Category Archives: Books

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day – John David Anderson

Reading is the least expensive vacation I’ve ever had.  Sometimes I go to the future and other times to the past, but the destination isn’t the important part to me usually. It’s just getting away from now.  At a time when I sometimes feel physically assaulted by the daily news, a low budget escape is exactly what I’m looking for in a book, even when the book’s conclusion is not the one for which a reader would be hoping. Hey, after November 8, 2016, I’m kind of used to that anyway.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot of this YA title, but it’s essentially the story of 3 boys and the teacher who taught them far more than they ever expected.  It’s at times outrageously funny and heartbreakingly sad, but most of all it’s a book that reads as real. If you’re lucky, you once had a Ms. Bixby in your life. My favorite quotes are below.

Ms. Bixby sighs the Teacher Sigh. The one they must give you as you walk out the door with your teaching degree.  Equal parts exasperation, disappointment, and longing for summer vacation.

When I suggested she brush up on her astronomy, she seemed offended, saying that she probably knew things that I didn’t.  I told her that was highly unlikely. Then she asked me who the lead singer of Led Zeppelin was. I told her zeppelins could not be made of lead due to the obvious weight issues.  She said “Case closed.”

Change is the only constant.

Topher is a constant, like pi or radical two.

The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.

You can’t always pinpoint the moment everything changes.  Most of the time it’s gradual, like grass growing or fog settling or your armpits starting to smell by midafternoon.

There’s a difference between the truth and the whole truth.  That’s why they give that big spiel in court, when they make you place your hand on the Bible and promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Because they know if they don’t, people will try and sneak around it. They will leave out the details, skip over the incriminating stuff. Keep the worst parts to themselves.

You have to slay the dragon to be the hero. Not easy to do, but at least you know what you’re dealing with. Dragons are easy to spot…but there are no such things as dragons. It’s never that clearcut. Sometimes the thing you’re fighting against is hiding from you. It’s tucked away. Buried deep where you can’t see it. In fact, for a long time, you might not even know it’s there.

You know how, in movies, everything comes around full circle and you’re back where you started? Turns out life isn’t like the movies. Life doesn’t come all the way back around again. It’s not a straight line either. It angles and curves, shoots off a little, twists and turns, but it never gets right back to the place it started. Not that you would want it to. Then you wouldn’t feel like you had gotten anywhere.

Live every day as if it were your last. The truth is – the whole truth is – that it’s not your last day that matters most. It’s the ones in between, the ones you get the chance to look back on…They may not stand out the most at first, but they stay with you the longest.

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Living the dystopian dream

As a young adult librarian I read a lot of books. I have to – it’s my job. When I’m not reading books, often I’m talking about them as I try to get kids excited about different titles. In recent years, some of the most popular fiction books have been kind of dark and usually part of a trilogy. Think Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, all set in a bleak future which I can’t imagine any of us would want to live in. Kids love them.

In the past week I’ve heard a lot of words that are reminiscent of that particular genre of books. Words like Resistance, Protest, Chaos, Rebellion, Corruption and Power. I’m not suggesting that we’ve arrived in a post-apocalyptic and dystopian society, but I’m saying that, to me, the similarities are undeniable.  Our government is actively and aggressively shutting down and drowning out voices that refute their party line. We’re being spoon fed official falsehoods and government agencies are being muzzled for sharing scientific truths. I’ve never been more fearful of our country’s leadership and international representation.

These words, written by George Orwell in a letter in 1944, have never been more relevant –

“…the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible führer.”

The number one selling book right now on Amazon is 1984. There’s an excellent essay in the New York Times about why this book, written in 1948, is a must read for 2017.

Has anyone seen Katniss?

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Read the Inquisitor’s Tale

Every so often a piece of young adult fiction comes my way and then refuses to leave. You know, it just sticks with you. The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz is one of those books. I heard about it at a recent librarians’ book group meeting and was immediately intrigued. The story, set in the Middle Ages, blends historical figures and myth in a manner that is humorous, suspenseful and incredibly sensitive and I was completely taken in by the tale – and sad to see it end.

The novel is told in a fashion reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales with a cast of character relating the story in individual chapters. They provide lively narration, pausing mainly to quench their thirst, in the pub where they have gathered to share the story of “three magical children and their holy dog.” The opening tale relates the miracle of Gwenforte, a dog, who becomes sanctified after she protects infant Jeanne from a poisonous snake, only to lose her life as her actions are misunderstood. This tale provides the perfect example of actions and intentions being misconstrued by those who only possess a small piece of the puzzle, an occurrence which occurs repeatedly throughout the novel.

The characters in this book are colorful and wonderfully complex and the relationship between the children is realistic. In a time when our contemporary world is filled with conflict between cultures and religions, this book provided a welcome escape. Beautifully illuminated by Hatem Aly, this is a must purchase for lovers of fine young adult literature and those wishing to encourage young people in their life to read. Don’t tell Quinn, but he’s getting a copy for Christmas for sure!

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Ain’t but one way out

imageIf we’ve seen each other in the past week or two, you know exactly where this is going… I am currently obsessed with the Allman Brothers. Like, really, really obsessed. First, some history – I’m lucky enough to have seen the band in its various incarnations, probably a half dozen times, mostly at SPAC. I’ve always had a great time at their shows, but never really considered myself a huge fan of the band. Until I read Gregg Allman’s 2012 autobiography, that is.

Yep, it started with a book. I’ve read a lot of rockstar autobiographies over the years, and My Cross to Bear ranks pretty damn high on my list of best rock and roll life stories. It’s kind of weird because I was so excited a few years ago to read Keith Richards’ book and pretty much hated it. A similar thing happened when I attempted to read Neil Young’s book. Ugh, I thought it sucked. I never finished either of them, for the record.

This book, though? It was hard to put down. The opening pages describe the state of absolute intoxication Gregg was drowning in during the band’s induction ceremony at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I was immediately sucked in. This is what I want to read about when I’m learning about a musician’s life – sex, drugs and rock and roll. I don’t want to know about Neil Young’s obsession with trains and cars. I’m not interested. Tell me more about opening up for the friggin Doors on your first trip to Cali, Gregg. I’m all about that!

The book is a super fast read, filled with anecdotes, struggles, shows and wisdom that can only come from life experience. So, if you see me and I feel compelled to share a tidbit or two about what I learned about the Allman Brothers, bear with me. I’m sure I’ll move on soon enough, but until then, I’ll be cranking At Fillmore East. You should, too.

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I Am Princess X

The fiction collection in the library where I work is organized by genre, a situation which sometimes vexes me. I mean, it can be really challenging to decide where a book should be shelved from merely reading the subject tags or the inside of the jacket. Sometimes, a title seems as if it could be assigned to more than a single genre and I’m forced to just make a choice, hoping the book lands on a shelf where it will be discovered and appreciated.

The new young adult book, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priestly, provided me with a dilemma when it came to slapping a genre sticker on its spine. Was it a graphic novel? Realistic fiction? Mystery? Truthfully, it’s all of the above – a contemporary story complete with suspense and graphic novel components.

The plot tells the story of best friends Libby and May. Together they created Princess X, a cartoon heroine who befriends ghosts and fights monster while wearing red Chuck Taylor’s and a golden crown. Their adventures together seem limitless until tragedy strikes and Libby and her mother are both killed in a horrible accident…

But, perhaps it wasn’t really an accident and maybe Libby isn’t really dead. May and a new acquaintance, Trick, use technology, smarts and bravery to get to the bottom of the mysterious reappearance of Princess X and learn what really happened to Libby.

Set in Seattle, this novel crosses genres and genders to provide a compelling story which will appeal to a wide range of readers. In a plot rife with modern technologies, this may be my very favorite line:

“Sometimes the easiest answer was the analog one.”

Two thumbs up for a fast, fun read.

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Echo – Pam Munoz Ryan

One of the benefits of my job is the opportunity to purchase new materials for students and faculty. Even after nearly two decades, the thrill of unpacking and handling a box of new books remains a highlight of my professional day. A recent shipment included Pam Munoz Ryan’s latest novel, Echo.

My first impression was “This is a really long book. How am I going to get kids to read this nearly 600 pages long historical fiction novel?” After reading Echo myself in less than 4 days, I know my bigger problem is going to be maintaining the waiting list of students who want to read this absolutely enchanting book.

Echo is a little hard to explain without giving too much away. Essentially, there are three narratives which ultimately combine into a heartwarming and satisfying ending. The thread which waves the story together is music and its power to inspire, comfort and convey emotion via a special harmonica which almost magically lands in the hands of each of the three essential characters.

The first is Friedrich, a 12-year-old in the Black Forest of Germany during the Nazi buildup in the years leading to World War II. His love of music, nurtured by his father and uncle, provides him with an escape from the harsh realities he contends with as an often bullied young boy living during an increasingly scary time.

The story then shifts to Mike, an 11-year-old orphan in Pennsylvania committed to remaining with his younger brother despite challenged beyond what any child should have to endure. His innate ability to play the piano, previously fostered by his now deceased grandmother, provides him with the means to communicate emotions and wishes he often does not have any other way to express.

And finally, we meet Ivy, an American girl of Mexican descent living in California with her family as they struggle to improve their circumstances during the early days of America’s involvement in World War II. The harsh realities of gender roles, racism and the consequences of war are daily insults in Ivy’s world, abated only by her ability to make and appreciate music.

Each of these three young people come to be in possession of a very special instrument, a harmonica which provides them with opportunity and hope during their time of need. The selflessness with which Friedrich, Mike and Ivy eventually, in turn, part with the instrument is one of the most striking and beautiful parts of this very special book. I can’t wait to reread this book over the summer with my boys. Wonderful!

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Unforgettable lessons

There are books that I read which are impossible to put down, a recent example being The Girl on the Train. I was so eager to find out what really happened that I refused to stop reading until I finished the book. I was neither disappointed, nor regretful of my decision to push on until I reached that final page and felt a welcome sense of resolution. It was a really good read.

The book I’m reading now though, is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a whole different story. Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime by NPR newsman, Scott Simon, is a work that I don’t want to finish. You see, if I finish it, the story will end and I so want the story (and Scott’s mother’s life) to continue.  Simon’s book, a memoir of his mother, and their life together, originated as a series of Tweets during his mother’s time in the intensive care unit at the end of her life. The time Simon and his mother shared together in the hospital was a quilt of memories, thoughts, laughter and songs that provided comfort and solace to them both as they faced their final days together.

Below are some my favorite nuggets of wisdom. Simon’s Tweets appear, as in the book, in bold text. Quotes are the words of his mother, Patricia.

  • I just realized: she once had to let me go into the big wide world. Now I have to let her go the same way.
  • “You tell your children something a hundred times…You’re lucky if they remember one or two. Dos, don’ts, count for almost nothing. All they remember is what you do. Whether you want them to or not.”
  • I love holding my mother’s hand. Haven’t held it like this since I was 9. Why did I stop? I thought it unmanly? What crap.
  • “Show children the best people and places. Let them know they belong.”
  • She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night.

There’s so much wisdom in this book, so much love and laughter that I wish it went beyond the mere 244 print pages, that Patricia’s life went beyond only 84 years. As a mom to three sons, I can’t help but read this and hope that at the end of my life my “boys” will honor me with an iota of the respect and appreciation that Scott shows his mother. I don’t need one of them to write a book or anything, but I love the picture I’ve drawn in my head of my children sharing the memories and moments that have woven us together forever.

Mother’s Day is coming. Buy this book.

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