Category Archives: Books

Going Wild

I read.  A lot.  On any given day, I need to be prepared to “booktalk” titles, both fiction and nonfiction, with students in grades 6-12.  Intense, right?  This year, so far, I’ve read 55 books with a focus on titles of interest to middle school kids. After a couple of realistic novels about 6th or 7th graders, I generally need to cleanse my reader palate with something a bit more satisfying and tasty.  Something a bit, shall we say, Wild.

Yes, I know everyone read this book months (years?) ago while I was busy reading A Monster Calls, but that doesn’t diminish the impact this memoir had on me.  There’s just something about a female firsthand account of trying circumstances which I find completely captivating.  Imagine that.   

Cheryl Strayed’s recounting of her solo hike along the Pacific Coast Trail is an absolutely inspiring work of nonfiction.  I grew up in close proximity to the Appalachian Trail and have always been fascinated by the idea of trekking its length, but certainly not alone.  The physical and mental strength required to complete an accomplishment such as either of these is remarkable to me.  When you factor in the emotional state Strayed was in when she began her quest, her successful completion of her goal borders on the miraculous.

There were a number of passages in this memoir which caused me to pause, process and reflect, but none more than this:

“…it occurred to me for the first time that growing up poor had come in handy. I probably wouldn’t have been fearless enough to go on such a trip with so little money if I hadn’t grown up without it. I’d always thought of my family’s economic standing in terms of what I didn’t get: camp and lessons and travel and college tuition and the inexplicable ease that comes when you’ve got access to a credit card that someone else is paying off. But now I could see the line between this and that – between a childhood in which I saw my mother and stepfather forge ahead with two pennies in their pocket and my own general sense that I could do it too.”

Maybe I, too, can will go Wild someday.

Other inspiring autobiographies by women:

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Filed under Books, Recommendations, travel

A Monster Calls

Written by Patrick Ness and beautifully illustrated by Jim Kay, A Monster Calls, relates the story of young Conor, a boy in England living in denial about his divorced mother’s health prognosis.  At night Conor is subjected to a recurring nightmare of such horror that he cannot even verbalize the events he witnesses, while during the day he is repeatedly the target of the school bully’s attentions, a situation which he initially does nothing to address.

He begins to be, amazingly enough, visited by a monstrous yew tree.  While he is initially fearful of this beast that leaves berries and spiky tree leaves in his wake as evidence of his presence, Conor’s waking reality is far more frightening.  The nocturnal visits by the beast are ultimately the only time that Conor feels “seen” and he anticipates the monster’s call along with the stories he shares.  As the novel progresses, Conor must learn to accept the questionable manner in which life doles out rewards and punishments, as well as find a way to once again feel present.

This book broke my heart.  Of course, the parallels between the divorced mom and her (far more devastating) cancer battle struck a chord with me, but it was the thought of that child’s anguish and grief which absolutely wrenched me.  I’m sure every parent in the universe shies away from exploring the thought of prematurely leaving their child(ren), but this book makes that sort of avoidance impossible.

Answering the monster’s call will most certainly ring a bell.  Read it.

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Filed under Books, Boys, Recommendations

On the beach…

…there’s sand.  Grains and grains of sand.  Because of this condition, this year I committed to taking only paperback books to the beach.  I mean, really, when it comes to reading at the beach, something I can finally do now that my boys are older, the paperback is the only way to go.

There are a couple of books which left a big impression upon me when I first read them many years ago.  I decided to revisit them to see if they still would move me after so many years had gone past.

I started with Hemingway’s  A Moveable Feast.  When I first read it, I was an undergraduate infatuated with the romance of Europe and expatriates.  Two of those three have not changed.  Reading it last week,  I was once again  transported to Paris, witnessing the cafe life of some of America’s finest writers during the 1920s.  Hemingway’s observations, recounted from memory decades later, are remarkable as he paints such vivid scenes with an almost miserly number of words.  It still works for me.

A couple of favorite passages:

“We’ll come home and eat here and we’ll have a lovely meal and drink Beaune from the co-operative you can see right out of the window there with the price of the Beaune on the window. And afterwards we’ll read and then go to bed and make love.”

“In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism not a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary, and I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking either wine or cider or beer.”

The other title I picked up for the first time in years was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.  I remember being absolutely charmed by this wonderful novel when I initially encountered it.  The passion!  The deftly handled magical realism!  I loved it then and I love it now.  I could almost taste the words.

Here are a few morsels to savor.

“To the table or to bed
You must come when you are bid.”

“A man equal to loving someone who needed love as much as she did, a man like him.”

“…within our bodies each of us has the elements needed to produce phosphorus… each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them by ourselves…each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul.”

What are your favorites?  Have you revisited any recently?

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Filed under Books, Cape Cod, favorites, Martha's Vineyard, Recommendations, Summer, vacation

Motherhood and The Silver Star

This is either the perfect book or the worst book to read when you’re dealing with an impossible mother-daughter situation.  You’ve been warned.

Are you familiar with Jeannette Walls?  Her first book, The Glass Castle related the story of her own childhood and was on the NYT’s bestseller list for 6 years.  It was a powerful story, but her tale complete with two dysfunctional parents and an extended family,  was certainly not one to which I really related.  I did admire, however, Jeannette’s survival instinct and her ability to propel herself forward through sheer determination and the desire for stability.  I understood that.

Her second work, Half Broke Horses, delved even deeper into her treasure chest of family history, merging reminiscences and imagination into a tale which brought her maternal grandmother’s colorful life to readers.  This book was clearly an artful blending of fiction and nonfiction, and Wall’s grandmother, Lily, an almost mythical character.  Her resourcefulness and tough as nails attitude make her an unforgettable narrator and woman.

This new book, though?  Well, it kicked my emotional ass.  Here’s how the blurb from the library catalog begins: “Two motherless sisters, Bean and Liz…” Mentally replacing “sisters” with “brother and sister,”  I immediately checked the book out.  Last weekend I tore through the novel’s 269 pages, stopping to catch my breath after this passage -

“Mom’s account of my dad had always left me hankering for more details, but she said she didn’t want to talk about him and we were both better off if we put him behind us.  Mom didn’t have a picture of him, and she wouldn’t tell me his name,  I’d always wondered what my dad had looked like.  I didn’t look like my mom.  Did I look like my dad?  Was he handsome?  Funny?  Smart?”

Oh my God.  How did Walls know exactly what that conversation sounded like?  Even more painfully, how did she know precisely what having that conversation felt like?  Jesus.

The passage though, that nearly broke (or maybe Half Broke me) was this -

“I think Mom believes it, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.  Maybe she just needed someone to blame for the way everything turned out.”

Never before have I read anything which so clearly expressed my own experience with my mother.  Never, I said.  That was my own mother perfectly summed up in two sentences.  Mercy.

I guess maybe I don’t have to write that book now after all.

Screw the silver star.  Walls gets a gold one for this book.

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Filed under Books, family, moms, Recommendations, relationships

Counting by 7s

I just finished a wonderful novel, Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan.  It’s from the middle school library where I spend my mornings, but the unique voice of the main character transcends preadolescence in a distinctively refreshing way and I am completely in love with this book.  In honor of Willow Chance and her fondness for the number 7, I offer seven observations she made which struck me.

  1. “I have given in.  But that’s different from giving up.”
  2. “…says that nothing is for certain.  That is the truest statement I’ve ever heard.”
  3. “books = comfort”
  4. “Life, I now realize, is just one big trek across a minefield and you never know which step is going to blow you up.”
  5. “Maybe that happens when you’ve been through a lot.  All of your edges are worn off like sea glass.  Either that, or you shatter.”
  6. “It happens as most things do, in the smallest of ways.”
  7. “…is life so filled with random action that the very notion of caution is futile?”

In a world filled with stuff to read, this little gem stands out.  Read it.

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Filed under Books, favorites, Libraries, Recommendations

The sweetest book – Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman

This title arrived in a recent order and I immediately wanted to touch it, to pick it up and carry it.  It charmed with its cover alone and I borrowed it for the recent holiday break.  I carried it in my 48.5 lb luggage to New Orleans and back without cracking its spine, but yesterday, after finally finishing Allegiant (Roth), I opened this little gem as a reward.  I read the preface.  Twice.  Who does that?

The individual chapters, intensely small like a fine truffle, captivated me with their sincere and simple words – choose your hero, choose how to spend your time, choose to love.  The story Alice Hoffman shares with readers is her own, a story on the surface about her experience with cancer.  But that’s not really what it’s about – it’s about choosing.  One would never choose cancer, but I think what Hoffman is suggesting is that we choose how we handle an obstacle like cancer or war or heartbreak.  She is inspiring.

Survival Lessons is the kind of book word lovers, and those who celebrate beauty every day, should have on their bedside table.  Get an extra one for a friend.

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Filed under Books, cancer, favorites

Book review – “The Diviners” – Libba Bray

It’s seem appropriate that I wrote about the most recent book I read, The Diviners by Libba Bray,  on the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. Why? Because this suspenseful novel is set during the roaring twenties and illicit gin and hidden speakeasies both make appearances.

This book was originally brought to my attention by a student, an occurrence which is incredibly gratifying. I avoided the book initially because it is 578 pages and seemed like a big commitment. The first 100 pages or so did nothing to hasten the speed of which I read, but, things quickly changed for me as the various characters began to both make an impression as individuals and reveal the manner in which they were interconnected within the story.

I won’t divulge too many details, but here’s the gist: seventeen-year-old Evie gets sent to live with her bachelor uncle in New York City after she scandalizes her hometown by accusing a well-regarded peer of getting someone in “a family way.” Her uncle is the proprietor of a museum dedicated to American folklore, superstition and the occult and Evie becomes involved in solving a mystery involving a serial killer who has seemingly returned from the dead.

There are all sorts of plot twists and the novel is filled with elements relating to WW I, various social movements of the time and historical figures. The last two hundred pages were a struggle for me – I could not put the book down! Here are a couple of quotes which caught my eye:

Spoken by flapper girl, Evie: “There is a hideous invention called the Dewey decimal System. And you have to look up your topic in books and newspapers. Pages upon pages…I though research would be more glamorous, somehow. I’d give the librarian a secret code word and he’d give me the one book I needed and whisper the necessary page numbers. Like a speakeasy. With books.”

Wouldn’t it be lovely if that were true!

And this from Evie’s Uncle will: “People think boundaries and borders build nations. Nonsense – words do. Beliefs, declarations, constitutions – words. Stories. Myths. Lies. Promises. History.”

Pretty deep, right?

This was the 65th  book I’ve read this year (!) and is definitely one of the most memorable. Loved it!

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Filed under Books, favorites, Recommendations