foundation have come under scrutiny. Allegations have been made that this book and its successor about Afghanistan are exaggerated - that his accomplishments and successes did not actually happen.  When I heard that I was initially disappointed, especially since I had the opportunity to hear Greg's mother speak at Saint Norbert's College about the foundation's work and the life of Pakistani girls.  But I hold hope that his efforts have had some successes - note the part of the title, one school at a time.  Each and every school that is built and maintained is a success.  And I have to thank Greg and his mother for expanding my understanding of family dynamics within Muslim families, both moderate and Taliban-influenced.  The one statement that I remember most, actually comes from his mother, not from the book.  She said that statistics show that an educated mother, in most cases, will not condone a son becoming a member of the Taliban or any extremist group.  And a son, raised by an educated mother (even an education of just a few years) will be drawn less frequently to such political and religious extremes.  Even a rudimentary education has the result that the family is more accepting of others.  Hatred and fear do not need to rule.

I recently read that Mortenson is being sued because a group of readers feel that they were led astray by his book.  I wonder if they will win?  It makes me sad because I was so moved when I read his book.  I certainly do not believe that his decade of work and resulting ill health were all a scam. Hopefully his actual accomplishments will be acknowledged and the rest resolved.  At this point, I would still recommend the book to any reader who wants to learn more of Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

This week I've reviewed three nonfiction books about places, people, and experiences extremely different from our boundaries of experience.  Obviously, the purpose of each book is to move us to action. It would be wrong to simply read, stand by and do nothing,  For those who have been given much, much is required.  Look around and take notice,  we've been given much.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Conor Brennan has been nominated for the INSPY awards for his nonfiction title  Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal¸ based on his 2006 experience in Nepal.  Almost 30, Conor decided to leave work and take a year long trip around the world. Prodded by friends, he plans to stop for three months in Nepal, volunteering at an orphanage.  Unmarried, without much experience with children, and no strong calling for humanitarian work, Conor doubts what difference his stint at the orphanage will make.  But within days of arriving, the young boys have captured his heart and he strives to learn more about each.  It doesn’t take long for him to learn that most of the children are not orphans, although the boys themselves may believe they are.  Most are the victims of child traffickers who deviously convinced rural parents to pay them to “rescue” their precious sons from rampant civil war, violence, and possible capture as boy soldiers.  Parents believe their children are being sent to safer cities where they will be able to get jobs or attend school, but the truth the children are held captive until they can be sold as household servants or worse. Often they were told their parents or their whole villages had been killed in the conflicts or succumbed to disease. The traffickers themselves are not very successful and children ended up on the streets and some fortunate ones, like the “little princes” end up in orphanages.  Once Conor finds out that the boys might actually have living relatives in the distant mountains, he makes a quest to reunite as many families as he can.  Armed with photos of the children, he continues a journey that changes his life focus forever.  Interspersed with the stories of the children is his description of his journey throughout Southeast Asia and his email correspondence with a Christian American woman which blossoms into romance.
I read this book before I read Half the Sky and after I had read Three Cups of Tea.  My reaction after about twenty pages was that this was a take-off on Three Cups of Tea, but without the impact, but I changed my mind as I read further.  I think that anyone who has been called to enter territories and circumstnaces  unknown to us Westerners should share their stories.  We should not expect sainthood from the writer or complete success in their efforts.  What projects we personally are called to support should be based on educated and careful decisions, but certainly we should be open to finding out what needs exist.  Little Princes reinforces my growing understanding of how devastating endless warring and violence is on the youngest generations throughout the world.  Plus the book also reinforces the strength of the human spirit as the charm and personality of each boy jumps off the pages. They are not statistics, they are young men who deserve to be reunited with their families and deserve to have a secure future.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Half the Sky

Nicholas Kristof and and Sheryl WuDunn, the first husband and wife team to win a Pulitzer (for their coverage of China), published in 2009 their newest book, Half the Sky:Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It is one title that every American and European should read, especially the women.  Half the sky refers to the roughly 50% of the population, women, who in much of the world are violated, suppressed, ignored, and underutilized.  The couple have spent years traveling Pakistan,  India, China, Bangledesh, African nations, and countries in Southeast Asia. They will introduce readers to young victims of sex trafficking and slavery, as well as women who have been traumatized from gang rapes by neighbors, militia, and even the police meant to protect them.  You will learn about AIDS, fistulas, and other health complications ravaging young African mothers often leaving their families motherless. 

We've all seen the headlines, whether in print or on television, reporting on aborted or abandoned female infants in China and India, but did you know that worldwide girl children are less likely to receive the nutrition and medical care needed to grow up.  And in third world countries, if a girl is finally taken for medical care following a disease or injury, it is often too late.  Parents make choices with limited resources and females are not a priority if there is a son to nuture and save. 

Kristof and WuDunn will reveal some major surprises as they explain what "aid" is helping and what is not.  Often large projects or initiatives coming from the United Nations or major countries are not very successful, while smaller projects started by one or a few individuals on a grassroots level make significant changes. There is much food for thought here.  For example, we are taken back to our popular view of a few years ago that textile mills in countries like Bangledesh were horrific and we should strive to buy "American."  The authors provided a more current look, saying that in Bangledesh rural girls are now educated enough that they can move to the cities and find work in the factories.  They are living a more independent lifestyle at the same time they are sending much needed money back to their famlies.  As poverty is lessened, even to a small degree, younger siblings are able to stay in school longer and are less likely to be coerced or enticed into sex trafficking.  Plus the young factory workers are delaying marriage and with that comes smaller families. Another interesting detail is that money, in the form of micro-loans or help setting up businesses, when aimed at women provides direct benefits to the family,  The earnings are used for school tuition, food, shelter, medical care, and even savings.  There is not a similar improvement in family life style if the male is given aid.

 I liked that the couple named organizations that they felt had successes in specific areas and at the end of the book there are suggestions of groups that could be contacted. At first the atrocities and statistics in this book were almost overwhelming, but I was compelled to get better educated.  We cannot just ignore what is happening elsewhere.  After explaining social, poltical, and ethnic caues behind the despicable conditions, Kristof and WuDunn spent the last half of the book highlighting success stories of women who really did fight oppression, whether from family members, society, or ignorance.  Their pain did lead to triumph for themselves and others.  For some the success came after imprisonment, and brought change for many. For some it came after a micro-loan of a few dollars, and brought stability and survival to their immediate family. 

My advice is read this book.  However, if you choose not to read it, somehow make yourself better informed on the topic.  Then check your favorite charities, whether through your church or another organization.  Find out what projects are specifically to combat sex trafficking or retraining rescued girls.
Determine what projects provide animals, seeds, or micro-loans so families can provide for themselves. Make a choice to provide an opportunity for a girl or a woman to have a better life.