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.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Next to love by Ellen Feldman

Babe, Grace, and Millie forged a friendship on the first day of kindergarten and it would seem they are destined to remain by each other's sides when as young wives their husbands ship out in 1942.
But then comes that day in 1944 when sixteen telegrams are delivered to their small town and lives are changed forever.  On the surface, the  women remain friends and support each other, but the reader has a window into the private heartache the three face as the aftermath of World War II follows everyone right into their suburban homes of the 1950s and 60s, creeping into their kitchens and their bedrooms.  You'll witness children growing up without knowing their fathers, but being expected to be true to them, and you'll witness the unromantic, but enduring healing of true love.  Author Ellen Feldman writes about doing much research for this book, and I felt that was apparent during the early chapters of the book.  When I read the letters between the young husbands and wives, I could almost hear their young, hopeful voices repeat and repeat, "After the war, after the war," but as Babe's husband makes clear twenty years later, "There is no after the war."  This is a book about lost dreams and lives that are changed forever, but it is also a book about survivors, even those who don't want to survive.  Other reviewers have mentioned the  emotional distance among characters and between story and reader that the author created.  I believe that distance adds to the realistic tone of the book.  We, as readers, are learning their secrets, but those deepest thoughts and feelings remain hidden from each other and to some extent still hidden from us. That is realistic writing as it should be.

I received NEXT TO LOVE as an e-galley from NetGalley, and this review expresses my personal opinions