Thursday, April 24, 2014

Giving Thanks for Spring Weather and a Trampoline

The layout of our house doesn't allow for much private space. The kitchen is only separated from the dining room by a counter and overhead cabinets and the dining room is only separated from the living room by a partial brick wall.

I love the fact that everything is so open and there are windows in every room so you feel like you are right out in the nature which surrounds our house. But, the drawback to the open layout is that we can never really get away from one another, unless we seclude ourselves off in our bedrooms with the door closed (Bryce's constant choice).

Add in an extra long winter and the stir-craziness abounds. Perhaps this accounts for some of the friction, mentioned before, between my two youngest sons. I have been noticing a reprieve from the constant bickering and pestering. I am convinced that it has to do with the weather and the trampoline.

As soon as the weather improved, Trevor began to want to head outside. He doesn't like to do this alone. He wants a companion. Especially, if it involves jumping on the trampoline. Trevor and Sean have been spending hours outside jumping happily together on the trampoline. Their favorite thing to do is to fill large balloons with water and then bounce on the trampoline with the balloons until they burst and shoot water all over them. They've gone through countless dollar-size bags of balloons, but I'll eat the expense if it means they are happily enjoying each other's company.

The other blessing is that they are getting more exercise and spending less time on electronic devices. Trevor will probably always struggle with his weight, but at least I'm no longer having to cajole him into walking on the treadmill (although I do miss that some, since he used to beg for me to read aloud to him while he walked - something he rarely does otherwise). So, we're tackling the weight issue and the sibling rivalry in one go with the fairer weather and the trampoline. Praise God!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review: Dead End in Norvelt

Every month, the leaders of my Young-at-Heart book club (older women who read young adult literature) offer up two book suggestions and the group selects one to read for the next selection. For this month, we couldn't decide, so we elected to read both of the suggested books: Jack Gantos' Newbery Award winning Dead End in Norvelt, and Gary D. Schmidt's book, Okay for Now. Having gushed outrageously about Schmidt's book earlier this year, I probably went into the reading of Gantos' book with some skepticism for it living up to the other selection. For me, it was clearly the lesser of the two. So, I begin this review with the disclaimer that I probably wasn't open for giving this book a fair shake or wasn't enough in the mood to enjoy it fully (especially given the fact that it was a Newbery winner and yet I didn't enjoy it as much as I normally would enjoy a Newbery winner).

Gantos' novel is about a young boy, Jack Gantos, (how much of this story is autobiographical? I don't know, but I'm guessing a fair amount) who is grounded for the entire summer of 1962 and forced to work with an elderly neighbor writing obituaries for the founding members of his historic town, Norvelt. Truth and fiction are definitely blended in this wild tale. I liked the historical bits, along with the exploits of the young boy. It was interesting to learn about the town of Norvelt, a town created to be a more dignified group of dwellings for coal-mining families, established by Eleanor Roosevelt, and thereby named for the last two suffixes of her name, Elea-NOR and Roose-VELT. Smatterings of history pepper Gantos' tale, from the boys' own reading and from the elderly neighbor's obituaries, embellished with historical connections.

Perhaps I am just feeling jaded against metaphors and similes these days. It seemed like Gantos' book suffered from the same tiresome over-use of comparison as the recent self-published book I read, Addison's Mark. My feeling is that such comparisons should enhance the reading, but when too many are presented, they tend to weigh the writing down. They draw attention to the writer ("look how clever I am for the comparison I was able to craft") and away from the story (something the reader wants to be fully absorbed in without the interruption of knowledge that there is someone behind the scenes crafting it all).

I also could have done without the euphemistic "cheese-us-crust." As the main character's mother points out, it is really no different than saying the curse it implies. Plus, it just came off as so ridiculous.

Still, the writing in this book is very good, apart from that, and the story is interesting. The main character and supporting characters are lively and unique. Along the way, the reader is entertained by a mysteriously-loaded Japanese rifle, molten wax, Girl Scout cookies, a policeman who rides a tricycle, a homemade airplane, Hells Angels, underage driving (which seemed glorified?), endless bloody noses and the possibility of murder (murder of the elderly presented as not that big a deal?). It is, indeed, a wild ride. But, Newbery winner? I didn't think so. Schmidt's book, Okay for Now, is a much better choice. Schmidt's book leaves you contemplating loftier sentiments and has a much better take-away value. Hopefully my book club will spend more time talking about it than talking about Gantos' book.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Review: The Namesake

I'm so grateful for the opportunity to belong to book clubs. They often induce me to read books I might not have picked on my own. I had heard nothing of this book prior to seeing it on my book club's selection list. Had I been at the meeting when they were narrowing down to the eleven selections for the year, I might not have even voted for it. But, I am glad to have read this book. It held a lot of interesting ideas to consider and was a flavor I don't normally seek out.

In The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri tells the story of the Ganguli family as they emigrate from Calcutta to America after an arranged marriage. The tale opens with the birth of their first child, a son. They are waiting for an important letter from the grandmother, bearing the name suggestions for the baby. Sadly, the letter never arrives and Ashoke and Ashima select their own pet name for the boy, Gogol, named for the Russian writer whose book of short stories played a significant role in Ashoke's life. The boy grows to despise his name and eventually changes it, unaware of the reasoning behind his parents' choice.

I appreciated lots of aspects of this book. I loved the expert writing where the reader is sucked into the story completely, unaware of the author's presence. The prose was beautiful, full of rich sensory details. The characters were endearing and interesting. The story evokes so many deep ideas about identity and cultural leanings and the role of families. It causes the reader to contemplate the things which form their own identity and purpose. It opens up new horizons to consider, new ways of relating to the world. Every reader will benefit from the themes and ideas presented in this wonderfully written tale.

I would recommend the audio version of this book. It really brought the story to life with a narrator who was able to manage both the Indian pronunciations and the American accents. I think I enjoyed the book more in listening to it than I might have if I had plowed through it, reading on my own (since the middle does get bogged down a bit with details of the son's various relationships to illustrate his identity struggles).

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: Addison's Mark

It has been a while since I've bitten at any of the free books for review on the Story Cartel website. I've had plenty to occupy me without seeking out more. Plus, none of the books really seemed to jump out and grab me, until this past Friday, when they sent out a small blurb about a young adult novel being offered for review, called Addison's Mark. The hook was fantastic. It was clearly going to be a novel full of adventure and intrigue with great male reader appeal.

Here's the gist of what hooked me: Sam Addison is getting over the tragic deaths of both of his parents. Now orphaned, and dealing with the economic collapse of the country, Sam is merely existing until he befriends Ashlin Ammon, daughter of the next up-coming presidential candidate. While getting swept into the political fervor of a presidential campaign, Sam is visited by supernatural beings. He is even more perplexed by their presence when he wakens from one vision with a clear physical mark etched into his arm. Is he losing his mind? What do these supernatural beings want from him?

Great premise for a book. Great potential for a riveting story. It did indeed provide a story sure to appeal to male readers. It had a beautiful girl, supernatural elements, adventure, and intrigue. Still, it wasn't without some weaknesses. The story didn't get around to the heart of the hook until page 64. I don't believe I ever figured out why the mark was necessary in the first place or what the beings wanted from Sam, since he was pretty much a casual observer of the battles playing out between good and evil.

For me, the greatest weakness in the writing was the overuse of comparisons in an attempt to enhance the story for the reader. In a book of over two hundred pages, there were probably two or three similes or metaphors per page. Sometimes they were apt comparisons, but often they felt forced and disruptive to the story. For example: "She scratched below her chin like an old philosopher with a beard." For a free book, it wasn't a bad read. Sadly, I don't think I'll be looking for the sequel.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: Little Audrey

I thoroughly enjoyed Ruth White's middle-grade novel, Belle Prater's Boy, and the follow-up book, The Search for Belle Prater. I think I was just browsing when I happened upon this one, Little Audrey, a more historical memoir-type book. It was a quick, easy read.

In Little Audrey, Ruth White tells the story of a traumatic year in her life, through the eyes of her older sister, Audrey. The year is 1948 and eleven-year-old Audrey lives with her parents and three younger sisters, whom she calls "the three little pigs," in a coal-mining camp in Virginia. Audrey is recovering from scarlet fever, her mother is mourning the loss of her infant daughter, and her father is coping with life by turning to drink. I'm supposing the telling of the story through the narration of an older sister, allowed Ruth White some distance to the tale. I'm also wondering if the older sister expressed feelings of guilt over a comment she made just prior to the devastating loss her family experienced.

The story is told with child-like wonder and emotion. The author easily conveys how it felt to be a young child in a coal-mining community. Moreover, every reader will be able to relate to the hopes and dreams of something better, while coping with the less-than-best.  It is always interesting to me to discover more about the personal background of an author and how that influences their writing. I can certainly understand where the themes of yearning for a parent grew from in White's writings.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book Review: Tara Road

I've had Maeve Binchy's, Tara Road, on my shelves for years, but never seemed to pick it up (probably because of the length and probably because I'm a sucker for listening to Binchy books in audio form so that I can enjoy the Irish accent in the narration). Then, a few weeks back, my library decided to do a major purge of their books in audio-cassette form. They were offering them ... for free! I kicked myself, after leaving with the bulky audio of Tara Road, for not picking up two Rosemary Pilcher books for my mother (Pilcher is one of her favorite authors).

I absolutely loved listening to this lengthy book. The length (fifteen cassettes long) turned out to be no problem at all. I didn't want the book to end. I relished my morning walk and even drew out the time longer, bringing my boom-box into the kitchen for my morning dish-washing chore, as well. I was swept up in the story and wanted to go on eavesdropping on the characters' lives endlessly. They feel as if they are real people I have known for years (surely the mark of a skilled author).

The tale begins with an introduction to Ria, a young woman who finds herself magically blessed with the love of her dashing, young husband, Danny Lynch, and with the acquisition of their dream home on Tara Road (a prosperous location in Dublin). After life settles in, with the birth of daughter, Annie, and son, Brian, Ria begins to feel restless and hopes that another baby is the solution. Sadly, there will be another baby for her husband, but it won't be hers.

Wishing to flee the devastation of a life which now feels like a lie, Ria immediately accepts the proposal of a young American woman, Marilyn Vine, for a home exchange over the summer. Marilyn, who is fleeing her own secrets and catastrophes, takes up residence in Tara Road. In typical Binchy fashion, a wide cast of characters weave their way in and out of the lives of these two lonely, desperate women. Personal drama abounds. There's nothing like being a fly on the wall in a Binchy-crafted world.

This book was chosen for an Oprah-Book-Club selection. I'm not surprised. Plus, it was made into a movie in 2005. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

My 1000th Post - 100 Favorite Authors

What to do when you are approaching your 1000th post? Reflecting on the fact that my blog is primarily about books, I decided to present a list of 100 of my favorite authors. I'm sure in attempting this, I will leave off an author who needs to be recognized (that's why I really loathe making these lists in the first place), but I should be able to come up with 100 authors, whose books I categorically love, without too much trouble.

I will list them by category. Plus, for the few who are one-hit wonders (I've only encountered one book which really soared), I will identify those with an asterisk (*).


1) Charles Dickens
2) Fyodor Dostoevsky
3) Louisa May Alcott
4) Shakespeare
5) Thomas Hardy
6) Edgar Allen Poe
7) Mark Twain
8) E.M. Forster
9) Theodore Dreiser
10) John Steinbeck
11) Edith Wharton
12) T.S. Eliot
13) Emily Bronte *
14) Charlotte Bronte *
15) Victor Hugo *
16) Daphne du Maurier *
17) Harper Lee *

General Fiction:

18) Maeve Binchy
19) Alexander McCall Smith
20) Sophie Kinsella
21) Nicholas Sparks
22) Khaled Hosseini
23) Kristin Hannah
24) Jodi Picoult
25) Jeffrey Archer
26) Richard Paul Evans
27) Anita Shreve
28) Alan Bradley
29) Joanne Fluke
30) M.L. Stedman *
31) Audrey Niffenegger *
32) Kathryn Stockett *
33) Marilynne Robinson *
34) Mark Haddon *

General Non-Fiction:

35) Bill Bryson
36) Oliver Sacks
37) Annie Dillard
38) Mitch Albom
39) Torey L. Hayden
40) Anne Lamott
41) Christopher de Vinck
42) Stephen King * (Yes, he writes great fiction, but I love him primarily for his book on writing.)
43) Erik Larson *

Young Adult all the way down to Picture Books:

44) Kate DiCamillo
45) Kate Klise
46) Suzanne Collins
47) J.K. Rowling
48) Patrick Ness
49) Lois Lowry
50) Richard Peck
51) Andrew Clements
52) Madeleine L'Engle
53) Laura Ingalls Wilder
54) Katherine Paterson
55) Gloria Whelan
56) Louis Sachar
57) Gary D. Schmidt
58) Laurie Halse Anderson
59) Lauren Child
60) Louise Fitzhugh
61) Beverly Cleary
62) Roald Dahl
63) Judy Bloom
64) Sarah Weeks
65) Peg Kehret
66) Carl Hiassen
67) E.B. White
68) Deborah Wiles
69) A.A. Milne
70) Dr. Suess
71) Jeff Kinney
72) Bernard Waber
73) David Shannon
74) Eric Carle
75) Gus Clarke
76) Mercer Mayer
77) H.A. Rey
78) Gene Zion
79) Shel Silverstein
80) Markus Zusak *
81) Brandon Mull *
82) Frances Hodgson Burnett *

Christian Fiction:

83) Karen Kingsbury
84) C.S. Lewis
85) J.R.R. Tolkien
86) G.K. Chesterton
87) George MacDonald
88) Liz Curtis Higgs

Christian Non-fiction:

89) A.W. Tozer
90) Elizabeth Elliot
91) Philip Yancey
92) Beth Moore
93) Dr. Paul Brand
94) Ravi Zacharias
95) Frederick Buechner
96) Brennan Manning
97) John Piper
98) Kay Arthur
99) Mark Batterson *
100) Anne Voskamp *

Of these authors, I studied under Frederick Buechner, while at Wheaton College. I attended lectures by Brennan Manning, Madeleine L'Engle, and Elizabeth Elliot (whose neice was my best friend freshman year in college). I once received a personal letter from Gloria Whelan. And, the most incredible connection of all? While working for the Marion E. Wade Collection, I transcribed all the personal letters of C.S. Lewis, and went on a trip to assist with an oral history interview of his first cousin, Ruth Parker.

How about you? Did I miss one of your favorite authors? Do you have an interesting connection to a favorite author?