Friday, January 28, 2011

Can't pass up this title: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl CultureBest title ever.

I loved Peggy Orenstein's book Waiting for Daisy, so when I saw she'd written a book about the princess culture, I put it on hold at the library immediately. Daisy has grown up and has been eaten by Cinderella. Stay tuned for a review.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The 19th Wife: Perfect combination of historical fiction and a modern-day mystery

The 19th Wife: A NovelMy rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I truly enjoyed this novel, which combined the tales of two people who fled polygamy. As a historical fiction fan, I especially liked reading those parts of the book.

Ann Eliza Young became the "19th wife" of Brigham Young when she was a 24-year-old divorcee and he was 67. Instead of #19, she was probably #52 (polygamists don't keep very specific records of their wives). She left Young and become an "apostate," fleeing Utah to lecture against polygamy in the late 19th century. I had never heard of her before I began to read this book. She also published an autobiography, The 19th Wife, and faced scorn and hatred from the LDS church. Ebershoff rewrites Young's story by including sections of The 19th Wife (which he has rewritten--the original was long, overly wordy, and extremely biased) and also featuring excerpts from people's diaries and other accounts. Although based in reality, this is historical FICTION at its best. (Many LDS members have taken issue with Ebershoff recounting of Ann Eliza's story as well as the way he presented Brigham Young's egotism and cruelty.) Judging from her own words and the recount of her estranged son, Ann Eliza was not a saint, but she was a victim.

Interspersed with Ann Eliza Young's story is a murder mystery set in modern-day Utah. Jordan Scott, who was thrown out of his fundamentalist LDS sect years before, tries to get to the bottom of a mystery: his mom has been accused of murdering his dad. Jordan also happens to be gay. He leaves his home in California to return to Utah, where he hopes to get to the truth. Jordan has been deeply damaged by his childhood in a polygamist family and community.

I believe that modern-day Mormons are presented in an objective light in this book, even though many reviewers disagree with this. Young BYU history scholar Kelly Dee, whose ancestor is Ann Eliza Young, is attempting to research Ann Eliza's story. She volunteers at the Ann Eliza Young House, a refuge for children trying to escape from polygamist communities. Maureen works for Jordan's mother's lawyer, and she goes out of her way to help Jordan. Jordan and his new boyfriend, Tom, visit a church in Las Vegas that reaches out to gay Mormons.

Reading this book, I was struck by the strange juxtaposition of polygamy with the uptight views about sexuality in the LDS church. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other prominent LDS pioneers used polygamy to justify their lust and lasciviousness in the name of their faith. They were sexual predators of very young girls who were too young to get married. When they were questioned about polygamy or when women tried to challenge this practice, they were told that their faith was weak. As we all know, polygamy continues today in fundamentalist LDS sects. What was most interesting about this book was the overlaps between early Mormonism and fundamentalist Mormonism today.

At the same time, Mormons wear sacred underwear and Brigham Young taught that a woman must never reveal her sacred underwear to a man, even her husband. I believe this has changed since Brigham Young's time, but the foundations remain (pardon the pun!). I had a former Mormon coworker who told me that he has never seen his wife naked. Seriously. They had three children and had been married all their adult lives. Another oddity is that until 2005, a secret temple ceremony involved naked touching (annointing of the body) (if this ex-Mormon Web site is to be believed).

The weakest part of the book was the modern-day Jordan story. Some of it I enjoyed, but some of it could have been tightened up. Some of the characterization I found to be a bit stereotypical (the gay young man with the dog...and his friend back home who calls him honey), and other times I felt it just brushed the surface on the many modern-day characters. One thing Ebershoff clearly wanted to emphasize is the collateral damage that polygamy does to its children.

As I was reading this book around the time when we watched "Elizabeth" and I found myself frustrated with its many historical inaccuracies, I've concluded that I like intepretations of history...the filling in the blanks, so to speak...instead of rewriting history. I might be able to handle rewriting history if I know that's what it is. Ebershoff makes it very clear that he is filling in the blanks and his novel is based on history, but it's not historical fact...a point that many of his LDS critics seem to disregard.

Ebershoff ends his book with an explanation of what was true and what was imagined, in addition to his thoughts on history. He believes it is subjective and invites interpretation. You can read his interesting thoughts on history and fiction on his Web site, which also has more information on Ann Eliza Young (including a PDF of her original memoir) and some resources about polygamy, the LDS church, and gay Mormons.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Lightning Thief: Riordan's no JK Rowling...

The Lightning Thief (Movie Tie-in Edition) (Percy Jackson and the Olympians)My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

We have an inside joke in my family. When my husband and I sang the Ave Maria at his sister's wedding, one of his mother's friends pronounced (in a broad British accent), "It was nice, Michael, but you're no Pavarotti!" Rick Riordan has written a good novel, but he's no JK Rowling.

I read this book with my 7-year-old son, who loved it. He's now got a Greek mythology obsession and for a time (before getting turned onto Star Wars--my head is spinning!), he wanted to be Zeus for Halloween.

This book has so many things in common with Harry Potter and other fantasy novels that it's hard not to compare them--some have even called it the American Harry Potter. It's written in a much more simplistic way, probably more to appeal to kids than adults and children (like Rowling seemed to target).

I love the fact that Riordan's hero has ADHD and dyslexia, and that his friends all seemed to face their own challenges. Taking Greek mythology and weaving it into a modern-day story is a genius idea.

My biggest beef with the book was in the beginning, when Percy's mom dies (or disintegrates). Either Riordan has never had to grieve the death of someone he loved, or he just simply didn't know how to handle the issue in a middle-grades book. Percy hardly grieved her death AT ALL. By the end of the day, he was actually blase about it. As a mom of boys, this offended me!

Even with that weakness and its inability to compel me the way the Harry Potter series does, it was a fun read and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Up in the Air: Seriously lacking George Clooney

Up in the AirMy rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I saw the film "Up in the Air" and enjoyed it (although I was not crazy about the ending), so when I saw this book in the library, I thought I'd give it a try. I gave up about 100 pages into the book, because I could not care about the characters and found the lack of plot frustrating.

Up in the AirKirn is a master of details--most of this book consisted of observations about life in the air as a businessman. While the movie skewered the modern business world (as we follow Clooney's character Ryan as he travels around giving people the axe), the book focused on the travel aspects and the idea of a life lived in airports and navigating between various American cities. It's supposed to be a great satire, but I found the movie to be more interesting and certainly entertaining (after all, it's got George Clooney!).

So if you like to read extensive detail about air travel, airports, hotels, and transportation from one city to another, check it out. If you're looking for a plot, pick something else...or try the movie.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Eat This Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time

Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less TimeMy Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

This was a quick little read with some good ideas...I wrote about the most compelling ones in my organizing blog. The title is based on a quote by Mark Twain...he said that if you eat a frog in the morning, everything you do after that will be easy. Brian Tracy uses this idea to emphasize that you must do the hardest thing in your day first. I had a hard time getting past this image of eating frogs...but I understand the reason behind it.

If you're looking for some ideas about prioritizing and organizing your time, I'd recommend this quick little read. The author was a high school dropout and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in his 30s...and went on to become a millionaire and inspirational speaker. He's married with four kids now. So what he's talking about seemed to work for him!

In Odd We Trust: so so

In Odd We TrustMy rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My mother-in-law read this book while she was visiting and pronounced it to be "stupid." This is the January selection for my new book group. My friend Kristin had recommended that I read one of the full Odd Thomas novels first, which I did. I vastly preferred the full-length novel to this graphic novel.

I've read a number of literary graphic novels over the years, and the quality of this one did not compare with the others. The illustrations seemed almost manga-esque. The characters were not particularly well developed, and my favorite character in Odd Thomas, his girlfriend Stormy, just seemed to be trigger happy in this one. This book was like a prequel to the rest of the series. I wasn't particularly impressed with the story either.

It took me just a few hours to read this, so not much time was wasted. But I think Koontz should stick to writing full-length novels. This was just a little novelty.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Knowing Jesse: Beautiful mother's tribute to her precious son

Knowing Jesse: A Mother's Story of Grief, Grace, and Everyday BlissMy rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you read my last review, you'll know that I prefer happy endings to novels. With this memoir , I knew I wasn't going to get a happy ending. That's partly why it sat on my bookshelf for awhile before I could pick it up. In spite of the sad ending, I loved this book.

Actors Marianne Leone (best known for her role on "The Sopranos") and Chris Cooper had a son, Jesse, who was born on October 15, 1987, at 30 weeks gestation, weighing 3.7 pounds. Our Chris was born 9 years later (at 24 weeks, weighing 1 pound, 6 ounces), and a great deal had changed in the field of neonatology during that intervening time. However, one of the major focuses during Chris' first week of life was still the question of whether he would have a brain bleed (the technical term is a cerebral hemorrhage). These are extremely common in preemies, especially micropreemies, and can predict the outcome of their NICU course and the rest of their lives. I remember the amazement of the medical staff that Chris did not have a brain bleed. (He did suffer cerebral edema and low flow to the brain a month later, but no brain bleed.) Leone's son Jesse had a Grade IV (the worst) brain bleed. As a result, he ended up with cerebral palsy and was a nonverbal quadriplegic. But what a life he lived!

Even though our preemies turned out to live very different lives, I could relate to so much of what Leone wrote about with Jesse...
  • The indescribable day they were finally able to take Jesse home from the hospital...
  • Fighting the advice of her mother, who scolded, "You can't hold him all day long" (about which she wrote "Yes, I could. Those months of heartbeat you missed out on would be supplied now")...not only did we hold Chris all day long, but we held our subsequent sons all day long as well...only another parent who has not been able to hold their child for 6 weeks could understand this...
  • How she felt that her son belonged to the NICU staff, the social worker, the specialists who lacked any social skills...
  • How desperately she wanted her son to be "normal" and avoid the need for "early intervention" (she used to chant a mantra of "noCPnoCPnoCPnoCP" until she realized it wasn't working)...
  • How she chanted another mantra to herself with her long list of wishes: "let him thrive"...I used that mantra/prayer myself...
  • How she hired her son's first caregiver not on the basis of her glorious references (which she never got around to checking...) but because the first thing she said upon seeing Jesse was "Oh! Isn't he gorgeous!"...I remember how grateful I was to people who told me that Chris was beautiful or cute, and how hurtful it was when they didn't say a thing or know how to respond...
  • The terrible guilt she feels for not realizing what a truly awful environment he was in during his first year of "integrated" school, abused and neglected by the aide who was supposed to be helping him--and the first-grade teacher (I still feel guilt for not fighting against an unnecessary procedure to do an invasive exam on Chris when he was hospitalized at 1 year old)...
At one point, an arrogant neonatologist told them that they wanted to place a shunt in Jesse's brain "for prophylactic reasons" and because his "clinical course might be better" (even though he didn't have hydrocephalus)...and when she asked for the words in plain English, the doctor snapped "it's only a piece of plumbing!" What mom of a sick child could not relate to this statement:
"This was the first time I had to be physically restrained from attacking one of your 'healers.'" (I felt this so many times!)
I love the way she handled rude stares (by telling Jesse, loudly, "You're so handsome! People can't take their eyes off you!").

Leone's fight for her child's rights and dignity reminded me of the classic books Karen and With Love from Karen, written by her mother, Marie Killilea. (Karen was born prematurely and also has cerebral palsy, and her mother fought to keep her at home with her family, in spite of doctors advising her to institutionalize her daughter.)

They had horrific, heart-breaking experiences with "early intervention" (or "early interference," as she calls it) and attempts to get Jesse into regular classrooms...he was treated as if he was mentally disabled, when his only disabilities were physical. Throughout it all, Leone was Jesse's greatest advocate. "The sheer bureaucratic obtuseness of the parade of bozos that had permanently entered our lives was the worst aspect of Jesse's handicaps." As if parents of a disabled child did not have enough fear and anxiety to bear, they also have to deal with daily fights just to get their child equal opportunities and respect.

Leone writes about her post-traumatic stress from growing up in a hellfire-and-brimstone Catholic environment. By her own admission, she embraces the smells and bells aspect (if it will give her hope to heal Jesse) but rejects the guilt, the hypocrisy, and the shame. (It's like people who are sick or whose family members are sick and don't necessarily pray for themselves, but accept the prayers of others.) I did not know that the root meaning of the word "heretic" is "able to choose," but I love that. That's how she feels about Catholicism...and how I too feel about Christianity. I can choose what I want to believe, not what a religious leader is telling me to believe...

I cried repeatedly throughout this book. When Jesse describes himself--by hitting the word on the computer repeatedly by using his eye to control the cursor--as "strong." When she takes him to hear Handel's Messiah when Jesse was three, and he began singing during the Hallelujah Chorus...and she realized she had to stop worrying about him all the time, so she could appreciate that moment in time when he was trying to sing. When reading the letter Jesse received from one of his teachers, or the love he experienced from his caregivers. At each poem of Jesse's I read (each chapter opened with one of his poems).

Jesse lived to be 17 years old. He had many close friends and people who loved him dearly. He got his ear pierced in the mall with his friends when he turned 16. He played video games, traveled, and loved to go on thrill rides. He wrote poetry, excelled in Latin, and was an honor student. He lived a very full life, surrounded by the love of his family and wise beyond his years. This was his first poem, at the age of ten:

On the inside, I walk
On the outside, I give
On the outside, I am mute
On the outside, I give
On the inside, I speak
On the inside, I walk

Every child deserves to be loved and cherished as much as Jesse was. Children with disabilities, especially, deserve this much love and affection. Jesse was blessed to be born into this family, to parents who were dedicated to helping him and advocating for him. It makes me sad to think about the children "dumped" into unhelpful learning environments or ignored by the "system" because they don't have parents who have the guts, passion, and strength to fight the good fight.

When I read these types of memoirs, I can't help but think how close we came to this type of parenting experience. We were exceptionally lucky that Chris avoided major disabilities. I am in awe of parents like Leone and her husband, and I am also in awe of Jesse's strength, confidence, and passion for living. His death was the world's loss.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Odd Thomas: Better than I thought...

Odd ThomasMy rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I read this book in preparation for reading the graphic novel, In Odd We Trust, which is the January selection for my book group. I've never read anything by Dean Koontz, and I tend to stay away from these types of books in general. That's one of the advantages of a book group: it gets people to step out of their comfort zones.

I liked this book more than I thought I would--it's actually well written. It's the story of an odd character, Odd Thomas, who lives in a small town in the Mojave Desert. He had a horrific childhood, but somehow survived intact--with a deep sense of intelligence, insight, and compassion rarely found in 20-year-olds. (In fact, this is one of my first criticisms of the book: Odd Thomas did not think or talk like a 20-year-old who has never left town. He talked and thought like a 55-year-old.)

Odd has a special gift: he sees the dead. Through the presence of these dead people (and also darker, more sinister spirits kind of like dementors), Odd helps solve (or prevent) horrific crimes. On the way, he encounters coyotes, tarantulas, body parts, and deadly killers.

This book has a number of grisly and violent scenes and is described in some circles as "horror." It's not particularly more violent than Patricia Cornwell, books, though.

Koontz creates colorful, memorable characters. I enjoyed reading about Odd's friendships with the town's most eccentric characters, in addition to his unique, intimate relationship with his girlfriend, Stormy (actually named Bronwen, a name I have liked since I had a childhood friend by that name). (Although his chaste relationship with Stormy, although wonderful, probably was another example of an unrealistic portrayal of a 20-year-old.) Even though Odd did not seem particularly realistic, he was a hugely sympathetic, likable character. It's easy to cheer for him and to want him to be happy, although I have a feeling that is unlikely to happen.

SPOILER ALERT! (Do not read below here if you do not want to have the ending ruined.)


In the beginning of the book, Odd essentially hits us over the head with the fact that he is not going to be a reliable narrator. Perhaps indicative of my optimistic nature and my tendency to want a happy ending, I kept hoping that Odd would be able to avert tragedy for himself and Stormy. (After all, he was able to avert tragedy for several others.)

I should have known better. I shouldn't have been sucked in. Because, you guessed it, Odd Thomas does not have a happy ending. I felt cheated in the end, although I can't say Koontz hadn't warned me.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Who knew Trader Joe's had a cookbook?

As I wrote about in my other blog today, on Epiphany the three kings fill our shoes with gifts. These are some of the bookish things they brought today:
Book Lover's 2011 Page-A-Day Calendar
Mike's gift--
he loves page-a-day calendars!
Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Page-A-Day 2011 Desk Calendar
Chris' gift--
he loves Uncle John's Bathroom Reader books
and shrieked when he saw this toilet-shaped calendar!


Noddy and the Rocket Ship
Nick's gift--
Brits will know who Noddy is!
The Trader Joe's Companion: A Portable Cookbook
Mike's gift--
did you know there was such a thing as a Trader Joe's cookbook?
This is just one of many! Try a search on Amazon.
Now that we know this, I'm determined to search them out!
2011 Elvis (Al Wertheimer) Wall Calendar
Kieran's gift--
his recent obsession is Elvis! 

Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Education in Afghanistan and Pakistan
My gift--I loved Three Cups of Tea so I look forward
to reading this one

Nuns Having Fun Calendar 2011
I already had purchased a calendar for myself, for my office...
I love nuns in unconventional poses!

Rock Paper Tiger: Ultimately, disappointing

Rock Paper TigerMy rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Ellie McEnroe is an Iraqi vet suffering from PTSD and addicted to painkillers and alcohol. She's living in Beijing after moving to China with her husband, Trey, who leaves her for a Chinese woman.

She hangs out with artists and leads an aimless existence, trying to escape from her own personal horrors from the war.

Somehow, she falls into trouble with both the Chinese government and some Americans (either the government or private contractors, it's unclear which). They chase her all over China, threatening her if she doesn't reveal what she knows about her artist friend's hideaway Uigur (Muslim Chinese), who he was sheltering in his apartment. Yet she knows nothing. In the meantime, her artist friend goes missing.

The book goes back and forth between present-day China (which, I can tell you, is NOTHING like the China I visited in December 1989), and her time in Iraq. Her husband keeps pestering her to sign divorce papers and to cooperate with the "authorities," who he seems to be affiliated with, even though she doesn't know what they need from her.

Ellie's method of communication is a virtual reality game, where friends of the artist (presumably) try to steer her in the right direction...but it's all very unclear what they need from her.

My mother-in-law commented that I seemed to be reading this book for a long period of time. It did seem that way.

It's not that it wasn't readable...I enjoyed reading the descriptions of "new" China, and it had some powerful messages about politics, power, and tyranny in the military and government.

Ellie was a bit of an enigma...we know she was a damaged soul after being traumatized in the war, and we know she was a product of a Christian small town, but we don't know much else about her childhood or upbringing. We don't know why she was not stronger to stand up against injustice.

Ultimately, I was disappointed. After I followed Ellie's journey throughout the book, I wanted more explanation at the end. I wanted to know who was following her and why, and why both the Chinese and the Americans were after her. Was it the American government, or people working for the government?

In the end, all we get are some vague hints. Perhaps that is a message in itself...but I found myself feeling cheated after I had followed Ellie all the way to the end.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer editions to eliminate the "N" word

The Complete Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The new edition will eliminate the "n" word (as well as the "Injun") by replacing it with the word "slave." The n word is used 219 times in Huckleberry Finn alone.
In 2010 we read these two books to our 7-year-old. Even though Tom Sawyer primarily uses the word "negro" instead of the more offensive term, I found myself explaining the words to my son and editing myself. I inadvertently bought an abridged version of Huckleberry Finn, which I was glad to see in the end because of the liberal use of the word.

If you read the comments at the end of the Publishers Weekly article linked above, you'll see how many very angry Twain fans are out there. They argue that the publishers are ruining the books by editing them and that Mark Twain used those words intentionally. Changing the words changes his message, etc.

I understand some of what they are saying, but I see three reasons for these new editions:
  • The n word is a highly offensive, derogative term and causes great pain to many people, not just African-Americans.
  • Schools would be able to actually teach these books (without risk of getting banned or offending parents or students).
  • Reading these books to younger children is downright complicated, as I wrote about last year. I cannot imagine reading the whole of Huck Finn, unexpurgated, and saying that word 219 times out loud. I simply would never do it. It's one thing to read it silently, and quite another to read it aloud.
Dr. Gribben explains his decision in this introduction here. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Go librarians (and Nancy Pearl), go!

Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and ReasonMore Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and ReasonBook Crush: For Kids and Teens - Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and InterestBook Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers
If you're reading this blog, you are a book lover like me...which means that you cannot get enough of recommendations for great books.

Deluxe Librarian Action FigureNancy Pearl, retired Seattle librarian and author of all of the great book compilations shown above, has just been named as Library Journal's Librarian of the Year. Pearl also has the claim to fame as the only librarian with her own action figure!

As a long-time library patron (Multnomah County, where I live, has the highest circulation in the country--for 8 years running), I am thrilled to see Nancy Pearl get such a fine recognition. I own the first two Book Lust books, but am dying to get my hands on Book Lust to Go, to update our outdated literary traveling guide. (I will probably support Nancy Pearl in spirit and get it out of the library!)