Monday, April 30, 2012

Quick! A poem before it's too late and the Earth explodes and all that; from Light on the Concrete by Lucas Hunt

Okay, maybe the Earth will not blow up into a million-squillion tiny particles because I did, in fact, confuse Tuesday with the last day of April. I can pretend it's still April if I want to. In fact, I can change the post date and it will magically become April. Ha! At any rate, my point is that April was National Poetry Month (and still is, in my messed-up mind).

And, I think Light on the Concrete by Lucas Hunt is worth talking about:

And, not just because it's a lovely shade of lavender, which I can really get behind.

There are so many wonderful poems that I would happily just repeat 90% of the book if I had space, but I don't even have room to share my favorite, "Our Communication", which is written in six parts. So, a couple short examples of Lucas Hunt's lovely poetry.

No Greater Love

I still worship you sweet whisperer of secret longing,
still dance to hypnotic movements of your voice
and dream of the new valentines that lay before us.

Delicate one, your features entrance me in a bouquet
of desires that will not quit, there is something
that transpires between us now, the unknown expanse

Traversed by touch, odd yet familiar truths bordering
on consciousness, oh dear, let's forget everything
and swing from the stars tonight, I want to be with you.

--p. 29, Light on the Concrete

Tell me you wouldn't like someone to feel that way about you.

And, another, because it fits our bookish world and sounds like the perfect dream, a place to write.

Studio by the Harbor

Having left the sanctuary of house and found no cottage,
ventures resume in studio by the harbor
On a couch before fireplace, to report on manuscripts
via email, stories from the world.

Here the epics rage on wings of covers yet to be bound,
sagas continue, heroes have their party,
Characters roam, wars transpire yet remain, as sadly,
inevitably, ballads come to a close.

Yet in this den-like dream of home beats a poet's heart,
who sleeps to read the morning news
And journals about being, still, love is astonishment
while letters issue out this cozy pen--
Life, like some literary art, comes of figures cast
apart that long to be together again.

--p. 54

You can buy Light on the Concrete through that giant, online shopping galaxy that everyone knows about (but which I prefer not to link to; it starts with "A") or directly from Lucas Hunt's website. I reviewed Lives by Lucas Hunt in October of 2011 and liked some of the poetry but didn't love the volume, as a whole. I love Light on the Concrete. I can't wait to see what Mr. Hunt comes up with, next.

My copy of Light on the Concrete was sent directly by the author, but that in no way influences how I feel about its contents. I can tell you, however, that the author is charming and I'd like to meet him over coffee, someday.

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead

The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead
Copyright 2012
Algonquin Books - Historical Fiction/Korean War/1950s
287 pp.

They left the city and climbed into the mountains. They drove the long balconies of stone, a world extant from the world of the street, a world womblike in its whispery green luxuriance. The world up there was newly wet and cooler by degrees, cooler than the street world. The rooms of the forest were deep and cathedral and what rose to them was scent and closeness, and nothing could be heard but the gently soughing wind.

--p. 40, The Coldest Night

The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead is a spare but powerful tale about a young man named Henry Childs. There are three distinct parts in which Henry falls deeply in love, goes off to fight in the Korean War after he's torn away from his girlfriend, Mercy, and then returns home wounded and grieving.

I found the sharp change from Part I, which leans toward romance, to Part II with Henry arriving in Korea so jarring, at first, that I actually set the book aside for a couple weeks. But it kept calling out, haunting me. If books could speak, this one had a low-pitched, insistent, growling voice that threatened to sink me if I didn't pick it up, again. I am so glad I finally gave in.

Gunny was running with them and then was down among them as they groaned and scrambled to their feet bearing the heavy weight of their armamentary . Gunny was tall and square built and born in 1905. He had been a marine since the age of sixteen and he was now forty-five years old and wore a long handlebar mustache he waxed every morning. He was now ferocious and screaming and cursing and kicking them in the ass.

--p. 93

I skimmed through Part I to remind myself where Henry came from, what happened between Henry and Mercy, and how he happened to end up in Korea, before diving into Part II. The writing is so sharp and minimalist that it also helped to read the cover flap to get a little more info. I usually avoid cover blurbs and publicity info because I like to go into the reading of a book knowing as little as possible. I like to be surprised. But I needed the extra info, this time.

In Part II, Henry arrives in Korea, where he marches and marches and marches through cold, colder, radio-battery-killing, flash-freezing, body-part blackening cold. Henry's new friend Lew is a veteran of WWII, a realist with a sense of humor. Henry and Lew don't know where they're headed nor when they'll get there. And, when they finally encounter action, the Chinese soldiers are brutal. They're everywhere. Henry and Lew don't even know they're in the midst of a seventeen-day battle that will be called the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, nor do you unless you've read about the book. And, that is the beauty of the writing in The Coldest Night. The sense that you are there. After days and days of mind-numbing cold and mystery about what may lie ahead, they enter terrifying, bloody, continuous horror.

"This is some kind of bad shit," Lew was saying.
"I feel like I already died and I'm just walking with you for a while. What do you think our chances are?"
"In whose favor?"
"Ours," Lew said.
In his mind Henry saw again the long wounded column bristling with weapons and armed men unwilling to die.
"Time to giddyup."
"Not yet," Henry said, pointing to the lake.
They watched in silence as the icy surface of the reservoir began to move. There were thousands of them. They'd been on the white ice the whole afternoon under white sheets and canvases, having marched ten miles down lake and now they were on their hands and knees and crawling south toward the shore's stony rim where they'd join the battle. Already their silhouettes were moving onto the ridgeline.

--p. 171

The oddly wonderful comradeship between Henry and Lew drew me in but the battle had me glued to the pages. It is harsh in the manner of real war. Olmstead doesn't ever say it's the battle of Chosin Reservoir because you're in Henry's perspective and the truth is, Henry doesn't actually know where exactly they've hiked or why they're battling, just that they're way outnumbered and he has no choice but to kill or die. The narrative could not possibly be more gripping.

In Part III, Henry returns home. I didn't know what to expect in the third section, although there was one particular plot point that I anticipated. The best way to describe Part III is probably to say that it is satisfying. There are unanswered questions as you leave Part I and Mercy is pulled from Henry's life. There are more answers eluding your grasp as you enter Part III. When the book closes, you know Henry's story is not finished because it's so much like real life that it can't be. Real stories never truly end. The chapters simply fold into each other. But, a part of his life has come full circle and there is a definite sigh of satisfaction in knowing where he is right now, as the book closes.

The closest parallel to Olmstead's writing style that I can come up with is Hemingway's writing. As with Hemingway, there are times that you want to holler out, "Give me more than this!!!" I never did know, for example, what Olmstead meant when he referred to the Lew and Henry (and the other men they marched with) as "the hunters" and I couldn't find any reference to that particular term when I looked it up online. But, I lean toward a preference for leaner, less flashy, tighter writing. There is an intensity that comes with a tighter focus and now that I'm acquainted with Olmstead's unique voice, I am very anxious to read more.

Highly recommended - A taut, intense and powerful tale of love, grief, war, and the making of a man. Sometimes a little too spare -- there were times I yearned for just a little more information -- yet there are scenes of tremendous beauty and brutality that would have lost their edge had they been more wordy. There's a great deal of teenage sex in Part I, but it's not overly graphic, as I recall.

Other reviews:

Not a review, but of interest:

Beth Fish Reads - I didn't realize Coal Black Horse and Far Bright Star by Olmstead precede The Coldest Night and are about the same family, the Childs family (although I did notice that the author cleverly inserted the first two titles into the narrative of The Coldest Night). "Beth Fish" informed me.

Thanks to our Twitter discussion, I now have acquired a copy of Coal Black Horse and am looking forward to going back in time to meet Henry's ancestors. I already had a copy of Far Bright Star and had trouble getting into it. Apparently, I just needed to become accustomed to Olmstead's writing and The Coldest Night was the introduction I needed.

In other news:

I spent the weekend shoving furniture around to try to let more light into the house, reading, cleaning. Nothing exciting, but it felt like progress. It's always pleasant to hang out with my two fur pals and I needed to step away from the computer for a few days.

I emptied a jam cabinet that used to sit in our entryway but somehow ended up getting shoved up against some bookshelves. It contained little more than books, CDs and a few miscellaneous trinkets. Most of the books went straight into a donation bag, but I stopped to read a tattered copy of M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker (the novel that became the movie and then a series) and couldn't put it down, Friday night. It was a perfect read -- the complete story of Hawkeye and Duke's time in the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit, from the time they drive to the 4077th M*A*S*H to when they say goodbye, stateside.

Then, yesterday, I had to dig in my donation bags for entertainment when I made the mistake of leaving the house without one of my current reads. I started reading a beat-up copy of The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister that the United States Postal Service quite nearly murdered (but which I've since replaced, after a year of trying to flatten it out by weighting it beneath a large stack of books failed). So, now I'm 70 pages into my ratty but readable copy of Essential Ingredients, halfway through The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock, about a third of the way into The Lola Quartet (which is, I admit, frustrating me), carrying my poetry book, Light on the Concrete by Lucas Hunt, everywhere (except the restaurant, when I was so desperate I went digging in the donation bags) without reading more than 3 poems at a sitting and still occasionally glancing at the Titanic book to tell it, "Later, later."

My reading life is definitely not boring. How was your weekend reading?

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fiona Friday - Just portraits and an update

I have fallen behind on reviews, this week, thanks to migraine weather (changing pressure) and life basically sucking. Hopefully, next week will be more normal. However, I have two blog tours, next week, and one of them is scheduled for Wednesday. You may have noticed that I had a blog tour on Wednesday of this week. Well, shucks. I wasn't doing Wahoo! Wednesday posts when I signed up for blog tours, so I didn't think to look at my calendar for obstacles. At any rate, I'll be back to wahooing in a couple weeks.

Books I've finished, this week:

The Cove by Ron Rash - A tour book scheduled for next Thursday. Does Ron Rash always write tragedy? Just curious. I have two other Rash titles on my shelves but I'm thinking about getting rid of them, which gives you a hint as to how I felt about The Cove.

I Always, Always Get My Way by Krasnesky and Parkins - About a 3-year-old who thinks she can get away with anything because she's "only three" but finds out even the youngest member of the family has to deal with the consequences of her actions.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones - Just finished this one, last night. A very strange book set in Edwardian England. Alternately charming and horrifying, as in . . . you never know when someone's going to bring a horse or a ghost into the house and how the residents will react.

Just walked in:

Poachers by Tom Franklin - from Paperback Swap
Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor - I got this for filling out a questionnaire, but I've already forgotten what it was about - from Broadway Paperbacks. I've been curious about this book because I used to write a column by the same title. The book is a memoir; my "Signs of Life" was a humor column about my family/everyday life.
Play These Games by Heather Swain - for review from Penguin but it's not at all what I expected. I think the publicist may have mixed two book descriptions together in her pitch letter. It looks fun, though, so no biggie.

Currently reading:

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock - Wednesday's tour book. I'm enjoying it, so far. When I flipped through the book, I thought the photographs were paintings of Mary Delany's flower sculptures, but the author says they only look like paintings; they are actually photographs of her works of art. No matter how long I stare at them, I can't see it. They still look like paintings to me. Wild.

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel - I had a little trouble putting this one down, last night. A young mother goes into hiding with her newborn baby, at the beginning of the book. A chapter or two later, the child's father -- a reporter -- is given a clue to his child's existence. But, he doesn't know why Anna and Chloe are hiding or where to look for them and, anyway, he's allergic to heat so he heads back to New York before Florida can kill him. Actually, just writing about it makes me want to run back to grab the book.

Light on the Concrete by Lucas Hunt - I loved this book of poetry so much on the first reading that I didn't stop to take notes or mark the book with post-its. So, I've been planning to go to the coffee shop since last week, thinking it would be a nice, calm place to sit at a table and take notes (this also has to do with my need to get out of the house, since our oak trees are blocking all the light and home has become a virtual cave). I won't even go into how those plans have crashed and burned, but I've reread bits and pieces and a full reread with a cup of fluffy mocha is still on the agenda.

Voyagers of the Titanic by Richard Davenport-Hines - There's a lot of interesting information that's new to me in this book (and I've been a regular Titanic reader for a long, long time) but the writing is a bit dry and I dislike the fact that the author doesn't always bother to mention who lived or died. So, he may be cooking along, telling you about some young rich guy that everyone loved and you're wondering, "Yeah, okay, he was great -- everyone loved him. Did he survive?" I kept a second book with a list of all the passengers and crew beside the bed and kept referring to the list (survivors in bold print).

I was shooting for finishing by the anniversary, but actually stalled on the reading on that day. There was a whole lot of twitter chatter about the Titanic; meanwhile, people I care about were being threatened by a nasty storm that was generating tornadoes in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. I set the past aside to pray for people in the present. I've yet to return to the book, but I do love reading about the Titanic, so I'm sure I'll get back to it.

And, the London Tales . . .

Since I'm so far behind, I may either go to the mini-review format or just post several in one day. I need to catch up before I forget the important details in the books I've read. I'm hoping I'll be able to sneak in some travel tales, next week, as well. It's a very odd problem having too many things to post about and not enough days in the week!

Happy Weekend to All from Bookfool!

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Butterfly's Child by Angela Davis-Gardner

Butterfly's Child by Angela Davis-Gardner
Copyright 2011
Dial Press - Fiction/Historical
350 pp.

Reason for Reading: The storyline of Butterfly's Child, a "What if?" continuation of the tale that became the opera Madama Butterfly, interested me, so I asked to join in on the TLC tour. I have not seen the opera.

Brief summary:

After his mother's tragic death, Benji is taken to the United States by his biological father, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, and Frank's wife, Kate, to live on their farm in Illinois. To avoid criticism, the Pinkertons say they rescued Benji out of the kindness of their hearts but conceal the fact that he is Frank's biological child. Neither of the Pinkertons really want to take Benji on but they are pressed to fulfill Frank's parental obligation by Sharpless, the man who introduced Frank to "Butterfly", Benji's mother.

Benji is old enough to understand and remember his mother's death and the fact that Butterfly told him Frank was his "Papa-san", but he learns to keep what he knows a secret. When the truth comes out, Benji is forced to leave home. He works his way west, from Denver to San Francisco and then to Nagasaki, Japan. What will Benji discover when he searches for his mother's family in Nagasaki?

What I liked about Butterfly's Child:

Butterfly's Child is a wildly original continuation of the original story that delves into the harsh realities of prejudice against a child of mixed parentage and eventually leads to a satisfying quest of identity. The author has kindly provided a summary of the opera's three acts, so it doesn't matter if you haven't seen or heard the opera; you'll still understand where the Madama Butterfly story ends and Butterfly's Child begins.

The setting is beautifully described with an authentic 19th century period feel, brilliantly detailed, and the depth of characterization is truly marvelous. It's a testament to the author's fine characterization that I can still rattle back the entire story and name most of the characters, a week after I finished. The characters are so three-dimensional that I still want to thank those who were kind to Benji and kick the mean ones across the pasture, a week after closing the book.

But, it's the characters who are kind to Benji who make the story a rich experience. Keast, a veterinarian who helps teach Benji English, among other things, is by far my favorite character. Eventually, another character becomes a surrogate father to Benji, as well. It's those secondary (but important) characters and the quest, along with the vivid detail, that carry the book, in my humble opinion.

I also loved the fact that the author clearly knows Japan and did her research well, although there was one thing about the story that did not work from the standpoint of Japanese tradition. But, we'll get to that in a bit and I can't be specific, unfortunately.

A favorite scene:

I loved the way the author deftly revealed her characters' strengths, weaknesses and motivations through the use of carefully-crafted scenes. One of my favorite scenes takes place when Kate and Frank are still new to the farm and Kate is learning how to be a farm wife from her live-in mother-in-law. Tired of feeling that she doesn't measure up, Kate misleads her mother-in-law into believing that she knows how to can food and eventually is left alone to finish up the job. The disastrous consequences of Kate's deceit and the way Frank and his mother react are revealing in many ways.

What I disliked about Butterfly's Child:

Most of the things I disliked about Butterfly's Child are, sadly, spoilers. But, I can tell you a little bit about them in generalities without ruining the storyline and I will say that the two characters I truly disliked were so weak and spiteful that I kept hoping they'd change for the better. I was disappointed that they did not. On the plus side, they were consistent in their characterization; and, the way they declined fit the mold of the kind of dramatic storytelling one sees on the stage. As much as they were unkind, they paid in the end as their character flaws disastrously turned inward and tore them apart.

Another thing that drove me nuts was the mistreatment of cats. Seriously! Benji loves his cats -- both "Rice Ball" in Japan and the marmalade cat who helps him adjust to his new life on the farm. But, there are other characters who are cruel to cats. In an early scene, Butterfly throws a rock at Rice Ball and calls him "unlucky". Late in the book, Kate squeezes a kitten so hard that it claws her to get away. And, the worst thing of all . . . I can't share. Darn. I might have been okay with the use of mistreatment to reveal character, but I felt like the most heinous cat cruelty of all was simply shrugged off in more than one way and that was simply not tolerable. This took my opinion of the book down a notch; the author could have used those scenes to say it's wrong to mistreat animals, but she did not.

The final disappointment was a change from the original story that I found difficult to buy into because it doesn't fit my understanding of the Japanese concept of honor. Again, to mention it would be to ruin a plot point, so I won't. I also thought Benji lost some consistency in characterization, in the last third of the book -- although it could be argued that he was a young man and young men are not necessarily consistent in their behavior as they're still finding their way. And, then the book ended abruptly, which kind of stunned me. I don't mind if things aren't fully wrapped up in a novel but there was a bit too much left up in the air, in this case.

Note on the cover blurb vs. contents:

The cover blurb says Benji is three when the Pinkertons take him to America but at the beginning of the book it says Butterfly has waited 4 springs for Pinkerton's return and Benji says in the book that he was five when he came to the U.S. Benji has very vivid and complete memories -- more like what I'd expect of someone who was five at the beginning of the story than a younger child. I checked online, though, and found that what used to be known as "infant amnesia" has been proven a myth. Interesting, although I'm not shocked, since my first memory involves a high-pitched scream and a dark, grey, marbleized floor coming up to greet me. I fell out of my high chair at 11 months. You really wanted to know that, right?


3.5/5 - A truly original continuation of a well-known story with tremendously vivid characterization and lush description. The last 1/4 of the book was satisfying in many ways, although I thought the author lost the thread of characterization with Benji a bit and included a change that digresses too far from what I have read about the Japanese to be palatable. Also, I thought the ending was too abrupt. I would have liked to see a bit more wrap-up.

Don't be fooled by the slightly above-average rating. While there are things I disliked about the book, Butterfly's Child is a fascinating, very original story and there is much to discuss. It would make an excellent book group selection. Butterfly's Child is also very much Angela Davis-Gardner's own tale, rather than a "retelling" or even a strictly-derived continuation; there is a surprise twist that I absolutely did not see coming.

As to the bit that took the reading down a notch in my perspective . . . Obviously, I'm sensitive to cat cruelty. All of my cats have been rescues and had a bad start in life but have brought more joy to us than I can ever fully describe. I have a feeling the scenes I found disturbing won't jump out at a lot of people the way they did to me.

I had fun sipping tea from my Kyoto Starbucks mug, while I was reading Butterfly's Child. Isn't it pretty? I wish I'd bought more than two (one for me; one to give to a friend). I don't think I'll be making it back to Kyoto, anytime soon!

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mini Reviews: Paris in Love by Eloisa James and More Like Her by Liza Palmer

I don't have a great deal to say about either of these books, although I enjoyed them both for very different reasons. So . . . mini review time!

More Like Her by Liza Palmer is a very strange book. A glance at the cover screams "chick lit" and it does read like chick lit, stylistically. But, the prologue is actually a 911 call made during a school shooting. So, as you begin the reading of this remarkably chick-littish book about friendship between women and love angst, you know there will be a dramatic turning point and the story will be about friends helping each other survive post-traumatic stress, not just about everyday life and love.

The first 100 pages or so of More Like Her are about the friendship between three women and the slight envy they have for Emma Dunham. All work at the same exclusive private school where Emma has become the new headmistress. Frances has recently been dumped by her boyfriend, Jill is happily married and determined to find someone perfect for Frannie, and Lisa has been too career-focused to devote much time or thought to men. When a team of architects from Tennessee arrive to work on the school's expansion project, Lisa falls spectacularly in love with one of the architects and Frances falls for, and is dangled by, another. All three couples are present at the shooting.

Thanks to the prologue and the fact that I loved the friendship between the women, I read More Like Her rabidly. It was one of those rare books that I finished in a day. While I did tire of the sex talk and the heroine's angst (and found it a bit of a stretch that there was more than one architect always on-site at the school's expansion project), the dialogue is tremendously fun. Once the women have survived the shooting, the way Frannie keeps reliving things in her head . . . well, let's just say it's a good idea to keep the tissue box handy. And, yet there is always plenty of levity to break the mood between darker scenes. More Like Her may be a little strange because it's such an odd blend of love, friendship and tragedy but it's definitely a compelling and deeply emotional read and recommended. The storyline is a bit transparent/predictable, especially at the end, but that didn't bother me. I'm just not certain who to recommend it to -- probably lovers of women's fiction because it's the growing friendship between three women that is most appealing about the book.

Paris in Love by Eloisa James is a memoir by romance novelist James about her family's year in Paris. After recovering from breast cancer, James (whose real name is Mary Bly) went on a mad purging frenzy, throwing out and selling things she would not have parted with, pre-cancer. With a new determination to fulfill her dreams she sold her house, took a sabbatical from her job as a Shakespeare professor and moved her family to Paris.

Paris in Love is not told in the typical memoir format but in anecdotes and essays. Many of her anecdotes were Facebook posts, so they're very brief but incredibly entertaining little vignettes about such topics as her children (particularly in regard to their adjustment from American schooling to an Italian school in France), experimentation in the kitchen, visits to museums, a family trip to London, restaurant and other food experiences, and her mother-in-law's hilarious reports about the health of their obese dog (who lived with her in Florence, Italy).

I marked up Paris in Love with about a million Post-its. When I went back to see if there was anything quotable, I found that I did mark a few entertaining tales. But, mostly, I marked the anecdotes that mentioned interesting things to see and do in Paris. At the end of the book, there is a section entitled, "My Very Unofficial Guide to a Few Places in Paris," which details some of James/Bly's favorite museums, places to shop, restaurants, etc. So, I probably could have dispensed with most of the Post-its, but that brings home the point that the book is worth a read if you happen to be planning a trip to Paris. I'm not, although just in case . . . I'm hanging onto my ARC.

My favorite anecdotes were the stories about the author's children and the dog. They truly made me laugh out loud. I recommend Paris in Love to memoir lovers and people who love reading about Paris or who dream of one day visiting. Because the book is written as a series of anecdotes with a few essays tossed in, it's a good book to keep with you when you know you'll only be able to read in quick bites (short train hops, sitting in line to pick up children from school, etc.).

Since there's red in both book covers, today you get a rose:

Tomorrow, who knows?

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Fiona Friday - Snuggles can be somewhat suffocating

Fiona: I am incredibly relaxed. And, so is my little sister.

Isabel: "GASP!"
Fiona: "She was fine, really. We're just hangin'. See? Fine!"

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pobble's Way by Simon Van Booy and Wendy Edelson

Pobble's Way by Simon Van Booy and Wendy Edelson
Copyright 2010
Flashlight Press - Children's (Ages 5 and up)
32 pages

Reason for reading: I am crazy about the children's books published by Flashlight Press because they're consistently excellent and the printing is high quality -- nice, shiny hardback covers beneath match slipcovers and the pages are a nice weight. So I asked if I could review a few of their backlist titles ("begged" might be a more appropriate word). Simon Van Booy is, of course, one of my favorite authors and Pobble's Way is a book I've been anxious to read.

Brief summary: Pobble and her daddy go for a walk in the snow, one evening. When Pobble loses one of her pink mittens, the woodland animals all have a different idea of what exactly that pink fuzzy thing might be.

Pobble's Way is a charming and creative story. Before Pobble loses her mitten, she and her father play an imaginative game.

Daddy smiled and pointed to a floating leaf.
"What is it, Daddy?" Pobble asked.
"It's a butterfly raft!" he said
Pobble giggled.

Just below is an illustration of a butterfly on a floating leaf. Another leaf, the sail, is held in place by a twig.

"My turn now," Pobble called, pointing
at some chubby winter mushrooms.
"Look at those, Daddy"
"What are they?" he asked.
"Frog umbrellas!" Pobble announced.
Daddy laughed.

Adorable! The illustrations are really just perfect. The humans look human but their clothing is wildly colorful, the leaves bright and cheery, the snowy background shades of purple and blue with white highlights, and the animals are pretty, not cutesy.

After Pobble's mitten is lost, the animals theorize about the mitten, each thinking it wildly different. The squirrel thinks it's cotton candy, the mouse claims it's an emergency mouse house (the cut-away illustration of three mice sleeping inside the mitten with tiny pillows, blankets and a book, shown below, is my absolute favorite illustration), the owl thinks it's a wing warmer, and so forth. Finally, the deer corrects them all, explaining that it is a mitten and they're meant to keep children's hands warm in the winter.
Just then, Daddy crunches through the snow and the animals dive for cover. He finds the mitten and asks Pobble what it is.

"Oooh, Daddy," Pobble gasped,
"it's a baby cloud!"

The animals laugh, except for the sleeping mouse, and the book ends with a lovely description of the moon.

5/5 - Highly recommended! A clever and beautifully-written story and gorgeous, bright illustrations that are more realistic than cartoonish make Pobble's Way the kind of book I get all gushy about. I just love it. I think it could easily be read to children as young as 3, just depending upon the individual. There's nothing particularly girly about Pobble's Way; little boys will love it, too. As much as it's a tale that encourages creative thinking, it's also a story of a sweet and loving relationship between a father and child.

The endpapers are also wonderful - a map showing Pobble's House and the woods, with the animals' homes labeled and illustrations of each animal next to its home. I wish I could show you a little more of the inside. I snatched two of my favorite images from Amazon because I let my camera battery run low, but I've since been informed that you can look inside every title at the Flashlight Press site. Click on the "Look Inside" button above the image to see inside Pobble's Way.

In keeping with the purple that seems to be running heavily through this post, I give you an iris from bulbs my mother brought me about a decade ago. I have more iris photos I'll share, eventually. They were pretty breathtaking, this year. Some years they take time off from blooming, but not this year!

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Wahoo! Wednesday returns after lengthy absence, dogs go crazy

For those who are unfamiliar with Wahoo! Wednesday, it is a feature that I had going at my blog for several years. At some point, I found that I was mentioning really ridiculous things or repeating myself and decided to ditch this feature. Lately, I've been missing it. I may not wahoo absolutely every week, but I plan to try. It's good to reflect upon things worth shouting, "Wahoo!" about.

Things worth wahooing about in my household, this week:

1. Books! Wahoo! for books - Naturally, that had to come first. There have been some extremely exciting arrivals, lately. I've got one special set that I'll devote an entire post to, soon (4 books that go together -- the ultimate in cool; you'll love 'em) but for now I'll stick to those that have most recently walked in the door and begin with the most exciting:

Wahoo! Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones has been on my wishlist for a while and it's been lurking in my mind, since I started thinking that I need to read more books by people from different countries and/or of different colors or ethnicities. It recently occurred to me that I seem to read an awful lot of books by white people. So, even though I have been excited about every other book that's walked in my door, lately, the unexpected copy of Silver Sparrow that arrived from Algonquin Books, yesterday, is the one that got the loudest squeal of delight! Thank you, Algonquin!!

Other arrivals:

All Woman and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones - from Algonquin (I'm currently reading this one)
An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer - from Harper
The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones - from Harper
Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost - from Paperback Swap
Secret Heroes by Paul Marten - from Harper
The Bond by Wayne Pacelle - from Wm Morrow
A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez - from Algonquin
The Cove by Ron Rash - from Ecco for TLC Tour
A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus - from Riverhead Books
The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero - from Riverhead Books
Johnson's Life of London by Boris Johnson - from Riverhead Books
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston - from Paperback Swap

That's about 3 weeks' worth . . . just so you know I'm not in the midst of a huge requesting frenzy, here (although I look seriously guilty, don't I?) Oh, and Algonquin sent me a finished copy of The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead, which is all kinds of awesome because I loved it and wanted a permanent copy. He's going to be at Lemuria Books in Jackson, tomorrow. I'm hoping I can go see him. I'm missing Ron Rash, tonight, because I can't get there in time. Actually, let me stop to take a shower, since I've typed a few sentences just after walking in the door from the gym . . .

I'm back! And, I smell good, so . . .

2. Wahoo! for running water and soap - I can never get too much of that clean and shiny sensation.

3. Wahoo! for Kiddo - After two years of waffling about what he wants to do for a living (while attending a nearby community college), he has finally chosen a major university to attend in the fall and has a plan!! Wahoo!

4. Wahoo! for cooler temps - And, on that note, I'm going to go do some planting.

I can think of plenty more things I could wahoo about if I didn't need to do my digging while it's cool, so I do believe I'll wahoo again, next Wednesday.

Happy Wednesday! What do you have to wahoo about, today?

Bookfool, about to dig in the dirt . . . very wahooey

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani

The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani
Copyright 2012
Harper - Fiction/Historical
468 pp.

I read The Queen of the Big Time in March of 2006 (pre-blogging by three months) so I can't go back to read my thoughts, although I know I disliked it enough to avoid Trigiani's books for 6 years. However, the storyline of The Shoemaker's Wife sounded so rich and appealing that I decided I had to give Trigiani a second chance.

The book turned out to be a "thumbs up," overall, although there were occasional irritations. I'm going to go for the seriously-casual summary method on this one.

Ciro and his brother Eduardo are left at a convent in the Italian Alps when their widowed mother can no longer care for them. She advises them to do more than the nuns tell them to do so that their presence will be more valuable than the cost of their care and promises to come back when she can.

Enza is the eldest daughter in a family living just a few miles away, up the mountains. Enza works hard to help her family, loves them deeply and feels an obligation to help provide for them.

When Ciro and Enza meet, she is touched by his kindness and he is impressed by her beauty and strength. Things are ticking along just fine when Ciro catches the priest doing something naughty and has to run to America to save his hide (because the priest is such an influential man). Around the same time, Enza's family gets into a financial bind that forces Enza and her father to travel to prosperous America in search of work.

Ciro and Enza do the proverbial "ships passing in the night" thing for years -- Enza always convinced that Ciro likes someone else better and Ciro busy sowing his oats but secretly mooning over her because she's totally hot, deeply genuine and a warm reminder of home. Will they ever end up together, for crying out loud? Or do we have to wade through similes about the stars looking like pinpricks in velvet or scattered diamonds or dazzling glitter till the cows come home?

What I loved about The Shoemaker's Wife:

I was expecting a several-generation family saga, for some reason (fortunately, I never remember exactly what I've read in those blurbs when I sit down to read a book -- I like to go into the reading knowing as little as possible), and that baffled me when I got to around page 200 or so but it turned out not to matter. As expected, The Shoemaker's Wife is a rich and meaty story -- maybe a little too rich, but we'll get to that in a minute. The characters are splendidly well-developed, flawed in ways that are genuinely believable, and the dialogue has a realistic feel, for the most part. If I hadn't loved Ciro and Enza, the nuns and Enza's family, I don't know if I'd have lasted 468 pages' worth, but they made it worth hanging in there through the dreary middle.

I also particularly loved the scenes that were set in Italy and the way the story came full circle. And, I adored this line, advice from Eduardo to Ciro that he didn't understand until later in life:

Beware the things of this world that can mean everything or nothing.

It took me a while to figure that out, myself. Trigiani had to help me a little.

What I disliked about The Shoemaker's Wife:

Great story or not, The Shoemaker's Wife is way the heck too long; it could have easily been cut by at least 100 pages, in my humble opinion. Now, this is coming from a gal who does tend to like fairly spare writing, but man . . . we're talking simile and adjective avalanche. At one point, I was so exhausted by the wordiness that I whined to Facebook friends that it was making my eyes burn and my hair fall out and I was starting to hate my favorite color (green -- Adriana Trigiani apparently is crazy about the color green). My friends humored me very nicely, although two of them are deeply devoted to Trigiani. It's a great read -- don't get me wrong! But, people who are burdened by "editor brain" from years of editing down their own work may be tempted to break out a red pen, just for fun.

Another thing that bugged me was the occasional comment that I thought was remarkably silly, like:
A man who needs a mirror is looking for something.
Geez, or maybe a man who needs a mirror cares about having tidy hair, wants to make sure his shirts aren't off by a button or doesn't want to cut himself shaving?

She also frequently remarked that Ciro, being a sturdily built and tall man, was obviously built to be a leader. Yes, it's true that there's a psychological effect that leads people to look to tall people as leaders, but height truly has nothing whatsoever to do with true leadership ability. There are certainly some prime examples of short but powerful people within the book blogging world.

The bottom line:

Recommended to people who absolutely love to sink into a big, wordy family saga. Beautifully crafted characters, believable dialogue, settings so vivid you feel like you could reach out and touch them and a sweet romance make this book enjoyable. If you prefer spare writing, this may not be the book for you. I was in the mood for chunky historical fiction and I still managed to stall around page 300, but I'm glad I decided to hang in there and finish reading.

A friend hit the sagging middle just as I was finishing The Shoemaker's Wife and I encouraged her to stick it out. She felt the same way I did -- it's too long, but worth persevering to the end. I will not ever be a gushy fan of Trigiani, but I'm glad I decided to give her a second chance.

Cover thoughts - I don't think of Enza quite like that cover image (she's really very down-to-earth) but she does become a seamstress at an opera house and the image fits the drama of the opera house and the fancy costumes. Plus, it's gorgeous. Love the color explosion!

Completely forgot to mention that I love Trigiani's sense of humor. Here are two lines that made me smile:

"Please don't turn into the wife that chases her husband with a broom."

"Monsignor Schiffer already dropped off a vial of holy water from Lourdes. Only a German priest would bring an Italian French holy water," Ciro joked.

Also, now I really, really, really want to go to Italy. Husband has unfairly gone without me twice. This is one of my favorite photos from his last visit:

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Guest Review - Stasiland by Anna Funder

Stasiland: A Brief History of the World’s Most Brutal Surveillance State

By Anna Funder

Copyright 2011

HarperPerennial - Nonfiction

304 pp.

Like a double exposure photograph of German culture taken both last year and twenty years ago, Stasiland does a fantastic job of connecting readers not only to East Germany's surveillance state history, but the present, where the effects of that regime are still felt today.

Stasiland could be defined as a work of "Olstalgie," the German word describing a recent trend of nostalgia towards and increased interest in the disappearing history of the now-defunct Deutsche Demokratische Republik (known to the English speaking world as East Germany), a short-lived socialist dictatorship established by the Soviet Union in their zone of occupation at the end of World War II. Anna Funder, an Australian living in Germany, began what eventually became Stasiland while working at a TV station in Berlin. As East Germany merged into the West and ceased to exist in the early 90's, most of the television and radio programs about the former nation, and its terrifying security service in particular, are written from a Western perspective. Her curiosity of the "East German" view led her to place an ad in a local paper aimed at former employees of the security apparatus, the Stasi.

The Stasi, for those that don't know, was a brutal, unchecked spy service that focused most of its attention on its own citizens. At one point, despite the country's small size, the Stasi was powered by over 100,000 employees and 200,000 informers. The smallest of behaviors, such as having your TV antenna at an angle that would allow for reception of West German TV, could trigger intensive surveillance and even criminal prosecution. The Stasi were reviled by the Germans; when the Berlin Wall fell, most former Stasi men concealed their connection to their previous occupations.

Funder's attempt to find former employees (and victims) of the security services was a success, and her interactions and interviews with these individuals are the central focus of Stasiland. She describes, in good detail, her meetings with interviewees, and the book bounces back and forth between stories told by Germans and Funder's comings and goings.

The interviews conducted by Funder are fantastic. East Germany was a bizarre world, and only through the stories of those who lived through it can anyone truly understand what it was like. Funder should be given great credit for the way in which the humanity of all parties involved is presented. The former Stasi men are easily pegged as cold, inhumane tyrants, but the interviews in Stasiland allow them their chance to tell the world why they participated in such a heinous system. While Funder does not necessarily sympathize (and neither, I suspect, will most readers) with these men, she allows readers to understand their motivations. Misguided as most of the spies were, many of them genuinely believed they were performing a necessary duty for their country.

I have been fascinated by East German history for years, and my intense interest in the subject matter is the foundation for the few gripes I have with this book. Funder spends an awful lot of text describing her feelings and her surroundings in present day Germany in ways that don't really move her narrative along. Several sections of the book grew rather tedious because of this, and on several occasions I found myself skimming for a page until the focus returned to the Germans themselves. This isn't necessarily to say that her writing is bad (it's not), but the personal stories are just so engaging and interesting that they overshadow Funder's day to day life in the present.

I'd recommend this to anybody who appreciates good nonfiction. While I think readers with an existing interest in East German history will love it, I think anybody can appreciate, if not enjoy, the remarkably tangible conveyance of experiences in totalitarianism and tyranny.

About the guest reviewer: He prefers to keep his name anonymous (but that's him, at left). My guest reviewer is a long-time history buff with a particular interest in the Cold War. He especially enjoys reading non-fiction and agreed to write a guest review of Stasiland when Bookfool began reading the book and discovered how little she knows about both the time and place.

Many thanks to my guest reviewer!

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fiona Friday - Fish taste delicious

I can't believe I actually forgot Fiona Friday!!! Here you go. Two days late, but better than not at all, right?

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Bawk & Roll by Sauer and Santat

Bawk & Roll by T. Sauer and D. Santat
Copyright 2012 (Ages 4 and up)
Sterling Children's Books
36 pages

I read and reviewed Chicken Dance by the author/illustrator team Sauer and Santat -- about two chickens named Marg and Lola who can't find a talent for the barnyard talent contest but bawk, flap and shake their way to fame -- in 2009 and loved it so much that I decided I couldn't part with it. So I was really excited to hear that a sequel was being released! More chicken fun!

In Bawk & Roll, Marg and Lola leave to loving goodbyes from their barnyard friends as they head out to tour with Elvis Poultry. But, from the beginning, they experience horrific stage fright.

The chickens trembled. They fanned their wattles. They . . .

Marge and Lola try picturing the crowd in their underwear, "easing" into the show (Elvis Poultry arrives by parachute while the chickens fall off the barn roof -- not quite what they planned), and calming their jitters by painting, relaxing in a tub, knitting, hypnosis, meditation and listening to waves. Nothing works.

"We'll try one more show," said Elvis. "If our flock can't rock, I gotta go solo."

The next page spread is my favorite part. Marge and Lola feel "smaller than chicken feed." They ponder what they're missing and when Marge figures it out, the text says:

The chickens crossed the road.

Well, I thought it was funny.

They put a letter in the mailbox and at the next show they peer through the curtain but fear they're about to get "mooed off the stage." But, when the curtains go up, Marge and Lola find that they've got the best friends ever. The animals from Dale's Dairy Farm have shown up to support them.

And, then we get a couple more moo jokes as Marge and Lola become a success. But, as much as they love fame, the chickens love their "fan club," their friends from the dairy farm.

My thoughts:

Chicken Dance contains a subtle message about not letting the bullies get you down and, in a similar vein, Bawk & Roll is about the power of friendship as the two chickens are calmed by the support of their barnyard friends. Again, I really enjoyed the storyline -- not quite as much as I loved Chicken Dance, but Bawk & Roll has the same wonderful, goofy illustrations and plenty of humor.

I only had one problem with Bawk & Roll.

"Wow," said Marge. "That's a big crowd."
"Woah," said Lola. "And we don't know anyone."

Do you see it? The correct spelling is W-H-O-A. I realize that W-O-A-H is a common misspelling (I blame the Japanese -- I'm pretty sure this particular error got its start in graphic novels from Asia; at least, that was the first place I spotted it), but "woah" is wrong and it really irritates me when children's books contain spelling errors.

When my children were small, I actually blacked out misspelled words and wrote the correct spelling to the side. My kids did think I was a little crazy.

"I gotta" instead of "I've got to" is also obviously wrong but it's vernacular so I'll cut the author a break, there.

One thing I absolutely love about Bawk & Roll is the way the illustrator summarized Chicken Dance with a series of illustrations on the page immediately to the left of the title page. How utterly cool! If you can't get your mitts on Chicken Dance or can only afford the second volume, it's no big deal. You've still got the entire story of Marge and Lola -- abbreviated, but enough to make it clear where they came from! What a wonderful thing to do.


4/5 - Recommended. A delightful sequel to Chicken Dance with the same great puns and wonderful illustrations. A single misspelling irritated me, but I've blacked out such errors, in the past. No biggie. The book won't look perfect but Bawk & Roll is worth owning for the giggles.

Naturally, I have a chicken photo in the files. But, this one's doing ballet, not rock dancing. Ah, well. Close enough.

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.