Saturday, June 30, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

From the moment 68 year old Major Pettigrew answers Mrs. Ali's knock at the door, you know you'll be treated to a rare romance and a delightful window to England's countryside, complete with ancient cottages, eccentric characters, and a spot of proper English tea.  Having just received news of his only brother's death, Major Pettigrew, in his grief, has indulged in a moment of emotional comfort by putting on his late wife's housecoat - the one she always wore to clean the cottage.  Embarrassed by his appearance when shopkeeper Mrs. Ali comes to collect the newspaper fee, he admits the reason for his bizarre appearance, and the Pakistani shopkeeper offers to make some tea to calm him.  Thus author Simonson begins her sensitive tale of the love which develops when two mature people put aside past expectations and prejudices.  Book lovers will delight that the couple's love begins to develop as they share both tea and literature.

When our book club discussed this title last week,  one of the first comments was, "Let's roast Roger right away."  Roger (the Major's son), who values the potential assets he'll someday inherit rather than valuing the living asset of his quirky, but steadfast father, is certainly deserving of some scrutiny and roasting.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Ali's own extended family values her only for her usefulness to their success and their ability to follow all necessary traditions.  Author Simonson's fictional village has been called a modern day Austenland, and she certainly has created a story ripe with society-climbers,the so-called proper Englishmen, a cluster of misfits, and of course, a few who can see the absurdity of it all.  Plus the writer has a soft touch with her setting descriptions, making it all seem so real. 

One would think the story would be a little too goody-goody and old fashioned, but the cultural story brought by Mrs. Ali's Pakistani heritage (and her nephew's strong commitment to his faith) bring both conflict and surprise to the book.

Quite often I will put off reading a book when it is getting a lot of press - some strange habit of mine.  I like to discover books before they are flying off the shelves or wait until the hoopla has died down.
So I knew of this title, but had not picked it up yet, and that made me happy that our bookclub picked it as our June read.  This is Helen Simonson's first book, and I certainly hope she has more stories to tell because she is a master storyteller.

PS.  - My favorite little detail in the book, other than the Major answering the door in a pink (purple?) housecoat, was his recollection that he quit teaching English literature when the school began allowing students to use movies in their bibliographies.  As a former English teacher/librarian I just loved this little dig at a society that no longer reads!!

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Friday, June 29, 2012

Live Your Dash: Make Every Moment Matter by Linda Ellis

A few years ago, I attended a conference at which the motivational speaker mentioned making our dash count.  What he was referring to is the years that come between our birthdate and our death, the two all important dates found on most headstones.  As he said, shouldn't the most important be the days in between and the way the person lived those days?  When I saw this book, Live Your Dash by Linda Ellis at our local library, I thought back to that conference and wondered how this perspective matched up.  Come to find out, Linda Ellis wrote a poem called The Dash, and it is her poem that has inspired other motivational speakers/writers to use that term to describe our life.

As Linda explains, some people might expect that she has written a self-help book with the typical approach of narrowing a complex topic (isn't living your life complex?) into a numbered set of simple steps.  But her book is quite different.  To me, it read like a series of short essays, each one reminding of different ways our lives can be richer, more dimensional, and more meaningful.  She reflects on the benefits of self-reflection, how to recognize success in our lives, and how to feel gratitude in each day.  Other essays propose ways to appreciate the present, rather than grasping the past or wishing for the future.  Each section is accompanied by a poem.  Some I liked, others I felt fell flat. 

This book was an easy one to read in small snippets.  Much of what she wrote, you've heard elsewhere -- to make our lives matter, to care about others, to see our small blessings as the great gifts they truly are -- but we need reminders of all these things.  Now think of a loved one you have lost, or even a historical figure you've admired.  For some of us, that birthdate or deathdate are forever remembered, but most of us remember instead the dash.  We remember how they approached life, the legacy of memories they've left behind, and in many cases, what we remember is a collage of actions and feelings.  My grandfather died when I was about 4 or 5; preparations for his funeral are among some of my earliest concrete memories.  Unless I grab a copy of the family tree or go to the cemetary I certainly don't remember either his birthdate or day of passing.  However, I can close my eyes and remember him sitting in a chair, and my younger cousin and myself running over to him and begging to have him lock us into his legs, a game of horsey.  We would do that over and over.  A tiny piece of the present when it happened, but that silly game has become for me part of his legacy, an important part of his dash.  Add in stories from my mother that it was my grandpa that rocked me and soothed me for hours when I had whooping cough at six months and nearly died, and I have a wonderful picture of a man who made moments matter.  His wealth, or lack of it; his educational level, his ambition - none of that matters now, but those moments do still matter to me.

Did you make the moments of today matter?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer is a story of ingenuity and determination against the backdrop of one of Africa’s poorest countries.  This book was on the United Methodist Women’s Bookclub reading list, and I can certainly understand their recommendation.  Young Kamkwamba does an excellent job of presenting the complex culture and politics of his country Malawi.  As a young child in the late 90’s, William daily heard stories of wizards, charms, and stolen children forced to do the biddings of witches, as well as retellings of his grandfather’s bravery as a strong warrior.  At the same time, he began to learn of the western world through the movies of Rambo and Chuck Norris  through viewings at the village trading center, causing he and his friends to create their own reenactments of what they believed was a battle between America and Vietnam, places that only existed through the VCR.  But William’s early view of the world was tempered by his parents’ acceptance of God and their membership in a Presbyterian church.

When William had just taken his state exams to enter a secondary school (about 2003), his country experienced a devastating famine.  Even farmers like William’s father did not have enough food to feed the family.  As I read this part of the book, I was ashamed to unpack my groceries into already full refrigerator and pantry.  Despite how educated or compassionate we think we are, we have NO understanding of what famine really means.  As William, his family, and his neighbors wasted away day by day, he was forced to quit the secondary school he had just started.  Despite being a poor quality school, there was no money to pay the fees.  As a boy of about 12, William’s main duty was now to help his family find food each day, but determined that someday he would be able to return to school, he tried to keep learning something each day.  That meant trips to a small library nearby, really just a few boxes of unorganized, random titles.  Digging through the boxes, William found a few useful titles: an English grammar book, some other textbooks, and best of all, an illustrated science encyclopedia.  Actually not able to read English well enough to understand the encyclopedia, William poured over the drawings and began to dream.  One of his dreams – to have electric light so he could read at night.  Most villagers had no power and therefore went to bed as dark approached.  (No light may also explain such a prevalent belief in black magic and nightly dangers.)  As the young boy finds a drawing of a windmill and figures out how to create his own blades from melting discarded pvc pipes and then combs the junkyard for everything else he needs, you will cheer on his efforts.  .  Despite being a short book, its eye-opening impact is profound.  For example, the author tells about a nearby hospital that in the mid 2005 or 2006 was using laptops for all its records, making it way ahead of American technology.  At the same time, people were getting cell phones, but had no way of recharging them.  Instant businesses popped in the market places – really just extension cords to a power source.  For a hefty fee, one could recharge his phone.  One of my biggest smiles was when William was able to use his windmill as a power source to recharge his auntie’s phone for free.

There is so much more I could tell about this book, but it would spoil it for anyone wanting this bigger than life success tale.  I actually believe it should be recommended reading for middle school and high school science or social studies classes.   One crooked, rickety windmill did change the Kamkwamba family’s life, and with that, life in their village also changed.  Without spoiling the book, I must let you know that the small boy’s fame grew, his genius was discovered, and he now studies in South Africa at a leadership academy with others that hopefully will herald a better future for all of Africa.  He now maintains a website and has many plans to help his village, his country and Africa.Check it out.

Note:   I read this title on my Nook, having downloaded the title through Wisconsin Public Library Consortium.  Thank you Wisconsin libraries.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fascinating Loons by Stan Tekiela

  This coffee table book is packed with captivating photos by nature photographer/author Stan Tekiela. Loons are such majestic, mysterious birds, and to me, almost any photograph of a loon is a piece of art. I purchased this book for my husband's birthday, believing it would be a nice addition to small leisure library at our cabin up north.  I also bought a companion book about eagles.  We want to encourage our grandchildren and anyone who visits our cabin to take the time to really connect with nature.

On our last trip there, we had an experience that perhaps brings the harshness of nature a little too close.  Our piece of the great up north is on a 47 acre no wake lake (small in the world of lakes, but big enough for our version of quiet recreation), and it hosts a pair of loons.  A few years ago, they successfully raised young and we were treated to seeing their progress over the summer.  Unfortunately, they did not have young last year.  So we were excited when as we were fishing in our little 2 person  boat, we discovered the loon's nest.  Respectfully, we stayed our distance, but watched in awe as one parent remained stately, motionless on the nest, and the other parent swam around the lake.  The next night we returned to one of our fishing holes, again being careful to keep our distance.  We could tell that one parent was on the nest, and the other loon was off aways enjoying the evening.  At about eight o'clock we heard one loon call out and thought nothing of it.  Now I think it was the loon who had been on the nest calling to the other, "Hey, it's your turn.  I'm hungry and I'm taking a break."  It wasn't even five minutes later that an eagle flew over our boat and then seconds later we  heard the most awful cry.  I've heard many loon calls, but I have never heard an animal make such a sound of panic and agony.  We turned around in our seats to see the loon who had been swimming the lake make a mad rush for the nest.  He was swimming so fast that he almost flew (loons do not fly in short distances).  His wings were beating the water as he moved.  We also saw something moving at the nest.  I immediately thought it was the other parent trying to keep the eagle away, but then we both saw the second loon a few feet from the nest.  Evidently, it had left the nest after that previous call and the eagle took that opportunity to attack.  We looked at the nest again, now realizing that the eagle was viciously jumping up and down on the eggs.  Just then the eagle flew off.

I was devastated.  I've watched the eagles up north on many occasions, always with admiration and awe.  Now we were reminded too dramatically that not all is peace and harmony in the world of the animals.  Two of my most favorite creatures are natural advisories and I can't prevent one from harming the other.  That incident prompted me to settle down with Tekiela's book to read it cover from cover.  Loons really are FASCINATING. I feel so fortunate that I have been able to witness their rituals, songs, and behaviors up close.  I swear that the pair were in mourning the next day as we took a ride around the lake.  Both were near the nest, but not on it.  Neither of them ventured to the other side of the lake like they normally do throughout the day.  The book tells that loons who are repeatedly unsuccessful at raising young may abandon a lake.  We pray that doesn't happen.

Shortly, we will be back at the cabin.  I'll be catching up on my reading which has been slim recently because of time with grandkids and the demands of my rain-starved garden, but I will also planning some fascinating loon watching time.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Joy for beginners by Erica Bauermeister

Erica Bauermeister, author of The School of Essential Ingredients, offers another sensitive, lyrical read in Joy for Beginners.  Six friends join their friend Kate in a post-cancer celebratory dinner.
When Kate's daughter challenges her to whitewater raft the Grand Canyon, the one thing that has always terrified her, Kate agrees IF her friends each also take on a similar challenge.  Only Kate gets to pick each challenge.

The challenges are chosen with remarkable wisdom, thrusting or gently pulling each woman into a deeper understanding of herself, of her role in the world, and of her ability to find joy in life.
You, as the reader, will be taken into the early morning hours of a Pacific northwest bakery, the far away canals of Venice, a tangled, forgotten garden, and of course, down the raging river.  My favorite friend and episode was Hadley and her garden.  Widowed after only a few months of wedded life, Hadley had retreated to a tiny house, obviously large enough only for one.  Even the side entrance and its vine smothered yard physically sheltered the widow from any further risk-taking involvement with the greater world.  Eventually a new neighbor and then Kate's cancer begins to pull Hadley back, but it is the challenge to revitalize her garden, to get her hands dirty with the warm, dark soil that will
give her "beginner's lesson in joy."

Each character's story ends just as she begins to find joy and you will be left with a sense of hope for each woman.  It is a little like you leave each woman just as she experiences the surprise and delight of unwrapping a gift.  For you, the short time it took to get to know each woman and then see her change for the better is your own personal gift.  Life lesson - joy and risk go hand in hand.  
 joy cover

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Fiddler by Beverly Lewis

The FiddlerDespite the  adage not to judge a book by its cover, the visual impact of a modern fiction book has much to do with its success or failure.  Not one to normally notice what I am reading, my husband's attention recently gravitated to the cover of  The Fiddler by Beverly Lewis.  He wanted to know what the book was about, what the young woman who was modestly dressed and caressing a violin was doing seated by an Amish man.  Right away I will tell you that it was the violin that caught hubby's attention.  About 11 years ago he began to play violin; in fact, he took lessons from a then 16 yr old talented young woman.  Come to think of it, she sort of looked like the girl on the cover, and like Amelia in the story, playing violin was her life.  Anyway, before I even started reading the book, we wondered if playing an instrument would be a point of conflict in the story.

Again we are connecting with personal experience.  Over the past thirty years, our rural Wisconsin community has gained many Amish neighbors and in fact our next door neighbors are Amish.  My husband likes to play his violin outside on summer evenings and sometimes his guitar.  We've never received any complaints about it (his playing is beautiful), but he and the neighbor father and son have had some conversations about music.  We've been able to enjoy some of their hymn sings by being outside on Sunday evenings or opening our windows.  The teenage son expressed interest in learning to play guitar, but later words with dad reinforced that the Plain people would frown on that.

With our personal experiences, any Amish fiction I read is with a critical eye, and I am always comparing the  fictional Amish groups from different geographic areas to our local Amish, who are definitely Old Order.  The Fiddler is strong with accurate details and an interesting plot. The story begins as unknown fiddler Amy Lee wows a country music crowd as she performs the opening act for Tim McGraw.  But the allure of the bluegrass/country scene can not claim Amy for long; she is really Amelia DeVries, a former child prodigy who now is one of the top classical solo violinists in the country.  Soon her agent finds out about her secret "country" life and demands that Amy returns home.  Worried that her parents and trumpeter boyfriend will be upset with her recent activities, Amelia agrees.  A raging rain storm, a missed turn, and a flat tire change all that, as rain soaked Amy ends up at a cabin in the Pennsylvania woods near Hickory Hollow.

Inside the cabin, twenty five year old Michael has left his Amish community yet again.  Unable to choose between his desire for advanced drafting education/modern life and honoring his parents' wishes, Michael has never joined the church.  Now at 25, his presence in the community is a problem.  Michael rescues the stranded Amy, is captivated by her beauty and resemblance to his niece (who is caught up in her own venture into the modern world), and then by her haunting musical talent.  Michael arranges a brief respite for Amy (Amelia) into the
Amish community of Hickory Hollow which will create some waves and possibly change lives. 

I was pleased this story didn't quite follow the prescribed story line that I expected.  As I always compare the fictional Amish with my real community, I question how readily any families here would open their homes to an Englisch stranger, not just for a meal, but for an extended stay.  I was also a little disappointed that the crowd that the young niece fell into were portrayed as drunks and derelicts.  I'm not sure such a dark portrayal of the Englisch crowd is prevalent in many Amish fiction stories.  I feel that most Plain people who are caught between the two worlds do not face such clear black/white differences.  Michael's dilemma was much more realistic and better developed to me.  In the end, this is a charming story of honoring one's parents while following one's heart's desires and being confident that those desires honor God.

Check out the
Beverly Lewis website for information on this new Hickory Hollow series and other titles by this top Christian author.  There is even a podcast with the author herself.

Target audience:  Young adult and adult readers of Amish fiction
Rating:  4 stars

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Beaded Hope by Cathy Liggett

beadedhope  Four unlikely companions make a mission trip to South Africa, never realizing how this trip, the African women and children they meet, and their own dependence on each other will forever change their lives.  Cassandra, who sees herself as steel-spined and self-sufficient pitches the idea of accompanying a group of women from Graceview Church on this mission trip to her television producer, not because she feels a calling from God, but because she needs a boost in ratings.  A woman nearing middle age must watch her position in the unforgiving television news industry.  Gabby is a member of Graceview and in fact works for the church, but this trip really isn't about mission for her either.  Heartache over yet another miscarriage and what she sees as a crumbling marriage propels her across the ocean to another continent.  What will her husband decide in her absence?

First grade teacher Heidi had signed up herself and her stepdaughter Katie for this trip as an attempt to reconnect to the distant teenager.  Is it a right decision?  Heidi wishes her husband was still alive to keep the family close and strong.  And how would he handle the latest news which has plunged both Heidi and Katie in whirlpool of emotions?  Despite their unique troubles, the four women bond as they find themselves in a mission compound where the simplest luxaries such as warm water, a reliable computer, or a clean floor cannot be expected.  When they finally meet the women of Mamelodi, South Africa, especially Jaleela who positively glows  with love for God despite her advanced AIDS, they are totally captivated by the dying mother's dream.  Jaleela believes that God has promised a better life for the other women in the area, that He will provide a way for them to provide for their families through their talented beadwork.  Could the four women from Ohio be part of that dream?

This book really has two stories - one of the changing American women and the second is an eye-opening introduction for readers into the lives of African families coping with AIDS and its affects.
As is mentioned in the story, every life is affected by the disease, not just the ill. Probably because the book widens our understanding of suffering and how we can help, this title won the Carol Award for Women's Fiction in 2011 and has since been chosen by Christian women's groups for their reading lists.  Author Cathy Liggett shares in an afterward that several years ago she met Jennifer Davis who at the time was wearing a beautiful piece of jewelry. Davis shared that the piece had been crafted by a woman in Africa, and that she, Davis, had just started a nonprofit called Beaded Hope to sell the jewelry in America to support the women in Africa.  Circumstances (or divine intervention) kept placing Davis and Liggett together, and along the way Liggett decided to make Beaded Hope the basis for a fiction book.  However, the story never found life on the pages until Liggett herself went to South Africa and experienced herself the power and faith of these strong women.  Part of each sale of this book benefits the women of South Africa.  You can also check the real Beaded Hope project at the Beaded Hope website where they sell not only jewelry, but aprons, tshirts, and even bookmarks.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Hope Springs by Kim Cash Tate

 At first I wasn't sure I would like Hope Springs by Kim Cash Tate.
First chapters seemed too light, and I thought I would be reading a predictable romance despite there being a large gathering of characters.  But as the characters settled into their extended stays in the Hope Springs community, author Tate exposed some deeper issues to her readers.  Todd Dillon, who has come home for his pastor father's funeral, contemplates an offer to take over his father's ministry at Calvery Church.  His trip to Hope Springs gives him an opportunity to reconnect with his childhood best friend Travis who pastors the large black congregation down the street at New Jerusalem.

Travis deeply cares for his flock, especially Grandma Geri, one of the congregation's pillars.  Geri's family, the Sanders have always been close to their white neighbors, the Dillons, and so many of Geri's grandchildren have come to grieve with Todd and his family.  It is this "enlightened" friendship between the races that Tate holds up to the light through the rest of the book.  Despite decade old neighborhood friendships, the black community and the white community do not worship together on a regular basis.  It will be a off-the-cuff Bible study at the local cafe started by cousin Janelle that will bring the women of both races together in a meaningful way.  And as Geri's family gathers round her following an announcement of a serious illness,  she reveals a family secret that will forever change the Dillons and Sanders families.

I ended up liking the book mainlt because of the bigger issues that underscore the story. I also liked the large cast which gave the author much to write about and much for me to follow. Todd's wife who appears to be a successful Christian speaker undergoes some significant reflection and rethinking of her life.  Stephanie, a young married who admits that she struggles against any call to put others first in her life, comes to cherish time with her grandma and cousins.   Soon she is reaping the rewards of selflessness.  Janelle, still deep in grief over the death of her young husband, finds she is in the position to be with Grandma Geri as her health deteriorates, but that puts her in the pathway of an old flame.  Another cousin Libby remains caught up in an empty lifestyle, but her trips to Hope Springs and the safety of extended family become more frequent.  I am sure another Hope Springs novel will follow -- romance and a happy ending finds one of the cousins, but not another.  More stories remain to be told.  I received an e-copy of this title for review purposes. 
All opinions are mine.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Fine Art of Insincerity by Angela Hunt

The Fine Art of Insincerity: A Novel  Three adult sisters convene on St. Simons Island to clean out their grandmother's beach house, a place where they'd spent numerous childhood summers.  Ginger, Pennyroyal, and Rose arrive prepared to tackle the work involved and even prepared to face their mixed memories of their grandmother.  Was she as childish as Ginger remembers?  Were her numerous marriages proof that she was always seeking a perfect love, a pattern that it seems Penny will repeat as she prepares to leave her husband for a more perfect model?  Or was she a wise woman who gave much to nuture her lonely granddaughters?

While similar stories have been told of inheritances and returns to childhood digs that lead to uncovering of secrets about past family, Angela Hunt tells a much different story (or really three stories).  Each sister comes with secrets they keep hidden from each other.  This all girls' weekend is really a charade of insincere pleasantries until one by one, the sisters' true lives  surface and are faced.  Oldest sister Ginger has always acted as the dutiful, organized perfectionist, but she will need to confront a crumbling marriage and her own emotional walls.  Obsessed by her approaching middle age, Penny initiates a plan for a weekend of  renewed excitement, but at what costs?  Rose arrives with her aged, beloved dog and with a plan that she feels will forever stop the emptiness she feels.  Can she pretend that all is normal until she has the opporutunity to act?

Despite, Ginger's job as the children's music director at her church, you will not see these women as people who have begun to struggle with their faith. In fact, faith seems entirely absent, but as the story builds to a climatic drive across a dangerous bridge, the power of forgiveness and sincere love brings Christ's gospel to life.
Fellow author Liz Curtis Higgs calls this story a "relationship novel that's a page turner," and I would agree.  Hunt does such a good job with the three alternating narrators and their unique stories that I found myself not liking any of the sisters, yet I was overjoyed as they changed throughout the novel.
There are some great questions in the reader's guide at the end of the book.  Here's one that will keep me thinking for the rest of the day.
        " If you could keep writing and plot out the likely future of Ginger, Rose, and Penny, what would these future scenes look like.  Will all three relationships succeed?"

Much relationship fiction is a look behind the curtain, a look at reality versus appearance.  Angela Hunt has successfully added another story with the curtain pulled back.