Thursday, August 25, 2011

Friendship Bread

Yesterday a trip to the garden meant a morning spent in the kitchen making tomato juice and
stirring up a double batch of banana zucchini bread.  While this bread wasn't truly a
friendship bread recipe, it brought to mind the delightful book Friendship Bread by Darien Gee that I read this spring.  And yes, I did share some of my banana bread!

Julia Evans and her five year old daughter Gracie discover a warm loaf of friendshp bread on their front porch, along with a bag of starter, and a simple note, " I hope you enjoy it."  Who could have made it
and what should Julia do with the starter?  She can barely force herself to get up each day and interact with her daughter and husband.  Brittle and fragile Julia is entrapped in grief over her son's accidental death, an accident that has left Julia alienated from her only sister.  A rare trip outside her home created by the need to dispose of some friendship starter brings Julia to the new tea shop that has opened in an old Victorian home.  Widow Madeline Davis, new to town, is trying to keep her dream shop afloat.
She, Julia, and Hannah Wang, a famous celloist, also new to the small Illinois town will forge a friendship that will help all three women face their personal heartaches.  Meanwhile, friendship bread,
new recipes, and most important of all that yeasty smelling starter keep increasing by the day.  Soon no one in town is left who hasn't been affected.  You will laugh at the responses.
Anyone who has ever been "gifted" a bag of starter, whether called Amish friendship bread or Herman,
can related to the citizens' reactions.  Did you quietly take it and then hope you could dispose of it?
Do you get almost angry when you see yet another set of starter bags sitting on the lunch table at work?
Or do you see the starter as a genuine friendship token and use it as such?  Don't worry, you'll see all these reactions in the book.  Friendship Bread is guaranteed to sweeten your day with no added calories (unless you start sampling the recipes included).

I believe this is a first book for author Darian Gee, and she has a website that supports the book.  Just as the book offers recipes for the starter and variations on the bread, the website offers even more.
People from all over have been perfecting recipes and adding to the collection.  As for me, I thouroughly enjoyed the premise of the book and wonder if the ladies could return in more books.  I thought the recipes sounded tasty, but I just couldn't take that first step to create my own batch of starter.  Maybe, just maybe, if I've given some in the future I'll take better care of it and try some of the tempting recipes. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An absence so great

If you are drawn to historical fiction and want your characters to face problems that ring true to that time, while you, the reader, immerse yourself in the period, then I can highly recommend any of
Jane Kirkpatrick's historical novels.  I will be blogging in a few weeks about her new contemporary novel, but for now I want to highlight An Absence so Great, set in 1910 Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota.  This is actually the second book in a two-book series, the first being The Flickering Light.  After reading about these books, I made a request to our library system (where I get most of my books) and the second book came first.  In fact, I still haven't gotten the first title.  Luckily, it is easy to read this book as a stand alone; enough information from the first book is repeated to make the problems totally clear to any reader.  Jessie Ann Gaebele, a strong-willed girl, of the new twentieth century had decided to pursue a career in photography.  When working as a studio girl in Winona, Minnesota, she learned more and more about the science of photography from her mentor, who unfortunately, was suffering from mercury posioning.  The relationship (as portrayed in book one) has dangerously advanced because Mr. Bauer is a married man.  Book two begins with Jessie being shuttled off to Milwaukee to work in another studio and to start her life without the temptation to to bring shame on her family.  The book bounces in setting across Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, sometimes too abruptly for me.  However, Kirkpatrick based this book on her grandmother's life and I guess these moves represent accurate changes in her life.  No matter where Jessie goes, she cannot escape Mr. Bauer's influence and his caring.  Meanwhile, his marriage remains a loveless, business arrangement, but divorce was rare in Winona or anywhere.

I've read some reviews that balked that this Christian author wrote about a girl infatuated with an older man, a man willing to admit he has feelings for her, but as I read the book I understood why Kirkpatrick would want to write about her grandmother.  We know that there has only been one perfect, sinless life, and we are all given the chance to begin again and to live as God would want us to live.  Jessie and Bauer have that chance, and their descendents can attest to that.  One of my favorite parts of the book are actual photographs from Jessie's collection that precede various chapters.  Kirkpatrick has woven those photographs into the story, making even minor characters compelling. 

So many authentic period details (mercury posioning, Milwaukee neighborhood dances, early schools for the deaf, and the endless fields of North Dakota) made this a strong read for me.  As for the relationship between Jessie and Bauer, their choices in the book reflect the choices made by their authentic counterparts.  I am not recommending the book because of their behavior, but because the author has written a sensitive, interesting book.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Nostalgic rural color amidst scenes of progress

Jerry Apps' work is familiar for most Wisconsinites simply because his nonfiction titles line the "Wisconsin" shelves of most small bookstores.  Known for his coffee table books on rural Wisconsin - barns, machinery, and pasttimes, Apps has almost single handedly provided a nostalgic look into our past.  Recently, he has continued to capture local rural color through a series of fiction books set in the imaginery Wisconsin central county, Ames County.  For those of you who know Wisconsin, think Marquette, Adams, or Waushara County.  Titles that I've read in this series include In a Pickle, Cranberry Red, and Blue Shadow Farm.  Apps' strength is definitely in capturing the setting and issues of each time period.  In a Pickle is set in mid-1950's, a time in which every area farm set aside a patch of ground so the kids could grow cucumbers. Being able to sell their produce at the end of summer meant the children had money for extras that no farm family could normally afford.  Then came 1955 and the pickle company's decision to contract with a few growers who would grow nothing but cucumbers.  Apps realistically portrays the issues that divide the rural community as everyone tries to decide whether to go big or fight the future.   These issues did not resolve quickly in the farming communities; and although farms in Southern Wisconsin (where our family farm was) never featured cucumber patches, I felt a strong connection to Andy, the young farmer in the book.  Cranberry Red provides a more contemporary look at the Wisconsin landscape as Ben Wesley enters the doman of agricultural research for profit when his job as county agricultural agent is eliminated.  Blue Shadow Farm follows a family farm for over one hundred years from its purchase by Silas Starkweather, Civil War veteran, through the next generations.  Abudance and loss battle throughout the years as you read how each succeeding generation copes with their unique challenges - debut of power machinery, the Great Depression and Prohibition, rationing of World War II, and more.  The book ends with Emma, granddaughter to the original Silas Starkweather, herself now an old lady who must decide what she will do with the farm.  Having no children, Emma could sell the farm to developers, or she could hang on to it despite her faltering health?  Could she possibly find a better alternative, one that would perserve the rich history of her piece of Wisconsin's agricultural heritage?

Whether, it's the green of the pickle patches, the crimson of the miracle cranberry, or the blue shadow of an aging farmstead, Apps has captured authentic rural color. Recommend these books to anyone with farm background.  They might be surprised how much they enjoy them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

South of Superior - strong in local color and characters

If your mother had abandoned you in a soup kitchen at age three and your grandfather had refused to raise you, what kind of adult would you become? How would you react when years after your grandfather's death, a stranger asks if you'd be interested in relocating to the isolated village where he had made his home?  Would a deep hidden anger and yearning for answers prompt you to leave behind a sophisticated fianc├ę and the bustle of Chicago for a life as uncertain as the weather on the greatest of all lakes?  Author Airgood has created a town peopled with strong, but flawed characters, each one adding to Madeline's unfolding understanding of her heritage and her future.  Ellen Airgood's small town has outlived the grandeur of the mining and logging days, just as the real small towns have that dot the UP's shoreline.  You won't find the opulence of earlier times, but you'll find that "sisu" (Finnish for courage) still abounds in the residents and perhaps even in the old buildings that line the old streets.

This book will offer much for book clubs to discuss, and as someone for whom Lake Superior has an almost mystical pull, South of Superior has demanded that I make yet one more trip to its shores. After checking Ellen Airgood's website, I found authentic photos that inspired Ellen's places and people plus great audio interviews with the author.  Although I know some reviewers have felt that her plot isn't direct enough and perhaps she tries to do too much in one book, I still strongly recommend this book simply because the characters and the setting are intertwined so much.  Her fictional town of McAllaster has a star role in this book and it will have travelers imagining the stories behind every small town they drive through.  Romantics and those who believe in serendipity will also want to read the New York Times piece Ellen wrote about how she met her husband and ended up living in Grand Marais near the UP's Painted Rock Lakeshore.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Local color in literature

I've got color on my mind, maybe because my four year old granddaughter has wanted to play school each day when she comes to our house.  Guess who gets to be her student and guess who is told she must color a picture?  Why grandma, of course.  Or maybe I've been thinking about color because September is fast approaching, and for the first time in 26 years I will not be overwhelmed by the return to school.  This year I am going to have time to soak in the wonderful colors of autumn, each and every day.

All of this, plus the new book I am reading, has brought back to mind the literary term "local color."  When I taught American literature to high school juniors, we always covered local color when studying the Realism literary movement of the late 1800s and the Naturalism movement that followed.  Think of authors like Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Bret Harte, or Jack London.  I try to imagine the readers of their time being transported from their everyday lives (maybe somewhere in the East or Midwest) to the settings of the busy Mississippi River, the just beginning-to-be settled west, or later, the Alaskan gold fields.  No National Geographic television specials or web cameras to capture the interaction of man and nature.  No, all relied on the power of the written words.  Stories strong in local color make the specific place and time of the setting an integral part of the story.  During the Realism movement, readers were experiencing places they had never seen; today a book with local color may transport to a new place or it may be set in a fictional community in a part of the country or the world that we will recognize for its uniqueness.  I always loved the selections we read to help students understand the concept of local color. If you have never experienced Twain's view of the barely settled west, try the short story, "The Jumping Frog of Calavarous County."  You'll love it.  And nothing makes the cruelty and danger of hyperthermia more real than reading London's "To Build a Fire."  A few years ago, I found out my husband had never read that story, so we read it together outloud --- on a very cold, snowy December night while at our northwoods cabin.  Sitting in front of wood burning stove, having snowshoed to the cabin from the nearest plowed road, we could almost feel the character's cold wet hands as he stumbled to try to light a match.

South of Superior, the book that I am currently reading, has strongly developed local color, but I can't share anymore until I actually finish reading the book.  That will be soon I guarantee.  My next post will share a little Wisconsin local color and then it will be off the southern shoreline of my favorite Great Lake. Until then I recommend you try to find a short story by one of the mentioned authors (many can be found on the web for free) and try a little local color.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A new series with promise

Several years ago I read Finding Alice by Melody Carlson, a story about a young college student who exhibits signs of schizophrenia, but believes she is having visions.  I finished the book thinking I would find more books by Carlson to read, but just never did until I got the opportunity to read an advanced reader's copy of River's Song, book one in a new series set in the northwest.  I recently checked Carlson's website and found she is a prolific writer with modern day series and historical fiction series, both for women and children.  The deep subject of Finding Alice appears to be a unique endeaver as the rest of her books appear to be lighter reading, and River's Song definitely fits the quick read category.

That said, River's Song is an enchanting read that took this midwestern reader to a new setting, somewhat reminsicent of 1950's and 1960's northern Wisconsin.  Anna Larson has returned to the coast of Oregon to deal with her parent's closed up "Mom and Pop" store at the Siuslaw River's edge following her mother's death.  For years, Anna has stayed away from her childhood home to shelter her mother from the reality that Anna is trapped in a joyless life orchestrated by her domineering, bigoted mother-in-law.  For the first time in decades, Anna feels hope and peace as she spends time on the river.  Quickly her life becomes populated with supportive friends, old and new, and with their assistance Anna decides to transform the abandoned store into The Inn at Shining Water.  Carlson skillfully uses the relationship between Anna and the minor characters to unravel the story of Anna's heritage as a Siuslaw Indian, her tragic marriage to a rich, impulsive white man, and the bigotry she's faced at her mother-in-law's hand since her young husband's death. Being already deceased, Anna's mother and grandmother are two of the most richly developed characters in the story.  You'll feel their presence and their values behind every one of Anna's choices.

I plan to read the next book in this series when it is published, and now that I've read more than one book by Melody Carlson, I'll be watching to see her other endeavors.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Almost Heaven

This week's postings will be about Christian fiction.  Since it is another busy summer week for our family, I am going to start with my first recommendation right now.

  I was drawn to Chris Fabry's new award winning novel, not by the awards and accolades, but by the premise for the book. My husband plays both guitar and violin, mostly Christian and bluegrass music.  Although he doesn't know how to play it, he bought a mandolin and it adorns his music room. It was  mandolin music that drew me to Almost Heaven.   Set in West Virginia, the story revolves around Billy Allman, who runs a small bluegrass-Christian radio station from his modest home. Keeping it going is a 24/7 endeavor that consumes Billy's life.  The story takes the reader back to Billy's childhood and the great flood that wiped out his home and changed his family forever. You'll see a gifted child mandolin player put aside his passion and embrace this mission of bringing uplifting music to his isolated corner of West Virginia, but like his neighbor, Callie, you'll wonder why God's joy escapes him.  Chapters which detail Billy's struggles and triumphs alternate with ones narrated by Malachi, an angel serving in God's army who have been assigned to watch over Billy.  As Malachi says, we humans expect stories with guardian angels to be cheery with perhaps a bumbling angel.  That is not what Fabry has written.  You will feel the power of Malachi, his strength originating with God.  And the evil that Malachi fights will fill you with chills as you recognize that the "malevolent beings" depicted could be surrounding each of us on any given day. 

Many Christian novels go no further than being good clean reads, some border on being unrealistically candy-coated, and others delve into some perplexing theological questions.   I don't have an adequate label to give this book.  As I was reading, I kept wanting to copy down passages to read again, not as parts of the story, but as descriptions of our path as Christians.  I highly recommend this Christy Award winning book, and to entice you, I will quote Malachi near the end of the book.
"Grappling with life and its many decisions takes the heart of a warrior.  After my close encounter with the enemy of men's souls, I see that anew and I am more sure than ever that there is only One who can be trusted with every question mark.  As many on earth have found, to cast oneself on the sure mercy and love of the Creator is not an act of blind faith, but a daily act of contrition.  For my questions are never answered with an explanation other than the twin beams of wood known as a cross.  If I can live with that great question mark of history, I can live each with the questions that arise from Billy's life and my own . "

I would love to hear from readers who have read this book or other Fabry books.  I will read more by him and encourage your recommendations.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A great read for boys and girls will like it, too: Cracker the best dog in Vietnam

Start listing books that upper elementary school or middle school boys will like and the list will likely include some classic dog stories (Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, and Big Red). I believe
Cracker the best dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata will take its place on that list.  I first began recommending this book when it was published in 2007 and I've never stopped.  Young Willie obtained Venus after the show dog's broken leg made him no longer valuable.  But the boy-dog bond is cut short by the landlord's no dog policy.  Willie turns Venus over to a military training unit and Venus is renamed Cracker.  Following the training that Cracker and his human partner Rick receive stateside, they are sent to the jungles of Vietnam to locate booby traps and mine fields.  You will be thrust into the war action, but will also be caught up in the emotional bond between dog and man. 

As always, I want to tell more, but I must leave those details for each of you to discover.  Kadohata did a book signing in DePere just days after this book was published and I was able to hear her talk about the research that went into this book.  She sought out Vietnam veterans who had worked with the bomb sniffing dogs and corresponded with them throughout the book via email.
She made sure that all details were accurate and met their approval.  One of her consultants, a
veteran from the Fox Valley, attended the book signing with her, and he spoke with great emotion about the bond between himself and his bomb-sniffing dog.  This author has found another unique niche in our history and has made it come alive for all of us. 

This is a tear jerker; at the same time it is a realistic war-time historical fiction, suitable for age 10 and up.  Once I reminded a junior high girl that she had this title and it was extremely overdue. She then confessed that she was done reading it, but she just couldn't part with theh book yet.  She loved Cracker too much.

I always tell kids that finding a really strong author is a gift because you can be confident that you will like more than one title by that author.  Kadohata is that type of author, yet most middle schoolers won't pick up her books without some enticement because her characters and settings are out of the ordinary.  Kira Kira (Newbery Award winner) and Weedflower are as strongly written as Cracker and both feature strong young girls facing difficult circumstances.  Again readers will be shown unique slices of the American scene.  Take a chance and read some quality literature written for the 10+ audience and then share your findings with a young reader!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Counting on Grace

This photo and hundreds of similar ones can be found by simply searching for photographer Lewis Hine on the web.  Who was this interesting man and what was his crusade?  Actually, Lewis Hine studied to be a teacher right here in Wisconsin at the Oshkosh Normal School and he also spent several years working in a factory as a young man.  Those two life experiences spurred his interest in documenting the conditions youth all across America faced as they worked lengthy days in unsafe textile mills, agricultural fields, and city streets in the early 1900's.  Armed with his camera, Hine used many different tactics to go "undercover" to not only photograph, but also interview America's youngest workers. 

Lewis Hine, the real photographer, plays an important role in Elizabeth Winthrop's historical fiction book Counting on Grace.  Grace's family are French Canadian immigrants who have settled in Vermont to work in the textile mills.  Age twelve, Grace and her friend Arthur were attending the room school and teacher Miss Lesley considers them her best students, so Arthur and Miss Lesley are devastated when orders come from the mill that Arthur must begin work there.  Either he works or his widowed mother loses her place at the mill and their home.  When Grace similarly is summoned to the mill, she faces the challenge with spunkiness and determination.  Being left-handed presents a special challenge as she must learn to "doff" or change the bobbins at lightening speed without clumsy mistakes. Even one mistake means lost time or even injury.  While Grace tries to master her responsibilities, she begins to worry about Arthur's behavior. What is he willing to sacrifice to escape the mill and get that education he so desperately desires.  Then one day, when the mill officials are gone, a stranger, Lewis Hine, comes to the mill.  He says he has come to photograph the child workers for an advertisement, but Grace and Arthur quickly learn this is not the reason.  Does he have something to do with an anonymous letter that Arthur, Miss Lesley. and Grace had penned during their secret lessons?

I love to recommend this book to middle school readers because it presents a picture of America seldom covered in depth in social studies.  Although this is historical fiction, all the characters are realisitcally developed.  Winthrop did extensive research before writing this book and she creatively wove in the real Lewis Hine.  It was the action of unknown individuals such as Hine that ended child labor in our country and assured that millions of children would get educations.  Many people think historical fiction books are going to be about war, the frontier, or English kings and queens.  I've found my most favorite historical fiction books are about the little niches of history which reveal the hardships and triumphs of strong unknowns like Grace, Arthur, and their families.  You will not forget them.

Occasionally our bookclub will choose a young adult or middle school book to read.  When we read and discussed this book last winter, several members of the group came enthusiatically armed with nonfiction books, websites, and photos detailing the life of the real Lewis Hine.  Silently, I thought,"This is what reading is supposed to do" - excite the reader beyond the page into discovery, learning, and an expanded world.To help you on that same journey, here is a link to just one of dozens of websites that will tell you  more about Lewis Hine.  If you have a child in your life (fourth grade and up), consider reading this book with him or her.  I've actually listened to the audio version of this book and it would make an excellent book to share in audio format.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

August days

A few years ago the heat of early August meant county fair, the kids' 4-H projects, and the countdown to school. After the kids grew up, August brought moving in day for college and all the turmoil, excitement that comes with those big changes. Those years have passed and Augusts have been calmer. There was time for a northwoods trip, but even then August always had the faint call, "School is starting" which would increase its tempo and loudness as the month progressed. NOT THIS YEAR! However, the month has started with a flurry of activity and no time to blog. On Tuesday, a friend and I made a trip to the family cabin, almost a four hour trip for a short girls' outing. We window shopped in Minocqua's popular downtown, ate supper, and headed for the cabin. Since rain had made everything wet and mosquitoes were in attack mode, we settled into the cool cabin for the rest of the evening. I made some progress on Melody Carlson's new book which I will blog about later. Wednesday morning we headed out to Mercer,a typical Northwoods small town, for its iconic Loon Day. LD draws thousands of people to the main streets of town for a craft fair with over 300 exhibitors. It took us over 3.5 hours to make the loop one time. Some unique offerings, but also many same old. same old. By mid-afternoon we needed to close up the cabin and make the long trek home. Both of us are babysitting grandchildren for the rest of the week. My plan is to blog later this week about two historical fiction books, both ones I loved to booktalk for the above fourth grade audience. With the first posting, I will make my pitch about why adults should know about these books and quality middle school books in general. See you then.